02 04 2001
Disrupting the Bunker
An interview with Critical Art Ensemble
This past summer Critical Art Ensemble presented the project "Cult of the New Eve," an ironic examination of gene obsession in the biotech industry, at the WIO Future Heritage Exhibition in Brussels. The group spoke to Wolfgang Sützl about bunkers, non-rational resistance, and the appropriation of uselessness.
Q: In your book Electronic Civil Disobedience you speak of resistance against bunkers. Is a shopping mall something that would qualify as a bunker?
A: Yes, you can call a shopping mall a bunker. They are certainly set up as a fortress that keeps some people in and keeps others out. Malls are the hardest place to initiate political action or create public space. For interventions in such locations, CAE had to design its actions to be under three minutes in duration, because that's about the delay time between when security first sees you, and when a detachment of officers will arrive on-site and stop whatever it is that you are doing.
Q: These restrictions remind me of those that apply at airports and other nodes of transportation. Do you think that the bunker-like quality of these places has to do with speed, as Paul Virilio argues, or is it a matter of confluence of data, of information concentration?
A: It depends on the type of bunker. If you are talking about electronic fortifications as bunkers, they are very fast indeed-their functions and defenses are speed dependent. But when you look at bunkers in real space, particularly at something like a mall, they are very slow and cumbersome. They are from another century, designed to slow people down, to form a passive critical mass that serves the commodity. They are designed to hold you in a place, or move you slowly around a particular track. So they are not particularly fast-paced, except for their security systems, which are pretty quick for real space. An airport is a completely different story; that is, it is a bunker of fear. Most activities that are deviations from expectation are immediately considered the beginning of a worst-case scenario. In this sense, they are a different kind of bunker. Yet there are transport nodes that are rather open ended. One time, I think it was in 1998, CAE performed at a transportation site in Sheffield, where two markets came together and which was an open-air combination of a bus and a tram stop. There was a considerable amount of space and places to sit-fortifications were minimal. At this site, we set up a sign that said "Free Beer and Cigarettes for the Unemployed" (Sheffield has an incredibly high rate of unemployment) and proceeded to distribute beer and cigarettes. We performed a false campaign telling that we were the "International Campaign of Free Alcohol and Tobacco for the Unemployed." We also distributed literature and pamphlets saying that people should ask their parliamentarian why the basic welfare packet excluded elements of pleasure, such as alcohol and tobacco. Our intention was to reconstitute the space, to get it out of its standard mode of efficiency which furthered either consumption or transportation, and to change it into a more convivial social space. In other words, we attempted to transform the area into a real public space. We were expecting the action would only continue for a very short time, so we were ready to move, but we never had to. It was very odd. Local advisors thought that we were crazy, and that we were going to get in trouble, but that never happened. In this manner, we successfully got to change the nature of that space rather radically for an afternoon. So sometimes you can be surprised, especially in a place like England, which is so heavily surveilled. I am sure we were being watched, and that the police cruised by to see what we were doing a couple of times, but they never tried to stop us.
Q: One thing that strikes me about places like this is the changing nature of action, which seems to become negative. Not doing anything, such as stopping where one is expected to walk-at an airport corridor, for instance-seems to be considered problematic. What does that mean for resistant activities? Is it still possible to use positive action, or do we rather have to look at negative practices such as cultural jamming?
A: Well, jamming is always a good method. No matter what the resistance practice is, it is always based on some kind of jamming-that is, slowing the velocity of a system or process in some way. There are a lot of different blockage methods for real space as well as for the electronic ones. But the compelling point in what you just said is that even though there are lots of ways to actively disrupt an airport and create a blockage, what happens if an individual just stops? Clearly, that is something that will attract attention incredibly fast. Because stopping in such a location is a truly scary, deviant action. Not so much because you are slowing velocity-the hallways are designed with some blockage in mind-but because it defies the code of efficiency. The scary thing about this nonact as an important form of resistance is that it is a nonrational act. The appropriation of uselessness is a privilege that only the very wealthy have. No one else is really supposed to do it. The Òpublic sphereÓ is geared toward working and consuming. There should always be some kind of activity, some kind of movement, some bodily expression of a semiotic code of efficiency.
When someone stops at an airport in the middle of a corridor or in any space that is designated for movement, it can only mean one of two things: that you are sick, or worst of all, that you are appropriating uselessness at very inopportune time. When security approaches you-and it will-the officers will ask what is wrong. If you say: "I just wanted to stop and stand here," they are going to direct you to some place where you are supposed to stop, like a gate or a cafe. What they are afraid of is not so much resistance due to blockage, but that you are signaling to other people that uselessness is a possibility that we can exercise whenever we like. It is a pleasure over which we have autonomy. Uselessness is real opposition to production and consumption. And that is the most frightening thing of all to authority. That is also why capitalism fears sexuality so much. The gear to rid the social of sexuality once and for all is constantly turning. With the new reprotech, the capitalist dream of an asexual society seems more possible than ever. Once power can separate reproduction from sex, then a successful campaign against it becomes reasonable. Right now the only place where sexuality is tolerated is in secondary representation. You can look at images, because you are consuming something produced by capital. Yet on the other hand, you are not really supposed to have sex yourself. In America, the penalty for sex in the workplace is approaching criminality. It is certainly civilly illegal. And the reason why you can't do it is because during that moment, you are neither consuming nor producing ( it's certainly not to protect women as it is usually represented). It is a kind of body mingling that is a danger to the overall inscription of capital's meta-value of efficiency.
The question of what kind of resistance there should be is a problem. It is one that is still relatively unexplored. Most activists have a reactive strategy to problems and crises: here is the situation, how do we slow it down, how do we stop it? But there is also another strategy that can function as a complement to the reactive. These are nonrational resistances, resistance through pleasure. These possibilities need to be explored further, and find more public expression. Is such activity, like stopping in an airport corridor, essential to undermining the semiotic regimes of capital? It certainly contributes to the possibility of reconstructing public arrangements and ideological systems.
Q: So is this kind of resistance you were just referring to necessarily nomadic? Or are there stationary practices of nonrational resistance?
A: It doesn't have to be nomadic, and I would suspect that in the majority of cases it is not. This is one of the issues on which Critical Art Ensemble is often misunderstood. When we talk about electronic civil disobedience and the means to combat nomadic power in a reactive world, then, yes, resistance has to be a nomadic to be at all successful. But this does not mean that outside of this kind of situation, other forms of resistances aren't still useful. For instance, traditional civil disobedience is still a very useful technique on a local level. If you are trying to engage nomadic power you have to meet it on the same terms. But if you are trying to disrupt a bunker technology-let inertia meet inertia-it doesn't have to be nomadic whether the tactic is rational or nonrational.
Remember too that it's hard to be critical all the time. A critical mind-set combined with political action cannot be maintained 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Just talk to anyone who has spent years in the political trenches. One day you reach a point of burnout, because there is so much to be done. Activism is like a black hole that will suck up however much energy you want to put into it. You can never put in enough; you cannot do it 24 hours a day, and people who try to completely wear themselves out. So to fight capital you need pleasure too, a kind of retreat, inertia, and uselessness. The rational and the nonrational have to complement each other, and in this resistant configuration they are both radical. This is the only way a resistant practice can be maintained in the long-term. Otherwise you are heading for a psychological meltdown.
Q: What is the normal reaction of a capitalistic structure against the appropriation of uselessness? Can we say that a normal capitalist system has no language for it, no internal structure by which to respond to it, and that for this reason it is effective?
A: Certainly it doesn't know how to respond to it. The problem with uselessness for capital is that it can't make it go away. Capital can hide it, which is what it generally does, and it can exploit it, which capital does well. One of the things capitalism loves is to make things that are totally useless.
Q: But these things are never offered as useless.
A: No, they are never presented that way.
Q: Instead uses are invented to go with the product?
A: Yes. People have a desire for uselessness and capital will sell it to them. It fulfills that desire with products, but it will never express it with a symbol, because that would be too disruptive to the symbolic order of capital. I once had a VCR, for example, that you could program a year in advance. I never used that function, and I will never use that function. One year in advance! I don't even know what programs are on in a coming year, let alone entetain the idea that I am going to program my VCR for a year from now, put in a tape and wait. But that function is there. So the reason capital puts it there is because people want gadgets on their machines. And sales people representing the product can say: ÒThis VCR only records a month in advance; this one records a year in advance. They are the same price. So which is the better value?Ó So uselessness is presented as a bargain. And not as what it is-something useless. It is presented as something ultra-efficient and ultra-hi-tech, as something so useful that we haven't even imagined it yet. But in reality it is useless, and it will always be useless. That is capital's exploitation of that desire we have, that need for excess. Capital understands this sense of excess and it has to let everybody participate in excess to some degree. Capital gives you a VCR that records a year in advance and says: "Here is your cut." While at the higher end within the realm of uselessness, considerable amounts of assets are burned off in monuments to nothing. The grandest example of the last century was probably the Star Wars defense initiative: A multi-billion dollar project that produced nothing functional. And even if they had made it, I don't know what good it would have been by the time it was finished. But you can also think of the international ballistic missile system as a monument to uselessness. It is designed and made for mutually assured destruction. It's made to never be used. And if it is used, then it is a failure. There are these levels of transcendental uselessness, of sacrificial capital, because there is so much excess being generated by the profit machine. The excess can't be given back. Capital can't redistribute profit (that would be communism). So what do it do? Burn it off by creating these ridiculous monuments. To be able to fuel such immense waste is the definition of real power in pancapitalism.
Q: So then uselessness is not an inefficiency of the economy that could be corrected, but something like a necessary constant byproduct?
A: Yes. Most people view new technology as being either an apocalyptic mechanism. It is going to bring us surveillance society and the molecular invasion of the body, which are all true. Or as a very utopian mechanism, or at least a mechanism that has a micro liberatory content. A group like Critical Art Ensemble is able to live in different places, but stick together, because of communication technologies. But there is a third position, a view from the undereconomy, which is not spoken of. Here you can see technology as being completely useless. Think about when you buy a computer, how much crap software you get with it that you are never even going to open. It is just there to say: "And here is the large software package that comes with it." But basically it is useless stuff that nobody needs.
Q: How important is irony in this kind of cultural jamming practices and cultural resistances? Is it possible not to be ironic?
A: Well, I think you are always going to have some kind of comic-tragic hybrid, which is based on the fact that it would otherwise be impossible to continue producing. We think that it is some sort of a defense mechanism. There has to be some kind of a comic element, somewhat of a self-reflexive humorous view of yourself as you do these activities. And that works its way into and inscribes itself into the work one way or another. On the other hand, I think that irony, sarcasm, and other comic elements can be used not just as a self-defense, but also as incredibly effective tools. People tend to learn, think, express better under conditions that they feel are fun than under those where they feel anxiety or fear. You can't just take the tragic component of an issue and bombard people with it, and have any success-the sight machine has already bombarded people with images of horror to a point where they express only neutrality. One of the good things about postmodern culture is that comedy is being taken seriously again, and used as a very effective way to bring in an audience and perforate boundaries. Issues that seem scary and/or unintelligible (because an audience member is not a specialist in that particular area of knowledge) are made more inviting. Comedy opens the gate a little more, while tragedy seems to shut it down. So as an opening device, as a way to crack into difficult and contested subject matters, we find it a useful tool.
Q: You are using it in your latest project "Cult of the New Eve", where you are baptizing people and have them renounce their previous religions. Is there a particular stage of capitalistic development for which the Human Genome Project is characteristic? What is the inner sequence?
A: Biotech is a parallel track to ICT in digital economy. It couldn't have happened in another way, because the two things are so intertwined. If we look at the past two millennia, the cosmological view of the universe has been almost exclusively analogical. Almost all thinking was based around the principle that there is chaos; that order arises out of chaos; then it decays and returns to chaos. That is just the cycle of life. And that conception applies to whatever you want. For example, take the idea of the masterpiece in the Renaissance. It was a way of constructing a perspectival order, a vision order that was unique. But once the painting or artwork disappeared, so did that sense of order. That's why in those days they made a lot of things to really last, they wanted to slow down the decay process.
But at the beginning of the 20th century-with the maturity of mass production-something was different. No one really put a finger on it right away, but it was the beginning of the digital economy. All of a sudden there was a serious concern for replication and equivalence. The desire was to produce product units that looked precisely alike. Everything would be replicated so you couldn't tell the difference between particular units of a given product. Everything was an original, or nothing was an original, however you want to put it. So the big cosmological principle was no longer that order comes from chaos, but that order comes from order. That is the society of replication, the society of the copy. It of course made the perfect copying machine, the computer, based on the digital model.
CAE would date the first fully articulated idea of the digital to about 1947-48, when Claude Shannon solved the problem of how to send a clear signal over a noisy channel. And it is no accident that shortly after that, Watson and Crick modeled DNA. All of a sudden, digital thinking was in the air and explicitly expressed. Scientists knew about DNA before Watson and Crick and some of its functions were understood. But it was still being thought of within an analogic framework. Unfortunately, DNA is not analogic. DNA is fundamentally a replicating device. It is not a perfect replicator, nor is any of our technology, but that is its tendency. But once biologists had that idea of what to focus on-that the mechanism is about replication-that is when they finally understood the building blocks of life. And that is what started the biotech revolution.
Computers have sped ahead a little bit, because they are generally a more useful technology, and also because you need the communication system for commerce to work. But now we are starting to see biotech catch up. They are two parallel tracks. They are both about informatics, one about wet informatics and one about dry informatics. But it is the same model that is being used on the macro and the micro levels, and one can't be understood without the other.
Q: What might we hope for not to happen? Is it possible to consider the biotech revolution as the ultimate evil, the last possible step on the track of alienation? Or is this a misconceived approach to this problem altogether?
A: CAE doesn't think that it is going to be that much worse than any of the other poor uses of technology. Biotech, as it's currently being constructed, is simply the completion of an authoritarian political project. It is the final phase. The social environment is pretty much under control, given the complexity of capital's sight and war machines. The last problem, however, is that the flesh is still a relatively independent variable. It is still out of control, and that makes the perfect rationalization of the world a problem.
Q: The "human factor"?
A: Yes, it's the human factor, the flesh factor as well, and right now it is at a crisis point. The body was made for a low-velocity existence. Humans were not designed to do a lot of thinking, to work all day and all night, to go out, shop and shop some more, and so on. This is not the life we for which we are adapted, and you can see it in how the body is now breaking down. Nowadays you see everyone, especially from the technocratic class, wearing their prosthetic devices and running to the doctor as fast as they can go. For instance, in the United States, doctors desperately try to keep people sane by distributing millions and millions of prescriptions for mood elevators and antidepressants. CAE would say that it is a kind of body meltdown, that is going on at the moment. As the biotech revolution with all its utopian promises continues, and when medical intervention and design at the molecular level becomes the norm, then the final colonial invasion will be in full swing. The organic space that once was an autonomous zone will be made to serve. However, it won't be the worst scenario imaginable, it will just be more of the same, a new frontier in surveillance, a new frontier in panorganization, a new means to profit.
Q: Do you see a future for electronic drugs, like the kind of things that Kevin Warwick does? He says that the pharmacological industry is already investing in these kinds of things.
A: Well I am sure that is being looked into.
Q: Instead of chemical products you have electronic stimuli?
A: Well, it is a potential direction that I am sure is being investigated. The neural network of the body is electrically based, and if you can intervene at that level, I have no doubt that pharmacological corporations will do it. But I don't expect that the products will be available very soon. From what I can tell, the big rush is for genetically engineered drugs. Gene therapies and the drugs that will make that possible, is where the money will be.