Beyond the Conceptual Wall

Answer to Trebor Scholz (see below)

Has power shifted to cyberspace, as Critical Arts Ensemble once claimed? Not so if we look at the countless street marches around the world. The Seattle movement against corporate globalization appears to have gained momentum—both on the street and on the Net. But can we really speak of a synergy between street protests and online ‘hacktivism’? No, but what both have in common is their conceptual stage. Both real and virtual protests are in danger of getting stuck at the level of ‘demo design.’

At first glance, reconciling the virtual and the real seems to be an attractive rhetorical act. Radical pragmatists like me have often emphasized the embodiment of online networks in real-life society, proving the inadequacy of the real versus virtual contradiction. Net activism, like the Internet itself, is always hybrid, a blend of the old and new, haunted by geography, gender, race and other political instances. There is no pure disembodied zone of global communication, as the 90s cyber mythology claimed.

However, such a critical position tends not to raise worrisome questions. Equations such as street plus cyberspace, art meet science, techno-culture—all interesting interdisciplinary approaches with have proved to have little effect beyond the symbolic level of dialogue and discourse. The fact is that established disciplines are in a defensive mode. The ‘new’ movements and media are not yet mature enough to question the powers to be and lacks sufficient leverage at the negotiating table. The claim to ‘embody the future’ in a conservative climate like is becoming a weak and empty gesture.

On the other hand, the call of activists and artists to return to “real life” does not provide us with a solution to how alternative new media models can be lifted to the level of mass (pop) culture. Yes, street demonstrations raise solidarity levels and lift us up from the daily solitude of communicating through largely one-way media interfaces. Despite September 11 and its right-wing political fallout, social movements worldwide are gaining importance and visibility. We should however ask the question what could come after the “demo version” of both new media and movements.

This isn’t the heady 60s or 70s. The “conceptual” emphasis has hit the hard wall of demo design as Peter Lunenfeld described it in his book ‘Snap to Grid’. The question then becomes how to jump beyond the prototype? What comes after the besiege of yet another summit of CEOs and their politicians? How long can a movement stay virtual? Or to put it in technical terms, what comes after demo design, after the countless PointPoint presentations and Flash animations? The feel-good factor of being an open, ever growing crowd (Elias Canetti) will sooner or later wear out when demo fatigue sets in.

There is an endless stream of inspiring new utopias, proposed software and interfaces, all nicely presented and full of imagination. However, may of them lack patient workers who are going to further research and implement them. Therefore, rather then making up yet another concept it is time to ask the question of how software, interfaces and alternative standards can be installed in society. It may no longer be sufficient to ‘wear’ a successful subversive attitude. In this post-Darwinist society even the good memes can die along the way. Ideas may take the shape of a virus, but society may hit back with even more successful immunization programs: appropriation, repression and neglect

What we face is a scalability crisis. Most movements and initiatives find themselves in a trap. The strategy of becoming “minor” (Guattari) is no longer a positive choice but the default option. It is no big deal to create autopoietic systems but is there an exit build it? Designing a successful cultural virus and getting millions of hits on your weblog will not bring you beyond the level the level of short lived ‘spectacle’. Culture jammers are no longer outlaws but should be seen as sophisticated experts in communication guerilla.

Despite growing concerns over global warning, racism, poverty and corporate globalization, today’s movements are in danger of getting stuck in a self-satisfying protest mode. With access to the political process effectively blocked, further mediation seems the only available option. However, gaining more and more “brand value” in terms of global awareness may turn out to be like overvalued stocks. One day they might pay off, but meanwhile they are pretty worthless. Truth in this context is reduced to a retro effect, only valid after the crash. The pride of “We have always told you so” is boosting the moral of minority multitudes, but at the same time it delegates legitimate fights to the level of official “Truth and Reconciliation Commissions,” often parliamentary or Congressional—after the damage is done.

Instead of arguing for “reconciliation” between the real and virtual I would call for a rigorous involvement and implementation of social movements into technology. Instead of taking the cyberpunk derived “the future is now” position, a lot could be gained from a radical re-assessment of the techno revolutions of the last 10-15 years. For instance, if artists and activists can learn anything from the dot-com rise and subsequent fall it might be the importance of marketing. The attention economy of the dotcom eyeballs proved worthless. This is a terrain of true taboo knowledge. Dot-coms invested their entire venture capital in (old media) advertisement. Their belief that media-generated attention would automatically draw users to their sites and turn them into customers did not work. The same could be said of activist sites. Information “forms” us. But new consciousness is less and less resulting in measurable action. Activists are only starting to understand the impact of this paradigm. What is to be done if information merely circles around in its own parallel world? What is to be done if the street demonstration becomes part of the Spectacle and its event culture?

