By Athina Karatzogianni Associate Professor Media and Communication, Director for Global Research Engagement School of...
“À la recherche de l’information perdue” was a performance that Cornelia Sollfrank contributed to the ‘Post-Cyber Feminist International’ event at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London.1 The event in November 2017 marked the twentieth anniversary of the First Cyberfeminist International (documenta X, Kassel, Germany, 1997) organized by the Old Boys Network, paying homage to its productive format and legacy. In her own words, Sollfrank set out to offer an “one-hour lecture performance that makes a (techno-)feminist comment on the entanglements of gender, technology and information politics,” with the rationale that “with the technological landscape vastly changed since the first Cyberfeminist International, we are living in a time well beyond the imagined future of the early cyberfeminists. Expanding upon this particular genealogy, this convening purposefully constellates thinkers to consider a new vision for “post-cyberfeminism” that is substantive and developed, without being exclusionary of contestation.”
I was surprised at the invitation of the charismatic woman I came to know as “Coco” to attend her performance. My surprise, which I bet is going to surprise Coco in turn, was due to two reasons. I had published two academic papers on WikiLeaks (2012, 2014 with Robinson), later included in a monograph charting on digital activism from 1994-2014 (2015), and at the time I was working on another paper on ‘Leaktivism and its Discontents’ examining the DCLeaks, CIA Vault7Leaks and DNCLeaks (2018). Although I took a critical view of the ideological and organizational conflicts within WikiLeaks as an organization internally, and examined the impact of that organization externally on academic debates in three disciplines between 2010-2012, and followed the leaks religiously in my scholarship, I had not written or commented on the rape allegations against Julian Assange.2 The related legal requirements, however, were what forced him to be stranded in the Ecuadorian Embassy from the 12th of June 2012 to the time of writing in 2018, in the first place. On March 6th, 2016, I was one of the signatories urging Swedish and UK Permanent Representatives to the United Nations in Geneva, to respect the United Nations’ decision to free Julian Assange. Moreover, as my work almost in its entirety has not focused on gender aspects of technology, or gender studies (apart from say examining ethno-patriarchal racist ideologies in anti-migrant discourses on digital networks in 2010-2013 for the Project, see et al. 2018),3 I felt rather intrigued by the invitation to the event, and its technofeminist context and agenda. If Coco was brave enough to invite me to watch her performance and trust me to comment on it, considering both my research (see references), and critical but supportive stance to Julian Assange’s quest for freedom, then I had to also be brave enough to take up the challenge!
As academics we are encouraged not to write in the first person. In fact, “do not use the first person in your scholarship” is served up in higher education establishments around the world, bar in certain sub-disciplines who take a certain pride in reflecting on the situated knower and their reflective positionality. In my own scholarship, I have used the first person sparingly. Here, in this text however, I feel obliged to do so, as I watched an artist perform and I would like to convey the thoughts aroused in the internal empire; and also understand whether and if so, how it has transformed me. After all, that is what art is for, right?
Sollfrank’s performance consists of her reading a text, overlaid by electronic sounds, and the projection of changing images behind her. There are nine images: orange font capital letters on a black and white pixel background: INFORMATION, ORGANISATION, ZEROS+ONES, BINARY WORLDS, PURE DIFFERENCE, CYBERFEMINISM, GENDER+TECHNOLOGY, NAKED INFORMATION, TRANPARENCY. The first image background is a very close zoom in to a black-and-white image and each image background zooms out to the final one. Only the last two images reveal the subject of the image: the photograph of the ripped condom used by Julian Assange during sexual intercourse with one of the women that subsequently accused him of rape, table by the Swedish police and published in their report. This was the final image of her lecture below.
The structure of the lecture is an assemblage really of separate elements she uses to launch her critique. In introducing her performance, she asks:
“On the road to freedom, one has to make sacrifices; but what remains when the way gets swampy and forks into affective structures? Rape can be performed in many ways.
So, what is missing? What are we looking for?
Has it been lost at all? Maybe it just multiplied, and stayed a much as it has gone away? Who knows?
We all create reality collectively and long ago have become zombies of transparency.”
Here, already I am baffled by the sentence “Rape can be performed in many ways.” I hadn’t thought about the “performativity” of rape. I make a mental note of this. Who “performs” during a rape? Can you perform before, during, or after a rape? What are the “many ways” a rape can be performed? This thought grabs me immediately at the start of her performance. But I relieve myself of it, thinking I got to be self-policing: this is the kind of thought that gets you into hot water: she must mean either literally the various categories of rape in Sweden, or this is some kind of allegory on reactive affect, discursive violence, a form of sexual misconduct, or again literally the case of broken trust found in a broken condom? I don’t have time to think, as Sollfrank swiftly moves on to the first section “INFORMATION,” where she talks about theoretical approaches to information: structure, knowledge, signal, message, meaning, process. In the sentence,“Julian Assange is accused of rape,” the information is coded in words and letters, the meaning of that structure is conveyed and at the pragmatic level, the receiver finds value in that information depending on whether he/she is interested in this person, his organization, what he represents, subjectively decoding this information to create meaning. The next piece of the puzzle is, of course, “ORGANISATION.” Sollfrank quotes the WikiLeaks organisation mantra: “One of our most important activities is to publish original source material alongside our news stories so readers and historians alike can see evidence of the truth.” Assange faced criticism for his centralised style of leadership in the organisation, which caused people to leave it. And obviously his political aims are somewhat inconclusive. Here, in this part of the lecture, I recognise my own writing, when Sollfrank says: “Maybe, the man and his organisation are an empty signifier, filled ideologically to reflect the discursive mood of anyone.” I had made that argument in ‘WikiLeaks Affects’ (2012), analyzing the diverse actors who supported Assange and the public feelings of him as a traitor or hero, the overflow of affective structures and the acceleration offered by digital networks (digital materialisation of the revolutionary virtual that may or not happen in the real).
Cornelia Sollfrank performing À la recherche de l’information perdue as part of Post-Cyber Feminist International at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, 15 – 19 November 2017. Photo: Mark Blower
But Sollfrank extends this argument by asking: “Why do they all express their particular feelings, even though these are uniformly rooted in their own individual causes and systems of belief?” Yes, what is at stake when Assange’s organisation jump-scaled globally after the release of the Collateral Damage video in 2010? Would the strong tradition of the women-protective Swedish state have taken on the same exact legal process for someone less than Assange? Letting him leave for the UK, after a police station visit, but then after the leaks occurred, recall him for further questioning? The saga between the Swedish government and Assange,culminated in Swedish prosecutors dropping their investigation into Assange, bringing to an end a seven-year legal standoff on May 19, 2017.4 In February 2018, a judge, nevertheless, upheld the warrant for his arrest. On 28 March 2018, Ecuador cut Assange’s Internet connection at its London embassy refuge “in order to prevent any potential harm,” caused by his social media posts denouncing the arrest of a Catalonian separatist leader, which Ecuador officials claimed “to put at risk” Ecuador’s relations with European countries. Assange might well be an obnoxious bastard to whom rape charges might be thrown at and dropped, but he becomes a target for Sollfrank for another reason…
This is where the performance goes SURREAL. Of the ONE and ZERO, Sollfrank makes beautiful poetry of this, in her “BINARY WORLDS” section:
“The man is the ONE, and ONE is everything. And the female has nothing you can see. Woman functions as a hole, a gap, a space, a nothing that is not the same, identical, identifiable, … a fault, a flaw, a lack, an absence outside the system of representations and auto-representations. Lacan lays down the law and leaves no doubt when he syas: ‘There is woman only as excluded by the nature of things. She is not “all,” “not whole,” “not-one,” and whatever she knows can only be described as “not-knowledge.” There is no such thing as THE woman, where the definite article stands for the universal. She has no place like home, nothing of her own, other than the place of the Other which,” writes Lacan, “I designate with a capital O.”
And it remains up to us, the audience, to make the association she would never express herself: the ONE mal god, is it him?
In “PURE DIFFERENCE,” Sollfrank finally gets irritated herself! “ONE, the definite, upright line; and ZERO the diagram or nothing at all: penis and vagina, thing and hole; a perfect match… Now the only thing that counts is whether there is something to see, and there seems to be something missing with the Zero. What makes the <woman> in this respect? …Why not admit that we are as blind for the invisible sexual difference as between a Zero and a ONE, because we always have to see pictures and that means something else?”
“CYBERFEMINISM” is brought in to help answer some of the questions here, but its focus has been how to use technology to fight “Big Daddy Mainframe,” technology as a way to dissolve sex and gender. The cyberfeminist techno-utopian expectations did not digitally or otherwise materialise, and Sollfrank asks: “What is between your legs NOW? Zeroes and ones? Liberated data? Digital slime? The warm machine still awaits your intention, but never forget the flesh.” What Sollfrank goes on to declare in “GENDER & TECHNOLOGY” is that “Big Daddy rules supreme.” That is my least favorite part of the lecture. Yes, engrained spheres of masculinity are still ubiquitous within all techno-cultures, and Sollfrank offers the GamerGate example with men harassing women, trolling, doxxing, cyberstalking, intimidation and policing experienced by women and queers are real. Indeed.
But here’s also where the binary lures to manifest itself. Extending Assange’s obnoxious techno-geek persona accused of rape and making him the master signifier of patriarchy reproduced in digital networks and especially technoculture would in turn reproduce exactly the same that fills the empty signifier Assange with the baggage of their own beliefs. Watch out and not fall into the same trap here, although it might be beautiful just to fall.
Sollfrank’s contribution here is really not on Assange’s signifier as a male God of ONE the personification of toxic masculinity, it is more her critique of his ideology of TRANSPARENCY, in the last section of her performance.
The inconvenient question remains, what information at which moment and from whom? If it is not related to a political goal, transparency becomes an end in itself – an ideology, and we: its zombies. With transparency as the new imperative: How do we distinguish … between accountability, surveillances and privacy invasion? Liberating public data and protecting private ones? All data are made of similar substance and follow the same logic; who might be able to stop the flow, once it is flowing? Who would want to interrupt the continuum, to crack and leak and disrupt the flow – of capital? No way!
The performance finishes with
“Naked information is incapable of generating a myth, I live off that which others do not know about me. And will I ever know myself? In contrast to calculating, thinking is not self-transparent. There is nothing more intransparent than the subject to herself – no matter how much data I have and share. Information is just information, only once you know what you are looking for, the search can begin.”
Sollfrank’s performance approached information from all the sides she started with: structure, knowledge, signal, message, meaning, process. I had to reflect on why I never wrote about the Swedish case in all the scholarship I developed on WikiLeaks over the years. I felt Assange is an easy target to be used as a prop to talk about sexism reproduced in digital networks, techno-patriarchy and cyberfeminism, filling him in as an empty signifier to whatever the pet subject and the ideological discursive purpose happens to be. And yet, I think here Sollfrank does something brilliant, bringing a picture of the ripped condom as a background to her red-font words. Because she is connecting meanings to structures, material, affective, digital and interrogating trust, extending to the trust that a condom should not be ripped, interrogating the winner takes all justification register of transparency as an ideology, surveillance as the normal, and the end of secrecy, the quest of truth at all costs, even disrupting democracy, even the neoliberal capitalist kind. When there is no true self, even in itself, the search for lost information can be the point or utterly pointless, the same way as ZERO and ONE. This is what Sollfrank I think transformed with her art in my (post-cyberfeminist?) soul machinery.
Link to most recent performance at the hacker convention 35c3 in Leipzig:
Associate Professor in Media and Communication at the University of Leicester. Her work contributes to theorising cyberconflict, and exploring the potential of ICTs and network forms of organization for social movements, resistance and open knowledge production.
artist, researcher and university lecturer, living in Berlin (Germany). Recurring subjects in her artistic and academic work in and about digital cultures are artistic infrastructures, new forms of (political) self-organization, authorship and intellectual property, techno-feminist practice and theory. She was co-founder of the collectives women-and-technology, – Innen and old boys network, and currently is research associate at the University of the Arts in Zürich for the project ‘Creating Commons.’ Her recent book Die schönen Kriegerinnen. Technofeministische Praxis im 21.Jahrhundert was published in August 2018 with transversal texts, Vienna. For more information, pls visit: artwarez.org
Karatzogianni, A. (2018) ‘Leaktivism and its Discontents’ in Graham Meikle (ed.) The Routledge Companion to Media and Activism, London: Routledge.
Karatzogianni, A., Nguyen, D., and Serafinelli. E.(eds) (2016) The Digital Transformation of the Public Sphere: Conflict, Migration, Crisis and Culture in Digital Networks, Palgrave Macmillan.
Karatzogianni, A. (2015) Firebrand Waves of Digital Activism 1994-2014: The Rise and Spread of Hacktivism and Cyberconflict, Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.
KaratzogianniA. and Gak., M (2015) ‘Hack or Be Hacked: The Quasi-Totalitarianism of Global Trusted Networks’, New Formations: A Journal of Culture, Theory, Politics, No.84/85 Societies of Control,
Karatzogianni and Robinson, A. (2014) ‘Digital Prometheus: WikiLeaks, the State-Network Dichotomy and the Antinomies of Academic Reason’, International Journal of Communication, 8, Feature 1-20.
Karatzogianni, A. (2012) ‘WikiLeaks Affects: Ideology, Conflict and the Revolutionary Virtual’ in Karatzogianni, A and Kuntsman, A. (eds.) Digital Cultures and the Politics of Emotion: Feelings, Affect and Technological Change. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 52-73.
By Yoshinari Nishiki Yoshinari Nishiki (aka Inari Wishiki) is an artist/researcher mainly behind TOFU. Yoshinari...
When I first heard about MoneyLab, it was back in 2013 or the beginning of 2014, when I was doing my masters in London. A friend of mine handed a flyer to me and I was intrigued by the strange typography and the combination of bright colours. However, I didn’t quite believe that any kind of initiative could really start an alt-economy movement. Not that I didn’t believe in local currency or creative commons, but those gentle approaches generally seemed to lack traction, just like liberals do with voters. I naturally thought MoneyLab was one of those initiatives.
However, as Bitcoin was becoming a hype, the name popped up again; MoneyLab itself was also becoming a hype. While bitterly regretting not being able to be associated as the first wave of participants, I started to think that maybe MoneyLab might be the framework that can really push out alternative economic attempts as mainstream culture. My stance towards economic shifts was somewhat similar to that of William Gibson’s; he said in an interview with the British newspaper The Guardian, ‘What would my superpower be? Redistribution of wealth’. How did that change after reading the MoneyLab Reader 2?
Digital payments spaces as a driving force
Before going into the details of what blockchain technology can really do, it is crucial to understand a new “unit of value” created in modern society (Pine and Gilmore 1999). Since the most prominent piece of technology of our era is undoubtedly smartphones (with Apple being the first 1 trillion dollar publicly listed company in the US), a lot of transactions are inevitably conducted through apps and web services. The proliferation of the so-called “payments space” signifies the era of UX design, which is the third paradigm of HCI (Human-Computer Interaction), “tak[ing] into account…affect, embodiment, situated meaning, values and social issues” (Tkacz and Velasco 2018). In other words, experience has become the deciding factor of customers’ choices. With vast amounts of data generated at the back of sleek interfaces, one can precisely oversee the users’ behaviour, which then is fed back into the system.
All the payments spaces are essentially digital. This means transactions leave digital traces whether you like it or not. The idea of a cashless society exactly stems from this interest, the authorities can have better understandings of how people make money; in other words, where black money flows. Brett Scott has been pointing out the danger of a cashless society for quite some time now, I saw another variation in this book.
Money becoming programmable
According to Jaya Klara Brekke, blockchain technology can make money programmable, “allow[ing] for very fine-grained (re)programming of the medium of money, from what constitutes, and how to measure, value-generating activity to the setting of parameters on the means and conditions of exchange – what is spendable, where and by whom” (Brekke 2018). The overall impression I got from the MoneyLab Reader 2 about what blockchain technology can really do is basically this. Making a currency programmable using smart contracts.
More than a couple of authors discuss how “contingency” should take place in designed currencies. Contingency is different from randomness; in fact, it could mean exactly the opposite. For example, when coins are distributed in a perfectly random manner, you have absolutely no control in the handling process. If contingency is embedded in a system, it means there are exploitable gaps, which seem to almost randomly benefit people. On the other hand, some individuals would find ways to make use of these gaps, which are considered to be legitimate. Brekke discusses how the way in which contingency is programmed into a currency will be a key for the future of finance, both in terms of experience and redistribution of wealth. Therefore, currency designers will be the next UX designers.
A number of ideas applying blockchain technology to both physical and cultural objects are mentioned in this book, from a self-maintaining forest to blockchain-based marriage. “Terra0” is the concept of an autonomous forest which can “self-harvest its own value” (Lotti 2018). Utopian views of a human-less world are prevalent, but in reality, a healthy forest requires an adequate amount of human intervention. In addition, the value of a forest cannot be determined by itself; trade routes, demand and supply, they are all drawn by human movements. For example in Japan, domestic wood resources are generally not profitable because of the expensive labour costs. Illegally cut trees without certification from Southeast Asia dominate the market, putting domestic ones in a bad position. When a forest itself is not profitable, how can it accumulate capital autonomously? Besides, the oracle problem has not been discussed at all. Unless everything is digital in the first place, there always needs to be somebody to put data onto the blockchain. In other words, the transcendence of the boundaries between the physical and the digital is not possible without human intervention. Blockchain marriage would face a similar problem; who might be the witness if circumventing the government official? Max Dovey investigates the notion of “crypto-sovereignty” while introducing an example of a real blockchain marriage where they “turn[ed] ‘proof of work’… into ‘proof of love’”(Dovey 2018). Just as the sacramental bond between spouses can be broken before Death Do Them Part, so can any cryptographic marriage unravel despite having been recorded in an immutable ledger. Whatever repercussions may exist for divorce, there are no holy or technological mechanisms to prevent it.
Platform Cooperativism or Platform Parasitism?
Platform co-ops is one of the largest topics in the book besides Universal Basic Income (UBI). A platform co-op is often a cooperatively owned version of a major platform that is supposed to be able to pay better fees to the workers. Also, a platform co-op is often associated with “lower failure rate”; 80% of them survive the first five years when only 41% of other business models do (Scholz 2018). While embracing the positive aspects of platform co-ops, I have this question stuck in my head: can you not make a platform co-op based on a new idea rather than copying existing ones?
Most platform co-ops seem that they are looking at already successful and established concepts such as rental marketplaces for rooms and ride hailing services. As a result, platform co-ops are considered more to be a social movement than an innovation. Why not just run a business right at the centre of Capitalism without being motivated by profit? Many platform co-ops challenge the main stream services such as Airbnb or Uber, however those services operate based on scale; if they have the largest user base, it will be very difficult to take them on, unless they die themselves like Myspace… Moreover, more hardware side of development can be happening around co-ops, but I don’t hear anything except for Fairphone. When can I stop using my ThinkPad with Linux on it?
After reading the MoneyLab Reader 2: Overcoming the Hype, now I’m thinking of how I should design my own currency. Of course whether cryptocurrencies are actually currencies is up to debate; depending on who you ask, Ethereum is a security (SEC), a commodity (CFTC), taxable property (IRS) or a currency (traders).
MoneyLab 2 authors overall suggest that we should not limit our imagination to fit in the existing finance systems, but think beyond. You don’t necessarily need to cling to cryptocurrencies but they may help you shape your ideal financial system.
B. Joseph Pine and James H. Gilmore, The Experience Economy: Work Is Theater & Every Business a Stage, Brighton: Harvard Business School Press, 1999.
Nathaniel Tkacz and Pablo Velasco, Experience Money, MoneyLab Reader 2: Overcoming the Hype, Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2018
Jaya Klara Brekke, Postcards from the World of Decentralized Money, MoneyLab Reader 2: Overcoming the Hype, Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2018
Laura Lotti, Financialization as a Medium, MoneyLab Reader 2: Overcoming the Hype, Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2018
Max Dovey, Love on the Block, MoneyLab Reader 2: Overcoming the Hype, Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2018
Trebor Scholz, How to Coop the Digital Economy, MoneyLab Reader 2: Overcoming the Hype, Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2018
By Lorin Decarli Lorin Decarli is a Berlin-based jurist. He works for an international law...
On the 7th September, the Disruption Network Lab opened its 14th conference in Berlin entitled “INFILTRATION: Challenging Supremacism“. The two-day-event was a journey inside right wing extremism and supremacist ideology to provoke direct change, second appointment of the Misinformation Ecosystems series that began in May. In the Kunstquartier Bethanien journalists, activists, researchers, and infiltrators had the chance to discuss the increasing presence of movements that want to oppose immigration, multiculturalism and political correctness, sharing their experiences and proposing a constructive critical approach, based on the motivation of understanding the current debates in society as well as transforming mere opposition into a concrete path for inspirational change.
KLAN-DESTINE RELATIONSHIPS: How & Why A Black Man Befriended White Supremacists
“How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?” With this question Daryl Davis tried to crumble the wall of ignorance and fear that he believes to be the basis of racial hatred. This 65 year-old author, activist and blues man, who played for decades with Chuck Barry, Jerry Lee Lewis and B.B. King, has spent 35 years studying race relations and befriending members of the Ku Klux Klan to turn them away from racism. In the context of increased supremacist ideologies and right-wing extremism, the Disruption Network Lab invited Davis to speak about racism and his interactions with individuals holding racist beliefs.
Growing up, Davis lived a privileged life as the son of a U.S. Foreign Service officer, travelling around the world and studying in an international context surrounded by children of other Foreign Service workers. His first shocking encounter with racism occurred when he was 10 years old in a 1968 Massachusetts. He was marching in a parade carrying the US- flag in front of his scouting group as people yelled racial epithets and threw rocks and bottles at him. His parents later explained that those people were targeting just him because of the color of his skin. Someone who knew absolutely nothing about his person and his life wanted to inflict pain upon him for no other reason than that. Because of this hateful reaction from so many white spectators along the route, Davis started wondering the fatidic question.
Ignorance causes fear and obviously the theses of supremacists and racist groups are built on these two components. Many years ago Davis decided to sit with them and listen to their point of view, contradicting their falsehoods using dialogue. Davis is convinced that if we do not fight ignorance it will escalate to destruction, “ignorance breeds fear; fear breeds hatred; hatred breeds destruction” as he previously stated. So, when someone says he thinks white people are superior, Daryl faces them and answers: “we are equal.” On this basis, Davis befriended hundreds of KKK-members and convinced them to rethink their choices. According to the media, he has persuaded more than two hundred of them to throw away their hoods and robes, their stereotypes and beliefs. His activity became national news as he befriended the KKK-member Roger Kelly and CNN broadcasted a story on their unusual relationship. When they first met, Kelly was “Maryland’s Grand Dragon”. Kelly didn’t know Davis was a black man and agreed to meet him. During their first meeting he spewed a lot of stereotypes, but – as Davis narrates – by the end of the evening they could agree on a few topics. The Grand Dragon told Davis they would never agree on racial issues; he said his Klan views on race and segregation were “cemented.” They continued to meet and converse about difficult and controversial matters for a long period: Kelly would attend Davis’s house and Davis would go to KKK-rallies. It took a few years but Kelly’s cemented beliefs got weaker, until he decided to quit the Klan and run for local elections. He had meanwhile become “Imperial Wizard” – which means national leader of the Klan.
