Wide Area Disturbance

By Coco Fusco and Ricardo Dominguez, 10 March 2002
Image: Ricardo Dominguez, Magan Technology, 2000, Root Festival, Hull, 2000

It is something of a cliché to say that net culture is in constant flux. However, recent seismic shifts in the political and cultural landscape brought about by the economic downturn, the further militarisation of American foreign policy after September 11 and the museumification of are forcing many to rethink the aims of electronic engagement. Here, interdisciplinary artist and writer Coco Fusco talks to hacktivist and Electronic Disturbance Theater member Ricardo Dominguez about the hybrid net_art_activism‚ past and future

Coco Fusco: Has there been a significant change in the focus of anti-globalisation activism in the aftermath of Genoa and the attack on the World Trade Center?

Ricardo Dominguez: No. Activists are still asking the same questions about neo-liberalism, and they are still using the same tactics to disrupt the gatherings of the G8 and the IMF around the globe. Interaction between the NGOs and street activists is the same – one leverages the other. Everyone seems to agree that the violence of Genoa and September 11 should not derail the use of non-violent direct action. In addition, the same critiques of the anti-globalisation movement persist: that it lacks a coherent ideology; that it does not offer any workable solutions to top-down globalisation; that it disregards the last 50 years of extremely violent struggle against neo-liberalism in the South. The South’s political and social thought offers possible reforms that can really challenge the North’s neo-liberal agenda and which shouldn’t be ignored. Many say that the cultural thought and political practices coming from Chiapas, Woomera, Porto Alegre and Kerala can displace the narcissism of activists in the North.

CF: But the activists in the North have to stop believing the media hype that represents them as the only protagonists of note in what is actually a global struggle against dehumanising policies and growing poverty. Activists in the third world have been subject to harassment, surveillance, imprisonment, torture and even disappearance for decades without receiving much attention from the North. While it may appeal to the leftist activists and netizens in the North to promote the idea that, in a post 9-11 world, they have all been deemed ‘the enemy’ in the same way that the entire Arab world has been designated as a target by the US military, this is simply not true. No hackers in the US have been singled out for investigation as a result of the passing of the Patriot Act – at least not yet. If we focus solely on what is happening to Americans and Europeans interested in social change and whether they are imperiled, we end up supporting the American position that posits ‘our’ victimisation as more significant than the rest of the world’s.

RD: Another important issue is the strategic viability of an ‘eventism’. The ‘tourism’ of city hopping from Seattle to Genoa is becoming an empty spectacle of violent confrontations for the media and policy makers, and the movement is being constrained by events organised by global power brokers. Issues beyond protest are being forgotten. This type of ‘eventism’ also dictates the distribution of information produced by net.activists working for Independent Media Centres and related websites. Perhaps it is time to turn towards another form of ‘eventism’ in order to dismantle neo-liberalism. The Zapatistas, for example, convoke their own events rather than responding to those organised by others.

CF: Do you see a shift in the attitude of street activists and NGOs regarding their sense of the viability or relevance of hacktivism?

RD: Yes. In 1998, when Electronic Disturbance Theatre (EDT) launched FloodNet, very few activists or hackers saw any use for direct action on-line. Between 1999 and 2001, EDT and other proponents of hacktivism began to have a marginal presence at Hacker and Street Activist conferences. 2600 is now calling for more panels on Independent Media Centres, street activism, hacking and hacktivism at their next event because net.activism was so well received at their last event. This is an important sign that activism may be moving more to the centre of hacking culture which may have a chance to gain some much needed political depth.

CF: EDT has not carried out any FloodNet actions in support of the Zapatistas during the past year. What has been happening with the Zapatistas in recent months?

