- THE FUTURE IS NOT WHAT IT USED TO BE
- From Guerrilla Television to Resistance on the Web
<HOME PAGE> "By the year 2010, we will have at least one Nobel Prize in literature that will not be published yet in even one book. Marsall McLuhan's off-line book, and every concrete poetry author's dream will be produced very cheaply... Narrative literature, poems, epics and comics will all be fused. We will witness the birth of literature without books, and of poems without paper... We will be able to posses every book from the New York library and, during our free time, we will have the habit of reading arbitrarily... for example: The differences between Bengal grammar from 1853 and the first Uzbek grammar, which came about... Let's say... In 1957 in Russia... When we make a full length movie, it will end in various manners, and the viewers will be able to select their own ending... On the screen we will see lights perpetually blinking... We could wonder, "Will we really need all this information?" Nam June Paik, 1977.
<PAGE 1> In 1971, Michael Shamberg and Raindance Corporation published Guerrilla Television (1), a book that would end up giving a name to one of the principal counterculture movements of that time. During the same decade, video activists fought against political and institutional powers, and especially, against the mass media T.V. power. They fought with these same weapons, using technology and some channels which, until that time, only belonged to the powers. The wars were never about one specific topic. In different countries of the occidental world, video was used to fight against the established power, against "the system". Many thought that the new method would change into the definitive tool of democratic art,... But even if it is true that the video guerrillas found their influential pockets from public opinion, a decade later their rebel would end, diluting itself into the framework of the power.
<PAGE 2> Currently,the web's communicative and artistic potentials are critical for activists. And, since the internet is known as one of the biggest icons of immense power, it is only logical that it serves as their own weapon, of their own technology.
I do not pretend to determine the appropriateness of each war here - nor am I insinuating the feebleness of video against the web. Rather, I am pinpointing the efficiency of the new medium in this type of practice. Ever since its irruption into the art world, prophetic signs have never lacked speculations that the web will end up influencing art. Nor has there been a lack of speculation on the artist's future social roll in this field. Gene Youngblood, an author whose theories have already been en vogue in the seventies, summarizes the web: "This will be an art of dire consequences, useful; It will be integrated into life in a utilitarian manner, while simultaneously, it will still be recognized as art. The web will be independent from its differences with any type of known contemporary art. The new practice will integrate art, science, technology, and at the same time, will transcend it. There will not be art nor science, but rather a hybrid discipline. The distinctions will not be relevant. It will compromise aesthetic investigation. It will save the existing discord between art and the world in general, and will directly contribute to this transformation. The functions that maintain society united will define the new artist's social roll; and the new artist will perform, definitively, a vital roll in the anticipation of the next step of social history." (2)
Before discussing how these projections can be considered utopias, let's first try to find their true anchor points. From the limited perspective that we give the analysis of completed projects, and while maintaining our focus on the cultural activism, I will explain how old questions have been resolved and how new obstacles can be now be seen in the horizon. Let's start in parts.
In the first place, is the question of feedback, which is generally badly resolved in the video-graphic field. It now seems to have found an opening in e-mail, which is ever accessible to its authors. The users can express their critiques and can even collaborate in the creation of various projects. Another topic, is the survival difficulty of educational practices that induces self containment. In fact, they are usually projects that expressively solicit their opinion and participation. From here, because the web embodies interactive art prototypes, it opens a gap that few projects have been able to get around.
Another problem of activist video has always been broadcasting difficulties. Only few works have been able to be emitted through public T.V. Channels. Most of them are limited to local community channels. The other option, the most common, is to use independent distributors. And these, even if they do a satisfactory job, have never been able to cover an amply divulging spectrum. This is due In part, to the impositions of the art market, and in part, to the bad endemic of impending art. Let's be realistic: video projects basically only interest video creators; solely in very rare occasions have the rest of the art community felt drawn to it.
In the specific case of video activism, the efficacy of its proposals is measured by the quality of the work -power of impact-, but it is more often measured by it's communication potential: by the quantity of individuals susceptible of being affected and, consequently, the power to influence their ideologies. In this aspect, results have been obtained in their most documentary facet. On the other hand, inefficiency is evident in the field of video-art because its radius of action can only be reached in a redoubt of the artistic community -Does one video-artist consciously looks for another video-artist? The inbreeding is destined to consume itself in it's own 'vicious circle'.
