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FurtherList No.28 Nov 5th 2021

A list of recommendations, reflecting the dynamic culture we are part of, straddling the fields of art, technology and social change.

Events, Exhibitions, Open Calls, Festivals and Conferences

Art was only a substitute for the Internet | The Wrong Biennial, has been dedicated exclusively to online art and that alone makes it very relevant. For this fifth edition, Andres Manniste has invited artists who he felt were convinced that the Internet and what it provides is an art and for whom networks are critical for the development of their thinking and their work. For many the Internet is a daily routine of checking social media, listening to podcasts or music and researching material. Every living artist aware of the unlimited resources provided by communications networks is influenced by the internet. Many have associated a major part of their art process with the internet. This exhibition is a place where art can be playful and challenging – https://bit.ly/3nMIZKJ

Angels & Discounts | Exhibition by Iris Pokovec | 3 – 26 November 2021 | Aksioma | Project Space, Ljubljana | Part of U30+ production programme for supporting young artists. Angels & Discounts is an ode to consumerism and an elegy to unfulfilled dreams and lost ideals. It talks about the love-hate attitude to consumerist and popular culture and glorifies its charm and its power of hypnotising the masses, while at the same time offering a reflection on the transience of society’s collective stream of thought. It is a narrative about the search for free choice in the numb somnolence of supermarket aisles and shelves with tinned peas and preserved compotes – https://bit.ly/2ZQlSHf

NFT Culture Proof | Launches 9 am 9 Nov 2021 | Nathaniel Stern, Scott Kildall and others | A participatory performance on the Blockchain – a completely on-chain collaborative text – a collective artwork and crypto-native NFT series. NFT Culture Proof is a 32-day Blockchain performance, where every participant continuously adds to a collaborative stream of live but immutable text, which will be permanently placed on-chain. Each day, there are “writing prompts” from artists, thinkers, and writers in the cryptoverse, which will both focus and drive the texts we produce. It is the first large-scale Blockchain work of its kind, making the public ledger an active stage for collective creativity. Every text block submitted generates a unique NFT for the participant. These will also live completely on-chain, as crypto-native SVGs  – https://bit.ly/3bBLfyy

Lecture 5: The City: Laurie Anderson: Spending the War Without You | 10 Nov 2021 | Exploring the challenges we face as artists and citizens as we reinvent our culture with ambiguity and beauty. Laurie Anderson presents Spending the War Without You: Virtual Backgrounds. The City is the fifth in a series of six lectures, looking at the challenges we face as artists and citizens as we reinvent our culture with ambiguity and beauty. This talk will consider teachers, activism and politics. Presented by Laurie Anderson, one of America’s most renowned – and daring – creative pioneers. Known primarily for her multimedia presentations, she has cast herself in roles as varied as a visual artist, composer, poet, photographer, filmmaker, electronics whiz, vocalist, and instrumentalist. Event by Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard | Free event book at Eventbrite – https://bit.ly/3BvV9wd

Glitch: Aesthetic of the Pixels | Platform 101 – Vol.03 | Tehran, Iran | 5 – 12 Nov 2021 | Platform 101 is holding its third international group exhibition entitled “Glitch: Aesthetic of the Pixels”. After the great success of Vol.2, Platform 101, a nonprofit and independent art institution, is continuing the Glitch Video Art Group Exhibition in Tehran, Iran Vol.03, entitled “Glitch: Aesthetic of the Pixels”, curated by Mohammad Ali Famori, featuring 27 international glitch artists at Pejman Foundation: Kandovan – https://bit.ly/3pX2pPK

IAM Weekend | Barcelona Nov 11-13 2021 and Planet Earth: November 11-18, 2021 | Join the 7th annual gathering for mindful designers, researchers, strategists, artists, technologists, journalists and creative professionals looking to collectively envision sustainable futures for the internet(s). A week-long programme of live and pre-recorded sessions. The Planet Earth edition will feature live and pre-recorded sessions, available 24 hours across timezones, during 8 days, including the social live stream of Forum Day sessions of the Barcelona edition programme. Get access to the Planet Earth edition programme with a Week-long Pass or any Barcelona edition ticket. More info – https://bit.ly/3nVQwqr

Furtherfield at the Planet Earth Session at IAM Weekend | Nov 18th 2021  Watch live or on-demand the following pre-recorded videos: The Treaty of Finsbury Park 2025 – Interspecies Assembly (The one about biodiversity habitats) by Furtherfield + The New Design Congress + CreaTures. The Treaty of Finsbury Park 2025 – Ruth Catlow & Cade Diehm in conversation with Dr. Lara Houston. Get access to the Planet Earth edition programme with a Week-long Pass or any Barcelona edition ticket. More info – https://bit.ly/3nVQwqr

Call for Participation – Rendering Research | Deadline for submissions 14th Nov 2021 | We are seeking proposals to address how research is made public, and in this sense also to the infrastructures of research and its various systems of publishing. Organised by Digital Aesthetics Research Center, Aarhus University, in collaboration with Centre for the Study of the Networked Image, London South Bank University, Saint Luc École de recherche graphique in Brussels, and Transmediale festival for digital art & culture. APRJA is published by Aarhus University in partnership with Transmediale and hosted by the Royal Danish Library – https://bit.ly/3q0Na8w

People Like Us: Gone, Gone Beyond | Event by Barbican Centre | The Pit | 10 – 13 Nov 2021 | Watch and listen as unexpected narratives expand and unravel all at once around you. Inside this immersive, 360-degree cinematic installation, you’ll get to look far beyond the frame. Fragments of familiar and experimental films interact with song and audio clips in ever-changing, kaleidoscopic and kinetic collages. As time and space become elastic, viewers are opened to multiple meanings and perspectives by this seamless visual and surround-sound experience, with its playful and unsettling observations on popular culture. Under her artist name, People Like Us, Vicki Bennett has been evolving the field of audiovisual collage since the early 1990s, cutting up and layering found footage and archives | Tickets – https://bit.ly/3EqJX62

Tactical Entanglements: Creative AI Lab in conversation with Martin Zeilinger | 15 Nov 2021 6 pm FREE | Serpentine | TwitchOnline | A discussion panel on my book, “Tactical Entanglements: AI Art, Creative Agency, and the Limits of Intellectual Property” (meson press 2021). The event is put on by the Creative AI Lab and will be live-streamed on Twitch. Exploring issues around critical approaches to AI, digital art, and posthumanism with Mercedes Bunz and Daniel Chavez Heras (both Kings College London) and Eva Jäger (Serpentine Galleries). You can grab a free copy of Zeilinger’s book on the Meson Press publisher’s website, and a free e-reader with some additional relevant readings will be available on the Serpentine Galleries website – https://bit.ly/2Yqn6bk and https://meson.press/books/tactical-entanglements/

AI4FUTURE: OPEN CALL FOR RESIDENCIES | Deadline 15 NOV 2021 | AI4future is searching for 4 artists to work at an AI-based artwork in collaboration with young European activists to foster new urban community awareness. In recent years, Artificial Intelligence has been implemented in a number of fields functional to daily life: from those that simulate the cognitive abilities of the human being (image recognition, language automation, etc.) to the management of civil and social life (home automation, banking, self-driving vehicles, etc.) up to the economic and political organization (remote surveillance, privacy, impact on the world of work 4.0, health management, disinformation techniques, control over fundamental rights, etc.) – https://bit.ly/3bEeXTu

(re)programming: Strategies for Self-Renewal | With Eyal Weizman | 15 Nov 2021 7 pm | Aksioma | We have found ourselves at the crossroads of an existential decision: do we bring the mistakes of the enlightenment to their biological conclusion or do we develop a magical capacity to self-renew? For the 10th anniversary of Tactics & Practice, Aksioma presents (re)programming: Strategies for Self-Renewal “festival of conversations” with world-class thinkers debating key issues, from infrastructure and energy to community and AI, curated and conducted by writer and journalist Marta Peirano. The festival consists of 8 streaming events taking place every third Monday of the month throughout the year – https://bit.ly/3EDTA1n

Lorenzo Ravano: The Global South and the History of Political Thought | Online | 18 Nov 2021, 6 – 8 pm | The Critical Perspectives on Democratic Anti-Colonialism project invites you to our next Fall 2021 workshop. The program brings together faculty and students from across The New School interested in exploring the theoretical foundations and political manifestations of radical democratic and anti-colonial traditions. Ravano, Postdoctoral Fellow at Université Paris Nanterre, will be presenting his work, “The Global South and the History of Political Thought”. Anthony Bogues, Asa Messer Professor of Humanities and Critical Theory, Professor of Africana Studies and Director of the Center of the Study of Slavery and Justice at Brown University, will be commenting – https://bit.ly/3ECPVku

WhistleblowingForChange: Exposing Systems of Power & Injustice | The 25th Conference of the Disruption Network Lab | Conference and book launch | 26 – 28 Nov 2021. At Kunstquartier Bethanien – Berlin. The courageous acts of whistleblowing that inspired the world over the past few years have changed our perception of surveillance and control in today’s information society. But what are the wider effects of whistleblowing as an act of dissent on politics, society, and the arts? How does it contribute to new courses of action, digital tools, and content? This urgent intervention based on the work of Berlin’s Disruption Network Lab examines this growing phenomenon, offering interdisciplinary pathways to empower the public by investigating whistleblowing as a developing political practice that has the ability to provoke change from within | Facebook link – https://bit.ly/3o1ibXj

Unravelling Women’s Art | 25 November 6 pm – 7:30 pm | £5 | ONLINE EVENT | Join author PL Henderson and a trio of artists for an insightful discussion into what links female textile artists and the arts they produce, revealing a global and historic patchwork of assorted roles, identities and representations. Henderson’s new book, Unravelling Women’s Art: Creators, Rebels, & Innovators in Textile Arts (Aurora Metro Books) offers a unique overview of female-centric textile art production including embroidery, weaving, soft sculpture and more. Including over 20 interviews with contemporary textile artists, the books invites us into their practices, themes and personal motivation – https://bit.ly/3wxeqwr

Two Postdoc Positions in Critical Environmental Data Studies | Deadline 30 Nov 2021, Expected start 1 Mar 2022 | The Department of Digital Design and Information Studies within the School of Communication and Culture at Aarhus University (Denmark) invites applications for two postdoctoral positions in Critical Environmental Data Studies. The postdoc positions are affiliated with the research project Design and Aesthetics for Environmental Data funded by the Aarhus University Research Foundation (AUFF). The postdoc positions are full-time, two-year fixed-term positions. Design and Aesthetics for Environmental Data focus on historical and current practices of seeing, knowing, and designing the environment and the planet as data: as patterns, visualizations, projections, models, simulations, and other aesthetic objects with epistemic value. The working language of the project is English – https://bit.ly/3GGfu5P

Call for Book Chapters | Feminist Futures: From Witches to Maids to Robots and Beyond | Proposal submission deadline 15 Dec 2021 | Feminist Futures is a book all about bridges and connections! It aspires to take a look at the future, it wants to tell the story of witches, how neo-feudalism relates to the present monsters, how postcolonialism and post cold war politics brought us here when it comes to women’s rights. It is about automation and the constant repetition of the need for care without really doing it. It wants to bring these stories at the centre stage to talk about the future, to shed light on research that can lead us to what unites us and not to what divides us – https://bit.ly/3nSUsZ4

Books, Papers & Publications

Artistic Research – Dead on Arrival? Research practices of self-organized collectives versus managerial visions of artistic research | By Florian Cramer. (First published in Henk Slager [ed.], The Postresearch Condition, Utrecht: Metropolis M Books, 2021, p. 19-25). Since at least the early 20th century, artists groups have called their work “research”. Canonized examples include the “Bureau des recherches surréalistes” (“Bureau of Surrealist Research”) founded in Paris by André Breton and fellow Surrealists in 1925 and the Situationist International which, from 1957 to 1972, operated under the moniker of a research group and whose periodical had the form of a research journal. […] Today, transdisciplinary art/research collectives seem to be more common as a contemporary art practice in non-Western regions than in Western countries where art systems are more institutionalized – https://bit.ly/2ZNpjy1

Machines We Trust: Perspectives on Dependable AI | Edited by Marcello Pelillo and Teresa Scantamburlo | Experts from disciplines that range from computer science to philosophy consider the challenges of building AI systems that humans can trust. Artificial intelligence-based algorithms now marshal an astonishing range of our daily activities, from driving a car (“turn left in 400 yards”) to making a purchase (“products recommended for you”). How can we design AI technologies that humans can trust, especially in such areas of application as law enforcement and the recruitment and hiring process? In this volume, experts from a range of disciplines discuss the ethical and social implications of the proliferation of AI systems, considering bias, transparency, and other issues – https://bit.ly/3AMedWR

The Art of Activism: Your all-purpose guide to Making the Impossible Possible | By Steve Duncombe and Steve Lambert | It brings together the authors’ extensive practical knowledge—gleaned from over a decade’s experience training activists around the world—with theoretical insights from fields as far-ranging as cultural studies and cognitive science. From the United Farm Workers’ boycott movement in sixties’ California to a canal-side beach in present-day Saint Petersburg, these pages are packed with contemporary and historical case studies that have been shown to work in practice. The accompanying workbook contains fifty expertly crafted exercises to help you flex your creative imagination and hone your political tactics, taking you step-by-step toward becoming the most persuasive and impactful artistic activist you can possibly be – https://bit.ly/3CcKCr9

Whistleblowing for Change: Exposing Systems of Power & Injustice | Editor Tatiana Bazzichelli | Out 27 Nov 2021 | The courageous acts of whistleblowing that inspired the world over the past few years have changed our perception of surveillance and control in today’s information society. But what are the wider effects of whistleblowing as an act of dissent on politics, society, and the arts? How does it contribute to new courses of action, digital tools, and contexts? This urgent intervention based on the work of Berlin’s Disruption Network Lab examines this growing phenomenon, offering interdisciplinary pathways to empower the public by investigating whistleblowing as a developing political practice that has the ability to provoke change from within – https://bit.ly/3nTyZiP

Proof of Work: Blockchain Provocations 2011–2021 | By Rhea Myers | Art Editions, Forthcoming Jun 2022 | DAO? BTC? NFT? ETH? ART? WTF? HODL as OG crypto artist, writer, and hacker Rhea Myers searches for faces in cryptographic hashes, follows a day in the life of a young shibe in the year 2032, and patiently explains why all art should be destructively uploaded to the blockchain. Now an acknowledged pioneer whose work has graced the auction room at Sotheby’s, Myers embarked on her first art projects focusing on blockchain tech in 2011, making her one of the first artists to engage in creative, speculative and conceptual engagements with ‘the new internet’. This anthology brings together annotated presentations of Myers’s blockchain artworks along with her essays, critiques, reviews, and fictions—a sustained critical encounter between the cultures and histories of the art world and crypto-utopianism, technically accomplished but always generously demystifying and often mischievous – https://bit.ly/3nSpmki

Critical Theory and New Materialisms | Edited By Hartmut Rosa, Christoph Henning, Arthur Bueno | Published by Routledge, 15 June 2021 | Bringing together authors from two intellectual traditions that have, so far, generally developed independently of one another – critical theory and new materialism – this book addresses the fundamental differences and potential connections that exist between these two schools of thought. With a focus on some of the most pressing questions of contemporary philosophy and social theory – in particular, those concerning the status of long-standing and contested separations between matter and life, the biological and the symbolic, passivity and agency, affectivity and rationality – it shows that recent developments in both traditions point to important convergences between them and thus prepare the ground for a more direct confrontation and cross-fertilization – https://bit.ly/3BHvIrv

Articles, Interviews, Blogs, Presentations, Videos

The Chaos of Eros: in conversation with the programmers of Erotic Awakenings | Maria Isabel Martinez | Erotic life is a treasure we hold close until we believe its delight might multiply in the hands, eyes, ears, or mouth of another. One such place for sharing is “Erotic Awakenings,” an archive primarily containing writings hosted on the website of Toronto artist-run gallery Hearth Garage. The project is a collaboration between the gallery’s programmers Benjamin de Boer, Philip Ocampo, Rowan Lynch, and Sameen Mahboubi and writer and facilitator Fan Wu. Each piece of writing is singular in form and content, reflective of our varied erotic experiences. In an erotic moment, we might become unfastened from a solid sense of our identity, or further reminded of the body we can’t escape – https://bit.ly/3GPuONB

Artgames and interspecies LARPS with Marc and Ruth of Furtherfield | Podcast | The ReImagining Value Action Lab | “We talked about art, games, LARPs and other subversive high jinks on the latest episode of our Conspiracies and  Countergames podcast.” Furtherfield disrupts and democratises art and technology through exhibitions, labs & debates, for deep exploration, open tools & free-thinking and is London’s longest-running (de)centre for art and technology whose mission is to disrupt and democratise through deep exploration, open tools and free-thinking. The ReImagining Value Action Lab (RiVAL) is a research and creativity workshop for the radical imagination active around the world and locally in Thunder Bay, Canada – https://bit.ly/3k815pn

The Digital Art Conundrum – how to evaluate digital art? | Computational Aesthetics | By Josephine Bosma | Digital devices have been part of developments in culture and society for decades, the arts included. They influenced, inspired, or even ‘co-produced’ the work of artists in performance, sculpture, robotics, sound art, and more. […] Though accurate and precise, it is not easily understandable and is a quite theoretical approach. To simplify their proposal: computational aesthetics offers a much-needed alternative to ‘traditional’ definitions of digital art as a purely technological or visual art form. It offers a broader perspective on the field – https://bit.ly/3BEKSy3

London’s ‘Square Mile’ Is One Big Monument To Slavery | By Stewart Home | ArtReview | When it comes to addressing what to do with artworks and memorials connected to historic racism and attendant issues relating to colonialism, some talk up their commitment to change, but their lack of action exposes a preference for the status quo. The City of London Corporation is the local authority that covers the capital’s international financial district. Not only does the Corporation pack more problematic memorials into its famous ‘Square Mile’ than almost any other council in the UK (or, for that matter, the world), it is simultaneously a major patron of the arts.” – https://bit.ly/3nJBm7y

Atari-style Artwork Makes the ‘Guinness World Records 2022’ Book | Dartmouth Edu | Mary Flanagan shows how games can be collaborative through a giant Atari 2600 joystick. “Space Invaders.” “Asteroids.” “Pac-Man.” In the 1980s, the Atari 2600 revolutionized the video game industry as families revelled in the novelty of playing video games on the TV at home. When she was growing up, professor, game designer, and artist Mary Flanagan says the Atari 2600 was one of her most influential digital experiences. Years later, Flanagan’s tribute to that experience, [giantJoystick], made it into the Guinness World Records 2022 as the largest joystick in the world – https://bit.ly/3pYupSZ

AI Horror Movie Wins Lumen Gold | The Lumen Prize for Art and Technology awarded its coveted Gold Award with a cash prize of US$4,000 to UK artist Nye Thompson and UBERMORGEN for UNINVITED, the world’s first horror movie for and by machines. UNINVITED is a horror film for machine networks and human-machine organisms exploring the nature of perception and realism of the unknown and the terror of angst and exhaustion within emergent network consciousness. This generative work (2018–) is a self-evolving networked organism watching and generating a recursive ‘horror film’ scenario using mechatronic Monsters – digital flesh running machine learning algorithms. The work is described by the artists as a radically new creature looking at the world, hearing the universe through millions of hallucinogenic virally-abused sensors and creating a hybrid nervous system – https://bit.ly/3CzRI98

‘It’s a game-changer for us’: Artists welcome guaranteed basic income plan | Deirdre Falvey | Irish Times | The pilot for a new basic income guarantee scheme for artists and arts workers could see “around 2,000” creative workers drawing income from March 2022, or “the beginning of April, and no later than that”, said Minister for the Arts Catherine Martin. She gave details of the pilot project, which will be backed by €25 million funding in 2022, at Wednesday’s Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media budget briefing. A basic income guarantee was the top recommendation of the Arts and Culture Recovery Taskforce’s Life Worth Living report in November 2020, and the Minister said she intends to follow it “as closely as possible and to deliver a scheme that benefits artists and creative arts workers”. The three-year pilot will involve a weekly payment of €325 a week. The department later confirmed there will be no means test to take part in the scheme – https://bit.ly/2ZP73V6

Rhythm and Geometry: Constructivist Art in Britain since 1951 | Review by Bbronaċ Ferran | Studio International | An exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre captures something of the mood of the present, in its reflection on a balancing of constraint and liberation. Conceived by Tania Moore, the Joyce and Michael Morris chief curator, the exhibition draws closely on a “substantial bequest” in 2019 from husband and wife Joyce and Michael Morris, who developed a unique collection of British constructivist art from the 1950s on. As the couple were acquainted with many of the artists included, their collection was informed by their personal taste and sensibility. Its acquisition by the Sainsbury Centre opens up opportunities for new research from a historical perspective into a significantly under-studied domain of postwar practice – https://bit.ly/3q5huP3

These Companies Are Already Living in Zuckerberg’s Metaverse | By Megan Carnegie | Wired/Business | The Meta dream envisages whole companies operating in a virtual world. Many made the switch years ago—with mixed results. Facebook’s metaverse, or Meta’s metaverse, isn’t just being touted as a better version of the internet—it’s being hailed as a better version of reality. […] This space, Zuckerberg claims, won’t be created by one single company, but rather by a network of creators and developers. First problem: 91% of software developers are male. Second problem: You’ve been living in a version of metaverse for years—and, having taken over video games, it’s now coming for the world of work – https://bit.ly/3bwLNWn

Crofton Black – How does the world work? | Exposing the Invisible | Podcast | Crofton Black ended up as an investigator almost by chance. With a background in English Literature and Medieval and Renaissance philosophy, he took an unexpected turn into investigating secret prisons and extraordinary renditions. He is a writer and investigator. He is co-author of Negative Publicity: Artefacts of Extraordinary Rendition and CIA Torture Unredacted, and works on technology and security topics for The Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London. Before this he was a history of philosophy academic, specialising in theories of knowledge and interpretation. He has a PhD from the Warburg Institute, London and was a Humboldt Fellow at the Freie Universität Berlin – https://bit.ly/2ZIT1nO

Kirill Medvedev in prison (Moscow, Russia) | An international well known muscovite poet, translator, publicist, activist and community organizer, co-founder of Arkadiy Kots combat-folk band, a long term Free Home learner, has been arrested along with other activists. They were defending a courtyard adjacent to Sretenka street from oligarch Deripaska’s development of an unlawful construction, a luxury apartment hotel rising right on the site of historic buildings from the 18th century –  despite the protests of the local residents the activists were aggressively attacked by the police and kept in the police station for 24 hours awaiting the court hearing. As the excavation continues, they are imprisoned at spetspriyomnik nr-r. 1 and 2 already for 5 days. Since long Kirill is engaged in the defence of peoples land and territories defence, against extractivism, real estate development and criminal waste dumps – https://bit.ly/3mw3uvA

Image: Hydar Dewachi. Image Courtesy of Furtherfield. View from the People’s Park Plinth Voting Weekend (14 -15 August 2021), Furtherfield Gallery, Finsbury Park.

The FurtherList Archives
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HATE NEWS vs. FREE SPEECH: Polarization & Pluralism in Georgian Media

The 22nd conference of the Disruption Network Lab, “HATE NEWS vs. FREE SPEECH”, explored polarization and pluralism in Georgian media, opening on 12 December 2020 in partnership with the Regional Democratic Hub – Caucasus. 

Introduced by Tatiana Bazzichelli and Lieke Ploeger, the Programme and Community Director of the Disruption Network Lab, the two-day-event brought together journalists, activists and experts from based in Georgia and Germany to look into the manifestations as well as the consequences of information manipulation and deliberate hate speech within the Georgian media landscape. 

The conference, held at Kunstquartier Bethanien in Berlin as a combination of online and on-site formats, investigated a hyper-polarised system, in which exploitative manipulation of facts and orchestrated attempts to mislead people through delivering false information are dangerously eroding media independence, pluralism and freedom of speech. In the context of deliberate technology-fuelled disinformation, spread by news outlets of religious and political influence, hostile countries and other malign sources, the work of independent Georgian journalists is often delegitimised by public authorities and denigrated in a wave of generalisations against media objectivity, to undermine independent information and stifle criticism. 

As Bazzichelli stressed in her introductory statement, independent journalists reporting on information that is in the public interest are targeted because of the role they play in ensuring an informed society. At the same time, a global process of mystification is progressively blurring the boundary between what is false and what is real, growing to such a level that traditional media seems incapable of protecting society from a tide of disinformation, and becomes part of the problem. 

Maya Talakhadze, co-founder of the Regional Democratic Hub – Caucasus (screen), Lieke Ploeger, community director of the Disruption Network Lab, and Tatiana Bazzichelli, founder and director of the Distruption Network Lab opening the 22nd conference “Hate News VS Free Speech”
Maya Talakhadze, co-founder of the Regional Democratic Hub – Caucasus (screen), Lieke Ploeger, community director of the Disruption Network Lab, and Tatiana Bazzichelli, founder and director of the Distruption Network Lab opening the 22nd conference “Hate News VS Free Speech”

POLARIZATION AND MEDIA ETHICS IN GEORGIA 

Opening the first panel, “Polarization and Media Ethics in Georgia”, the moderator Maya Talakhadze, Co-Founder of the Regional Democratic Hub – Caucasus explained that, similar to other former Soviet Union countries, the political environment in Georgia has been polarized since the independence of the country. This has led to highly partisan media and to a marked divergence of political attitudes to ideological extremes within the around 3.7 million Georgians. Although the widespread of the internet guaranteed access to new media outlets and social media opened the way to a more pluralistic media environment, Georgian society soon faced the new challenges of widespread online disinformation, ethics violations and hate speech. 

Professor Tamar Kintsurashvili, Executive Director of the Media Development Foundation and Associate Professor at Ilia State University, referred to Georgia as the country with the most pluralistic and free media environment in South Caucasus region. Nevertheless, according to Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders, its information system appears weaker and weaker, public broadcasters have been accused of favouring the government and lawmakers have repeatedly attempted to restrict freedom of expression. 

Professor Kintsurashvili stressed how such an environment cannot be considered independent and negatively contributes to the polarization of the country. In her critical analysis, Georgian media pluralism could be described as the product of competing political interests, rather than a sign of strong freedom of expression and an independent press in the country. Despite this, Georgian civil society is widely praised for its diversity and strength. 

In Georgia, most media have a political affiliation and align themselves with the agenda of a candidate or a party. This results in the actual instrumentalization of mainstream media and the concentration of ownership of TV stations, online media outlets and newspapers in the hands of the dominant political parties, which are shaping the overall media environment. 

Professor Kintsurashvili recalled that in 2017 the ownership of pro-opposition Georgian TV channel Rustavi 2 was transferred to the businessman Kibar Khalvashi, its previous owner, after a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The case is instructive of the complexity of the Georgian media landscape. Khalvashi’s opponents accused him of having close ties to the government and warned that the new ownership could not guarantee freedom of expression and independence for journalists and broadcasts. Following the ECHR ruling, two new opposition broadcasters emerged. 

Professor Kintsurashvili highlighted that, to come to a full understanding of the country, one must consider the possible sympathies of the Georgian politicians toward the Russian Federation, despite the 2008 war and its continuous interferences in domestic affairs. 

Many critical voices and independent investigations observe that Russia is supporting a galaxy of media outlets active all over the Caucasus, characterised by a lack of transparency and accountability. These actors promote anti-Western propaganda and are partially responsible for the radicalisation and antagonization of the Georgian society, leveraged to disrupt social cohesion and push the country away from the EU’s Eastern Partnership with the six countries of its Eastern neighbourhood –Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. 

Professor Kintsurashvili points out that while outlets such as Sputnik or Russia Today are openly funded by the Russian government or by Russian oligarchs, the ownership structures of dozens of online platforms remain unclear, and many vanish after a few weeks of activity. 

In addition to this, the panellist considered that economic resources for independent media are limited and a lack of transparency of financing – especially in online media – which poses a serious problem for the independence and impartiality of many media outlets, as they are not accountable to the Georgian public but to their owners. Neutral newsrooms with no political affiliation are not self-sufficient and manage to have a small impact on the overall environment; nothing compared to big TV channels, which remain the major source of information in the country. 

Tamar Kintsurashvili, Nini Gvilia, Nata Dzvelishvili and Maya Talakhadze during the panel discussion “Polarization and Media Ethics in Georgia”
Tamar Kintsurashvili, Nini Gvilia, Nata Dzvelishvili and Maya Talakhadze during the panel discussion “Polarization and Media Ethics in Georgia”

Taking a step from such a polarized environment shaped by domestic and foreign actors with a political agenda, the second panellist Nata Dzvelishvili, Executive Director at Indigo Publishing, focused on the current state of media ethics in Georgia and the lack of media literacy among Georgians. She considered that, in such a polluted disinformation ecosystem, the majority have almost no reliable instruments to orientate and discern good independent journalism, fake news and poor-quality reporting, which means also that the capability to identify verifiable information in the public interest, and information that does not meet precise ethical standards, is limited.

