Critical Strategies in Art and Media Discussion - part 03
Konrad Becker: Now, as you already mentioned, a museum and a major German technology provider that is also in the arms industry and funds right wing groups, for instance, have sent out curators looking for critical art. We can get a little worked up about things like blue chip galleries next to Eyebeam with their funny voodoo fetishes for the bourgeois, decorating the capitalist lifestyle, and we can joke about the artifacts there, but we know the economy has changed, and also adapted to digital technologies, and there is this new brand of artists who are already providing the substance for the new fluid markets and economies of desire.
Steve Kurtz: That’s true. You have a lot of postmodernists saying, “We have already sold out, so let’s enjoy consuming.” It’s happened to Critical Art Ensemble: Smirnoff came and asked, “Can you do a project for us?” and we said, “Not anything you’re going to want, we can’t.”
Konrad Becker: That’s where I tend to agree with Peter if I’ve got it right: the internet is making people really dumb. You get a lot of this cheap, off the shelf, critique ersatz easily available. You shake it and mix it up a little bit, and then you might even have a better chance selling it to big corporations for decorum, who like confused and domesticated criticism that doesn’t bite. There is a market for that.
Steve Kurtz: Like Claire said: It makes me mad.
Konrad Becker: So how can we draw a line between a very considered form of practice on the one hand where people carefully weigh the consequences and implications of their operations and then these people who are basically jumping the bandwagon and exploiting a superficial level of critique on the other?
Steve Kurtz: I think you’ve just said it. We can distinguish between these two forms!
Konrad Becker: Well, I go to all these big festivals across Europe and the very educated, intellectual curators don’t seem to be able to tell the difference.
Steve Kurtz: That’s true, too, but these festivals.... Every other artist is angry about who gets into the Whitney Biennial, when in fact it is a trade show. Also Documenta, or any of them — that’s what they are. This isn’t to say that we can’t take advantage of these institutions if it’s done in a considered way. We can. This isn’t to say, “Don’t ever interact with them.” You might have the project that would be perfect. It can be a smart tactical choice to go and do something at the Whitney or go to Documenta. I think as long as we don’t kid ourselves about what these festivals and cultural institutions are, they can be of use. I don’t look to them for inspiration, only for opportunity.
Ted Byfield: But we want strategies, not tactics.
Audience 2: I have heard so much about this idea of technology essentially minimising the power of individuals but it seems that in a lot of ways we are seeing the opposite of that. If you look at Iran and how protests were organized via technology, and technology that I personally really distaste, Facebook especially, it seems it has provided a lot of individual power. Al-Qaida wouldn’t have the power that Al-Qaida has without technology. It is able to do things that horrify us precisely because of the decentralizing power that technology can bring. It seems that is a tremendous information resource. I don’t do art, I do law, and one of our truisms is that “More speech is always better than less speech.”
Peter Lamborn Wilson: I have something to say on the Iranian question which I would not have been able to say two days ago because yesterday I was on the radio in Berlin with Diana McCarty. She had two anonymous Iranian activists with her in the studio who had basically just escaped from Teheran not more than a few weeks ago, and I spoke to them via Skype, is that the word? I was on the show because I was in Iran in 1979, so I was supposed to provide the “old” perspective and these young folks were going to provide the “new” perspective. I made the point that many people, many historians have said about 1979 that it never would have happened without the cassette tape recorder. That this was the magic bullet somehow of the Iranian revolution because the speeches by the various mullahs got passed around and also political directions and directives were passed around on this low technology. They used payphones and cassette tape recorders and in this way they flew under the radar of any possible sophisticated American surveillance that the Shah’s regime had acquired. And interestingly enough, I said, it seems that you guys also had all these technological adjuncts to the protests and dissidence that was going on in Iran. I said I was not sure whether I ever believed that or not, but anyway, it was interesting to hear by reading The New York Times and other sources, that technology had such an impact. And they immediately stopped me and said, “We don’t like this perspective very much.” I was surprised and said, “Oh, what do you mean?” And they said, “Well, first of all, all that talk about Twitter was not really true. It was not used that widely. In the second place, the Iranian government managed to almost completely stop the internet or at least slow it down to the point where it could not be used politically. And third of all, the most important thing is that the information was really being disseminated by human beings called “human newspapers.” I had never heard of this in the New
York Times, maybe others have. These were people who stood on street corners with hastily scribbled pieces of cardboard saying “Next demonstration at corner of suchand- such street,” or “Watch out, don’t go to this neighbourhood, the Islamic Guard is already there,” or “Anotherperson killed in South Teheran ten minutes ago.” I was deeply moved by this because I suddenly realized that once again the American media, which is absolutely hypnotized by how glorious American media is, how wonderful American and global technology is, had already begun to spread a kind of legend about this Green Movement in Teheran, that it was technologically enabled, if not even driven. And these two young people absolutely disagreed. So that’s not my position, that’s the position of two activists who had to flee Teheran in order not to get raped and murdered.