From the moment that this type of proposal began to contaminate the web, the integrados saw their democratic art and information dreams reactivated once again: Finally, inbreeding and selective broadcasting barriers could be broken. The works had left their habitual locations (elite artists vacated museums and galleries, and local broadcasting channels left ghetto communities). They now permanently circulated the web where anyone could access them. I stress "anyone" because this word has more than one meaning. I will detail this in my following explanation. (3)
<LINK 0> First deplacement: How physical spaces find locations in virtual spaces
The works of artists/activists have left physical spaces in museums and galleries. Though a major part of them -the professional sector- are still found in museums, galleries and institutions on the web, and among the elite internet artists.
The good news is that the institutional environments have become more open and permissive again. Not only have they become more aware, but they have also showed an interest for a type of initiative that, at first, seemed to be against their own structures of power. Ever since a few years back, we have been observing how some independent professionals use the address of various centers. They have been implanting a negotiating policy that accepts critique proposals in the refuge of their vaudeville. One step forward.
The bad news is that it deals with mirages. Art activists are still independent from institutional mediation, which means that the appearance of neutrality is only a deception. Among other things, this is why relaxation is induced (and this is one of the most trivial secondary effects).
Extreme cases that effect a country's political transitions, can explain this circumstance more clearly: "In the fascist phase (Salazarism) -Leonel Moura assures (4)- culture had in itself a political content; the mere act of making a culture was a political act. It was an act of resistance, but democracy ended this situation. Therefore, one had to explain himself in further depth to be able to continue making political art. He had to obtain the most evidence and objectivity. Culture, during democracy, was found integrated as a form of supposedly neutral expression. Evidently, it is not. (....) In a way, it helps depoliticize art". But also there is the discovery of other situations that are not as radical: "In a culturally conservative atmosphere you are invisible. In a culturally liberal atmosphere you are visible, but only in certain ways. This liberal situation is much more problematic than a conservative situation." (5)
In the 70's "the enemy" was easily identified: He could be found dwelling with censorship, conservatives and exploitation. Today, he is more difficult to find because a halo of acquiescent permissiveness disguises him. This is exactly how Marcelo Expósito and Carmen Navarrete describe it in their article. This conciliatory attitude is no more than an institutional strategy of neutralization, assimilation and integration of political art practice. It is destined to generate new, contemporary forms of control and censorship of the most powerful and effective art. (6) And the internet, that "new space of liberty" that allows the universal dream of access and participation in art and information to come true, talks well about it.
<PAGE 3> The first problem of anyone or the question of mediatic elites
"The video revolution failed because of two reasons: Lack of access and absence of desire." (7) Lack of access refers to the lack of post-production mediums and of emission. Absence of desire refers to the disinterest and paralysis before the idea to produce more images in the heart of a society already saturated with images. Let's move to the question of activism on the web. Who has access to the internet? Anyone? Who is interested in art and social activism? Anyone?
We find ourselves in the same point of departure. Possibly, the internet is converting into the sacnta santorum of communication. But thankfully, it is used selectively: "Art people" try to find art web pages and, usually, also critiques, theory, culture... On the other hand, we should not forget that most mortals - web users or not - are totally uninformed of the interceding artistic practices. If after more than thirty years of its apparition, video creation is still a foreign redoubt for the "non initiative", what will not happen then, with art on the web?
In the era of spectacular marketing, the first obstacle that web activism faces is still a lack of desire. It's strategy, perhaps, should center itself in the proposal of new technologies. While capturing a "public" among the current users, it would be destined to attract and implicate a more ample sector of population. Meanwhile, the massive access on the web will only be a question of time -let us be optimistic and forget for a moment that 66% of the world population still does not even have a telephone-.
<PAGE 4> The second problem of anyone, or how "the new space of liberty" has always been a space under control.
As soon as the first lights of their computer screens went dim, some romantics thought about detecting a new space of liberty on the internet. A space where one could hide himself from social authority and exercise his autonomy: It was about a zone without territories, not legalized, and of course, free of vigilance. From there, their ideas could achieve an ample diffusion -unthinkable in other traditional mediums- they were able to affect anyone. Effectively: anyone could access their pages, even the power.
There are only two appraisals; first: One should never underestimate the power's rapidity and capacity to adapt before any type of subversive strategy. (My dear children: Not only the cyber-police are dedicated to trapping pederasts by using web sites which foster child pornography).