Dzvelishvili is the former Executive Director of the Georgian Charter of Journalistic Ethics, the self-regulatory body of media in Georgia. She pointed out that by decoding the authenticity of online news we can see how, alongside with the so-called fake news, there is also an alarming degree of laxity and journalistic errors arising from poor research and superficial verification. She listed a few frequent unethical behaviours and violations, from the lack of accuracy to unprofessional coverage of facts reported to arouse curiosity or broad interest through the inclusion of exaggerated or lurid details. In Georgia, this last aspect is mirrored in an unfair and hyper-partisan selection of facts, too. 

The Georgian Charter of Journalistic Ethics – a body composed of 400 member journalists, which processes complaints and makes decisions on issues regarding ethical standards and principles – warned that Georgian media too often spread news based on unverified facts, or even simple errors, generating misinformation. Bad information undermines the credibility of media, and unprofessional journalism opens the way for widespread disinformation and misinformation. 

Dzvelishvili explained that in Georgia the most critical topics subject to manipulation due to political interest are those related to religious sentiment, LGBTQI identities, migration and nationalism. In her intervention she presented examples of campaigns fuelling homophobia, racism and reopening historic traumas, fruitful ground for the growth of ultra-nationalistic, conservative, and pro-Russian narratives. 

Many of the media outlets accused of spreading anti-Western and pro-Russian propaganda acted all over the Caucasus to disseminate disinformation about Georgia’s position on the Karabakh conflict, and thus foster hostility between ethnic Armenian, Azerbaijani and Georgian populations. Rumours and fully fabricated stories about Georgian Muslims ready to gain independence led to the concrete risk of a conflict between ethnic Georgians, the religious orthodox and Muslims, and represented a new pretext to call for Russian intervention to resolve the conflict. More recently, the COVID-19 pandemic was used to fuel anti-Western feelings, provoke mistrust in science, discredit Western democracies and divide the country. 

Nini Gvilia, Project Assistant for Social Media Monitoring at the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED), focused on social media in Georgia, which – she explained – 20 percent of the population use as their main source of information. Political activities have strongly shifted to Facebook and other social media, with the support of agencies such as The Marketing Heaven, which enables a more pluralised information environment but also sharpens the risk of misuse by malign actors.

News Front, a Georgian-language website, is one of these. Facts can be irrelevant against a torrent of abuse and hatred towards journalists and opponents, made possible by algorithms, fake accounts, coordinated bots and trolls, that generate viral postings on social media. News Front has also been active on Facebook since 2019. Analysing the interactions of its audience, it is observable that manipulation also arises by weaponizing memes to propel hate speech and denigration or creating false campaigns to distract public attention from actual news. Marginal voices and fake news can be disseminated by inflating the number of shares with automated or semi-automated accounts, which manipulate public opinion by boosting the popularity of online posts and amplifying rumours.

Many Georgians are still anchored to very traditionalist and conservative beliefs. Groups of right-wing extremists offer appealing online spaces filled with redundant rhetoric, gossip columns, sport blogs, and other apparently harmless content, which actually underpins anti-liberal, misogynistic, racist and homophobic views, pushing for a new authoritarian turnaround. Too often, mainstream TV channels and newspapers pick up staged news from such a disinformation ecosystem, enforcing a revisionist narrative built on manipulated facts and fake interactions, arrogance and violence.

Nini Gvilia during her presentation during the panel discussion “Polarization and Media Ethics in Georgia"
Nini Gvilia during her presentation during the panel discussion “Polarization and Media Ethics in Georgia”

MISINFORMATION ON SOCIAL MEDIA DURING ELECTIONS 

Eka Rostomashvili, Advocacy and Campaigns Coordinator at Transparency International, moderated the panel “Misinformation on Social Media during Elections”. The opening contribution by Varoon Bashyakarla, Data Scientist at Tactical Tech’s Data & Politics Project, focused on how the ‘digital influence industry’operates. In addition, Bashyakarla dissected some of the dynamics that allow personal data to be weaponised for political purposes. 

As he recalled, personal data of potential electors is being used constantly for political purposes – even without a precise agenda, just to spread disinformation. Hundreds of companies around the world profile people to influence and predict their political choices. Working with journalists, academics, and civil society organisations, Bashyakarla underlined how these tech firms exploit personal information as a political asset and source of political intelligence. 

Many countries traditionally hold voter rolls containing basic information of their electors. Voters’ data is at the heart of modern campaigning and many of the companies working in consumers tech have opened new divisions dedicated to political technology – a term commonly used in the former Soviet states for a highly developed industry of political manipulation – to build statistical models that spy on voters to learn from their preferences and characteristics. Cambridge Analytica was just one of the many entities collecting and misusing intimate personal data to target and manipulate the electorate.

Last year, personally identifiable information of 4.9 million Georgians from 2011 appeared online. Many suspected that the leak was triggered to undermine voters’ faith in elections. However, a leak consisting of 200 million US-American voter files, with personal data including ethnicity and religion, had already demonstrated in 2017 – illustrating how risky election tech can be. The same happened in the Philippines, where the website of the government was subject to a cyber-attack and 340 gigabytes of the personal details of 55 million voters appeared online, and in Turkey, where in 2016 a leak of a 6.6 gigabyte file made available information of 50 million voters. 

Bashyakarla discussed then how the extraction of value from political data works and explained the logic behind A/B testing, deployed to compare the performance of two competing advertisements. He warned that societies around the world are exposed to an unprecedented volume of testing. During the last US elections, for example, on the day of the third presidential debate a single online content could be shared in up to 175,000 different variations to test the reaction of the electorate. 

Politicians test their postings, images, headlines and slogans to learn in which areas voters are more sympathetic to their messages; what causes in different regions of the country they care more about; and what topics are more likely to be appreciated by a specific audience. As Facebook suggests in one of its advertisements, these techniques allow you to “find the perfect match between your ad and your audience.”

In Georgia, the volume of unsolicited texting and even phone calls spreading political messages that electors receive before elections is overwhelming. Both pro-government political parties and opposition parties deploy similar tactics, which reach their peak point during elections. Coinciding with this very intense activity, the number of online pages spreading fake news triples, with hatred campaigns amplifying differences and fuelling polarization. 

Eka Rostomashvili, Varoon Bashyakarla, Rafael Goldzweig and Mikheil Benidze (screen) during the panel "Misinformation on Social Media during Elections"
Eka Rostomashvili, Varoon Bashyakarla, Rafael Goldzweig and Mikheil Benidze (screen) during the panel “Misinformation on Social Media during Elections”

Mikheil Benidze, Chief of Party for the new Georgia Information Integrity Program at the Zinc Network, shared his observations on how social media platforms have been weaponized for electoral purposes and how Georgian civil society has risen to the challenge. In the next few years, the Georgia Information Integrity Program, run by the Zinc Network, is going to look into the activities of online users, to research why certain narratives are successful and what their actual impact is. 

Benidze recalled that the web is full of traps, like fake news websites that look like the online version of mainstream newspapers, and TV channels, which deceive readers. These fake websites are used to co-ordinate campaigns and networks of political influence, propagate nationalistic, xenophobic, and homophobic content and to undermine the development of a multicultural liberal democracy. The panellist considered that algorithms amplify those messages even more, and praised Georgian civil society organisations for constantly debunking, exposing and analysing facts to protect a free, democratic and open debate. People get spontaneously together and mobilise to strengthen independent fact-checking initiatives and encourage the co-operation with social networks to monitor and delate online harmful content. 

The panel was concluded by the contribution of Rafael Goldzweig, Research Coordinator at Democracy Reporting International, an independent non-profit organisation based in Berlin, which promotes political participation of citizens, accountability of state bodies and the development of democratic institutions worldwide. Goldzweig compared the trends observed in Georgia described throughout the first day of the conference with what happens in other countries. He offered an overview of regulatory approaches and initiatives – particularly those debated in the European Union – for making the online environment more resilient against disinformation, hate speech and other challenges. 

The digital sphere and its interactions proved to be able to determine the course of elections and host activities, which can undermine the stability of a fragile institutional system. The researcher pointed out that, all over the world, social media has become subject to electoral observation, too, to monitor the rights of candidates and of the electorate. 

Goldzweig is confident that more organisations and actors around the world can replicate the monitoring activities of Democracy Reporting International. He suggested that transparency and monitoring are fundamental to understand what happens online, and that we are facing a multi-stakeholder responsibility, since tech companies are asked to provide solutions and governments to maintain a central role. These actors must facilitate the monitoring by civil society and implement tech that enforces community standards able to guarantee individual and collective rights.

The first day’s guests presented a clearer image of the complex situation in the Georgian media landscape, in which disinformation and propaganda seek to animate people into becoming conduits of divisive messages and violence. All panellists expressed concern about the alarming levels of homophobia and xenophobia. Several contributions suggested that journalistic self-regulation and a respect for precise ethical principles appear to be the only way to guarantee strong and free information systems, keeping in mind that Georgian democratic institutions are still fragile and that lawmakers will try to implement new regulations as a leverage to limit freedom of expressions.

Rafael Goldzweig and Mikheil Benidze (screen) during the panel "Misinformation on Social Media during Elections"
Rafael Goldzweig and Mikheil Benidze (screen) during the panel “Misinformation on Social Media during Elections”

HATE SPEECH & HUMAN RIGHTS 

The conference’s closing panel, “Hate Speech & Human Rights”, was moderated by performer and journalist Azadê Peşmen. The talk opened with a focus on hate speech, violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in Georgia.

Giorgi Tabagari, Co-Founder and Director of Tbilisi Pride, gave the audience the chance to learn more about LGBTQI rights in the country. Georgian legislation directly prohibits discrimination against all LGBTQI people, nevertheless – as set out in the previous panels of the conference – there is a high level of hostility against queer people everywhere in Georgian society. Gay and transgender people, along with Jehovah Witnesses, Muslims and Armenians, are publicly presented as national enemies and homosexuality is considered an inexcusable moral corruption. 

In Georgia the simple existence of LGBTQI people is a taboo. The mainstream media do not consider sexual and gender identity outside the binary representation of heterosexual men and women. Queer people appear to be the most despised group in the society, which is a fact taken for granted as a normal aspect by most Georgians. Tabagari recalled that an effective way to inflict a damaging insult and to ruin the reputation of a Georgian is to accuse that person of being homosexual: a moral corruption, worse than being a criminal. 

The Georgian Orthodox Church has played a defining role in this. Not only does it condemn homosexuality as a sin, but it is also the front line of a violent mobilisation of individuals against queer people. For years, homophobic views have been encouraged by public officials and deployed to delegitimise and discredit political opponents. Investigations found that far-right and hate groups behind these actions were often linked to official parties sitting in the institutions. 

By and large, Georgia is a conservative, homophobic country. Many participants of the conference could confirm that less hateful content has been hosted on traditional media in these last two years, whilst social media has been used to build a network of hateful content and online misinformation campaigns targeting LGBTQI activists. Hate and violence have been increasing for a long time, Tabagari warned. Due to more frightening levels of stigma and hatred, LGBTQI people and activists face constant and enormous challenges in Georgian society. Hate crimes and abuses revealed also to significantly increase the risk of poor mental health, from which many queer people suffer. As of today, no statistics about crimes conducted on sexual orientation or gender identity grounds in the country are available. However, it is obvious that the Georgian law prohibiting hate crimes, alone, is not sufficient.

Azadê Peşmen and Josephine Ballon during the panel discussion "Hate Speech & Human Rights"
Azadê Peşmen and Josephine Ballon during the panel discussion “Hate Speech & Human Rights”

The second panellist, Nino Danelia, Head of Journalism and Media Research at Ilia State University and Founder of the Coalition for Media Advocacy, discussed the implementation of existing national and international human rights standards to combat online hate speech in Georgia.

As described throughout the conference, the Georgian media landscape appears to be a competitive pluralistic system, but highly polarized. Danelia reported that television remains the main source of news and information for the majority of the country, whilst 25 percent of Georgians use internet – and particularly Facebook – to get informed. 

On paper, Georgian laws meet international standards, as the country sanctions all forms of expression promoting or justifying racial hatred, xenophobia, and religious based intolerance, including aggressive nationalism and hostility against minorities and migrants. 

Hate speech is not criminalised and it is regulated de facto by the Law on Broadcasting and by the Code of Conduct for Broadcasters. Danelia also warned that – in the fragile Caucasian democracy – a new regulation of hate speech could be a threat to media and editorial independence. 

Danelia concluded her intervention by explaining that, in her opinion, the issue of polarised, controlled and impartial media can be tackled by strengthening existing self-regulatory mechanisms and funding professional training for journalists. According to the Georgian Charter of Journalistic Ethics, reporters must exert every effort to avoid hate speech that can cause fragmentation and radicalisation of the society. 

Political leaders are asked to be careful and avoid violent and ambiguous expressions in their public speeches – not to facilitate, incite or justify hatred founded on intolerance and identity-based convincement. A delicate aspect is still represented by those political groups that propose to prohibit “offending the religious sensibilities or feelings”, which would constitute an area of legal uncertainty and arbitrariness, negatively affecting free speech. 

Nino Danelia and Giorgi Tabagari during the panel discussion "Hate Speech & Human Rights"
Nino Danelia and Giorgi Tabagari during the panel discussion “Hate Speech & Human Rights”

Josephine Ballon, Legal Head at Hate Aid, gave an overview of the German legal perspective on hate speech, beginning from the fact that 78 percent of German internet users have already witnessed hate speech on the internet, whilst 17 percent have been a direct victim of these practices. Researchers calculate that, also in Germany, only 5 percent of users are responsible for almost 50 percent of hateful content.

Balloon recounted an example of neo-Nazis, united under the label “Reconquista Germanica”, and the Austrian Identitarian Movement, pointing out that an official 2019 investigation proved that 70 percent of the hate crimes and hate comments on the internet reported to the authorities were executed by far-right movements. 

Such a violent spread of hate intimidates people. Not just those directly targeted, but the majority of internet users admit to being afraid of expressing their political opinions on the internet, fearing the campaigns targeting those who speak out. More precisely, Ballon reported that more than half of the people interviewed do not dare to express political opinions online, as they are afraid of the possible consequences. 

The lawyer gives counselling to those who are affected by hatred and discrimination online and teaches them how to protect their data. Personality rights can be defended by directly suing the person responsible of the offence.

Georgian far-right and anti-liberal groups are strong enough to try to influence public opinion, backed by Russian propaganda, and this radicalisation seeks to fragment society even more. Both in Germany and in Georgia, journalistic standards are not applicable to social media and to user-generated content. In 2017, Germany introduced one of the most advanced laws regulating online hate speech at the time, the Network Enforcement Act (NetzDG), requiring internet companies to remove offensive content within 24 hours, or to face up to 50 million euros in fines. Other countries that tried to regulate the same subject ended up approving unconstitutional laws. 

The importance of tolerance between diverse groups is stressed in the Georgian national Constitution, which guarantees and defends citizens’ fundamental rights and freedoms. Moreover, the law on broadcasting foresees a ‘National Communications Commission’ to regulate telecommunications and broadcast media. The Commission is supposed to be an independent regulatory body accountable to the legislative, but its practices are often criticised, and it is accused of being loyal to the executive branch. 

In Georgia, 80 percent of the population who use the internet have a Facebook account. Zuckerberg’s company is the most popular social network in the country. During the last elections, the tech firm came under a lot of pressure from civil society asking to enforce effective measures to stop hate speech and fake news interfering with the democratic process. Twitter is less popular in Georgia, hosting more international users, who mostly write in English. Recently, social media platforms demonstrated themselves to be able to co-operate with local non-governmental organisations to monitor online content. These activities led to ban, and the shut-down of many pages. However, concerns have arisen considering that, between elections, as civil society lets its guard down, those same groups are free to proliferate and spread their content again. 

The poster of the final panel with Giorgi Tabagari, Nino Danelia, Josephine Ballon and Azadê Peşmen
The poster of the final panel with Giorgi Tabagari, Nino Danelia, Josephine Ballon and Azadê Peşmen

Some keywords resonated throughout the conference, as a fil rouge connecting the speakers and debates held during the panels and commentaries by the public. Participants warned that the era of self-regulation of online social media platforms must come to end, as they have proved that their ruthless interest in clicks, interactions and profit comes before democracy and human rights. For almost a decade now, the spread of disinformation and misinformation through websites, social networks and social messaging has been begging the question of the extent of regulation and self-regulation of the companies providing these services.

On the other hand, the executive and legislative interference in the Georgian courts remains a substantial problem in the country, as does a lack of transparency and professionalism surrounding judicial proceedings. For these reasons, self-regulation remains the only plausible option for editors and journalists.

Media literacy and awareness-raising have been widely recognised as effective and reliable tools to oppose the spread of harmful content and, at the same time, tackle the system of disinformation and violence threatening Georgia. Education, together with strong independent journalists, who know and respect journalistic standards. 

On the other hand, we see that economic uncertainties – fear, anger, and resentment – are leveraged to spread campaigns of hatred, attack opponents, discriminate minorities and activists. Conspiratorial, paranoid thinking and violent interactions act like a catalyst, provoking participation and fascinating individuals. Considering that it is all about the benefits of personalised advertising, and ultimately the need for clicks, many observers think that social media will never renounce to such a source of profit.

The collaborative project “HATE NEWS vs. FREE SPEECH: Polarization and Pluralism in Georgian Media” had its first phase between September and October 2020, with two trainings in Georgia on traditional and non-traditional journalism, organised by the Regional Democratic Hub – Caucasus. The announcement of the training triggered high interest, with 120 applications received for 30 places. The first training in Georgia was held in the Kakheti Region involving journalists, (social) media representatives and bloggers from the eastern regions of Georgia. The second training, which took place in October in the Samtskhe Javakheti Region, was held for the students of journalistic faculties with special focus on the regional universities. The training sessions addressed several key areas, among them digital and media literacy, media ethics, hate news and hate speech. 

The project ended with this conference and a workshop in Berlin titled “Anatomy of a Conspiracy Theory”, run on December 13 by researcher, trainer and consultant Alistair Alexander, with participants from both Tbilisi and Berlin. The workshop discussed several conspiracy fantasies from around the world, to understand what makes them work and how to challenge their circulation. 

HATE NEWS vs. FREE SPEECH provided a forum for discussion and on complex issues, with particular attention for different perspectives of the international guests – especially women – who animated the debate. 

A picture from the backstage of the conference "Hate News VS Free Speech"
A picture from the backstage of the conference “Hate News VS Free Speech”

For further details of our speakers and topics, please visit the event page: https://www.disruptionlab.org/hate-news-vs-free-speech

The 23rd conference of the Disruption Network Lab, curated by Tatiana Bazzichelli, was titled “Behind the Mask: Whistleblowing During the Pandemic.“ It took place on 18-20 March, 2021.

You can re-watch the panels here: https://www.disruptionlab.org/behind-the-mask

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Borders of Fear

The 21st conference of the Disruption Network Lab “Borders of Fear” was held on the 27th, 28th, and 29th November 2020 in Berlin’s Kunstquartier Bethanien. Journalists, activists, advocates, and researchers shed light on abuses and human rights violations in the context of migration management policies. Keynote speeches, panel discussions and several workshops were held involving a total number of 18 speakers and bringing together hundreds of online viewers.

Drawing on insights from humanities, science and technology studies, participants analysed from different perspectives the spread of new forms of persecution and border control targeting people on the move and those seeking refuge. They reflected collectively on forms of social justice and discussed the politics of fear that crystalize the stigmatisation of migrants. By concretely addressing these issues the conference also investigated the deployment of technology and the role of media to consolidate a well-defined structure of power, and outlined the reasons behind the rise of borders and walls, factors that lead to cultural and physical violence, persecution, and human rights violations.

In her introductory statement Dr. Tatiana Bazzichelli, founder and director of the Distruption Network Lab, presented the programme of the conference meant to address the discourse of borders both in their material function, and in their defining role within a strategy of dehumanization and racialisations of individuals. Across the globe, an unprecedented number of people are on the move due to war, economic and environmental factors. Bazzichelli recalled the urgent need to discuss human-right-related topics such as segregation and pushbacks, refugee camps and militarization of frontiers, considering the new technological artilleries available for states, investigating at the same time how border policing and datafication of society are affecting the narrative around migrants and refugees in Europe and the in the West.

The four immediate key content takeaways of the first day were the will to prevent people from reaching countries where they can apply for refugee status or visa; the externalisation polices of border control; the illegal practice of pushbacks; and systematic human rights violations by authorities, extensively documented but difficult to prove in court.

Lieke Ploeger, community director of the Disruption Network Lab, and Dr. Tatiana Bazzichelli, founder and director of the Distruption Network Lab opening the 21st conference “Borders of Fear”
Lieke Ploeger, community director of the Disruption Network Lab, and Dr. Tatiana Bazzichelli, founder and director of the Distruption Network Lab opening the 21st conference “Borders of Fear”

The conference opened with the short film by Josh Begley “Best of Luck with the Wall” – a voyage across the US-Mexico border – stitched together from 200,000 satellite images, and a talk by lawyer Renata Avila, who gave an overview of the physical and socio-economic barriers, which people migrating encounter whilst crossing South and Central America.

Avila took step from the current crises in South and Central America, to describe the dramatic migration through perilous regions, a result of an accumulation of factors like inequality, corruption, mafia, and violence. Avila pointed out that oligarchic systems from different countries appear to be interconnected in complicated architectures of international tax evasion, ruthless exploitation of resources, oppression, and the use of force. In those same places, people experience the most brutal inequality, poverty and social exclusion.

Since the ‘90s the regional free trade agreement meant open borders for products but not for people. In fact, it was an international policy with devastating effects on local economies and agriculture. People on the move in search for a better future somewhere else found closed borders and security forces attempting to block them from heading north towards Mexico and the U.S. border. In these years, the police forceful response to the migrants crossing borders have been widely praised by the governments in the region.

The fact of travelling alone is a red flag, especially for women, and the first wall people meet is in their own country. People on their way to the north experience every kind of injustice. Latin America has often been regarded as a region with deep ethnic and class conflicts. Abandoning possible stereotypical representations, we see that the bodies of the people on the move are at large sexualised and racialized for political reasons. Race, therefore, is another factor to consider, especially when we look at the journey of individuals on the move. Aside, languages in South America could also represent a barrier for those who travel without translators in a continent with dozens of indigenous languages.

Avila concluded her intervention mentioning the issue of digital colonialism and the relevance of geospatial data. Digital is no longer a separated space, she warned, but a hybrid one relevant for all individuals and whose rules are dictated by a small minority. People and places can be erased by those very few companies that can collect data, and –for example– draw and delete borders.

Renata Avila during her intervention
Renata Avila during her intervention

The panel on the first day titled “Migration, Failing Policies & Human Rights Violations,” was moderated by Roberto Perez-Rocha, director for the international anti-corruption conference series at Transparency International, and delivered by Philipp Schönberger and Franziska Schmidt, coordinators of the Refugee Law Clinic Berlin, together with investigative journalist and photographer Sally Hayden. The panellists referred to their direct experience and work, and reflected on how the EU migration policy is factually enforcing practices that cause violation of human rights, suffering, and desperation.

The Refugee Law Clinic Berlin e. V. is a student association at the Humboldt University of Berlin, providing free of charge and independent legal help for refugees and people on the move in Berlin and on the Greek island of Samos. The organisation also offers training on asylum and residence law in Berlin and runs the website ihaverights.eu, designed to allow access to justice to those in marginalised communities. 

Through a legal counselling project on the Greek island of Samos, the collective helps people suffering from European illegal practices at the Union’s borders, providing the urgent need of effective ways to guarantee them access to justice and protection. As Schönberger and Schmidt recalled, refugees, and people on the move within the EU find several obstacles when it comes to the enforcement of their rights. For such a reason, they shall be guaranteed procedural counselling by the law to secure, among other services, a fair asylum procedure. However, the Clinic confirmed that such guarantees are not being completely fulfilled in Germany, nor at Europe’s borders, in Samos, Lesvos, Leros, Kos, or Kios.

The panellists explained how their presence on the island gives a chance to document that these camps of human suffering are actually a structural part of an EU migration policy aimed at deterring people from entering the Union, result of deliberate political decisions taken in Brussels and Berlin. Human rights violations occur before arriving on the island, as people are intercepted by the Greek coastguard or by the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex), and then pushed back to the Turkish border. 

The camp in Samos, with a capacity of a maximum 648 people, is instead the home to 4,300 residents, with no water, no sanitary services, poisonous food, and no medical services. Even very serious cases documented to local health authorities remain unattended. The list of violations is endless and the complete lack of adequate protection for unaccompanied minors represents another big issue in this like in all others Greek hotspots, together with the precarity of vulnerable groups, whose risks increase with race, gender, and sexual identity.

The legal team from Berlin prepares applications to the EUCHR court and in these years has filed also 60 requests for urgent procedure due to the risk of irreparable harm, which were granted, ordering adequate accommodation and medical treatment for people in extreme danger.

 Roberto Perez-Rocha (left), Sally Hayden ,Philipp Schönberger and Franziska Schmidt during the panel on the first day “Migration, Failing Policies & Human Rights Violations”
Roberto Perez-Rocha (left), Sally Hayden ,Philipp Schönberger and Franziska Schmidt during the panel on the first day “Migration, Failing Policies & Human Rights Violations”

Many observers criticise that the sufferings in the Aegean and on the Greek islands is the result of precise political decisions. Agreed in March 2016, the EU-Turkey deal is a statement of cooperation that seeks to control the crossing of people from Turkey to the Greek islands. According to the deal, every person arriving without documents by boat or without official permission or passage to the Greek islands would be returned to Turkey. In exchange, EU Member States would take Syrian refugees from Turkey. NGOs and international human rights agencies denounce that Turkey, Greece, and the EU have completely failed on humanitarian grounds and dispute the wrong premise that Turkey is a safe country for refugees and asylum-seekers.

Journalist and photographer Sally Hayden looked at the EU-Turkey deal, defining it as a prototype for what would then happen in the central Mediterranean. Libya, a country at war with multiple governments, is the destination of people on move and refugees from all over Africa, willing to cross the Mediterranean Sea. As it is illegal to stop and push people back, for years now the EU has been financing the Libyan coastguard to intercept and pull them back. What follows is a period of arbitrary and endless detention.

Hayden writes about facts; she is not an activist. When she talks about Libya, she refers to objective events she can fact check, and individual stories she has personally collected. Her reports represent a country at war, unsafe not just for refugees and people on the move but for Libyans too. With her work, the journalist has extensively documented how refugees and migrants smuggled into Libya are subject to human trafficking, forced labour, sexual exploitation and tortures, trapped in an infernal circle of violence and death. She recalled her experience with the detainees in Abu Salim, where 500 hundred people suffer from illegal and brutal incarceration inside a centre affiliated with the government in Tripoli. In July 2020, during the conflict, one of these many prisons not far from the city was bombed. At least 53 illegally detained people were killed. 

Hayden’s work provides a picture of the results of Europe’s management of the migration crises in the Mediterranean and Northern Africa. EU funds are employed for militarization of borders and externalisation of frontiers control. The political context, in which this occurs, is the cause of years and sometimes decades of lack of investment in reception and asylum systems in line with EU-State’s generic obligations to respect, protect and fulfil human rights.

All panellists called for the immediate intervention to evacuate camps and prisons that were the result of the EU migration policies, to allow migrant victims of abuses and refugees to seek justice and safety elsewhere.

Sally Hayden during the panel “Migration, Failing Policies & Human Rights Violations”
Sally Hayden during the panel “Migration, Failing Policies & Human Rights Violations”

The evening closed with the panel discussion titled “Illegal Pushbacks and Border Violence” and moderated by Likhita Banerji, a human rights and technology researcher at Amnesty International. Banerji reminded the audience that in the first nine months of 2020 there had already been 40 pushbacks, illegal rejections of entry, and expulsions without individual assessment of protection needs, had been documented within Europe or at its external borders. Since these illegitimate practices are widespread, and in some countries systematic, these pushbacks cannot be defined as incidental actions. They appear, instead, to be institutionalised violations, well defined within national policies. 

People who shall receive asylum or be rescued, are instead pushed back by police forces, who make sure that the material crossing of the borders remains undocumented. EU member States want to keep undocumented migrants, asylum seekers and refugees outside of their jurisdiction to avoid moral responsibilities and legal obligations. During the second panel of the day, Hanaa Hakiki, legal advisor at the ECCHR Migration Program, filmmaker and reporter Nicole Vögele, and Dimitra Andritsou, researcher at Forensic Architecture, had the chance to go in-depth and to consider the different aspects of these violations.

Hanaa Hakiki, in her intervention “Bringing pushbacks to justice” presented the difficulties that litigators experience in court to materially document pushbacks, which are indeed not meant to be proven. She defined pushbacks as a set of state measures, by which refugees and migrants are forced back over the border – generally shortly after having crossed it – without consideration of their individual circumstances and without any possibility for them to apply for asylum or to put forward arguments against the measures taken.

There are national and international laws that need to be considered in these cases, constituting binding legal obligations for all EU Member States. As a general principle, governments cannot enact disproportionate force, humiliating and degrading treatment or torture, and must facilitate the access to asylum, guarantee protection to people, and provide them access to individualised procedures in this sense.