During his key note Davis explained that his search for the answer to his question began one night in 1983. After having played in a country music bar a white man approached him and offered him a drink. The man later told him that it was the first time he had ever sat down and had a drink with a black man because he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Davis thought at first that the man was joking, but he wasn’t. The bluesman decided to talk to him, focusing on the fact that “they are just human beings,” he says “I respect these people when they sit, talk and listen. It’s just about difference of opinion. If you talk with them you can find things in common.” Someone might disagree with Daryl Davis that Fascism, Racism, Supremacism cannot be considered opinions, that they are crimes and that normalizing their cult is dangerous. But Davis prefers dialogue to posturing and fights. Davis believes in addressing ignorance through communication and education, to ease fear and prevent destruction. His efforts at dialogue are represented by his collection of hoods and robes from former Klan members he has befriended over time. Davis thinks that society should give these people a chance to express their views publicly to challenge them and force them to actively listen to someone else, dialoguing, to passively learn something. Many of them are anti-Semitic, neo-Nazi, Holocaust-denial and racist white supremacist, but he sees them mostly as victims of ignorance, fearing something that they just do not know. For these reasons he talks with them trying to overcome their prejudices. “Always keep the lines of communication with your antagonist open, because when you’re talking, you’re not fighting.”
Davis offers an extreme example of breaking down stereotypes to change the minds of white supremacists. It can be deeply understood only in the context of his US-American background and cultural formation. His keynote speech tended to get soaked in clichés, enriched by several “I am proud of my country” and “my country is great.” Maybe it is just a way to subtract right winged racists the monopoly over the patriotic discourse, through a moderate and gentle approach, to disrupt their one-way narrative, that conflates patriotism with rabid nationalism, showing them that he has traits in common with them. All in all his underlying convincement is that racism comes from a lack of personal knowledge of the African American experience and history, for example in music, and from a lack of personal relationships of a certain part of the white community with human beings that are not white. He thinks that by befriending ignorant racists they could relent, change their minds, have a change of heart and learn how to respect others. Davis is conscious about the fact that such an uncommon approach can be considered, at least, controversial. Many disapprove of it, pointing out that he is offering them a prominent stage in the national and international spotlight.
Davis´ activity can also be dangerous. In the past thirty years he has been attacked because of what he does. However, he is not afraid of the Klan or of racist groups. He has cultural tools to face dialectics, he has a strong identity and doesn´t want to fight against someone´s else idea of identity. On the contrary he is convinced that people of all backgrounds shall come together, getting along without losing their sense of identity or individualistic dimension, as no one shall be forced to accept an idea. Matt Ornstein has directed a documentary about Daryl Davis, that the Disruption Network Lab decided to screen during the third day of this 14th Conference. Entitled “Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race and America.”
In Germany, individuals and organizations have been mobilizing to prevent the access of neo-Nazi to public platforms and media to spread Negationism and racist propaganda, in a collective lucid reasoning. Dialoguing with neo-Nazis, allowing them to exhibit symbols and to represent reactionary bigotry and hatred as something normal is not accepted by many people in Germany and the audience of the Conference showed reservations about Davis ‘words. Davis replied that his approach pays back. To those who tell him that he is giving racist and violent groups a platform to be normalized and to be part of the public discourse, he reminds them that most of those KKK-members that he approached decided afterwards to quit the group. It took him courage and dedication, he went to KKK-rallies, listened to their hymns, watched them set on fire giant wooden crosses during liturgical rites, witnessing moments of collective frenzy, delirium and hatred.
The documentary shows the efforts to dialogue with representatives from the movement Black Lives Matter too, that sadly ended up in a moment of misunderstanding and dramatic confrontation. Davis and Black Lives Matter have met again and have found a way to work together, going the same way approaching the issue of racism and discrimination with two alternative techniques, that are not mutually exclusive. However, Davis approach is markedly distant from this grassroots movement that organizes demonstrations and protests.
The audience of the 14th DNL Conference challenged Daryl Davis as his approach “we are all human beings” looks fragile in days of uncertainties, when extreme right movements are gaining consensus upon lies and discrimination. Inevitably, the debate after Davis ‘speech focused on the cultural shift represented by Donald Trump´s election and what came after that on a global scale. Davis said that in his opinion what is happening works as a bucket of cold water, that wakes people up and makes them engage and fight for change, reacting with indignation. Davis explained that in his opinion the #MeToo campaign came out as a positive consequence to Donald Trump´s election. “Obama was not elected by black people, who are all in all 12% of the US-population. Things change if we dialogue together, creating the bases for that change. In this way we can accomplish things that just few decades ago were thought to be unachievable.”
ACROSS & WITHIN RIGHT-WING EXTREMISM: Investigations and Interference
The panel of September the 7th represented a cross-section of the research being conducted by journalists, researchers and artists currently working on extreme-right movements and alt-right narrative. By accessing mainstream parties and connecting to moderate-leaning voters, right wing extremists have managed to exercise a significant influence on social and political discourse with an impact that is increasingly visible in Europe. The speakers on this first day of the Conference reported about their experiences with a focus on what is happening in their countries of origin: Sweden, Germany and Slovenia. Interconnecting three methodologies of provoking critical reflection within right-wing political groups, the panel reflected on possible strategies of cultural and political change that go beyond mere opposition.
Recalling all this, the moderator Christina Lee, Head of Ambassador Program and Hostwriter, introduced Mattias Gardell, first panelist of the day, Swedish Professor of comparative religion at Uppsala University, who dedicated part of his studies to religious extremism and religious racism, addressing groups such as the Nation of Islam and its connections to the KKK and other American racist activists, to focus than on the rise of neo-Paganism and its meaning for the radical right. Among his publications, a book on his encounters with Petter Mangs, “the most effective and successful racist serial killer” Sweden has ever encountered, as he writes, and recent analyses of the “lonely wolf” tactic of militant action and groups from the extreme right and the radical Islamism, that are operating under the radar, to avoid being detected and blocked by authorities.
At the time of the Conference, parliamentary elections were about to take place in Sweden. The country was then set for political uncertainty after a tight vote where the far right and other small parties made gains at the expense of traditional big parties. Gardell reported that in Sweden the political and social climate of intolerance has risen. More than half of the mosques have been assaulted or set on fire and minorities are continuously under threat. During his speech he focused on how new radical nationalist parties and movements are investing in narratives built on positive images of love and community, nostalgic sentiments and promises to return the once good society and its original harmony. They are nationalist and ‘identitarian’ groups (as they call themselves), from different nations and united under their belief in separation on the base of national identities. They often portray themselves as common citizens, worried about the vanishing of their country and identity due to a program of multicultural globalism that aims at substituting national identities and people by means of a white genocide: a constant sense of paranoia, that Gardell also perceives in a country like Sweden, where the economy is flourishing, and inequalities hit mostly migrants and non-white population.
These groups work to spread the idea of a “white nostalgia”, a rhetorical discourse based on their efforts to reiterate a rosy, but hazy period, when life was better for the white native population of a certain territory. They ambiguously evoke a moment in history, that has probably never existed, at which national identities were free from external contaminations and people were wealthy sovereign citizens. This propaganda emerges into a multi-faced production in music, film and visual arts. It is not the “angry white men” image alone that can contain such a new fragmented and liquid reality; in fact, explained Gardell, the opposite is true. They often offer a narrative, that appears to be built on love rather than on hate. Love for their nation, love for their hypothetical race, for their selected groups and communities. It is not an imaginary love, it is a deep true feeling that they feel and upon which they construct their sense of collectivity.
Gardell underlined the importance of studying every-day-Fascism, focusing on its essence made up of ordinary individuals that like football, accompany children to school, listen to music and therefore have things in common with their neighbors and colleagues to whom they might appear as moderate people. “You can’t defeat national socialism with garlic. You have to face the fact that Fascism has been supported by millions of ordinary people who considered themselves to be good and decent citizens” he said. It is necessary to unveil the false representation of a political view, evoked through posters of blonde children and pictures of smiling women, that are designed to embody a bright future and a safe homeland. It is necessary to oppose the program of selective love and restricted solidarity that extreme right and nationalist groups promote. Therefore, says Gardell, we need to challenge those representations of love for nation, homeland and family built on a language that is impressive-sounding but not meaningful or sincere at all. And not just because “white nostalgia” is a fictional invention, but – more important – because on the collective and public sphere, love and solidarity are meaningful only if they are universal and express the value of equality unless they are just synonyms for privilege from which just few people can benefit.
At the moment, ultra-nationalist and radical right parties assembling the new political scene, appear to be able to influence traditional parties and vast parts of the population using love as a political weapon, affecting the social and political landscape in many countries, succeeding in making those traditional parties copy their agenda. Their recurrent themes exploit desire for individual social retribution, the tradition of a misogynic masculinity, the enhancement of self-government tendencies and isolation in opposition to openness and solidarity. A rhetoric that exploits the presence of nonwhite minorities and economic instability of this late capitalism, creating hateful propaganda. An intense online activity of manipulation supports the point of view of these ultra-nationalists. As the DNL Conference “Hate News” (May 2018) showed, online facts can become irrelevant against a torrent of abuse, memes and hate.
Online and offline, right extremists can easily find supporters in isolated realities, in the countryside or in close web-communities. Consequently, it is important to act locally and be focused, disrupting their ability to contaminate small groups. Young people are still intrigued by the gruesome and brutal part of the black metal scene, by the fringes of anarcho-fascists and by hooligans, feeding into an international network of neo-Nazi black labels and groups. But there are now also presentable faces, new political formations with attractive slogans supported by glossy music bands and influencers that are building a narrative of love. Mattias Gardell concluded his intervention saying that these groups are currently on the rise throughout Europe, whilst a storm of Fascism is coming again, widely, to hurt exposed individuals and communities, as it is already doing. He is disillusioned and reminded the audience of the Disruption Network Lab that it is necessary to focus and act to defeat it, knowing that it will cause blood.
The analyses of Mattias Gardell introduced topics covered by the second panelist of the day Richard Gebhardt, political scientist and journalist, who gave an insight into Hooliganism based on his direct researches from the last four years in Germany and England, where the Football Lad’s Alliance established itself as a complex reality. He focused on the reasons that pushed this violent collective to become a political movement, connected in Germany to the foundation of Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West), and the increasing popularity of the parliamentary party AfD (Alternative for Germany), which is today – according to opinion polls and surveys – the second biggest political formation in Germany.
Gebhardt’s intervention began indeed with a quotation by the leader of the alt-right party Alternative for Germany: “We will hunt them down.” The parliament member was suggesting that the new members of parliament from his political formation would use their new powers to hold Angela Merkel’s government to account for its refugee policies “to reclaim their country and people.”
At the time of the Conference only a few days had passed since right-wing extremist thugs and neo-Nazis organized an assault on foreigners in the German city of Chemnitz on the 26th and 27th of August, in reaction to a murder that happened a few days before. It was a shocking moment for many Germans. However, in the following days politicians and members of the German government have tried to downplay the events, showing that big moderate parties tend to favor a certain kind of narration. Far-right violence in Germany has indeed seen a sharp rise in the last period. In this context the guest talked about the group “Hooligans gegen Salafisten” also known as HoGeSa (Hooligans against Salafists) and its origins.
On October 26, 2014, in Cologne the HoGeSa organized its first rally against Salafism. The number of participants can be ultimately estimated around 4.000 people, violent hooligans, who threw stones, bottles and firecrackers. They gathered in Cologne Central Station, with several speakers and live music, and to later march through the streets of Cologne. Xenophobic and neo-Nazi slogans were frequent, and so was the Hitler salute. During the riots dozens of police officers were injured and several police cars were damaged. Police were surprised by the inclination to excessive and unpredictable use of force. In that year thousands of refugees were traveling to Germany from conflict-ridden Middle Eastern countries and the HoGeSa was already targeting them.
In the days immediately after the demonstration, leading German politicians and prominent jurists sought to give a lighter representation of the events. The first official comments to the HoGeSa demonstration were not referring to it as a neo-Nazi demonstration, stressing the fact that hooligans are “for the most part politically indifferent” and that “they are not political but antisocial. They meet just to fight and drink.” The motto “Fußball ist Fußball und Politik bleibt Politik“ (football is football, politics stays politics) was repeated often but did not sound convincing at all. The Hooligans gegen Salafisten represented undeniably a new network of neo-Nazis, that had joined forces with football hooligans, nationalists and other right-wing extremists. Thousands of football supporters appeared to have left their football clubs of choice behind in favor of uniting against a common enemy: Islam. They chose their name HoGeSa hoping to receive popular support by recalling the fight against Islamist extremists.
Nonetheless, not every hooligan is a neo-Nazi. Press reported that in Hannover, for example, hooligans and ultras distanced themselves from the demonstration of HoGeSa and non-fascist football Ultras and that groups in Aachen, Dortmund, Duisburg, Braunschweig and Düsseldorf say they have been threatened, chased down and beaten by these Nazi-hooligans. Gebhardt suggested to the audience of the Conference a book, “Among the Thugs” by Bill Buford, to better understand the dynamics behind hooliganism. The book follows the adventures of Bill, an American writer in England, as he explores the world of soccer hooligans and “the lads”. Setting himself the task of defining why young men in England riot and pillage in the name of sports fandom, Bill travels deep into a culture of violence both horrific and hilarious.
Gebhardt portrayed these extreme right-wing rioters from HoGeSa as men, claiming to be equally distant from conservative and progressive parties, who want to be seen just as football supporters that are not carrying any ideological content, neither that of the Left nor of the Right. However, the nonpolitical hooligan is a myth: they are the heirs of a fascist tradition based on prevarication, arrogance and violence, that plays with the aestheticization of fighting and war, the glorification of militarism and pseudo-heroism. They are not worried citizens, they are thugs “ready for a civil war.” They claim to speak for the silent majority of their community, defending their country and their people. The work of Gebhardt can be seen in a documentary “Inside HoGeSa” (2018) and in his articles online.
The last guest of Friday’s Conference was a member of the project ”Janez Janša, Janez Janša and Janez Janša,” who run for office in Slovenia at the last 2018 elections, confronting the leader of the conservative Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS), and former Prime Minister, Janez Janša. “Old names, new faces” was their motto.
In 2007 three artists decided to legally change their name to Janez Janša and joined the right conservative Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS, which was originally a moderate political formation). Janez Janša is also the name of the former President of Slovenia. All of a sudden, there were at least four Janez Janšas in the country: the three artists and the politician famous for his aggressiveness and contentiousness with the opposition and anyone who dares to criticize his choices. At the time President Janša made a public statement about the artists and pro-government media started to comment on their name change criticising their “politicized art”. The activity inside the SDS of the artists served to explore the bureaucratic and political systems of their home country. Their work of investigation is instead much more complex. It reveals how the perceptual influence of a name can interfere with social dynamics. Both on a collective and subjective dimension, they researched the meaning of identity and sectioned how their private life was affected by such name change. They proved that names are just a convention, an instrument, but with a relevant role. Janša remembered as an example that the Slovenian Democratic Party, despite this name, turned into a radical, right and conservative party between 2000 and 2005. Nowadays it is engaged in anti-migrant rhetoric and populist right-wing propaganda.
The artist illustrated how, in the last decade, the Janšas responded with art, cleverness and culture to campaigns of hate and propaganda, an approach that is the base for their political interventions. Their experience was the subject of the documentary from 2012, “My Name Is Janez Janša” and is internationally known. Artists and academics are still pondering about the meaning of the Janez Janšas experience, political critique, art work, activism, provocation or never-ending joke.
During the conclusive debate all panellists agreed that the world they have been in touch with and that they described in the Conference is mostly a world of men. Women are generally present as an accompaniment and/or an accessory. It is certainly a characteristic of Fascism, described in literature and art, as designated in the book “Male Fantasy” by Klaus Theweleit, where the author talks about the fantasies that preoccupied a group of men who played a crucial role in the rise of Nazism. Proto-fascists seeking out and reconstructing their images of women. Another aspect that all three guests agreed on, is the fact that individuals are massively not voting or taking part in public life, since they are increasingly distrustful of traditional media and politicians. European moderate politicians have on the other side the responsibility of a systematic dismantlement of social rights, they justified and supported an unequal economic system of wealth distribution for too many years. Now, scandals and arrogance in public and institutional life do not seem to affect the popularity of extreme right parties, that are ridiculing the excess of fair play and the interests of those moderate politicians.
TRANSGRESSIONS THEN AND NOW: Does The ‘Alt-Right’ Reenact Counter-Culture?
Focusing on new strategies to directly provoke change, the Conference on the 8th of September began with a performative conversation between Stewart Home (artist, filmmaker, writer, and activist from London), and Florian Cramer, (reader in 21st Century Visual Culture at Willem de Kooning Academy in Rotterdam), moderated by Tatiana Bazzichelli, artistic director of the Disruption Network Lab. The universe of the extreme-right seems to have embraced a path of transgression, arrogance and nonconformity, employed to suggest that its members are holders of a new alternative approach in cultural, political and social criticism. What comes out from such a wave of counterculture is an articulated patchwork that flirts with violence, discrimination and authoritarism.
Bazzichelli asked the audience to question the nowadays extreme right self-definition of their political offer as an “alternative,” considering that the issue of transgression and counterculture has been widely developed by academic and artistic Left, and that experimentation, theorisation and political antagonism have been growing together in the left-leaning universe. In such a perspective, “working on something alternative” – explained Bazzichelli – is supposed to be synonymous with creating a strong criticism of media and society, through political engagement, art and intellectual efforts. An alternative that could enhance a positive, constructive contribution in the collective socio-economic discourse. Today, words like “infowar” and “alternative” tend instead to be associated with a far-right countercultural chaotic production. On this basis, Bazzichelli introduced the lecture by Stewart Home and Florian Cramer, that investigated if and to which extent it is possible to affirm that ideas and values driven from the Left are now reclaimed and distorted in an extreme-right alternative narrative.
In an historical excursus on art, literature and subcultures, the two speakers focused on the 1970s-1990s counter-cultural currents that used radical performance, viral communication and media hoaxes and examined the degree to which they may be seen as playbooks for the info warfare of the contemporary extreme right. With their presentation they suggested that it is improper to state that the alt-right has now occupied established leftist countercultural territories. There have been several examples of a parallel development and interpenetration of very opposite points of view over time. Tommaso Marinetti, father of Futurism and its Manifesto about “War, the World’s Only Hygiene,” mixing anarchist rebellion and violent reaction became then a fervent supporter of the Italian Fascism, that glorified the new futuristic approach. However, Futurism means also sound poetry, since discordant sound had a vital role in Futurist art and politics; an experience that developed into the noise movement with an influence that reached post-industrial musicians and further.
Cramer remembered that Futurism represents also an avant-garde and counterculture from the 1900s, that had similarities with Dadaism. In fact, though Dadaism was anti-war and antibourgeois, they shared a spirit of mockery and provocative performances, mixing distant genres and a massive use of communication, experimental media and magazines. Always considering the beginning of the 20th Century, the lecturers recalled the production of the painter Hugo Höppener Fidus, expression of the Life Reform Movement, linked both to the left- and the right-leaning political views, that strongly influenced Hitler and Nazism, showing roots of an alternative counterculture that went both into the political extreme right and left.
In the 1970s and 1980s, in subcultural production and artistic performances it was frequent the use of fascist symbols as provocation and transgression, for example in the punk scene, which ranged notoriously from left wing to right wing views as pseudo-fascist camp in post-punk culture turn into actual Fascism. A conscious ambiguity, part of experimentation, that – particularly in the U.S. – meant also leaving space to things that were in contrast to each other. In the context of US underground culture, the speakers mentioned publications like those from Re/Search “Pranks!” on the subject of pranks, obscure music and films, industrial culture, and many other experimental topics. Pranks were intended as a way of visionary media manipulation and reality hacking. Among the contributors, you could find artists from the industrial movement, like the controversial Peter Sotos and Boyde Rice, who became today established part of right-winged countercultural movement.
Talking about the present, Cramer and Home also mentioned Casa Pound, a neofascist-squat and political formation from Rome, that adopted the experience described by the anarchist writer Hakim Bey of the “temporary autonomous zones,” that redefined the psychogeographical nooks of autonomy – as well as appropriated the name of Ezra Pound, a member of the early modernist poetry movement.
All this suggests that the so-called alt-right has probably not hijacked counterculture, by for example deploying tactics of subversive humour and transgression or through cultural appropriation, since there is a whole history of grey zones and presence of both extreme right and left in avant-garde and in countercultures, and there were overlooked fascist undertones in the various libertarian ideologies that flourished in the underground. Home and Cramer reminded their common experience in the Luther Blissett project, based on a collective pseudonym used by several artists, performers, activists and squatter collectives in the nineties. The possibility to perform anonymously under a pseudonym gave birth to a mixed production, with undefined borders, in few cases expression of reactionary drives. An experience that we can easily reconnect to the development of 4chan, the English-language imageboard very important for the early stage of Anonymous, that today is very popular among the members of the Alt–Right scene,
Cramer illustrated so how Libertarianism can sometimes flip into a reactionary ideology. The same can be for Anarchism (with the Anarcho-Capitalism) and Cyberlibertarianism, just like for the subcultures. In the Chaos Computer Club – explained Cramer – there is a strong cyberlibertarian component, but we might find also grey zones where a minority of extreme-right can find ways to express itself. Spores of extreme-right and fascist-anarchical degeneration can so be found in the activities of political and art collectives from the Left and, in this sense, it looks necessary to expose their presence in relation to those grey areas, that could become a context for spreading ambiguous points of view within cultural production.
Marinetti, Pound, Heidegger, have a general relevance that cannot be denied. Home and Cramer underlined that, at the moment, nothing of what we see internationally in the extreme-right panorama can be considered culturally relevant. The alt-right is not re-enacting counterculture. This “alternative” of the extreme right consist mostly of a cluster of media outlets producing hate and propaganda, within a revisionist narrative. It picks up an old rhetoric about heroic rebellion, arrogance, overbearing masculinity, mythization of war and the use of violence, in most cases using new definitions for old concepts. Home and Cramer concluded that there is no intrinsic value in being transgressive, and transgression alone cannot be enough to gain any kind of attribute of quality. Because transgression is just a tool. Artists and activists cannot stop experimenting and using the tool of transgression to criticise society, building alternatives and being alternative. The moderate approach in an era of political correctness is a way to enchain the Left; moreover people have the right to hate their condition, hate their job and the inequalities that affect their lives. This feeling is legitimately generated by a critical thinking.
INFILTRATION: Mapping the International Far Right
The panel of the second day of the conference reflected on the practice of political, journalistic and activist infiltration as a way of better understanding extremist groups. The moderator explained how from one side infiltration maps extremist groups from the inside, and from the other, it analyses how extremist groups are building their networks, becoming widespread in online and offline. The aim is to explore such groups from within, analysing the reason for people to join them, as well as understanding their inner dynamics.
Rebecca Pates, Political Anthropologist from the University of Leipzig, moderated the discussion and introduced the four guests, commenting that a number of different things can be done when infiltrating. The activities and the achievements can differ, and so the technique, from total concealment in infiltration to openness about it. Pates suggested that from the inside it is possible to understand for example the reason why young people are attracted by groups that from the outside look so angry and violent, and it could be defined the sense of comradeship and belonging that convinces individuals to participate into these movements.
Julia Ebner is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) and author of the bestselling book The Rage: The Vicious Circle of Islamist and Far-Right Extremism. She opened the panel explaining how, after the terroristic attacks from right extremists in Europe and in the US, she decided to get a better understanding of the world of the far-right and their narrative. She infiltrated both online and offline, undercover, with fake identities and avatar accounts, changing her appearance. Her goal was to get into groups that are very different ideologically one from the other, like the neo-Nazi, the old conservative fascist movements and the counter Jihad movement. During her speech she described how she built up a new identity and made connections necessary to her purpose.
