Sugar and VICE

The ethical ambiguities of cultural "encounter" in VICE’s Serrano Shoots Cuba

§

in Features • Illustrated by Eric Lauterbach

There’s a scene in Serrano Shoots Cuba, a VICE documentary series uploaded on YouTube, that’s particularly uncomfortable to watch. In this scene Andres Serrano, the title figure and global art-world celebrity, photographs a woman inside an apartment in Havana. Standing before a backdrop, the woman stands topless, her body almost entirely exposed. Seemingly without warning, Serrano reaches forward and pulls her last remaining item of clothing down off of her hips, revealing the last bits of her skin to his lens. Her eyes suddenly wide, the woman’s palm shoots up to cover her mouth in the middle of tense laughter. Neither consenting nor protesting, the woman’s gestures and expression demonstrate a complicated mix of intense emotions.  

This encounter raises immediate questions about the ethical choices that lead to the situation — questions of consent, of agency, and of complicated social dynamics of gender and power unfolding in the name of “art.” Stepping back, though, the pairing of this encounter alongside a voiceover by Serrano on his idea of Cubanness hints at another, more subtle dynamic also at play. In voiceover, Serrano explains

I think of Cubans as having a certain thing that I call atrevido: a little daring, a little ballsy. And in my work, I certainly try to push the boundaries — for myself and for everyone else. 

This statement suggests a certain idea to viewers about what it means to be Cuban. In a more subtle way, however, the scene itself purports to offer a form of documentary “proof” which validates this claim. While Serrano tells us that part of what it means to be Cuban is to be “a little daring,” the unfolding of the encounter seems to affirm this observation as true.   

This fleeting moment is emblematic of a complicated dynamic throughout the VICE series as a whole. While Serrano Shoots Cuba documents a trip to the country undertaken by the artist in 2012, the three-part series seems at least as occupied with presenting Cuba as it is with exploring this iconoclastic artist and his unconventional process. Though subtle, the ethical questions raised by the series’ act of cultural representation are all the more troubling for viewers like myself because they implicate our own role in the exchange. As a viewer, I am separated from the original encounter by time, space, and context — streaming from a cozy, renovated flat in East London in 2019.  

By streaming this video series on YouTube I am participating in a much different, much wider act of cultural encounter. Far from a passive observer, I bring my own set of experiences and preconceived notions to make this sequence of pixelated frames, in any real sense, meaningful.  And as the webpage reminds me, this is not an isolated instance. Part I of Serrano Shoots Cuba video has been viewed on YouTube over 100,000 times on YouTube alone. Beyond this series, VICE has over 12 million subscribers to its YouTube channel, and (as the column of suggested videos to the right serves as a constant reminder) Serrano Shoots Cuba is just one of dozens of similar documentary videos from VICE, all representing various cultural contexts from around the world.  

My viewing of this series represents a much broader pattern of global consumption, which begs even more questions. What do viewers like me —streaming from places like London, New York, or Toronto — seek to get out of videos like this? What assumptions go into VICE’s production and dissemination of works like this for its audiences to consume? And what exactly are viewers taking away from videos like Serrano Shoots Cuba about the people and places they represent? 

The complexity and sensitivities of such questions may at first appear overwhelming. But in our hyper-connected, internet-enabled era of 21st-century media consumption, sifting through the ethical implications strikes me as a necessary exercise, even if a daunting one. Fortunately, other thinkers past and present have navigated these twisting intellectual pathways. The diverse perspectives have been amassed in the admittedly-ambiguous classification of Cultural Studies, offering blueprints by which to begin disentangling the more complex ways that meaning is made in our engagement with various images, videos, and texts. The task remains a difficult one, and any answers tenuous at best, but the self-reflection it encourages can be a sort of reward in and of itself. 

Speaking to the camera in one of the first scenes, Serrano discusses the reasons for his excursion to Cuba. While invited to show his artwork at the prestigious Havana Biennale, he explains, his “real reason for going is to do some work, because it seems like it would be a missed opportunity for me to go to Cuba and not come away with a picture of Cuba.”  Serrano Shoots Cuba subsequently follows Serrano as he, his wife, and assistants roam the island shooting photographs — posed portraits, home interiors, and street images — video documentary crew in tow.  

