CAE in the Nineties (9/21)

Letter from Luther:

Performing in the Matrix


double-page spread from CAE's 25-year retrospective volume, Disturbances (Four Corners Books, 2012)

I dunno what to do with all the stuff that Holmes loads onto these pages - but it's midnight, I've skimmed a dozen books, browsed I don't know how many websites, drank that exact number of whiskies and got lost in some films to boot. So now I'm an "expert" on CAE. Or anyway, I got something to say. Two little somethings.

First, it all begins in Tallahassee. Never been there and hope I never go, but what a town it must be! What a Floridian territory. Hot and muggy and drowning in swimming pools, endlessly the same in all directions, surrounded by concrete freeways and cheap motels and plastic suburbs and weird off-planet bars where the crazies go to forget that corporations rule the airwaves. The perfect place for some post-punk intellectuals to wake up, rub their eyes and ask what's going on behind the screens.

This gang has an origin myth about Tallahasse. For them it's the ideal city, sleaze where you please, the ordinary horror-show of everyday living. Just like Milano, but with swamps and alligators!

I love the old photos of the early days, the student-films about sex and theory, the purple prose about computer hacking and databodies and all those archaic net-dreams. They plundered the thinkers of the moment, making something really original - and critical - out of Deleuze and Guattari's "Body without Organs." Somewhere they say that in school they learned art was made by geniuses, and the problem was, they were off that list. So their idea was, form a band of sister-brothers, plug the cut-up poetry into a dial-up modem and shine the light of demystifying critique onto the postmodern simulacrum - just to see if it still casts shadows, and if someone actually resists. Take the cues from the context. Stick to the J.G. Ballard version of true grit. Ricardo Dominguez puts it all into an image, in one of his bad-boy interviews:

We developed this ritual where we would gather at Hope Kurtz’s big glass table and she would put out lines and we would read Adorno, we would read all these great books and go “this is a great bit of critical theory; write that line down”; and then do another line of cocaine. That’s all you had to do in Tallahassee. It wasn’t like you had to worry about anything else happening in the world ’cause there was nothing happening, so you could read your Hegel and do lines. But what did happen was that we had a sense that something else could be created. That we could create a focus in this space that we then defined as the cultural frontier. And that in the cultural frontier one could create a theoretical discourse, a practice which could be co-equal to the nexus, to New York, Chicago, LA, that could be just as vital and specific.

So what's the Tallahasse myth? The way I hear it, it's about ambivalence, the sense that something might be lurking, a kind of iguana-in-the-bush theory of cultural possibilities. All the American tactical media gangs have this same feeling, the Yes Men, the Institute for Applied Autonomy, Brian Springer, even Trevor Paglen with his Army fetish: they all inherit the disabused lucidity of the great sociologists and culture critics, but at the same time they're fascinated by the popular mind, the soft underbelly, the potential freakout of whomever and whatever. It's an attraction/repulsion toward the "silent majority" - the one that Baudrillard wrote about, not the one that elected Nixon!

Even more than Baudrillard, I think the main inspiration is Arthur Kroker, the Canadian media-theorist who pushed Ballard's crash aesthetic onto the electronic superhighway. Back in the day, Kroker was a huge influence on cyber-punk writing, with his web-journal Ctheory and his book Data Trash. He claimed to compose most of his texts at McDonald's, "because if you're gonna write process text you've gotta eat processed food" (or something like that). Kroker actually came to Tallahassee, they made a video together, it's called "Exit Culture." Disneyworld is in Florida, don't forget, it's the real center of postmodernity because it's a copy of a copy, a distorted image of California, a second-order simulacrum. It's the natural home of the silent majorities. You can critique it, of course, you can discover all the statistical inputs, all the computer models that seek to grasp the masses and reshape them in the master's image: but still you'll have this residue, the excess, data trash. The irrational comes in right there. It produces some distance, but also some sympathy, at the very heart of relentless critique. That's what's great about CAE.

