Maryam Monalisa Gharavi interviews Ricardo Dominguez
As co-founder of The Electronic Disturbance Theater, Ricardo Dominguez’ name has long been legendary among hackers, proto-internet enthusiasts, and performance artists. For more than 20 years Dominguez has pretzeled a non-traditional professional trajectory (even by contemporary standards) combining new media, artistic practice, solidarity activism, and electronic civil disobedience. The EDT’s Virtual Sit-In technology developed in 1998 in cooperation with the Zapatistas of Chiapas, Mexico remains a pioneering moment in the dawn of more ubiquitous real-time technologies like Twitter. Modest about his status as co-founder of the EDT, a group whose antiauthoritarian and anti-militaristic philosophy and application preceded the idea of “hacktivism,” and arguably gave rise to it, Dominguez softly calls himself a New York artist. The nomenclature is meant to express the mélange of soundscape, simulation, social crisis, direct street action, and agit prop theater—what Dominguez calls a “performative matrix”— that singularized his life’s CV in that city.
More recently, Dominguez came under national scrutiny for his leadership in two projects: a virtual sit-in of the website of the president of the University of California after steep and unpopular education cuts, and the Transborder Immigrant Tool (TBT), which uses mobile phones to aid in safe passage and access to water across the Mexico/U.S. border. Television personality Glenn Beck of the Fox Channel added his own brand of sublime hysterics to the incident when he decried, “The poetry on this system will destroy the border and the nation.”
The 52-year old was born in El Paso, Texas, to a third-generation Mexican-American father, who ran a plumbing company after fighting in the Korean War, and an immigrant mother from a small town outside of Chihuahua, Mexico. She was a shill at the Riviera Casino and Hotel before becoming a pathologist in Las Vegas, Nevada, and Dominguez describes her as a “strong mix of feminist/post-feminist, never supporting the idea of marriage for herself.” As a child and teenager, Dominguez frequently visited El Paso, Juarez and Chihuahua, developing a fascination for theater, film and television from early childhood in the meanwhile. The “screenal formations” that obsessed his youthful habits of viewing, acting, and directing would steel his artistic focus in the seemingly non-artistic topographies of politics and technology.
In Las Vegas, Dominguez became aware of the “strong matrix of the military-industrial-entertainment”—a place where simulation economies and casino capitalism weaved into the massive military industry in Nevada, remembering the Area 51 Nellis Air Force base just 100 miles away. The western United States was beginning to appear like Blade Runner to anyone who paid enough attention, with the corporate reconfiguration of old Las Vegas or Los Angeles that met the 1970s versions in a disturbing and uncomfortable cohesion. It’s no surprise that Dominguez embraces the definition of “cyberspace,” coined in William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer, as a mass, consensual hallucination. This critique of virtual architectures not only informs his work but arises out of experiencing armed militarized vestiges such as the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border fence, the “killing zone” of Operation Gatekeeper, and the Naval Base San Diego, the largest of its kind in the U.S., and the next-door neighbor to the University of California-San Diego, where Dominguez is a tenured professor.
If Dominguez has benefited from any one personal quality, it might be the ability to contextualize the gargantuan human drama of virtual geographies into a coherent performative narrative, dispensing a stream of knowledge that shares as much with the poetic as it does with the sociological.
This interview took place over a series of email exchanges, including a period where Dominguez was situated at the U.S.-Mexico boundary.
Maryam Monalisa Gharavi: You were tenured at the University of California-San Diego without a doctoral degree, though after significant contributions across fields that both did and did not yet exist. Do you think this would be possible today?
Ricardo Dominguez: CALIT2 and the Visual Arts Department at UCSD offered me an assistant professor position that would allow me to continue my aesthetic research at a new level in 2004. I felt that it would be worth the effort to investigate what doing Electronic Civil Disobedience, border disturbance art, and nano-politics interventions within an institution would mean and what would be added to the work. UCSD offered me a stable research base to do work from and I felt that I had achieved with Electronic Disturbance Theater what I had been working toward during the ’80s with Critical Art Ensemble (in Tallahassee, Florida) and in the ’90s with thing.net in New York City. I really needed to stage a new zone for the work to move forward.
