Kony 2012: Where are the Local Voices?

This is Invisible Children’s video about Joseph Kony and his murderous, child-soldier-fielding militant group, the Lord’s Resistance Army. It’s filled with bleak details about human rights abuses in places that Americans don’t often think about. And, as of today, it’s been viewed on YouTube nearly 80 million times:

 

One of these YouTube viewings was my own. (If you still haven’t seen Kony 2012 and don’t want to, here’s a nice concise description of the whole affair from the Guardian.) Watching the video, I was struck less by its message (i.e., in the internet age, we can save the world through our awareness alone, and let’s prove it by suddenly caring en masse about the LRA) than by the extent to which the whole 30 minutes felt like one big vanity project. More than just about anyone else — perhaps more than Kony himself — the film centers on one unknown-to-me-before-Sunday narrator/director/principal screen presence, Jason Russell. The photogenic Russell spends an enormous amount of time in front of the camera, and he’s very clearly the hero of his own sleek production. That much is clear from the moment, about 7 minutes into the video, when Russell promises to get the bad guy in an emotional conversation with Jacob, a young boy from Northern Uganda who lost his brother to one of Kony’s attacks. The exchange is a striking illustration of the self-gratifying over-promising that people trained to do human rights fieldwork are told over and over again not to do:

Russell: Jacob, it’s okay.
[Jacob crying.]
Russell, narrating: Everything in my heart told me to do something. And so I made him a promise.
Russell, again to Jacob: We are also going to do everything that we can to stop them.
Jacob: Yes.
Do you hear my words?
Yes.
Do you know what I mean?
Yes.
We are, we’re going to stop them. We’re going to stop them.

How to stop them? Share the video, buy some Kony 2012-branded products, and support the good guys (above all, Invisible Children and the Ugandan military) in their efforts to take down the bad.

There are a lot of intelligent ways to frame this video: as a manifestation of a new sort of internet-based activism that has the potential to transform human rights work, as a savvy internet-age marketing tool, as an unacceptable oversimplification of a damningly complex geopolitical situation, as a rebirth of the “white man’s burden” trope in sleek 21st-century guise. (And there is, it must be noted, an eerie resonance in Kipling’s reference to “…new-caught, sullen peoples / Half-devil and half-child.”) Each of these perspectives has been bouncing around the internet this past week, and I suspect that there isn’t much latent demand for me to weigh in on them. But there is one angle that, owing to my interest in transitional justice, I do want to reflect on for a moment: the impact on the halting but critical process of recovery and reconciliation currently underway in Northern Uganda.

Although Kony 2012 tells the black-and-white story of an evil man’s quest to do terrible things to innocent Ugandans, the Lord’s Resistance Army did not in fact arise in the vacuum of a sick man’s mind. It took shape in the late 1980s, part of an ongoing violent struggle between the Acholi-dominated north of the country and the central government, led from 1986 by Yoweri Museveni, who remains in power today. All sides in this conflict (including the Ugandan military) committed horrible abuses, although Kony’s LRA soon earned a reputation as the worst of the worst, and their pillaging of local villages soon lost the group whatever Acholi support it had once had. Yet even as Museveni consolidated his power and the militant group lost any semblance of a political agenda, the LRA continued its attacks in northern Uganda, funded by Sudan in retaliation for Ugandan patronage of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army in its campaign against Khartoum.

Since a 2006 cease-fire, though, the security situation in Northern Uganda has improved markedly. The International Criminal Court put Kony at the top of its most-wanted list, and the Ugandan military is now in pursuit, aided by a contingent of US military advisors dispatched by President Obama last year. Although Russell’s video implies that Kony is still active in Uganda, in fact new geopolitical realities have pushed him (and his much-reduced band of followers/child conscripts) into less-stable parts of the nearby Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and South Sudan.

Although Kony remains a threat to the region, he is no longer anywhere near the top of the agenda in the video’s area of focus, Northern Uganda, where aid for mutilated and orphaned victims, poverty reduction, disease eradication, and reconciliation are vastly more pressing concerns. Given that several groups are currently working to promote recovery in the wake of horrendous multi-lateral conflict, one wonders how blanketing the world with a no-shades-of-grey video that makes the fighting seem current and the bloodstained Ugandan army an uncomplicated force for good could possibly have a positive impact on transitional justice efforts in the region. Surely the money that Invisible Children is charging for its $30 bracelet-and-poster-filled “Action Kits” could be better spent responding to the actual needs of victims — especially because Invisible Children’s publicity campaign might push Kony deeper into the brush and thus make him more difficult to capture. Perhaps that’s why Ugandan journalist Angelo Izama called the video “misleading” in his sharp takedown, and why residents of the Northern Ugandan town of Lira responded to a local screening with rocks and harsh words:

At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, I should clarify — I think it’s wonderful that Western teenagers are responding so favorably to a YouTube video that doesn’t involve singing dogs or baby pandas. And vanity aside, it seems hard to doubt that Invisible Children’s staff and supporters have their hearts in the right place. But Kony 2012 is obviously a campaign that does not take its cues from those it’s aiming to help, one which in its oversimplification-bordering-on-distortion may even set Northern Uganda back. I hope the world’s next humanitarian viral sensation can raise the bar just a little bit.