I remember exactly when they hit Europe. It was Ars Electronica 1995, the last one curated by Peter Weibel. All the cyber-gurus were just swooning over the Web when they came out with their lecture about "The Mythology of Terrorism on the Net" - basically a call for networked protest against "the electronic information apparatus [which] has taken the form of horrific excess." It's pretty amazing, in retrospect, when you go back to that lecture and check out what it was really questioning:

It was an experience that CAE had in London that drew the group to this topic of terrorism and the Internet. In the fall of 1994, the collective was speaking at the "Terminal Futures" conference held at the Institute for Contemporary Art, London. The topic was “electronic civil disobedience.” During the question-and-answer period at the end of the talk, an audience member said that what we were suggesting was not a civil tactic of political contestation at all; rather, the tactic that we had suggested was “pure terrorism.” CAE found this comment to be very curious because we could not understand who, or more to the point, what this audience member thought was being terrorized. How can terror happen in virtual space, that is, in a space with no people—only information? Have we reached a point in civilization where we are capable of terrorizing digital abstractions? How was it that this intelligent person had come to believe that electronic blockage equaled terror?

Ars Electronica also published their text on "Slacker Luddites." It's about people becoming military cyborgs on the job - and how to resist it. At last, some Americans who disbelieve! CAE brought the pragmatic anti-corporate critique of the Seventies Zerowork tradition into the silicon gardens of technotopia. No one had to warn them about the Californian Ideology. After that they were part of Nettime, part of the Next 5 Minutes, they were close to Public Netbase in Vienna and close to the crowd in Ljubljana. They were in the scene.

Now here's the second thing, which also happened in 1995. The early CAE was a time bomb just waiting to explode. Steve Kurtz and Ricardo Dominguez were both strong personalities, too strong, but something about the group made it possible for them to work together for a while. If you read the first two CAE books, you'll see there's two main issues. One is how to resist the latest phase of corporate takeover, assisted this time by computers. For them, the old street-fighting modes of civil disobedience were obselete, useless, a kind of nostalgic joke: "CAE has said it before and we will say it again: as far as power is concerned, the streets are dead capital.... For CD to have any meaningful effect, the resisters must appropriate something of value to the state." To develop the model of a "resistant agent" they focused on the figure of the Hacker - 'cause remember, the early Nineties were the time of Kevin Mitnik, the social engineer, the hacker extraordinaire. And he was really on the lam, wanted by the law, a living superhero. The only question was, what was this hacker going to do with CAE? How was he going to resist in cultural terms, and how was that resistance going to be translated into art, or at least into something you could see?

For the Art Ensemble the entire critique and sublation of civil disobedience - into what they called "electronic civil disobedience" - would depend on the creation of a "performative matrix." That was the other big issue in those first two books: how to identify the conditions of resistant cultural production in the age of networked capital. And of course, performance is exactly what they did at the time. They did traditional staged performances with spoken texts exploring the "databody." Yet nowhere could they explain how the hacker would fit in, how the new form of critique would emerge, how it would become truly effective. The performative matrix was a phrase for a reality that didn't yet exist. CAE was groping for a way to engage with what used to be called "the public."

You know what happened. In 1995 Dominguez split off and went to New York (the "nexus") in order to learn some rudiments of hacking with the script kiddies at The Thing (a BBS system and early web platform for New York artists). He became an electronic Zapatista, and with the help of Brett Stalbaum, Carmin Carasic and Stefan Wray he launched FloodNet, a very simple app for distributed denial of service attacks on websites, particularly those of the Mexican government. The whole point was that these attacks should be theater: they should involve people, as many as possible, on the virtual equivalent of a massive scale. The silent majority - or at least the radical part of it - should get its ass into cyberspace and start making its voice heard. For Dominguez and his group, called the Electronic Disturbance Theater, tactical media should be transgressive, it should engage with political power, it should be on the front page.