Member States know that pushbacks have been illegal since a 2012 ECtHR judgment, known as the “Hirsi Jamaa Case,” which found that Italy had violated the law in forcing people back to Libya. However, the effective ban on direct returns led European countries to find other ways to avoid responsibility for those at sea or crossing their borders without documents, and concluded agreements with neighbouring countries, which are requested to prevent migrants from leaving their territories and paid to do so, by any means and without any human rights safeguards in place. By outsourcing rescue to the Libyan authorities, for example, pushbacks by EU countries turned into pullbacks by Libyan coastguard.

Land-pushbacks are still common practice. Hakiki explained that the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) has worked with communities of undocumented migrants since 2014, considering potential legal interventions against the practice of pushbacks at EU borders, and assisting affected persons with individual legal proceedings. She presented three cases the ECCHR litigated in Court (N.D. and N.T. v. Spain; AA vs North Macedonia; SB vs. Croatia) proving that European countries illegally push people back, in violation of human rights laws. Despite the fact that this is still a common practice, it is very difficult to document these violations and have the authorities condemned.

Likhita Banerji (left), Hanaa Hakiki, Nicole Vögele and Dimitra Andritsou during the panel “Illegal Pushbacks and Border Violence”
Likhita Banerji (left), Hanaa Hakiki, Nicole Vögele and Dimitra Andritsou during the panel “Illegal Pushbacks and Border Violence”

During the beginning of the Syrian conflict, in 2015, refugees were able to travel via Serbia and Hungary into Central and Northern Europe. A couple of years later the EU decided to close down again this so-called Balkan Route, with the result that more and more people found themselves stuck in Bosnia-Herzegovina, prevented from continuing onward to Europe’s territories. From there a person can try to enter the European Union dozens of times, and each time is stopped by Croatian security forces, beaten, and then dragged back across the border to Bosnia-Herzegovina.

After having seen the effects of these illegal practices and met victims of dozens of violent pushbacks in Sarajevo, in 2019 the reporter Nicole Vögele and her crew succeeded in filming a series of these cross-border expulsions from Croatia to Bosnia Herzegovina near the village of Gradina, in the municipality of Velika Kladuša. The reporter, one of the few who succeeded in documenting this practice, also interviewed those who had just been pushed back by the Interventna Policija officers. The response of the Bosnian authorities to her reportage was a complete denial of all accusations. 

Vögele then presented footage taken at the EU external border in Croatia, in March 2020, showing masked men beat up refugees and illegally pushing them back to Bosnia. The journalist and her team found the original video, analysed its metadata, and interviewed the man captured on it. Once again, their work could prove that these practices are not isolated incidents.

The panel closed with the investigation by Forensic Architecture part of a broader project on cases of pushbacks across the Evros/Meriç river. Team member Dimitra Andritsou presented the organisation founded to investigate human rights violations using a range of techniques, flanking classical investigation methods including open-source investigation video analysis, spatial and architectural practice, and digital modelling.

Forensic Architecture works with and on behalf of communities affected by state and military violence, producing evidence for legal forums, human rights organisations, investigative reporters and media. A multidisciplinary research group – of architects, scholars, artists, software developers, investigative journalists, archaeologists, lawyers, and scientists – based at the University of London, works in partnership with international prosecutors, human rights organisations, political and environmental justice groups, and develops new evidentiary techniques to investigate violations of human rights around the world, armed conflicts, and environmental destruction.

The Evros/Meriç River is the only border between Greece and Turkey that is not sea. For years migrants and refugees trying to cross it to enter Europe have been reporting that unidentified and generally masked men catch, detain, beat, and push people back to Turkey. Mobile phones, documents, and the few personal things they travel with are confiscated or thrown into the river, not to leave any evidence of these violations behind. As Andridsou described, both Greek and EU authorities systematically deny any wrongdoing, refusing to investigate these reports. The river is part of a wider ecosystem of border defence and has been weaponised to deter and let die those who attempt to cross it. 

Nicole Vögele during the panel “Illegal Pushbacks and Border Violence”
Nicole Vögele during the panel “Illegal Pushbacks and Border Violence”

In December 2019, the German magazine Der Spiegel obtained rare videos filmed on a Turkish Border Guard’s mobile phone and on a surveillance, camera installed on the Turkish banks of the river, which apparently documented one of these many pushback operations. Forensic Architecture was commissioned to analyse the footages. A team of experts was then able to geolocate and timestamp the material and could confirm that the images were actually taken few hundred metres away from a Greek military watchtower in Greece.

Andritsou then presented the case of a group of three Turkish political asylum seekers, who entered Greek territory on 4 May 2019, always crossing the Evros/Meriç river. In this case a team of Forensic Architecture could cross-reference different evidence sources, such as new media, remote sensing, material analysis, and witness testimony and verify the group’s entry and their illegal detention in Greece. A pushback to Turkey on the 5 May 2019 led to their arrest and imprisonment by the Turkish authorities.

Ayşe Erdoğan, Kamil Yildirim, and Talip Niksar had been persecuted by the Turkish government on allegations of involvement in Fettulah Gulen’s movement. The group on the run had shared a video appealing for international protection against a possible forced return to Turkey and digitally recorded the journey via WhatsApp. All their text messages with location pins, photographs, videos and metadata prove their presence on Greek soil, prior to their arrest by the Turkish authorities. The investigation could verify that the three were in a Greek police station too, a fact that matches their statement about having repeatedly attempted to apply for asylum there. Their imprisonment is a direct result of the Greek authorities contravening the principle of non-refoulement.

Some keywords resonated throughout the first day of the conference, as a fil rouge connecting the speakers and debates held during the panels and commentaries by the public. Violence, arbitrariness and lawlessness are wilfully ignored –if not backed– by EU Member States, with authorities constantly trying to hide the truth. Thousands of people live under segregation, with no account or trace of being in custody of authorities free to do with them whatever they want. 

Likhita Banerji (left), Hanaa Hakiki, Nicole Vögele and Dimitra Andritsou during the panel “Illegal Pushbacks and Border Violence”
Likhita Banerji (left), Hanaa Hakiki, Nicole Vögele and Dimitra Andritsou during the panel “Illegal Pushbacks and Border Violence”

Technology has always been a part of border and immigration enforcement. However, over the last few years, as a response to increased migration into the European Union, governments and international organisations involved in migration management have been deploying new controversial tools, based on artificial intelligence and algorithms, conducting de facto technological experiments and research involving human subjects, refugees and people on the move. The second day of the conference opened with the video contribution by Petra Molnar, lawyer and researcher at the European Digital Rights, author of the recent report “Technological Testing Grounds” (2020) based on over 40 conversations with refugees and people on the move.

When considering AI, questions, answers, and predictions in its technological development reflect the political and socioeconomic point of view, consciously or unconsciously, of its creators. As discussed in the Disruption Network Lab conference “AI traps: automating discrimination” (2019)— risk analyses and predictive policing data are often corrupted by racist prejudice, leading to biased data collection which reinforces privileges of the groups that are politically more guaranteed. As a result, new technologies are merely replicating old divisions and conflicts. By instituting policies like facial recognition, for instance, we replicate deeply ingrained behaviours based on race and gender stereotypes, mediated by algorithms. Bias in AI is a systematic issue when it comes to tech, devices with obscure inner workings and the black box of deep learning algorithms.

There is a long list of harmful tech employed at the EU borders is long, ranging from Big Data predictions about population movements and self-phone tracking, to automated decision-making in immigration applications, AI lie detectors and risk-scoring at European borders, and now bio-surveillance and thermal cameras to contain the spread of the COVID-19. Molnar focused on the risks and the violations stemming from such experimentations on fragile individuals with no legal guarantees and protection. She criticised how no adequate governance mechanisms have been put in place, with no account for the very real impacts on people’s rights and lives. The researcher highlighted the need to recognise how uses of migration management technology perpetuate harms, exacerbate systemic discrimination, and render certain communities as technological testing grounds.

Once again, human bodies are commodified to extract data; thousands of individuals are part of tech-experiments without consideration of the complexity of human rights ramifications, and banalizing their material impact on human lives. This use of technology to manage and control migration is subject to almost no public scrutiny, since experimentations occur in spaces that are militarized and so impossible to access, with weak oversight, often driven by the private sector. Secrecy is often justified by emergency legislation, but the lack of a clear and transparent regulation of the technologies deployed in migration management appears to be deliberate, to allow for the creation of opaque zones of tech-experimentation. 

Molnar underlined how such a high level of uncertainty concerning fundamental rights and constitutional guarantees would be unacceptable for EU citizens, who would have ways to oppose these liberticidal measures. However, migrants and refugees have notoriously no access to mechanisms of redress and oversight, particularly during the course of their migration journeys. It could seem secondary, but emergency legislation justifies the disapplication of laws protecting privacy and data too, like the GDPR. 

Petra Molnar, lawyer and researcher author of the report “Technological Testing Grounds” (2020)
Petra Molnar, lawyer and researcher author of the report “Technological Testing Grounds” (2020)

The following part of the conference focused on the journey through Sub-Saharan and Northern Africa, on the difficulties and the risks that migrants face whilst trying to reach Europe. In the conversation “The Journey of Refugees from Africa to Europe,” Yoseph Zemichael Afeworki, Eritrean student based in Luxemburg, talked of his experience with Ambre Schulz, Project Manager at Passerell, and reporter Sally Hayden. Afeworki recalled his dramatic journey and explained what happens to those like him, who cross militarized borders and the desert. The student described that migrants represent a very lucrative business, not just because they pay to cross the desert and the sea, but also because they are used as cheap labour, when not directly captured for ransom.

Once on the Libyan coast, people willing to reach Europe find themselves trapped in a cycle of waiting, attempts to cross the Mediterranean, pullbacks and consequent detention. Libya is a country at war, with two governments. The lack of official records and the instability make it difficult to establish the number of people on the move and refugees detained without trial for an indefinite period. Libyan law punishes illegal migration to and from its territory with prison; this without any account for individual’s potential protection needs. Once imprisoned in a Libyan detention centre for undocumented migrants, even common diseases can lead fast to death. Detainees are employed as forced labour for rich families, tortured, and sexually exploited. Tapes recording inhuman violence are sent to the families of the victims, who are asked to pay a ransom.

As Hayden and Afeworki described, the conditions in the buildings where migrants are held are atrocious. In some, hundreds of people live in darkness, unable to move or eat properly for several months. It is impossible to estimate how many individuals do not survive and die there. An estimated 3,000 people are currently detained there. The only hope for them is their immediate evacuation and the guarantee of humanitarian corridors from Libya –whose authorities are responsible for illegal and arbitrary detention, torture and other crimes– to Europe.

Yoseph Zemichael AfeworkiandAmbre Schulz (video), Dr. Tatiana Bazzichelli (left) and Sally Hayden
Yoseph Zemichael AfeworkiandAmbre Schulz (video), Dr. Tatiana Bazzichelli (left) and Sally Hayden

The second day closed with the panel “Politics & Technologies of Fear” moderated by Walid El-Houri, researcher, journalist and filmmaker. Gaia Giuliani from the University of Coimbra, Claudia Aradau, professor of International Politics at King’s College in London, and Joana Varon founder at Coding Rights, Tech and Human Rights Fellow at Harvard Carr Center.

Gaia Giuliani is a scholar, an anti-racist, and a feminist, whose intersectional work articulates the deconstruction of public discourses on the iconographies of whiteness and race, questioning in particular the white narrative imaginary behind security and borders militarization. In her last editorial effort, “Monsters, Catastrophes and the Anthropocene: A Postcolonial Critique” (2020), Giuliani investigated Western visual culture and imaginaries, deconstructing the concept of “risk” and “otherness” within the hegemonic mediascape.

Giuliani began her analyses focusing on the Mediterranean as a border turned into a biopolitical dispositive that defines people’s mobility –and particularly people’s mobility towards Europe– as a risky activity, a definition that draws from the panoply of images of gendered monstrosity that are proper of the European racist imaginary, to reinforce the European and Western “we”. A form of othering, the “we” produces fears through mediatized chronicles of monstrosity and catastrophe. 

Giuliani sees the distorted narrative of racialized and gendered bodies on the move to Europe as essential to reinforce the identification of nowadays migrations with the image of a catastrophic horde of monsters, which is coming to depredate the wealthy and peaceful North. It´s a mechanism of “othering” through the use of language and images, which dehumanizes migrants and refugees in a process of mystification and monstrification, to sustain the picture of Europe as an innocent community at siege. Countries of origins are described as the place of barbarians, still now in post-colonial times, and people on the move are portrayed as having the ability to enact chaos in Europe, as if Europe were an imaginary self-reflexive space of whiteness, as it was conceived in colonial time: the bastion of rightfulness and progress. 

As Giuliani explained, in this imaginary threat, migrants and refugees are represented as an ultimate threat of monsters and apocalypse, meant to undermine the identity of a whole continent. Millions of lives from the South become an indistinct mass of people. Figures of race that have been sedimented across centuries, stemming from colonial cultural archives, motivate the need to preserve a position of superiority and defend political, social, economic, and cultural privileges of the white bodies, whilst inflicting ferocity on all others.

This mediatized narrative of monsters and apocalypse generates white anxiety, because that mass of racialized people is reclaiming the right to escape, to search for a better life and make autonomous choices to flee the objective causes of unhappiness, suffering, and despair; because that mass of individuals strives to become part of the “we”. All mainstream media consider illegitimate their right to escape and the free initiative people take to cross borders, not just material ones but also the semiotic border that segregate them in the dimension of “the barbarians.” An unacceptable unchained and autonomous initiative that erases the barrier between the colonial then and the postcolonial now, unveiling the coloniality of our present, which represents migration flows as a crisis, although the only crisis undergoing is that of Europe.

On the other side, this same narrative often reduces people on the move and refugees to vulnerable, fragile individuals living in misery, preparing the terrain for their further exploitation as labour force, and to reproduce once again racialized power relations. Here the process of “othering” revivals the colonial picture of the poor dead child, functional to engender an idea of pity, which has nothing to do with the individual dignity. Either you exist as a poor individual in the misery –which the white society mercifully rescues– or as a part of the mass of criminals and rapists. However, these distinct visual representations belong to the same distorted narration, as epitomized in the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo after the sexual assaults against women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve 2015. 

Gaia Giuliani (video), Walid El-Houri and Joana Varon during the panel “Politics & Technologies of Fear”
Gaia Giuliani (video), Walid El-Houri and Joana Varon during the panel “Politics & Technologies of Fear”

Borders have been rendered as testing ground right for high-risk experimental technologies, while refugees themselves have become testing subjects for these experiments. Governments and non-state actors are developing and deploying emerging digital technologies in ways that are uniquely experimental, dangerous and discriminatory in the border and immigration enforcement context. Taking step from the history of scientific experiments on racialized and gendered bodies, Claudia Aradau invited the audience to reconsider the metaphorical language of experiments that orients us to picture high-tech and high-risk technological developments. She includes instead also tech in terms of obsolete tools deployed to penalise individuals and recreate the asymmetries of the digital divide mirroring the injustice of the neoliberal system.

Aradau studies technologies and the power asymmetries in their deployment and development. She explained that borders have been used as very profitable laboratories for the surveillance industry and for techniques that would then be deployed widely in the Global North. From borders and prison systems –in which they initially appeared– these technologies are indeed becoming common in urban spaces modelled around the traps of the surveillance capitalism. The fact that they slowly enter our vocabularies and daily lives makes it difficult to define the impact they have. When we consider for example that inmates’ and migrants’ DNA is collected by a government, we soon realise that we are entering a more complex level of surveillance around our bodies, showing tangibly how privacy is a collective matter, as a DNA sequence can be used to track a multitude of individuals from the same genealogic group.

Whilst we see hyper-advanced tech on one side, on the other people on the move walk with nothing to cross a border, sometimes not even shoes, with their personal belongings inside plastic bags, and just a smartphone to orientate themselves, and communicate and ask for help. An asymmetry, which is –once again– being deployed to maintain what Aradau defined as matrix of domination: no surveillance on CO2 emissions and environmental issues due to industrial activities, no surveillance on exploitations of resources and human lives; no surveillance on the production of weapons, but massive deployment of hi-tech to target people on the move, crossing borders to reach and enter a fortress, which is not meant for them. 

Aradau recalled that in theory, protocols ethics and demands for objectivity are necessary when it comes to scientific experiments. However, the introduction in official procedures of digital tech devices and software such as Skype, WhatsApp or MasterCard or a set of apps developed by either non-state or state actors, required neither laboratories nor the randomized custom trials that we usually associate with scientific experimentation. These heterogeneous techniques specifically intended to work everywhere and enforced without protocols, need to be understood under neoliberalism: they rely on pilot projects trials and cycles of funds and donors, whose goal is every time to move to a next step, to finance more experiments. Human-rights-centred tech is far away.

Thus, we see always more experiments carried out without protocols, from floating walls tech to stop migrants reaching the Greek shores, to debit cards used as surveillance devices. Creative experiments come also with the so-called refugees’ integration, conceived by small-scale injections of devices into their reality for limited periods, with the purpose of speculatively recompose rotten asymmetries of power and injustice. In Greece, as Aradau mentioned, the introduction of Skype in the process of the asylum application became an obstacle, with applicants continually experiencing debilitation through obsolete technology that doesn’t work or devices with limited access, disorientation through contradictory and outdated information.

There is also a factual aspect: old and slow computers, documents that have not been updated or have been updated at different times, and lack of personnel are justified by saying that resources are limited. A complete lack or shortage of funds, which is one other typical condition of neoliberalism, as we can see in Greece. In this, tech recomposes relations of precarity in a different guise.

Aradau concluded her contribution focusing on the technologies that are deployed by NGOs, completely or partially produced elsewhere, often by corporate actors who remain entangled in the experiments through their expertise and ownership. Digital platforms such as Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, or Google not only shape relations between online users, she warned, but concerning people on the move and refugees too. Google and Facebook –for example– dominate the relations that underpin the production of refugee apps by humanitarian actors. 

Google is at the centre of a sort of digital humanitarian ecosystem, not only because it can host searches or provide maps for the apps, but also because it simultaneously intercepts data flows so that it acts as a surplus data extractor. In addition, social networks reshape digital humanitarianism through data extractive relations and provide big part of the infrastructure for digital humanitarianism. Online humanitarianism becomes thus a particularly vulnerable site of data gathering and characterised by an overall lack of resources –similarly to the Greek state. As a result, humanitarian actors cannot tackle the depreciation messiness and obsolescence of their tech and apps. 

Joana Varon and Walid El-Houri during the panel “Politics & Technologies of Fear”
Joana Varon and Walid El-Houri during the panel “Politics & Technologies of Fear”

The last day of the conference concentrated on the urgent need to creating safe passages for migration, and pictured the efforts of those who try to ensure safer migration options and rescue migrants in distress during their journey. Lieke Ploeger, community director of the Disruption Network Lab, presented the panel discussion “Creating Safe Passages”, moderated by Michael Ruf, writer and director of documentary and theatre plays. Ruf´s productions include the “Asylum Dialogues” (2011) and the “Mediterranean Migration Monologues” (2019), which have been performed in numerous countries more than 800 times by a network of several hundred actors and musicians. This final session brought together speakers from the Migrant Media Network (MMN), the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), and SeaWatch e.V. to discuss their efforts to ensure safer migration options, as well as share reliable information and create awareness around migration issues. 

The talk was opened by Thomas Kalunge, Project Director of the Migrant Media Network, one of r0g_agency’s projects, together with #defyhatenow. Since 2017 the organisation has been working on information campaigns addressed to people in rural areas of Africa, to explain that there are possible alternatives for safer and informed decisions, when they choose to reach other countries, and what they may come across if they decide to migrate. 

The MMN team organises roundtable discussions and talks on various topics affecting the communities they meet. They build a space in which young people take time to understand what migration is nowadays and to listen to those, who already personally experienced the worst and often less discussed consequences of the journey. To approach possible migrants the MMN worked on an information campaign on the ethical use of social media, which also helps people to learn how to evaluate and consume information shared online and recognise reliable sources.

The MMN works for open culture and critical social transformation, and provides young Africans with reliable information and training on migration issues, included digital rights. The organisation also promotes youth entrepreneurship “at home” as a way to build economic and social resilience, encouraging youth to create their own opportunities and work within their communities of origin. They engage on conversations on the dangers of irregular migration, discussing together rumours and lies, so that individuals can make informed choices. One very relevant thing people tend to underestimate, is that sometimes misinformation is spread directly by human smugglers, warned Kalunge.

The MMN also provides people from remote regions with offline tools that are available without an internet connection, and training advisors and facilitators who are then connected in a network. The HyracBox for example is a mobile, portable, RaspberryPi powered offline mini-server for these facilitators to use in remote or offline environments, where access to both power and Internet is challenging. With it, multiple users can access key MMN info materials.

An important aspect to mention is that the MMN does not try to tell people not to migrate. European government have outsourced borders and migration management, supporting measures to limit people mobility in North and Sub-Saharan Africa, and it is important to let people know that there are real dangers, visible and invisible barriers they will meet on their way.

Visa application processes –even for legitimate reasons of travel– are very strict for some countries, often without any information being shared, even with people who are legitimately moving for education, to work or get medical treatment. The ruling class that makes up the administrative bureaucracy and outlines its structures, knows that who controls time has power. Who can steal time from others, who can oblige others to waste time on legal quibbles and protocol matters, can suffocate the others’ existence in a mountain of paperwork. 

Human smugglers then become the final resort. Kaluge explained also that, at the moment, the increased outsourcing of the European border security services to the Sahel and other northern Africa countries is leading to diversion of routes, increased dangerousness of the road, people trafficking, and human rights violations.

An image from the panel discussion “Creating Safe Passages” with Thomas Kalunge
An image from the panel discussion “Creating Safe Passages” with Thomas Kalunge

Closing the conference, Regina Catrambone presented the work that MOAS does around the world and the campaign for safe and legal routes that is urging governments and international organisations to implement regular pathways of migration that already exist. Mattea Weihe presented instead the work of SeaWatch e. V., an organisation which is also advocating for civil sea rescue, legal escape routes and a safe passage, and which is at sea to rescue migrants in distress.

The two panellists described the situation in the Central Mediterranean. Since the beginning of the year, over 500 migrants have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea (November 2020). While European countries continue to delegate their migration policy to the Libyan Coast Guard, rescue vessels from several civilian organisations have been blocked for weeks, witnessing the continuous massacre taking place just a few miles from European shores. With no common European rescue intervention at sea, the presence of NGO vessels is essential to save humans and rescue hundreds of people who undertake this dangerous journey to flee from war and poverty.

However, several EU governments and conservative and far right political parties criminalise search and rescues activities, stating that helping migrants at sea equals encouraging illegal immigration. A distorted representation legitimised, fuelled and weaponised in politics and across European society that has led to a terrible humanitarian crisis on Europe’s shores. Thus, organisations dedicated to rescuing vessels used by people on the move in the Mediterranean Sea see all safe havens systematically shut off to them. Despite having hundreds of rescued individuals on board, rescue ships wait days and weeks to be assigned a harbour. Uncertainty and fear of being taken back to Libya torment many of the people on board even after having been rescued. After they enter the port, the vessels are confiscated and cannot get back out to sea.

By doing so, Europe and EU Member States violate human rights, maritime laws, and their national democratic constitutions. The panel opened again the crucial question of humanitarian corridors, human-rights-based policy, and relocations. In the last years the transfer of border controls to foreign countries, has become the main instrument through which the EU seeks to stop migratory flows to Europe. This externalisation deploys modern tech, money and training of police authorities in third countries moving the EU-border far beyond the Union’ shores. This despite the abuses, suffering and human-rights violations; willingly ignoring that the majority of the 35 countries that the EU prioritises for border externalisation efforts are authoritarian, known for human rights abuses and with poor human development indicators (Expanding Fortress, 2018).

It cannot be the task of private organizations and volunteers to make up for the delay of the state. But without them no one would do it. 

States are seeking to leave people on the move, refugees, and undocumented migrants beyond the duties and responsibilities enshrined in law. Most of the violations, and the harmful technological experimentation described throughout the conference targeting migrants and refugees, occurs outside of their sovereign responsibility. Considering that much of technological development occurs in fact in the so-called “black boxes,” by acting so these state-actors exclude the public from fully understanding how the technology operates.

The fact that the people on the move on the Greek islands, on the Balkan Route, in Libya, and those rescued in the Mediterranean have been sorely tested by their journeys, living conditions, and, in many cases, imprisoned, seems to be irrelevant. The EU deploys politics that make people who have already suffered violence, abuse, and incredibly long journeys in search of a better life, wait a long time for a safe port, for a visa, for a medical treatment.

Dr. Tatiana Bazzichelli, founder and director of the Distruption Network Lab and Lieke Ploeger, community director of the Disruption Network Lab, closing the 21st conference “Borders of Fear”
Dr. Tatiana Bazzichelli, founder and director of the Distruption Network Lab and Lieke Ploeger, community director of the Disruption Network Lab, closing the 21st conference “Borders of Fear”

All participants who joined the conference expressed the urgent need for action: Europe cannot continue to turn its gaze away from a humanitarian emergency that never ends and that needs formalised rescue operations at sea, open corridors, and designated authorities enacting an approach based on defending human rights. Sea rescue organisations and civil society collectives work to save lives, raise awareness and demand a new human rights-based migration and refugee policy; they shall not be impeded but supported.

The conference “Borders of Fear” presented experts, investigative journalists, scholars, and activists, who met to discuss wrongdoings in the context of migration and share effective strategies and community-based approaches to increase awareness on the issues related to the human-rights violations by governments. Here bottom-up approaches and methods that include local communities in the development of solutions appear to be fundamental. Projects that capacitate migrants, collectives, and groups marginalized by asymmetries of power to share knowledge, develop and exploit tools to combat systematic inequalities, injustices, and exploitation are to be enhanced. It is imperative to defeat the distorted narrative, which criminalises people on the move, international solidarity and sea rescue operations.

Racism, bigotry and panic are reflected in media coverage of undocumented migrants and refugees all over the world, and play an important role in the success of contemporary far-right parties in a number of countries. Therefore, it is necessary to enhance effective and alternative counter-narratives based on facts. For example, the “Africa Migration Report” (2020) shows that 94 per cent of African migration takes a regular form and that just 6 per cent of Africans on the move opt for unsafe and dangerous journeys. These people, like those from other troubled regions, leave their homes in search of a safer, better life in a different country, flee from armed conflicts and poverty. It is their right to do so. Instead of criminalising migration, it is necessary to search for the real causes of this suffering, war and social injustice, and wipe out the systems of power behind them. 

Videos of the conference are also available on YouTube via:

For details of speakers and topics, please visit the event page here: https://www.disruptionlab.org/borders-of-fear 

Upcoming programme:

The 23rd conference of the Disruption Network Lab curated by Tatiana Bazzichelli is titled “Behind the Mask: Whistleblowing During the Pandemic.“ It will take place on March 18-20, 2021. More info: https://www.disruptionlab.org/behind-the-mask 

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DATA CITIES: Smart Technologies, Tracking & Human Rights

On September 25, 2020, the Disruption Network Lab opened its 20th conference “Data Cities: Smart Technologies, Tracking & Human Rights” curated by Tatiana Bazzichelli, founder and program director of the organisation, and Mauro Mondello, investigative journalist and filmmaker. The two-day-event was a journey inside smart-city visions of the future, reflecting on technologies that significantly impact billions of citizens’ lives and enshrine new unprecedented concentrations of power, characterising the era of surveillance capitalism. A digital future which is already here.

Smart urbanism relies on algorithms, data mining, analytics, machine learning and infrastructures, providing scientists and engineers with the capability of extracting value from the city and its people, whose lives and bodies are commodified. The adjective ‘smart’ represents a marketing gimmick used to boost brands and commercial products. When employed to designate metropolitan areas, it describes cities which are liveable, sustainable and efficient thanks to technology and the Internet.

The conference was held at Berlin’s Kunstquartier Bethanien and brought together researchers, activists and artists to discuss what kind of technologies are transforming metropolises and how. The Disruption Network Lab aimed at stimulating a concrete debate, devoid of the rhetoric of solutionism, in which participants could focus on the socio-political implications of algorithmic sovereignty and the negative consequences on fundamental rights of tracking, surveillance and AI. They shared the results of their latest work and proposed a critical approach, based on the motivation of transforming mere opposition into a concrete path for inspirational change.

Lieke Ploeger, Community Director of the Disruption Network Lab (left), and Tatiana Bazzichelli, Founder and Programme Director of the Disruption Network Lab
Lieke Ploeger, Community Director of the Disruption Network Lab (left), and Tatiana Bazzichelli, Founder and Programme Director of the Disruption Network Lab

The first part of the opening keynote “Reclaiming Data Cities: Fighting for the Future We Really Want” was delivered by Denis “Jaromil” Roio, ethical hacker, artist and activist. In his talk, moderated by Daniel Irrgang, research fellow at the Weizenbaum Institute for the Networked Society, Jaromil focused on algorithmic sovereignty and the incapacity to govern technological transformation which characterises our societies today. 

Jaromil looked at increasing investments in AI, robots and machine learning, acknowledging that automated decision-making informed by algorithms has become a dominant reality extending to almost all aspects of life. From the code running on thousands of e-devices to the titanic ICTs-infrastructures connecting us, when we think about the technology surrounding us, we realise that we have no proper control over it. Even at home, we cannot fully know what the algorithms animating our own devices are adopted for, if they make us understand the world better or if they are instead designed to allow machines to study and extract data from us for the benefit of their creators. The same critical issues and doubts emerge with a large-scale implementation of tech within so-called “smart cities”, maximization of the “Internet of Things” born in the 1980s.

