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The Combative Phase

May 6–June 28, 2017

The Combative Phase is an exhibition and screening series presenting the work of a group of filmmakers, active at and around the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) during a period from 1969 to 1979.

In the wake of the Watts Rebellion of 1965 and other uprisings against institutional racism, discrimination, and police brutality in inner cities across the U.S., UCLA saw a series of structural shifts in response to what was defined as “the urban crisis.” These shifts took shape through intersecting but distinct forces, most notably the committed dissent by members of the student body against discriminatory admissions policies; educational “remedies” extrapolated from the recommendations of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders established in 1967; and the mandate towards affirmative action within education, written into the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In 1968, the university established the High Potential Program, a special admissions academic program conceived by a joint student-faculty committee, based on recommendations from the Black Students Union and United Mexican American Students. In 1969, students active on the committee for the High Potential Program instigated the founding of four “organized research units” that led to the establishment of centers for Afro-American, Asian American, Chicano, and American Indian studies.

In parallel with these developments, a number of UCLA faculty involved with communications on campus formed a committee to “consider the role of UCLA in translating its interest, knowledge, and activities relating to the urban crisis and the special needs of ethnic minorities into radio and television programming, particularly for educational purposes on a mass basis.” The Media Urban Crisis Committee, under the principal guidance of Elyseo Taylor, an assistant professor in the Theater Arts Department, expanded to include student activists, and developed a film-training curriculum for “minority students.” In January 1970, twenty students began the Media Urban Crisis Program, recruited from the High Potential Program and communities in Los Angeles reflecting the delineations of the four UCLA ethnic studies units. In Fall 1970, the program was renamed Ethno-communications, and became a program of the TV and Motion Pictures Division of the Theater Arts Department.

In its intended form, the Ethno-communications program lasted no more than three years. Its structure however, and the teachings of Elyseo Taylor and his successor Teshome Gabriel that drew heavily on the influence of Third Cinema, had a significant impact on the UCLA film school and related networks of film and TV production into the late 1970s. The Combative Phase focuses on the films produced by those who studied in, or were associated with, the Media Urban Crisis and Ethno-communications programs, while also foregrounding the figure of the university itself, as constituting a particular set of social, racial, and economic relations. The films reflect the intersection of a politics of visibility exercised through institutional reform, and the demand for revolutionary change in the face of the durable political and material stratifications of racial capitalism.

The temporal, spatial, and socio-political frame of the university—and particularly, its attendant conditions of access to education and means of production—unifies the films exhibited. Equally, however, the filmmakers engaged in decentering the disciplining grounds of knowledge and representation embodied by the university. Their varied films move between forms of documentary reportage and transmission of history; the scripted construction of vignettes of social realism; and poetic imaginaries. Produced within imposed structures of ethnic segregation, the films speak to complex transitions between social spaces of protest, the strategic mobilization of cultural identities, and the ahistorical logic of cultural nationalisms. The historical sites of the films and the university offer an understanding of two layered movements that resonate today: the politics of decolonization, as they pertain both to pedagogical frameworks and to film production as a tool of liberation; and the affirmative action mandate as a mode of “distributive justice” that remains a contested site within educational and juridical spheres.