Ricardo Dominguez interviewed by Coco Fusco
> How did Electronic Disturbance Theatre come about?
I will respond with a story from Subcomandante Marcos. Hola. Bienvenidos, hermanos y hermanas. Welcome sisters and brothers, I'm going to tell you a little story, una pequeña historia: Pedrito (a Tojolabal, two and a half years old, born during the first Intergalactic) is playing with a little car with no wheels or body. In fact, it appears to me that what Pedrito is playing with is a piece of that wood they call "cork", but he has told me very decisively that it is a little car and that it is going to Margaritas to pick up passengers. It is a gray and cold January morning and we are passing through this village which is today electing the delegates (one man and one woman) who will be sent to the March meeting. The village is in assembly when a Commander-type plane, blue and yellow, from the Army Rainbow Task Force and a pinto helicopter from the Mexican Air Force, begin a series of low over flights above the community. The assembly does not stop; instead those who are speaking merely raise their voices. Pedrito is fed up with having the artillery aircraft above him, and he goes, fiercely, in search of a stick inside his hut. Pedrito comes out of his house with a piece of wood, and he angrily declares that "I'm going to hit the airplane because it's bothering me a lot." I smile to myself at the child's ingenuousness. The plane makes a pass over Pedrito's hut, and he raises the stick and waves it furiously at the war plane. The plane then changes its course and leaves in the direction of its base. Pedrito says "There now" and starts playing once more with his piece of cork, pardon, with his little car. The Sea and I look at each other in silence. We slowly move towards the stick which Pedrito left behind, and we pick it up carefully. We analyze it in great detail. "It's a stick," I say. "It is," the Sea says. Without saying anything else, we take it with us. We run into Tacho as we're leaving. "And that?" he asks, pointing to Pedrito's stick which we had taken. "Mayan technology," the Sea responds. Trying to remember what Pedrito did I swing at the air with the stick. Suddenly the helicopter turned into a useless tin vulture, and the sky became golden and the clouds floated by like marzipan. Muchas gracias, I hope you enjoyed the story.
This Mayan technology, this stick is a metaphor for what Electronic Disturbance Theatre has created as its performative matrix. The stick represents a third, or a fourth, or fifth alternative to the apocalyptic or utopian sense of the Internet. Those of us working in the virtual domain are constantly told to obey the utopian dream of the wired world where there will be no class, sex and no issues of identity. But, the Zapatistas, using this Mayan technology, advocate another type of gesture which I would say is related to magical realism.
This realism involves having the knowledge of the dangers that doing such simple acts such as getting water or going to the next town in Chiapas (a space under the constant threat by the Mexican's low-intensity tactics), and also, knowing that a story or a poetic gesture might be able to get you around a real danger - more so than carrying a M-16 with you - the Zapatistas use the politics of a magical realism that allows them to create these spaces of invention, intervention, and to allow the world wide networks to witness the struggle they face on daily. It was the acceptance of digital space by the Zapatistas in 12 days that created the very heart of this magical realism as information war. It was this extraordinary understanding of electronic culture which allowed the Zapatistas on January 1, 1994, one minute after midnight just as NAFTA (a Free Trade Agreement between Canada, U.S.A, and Mexico) went into effect - to jump into the electronic fabric, so to speak, faster than the speed of light. Within minutes people around the world had received emails from the first declaration from the Lacandona Jungle. The next day the autonomous Zapatista zones appeared all over the Internet. It was considered the first post-modern revolution by the New York Times. The American intelligence community called it the first act of social net war. Remember, that this social net war was based on the simple use of e-mail and nothing more. Like Pedrito's "stick" gestures can be very simple and yet create deep changes in the structures of the command and control societies that neo-liberalism agenda, like NAFTA, represent.
