[-empyre-] introductory questions

Owen Mundy omundy at gmail.com
Tue Nov 12 15:31:45 EST 2013

Hi all from sunny Florida,

Thanks Selmin, for the invitation to take part in this discussion, and Patrick for the introduction. Glad to be a part of this dialog as we in my Network Art class at FSU have been exploring how art changes as it emerges in media usually reserved for entertainment, news, and commercial messages. 

I have enjoyed following the various threads circulating around "Documenting digital artivism." I really liked Richard Wright's description of the "Telephone Trottoire" telephone network for the Congolese community in the UK. It is a fine example of introducing function through aesthetics. 

I have also noted the following while reading others' comments:

1. This is my first experience with the term, "Artivism," and like the subjectivity of what is or not "Art," it is difficult to pin down the meaning of this word, what with so many different perspectives of folks practicing and writing about it. Activism is a call to action, with political / social change the intended result. So is artivism creative activism? Or is it politically-motivated art? Or is it anything one applies the label to? How does segmentation and distinction of the means serve us when we're likely more concerned with the end?

In speaking of labels, it may be helpful to consider the intention of the expression; What audiences do practitioners seek? How does the word "activism" conflict with desired outcomes? Like James Agee's statement in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, "Don't call it art...", does calling it "activism" help the cause in any way? Or like, Agee's motivation, does naming it allow it to be dismissed, both in meta contexts, and in the moment? Does it strip it's power? A sign in front of someone's face saying "fuck you" is still a sign, regardless of how creative.

2. Documenting digital anything is a pain. Recent online projects have intended to enable shifts of power. Commodify, Inc. and http://commodify.us which is launching soon, is an international collaboration to provide a platform for people to upload and license their Facebook data under open source or commercial licenses. Thus it is not only a public cultural/political work which proposes more democratic possibilities, it provides a real tool to empower users to realize such alternatives. Camp La Jolla Military Park (2008) http://camplajolla.org was a proposal (complete with archive, website, brochures, tours) to transform the the campus of the University of California San Diego into a National Park to preserve their ongoing military heritage as students work on sponsored projects for local Predator drone manufacturer General Atomics. Give Me My Data (2009) http://givememydata.com lets Facebook users export their data back out of Facebook in reusable formats (CSV, JSON, etc.), and by combining the functionality with visual and verbal rhetoric that suggested users have this right, influenced Facebook to offer their own (unfortunately not as useful) export tool one year after launch. 

My knowledge of document[ation|ary] ranges from what Allan Sekula called, "concerned photography" to Stephen Colbert's "truthiness." For example, because the audience for Give Me My Data are the users, I make attempts to tell the story in settings such as this. Though, in the case of network-based cultural production (i.e. source code which transmits and transforms other's personal data via an application program interface) there are many possible permutations. Is it... the hard drive with the files or the GIT respository? https://github.com/omundy/givememydata which are both useless without the API and authentication methods. The interface of the app itself (or rather the image of it), or the visualizations that users make? Or is it the cultural derivatives like the NYT technology article about the app? Or the fact that FB was compelled and launched their own service? 

So if documentation is a creative response, a method of story telling, a fiction of facts, then drone-based journalism http://bit.ly/1bq4RRb , Leni Riefenstahl, James Agee, we, all are culpable. 

3. While we artists have a rich history of creative disturbance to tap for inspiration, if you were to make a rubric (yes, sorry about that) determining methodology for effective "artivism" would the columns look like a marketing campaign for Apple? Likely not, most artists and activists are not trained to study demographics, targeted advertising, making global internationalized ad campaigns (I18N, etc.). You know, methods of producing media with the intent of behavior-change. As Micha pointed out here already, "they have more resources to produce images." Alternately, laws are made by lawyers, no? These are not mute questions, there are plenty of examples of artists and/or activists taking part in civics, employing marketing methods for better ends. One more well known, the WochenKlausur artist group's intervention, convincing different parties to discuss the issue of a shelter for drug-addicted women in Zurich by sending them out on a boat over the lake. "After two weeks a total of almost sixty experts had participated: all of the secretaries of the Swiss political parties, the mayor and four Zurich city councilors, two prosecuting attorneys, the editors in chief of the biggest Swiss newspapers, police chiefs, and specialists from the fields of medicine, prevention and therapy."

These perspectives on determining the proper line of work (perhaps not art) for making social change are in response to Selmin's initial prompt, the critique of "artivism" as "bourgeois engagements that dilute the masses' or underprivileged communities' urgent need for social change," and I think is a valid point that could use further discussion. But as disinformation guru, Robert McNamara, former U.S. Secretary of Defense responsible for escalating the violence Vietnam, said in regard to the press, "Don't answer the question they asked, answer the question you wish they had asked."



Owen Mundy
Assistant Professor
Department of Art
Florida State University

On Nov 11, 2013, at 9:06 AM, Matthew Brower wrote:

> ----------empyre- soft-skinned space----------------------
> Hello Chaya and Owen,
> I was initially reluctant to participate in this discussion as I’m not sure I understand what artivism is. So to begin with, I’ll try to locate my questions in relation to my own practice as a curator. While I’m interested in work with political content, I’m too influenced by Adorno’s arguments in Commitment to straightforwardly embrace the political content of work as its most important aspect. Instead, I’m drawn to work that explores what Mouffe describes as the space of the political rather than work that takes up what she would call a politics. I prefer work that opens up questions and explores categories rather than work that offers an explicit message. My concern is that much of the work I’ve seen that labels itself as activist substitutes intention for political effectiveness. I.e., it presents what the artist wanted to do as if it were the same thing as what the work itself did. So, to begin to engage the provocations, I’m trying to determine the difference between agit-prop, propaganda, artivism, and activism. Why does activism need to make art?
> Best,
> Matt
> _______________________________________________
> empyre forum
> empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au
> http://www.subtle.net/empyre

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