CAE did something very different. With the installation "Flesh Machine" they invented a participatory theater for advanced epistemological critique. It continues to develop with all their recent work. What they wanted to do, in the age of recombinant DNA and genetic engineering, was to give the silent majority a hands-on experience with the techniques that are being used to create their own bodies. The public participant became the science hacker, critically engaged with the capitalist ruses that make corporate culture into unquestioned human nature. The thing to be appropriated was technological knowledge and know-how: monopolies of tremendous value to the state.

CAE's path appeared more spartan, more specialist, less activist, more firmly located within the art world whose conventions and protocols they nonetheless continued to challenge and deny (not least by making all their books and documentation freely available on the net). Yet as the future would show, the explosive element never went away. Performing in the matrix is an act of resistance. Science hacking would also make "the front page."

- LLLB (Long Live Luther Blissett)

Data Trash

Arthur Kroker and Michael Weinstein


Virtual Reality is the dream of pure telematic experience. Beginning in the cybernetic shadowland of head-mounted scanners, wired gloves, and data suits, virtual reality has quickly become the electronic horizon of the twenty-first century. A cold world where bodies get prepped for downloading into data, where seeing means artificial optics, where hearing is listening to the high-speed world of sampler culture, where travelling becomes a nomadic journey across the MUD (Multiple User Dungeons), and where communication disappears into the high-speed fibre "backbone" of the Internet. In virtual reality, flesh vaporizes into virtuality as (twentieth-) century bodies are repackaged with (twenty-first-) century cybernetic nervous systems for speeding across the electronic frontier.

The gigantic nova of technotopia pulses with such brilliant energy because western society is in the terminal phase of a slow, but nonetheless fatal, fade-out. A prolonged evacuation of the energies of the social where the biological organism flips into the electronic body, and where the cult of the "wired" is the ruling rhetoric of all the technological fetishists.

Psycho-Cyber (Stelarc at V2, Rotterdam, 1993)

The wireless body? That is the floating body, drifting around in the debris of technotopia: encrypted flesh in a sea of data. The perfect evolutionary successor to twentieth-century flesh, the wireless body fuses the speed of virtualized exchange into its cellular structure. DNA-coated data is inserted directly through spinal taps into dedicated flesh for better navigation through the treacherous shoats of the electronic galaxy. Not a body without memory or feelings, but the opposite. The wireless body is the battleground of the major political and ethical conflicts of late-twentieth- and early- twenty-first-century experience.

Perhaps the wireless body will be just a blank data dump, a floating petri-dish where all the brilliant residues of technotopia are mixed together in newly recombinant forms. In this case, the wireless body would be an indefinitely reprogrammable chip: micro-soft flesh where the "standard operating-system" of the new electronic age comes off the top of the TV set, flips inside the body organic, and is soft-wired to a waiting vat of remaindered flesh.

But the wireless body could be, and already is, something very different. Not the body as an organic grid for passively sampling all the drifting bytes of recombinant culture, but the wireless body as a highly-charged theoretical and political site: a moving field of aesthetic contestation for remapping the galactic empire of technotopia....

Refusing to be remaindered as flesh dumped by the virtual class, the hyper-texted body bends virtuality to its own purposes. Here, the will to virtuality ceases to be one-dimensional, becoming a doubled process, grisly yet creative, spatial yet memoried, in full violent play as the hypertexted body. Always schizoid yet fully integrated, the hyper-texted body swallows its modem, cuts its wired connections to the information highway, and becomes its own system-operating software, combining and remutating the surrounding data storm into new virtualities.... The hyper-texted body, then, is the precursor of a new world of multi-media politics, fractalized economics, incept personalities, and (cybernetically) interfaced relationships. After all, why should the virtual class monopolize digital reality? It only wants to suppress the creative possibilities of virtualization, privileging instead the tendencies of technotopia towards new and more vicious forms of cyber-authoritarianism. The virtual class only wants to subordinate digital reality to the will to capitalism. The hyper-texted body responds to the challenge of virtualization by making itself a monstrous double: pure virtuality/pure flesh. Consequently, our telematic future: the wireless body on the Net as a sequenced chip microprogrammed by the virtual class for purposes of (its) maximal profitability, or the wireless body as the leading-edge of critical subjectivity in the twenty-first century. If the virtual class is the post-historical successor to the early bourgeoisie of primitive capitalism, then the hyper-texted body is the Internet equivalent of the Paris Commune: anarchistic, utopian, and in full revolt against the suppression of the general (tele-)human possibilities of the Net...