There is a crying need for mediators, capable of implementing alternative concepts into a wide range of sector. The open source and free software movement could feature as an example. Despite recent releases of the Mozilla 1.0 browser and OpenOffice (an alternative to Microsoft Office), open source and free software remain locked up within geek culture. How to create a user base beyond your own circles? What the new media and IT sector needs is a global summit, comparable to Porto Alegre where the so-called anti-globalization movement has its annual gathering, aimed at bringing all the exciting alternative technologies out of the geek ghetto. It all comes back to this same old question: how to mingle the virtual with the real?

Trebor Scholz:

In Genoa, Prague, and Seattle thousands of people put their bodies on the line. Resistance did not only maneuver out of hidden trenches online. People on the front line, breathing heavily in the tear gas believed in demonstrating for a participatory democratic globalization process, many artists as organizers and supporters among them. They trusted that their real bodies, steaming, sweating and shouting, in the streets would give their claims for an end of the oppression of money over human beings the forceful pressure that it takes to make corporate authorities open their eyes.

Tactical practioners reached far beyond traditional art activist models to achieve concrete results. True, some web-based hacktivist actions had concrete positive consequences. The online-strikes by NO ONE ILLEGAL** forced LUFTHANSA to stop profiting from deportations by tarnishing the company’s e-commerce image. Initiatives like the Zapatista Floodnet resulted in extensive media attention. Also, Borderhack, Right2Fight, or created online audiences.

Still, can retreating to digital resistance alone make concrete practical changes to the social realities we live in, to the actual public sphere offline? Should we withdraw more from the public sphere by encrypting our emails, by concealing our digital hideaways and by making the internet our sole realm of operations? Or does it need our real bodies in direct action to achieve political impact?

Over the past few years, artists, designers, musicians, scientists, activists, and programmers created free spaces in the media contesting commercial interests, supporting social movements. Andreas Broeckman, for instance, coordinated this year’s Transmediale together with Susanne Jaschko, which centered around mailing lists as the most important sources for information and radio stations such as Al-Jazeera and the media activist network Indymedia, both providing new global information spaces.

The bureau of inverse technology [BIT] developed a device– the toy crowd invigilator that used a hobby rocket and wireless micro video to document crowd and police formations, transmitting video data which was streamable to the website while smoothly descending on a parachute from the height of 300 ft. The rocket was used in the context of the World Economic Forum demonstrations in New York earlier this year.
The bureau of inverse technology [BIT] also developed a radio break-in service for local area news: NPR member station WNYC. For 2-5 seconds a burst of realtime audio from the location of the WEF broke into network stations transmitting to established audiences without the news station’s consent.

The most interesting new media initiatives relate technologies to street demonstrations, the gallery, or the community center. Projects like Radio Sherwood, The Insular Technology Initiative, and bureau of inverse technology [BIT] are all involved with developing practical support for social movements functioning at the intersection of art and technology.

Web-based projects aim to integrate old and new media, using newly available tools to connect the streets and the internet, bringing together on and offline radio, web-casting, data collection, and online web journals.

The Insular Technologies System is a project launched by a consortium of independent media organizations. It started the pilot phase of a high frequency radio network that will provide portable low cost autonomous, encrypted short wave radio units “to promote and protect the communication between independent cultural, media and social initiatives, non-governmental organizations and individuals. These may be operating from remote areas and/or environments with limited connectivity.”*

In Venice, Italy, Radio Sherwood collaborated with Melting Pot Europe broadcasting communication from, with and for immigrants. The project created a public consultation service on immigration law, the relationship between immigrants, job opportunities, and local community activities.

These interdisciplinary models bring art and new technologies to the web and
begin to function as street weapons. The revolution, this time around, then, will be televised: just boot up your computer and tune in the radio.


**Insular Technologies

Radio Sherwood




bureau of inverse technology [BIT]

Street Weapon Project