Having a natter with a couple of members of the Critical Art Ensemble (CAE) one of the first things we get to talking about is the unusual structure of the group. Many collectives function on the basis of similarity, a bunch of people with the same talents and interests working in parallel. The five-person Ensemble functions kind of like a techno label. Working across a slew of different media and artforms they operate on a system of a floating hierarchy. Whoever has the most experience in a certain area: text, photography, performance, whatever, takes the lead. As they say, “Under professional circumstances this kind of structure can be very alienating, but in a cellular structure that is really grounded in friendship and trust it’s not a problem.”
One of the things that the CAE has always pushed is this cellular structure. Groups should stay small, and make links. This they believe is the way that way you get the greatest variety of opinion and action going on. In terms of internal group activity it’s also for them the best way to maintain individual autonomy. “The things that happen are contingent, they are recognised as process. The rules and agreements and consensus emerge out of the process and change as the process changes.”
Their individual geographical dispersal and group openness to connection has made them a natural for taking the Internet both as a functional working environment and a more than slightly demented playground. In 1994, New York’s funkiest publishing house, Autonomedia, put out their book ‘The Electronic Disturbance’. This skinny wad of pages was a killer. As society got rammed further into the blender it provided a conceptual tool kit for aesthetic and political resistance in the age of liquescence. Whilst not focused solely on the nets it came out at a time and with a title that made it a meaning-making apparatus of choice for people who were busy flunking their responsibility of fusing with the global mind.
A slogan CAE had printed on the back of one of a series of ‘souvenir’ postcards featuring generic images of road-systems which they distributed to rest-stops and motels a few years back was: “Auto traffic must obtain the streets its demands. The point is not to write sociology or psychology of the car, the point is to drive.” In the title essay of their newly published book, ‘Electronic Civil Disobedience, and other unpopular ideas’ they have stomped on the accelerator and headed straight for the electronic networks.
Recently a couple of the more bright-eyed American cyber-pundits have made calls for what they call the ‘net community’ to flex its political muscle. They believe that because American Internet users kicked up an outcry over the censorship proposals in the Communications Decency Act, protests can be aimed in other directions too. They suggest that net users could protest on behalf of other sections of society. For example, the homeless.
On the surface at least this seems to have some kind of connection with the CAE’s idea of Electronic Civil Disobedience (ECD): it uses the nets for their inherent properties of distributed communication; it focuses on what a specific group of people can do with their actual material conditions; and it makes political links with conditions outside the networks. However, framed as the anti-censorship fight was in entirely legalistic terms, it fails to see the wider context in which this was only a minor episode. What CAE calls “Expression Management”, the anti-discursive and extra linguistic ramifications of power, is at work in shaping all communicative acts.
It’s perhaps hopeful that the professionally opinionated have at least currently dropped basting their brains in the luke-warm fat of global technocratic oneness in favour of making links with the world off-monitor. But then again, the internet has always been filled with people putting together political projects. Never a homogeneous community – from its originary military schemes, to a thousand unpopular fronts – the net is a space where conflicts are fought over, organised and propagandised. Aiming to be part of what they call this, “conversation of resistance” in their new book, the CAE pick up the pace a little. They see that the nets are a part of society, not something apart from it.
Take a look into their conceptual tool-kit and alongside Nietzsche’s hammer, the Lettrist photocopier, and the whole range of spanners favoured by work-shy anarchist saboteurs you’ll see some schematics. One of these is the idea of Nomadic Power. CAE suggest that contemporary power elites have changed shape. From being easy to pin-point in fixed institutions based on the model of the bunker, bank or installation, superheated concentrations of power and domination have adopted the predatory model of the wandering horde. This is an archaic model of power distribution that has been buffed, waxed and detailed for the era of globalisation. The reinvention of this diffuse power field without location, but with specific instrumental affects, “is predicated upon the technological opening of cyberspace where speed / absence and inertia / presence collide in hyperreality.”
The last twenty-five years or so has seen power mutate from archetypal embodiment in a sedentary concrete mass into a blizzard of electronic flows. This macroscopic historical shift has been bemoaned from many angles for the way that, with little if any accountability, it strip mines everything from local cultures to material resources and leaves entire populations as industrial waste. At the same time though, this white-flight into cyberspace brings with it an unusually provocative possibility that is the central thesis of ‘Electronic Civil Disobedience’.