Kroker & Weinstein, Data Trash (1994),  excerpts from preface and chapter 1


Children of Critical Art Ensemble

From 1995-2002 Steve Kurtz, a founding member of Critical Art Ensemble (CAE), held a Assistant Professorship at Carnegie Mellon University. In this prolific period for CAE, he was instructing a generation of young artists in the techniques and theories of tactical media. This post will focus on the work of Rich Pell and Nathan Martin, two undergraduate students who completed their BFA degrees in 1999 under Kurtz and other like-minded artists such as Faith Wilding and Stelarc. Their trajectories are remarkably parallel: both developed collaborative tactical media practices in that period that exist to this day, attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute where they worked with tactical media artists Kathy High and Igor Vamos , and both currently reside in Pittsburgh. But beyond the parallel are significant differences.

Rich Pell founded the collective Institute for Applied Autonomy in 1998, which is dedicated to “study the forces and structures which affect self-determination and to provide technologies which extend the autonomy of human activists.” IAA did this by creating graffiti writing robots and websites for navigating Manhattan surveillance cameras for protests occurring after 9-11. This work specifically responded to the institutional context in which Pell and Martin were studying at Carnegie Mellon University. As he explains in this fascinating lecture from 2004, it was a unique time in which the research funds of Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) were being being shifted increasingly to defense research (they were renamed DARPA, for defence, in 1996 after a series of renamings which are explained here). Students like themselves were dedicating their school-time to developing the unmanned drone technologies that we hear so much about today. The research university was simultaneously the site of tactical media and tactical military. Pell is now back at CMU as a professor of electronic arts and is directing the permanent exhibition and research facility Center for PostNatural History.

At the same time, Nathan Martin initiated the group Carbon Defence League in 1998. CDL, sometimes working under the name, Hacktivist Media or as the band with overlapping members Creation Is Crucifixion, developed a hacked Nintendo Gameboy video game, Super Fighter Kid, which was repackaged and secretly put into stores for resale. The story of this project was turned into a hardcore punk CD titled “Child As Audience: Where Technology and Anarchy Fuck” with a co-authored text by Critical Art Ensemble. In 2003 they created which faciliated anyone making their own barcodes to price retail goods at the price they thought fair or appropriate. Following a brief stint in the dot com boom after graduation, Martin was back in Pittsburgh trying to figure out a sustainable way of producing socially-engaged technology projects. Like IAA, Martin became interested in the potential for online mapping tools and began a collaboration with the advocacy organization Bike PGH to create online mapping for bicycle riders. This led Martin to formalize his design and creativity role with the creation of a consulting firm that was later turned into a start-up advertising firm under the name Deeplocal. In 2011 the magazine Ad Age named them small ad firm of the year because of their work with Nike, Reebok and Toyota and their unique story of originating as a band and art collective.

It should be noted that both IAA and CDL were significant collaborations, with some occasional overlap and shared influences. Focusing on the trajectories of Pell and Martin is simply a convenient way to share these complicated histories in a concise manner. Other groups to emerge from the same scene include bl4ckh4m and Conglomco, neither of which remain active. Both IAA and CDL spent the late 1990s and early 2000s active on the New Media, Tactical Media, and Electronic Arts festival/exhibition circuits including events such as Next Five Minutes, VersionFest, and The Influencers. Much of their difference may lie in the differences between Pell staying within the academy and Martin moving towards the for-profit sector - both replete with contradictions, constraints and complexities of different varieties. 