The series opens by introducing Andres Serrano as a brash, controversial anti-hero of contemporary art — a street-smart, self-taught representative of downtown New York’s 1980s avant-garde scene. His 1987 work known as Piss Christ is presented as emblematic of Serrano’s penchant for transgressing boundaries as well as the type of socially conservative protests that his works have often provoked. The artist’s personal heritage (he is a second-generation U.S. American of Cuban parentage) is presented to cast Serrano as an appropriate interpreter of Cuba and its culture to VICE’s audience. Throughout the series, the artist’s voiceover is interspersed with in-situation dialogue to add a layer of verbal commentary on his visual project. 

Over the course of three videos, Serrano discusses the act of representing the people of Cuba for his audience through his medium of photography. While reflecting on his motives and preoccupations, the ability of Seranno’s camerawork to “represent Cuba” seems never in doubt

I hope to find characters, I want to photograph people who are interesting, also the powerful and more affluent, intellectuals, [the] entitled . . . Cuba is like America, it’s a land of different entitlements . . . even though everyone’s supposed to be the same, everyone’s not the same . . . I want to represent the Cuba that exists and that other people may not know about. 

Claims of photography’s unparalleled power to capture and represent the truth are as old as the medium itself. In the 1960s, as the technology became more widely accessible and the medium became more ubiquitous, there was increasing demand for photography to be taken seriously both as an art-form and as a subject of critical reflection. Beginning in the 1970s, visual culture theorist John Tagg wrote extensively on society’s assumptions surrounding photographic realism. Arguing that this insistent claim can and should be questioned, his essays in The Burden of Representation explored what might get concealed or overlooked in photography’s presumption of what he called the “natural and universal.” Privileging the medium as a “guaranteed witness”, according to Tagg, raises a fallacy of perceived neutrality all too common to documentary-realist forms: 

The photograph seems to declare: ‘This really happened. The camera was there. See for yourself’ . . . Far from being a neutral presentation of pre-existing facts, realism may involve certain essential formal strategies . . .   

Questioning the assumption that an image’s meaning is found within its own internal relations, Tagg elaborated how ideas or concepts already prevalent within society can appear “proven” and “fleshed out” via imagery. As a result, highly selective and motivated images can make certain pre-determined ideas appear “natural and universal.” 

Serrano Shoots Cuba provides a case in point for Tagg’s theory. Visiting Cuba for the first time with a preconceived idea of the country he aims to “find” and represent, the scene that played out in the video serves to reinforce Serrano’s particular idea of Cubanness. Doesn’t the woman’s openness — despite her obvious discomfort at the moment — seem to “prove” Cuban atrevido as an essential and universal aspect of Cuban-ness? Yet in doing so, the series elides the motivations and strategic choices that went into staging that moment, encouraging viewers from consciously considering the many layers of decision-making that went into the video’s production and dissemination.  

Tagg’s theory also seems to contradict Serrano’s claimed motive of challenging predominant views of Cuba beyond its borders. A clue to unraveling this challenge can be found in the dichotomy Serrano claims to uphold of Cuba, figuring it as a land either of equality or entitlements. These comments not only reveal more predetermined motivations for Seranno’s representation of Cuba, they reflect a wider societal discourse: one that hinges on differences in socio-economic systems, historical and contemporary, between Cuba and the capitalist West — specifically, the U.S.  

To fully appreciate how a series like Serrano Shoots Cuba produces meaning, Tagg’s example insists, we should look beyond of the “image” itself. The theorist’s framework calls for investigation into how images come to mean “in their actual setting, in the living context of their social uses.” By historicizing the spectator — examining by whom and in what context the work was received — practices like VICE’s genre-style of the cultural documentary can be viewed in their broader social context. 