Capitalism has reached such a degree of complexity that it can express itself globally. At the same time, if there’s not perfect management systems, with all the different segments and specialisations talking to each other, the thing becomes a completely unconnected rabble – and that’s serious loss of money. Translating the tactics of blockage and trespass perfected by so many social movements at human scale into cyberspace provides a way of making demands on corporate and government policy at a level which they can understand. Holding data hostage, and knowing the right kind of data to target to cause maximum blockage to profits with minimum impact on people, gives an incredible amount of leverage. According to CAE, hooked up to a political struggle, “this tactic becomes the ultimate bargaining chip at that point when it becomes more efficient or expedient to go to the negotiating table than it is to invest in more militarisation of hardware.” The demands are won when security becomes an inefficient mode of investment compared to compliance.
“Capital, in the sense of information capital has been collected so nicely and placed into this virtual arena, where it’s just sitting there waiting for anyone that wants to appropriate that wealth. The only thing stopping people is the thought that they can’t.”
Put another way, the problem for actually realising ECD is making connections between the people who know that they could, and people who know why they should. This would mean an unholy alliance between disaffected technicians, programmers and security specialists, and activists, researchers and image-manipulation specialists – artists. Whilst the highly publicised subculture of hacking often thinks of itself as political in terms of advocating freedom of speech and attempting to develop the potential of and access to technology, this is generally about as far as it goes. There have been some notable successes made by individual hackers in breaking into extremely sensitive state and corporate computer systems. Often these have been achieved with tiny resources. In the UK the trial has recently ended of a 16 year-old hacker, the Datastream Kid. In U.S. congressional hearings he was said to have done, in sessions conducted from his bedroom in London, more damage to the Pentagon than the KGB. The ‘damage’, which occurred in spring 1994, consisted of his downloading 2-3,000 A4 pages worth of files from American military computers specialising in missiles and artificial intelligence. Typically, the files were not sold, distributed, or held to ransom. They just sat on disks.
A more recent coup, and one of a slightly different sort, was a program written by the Hamburg based Chaos Computer Club. The program is aimed at questioning the security of financial transactions over the net. Written in Microsoft’s ActiveX it steals money from bank accounts. After being downloaded it checks the new host computer for the popular financial software Quicken – which has the capacity to handle online banking. If Quicken is there, next time the service is used it is instructed to move funds from the user’s bank to another account. Whilst Active X controls can be digitally signed to stop them manipulating other programs, Chaos rightly assumed that user ignorance of this somewhat arcane feature would get many of the programs past security checks. In the event, the program was only demonstrated and is one in a long line of exposés of technological incompetence or short-cutting that has been made by Chaos. In stopping corporate corner-cutting and criminal theft from the technically uninformed this kind of action functions as a kind of radical consumer politics of the nets.
Perhaps closer to the Ensemble’s version of ECD was a series of ‘Net Strikes’ called by the Italian group Strano Network. These were concerted blockades of specific Internet servers, made by mass logging-on over the period of an hour or two. A specific web page was targeted, and the sheer weight of hits to the site over that period would close down the presence on the net of that particular institution. Blockades were made of the French Government over nuclear testing in the Pacific; and of the U.S. Government over the framing for death sentence of the black journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal. The technique worked well in a small way. It was easy to participate in and had a noticeable irritant effect.
The idea of ECD as proposed by the Ensemble is not quite so low-level, and that’s perhaps what makes it difficult to put into practice. Given the continued spectacle of ‘terrorism’ on the Internet, (the Datastream Kid was originally thought to be a whole gang of KGB agents for instance) it’s a little tricky to make the distinction between straight up criminality and purely politically motivated crime. Whether that’s a distinction that should be easily made is another story, but the potential for ritual sacrifice in the courts for those perpetrating ECD is high. And that puts people off.
Whilst some people might be put off, “Expression Management” stops many from even getting there. Hackers are all to often locked inside the protective cocoon of the academy, or the demands of maintaining and sharpening skills for work. Their skills are too valuable for them to have any other kinds of ideas. At the same time, much self-defined political culture is still hooked on waiting for the glorious day when a dream coalition of the forces of the oppressed will, fixed-grinning like a mass of synchronised swimmers, rise up to inherit the earth. A tactic like ECD, which is designed to be put into use for practical ends, now, without much hanging about, doesn’t really have the same appeal.
Of course the advantage of floating the idea of tactics such as these leaves you free of the responsibility of actually doing them – you’d be too obvious – and ECD would certainly be better hidden, carried out in a context more like that of corporate crime, the double-blind. So don’t expect the Ensemble to be dragged onto a TV screen near you, to be charged with bringing Rio Tinto Zinc to account, any time in the near future. Putting ECD into practice is they say, “perhaps up to someone holding this magazine”.
