[-empyre-] Against Documentary, Artivism vs. Social Practice and Autonets

micha cárdenas mmcarden at usc.edu
Wed Nov 6 13:09:48 EST 2013

Hello all,

Thank you so much Patrick, Selmin and Camilla for organizing this wonderful
and provocative month on empyre! Also, I’m happy to say that nowadays I’m
based between the US and Canada, as a visiting researcher at University of
Toronto working with Patrick. Forgive my excessive first post, I was in
airports and planes all day.

These questions about documentation and artivism are very interesting, and
are a welcome forward step in dialogues about artivism. I also appreciate
this framing, as it differs from dialogues about social practice, and would
be interested to hear other’s thoughts on that difference. The recent
discussion at the Creative Time summit asking if social practice is a
gentrification of community art practices seems very relevant here (

My own approach to artivism comes from my experience working with the
Electronic Disturbance Theater 2.0/b.a.n.g. lab which includes myself, Amy
Sara Carroll, Ricardo Dominguez, Elle Mehrmand and Brett Stalbaum. Ricardo
introduced me to the concept of artivism, along with Adriene Jenik, when I
was doing media activism in San Diego and started studying in the visual
arts department at UCSD. At the time, I was heavily invested in documentary
as a cultural practice of media activism that could have an impact by
multiplying the street based actions of activists in the
alter-globalization and anti-war movements. Yet at UCSD, I became familiar
with the work of JP Gorin, Haroun Farocki, Jill Godmilow, Barbara Hammer
and began to move away from documentary as a form. Critical Art Ensemble’s
book The Electronic Disturbance has a great chapter available online titled
“Against Documentary” (http://www.critical-art.net/books/ted/) that argues
that activists investing in the trash value of images produced in
documentary are supporting a system of logic which will always allow
hegemonic powers to win because they have more resources to produce images.
I believe this to be true, still. Despite movements like Indymedia and the
widespread adoption of media production and distribution through social
media and networks like Wikileaks and the Pirate Bay, it seems to me that
reducing social inequity cannot happen only through a production of better
images or a logic of “getting the truth out” to the uninformed masses. The
masses know that injustice exists. Its on the front page of the newspaper.
That is not the problem.

In contrast, my approach to artivism works in solidarity with social
movements to engage in a Science of the Oppressed which can generate new
knowledge and ideas based on the needs of oppressed communities, instead of
based on the interests of corporations and white, male, heterosexual
elites. I’m particularly interested lately in decolonization as a politic
that works in solidarity with existing indigenous movements to deconstruct
institutions of colonization such as prisons, gender binaries and sexual
violence. I’m also very invested in a Femme Science which can use femme
political strategies such as community building and emotional skill to end
violence against trans women of color, disabled people and two-spirit

That said, my project Autonets should be seen in part as a speculative
gesture, like the Transborder Immigrant Tool which I worked on and which
was a main inspiration for my project. To date I have made prototypes of
mesh networked clothing using Lilypad Arduinos and Xbee v2 wireless
transmitters which can successfully communicate distress signals to each
other and detect each other’s distance. Yet these are only prototypes and I
have not felt that they are reliable enough to give them to people to offer
a promise of safety. Similarly the Transborder Immigrant Tool is still in
beta and has never been distributed. In the mean time, I’ve been focusing
on workshops and performances where people can build networks of safety and
share concrete skills to make them safer on a daily basis, such as
non-verbal communication in public space,  group defense choreographies and
collective movement practices. These strategies, inspired by digital
networks but taking those concepts offline, I’ve called post-digital, even
though I think of them in a decolonial frame as pre-digital and
post-digital. Also, these workshops and performances use Theater of the
Oppressed to give people methods and spaces to express their feelings about
violence, another immediate concrete effect.

In this project, my primary “audience” is actually the workshop
participants, who become the performers in the performances. The audience
for the performances is almost secondary and the audience that sees the
documentation is part of that. You can see some documentation at






I consider the documentation to be a separate piece of art from the
workshops or the performances, not a representation of them, since I don’t
feel like there is any way of representing performance in a way that would
reproduce the experience of seeing it.

I am presently very ambivalent towards the mainstream or commercial art
world of galleries and museums, which have a history and present of being
extremely white and male supremacist (just look at the work of the
Guerrilla Girls or this recent article:
but the Guerrilla Girls do their work anonymously so as not to damage their
professional art careers. I’m very aware that my being a transgender woman
of color makes it astronomically unlikely that I’ll ever be a candidate for
mainstream art world success, and I’m very grateful to the curators who’ve
supported my work, and I should say that of course success is relative and
I imagine by some estimation, my work is already successful in that it has
been shown in biennials, museums and galleries, but I still feel that my
position is marginal.

I feel that a majority of the mainstream/commercial art world is either not
interested in political art, or in socially engaged practices that don’t
have a commercially viable form of documentation. Even in social practice
dialogs, writers like Claire Bishop argue that art that advances a
political goal is abject. As such, I am focusing more on community spaces
and on academic spaces which provide me space because of my overlap as an
artivist and academic, and where I can focus on making the work that
achieves my political, aesthetic and personal goals without feeling much of
the demands of a commercial gallerist or a white middle class museum
audience. I'm more invested in being in dialog with the communities I live
and work in now.

I have plenty more to say on each of these topics, hopefully this initial
response wasn’t too painfully long. I expect some people to say TLDR. :-)


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