I do think that often new knowledge formations emerge, especially for artists, outside of institutional support and that the university must then accept those individuals and groups into the system in order to teach the next generation of researchers and artist—since no degrees existed at that time to meet the ideal academic degrees—of course now that more artists and PhDs are gaining degrees in these areas, it might be indeed more difficult for tactical media artists, artivists, hacktivists etc., to gain an academic foothold.
Gharavi: I first became interested in having this conversation with you because the Transborder Immigrant Tool (TBT) raises questions at the intersection of art practice, technology, law and the concept of the political. My reading of the “political” as authoritarian right-wing is Schmittian: the question of borders and the sovereign will which make friends/enemies out of states and imply a sanctioned political violence. How have you formulated the question of the political in your art and activism along the years?
Dominguez: The “political” often implements the border between utopia and apocalypse as an uncrossable line—but art and activism, or artivism, functions for me as a critical aesthetics that is not bound to the Schmittian binary—but about creating an art disturbance the moves these “political” borders toward a trans-global artivation that never leaves the intimacies of the local. Critical aesthetics seeks for me to dislocate the borderless borders of neoliberalism and the atavism of the state with gestures that function in the cartographies of the moment and of what bodies face now—art as a minor politics of the now. TBT emerges from this space.
Gharavi: What’s been the personal cost of the university/government probe into the virtual sit-in—familial, financial, emotional, and work-wise?
Dominguez: The cost for me, my partner Amy Sara Carroll and my young son, and all the members of EDT/b.a.n.g. lab (Brett Stalbaum, Micha Cardenas, and Elle Merhmend) was on two levels—the fear from the violent e-mails that we received and the interruption of our work and projects. The cost for the legal team was funded fully by a large number of supporters around the world and the pro bono work the legal team gave—so that the cost directly to me was minimal. We, I, am thankful for all the global support. It was indeed a very difficult year and half—but the outcome is that all charges were dropped and art won. Now we are moving forward with our work.
Gharavi: The EZLN call to revolution on January 1, 1994 read: “National sovereignty essentially and originally resides in the people. All political power emanates from the people and its purpose is to help the people. The people have, at all times, the inalienable right to alter or modify their form of government.” The document attacks what it sees as a culture of fraud as an impediment to democracy. We’re in 2011 now. How do you put that event into perspective? What do you make of the fact that it reads so current, even though it signaled a small, rural area of Mexico calling for a “sovereign revolutionary convention”?
Dominguez: The Zapatistas were and are post-contemporary both in their coherent reading of neoliberalism and in their use of the internet. They not only ripped into the electronic fabric on January 1, 1994, in a manner that no one had predicted was even possible (to become a global network without access to computers, phones or even electricity in a matter of hours) and create a disturbance that would call forth the alter-globalization movements and survive deeply antagonistic governments (Mexico and the U.S.). The current moment of acceleration of tweeting and facebooking aspects of the revolution in or about Egypt can be traced back to the Zapatista intercontinental/intergalactic networks of “resistance and invention.”
Gharavi: How is protest like a performance? Why is it important for you to reflect on their parallel effect in your work?
Dominguez: The 21st century is the age of performance by all accounts (or at least for me)—it only makes sense that protest and performance art/theater would emerge as potential markers of the matrix. In the 1980s the Critical Art Ensemble (of which I was a member) conceptualized the “performative matrix,” a recombinant space that would critically articulate an actor-network between “data-bodies” and “real-bodies.” Contestational gesture would have taken place on these inter-digital configurations in the ‘90s in order disturb the power of virtual capitalism(s). Also, power formations in this century have become more enmeshed in the affective phases of force, the performative, than in the effective non-performative of force. Peter Andreas, in his book Border Games: Policing the U.S.-Mexico Divide, points out that “‘successful’ border management depends on successful image management [which] does not necessarily correspond with levels of actual deterrence,” and shows how there can be a “public performance for which the border functions as a kind of political stage.” Which means that the question of performance of “security” is as important if not more so than “actual security”—the border functions as a type of “control” theater and our work at EDT and b.a.n.g. Lab a counter-performance that disturbs the border games with the all too visceral border art gesture.