RD: EDT has refrained from any actions because the Zapatistas have not made an international call for direct action against the Fox government at this time. They have been in a time of deep silence (since the two week march from Chiapas to Mexico City in March of 2001), thinking about the next stage of actions against the Mexican government’s development of the Puebla-Panama Plan. This entails building a 12 lane highway between Puebla, Mexico, and Panama that cuts right through Zapatista lands. The Zapatistas are also pushing for changes to the Indigenous Bill of Rights that the Mexican Government first accepted and then gutted of any social relevance. The Zapatista use of the internet as a voice multiplier and organisational tool since 1994 should be considered one of the most important activist gestures of the ‘90s – many see a direct connection between the Seattle actions and the Zapatista’s call for the development of the International Network of Struggle and Resistance at the start of 1996.

CF: EDT does have another project in the works called ‘Anchor for Witnessing’. How does it expand the purview of online political engagement?

RD: ‘Anchors for Witnessing: Counter-Surveillance for Off-Grid Communities’ is an attempt to take on the issue of surveillance which is now so important, not only as a mechanism of social control, but also as the latest new growth market in the Guarded Society. In 1998, when the media started to ask EDT about what new tactics the Zapatistas were developing, we said that they were constructing ‘wireless video servers (Anchors)’ to upload real-time netcast video of human rights abuses by paramilitary and the Mexican Military. At the time this was just an idea we thought of presenting as an intimidation strategy. Now EDT is making this a reality. These wireless ‘Anchors’ will use the technologies developed by corporate and military communities in the first world to centralise control of indigenous lands. But we will be making them available to those who are usually the targets of surveillance so they can document the abuses that they are regularly subjected to. The speed of transmission helps to prevent governments or other power structures from succeeding in suppressing information.

CF: Unlike other well known hacktivists groups, EDT’s activities have been absorbed by the art world in general and the community in particular. Documentation of your actions has been included in numerous exhibitions and publications, and your work has been presented widely in theatre and performance conferences. Why do you think that your particular blend of HTML détournment and political critique of neo-liberalism has been interpreted as ‘art’?

RD: We consider our project to be an example of radical aesthetics. We see ourselves as artists and theorists. We also felt that our poetics, with its emphasis on simulation, transparency, mass agency and negative casting of the networks allowed a complex social sculpture to emerge that was not part of the self-referential fetish of code qua code. FloodNet established a mode of telepresence that was bound to the conditions of the social beyond the digital domain. for EDT offers the possibility not only for a human story to become present for many by viewing the artwork, but also for a moment of political solidarity with a distant ‘Other’ to emerge.

CF: In writing about your art in the past, I have stressed its relevance as conceptual sculpture in the tradition of working with negative space, and its connection with a Latin American tradition of infusing minimal strategies with political content.<1> For instance, in the way you convert the game of foregrounding 404 files (a status code which tells you that a requested page was not found) into an indictment of governmental negligence. It is equally important that your work politicises connectivity and interactivity by calling on its users to assume an ethical stance vis-à-vis a distant Other. In this sense, the work undermines what I would call the telematic fantasy of net.culture; that is, the assumption that communicating across vast distances represents a radical gesture in and of itself. ‘Dolores from 10h to 22h’ extends this experiment with another form of simulation (the docu-drama), bringing a human story from the South into the context to focus on the audience’s relationship to viewing the political violence of everyday life in a maquiladora.<2> However, judging from the rather flip interventions in the chat room, it would seem that viewers show their ‘better selves’ more effectively when they are called upon to engage in simulated aggression against an Oedipalised power source (i.e. jamming a server) than when they are asked to reflect upon how their own attraction to net.spectacularity might interfere with their recognition of the grotesque inequities of the global economic order, and that their privileged position can be measured in relation to their voyeuristic pleasure. In The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich argues that most successful couplings of simulation and real life action are the screens on fighter planes that assist the pilots engaged in warfare. I would argue that a politicised practice will have to push this relationship more, to stop us from seeing the virtual space of the internet as an absolute representation of reality, the database as the sum total of knowledge and the power of seeing as something to indulge in solely for voyeuristic or narcissistic pleasure.