To get in touch with active members she used some social media and crowdsourcing platforms available for the extreme-right, such as “Gab”, the alt-right equivalent of twitter, “Wasp love”, a place to date “reformed Christians, confederate, home-schooled, white nationalists, alt-right and sovereign singles.” She was asked to send a full account of her genetic ancestry to be accepted or to share a picture of her skin colour. She had voice chat interviews to enquire about her ideological background or sexual orientation. Ebner entered an alternative universe of disinformation ecosystems and accessed subcultures that interact in parallel as a part of a same bigger network. When she was asked to justify fresh profiles, that she just created, she could benefit from the fact that many far-right users are removed and banned for what they post. She started frequenting all the different tech platforms considered a safe environment for far-right extremism, where they could very openly cultivate antisemitic and conspiracy theories, anti-left rhetoric, coordinate doxing and harassment activities. In 2016 the writer and researcher joined undercover the English Defence League and went to a rally of theirs against what they would call Muslim grooming gangs. A year later she was then recruited into the movement Generation Identity or Identitäre Bewegung, always as part of the new European alt-right (alternative right) and was invited to join them in public and private meetings, like a secret meeting in an Airbnb location in Brixton. In that occasion she was sitting among 20 white nationalists discussing their strategies to launch a British branch of their group, with a manifest focus on optics and media strategy briefings, to learn how to deal with tough questions from journalists about anti-Semitism and racism. They discussed about their political background and their selection procedures in order to achieve a good branding and quality in their membership. The obsession of appearing as decent citizens in public was and is very important in rallies like Charleville. Reports attest indeed that far right groups were concerned about how to dress and even told some people, not particularly good looking, that they could not join the event as they would not make a good impression. Events like Chemnitz, Charlottesville’s “rally to unite the right” or the experience of Defend Europe – an illegal far right ship that sought to hamper the rescue of refugees in the Mediterranean in 2016 – represent a cross-border collaboration between movements that until few years ago were not communicating. These events bring them together on the basis of their lowest common denominator for the sake of having a bigger impact.
After Ebner wrote an article for the Guardian and for the Independent she got backlash from the far-right and the English Defence League. Its founder, Tommy Robinson, ended up storming into her office with a cameraman, filming the whole confrontation and live streaming it to Rebel Media, a far-right news outlet in Canada. The influencer has 300.000 followers and these channels are very popular too. They gave immediate resonance to the aggression and set off a long chain reaction among other far-right and alt-right news platforms, globally. Her whole life got under attention, they used all available data to publicly discredit her. The researcher realised how much it is possible to do with online data to intimidate political opponents or people who criticize. Ebner and her colleagues experienced the hate campaign machine. She noticed that women are more attacked and threats, symptom of the wide anti-feminist and mesogenic culture. It seemed to her that the whole universe was against her activity of infiltration and that she had no supporters. Many different groups and networks were creating a distorted representation of her engagement, and this pushed her to embark on a research project about the interconnectedness of the variegated far-right media galaxy.
With other colleagues Ebner analysed about 5.000 pieces of content, accomplishing a lot of linguistic analysis, and studying interactions with social media monitoring tools. Thanks to this work the researcher can describe the mainstreaming strategies of the extreme right and how its members try to create compelling and persuasive countercultural campaigns using humour, satire and transgression and co-opting Pop Culture. An attitude common with the fundamental Islamism is they are creating content that has appeal on young people on the Internet but they are also concentrated on the traditional media, to make sure that they pick up on their provocations or fake news. They trigger media to report on them by staging online complaints that would go viral. Ebner has also started a project in collaboration with the organisation #ichbinhier e.V., discovering that this technique of coordinated interactions often creates the illusion that they represent the majority of the users. The research shows something different: 50% of the interactions or of the hateful comments below news articles, that they analysed, came from just 5% of all active accounts. A small but very loud minority of people that is now dominating the whole discourse amplified by bots or a media outlet sometimes also Russian ones, staging online psychological operations, jokes and meme to hide extreme right hatred campaigns behind humour-images.
Memetic warfare and gamification are two very relevant aspects, as frequent as quotations from the movies Matrix and Fight Club, with the rhetoric of the red pilling to see the truth. Most of the accounts active in this activity were coordinating posts and hashtags so that their content could get prioritised in the feeds and create viral campaigns, striving to dominate the whole social media discourse. They have very clear hierarchies, which could be ascribed to the gaming dimension too. Hateful comments and negative interactions appear in a flow, getting soon in the top section due to a high degree of coordination. Generation Identity is known for sharing content according to the tactics of the so-called media guerrilla warfare manual, based on a very militarised language, that describes actions, goals and sniper-missions to target and intimidate political opponents exploiting media. All comes in a very gamified way, as they talk about a virtual battlefield and electronic items, where a good performance allows to grow of level. During the German elections in 2017 members and followers of Reconquista Germanica (an extreme-right channel running on the Discord platform) were quite successful in spreading extreme-right topics and making politicians and media pick up on them. Some of their hashtags were often listed in the top 5 trends in the two weeks before the vote. In the meantime, they were evaluating and analysing their activity, celebrating successful “generals” or “soldiers” that were promoted into higher levels. Ebner expressed her concerns as this reflects in in real-world practice what they would do if they manage to establish their own vision and get in power. Since Trump was elected we’ve seen a growing ecosystem that repeats itself, where extreme-right is certainly reappearing. It is indeed possible to spot similar tactics and vocabulary among several European far-right groups, in the campaigns of Italian, German, French, Swedish and Dutch elections. She underlined how important it is to understand far-right extremism better and the relationship between Islamist and far-right extremism, as they have a lot in common and are reinforcing each other.
Anti-racist activist and “Hope Not Hate” researcher Patrik Hermansson reflected on the meaning of radical right-wing practices today bringing his direct story as undercover activist inside the international Alt-Right, and published in The International Alternative Right Report. Starting in the fall of 2016 he joined a London based organisation and then travelled through many other related groups, living a dual life. He described his year of infiltration inside an international secret formation called London Forum, for which you need to be vetted, background checked and have someone who lets you in. Hermansson works as a researcher for Hope Not Hate, an organisation established to offer a more positive and engaged way of doing anti-Fascism. This 26-year-old man has been “Erik”, a fascist who came to London inspired by Brexit and to get away from the liberal prejudice of Swedish universities. He entered and investigated the Forum, discovered members, techniques and goals, until he witnessed the terrible violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. To do so, Hermansson had to become a Swedish teacher of a member and was quickly driven into the world of the extreme right. From former Tory Party members to famous alt-right influencers, he met people in different countries and different social context. It was a safe space of anonymity, that you do not find on Social media.
Hermansson described to the audience of the Conference the social aspects animating the group, where members can feel part of a community, make new friends even overcoming political differences until they have anything else outside. Conspiracy theories have a relevant role too. Holocaust denial, addressed as “the biggest PR event in history”, or the chemistry rails, are important part of their theorization. They feel part of a group that is bound together by secrets that allow you to see behind the curtain and make you understand more than the rest of the population. Hermansson pointed out that the activity of infiltrate is a difficult and immoral business. It exploits people’s trust. It is justified by the need to expose techniques of recruitment, data, but we should not romanticize, not to go too far not to be ruthless. Hermansson infiltrated for a purpose, to get a closer image of right extremism and decided to expose the top players of the organisation, musicians and influencers. The most effective part of the activity, he said, was the sabotage. Infiltration makes people point fingers, paranoia spread in the movement and things broke apart. Hermansson explained that it was a conscious decision: the anti-fascist part of the research. The London Forum is not active anymore, people left it showing that the method of exposure is quite effective. He found out that his activity raised the cost of their recruiting process, which is now much tighter.
The panel was concluded by a member of the Unicorn Riot collective, “a decentralized non-profit media organization of artists and journalists, dictated to exposing root causes of dynamic social and environmental issues through amplifying stories and exploring sustainable alternatives in the globalized world.” The investigative journalist Christopher Schiano presented his work of analysing and publishing of leaked messages from white supremacist, neo-Nazi and various alt-right fascist groups in the US – followed by an introduction of the DiscordLeaks platform by the developer Heartsucker, who is working as an affiliated volunteer for the Unicorn Riot. The guests talked about how Unicorn Riot has obtained hundreds of thousands of messages from white supremacist and neo-Nazi Discord chat servers after the events in Charlottesville, and decided to organise and open a far-right activity centre to allow public scrutiny through data journalism.
Discord is a voice-over-Internet Protocol (VoIP) application for video gaming communities, offering text, image, video and audio communication between users in a chat channel. The US non-profit media organisation with its Discord Leaks has exposed hundreds of thousands of chats from alt-right and far-right servers received. Parker was receiving screenshots of real-time communications between alt-right activists involved in planning the Charlottesville rally and got a “general orders” document, along with audio recordings of a planning meeting ahead of the rally. The screenshots kept then coming throughout the following days.
As reported by the Washington Post, Discord allowed the organizers and participants of the rally to convene in private, invite-only threads shrouded in anonymity – with usernames such as “kristall.night” and “WhiteTrash.” On a Discord server called “Charlottesville 2.0,” they planned everything from car pools, dress code and lodging in Charlottesville to how one might improvise weapons in case of a fight. Some suggested using flag poles as a makeshift spear or club. Many of these things took place. The collective received also internal logs, which enabled them to better see the scope of plans for the Unite the Right rally. Since its founding, Unicorn Riot has gained relevance among people looking for alternative news sources, principally covering protests with an on-the-ground perspective that many mainstream outlets miss. Unicorn Riot was for example among the first media outlets to get to the rally in Charlottesville and cover it. Through their investigation they explained how the far right tries to recruit new member via Discord, or they unveiled the attempts of extremists to look like ordinary Trump’ supporters, building a victim narrative to insinuate the idea that they are targeted citizens. Some of them are supporting the police and members of the police force have been exposed for leaking information to far-right members. They exposed the movement Anticom, anti-communist action, active mostly in shitposting, and the group Patriot Front, whose members unite under the motto “we are Americans and we are Fascists.”
At the end of the three the panellists reasoned on the importance of infiltration, as a means to study the extreme right and expose their networks and members, their strategies and tactics. It can also be helpful to try to predict what these groups are about to do, foreseeing their next step. It means getting in touch with them, entering their circles based on comradeship and exchange of personal experiences. Ebner commented that the use of lies and distortion is the cost of it, wondering, however, about what the cost of inaction is instead. Hermansson reported about the effects of infiltration in terms of the desensitisation he went through, taking part in conversations without reacting. The same desensitisation process can be described in the memetic warfare.
The 14th Disruption Network Lab Conference
As part of the Disruption Network Lab thematic series “Misinformation Ecosystems” (2018), this 3-days-conference concluded the 2018 programme of the Disruption Network Lab. The series began with a focus on hate-news, manipulators, trolls and influencers, that investigated online opinion manipulation and strategic hate speech in the frame of a growing international misinformation ecosystem, and their impact on civil rights. HATE NEWS focused on the issue of opinion manipulation, from the interconnections of traditional and online media to behavioural profiling within the Cambridge Analytica debate. This second conference took the process further by pointing to specific researches and investigations that illustrated how a process has clearly set in motion, whereas radical right is currently working on an international level, building cross-national connections and establishing global cooperation.
Not just Steve Bannon and a galaxy of media outlet and online platforms are pushing for a new authoritarian turnaround, based on discrimination and ultra-nationalism, having factual impact on political systems. On a grassroot level, there are local networks and formations able to unite different realities and backgrounds, melt together under new trendy labels, slogans and influencers. A new scene that is carefully designed to be appealing to moderate-leaning electorate, where you can find hooligans, hipsters, neo-Nazi and politicians dressed in suits and ties, all striving to appear like conscious citizens and decent members of society, part of a new generation of activists. However, beyond the facade, the majority of far-right groups shows to be against an open, multicultural society as well as against inter-religious and inter-cultural togetherness. They play with economic uncertainties, fear, anger and resentment to spread hate, attack opponents and discriminate minorities, often through a meme-driven alt-right humour, designed to cover with dark hilarity their racist propaganda and fascist drives. Jokes are used by public figures and influencers to promote misogyny, homophobia, a distorted idea of masculinity, racism and justify unacceptable statements. Too often mainstream media and newspapers pick up staged news from such misinformation ecosystems, enforcing a revisionist narrative built on manipulated facts and interactions, arrogance and violence.
Conspiratorial and paranoid thinking acts like a catalyst, provoking participation and fascinating individuals, who want to become warriors and custodians of knowledge. Alongside the image of the angry white man, there is a whole narrative of love and solidarity for their chosen group, the community they decide to protect, identified on utilitarian basis.
Despite of what is represented in media, many speakers at the conference pointed out that there is neither something alternative nor innovative in what they are offering. However, mainstream parties and media tend to follow their reactionary narrative, enforcing the idea that it is competitive. The guests of the Disruption Network Lab came from Africa, Europe, North and South America and exposed an intertwined scenario of transnationalism of the radical right. The direct engagement of activists, that decide to infiltrate, together with the work of researchers, journalists and artists, allowed for a clearer image of what is going on at a global as well as local scale, to understand how it is possible to interrupt this process working actively within the civil society. Sabotage and exposure are instruments useful to disrupt and unveil strategies aimed at sending the world back of a hundred years of human rights achievements. Thanks to Tatiana Bazzichelli and the Disruption Network Lab team, who offered a stage to learn about constructive practices that can be activated in order to change the course of things.
By Lorin Decarli Lorin Decarli is a Berlin-based jurist. He works for an international law...
On the day of the General Data Protection Law (GDPR) going into effect in Europe, on the 25th May, the Disruption Network Lab opened its 13th conference in Berlin entitled “HATE NEWS: Manipulators, Trolls & Influencers”. The two-day-event looked into the consequences of online opinion manipulation and strategic hate speech. It investigated the technological responses to these phenomena in the context of the battle for civil rights.
Between hate and hope: lessons from Kenya on hate speech and political manipulation
The conference began with Jo Havemann presenting #DefyHateNow, a campaign by r0g_agency for open culture and critical transformation, a community peace-building initiative aimed at combating online hate speech and mitigating incitement to offline violence in South Sudan. More than ten years ago the bulk of African countries’ online ecosystem consisted of just a few millions of users, whilst today’s landscape is far different. This project started as a response to the way social media was used to feed the conflicts that exploded in the country in 2013 and 2016. It is a call to mobilize individuals and communities for civic action against hate speech and social media incitement to violence in South Sudan. Its latest initiative is the music video #Thinkbe4uclick, a new awareness campaign specifically targeted at young people.
In Africa, hate campaigns and manipulation techniques have been causing serious consequences for much longer than a decade. The work of #DefyHateNow counters a global challenge with local solutions, suggesting that what is perceived in Europe and the US as a new problem should instead be considered in its global dimension. This same point of view was suggested by the keynote speaker of the day, Nanjala Nyabola, writer and political analyst based in Nairobi. Focusing on social media and politics in the digital age, the writer described Kenya´s recent history as widely instructive, warning that manipulation and rumours can not only twist or influence election results, but drive conflicts feeding violence too.
The reliance on rumours and fake news was the principle reason that caused the horrifying escalation of violence following the Kenyan 2007 general election. More than 1,000 people were killed and 650,000 displaced in a crisis triggered by accusations of election fraud. The violence that followed unfolded fast, with police use of brutal force against non-violent protesters causing most of the fatalities. The outbreak of violence was largely blamed on ethnic clashes inflamed by hate speech. It consisted of revenge attacks for massacres supposedly carried out against ethnic groups in remote areas of the country. Unverified rumours about facts that had not taken place. Misinformation and hate were broadcast over local vernacular radio stations and with SMS campaigns, inciting the use of violence, animating different groups against one another.
The general election in 2013 was relatively peaceful. However, ethnic tensions continued to grow across the whole country and ethnic driven political intolerance appeared increasingly on social media, used mainly by young Kenyans. Online manipulation and disinformation proliferated on social media again before and after the 2017 general election campaign.
Nyabola explained that nowadays the media industry in Kenya is more lucrative than in most other African regions, which could be considered a positive aspect, suggesting that within Kenya the press is free. Instead a majority media companies depend heavily on government advertising revenue, which in turn is used as leverage by authorities to censor antagonistic coverage. It should be no wonder Kenyans appear to be more reliant on rumours now than in 2007. People are increasingly distrustful of traditional media. The high risk of manipulation by media campaigns and a duopoly de facto on the distribution of news, has led to the use of social media as the principle reliable source of information. It is still too early to have a clear image of the 2017 election in terms of interferences affecting its results, but Nyabola directly experienced how misinformation and manipulation present in social media was a contributing factor feeding ethnic angst.
Rafiki, the innovative Kenyan film presented at the Cannes Film Festival, is now the subject of a controversy over censorship due to its lesbian storyline. Nyabola is one of the African voices expressing the intention to support the distribution of the movie. “As something new and unexpected this movie might make certain people within the country feel uncomfortable” she said, “but it cannot be considered a vehicle for hate, promoting homosexuality in violation of moral values.” It is actually essential not to confuse actual hate speech with something that is labeled as hate speech for the purpose discredit upon it. Hate speech can be defined as something intended to offend, insult, intimidate, or threaten an individual or group based on an attribute, such as sexual orientation, religion, colour, gender, or disability. The writer from Nairobi reminded the audience that, when we talk about hate speech it is important to focus both on how it makes people feel and what it wants to accomplish. We should always consider that we regulate hate speech since it creates a condition, in which social, political and economic violence is fed, affecting the way we think about groups and individuals (and not just because it is offensive).
Nyabola indicated few key factors that she considers able to increase the consequences of hate speech and manipulation on social media. Firstly, information travels fast and can remain insulated. Whilst Twitter is a highly public space where content and comments flow freely, Facebook is a platform where you connect just with a smaller group of people, mostly friends, and WhatsApp is based on groups limited to a small number of contacts. The smaller the interaction sphere is, the harder it is for fact-checkers to see when and where rumours and hate speech go viral. It is difficult to find and stop them and their impact can be calculated just once they have already spread quickly and widely. Challenges which distinguish offline hate speech and manipulation from online ones are also related to the way information moves today among people supporting each other without a counterpart and without anyone being held to account.
Nowadays Kenya boasts an increasingly technological population, though not all rural areas have as yet been able to benefit from the country being one of the most connected ones in sub-Saharan Africa. In this context, reports indicate that since 2013 the British consulting firm Cambridge Analytica had been working in the country to interfere with elections, organizing conventions, orchestrating campaigns to sway the electorate away from specific candidates. It shall be no surprise that the reach of Cambridge Analytica extended well beyond United Kingdom and USA. In her speech, Nyabola expressed her frustration as she sees that western media focus their attention on developing countries just when they fear a threat of violence coming from there, ignoring that the rest of the world is also a place for innovation and decision making too.
Kenya has one of the highest rates of Internet penetration in Africa with millions of active Kenyan Facebook and Twitter accounts. People using social media are a growing minority and they are learning how to defeat misinformation and manipulation. For them social media can become an instrument for social change. In the period of last year’s election none of the main networks covered news related to female candidates until the campaigns circulating on social media could no longer be ignored. These platforms are now a formidable tool in Kenya used to mobilize civil society to accomplish social, gender and economic equality. This positive look is hindered along the way by the reality of control and manipulation.
Most of the countries globally currently have no effective legal regulation to safeguard their citizens online. The GDPR legislation now in force in the EU obliges publishers and companies to comply with stricter rules within a geographic area when it comes to privacy and data harvesting. In Africa, national institutions are instead weaker, and self-regulation is often left in the hands of private companies. Therefore, citizens are even more vulnerable to manipulation and strategic hate speech. In Kenya, which still doesn’t have an effective data protection law, users have been subject to targeted manipulation. “The effects of such a polluted ecosystem of misinformation has affected and changed personal relationships and lives for good,” said the writer.
On social media, without regulations and control, hatred and discriminations can produce devastating consequences. Kenya is just one of the many countries experiencing this. Hate speech blasted on Facebook at the start of the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar. Nyabola criticized that, as in many other cases, the problem was there for all, but the company was not able to combat the spread of ethnic based discrimination and hate speech.
Targeted, profiled and influenced: on Cambridge Analytica and beyond
Moving from the interconnections of traditional and online media in Kenyan misinformation ecosystem, the second part of the day focused on privacy implications of behavioural profiling on social media, covering the controversy about Cambridge Analytica. The Friday’s panel opened with the analyses of David Carroll, best known as the professor who filed a lawsuit against Cambridge Analytica in the UK to gain a better understanding of what data the company had collected about him and to what purpose. When he got access to his voter file from the 2016 U.S. election, he realized the company had been secretly profiling him. Carroll was the first person to receive and publish his file, finding out that Cambridge Analytica held personal data on the vast majority of registered voters in the US. He then requested the precise details on how these were obtained, processed and used. After the British consulting firm refused to disclose, he decided to pursue a court case instead.
As Carroll is a U.S. citizen, Cambridge Analytica took for granted that he had neither recourse under federal U.S. legislation, nor under UK data protection legislation. They were wrong. The legal challenge in British court case that centred on Cambridge Analytica’s compliance with the UK Data Protection Act of 1998 could be applied because Carroll’s data was processed in the United Kingdom. The company filed for bankruptcy not long after it was revealed that it used the data of 87 million Facebook users to profile and manipulate them, likely in contravention of UK law. Professor Carroll could never imagine that his activity would demolish the company.
Cambridge Analytica, working with an election management firm called SCL Group, appears to have been a propaganda machine master, able to manipulate voters through the combination of psychometric data. It exploited Facebook likes and interactions above all. Its technique disguised attempts at political manipulation since they were integrated in the online environment.
Carroll talked about how technology and data were used to influence elections and popular voting for the first time in countries like USA and UK, whereas for a much longer time international campaign promoters were hired to act on an international scale. In Carroll’s opinion Cambridge Analytica was an ‘oil spill’ moment. It was an epiphany, a sudden deep understanding of what was happening on a broader scale. It made people aware of the threat to their privacy and the fact that many other companies harvest data.
Since 2012 Facebook and Google have been assigning a DoubleClick ID to users, attaching it to their accounts, de-anonymizing and tracking every action. It is an Ad-tracker that gives companies and advertisers the power to measure impressions and interactions with their campaigns. It also allows third-party platforms to set retargeting ads after users visit external websites, integrated with cookies, accomplishing targeted profiling at different levels. This is how the AdTech industry system works. Carroll gave a wide description of how insidious such a technique can be. When a user downloads an app to his smartphone to help with sport and staying healthy, it will not be a secret that what was downloaded is the product of a health insurance or a bank, to collect data of potential customers, to profile and acquire knowledge about individuals and groups. Ordinary users have no idea about what is hidden under the surface of their apps. Thousands of companies are synchronizing and exchanging their data, collected in a plethora of ways, and used to shape the messages that they see, building up a tailor-made propaganda that would not be recognizable, for example, as a political aid. This mechanism works in several ways and for different purposes: to sell a product, to sell a brand or to sell a politician.
In this context, Professor Carroll welcomed the New European GDPR legislation to improve the veracity of the information on the internet to create a safer environment. In his dissertation, Carroll explained that the way AdTech industry relates to our data now contaminates the quality of our lives, as singles and communities, affecting our private sphere and our choices. GDPR hopefully giving consumers more ownership over their data, constitutes a relevant risk for companies that don’t take steps to comply. In his analyses the U.S. professor pointed out how companies want users to believe that they are seriously committed to protecting privacy and that they can solve all conflicts between advertising and data protection. Carroll claimed though that they are merely consolidating their power to an unprecedented rate. Users have never been as exposed as they are today.
Media companies emphasize the idea that they are able to collect people’s data for good purposes and that – so far – it cannot be proved this activity is harmful. The truth is that these companies cannot even monitor effectively the Ads appearing on their platforms. A well-known case is the one of YouTube, accused of showing advertisements from multinational companies like Mercedes on channels promoting Nazis and jihad propaganda, who were monetizing from these ads.
Carroll then focused on the industry of online advertisement and what he called “the fraud of the AdTech industry.” Economic data and results from this sector are unreliable and manipulated, as there are thousands of computers loading ads and making real money communicating to each other. This generates nowadays a market able to cheat the whole economy about 11 billion dollar a year. It consists of bots and easy clicks tailor-made for a user. The industries enabled this to happen and digital advertising ecosystem has evolved leading to an unsafe and colluded environment.
