Issue 6 (July 2012)
On Electronic Civil Disobedience: Interview with Ricardo Dominguez
Interview by Zach Blas
Zach Blas: Can you start by giving a brief overview of the various practices–such as, electronic civil disobedience, hacktivism, and electronic disturbance–that you’ve engaged with throughout your times as an artist and activist? With your hire in the Visual Arts Department at UCSD, how do bringing these practices into the university affect not only how you deploy and enact them but also conceptualize them? Your virtual sit-ins have been in tension with universities in the past; what are your thoughts on the existence of these practices within a university context? What pedagogic functions do you see them performing?
Ricardo Dominguez: CALIT2 and the Visual Arts Department at UCSD offered me an assistant professor position that would allow me to continue my artivist research at a new level in 2004. I felt that it would be worth the effort to investigate doing Electronic Civil Disobedience, border disturbance art, and nano-political interventions within an institution–a core research question would be: what would ECD mean happening from a university?; what would be added to the work; and could it be used against the institution itself? UCSD offered me a stable research base to do work from and a place to continue developing gestures that would push the work beyond what we had achieved with Electronic Disturbance Theater (EDT), which was based on ideas that I had been working on/toward in the 80’s with Critical Art Ensemble (in Tallahassee, Florida) and in the 90's with thing.net in New York City. During the 90’s, EDT established the gesture of Electronic Civil Disobedience–and a great deal of knowledge came from these performances on a global scale.
By 2000, I felt we really needed to stage a new zone for the work to move forward and establish a new series of questions with that knowledge formation–the question of institutional critique, of institutional disturbances. During the middle of the last decade, a need emerged in institutions of higher learning for people to teach students about these practices–most of which came from artists, who had for the most part worked outside of institutional support–that meant that universities had to accept those artists and art groups into the system in order to teach the next generation of researchers and artists–since no degrees existed at that time to get a degree on ECD, networked artivism or hacktivism. Of course, now that more artists and PhD’s are gaining degrees in these areas, it might be indeed more difficult for tactical media artists, artivists, hackitivists etc., to gain a foothold in the academy.
Zach Blas: On March 4, 2010, during the mass student protests sweeping across many University of California campuses and the US, the b.a.n.g. lab led a virtual sit-in in solidarity with these protests against the University of California Office of the President. Could you describe what this action entailed and its legal ramifications? Why, considering that you have led previous virtual sit-ins against various institutions within the UC system, did this particular one instigate an FBI investigation of yourself, the b.a.n.g. lab, and the threatening your tenure?
Ricardo Dominguez: Well, the Transborder Immigrant Tool was already under investigation starting on January 11, 2010 by UCSD (the entire group of artists working on it were under investigation); then, I came under investigation for the the Virtual Sit-In performance against the UC Office of the President (UCOP) on March 4th, 2010 (which, as you pointed out, joined the communities state wide against students’ fees in the UC system and the dismantling of educational support for K – 12 across California). That was then followed by an investigation by the FBI office of Cybercrimes. The FBI was seeking to frame the performance as a federal violation, a cybercrime, based on UCOP stating that they lost $5,600 U.S. because of the disturbance–it is important to know that the cost had to be over $5000.00 U.S. for it to be a crime. So UCOP tacked on $600.00.U.S. to push the performance into cybercrime territory. In the end, I think that the event of all the actions on the streets of California, the occupations and protests across all the UC’s by students and faculty, and the on-line actions by students and faculty created a space where they could not fail to notice its impact on multiple scales – and our work was already under investigation for TBT, the Mark Yudof resignation site that we hosted, plus the ECD gesture was just too much for the frail imaginary of UCOP.
Zach Blas: During your investigation, The Electronic Disturbance Theater’s Transborder Immigrant Tool gained much attention and criticism. Can you discuss the importance of the poetic, conceptual, and affective in this project? More generally, what is at stake for you and the group in bringing and highlighting the poetic in this form of border activism and disturbance?
Ricardo Dominguez: The Customs and Border Protection Agency’s 2009 fiscal year report documents 416 border-crossing related deaths from January to October 2009. When the Berlin Wall fell, official reports claimed that ninety-eight people in total died trying to cross from East to West Berlin. In contrast, local and international nongovernmental organizations estimate that 10,000 people to date have perished attempting to cross the Mexico-U.S. border. The Transborder Immigrant Tool (TBT) repurposes inexpensive used mobile phones that have GPS antennae. The project represents a multi-valenced code-switch, a queer technology. Its software aspires to guide “the tired, the poor,” the dehydrated—citizens of the world—to water safety sites. Concomitantly, its platform offers poetic audio “sustenance.” Incapable of resolving the long histories of fear, prejudice, and misunderstanding on both sides of the Mexico-U.S. border, TBT remembers the often overlapping traditions of transcendental and nature writing, earthworks, conceptual art, performance, border art, locative media, and visual and concrete poetries. It learns equally from the efforts of humanitarian aid organizations like the Border Angels and Water Station, Inc. “Poetry in motion,” TBT navigates the borderlands of G.P.S. as a “global positioning system” and what, in another context, Laura Borràs Castanyer and Juan B. Gutiérrez slyly misread as a “global poetic system.”