Jim Fleming: Well, I think we were in little danger of being raped or murdered, but when the Republican National Convention happened here, many of us belonged to “text mobs”. We were able on our cell phones to get directives of the same kind, like “The cops are on 34th Street but the demonstration is going around the corner there.” I think that this is probably more efficient than human newspapers.
Peter Lamborn Wilson: As long as the state does not happen to be blocking transmissions....
Jim Fleming: The human newspapers were in the middle of it and exposed as well. And the text mobs had the advantage of, maybe, invisibility.
Audience 3: I have a question for Steve. You say that you are an activist and that all money turned on artists is tainted and corrupted, so you might as well just take any gentrification think tank or corrupt museum that wants to fund your activities. You just said that your group rejected Smirnoff’s offer to have you do something for them. So where do you currently draw the line for you to legitimize an evil institution that wants to appropriate your work and say “Look how liberal and crazy we are!”?
Steve Kurtz: If Smirnoff had wanted to legitimately fund one of our projects, we would have taken it. But that’s not what Smirnoff wanted. What they wanted us to do was some crazy event like kids sliding down Slip ’n Slides half naked drinking Smirnoff vodka. If we had proposed anything that would have been of interest to us, they would have said, “How can we make an advertising campaign out of that?” They were looking for something very different. If it means just selling out and taking money because we are getting it to do an awful project, and we will hate ourselves for the rest of our lives, we are probably not going to do that. I feel like I am saying the same thing over and over. We are all in the system and we are all by default infused with its corruption (our own “micro-fascisms” as Guattari used to call them). If we choose engagement as our strategy, we are, as the postmodernists say, going to, in part, speak that corruption and reinforce it, but that is not all we are doing. The question is are we getting more than we are giving? At this very moment, all of us in this room are whitewashing an Austrian government institution and by extension an Austrian government that I am not particularly fond of. We are alibis for its so-called democracy and its dedication to a diversified culture and politics. Am I going to take the cash on the way out? Yes. But I also believe that the projects that will emerge from these proceedings will be more valuable than the downside.
Jim Fleming: I would just make this caveat: I think projects with a capitalist sponsor — regardless of whether an artist’s intentions are otherwise subverted in a certain fashion or not — become a different project just like that. It is almost like a commercial “Heisenberg principle.” Speaking as an outsider-media practitioner who tries to foreground a media practice that is fundamentally antagonistic, it always feels to me that a book means very differently if it has Simon & Schuster on its spine, whatever the “independent message” of the book itself is....
Ted Byfield: I was going to propose the idea of a delegitimization crisis. Konrad, I think you may know a bit about this, since you’ve walked the fine line of accepting money while pushing further than perhaps the funders intended. But hearing so much talk about legitimation is disturbing, because we’ve inverted what ought to be going on here, which has to do with cultural activity as a technique for tainting, tarring, and feathering things you dislike or mistrust: subversion, taking the money and running in more interesting directions than intended.
Claire Pentecost: I guess I was asking Jim but also thinking of an example of someone I know with AIDS who did a show criticizing the drug companies. At the museum where t was, this specific show was sponsored by a big drug company that you would recognize. Of course he really agonized whether he should do it or not, but he decided it was better to do it than not do it. And he partnered on another side with an organization that advocates legally for people with AIDS without means, which brought a more diverse audience into the museum to have discussions about the power of the drug companies and other things. On the other hand it is very educational, I think, for people to see that a corporation will fund things and absorb the critique because of the cachet of “critique” in a generalized sense. In fact I think it is on a continuum with another inheritance of the Sixties: our liberty to express ourselves. That’s one of the things that we got: especially when the social-economic demands were divided from the cultural demands of that era. In the words of Walter Benjamin, “Fascism gives you the chance to express yourself.” That’s your compensation for the coercion and surveillance and all the other things that are rammed down our throats. This I find in some ways more of a problem... this is what a lot of these technologies have enabled, and it’s not that we should not express ourselves, there are many things to be expressed, but I guess the point is: What do we want to use that permission for? That kind of liberty that we actually do have. Is it about creating a narcissistic fantasy, or is it something that could be leveraged towards larger issues? Steve was talking about how you leverage the things that are on offer, to see if you can redirect the conversation.