Alphabet and Facebook dominate the advertising business and are responsible for the use of most trackers. Publishers as well as AdTech platforms have the ability to link person-based identifiers by way of login and profile info.
Social scientists demonstrated that a few Facebook likes can be enough to reveal and accurately predict individual choices and ideas. Basic digital records are so used to automatically estimate a wide range of personal attributes and traits that are supposed to be part of a private sphere, like sexual orientation, religious beliefs, or political belonging. This new potential made politicians excited and they asked external companies to harvest data in order to generate a predictive model to exploit. Cambridge Analytica’s audience-targeting methodology was for several years “export-controlled by the British government”. It was classified as weapon by the House of Commons, at a weapons-grade communications tactics. It is comprehensible then that companies using this tech can easily sell their ability to influence voters and change the course of elections, polarizing the people using social networks.
The goal of such a manipulation and profiling is not to persuade everybody, but to increase the likelihood that specific individuals will react positively and engage with certain content, becoming part of the mechanism and feeding it. It is something that is supposed to work not for all but just for some of the members of a community. To find that small vulnerable slice of the U.S. population, for example, Cambridge Analytica had to profile a huge part of the electorate. By doing this it apparently succeeded in determining the final results, guiding and determining human behaviours and choices.
Bernd Fix, hacker veteran of the Chaos Computer Club in Germany, entered the panel conversation describing the development from the original principle of contemporary cybernetics, in order to contextualize the uncontrollable deviated system of Cambridge Analytica. He represented the cybernetic model as a control theory, by which a monitor compares what is happening into a system with a standard value representing what should be happening. When necessary, a controller adjusts the system’s behaviour accordingly to again reach that standard expected by the monitor. In his dissertation, Fix explained how this model, widely applied in interdisciplinary studies and fields, failed as things got more complex and it could not handle a huge amount of data in the form of cybernetics. Its evolution is called Machine Learning (or Artificial Intelligence), which is based on the training of a model (algorithm) to massive data sets to make predictions. Traditional IT has made way for the intelligence-based business model, which is now dominating the scene.
Machine learning can prognosticate with high accuracy what it is asked to, but – as the hacker explained – it is not possible to determine how the algorithm achieved the result. Nowadays most of our online environment works through algorithms that are programmed to fulfil their master’s interests, whereas big companies collect and analyse data to maximize their profit. All the services they provide, apparently for free, cost users their privacy. Thanks to the predictive model, they can create needs which convinces users to do something by subtle manipulating their perspective. Most of the responsibilities are on AdTech and social media companies, as they support a business model that is eroding privacy, rights and information. The challenge is now to make people understand that these companies do not act in their interest and that they are just stealing data from them to build up a psychometric profile to exploit.
The hacker reported eventually the scaring case of China’s platform “social credit,” designed to cover every aspect of online and offline existence and wanted by the national authorities. It is supposed to monitor each person and catalogue eventual “infractions and misbehaviours” using an algorithm to integrate them into a single score that rates the subjective fidelity into accepted social standards. A complex kind of ultimate social control, still in its prototype stages, but that could become part of our global future where socio-political regulation and control are governed by cybernetic regulatory circuits. Fix is not convinced that regulation can be the solution: to him, binding private actors and authorities to specific restriction as a way to hold them accountable is useless if people are not aware of what is going on. Most people around us are plugged into this dimension where the bargain of data seems to be irrelevant and the Big Three – Google, Facebook and Amazon – are allowed to self-determine the level of privacy. People are too often happy consumers who want companies to know their lives.
The last panellist of the afternoon was the artist and researcher Marloes de Valk, who co-developed a video game for old 1986 Nintendo consoles, which challenges the player to unveil, recognize and deconstruct techniques used to manipulate public opinion. The player faces the Propaganda Machine, level after level, to save the planet.
“Acid rains are natural phenomena”, “passive smoke doesn’t affect the health,” “greenhouse´s effects are irrelevant.” Such affirmations are a scientific aberration nowadays, but in the ‘80s there were private groups and corporations struggling to make them look like legitimate theorizations. The artist from Nederland analysed yesterday´s and today’s media landscape and, basing her research on precise misinformation campaigns, she succeeded in defying how propaganda has become more direct, maintaining all its old characteristics. De Valk looked, for example, for old documents from the American Tobacco Institute, for U.S. corporations‘leaked documents and also official articles from the press of the ´80s.
What remains is a dark-humoured game whose purpose is that of helping people to orientate inside the world of misinformation and deviated interests that affects our lives today. Where profit and lobbyism can be hidden behind a pseudoscientific point of view or be the reason rumours are spread around. The artist and researcher explained that what you find in the game represents the effects of late capitalism, where self-regulation together with complacent governments, that do not protect their citizens, shape a world where there is not room for transparency and accountability.
In the game, players get in contact with basic strategies of propaganda like “aggressively disseminate the facts you manufactured” or “seek allies: create connections, also secret ones”. The device used to play, from the same period of the misinformation campaigns, is an instrument that reminds with a bit of nostalgia where we started, but also where we are going. Things did not change from the ‘80s and corporations still try to sell us their ready-made opinion, to make more money and concentrate more power.
New international corporations like Facebook have refined their methods of propaganda and are able to create induced needs thus altering the representation of reality. We need to learn how to interact with such a polluted dimension. De Valk asked the audience to consider official statements like “we want to foster and facilitate free and open democratic debate and promote positive change in the world” (Twitter) and “we create technology that gives people the power to build community and bring the world closer together” (Facebook). There is a whole narrative built to emphasize their social relevance. By contextualising them within recent international events, it is possible to broad the understanding of what these companies want and how they manipulate people to obtain it.
Uncovering corruption: on strategic harassment, Mexican trolls and election manipulation
What is the relation between deliberate spread of hate online and political manipulation?
As part of the Disruption Network Lab thematic series “Misinformation Ecosystems” the second day of the Conference investigated the ideology and reasons behind hate speech, focusing on stories of people who have been trapped and affected by hate campaigns, violence, and sexual assault both online and offline. The keynote event was introduced by Renata Avila, international lawyer from Guatemala and a digital rights advocate. Speaker was Andrea Noel, journalist from Mexico, “one of the most dangerous countries in the world for reporters and writers, with high rates of violence against women” as Avila remembered.
Noel has spent the last two years studying hate speech, fake news, bots, trolls and influencers. She decided to use her personal experience to focus on the correlation between misinformation and business, criminal organizations and politics. On March 8, 2016 it was International Women’s Day, and when Noel became a victim of a sexual assault. Whilst she was walking down the street in La Condesa (Mexico City) a man ran after her, suddenly lifted up her dress, and pulled her underwear down. It all lasted about 3 seconds.
As the journalist posted on twitter the surveillance footage of the assault commenting: “If anyone recognizes this idiot please identify him,” she spent the rest of the evening and the following morning facing trolls, who supported the attacker. In one day her name became trend topic on twitter on a national level, in a few days the assault was international news. She became so subject of haters and target of a misogynistic and sexist campaign too, which forced her to move abroad as the threat became concrete and her private address was disclosed. Trolls targeted her with the purpose of intimidating her, sending rape and death threats, pictures of decapitated heads, machetes and guns.
In Mexico women are murdered, abused and raped daily. They are victims of family members, husbands, authorities, criminals and strangers. Trolls are since ever active online promoting offensive hashtags, such as #MujerGolpeadaMujerFeliz, which translates as ‘a beaten woman is a happy woman’. It is a spectrum of the machismo culture affecting also many Latin American countries and the epidemic of gender-based violence and sexual assault.
Facts can be irrelevant against a torrent of abuse and hate toward journalists. Noel also received hundreds of messages telling her that there was a group of famous pranksters named “master trolls” that used to assault people on the streets in that same way, to make clicks and money out of it. Noel found out that they became best known for pulling down people’s pants and underwear in public, and that this brought them directly to popular tv shows. A profitable and growing business.
The journalist decided to face her trolls one by one and later realized that they were mostly part of an organized activity, not from a TV show but from a political group targeting her, a fact that made everything way more intricate. In two years she “got to know her trolls” as she said, and she studied their ecosystem. The description of the whole story is available on podcast Reply All.
Moving from her story, Noel focused in her second part of dissertation on the relation linking together trolls, criminal organizations, political and social manipulation. She described how, by using algorithms, bots and trolls, it is possible to generate political and election related postings on Facebook and Twitter that go viral. Manipulation comes also by weaponizing memes to propel hate speech and denigration, creating false campaigns to distract public attention from real news like corruption and atrocious cartel crimes.
Marginal voices and fake news can be spread by inflating the number of retweets and shares. Hashtags and trends are part of orchestrated system, where publishers and social media are not held in account for the fraud. Automated or semi-automated accounts, which manipulate public opinion by boosting the popularity of online posts and amplifying rumours. There is a universe of humans acting like bots, controlling hundreds of fake accounts.
Noel is particularly critical against Twitter. Its legal team expressed their engagement facing this “new major problem and novel threats”. The journalist hypothesized that the company had been well aware of the issue since 2010 but decided not to intervene to weed out organized groups manipulating its environment. Moreover, they knew that organized campaigns of discredit can water down the impact of real grassroot spontaneous protests and movements.
These manipulation techniques are responsible for digitally swaying the 2016 election toward the candidate Peña Nieto, organizing an army of thousands of bots to artificially generate trends on Twitter. Trends on this social media move up and down based on the number of tweets in a topic or hashtag related to the speed of sharing or retweeting. Trolls and bots can easily control the trending topic mechanism with their intense spamming activity.
Noel reported that false stories are shared via WhatsApp too, they are difficult to track and the most challenging to debunk. Her portrayal of social media and information market is not different from the description on the first day of the Conference by the writer Najala Nyabola.
To see the future of social media manipulation in politics we need to look at Mexico. All parties in Mexico have used bots to promote their own campaigns, journalists and opponents are overwhelmed with meaningless spam and denigrating hashtags. Offline, media landscape across Mexico is not free and organised crime has been using propaganda and manipulation to further its own aims. President Peña Nieto’s administration spent hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising, making media dependent and colluded. This system suppresses investigative articles and intimidates reporters.
The next general election is scheduled for July 1st. Andrea Noel warned that manipulation, trolls and bots are already irreversibly polluting the debate, in a country where more than 100 candidates have already been murdered (at the time of the Conference) and a history of corruption makes media and authorities unreliable in the eyes of people.
As a response, universities and NGOs formed an anti-fake news initiative called “Verificado” a platform that encourages people to forward stories found on social media using the hashtag #QuieroQueVerifiquen, ‘I want you to verify this’. The researchers of this project answer with fact-checking and publish their findings online. When asked, Noel expressed appreciation for the efforts of organizations and civil society. However, she is becoming increasingly disillusioned. She can see no immediate prospect of finding solutions able to slow or halt the impact of misinformation and hate speech online. In her opinion projects like Verificado can be easily hijacked. On the other side genuine social media campaigns are still an effective tool in the hands of civil society but the lack of trust in media fed by corruption often undermines all efforts to mobilize society, leading the public to routinely dismiss initiative to fight injustice.
When asked about the possibility to shut down social networks as a solution, Noel could not say she did not think of it. A first step could be to oblige media like Twitter and Facebook to guarantee users a safe environment where the economic interest comes after the need of a hate speech and manipulation free environment. The way they operate confirms they are content platforms and as such media entities they lack of transparency and accountability. These companies shirk their obligation for publishing responsibly. They should be held to account when they spin lies and allow groups to act unethically or against target single or communities.
The program of the second day continued with the presentation of the documentary The Cleaners, by Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck, a project started in 2013 and in the cinemas at the time of the Conference. Initially, the authors wanted to learn more about the removal of pedo-pornographic content and sexualised images of children on Facebook. Social networks have largely pledged to work harder to identify and remove illegal, offensive and improper content, to limit violations and deny hate speech. But how does it work? Who decides what shall be cancelled and on what basis? These questions arose frequently during the first part of the Hate News conference and the German authors could answer it in relation to the social media Facebook, subject of their documentary.
The choice about what shall and what shall not belong the internet is a subjective one. Content moderators, who censor postings and content on platforms like Facebook, have indeed a controversial and central role. Their work is subject to almost no open scrutiny. However, it shapes attitudes and trends of both individuals and social groups, impacting the public discourse and the cultural dialectic. When a social network decides to censor content and delate videos about the effects of drone bombings, since by showing civilian victims Daesh builds its propaganda, it makes a choice that affects the narration of events and the perception of facts.
Investigating how the social media platform Facebook polices online content, and the direct impact of these decisions on the users’ interactions, Block and Riesewieck ended up in the Manila, where Facebook boasts its biggest department for content moderation, with more than 10,000 contractors. The Cleaners shows how this platform sees its responsibilities, both toward people moderating and censoring the content and its users. Based on interviews with Philippine content moderators at work, the documentary contributes to the debate about the public responsibilities of social media and online platforms for publishing, from political manipulation and propaganda to data protection.
Humans are still the first line of content moderation and they suffer horrible consequences and traumas for they see daily the worst of the web. Companies like Facebook have developed algorithms and artificial-intelligence tools able to work as a first level, but the most of this technology cannot substitute human capabilities. Certain content moderators describe themselves as custodians of moral values, as their work turns into decisions that can shape social media and consequently society. There are indeed countries where people consider Facebook as the Internet, ignoring that the world wide web is much more than that social media.
The authors go beyond, showing that Manila cleaners are influenced by their cultural background and social believes. They build a parallel between Philippines’ Catholicism and discourse about universal enslavement of humans to God and sacrifice, photographed in the years of the government of Rodrigo Duterte, controversial president who is leading a war against drugs and moral corruption, made of extrajudicial killings and a violent, abusive approach.
Despite denials by the company, cleaners in Manila also moderate Europeans’ posts and they are trained for that. A single world, a historical reference, together with a picture can make all the difference between an innocent joke and hate speech. Whilst memes can be used as weapons, for example by the alt-right groups or by reactionary movements against gender equality, cleaners have just few seconds to decide between removing and keeping a content, checking more than 35,000 images per day. The authors of the documentary explained how it is almost impossible for them to contextualize content. As a result, there is almost no control over their work, as a team leader can just proof 3% of what a cleaner does.
Facing ideologies and strategies of hate: hate speech, online violence and digital rights
The last panel closing the conference on the second day was moderated by the curator, artist and writer Margarita Tsomou. American independent online harassment researcher Caroline Sinders focused her dissertation on online protests and political campaigns in the frame of the hate speech discourse. She recalled recent events able to pollute the public debate by creating chaotic and misleading messages to enhance a reactionary anti-progressive culture. Misogyny thrives on social media and hatred of women and entrenched prejudice against them are everywhere in the Internet. Fake online campaigns are often subtly orchestrated targeting women.
In 2014 on social networks appeared an organised action associated with the hashtag #EndFathersDay, presented as a feminist political campaign to eradicate the celebration of Father’s Day as a “celebration of patriarchy and oppression”. That campaign had nothing to do with feminism and grassroots movements, it was a harassment campaign against women, a fake with manipulated images and hundreds of trolls to feed a sentiment of hatred and hostility against activists for civil rights and equality.
It is not the only case of its genre. The #Gamergate campaign, that in 2014 targeted several women from the video game industry (on Twitter, Reddit, 4chan, and 8chan) falls into this context. The campaign was not immediately perceived as a harassment instrument due to attempts of making it appear as a movement against political correctness and bad journalistic ethics. It was though a misogynistic reactionary campaign against female game developers, that soon revealed its true face as right-wing sexist backlash. Under this hashtag women were indeed victims of doxing, threats of rape and death.
Sinders explained that in the last several years we have seen a shift from a sectorial market to a global dimension where we are all potentially identifiable as gamers. Video games and gaming culture are now mainstream. People are continuously connected to all kind of devices that enable the global gaming industry to generate more than 100 billion dollar every year. The Gamergate controversy reopened the debate that gaming is a world for (white) males, pointing out how the video game industry has a diversity problem, as sexism, racial and gender discrimination in video game culture appear to be a constant factor.
A relevant aspect of the controversy is related to how trolls organised and tried to reframe the narrative of the harassment campaign. Instead of a misogynistic and violent action, they claimed it was about journalistic integrity and candid reviewing, thus denouncing a collusion between the press and feminists and social critics. Most of the trolls and supporters were anonymous, ensuring that the campaign be defined merely by the harassment they have committed against women and as a reaction to what they reported as the increasing influence of feminism on video game culture.
Sinders concluded her speech explaining that organised actions and campaigns like those described above are structured on precise tactics and harassment techniques that have already entered in our vocabulary. Words like doxing, swatting, sealioning and dogpiling are neologisms that describe strategies of hate speech and harassment nowadays common.
The Norwegian journalist Øyvind Strømmen, author and managing editor of Hate Speech International, has extensively researched and written about how extreme right movements and religious fundamentalism are able to build an effective communication online and use the web as an infrastructure to strategically enhance their activities. He joined the panel explaining that despite his intense international activity, he has never been subjected to harassment and death threats like his female colleagues, whilst he finds daily-organised activities to sow hatred and intolerance to repress women.
Cathleen Berger, former International cyber policy coordination staff at the German Foreign Office and currently lead of Mozilla’s strategic engagement with global Internet fora, closed the conference with an analyses of the new German NetzDG legislation, defined by media as an extreme example of efforts by governments to make social media liable for what circulates on their pages. The law was adopted at the end of 2017 to combat illegal and harmful content on social media platforms. It is defined also as anti-hate-speech law as it was written in the historical context of the refugees’ mass migration to Europe and the new neo-nazi propaganda from political formations like the Alternative for Germany (AfD). At the time, fake news and racist material were shared online on several mainstream channels for the first time, with relevant impact on public opinion.
The new German law requires social media companies to provide users with a wide-ranging complaints structure to make sure that discriminatory and illegal posts can quickly be reported. It is left to social media platforms to decide if a certain reported content represents a promotion of or an incitement to terrorism, child abuse, hate or discrimination of any kind.
The law forces social media to act quickly too. Under NetzDG, social media platforms with more than 2 million users in Germany have 24 hours to remove posts reported by users for being illegal. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube seem to be the law’s main focus. Failure to comply with the law carries a fine up to € 50 million.
The German government’s Network Enforcement Act has been criticised for its risks of controversial inadvertent censorship, limiting legitimate expressions of opinion and free speech. Once again private companies, that are neither judges nor any kind of public authority, have the power to decide whether reported content is in fact unlawful.
The 13th Disruption Network Lab Conference
All credit is due to Tatiana Bazzichelli and the Disruption Network Lab, who provided once again a forum for discussion and exchange of information that provokes awareness on matters of particular concern from the different perspectives of the guests – especially women – able to photograph with their international activities and their researches several topical issues.
This 13th Conference (https://www.disruptionlab.org/hate-news/) was a valid opportunity to discuss and rationalise the need for civil society to remain globally vigilant against new forms of hate speech, manipulation and censorship. Ideological reasons behind hate speech and online manipulation are on the table and the framing is clear enough to hold online media and publishing companies accountable for the spread of frauds, falsehood and discrimination within their networks.
Companies like Facebook and Twitter have demonstrated their inability to recognise real threats and appear to be thinking of profit and control without considering the repercussions that their choices have. However, we are delegating them the power to define what is legal and what is not. Their power of censorship shapes society, interfering with fundamental rights and freedoms, feeding conflicts and polarization. This legal response to hate speech and manipulation in the context of the battle for privacy and civil rights is completely inadequate.
Propaganda and hate speech have historically been tools used in all countries to influence decision making and to manipulate and scare public opinion. Forms of intrusive persuasion that use rumours or manipulation to influence people’s choices, beliefs and behaviours are now occupying the web too. Individuals should be able to give due value to their online interactions, focusing on the risks that they run when they click on something. There is too little awareness of how companies, aggressive trolls, criminals, private groups and advertisers subtly manipulate online environment for political and economic interest.
Such a corrupted online ecosystem – where almost nothing of what we meet can be trusted and where individuals and communities are exposed to private interest – generates often hate campaigns targeting women and minorities, normalising crimes, reactionary gender stereotyping and deplorable cultural customs. As all speakers suggested, Cyber-ethnography can be a worthwhile tool as an online research method to study communities and cultures created through computer-mediated social interaction. It could be helpful to study local online exchanges and find local solutions. By researching available data from its microcosmos, it is possible to prevent ethnic, socioeconomic, and political conflicts linked to the online activity of manipulators, destructive trolls and influential groups, to disrupt the insularity of closed media and unveil the economic and political interest behind them.
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By Michael Szpakowski Michael Szpakowski is an artist, composer & writer. His music has been...
Recently I was approached to conceive and run an outreach project to accompany a solo show of work by Eduardo Kac at Furtherfield Gallery in North London’s Finsbury Park.
Among the works on show was one of Kac’s Lagoogleglyphs, large scale stylised representations of rabbits (something of a signature obsession for him) painted in some sort of sportsground emulsion directly onto a section of the park and allegedly of a scale which make it harvestable by the satellites Google rents for its various mapping activities.
Being completely frank, I have to say I entertained a degree of scepticism about Kac’s work—some of it falling within, in my view, one or both of two entertainment based metaphors—the ‘one-liner’ and the ‘theme park’—neither particularly positive elements of my critical lexicon.
Be that as it may, some of the work, particularly the less grandiose pieces (that delicate bunny flag flapping above the gallery!) were touched enough with real poetry to make me want to take up the challenge.
I say ‘challenge’ advisedly for I’m only ever interested in doing anything which in some sense challenges me and I also felt that my ambivalence about Kac would result in anything I ended up making containing a return element of ‘challenge’ or, perhaps more gently put, practical critique.
The word challenge also described the sense I had of wanting to counterpose collaboration, the collective, the everyday, to the artist with a capital ‘A’; of going some way to claiming art as a way of seeing and feeling and thinking together for All ( also with a capital ‘A’).
Reaching back in memory I pondered two remix/homage projects from the noughties which somehow straddled, in a pleasantly clunky fashion, practices both cutting edge digital (at least in their original moment) and time honoured too.
Apposite and practical stimuli for my 2018 purposes, they suggested elegant pathways to both honour previous work and to gently…um… stress-test it.
Both evinced rich humour, a warmth and a concomitant refusal to take themselves too seriously, qualities lacking in much contemporary art and both had a kind of performative klutziness I found entirely engaging.
Both were made in the first years of this millennium when digital and particularly online art was a wild west with a few fragile homesteads scattered here and there and not the orderly space it is today colonised almost entirely by the mainstream art world or commerce or both.
I recalled first a project by Nathaniel Stern where he hired South African billboard sign writers to paint physical representations of various, mostly art related, web pages.
The second was artist duo MTAA’s remix of Tehching Hsieh’s One Year Performance project, an endurance piece where Hsieh had forced himself to punch a timeclock on the hour, every hour for a whole year.
Reversing the premise MTAA’s Whid and River posted a database of video clips of themselves sleeping, eating, inhabiting the space and left it to the online viewer to watch these being digitally assembled (by Flash—remember that?) into a simulacrum of the original over the assumedly continuous period of a year.
Armed, fortified, prepared thus, I set to work—but I still needed a concrete plan and methodology.
Being a keen runner and the project taking place in a London Park in which I had run a 10k not long before (and now having endurance floating near the top of my mind) I felt some kind of park related physical activity would be an element and this would be a way of coming closer to those who loved the park but for whom the art gallery might not be their first association.
But still I lacked the concrete rabbit themed activity which would offer genuine practical, meaningful and autonomous artistic engagement and creation to participants.
I did not want to control what those participants would do but give them a clearly defined (clearly defined enough that all inputs from three separate days of activity could be brought together into a final unified work) and interesting task within which they would need to deploy creativity, focus and skill.
The fad for exercise related GPS devices had previously passed me by but one day whilst running with my daughter, who uses her phone and GPS enabled software to document her running in data and map form, I had a small epiphany—here there (might) be rabbits.