Gharavi: The TBT was released as a prototype and not mass-produced. And your work in general has illuminated the relationship between street activism and electronic activism. What do you think about the ruling of actual aid to migrants: Daniel Millis of project No More Deaths was convicted, though the conviction was overturned, of “littering” for leaving sealed bottles of drinking water. The “torture memo” author Judge Jay Bybee wrote a dissenting opinion based on “grammatical challenges” about the term littering.
Dominguez: TBT is a working geo-poetic-system (GPS) that was held up for all of 2010 by a series of investigation that have held up its distribution on the border. At the end 2010 all charges and investigations were dropped—since this is a work of art that seeks to saves lives and offer poetry—so we are happy to say art won! As for Daniel Millis’ case we think it is a question about defining what is garbage—Amy Sara Carroll, a poet, scholar and member of EDT 2.0 wrote:
Garbage. Delilah Montoya’s series of photographs Sed: A Trail of Thirst (2004) takes up the question, “Who and what constitutes the disposable?” reframing it in terms of what we leave behind. Her images map a migrant path across Arizona’s Sonoran Desert. Abandoned campsites, lost or discarded items, lone water stations. A recent case overturned by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals (September 2, 2010) also contemplates the forms and contents of “garbage.” More specifically, its majority opinion hinges on the definition of “garbage,” while its dissenting opinion seeks to shift attention away from the word “garbage” to that of “littering.” In contrast, within the text of The United States of America v. Daniel J. Millis, there is only passing reference to its defendant’s testimony, “At his bench trial, Millis admitted that he had placed the bottles of water on the refuge. However, he testified that leaving water out for illegal immigrants constitutes humanitarian aide and that ‘humanitarian aide is never a crime’” (2010: 13294). And, nestled into the dissenting opinion, a lonelier reference to the “Other” debris in the Arizona Buenos Aires Federal Wildlife Refuge: “At trial, Officer Kirkpatrick testified that ‘there was a great deal of trash on the refuge,’ which consisted of ‘water bottles, backpacks, articles of clothing, foodstuffs, vehicles,’ and ‘pretty much anything you can imagine.’”
Gharavi: Often when we hear of art/technology or art/new media projects, even from established artists, we notice that they tend toward abstraction. The human subject is on some level erased or superimposed onto an imagined “user” of that technology. How did the TBT evade or disrupt this body-less “user” in its conception?
Dominguez: Our work has always been focused on the question of the body, always connecting data-bodies to real-bodies. We refuse to disconnect art and technology from the body, especially from the body-in-resistance or the minor body, which in a specific place, a specific flow, and with specific needs—the body is the core pulse that drives our gestures and technology is a secondary condition. While most of locative media art practices are bound to urban narratives, TBT dislocates that history in its practice – but the sheer facticity that it participates in the question of bodies crossing the desert of the real as the most wanted/unwanted.
Gharavi: No app is created equal. What’s your take on the PatriotApp, that purportedly “empowers citizens to assist government agencies” about suspicious activity?
Dominguez: Technology and code is to some degree neutral and in can be use for any ideological position. The PatriotApp is to be expected. For instance groups working with immigrants also use texting to alert them about potential ICE raids etc. The question then becomes not so much about the technology, but who would use it? If the numbers become extremely large—then we should all start to really worry. But for now it is an affective gesture and certainly worth considering in terms of post-9/11 subjectivity in relation to the state.
