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Kartemquin Films 50: ‘What The Fuck Are These Red Squares?’ and ‘Anonymous Artists of America’

Editor’s Note

Kartemquin Films is a not-for-profit organization in Chicago, which has been producing innovative documentaries to inspire democracy and action for 50 years. To celebrate this milestone, the collaborative group is featuring a film they produced every week, from now until the end of 2016. Each film is available to watch for free until the next film in their catalog is posted every Friday.

From this point onward, I expect to highlight each film with posts aimed at calling attention to the important work Kartemquin has done and how the group has impacted the art of cinema over the past half century. —Kevin Gosztola

A student wearing a cape and a hood somewhat casually paints, “What the Fuck are these Red Squares?” in broad daylight. A man walking by says aloud, “I got to call a cop on you. That’s beautiful.” In the next shot, it is clear the words were painted on the brick of the School of the Art Institute in Chicago (SAIC). The student, who painted the words, uses cue cards to inform viewers why they may have any importance at all.

It is spring 1970. The National Guard at Kent State murdered students protesting the invasion of Cambodia. The police murdered black students at Jackson State. Students organized strikes on college or university campuses throughout the United States. At SAIC, a “Revolutionary Seminar” was organized with striking students, and Kartemquin co-founder Gordon Quinn filmed the discussion about what artists can and cannot contribute to creating revolutionary change.

The students, a mix of white students and a few black students, discuss the artist as a member of the elite establishment. The woman, who painted the building in the opening moments of the 14-minute film, mostly leads the discussion.

She contends artists fancy themselves as having more freedom than others in society. But what is this freedom? Is it what artists want? Is the freedom good or bad? How do artists reconcile with the fact that society is filled with corrupt and evil institutions?

The discussion veers into a very specific set of concerns for those in the room. The “New York scene” dominates arts to such a vast degree that the art students wonder how they can ever manage to bring their radical politics into their art if it would prevent them from establishing themselves in this scene. To some extent, nearly fifty years later, this anxiety and fear still exists among students.

Capitalism is viewed as the culprit for the woes artists experience. That does not resolve the issue of whether artists “sensitive” to politics should go into art. One theater student argues, “When the shit comes down, I know where the most effective way of change is. And it isn’t in the academy. And it isn’t behind an easel. And it isn’t in the theater.”

This aspect of the discussion reinforces the title, which comes from Yippie Abbie Hoffman. He saw students making art instead of being out in the streets and reacted, “What the fuck are these red squares?”

The students grapple with their place in a system. The way the discussion unfolds as a philosophical discussion makes it possible for the film to still have great resonance today.

Inarguably, the role of the artist in confronting social injustice and engaging in politics will always be subject to debate.

It is clear how Kartemquin Films answers the question. For forty-five years after the film, the collective group produced films, which spotlight social dilemmas and issues to compel audiences to shift their perspectives. If the filmmakers working on the project were sympathetic to putting their cameras down to head out into the streets, that is definitely not the path they chose.

As with earlier films, this film is cinéma vérité. It is another example of cinematic social inquiry. The filmmakers do not draw any conclusions about the discussion, which takes place on screen. Those conclusions are for the audience to make and not the place of the filmmakers.

Also, this week Kartemquin Films featured a 9-min film from 1970 called, “Anonymous Artists of America.” It is a cinéma vérité music video of the Anonymous Artists of America, a psychedelic rock collective, performing at an alma mater, the University of Chicago. It was on of their stops on a tour through the U.S. in their painted school bus.

The band opened for The Grateful Dead. They played at Ken Kesey’s Infamous Acid Test Graduation. Watching them play is like watching a mashup of Sly and the Family Stone and Quicksilver Messenger Service. It is fantastic, and given how little footage there is out there of the collective, the film is a kind of artifact.

Watch “Hum 255” for free at Kartemquin Films’ website. [Available for free until February 4.]

A "supermoon" full moon hangs over Efrat, an illegal Israeli settlement in Palestine, which is lit by street and house lighting in this August 11, 2014 photograph. (Flickr / Yair Aronshtam)
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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."