RD: Yes, I agree that right now aggressive simulation plays better than self-reflection about our relationship to the everyday abuse of workers in the South. Most of the work that falls between and net.activism tends to deal with the injection of the organic as an act of disturbance rather than as act of internal critique – be it Mongrel at the Tate, or EDT, or the Toywar. A project like ‘Dolores’ points to another space that is now emerging.

>> Image Dolores from 10 to 22 hrs, a net performance by Coco Fusco and Ricardo Dominguez, November 2001

CF: How does your extensive background in theatre as an actor and director affect your approach to activism, both on and offline? Does it explain your stress on conceiving of electronic civil disobedience as theatre?

RD: My background in classical theatre, agit-prop theatre and performance art, intermixed with my history of direct action on the streets, my involvement with Critical Art Ensemble, and the powerful theatre of resistance that Zapatismo created, allowed EDT to stage a dramatic sociological event. Our event was bound to a story that lucidly illustrates the social implications of top-down globalisation. EDT was able to create an ‘invisible theatre’ that moved many different individuals and organisations to make visceral responses in the cold space of code. So, my history in the theatre of emotion allowed me to build with the other members of EDT an organic and poetic staging of the unbearable weight of beings saying ‘Ya Basta!’ While EDT stresses that its performance involves a type of electronic civil disobedience, we do not say that it is the only form of electronic civil disobedience. Our gesture staged a simulation of a Distributed Denial of Service – the outcome of mass agency and digital liminality.<3> We move among net.hacking, net.activism, net.performance,, and those who have no at all. The Zapatista FloodNet and the Zapatista Tribal Port Scan are radical aesthetic data gestures that disturb the ontology of the networks without being bound to the networks. These gestures also point to a future form of life where mass mediated communication is not a fallen sphere of consumerism, but a ‘decisive space’, such as the one that Latin American media theorist Martin Barbero writes about, where it may be possible to redefine the social agora and to construct global democracies from the grass roots up.

CF: While it is true EDT was facilitated by the community, that very context of your emergence has shifted radically since 1998. has become part of the very museum and gallery world that it once saw itself as a reaction against. More and more, the net is used by ‘new media artists’ as a promotional vehicle for the sale of new media objects and/or live performances. The institutionalisation of has also entailed a certain containment of its political dimension. For example, it is documentation of your FloodNet actions that museums request for their online exhibitions, not the enactment of a hacktivist gesture. So far the recognition of hacktivism has not led to more dialogue between artists and museums about how can actively engage in institutional critique from within the museum space. On the contrary, now being showcased by major museums is for the most part techno-formalist and devoid of content, or so abstruse as to be virtually unreadable as political gesture. What would you say is the future of the political within practice in light of how cultural institutions are responding to it?

RD: A great deal has changed in the world since 1997. Many museums are now deeply involved in framing for public consumption. You can certainly see a difference rt that was presented at the Whitney Biennial in 2000, which presented work by and that was both political and performative. In 2002, the focus is on techno-formalist net.artists who are working very hard to become an objet d’art – and gain a foothold in the market. It is important for those artists working within a critical performative matrix not to be sidetracked by the latest techno-formalist fetish of museums or the gallery system. In the post 9/11 climate, it is more important than ever to push for aesthetic ‘voices’ that can bear witness to other worlds beyond the ideology of the War on Terrorism.

It is not clear whether institutions will take on the task of presenting political beyond simple documentation. This may start to happen if network_art_activism begins to establish stronger ties with the previous generations of artists who have faced the dismantling of the political in art – both in the North and the South – so that this very immature form which is can gain a sense of history about institutional critique, in order to develop both a deeper aesthetic and historical knowledge about what other artists have done before history was erased by the digital hype. I really don’t see the possibility of cultural support for political works like EDT’s Zapatista FloodNet any time soon. But for projects like ‘Anchors for Witnessing’ – yes, there is interest and support. For political art projects that are about distribution – yes, but for projects that ‘disturb’ – no.