Gharavi: You mostly work with low-end technologies. And in speaking about the Zapatista communities and their use of electronic technology as direct action, you posed the question that many (like the RAND Corporation) were thinking: “How could a group of people without electricity, telephones or computers manifest themselves so quickly on-line?” What are the advantages of this nonlinear, decentralized, low-tech approach? And what are its limitations?
Dominguez: The process of moving beyond centralized and decentralized models was an important lesson that the Zapatistas brought to the foreground. This was based on the use of distributed networks—networks that are connected by a politics of the question: what is neoliberalism? By working as a distributed network there was no need to function as a technological system—we certainly saw this at work recently in Egypt when Mubarak shut done the networks—the communities of protest remained coherent and united based on the demands they were making. The Zapatistas very early on presented to the world a power greater than force, the power of the word, the most distributed algorithm in the 21st century and impossible to shut down.
Gharavi: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit recently issued subpoenas on the private Twitter messages of some individuals supporting Wikileaks. You’ve said you use digital technology for “disturbance” and civil disobedience, whereas Wikileaks describes its project as a tool for democratic transparency and the formation of better government. You’ve also said, “Electronic Disturbance Theater is a digitally incorrect group in that we are not hackers. We are transparent,” which compares to Wikileaks’ recent language. You also share a childhood background with Julian Assange: he grew up among theatrical groups, and you were trained as an actor.
Dominguez: Wikileaks is leaking forth swarms of hacktivist ECD actions in defense of what EDT has named since 1998 as radical transparency—an urgent call that has now become the antagonist of the super state machine, such as Google, MasterCard, Visa, and PayPal. Radical nodes are attempting to take on and disturb the mega-data centers of what I like to call the Cloud Empire in the tradition of EDTs aesthetic call to action since 1998 for the multitude to become utopias of disturbances, blockage and trespass by staging ethico-aesthetic virtual sit-ins. Of course the difference between EDT and the current hacktivism is that EDT is and has always being radically transparent, always connecting its data-bodies to the location of its real-bodies, everyone knows who we are, where we are, why we are doing the gesture. The Wikileaks hacktivists are hidden and secret. A number of them have been arrested and the group has made no attempt to create a transparent connection between their data-bodies and real-bodies—at odds with the radical transparency of leaking secrets they put forth—but this is a minor issue when compared with the command and control of information warfare that the terroristic-informatic power that have come into being with the atavistic state machine joining the neoliberal Cloud Empire. What is clear is that a cold civil war is growing between the Cloud Empire and different type of radical transparencies—Wikileaks as information distribution and ECD as information-disturbances (what in the past we have named being digitally incorrect). We see the creation of another communication: the communication of the bodies joining together to make their mass presence known and felt by those who refuse to listen and see them. As for the the connection between my history in the theater and Assange’s—it makes sense. In the Age of Performance having some knowledge of the staging, gestures and creation of affective narratives is extremely important. Democracy and fearless speech were born in the theater of fifth century Greece and for me it remains a core trajectory of the performative matrix our work as EDT and b.a.n.g. Lab.
Gharavi: What do you make of trespasses like Anonymous’ Operation Payback to attack the websites of corporations like PayPal, MasterCard and others who refused service to Wikileaks?
Dominguez: The only thing I would suggest to them is that they no longer do the actions as Anonymous. But, I do understand that in certain parts of the world that is not a choice that can be made. Yet, even now in spaces under ruthless power many are making the choice not to hide—this will give them an even greater force to move from just a digital trespass by a secret cell to a multitude with a voice to face the faceless.
Gharavi: By all accounts, the immigrant mobile phone was lauded—you received all kinds of praise in its support. One professor said that the “work that earned [Dominguez] tenure can be turned on its head and form the basis of a criminal investigation.” So it only became an issue after the university probe into your virtual sit-in regarding the UC tuition fee increase?