Personal data is a lucrative commodity and big data means profit, power, and insights, which is essential to all government agencies and tech firms. Jaromil announced a call-to-action for hackers and programmers, to get involved without compromise and play a key role in building urban projects which will safeguard the rights of those living in them, taking into consideration that by 2050, an estimated 70 per cent of the world’s population may well live in cities. 

Jaromil observed that there is too often a tremendous difference between what we see when we look at a machine and what really happens inside it. Since the dawn of the first hacking communities, hackers preferred writing their own software and constructing their own machines. They were free to disassemble and reassemble them, having control over all the functions and direct access to the source code. This was also a way to be independent from the corporate world and authorities, which they mistrusted. 

Today, users are mostly unaware of the potential of their own tech-devices, which are no longer oriented strictly towards serving them. They have no exposure to programming and think Computer Science and Informatics are way too difficult to learn, and so entrust themselves entirely to governments and tech firms. Jaromil works to simplify interface and programming language, so people can learn how to program and regain control over their tech. He supports minimalism in software design and a process of democratisation of programming languages which works against technocratic monopolies. His Think & Do TankDyne.org—is a non-profit software house with expertise in social and technical innovation, gathering developers from all over the world. It integrates art, science and technology in brilliant community-oriented projects (D-CENT, DECODE, Commonfare, Devuan), promoting decentralisation and digital sovereignty to encourage empowerment for the people.

Julia Koiber (left), Denis “Jaromil” Roio and Daniel Irrgang during the keynote “Reclaiming Data Cities: Fighting for the Future We Really Want”
Julia Koiber (left), Denis “Jaromil” Roio and Daniel Irrgang during the keynote “Reclaiming Data Cities: Fighting for the Future We Really Want”

The second keynote speaker, Julia Koiber, managing director at SuperrrLab, addressed issues of technology for the common good, open data and transparency, and—like the previous speaker—reflected on uncontrolled technological transformation. Koiber noticed that the more people are mobilising to be decision-makers, rather than passive data providers, the more they see how difficult it is to ensure that publicly relevant data remains subject to transparent control and public ownership. In the EU several voices are pushing for solutions, including anonymised user data to be classified as ‘common good’ and therefore free from the control of tech companies.

Recalling the recent Canadian experience of Sidewalk Labs (Alphabet Inc.’s company for urban tech development), Koiber explained that in order to re-imagine the future of neighbourhoods and cities, it is necessary to involve local communities. The Google’s company had proposed rebuilding an area in east Toronto, turning it into its first smart city: an eco-friendly digitised and technological urban planning project, constantly collecting data to achieve perfect city living, and a prototype for Google’ similar developments worldwide. In pushing back against the plan and its vertical approach, the municipality of Toronto made clear that it was not ready to consider the project unless it was developed firmly under public control. The smart city development which never really started died out with the onset of the COVID-19 crisis. Its detractors argue that city dwellers were meant to be human sensors collecting data to test new tech-solutions and increase corporate profit. Data collected during the provision of public services and administrative data should be public; it belongs to the people, not to a black box company.

As Jaromil and Koiber discussed, in the main capitals of the world the debate on algorithmic sovereignty is open and initiatives such as the “Manifesto in favour of technological sovereignty and digital rights for cities,” written in Barcelona, reflect the belief that it will be crucial for cities to achieve full control and autonomy of their ICTs, which includes service infrastructures, websites, applications and data owned by the cities themselves and regulated by laws protecting the interests and fundamental rights of their citizens. Their implementation shall come within people-centric projects and a transparent participatory process.

Julia Koiber (left), Denis “Jaromil” Roio and Daniel Irrgang during the keynote “Reclaiming Data Cities: Fighting for the Future We Really Want”
Julia Koiber (left), Denis “Jaromil” Roio and Daniel Irrgang during the keynote “Reclaiming Data Cities: Fighting for the Future We Really Want”

The work of the conference continued with the panel “Making Cities Smart for Us: Subverting Tracking & Surveillance,” a cross-section of projects by activists, researchers and artists digging into the false myth of safe and neutral technologies, proposing both counterstrategies and solutions to tackle issues introduced in the opening keynote.

Eva Blum-Dumontet, English researcher on privacy and social-economic rights, dedicated her work to the impact of tech on people, particularly those in vulnerable situations. She opened the talk with the observation that the term ‘smart city’ lacks of an official definition; it was coined by IBM’s marketing team in 2005 without a scientific basis. Since then, tech firms from all over the world have been developing projects to get into governments’ favour and to build urban areas that integrate boundless tech-solutions: security and surveillance, energy and mobility, construction and housing, water supply systems and so on. 

As of today, thanks to smart cities, companies such as IBM, Cisco, Huawei, Microsoft and Siemens have found a way to generate the satisfaction of both governments and their suppliers, but do not seem to act in the public’s best interest. In their vision of smart urbanism people are only resources: like water, buildings and administrative services, they are something to extract value from. 

Blum-Dumontet explained that when we refer to urban tech-development, we need to remember that cities are political spaces and that technology is not objective. Cities are a concentration of countless socio-economic obstacles that prevent many individuals from living a dignified life. Privilege, bias, racism and sexism are already integrated in our cities´ (tech-)infrastructures. The researcher acknowledged that it is very important to implement people-centric solutions, while keeping in mind that as of now our cities are neither inclusive nor built for all, with typical exclusion of, for instance, differently abled individuals, low-income residents and genderqueer people.

Panel discussion “Making Cities Smart for Us: Subverting Tracking & Surveillance” with Eva Blum- Dumontet, Andreas Zingerle, Linda Kronman and Tatiana Bazzichelli
Panel discussion “Making Cities Smart for Us: Subverting Tracking & Surveillance” with Eva Blum- Dumontet, Andreas Zingerle, Linda Kronman and Tatiana Bazzichelli

A sharp critique of the socio-economic systems causing injustice, exploitation and criminalisation, also lies at the core River Honer’s work. River is a web developer at Expedition Grundeinkommen and anti-capitalist tech activist, who wants to support citizens and activists in their struggle for radical transformation toward more just cities and societies without relying on solutions provided by governments and corporations.

Her work methodology includes critical mapping and geospatial analyses, in order to visualise and find solutions to structurally unjust distribution of services, access and opportunities in given geographic areas. Honer works with multidisciplinary teams on community-based data gathering, and turns information into geo-visualisation to address social issues and disrupt systems of discriminatory practices which target minorities and individuals. Examples of her work include LightPath, an app providing the safest well-lit walking route between two locations through various cities; Refuge Restroom, which displays safe restroom access for transgender, intersex, and gender nonconforming individuals who suffer violence and criminalisation in the city, and the recent COVID-19 tenant protection map.

Honer’s projects are developed to find practical solutions to systematic problems which underpin a ruthless political-economic structure. She works on tech that ignores or undermines the interests of capitalism and facilitates organisation for the public ownership of housing, utilities, transport, and means of production. 

The Disruption Network Lab dedicated a workshop to her Avoid Control Project, a subversive tracking and alert system that Honer developed to collect the location of ticket controllers for the Berlin public transportation company BVG, whose methods are widely considered aggressive and discriminatory.

There are many cities in the world in which activist groups, non-governmental organisations and political parties advocate for a complete revocation of fares on public transport systems. The topic has been debated for many years in Berlin too; the BVG is a public for-profit company earning millions of euros annually on advertising alone, and in addition charges expensive flat fares for all travelers.

The panel discussion was concluded with Norway-based speakers Linda Kronman and Andreas Zingerle of the KairUs collective. The two artists explored topics such as vulnerabilities in Internet-of-Things-devices and corporatisation of city governance in smart cities, as well as giving life to citizen-sensitive-projects in which technology is used to reclaim control of our living environments. As Bazzichelli explained when presenting the project “Suspicious Behaviours” by Kronman, KairUs’s production constitutes an example of digital art eroding the assumptions of objective or neutral Artificial Intelligence, and shows that hidden biases and hidden human decisions influence the detection of suspicious behaviour within systems of surveillance, which determines the social impacts of technology.

The KairUs collective also presented a few of its other projects: “The Internet of Other People’s things” addresses technological transformation of cities and tries to develop new critical perspectives on technology and its impact on peoples’ lifestyles. Their video-installation “Panopticities” and the artistic project “Insecure by Design” (2018) visualise the harmful nature of surveillance capitalism from the unusual perspective of odd vulnerabilities which put controlled and controllers at risk, such as models of CCTV and IP cameras with default login credentials and insecure security systems which are easy to hack or have by default no password-protection at all. 

Focusing on the reality of smart cities projects, the collective worked on “Summer Research Lab: U City Sogdo IDB”(2017), which looked at Asian smart urbanism and reminding the panellists that many cities like Singapore, Jakarta, Bangkok, Hanoi, Kuala Lump already heavily rely on tech. In Songdo City, South Korea, the Songdo International Business District (Songdo IBD), is a new “ubiquitous city” built from scratch, where AI can monitor the entire population’s needs and movements.  At any moment, through chip-implant bracelets, it is possible to spot where someone is located, or observe people undetected using cameras covering the whole city. Sensors constantly gather information and all services are automatised. There are no discernible waste bins in the park or on street corners; everything seems under tech-control and in order. As the artists explained, this 10-year development project is estimated to cost in excess of 40 billion USD, making it one of the most expensive development projects ever undertaken.

Panel discussion “Making Cities Smart for Us: Subverting Tracking & Surveillance” with Eva Blum- Dumontet, Andreas Zingerle, Linda Kronman and Tatiana Bazzichelli
Panel discussion “Making Cities Smart for Us: Subverting Tracking & Surveillance” with Eva Blum- Dumontet, Andreas Zingerle, Linda Kronman and Tatiana Bazzichelli

The task of speculative architecture is to create narratives about how new technologies and networks influence and shape spaces and cultures, foreseeing possible futures and imagining how and where  new forms of human activity could exist within cities changed by these new processes. Liam Young, film director, designer and speculative architect opened the keynote on the second conference day with his film “Worlds Less Travelled: Mega-Cities, AI & Critical Sci-Fi“. Through small glimpses, fragments and snapshots taken from a series of his films, he portrayed an alternative future of technology and automation in which everything is controlled by tech, where complexities and subcultures are flattened as a result of technology, and people have been relegated to the status of mere customers instead of citizens

Young employs the techniques of popular media, animation, games and doc-making to explore the architectural, urban and cultural implications of new technologies. His work is a means of visualising imaginary future worlds in order to help understand the one we are in now. Critical science fiction provides a counter-narrative to the ordinary way we have of representing time and society. Young speaks of aesthetics, individuals and relationships based on objects that listen and talk back, but which mostly communicate with other machines. He shows us alternative futures of urban architecture, where algorithms define the extant future, and where human scale is no longer the parameter used to measure space and relations.

Young’s production also focused on the Post-Anthropocene, an era in which technology and artificial intelligence order, shape and animate the world, marking the end of human-centered design and the appearance of new typologies of post-human architectures. Ours is a future of data centres, ITCs networks, buildings and infrastructures which are not for people; architectural spaces entirely empty of human lives, with fields managed by industrialised agriculture techniques and self-driving vehicles. Humans are few and isolated, living surrounded by an expanse of server stacks, mobile shelving systems, robotic cranes and vacuum cleaners. The Anthropocene, in which humans are the dominant force shaping the planet, is over.

Anna Ramskogler-Witt and Lucia Conti during the Keynote “Worlds Less Travelled: Mega-Cities, AI & Critical Sci-Fi”
Anna Ramskogler-Witt and Lucia Conti during the Keynote “Worlds Less Travelled: Mega-Cities, AI & Critical Sci-Fi”

The keynote, moderated by the journalist Lucia Conti, editor at “Il Mitte”and communication expert at UNIDO, moved from the corporate dystopia of Young, in which tech companies own cities and social network interactions are the only way people interrelate with reality, to the work of filmmaker Tonje Hessen Schei, director of the documentary film “iHuman”(2020). The documentary touches on how things are evolving from biometric surveillance to diversity in data, providing a closer look at how AI and algorithms are employed to influence elections, to structure online opinion manipulation, and to build systems of social control. In doing so, Hessen Schei depicts an unprecedented concentration of power in the hands of few individuals.

The movie also presents the latest developments in Artificial Intelligence and Artificial General Intelligence, the hypothetical intelligence of machines that can understand or learn any task that a human being can. 

When considering AI, questions, answers and predictions in its technological development will always reflect the political and socioeconomic point of view, consciously or unconsciously, of its creators. For instance —as described in the Disruption Network Lab´s conference “AI Traps” (2019)—credit scores are historically correlated with racist segregated neighbourhoods. Risk analyses and predictive policing data are also corrupted by racist prejudice leading to biased data collection which reinforces privilege. As a result new technologies are merely replicating old divisions and conflicts. By instituting policies like facial recognition, for instance, we replicate deeply ingrained behaviours based on race and gender stereotypes and mediated by algorithms. 

Automated systems are mostly trying to predict and identify a risk, which is defined according to cultural parameters reflecting the historical, social and political milieu, in order to give answers and make decisions which fit a certain point of view. What we are and where we are as a collective —as well as what we have achieved and what we still lack culturally— gets coded directly into software, and determines how those same decisions will be made in the future. Critical problems become obvious in case of neural networks and supervised learning. 

Simply put, these are machines which know how to learn and networks which are trained to reproduce a given task by processing examples, making errors and forming probability-weighted associations. The machine learns from its mistakes and adjusts its weighted associations according to a learning rule and using error values. Repeated adjustments eventually allow the neural network to reproduce an output increasingly similar to the original task, until it reaches a precise reproduction. The fact is that algorithmic operations are often unpredictable and difficult to discern, with results that sometimes surprise even their creators. iHuman shows that this new kind of AI can be used to develop dangerous, uncontrollable autonomous weapons that ruthlessly accomplish their tasks with surgical efficiency.

Lucia Conti, Editor in Chief “Il Mitte” (left), and Tatiana Bazzichelli, Founder and Programme Director of the Disruption Network Lab
Lucia Conti, Editor in Chief “Il Mitte” (left), and Tatiana Bazzichelli, Founder and Programme Director of the Disruption Network Lab

Conti moderated the dialogue between Hessen Schei, Young, and Anna Ramskogler-Witt, artistic director of the Human Rights Film Festival Berlin, digging deeper into aspects such as censorship, social control and surveillance. The panellists reflected on the fact that—far from being an objective construct and the result of logic and math—algorithms are the product of their developers’ socio-economic backgrounds and individual beliefs; they decide what type of data the algorithm will process and to what purpose. 

All speakers expressed concern about the fact that the research and development of Artificial Intelligence is ruled by a few highly wealthy individuals and spoiled megalomaniacs from the Silicon Valley, capitalists using their billions to develop machines which are supposed to be ‘smarter’ than human beings. But smart in this context can be a synonym for brutal opportunism: some of the personalities and scientists immortalised in Hessen Schei´s work seem lost in the tiny difference between playing the roles of visionary leaders and those whose vision has started to deteriorate and distort things. Their visions, which encapsulate the technology for smart cities, appear to be far away from people-centric and based on human rights.

Not only big corporations but a whole new generation of start-ups are indeed fulfilling authoritarian practises through commercialising AI-technologies, automating biases based on skin colour and ethnicity, sexual orientation and identity. They are developing censored search engines and platforms for authoritarian governments and dictators, refining high-tech military weapons, and guaranteeing order and control.

The participants on stage made clear that, looking at surveillance technology and face recognition software, we see how existing ethical and legal criteria appear to be ineffective, and a lack of standards around their use and sharing just benefit their intrusive and discriminatory nature. Current ethical debates about the consequences of automation focus on the rights of individuals and marginalised groups. Algorithmic processes, however, generate a collective impact as well that can only be partially addressed at the level of individual rights— they are the result of a collective cultural legacy. 

Nowadays, we see technologies of control executing their tasks in aggressive and violent ways. They monitor, track and process data with analytics against those who transgress or attempt to escape control, according to a certain idea of control that was thought them. This suggests, for example, that when start-ups and corporations establish goals and values within software regulating public services, they do not apply the principles developed over century-long battles for civil rights, but rely on technocratic motivations for total efficiency, control and productivity. The normalisation of such a corporatisation of the governance allows Cisco, IBM and many other major vendors of analytics and smart technologies to shape very delicate public sectors, such as police, defence, fire protection, or medical services, that should be provided customarily by a governmental entity, including all (infra)structures usually required to deliver such services. In this way their corporate tactics and goals become a structural part of public functions.

Film director Tonje Hessen Schei during the keynote “Worlds Less Travelled: Mega-Cities, AI & Critical Sci-Fi”
Film director Tonje Hessen Schei during the keynote “Worlds Less Travelled: Mega-Cities, AI & Critical Sci-Fi”

In the closing panel “Citizens for Digital Sovereignty: Shaping Inclusive & Resilient” moderated by Lieke Ploeger, community director of the Disruption Network Lab, political scientist Elizabeth Calderón Lüning reflected on the central role that municipal governments have to actively protect and foster societies of digital self-determination. In Berlin, networks of collectives, individuals and organisations work to find bottom-up solutions and achieve urban policies in order to protect residents, tenants and community spaces from waives of speculation and aggressive economic interests. Political and cultural engagement make the German capital a centre of flourishing debate, where new solutions and alternative innovative perspectives find fertile ground, from urban gardening to inclusion and solidarity. But when it comes to technological transformation and digital policy the responsibility cannot be left just at the individual level, and it looks like the city government is not leading the way in its passive reactions towards external trends and developments. 

Calderón Lüning is currently researching in what spaces and under what premises civic participation and digital policy have been configured in Berlin, and how the municipal government is defining its role. In her work she found policy incoherence among several administrations, alongside a need for channels enabling citizens to participate and articulate as a collective. The lack of resources in the last decade for hiring and training public employees and for coordinating departmental policies is slowing down the process of digitalisation and centralisation of the different administrations.

The municipality’s smart city strategy, launched in 2015, has recently been updated and refinanced with 17 million euros. In 2019 the city Senate released the Berlin Digital Strategy for the coming years. To avoid the harmful consequences of a vertical approach by the administration towards its residents, activists, academics, hackers, people from civil society and many highly qualified scientists in the digital field came together to rethink and redesign an ecological, participatory and democratic city for the 21st century. The Berlin Digital City Alliance has been working since then to arrive at people and rights-centred digital policies and is structuring institutional round tables on these aspects, coordinated by civic actors.

Digital sovereignty is the power of a society to control technological progress, self-determining its way through digital transformation. It is also the geopolitical ownership and control of critical IT infrastructures, software and websites. When it comes to tech in public services, particularly essential public services, who owns the infrastructure and what is inside the black box are questions that administrations and policy makers should be able to answer, considering that every app or service used contains at least some type of artificial intelligence or smart learning automation based on a code, which has the potential to significantly affect citizens’ lives and to set standards that are relevant to their rights. Without open scrutiny, start-ups and corporations owning infrastructures and code have exceeded influence over delicate aspects regulating our society.

Panel discussion “Citizens for Digital Sovereignty: Shaping Inclusive & Resilient Cities” with Elizabeth Calderón Lüning (left), Rafael Heiber, Alexandre Monnin (screen), and Lieke Ploeger.
Panel discussion “Citizens for Digital Sovereignty: Shaping Inclusive & Resilient Cities” with Elizabeth Calderón Lüning (left), Rafael Heiber, Alexandre Monnin (screen), and Lieke Ploeger.

Rafael Heiber, geologist, researcher and co-founder of the Common Action Forum, focused on the urgent need to understand ways of living and moving in the new space of hybridisation that cities of the future will create. Taking a critical look at the role of technologies, he described how habitability and mobility will be fundamental in addressing the challenges posed by an urban planning that lies in a tech-substratum. As he explained, bodies are relevant inside smart environments because of their interactions, which are captured by sensors. Neoliberal capitalism has turned us into relentless energy consumers in our everyday lives, not because we move too much, but because we use technology to move and tech needs our movements.

Heiber considered the way automobiles have been influencing a whole economic and financial system for longer than a century. In his view they symbolise the way technology changes the world around itself and not just for the better. Cars have transformed mobility, urban environment, social interactions and the way we define spaces. After one hundred years, with pollution levels increasing, cities are still limited, enslaved, and dominated by cars. The geologist suggested that the implementation of smart cities and new technologies might end up in this same way.

Alexandre Monnin, head of Strategy and Design for the Anthropocene, closed the panel discussion questioning the feasibility of smart cities, focusing on the urge to avoid implementing unsustainable technologies, which proved to be a waste of resources. Monnin acknowledged that futuristic ideas of smart cities and solutionism will not tackle climate change and other urgent problems. Our society is profit-oriented and the more efficient it is, the more the system produces and the more people consume. Moreover, tech doesn´t always mean simplification. Taking as example the idea of dematerialisation, which is actually just a displacement of materiality, we see today for example how video rental shops have disappeared almost worldwide, replaced in part by the online platform Netflix, which represents 15 percent of internet traffic.

Monnin warned about the environmental impact of tech, not just the enormous amount of energy consumed and Co2 produced on a daily basis, but also the amount of e-waste growing due to planned obsolescence and consumerism. Plastics are now a growing environmental pollutant and constitute a geological indicator of the Anthropocene, a distinctive stratal component that next generations will see. Monnin defines as ‘negative commons’ the obsolete tech-infrastructures and facilities that will exist forever, like nuclear power plants, which he defines as “zombie technology”.

The French researcher concluded his contribution pointing out that humanity is facing unprecedented risks due to global warming, and—as far as it is possible to know—in the future we might even not live in cities. Monnin emphasized that people shall come together to prevent zombie-tech obsolescence from happening, like in Toronto, and he wishes that we could see more examples of civil opposition and resistance to tech which is unfit for our times. Smart cities are not revolutionising anything, they constitute business as usual and belong to the past, he argued, and concluded by appealing for more consideration of the risks related to institutionalisation of what he calls “corporate cosmology” which turns cities into profit-oriented firms with corporate goals and competitors, relying on the same infrastructures as corporations do.

Panel discussion “Citizens for Digital Sovereignty: Shaping Inclusive & Resilient Cities” with Elizabeth Calderón Lüning (left), Rafael Heiber, Alexandre Monnin (screen), and Lieke Ploeger.
Panel discussion “Citizens for Digital Sovereignty: Shaping Inclusive & Resilient Cities” with Elizabeth Calderón Lüning (left), Rafael Heiber, Alexandre Monnin (screen), and Lieke Ploeger.

In its previous conference “Evicted by Greed,” the Disruption Network Lab focused on the financialisation of housing. Questions arose about how urban areas are designed and governed now and how they will look in the future if the process of speculation on peoples’ lives and privatisation of available common spaces is not reversed. Billions of people live in cities which are the products of privilege, private corporate interests and financial greed. This 20th conference focused on what happens if these same cities turn into highly digitised environments, molded by governments and billionaire elites, tech-engineers and programmers, who wish to have them functioning as platforms for surveillance and corporate intelligence, in which data is constantly used, stored and collected for purposes of profiling and control.

According to the UN, the future of the world’s population is urban. Today more than half the world’s people is living in urban areas (55 percent). By mid-century 68 percent of the world’s population will be living in cities, as opposed to the 30 percent in 1950. By 2050, the global urban population is projected to grow by 2.5 billion urban dwellers, with nearly 90 percent of the increase in Asia and Africa, as well as the appearance of dozens of megacities with a population of at least 10 million inhabitants on the international scene.

This conference presented the issue of algorithmic sovereignty and illustrated how powerful tech-firms work with governments—which are also authoritarian regimes and dictators— to build urban conglomerates based on technological control, optimisation and order. These corporations strive to appear as progressive think tanks offering sustainable green solutions but are in fact legitimising and empowering authoritarian surveillance, stealing data and causing a blurry mix of commercial and public interests.

Algorithms can be employed to label people based on political beliefs, sexual identity or ethnicity. As a result, authoritarian governments and elites are already exploiting this tech to repress political opponents, specific genders and ethnicities. In such a scenario no mass-surveillance or facial recognition tech is safe and attempts at building “good tech for common goods” might just continue to fail.

To defeat such an unprecedented concentration of power, we need to pressure governments at all levels to put horizontal dialogue, participation, transparency and a human-rights based approach at the centre of technological transformation. To this end, cities should open round tables for citizens and tech-developers, forums and public committees on algorithmic sovereignty in order to find strategies and local solutions. These will become matters of, quite literally, life and death. 

Smart cities have already been built and more are at the planning and development stages, in countries such as China, Singapore, India, Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, Jordan, and Egypt. As Bazzichelli pointed out, the onset of the dramatic COVID-19 crisis has pushed social control one step further. We are witnessing increasing forms of monitoring via tracking devices, drone technologies and security infrastructures. Moreover, governments, banks and corporations think that this pandemic can be used to accelerate the introduction of technologies in cities, like 5G and Internet of Things.

There is nothing wrong with the old idea that we can use technology to build liveable, sustainable, and efficient cities. But it is hard to imagine this happening with technology provided by companies that exhibit an overall lack of concern for human rights violations.

Tatiana Bazzichelli (left), Founder and Programme Director of the Disruption Network Lab and Lieke Ploeger, Community Director of the Disruption Network Lab
Tatiana Bazzichelli (left), Founder and Programme Director of the Disruption Network Lab and Lieke Ploeger, Community Director of the Disruption Network Lab

Alongside the main conference sessions, several workshops enriched the programme. Videos of the conference are also available on YouTube.

For details on speakers and topics, please visit the event page here: https://www.disruptionlab.org/data-cities

The 21th conference of the Disruption Network Lab curated by Tatiana Bazzichelli
“BORDER OF FEARS” will take place on November 27-29, live from Studio 1, Kunstquartier Bethanien, Mariannenplatz 2, 10997 Berlin.
More info here

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The Last Collaboration

Featured image: Spork patient rights (jpeg copy).  Millie developed Spork who experienced all manner of catastrophes.

Download PDF of The Last Collaboration

Preface Summer, 2020

The Last Collaboration comprises the joint fatality review of Millie Niss’s final illness in a Western New York hospital’s ICU by mother and daughter, Martha Deed and Millie Niss in 2009.  Furtherfield could scarcely have chosen a more significant time to reintroduce the collaboration.

As is the case for hundreds of thousands of people in this year of COVID-19, Millie’s story has no happy ending.  In fact, those who knew and loved her were forewarned that Martha could not compose an upbeat conclusion to the recounting of Millie’s final illness.

2020 is also the year in which the web art so central to Millie’s life will end as well.  In this, as in her death from a virus that could not be avoided, Millie also is not alone.

Erewhon 2.0 Facepage for News from Erewhon.
Erewhon 2.0 Facepage for News from Erewhon.

In fact, in parallel to steps Millie took to make sure the story of her illness and death was told in The Last Collaboration, Millie also anticipated the need for future upgrades to her award-winning Erewhon installation.

News from Erewhon, in its initial incarnation is an example of Web Art 1.0 with a slight leaning towards 1.1 because we exploit Google Image search: We display our text with our design. In Erewhon 2.0, we propose to do what older websites have had to do: upgrade from 1.0 to 2.0 whilst preserving the essence of Erewhonicity and without alienating users. Thus, instead of a single URL in a web journal, there will now be a profusion of Erewhon web installations hosted by us and by others. . . (Millie Niss.  &Now talk, October 15, 2009)

What Millie did not anticipate, despite her knowledge that she might not have many years ahead of her, was that she would not be able to meet the goal of protecting her work from future changes on the web or with her tools, such as Flash and Actionscript.  She died six weeks after delivering her talk.

Martha constructed The Last Collaboration from a collection of circumstances and documents not ordinarily available for a family to review.  Family members can keep logs of their observations and conversations with hospital personnel and with their family member patientsThey can collect medical records.  However, Millie’s documentation of her month in the ICU is nearly unique.

Millie in the ICU.  Millie wanted her mother to photograph her and all of the equipment being used to keep her alive
Millie in the ICU. Millie wanted her mother to photograph her and all of the equipment being used to keep her alive
Millie's notebook.  Example of her clear communication while on the ventilator.
Millie’s notebook. Example of her clear communication while on the ventilator.

Millie suffered respiratory arrest within an hour of entering the ER, was resuscitated and placed on a ventilator.  But she did not require sedation.  Millie couldn’t speak while on the ventilator.  Thus, with her oxygen supply restored, and her computer in front of her or with pencil and notebook in hand, for the next four weeks, she sent reports home, posted emails, and ‒ perhaps most important ‒handwrote her side of every conversation with her family or medical staff.   When filled, each notebook was sent home for safekeeping, because Millie wanted her story told.  These notebooks are dated and can be linked to her medical record. Thus, both sides of her conversations with medical staff are recorded.  Millie’s communications in writing can be lined up with progress notes and medical reports to assess whether staff understood the significance of what Millie reported to them.  

Millie had struggled with chronic illness that had left her bedridden for several years.  She had regained sufficient strength to apply with Martha, her mother, to present at &Now, an international  e-poetry conference held in Buffalo, NY.  With power wheelchair and oxygen and the help of her aides and family, she had made that presentation. But there was a terrible irony, given our world’s current struggle with COVID-19.

David and Millie at Cleveland Clinic. Millie's "underlying condition" was officially a Rare Disease and required out-of-town treatment to maintain her health.
David and Millie at Cleveland Clinic. Millie’s “underlying condition” was officially a Rare Disease and required out-of-town treatment to maintain her health.

This was October 2009, and there was a major outbreak of H1N1 in the city.  Because a vaccine was on the way, but not yet available, local public health officials decided not to announce the outbreak to avoid panic.  Only after a dozen or more people, including Millie, had died from H1N1, was the public informed.

Millie and Martha discovered the outbreak when Millie arrived at the ICU, which normally had approximately 20 beds for non-heart patients.  Seventeen patients were on ventilators (instead of the usual 3-5), the coronary care ICU had been reduced to accommodate desperately ill patients arriving with H1N1. Patients were forced to remain in the ER until the beds and other equipment were retrieved  from storage and set up.

Millie’s presentation of her new work, work which excited her because it represented a significant advance in her technical skills led her into H1N1’s path and contributed to her death.

And here is the irony to top all others:  Erewhon itself will soon disappear.  Millie constructed it in Flash and Flash Actionscript, stretching those utilities to their outer limits.  And now, the presentation of that project, which was groundbreaking for her,  not only is Millie, the author, gone, but in an act of willful obsolescence by Adobe, the work itself also will soon be gone.  Although the dire messages of Flash’s demise are somewhat contradictory, it appears that the work may not even be viewable downloaded onto laptops and viewed off the web.

To a web artist like Millie, what is happening to her work as well as the work of many others who used Flash when Flash was cutting edge technology, is akin to paper manufacturers decreeing that libraries may no longer use paper in their collections.

Three years’ notice is hardly adequate to ensure the work of those early artists, some of whom are no longer here to protect their work.

Impossible to know whether Millie, had she anticipated the early death of her project, would have been willing to risk her impaired immune system to make her &Now presentation in 2009, even absent H1N1 rampant in the community.  She had been shut-in for years, as many have been shut in for many months in 2020, due to her risk of death if she had caught a common cold.

Almost certainly, if Millie Niss were here today, she would be coding her own language to preserve her work.

Reading The Last Collaboration in 2020, it is possible to see that changes in health care have improved, particularly in the area of hospital acquired infections (HAI) and medical staff communication with family. The importance of coordinatated, accessible and affordable health care remains critical. Perhaps the most important contribution Martha and Millie’s account makes today when families are often excluded from visiting family members seriously ill from COVID-19, is the picture it presents of life in the ICU. 

Atrium at &Now conference.  Millie was drawn to photographing industrial structures.
Atrium at &Now conference. Millie was drawn to photographing industrial structures.
Millie at Notre Dame, 1986.  Both Millie and Notre Dame are gone.
Millie at Notre Dame, 1986. Both Millie and Notre Dame are gone.

Evicted by Greed: Global Finance, Housing & Resistance

On May 29, 2020, the Disruption Network Lab opened its 19th conference, “Evicted by Greed: Global Finance, Housing & Resistance”. The three-day-event was supposed to take place in Berlin in March, on the days of the global call for the Housing Action Days. Instead, it took place online due to ongoing safety concerns relating to the coronavirus pandemic.

Chaired by Tatiana Bazzichelli and Lieke Ploeger, programme and community director of the Disruption Network Lab, the interactive digital event brought together speakers and audience members from their homes from all over the world to investigate how speculative finance drives global and local housing crises. The topic of how aggressive speculative real-estate purchases by shell companies, anonymous entities, and corporations negatively impacts peoples’ lives formed the core conversation for the presentations, panel discussions, and interactive question and answer sessions. The conference served as a platform for sharing experiences and finding counter-strategies.

In her introductory statement, Bazzichelli took stock of the situation. As the pandemic appeared, it became clear worldwide that the “stay-at-home” order and campaigns were not considering people who cannot comply since they haven’t got any place to stay. Tenants, whose work and lives have been impacted, struggle to pay rent, bills, or other essentials, and in many cases had to leave their homes or have been threatened with forced eviction. People called on lawmakers at a national and local level to freeze rent requirements as part of their response to the pandemic, but very few measures have been put in place to protect them. However, scarce and unaffordable housing is neither a new, nor a local problem found in just a few places.

Lieke Ploeger, Community Director of the Disruption Network Lab (left), and Tatiana Bazzichelli, Founder and Programme Director of the Disruption Network Lab

Christoph Trautvetter, public policy expert and German activist of
Netzwerk Steuergerechtigkeit (Network for Tax Justice) and Wem gehört
die Stadt (Who Owns the City) of the Rosa-Luxemburg Foundation, and Manuel Gabarre de Sus, Spanish lawyer and activist from the Observatory Against Economical Crime, delivered the opening keynote “Anonymous & Aggressive Investors: Who owns Berlin & Barcelona?” moderated by Eka Rostomashvili, advocacy and campaigns coordinator at Transparency International.

In the last decade waves of private equity real estate investments have reshaped the rental housing markets in cities like Berlin and Barcelona. Housing and real estate have been deformed by global capital markets and financial excess, treated as a commodity, a vehicle for predatory investment and wealth rather than a social good reflecting a human right. This led to evictions, discriminations in the housing sphere, and lack of access to basic housing-related services, all put in place by aggressive real estate investors.

Trautvetter is co-author of a recent study tracing the ownership of 400 companies owning real estate in Berlin. He explained that in the city, where about 85% of the population are renters, exploding house prices and rentals have been guaranteeing investors returns far beyond 10% per year after the financial crises of 2009. Here the emergence of corporate landlords changed the city. They are entities that own and operate rental housing on a massive scale, replacing the traditional “gentle old lady” landlord. At 17.5%, Berlin has a law proportion of direct investors renting out their properties.

Activists, politicians, and organisations of tenants are trying to fight unlawful evictions and speculative investments reshaping the German capital, but often face anonymity. Almost half of the city is in the hands of listed companies, professional investors, or indirect investors shielded by property management firms and lawyers that operate on their behalf. International private equity companies are one of the most obscure and greedy embodiments of policy failure in this context.

Gabarre de Sus focused on the problem of the opportunistic investment funds that appeared in Spain due to strong deregulation. After the global financial crisis of 2009, the rescue of the Spanish financial system ensured that hundreds of thousands of households were indirectly under public control. But the European Union and the Spanish Government decided in 2012 to sell these properties to opportunistic investors. Many say that if public ownership of these real estates had been maintained for social renting, the rent bubble of recent years would not have occurred. As a result, many vulture funds, particularly from the United States like Blackstone, Hayfin, TPG, and millionaires like the Mexican Carlos Slim, made huge profits. Since then, rent prizes have increased of more than the 50% in the main Spanish cities, more than 30 times faster than wages.

Whilst describing this process, Gabarre de Sus focused on the political and legal ties of big investment funds that invest in real estate. There are structures of political and economic interest that allow companies like Blackstone Group Inc. — one of the largest real estate private equity and investment management firms in the world declaring $140 billion of real estate assets under management, 25% of its total assets — to scale business models in which properties are bought, renovated, and then put back on the market at rents that tenants cannot afford. These actors are influential, with economic partners at international level, including banks from the world’s largest economies.

In many cases, real estate registers do not contain any information on beneficial owners or there is no way to link legal and beneficial owners, so that both authorities and citizens know very little about who owns their cities. EU legislation obliges information on real estate holders to be available to authorities and specifies that the general public shall receive access to beneficial ownership information of EU based companies. The problem is that such registers are usually maintained under self-disclosure principles based on data internally identified by the reporting entity. Access to data is often difficult and expensive. Once you get the information, it can take time to check it and find out contradictory data. Moreover, an articulated system of international shell companies, secrecy legislation, and strategic financial loopholes provides immunity and contributes to global inequality, consolidating the incessant shift of wealth from the poor to the rich.

Manuel Gabarre de Sus (top), Christoph Trautvetter and Eka Rostomashvili during the Keynote “Anonymous & Aggressive Investors: Who owns Berlin & Barcelona?”

In Berlin nearly half of the real estate investors remain anonymous and there is no certainty of how much dirty money hides behind their investments, which is something common to many places around the world. The current situation —  revealed also by the Panama Papers investigation —  shows that governments profit from illegal wealth from transnational money-laundering, hosting international criminal enterprises within their territories and capital cities, thus providing a grey area for illegal practices where false or inappropriate identification represents the other face of fraudulent records and corruption.

The panel “Foggy Properties & Golden Sands: Money Laundering in London & Dubai” moderated by Rima Sghaier, outreach and research fellow at the Hermes Centre for Transparency and Digital Human Rights, made clear how easy and common it is for global elites and organised criminality to open offshore companies, move assets, and buy real estate in big capital cities, with investments that integrate illegal funds into the financial system and legitimate economy.

Sam Leon, data investigations lead at Global Witness, referred to the relations between satellite fiscal havens such as the Virgin Islands, the Cayman, and the Channel Islands, and the City of London. These countries are linked through commercial and legal ties with high probabilities for dark money to flow through the UK’s Overseas territories and Crown Dependencies undetected. 

The UK has a public land registry, but it is difficult to effectively scrutiny data. Companies are obliged to file good quality information, but many do not and authorities are not able to check it accurately. Britain is defined by detractors as the world’s greatest enabler of corporate tax avoidance. Considering real estate, Leon explained that tens of thousands of tenants in England and Wales are in the hands of unscrupulous owners, who hide behind anonymous companies and trusts.

One loophole real estate investors use is acquiring shares in a company that owns real estate, rather than the real estate itself; the property can be then sold by selling the shares in the company with no UK corporate tax. If the company is registered in a country that guarantees secrecy and free hands, no name appears. According Global Witness in England and Wales 87,000 properties with an estimated value of more than 1 billion pounds are owned by companies incorporated in secrecy jurisdictions, which keep secret the information about the real owners. Scotland suffers from the same problem, and in this context Scottish Limited Partnerships are a major concern too.

Sam Leon and Rima Sghaier during the panel “Foggy Properties & Golden Sands: Money Laundering in London & Dubai”

Companies avoid inheritance tax and capital gain tax, riding fiscal loopholes. The use of firms based in countries which are known tax havens to purchase property is being observed all around the world, with concerns about how much property is owned by unaccountable offshore entities.

The analyses of Leon introduced topics covered by the second panellist Karina Shedrofsky, who presented her work as head of OCCRP’s research team “Dubai’s Golden Sands.” Recently leaked datasets of property and residency details were obtained by the non-profit group C4ADS, and provided to the international investigative journalists of the OCCRP as part of the Global Anticorruption Consortium, in collaboration with Transparency International.

International criticism of governments and independent organisations pointed out that Dubai has become an open market for money laundering and a safe haven for the corrupt at a global level, due to the lack of controls along with very profitable conditions. The United Arab Emirates are accused of weakly regulating the financial sector, guaranteeing secrecy, and offering the world’s criminals a range of services. The country’s land registry is not open to the public and a lack of enforcement and oversight in the property sector is ideal to stash vast amounts of dirty money.

Shedrofsky pointed out that Dubai is an absolute monarchy ruled as a business. Several transnational investigations show that its laws seem to be a facilitator for international money laundering, corruption, and other financial crimes.

The emirate has been attracting secretive real estate purchases by foreign companies and individuals for years. Construction and real estate sector represents 20% of the country’s gross domestic product (2016). In the country it is possible to move money with very little regulatory scrutiny, cash-based transactions are incentivised, and the volume of gold trafficked accounts for around 25% of global trade, with almost no questions about its origins. Wealthy investors are offered a property investment visa by an investment in real estate of minimum $272,000 dollars, and get the benefits of light financial regulation, anonymity, and banking secrecy.

Shedrofsky explained how researchers from 8 countries worked on thousands of spreadsheets maintained by real estate professionals, in an accurate cross-border investigation that led to the publication of a hundred names of wealthy people, who have invested millions in Dubai. The non-official records from the years 2014-2016 provided more than 129,000 owner’s data, which the team organised per country and verified, revealing only information that could be proven beyond doubt. A website hosting an interactive map with the detected properties is online, and anyone can check it (occrp.org/en/goldensands/).

Karina Shedrofsky during her presentation of the Dubai’s Golden Sands investigation

The first day of the conference closed with filmmaker and journalist Fredrik Gertten and Leilani Farha, former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to housing, in a live conversation moderated by Tatiana Bazzichelli. Gertten’s latest documentary investigates the factors that push people out from their own city, turning it into an unaffordable place that is more and more difficult to live in due to the extreme difference between housing prices and wage development.

From New York to Barcelona “Push: The Film” narrates how corporations and financial elites are speculating on people’s lives. Renters worldwide are drowning in a sea of self-doubt, with feelings of inadequacy and fears, because they think they are unable to keep up with life. But the documentary shows that this condition is the consequence of a system intended to harm, marginalise, and discriminate them. Even if residents should be able to afford to live in their own cities, this process inexorably condemns them to move away.

The work of the speakers on the first day of the conference reinforced the idea that crowd-based and data-driven research projects, together with independent and cross-border investigations, can allow a glimpse behind the curtain of the real estate market. Anonymity and secrecy in juxtaposition to openness and transparency, obtained through collective mobilisation, collecting, sharing, and analysing data.

A depressingly similar pattern emerges in countries all over the world. Housing has been financialised and turned into an investment vehicle, which has caused an oversupply of luxury estates and empty buildings in many cities, and a chronic shortage of adequate housing for the least advantaged, for the working class, and often for the middle class too. A process often encouraged by governments.

In this context, “financialisation” refers to tendencies within the economic system characterised by the expansion and proliferation of financial markets penetrating into a range of both economic and social sectors, and consequently affecting human rights related goods — such as housing, pensions and healthcare — making huge profits out of basic needs and human sufferings.

With regard to the financialisation of housing, not just banks, corporations, and big investment funds play this ruthless game. Fraudsters, money launderers, and organised crime are very active internationally, and look for weak financial systems and a moment of crisis to speculate on the property market.

Live conversation with Fredrik Gertten (Film Director, SE) and Leilani Farha (Global Director, The Shift and Former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing)

Ela Kagel, digital strategist and founder of Supermarkt Berlin, discussed collective solutions to tackle housing, social, and economic injustices with the sociologist Volkan Sayman, promoter of the campaign “Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen & Co!”. This movement is an example of how residents can involve themselves to determine and achieve their own objectives, acting on their rights to create a space for their perspectives and needs within an urban context.

After a majority of citizens were found to be in favour of the initiative in early 2019, a city-wide referendum could be now called on the expropriation of private housing companies with more than 3,000 housing units. Local political parties have not managed to find agreement yet and, as a result, the effects of the referendum in Berlin are likely to be minor if people do not keep on supporting it. The expropriation would put 240,000 flats under public control.

As outlined, investors from the international capital market made huge purchases in Berlin’s residential and commercial real estate: the company Deutsche Wohnen alone owns 111,500 apartments in the city. Together with Vonovia, BlackRock, Akelius, Blackstone, Carlyle, Optimum Evolution, and others, these companies own almost one fourth of the city. In the early 2000s Berlin’s government sold many public housing units and areas to these companies, instead of offering them to residents as development project to focus on local communities and their needs. The Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen & Co! community has forced large real estate companies and politicians from all parties to address the issue and successfully raised awareness among Berliners who engaged in it.

In Berlin exasperated renters successfully came together and organised themselves in several ways. They are also appealing to the local council to stop the sale of their homes, and the “Rent Price Cap,” a new policy in force since 2020, has frozen rents on around 1.4 million homes in the German capital. The “Mietendeckel” is supposed to last for 5 years. Twelve constitutional complaints have already been filed against it.

Volkan Sayman and Ela Kagel during the talk “Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen & Co!”

The keynote on the second day “The Human Rights Solution: Tackling the housing crisis” focused on the work of Leilani Farha, UN former Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, in conversation with Justus von Daniels, Editor-in-Chief of CORRECTIV, non-profit newsroom for investigative journalism. Opening the keynote Von Daniels presented the German crowdsourced project he runs — Who owns the city? — which is based on community-powered investigations collecting data to gain a better understanding of the German housing market.

Farha recalled that international human rights law recognizes everyone’s right to an adequate housing and living conditions. Global real estate today represents nearly 60% of the value of all global assets; with housing comprising nearly 75%. That´s more than twice the world’s total gross domestic product. The aspect to consider is that such a vast amount of wealth seems to have left governments accountable to real estate investors rather than to their international human rights obligations.

Farha criticised Blackstone Group Inc. and its subsidiaries for a practice she also confirms has become common throughout the industry in many countries around the world. These companies are targeting multi-family residences in neighbourhoods deemed to be “undervalued,” so a building or several buildings from an area of poor and low-income tenants. The former UN rapporteur described how Blackstone purchases a building, undertakes repairs or renovation, and then increases the rent driving existing tenants out, and replacing them with higher income ones.

As the speakers pointed out, there has been little attention given to the impact of financialisation on housing, which has caused displacement and evictions, changing urban areas forever. Until the massive financial deregulation of the 1980s, housing was built and paid for locally. Governments, local savings, and loan institutions were supposed to provide the bulk of financing for housing up. Due to an ideological shift, determined by the impact of the dominance on financial markets of big investment funds, banks and corporations, housing is increasingly intertwined with flows of global capital. Housing markets are now more responsive to these flows than to local conditions becoming a global industry.

With roots in the 2008 financial crisis, the recent massive wave of investments by international corporations, banks, and big investment funds completed the shift from housing as a place to build a home, to housing as an investment, with devastating consequences for millions of people. The current real-estate cycle started in 2009 and led to significant price increases for residential property in many cities all over the world. Among several factors, the proliferation of predatory equity funds sifting through the world searching for undervalued investment opportunities and finding them in housing.

The global goal is to guarantee everybody legal security and protection against unlawful forced evictions, harassment and other threats, to make sure that personal or household financial costs associated with housing do not threaten or compromise the attainment and satisfaction of other basic needs. We see instead that the needs of disadvantaged and marginalized groups are not taken into account at all. In urban areas public spaces and social facilities disappear together with the expression of cultural identities and ways of life of the original residents.

Justus von Daniels and Leilani Farha during the keynote “The Human Rights Solution: Tackling the housing crisis”

Statistics show that many of the less advantaged are renters, not owners. And rents have increased even faster than housing prices in many metropolitan areas. Some call for more expansion at the urban peripheries with sustainable and modern public housing projects and better infrastructures. Others call for empowering neighbourhoods and local communities to reverse the financialisation process and to improve the conditions of the areas, that are most affected by this process, building more housing for themselves, and distributing those empty ones.

The conclusive panel on the second day was moderated by Iva Čukić, cofounder of the urban development organisation Ministry of Space, set up to occupy abandoned and neglected urban spaces and fill them with projects, workplaces, housing, or alternative art galleries, to enhance everyone’s right to the city. The panel brought into dialogue different modalities of fighting property speculation, and sharing tactics of resistance in the political and media landscape, and presented concrete alternatives for the urban territory.

The first panelist to speak, Marco Clausen, is the co-founder of the Prinzessinnengarten in Berlin, an island of collective gardening in Moritzplatz. The garden represents an open space to share and develop new forms of urban life, where to practice ideas of social-ecological positive transformation, in the context of privatisation and financialisation of real estate in the city. 

In the 2000s Berlin was still a city with vast empty areas, dismissed military facilities and many old empty buildings. In the last 20 years over 3,000 sites in Berlin owned by public housing societies have been privatised. The garden started as a temporary project in 2009 and has been struggling since 2012 against private investors and speculation. Back then activists mobilised 30,000 people to stop the selling process to an investor, and obtained a new contract until 2018. The area around the garden was first in the hands of a Goldmann Sachs fund, and later to Deutsche Wohnen. A small group fought for two years to keep the garden a collective project, managing to prolong the contract for another six years and receiving public funding to rebuild the garden as an open learning and cultural centre. 

Always in Berlin, another group of activists has been mobilising to fight the Amazon tower, that is to be completed in 2023 in the area of Berlin-Friedrichshain. Yonatan Miller, tech-worker and activist from the coalition “Berlin vs. Amazon,” talked about the movement that opposes the big tech company’s project, that will reshape the area and impact many people’s lives. On one side, over the last five years Berlin has already seen the fastest increase in housing prices globally, on the other big tech corporations are known for getting into real-estate market and make things worse for local residents, gentrifying the area. Miler discussed the challenges of the activists, presenting their strategy for the struggle ahead to replicate the success story of New York’s ousting of Amazon in 2019.

The panel proceeded with the StealThisPoster collective and their online archive “stealthisposter.org” maintained by artists and activists part of a network formed around the right to housing movements of London and Rome. The group presented the practice of subvertising, the artistic hacking of corporate and political advertisements to make counter-statements by disrupting lucrative communication of induced desires and needs and parodying of them. Inside urban areas subvertising (portmanteau of subvert and advertise) is an act of reappropriation of those public spaces that have been turned into a vehicle for intrusive and harmful commercial communications.

StealThisPoster recently supported with various guerrilla actions a community fighting against the eviction of the “Lucha y Siesta,” a space of social housing and the first inhabited by an all-female squat in Rome. Their evocative pictures of Roman monuments lit at night by the words “on sale” became viral and helped the cause. However, the existence of this independent legendary social space is still at risk. Lucha Y Siesta was put on auction by the city council of Rome on April 7 this year. The short film premiere “StealThisPoster: Artivism & the Struggle of Lucha Y Siesta” that StealThisPoster created in occasion of Evicted By Greed, focuses on this experience and introduces the practice of subvertising.

A video contribute by Penny Travlou from the University of Edinburgh concluded the panel. Travlou talked about the housing crisis in Athens and the local activists of the AARG collective, Action Against Regeneration & Gentrification, born to fight against eviction, financial speculation, and to support the rights of the refugees.

Alongside the main conference sessions, a workshop on the third day enriched the programme.

The virtual tour “Visiting the Invisible” by Christoph Trautvetter discovers the anonymous and aggressive real estate investors of Berlin, drawing on the findings of the project “Wem gehört die Stadt” of the Rosa-Luxemburg Stiftung, and including further recent studies from other collectives.

Iva Čukić ,Marco Clausen (top) and Yonatan Miller during the panel “Resisting Speculation: Ecological Commons, Subvertising & Fighting Tech Domination”

The conference “Evicted by Greed” presented experts working on anti-corruption, investigative journalists, artists and activists, who met to share effective strategies and community-based approaches to increase awareness on the issues related to the financialisation of housing and its negative effects. Here bottom-up approaches and methods that include local communities in the development of solutions appear to be fundamental. Projects that capacitate collectives, minorities, and marginalized groups to develop and exploit tools to combat systematic inequalities, injustices, and speculation are to be enhanced.

Ghostly shell companies and real estate speculators evict real people from their homes. It is not possible to state that all of these companies are acting illegally, or indeed avoiding paying taxes by being based in tax havens, but it is proven that opaque offshore firms are routinely used by criminals for systemic tax evasion, to buy property as a means to launder or stash dirty money, as well as to dodge taxes.

Open registers and open debate about these issues are very important, and not just for possible judicial outcomes. It is important to find out who the owners of real estates are and give a name to the landlords. Sometimes they might not be speculation oriented individuals and might not be aware of the consequences of their investments, but have delegated ruthless intermediates, lawyers, and investment consultants. There could be hundreds of workers who invested in a pension found without knowing that their profit is based on aggressive speculation.

Equal and non-discriminatory access to public spaces and adequate housing is not possible without an appropriate and effective regulation. The researches, the projects and the investigations presented in this conference are all worthwhile experiences with proven benefits, but ultimately, they may not be enough to alter the structural forces in play. The pandemic has shown that speculators all over the world wait for moments of crisis to purchase new real estates for a lower price, taking advantage of the financial difficulties that many people are experiencing. A growing number of property investors are preparing for what they believe could be a once-in-a generation opportunity to buy distressed real-estate assets at bargain prices. The system facilitates the concentration of real states in the hands of big international landlords and governments remain inert.

The solution cannot be found in one simple formula, or by asking people to buy real estate and become direct investors and new owners, in a deregulated system based on speculation, where most of the individuals struggle to make a living. The global economic system is based on banks holding massive amounts of loans to companies based in tax havens, speculative real estate investments and a small economic elite that makes and escapes rules, defending financial deregulations and feeding social injustice.

Tatiana Bazzichelli, Founder and Programme Director of the Disruption Network Lab.

Videos of the conference are also available on YouTube.

In-depth video contributes by the speakers recorded before the conference are available here: https://www.disruptionlab.org/evicted-videos

For details of speakers and topics, please visit the event page here: https://www.disruptionlab.org/evicted-by-greed

The 20th conference of the Disruption Network Lab curated by Tatiana
Bazzichelli & Mauro Mondello is DATA CITIES: SMART TECHNOLOGIES,
TRACKING & HUMAN RIGHTS. It will take place on September 25-27 at Studio 1, Kunstquartier Bethanien, Mariannenplatz 2, 10997 Berlin. More info: https://www.disruptionlab.org/data-cities

To follow the Disruption Network Lab sign up for its Newsletter and get informed about its conferences, ongoing researches and projects.

The Disruption Network Lab is also on Twitter and Facebook.

‘TransLocal Cooperation’: Digital exhibit offers interactive experience with artists of different origins

The transparent society

Time in the Age of Capitalist Desire: A Review of ’24/7′ at Somerset House

Curated by Sarah Cook together with the Director of Somerset House, Jonathan Reekie.

Economy has re-invented time. Development of industrialism and accompanying its advancements, for example, the invention of the railroad, forced standardisation of time. During 1700-1900 this invention increased methods of moving goods, new technologies and large scale investment in the UK’s countries infra-structure (communications network). The result was a complex transport system including roads, rail, canals and the London Underground.[1] Without socio-economic time discipline, it would have been impossible to progress into modernity. Similarly, capitalism and all its products which are well-known to us today, could not have functioned without the disruption of humans’ natural sleep cycle. The artists in the 24/7 exhibition at Somerset House explore the ways of responding, coping with and resisting the capitalist mechanisms of shrinking and controlling our sense of time.

The main focus in 24/7 are the “non-stop processes” of our contemporary culture, and it recognises sleep as pretty much the only time we can unplug from technology, even this time is becoming scarcer and scarcer. The different sections in the show are inspired by Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep. The show is in dialogue with the author’s observations of capitalism’s influence on our everyday lives, creating illusions of timelessness, disorientation and relentless pursuits of capturing, monetising and consuming.

In Marcus Coates’ Self Portrait as Time (2016), the artist’s finger follows the second hand on his wristwatch, creating the illusion of him actually moving it. The work evolves in the space and is a looped video, but also works as a clock, counting time as it passes and constantly reminding the visitors and staff about it. Admittedly, the artistic process at times felt like a trance, and Coates kept loosing the sense of boundaries between himself and the clock.

Installation view of Marcus Coates’ Self Portrait as Time (2016), and Julia Varela’s X.5000 (2017) from 24/7 at Somerset House. Photographed by Stephen Chung for Somerset House.

Benjamin Grosser’s Order of Magnitude (2019), a film containing excerpts of Mark Zuckerberg’s interviews, covering the earliest days of Facebook in 2004 up to Zuckerberg’s appearances before the US Congress in 2018, these recordings reveal what’s changed and what hasn’t changed about the way he speaks and what he says. The film shows him boasting the enormity of Facebook, where the edits present us with him repetitively announcing “more, more, more, growth, more than a billion, much bigger, another billion, more than a hundred billion, more efficient, growing, even more, growing by 50%, billion, more billions, many many more”. 

Many have become disillusioned with Silicon Valley and its technology based corporations, and the systems and platforms, which they have co-created at the expense of our privacy. The problem is, we are the silent workforce that these companies feed on. By giving away raw data for analysis and material extraction, we fuel the machine of surveillance capitalism. Unsurprisingly, this is reflected by a significant portion of artworks in the exhibition, which are concerned with what the contemporary meaning of labour is now. 

Dust Bunny (2015) by Alan Warburton, part of the 24/7 exhibition at the Embankment Galleries of Somerset House

As we enter the age of acceleration and automation, much of our labour is done with the help of machines. As this happens more we will need to keep re-evaluating our position in the process. On the one hand, 24/7 seems to portray humans as slaves to the machines, while our lifestyles are twisted, over full, and packed with too much stuff. Esmeralda Kosmatopoulos presents us with her sculptures of various configurations of empty hands, the fingers arranged to show them presumably texting, holding a phone and sliding up the screen. (Fifteen Pairs of Mouths, 2016-19).

Then we have Tega Brain’s, Unfit Bits (2015), pointing to constant connectedness; relentlessly moving metronomes stimulating smartwatches for those whose insurance forces them to rely on the health and physical performance data, and then Jeremy Bentham’s famous 19th century drawings of the Panopticon.

Many of the artworks in the exhibition work to debunk the myth of immaterial labour. For instance, this is poetically illustrated by Alan Warbuton’s Dust Bunny (2015), a sculpture comprised of finely milled angora-like dust harvested from the inside of ten 3D animation workstations at visual effects studio Mainframe. The volume of dust here represents an estimated 35,000 hours, or 4 years, of constant rendering and processing.

