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We live in a world of risk

Nov 22, 2014

For this inaugural blog post, Curatorial and Research Fellow Bettina Escauriza speaks with interventionist artist Steve Kurtz and the Critical Art Ensemble about the art of resistance and practices of electronic civil disobedience. The inspiration for the conversation was the twentieth anniversary of their critical publication The Electronic Disturbance (1994). A responsiveness to cultural and socio-political works such as these has always informed the development of Slought as an institution.

Born in Asuncion, Paraguay, Bettina Escauriza is an artist and writer living in Philadelphia....


Bettina Escauriza: In recent years, the Critical Art Ensemble (CAE) has faced terrible repression, and members of the collective faced possible incarceration under bioterrorism charges (read more). Despite this, you continue to ask critical questions of scary corporations such as Monsanto. In your ecological work Sterile Field (2013), for instance, you challenged people to try to grow something in a field treated with Monsanto's RoundUp Ready herbicide, and nothing grew. How does CAE relate to risk?

Critical Art Ensemble: Any one can be arrested at any time through the use of discretionary laws such as "creating a false public emergency" or "blocking a public throughway." We live in a world of risk. It's a risk to drive a car. CAE doesn't look for trouble, but it finds us on occasion, and we get through it. It's generally a short-term problem, which can be solved by stopping whatever we are doing. And then we move on, and do something somewhere else until the sacrifice becomes too high again. We seize the opportunities that present themselves.

On a related note, in 2011 you gave a talk in which you said that no work of art is worth going to prison for. Have you always felt this way? Do you still feel this way?

We do the best we can to manage it, but we have to face our fears and not be afraid to act in the world, or the situation is going to get far worse. At the same time, we do not believe in the big sacrificial gesture. Avoid jail - it's a good idea. You can be just as effective with resistant cultural production without resorting to felonious activities.

Of course when one flirts with disaster by working in the gray areas and liminal zones of culture, bad things can happen. One of the important items in the toolbox of someone doing interventions is having a lawyer on retention. It is a luxury to be sure, but a great coping mechanism when it comes to risk. Even staying out of the gray areas won't help if you annoy the authorities.

In The Electronic Disturbance, you describe how the power of the state and capital has lost an identifiable and embodied location. "The location of power—and the site of resistance," you write, "rests in an ambiguous zone without borders. How could it be otherwise, when the traces of power flow in transition between nomadic dynamics and sedentary structures—between hyperspeed and hyper inertia?" How do you challenge a target which is not stable? How do you challenge that which has no physicality? How does one resist this almost invisible form of alienation?

One would think that we would be much better at this than we are, given that power in the form of domination, and its primary enforcer, ideology, have never directly manifested. The problem now is that these forces are becoming increasingly distributed, so that the elimination of one node in the network does not impact the rest. It's a completely frustrating situation, which leaves those who seek to change the morphing configurations caught in a process of political gambles in an effort to produce semiotic shocks and molecular cascades of alteration. We think that, at present, the primary physical dimension of power is our bodies—how they act in the world once caught in a socialization process ruled by pancapitalism. As an aggregate, bodies are the most powerful thing on the planet, and this is why we still believe much of our struggle against the current system of globalization is a struggle over consciousness as a means to change how bodies act.

Can you share your concerns about concepts such as "subversion" and "community" in contemporary political art? Also, what is your perspective on "public art", and its relation to the monumental spaces of the state and of capital?

We are always very cautious with the private/public distinction, as with that of capitalism/socialism. Whether domination is exerted by ownership and property rights, or through bureaucratic control of assets, the outcome is the same—the many are dispossessed to expand the wealth of the few. At present, we are very much enveloped by a political economy described in totality as private and/or public, but, as Hardt and Negri have pointed out, there is also the transparent economy of the commons. In it, we can find a different set of social relations, relations of exchange, knowledge systems, and affective expressions. Projects that acknowledge and highlight this difference are what we aim for.

Subversion may be a secondary objective, and has its place, but we should aim for the positive over the negative (although we acknowledge that sometimes the negative is all that is possible). As for "community," we have little more to say. It's a liberal euphemism that is often mistaken for a sociological principle. Anywhere there is a complex division of labor with all its inherent alienations, community is an illusion, and thereby of no help.

In The Electronic Disturbance, you suggest that historical monuments function as "sites of manufactured continuity," in that they provide a sense of historical continuity that upholds state narratives and state ideology. Your work often seeks to intervene in this built environment. How do you avoid being absorbed by voices of power? Is there such a thing as a monumental space that is liberatory, or is that only possible in a stateless society?