Zach Blas: The threatening of your tenure caused much concern and dismay–not only for those who work similarly to yourself but also for those who have considered the university to be a place of free speech that welcomes peaceful protest and supports work that demands accountability for social injustice. Notably, you were given tenure for your previous acts of electronic civil disobedience, which included virtual sit-ins. What are your thoughts on tenure now? How does tenure continue to affect your abilities to work and research within the university?
Ricardo Dominguez: There were three investigations in total–and they were all seeking to find a way to stop TBT and threaten to de-tenure me for doing the very work I was hired to do and tenured for–so the irony was lost to anyone, even the FBI, about these investigations. In the end, all the investigations were dropped. I did have to agree not to do another VR Sit-In performance on the UCOP for 4 years, but the day I signed the agreement, a number of supporters across the nation did a VR Sit-In on UCOP again–so I am not sure what that means. One strange element about the agreement that they wanted me to sign without even giving me or my legal team time to look over included clauses like: I would never speak or write about what had happened, I was never to create any art work that might disturb anyone, and of course, refrain from an artivist performances–none of which I agreed to.
As for my thoughts on the nature of tenure within the post-contemporary university and in terms of my work in the future? I am not sure what it means right now beyond that it gave me the right to say that I received tenure for the work I was now being investigated for and that I had/have an obligation to continue my research and art practice–or else UCSD might stop me from moving forward to the next level of my academic career. Also, it must be said that CALIT2, UCSD, and especially the Visual Arts Department were very forward looking in allowing me to establish the b.a.n.g. lab.
Zach Blas: There seem to be resonances and overlaps between the UC student protests slogan “Demand Nothing, Occupy Everything” and electronic civil disobedience. The Mark Yudof resigns website could be one example as well as virtual sit-ins. How do you situate your practice and position as a professor in relation to this movement? More specifically, after these investigations and threats, how do you, the b.a.n.g. lab, and Electronic Disturbance Theater remain engaged and active with re-imagining what the university can or could be?
Ricardo Dominguez: For me and all the groups and artists who have collaborated with EDT 2.0 and the b.a.n.g. lab, aesthetics and activism are one and the same–we do not separate the process and outcomes. Often, the process places both trajectories under erasure to become something else and something unexpected–but never letting go of who we are? We are artists first, artists who work with technology, and who also seek to amplify activist work. I do not think any of us would anchors ourselves as only activists–because those communities are dealing with a specific social issue on a daily bases, while we focus on art projects and only interface with activists when we have something to offer them that we feel creates an activated artwork that can flow between the museum, public culture, and activist needs. Most activists are working extremely hard and do not often have the time to consider the question of poetry, performance art, or the aesthetics of new media art etc., and we do–because it is the art that moves us to make it and to join those who call for us to re-imagine the university now, to re-imagine an alter-globalization now, and alter-networks now–not at the speed of technology, but at the speed of dreams! (as the Zapatistas like to sing).
Ricardo Dominguez is a co-founder of The Electronic Disturbance Theater (EDT), a group that developed Virtual-Sit-In technologies in 1998 in solidarity with the Zapatista communities in Chiapas, Mexico. One of his recent Electronic Disturbance Theater 2.0 projects with Brett Stabaum, Micha Cardenas, Amy Sara Carroll, and Elle Mehrmand is the *Transborder Immigrant Tool* (a Global Poetic System or GPS cellphone safety net tool for crossing the Mexico/U.S border. It was the winner of “Transnational Communities Award,” funded by *Cultural Contact*, Endowment for Culture Mexico – U.S. and handed out by the U.S. Embassy in Mexico), also funded by CALIT2 and two Transborder Awards from the UCSD Center for the Humanities. The Transborder Immigrant Tool has been exhibited at the California Biennial 2010 (OCMA), Here Not There (MOCA, La Jolla), and recently in San Salvador, El Salvado. Ricardo is an Associate Professor at UCSD in the Visual Arts Department, a Hellman Fellow, and Principal/Principle Investigator at CALIT2 (http://bang.calit2.net). He is also co-founder of *particle group*, which combines new media, the paraliterary, performance, artivism, and humor to produce different gestures that forge a subversive relationship with the newest frontiers of technological science in an effort to undermine some of their assumptions of authority and power. *particle group* has exhibited at ISEA (San Jose) 2006, House of World Culture (Berlin) 2007, “Inside the Wave” at the San Diego Museum of Art 2008, Oi Futuro (Brazil) 2008, CAL NanoSystems Institute (UCLA), 2009, Medialab-Prado, Madrid (Spain), 2009, Nanosferica,(NYC) 2010.(http://pitmm.net)
Zach Blas is an artist and writer working at the intersections of networked media, queerness, and the political. His on-going project, Queer Technologies, is a collective that produces critical applications, tools, and situations for queer technological agency, interventions, and social formation. Zach is currently co-curating an exhibition that will open in June 2011 with Christopher O’Leary on political imaginaries at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions. He is one of the founding members of The Public School Durham and a PhD student in Literature, Information Science + Information Studies, Visual Studies, and Women’s Studies at Duke University. He also holds an MFA from UCLA. http://www.zachblas.info