CF: So as things now stand institutions want to fund projects that narrow the digital divide, but not ones that subvert the formalist tendencies of from within.

RD: Yes, projects that follow the market drive to plug everyone in, I think, will continue to gain more institutional presence and support. Those works which don’t fold into the other end of the market drive for formalist containment, or the pure presentation of code qua code, machines qua machines, like network_art_activism, will be left in the archives, and will never be supported as a live performance.

CF: You have mentioned several times that in gatherings of hacktivists and anti-globalisation activists many raise the question of how to bring the issues and activities of political artists and activists from the South or the Third World into the foreground more effectively? What do you propose as a means of making this happen?

RD: I don’t know if there is only one way to do this. Each little gesture builds towards a large social effect and we cannot expect one gesture to solve such a deep and intractable problem as the lack of presence of the voices from the South on the networks or in the anti-globalisation movement easily. But, I think we have a much better chance of having the issues and activities of artists from the Third World taken on by hacktivists, net.artists, autonomous networks and the ‘movement’ than we do from most other sectors in the North. As for suggestions for making this crossover happen, well, I think, in the next year you will see important email lists emerge that will attempt to create a more intercontinental understanding about political art and Lists that will question the institutionalisation of techno-formalism as the only type of of value. Lists that The Thing will host and archive []. Also, we will begin to see a deeper critique of the utopian politics on the Right and Left that only define themselves via the computer as a tool for political and cultural liberation. We will see more projects appearing on networks from regions and people that have been pushed Off-Grid for a very long time. For me, the answer right now is to build a hybrid media network that is somewhere between The Thing and Zapatismo – which means pushing forward down the same road I started on. But this time the work will be even more effective, distributed, and disturbing than EDT’s performance ever was – something to be wished for.


<1>The experimentation with negative space in western art is fundamental to the elaboration of foreground and background in painting and drawing, and to the development of sculpture that highlights how the space around a designated object defines the object even when that object is absent. This is not that different from our numerical system’s inclusion of the concept of zero, a cypher that represents nothing, and in doing so gives meaning to all other numbers. Gestalt psychology looks at the tendency to perceive form and pattern as figure against background. Constructivist Naum Gabo is usually credited with being the first sculptor to concentrate on negative space, having used voids to define shape with his Head No. 2 (1916). Modernist Michael Heizer with his earthworks consisting of gouged trenches and postmodernist Rachel Whiteread with her casting of negative spaces such as the inside of bathtubs and rooms, and the spaces under chairs, are among the better known artists working in this vein. See, Fusco, Coco, ‘The Unbearable Weightiness of Beings: Art in Mexico after NAFTA,’ in The Bodies That Were Not Ours and Other Writings, (London: Routledge and inIVA, 2001), pp. 186-201.

<2>Originally an Arabic term that entered colonial Mexico via Spain to signify the processing of foreign grains. It now refers to assembly plants to which foreign materials and parts are shipped and from which the finished product is returned to the original market. Those plants are located in free trade zones in Mexico and the Caribbean.

<3>On the Internet, a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) takes place when a system attacks a single target by overloading it with an automated repetition of a message. This action jams the server and causes denial of service for users of the targeted system. FloodNet on the other hand enabled a multiplicity of users to overload a system via the simultaneous, automated sending of messages from a range of sites. While DDoS does not require mass participation for effect, FloodNet acquires its force through collective engagement.

Coco Fusco <tongolele AT> is an artist and the author of The Bodies That Were Not Ours and Other Writings and English Is Broken Here: Notes on cultural Fusion in the Americas. She is Director of Graduate Study for the Visual Arts Program at Columbia University's School of Arts in New York

Ricardo Dominguez <rdom666 AT>

For coverage of ‘Dolores from 10h to 22h’ []FloodNet[]Electronic Disturbance Theatre []

Proud to be Flesh