Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Gaze of the Lense and the Visual Politics of the Prayer Vigil

The Organization of the North East (ONE) and The Edgewater Community Religious Association (ECRA) held a 30 minute prayer vigil Monday March 8th, outside the Somerset in response to the 30 day notice given to residents as it is being closed down. The Somerset is a home that has been the residence for nearly 300 people living with mental illness. Here is a Chicago Tribune Article on the closing On March 9th we met with Alderman Smith and were able to get a greater sense of what was going on and assured that the needs and desires of the residents where being addressed and that mental health workers were involved in the transition. While the moving of the residents was happening rapidly it was not indiscriminately and without regard to the needs and desires of the residents.

Though my thoughts are more on the prayer vigil itself, and the role of the camera in meaning and reality creation. Not to down play the importance of the issue of the closing of the Somerset, I was at the vigil because I believe the importance of this. I arrived at the Somerset almost 10 minutes before the 5 pm stated start time of the vigil and the news trucks and camera's were there. I hadn't really thought about it but I realized that I hadn't thought about news crews being present, but that made sense. I approached my colleagues who had arrived before I and I was handed a song sheet and one had a tambourine. A few more clergy showed up from ECRA. 5 o'cklock had now rolled around and the pastors who were going to speak and pray were consulting to be sure all knew what they were going to do.

As the final preparations were made, and as the rest of the camera's were set up, I had the strange feeling that I was on a movie set, and I was an extra, with my colleagues who were going to speak and pray the actors with the lines. I was even handed by a "PA" the prop for the scene, a candle. We were even directed to move as a group to have the right placement in front of the Somerset so the cameras could get us along with the name of the Somerset in the shot. There was also a script, that those who spoke followed. Once we were done it was a wrap, and it was all over. It dawned on me that this prayer vigil was done for the camera.

There is some dissonance here for me, between the staged liturgy orchestrated for the camera, and the notion that a prayer vigil is a waiting and appealing to God, a watching (vigil) in prayer before God. While what we did seemed to be for and before not the gaze of God, but the Gaze of the camera, with the props the camera would recognize, with the scripted language that will appease an ear for sound bites.

Not to accuse my colleagues perhaps they were able to not be captured by the gaze of the camera and the ear of the sound bite. But I don't think I prayed to God there, I was too aware of that all this was scripted for the camera, that this was not a liturgy of worship of God, but a liturgy to appease the god of the dissemination of information and the god of being "on message". I understand the pragmatic reality of this, the need to mold an image (which was possibly not done very well, though we really probably needed more information to actually do have done that well, we were in part acting on partial and misinformation it seems.)

I left wondering why couldn't we have actually had a vigil planned spend hours in actual prayer not staged prayer for the camera, not banish the camera, maybe give a nod to the needs of image and the gaze of the lens and have some portion of the vigil ahve the orchestrated quality of the movie set rather than of the orchestrated quality of the work of the people in worship before their God. Perhaps if we had spent more time in prayer we'd have had a more reflective have allowed ourselves to see that we were acting on very little information, and really just reacting.

In the end I suppose I may be uncomfortable and oppose the use of prayer for such a specific act of visual power politics. It felt to me that the power of our prayer was sucked out that it had no life but the life the gaze of the lens would give it, and that seems to me to be walking a little too close to the line of idolatry. Or at least I could not escape at this prayer vigil the idolotary of the image of appearing to be in prayer in protest.