But, back to your question. How did EDT come about? Digital Zapatismo is and has been one of the most politically effective uses of the Internet that we know of since January 1, 1994. EDT has created a counter-distribution network of information with about 300 or more autonomous nodes of support. This has enabled the EZLN (Zapatista National Liberation Army) to speak to the world without having to pass through any dominant media filters. The Zapatistas' use of communication on the Internet, e-mail and webpages created an electronic force field around these communities in resistance which literally stopped a massive force of men and the latest Drug War technologies from annihilating the EZLN in a few days. The Zapatistas themselves really did not expect to live very long after January 1.
When the communiqués signed by Subcommandante Marcos were distributed globally through the Net, they began to flow between pre-existing anti-NAFTA and other newly formed activist listservs, newsgroups, and personal Cc: lists, news, reports, analyses, announcements about demonstrations, and calls for intercontinental gatherings spread throughout the Americas, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia. By the summer of 1994 we began to hear the Zapatistas use the terms "intercontinental networks of struggle" and "intercontinental networks of resistance."
This movement of information through these various Zapatistas networks of resistance can be said to have occurred via a strange chaos moving horizontally, non-linearly, and over many sub-networks. Rather than operating through a central command structure in which information filters down from the top in a vertical and linear manner - the model of radio and television broadcasting - information about the Zapatistas on the Internet has moved laterally from node to node.
The primary use of the Internet by the global pro-Zapatista movement has been as communication tool. However particularly since the Acteal Massacre in Chiapas at the end of 1997 in which 45 indigenous people were killed, the Internet has increasingly been used not only as site or a channel for communication, but also as a site for direct action and electronic civil disobedience. Beta actions of electronic civil disobedience occurred early in 1998. Information about the Acteal Massacre, and announcements of Mexican consulate and embassy protests, was transmitted rapidly over the Net. The largest response was a street protest, drawing crowds of between 5,000 and 10,000 in places such as Spain and Italy. But there were also calls for actions in on-line communities. On the low end of digital activism people sent large amounts of email protest to selected email targets of the Mexican government.
The Anonymous Digital Coalition, a group based in Italy, issued a plan for virtual sit-ins on five web sites of Mexico City financial corporations, instructing people to use their Internet browsers to repeatedly reload the web sites of these institutions. The idea was that repeated reloading of the web sites would block those web sites from so-called legitimate use. This idea was the jump off point for the Zapatista FloodNet which automated the reload function to happen every 3 seconds. FloodNet was created by the Electronic Disturbance Theater, a group composed of myself, net artists Carmin Karasic and Brett Stalbaum, and Stefan Wray, an activist and media scholar.
> EDT's actions are passed through an artist-driven server called The Thing. You have characterized this server as a form of social sculpture.
As a net performer, I was interested in a matrix that would articulate social issues as well as performative issues with and within the parameters of code. I was interested in the possibility of agit -prop theatre on-line. But I needed to have an infrastructure to stage and create virtual performances. In the early 1990s artists did not have access to network technology as readily as at the end of the nineties. During the 1980s I was living in Tallahassee, Florida, where I was a member of Critical Art Ensemble (the group that developed the idea of Electronic Civil Disobedience), and I heard that in New York there were artists who were trying to create online communities. So I came to New York and the main community I found was bbs.thing.net which was started in 1991 by Wolfgang Staehle.
He saw the emergence of pre-web electronic communities called bulletin board systems (BBS) as a continuation of social sculpture. The BBS (http://bbs.thing.net) offered arts communities ways to establish themselves, to send information to one another and also to conceive of new artistic practices deriving from conceptualism and from performance.
When I arrived at The Thing in New York, Wolfgang Staehle said, "Welcome to The Thing. There are a bunch of machines here, go sit down, Ricardo, and start learning and I'm not going to help you." I spent two years gathering information through these communities. This server became main platform for the Electronic Disturbance Theatre's use of the Zapatista Floodnet system (www.thing.net/~rdom), which creates a disturbance online that, for lack of a better term, could be characterized as a virtual sit-in software.
> Can you explain a little bit about how you conceive of EDT work as performance?