Rabbits, giant GPS rabbits, first planned and sketched by participating teams in marker pen over a satellite image of the park—ears, eyes, paws, body, fluffy tails emergent within its various paths and trails and features and obstructions.
And then, using these maps, we would carefully and attentively walk-out each monster rabbit trapping and freezing it as a succession of data, a series of co-ordinates in the memory of the GPS watch I would wear, finally to be reconstitututed as a continuous line drawing in turn fed back into a fresh satellite view of the park.
But that succession of co-ordinates, actuated by the actual movements of the human body (like a giant pencil lead or nib or brush) will resolve itself into something ancient—line, preconceived and then drawn out by human beings.
Being, together, both the very oldest form of mark making and something blink-of-an-eye recent too (well, as recent as the noughties efflorescence of so-called locative media which I shamelessly pillaged here.)
Inaccuracy in some measure a feature of both ancient and modern—the error margin of even GPS and GLONASS together, two sets of four satellites working in concert; the mix of will and skill and the fallibility and triumph too of flesh and bone and sinew which is part of what thrills and moves us in the arts.
This is what I had in mind.
Repeatedly outlining then co-performing an activity which I learned to summarise simply and precisely, almost automatically, one might have thought boredom or a dozy, parroted, routine might threaten.
And how anxious I was each time as to whether and in what way each new team would engage with—buy into—adopt as theirs, as ours—the task.
But how striking the variation both in the simple, basic act of depicting in continuous line each new rabbit-of-the-imagination and the forty minutes lively sociability surrounding that initial sketching and subsequent walking-out.
Balancing the competing claims of making something serious, something with some kind of weight, some satisfying end product, whilst making space for others’ fun and dreams and and will and whimsy is neither easy nor is it trivial.
In the end people seemed to have a good time, they seemed at ease, went at it with a will and—it seems to me—something rich and affecting emerged.
Thanks to all at Furtherfield and thanks—no, not thanks, but credit—to my fellow artists: Alessandra, Anna, Candy, Chris, Elliot, Evgenia, Franc, George, Grace, Henry, Jade, Lenon, Léonie, Lucian, Luka, Martin, Matthew, Maya, Negev, Niyah, Pryle, Rémi, Rosalie, Sara, Shiri, Stefan, Thea and Tyler.
Mark Hancock discusses the politics and artistry of Janez Janša’s identity interventions in the context of their recent challenge at the Parliamentary Elections in Slovenia, in June 3rd 2018.
Ideas firmly deduced, tested against all variables and tentatively sent out into the world for appraisal by others, soon betray us as they bend to the whims of anyone they encounter. But that’s the nature of the malleable, post-digital world we live in. Ideas have to adapt and change to suit the warp and weft of the society if they are to survive in some form. How do we lock down our ideas into their final form? And what level of commitment can we expect from our ideas even if we apply intellectual property rights and that centuries-old mark of authenticity, the signature? The art world is particularly vulnerable to the conceit of signed authenticity. A signature often being the only guarantee that you’ll see any return (financial, reputational or otherwise) on your investment. If you really want to play with systems of power and bureaucracy, try altering artist names.
Davide Grassi, Emil Hrvatin and Žiga Kariž all changed their names to Janez Janša in 2007, joining the conservative Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS) at the same time, to explore the bureaucratic and political systems of their home country, Slovenia. The foundation of their actions ever since has been the question: what power exists in a name? And not just the art power system, but what political forces come into play when that name also belongs to the leader of the Slovenian Democratic Party, Janez Janša, (Prime Minister 2004 to 2008 and then again in 2012 to 2013). Incidentally, or perhaps not, Janez Janša, the politician was born Ivan Janša. The renaming of the three artists becomes a sort of double bluff when you also start to ask who the ‘real’ Janez Janša is.
It would be easy to assume that the work of Janez Janša is simply another playful, flaccid baiting of the art world and right-wing political hegemonies. All too often work that challenges the political system might as well be challenging the rules of the Italian Football League, for all the difference in the world it makes beyond the enclosed loop of the art community. There’s only so far that insulting the work of Damien Hirst with another work of art can get you. But the Janez Janša artists have chosen to pierce through the membrane of the art world and make a social difference.
In the Slovenian Parliamentary Elections on the 3rd June 2018, one of them ran as a member of the opposition party, Levica (The Left) in Grosuplje the home district of the ex-Prime Minister, Janez Janša. In a press release, Janez Janša (the artist) said: “Running for parliament is a logical consequence of the view I have towards society. I care about what is happening. I react to things. I want to change them. (…) Society must be organized in such a way that the state begins to serve its citizens, as opposed to serving capital. Capital has no interest either for society or for art or for the individual.”
There is something inherently political in multiple authors using a single name, at least if you cast an eye over recent history. Reference points include Wu Ming, the Italian author collective that produced a number of literary works (they published a best-selling novel, Q, in 1999). They evolved from the Luther Blissett collective, whose playful, socially engaged activities defy the concept of the singular creative voice. This concept seems so alien to much of the mainstream media, particularly in Wu Ming’s home country of Italy, where they have been accused of everything from cybercrime to the less savoury aspects of rave culture. It’s this uncertainty about ownership that seems to bring a nervous lump to the throat of media and political gatekeepers. Perhaps this revolves around two questions so central to capitalism: If you’re doing nothing wrong, why hide behind a nom de plume or a collective? And, who do I send the check to, if I want to buy an Art?
On top of this, copyright issues become complex when the roster of names increases as well. Because we still want ideas to be owned, even when they are expanded through homages and pastiches. Copyright, as the attorney representing the Janez Janšas points out, is a legal construct, protecting, “original artistic (and scientific) creations, which are expressed in any way. A work is protected by copyright only if it was created by a human being (an author) and bears a stamp of author’s personality.” With work by Luther Blissett and Wu Ming, at least the authors can be understood as ‘artists’, even anonymously. Janez Janša, Janez Janša and, last but not least, Janez Janša have layered this authorship of their artwork with another layer of copyright/ownership complexity.
Janez Janša: registered. +MSUM – Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova, Ljubljana. Curated by Domenico Quaranta. October 18, 2017 – February 18, 2018. Photo: Dejan Habicht / Moderna galerija.
They refer to this work as collateral art, a phrase resonant with the phrase collateral damage, used to describe the acceptable casualties of battles. Collateral art is the acceptable damage on their ideas and projects from engagement with companies and institutions: ID cards, membership cards, the whole panoply of detritus that comes with the work. The artists want this collateral art, often customised by companies on request, to question the relationship between artworks and functional objects, “exploring post-Fordist means of production.” Any art historians still trying to shoehorn the belief of the gifted singular genius crafting his (note the gender pronoun: now discuss) solo masterpiece, probably hasn’t been paying close enough attention. The individual work of art often only becomes such with the signature of the artist attached as providence. When the work of art carries the signature of a non-artist though, can it still be brought into the art world as a valid comment on… anything? Paperwork sent to institutions by Janez Janša, and signed by an official becomes art. But whose art?
The answer, of course, is that it is their art. Whatever bureaucratic grindstone the works have been milled under, they ultimately belong back with the artists. It is they who return the work back to the art world through the exhibition. The exhibition co-produced by Moderna galerija (MG+MSUM) and Aksioma – Institute for Contemporary Art, Ljubljana, and curated by independent curator Domenico Quaranta, in 2017, was a chance to display and reflect back on ten years of work by the artists. Called the Janez Janša® exhibition, on display were works including Signatures (2007 – ongoing) which explored interventions of the Janez Janša name into public spaces, such as the Hollywood Walk of Fame (Signature, 2007), or Signature (Copacabana), in Rio de Janeiro, 2008. Playfully appearing in numerous locations around the world. Or Mount Triglav on Mount Triglav, an action performed in August 2007. This action commemorated “the 80th anniversary of the death of Jakob Aljaž; the 33rd anniversary of the Footpath from Vrhnika to Mount Triglav; the 5th anniversary of the Footpath from the Wörthersee Lake across Mount Triglav to the Bohinj Lake; the 25th anniversary of the publication of Nova Revija magazine and the 20th anniversary of the 57th issue of Nova Revija, the premiere publication of the SLOVENIAN SPRING; this was a re-enactment of Gora Triglav (Mount Triglav), by the OHO group in 1968 and the latest in a chain of re-enactments, as it was also performed by in 2004 by the Irwin Group.
Janez Janša: registered. +MSUM – Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova, Ljubljana. Curated by Domenico Quaranta. October 18, 2017 – February 18, 2018. Photo: Dejan Habicht / Moderna galerija.
Janez Janša: registered. +MSUM – Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova, Ljubljana. Curated by Domenico Quaranta. October 18, 2017 – February 18, 2018. Photo: Dejan Habicht / Moderna galerija.
The conference in the same year, Proper and Improper Names: Identity in the Information Society conference, hosted by Aksioma – Institute for Contemporary Art, Ljubljana, and curated by Marco Deseriis in 2017, invited speakers including Natalie Bookchin, Marco Deseriis, Kristin Sue Lucas, Gerald Raunig, Ryan Trecartin, Wu Ming. The subjects under discussion arose from Marco Deseriis’ book Improper Names: Collective Pseudonyms from the Luddites to Anonymous. Deseriis, as keynote speaker, talked about the genealogy of the improper name. This is Deseriis’s term for the use of pseudonyms by artist collectives, including Wu Ming (who presented a talk at the conference) and Ned Ludd, the fictional leader of the English Luddites.
Kino Šiška, Improper Names Conference. Photo: Miha Fras. Production: Aksioma – Institute for Contemporary Art, Ljubljana, 2017.
Releasing your ideas out in the wild doesn’t always guarantee they will come back to you unscathed or even return at all. The works of the Janez Janša collective are sent out to corporate systems, being adapted and altered, and returned. Or at the very least offering a challenge to accepted forms of ideological structures. In the Slovenian elections on 3rd June, the Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS) won with 25% of the votes. Levica won 9.0%. The SDS is a far-right, anti-immigration party, reflecting the increasing rise of right-wing parties across Europe right now. The leader of the SDS, Janez Janša, now has the opportunity to form a right-wing government. If this happens, and by the time you read this, it may well have, it would continue the shift in European Councils members towards the right.
There’s nothing new in declaring that everything is in flux. That’s the nature of our hyper-accelerated world. But right now there is a creeping sense that The Other is also to be viewed as The Enemy. The social, political value of art has to change to mean something in what is little short of a battle for a better society for ourselves and others across the globe if it is to have any value whatsoever. Janez Janša, Janez Janša and Janez Janša’s work reflect this evolution by being part of the society around them. Being part of the electoral system reflected this challenge and desire to be part of the real world and to make art mean something more than gallery space and conference papers. If art wants to survive and continue to belong to everyone, then it needs to be part of the world we are living in right now. No one work of art ever changed the world, but it helps us unravel and see through the propaganda of systems. We all need to become Janez Janša®.
The final outcome of the recent Slovenian Elections remains uncertain as Social Democratic Party’s Janez Janša attempts to form a coalition government.
By John Jordan Labelled a "Domestic Extremist" by the police, and “a magician of rebellion”...
This is a long read by one of the inhabitants of the Zad, about the the fortnight rollercoaster of rural riots that has just taken place to evict the liberated territory of the Zad. It’s been incredibly intense and hard to find a moment to write, but we did our best. This is simply one viewpoint, there are over 1000 people on the zone at the moment and every one of them could tell a different story. Thank you for all the friends and comrades who helped by sharing their stories, rebel spirits and lemon juice against the tear gas.
The Revenge against the Commons of the Zad or Why France’s biggest police operation since May 68 is prepared to kill for Macron’s Neoliberal Nightmare.
“We must bring into being the world we want to defend. These cracks where people find each other to build a beautiful future are important. This is how the zad is a model.” Naomi Klein
“What is happening at Notre-Dame-des-Landes illustrates a conflict that concerns the whole world” Raoul Vaneigem
The police helicopter hovers above, its bone rattling clattering never seems to stop. At night its long godlike finger of light penetrates our cabins and farm houses. It has been so hard to sleep this last week. Even dreaming, it seems, is a crime on the Zad. And that’s the point: these 4000 acres of autonomous territory, this zone to defend (Zad), has existed despite the state and capitalism for nearly a decade and no government can allow such a place to flourish. All territories that are inhabited by people who bridge the gap between dream and action have to be crushed before their hope begins to spread. This is why France’s biggest police operation since May 1968, at a cost of 400,000 euros a day, has been trying to evict us with its 2500 gendarmes, armoured vehicles (APCs), bulldozers, rubber bullets, drones, 200 cameras and 11,000 tear gas and stun grenades fired since the operation began at 3.20am on the morning of the 9th of April.
The state said that these would be “targeted evictions”, claiming that there were up to 80 ‘radical’ Zadists that would be hunted down, and that the rest, the ‘good’ Zadists, would have to legalise or face the same fate. The good zadist was a caricature of the gentle ‘neo rural farmer’ returning to the land, the bad, an ultra violent revolutionary, just there to make trouble. Of course this was a fantasy vision to feed the state’s primary strategy, to divide this diverse popular movement that has managed to defeat 3 different French governments and win France’s biggest political victory of a generation.
The zad was initially set up as a protest against the building of a new airport for the city of Nantes, following a letter by residents distributed during a climate camp in 2009, which invited people to squat the land and buildings: ‘because’ as they wrote ‘only an inhabited territory can be defended’. Over the years this territory earmarked for a mega infrastructure project, evolved into Europe’s largest laboratory of commoning. Before the French state started to bulldoze our homes, there were 70 different living spaces and 300 inhabitants nestled into this checkerboard landscape of forest, fields and wetlands. Alternative ways of living with each other, fellow species and the world are experimented with 24/7. From making our own bread to running a pirate radio station, planting herbal medicine gardens to making rebel camembert, a rap recording studio to a pasta production workshop, an artisanal brewery to two blacksmiths forges, a communal justice system to a library and even a full scale working lighthouse – the zad has become a new commune for the 21st century. Messy and bemusing, this beautifully imperfect utopia in resistance against an airport and its world has been supported by a radically diverse popular movement, bringing together tens of thousands of anarchists and farmers, unionists and naturalists, environmentalists and students, locals and revolutionaries of every flavour. But everything changed on the 17th of January 2018, when the French prime minister appeared on TV to cancel the airport project and in the same breath say that the zad, the ‘outlaw zone’ would be evicted and law and order returned.
I am starting to write 8 days into the attack, it’s Tuesday the 17th of April my diary tells me, but days, dates even hours of the day seem to merge into a muddled bath of adrenaline socked intensity, so hard to capture with words. We are so tired, bruised and many badly injured. Medics have counted 270 injuries so far. Lots due to the impact of rubber bullets, but most from the sharp metal and plastic shrapnel shot from the stun and concussion grenades whose explosions punctuate the spring symphony of birdsong. Similar grenades killed 21 year old ecological activist Remi Fraise during protests against an agro industrial damn in 2014.
The zad’s welcome and information centre, still dominated by a huge hand painted map of the zone, has been transformed into a field hospital. Local doctors have come in solidarity working with action medic crews, volunteer acupuncturists and healers of all sorts and the comrades ambulance is parked outside. The police have even delayed ambulances leaving the zone with injured people in them, and when its the gendarmerie that evacuates seriously injured protesters from the area sometimes they have been abandoning them in the street far from the hospital or in one case in front of a psychiatric clinic.
The thousands of acts of solidarity have been a life line for us, including sabotaged French consulate parkings in Munich to local pensioners bringing chocolate bars, musicians sending in songs they composed to demonstrations by Zapatistas in Chiapas, banners in front of French embassies everywhere – from Dehli to New York, a giant message carved in the sand of a New Zealand beach and even scuba divers with an underwater banner. Here on the zone three activist field kitchens have come to feed us, architects have written a column deploring the destruction of unique forms of habitat signed by 50,000 people and locals have been offering storage for the safe keeping of our belongings. A true culture of resistance has evolved in parallel with the zad over the years. Not many people are psychologically or physically prepared to fight on the barricades, but thousands are ready to give material support in all its forms and this is the foundation of any struggle that wants to win. It means opening up to those who might be different, those that might not have the same revolutionary analysis as us, those who some put in their box named ‘reformist’, but this is what building a composition is all about, it is how we weave a true ecology of resistance. As a banner reads on one of the squatted farmhouses here, Pas de barricadieres sans cuisiniers “There are no (female) barricaders without (male) cooks.”
Today has been one of the calmest since the start of the operation, and it felt like the springtime was really flowering, so we opened all the doors and windows of house letting the spring air push away the toxic fumes of tear gas that still linger on our clothes. It feels like there is a momentary lull. For the first time since the evictions, our collective all ate together, sitting in the sun at a long table surrounded by two dozen friends from across the world come to support us. I hear the buzzing of a bee trying to find nectar and look up into the sky, its not a bee at all, but the police drone, come to film us sharing food, it hovers for hours. In the end this is the greatest crime we have committed on the zad, that of building the commons, sharing worlds together and deserting the pathology of individualism.
Two years before the abandonment of the airport project the movement declared in a text entitled The Six Points for the Zad: Because there will be no Airport, that we would, via an entity that emerged from the movement , collectively look after these lands that we were saving from certain death by concrete. A few months before the abandonment the form that this entity took was the Assembly of Usages. Soon after thethe airport was cancelled, we entered into negotiations with the state (via the prefet. Nicole Klein, who represents the state in the department) following a complicated week of pre-negotiations, where we were forced to open up one of the roads which had had cabins built on it since the attempted evictions of 2012. It seemed that the flow of traffic through the zone was the state’s way of telling the public that law and order had returned on the zone. (see the text Zad Will Survive for a view of this complicated period).
A united delegation of 11 people made up from the NGOs, farmers, naturalists and occupiers of the zone attended the negotiations and did not flinch from the demand to set up a collective legal land structure, rather than return these lands to private property and agro-business as usual. In the 1980s a similar legal structure was put in place following the victory of a mass movement against the expansion of a military base on the plateau of the Larzac in Southern France. With this precedent in mind we provided a legally solid document for a global land contract, but it was ignored, no legal grounds were given, the refusal was entirely political. Three days later the evictions began.
The battle lines were made clear, it was not about bringing ‘law and order’ back to the zone, but a battle between private property, and those who share worlds of capitalism against the commons. The battle of the Zad is a battle for the future, one that we cannot loose.
During the picnic action someone holds up a sign “The Zad is ours”
The police begin their operation at 3.20 am
DAY 1: Monday 9th April – Everything Begins in the dark
The telephone rings, it’s 3.20am, it’s still dark outside, a breathless voice says two simple words, “It’s begun !” and hangs up. Everyone knows what to do, some run to offices filled with computers, others to the barricades, some to the pirate radio (Radio Klaxon, which happens to squat the airwaves of Vinci motorway radio, 107,7, the construction company that was going to build and run the airport) others start their medics shift. Hundreds of police vans are taking over the two main roads that pass through the zone.
Fighting on one of the lanes manages to stop the cops moving further west. But elsewhere the bulldozers smash their way through some of the most beautiful cabins made of adobe and the wastes of the world that rose out of the the mud in the east of the zone, they destroy the Lama Sacrée with its stunning wooden watch tower, permaculture gardens and green houses are flattened and they rip gashes in the forest. A large mobile anti riot wall is erected by the police in the lane that stretches east to west, a technique that works in cities but in rural riots it’s useless and people spend all morning hassling them from every angle. Despite gas and stun grenades we hold our ground. Journalists are blocked for a while from entering, the police stating that they will provide their own footage (free of copyrights!). The “press group” gives them directions so that they manage to cross the fields and the pictures dominate the morning news.
There are over a dozen of us are facing a line of hundreds of robocops at the other end of the field. One of us, masked up and dressed in regulation black kway is holding a golf club. He kneels down and places a golf T in the wet grass. He pulls a golf ball out of a big supermarket bag and serenely places it in the T. He takes a swipe, the ball bounces off the riot shields. He takes out another ball and another and another.
We reply with a joyful hail of mud that covers their visors and shields. The people on the roof are brought down by the specialists climbers and the bulldozer does its job. A few minutes later a one of their huge demolition machines gets stuck in the mud, a friend shouts ironically to the crowd: “come on let’s go and give it hand and push it out!”, Hundreds approach, trails of gas take over the blue sky, dozens of canisters rain down on the wetlands, many falling into the ponds which begin to bubble with their toxic heat. I try to console Manu whose home, a tall skinny wooden cabin with a climbing wall on its side, has just been flattened, my hugs cannot stop his sobs. Our eyes are red with tears of grief and gas.
In the logic of the state, the 100 Noms ticked many of their fantasy boxes of those want to be legalised, ‘the good Zadists’. It was a well functioning small holding, producing meat and vegetables and where the sheep were more legal than its inhabitants. It was a project that had the support of many of the locals. Its destruction lit a spark that brought many of those in the movement who had felt a bit more distant from the zad recently back into the fold of the resistance. Of course its no less disgusting than the flattening of all the other homes and cabins, but the battle here is as much on the symbolic terrain as in the bocage and it is seems to be a strategic blunder to destroy the 100 Noms.
The live twitter videos from the attack are watched by tens of thousands, news of the evictions spreads and a shock wave ripples through France. Actions begin to erupt in over 100 places, some town halls are occupied, the huge Millau bridge over 1000 km away is blockaded as is the weapon factory that makes the grenades in Western Brittanny.
The demolition continues till late, but the barricades grow faster at night, and we count the wounded.
DAY 2: Tuesday 10th April – Between a barricade and a tank
It all begins again before sun rise, the communication system on the zone with its hundreds of walkie talkies, old style truck drivers cb’s and pirate radio station calls us to go and defend the Vraie Rouge collective, which is next to the the zad’s largest vegetable garden and medicinal herb project. We arrive through the fields to find one of the armoured cars pushed up against the barricade, we stand firm the barricade between us and the APC. We prepare paint bombs to try and cover the APC’s windows with. Then the tear gas begins to rain amongst the salad and spinach plants. A friend finds a terrified journalist cowering in one of the cabins, she writes for the right wing Figaro newspaper and is a bit out of place with her red handbag. “What’s that noise??” she asks, trembling, “the stun grenades” he replies. “But why aren’t you counter attacking?” she says, “where are your pétanque balls covered in razor blades?” Our friend laughs despite the gas poisoning his lungs, “we never had such things, it was a right wing media invention, and it’s impossible anyway, no one can weld razor blades onto a pétanque ball! ”
There is so much gas, we can no longer see beyond our stinging running noses. The police are being pressurised simultaneously from the other side of the road by a large militant crowd with gas masks, make shift shields, stones, slingshots and tennis rackets to return the grenades. They are playing hide and seek from behind the trees. The armoured car begins to push the barricade, some of us climb onto the roof of the two story wooden cabin, others try to retreat without crushing the beautiful vegetable plot. Its over, the end of another collective living space on the zone. Then we hear a roar from the other side of the barricade. Dozens of figures emerge from the forest, molotov cocktails fly, one hits the APC, flames rise from the amour and the wild roar transforms itself into a cry of pure joy. The APC begins to back off as do the police. The Vraie Rouge will live one more day it seems, thanks to diversity of tactics.
In 2012 when we managed to stop the first eviction attempts of the zone, this was what gave us an advantage. Over the 50 years that the movement against the airport lasted, it used everything from petitions to hunger strikes, legal challenges to sabotage, riots to citizens ecological inventories of the zone, defensive tree houses to flying rocks, tractor blockades to clown armies. Its secret weapon was the respect we had for each others’ tactics and an incredible ability to try and not condemn each other. Pacifist Pensioners and black bloc worked together in a way that I had never seen before, which made criminalising the movement much more complicated for the government. Movements win when they have the richest most colourful palette of tactics at their disposition and they are ready to use everyone of them at the right time and place.