Dominguez: The entire group of artists that worked on the TBT was already under investigation by UCSD starting on January 11, 2010. Then I came under investigation for the virtual sit-in performance (which joined communities statewide against exorbitant students fees in the UC system and the dismantling of educational support for K–12 across California) against the UC Office of the President (UCOP) on March 4, 2010. This was then followed by an investigation by the FBI Office of Cybercrimes. So, it was 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 then tenured for. So much irony was lost. In the end all the investigations were dropped. I did have to agree not to do another virtual sit-in performance on the UCOP for four years, but the day I signed the agreement, a number of supporters across the nation did a virtual sit-in on UCOP again. One strange element about the agreement that they wanted me to sign without even giving me or my legal team time to look it over was that I would never speak or write about what had happened, create any artwork that might disturb anyone and refrain from an artivist performances. Of course I agreed to none of it.
Gharavi: Three Republican congressmen wrote disparagingly about you to the university, and Glenn Beck featured the TBT on his program. Their arguments were similar. Beck said: “You can teach whatever you want but not with damn tax dollars,” calling universities “re-education camps.” Did you spend more time responding to this type of accusation or more from a liberal democratic perspective, that is less approving of civil disturbance, albeit in a very different way?
Dominguez: We spent time dealing with all the spectrums of the post-contemporary space (but after a while we started to refrain from dealing with Fox since any time we were mentioned on-air we would get hyper-violent emails). We did write an op-ed in the San Diego Union Tribune responding to one of the Republican congressmen and did a number of news articles, radio and television programs.This is part and parcel of any art practice that wants to participate and create spaces for its projects. To become a part of public culture means that you enter into the wider debates about the responsibilities of education and supporting the cause of education, and part of that effort is to help students consider ways of creating art that attempt alternate forms of sustenance, critique and technology.This does not mean that they have to march to these flags, but they often learn to invent in a manner that is unexpected and often very fruitful—and certainly the wider world may not always support that level of engagement.
Gharavi: When granted tenure you were described as a “defining figure in the migration of performance art from physical space to virtual space.” In your post-graduate years, were you conscious of this migration while you were involved in it?
Dominguez: Yes, I was part of those groups in the ’80s who were seeking to inject performance as a radical gesture into the heart of what was then called “cyberspace.” We were all very conscious that the digital would become an important condition and that we need to teleport important questions and gestures before it could completely cut itself off ideologically from the issues of the world.
Gharavi: There’s a whole generation of activists who envisioned electronic spaces used beyond their primary modes of documentation and communication. They made the jump to direct action. To what extent do you think this has become a more widely accepted practice?
Dominguez: I do think that direct action online has now become more widely accepted as a potential gesture for activists, along with a whole menu of other possible ways to amplify a protest. In fact, in 2010 the term “hacktivism” was nominated as the word of the year by the American Dialect Society. This seems to indicate an acceptance of not only the word, but of the number of people and communities who supported Anonymous DDoS actions in support of Wikileaks, who would often say they had not in the past. The digitally correct incorporating the digitally incorrect into their worldview of non-violent direct action paradigms.
Gharavi: It seems that the law is still catching up to DDoS as a virtual trespass, as opposed to say, a politically motivated sit-in or other act of civil disobedience. From the perspective of someone who wields transgression (from the etymon “stepping across a line”), how do you conceive of ethical trespass and the law?
Dominguez: Since 1994, network/software art, from tactical media to hacktivism, has hidden behind the slogan “More Than Just Art!” TBT is a fractal gesture that is no longer part of the histories of network art’s attachment to camouflage ecologies, named by Alex Galloway and Thacker in their book The Exploit: A Theory of Networks (2007) as an allegiance to the “imperceptible” or “non-existent.” We aspire to create transparent/translucent tunnels into the electronic market as art and something other. The post-contemporary moment demands artwork that, as gestures of visibility, can haunt the fictions of the market and the state. With TBT we conspire to connect real bodies to data-bodies as trans-bodies, to disturb the atmospheric conditions of post post-9/11 in/securities with the re-calling of the ethics of a higher law that Henry David Thoreau called for, and that this process establish a new law based on the arc of justice and not the power of “what is legal.” And as long as the gesture is non-violent and seeking justice above the law then it must step across the line. Performance art aesthetics has also been about transgression and unbinding limits. Our projects bring those two histories and practices together.