Augusto Boal, who theorized and performed what he calls "invisible theatre" once argued that middle class theatre was able to produce complete images of the world because it existed within a totalized social mirror of production. Other sectors of society that wanted to create a different kind of reflection could only produce incomplete performances that pointed towards something beyond what already exists. There is a history of the theatre of this type of critical social performance: the theatre of Erwin Piscator, who just read newspapers on the street or recreated the stories for people passing by, Bertolt Brecht's Epic Theatre, the Living Theatre, and Teatro Campesino working with Cesar Chavez, etc. Each of these groups created gestures that worked to literally implode every-day street realities, new theatrical modes of presentation and direct political manifestation. These agit-prop groups pointed to the possibility of new forms of the performative matrix that could be translated onto the digital stage, to the possibility of using techniques to create social or civil drama in this new space. More recent groups such as Gran Fury created what the government called riots. They used a particular look and color of clothing and very stylized types of gestures, like Die Ins, to create a new type of direct action theatre on the street.
This is a history of performance that EDT continues. What I am interested in are practices that break with traditional performance art or traditional theatre, and more importantly, that reflect a form of critique and discontent by a community. Activists, direct action performers, or more traditional forms of agit-prop theatre can chose to use the spectacle of visible collective street action, or they can chose to use the invisible performances of digital gestures, such as uploading the names of the victims of the Acteal massacre into Mexican government or Pentagon servers.
> I wouldn't call your Acteal action invisible, I would just call it abstract. This is perhaps the biggest conceptual leap a viewer of your work must make, if that viewer is conditioned by the conventional theatre from the flesh world. The performance language EDT uses doesn't look like live theatre because it's not mimetic. We expect to see a play unfold before our eyes. Even most experiments with Internet theatre involving avatars attempt at some level to reproduce the visual codes of theatre, cinema and television while the role of the director and the actors gets splintered and distributed among the participants. But, as you walk me through a FloodNet Action - all I'm seeing as a record of mass activities are lines at the bottom of the screen. The moving lines to me resemble the cyphers of audio editing programs that visualize the length and depth of sound. What the lines in fact are is a record of virtual presence with actual repercussions.
I'd like to consider your work with EDT in relationship to a specifically Latin American genealogy. There are several examples of performance art from the 1970s and '80s that was designed to take place in the street to reappropriate public space during political periods of extreme repression. I am thinking here of the emergence of the Chilean avanzada during the Pinochet dictatorship, and the street actions carried out by several collectives; the Grupos in Mexico during the same period that involved performances in public places and that formed a delayed response to the massacre of Tlatelolco, and work by The Border Art Workshop/El Taller de Arte Fronterizo. In a sense, the objective of that work was to point to the absence of civic life, to force awareness of that absence into the open to engender a dialogue about how public life had been eviscerated by political power. Can you talk about how you transposed that dynamic into the domain of the virtual with EDT?
Well we do it through a simple gesture. The public space of electronic culture as it exists now is through browsers, such as Netscape or Internet Explorer. EDT sees the browser as the public base of the virtual community. It is the space where communities gather either to chat, to exchange information or to put up representations of their cares or concerns, or, in the case of e-commerce, representations of what they're trying to sell you. What EDT has done is to create an Applet - Brett Stalbaum, one of the members, took this public function of the 'reload' button on browsers and just added another element. Instead of the user hitting the reload button, the system automatically turns and refreshes itself as more people come to the site. The more people enter the Zapatista Floodnet, the faster that refresh or reload button calls on the information that resides on the government servers where the Sit-In is taking place. Each person who joins adds to the speed and number of requests for information from the targeted server.
Through a VR Sit-In, EDT creates a mass representation of the community of resistance. As FloodNet performs automatic reloads of the site, it is slowing or halting access to the targeted server. This representation constitutes a disturbance on the site, a symbolic gesture that is non-violent. The more hits there are to President Zedillo's web site, the more our presence is felt, and the less functional the government site becomes, until it is eventually overwhelmed by the public. This disturbance points to the nature of what public space means and who is allowed to be present in the public space of the Internet. FloodNet does not impact the targeted web sites directly, as much as it disrupts the traffic going to the targeted web site. Something similar happens on the street, when individuals find themselves unable to get to work or buy a newspaper because of an action out on the bridge. The disturbance doesn't necessarily bring down a server, since many such as the Pentagon are quite robust and expect millions of hits. But the disturbance creates a sense of solidarity, what I would call 'community of drama' or a community joined by the magic stick.