In a woodland dip to the east of the zone, the Cheverie, is still resisting. A huge high cabin made from different types of swirling coloured clay – brown, grey, ochre and white – punctuated by mosaics and carved spiders, constructed by hundreds of hands, is about to be crushed. Hundreds of gendarmes surround it, one of them seems to have a machine gun strapped to his back. From the roof someone uses a traffic cone as a megaphone: “we are defending life and the living.” When the cabin is finally brought down a minor miracle occurs, none of the dozens of windows is broken, which will make it much easier to rebuild.
At the Fosses Noires, the brewery has been turned into a canteen, but the tear gas is falling on the pots, pans and piles of donated of vegetables. After lunch, a second press conference takes place, yesterday the first one had brought dozens of TV cameras and microphones from radios across the country, 8 people from all the composition of the movement faced the cameras, their dignified anger was so powerful, so palpable, many of us shed tears listening.
Today there are 30 inhabitants are in front of the cameras, it is those that have an agricultural and craft projects running on the zone, the tanner is there as is the cheese maker, the potter and market gardeners, cow herders and leather workers. They explain how over the last weeks of negotiations with the state, they handed over documents to develop a collective project within a legal non profit association that had been set up. They show that on this bocage to think ecologically is to realise that all the projects are interdependent, rotating the fields between folk, sharing tools and and everyone helping out on each others projects when needed. To divide the zad into individual separate units makes no sense.
But the words are not as strong as the striking image of Sarah, our young shepherdess who like a modern day madonna holds a dead black lamb on here lap. She explains how her flock was legalised already and that this one died from stress when it was moved from the 100 Noms farm to avoid the evictions. Her grey eyes pierce the camera lenses, “they chose violence, they chose to destroy what we build, they chose to break off the dialogue with us.” Whilem a young farmer, whose milk herd squats fields to the west, raises his trembling voice, “ If there is no collective agriculture then you get what’s already happening in the countryside – individualism: eat up your neighbours farm land, be more and more alone with a bigger and bigger farm,” he takes a deep breath, “the isolation is pushing farmers to commit suicide, we are more and more alone on our farms faced with increasing difficulties. On the zad we hold a vision of farming for all, not just for us.”
The zad makes a call for a mass picnic the following day. Vincent one of the supporting farmers from the region, a member of COPAIN 44, a network of rebel farmers whose tractors have become one of our most iconic and useful tools of resistance, sighs, “the government has broken any possibility of dialogue now, they have forced us to respond with a struggle for power.”
Between the tall poles that hold the breweries’ hop plants a long banner is raised, “Nicole Klein radicalised me.”
DAY 3: Wednesday 11th April – Gassing a Picnic
We are woken as normal by the explosions of gendarmes grenades, fighting continues near the D281 road. A small group is trying to stop the police lining up in a field, there aren’t many of us, it feels hopeless, then out of the morning mist comes a tractor, its driver wears a balaclava, in the front bucket – a tonne of stones. He drops them in a pile just where we are standing, puts the tractor in reverse and disappears back into the mist.
In the next door field a towering guy wearing a balaclava and dressed in a full monks habit throws a bucket of water over a handful of robocops – “I baptise you in the name of the zad”, he bellows. A cloud of pepper spray engulfs him, but one the gendarmes slips in the mud and drop his truncheon, at the speed of light the monk grabs it and runs off, wielding his rebel relic in the air. The police megaphone calls out “You must return the state’s property. Return it now!”
The picnic before it was gassed.
At lunch time, over a thousand people turn up to share a picnic in the fields. Over thirty tractors have come, some from far, despite the fact that its one of the busiest seasons for the farmers, they encircle the large Rouge et Noir collective vegetable garden, now littered with hundreds of toxic plastic tear gas canisters. “The state crossed the red line when they destroyed the 100 Noms” one of them says.
The crowd of all ages walk through the barricades and debris of yesterday’s battle that litter the country lanes. The atmosphere is festive, a samba band with pink masks leads us into the field beside the Lama Sacrée. A long line of black clad police stretches across the spring green pasture. The samba band approach, then all hell lets loose: gas canisters shower down, dozens of stun grenades are thrown into the peaceful crowd, panic ensues, people retreat across the hedgerows.
The houses of la Boite Noire, Dalle à Caca, Jesse James and la Gaité fall in the east. Simultaneously they attack la Grée, the large rambling grafitti covered farm at the centre of the zone that has an unconditional welcome policy. There is a car repair workshop, climbing wall and the rap studio and many folk escaping the misery of street life and addictions end up living there together. Farmers’ tractors are surrounding the building, a barricade made from the carcasses of cars, is set alight. But the tear gas is too strong and the tractors are forced to back off.
Out of the mist of gas come black lumbering troops, they charge across the fields. The whole zone is split in two by a seemingly endless lines of robocops stretching east to west. The crowd is dispersed, people are coughing up their lungs, they are furious. It began as a picnic, now it’s a war zone again. The gas clouds cling to the pasture, frightened cows huddle together in a corner of a tiny field. The medic post at the Fosses Noires has to move away to the Gourbi, but then the gas catches up with it there too and it moves to La Rolandière just in time before the police arrive to smash one of the zone’s most symbolic sites, the Gourbi.
In the very centre of the zad the Gourbi is where the weekly assembly of occupiers is held and Friday’s No-market, a place where excess produce is distributed with no fixed price but by donation only. Initially there was a stone farm house there, inhabited by an old couple who were evicted in 2012 and their home destroyed for the airport project. Then a wooden hut was built in its place, but its ramshackle pallet sides soon needed restoring and so a brand new state of the art cabin like meeting house was built over 2015. But one night someone sneaked into this beautiful meeting house and set it alight.
But Gourbi was to rise from the ashes, and as an ironic response to the governments 2016 local consultation about the airport project, we held an all night building party whilst the results came through (55% for building the new airport). To the sound of a wild one man accordion band doing kitsch covers of Queen and other trashy pop songs, hundreds of people stuffed the clay of the wetlands into a huge geodesic metal dome structure to build our new round meeting house. It was made of steel and mud to resist arson, but today the bulldozer crushed it with a single swipe of its blade. Worlds away in the metropolis, the Minister of Interior, Gérard Collomb, tells parliament “We want to avoid all violence in this country, this is what we are doing at Notre-Dame-des-Landes.”
By sunset the government claims to have evicted 13 more living spaces, bringing the total to 29 since Monday. The prime minister refuses to pause the operations, and the medic team share horrific photos of some of the 60 injuries since Monday, including 3 journalists. Meanwhile the cops release their figures: 32 injuries, but it turns out most are from the mis use of their own weapons. Solidarity actions pour in from thousands, including squatters in Iceland, farmers in Lebanon and eco builders in Columbia. In Paris, sex workers send in kinky zad themed S and M photos and students occupy the EHSS elite social science school in solidarity. That afternoon electricity is cut across a large part of the zone and many of our neighbors homes outside of the zad. It is a tactic reminiscent of collective punishment used during military occupations , At night the gentle lulling croak of mating frogs in the marches mixes with the hum of back up electric generators. Four hundred of us meet at the Wardine, in the old concrete cow shed covered in bright murals, we share stories, dogs bark, tempers fray.
DAY 4: Thursday 12th April – Are they ready to Kill ?
The day begins with some good news on radio klaxon. An affinity group action just shut down the motorway that passes near the zad. Emerging from the bushes they flowed down onto the tarmac armed with tyres, fluorescent jackets and lighters. Within seconds a burning wall blocked the flow of commuters to Nantes. The group disappeared just as quickly as they materialised, melting back into the hedgerows. The more we fight for this land, the more we become the bocage and the harder it is to find us. Every day more and more people converge here, many for the first time in their lives.The art of the barricade continues across the zone, including one topped with an old red boat. Some of our most useful barricades are mobile, in the form of tractors, dozens of COPAIN 44’s machines take over the main cross roads of the zone.
Following an attempt by friendly lawyers to prove that the eviction of the 100 noms was illegal, the prefect is forced to appear in court in Nantes, but the case is adjourned. The indefatigable zad press group sends out a new communique entitled, After 3 days of evictions are they ready to kill because they don’t want a collective ? Clashes continues across the bocage as Macron take to the TV screens for a national statement about his policies. A social movement is rising against him, with university occupations, supermarket, rail workers and Air France on strike – he has to respond. The mise-en-scène is bizarre, he sits in a primary school class room. He speaks about the zad for a little over a minute, “republican order must be returned” he says, and “everything that was to be evacuated has already been evacuated”.
As he speaks a hundred and fifty concussion grenades are launched in less than half an hour in the Lama Sacrée field, the explosions echo across the bocage, bursting the ear drums of those nearby and raising the anxiety levels of those within hearing distance, which on this flat landscape of the zad, is all of us. The league of Human Rights demands that all parties come back to the table. A call is sent for people to converge on the Zone on Sunday: “ The time has come to find ourselves together, to say that the zad must live, to dress our wounds and re build ourselves..” …
We walk home to la Rolandière, with its ship shaped library attached to the lighthouse, built where they wanted to build the airport control tower. The sun is setting, 20m high up on the lighthouse’s balcony a lone figure is playing a trumpet, fluid sumptous jazz floats across the forest. It is one of those moments when you remember why you live here.
That night under a clear constellation filled sky, the Assembly of Usages meets. We sit on wooden hand made bleechers under Le hangar de l’avenir (The Barn of the future). This cathedral like barn was built by over 80 traditional carpenters in 2016 using mostly hand tools, it is ornamented with snakes and salamanders carved into the oak beams. There are several hundred of us at the assembly, one of the peasants whose tractor is blocking the crossroads reads out a series of texts messages he has received from the préfete who is trying to negotiate with COPAIN 44. “Yesterday the Prime minister said it was war, today the president says its peace, therefore it’s all over.” It’s clear that she’s feeling that the situation has become much more complicated than predicted. A deal is made, move your tractors she writes, and I promise that by 10pm I will announce to Ouest France, the regional news paper, that it is the end of operations by the Gendarmes.
The meeting continues, we wait for the article to appear on the newspaper’s web site. I reload my phone endlessly waiting for the site to update. Suddenly it does, but it’s just a story about rock legend Johnny Hallyday, was it all a bluff ? Then it arrives, half an hour late. A cheer rises from the tired voices. At home we try to party a little, at least we might get a lie in tomorrow morning, it seems that it’s over for the time being?
DAY 5: Friday 13th April – Utopias with teeth
I’m half awake, there is a rumble of vehicles on the road… At first I think it’s tractors, then I see the lights, blue and flashing, van after van of cops passing. We leap out of bed and run to the top of the lighthouse, the entire road is filled with vans as far as the eye can see. The huge barricade at the crossroads, which the tractors left last night following the préfete’s announcement, is on fire, a plume of black smoke frames the the orange dawn. The familiar pop of tear gas canisters being fired is accompanied by the crunching sounds of barricades being pushed by the APC. Radio Klaxon says they have kettled la Grée and are searching it, the Wardine camping is also encircled and a hundred and fifty cops are heading towards the Rosier. The Lascar barricade, made of several burnt cars, with a huge metal doorway and a trench that is several meters wide, is being defended by a nearly 100 of us. The forest is wrapped in toxic mist, ghostly rebel silhouette run from tree to tree, stones are aimed at the robocops with catapults that were made by Andre, an 83 year old who set up a production line for us during the eviction threats of 2016, his team churned out 1000. The cops throw stun grenades blindly from the fields into the forest, one explodes just above my head, caught in the tree it rips the bark into smithereens. Is this what they call the end of operations ?
A communiqué from the gendarmerie explains that they are clearing the roads and are not doing any expulsions or knocking down any squats, but that they are looking to arrest people who fired a distress rocket at their helicopter. At la Grée they take away two people but not for that charge. The gas pushes everyone back from the Lascar’s barricade and the grinders come out to cut the metal gateway into pieces. Despite the rising clouds of tear gas, people on the roof of the brand new Ambazada, a building that will host folk from intergalactic struggles, manage to sing some of our re purposed folk songs, recount the history of the struggle of the zad.
Then a moment of joy, one of the armoured cars attacking the Lascar tips into a ditch and has to be pulled out by the other one. The mud of this wetlands has always been our ally, its wetness our friend. When they retreat a banner is put up, “Cheap APC driving license available here.” Our other accomplice is humour of course, even in what feels like a war zone, with tarmac scorched, broken glass and rubble everywhere, being able to laugh feeds our rage. The police retreat again and the barricade grows back out of its ruins, bigger and stronger than ever. We notice that where the APC fell into the ditch is now a huge deep hole at exactly the place where the drain for the Ambazada was going to be dug, no need for digging, just put the plants in it to make our grey water reed bed. That’s what you call radical permaculture, least effort for maximum gain.
I walk through the Rohanne forest to The Barn of the Future, I breathe in the forest air, the sweet pine, the musty damp smell of mushrooms. The barn has returned to its normal use as a saw mill and carpentry workshop for the zad. It is the base of the Abracadabois collective that looks after the forests and hedgerows, harvesting fire wood and building timber and setting up skill shares to learn carpentry, forest biology, wood carving, chain saw use and learning about other ways of inhabiting forests inspired by indigenous practices from past and present. The saw mill is planking the logs, twenty carpenters are busy preparing frames for a new building, a new assembly and no-market hall for the Gourbi, that we aim to put up on Sunday during the mass action.
This morning I was enveloped in tear gas and now I’m watching some of the same barricaders without their gas masks making a barn using the techniques that have been used for millennia. It is somehow healing to watch the attentive work. It is this capacity to fight and build, to block capitalism and to construct other forms of life which gives the zad its strength. It is also another reason the state wants to destroy us, they can deal with nice clean alternative eco projects, easy to buy off and recuperate into new forms of green capitalism. But when those who have a systemic critique are also providing material examples of other ways of being, it becomes dangerous. The resistance and creativity, the no and the yes, are the twin strands of DNA of this territory, split one from the other and the zad dies. It becomes another ecovillage or Transition Town, alternatives without teeth.
Yet a second helicopter is flying above the barn, this time with Prime Minister Edouard Philippe and the minister of interior inside, they are getting a private birds eye tour of the zad. They have come to congratulate the troops for their hard work. As he shakes hands with the gendarmes Phillippe tells the press that “the state will not accept any reconstruction or reoccupation.” He is referring to the action planned on Sunday, “Any place that tries such an action will exclude itself from any possible regularisation…. and will thus put themselves under judicial proceedings.” Once again the threat of sorting the good zadists from the bad. The carpenters work late into the night.
DAY 6: Saturday 14th April – We won’t forget our scars
Bang, another wake up call, the APCs and dozens of vans pass by at the speed of a TGV train, bulldoze the barricades away on the D81 road again, and continue South, probably to Nantes where striking workers are holding a demonstration followed by one against the eviction of the Zad.
Barricades are cleared at the Lama Fachée at the same time, and a strange new gas is spotted, dark yellow. It makes people throw up, sows mental confusion and a loss of all spatial and temporal senses. Behind one of the barricades, a trio of action medics are keeping an eye on the adjoining woodland where grenades are exploding, “ It’s been war wounds here,” they explain “skin and nerves hit by shrapnel, open gashes, eardrums damaged, necrosis and bone fractures.” Some folk have over 70 pieces of shrapnel in their limbs, it takes hours every day to pull them out and clean them, some have gone 3cms deep into the skin. Many of the new comers on the zone throw themselves into picking up the thousands of gas canisters that litter the fields, placing them in big bags for everyone to see in the “camp of the white haired ones.” Each canister costs 110 euros.
The demonstration in Nantes is big, 10,000 people. The 1000 riot police on duty attack it and gas people drinking on the café terraces.
The sun set is dark red this evening. The wood working tools and machines are cleared aside, the Barn of the Future becomes a meeting hall again for the Assembly of Usages. The fresh smell of saw dust perfumes the discussions about whether we should go to back to the negotiations on Monday. The response is no, not yet.
DAY 7: Sunday 15th April – The Human millipede realises a dream
It’s the big day, thousands of people from all over the country are converging on the zone for the day of mass action. The troops have cut off a third of the zad, they line the lanes for kilometers, cutting off access to any of the part of the zone where homes had been destroyed last week. This includes the Gourbi where we hoped to bring the new building too. All road access to the zad are blocked off by the gendarmes, they tell people to go home because they won’t be able to reach the demonstration. But more than ten thousand of them disobey, park their cars and coaches in the nearby villages and trek for over an hour across the bocage. The details of the new building are still being finished, as the crowds arrive, such as a large ‘fuck you’ finger and the face of a fox that are being carved.
Through the pirate radio, text messages and word of mouth, we tell people to converge on Bellevue, the big farm in the west and wait for a decision about what we will do. 50 of us meet in a field in an emergency meeting, the farmers don’t want to risk their tractors, we don’t want to have a gesture that feels too symbolic, once again the collective intelligence comes to the fore and we come up with a plan B. The building will be erected as close to the front as possible without forcing the police line, there are too many families here to risk being gased.
Simultaneously we will ask people to unearth the staffs and sticks that had been planted in the ground in October 2016 when the government told us they were coming to evict. It was a ritual disguised as a demonstration, 40,000 people answered the call, planted their stick into the ground and made a pledge to return to get them if the government came back to evict the zone for the airport. The ritual magic worked, that time the government stood down. But now they were back with a vengence and the moment has come.
Whilst people pulled the deeply charged sticks out of the clay, others on lane behind carried the huge wooden frames, planks and beams of the new building to the field between between the Wardine and the Ambazada. It takes a few hours to put the carpentry back together and raise the structure up, meanwhile thousands of people push their sticks back into the ground creating a huge circular pallisade around it. In the next door field the police start to tear gas and stun grenaded hundreds of people, some had been reading poems to the cops many held their hands in the air in a gesture of peace. Families hold their ground next to masked up barricaders.
Meanwhile, a handful of people decide as a kind of game, to take the campanille, the tower like addition of the new building, through the forest to the east. A crowd of hundreds follows, we cross the road next to the cops who charge but are forced back by the mass of bodies, we try to get as near to the Gourbi as possible. The wind is on our side and blows the teargas back into the cops lines. But the playful act of defiance ends when its clear that we can’t get anywhere near the Gourbi, the police lines are too thick. However, the pleasure of running through forests and fields carrying part of a wooden building is clearly addictive. A few hours later, once the sun has gone down and the cops have left, a new plot is hatched. Why don’t we move the whole building, one and a half tonnes of it, 3kms across the fields, in the dark – to the Gourbi !
Despite the general state of tiredness that fills our bodies, we manage a huge heave, 150 of us lift up the structure. A mass of rubber booted feet walk in unison, it feels like a strange chimera shuffling across the bocage, half human half millipede. One of the carpenters directs the operation via megaphone, “a bit to the left ! slow down ! watch that tree branch !” Lit by the beams of dozens of head torches the building seems to float above the prairies, we are plunged into a space between fabulous dream and a scene from an epic film. Someone sits on the very top of the building pushing up the electricity and phone cables so we can pass under them. This is what we call the magic of the zad, the belief that anything is possible when we do it together.
We half expect to see the police helicopter, to feel its spot light pierce the night, but nothing. The closer we get to the Gourbi the louder the chants: “on est plus chaud, plus chaud, plus chaud que le lumbago” (we are much hotter, much hotter than lumbago). When we arrive, fireworks shoot up into the darkness, a bright red distress flare illuminates the scene. We set the building next to the pilled up ruins of the dome. We light a bonfire, Gourbi has risen again.
Whilst we were moving our house, Macron was being interviewed live on TV, sitting in a black and gold marble hall the Eiffel tower as monumental backdrop. He declares that airport had been abandoned as part of the “ecological priorities of the government” and that therefore our anger is no longer legitimate. Rather than an alternative society, the zad was “a project of chaos… illegally occupying public lands” he tells the nation.
“We have restored republican order” he declares, at least four times. We must sign individual forms before the 23rd of April or “everything that should be evicted will be evicted” he says. Macron ends with a ridiculous analogy: the zad is as if someone came into your living room to propose an alternative and squated your sofa. Ridiculous and wrong, none of the land here belongs to private individuals, it all still belongs to multinational airport builders Vinci and the state. But his statement was a new ultimatum, a declaration of total war against all collective forms of life. We return home to the news, but it cannot blunt the memories of this improbable night.
DAY 8: Monday 16th April – We will always re-surge, return, reclaim
There are a half a dozen bodies perched like birds on the rafters of the new Gourbi, one plays a drum, a couple kiss, the green prairies below burst with yellow dandelions. We hear the rumble of APCs, it’s obvious they are coming straight here. The glint of riot visors shimmer in the sunlight, a column is moving towards us. A few flash bangs later and those on the roof are brought down by police climbers. The pillars of the building are cut by a chainsaw and the APC drives into it. Like the skeleton of a dying beast it crumbles to the ground. The police leave under a hail of stones, people sort out the broken beams. “Bastards !” a friend points to a stump of cut timber, “they sawed off the big fuck you finger and took it back to the barracks as a trophy !”
The Gendarmerie release their drone footage of the destruction on social networks. They need to show some success in their operation, they too are getting tired of this infernal cycle of destruction and reconstruction. A communication from a group called “Gendarmes and Citizens” denounces the fact that they are feeling “bogged down” and feel like “cannon fodder” faced with “rural guerrillas”. They deplore the “political paralysis” of the government who are on the one hand communicating with a “warlike tone” but are not following it up with effective orders on the ground. “Why are we not being given orders to arrest everyone in the squats ?” they complain. So far there have been suprisingly few arrests, we wonder if they will just come back later, raid our homes, pick us off one by one, when things are quieter ?
There is a new moon above tonight’s Assembly of Usages. Unsurprisingly the debates are heated, we have to decide to re start negotiations or not. The question has never been negotiate or fight, we always knew that we had to do both, but after so many days of attacks it’s not easy to accept to go back to the table. In the end we decide that we can meet the préfete, not to negotiate the base issues, but make demands for the continuation of talks, one of which is take the troops off the zone. “You don’t negotiate with a gun to your head”, one of the locals says, but we known that if we refuse to meet, Macron’s machine could return and destroy everything that is left, risking lives and in the end depriving us of this territory where we found each other.
An older friend of mine, someone who experienced the uprisings of ’68, writes to me. His letter just says, “the zad will never end, it will simply change shape.” And he is right. This attachment we have to this territory where we have been able shake our dependence to the economy and the state, is something that brings us together, however disparate our political perspectives. Our love for this huge play ground which inspires us to organise together, this deep desire for the wetlands that lubricates our imaginings, these are not abstractions but feelings that are deeply anchored to our experience of this bocage and all our experiments that emerge from it. It is a place that compels us to recompose, to renew, to have the courage to put our political ideas into question, to always push ourselves further than what we thought was possible, to open ourselves up beyond a radical ghetto or walled off utopia. Despite our barricades and the diversity of disobedience, if the state really wants to eradicate the whole of the zad, they can. Everyone would have lost their homes, workshops, fields, tools and we would probably find ourselves banned from returning to the region (a common judicial punishment in France). Scattered across the country without a place that enables us to grow roots together, we would loose all our strength. We know that changing shape is painful, but like a cameleon changes colours, we need to find a way protect this laboratory and camouflage its revolutionary potentialities from the eyes of the state. If we want to stay we need to find a compromise whilst refusing to let go our the commons.
Day 14: Sunday 22nd April – The art of Changing Shape
It’s a week later. Over breakfast, Paul tells me about last night’s adventures. “It felt like we were robbing a bank. So organised, dressed in black, head lamps, maps, scouts etc. Except all we were doing was evacuating the bee hives from the destroyed homes and gardens, getting them off site.” he smiles “we had to carry them full of bees across the hedgerows behind police lines.”
The days have calmed down. Less cops on the zone, more bird song than explosions. The cycle of barricade growing and then being smashed slows down, partly because on the main roads the police bring in huge skips to take the materials away. In the smaller lanes barricades remain.