What you might see them get hauled up in front of is a medical ethics committee. A project which they are just beginning to put into place sees them return to a long running engagement with the health industry. This autumn they will install a fully functioning cloning laboratory in Vienna’s Public Netbase. Sticking to their philosophy of working within several interlocking theatres of operation, this project, ‘The Flesh Machine’ will attempt to force a crisis of legitimation in the discourses and dreams surrounding genetic engineering.
Science Fiction writers, feminist and green activists have been raising questions for long enough. It took the actual production of a cloned sheep – a step over an edge that hadn’t quite been noticed before – to show that decisions being made now in genetic engineering are soon going to be felt with the intensity of a blow-torch to soles of the feet. As governments across the world scurry to set up ethics committees to draw up guidelines and regulations that the dynamics of globalisation will render largely irrelevant, other forms of public leverage on the corporations that will be making these changes will need to be put into place. Electronic Civil Disobedience is one option for changing specific policies. Here however, CAE are applying a more traditional art practice. By crossing a quite visible line – that of medical authority – they hope to create a situation in which, “those in power are forced to say what they really mean, or say publicly what they say between themselves.”
Artists such as Patricia Piccinini in her ‘Mutant Genome Project’ have covered to engrossing, and slickly gross effect the extent to which developments in genetic engineering are likely to have major effects in the way we perceive what is beautiful, desirable and normal. Whilst Piccinini’s work artfully confronts us with a future population of super-Aryan Cabbage Patch Kids presented on a computer, CAE are dealing directly with genetic material.
“…So we have our cryo-containers filled with materials. We’ll have the web sites where you can get all the medical information that you need, and of course information on our full line of products: from replications of famous artists, to opportunities where you just like the looks of somebody and you feel you need to have them…” The first section of the installation will be “product display” tanks containing genetic samples stored in liquid nitrogen. Following that will be computers allowing access to the web site, so that you can get proper information on the organic materials that are available to you. “You can then move to the next area where you may donate any organic material you feel up to. We’ll of course do an extraction, preferably of nipple cells. Finally, if you get even further we will let loose our marketeers on you with posters and pamphlets and hopefully, if you’re a woman especially, sign you up for the surrogacy programme. You’ll get a chance to see what is going on in the flesh machine market every day.”
Chasing up on a detail dropped into the conversation earlier, one of the subsidiary aims of the Flesh Machine project is to continue the critique of the celebrity of the artist. It’s by now a banal observation to make that art is often merely a market in the residues of carefully maverick subjectivities. CAE hope to take things a little further. “In terms of ‘sale of artist’ you can really get what you want – which is not usually the work. You want the signature, the signifier of the person. You will not only be able to have the work, but a replication of the artist themselves.”
The slightly gamey genetic material of artists is perhaps going to stay something of an acquired taste. The acquisition of the perfect mind in the perfect body is going to prove more lucrative, and hence more likely. It is at this point that CAE believe the politics of cell biology and the politics of telecommunications dovetail together. In the scenario they suggest, as the technology of work increasingly cleaves itself to the body, flesh is re-engineered to make itself more amenable to technological integration and higher rates of productivity. Only certain sections of the population will be due for development though: “It’s the Malthusian thesis. We don’t really have to worry about going down the class scale. This is something for the middle class especially. That’s the work-force that has to be developed, specialised, refined and brought to a new level of normalisation.”
The ideological pressure for this upgrade into Technocratic Worker version 2.0 comes from two sides: “You’ve got biotech saying, ‘We’re going to get you a better, healthier body’ and telecommunications saying, ‘You’re not going to need your body any more – we’re going to bring the ultimate wish machine that you’re just going to want to download right into’”
Neither end of this bizarre opposition says what they are actually intending. CAE claim that if you follow the ideologies down into practical reality the two pressures aim to fuse in the creation of the ultimate work platform. With the rationality of capitalist imperatives mentally internalised with the ‘end of history’, under the alluring flag of ‘post-humanism’ we now face the necessary next step of the end of biology: these same imperatives internalised on a material basis. The only options that the neo-nature of the market will allow? Buy this, or go out of date.
These extremes are stark, but they exist as projections of the future that are already effecting the present. By producing this installation the Critical Art Ensemble are forcing some of these conflicts to happen in a potent manner, but in a more harmless space. Much rather they get fought out in a gallery than in your body. Whether in war, medical imaging or art, any successful action begins with visualisation and representation. As suggested earlier, much of the imaginary and theoretical groundwork in contesting this area has been carried out. What is important now is for many more of the voices locked out by Expression Management to be brought to the fore.
Critical Art Ensemble’s two books are available from: Counter Productions, PO Box 556, London, SE5 ORL.
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