Monuments are a strategic form of representation that function to homogenize the visible and disappear that which resists homogenization. As a counter strategy, monuments are impossible for minoritarians to use because they will be re-appropriated over time.

Take the many statues of Rosa Parks. They reinforce the narrative that Ms. Parks was a tired, hard-working woman whose feet hurt and who spontaneously decided that she didn't want to move from her seat at the front of the bus. The Rosa Parks we know was a young, daring woman, sick of bigotry and discrimination, trained in tactical resistance and civil disobedience, who boarded that bus with a carefully designed plan that could contribute to catalyzing a movement. To say the least, that narrative is not welcome where those statues are housed (particularly in the US Capitol).

However, what we can do is use monumentality as tactical option. By making temporary monuments followed by rapid deterritorialization, an alternative or anti-narrative can be constructed that cannot be recuperated before it disappears. This is not to say that such a project will be "pure" in any sense, but it will have an opportunity to negotiate with its surroundings so that it may sign something beyond the status quo. When the situation is right, CAE is happy to make a temporary monument.

Do you still feel that "the streets are a dead capital?" Is the street, in other words, still a viable place of action and resistance for CAE? In past tactical media projects such as the Renaming Project, Victoria Square (Australia, 2002), the site of contestation is the street. The project is meant to infuse Indigenous identity and voice in the location by changing the names of the streets. Have events such as those undertaken by the Occupy movement and in Tahir Square led you to question your notion that "the streets are dead capital"?

CAE will have to disagree with your interpretation of the phrase "the streets are dead capital." You may be confusing it with the phrase "the streets are dead." These two statements are not synonymous, and the second one CAE never said. By the first, we meant that urban and rural streets were not of much value to capital as it decentralizes (becomes nomadic), and increasingly functions in distributed networks. If a resistant group's tactic was to occupy a space, they might have more leverage occupying other sites—one of which would be virtual sites where data (virtual currency both figuratively and literally), could be slowed. The one "street" we did want to see occupied was the national highway system, but we recognized that this was a highly militarized spot, and the consequences would be harsh.

By going for data instead, people could keep their bodies away from extreme harm while unleashing an effective blockage. Conversely, just because an area is dead capital doesn't mean that productive, lively biopolitical exchanges can't happen there. We are not done with the streets by any means.

We wrote that the "streets were dead capital" while observing ACT UP's tactics imploding. By the early 1990s, the police were used to their behavior, and realized a light footprint was a better response. If a demonstration appeared, they would reroute traffic and let the protesters yell until they got cold and tired and went home. The disrupting impact was over, and with it, it's effectiveness.

Unfortunately, the early 1990s were also a time of giddy euphoria regarding all things "cyber." Someone had to say that the resistance movements of the future would all be virtual. It wasn't us, but due to a misinterpretation of a line in Electronic Civil Disobedience (a result of reading it out of context), we were credited with saying it, and now it's in the mythology, so we have to live with it.

I have often associated the work of CAE with Mikhail Bakunin's writings on anarchism, and his idea that "the urge to destroy is a creative urge." Though your work is often marked by a similar sense of urgency, your work has also struck me as joyful and hopeful. Through your work, you are constantly creating the world you want to live in. In projects like GenTerra (2001-2003), for instance, you transform the gallery into a laboratory and explain genetic modification in simple terms. This is a fascinating pedagogical move, one that makes difficult and esoteric concepts legible and accessible. Can you talk more about this approach, as well as the degree to which you strategically employ humor and hope?

We appreciate Antonio Gramsci's aphorism, "Pessimism of the intellect; optimism of the will." The pessimism is easy. One only has to look around to witness so many intended conditions of misery. The problems are so vast; they are quite literally global in scale. It's enough to make a person want to just "drop-out" and focus on creating existential fields of joy for one's self and for others who share this field.

When the members of CAE were younger, we had little sympathy for drop-out culture, but we now recognize it as a part of our practice because it's a living experience that demonstrates that life can be more than a series of relations to scarcity, frustration, and alienation. It contributes to the optimism that makes the pessimistic engagement possible without burning out. In other words, it gives us hope. Hope is a fuel that carries us through conflict. However, if the retreatist existential field is the totality of one's life, then CAE has a problem. Hope is useless without an application in the spheres of hopelessness.

Greg Ulmer used to say that through his humor he was precisely serious. CAE always liked that idea. We were tired of the modernist narrative of tragedy being the dominant form, and the way to show one was a serious person. Humor is a good way to bring people into discourses they might otherwise avoid because it isn't worth all the unpleasantness. It's a great way to make contact. It's part of the commons.