The restart of the negotiations on Wednesday went badly, nothing shifted, despite the presence of ex TV personality Nicolas Hulot, now Minister of Ecological Transition, in charge of the zad case since Marcron’s election. He is flown in specially to Nantes in the presidential jet. Following the meeting with us, he gives a press conference in the palatial hall of the Prefecture. The government’s hard line is held, the rights of property and the market reign, there will be no global or collective contract for the land, we have to give individual names and land plots by the 23rd or face evictions. In a rhetorical floury he ends, “ecology is not anarchy.”
Not surprising for a man whose ‘ecology’ involves owning six cars, signing permits for oil exploration and supporting the nuclear dump at Bure. Hulot is simply the ‘eco’ mask for Macron’s “make the planet great again” form of authoritarian neoliberal green capitalism. But his statement shows Hulot’s absolute ignorance of the history of both ecological and anarchist thought. Many of the first theoreticians of ecological thinking, were anarchists. Élisée Reclus, world famous geographer and poet, whose beautiful idea that humans are simply “nature becoming aware of herself,” fought on the barricades of the 1871 Paris Commune. 19th century geographer Peter Kropotkin, spent many years in jail and exile for his politics, but was renowned in scientific circles as an early champion of the idea that evolution is not all a competitive war of “red tooth and claw” but instead involves a cooperation, what he termed Mutual Aid. From the 1950s onwards, US political philosopher Murray Bookchin (now best known for the influence he has on the Kurds to build a stateless form of Municipal Confederalism, taking place in the autonomous territory of Rojova – Northern Syria) brought ecology and anarchy together.
At the heart of his Social Ecology is the idea that humans dominate and destroy nature because we dominate ourselves. To avert ecological collapse we had to get rid of all hierarchies – man over woman, old over young, white over black, rich over poor. According to Bookchin, our greatest lesson to gain from the natural world was that we had let go of the idea of difference, and reclaim the concept held by many small scale organic societies, of unity in diversity. Diversity being the basic force of all bio-systems. He envisioned a world that would be neither communist nor capitalist, but what he called “Communalist”. “The effort to restore the ecological principle of unity in diversity,” he wrote, “has become a social effort in its own right – a revolutionary effort that must rearrange sensibility in order to rearrange the real world.” For him the question of society, to reframe Rosa Luxembourg’s: “Socialism or barbarism” – was: “Anarchism or extinction.”
When we truly inhabit an eco system it becomes obvious that life has no control centre, no heirachy, no chiefs or bosses, no governments or presidents. Every form of life is a self organising form of commons – deeply connected and interdependent, always changing, always embedded and entangled – from the cells in your fingers to worms in your the garden, from the trees in the forest of Rohanne to the bacteria in your gut. As biologist and cultural theorist Andreas Weber says, all life forms “are continuously mediating relationships among each other – relationships that have a material side, but also always embody meaning, a sense of living and the notion of belonging to a place.” The more we observe the living world in all its complexity the more we are able to understand how to become commoners, how to truly inhabit a place and see that the separation between the individual and the whole is a fiction.
“In the ecological commons” writes Weber “a multitude of different individuals and diverse species stand in various relationships to one another – competition and cooperation, partnership and predatory hostility, productivity and destruction. All those relations, however, follow one higher principle: Only behaviour that allows for the productivity of the whole ecosystem over the long term and that does not interrupt its capacities of self-production, will survive and expand. The individual is able to realise itself only if the whole can realise itself. Ecological freedom obeys this basic necessity.”
And so to be really free is not to be an individual able to operate free from constraints, but to be tied to beneficial relationships with people and habitats, relationships that feed you materially and psychologically. Without a tie to your food – you starve, without the tie to lovers – you sadden. We are free because we are linked. Freedom is not breaking our chains but turning them into living roots and veins that connect, share, flow together and enable us to change and evolve in common.
Since the abandonment of the Airport, changing together on the zad has been a very a painful process. On the zad often it is a fight between those of us who try to read the terrain and invent something new that is messy and hybrid yet fits the situation we are in and those of us who want to keep a pure radical position, more based on uprooted ideas and ideology than the complexity of the present moment, the here and now, the forces we hold and don’t. In 1968 Bookchin asked“When will we begin to learn from what is being born instead of what is dying?” It is a question still just as relevant today on the zad.
Things have been moving so fast. After Hulot’s ultimatum, a ministerial announcement suggests that the Prime minster and minister of interior are on a war footing, they are prepared to go for it, evict the whole zone on Monday’s deadline, the 23rd.
During the re start of negotiations on Wednesday a technical meeting between our delegation and the bureaucrats, who look at the case from a purely land and agriculture question, had been set for two days later, Friday 20th . Once again we are on a knife edge, this could be the last moment of negotiation before a full scale attack, an attack that most of us who live on the zone know we can’t win against, how ever big our barricades.
The Assembly of Usages makes a huge strategic gamble, its a paradigm shift in tactics. We decide to hand in the forms at the Friday meeting, but in a modified way, to show that yes we can fit the state’s square boxes of individual projects if they want, but that on the bocage nothing can be separated out, everything is interdependent. Whilst at the same time making a call out for people to come and be ready to defend on the territory from Monday onwards if the state attack. Its the logic of hacking, take what’s there, re purpose it, change its use.
Then one of the most unexpected types of zad magic takes place, an office of form filing is set up in the Zad’s library, and for 24 hours the building becomes a disturbed ants nest, dozens and dozens of people are running around carrying white pages of paper, writing on computers, having meetings together, looking at maps of the zone, making phone calls. Comrades with great legal and administrative knowledge help out and and by Friday afternoon, just as the meeting at the Prefecture begins a huge black bound file of 40 different projects is produced, each with a name and plots of lands earmarked, but no single name attached to a single plot. A colourful cartography of the commons of the zad is attached to further illustrate the interdependent and cooperative nature of the projects, be they a school of shepherding or the library, orchards or the sports group, mechanics garage or a snail farm, sunflower oil production or bringing up children together. Of the 70 living spaces on the zone, 63 are covered by the forms, only 7 decide not to take this bet of a barricade of paper. Of course paper barricades are not half as fun as ones on the streets, but this time they just might be the ones that save zad from becoming just another orgasm of history, another free commune which shined briefly but ended in bloodshed, another martyred experiment in freedom sacrificed for the sake of a pure revolution. The zad always tried to go beyond the idea of a TAZ (Temporary Autonomous Zone), in favour of a building a PAP ( Permanent Autonmous Zone), this desire is embeded in the solid buildings, the long term agricultural plans, the vineyards planted for win in 5 years time. We can’ just let go of all the ties we built here, with the locals, surrounding farmers, pensioners, workers in the city, wanderers of all sorts, Nantes students and the youth, the owls, the black squirming salamanders, the knarly oaks trees, the mud. We must hold onto all these deep friendships and networks of struggle that we have shared with such intensity over the last decade.
The state bureaucrats were confused, some enchanted, the préfete seemed relieved. Leaving the meeting our delegation tells the press that “we have responded to the injunctions of the state because we want to stop the escalation of tension and at last find the time for dialogue and construction,” warning that “ if we take away one element of the collective, it cannot work. It’s up to the state now to negotiate.”
As I finally finish this text, the helicopter returns, anxiety rises again in my chest. It spends a long time swooping over the zone, observing this rebel bocage that it wants to reclaim back. Perhaps it is preparing for a final revenge against the commons, who knows, all we know is that during this last fortnight we have fought with every weapon we thought possible including the unexpected. Now we wait to see if the bet worked out…
On the 26th of April three days after we posted this blog, the Prime Minister made a statement about the Zad: announcing a truce in evictions until at least the 14th of May, to allow time for the regularisation of the occupants who filed forms. According to the Minister of the Interior, “Everything moves calmly and in serenity, as always,” that hasn’t stopped them piling in with the tear gas this morning to clear barricades. The bet seems to have given us some breathing space, even though they remain with the logic of sorting the ‘good’ who have chosen the ‘right path’ and the bad ‘illegals’, something we continue to reject.
Although the notion of the “post-digital” has gained some prominence in media art and theory, the uptake of the term in the humanities and social sciences has so far been more muted: whilst the field of “post-digital” art scholarship is by no means new (see Berry & Dieter, 2015), the term itself is often used quite sparsely and ambiguously such that it risks becoming a vague referent for almost any form of human and nonhuman entanglement with media. This rich collection of 25 essays and artwork contributions, many from world-renowned artists and media theorists, seeks to remedy this by developing the notion of the “post-digital” as something that gains specific expression through certain kinds of critical practice. As the editors note in the introduction, across & beyond does so by focussing on the “post-digital conditions for critical media practices…for understanding and working in the transversal territories between theory, technology, and art” (p.5). Organised around a series of contributions presented in recent years by participants of the annual transmediale festival in Berlin, the transversal explorations in this reader are critical insofar as they aim to engage with the “material complexities of digital culture” beyond what the editors describe as the “phantasm” of the supposed “immaterial reality” of digital media (p.16).
To be clear, across & beyond is not strictly a theory book but a gathering of diverse academic and artistic contributions that variously approach questions concerning the “post-digital”. Some of the stakes of “post-digital” media theory are set out in this reader, and will be noted in this review, but it should be said that this is not merely a theoretical intervention into technological media.
The “post-digital” describes a set of “speculative strategies and poetics” (p.13) that act as a “heuristic to understand the historical and material contexts of media art and culture” (p.12). In this sense the “post-” of “post-digital” does not designate a temporal period after a bygone ‘Digital Age’, but instead describes an opening up of a whole “field for material but also imaginary, alternative practices” (p.13) that concern the different temporalities and spaces produced through and with media. The post-digital, then, is presented here as a field of study into the material and imaginary practices of media, which aims to offer “new means of critically linking technology, culture and nature” (p.15).
To thematise some of these traversal territories for thinking about the post-digital conditions of media, the essays and artworks in this reader are split into three themed subsections: “Imaginaries,” “Interventions,” and “Ecologies.” Rather than organising this review by treating each individual chapter, I will instead briefly suggest how certain chapters develop each of these three themes, and end by reflecting on how these themes intervene in the political stakes of social scientific engagements with digital media more widely.
At least in part, the first subsection – “Imaginaries” – develops a number of responses to the idea that the post-digital would be a field of study that rethinks the relationship between technological culture and time (see especially chapters by Gansing; Ludoivo; Daniels; Parikka; Menkman). In the opening chapter, Kristoffer Gansing develops the ‘problem of time’ for post-digital approaches to media by analysing the CD-ROM as a noteworthy “offline art form” (p.41). Rather than thinking about the CD-ROM as a redundant media of a bygone era, Gansing instead highlights the way that the “offline experience” (p.36) of the CD-ROM counters certain contemporary structures of digital surveillance. This intervention is post-digital, perhaps, insofar as the CD-ROM is seen to present specific opportunities for disrupting both processes of online surveillance, but also the reductive tendency to rush towards new, à la mode forms of digital media.
Likewise, Jussi Parikka’s chapter focuses on the question of time in the context of laboratory media and draws attention to the way that certain “time-critical technical media” (p.86) produce “micro-temporalities” that are irreducible to human perception (p.86). In producing a series of situated micro-temporalities, these laboratory media contribute to post-digital approaches to media more widely insofar as they allude to a sense of media time that exceeds humanity. Theorising the micro-temporalities of laboratory media is important because they are involved in fabricating and sustaining certain “situated practices” (p.87) of time that often exceed human perception (p.86) – a line of thought that will be familiar to those have read Parikka’s other contributions to developing a “geology” of media (Parikka, 2015).
The second subsection – “Interventions” – foregrounds uses of technological media for activist and political purposes (see especially Dragona; de Lagasnerie; Oliver & Vasiliev; Sollfrank; Terranova; Juárez & Allen). In doing so, a number of chapters approach the politics of technological media through a critical engagement with its supposedly transformative power. As Jamie Allen – writing in dialogue with Geraldine Juárez’s artwork Hello Bitcoin – pointedly asks: “[w]hy is it that we cannot seem to stop regaling ourselves with hyperbolic, mythic tales of technological heroism?” (p.223). Put differently, how might media art and theory engage with ‘new’ digital media without overplaying its transformative political power? One answer to these questions revealed in across & beyond concerns the task of developing techniques for storying digital media. As Cornelia Sollfrank’s piece on “cyberfeminism” concludes, the task attending to the political power of technologies is not simply about affirming new advances in technological media, “but rather the use of imagination” (p.245): it is a task of remaking the clichéd stories told about technical cultures.
Yet, at a time when the drone and the TV series Black Mirror have gained prominence in invoking a certain unease about future technological change, what might it take to tell different stories about the political implications of technological culture? Decidedly, Daphne Dragona inflects this political question in a stellar essay on the role of “subversion” in media art. Classically, the problem of “artistic subversion” is its tendency to become appropriated into existing regimes of power, such as “media corporations and state surveillances agencies” (p.184). Identifying strategies that are already at work in “subversive” practices in media art – namely: “obfuscation”, “overidentification”, and “estrangement” – Dragona attempts the ambitious task of redefining the role of artistic subversion. Referring to an example of glitch artists, Dragona (p.191-192) notes that for such work processes of subversion and “estrangement” require a methodological approach attentive to the “hacks, errors and glitches” that “disrupt and challenge user experiences with digital media” (p.191).
Terranova’s chapter also considers how and whether the political power of technologies might offer opportunities for political transformation, but in doing so draws upon a different question around the relationship between the notion of the “commons” and certain kinds of “techno-political experiments” (p.211-215) – experiments that include, but are not limited to, certain cryptocurrencies and internet-based political parties. These experiments are noteworthy because they offer opportunities for transforming capitalist social, political and technical assemblages – assemblages that, as they are currently configured, not only produce restrictive forms of consumption and surveillance, but also limit freedoms at the level of desire through processes of subjectivation (p.213-217).
The third subsection – “Ecologies” – concerns the relationship between post-digital readings of technological media and certain kinds of technological infrastructure. In doing so it intervenes in a number of timely and ongoing social scientific debates about technology’s relationship to subjectivity (Bishop; Rossiter & Apprich; Bratton), materiality (Allen & Gauthier; Henderson; Goriunova), and affect (Goriunova; Allahyari & Rouke) – amongst others. Approaching the theme of infrastructure via user interfaces like Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, Benjamin Bratton (p.322-323) notes that “[h]uman intelligence and machine intelligence may be radically different (one need not be the model for the other) but they are never isolated or independent of one another”. Bratton calls for a more complex reading of artificial intelligence that resists both the simple equivocation of human and machine ‘intelligence’, and the tendency to suggest that human or machine intelligence exists as an isolable entity.
Directly engaging with the question of post-digital approaches to technological infrastructure, Jamie Allen & David Gauthier – commenting on their Critical Infrastructure project – foreground the need to attend not only to spectacular forms of technological infrastructure, but also those “banal systems” (p.266) and infrastructures that “we are not supposed to notice” (p.266). The point here is to force media art and theory to generate new forms of critique and thought about technical culture beyond some of the tendencies of human perspectivism – what Morehshin Allahyari & Daniel Rourke’s chapter differently refers to as technology’s “unintended affects” (p.328).
One critical concern throughout across & beyond is the sense that the various contributions (artworks, films, photos, essays) do not always easily fit together as a contribution to post-digital scholarship and practice. Whilst the book benefits from a precise introduction, it is not always obvious how certain chapters, and their corresponding subthemes, critically engage with whether or not this field of study would be preferable to other approaches to digital media. Indeed, is the “digital” the problem to be addressed for the task of rethinking technical culture today or – as a moving composite expressed by numerous media – does it form what Deleuze (1988: 16-17) refers to as a “false problem”: that is, a problem that merely discovers pre-existing terms for its solution?
This critical question notwithstanding, and to conclude, across & beyond is highly successful in opening up novel questions about technological media: those mundane and overlooked technological processes that nonetheless offer opportunities for experimenting with profound mediations between humans and nonhumans (see here the chapter by Yokokoji & Harwood). These post-digital registers would engender a different focus from a recent emphasis in the arts, humanities and social sciences on the ways that certain dominant technological figures are variously weaponized and monetized (see chapter by Bazzichelli). In countering the logics of weaponization and monetization, this reader – like the transmediale festival – will have a wider appeal to those interested in how media art and theory keeps apace with changes to those overlooked forms of technical culture.
Berry, D., & Dieter, M. (Eds.). (2015). Postdigital aesthetics: art, computation and design. Chicago: Springer.
Deleuze, G. (1988). Bergsonism. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (trans.). New York: Zone.
Parikka, J. (2015). A geology of media. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
By Ruth Catlow Artist, theorist, curator and recovering web-utopian, Ruth is co-director, of Furtherfield, co-founded...
Artists Organise (on the blockchain) was the fourth event in the DAOWO blockchain laboratory and debate series for reinventing the arts, in collaboration with Goethe Institut London.
In this special event, hosted by Drugo more in Rijeka we learned from the Croatian cultural context before envisioning, devising and testing alternative forms of blockchain-based cultural production systems, for application at Furtherfield in London.
We talked with Davor Miskovic about Clubture, the non-profit initiative that has distributed national cultural funding between a network of peers in Croatia since 2002 according to decentralised, participatory principles.
Workshop participants then took Julian Oliver’s Harvest, in which “wind energy is used to mine cryptocurrency to fund climate research”, as their focus for new proposals for blockchain-based projects to connect park-based arts venues with their local communities. Then they took turns to perform the role of a select committee of skeptical park stakeholders who wanted to know how park users would benefit from the scheme in a time of cuts to public funding and climate change.
This special event, devised by Ruth Catlow and Max Dovey, and hosted by Drugo more formed part of a wider programme events in Rijeka to accompany the opening at Filodrammatica Gallery of the touring exhibition New World Order.
NeMe (Cyprus), 9th December 2017, part of the State Machines programme
One couldn’t have wished for a more grounding response to contemporary media anxieties than this event. I don’t mean that the conference was all rainbows and lolkittens. I mean that it collected and tackled serious issues about the contemporary media landscape, its decentralization and its paranoias. It brought together perspectives on monitorial citizenship, citizen participation and citizen journalism –increasingly discussed in journalism and citizenship studies as new, post-modern, or alternative forms of civic engagement that also involve new, post-modern or alternative practices of media participation– and how this phenomenon can reinforce democratic ideals, and counteract forces or fears for their dissolution.
By all means, there seems to be a lot for us to worry about, a condition which the conference takes as its starting place. As moderator Corina Demetriou mentioned during her introduction, there’s the increasing fragmentation and polarization of our world where the success of populist rhetoric and the degradation of political discourse raises concern about our democratic institutions. Then there’s the proliferation of fake news, the dominance of media-scepticism, of conspiracy theory and of justifiably alarmist parental control discourse. And further yet, there’s the democratic failures of contemporary mass media, the corporate nature of social media, and concerns about the failures of media-education. All these in the face of increased surveillance and online censorship instituted with the excuse of / in order to battle all sorts of nightmarish villains.
The conference had the intended side-effect of facing and disarming most of the above, not least by providing historical context and balancing fears with contemporary research, following up criticisms with constructive questions, and offering numerous examples of citizen monitoring at work to an inspiring effect. NeMe gathered its speakers around the urgent premise of the potential for political change that is contained in networked citizen journalism (after Michael Schudson 1998) or citizen witnessing (after Stuart Allan, 2013). This was done in relation to what NeMe frames as a growing demand for political and corporate clarity that brings citizens immediate access and grants crucial issues a kind of evanescence: a transparency that is double-edged, both in terms of exposure, but also a tendency to fade or be drowned out in a sea of information.
It helps to think of the conference in four parts. First, it provided an introduction to the discursive context and the development of the notion of citizen witnessing (Stuart Allan). Second, it moved on to crucial debates in media education (Joke Hermes) and children’s rights of access to information (Cynthia Carter). Third, it introduced a discussion of the politics of democratic citizen participation in theory and online (Nico Carpentier) and the transformative potential of grassroots media monitoring practices towards conflict transformation (Nicos Trimikliniotis). And it concluded, with satisfying momentum, with a discussion of monitorial practice from an artist perspective (James Bridle).
In the first presentation, the conference defined the field and what is at stake in terms of the media establishment’s clash with the simultaneous need to subsume new developments in citizen journalism: Stuart Allan set-up the context for this through a discussion of the idea that “somebody should be telling this because journalists aren’t.” His overview reached from the Kennedy assassination, to the definition of the Arab Spring as the Twitter revolution, to #blacklivesmatter, and the WITNESS human rights initiative. Allan also reflected on negative reactions from the world of professional journalism where citizen reporting is cast as “ghoulish voyeurism enabled by contemporary technology.” He most interestingly, juxtaposed professional “helicopter” or “parashoot” reporting, done according to editorial directives, with an emergent form of reporting from within. A form that is embedded and unsanitised, and comes in the form of unapologetically subjective documentation, where the amateur camera approaches truth or reality with an immediacy that trumps formal news, and demonstrates how purposeful citizen witnessing can bring about positive social change.
Then came two complementary discussions of sensitive issues around the failures and alarms of contemporary media-education (Joke Hermes) and children’s access to information, with emphasis to their online participation and their potential for political contribution (Cynthia Carter). Both speakers have been working towards the deconstruction of the stereotypic fear that it is a dangerous online world for young people, and they’ve been doing this in different ways and from different angles. Hermes discussed how a quarter century of media education has succeeded in breeding fear and mistrust rather than ways to corroborate and cross-reference. She made the very convincing argument that we need a plan for long-term engagement rather than immediate survival. That we must work towards the strategic teaching of the difference between downright holistic mistrust and meaningful engagement. That we may construct a perspective for cultural citizenship that makes “learning how to listen” (to disengaged sceptics) a priority: part of a new set of conditions for citizenship, where “irony, satire, and playing games” are understood as survival mechanisms, and “ways of blocking screening and fooling one’s parents are understood as useful tools for children to survive in all this, without giving in to conspiracy theories.” Following up from Hermes, Cynthia Carter explored arguments around parental control and its misunderstandings, with a discussion of how research on news media remains incomplete by failing to include the voices of children. She argued against perspectives that cast children as “passive recipients of information that is going to socialise them.” She emphasised how children’s civic rights are undermined by the mistaken perception that, primarily, rather than engaged, they need to be protected. She offered examples where interventions by children exercising monitorial citizenship, have the potential to change perceptions about children’s political interests and their capacity for meaningful, world-changing participation.
Nico Carpentier connected issues of online participation with broader debates and definitions centering on participation as integrated with democratic ideas. He discussed the development of participation-related discourse online and offline, and the posturing contained in such theoretical or practical endeavours vs. their democracy-reinforcing capacity. He highlighted a serious problem with the idealisation of the democratic capacity of online participation: that, for example, “we still haven’t looked at the radical right form of online participation where neo-nazis are participatorily deciding whether they should kill somebody.” Carpentier argued for the need to further “democratise democracy” across fields like the arts and the media, and “do more than pay lip service to the logics of participation.”
Next, Nicos Trimikliniotis introduced debates around participation and citizen journalism in relation to Cyprus, and to argue for the need to compare struggles and national contexts, particularly in relation to peace journalism and the potential for overcoming austerity and chauvinist citizenship models. He emphasised the role of the media in conflict transformation, in defining the nature of conflict and division: its contextualisation and relativisation, and transference towards social and other issues. For him, the creation of third spaces that defy the long-embedded interests of mainstream media is a crucially valuable new element. He identified such a critically valuable third space in the practice of the monitorial citizen. He used the example of the Cyprus-based collaborative online journalism collective Δέφτερη Ανάγνωση (trans. Second Reading), to argue that it indeed possible to undercut colluding media, and transform the reporting, the investigation, and the very nature of professional journalism, with the help and participation of monitorial citizens, intellectuals and artists.