Audience 4: I had a question going back to the issue of Twitter in Iran and governmental or institutional obstruction of some of these technological venues of communication. Looking outside of an institutional perspective, a lot of individuals who have unique experience of getting around these obstructions like hacker culture per se, are usually individuals who oftentimes culturally are engaged in activities that are not geared towards activism, but at the same time present this incredible opportunity to subvert governmental control of these mediums. I was wondering if there is a way to have this gap bridged or to address this kind of disparity between activist culture and hacker culture.
Jim Fleming: I will add one quick thing, probably inspired by the Autonomia movement in Italy in the Seventies, when a kind of political perspective called “refusal of work” was announced and developed. It turned out that in fact most forms of refusal of work were not ideologically guided. The intentionality of the refusal was somehow secondary and maybe not so important. The forms of refusal of work that people were largely practicing were laziness, drug use, psychiatric disorder, mental depression, a wide range of social symptoms that did not have to be individually internalized. So I am not sure that hacker culture has to be put in some kind of ideological rein in order to be effective; it is probably vastly more effective if it proliferates in every conceivable way. As long as it resists complicity with that fundamental enemy.
Amanda McDonald Crowley: I don’t know if the divide is that extreme. There is lots of space already for cross-fertilization across those two fields. It is a pity that McKenzie Wark just walked out of the room because he wrote A Hacker Manifesto, so he probably could have added something to that debate.
Steve Kurtz: I just want to echo Amanda’s point there: the difference is not really that profound. If you consider hacker culture in a more academic sense, then, yes, there is a problem. But I think in terms of alternative cultures, getting together is a problem that is fixing itself. Nearly everywhere I go, I meet groups of hackers who have already blended their practice into a much larger one, such as squatter movements and things like that. Critical Art Ensemble has been invited to speak at Chaos Computer Club, and in each case, we learned from each other, even though we are investigating very different ideas. The languages of interventionism and hacktivism map on to each other very well. There is a very fruitful exchange to be had, and we can really learn from one another, so I am pretty optimistic. In our first book, The Electronic Disturbance, we were quite pessimistic. These cultures seemed so far apart, but that was 15 years ago. Critical Art Ensemble has reversed our position on that. The relationship seems better understood by both camps. A new alliance is emerging.
Ted Byfield: We’re skating around a number of important points, I think. In terms of artistic and activist practice, there seems to be some anxiety about “capitalist” appropriations of cultural strategies and cultural innovation. It’s a shame that McKenzie Wark left, because what he said about events in Thailand, how the bad guys have the best practices, is very relevant. And now you’re bringing up the healthcare debate — or non-debate — of August, and particular political machines’ effective use of these techniques in the service of disruption, domination, distortion, and defeating the broad national debate that others would like to see. Yet many times when you talk to artists, curators, intellectuals, alternative types who developed these techniques, you’ll find they feel vulnerable, they feel they’re as though they’re in a minority, excluded, like they can’t simply pick up and move along. That sense of plight plays an important role in encouraging proprietary sentiments: “This is my technique and I don’t want them using it….” Appropriation is a necessary process. But on a much finer scale, there are still vast divides within and between the populations we’re talking about — artists and hackers, etc.
Steve Kurtz: On the appropriation of technique: I have no anxiety about it. None. I take it from wherever I can get it, and I know others are taking it from us. It’s just a straightup given. Now, I do have anxiety when it comes to capital wanting to buy my labor and the inventiveness of Critcal Art Ensemble to further authoritarian ends that we don’t agree with. If I have anxiety about that, I’m probably not going to do it. But with techniques and tactics, it’s “Take whatever you want.” The right wing has been pretty good at interventionist action, they have learned quite a bit, mainly through the anti-abortion movement. They are going to take the techniques and use them themselves. The one caveat I have to throw in is that often with the right (not so much on the left) they create so called grass roots organizations that re not grass roots. For example, smoking laws are passed, you can’t smoke in public places, and all of a sudden there is this organization for smokers’ rights. Who is funding it? Philip Morris! There is no real organization; it is completely fabricated, trying to pass itself off as a grassroots organization. But regardless of what this organization is, if they’re stealing our tactics, we had better get used to it. That is part of the territory. Nothing is private, and everything is appropriable.
Konrad Becker: I think what you were saying is something that we will connect to afterwards. We also have some interventions from people who cannot be here at the moment, like Felix Stalder who has been working with the World-Information Institute for a long time. We can bring him into the discussion via a pre-recorded video: