„I am not fond of manipulation, and I think you should not use it for political aims.” (1)
(Left-wing squatter in Berlin, April 2000)
In 1996-1997 together with Ute Vorkoeper we organized and curated the international exhibition project discord. sabotage of realities (2) which took place in the Kunstverein and the Kunsthaus in Hamburg. The exhibition was part of the Hamburg Week of Visual Arts 1996, partly funded by the city’s Cultural Office. Artists worldwide were invited to submit artistic concepts dealing with today’s more and more un-peaceful political and social realities. The organizers received more than 500 concepts from 31 countries. The actual exibition discord was divided into six thematic zones focussing on control (security/insecurity), news services (disinformation), everyday (alienation), border politics (walking the tightrope), state machineries (law, discipline, repression), science fiction & economy (the administration of the future) and included an international selection of 34 artistic works most of which were premiered in the exhibition, and 26 additional artistic concepts from 18 countries.
The Spanish non-profit organization Technologies to the People® (TP) was one of the participants of the discord project. Unfortunately the large scale photos which Technologies to the People® had prepared as its contribution disappeared somewhere on their way between Spain and Germany. Another solution had to be found quickly. It was finally agreed upon with the organizers that Technologies to the People® would become one of the main sponsors of the discord. sabotage of realities project. As our sponsor, Technologies to the People® put its black large-scale logo (TP) on an entire wall in the exhibition space and in the catalogue. In addition to that TP distributed small boxes containing propaganda leaflets describing its product range: the Street Access Machine®, the Recovery Card®, the Personal Folkcomputer®, and the Internet Street Access Machine®. On the back cover the leaflets contained a long list of TP’s sponsors, among them such big corporations as Tokio Mitsubishi, Fuji, Sakura, Industrial Bank of Japan, Norinchuking Bank of Japan, Long Term Bank of Japan, Deutsche Bank, Crédit Agricole, Crédit Lyonnais, HSBC Holdings, Asahi Bank, Industrial&Comercial, CS Holdings, ABN Amro, Chase Manhattan Chemical and Societé Générale.
According to the definition and the visuals given on the propaganda leaflet, the whole range of TP’s products allow the underpriviledged to actively participate in the upcoming information society. The Street Access Machine® and the Recovery Card® enable beggars to transfer money from credit cards. The Internet Street Access Machine® realizes the wide-spread demand of ‘access for all’. Perfectly appropriating the IT industries’ rhetoric of technoutopian ideology which goes like „use these new technologies and the future will be even brighter”, or „the use of new communication technologies will allow everybody to participate in a better and more equal future world”, TP turns this rhetoric into its very opposite by showing the underlying cynical ‘hidden reverse’ of the IT business’s technoutopian lure: beggars will remain beggars, underpriviledged will remain underpriviledged and poor will remain poor even if they are all using new information and communication technologies. Technology alone does not change society; it may even prevent society from changing because it crystallizes existing social structures and widens the gap between the information-haves and the have-nots. It makes a difference only for the IT industry because they can make money out of selling their products.
The striking – and so obvious – contradiction included in the leaflets was overseen by a lot of people and thus the project caused a lot of misunderstandings. These misunderstandings, however, can also be read as hinting towards the conflicting understanding and the interpretation of the role of technology within society. More precisely, the TP campaign was taken dead seriously by representatives of various sides, a fact that sheds light on the interests of both industry as well as on the political left.
After the opening of the exhibition the organizers received an e-mail from the German branch of the company Apple. Apple read about TP’s advertisement somewhere in the media and was seriously interested in the (Internet) Street Access Machine®. They asked if there were already some prototypes which they could examine more closely. The discord organizers were amused. Of course there were not prototypes yet, and they were not to come either. Rather, the whole thing could be described as a meme intended to unveil the hidden desires of industry which, despite its rhetorics (as described above), is not exactly interested in an embetterment of society but is interested purely in profit. TP laid the bait and industry took it.