Finally, James Bridle introduced a multilayered example of his own monitorial artistic research practice, an exercise of monitorial citizenship that actually researched issues of citizenship, migration, and asylum. He focused on a particular project where he worked to cross-reference details left out of a story in the UK press about Theresa May putting asylum seeker and hunger striker Isa Muazu on a private jet for deportation (2013). Bridle tried different methods in order to find out where this jet landed and to investigate the systemic, legal and spatial conditions for this kind of deportation. He spoke about the value of collectively maintained online tools that pool information through crowdsourcing, such as tools designed by the flight-spotting community, in this case making public the capacity to track flights. Bridle’s investigation led to a detention centre next to Heathrow, and then to the architectural mapping of this facility, where secret deportation trials seem to be taking place. He proposed this as a way of using the ability to research and cross-reference information through new tech, to make visible something that wasn’t visible before, and thus draw a picture of the system that produces a particular kind of story. In this case a story of deportation, also connected to the debate about global surveillance, by performing a kind of reverse surveillance.
Most interesting, and as a conclusion to the conference, Bridle made transparent his own questions about this instinct of monitorial citizenship: the issue that bringing things to view could be a solution to injustice. He pointed out that his own investigative whistleblowing and NSA surveillance, have in fact, the same logic behind them. Both top down centralised government surveillance, and bottom up citizen-driven monitoring or reverse surveillance are based on the logic that there’s something secret and if we bring it to view, then something will be radically transformed. Except according to Bridle this is not fully accurate. There is a danger here that we may make the invisible visible but remain blind to the systemic forces that brought it to be in the first place.
The discussion following the presentations focused on the potential of citizen monitoring given local Cypriot peculiarities, returning to the example of Δέφτερη Ανάγνωση, with members of the audience introducing the consideration that the structure of coordinated efforts of citizen monitoring (whether flat, or hierarchical, or anonymous, and so on) can play a role in its potential to set-up democratic resistance. The formal discussion transformed into after-conference mingling over drinks and finger food that was good enough to keep people processing in small groups for over an hour. My own conversations pushed onwards from James Bridle’s point about our unwitting complicity with surveillance logics: do we try to resist such logics? (The answer may be that we can try to temper them). This included a conversation with Joke Hermes, making the connection with a recent article by James Bridle documenting weird and often disturbing algorithmically generated youtube videos targeting children (Bridle, 2017), and putting the question of where to draw the line between parental concern and parental panic. (The answer seems to be gently, by avoiding random overexposure at the preverbal stage, not attempting totalitarian control, and focusing on being there and paying attention).
There’s a lot to pick up on in conclusion, aside from my insolent and possibly unjust isolation of one-liners in bold, for which I must ask the speakers’ forgiveness. I am most interested in two elements that seem especially innovative contributions to what is already a very rich and intensely investigated intersection of scholarly work on journalism and citizenship. This conference went the extra step to further bridge this growing field with other sides of media theory: First, in connection with peace scholarship and local issues around media collusion and their effect on conflict transformation through the work of Nicos Trimikliniotis. And secondly the connection made with educational theory and cultural studies through the work of Joke Hermes and Cynthia Carter, a beautifully resonating combination with a feminist focus on understanding, rather than fear or control.
Allan, S. (2013). Citizen Witnessing: Revisioning Journalism in Times of Crisis, Polity Press
Graves, L. (2017). The Monitorial Citizen in the “Democratic Recession.” Journalism Studies, 18(10), 1239–1250. https://doi.org/10.1080/1461670X.2017.1338153
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Photographs and videos by Sakari Laurila
This project has been funded with the support from the European Commission. This communication reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.
By Kieran Sellars Kieran Sellars is a doctoral researcher in Performance Studies and part-time lecturer...
Referring to Ernst Jünger’s proto-fascist concept of the ‘front experience,’ Dani Ploeger’s fronterlebnis takes us to a frontline where digital consumer culture and traditional warfare meet. Combining filmed footage of a journey to the frontline in the Donbass War, Ukraine, alongside vintage military paraphernalia, Ploeger puts the artist in the field with the ‘real’ soldier. These soldiers are men from the far-right Ukraine Volunteer Corps, affiliated with the Right Sector, and remind Ploeger of ‘the weird and wonderful mix of action heroes in Sylvester Stallone’s Expendables series, albeit without the body builder physiques and less carefully manicured.’ Here, Ploeger not only conceives an exhibition which examines the relationship between the cleanliness of modern day technology and the grittiness of traditional warfare, but also highlights wider issues around society’s continued masculinised and fetishised relationship to conducting, and, as some of these pieces show, documenting war. With Ploeger’s ‘weird and wonderful’ group made up exclusively of men, featuring masculine nom de guerres such as Bear and Carpenter, fronterlebnis is an exhibition in which masculinity is in the crosshairs as much as anything else.
The four-piece exhibition is part of Ploeger’s current exploration into the militarisation of public spaces across Western Europe in connection with our increasingly fetishised relationship with consumer technologies, and how these apparently disparate elements converge in various conflicts, ranging from the Donbass War to public security in cities like Brussels and Paris. The soldier’s body has arguably shifted in its role since the latter part of the 20th century, with the advent of sophisticated warfare technologies moving the human body away from the process of killing, at least in popular imaginations of conflict. With this development, the methods of war appear to have shifted, but it is in fronterlebnis that we are able to see how in the Donbass War in Ukraine, traditional warfare not only remains but has now become intertwined with advanced techno-consumer culture.
This juxtaposition of the old and new is present in the first piece you encounter as you enter the gallery. In Patrol (2017), Ploeger captured a firefight on his smartphone. The footage has been transferred to 16mm film and is being projected onto the wall of the gallery in a continuous loop. In the film, we see three soldiers – Bear, Carpenter and Steinar – escort Ploeger around the frontline on the edge of the destroyed seaside village, Shyrokyne. These men, in an assortment of vintage and contemporary battle array, many carrying the iconic Kalashnikov rifle, are seen sharing footage of their exploits on the frontline with each other, which they have captured on their smartphones and GoPros. Steinar, the youngest and, as Ploeger told me, the most fashion conscious in his choice of military gear, is filmed by Ploeger watching footage of the moment where he and Carpenter blow up an unexploded mortar shell. In this piece, the 16mm film echoes the era of the weapons that the men are carrying. The manner in which this film is projected reveals the peculiarity of watching a modern day firefight where many of the weapons and uniforms are from the Soviet era, but the men are astute in their engagement of consumer technology in order to document their experiences of the conflict. In Patrol, the Kalashnikov and the smartphone appear to have made an unlikely pairing.
The other work in the show features such seemingly unlikely pairings of traditional paraphernalia of warfare coupled with different pieces of consumer technology. In artefact (2017), the wooden handguard of a Kalashnikov assault rifle is exhibited like an archaeological artefact. Presented on a white plinth, encased in Perspex glass, you can see that the wood of the handguard has been worn with the indents of many hands, signalling its intense use. This carefully exhibited object is just one half of this piece though. The other half consists of digital video animation in which a high-resolution 3D scan of the handguard is inserted onto a digital model of an AK-47. Presented on a large television screen, the digital model, set against a standard blue sky backdrop reminiscent of game development engines, highlights how many of us only come into contact with these types of weapons in a digitised form; whether that be in video games or through action movies. Ploeger’s engagement with firearms here reminds me of some of his past work that seems to suggest an interest in these weapons in relation to masculinity and phallic imagery. Dead Ken /Less Pink (2016), a short video installation in which Ploeger fires a small revolver at a Ken doll, speaks to the seemingly indelible relationship between firearms and masculinity. When seen in relation to this video installation, artefact signals an enduring fascination in our shared social psyche with these weapons, but also speaks to how these weapons continue to be consumed and represented in relation to masculine identities.
In worse than the quick hours of open battle, was this everlasting preparedness (2017), we can see a more tangible engagement with the co-existence of war artefacts and digital technology. Held in the front pocket of a Soviet army backpack from the Afghanistan War period is a damaged tablet computer which displays a bouncing screensaver, featuring a piece of text from Ernst Jünger’s proto-fascist novel Storm of Steel (1920). Jünger describes his experiences of fighting on the frontline during the First World War and the title of this piece is a translation of the text we see displayed on the tablet. Here, the mediatised depictions of war that are so pervasive in popular culture are delineated from the lived experience of Jünger, who discusses this perennial notion of prepared waiting that is a common, though rarely shown, aspect of war. Here, the worn backpack which has been roughly patched and repaired, presumably by the hands of the man to which it used to belong (men’s hands are for holding guns rather than sewing needles this bag appears to suggest), holds the similarly worn and damaged tablet. These damaged items speak to Ploeger’s past work with electronic waste, which explored our society’s proclivity for abandoning technologies when they become outdated or damaged. In this exhibition, however, Ploeger brings together the old and new, using pieces of (almost) electronic waste alongside other material artefacts to further explore the relationship between the material and digital.
The largest piece of the exhibition, frontline (2016-17), deploys this new and ‘clean’ technology in order to take us to the frontline. The work consists of a big wooden enclosure of about 5 by 5 meters which can be entered through a small opening on its side. The entirely white inside of the space is brightly lit by a large grid of office LED lighting that hangs above it. This enclosed space speaks to the ways in which Westernised notions of conducting war are now considered clean and sterile as a result of the technology that they use. Before entering the space, you are asked to place foot coverings over your shoes, as if you would be entering a sterile space, a futile gesture it would seem as the same coverings are used again and again. This action, however, also references the cultural shift in how Western nations like to represent high-tech warfare as a clean affair.
When you enter the enclosure a sensor is triggered and a soundscape of intense gunfire and explosions suddenly surrounds you. It is only until the you place the VR headset on to your eyes that this soundtrack, fit for an action movie, ceases. Roused by the noise, you are then met with a starkly contrasted image to what was suggested through the preceding gunfire soundscape. Rather than an action scene which complements the sounds previously heard, you enter an uneventful immersive video of soldiers smoking and sitting on the frontline. Using an intricate combination of partial video loops, the men appear to be on a never ending smoking break. frontline, subverts our spectacular expectations of warfare and VR technology by creating a VR experience that – after using sound to further heighten our expectations – foregrounds the mundanity of waiting for something to happen that makes up most of everyday life in an area of conflict.
In frontline, as in all of the pieces that are exhibited as part of fronterlebnis, Ploeger subverts our expectations by combining and repurposing technology to make us question our relationship with our technological devices and how we perceive and engage with them in everyday life. In addition to its examination of digital culture, fronterlebnis also seems to suggest that warfare remains a man’s game. We encounter men who are still prone to having their boy’s toys, but it would seem that in this case they are a GoPro in one hand, and a Kalashnikov in the other. Ploeger’s documentation of these conflicts, made with his own personal technological devices, arguably envelopes him in similar mechanisms of fetishization as the soldiers he was with. Neither soldier nor artist seem able to extract themselves from the seductive realm of audiovisual gadgets and self-mediatization in an era of omnipresent digital consumer culture that even reaches as far as the trenches of a dirty ground war.
By Alessandro Borsci Alessandro Borscia is a freelance journalist and philosophy researcher. From 2016 he's...
TERROR FEEDS: Inside the Fear Machine, took place in Berlin November 24-25 2017, and was an analysis of ISIS and its media strategy, the meaning of cyber jihad, and why people enroll as foreign fighters. The 12th conference of the Disruption Network Lab was directed by Tatiana Bazzichelli. Studio 1, Mariannenplatz 2, 10997 Berlin.
To analyse the operational methodology of ISIS means to understand terrorism beyond general terms and not only in reference to the Islamist group. It has updated its strategies during the years, making communication a decisive element of its system. ISIS has shown us how it is possible today, through the networking and the fluidity of information exist runs and build a structure, on several levels and far from a geographically fixed dimension. We are used to thinking about such situations in traditional ways when we refer to paramilitary organisations, and not in such elusive terms where the enemies are so difficult to control, and very difficult to identify. The Terror Feeds conference, has made it possible for us to focus on how terrorism is conducted, in how electronic jihad and strategic messaging affects the worldwide public opinion, both in the west and in the Arab world, representing a new icon of “global jihad”.
It is a fact that the territories which were once dominated by ISIS have now collapsed and are fragmenting into smaller, chaotic forms of inter-connected, spurious networks, scattered in the rural parts of Iraq and Syria. Nevertheless the group will go on and transform into something else, adapting its strategy.
“ISIS seems to have taken its foot off the official media pedal and is now instead, putting more effort into the logistics side of its insurgent equation”, said Charlie Winter, researcher at King’s College London, during the first panel of the Disruption Network Lab conference. “This change is part of a shift prefigured by the organisation’s changing emphasis on Hijrah, the act of travelling to the caliphate to join the Islamic State. On one side, Hijrah is still promoted but ISIS no longer prioritises this form of recruitment”.
During his speech at the conference, Charlie Winter focused on the importance of propaganda for ISIS, and how their production and dissemination is at times considered to be even more important than the military side of the Jihad itself. Winter says, the caliphate message is entirely non-spontaneous and based on three principles: a coherent, positive and alternative narrative; a rejection-based counter-speech operations; the launching of occasional, carefully calibrated media “projectiles”. The mainstream is considered as an effective weapon that can exceed the power of the most powerful bombs.
Sue Turton, former Al Jazeera correspondent, writer and journalist, explained during her speech at the conference that ISIS strength is built on its capacity to reach through its propaganda, at people sitting at home eating their dinner with the aim to transform these viewers into ISIS fighters, wherever they are in world. “In some way, ISIS is exciting and gives these individuals the feeling that they’re doing something right and that they accomplish something for their faith.”
“Isis has an extensive network of media experts and social media accounts”, said Dlshad Othman, security engineer and speaker of the Keynote. Focused on the so called Cyber Jihad, “ISIS, has been able to hack government websites and carry out attacks on thousands of Syrian activists social networking accounts, to develop malware, as well as hack the White House website. Cyber Jihad is an organised branch of the ISIS’s military strategy and has been able to be used as a main element to reinforce its structure. Cyber Jihad started with doing very simple malware and then increased its level right up to a very well organised phishing campaign.”
Another way to understand how ISIS works is to look at the documents relating to the ISIS administration. “The records sometimes can say more about Isis than the propaganda it releases everyday”, says Jihad-Intel Research Fellow at the Middle East Forum, Aymenn al-Tamimi. The reach and wide “impact and influence, of ISIS media development over time, is pretty clear,” and you can see this reflected in “how many other military groups are trying to emulate the ISIS media strategy in Syria, today .”
ISIS marked a new path especially concerning the recruitment of fighters, demanding Muslims across the world to swear allegiance and migrate to a territory under its control, and also demanded that other jihadist groups worldwide accept its supposed, supreme authority. “In order to understand ISIS – points out Saud al-Zaid, Scholar of Islamic Studies, Berlin Graduate School of Muslim Cultures and speaker at the Disruption Network Lab conference during the keynote Radicalized: the franchise of terror – “it is crucial to make a difference among individuals, societies and cultures in the ISIS world and to start focusing on what they all have in common, that of course is, first of all, support for the terrorist group”. Al-Zaid concentrate on the distinctions, in terms of conflict, between Native and Foreign fighters. “It is not so easy to distinguish, for example, between a guy from Falluja, Iraq, and another one from Yemen,” Sayd al-Zaid during his speech at Terror Feeds conference. In the words of Peter Van Ostayen, also a speaker during the Radicalized: the franchise of terror keynote, “half of jihad is media”. For Van Ostayen, Historian and Arabist, PhD candidate at KU Leuven, “half of jihad is social media, especially in the recruitment, as we can see exploring the recruitment process of Belgian foreign fighters: more than 600 Belgian individuals joined or tried to join ISIS in Iraq and Syria”.
Counter-extremism strategies and prevention also are an issue to consider in the context of increased public fear about homegrown terrorism. “Initially our prevention strategy was not focused on schools and teachers, but engaging with civil society, mainly trying to prevent young people, entirely from Muslim communities, from becoming extremist” – explained Tufyal Choudhury, Assistant Professor at the University of Durham Law School in England, during the Prevention and Prejudice panel – “Than the government changed in 2010, so Prevent policy changed too, in two important ways: Prevent was not anymore focused on all forms of extremism and was not just concentrated on violent radicalization, but also on extreme ideology. Of course this created another issue: we needed to understand what non violent extremism was”. Michéle Hassen, Working Group Leader at RAN, Radicalisation Awareness Network, also a speaker during the Prevention panel, stated that “we’ve not a problem with the concept of radicalisation, but it is different when radicalisation leads to hate crimes and terrorism.” For Sindyan Qasem, Research Associate at the University of Münster, Centre for Islamic Theology, the question about Prevention and Radicalisation is how do vague conceptualisation of radicalisation and extremism lead to the infringement of human rights. “I personally think that preventive measures against islamic extremism are almost always based on ideology, so the educational measures and countering extremism in schools is based on giving alternatives to the ideology of islamic extremism”.
Among the goals of the conference was to focus on the territorial challenges provoked by ISIS. In this sense, Abdalaziz Alhamza co-founder of the blog Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently and Media Activist, shared the experience of living in a Raqqa under ISIS control, trying to resist and documenting the daily life in the “Islamic Caliphate”. “ISIS prevented all media organisations to cover the conflict, so it was very important to show what was going on,” explained Alhamza. “ISIS did mistakes that we were able to analyse and spread to others. Although, most people just had ISIS propaganda and they slowly started believing in it, so we decided to target everyone. Most of the people had no internet access, so we went speaking with people, we went to schools, we went to Arab communities, to tell them what was going on”. During the same keynote, “Fractured Lands: confronting the Islamic State”, Aaron Zelin, Founder of Jihadology.net and Richard Borow Fellow at the Washington Institute, explained how IS got from no territorial control to full territorial control. “The so-called Caliphate Project was the idea to establish an Islamic State upon prophetic methodology and based on their interpretation of sharia’a, the Islamic law – said Zelin – they also wanted to build a global network of members and supporters, overthrowing the post-World War II American international system. It’s important to understand how they built their structure in Iraq and Syria because it is a guide to their development or regression in other areas, like Philippines, or Libya or Somalia or maybe Europe in 15 or 20 years, considering the polarization that is happening in the european society”.
Despite the rout of the Islamic State last year and steady Syrian government advances in territories controlled by the group, a mis-perception has grown abroad that Islamic State (and Syrian war), is winding down. Instead, the carnage is reaching a new peak in Iraq and Syria: much of the world cheered the collapse of Islamic State caliphate, but that victory just cleared the way for a new stage of the conflict, with IS ready to come back again.
By Verena Hermann Verena Hermann is an artist and writer and member of the Open...
Disobedient Electronics: Protest is a limited edition publishing project that highlights confrontational work from industrial designers, electronic artists, hackers and makers from 10 countries that disobey conventions. Topics include the wage gap between women and men, the objectification of women’s bodies, gender stereotypes, wearable electronics as a form of protest, robotic forms of protest, counter-government-surveillance and privacy tools, and devices designed to improve an understanding of climate change.
I was one of the lucky few to receive a hard copy of this fine little zine, a handmade limited edition of 300, put together by Canadian artist & researcher Garnet Hertz. It features 24 contributions of critical art & design, many of which taking a strong stand on feminism and surveillance /privacy issues, indispensable in current debate. Hertz initiated this publication in response to post-truth politics, in itself a notion shrugged off by populist drivel – “Politicians have always lied.” – Ptp- strategies involve the removal of scientific context from popular claims in order to comfort the masses in turbulent times of change. Such trends are noticeable in culture and thus in the DIY- movement too. After a disappointing visit at a maker’s fair, which essentially promoted the aesthetic design of blinking LEDs and the 3D-printing of decorative junk in an overall atmosphere of relentless marketing, the manifesto of Disobedient Electronics caught my attention, reflecting my impressions accordingly.
Decline of culture becomes visible as ‘popular’ themes such as sustainability or integration policies are readily adopted but actually serve as mere buzzwords to increase the marketability of events and products. Since it became profitable to sell electronic boards and a variety of accessory components, the prosumer (Ratto, 2012) is bound to available materials and building instructions and not encouraged to experiment or imagine alternatives to already available commercial design. Therefore many important layers of technology get ignored or regarded as not worth exploring due to the fetishisation of the final result. Although focus should be on action oriented making, tactile objects /installations are important when linguistics fail. We have already incorporated digital structures in every social aspect of our lives and it is difficult to observe let alone express them.
The book treasures the craft of DIY technology development, notably in the surveillance /privacy sector, and highlights the pressing need for knowledge in light of the technological advantage of those in power. Backlash provides us with an educational protest kit, including devices for off grid communication and bugging defence. These are functional but not necessarily designed for situations of conflict, rather for inciting a relevant debate among the general public. Phantom Kitty (work in progress) defies spying by authorities without a warrant and the enforced quantification of humans based on evaluations of online activity. It produces arbitrary noise when the user goes offline to obfuscate browsing habits and it is possible to integrate machine learning algorithms at a later stage, which could mimic or create identity patterns. Phantom Kitty features a stunning mechanical rack for keyboard and mouse operation, fed by a program executing search queries and the access of webpages. The project draws on the eeriness of neither knowing to what extent gathered data is exploited, nor against which parameters and targets it is set.
Completely left in the dark about the full scope of exercised control and entailing consequences The transparency grenade by Julian Oliver reminds us that citizens have a right to openness too. The promise of “making the process of leaking information from closed meetings as easy as pulling a pin” is tempting, and in contrast to the opaqueness of corporate and governmental policies, the artwork, other than claiming transparency, is representing it, in its aesthetics, open source software and in the thorough documentation of its engineering process.
The well written accompanying text of one of my favourite projects PROBOTS describes effective works as “technologies of dissent that work at both the practical level but also the symbolic”, by all means valid for those involved making this book, albeit associating with a manifold of disciplines. The tele-operated protest robot certainly meet those demands and can be sent out by the precarious worker as an answer to the efficiency of contemporary policing, simultaneously a metaphor for the limited potential in the act of present-day corporeal protest. The silencing of political resistance happens far beyond the streets and PROBOTS makes an extraordinary research tool for investigating the organisational power of technology, which prevents social progress already from the outset.
I’ve only recently discovered that e-textiles is not the same as smart clothing. It is a discipline, focusing on the act of making rather than the actual result, albeit in this case impressive too. The makers of The Knitted Radio approached the craft of knitting and electronics without economic reasoning, a factor which primarily informs the engineering process in industrial design. The liberation from conventional standards brought about alternative forms and methods, that is a sweater that also functions as a FM radio transmitter and the skill to knit electronic components /devices such as resistors, capacitors and coil with conductive yarn, an off-the-shelf material. The knitting instructions for the sweater are available online, it can provide a free of cost, independent communications infrastructure. The concept was inspired by the protests on Taksim Square, Istanbul, Turkey, and associated violations of freedom of speech. A Piece of the Pie Chart: Feminist Robotics by Annina Rüst illuminates gender inequity in form of a production line, which decorates edible pies with pie charts, depicting gender ratios in tech affiliated corporate or public organisations.
Women are generally underrepresented in tech related workplaces and users of the gallery installation can browse and choose between various data sets on gender in technology, e.g. computer science graduation rates, before an ensemble of household applications and semi-pro robotics sorts the cake. The mere visualisation of data was not radical enough, so the finished pie can be shipped to the institution of which data (and gender inequity) originates, and where it can be consumed accordingly. Women have to be content with the smaller piece of the cake, also symbolic for economic inequality and the missed out experience of working in tech. Rüst was not satisfied with the claim that women are just not interested in tech, and further qualitative research in feminist technology showed that women are rather put off by its hostile macho culture and that technological pedagogy simply failed to inspire girls.
The PROTEST issue lives up to its title and emphasizes on projects, which propose hands-on political action and intervention with society, not in terms of providing solutions but to spark much needed discussion and inspire disruptive technology. Disobedient Electronics follows the publishing project Critical Making, which comprised 11 issues, so there is hopefully some more to come.
G.Hertz (Ed.) 2012. Conversations in Critical Making, Ctheory. Online version accessed 28/09/17.