Gharavi: In the last long interview you did, you shared that hadn’t yet had children. I want to ask you something that often gets asked of female artists. Has fatherhood changed your perspective on your work, if not the world?
Dominguez: It has been a great joy to connect with the world as should be, which is what my son and partner have brought to me. Not in the bunkered sense of normativity, but in the wild sense of looking at the wide and weird world as a place of great fun, joy and just plain silliness! And I get to love and be loved without end, and get to read all the books I loved as a boy, and watch all those flicks I loved as boy, and make up crazy new stories. On the more serious side, I get to keep asking what world do I want for my son or at the very least what dreams for a world that holds many worlds do I want to leave for him. Also, I suppose it has made my work and perspective become more solid with the idea of leaving something behind that might be worth being taken into the future by them. But, I must say it is hard work and you must have a very, very big bed if you plan on having children and getting some sleep!
Gharavi: When people talk about the cultural production of the ancients, like Greece and Rome, they call it the “classics.” Yet you’ve accessed sources that are even more ancient without being referred to as classics—I’m thinking of your allusion to Subcomandante Marcos’ story about Mayan technology. What have you found there?
Dominguez: The question of Mayan technology is not about the past, but about an imagined future we can construct, an imagined future that post-contemporary indigenous communities in Chiapas, Mexico have brought to the global table. The call of Mayan technology is to work to develop work that functions not at the “speed of technology, but at the speed of dreams”—which I read as a call to focus on the question of the political via the poetic, to create work that amplifies the themes of the alter-globalization as an aesthetic force. Art is an important impulse towards defining future-now. So, it is not the “classical” genealogy of modernism/anti-moderism but the performative matrix coded by the force of indigenous futurities.
Gharavi: There’s a rather boring question, by virtue of its ubiquity, about artistic versus activist practice. “Activism” often implies a series of committed acts in the service of a collective goal. It connotes a functionality that seems at odds with art. How do you see it?
Dominguez: For me and all the groups and artists who have collaborated with EDT and 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 unexpected—but never letting go of who we are. We are artists first, artists who are working 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. We focus on art projects and only interface with activists when we have something to offer them. We feel that 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.
Gharavi: How do you deal with digital distraction, or the so-called “information overload”? A generation ago nobody had to deal with an umpteen number of browser tabs open, but surely there were other demands.
Dominguez: I give myself a couple of days a week to drift in the chaosmosis of the digital to wherever links lead in the mornings. Three days where it is very focused research (M-W-F)—which means very little time on-line. Weekends I tend to do very, very little online work or work of any kind. So like anything it is about defining and filtering one’s time and focus in a balanced manner.
Gharavi: How do the physical territory of Juarez and the U.S.-Mexico border geography resonate with you?
Dominguez:The mix of NAFTA’s neoliberal policies, the growth of femicide in the 1990s, the hard border established by Operation Gate Keeper in 1994, and now the endless narco-wars have created a deep tragic voiding of what were once vibrant societies.
Gharavi: The University of California system appears to be fiscally drowning. Students, adjunct faculty and union workers are getting cast overboard. What goes through your mind when you hear “failed state” referring to California?
Dominguez: I hear echoes of Juarez/El Paso or the border in general—the neoliberal privatization of education, the dismantling of unions, the establishing of a hard border between those who will be able to afford higher education and those who cannot, the deleting of departments that focus on non-revenue agendas, such as ethnic studies and Chicano/a studies etc. But California is not the only state or nation that has created education-factories or the corporatization of education. Anywhere that the neoliberal parasite lands on the planet, the commonwealth of a community disappears into the hands of the very few. From the protests last year around the UC system, to Wisconsin and to Egypt now—it is a struggle to sideline globalization and allow alter-globalization to move to the foreground. I still strongly believe that what we are witnessing is the “failed state” of half century of neoliberal policies.