Also, the left German art magazine Texte zur Kunst did not get a clue. In an article entitled ‘Politics as Style’ (3) the student of philosophy Antonia Ulrich foamed with rage about the exhibition in general, and, amongst others, about TP’s project in particular. discord, of course, must have felt like poaching on the left’s very political terrain. Ulrich criticized the two curators and the participating artists for ‘aestheticizing’ political issues, for the missing applicability in real politics and for not leaving the art space and demonstrating in the streets of Hamburg. Well. Writing about art is perhaps not always the best thing to do if you want to be politically correct. Unsurprisingly, Ulrich misread most of the artistic projects. She took TP’s project for granted as if she had never heard about subversion strategies and the art of campaigning before. For her, TP was really about providing the ‘marginalized’ with access to the electronic media: According to Ulrich TP seriously „presented technology as a means to abolish social injustice, blindly believing in the progressive function of these technologies. Instead of laying bare the power mechanisms inscribed into these technologies, [TP] aestheticized technology.” (4) This obviously comes to no surprise at all for her, knowing that the TP project was „sponsored by Mitsubishi, Fuji, Deutsche Bank, and Crédit Lyonnais” (5).
What could have provoked this deliberate misreading of Technologies to the People®? Technology, obviously, is still a red rag to the left. But it was provoked as well by the fact that for the left the only possible way of confronting its enemies is criticizing them straightforwardly. Manipulation, communication guerilla (6) tactics and artistic strategies like the strategy of over-identification (7) have been neglected for a long time by the left. It was, and still is, just impossible to think about using „enemy strategies” for the ‘good’ cause.
Even if you are not fond of manipulation, like the naive left-wing squatter I quoted in the beginning, today, manipulation is everywhere. There is no such thing as whether to call it good or bad. It is there, and it is a fact. It won’t go away. In many cases, rather, it remains the only effective language left. Good intentions alone do not win fights. Rhetorics is not about having the right opinion, it is about using the right words. If the situation requires it, become a pop singer! or a stock broker! infiltrate corporate structures by appropriating corporate strategies and rhetoric! The majority of people in the squatted house who participated in the discussion about whether to use the Internet for political aims or not were of the opinion that because they had „good” political intentions they would not need „bad” manipulation. And, besides that, the computer was an instrument of power which you should not let your children use. I just felt bad, sitting there and being confronted with so much politically correct stubbornness. We soon left the place, sobered, and drove out into the night in a fat old black Mercedes, listening to the sound of Plaid.
1 Left-wing squatter in one of the last squatted houses in Berlin („Bandito Rosso”), during a discussion in April 2000 about whether to use the Internet for political aims or not. I participated in the discussion with some people from the Chaos Computer Club (CCC; the German hacker’s club), them of course also being a red rag to the left-wing squatters movement. The squatter turned openly „against manipulation” after somebody mentioned the fake fpo.at website that was installed after the right-wing Austrian FPÖ party got into the coalition with the ÖVP. The fake fpo.at website contained links to militant right wing organisations and thus intended to reveal the ‘hidden reverse’, i.e. that which remains unspoken in the rhetorics of the FPÖ. A common left criticism was that the fake fpo.at website could provide FPÖ fans with links to ‘appropriate’ organisations, i.e. could push them in an even more radical direction.
3 Antonia Ulrich, ‘Politik als Stil’, in: Texte zur Kunst, März 1997, 7. Jg. Nr. 25, S. 123-126
4 Ibid., p. 124 (my translation)
5 Ibid., p. 126, footnote 9 (my translation)
6 C.f. autonome a.f.r.i.k.a.-gruppe / Luther Blissett / Sonja Brünzels, Handbook of the Communication Guerilla [German original Handbuch der Komunikationsguerilla, Hamburg/Berlin 1997]. Here, RTMark’s <http://www.rtmark.com> and etoy’s <http://www.etoy.com> anti-corporate strategies come to one’s mind. C.f. Inke Arns ‘Recent Net Campaigns (esp. Toywar) and the Importance of Small Media or Wide-Spread Non-Hierarchical Systems’, lecture given at the conference Pro@Contra, Moscow 11-14 May 2000 [to be published in the documentation in the course of 2000] <http://procontra.danet.ru>. The SuperWeed Kit 1.0 project sponsored by the Cultural Terrorist Agency (i.e. Rachel Baker and Heath Bunting) <http://www.irational.org/cta> fits into this category as well: SuperWeed Kit 1.0 „is a lowtech DIY kit capable of producing a genetically mutant superweed designed to attack corporate monoculture” <http://pages.hotbot.com/politics/superweed/>.
7 C.f. Inke Arns, ‘Mobile States / Shifting Borders / Moving Entities. The Slovenian Artists’ Collective Neue Slowenische Kunst’, in: Irwin, Three projects: Transnacionala, Irwin Live, Icons, Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw 1998, pp. 59 – 76. See also <http://www.v2.nl/~arns/Texts/NSK/finale.htm>