The Amazing Stop Motion Animation of Blu

Blu, an Argentine-born street artist based in Italy and active across the world, is one of the best-known and most inventive artists to emerge from this country’s thriving street scene. (Hell, he even has his own in-depth Wikipedia page.) He’s done lots of cool stuff, but to my mind, none of it is more impressive than his stop motion animation. In case you haven’t seen it, here’s Muto, a gargantuan effort undertaken here in Buenos Aires in 2008-09. (If you like it, you’ll find much more to love on the video page of his website.)

Corona at Work

A few weeks ago, Juanele invited Pol Corona–an up-and-comer in BA’s street art scene with a first name equal to mine in the Argentine pronunciation–to paint a mural in San Telmo. Alejandro Armaleo and the ever-impressive Axel Byrfors capture him at work in this excellent video:

 

For more about Corona, check out Rick Powell’s recent profile of an artist in action.

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Sure, Anthony Bourdain’s kind of an ass, but his TV show, No Reservations, can be lots of fun to watch. I just found the episode in which he visits Argentina online (via Yanqui Mike’s blog) and figured I’d share it. It’s a bit overdone at times (“A drink awaits you… a last whiskey at the end of the world”), but Bourdain actually does a pretty good job with Buenos Aires, and his trip to Patagonia makes for some very nice images. Plus you can see all the meat I’m not eating! Give it a gander if you’re so inclined.

ArteBA vs. Street ArteBA

ArteBA is Latin America’s largest art fair, an extravagant (and extravagantly priced) five-day showcase of Latin American art held at the iconic La Rural exhibition center. My Juanele press pass got me into last night’s not-actually-from-Champagne-drenched preview party. It was, predictably, more a see-and-be-seen social affair than an opportunity to take in the tens of thousands of square meters of art on offer. Arriving late, I spent most of what little time I had in “Barrio Joven,” the “young” part of ArteBA where, Juanele editor Rick tells me, booths still rent for US$10,000 apiece. It was all pretty glamorous, but not really my scene. Juanele’s Axel Byrfors captures the opening night onda perfectly in this video shot mostly in Barrio Joven (I’d watch it full screen, and don’t worry, the Spanish ends around 0:50):

Street ArteBA is an almost-sort-of-official street art spinoff/open studio, through Saturday in an old oxygen tank factory in never-going-to-be-glamorous Once. I liked it an awful lot more. I’ll be heading back to both (and writing more about them for Juanele) in the coming days, but in the meantime, below is a quick first impression I posted on Juanele’s blog.

A study in contrasts:

Yesterday night, the ArteBA preview at La Rural. Champagne flutes, jeans with blazers, a few artists and journalists among hoards of overdressed socialites more interested in the free-flowing Chandon than in the art around them.

This evening, a bunch of street artists at work transforming an old oxygen tank factory in Once. Homemade pizza, paint-stained T-shirts, some thirty art makers laying stencils, crafting murals, and dropping graffiti. All of them eager to explain and debate their visions for their own few square feet of this amazing space.

It shouldn’t be hard to figure out which I preferred.

As ArteBA gulps down media attention like it’s imitation champagne, across town, Street ArteBA is bringing together street artists of all sorts and from all over, to share in the transformation of a space crying to be spraypainted. It’s sort of connected to ArteBA—it’s mentioned in the official program—but it’s very much its own thing. Katrin Richter came up with the idea for this large-scale open studio, brought Fundación Rozenblum on board, and together with her boyfriend Fede (also known as Bla Bla Buto) put together a slate of 36 street artists, some established, others hardly known, and invited them to stake out some space and do with it what they would.

Though my initial impression was that Street ArteBA was less a public event than an opportunity to build bonds and promote exchange among the street artists themselves, a few hours talking with Kat and some other artists convinced me that this old factory’s doors really are open to anyone. The artists will be working from 11am until 6pm on Friday, May 20 and from 11am until 5pm Saturday, May 21; they’re a fascinating and friendly bunch, as much fun to talk to as to watch. Truck on over to Once and check it out for yourself!

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I was thinking about “Pa’l Norte” this afternoon, so I figure I’ll share it. The song’s by Calle 13, a Puerto Rican duo very popular throughout Latin America, and aside from its excellent lyrics, it seems worth posting for a few reasons. The video was filmed in and around the gorgeous Quebrada de Humahuaca, which I had the chance to visit on my trip through northwest Argentina this past January. The Quebrada’s narrow river valleys and high salt flats are amazingly beautiful, and I think the video, though a bit strange at times, does them justice. Calle 13 was also the band playing at the giant human rights rally where I was robbed for the first (and so far, only) time back in December–something this post will hopefully prompt me to elaborate on soon. And anyway, I really like the song.