It is not difficult to infer who such videos are aimed to reach — at least, according to the company itself. From its mid-90s founding as an alternative outlet with an unabashed focus on youth-culture, VICE has consistently elevated conversations around sex, drugs, and emerging music in ways that mainstream media either could not or would not do. As a result, the company has maintained an aura of rebellious youth even as it has come of age into a multi-national, multi-million dollar operation spanning online, cable, and video-on-demand platforms. The brand remains tailored to 18 to 35-year-olds, a point of overwhelming emphasis within the marketing materials the company uses to woo advertisers. (Specifically, their 2019 media kit brags that 1 in 3 18-35 year-olds visit vice.com.) While a global brand, U.S. audiences make up by far the largest proportion of visits to vice.com, followed by predominantly English-speaking markets Canada and the U.K. Clearly, VICE is making and disseminating videos online for an audience of younger adults predominantly of the Global North.  

A 2015 analysis in the Columbia Journalism Review explained VICE’s appeal among a new generation of media consumers as based in the brand’s differentiated style. “Vice’s brand of video-making” according to Chris Ip, is built on “an ostensibly raw aesthetic that resonates with world-weary audiences distrustful of shiny, formulaic programming.” Thinking of VICE in terms of commodity appeal, however, Ip evinced more skepticism, concluding that “it may be truer to say that Vice simply packages itself more deftly” than other big media companies, having “mastered the mass production of authenticity for profit.”  

Media industry mastery goes a considerable way in explaining the emergence of VICE and its signature, immersive filmmaking style. In this sense, Serrano Shoots Cuba is just one product of an entire genre-style of videos fine-tuned by VICE for online distribution and the resulting advertising profits. Videos like Serrano Shoots Cuba do offer viewers some sense of a raw or unpredictable cultural encounter. Yet, holding firm to Tagg’s insistence that meaning is to found located beyond the image itself, such conventional industry logic fails to fully explain the deeper ideas and motivations on which VICE’s appeal is predicated. Consciously or unconsciously, what do millennials in the Global North — myself among them — really seek to get out of watching VICE’s “immersive” style of a cultural documentary? 

At the most fundamental level, the appeal of human storytelling is of course an age-old truism. But a no less essential element at play in videos like Seranno Shoots Cuba seems to be the facsimile of cultural encounter — one-sided and mediated as such an arrangement of pixels can be. This aspect of the VICE products’ appeal trades on a long, supposedly-reverent tradition of humanistic curiosity about other people and customs, and this has shaped our attitudes toward education and travel historically.  

Such humanistic intention tends to be considered noble — a desire to better understand perspectives beyond one’s own and broaden one’s sense of human experience. Whatever the validity of the assumption in the case of Serrano and VICE, such supposedly benign motives exist in tension with the potential of other, less comforting desires. The more I reflect, the more I suspect that this ambiguity is central to the cultural currency of Serrano Shoots Cuba — and indeed, the appeal of this entire genre-style of “immersive” cultural-encounter VICE is peddling online. Even as such works might pass as innocent human-interest narratives, representation of a cultural “Other” is being commodified for our viewing pleasure.    

More recent theorists have paid specific attention to the difficult role of desire and pleasure in the consumption of difference. Writing on the role of race in U.S. popular culture, bell hooks first noted a rise in what she called “commodification of Otherness” in her early ’90s essay “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance.” As the products of Hollywood and U.S. television became more reflective of the country’s diversity and less blatantly white, hooks noted “acknowledgment [that] racial difference can be pleasurable represents a breakthrough, a challenge to white supremacy, to various systems of domination.” However, she warned of a more insidious reductionism in representations of cultural Otherness: 

The commodification of Otherness has been so successful because it is offered as a new delight, more intense, more satisfying than normal ways of doing and feeling. Within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture . . .  

Clearly, hooks was writing about a very different dynamic in U.S. popular culture. Still, her figuring of cultural “spice” poses difficult questions for VICE docuseries like Serrano Shoots Cuba, and with equally serious implications. Ultimately, hooks described an “overriding fear” that cultural differences “will be continually commodified and offered up as new dishes to enhance the white palate — that the Other will be eaten, consumed, and forgotten.” 

hooks’ U.S.-based observations find echoes in the wider post-colonial world. Critiques along similar lines have emerged in more recent years in the global context of cultural tourism: yet another cultural commodity often consumed along with the same problematic pattern as the VICE videos — with the postcolonial South put on display for the Global Northern palette. From voyeuristic “ghettourism” in Brazil’s urban favelas, to exoticized demand for cultural authenticity in performances by New Zealand’s Maori community, cultural representations’ ambiguity in commodity form reinforces discomforting doubts about the motivations underpinning their appeal.  