Second: the power is never going to hand over space that it has always owned. Have we already forgotten that it was the military who impelled and developed the strategy of the web, and that once they calculated the risks, they decided to use their technological potentials to commercially exploit the people? The "new space of liberty" has always been watching over us in two ways: just as much with the repressive properties as with the commercial power properties. On the internet, it is the diffused power that moves liberally throughout it's own territory. -"There is no democracy in the conception of our future, only in the election of futures that are already conceived and determined. There is no liberty of creation, only liberty of consumption" - Kit Galloway (8)
<LINK 00> Second displacement: how tangible power finds it's place in diffused power.
In a brilliant essay, Critical Art Ensemble established a parallel between structures of power that dominate the internet and the old town of the Ascites. Herodoto described this in The Medical Wars (9). It seems that this town of nomads did not consider itself as a city or an established territory. This in turn, implicated the impossibility to be located with precision and to be attacked or conquered. It's offensive military forces always gave surprise and their constant movement instilled a fright of attack even when absent. In the field of emitted power, the nomads that boast the power on the web also find themselves on the offense. Now it would be under a "friendly pillage that seductively drives against the passive", or under their bureaucratic ways, exercising the powers that granted the information -establishing controls, archiving information-. Since they roamed around leisurely between all types of territorial and economic borders, they based their forces on the fact that they did not need to be defensive.
<LINK 01> It fits to take note, nevertheless, that this peculiar security system (based on chaos and the denial of territory)- loses it's effectiveness when the intervening characteristics that favor the forces of power are, paradoxically, the same that allow us to elude their control. The power cannot cover such a vast territory. It is not possible to have any type of universal control system in a chaotic web space.
<PAGE 5> Revolution and solidarity were the mottos of a video guerrilla generation that lived their childhood in the 70's. They tried to subvert the power ofthe "establishment" and to change the world, and their utopian ideology brought them to think that they had achieved this. In any case, they knew the other side of the system. The current activists are just as conscious of the impossibility of reaching this, as the true effectiveness of their abilities to create instability. They execute their activism as a resistance, a resistance to he who dwells inside the system. From this point of view, they could say that they act as the conscience of the system. "If I criticize the system, I do it knowing that I am working inside it." -Barbara Kruger assures- "You are always in a system. You are even in a system if you do not have value, or if you are treated as something insignificant. The question is how to work inside the system, but intervening asking and covering-up questions." (10)
As of recently, it has been possible to differentiate between two types of critique work from the web. Critiques that follow the most conventional activist translation (video or not): Ones that develop a conciliatory will and that is based on sabotage techniques. The first critique tries to support reflection and to be constructive. It does this, of course, without losing the apex of its skepticism. It generates creative projects from it's artistic reservoir by using the specific potentials of the web -The File Room, Refugee Republic, ArtAIDS, Fred Forest-. It's documentary and communicative facets propose to cover the openings that spectacular information annuls and distorts -Media Filter, Disinforation, Group Public Project, Free Speech TV-. Though, it also participates in the critical debate of ideas and projects through the discussion groups and collective planning. The uncertainty, is the intelligence tool.
The second critique method is much more radical and effective everywhere. It allows us to certify to hopefuls that not only the power is diffused and impossible to be located, but that it's inevitable omnipresence is full of fissures and holes, and that nomad activism can still hide itself in them.
China, 700 A.C. The mysterious philosopher-warrior Sun Tzu, wrote The Art of War, a book of strategy that paradoxically opposed the war. For Sun Tzu, maximum efficiency consists in making conflict unnecessary -"it is better to win without having to fight"-. To obtain this, he proposed to infiltrate the secrets of the enemy and to change them from the inside. One of his tactics describes the difference between two types of spies, the one who lives, and the one who dies. The first is charged with the job of penetrating through the lines of the enemy and of returning safely with the necessary information. The second is the poor devil that has to give false information, and frees the enemy with the intention of transmitting erroneous information. ("Information with content is no more important than information without content". Norbert Wiener)
Hackers' tasks consist in infiltrating into powerful web networks to find revealing information. Then, they reveal false information or destroys what is found. It is not only about decentralizing information, but rather, capturing it, annulling it, and subverting it. The creative utilization done from the internet abounds in artistic activism qualities. Further more, it converts them into suitable successors of Sun Tzu's strategic spirit. This has one fundamental difference: this time, the success of the mission changes in that they will never be freed from the enemy. Their survival depends, first, on their talent to disappear without leaving traces, and later, on their capabilities to reorganize a new attack from "some other place"-. Just like it is to assume on to the TAZ (Temporarily Autonomous Zones) that intelligent concept developed by Hakin Bey "microcosms of the anarchist dream". "The TAZ is like a revolt that does not get involved with the government. It is a guerrilla operation that liberates an area and disintegrates it, to later reconstruct it in any location, at any time. This is all done before the government has a chance to destroy it. (...) It's strongest force is it's invisibility. As soon as a TAZ is designated, represented, and mediated, it should disappear. Disappear, in the meaning that it must erase all its tracks, reappear in a new location, and then make itself invisible again so that it is undefinable by terms of the war. (....) The TAZ is a campground for transcendental guerrillas: they hit and run." (11)
In fact, Bey is asking the same technical questions as Critical Art Ensemble, but from a perspective that equalizes the differences. The diffused and also the nomad powers find a "resistance" in the counter offense of the TAZ. Because of this, T.V. Guerrillas ended up diluting themselves within the framework of the power. This is due to (among other things) its rebellion's static and easy to find characteristics. The TAZ from the web resistance, created as an autonomous form of insurrection, can still elude the control and it's repression because they can burn their hideouts, and dissolve themselves.... into nothing.