It also creates a mirror that brings real criminal acts into view. This magical stick calls forth the most aggressive tendencies of the information war community. Take for example the Department of Defense. The Zapatista FloodNet system advises you that your IP will be harvested by the government during any FloodNet action. When you click and enter FloodNet, your name and political position will be made known to the authorities. This is similar to having your picture taken during a protest action on the street. There could be possible damage to your machine that may occur because of your participation in FloodNet action, just as in a street action the police may come to hurt you. During the past FloodNet actions, out of 80,000-plus who have participated only two individuals have reported their machines crashing when the Department of Defense, the Pentagon attacked us on September 9th, 1998 during a VR Sit-In we did during the Ars Electronica Festival, in Linz, Austria. The DOD used a counter-hostile Java applet against FloodNet, which is the first offensive use of information war by a government against a civilian server that we know of. We believe we should be protected from such actions, that the government cannot attack civilians using any kind of software or hardware. What has become apparent is the kind of violence that these information war systems are now implementing against civilians to control whatever public space there is.
> What are some of the responses that EDT has received from the US military and also from the Mexican government?
I've been asked if I'm concerned that I'm speaking to the military, and why I don't worry about what they're attempting to do to us, either by co-opting or gathering information about us. One of the things about us is that, unlike hackers, EDT is very transparent. We use our names, people know who we are and what we do and we always let people know, and this really disturbs the military. They are modernist at heart; they want secrets, they want encryption, they want cyber-terrorists, and they want cyber-crime. What we give them is net art performance that allows everyone to see who the real cyber-terrorists are.
> How does Swarm work? I'm particularly interested in how Internet gestures end up on screen as a kind of abstract performance language.
We're just dealing with a browser. In fact, the gesture of reloading itself, as performance, doesn't really matter much. The real drama and the real space of performance comes before and after the action, and follows the structure of a three act play. In the first act you announce what is going to happen. The middle act is the actual action itself. The last act is a gathering of dialogue about what happened - this is where the most instructive drama occurs. A social drama among different communities - net activist, net artist, and net hackers. The dot.coms and government sites and also play their parts in this social drama.
The FloodNet gesture allows the social flow of command and control to be seen directly - the communities themselves can see the flow of power in a highly transparent manner. During the last act of every action we did, we would see the endless flow of words come, not only from EDT members, but from people around the world: a woman from South Korea, an Aborigine from Australia. We began to create a network for a social drama because they're interested in what is going on, how they can help etc. A virtual plaza, a digital situation, is thus generated in which we all gather and have an encounter - an Encuentro, as the Zapatistas would say - about the nature of neo-liberalism in the real world and in cyberspace.
> Can you explain the meaning of the visual signs that appear on screen during a Floodnet action?
FloodNet encourages individual interaction on the part of protesters. Net surfers may voice their political concerns on a targeted server via the "personal message" form which sends the surfer's own statement to the server error log. While Floodnet action goes on, we not only recalls President Zedillo's web page, but we also call internal searches. For example, we will ask for the names of the dead, or about the question of human rights in Mexico. We ask the server the question, "Does human rights exist on President Zedillo's web site?" And then a 404 file emerges backstage; the 404 "not found" reply is a report of a mistake or gap of information in the server. This use of 404 files is a well known gesture among the net art communities, EDT just re-focused the 404 function towards a political gesture. For instance, we ask President Zedillo's server or the Pentagon's web server 'Where is human rights in your server?" The server then responds "Human rights not found on this server." We ask "Where is Ana Hernandez on this server" and the server then responds " Ana Hernandez is not found on this server."
> Is Ana Hernandez someone who was killed by the Mexican army?
