On November 3, 2012, San Diego-based media artist Ricardo Dominguez was scheduled to speak at Media Democracy Days Vancouver. Due to a severe family medical emergency, however, he had to cancel. In his absence, I was asked to deliver a talk on his work and what it means for the project of media democratization. Below are the speaking notes from that talk, adapted from an original article “Hacking the Border to Pieces: technology, poetics, and protest at the speed of dreams” published by Art Threat. My thanks to the Media Democracy Days team for inviting me to speak, and my deepest sympathies to Ricardo, who is a truly remarkable human being.
Good morning, everyone and thank you for being here. Let me first echo Stuart in apologizing for Ricardo’s absence, but more importantly in sending all of our best thoughts and wishes to he and his family in what is surely a difficult time.
It feels callous to say it given the circumstances, but I’m truly honoured to be speaking with you this morning. I also feel exceptionally lucky in that, unlike many of the people in this room, I recently had an opportunity to chat with Ricardo one-on-one. Admittedly, at the time, I only knew the general contours of his work, and so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from our conversation. But to be quite honest, I’m not sure any amount of background research could have prepared me for how radically his visions of the digital world, of digital bodies, and of poetic media activisms would change the way I thought about our political relationship with media technologies.
Our conversation eventually turned into an article that was generously published by Art Threat, and was just yesterday reprinted by rabble.ca. And so, in Ricardo’s absence, I was asked by the MDD team to share some of that article with you today. But what I’d like to do more specifically is consider what Ricardo’s remarkable work means for the people gathered here today, for the project of media democracy, and what calls it makes upon us as advocates, activists, and organizers.
For the past 30 years, Ricardo Dominguez, now based in San Diego, has cut a remarkable silhouette on the North American political and artistic landscape.Since the 1980s, Dominguez and his many collaborators have steadfastly challenged prevailing understandings of what it means to be “digital.” Backed by a tremendous array of mind-bending media art projects, he and his colleagues have developed what I would call, in a mouthful, a radical poetics of collective action and imagination that reckons with the politics of neoliberalism, globalization and migration.
Maybe not surprisingly, his work has consistently raised the ire of some formidable foes, including various bodies within the Mexican Government, the U.S. Departments of Defense and Justice, several Republican congressmen, and the FBI Office of Cyber Crimes. Ultra-right wing Fox News personality Glenn Beck has even claimed that Dominguez’ poetry threatens to “dissolve” the American nation state. High praise.
This remarkable history of disturbance (which continues today through Dominguez’ work with the b.a.n.g. lab at UCSD’s Calit2 institute) finds its roots in the work of the renowned Critical Art Ensemble, a collective of tactical media practitioners that emerged in Tallahassee, Florida in the mid-1980s.
Following the 1994 publication of one of the CAE’s first texts – Electronic Disturbance – the collective, including Dominguez, began to seriously explore the possibilities of what would become known as “electronic civil disobedience.” As he recalls, the concept “emerged in our dialogue as a way to imagine a new space of contestation and reimagine new forms of civil disobedience; we wanted to explore non-violent direct action through blockage and trespass.”
Inflected by the aesthetic and poetic grounding of the Ensemble, these imaginings were focused on establishing what Dominguez calls a “performative matrix or space of practice that enabled us to bring data bodies and real bodies together in a form of non-violent protest.” Electronic civil disobedience, thought along the lines of a critical aesthetic and artistic practice, would call up the tradition of “Gandhian satyagraha — that your body is a space of contestation and protest” but ask, “How does one do it online?”
By the standards of contemporary hacker culture, the virtual sit-in might seem a rudimentary exercise. For Dominguez, that was precisely the point. Against what he calls the “fetish of technological efficiency” and the air of shadowy anonymity that runs through state discourses of “cyber war, cyber terrorism, cyber crime” and hacktivist culture itself, the work of the EDT has from the beginning pursued “radical transparency.”
“The aesthetic practice” of the sit ins and similar disturbances, he says, “would be not to be anonymous, not to seek to crack into servers and use them as zombies that might or might not represent the number of people participating.” Rather, it was organized around “the public features of the browser,” and drew its strength from its collectivity, its desire to that leverage the force of multiple bodies acting together in virtual space.
It’s a tactic that pushes us as advocates and to think more expansively and creatively about online activism. The virtual sit in makes it clear that a digital politics (and a politics of the digital), must exceed technocratic considerations of efficiency. It demands that we explore as well, questions of “symbolic efficacy,” of poetry, of human relationality, of feeling and sensing, and in the spirit of various democratic uprisings around the world, of bodies meeting and supporting one another in space and time.
Perhaps nowhere in Dominguez’ catalogue of projects does this call for an activist-artistic practice that overflows the “wired, California ideology” of hyper-efficiency ring clearer than in the Transborder Immigrant Tool (TBT).