Controversy between the groups emerge in 2009 when Martin’s company Deeplocal contracted with Nike to produce a graffiti-writing robot (aka “Chalkbot”) which was remarkably similar to the 2001 “Streetwriter” robot created by the Institute for Applied Autonomy. In fact, Streetwriter was derived from the earlier IAA project Graffitiwriter which is discussed in the text Contestational Robotics (co-authored with Critical Art Ensemble).

This conflict points to some of the limitation of the “tool making” aspect of many tactical media practices. This open-ended form has no inherent critical content. It is simply form. The users give it content and that content can be varied widely.These projects mean much more when given context that shapes and informs the widely variable potentials these “tools” offer. As the forms of “tactical media” have been institutionalized through increased representation in the university classroom, major exhibitions, and the wide-spread festivalization of culture (particularly emerging media arts), it is often the idea of an open-ended “tool kit” which has been picked up by younger artists seeking to text out these forms in the world. Other artists such as Joshua Kinberg (Bikes Against Bush), Affectech (who grew out of the Interrogative Design Group at MIT led by Krzysztof Wodiczko), Graffiti Research Lab, Mud Stenciling and Ariel Schlesinger have all developed related projects. Each of these approaches begins from the mere idea that something can be written using a open-source or accessible technology of sorts.

But after the allure of tools wear off, we have to ask ourselves what we are doing/saying/writing, and for whom? In the case of Deeplocal, the messages were personal and uplifting for cancer patients from their families to read during the Tour de France races. That “contestational robotics” were turned into feel-good messages is disappointingly bland but not an inappropriate use of an open-ended message writing technology. Members of IAA say as much in their response:

We certainly understand our friends’ decision to work for Nike -- we all have bills to pay. It is unfortunate that as they enriched themselves, they were unable to also enrich the communities that nurtured their own development. We see this primarily as a failure of imagination, which we understand is a common side effect of working too closely with corporate sponsors. We helpfully suggest the following remedial “karma-cleansing” activities: (1) Publish their plans + code, in keeping with the open nature of the project. (2) Feature a historical accounting of the technical and ideological origins of the robot prominently on their website and related publications. (3) Make the Chalkbot available for use by anti-corporate activists, free of charge. (4) Provide proportional financial support to new projects that share the anti-authoritarian and anti-commercial aims from which this project emerged.

As activists struggle to win the battle of the story, many have responded to the challenge of penetrating the media landscape through increased professionalization of their skills. The prominent commentator, linguist and professor George Lakoff created significant buzz in the “inside the beltway” political world with his 2004 book Don’t Think of an Elephant which proposed the need to clearly “frame our messages.” Since then a remarkable number of activist design and public relations firms have emerged throughout the United States. Cultural critic Stephen Duncombe even theorized this turn in his 2007 book Dream: Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy which was one of the only books to attempt to translate the lessons of tactical media projects to a larger more general audience of civically engaged “progressives.”

This turn towards mirroring the shape and tenor of commercial media companies is different from the overidentification practices of the Yes Men and Laibach - these are actual businesses trying to compete with mainstream media. While the tension over being at the margins versus the center has lessened in some ways due to the availability of affordable and high-quality production and distribution tools, the gulf is still significant. Media conferences such as the AMC in Detroit encourage people to make their own media on youtube and ITunes to compete with corporate media, street protest videographers Big Noise Films get their work on HBO, and former CAE member Ricardo Dominguez argues that tactical media should be “front page news.” These shifts in power, prestige and prominence are entirely possible and arguably sometimes more effective, the emphasis should never be taken away from the content. As our forms become increasingly slick, our skills refined and fashion trends take us for rides, we should never settle for open-endedness again.

Posted by Daniel Tucker