<PAGE 6> They also dissolve, once and for all, that determined technologist. The one that persuades us to think that all new technology not only will substitute preceding technology, but will also destine the completion of radical art and the transformation of communication. Clearly, activism on the web has forced a readjustment through strategy and expectations. But these also obey the most basic rules of common meaning. For better or worse, the internet is no further than the Doors of Tanhauser.
This is about, therefore, a critical attitude that questions the contradictions and risks that involve the development of this new frontier. It is about, precisely, the analysis of the origins of the most delirious conclusions, as much as it is about the analysis of the motivation of their driving forces. From this perspective, it is evident that the big corporation gurus have written, or dictated, the most euphoric texts.
But I am not going to close these pages without forgetting that there is also "good news" here, the contraband of the techno-skeptics that I had deliberately adopted to go along with the text. And, we also should remember that the web is in a period of evolution and that it's possibilities and limitations are not enforced. This circumstance not only gives us an ample margin of intervention, but also puts us in charge (in a way) of it's definitive configuration. -"The electronic world is not completely developed yet, and much less, is it completely established. It is necessary to take advantage of its fluidity and to be inventive now, before it is only left as a critique weapon"-. Critical Art Ensemble.
Let's take advantage of the fact that the dice from the game of our "technological destiny" have not yet been rolled in the internet. Because what takes place in the FUTURE depends on how we react NOW. <AM.END>
- Laura Baigorri Ballarín
fisrt edition: Vitoria Video Festival Catalog, 1998.
- second edition: Art Futura Catalog, 1999. (spanish-english).
- actually published on-line in Aleph.
(1) Guerrilla Television, Michael Shamberg & "Raindance Corporation"; Holt, Rhinehart and Wiston, New York, 1971.
(2) Gene Youngblood, "Electronic Cafe International. The challenge to create at the same level that we destroy", en Ars Telemática, Claudia Giannetti (ed). L'Angelot, Barcelona, 1998.
(3) Howard Rheingold, "The future of democracy and the four principles of the telematic communication", in Ars Telemática, Op. Cit: "Recently, a ten year old child that puts $100 to use could combine these two technologies (personal computers and telecommunication networks) and, by pushing a button, will have access to any great university library of the world, to a great impulse and to a world full of allies". Anyone, even a child, can access the fantastic world of colors,.... magic.... world.... of internet. By the way, Will children want to exchange their baby toys for university libraries?
(4) ""Interview with Leonel Moura", Santiago B. Olmo en Lápiz n.137, 1998.
(5) Declarations by Doug Ashford (Group Material), in "Three versions of the artistic practice considered as a cultural critique", Jorge Luis Marzo y Jorge Ribalta, Kalías n.12, IVAM, Valencia, 1995.
(6) Marcelo Expósito y Carmen Navarrete, "Liberty (and rights) (also in art) is not something given, but rather a conquest and is collective", in Aleph.
(7) Critical Art Ensemble, "Utopian plagiarism, hypertext, and electronic culture production", en Tecnología y disidencia cultural, Arteleku, Donostia, 1996.
(8) Kit Galloway is co-founder, together with Sherrie Rabinowitz de Electronic Cafe International.
(9) Critical Art Ensemble "Nomadic power and Cultural Resistance", in The Electronic Disturbance, Autonomedia.
(10) Barbara Kruger en "Three versions of the artistic practice considered as cultural critique", "Tres versiones de la práctica artística considerada como crítica cultural", in Kalías Op. cit.
- (11) Hakim Bey, TAZ. The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Antological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism, in Autonomedia.