Still from Les Grands Ensembles (2001) by Pierre Huyghe, part of the 24/7 exhibition at the Embankment Galleries of Somerset House

The distressing nature of social media is shown through the lens of architecture rationalising human relations in Pierre Huyghe’s The House Project (2001). The film shows computer-generated high-rise blocks with window lights blinking in the rhythm of the electronic soundtrack by Finnish techno duo Pan Sonic and French sound artist Cédric Pigot. As the track progresses, the beat becomes heavier, faster and the lights begin to run up and down the stairs, across all floors. The two apartment blocks become musical instruments with flashing diodes, generating an eerie and creepy soundtrack.

Among this horde of artworks, there are some which allow space for contemplation. Finnish artist Nastja Säde Rönkkö, one of the Somerset House Studios’ residents, spent 6 months living and working in London without using Internet. Her letters, souvenirs and received gifts are displayed in a glass cabinet, alongside the film documenting her experiences of moving around the city and reflections on the difficulties she had encountered when she refused to use and benefit from the web. In Catherine Richards’ Shroud Chrysalis I (2000), the visitors are invited to be wrapped in a copper blanket by the gallery attendants, and savor time off technology, as the blanket blocks out electromagnetic signals emitted by mobile devices.

Installation view of Catherine Richards’ Shroud Chrysalis I and II (2000/2005) from 24/7 at Somerset House in London. Photographed by Stephen Chung for Somerset House.

The show proposes a retreat and asks us to contemplate the world’s speed and our disconnectedness from a sense of time. At the same time, it overwhelms the space with an abundant amount of artworks, with over 50 beautiful and innovative artworks on display. And, while this diversity is one of the exhibition’s biggest strengths and should be applauded, it is also a weakness. It involved much shifting about and squeezing between displays, and tireless engagement. One’s experience of this ranged from disinterest to awe, as well as disorientation.

The exhibition’s theme is about time. It literally demands a fair chunk of time forcing the visitor to slow down and re-evaluate experiences and perceptions of what time means to us when its so deeply a part of the systems that are accelerating, alongside capitalist means. This big show offers us no way out of the contemporary trappings of capitalism and its intertwined, connections with time. But, it has opened up a space where we can consider it in a context where it involves the mediums and processes of, art, technology, and varied philosophical, political interjections, and observed outlooks. The exhibition presents us the visitor with an opportunity to reflect on the connected world through the experience of disconnectedness which has successfully been woven into the exhibition’s concept. The works shift and turn not with one message, but as oracles, or reminders that, there is a possibility of living differently, where we can create communities in alternative ways and highlight the value of questioning, while critically experimenting with our methods of communication. Time or capitalism, are not the main messages, but it’s more about what we do with them. It is an important and necessary exhibition that needs our immediate attention.

24/7:
A WAKE-UP CALL FOR OUR NON-STOP WORLD
is at Somerset House in London until 23 Feb 2020
somersethouse.org.uk/whats-on/247

Featured Image:
‘Slogans for the 21st Century’
Courtesy of Douglas Coupland
and Maria Francesca Moccia, EyeEm
via Getty Images

Commoning as the Heartbeat of Art & Culture

A review of the panel ‘Revisiting the Future: Technofeminism in the 21st Century’

This article reflects on the hopes of Cyberfeminism in response to ‘Revisiting the Future: Technofeminism in the 21st Century‘, a panel discussion between Mindy Seu, Cornelia Sollfrank, Judy Wajcman, and chair Marie Thompson. This conversation took place on the 5th of October 2019 at the Barbican Centre in London, UK, as part of New Suns: A Feminist Literary Festival.

BIG DADDY MAINFRAME

“What’s so special about Lisa? Oh, I’ve had a lot of computers, but my Lisa is different: she works the way I do”

Apple Lisa, video infomercial, 1983

Men, like gods, have always had a thing for creating entities in their own image. Gods create men, men will gods into existence. Men create tools, tools make men in turn. But what if the creator of technology is often a man, and a very specific kind of man? What are, then, the ways in which gender and technology construct one another?

Since the dawn of computation, men found it appealing to automate away the predictable and repetitive labour, often embodied and performed by women. In other words, technology has contributed (among a lot of other things) to the automation of traditional “women’s work”, and it did so on men’s terms [1]. From the Girl-less, Cuss-less Phone, the first automated dial system (1892), to Lisa, the first personal Apple Computer (1983), to Siri and Alexa, digital assistants, (2011 and 2014), the designs of and designs for the pater ex machina have set the bar for the height of technological progress.

Cyberfeminism is a feminist genre that addresses questions of gender and technology while bringing their implications to the fore. Automation is not the only nor the central theme of Cyberfeminism: academics, activists, hackers, artists, women, and non-women tied to this genre, engage with broad questions of gender and technology based on the assumptions that:

  1. Computation is not neutral and
     
  2. Technology is highly gendered [2]

Largely, grounded in Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto, Cyberfeminism as a movement was formally articulated in 1991 by the Adelaide based artist collective VNS Matrix. VNS designed a billboard titled “A Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century” depicting horned bodies, psychedelic vulvas and reciting: “[…]we are the virus of the new world disorder rupturing the symbolic from within; saboteurs of big daddy mainframe; the clitoris is a direct line to the matrix.” That said, the origins of the genre can be traced more accurately as a decentralised global emergence. Cyberfeminism has come to life more like a granular collection of scattered raw data, and less like a single revelation happened at a defined point in time.

In the panel Revisiting the Future: Technofeminisms in the 21st Century, Mindy Seu, Cornelia Sollfrank, Judy Wajcman and Marie Thompson discussed the state of Cyberfeminism today.

ATTESTING TO THE REVIVAL

Chair Marie Thompson points out how, in the past decade, there seems to be a reinvigorated tendency for questions of Cyberfemnism. The increased mainstreaming of concerns around gender and technology in institutional contexts such as Girls Who Code, Women in Tech Festival, and countless diversity initiatives in tech companies are clear examples. To Thomson, the main question is “why should we struggle for Cyberfeminism now?”

“Silicon Valley can do [diversity inclusion campaigns]” says Judy Wajcman, “that’s fine, but what is the kind of big-scale change that must occur at institutional level?”. Wajcman emphasised how important it is to embed inclusion into the fabric of tech companies’ culture rather than it remaining a CSR exercise, or better, rather than supporting and reinforcing existing liberal frameworks.

According to Mindy Seu, Cyberfeminism revival is largely due to the need of big institutions to accumulate cultural capital which is often articulated in superficial measures such as cosmetic diversity initiatives. For Seu, similarly to Wajcman, the main question is ”how can we see feminist values embedded in the ethos of companies?”. Seu also points out how the ascension of women in big cultural (and tech) institutions are often not only hindered by the notorious “glass ceiling”, but also deliberately sabotaged through the so-called “glass cliff”. A glass cliff is a term used to describe a situation where a woman is nominated head of an organisation which is already crumbling. The intention is to signal externally that this organisation is making efforts to get back on track, or make amends for its corrupted past by hiring someone with a perceived higher ethical value. By doing so, the board actively sets up this woman (or anyone, really) to fail, because the organisation has larger structural problems that no person alone can solve (see recent board allegations concerning MIT Media Lab).

“It is as if nothing has happened in between the 90s and now,” Cornelia Sollfrank says. “This means that things [gender inequality within the tech industry] are staying the same, and maybe getting worse… These, mostly young, very young, women do not understand the historical precedents of Cyberfeminism.” While she seems to partially dismiss this revival as a fashion statement, her book ‘The Beautiful Warriors. Technofeminist Praxis in the Twenty-First Century’ sets out to counter this trend by connecting up the insights and practices of 90’s cyberfeminism with new techno-eco-feminists as part of an ongoing social and aesthetic activism.

RE-MAKING THE INTERNET

“This is not a book about women and technology. Nor was this book created for women. Throughout these pages, scholars, hackers, artists, and activists of all regions, races, sexual orientations, and genetic make-ups consider how humans might reconstruct themselves by way of technology. What is a woman anyway?”

Intro from Cyberfeminism Catalog 1990-2020, Mindy Seu, Harvard University Graduate School of Design, 2019

One strategy to challenge the dominant narrative of men as sole creators and geniuses, argues Seu, is to incorporate women’s voices in the history of computation. As she puts it: “We are taught to focus on engineering, the military-industrial complex, and the grandfathers who created the architecture and protocol. But the internet is not only a network of cables, servers, and computers. It is an environment that shapes and is shaped by its inhabitants.” In her Cyberfeminist index, Seu traces a detailed and precise overview of the diverse body of today’s practices.

Across the panel, there seemed to be a shared awareness of differences in terms of references, strategies, culture, and visual cultures among current activists and academic groups and across generations. One example that stands out is the South Korean Cyberfeminist group Megalia whose main strategy for activism has been online trolling. Looking at their logo, a hand making the gesture to indicate a man’s penis size, it is not hard to understand their style of communication. Megalia could be dismissed as a funny and naive case, but there are deep reasons why South Korean women have implemented such a strategy. For instance, feminism has only entered the public sphere less than a decade ago.

As Judy Wajcman points out, the dominant narratives in feminist discourse are set up by Western standards. For instance, in South America, she notes, Donna Haraway is not as strong an academic reference as in the West. Wajcman also argues that Haraway’s texts, despite advocating for socialist feminism and having strong political agendas, often lack the clarity and simplicity to be accessed by anyone who does not belong to the hyper educated Western academia elite. Seu points the attention towards the fact that Haraway supposedly decided to use contrived language intentionally (as a hack), in order to be deemed interesting and relevant in academic context.

THE OTHER

Cyberfeminism is relevant today more than ever when addressing topics of responsibility, agency, materiality, care, and anthropocentrism. In this sense, Cyberfeminism today transcends identity politics: it becomes an essential cultural tool with respect to survival, equality, and sustainability.

Cyberfeminism can be defined as “a genre of contemporary feminism which foregrounds the relationship between cyberspace, the Internet and technology.” [3]

To foreground is the action of pushing objects that are necessary in the background to the fore. That is bringing the hidden, compounded, interchangeable, opaque to a position that is close enough to the viewer to be observed. In other words, turning the distant and neglected “other” into voices and materials that can be seen, heard, interrogated.

To bring the back to the fore is, on the one hand, to question men’s protagonism, self- importance, and arrogance, thus attempting to dismantle not only the centrality of men as male humans, but that of humanity as a whole. Anthropocentrism has been at the core of technological developments. Humans have predominantly designed for human comfort (with the standard for “human” being effectively set up by men) narrowing down the possibilities of what technologies could be or do.

Complimentarily, foregrounding is also the practice of exposing the material and toxic aspects of technological progress and production both in terms of human labour and ecological implications, from e-waste to amounts of energy voraciously consumed by computational tools and infrastructures, to labour-heavy mining of rare earth minerals.

In stark contrast with the early days of eco-feminism which was expressively anti-technology, the panel maps out emerging strands of (techno) eco-feminism that critically engage with questions of gender, cyberspace, and ecology from a holistic perspective. This approach is not in opposition of technological tools, but rather in conversation with them. In this sense, techno-eco-feminism is close to the Haraway’s idea of questioning scientific methods not with the goal to invalidate them, but rather to ask “what are ways in which science can be used for emancipatory purposes?”

Featured Image:
Artwork by Cecilia Serafini

from New Suns Festival 2019

Header Image:
Screenshot of Siri by Chiara Di Leone

The English tranlsation of The Beautiful Warriors. Technofeminist Praxis in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Cornelia Sollfrank. Can be found here – http://www.minorcompositions.info/?p=976 and all decent book retailers.

Citizens of Evidence

On the 20th of September, Tatiana Bazzichelli and Lieke Ploeger opened the 17th conference of the Disruption Network Lab with CITIZENS OF EVIDENCE to explore the investigative impact of grassroots communities and citizens engaged to expose injustice, corruption, and power asymmetries.

Citizen investigations use publicly available data and sources to autonomously verify facts. More and more often ordinary people and journalists work together to provide a counter-narrative to the deliberate disinformation spread by news outlets of political influence, corporations, and dark money think-tanks. However, journalists and citizens reporting on matters in the public interest are targeted because of the role they play in ensuring an informed society. The work of independent investigation is often delegitimised by public authorities and denigrated in a wave of generalisations against ‘the elites’ and media objectivity, actually designed to undermine independent information and stifle criticism. It appears to be a global process that aims at blurring progressively the boundary between what is fake and what is real, growing to such a level that traditional mainstream media and governments seem incapable of protecting society from a tide of disinformation.

An increasingly Orwellian campaign for the purpose discredit upon them has been built for years against citizens and activists opposing the project of a controversial high-speed rail line for freight trains between Italy and France, which is considered useless and harmful. The Disruption Network Lab conference opened with the keynote GHOSTS IN THE WOODS AND UNCANNY ENTITIES: On How to Cover the Italian «NO TAV» Movement by Wu Ming 1, who spent three years among the people of the Susa Valley opposing this mega-infrastructural project.

Alexandra Weltz-Rombach introduces Wu Ming 1 in the keynote Ghosts in the Woods and Uncanny Entities

As the moderator, author, and filmmaker Alexandra Weltz-Rombach explained, Wu Ming is a pseudonym for a group of Italian authors formed in Bologna after the experience of the Luther Blissett project. For almost 20 years the literary collective has been writing essays, meta-historical novels, and creative narrative, using often the techniques of investigative journalism. Today it is widely appreciated for its capability to deconstruct and analyse complex aspects of social and political life, challenging long-existing paradigms and traditions and synthesizing the views of different minds, to build an alternative narration on facts, inspiring unconventional critical process. Wu Ming 1 explored the Susa Valley and the woods occupied by police and wire fences, experiencing the struggle of a community in its territories, to write a history-as-novel take on the most enduring and radical environmental protest in contemporary Italy, known as No-TAV (TAV stands for Treno Alta Velocità – High Speed Train). To do so, he walked, mapped the territory, and ‘evoked ghosts’. The history of a country can be described by the history of its borders and the Susa Valley is a borderland in the mountains. Probably where Hannibal walked with his army to cross the Alps, since the early 90s it has been projected another huge tunnel inside the mountains, in a long-standing tradition of railroad-tunnels built sacrificing lives and health.

To understand the No-TAV struggle we can go back in time. To when the TAV-railway was first projected, and contextually the opposition of local communities started. But also, back in time to all the conflicts that have been fought on these mountains, which are “full of ghosts” as the author said. Wu Ming 1 explained that in literature and popular tradition, a ghost appears when there is an unresolved story, a wasted life that ended badly. Borderlands are the places where the most of ghosts are to be found. In the Susa Valley, ghosts are suppressed memories of wars and of social conflicts that shaped the territory.

Wu Ming published several works on environmental and climatic issues and wrote a lot about mountains too. Almost 78% of Italian territory is covered by mountains or hills. Their iconic representation has been at time twisted by nationalism, militarism and machismo. The Alps were “sacred borders of the fatherland” – nature to conquer, a symbol of virility and power in fascist propaganda. Today those mountains are an obstacle to economic growth; a growth that might put at risk the whole Susa Valley. Thus, instead of tackling legitimate concerns, project Stakeholders have been seeking for 20 years to delegitimize those leveling the charges against the high-speed railway, despite the masses of evidence to support their claims, using intimidation and violence against them. But the no-TAV collectives’ claims have always been proven to be right, and the project has been declining in size over time. However, the fight within the Valley is still on and the TAV-project is far from being archived.

Michael Hornsby, Gareth Benest, Samuel Sinyangwe, and Melissa Segura during the panel Exposing Abuses

The panel on the first day, EXPOSING ABUSES: Citizens Recording Human Rights Violations from the US to The Gambia, introduced by Michael Hornsby of Transparency International, opened with a presentation by Melissa Segura, journalist of BuzzFeed News from the US. She documented allegations proving that the Chicago police officer Reynaldo Guevara had framed dozens of innocent people for murder. The reporter put a light on forgotten judiciary cases, giving voice to families and communities affected by injustices, hit by a profound brokenness that she experienced herself when her nephew was framed and arrested years before.

A group of black and Latino mothers, aunts, and sisters knew that their beloved were innocent, but no officials wanted to take up their cause. Segura met these women after they had been fighting for decades in search of justice. They began when the journalist was at her elementary school: “at the time they had already gathered in a team, collecting data and writing spreadsheets on Lotus” she recalled. They had no chance to be heard, no PR, no lobby, no support from media were available to them. Segura realized soon that the story she had to cover wasn´t just the conviction of a 19-year-old-boy sentenced in 1999 with 110 years of prison for a murder he did not commit. It was also about the community of women that were fighting for justice, it was about their lives. 

She learnt soon that her sources were able to cover their own stories much better than how she could, showing her new paths to the truth. The journalist dedicated time to building a trusting relationship with them, giving full reassurance that their story would be fairly reported. After an intense three-year investigation, she succeeded in wearing down a key witness to testify, cracking the wall of impunity. This process, she said, “did not expose the harm of people, but tried to connect to it.”

Reynaldo Guevara has been beating up people, framing them, extorting false confessions and false witnesses for years. Since publishing Segura’s articles, seven innocent men have been freed, and dozens more convictions are under review.

In the context of the major movements that draw attention on issues such as injustice and police violence targeting specific communities and minorities in the US, policy and data analyst Samuel Sinyangwe decided to join the work of justice activist groups formed after the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. He is now part of the Police Scorecard project, and of the Campaign Zero independent platform he co-founded, designed to facilitate and guarantee the collection of data on these violations. Sinyangwe explained that, as of today, the US government has implemented neither collections of data on police misconducts, violence and killings, nor public database of disciplined police officers. In his view, US law enforcement agencies have failed to provide even basic information about the lives they have taken, in a country where at least three people are killed by police every day and black people are 3 times more probable to end up victims of brutal use of force by the police.

The independent observatory built by Sinyangwe seems to be quite effective. It is described as the most comprehensive accounting of people killed by police since 2013 in the US. A report from the US Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that approximately 1,200 people were killed by police between June 2015 and May 2016. The database identified 1.179 people killed by police over this same time period. These estimates suggest that it was able to capture 98% of the total number of police killings that occurred. Sinyangwe hopes these data will be used to provide greater transparency and accountability for police departments as part of the ongoing campaign to end police violence in black and Latino communities, leading to a change of policies.

With data able to map the situation in the US, it has also been possible to make comparisons and drew analyses. The Campaign Zero researches show that there is a whole false narrative about criminality rates, based on numbers that just mirror a system based on different federal policies regarding police forces, and that levels of violent crime in US cities do not determine rates of police violence.

According to data, cities with the same density of population have very different rates of violence, and very different rules regulating the activity of police agents. Starting from this, Sinyangwe and his team decided to look for different policy documents from different police department. These policies determine how and when a local policeman is authorized to use force. With a closer look, the Campaign Zero team could easily determine that there is no federal standard. Some documents live a grey area, others discourage the use of force, and particularly of deadly force, limiting it to the most dangerous scenarios after all lesser means of use of force have failed. Some seem to openly encourage it instead.

Samuel Sinyangwe (Data Scientist & Policy Analyst, Campaign Zero & Police Scorecard) during his talk in the panel Exposing Abuses

The group listed eight types of restrictions in the use of force to be found in these policies, consisting of escalators that aim at excluding, as far as possible, the use of violence. Comparisons show that a combination of these restrictions, when put in place, can produce a large reduction in police violence. Policies combining restrictions predicted indeed significantly lower rate of deathly force.

Data about unarmed people killed by police in major American cities show that black people are three times more likely to be killed by police than white people (2013-2018). Movements such as Black Lives Matter started also because of this. Another problem is that it is extremely difficult to hold US police members accountable.

Sinyangwe underlined how it is necessary to research the components that predict police violence, and that can help hold officers accountable, to be sure that they are enforced by police departments.

Police union contracts – for example – can be considered an obstacle on the way to accountability and transparency. It is extremely rare to have a policeman convicted for a crime in the US. It is a systematic fact and it cannot be reduced just to the individuals, who are acting using brutal and deathful force. It is a matter of lack of training, lack of policies enhancing non-violent solutions, but there is also legislation that protects policemen from legal consequences. It is not easy even to sue a US policeman, as they are shielded by qualified immunity and often by confidential police records, limiting how officers are investigated and disciplined. As of today, this makes impossible to identify and punish misbehaviours, abuses, and responsibilities in most cases. According to Mapping Police Violence, a research collaborative collecting comprehensive data on police killings to quantify the impact of US police violence in communities that Sinyangwe set up, 99% of cases in 2015 have not resulted in any officer involved being convicted for a crime.

The Campaign Zero platform is designed to be a tool able to enhance participation, foster accountability and transparency. It is an instrument to prevent killings and it calls for the adoption of a comprehensive package of urgent policy solutions – informed by data, research and human rights principles – that can change the way police serve communities.

The last panellist of the day was the participatory video facilitator from the UK, Gareth Benest, who presented the “Giving Voice to Victims of Grand Corruption in The Gambia” participatory video project. It is an initiative implemented on behalf of Transparency International in reaction to “The Great Gambia Heist” investigations by OCCRP (Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project) revealed in March 2019, which allowed those affected by grand corruption to share their stories and present their truths in carefully edited video messages, and to give voice to those Gambians who are deprived from access to basic health, education, agriculture, and portable drinking water.

In Gambia, a truth and reconciliation commission has begun to investigate rights abuses during the 22-year-long dictatorship of Yahya Jammeh ended in 2017. OCCRP has exposed for the first time how the corrupted dictator and his associates plundered nearly 1 billion US$ of timber resources and Gambia’s public funds. Thousands of documents dated between 2011 and 2016, including government correspondence, contracts, and legal documents, bank records, internal investigations able to define in detail the level of corruption and impunity of the Gambian system.

After the end of Jammeh’s rule, authorities have declared they will shed light on corruption, extrajudicial killings, torture, and other human rights violations. It is an important process of reconciliation, but still the voices of the marginalized and rural citizens are not heard. ‘Giving Voice to Victims of Grand Corruption in The Gambia’ was meant to facilitate a process with Gambian community members to express their perspectives on local problems and ideas, translating them into a film.

Benest explained how such a project is supposed to enable these communities to focus on the issues they are affected by and move towards changing their circumstances.

The participatory video is a technique that has been used to fight injustice in different contexts for many years. Benest recalled recent projects involving a community displaced by diamond-mining, young people excluded from poverty eradication strategies, widows made landless by customary leaders, and island residents threatened with forced evictions by land grabbers. In his work, the facilitator encourages equal participation and rotation of rules within the team. Participants control every aspect of the video making, from the process to the final result. Self-directed and self-organised videos become a communication tool that allows participant to build a dialogue for positive change.  

Participatory video facilitator Gareth Benest at the panel Exposing Abuses

The second day of the Disruption Network Lab conference opened with the keynote speech of Matthew Caruana Galizia, WHAT INDEPENDENT INVESTIGATORS DON’T USUALLY DISCLOSE, in which he addressed issues freelancers investigating high-level corruption face in silence and isolation, often with tragic consequences. The journalist, in conversation with Crina Boros, talked about the background of his mother, the Maltese reporter and blogger Daphne Caruana Galizia, who was killed on the 16th of October 2017, outlining the risks and the outcomes of her dangerous and brave work.

Her murder had been planned in detail for a long time. Killers were arrested, but the mandators haven’t been identified yet, and the criminal investigation is not moving forward. Daphne Galizia’s family is pushing the issue internationally and within Malta, knowing that without doing something this case would just disappear from news headlines without solution. Anti-corruption investigative journalists are arrested, threatened, and killed everywhere. People just vanish, and no justice is done.

For the 15 years before her death, Daphne Caruana Galizia had been appearing in 65 court cases filed against her. Her bank account was frozen; she was a victim of media campaigns against her; and she was sued by politicians, businessmen, and other journalists too. Her son recalled when he was nine that their dog was found slaughtered, then the front door of their house was burnt down. Later on, one of their dogs was shot, and another poisoned. Threats and violence continued until their whole house was set on fire. No investigation was ever effectively put in place to find out the perpetrators of these crimes, though the journalist and her family had always pressed charges against unknown.

It is hard to be confronted with the pain and memories of personal events on a stage in front of an audience, but the issue of justice is too urgent. Even if talking about her gets more and more difficult every time, Matthew is travelling the world to keep fighting and demand justice for his mother.

Matthew had spent the last years working with his mother. The International corruption revealed by the Panama Papers – on which they were investigating – was not cause of resignations and public assumption of responsibility in Malta. Involved politicians and news outlets attacked with all available means independent journalists covering the cases. The pressure on Daphne intensified in such a way, that she was sued 30 times just in the last year before her death. In those moments she kept repeating to his son Matthew that, no matter how hopeless the situation, there is an urgency to strive to make corruption and responsibilities publicly known. The Maltese blogger was not naive, she was well aware that there was the risk of getting killed, as it happened to Anna Stepanowna Politkowskaja and many colleagues all over the world. But she did not give in.

Reviewing his mother’s life, Matthew mentioned a further aspect to consider: Daphne had to use much of her time and money to defend herself inside trials against her, which were long and very expensive. She had passion and abilities. She was so talented that she could publish a magazine about food, architecture, and design – on which she spent just a couple of days a month – to earn money enough to carry on with her independent investigation work, and pay for her legal defence.

When there is a whole system against you, you need very good lawyers, you need expertise, you need money to pay for it. The Maltese blogger spent a whole career overcoming the obstacles of a corrupted system and she self-sustained economically, making sacrifices. Although all this, still, his son Matthew and her family are convinced that the solution must come through the judicial way, using available legal instruments, and making pressure on EU institutions at the highest levels. That is why Matthew Caruana Galizia asks everybody for commitment in a demand of radical change. Malta is part of the European Union, as he keeps on repeating.

Tatiana Bazzichelli introduces Crina Boros and Matthew Caruana Galizia in the panel What Independent Investigators Don’t Usually Disclose

Someone has been trying to silence Daphne for years before her murder. They must have gotten to the conclusion that the only way to shut her up was an assassination, for the purpose to cancel her stories with her, as her son Matthew sadly commented. To avoid this happening, several newspapers and investigative organisations joined the «Daphne Project» a global consortium of 18 international media including Reuters, The Guardian, and Le Monde, to continue the work of the Maltese journalist. They are led by the group Forbidden Stories, whose mission is to continue the work of silenced journalists. They stand together because they think that even if you kill a journalist like Caruana Galizia, her investigations cannot be buried with her. Thanks to the Daphne Project, and the courage and determination of Daphne Caruana Galizia’s family, her investigation lives on.

Matthew stressed the fact that it’s not about the future of one politician, or of a specific criminal group. It is about the future of Malta and the EU. Journalists who defend democracy are alone when they face the repercussions of what they do. It is necessary to make sure that when there are outcomes due to effective journalism, a society trained to react and self-organise can pick up the investigative work, defend independent investigation, and ask for political accountability within a public discussion. In Malta, nothing of this ever happened, and Daphne became more isolated.

Grassroot citizens organisations are fundamental to boost activism inside local communities and demand for justice. In cases like Daphne’s, no one is going to do it if not organised citizens, together with independent journalists and organisations. Many killed journalists had neither a family nor an organisation that could fight on for them. Maltese Police seem to have never developed professional skills to effectively work on this kind of criminal cases, and the few results from recent years were from the FBI in the USA. Criminals within a system that guarantees impunity can easily develop better skills.

Moreover, in Malta, investigations have a very poor rate of success and in Daphne’s case, we just know how she was murdered. But the political atmosphere, in which this murder matured, has been untouched for these last two years, and the journalist’s family is worried the official inquiry that just started in the country is neither independent nor impartial. Members of the Board of Inquiry, they claim, have conflicts of interests at different levels, either because they were part of previous investigations or because they have ties to subjects who may be investigated now.

Crina Boros and Matthew Caruana Galizia in the panel What Independent Investigators Don’t Usually Disclose

In the last panel of the conference, as Bazzichelli explained, the discussion focused on the connection between grassroots investigations and data analysis, and how it is possible to make sensitive data accessible without restriction and open them to the public, facilitating the publication of large datasets.

M C McGrath and Brennan Novak, introduced by moderator Shannon Cunningham, presented a tool designed to enable the publishing of data in searchable archives and the sorting through large datasets. The group builds free software to collect and analyse open data from a variety of sources. They work with investigative journalists and human rights organisations to turn that into useful, actionable knowledge. Their Transparency Toolkit is accessible to activists and citizen journalists, as well as those who lack resources or technical skills. Until a few years ago only big media organisations with particularly good technical resources could set up such instrumentation. The two IT experts decided to increase the use and the impact of open information, considering participation as a key factor to reduce the difficulties caused by relying only on media outlets or single journalists to cover complex facts or analyse large datasets.

As M C McGrath and Novak explained, Transparency Toolkit uses open data “to watch the watchers” and to hold powerful individuals and groups accountable. At the moment, their primary focus is investigating surveillance and human rights abuses, like in the case of the Hacking Team leaks in July 2015.

Hacking Team is an Italian company specialising in surveillance software and in very effective Trojans able to slip into computers and smartphones, allowing a secret and total surveillance. Four years ago, 400 GB of their data was anonymously published online, showing how the IT company had been working for authoritarian governments with questionable human rights records, to ensure they can use such software to spy on activists, journalists, and political opponents, in countries like Morocco, Dubai, Ethiopia, Mexico and Sudan. Transparency Toolkit mirrored the full Hacking Team dataset to make it more available to journalists and security researchers investigating these issues. It released a searchable archive of 200GB of emails categorized by companies, countries, events, and other subjects discussed.