Yes, she was killed in the Acteal Massacre on December 22, 1997. We started doing these actions in response to that massacre. One of the artists working with EDT, Carmen Karasic, wanted to create an electronic monument of remembrance to those who died. This kind of performance gesture borrows very much from Conceptual Art. The actual performance may take place in an invisible area, but at the same time it aggravates and disturbs the infrastructure of President Zedillo's web site.
> What you are doing makes me think of Rachel Whiteread's casting negative spaces. In a sense you are operating within a virtual domain, and are pointing to the absence of information, which amounts to an absence of concern for ethical issues and lives.
Yes, we bear witness to this with a gesture that retraces a Latin American performance tradition. We are bearing witness to the gap or to the invisibility that has been caused by the engines of destruction.
> When you theorize EDT's practice you often mention connections with Ancient Greek concepts of the Agora and Demos. How do you envision virtual performance as a kind of metaphorical speech in light of this genealogy?
The idea of a virtual republic in Western Civilization can be traced back to Plato, and is connected to the functions of public space. The Republic incorporated the central concept of the Agora. The Agora was the area for those who were entitled to engage in rational discourse of Logos, and to articulate social policy as the Law, and thus contribute to the evolution of Athenian democracy. Of course those who did speak were, for the most part, male, slave-owning and ship-owning merchants, those who represented the base of Athenian power. We can call them Dromos: those who belong to the societies of speed. Speed and the Virtual Republic are the primary nodes of Athenian democracy - not much different than today. The Agora was constantly being disturbed by Demos, what we would call those who demonstrate or who move into the Agora and make gestures. Later on, with the rise of Catholicism - Demos would be transposed into Demons, those representatives of the lower depths. Demos did not necessarily use the rational speech of the Agora, they did not have access to it; instead, they used symbolic speech or a somatic poesis - Nomos. In the Agora, rational speech is known as Logos. The Demos' gesture is Nomos, the metaphorical language that points to invisibility, that points to the gaps in the Agora. The Agora is thus disturbed; the rational processes of its codes are disrupted, the power of speed is blocked. EDT alludes to this history of Demos as it intervenes with Nomos. The Zapatista FloodNet injects bodies as Nomos into digital space, a critical mass of gestures as blockage. What we also add to the equation is the power of speed, which is now leveraged by Demos via the networks. Thus Demos qua Dromos create the space for a new type of social drama to take place. Remember in Ancient Greece, those who were in power and who had slaves and commerce, were the ones who had the fastest ships. EDT utilizes these elements to drama and movement by empowering contemporary groups of Demos with the speed of the Dromos - without asking societies of command and control for the right to do so. We enter the Agora with the metaphorical gestures of Nomos and squat on the high speed lanes of the new Virtual Republic. This creates a digital platform or situation for a techno-political drama that reflects the real condition of the world beyond code. It disturbs the Virtual Republic that is accustomed to the properties of Logos, the ownership of property, copyright, and all the different strategies in which they are attempting enclosure of the Internet.
> EDT also distributes the codes freely to others, right?
Yes, on January 1st, 1999, one minute after midnight, in celebration of the 5th Declaration of the Lacandona, and the 5th year of the Zapatistas, we started distributing what is called "The Disturbance Developer Kit" or DDK, which is free to anyone if they come to our site. During our actions, many groups who wanted to do virtual sit-ins contacted us, so in response we developed a kit that's quick and easy to put up. It has been used by a wide variety of groups such as Queer Nation, the international animal liberation groups, anti-arms trading groups, anti-WTO groups, and "The Electro Hippies." So our performance continues through a new act of distributing the software, as the power to disturb the Virtual Republic is extended to new communities.
This is an edited version of a conversation, organized and broadcast by inIVA (Institute of International Visual Arts) on 25 November 1999. A version of the interview appeared in Spanish in the Magazine and Forum www.centrodearte.com, Spanish translation by Carolina Olmo and Cesar Rendueles. Longer English version is online at www.thehacktivist.com.
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