What these perspectives share is a common interrogation of pleasure or desire that hinges on the imbalances, both past and present, of cultural power. And through this lens of cultural power, the contradictions present in works like Serrano Shoots Cubcan be reframed, with more fruitful lines of questioning beginning to unfold. 

We can ask, foremost, what role consumption of Otherness play in the currency of Serrano Shoots Cuba as a commodity? Clearly, it was the videos’ creators — VICE and Seranno himself — who held the power to decide how Cuba and its people would be portrayed to viewers. Those Cubans who do appear on camera certainly agreed to be filmed, but how present are their voices in the resulting portrayal of Cubanness? What might those featured have had to say about their traditions and ways of life if given the opportunity to address the series’ Global North audience directly? From the documentary alone, a viewer gains hardly any such perspective. Doesn’t the particular individuality of those portrayed becomes minimized (as Tagg had theorized) in serving Serrano’s preconceived ideas? From this perspective, the series is seen to elevate Serrano’s particular definition of what it means to be Cuban and, presenting it as documentary “fact,” to concretize those preconceptions through moving images.   

What’s more, the possibility of exoticism — of aspects of Cubanness being reduced to a consumable “spice” for a Global Northern palette — remain highly plausible and unchecked in the series’ reception. The series itself does little, if anything, to discourage exoticized pleasure.  

On the contrary, Serrano Shoots Cuba is rich in glimpses of sunshine, leisurely domino playing, beautiful decaying architecture, dusty vintage cars, and exposed skin of varying shades —  in short, in an array of ingredients bell hooks may have labeled “spice.” Is this stock Cubanness, served for a desirous palette before moving on to something else? For all Serrano’s discussion of challenging misconceptions about Cuba, the series is heavy on talk but scant on any sustained inquiry into what life in Cuba is actually like for those living there. Serrano’s idea of atrevido or daring even raised the risk of perpetuating an established and harmful stereotype of “hot blooded” Latin Americans. 

And through it all, VICE operates within the ambiguity already described. Safe in the plausible deniability of humanistic endeavor, VICE is free to carry on its profit-seeking undeterred. From their perspective, wouldn’t questioning the representation of Otherness or calling attention to it risk alienating VICE’s viewers, shaming them for their cultural appetites? Despite such conventional logic, I can’t help but wonder whether the inverse would actually be true. The company’s Global North audience are those grown used to having online sampling menu of all the various traditions of the world at their fingertips. Could it be that such challenging questions might actually offer the humanistic enrichment on which the appeal of videos like these are premised? 

As this case of Seranno Shoots Cuba hopefully makes clear, critical perspectives from the field of Cultural Studies offer nuanced ways to rethink media habits largely accepted as the norm today. The more frequently these complex questions are drawn out, the more vital such sustained forms of inquiry seems to be. The explosion of endless choice in online entertainment and information online brings with it a new array of potential ethical hazards.  

Not to despair, it is also important to keep nuanced critiques in a broader perspective. As bell hooks acknowledged, encountering difference problematically is almost certainly preferable where the only alternative is retreat behind cultural blinders into our own respective comfort zones. Between these two extremes, awareness of power dynamics — of who gets to be comfortable in the pleasures of cultural encounters — seems a worthy prerequisite to cultural encounters as a commodity. In this way, critical questions can yield better criteria and higher expectations when evaluating works of cultural representation.  

Gazing outside may indeed be a necessary part of defining and understanding “ourselves.” In that case, a level of self-reflection and a sincere wish to avoid harm would seem the reasonable — dare I say, the humanist — principles of engagement.  

Jared Spears is a writer based in Brooklyn. His work has recently appeared in Philosophy Now and on Jacobin, Lit Hub, and elsewhere on the web.

§