Making the most of the rudimentary GPS applets built into cell phones available aftermarket in Mexico for around $40, Dominguez and his EDT/Calit2 colleagues transform basic mobile handsets into navigation and survival tools for Mexican citizens attempting to cross the treacherous and heavily policed Mexico-U.S. border zone. Built into the hacked applet is data from NGOs like Border Angels, who maintain clean water sites and life-saving stations along migration routes, as well as information about where to find safe housing and shelter.
At its core an instrument of survival, the Tool nonetheless retains the radical artistic impulses that compel us to recast the very terms of what counts as digital “politics” and digital “activism.”
The cell phone, after all, tends to be constructed by market rhetoric on contradictory but nonetheless related terms. On the one hand, it’s the ultimate symbol of the kind of mobile hyper-connectivity presupposed (and demanded) by globalized transcapital. If advertising images and narratives are to be believed, our mobile devices, tethered to what Mark Andrejevic has evocatively called the “electromagnetic umbilicus“ of the network, enable us to traverse new terrains, to explore new horizons, to connect with a whole world of strangers, irrespective of geophysical constraints.
On the other hand, the cell phone also registers as an instrument of location. At the tap of a finger, our precise coordinates can be pulled out of the digital ether, triangulated and linked to all sorts of hyper-localized data, often in ways that retrench corporate profit imperatives and establish regimes of surveillance and enclosure.
Dominguez’s appropriation of the mobile phone, not surprisingly, turns this already-vexed relation between location and dislocation on its head. In the first place, as Dominguez remarks, the promise of mobility advanced by our various digital devices is almost always anchored in a specific — and extremely narrow — assumption about where bodies can and cannot exist in the first place. In his words, “a great deal of this new enclosure and mobility is very much rooted in the urban … where is my friend, where is coffee, how do we connect these two.” Against this city- and market-centric tendency, which implicitly declares those in rural and migratory zones as somehow unlocatable (or perhaps not worthy of being located), the TBT explicitly asks “how can we reconfigure, disturb, dislocate?”
For those who would identify as activists or advocates, these questions should be critical precisely because borders and other environments that don’t slot easily into a market-driven mediascape, are configured by those in positions of power as non-spaces. They’re places that, beyond simply not being seen, are places that can’t be seen because our systems of seeing–that is, our media–tangled up as they are with neoliberal economics and its cult of individualism, with various racisms, colonialisms, and imperialisms, don’t include them.
Thus, despite the fact that at any given moment, there are likely more people on this planet traversing border zones than there are living fixedly in nation states, such zones remain not only invisible within our political mappings, but impossible.
This impossibility raises urgent ethical questions about how we account for the lives that those zones hold, the communities that come together and dissolve along their contours, the specifically human bodies that are more than the labour power they exert; bodies that are poetic, thoughtful, sensual, excessive and, as Dominguez rightly insists, “transformative.” And here is where Ricardo’s work presents us, as activists, with an essential question: how do we see the spaces that prevailing systems of power don’t want us to see and in fact make it impossible to see? How do we see their billions of inhabitants, and take account of their unique and uniquely transformative lives?
These are exactly the questions that the TBT takes up, and precisely the kind of questions that we might take up in our own media activist work. The cell phone–the ultimate neoliberal locative instrument (because it encloses precisely by promising mobility)–once transformed into the TBT, becomes an explosive lever of dislocation that registers those experiences of crossing and being in-between that can give legibility to the most vulnerable among us and reveal the ways in which we all rely, for our very survival, on being seen by and connected to others outside the narrow horizon of economic value. And so, even as it preserves human lives by increasing access to the most basic of material necessities, the TBT also calls upon us to imagine survival anew and, to radically rethink the very resources that make life possible, to rethink what it might be.
For me, this is nothing short of the radicalization of media democracy, and a testament to the paramount importance of that project. A radically democratic media environment does more than improve the quality of journalism or deconstruct and challenge problematic forms of representation–though it certainly does all those things, and does nothing to detract from their importance. A radically democratic media environment, as Ricardo’s work shows us, works to redraw the very boundaries of visibility. It redistributes the resources of seeing and being seen, and compels us to engage with images and stories and technologies in such a way that we are taken beyond ourselves, dislocated, and sent on poetic wanderings. It demands that we think expansively about new ways of being in common. It pulls us toward others, and ties us inescapably together in coalitions that might advance new visions of survival, justice, and solidarity.
I’m reluctant to hazard the guess, but I think this is what Ricardo meant when he told me, “we’re thinking borders not as science, but as science fiction.” To preserve a fictive, poetic, imaginative space of potentials and questions within institutions and structures–like national borders or unequal power relations–otherwise aggressively policed, is to establish new networks and connections that elude and overflow the rigid foreclosures performed by those structures. It is to stubbornly question, to resolutely trespass, translate, and wander toward more just ways of living with and seeing one another.