Other important projects from the Transparency Toolkit team are the Surveillance Industry Index (SII) developed together with Privacy International (a searchable archive featuring over 1500 brochures about surveillance technology, data on over 520 surveillance companies, and nearly 500 reported exports of surveillance technologies), the Snowden Document Search (the first comprehensive database of Snowden documents initiated which aims to preserve its historical impact), and ICWATCH – a platform born to collect and analyse resumes of people working in the intelligence community, contractors, the military, and intelligence. These resumes are useful for uncovering new surveillance programs, learning more about known codewords, identifying which companies help with which surveillance programs, examining trends in the intelligence community, and more. ICWATCH  provides a collection of over 100,000 of these resumes from LinkedIn, Indeed, and other public sources, and now searchable with a search engine called LookingGlass.

The last part of this panel was than dedicated to the Dictator Alert project, a website that tracks the planes of authoritarian regimes all over the world. Available networks censor the information about planes of intelligence, military, authorities, and heads of state. This project, run by Emmanuel Freudenthal and François Pilet with support from OCCRP, began as an open-source computer program to identify planes belonging to dictators flying over Geneva. The program mined data from a network of antennas used by plane spotters and shared its alerts via Twitter. Today, Dictator Alert uses data from ADSB-Exchange, as well as several antennas installed by the team of researchers themselves. The details of each plane captured by the antennas are compared with a list of aircrafts registered or regularly used by authoritarian regimes. When a match is found, a message is published on the website.

Freudenthal presented the methodology of acquiring information behind Dictator Alert. Some people in the audience disagreed with the panellists, arguing that a reductive definition for ‘dictator’ might questionably influence the outcomes of the project, considering that some elected leaders from countries listed as democracies are also responsible for crimes, secrets, and human rights violations. The investigative journalist responded by explaining that Dictator Alert is orientated using the Democracy Index published by The Economist. The Index appeared first in 2006, categorising countries as full democracies, flawed democracies, hybrid regimes, and authoritarian regimes, based on 60 indicators grouped in different categories, measuring pluralism, civil liberties, and political culture.

The Disruption Network Lab organised the workshop Berlin’s Sky, An Afternoon Investigation on the day following the 17th Conference. Participants gathered in the former Berliner airport Tempelhofer Feld to conduct guided research using antennas and laptops to track the sky and spot anomalies above the city.

Emmanuel Freudenthal talks about ‘Dictator Alert’ in a panel moderated by Shannon Cunningham

The conference closed with the investigation by Forensic Architecture – Horizontal Verification and the Socialised Production of Evidence. Team member Robert Trafford presented the organisation founded to investigate human rights violations using a range of techniques, flanking classical investigation methods including open-source investigation video analysis, spatial and architectural practice, and digital modelling. They work with and on behalf of communities who have been affected by state and military violence, producing evidence for legal forums, human rights organisations, investigative reporters and media, as well as for arts and cultural institutions.

In Trafford´s analyses, conflict, violence, and human rights violations have become heavily mediatised and because of the “open source revolution” and smartphones, facts are often documented and relayed to the world by fragments of video material. Media sometimes report about these facts in ways which seem to make them less clear, instead of allowing better understanding. Forensic Architecture is in part a set of technical and theoretical tools for unpacking those mediatised facts, to access the truth which often exists behind and between the fragments of files that are released or leaked, to prove human rights violations. It relies on the prevalence of open source video material and tries to put an order in the fake-news and post-truth communication, offering a new model for collectively and collaboratively constructing truths. Trafford pointed out how people today, who seem to be widely rejecting the idea of institutions that they might previously have trusted to assemble facts and information, are still able to accomplish this delicate task. Often truth seems to be created elsewhere, possibly behind a wall of closed sources. The Internet and the consequent open-source revolution exploded the stability of that classic system of information, and those institutions are no longer providing truths around which people are willing or able to orient themselves. For better or worse, the vertical has been supplanted by the horizontal, Trafford said.

As those institutions falter, there is a certain breed of political actors – largely from populist and far-right parties – that have been gaining mediatic and institutional power all over the world for the last five years, encouraging the public to believe that our societies are soaked in misinformation, and that there is no possibility of reaching out and acquiring reliable facts we can all agree on and orient ourselves with.

More and more often, online and offline, we read of individuals saying that we should not trust traditional news outlets or institutions that encourage us to believe that they can guarantee independent and free information. It is under this cover of equivocation and uncertainties that the human rights violations of the 21st century are being carried out and subsequently concealed.

Robert Trafford talks about Forensic Architecture in the panel Horizontal Verification and the Socialised Production of Evidence

Forensic Architecture’s challenge is to expose this misrepresentation of things, and to offer a kind of counter truth to official versions of relevant facts. Its researchers collect little grains, clues they find inside videos, pictures, and articles that try to organise in certain ways, reassembling them into an independent analysis. By using different perspectives into ongoing practice in which the development of facts and evidence is socialized, the project encourages open and horizontal verification. 

The moderator of this last session of the conference, Laurie Treffers, mentioned the idea of counter forensics. By integrating and working across different forms of knowledge, and across different institutions and disciplines – which may at times appear like they have nothing in common or that they speak in entirely different registers – horizontal verification is about unifying those for reasons of mutual protection, mutual security, and mutual reinforcement.

Trafford gave examples of Forensic Architecture’s work, such as working closely with the Gaza-based Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, the Tel Aviv-based Gisha Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, and the Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Haifa, when they examined the environmental and legal implications of the Israeli practice of aerial spraying of herbicides along the Gaza border.

To this end, the investigation sought to define if and how airborne herbicides travel into Gaza; how far into its territories they entered; what concentration of herbicide and what damage to the farmland on the Gazan side of the border can be calculated. The analysis of several first-hand videos, collected in the field, revealed that aerial spraying by commercial crop-dusters flying on the Israeli side of the border generally mobilises the wind to carry the chemicals into the Gaza Strip at damaging concentrations. This is a constant primary effect.

The videos used for the investigations supported the testimonies of farmers that, prior to spraying, the Israeli military uses the smoke from a burning tire to confirm the westerly direction of the wind, thereby carrying the herbicides from Israel into Gaza.

Forensic Architecture modelled the Israeli flight paths and geo-located them, compared metadata and video material, and engaged fluid dynamics experts from the University of London to look at what the potential distribution of those chemicals would be from the heights that the plane was flying, in the wind conditions that could be calculated. The investigation proves that each spray leaves behind a unique destructive signature.

“Along with the regular bulldozing and flattening of residential and farmland, aerial herbicide spraying is one part of a slow process of ‘desertification’, that has transformed a once lush and agriculturally active border zone into parched ground, cleared of vegetation,” Trafford said.

Analyses of the evidence derived from vegetation on the ground, civilian testimony, and the environmental elements mobilized in the spraying event showed that the Israeli practice of aerial fumigation at times when the wind is blowing into Gaza causes damage to farmland hundreds of meters inside the fields.

Robert Trafford and Laurie Treffers in the panel Horizontal Verification and the Socialised Production of Evidence

Once again, the Disruption Network Lab created a forum for discussion, to define the role of citizens in making a change in the information sphere, highlighting local and international stories, tools, and tactics for social change built on courageous grassroots reporting and investigations. The Disruption Network Lab invited guests to challenge laws that effectively criminalise journalism and whistleblowing. The conference went beyond the usual dichotomy between journalists and activists, official media and independent media, and opened up a dialogue among different expertise to discuss and present opportunities of collaboration to report misinformation, corruption, abuse, power asymmetries, and injustice. 

CITIZENS OF EVIDENCE presented experts working on anti-corruption, investigative journalism, data policy, political activism, open source intelligence, video storytelling, whistleblowing, and truth-telling, who shared community-based stories to increase awareness on sensitive subjects. Bottom-up approaches and methods that include the community in the development of solutions appear to be fundamental. Projects that capacitate collectives, minorities, and marginalized communities, to develop and exploit tools to systematic combat inequalities, injustices, and impunity are to be enhanced.

Moreover, on the 29th of October, the CPJ published the 2019 Global Impunity Index, putting a spotlight on countries where journalists are slain and their killers go free. During the 10-year index period, 318 journalists were murdered for their work worldwide and no perpetrators have been successfully prosecuted in 86% of those cases. Last year, CPJ recorded complete impunity in 85% of cases. Historically, this number has been closer to 90%. All participants at the conference expressed their concern about this situation.

It is important to doubt and require a double-check over relevant news, as governments and private corporations have proved too often, that they prefer secret and manipulation to transparency and accountability. It is also important to verify constantly if media outlets, or a single journalist, are actually independent. But this shall not be used to weaken independent information and undermine the principles of particular constitutional importance regarded as ‘higher law’ on which it is based. Journalists and citizen reporters are already alone in their work.

Tatiana Bazzichelli, Disruption Network Lab Artistic Director and Founder, and Lieke Ploeger, Disruption Network Lab Community Director

CITIZENS OF EVIDENCE was curated by Tatiana Bazzichelli, developed in cooperation with Transparency International. It was the third in Disruption Network Lab’s 2019 series ‘The Art of Exposing Injustice’. Videos of the conference are also available on YouTube. For details of speakers and topics, please visit the event page here: https://www.disruptionlab.org/citizens-of-evidence.

To follow the Disruption Network Lab, sign up for its newsletter with information on conferences, ongoing researches, and projects. You may also find the organisation on Twitter and Facebook.

The next Disruption Network Lab event ‘ACTIVATION – COLLECTIVE STRATEGIES TO EXPOSE INJUSTICE’ is planned for November 30th, in Kunstquartier Bethanien Berlin. More info here: https://www.disruptionlab.org/activation

Image Credit:
Elena Veronese for Disruption Network Lab

Featured Image:
Graphic courtesy of Disruption Network Lab

Ami Clarke, The Underlying at arebyte Gallery, London

 

Ami Clarke, The Underlying at arebyte Gallery, London. 20 September – 16 November 2019.

The All-Seeing Eyes Of Surveillance Capitalism

When I enter the arebyte Gallery, I am immediately confronted with Ami Clarke’s Lag Lag Lag, a multi-screen installation displaying the structural model of BPA (Bisphenol A). This compound is a synthetic oestrogen which is a byproduct in plastic manufacturing processes. Its molecules have been recently found in water supplies around the world and are linked to hormonal imbalance. We are consuming molecules of plastic and are bodies are becoming such. BPA is beautifully modelled, a sculptural work in its own right, which is peacefully rotating on the screen. Underneath it, there is a looped script. I managed to grasp a sentence “Capitalism as a state of contingency becomes modus operandi.” 

When Lag Lag Lag’s screen switches, it shows fluctuations in stock pice of the top 100 polluting companies in the world, the same big stakeholders who are responsible for over 70% of Earth’s pollutions. These statistics are accompanied by sentiment analysis of Tweets, also showing different datasets which are being analysed; emotional, joy, disgust, fear, sadness. Most often used in marketing for specific audience targeting, it indicates how our minute online actions can also be used to influence the already violent financial market. 

Installation view of Ami Clarke, The Underlying at arebyte Gallery. Photo: Christopher MacInnes

Clarke’s virtual reality work, Derivative, could as well be a digital trip to London in the aftermath of capitalism. Right after entering the experience, one can hear birds singing into the void and the wind carrying sand throughout the city maze. Its particles make up conical slopes in the corners between translucent buildings, which break up the surroundings into diamond-shaped fragments. I overcome them, slide a few inches above the ground by moving my thumb forward on the VR controller, which is increasingly making me lightheaded. The environment is blanketed with orange, eerie fog, reminiscent of the scenery from Blade Runner

Further, the monotony of the landscape is interrupted by glimmering writing above the water surface. I set it as my destination, and move forward to it. The city is larger than it seems and it takes me a while to get close enough to read it. Still, I encounter no other living thing, only the lasers scanning through the buildings and my body, as if looking for sings of life. Eventually, I get to the end of the city, where I read the neon-green gothic script: 

Welcome to the Offshore City 

the city within the city 

the tax haven 

within the heart of Britain 

Now I know what this place is and I dive further into the Offshore City, the tax haven for foreign investors, the headquarters for international companies, the slowly-beating heart of the world economy, supported by an invisible pump of the market. This time I am following a massive, burning sun and I encounter places modelled on London’s recognisable landmarks, such as Number 1 Poultry in Cheapside, an infamous suicide spot for depressed bankers, and, at the same time, one of the City’s oldest addresses, named “The Heart of the City”. 

VR work – screen capture – The Underlying – Ami Clarke – arebyte Gallery 2019.

By using the lens of finance, Clarke points to both micro- and macro-scale of the environmental disaster and provides an unusual exploration of it. The accompanying rationalisation and monetisation feeds off the situation, and the capitalist system is shown as merciless and capable of using any opportunity to monetise on the dying planet. The lifeless scenery of Derivative directs attention to the inability of capitalist, finance-driven system to deal with its own creation in the light of planetary future. 

Installation view of Ami Clarke, The Underlying at arebyte Gallery. Photo: Christopher MacInnes.

Only halfway through my time at arebyte, I realise that there are more pairs of eyes in the space than I thought. In three places in the exhibition space, there are installations made of prosthetic eyeballs, glued to the wall, their pupils fixated on various areas in the space. On the one hand, their synthetic, static gaze is reminiscent of the the all-seeing eyes of the CCTV cameras, on the other, they suggest disembodiment as in the sentiment analysis, whereby feelings are mechanically extracted and translated into data. Are we becoming cyborgs, or have we become them already? 

The exhibition is a complex puzzle. It tackles difficult subjects, speculating in language, social media and economy. It is a powerful and slightly depressing, but intriguing picture. This dystopian vision of the future prompts questions; is it possible to re-imagine it? Can we come up with new narratives and stories and use speculation as a tool for revisioning the future? Where am I, as a viewer, positioned in the power relations imposed by the corporations and what freedoms do I have? At the time when the issues relating to the climate crisis are debated more than ever before, Ami Clarke’s The Underlying enters the conversation to problematise it through the exploration of technology, proposing a multilayered analysis of human and non-human agencies in the environmental catastrophe. 

The above dystopian playlist was made in response to the exhibition. Recommended: listen while reading the review or on your way to the show. 

The Underlying. Ami Clarke. Runs until Sat 16 Nov 2019.
https://www.arebyte.com/the-underlying

Review of Jan Robert Leegte’s exhibition Clear Obscure by Manique Hendricks

Introduction

Jan Robert Leegte’s ‘Clear Obscure’ exhibition fills the Ge­nieloods with draw­ings and per­for­mances. The draw­ings refer to the prac­tice of chiaroscuro from the Re­nais­sance pe­riod. The com­puter per­for­mances range from doc­u­ment per­for­mances and syn­thetic wilder­nesses to recita­tions from be­hind the wall of the black box. As ar­chi­tec­ture the in­stal­la­tion mir­rors the en­vi­ron­ment of Fort bij Vijfhuizen, cre­ating an im­mer­sive land­scape of mul­tiple per­spec­tives, frag­ments and times – http://tiny.cc/4ojibz

Review: Synthetic wilderness and performative machines

Often when media art is exhibited, all the cables, media players, screws and other wires are carefully hidden, taped away or painted over, concealing the items that are necessary to exhibit the artwork. Not with Jan Robert Leegte, in his solo exhibition ‘Clear Obscure’ at Kunstfort bij Vijfhuizen, all the structures of the projection panels are visible on the back, the climate system is obviously present in the space and his pastel drawings are ‘naked’ within the frame without any glass to protect them. This choice is representative for Leegte’s interest in transparency in relation to technology, which was introduced as a term in computer programming in in 1969 that “would form the foundation of computer interaction that everyone could intuitively understand – at the cost of hiding all inner workings of the machine.” [1] In 2019 almost all complexities, such as code, are carefully hidden behind intuitive user-friendly interfaces. But if we can’t really see it, can we still fully understand what is going on behind our LCD screens?

Within the exhibition, that took place in the industrial Genieloods of the Kunstfort, several pastel drawings are hanging from the metal walls. These drawings are simple in design but extremely powerful in form; in thin white and black lines Leegte translates digital forms like clickable tabs or bars to the physical world, moving closer to the bodily act of actually pressing buttons.

Drawing nr 7, Jan Robert Leegte, 2018, photo by Gert-Jan van Rooij.
Installation view Clear Obscure, Drawings, 2019, Jan Robert Leegte photo by LNDW Studio.

With these works (and maybe also with the brilliant title of the exhibition), he directly refers to the art historical tradition of chiaroscuro, the strong contrast between light and dark, essential to his 2D sculptures on brown paper. Next to 2D works, the space is also filled with the sound of a voice, monotonously reciting names and email addresses. No Consent (A recitation of everybody I ever emailed with) (2018), is a single channel audio work exploring the boundaries of exposing digital private information. Like a dadaist poem, the software uses existing data – Leegte’s mailbox – to compile a exhibitionistic ballad, exposing everyone Leegte has ever emailed with.

Another theme, often occurring in Leegte’s works is the relation with nature and tradition of land art, perfectly fitting with the green surroundings of Kunstfort bij Vijfhuizen situated in the middle of the polder of the Haarlemmermeer. Leegte is no stranger when it comes to connecting land art with the digital; in 2013 he recreated the Robert Smithson’s iconic landmark ‘Spiral Jetty’ (1970) in Minecraft. At the Kunstfort, the relation with nature and how nature is read through technology becomes clear in his work Repositions (2018-2019), consisting of three larger than life projections. The three projected landscapes, all different in color and feel, hypnotically shift into new positions before the viewers eyes. Most striking must be the Yves Klein blue monochrome landscape, which is as a matter of fact, a Google Maps screenshot of one of the deepest parts of the ocean in the middle of the pacific. On the other side one of the highest point of the world in Tibet deviates within the frame of the projection in pink/orange tones interspersed with white snow and emerald green spots – representing man-made lithium mines. While the landscapes continuously move and tilt within the frame, every composition seems to be different.

Installation view Clear Obscure, Repositions, Wilderness, Jan Robert Leegte, 2019, photo by Jan Robert Leegte.

By using live algorithms, Leegte makes the landscapes dance, while performing a sequence of poses like two vogue dancers battling against each other at a ball. This dance, set in motion by a human through code but performed by a machine reminds of Bruce Nauman’s Wall/Floor Positions (1968) where the artist moves through numerous poses in relation to the wall and floor, using his body to analyze the space. At the Kunstfort the computer is the performer that explores the space of its own frame. Performativity has not always been linked to technology because it has traditionally has been associated with “intentionality, reflexivity, sense-making, embodiment, repetition and transgression”, while the technological “refers to deterministic operations without semiotic or affective qualities.” [2] But in current times and within processes that require human input in the form of data or code the separation between human agency and nonhuman procedurality has blurred and have entered a steady relation of performativity.

Just like the landscapes of Repositions, the nature within the single channel video Synthetic Wilderness is not inhabited by humans. The new wilderness seen from above is completely computer simulated and looks like a perfect green environment at first sight with leafs crackling soothing in the wind while casting light shadows in the lush grass. At the same time this picture of paradise is quite alarming; we struggle to preserve nature on our planet and battle climate change but we keep improving in creating digital nature in video game engines. What if that is all we have left in the end?

Installation view Clear Obscure, Repositions, Jan Robert Leegte, 2019, photo by Jan Robert Leegte.

Leegte’s oeuvre is filled with art historical references, explorations between the digital and nature, between human presence and absence, transparency and opaqueness. The world that Leegte presents to spectators is one that is often abstracted but still recognizable, visually attractive and beautiful. At the same time his interpretations of notions of privacy online and the way we see nature through technology are a warning; we should have a closer look at the non-transparent omnipresent technologies that shape our daily lives and the way we look at the world.

Jan Robert Leegte (1973, the Nether­lands) lives and works in Amsterdam. He re­cently par­tic­i­pated in sem­inal ex­hi­bi­tions such as Electronic Superhighway at Whitechapel Gallery in London, and Open Codes at ZKM Karl­sruhe. His work has been ex­hib­ited in venues such as MAAT Lisbon, MOTI Breda, iMal Brus­sels, and No­made Art Space in Hangzhou. Leegte’s first solo show was Sculpting the Internet (2017) at Up­stream Gallery.

Tottenham Pavilion: A hyperlocal strategy for art production, education, and development

I discovered a tiny new slice of London just a short walk away from Furtherfield. It was an unused car park tucked away on the edge of a commercial estate once host to a vibrant textile industry, transformed temporarily into a project space dubbed as Tottenham Pavilion.

For six weekends from August with its pop-up tent and rustic outdoor furniture, it hosted hands-on experiences on art-making which culminated in a public exhibition featuring an eclectic accumulation of pictures, texts, objects, and structures made on site by locals for locals.

A mixed media installation emerged as a focal point, sprawling under the marquee with bamboo sticks planted on blocks of concrete like the skeleton of a building under construction. Works on paper and textile hung like leaves on a tree: from collages of found images mixing religious iconography, mass media, and art history; to hand-stitched and woven fabrics gently combined with colourful beads; and zines with micro-stories in poetry and prose.

Elsewhere, there were sculptures made from styrofoam, wooden sticks, reflective sheets, and plaster that altogether seemed like artefacts from an ancient tribe; a figurative mural depicting a changing urban landscape with different buildings that seem to rise up and fall back unto itself; abstract paintings filled with familiar gestures of freedom laid by several hands; and a map of drawings by visitors attempting to visualise their journey to the site – altogether weaving a sense of place in an otherwise vacuous space.

It can be hard to tell where a body of work begins and ends, which may have been its strength. The works collectively function as a singular site-specific installation of disparate components tethered together by a shared conceptual and spacial approach.  

Yet this idea is not a new concept as such. The Serpentine Pavilion in Hyde Park exists for roughly the same purposes; Peckham Levels in south London similarly transformed a seven-storey car park into a creative hub; and Furtherfield itself revitalised two spaces in Finsbury Park to decentralise art and technology. Well-known artists like Tania Bruguera and Jeremy Deller have also been known to engage with communities, often to much fanfare. All these projects are admittedly on a bigger scale in comparison, which is precisely what seems remarkable here.

Tottenham Pavilion embraced a hyperlocal focus to engage this community at their doorstep, specifically aiming its free workshops and activities to residents of its immediate vicinity encompassing Woodbury Down, Seven Sisters Road, and the Haringey warehouse of artists who led the project, all within walking distance of each other.

In doing so, it managed to not only provide local artists a platform to develop and showcase their practices conveniently within their own turf, but equally offer opportunities for local residents, their neighbours, access to creative activities that may otherwise be unavailable or even unknown to some. This ethos attracted much-needed funding from City Hall, which currently supports this agenda through a local funding stream, modest but nevertheless positive for an area that may be artistically underserved and missing out from the benefits of art.

There is always something new to explore in this city, and it is more rewarding when it involves maximising the potential of places and spaces as a conduit for accessible arts and culture. What began as an empty gazebo on a soulless patch of land ended up as a vessel for potent marks and traces between adjacent communities that for brief moments came together to make something for themselves, potentially activating new paths for connection and creativity within this locality and even beyond.

Tottenham Pavilion ran between 10 August and 15 September 2019, on Seven Sisters Road corner Eade Road. Organised by Carolina Khouri, with creative workshops led by SWG (creative writing), Surya de Wit (painting and collage), Helen Bur (murals), Nicola Woollon (embroidery), Wojciech Antoni Sobczynski (sculpture and installation), and Jenna Jardine (materials). Funded by Mayor of London’s Culture Seeds, and Spaces for Creatives. 

Featured image: Tottenham Pavilion. Image credit West Creative

I, I, I, I, I, I, I, Kathy Acker at ICA, London

1 May – 4 August 2019 

Featured image: Portrait of Kathy Acker, San Francisco, 1991. Photo: Kathy Brew

The latest exhibition at the London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts remembers the postmodernist writer Kathy Acker. The many Is in the exhibition title are suggestive of her focus on the exploration of identity and acknowledge the impact she made on the generations of artists following her. Apart from examples of Acker’s practice, such as the documentation of live readings and performances, music and text, this first exhibition dedicated to her in the UK, encompasses works by over 40 artists inspired by her legacy.

Installation view of I, I, I, I, I, I, I, Kathy Acker at ICA, London 2019. Photo: Tomas Rydin | readsreads.info
Installation view of I, I, I, I, I, I, I, Kathy Acker at ICA, London 2019. Photo: Tomas Rydin | readsreads.info

Acker’s relationship with the ICA has begun when she first moved to London, where she lived between 1983 and 1989. At that time, her anti-establishment and anti-patriarchal deconstructive philosophy fit perfectly in time with the atmosphere of the post-punk Tatcher England. She became a significant figure within the cultural landscape and a regular contributor to events at the ICA. 

Kathy Acker was a writer who shook the punk art scene in the 70s and 80s New York. She was a lonesome figure in the East Village avant-garde, which at the time was dominated by men. In her prose, Acker often experimented with what being oneself meant. She herself said, “I was splitting the I into false and true I’s and I just wanted to see if this false I was more or less real than the true I, what are the reality levels between false and true and how it works”. Through her practice, she established a performative relationship to one’s identity, a means of exploration into the relationship between sexual desire and violence. 

The language was her weapon. She treated it as a means of strong resistance towards patriarchal and heteronormative narratives in the public sphere. Throughout her writings displayed on the walls within the exhibition space, one can see her words from the book Empire of the Senseless (1994), where she declared: “Language, on one level, constitutes a set of codes and social and historical agreements. Nonsense doesn’t per se break down the codes; speaking precisely that which the codes forbid breaks the codes”. The two floors of the ICA are divided into eight sections, each corresponding to one of her books, with appropriate excerpt displayed. Her writing is at the core of the exhibition, on the walls, screens and in glass cases. There is a bit of inconsistency between the ways the literary works are displayed. On the one hand, the exhibition aims at bringing her legacy closer to the public, on the other some of them look hermeneutic when closed off behind a glass, like relics in an ethnographic museum.

Installation view of I, I, I, I, I, I, I, Kathy Acker at ICA, London 2019. Photo: Tomas Rydin | readsreads.info
Installation view of I, I, I, I, I, I, I, Kathy Acker at ICA, London 2019. Photo: Tomas Rydin | readsreads.info
Excerpt from Blood and Guts in High School by Kathy Acker, 1978. Courtesy the estate Kathy Acker
Excerpt from Blood and Guts in High School by Kathy Acker, 1978. Courtesy the estate Kathy Acker

However, the other works in the exhibition animate the space and the texts. The binding material between them is the preoccupation with the conflict between personal desires and the domineering narratives in society. Some of the first works to be seen are Jimi DeSana’s Masking Tape (1979) and Refrigerator (1975). The first one depicts a human figure wrapped in masking tape, only genitals exposed and the other shows a woman tied in the refrigerator. These black and white photographs contain suggestive and poetic qualities, also distinctive for Kathy Acker’s work. Further on, Acker’s pictographic “dream maps” which originally existed as large-scale drawings, are juxtaposed with works exploring the female desire in contemporary society, for instance, Reba Maybury’s The Goddess and the Worm (2015), a book telling a story of a dominatrix. 

Acker critically assessed the societal norms, declared political relevance of one’s body and focused on marginalised groups. In one of her books presented in the gallery, Don Quixote (1994), the writer transformed the 17th-century canonical protagonist into a female, who becomes a knight by having an abortion and embarks on a journey to address the inequalities of Nixon’s America. Continuing to the second floor, one finds artists addressing the experiences of people who do not confine into the strict gender binary categories and the limitations of our language to describe them. At a back wall of a room, positioned opposite David Wojnarowicz’s works from the Arthur Rimbaud series, are three drawings by Jamie Crewe. Glaire takes Estradiol (2017), Potash takes Spironolactone (2016) and Saltpeter takes Verdigris (2012) show pairs of figures inscribed with the possible side effects of taking steroid hormones, compared with other substances. 

Installation view of I, I, I, I, I, I, I, Kathy Acker at ICA, London 2019. Photo: Tomas Rydin | readsreads.info
Installation view of I, I, I, I, I, I, I, Kathy Acker at ICA, London 2019. Photo: Tomas Rydin | readsreads.info
Kathy Acker, Don Quixote, Grove Press, New York, 1986, first edition. Copyright Kathy Acker, 1986
Kathy Acker, Don Quixote, Grove Press, New York, 1986, first edition. Copyright Kathy Acker, 1986

The exhibition might leave the viewer in awe and with a head full of ideas. It is an ambitious project, as it addresses the integrative nature of Acker’s practice and evaluates her concepts. It is particularly successful at recognising the writer’s role in the experimental literature scene and the power of her legacy. At times when the society is becoming increasingly politically divisive and the inclusivity comes at a high price for some, it is crucial to remember the pioneers who promoted diversity in the arts. Conceptually speaking, the exhibition structure works well with the aesthetic premise of Acker’s work and creates a dialogue between all the participating artists. However, at times the experience might be overwhelming and becomes an exhibition-goer’s nightmare as it is heavily loaded with text.

I, I, I, I, I, I, I, Kathy Acker finishes with a wall drawing by Linda Stupart, A dead writer exists in words, and language is a type of virus (2019). In it, organic elements, serpents’ eyes and stones are tied to a blueish core resembling a cloud. Around it, there are red tentacles which enliven the virus, which spreads around the wall surface. It is mesmerising, twisted, creating a web of influences. Likewise, it corresponds with the exhibition structure, which is at times challenging to navigate, but ultimately transformative. 