In The Electronic Disturbance, you prefigure the subsequent development of the hacker network Anonymous. Throughout the text, you muse about the liberatory potential of hacking, and the role that hackers can play in electronic civil disobedience. What are your thoughts about the current state of electronic civil disobedience, for instance with regards to Wikileaks? Can you also speak to the way this approach has been deployed by the Occupy Movement, or more recently in Ferguson, Missouri?

The problem with practicing electronic disturbance today is that the loopholes have closed, and it's become an illegal act. No one should to have to do serious time for participating in civil disobedience. In the case of Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, we can see how powerful information deployment can be, but again, we were not attempting to construct a tactic that will have someone persecuted for life, if not murdered. We were looking for everyday life expressions of discontent that could support a politics of change, as well as one that could be taken up by anyone with acceptable levels of sacrifice.

I appreciate how your work continually foregrounds questions of complicity and resistance. Typically, these two terms are conceptualized as a sort of binary and opposed to one another. Can you talk more about how you understand the dynamic relationship between these two terms?

This is a very good thought, because we are always already both. Our identities are fluid here, we are not one or the other. Everyone can become resistant; everyone can become complicit. From the moment we wake up and make some coffee and flush the toilet, we are complicit, and so our day of cognitive dissonance and unavoidable hypocrisy begins. In terms of the individual, even among the most privileged who are able, resistance takes up very little time in waking life.

In The Electronic Disturbance, you explore the relationship between the virtual and physical, and oppose the data body to the physical body. Since then, the supremacy of the virtual over the physical seems even more pronounced, and we are constantly monitored and surveillanced through technology. For people of color, this development is more severe. The physical body is criminalized, and the data body functions purely forensically.

We are in a tremendous amount of trouble in this regard. It's not only the tendency of our virtual identity to trump our embodied identity, but the whole spectrum of big data used as a means to construct models of desire that allow capital to better situate commodities at the center of what was once lived experience, by planting artificial needs in people with ever-increasing efficiency. The intensity of the degradation of desire that in turn leads to the degradation of life is alarming.

Moreover, the ascendance of middle management models, where all institutions must be run as businesses requiring "evidence-based" analysis (ideologically driven quantitative analysis) to prove the value of entities, relations, and outcomes, increases the scope and strength of our data bodies that are not owned or controlled by those they represent.

We certainly do recognize the relationship to data shifts with one's physical appearance. The question there is when and to what degree? In the relationship of people of color to authority, the situation is generally flipped. The data body must act as an alibi for them, or their flesh will inscribe them as part of a demographic that has been historically resistant if not militantly hostile to the hierarchies of an imperial world. The data body can, and often does, fail at this small task. The arrest of Henry Louis Gates in his own home is a good example.

On the other hand, oppression through data is ubiquitous for all as long data models molded for the benefit of capitalism reign supreme. Take the "three strikes and you're out" law for sentencing imperatives: it doesn't matter what the crimes might be, whether there are lingering questions regarding guilt, or what other constructive acts the people ensnared in this data category may have accomplished—the totality of their identity is set in stone, and the punishment associated with this identity cannot be overruled. The failure of the data body as alibi and its success as an operation of control is what leads to this category being overpopulated with people of color.

What happened to the promise and dream of an electronic utopia? While electronic tools of communication have heavily proliferated, and people have considerable access today to media making tools, we still live in an incredibly repressive world...

The history of technology is a chronicle of treachery. It never delivers on its promises. For everything it gives, it also takes away. The technosphere runs on power like anything else. In it, the distribution of power is completely asymmetrical. As long as this is the case, technology will best serve those with the greatest control. Much like identity, labor, or minerals in the ground, it is another resource to appropriate.

The current formation of capitalism due to the intensification of the technosphere is especially interesting, because it reveals a fatal flaw in anarchism. Much like traditional Marxism had the fatal flaw of believing that the elimination of private property would guarantee an end to exploitation and class struggle, also mistaken is the anarchist belief that decentralization of power will necessarily lead to uncorrupted economies and political systems. With the right technical structure and management systems, decentralization can be as bad as if not worse than, centralized forms.

Decentralization adds incredible complexity to the once simple dialectic. So much division combines with so much movement that the territory becomes indecipherable. For example, the Western world has no idea how to respond to the violent developments in the Middle East right now, because it can't decipher what is happening. The relationships are too complex and rapidly shifting. The decentralization of the financial representation of objects is another example. Financial instruments are so complex that no one can really understand them any more, but we certainly know the disastrous consequences of this form of decentralization.

Is critique a weapon? Is it the only weapon we have left?

Critique is not a weapon at all if it is not accompanied by a practice. In this century, people all over the world are engaged in resistant practices on individual, collectivist, and movement levels.

We are losing the struggle, but it's not at an end, and never will be.