Review of ‘Towards the Planetary Commons: Reimagining Infrastructures for Autonomy’

Dates:23 May – 3 Aug 2019
Artists: Marwa Arsanios, Paloma Polo, Lorenzo Sandoval, They Are Here

I’m sitting in front of my laptop to type this review. In front of my laptop at a well-equipped common space at my university. In the UK. Where I am pursuing a Master’s degree. And as I opened my laptop here, today, I believed that I had agency. I saw my individual journey, my immediate surroundings, my imagined future and saw a battle against oppressive structures that I seemed to be winning. Until Towards the Planetary Commons burst my bubble of delusion with ease.

Hosted by Arts Catalyst, London, Towards the Planetary Commons is an exhibition that investigates “agency and autonomy in the face of global ecological crises”. Through visual, auditory, and tactile elements, visitors are allowed to completely immerse themselves in the theme of the project. While Marwa Arsanios’ and Paloma Polo’s films pull the visitor headlong into contemporary ecopolitical struggles and local modes of resistance, the “living room”, featuring installations by Lorenzo Sandoval and They Are Here, draws the visitor back out to confront their own reality, and to become a part of a collective movement. The gallery is thus transformed, from a site of mere observation and reflection, to one where knowledge is produced and actions initiated.

I take my hands off the keyboard and look around. The vending machine behind me whirrs, begging me to unburden it of the many Coca-Cola cans that inhabit it. A black plastic bin bag peeps out of the bin, hiding not too subtly an alarming future. Fluorescent lights glimmer, suddenly making it impossible for me to forget the material excess that surrounds me. My eyes turn to the windows for respite. Trees. The peaceful green expanse of the South Downs is however failing to put my mind at ease. I am forced to confront not only my complicity in furthering destructive modes of consumerism and governance, but also the inadequacy of my individual acts of resistance thus far. In purchasing my reusable coffee cup, or researching alone the nuances of development work, I have, unfortunately, anchored myself to myopic individualism.

Towards the Planetary Commons spans across two rooms. The “living room”, with its huge windows and brightly coloured interiors is inevitably where the visitor is drawn into first. Lorenzo Sandoval’s site-specific modular environment hosts an exciting and very international array of research material on ecofeminism, agriculture, geopolitics, and related movements. Featured on the wall is Paloma Polo’s animation work, What is Thought in the Thought of People, made in collaboration with Leonilo Doloricon. Becoming Planetary, a soundwork by They Are Here persists in the background and it is a struggle to find firm footing in an environment as stimulating as this. Next door, in a sparsely furnished room Marwa Arsanios’s films Who is Afraid of Ideology? Part 1 and Who is Afraid of Ideology? Part 2, play in a loop—each around 30 minutes long. There are no ‘blurbs’ on the walls of the rooms, no explanations offered, and it is clear that nothing here is ‘on display’. The environment makes evident the overarching theme of the works and curiosity compels one to sit down and dig deeper.

Paloma Polo’s What is Thought in the Thought of People is featured on the wall of the “living room” alongside Lorenzo Sandoval’s modular environment.
Panoramic shots of the Kurdish mountains melt into each other in Marwa Arsanios’ Who is Afraid of Ideology? Part 1

Critiquing the destructive neoliberal policies undertaken by corporations and governments, Towards the Planetary Commons offers its viewers a chance to evaluate their lack of agency within an inherently exploitative system and to discover resistance through self governance and autonomy. While Polo’s work, alongside Doloricon’s hauntingly poetic imagery, peels back the layers of an ongoing democratic struggle in the countryside of the Philippines, Arsanios’s films leverage a highly nuanced narrative style to shed light on the means of knowledge production within the autonomous women’s movements and ecofeminist groups in Syria. The context for the exhibition is thus a global one, with the “living room” bridging the gap between the stories on the screens and its material presence in central London. The indelible impact Towards the Planetary Commons leaves on its viewers is as much a result of adept curation as it is of the rich reserve of knowledge and personal expertise brought in by the individual artists.

I cast my mind back. Confronted by the thus far unfamiliar task of using an axe, a woman in Arsanios’ Who is Afraid of Ideology? Part 1 had told me of the day she “realized all the things that were stolen from us”. The images on the screen, in turn, had transfixed me. Mountains and mud, women in the kitchen, women building a village, women with weapons, animals roaming, a book of plants. Arsanios’s raw and deliberately visible editing techniques had forced me to ask, how is knowledge produced?, who has autonomy?, who is afraid of ideology?. I see my blurred reflection on the now black screen of my laptop and this time I see the history of feminist struggle, a tenaciously postcolonial identity, a long list of neo-liberal policies and a longer list of ‘collateral damage’. I see a collective.

As an exhibition, Towards the Planetary Commons, is unique in its multi-layered approach to addressing knowledge production. The shared resources, the “living room”, and the workshops organised in tandem with the exhibition are a fantastic attempt at making expert knowledge accessible. The exhibition is part of Arts Catalyst’s Test Sites programme, the model of which intends to “foster an ecology of practices, in which artists, curators, scientists, specialist experts and people with situated knowledge come together to co-produce knowledge around a shared matter of concern”.

As a curatorial practice, this is an exciting step forward and pushes the remit of curatorial activism. With the films featuring two distinct geo-political contexts, the viewer, however, must be wary of ignoring the historical inequalities that persist in these contexts and the power structures that dictated the work’s presence within a gallery in the UK. It is also important to acknowledge the theoretically heavy content of Who is Afraid of Ideology? Part 1 and the improbability of most visitors being able to truly utilise the research materials. Experiencing Towards the Planetary Commons is certainly not a leisurely exercise for a weekday lunch-break. But perhaps, its virtue is in the commitment it demands from its visitors, and its ability to shake us out of our absentmindedness in occupying a world that demands our attention.

Now I will stop typing and start reading, and listening. Droughts, floods, systemic oppression. It is time to feel and become part of the collective resistance.

AI TRAPS: Automating Discrimination

On June the 16th Tatiana Bazzichelli and Lieke Ploeger presented a new Disruption Network Lab conference entitled “AI TRAPS” to scrutinize Artificial Intelligence and automatic discrimination. The conference touched several topics from biometric surveillance to diversity in data, giving a closer look at how AI and algorithms reinforce prejudices and biases of its human creators and societies, to find solutions and countermeasures.

A focus on facial recognition technologies opened the first panel “THE TRACKED & THE INVISIBLE: From Biometric Surveillance to Diversity in Data Science” discussing how massive sets of images have been used by academic, commercial, defence and intelligence agencies around the world for their research and development. The artist and researcher Adam Harvey addressed this tech as the focal point of an emerging authoritarian logic, based on probabilistic determinations and the assumption that identities are static and reality is made through absolute norms. The artist considered two recent reports about the UK and China showing how this technology is yet unreliable and dangerous. According to data released under the UK´s Freedom of Information Law, 98% of “matches” made by the English Met police using facial recognition were mistakes. Meanwhile, over 200 million cameras are active in China and – although only 15% are supposed to be technically implemented for effective face recognition – Chinese authorities are deploying a new system of this tech to racial profile, track and control the Uighurs Muslim minority.

Big companies like Google and Facebook hold a collection of billions of images, most of which are available inside search engines (63%), on Flickr (25%) and on IMdB (11 %). Biometric companies around the world are implementing facial recognition algorithms on the pictures of common people, collected in unsuspected places like dating-apps and social media, to be used for private profit purposes and governmental mass-surveillance. They end up mostly in China (37%), US (34%), UK (21%) and Australia (4%), as Harvey reported.

Metis Senior Data Scientist Sophie Searcy, technical expert who has also extensively researched on the subject of diversity in tech, contributed to the discussion on such a crucial issue underlying the design and implementation of AI, enforcing the description of a technology that tends to be defective, unable to contextualise and consider the complexity of the reality it interacts with. This generates a lot of false predictions and mistakes. To maximise their results and reduce mistakes tech companies and research institutions that develop algorithms for AI use the Stochastic Gradient Descent (SGD) technique. This enables to pick a few samples selected randomly from a dataset instead of analysing the whole of it for each iteration, saving a considerable amount of time. As Searcy explained during the talk with the panel moderator, Adriana Groh, this technique needs huge amount of data and tech companies are therefore becoming increasingly hungry for them. 

Adam Harvey, Sophie Searcy and Adriana Groh during the panel discussion “THE TRACKED & THE INVISIBLE: From Biometric Surveillance to Diversity in Data Science”
Adam Harvey, Sophie Searcy and Adriana Groh during the panel discussion “THE TRACKED & THE INVISIBLE: From Biometric Surveillance to Diversity in Data Science”

In order to have a closer look at the relation between governments and AI-tech, the researcher and writer Crofton Black presented the study conducted with Cansu Safak at The Bureau of Investigative Journalism on the UK government’s use of big data.  They used publicly available data to build a picture of companies, services and projects in the area of AI and machine learning, to map what IT systems the British government has been buying. To do so they interviewed experts and academics, analysed official transparency data and scraped governmental websites. Transparency and accountability over the way in which public money is spent are a requirement for public administrations and they relied on this principle, filing dozens of requests under the Freedom of Information Act to public authorities to get audit trails. Thus they mapped an ecosystem of the corporate nexus between UK public sector and corporate entities. More than 1,800 IT companies, from big ones like BEA System and IBM to small ones within a constellation of start-ups. 

As Black explained in the talk with the moderator of the keynote Daniel Eriksson, Transparency International Head of Technology, this investigation faced systemic problems with disclosure from authorities, that do not keep transparent and accessible records. Indeed just 25% of the UK-government departments provided some form of info. Therefore details of the assignments are still unknown, but it is at least possible to list the services those companies deploying AI and machine learning can offer governments: connect data and identify links between people, objects, locations; set up automated alerts in the context of border and immigration control, spotting out changes in data and events of interest; work on passports application programs, implementing the risk-based approaches to passports application assessments; work on identity verification services using smartphones, gathering real time biometric authentications. These are just few examples.

Crofton Black and Daniel Eriksson during the panel discussion “HOW IS GOVERNMENT USING BIG DATA?”

Crofton Black and Daniel Eriksson during the panel discussion “HOW IS GOVERNMENT USING BIG DATA?”

Maya Indira Ganesh opened the panel “AI FOR THE PEOPLE: AI Bias, Ethics & the Common Good” questioning how tech and research have historically been almost always developed and conducted on prejudiced parameters, falsifying results and distorting reality. For instance, data about women’s heart attacks hadn´t been taken in consideration for decades, until doctors and scientists determined that ECG-machines calibrated on the data collected from early ´60s could neither predict heart attacks in women, nor give reliable data for therapeutic purposes, because they were trained only on male population. Just from 2007 ECG-machines were recalibrated on parameters based on data collected from female individuals. It is not possible to calculate the impact this gender inequality had on the development of modern cardiovascular medicine and on the lives of millions of women.

As the issue of algorithmic bias in tech and specifically in AI grows, all big tech firms and research institutions are writing ethics charters and establishing ethics boards sponsoring research in these topics. Detractors often refer to it as ethics-washing, which Ganesh finds a trick to mask ethics and morality as something definable in universal terms or scale: though it cannot be computed by machines, corporations need us to believe that ethics is something measurable. The researcher suggested that in such a way the abstraction and the complexity of the machine get easy to process as ethics becomes the interface used to obfuscate what is going on inside the black box and represent its abstractions. “But these abstractions are us and our way to build relations” she objected. 

Ganesh wonders consequently according to what principle it shall be acceptable to train a facial recognition system, basing it on video of transgender people, as it happened in the alarming “Robust transgender face recognition” research, based on data from people undergoing hormone replacement therapy, Youtube videos, diaries and time-lapse documentation of the transition process. The HRT Transgender Dataset used to train AI to recognize transgender people worsens the harassment and the targeting that trans-people already experience daily, targeting and harming them as a group. However, it was partly financed by FBI and US-Army, confirming that law enforcement and national security agencies appear to be very interested in these kinds of datasets and look for private companies and researchers able to provide it. 

In this same panel professor of Data Science and Public Policy Slava Jankin reflected on how machine learning can be used for common good in the public sector. As it was objected during the discussion moderated by Nicole Shephard, Researcher on Gender, Technology and Politics of Data, the “common good” isn’t easy to define, and like ethics it is not universally given. It could be identified with those goods that are relevant to guarantee and determine the respect of human rights and their practice. The project that Jankin presented was developed inside the Essex Centre for Data analytics in a synergic effort of developers, researches, universities and local authorities. Together, they tried to build an AI able to predict within reliability where children lacking school readiness are more likely to be found geographically, to support them in their transition and gaining competencies, considering social, economic and environmental conditions.

Maya Indira Ganesh during her lecture part of “AI FOR THE PEOPLE: AI Bias, Ethics & the Common Good”
Maya Indira Ganesh during her lecture part of “AI FOR THE PEOPLE: AI Bias, Ethics & the Common Good” 

The first keynote of the conference was the researcher and activist Charlotte Webb, who presented her project Feminist Internet in the talk “WHAT IS A FEMINIST AI?” 

<<There is not just one possible internet and there is not just one possible feminism, but only possible feminisms and possible internets>>. Starting from this assumption Webb talked about Feminist Human Computer Interaction, a discipline born to improve understandings about how gender identities and relations shape the design and use of interactive technologies. Her Feminist Internet is a no profit organisation funded to make internet a more equal space for women and other marginalized groups. Its approach combines art, design, critical thinking, creative technology development and feminism, seeking to build more responsible and bias-free AI able to empower people considering the causes of marginalization and discrimination. In her words, a feminist AI is not an algorithm and is not a system built to evangelize about a certain political or ideological cause. It is a tool that aims at recognizing differences without minimizing them for the sake of universality, meeting human needs with the awareness of the entire ecosystem in which it sits. 

Tech adapts plastically to pre-existing discriminations and gender stereotypes. In a recent UN report, the ‘female’ obsequiousness and the servility expressed by digital assistants like Alexa, the Google Assistant, are defined as example of gender biases coded into tech products, since they are often projected as young women. They are programmed to be submissive and accept abuses. As stated by Feldman (2016) by encouraging consumers to understand the objects that serve them as women, technologists abet the prejudice by which women are considered objects. With her projects, Webb pushes to create alternatives that educate to shift this systemic problem – rather than complying with market demands – first considering that there is a diversity crisis in the AI sector and in the Silicon Valley. Between 2.5 and 4% of Google, Facebook and Microsoft employees are black, whilst there are no public data on transgender workers within these companies. Moreover, as Webb pointed out, just 22% of the people building AI right now are female, only 18% of authors at major AI-conferences are women, whilst over 80% of AI-professors are men. Considering companies with decisive impact on society women comprise only 15% of AI research staff at Facebook and 10% in Google. 

Women, people of colour, minorities, LGBTQ and marginalized groups are substantially not deciding about designing and implementing AI and algorithms. They are excluded from the processes of coding and programming. As a result the work of engineers and designers is not inherently neutral and the automated systems that they build reflect their perspectives, preferences, priorities and eventually their bias. 

Charlotte Webb during her keynote “WHAT IS A FEMINIST AI?”
Charlotte Webb during her keynote “WHAT IS A FEMINIST AI?”

Washington Tech Policy Advisor Mutale Nkonde focused on this issue in her keynote “RACIAL DISCRIMINATION IN THE AGE OF AI.” She opened her dissertation reporting that Google´s facial intelligence team is composed by 893 people, and just one is a black woman, an intern. Questions, answers and predictions in their technological work will always reflect a political and socioeconomic point of view, consciously or unconsciously. A lot of the tech-people confronted with this wide-ranging problem seem to undermine it, showing colour-blindness tendencies about what impacts their tech have on minorities and specifically black people. Historically credit scores are correlated with racist segregated neighbourhoods and risk analyses and predictive policing data are corrupted by racist prejudice, leading to biased data collection reinforcing privileges. Without a conscious effort to address racism in technology, new technologies will replicate old divisions and conflicts. By instituting policies like facial recognition we just replicate rooted behaviours based on racial lines and gender stereotypes mediated by algorithms. Nkonde warns that civil liberties need an update for the era of AI, advancing racial literacy in Tech.

In a talk with the moderator, the writer Rhianna Ilube, the keynote Nkonde recalled that in New York´s poor and black neighbourhood with historically high crime and violence rates, Brownsville, a private landlord in social housing wanted to exchange keys for facial recognition software, so that either people accept surveillance, or they lose their homes. The finding echoes wider concerns about the lack of awareness of racism. Nkonde thinks that white people must be able to cope with the inconvenience of talking about race, with the countervailing pressures and their lack of cultural preparation, or simply the risk to get it wrong. Acting ethically isn´t easy if you do not work on it and many big tech companies just like to crow about their diversity and inclusion efforts, disclosing diversity goals and offering courses that reduce bias. However, there is a high level of racial discrimination in tech sector and specifically in the Silicon Valley, at best colour-blindness – said Nkonde – since many believe that racial classification does not limit a person’s opportunities within the society, ignoring that there are instead economic and social obstacles that prevent full individual development and participation, limiting freedom and equality, excluding marginalized and disadvantaged groups from the political, economic, and social organization. Nkonde concluded her keynote stressing that we need to empower minorities, providing tools that allow overcoming autonomously socio-economic obstacles, to fully participate in society. It is about sharing power, taking in consideration the unconscious biases of people, for example starting from those designing the technology. 

Mutale Nkonde during her keynote “RACIAL DISCRIMINATION IN THE AGE OF AI?”
Mutale Nkonde during her keynote “RACIAL DISCRIMINATION IN THE AGE OF AI?”

The closing panel “ON THE POLITICS OF AI: Fighting Injustice & Automatic Supremacism” discussed the effect of a tool shown to be not neutral, but just the product of the prevailing social economical model. 

Dia Kayyali, Leader of the Tech and Advocacy program at WITNESS, described how AI is facilitating white supremacy, nationalism, racism and transphobia, recalling the dramatic case of the Rohingya persecution in Myanmar and the oppressive Chinese social score and surveillance systems. Pointing out critical aspects the researcher reported the case of the Youtube anti-extremism-algorithm, which removed thousands of videos documenting atrocities in Syria in an effort to purge hate speech and propaganda from its platform. The algorithm was trained to automatically flag and eliminate content that potentially breached its guidelines and ended up cancelling documents relevant to prosecute war crimes. Once again, the absence of the ability to contextualize leads to severe risks in the way machines operate and make decisions. Likewise, applying general parameters without considering specificities and the complex concept of identity, Facebook imposed in 2015 new policies and arbitrarily exposed drag queens, trans people and other users at risk, who were not using their legal names for safety and privacy reasons, including domestic violence and stalking. 

Researcher on gender, tech and (counter) power Os Keyes considered that AI is not the problem, but the symptom. The problem are the structures creating AI. We live in an environment where few highly wealthy people and companies are ruling all. We have bias in AI and tech because their development is driven by exactly those same individuals. To fix AI we have to change requirements and expectations around it; we can fight to have AI based on explainability and transparency, but eventually if we strive to fix AI and do not look at the wider picture, in 10 years the same debate over another technology will arise. Keyes considered that since its very beginning AI-tech was discriminatory, racialized and gendered, because society is capitalist, racist, homo-transphobic and misogynistic. The question to pose is how we start building spaces that are prefigurative and constructed on values that we want a wider society to embrace. 

As the funder and curator of the Disruption Network Lab Tatiana Bazzichelli pointed out during the moderation of this panel, the problem of bias in algorithms is related to several major “bias traps” that algorithm-based prediction systems fail to win. The fact that AI is political – not just because of the question of what is to be done with it, but because of the political tendencies of the technology itself – is the real aspect to discuss.

In his analysis of the political effects of AI, Dan McQuillan, Lecturer in Creative and Social Computing from the London University, underlined that while the reform of AI is endlessly discussed, there seems to be no attempt to seriously question whether we should be using it at all. We need to think collectively about ways out, learning from and with each other rather than relying on machine learning. Countering thoughtlessness of AI with practices of solidarity, self-management and collective care is what he suggests because bringing the perspective of marginalised groups at the core of AI practice, it is possible to build a new society within the old, based on social autonomy.

What McQuillan calls the AI realism appears to be close to the far-right perspective, as it trivialises complexity and naturalises inequalities. The character of learning through AI implicates indeed reductive simplifications, and simplifying social problems to matters of exclusion is the politics of populist and Fascist right. McQuillan suggests taking some guidance from the feminist and decolonial technology studies that have cast doubt on our ideas about objectivity and neutrality. An antifascist AI, he explains, shall involve some kinds of people’s councils, to put the perspective of marginalised groups at the core of AI practice and to transform machine learning into a form of critical pedagogy.

Pic 7: Dia Kayyali, Os Keyes, Dan McQuillan and Tatiana Bazzichelli during the panel “ON THE POLITICS OF AI: Fighting Injustice & Automatic Supremacism”

Dia Kayyali, Os Keyes, Dan McQuillan and Tatiana Bazzichelli during the panel "ON THE POLITICS OF AI: Fighting Injustice & Automatic Supremacism"
Dia Kayyali, Os Keyes, Dan McQuillan and Tatiana Bazzichelli during the panel “ON THE POLITICS OF AI: Fighting Injustice & Automatic Supremacism”

We see increasing investment on AI, machine learning and robots. Automated decision-making informed by algorithms is already a predominant reality, whose range of applications has broadened to almost all aspects of life. Current ethical debates about the consequences of automation focus on the rights of individuals and marginalized groups. However, algorithmic processes generate a collective impact too, that can only be addressed partially at the level of individual rights, as it is the result of a collective cultural legacy. A society that is soaked in racial and sexual discriminations will replicate them inside technology. 

Moreover, when referring to surveillance technology and face recognition software, existing ethical and legal criteria appear to be ineffective and a lack of standards around their use and sharing just benefit its intrusive and discriminatory nature.

Whilst building alternatives we need to consider inclusion and diversity: If more brown and black people would be involved in the building and making of these systems, there would be less bias. But this is not enough. Automated systems are mostly trying to identify and predict risk, and risk is defined according to cultural parameters that reflect the historical, social and political milieu, to give answers able to fit a certain point of view and make decisions. What we are and where we are as a collective, what we have achieved and what we still lack culturally is what is put in software to make those same decisions in the future. In such a context a diverse team within a discriminatory conflictual society might find ways to flash the problem of bias away, but it will get somewhere else.

The truth is that automated discrimination, racism and sexism are integrated in tech-infrastructures. New generation of start-ups are fulfilling authoritarian needs, commercialising AI-technologies, automating biases based on skin colour and ethnicity, sexual orientation and identity. They develop censored search engine and platforms for authoritarian governments and dictators, refine high-tech military weapons training them using facial recognition on millions of people without their knowledge. Governments and corporations are developing technology in ways that threaten civil liberties and human rights.  It is not hard to imagine the impact of the implementation of tools for robotic gender recognition, within countries were non-white, non-male and non-binary individuals are discriminated. Bathrooms and changing rooms that open just by AI gender-detection, or cars that start the engine just if a man is driving, are to be expected. Those not gender conforming, who do not fit traditional gender structures, will end up being systematically blocked and discriminated.

Open source, transparency and diversity alone will not defeat colour-blinded attitudes, reactionary backlashes, monopolies, other-directed homologation and cultural oppression by design. As it was discussed in the conference, using algorithms to label people based on sexual identity or ethnicity has become easy and common. If you build a technology able to catalogue people by ethnicity or sexual identity, someone will exploit it to repress genders or ethnicities, China shows.
In this sense, no better facial recognition is possible, no mass-surveillance tech is safe and attempts at building good tech will continue to fail. To tackle bias, discrimination and harm in AI we have to integrate research on and development of technology with all of the humanities and social sciences, deciding to consciously create a society where everybody could participate to the organisation of our common future.


Curated by Tatiana Bazzichelli and developed in cooperation with Transparency International, this Disruption Network Lab-conference was the second of the 2019 series The Art of Exposing Injustice.
More info, all its speakers and thematic could be found here: https://www.disruptionlab.org/ai-traps
The videos of the conference are on Youtube and the Disruption Network Lab is also on Twitter and Facebook.

To follow the Disruption Network Lab sign up for its Newsletter and get informed about its conferences, ongoing researches and projects. The next Disruption Network Lab event “Citizen of evidence” is planned for September  20-21 in Kunstquartier Bethanien Berlin. Make sure you don´t miss it!

Photocredits: Maria Silvano for Disruption Network Lab

Review of MONEYLAB READER 2: OVERCOMING THE HYPE

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.

Everything blockchain?

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.

Review of INFILTRATION: CHALLENGING SUPREMACISM by Disruption Network Lab

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.

Daryl Davis, R&B and Blues Musician and Activist, who befriends KKK-members. Photo by Maria Silvano

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.

Daryl Davis during his keynote “KLAN-DESTINE RELATIONSHIPS.” Photo by Maria Silvano Daryl Davis during his keynote “KLAN-DESTINE RELATIONSHIPS.” Photo by Maria Silvano

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.

Professor Mattias Gardell during his lecture part of “ACROSS & WITHIN RIGHT-WING EXTREMISM.” Photo by Maria Silvano

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.

The journalist Richard Gebhardt during his presentation on Hooliganism. Photo by Maria Silvano

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 artist Janez Janša during the panel “ACROSS & WITHIN RIGHT-WING EXTREMISM: Investigations and Interference” Photo by Maria Silvano

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.

Mattias Gardell, Richard Gebhardt, Janez Janša and Christina Lee. Photo by Maria Silvano

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.

Home and Cramer during their lecture “TRANSGRESSIONS THEN AND NOW: Does The ‘Alt-Right’ Reenact Counter-Culture?” Photo by Maria Silvano

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.

Floran Cramer, during the keynote “TRANSGRESSIONS THEN AND NOW.” Photo by Maria Silvano

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 AltRight 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.

Julia Ebner, Terrorism and Extremism Researcher and Author during “INFILTRATION: Mapping The International Far Right.” Photo by Maria Silvano

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.

Julia Ebner, Patrik Hermansson, Christopher Schiano, Heartsucker and Rebecca Pates. Photo by Maria Silvano

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.

Christopher Schiano, Journalist at Unicorn Riot, durung his presentation. Photo by Maria Silvano

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.

Tatiana Bazzichelli, Artistic Director of the Disruption Network Lab. Photo by Maria Silvano

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.

INFILTRATION: Challenging Supremacism
SEE VIDEO DOCUMENTATION OF THE CONFERENCE
SEE PHOTOS FROM THE CONFERENCE

Playbour: Work, Pleasure, Survival

Review of the HATE NEWS CONFERENCE by Disruption Network Lab

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.

Nanjala Nyabola (Kenyan Political Analyst, Writer, and Humanitarian Advocate) during her speech at the Disruption Network Lab Conference on May 25, 2018.


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.

Nanjala Nyabola and the Moderator Jo Havemann during the keynote.

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.

Professor David Carroll (Associate Professor of Media Design, Parsons School of Design), first speaker in the panel on May 25 

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.

Right next to Zuckerberg’s post on his commitment against fake news 2 click-fraud 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.

The Hacker Bernd Fix and David Carroll during the 13th Disruption Network Lab Conference

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.

Marloes de Valk, Software Artist and Writer, talks about “What remains”.

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.

Andrea Noel (Mexico-based Journalist, Covering the Drug war, Politics & Gender-Based Violence) was the keynote speaker on May 26, 2018.

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.

“UNCOVERING CORRUPTION: On Strategic Harassment, Mexican Trolls and Election Manipulation” with Andrea Noel and Renata Avila (Human Rights & Tech Lawyer, Board Member of the German Whistleblower Network, GT)

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 Cleaners

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.

Moritz Riesewieck and Hans Block presenting the movie The Cleaners (DE, 2018)

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.

The panel “FACING IDEOLOGIES AND STRATEGIES OF HATE: Hate Speech, Online Violence and Digital Rights” on May 26, 2018.

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.

Cathleen Berger during her dissertation on the German NetzDG legislation.

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.

Tatiana Bazzichelli. Founding artistic director and curator of the Disruption Network Lab

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.


HATE NEWS: Manipulators, Trolls & Influencers
May 25-26, 2018 – Kunstquartier Bethanien, Berlin
disruptionlab.org/hate-news/

Info about the 13th Disruption Network Lab Conference, its speakers and thematic is available online here:
https://www.disruptionlab.org/hate-news

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Photocredits: Maria Silvano for Disruption Network Lab

RABBITING on

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.

Artists as cryptofinanciers: welcome to the blockchain

What Blockchain Means for Contemporary Art

across and beyond: A transmediale Reader on Post-digital Practices, Concepts, and Institutions

Ryan Bishop, Kristoffer Gansing, Jussi Parikka & Elvia Wilk (eds.) across and beyond: A transmediale Reader on Post-digital Practices, Concepts, and Institutions, Sternberg Press, 2017, pp.352, €15.00 (paperback), ISBN 978-3-95679-289-2

Introduction

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.

Artists Organise (on the blockchain)

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.

Read Learning from Clubture

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.

Read the semi-fictional Minutes of the Bunsfury Park Stakeholders Group Select Committee

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.

Thanks to all participants!

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