I was born in the heart of the Military-Entertainment Complex of Las Vegas, Nevada in 1959 and I went to college to study acting at Southern Utah State College in Cedar City, Utah. Then I moved to Tallahassee, Florida for about ten years and then finally to NYC in the early 90’s.
I just became a Professor UCSD (University of California San Diego) at the age of 45 without benefit of a Doctoral degree - but, I suppose that after 14 years of digital cultural construction with The *THING* thing.net (a Chelsea-based ISP for artists and activists), multiple collaborations with famous artists (from Coco Fusco to Vanessa Beecroft to Diane Ludin to Francesca Da Rimini), participation in art collectives (from Fakeshop.com to Jennifer and Kevin McCoy), and working with a multitude of tactical media groups around the world (i.e. [rtmark.com, etoy.com, Reclaim the Streets (NYC), revbilly.com, Women in Black and Greenpeace] – in the end that is pretty much equal to a Doctoral Dissertation.
So after living for 14 years in this part of the world, first four or five years in NYC’s West Village and Lower East Side and then Williamsburg, Brooklyn on the south side of the Williamsburg Bridge starting around 1996, I am sad to leave my long term home and global city connections.
I suppose it makes sense that I would finally be confirmed a Gothamite just as I leave. But, I will be back!
On the good side of the move out west is that I am now part of an edge technology initiative called CAL (IT) 2 (calit2.net) and the Visual Arts Department at UCSD. So these last few months have been a radical change for me at all levels. I have a steady check, insurance and a great deal support for my work and research.
Oh, I am single and have no children. And my transport of choice is walking and public transport… which mark me as completely insane in a city like San Diego where only cars (really big cars) have rights. So far I have not had any major problems getting around… so I am going to see how long I can extend the walking performance in Car Land.
My very old skool homepage: http://www.thing.net/~rdom.
You've been called the godfather of Hacktivism. What is Hacktivism?
Hacktivism is the use of digital cracking, hacking, phreaking or creating a technology to achieve a political or social goals. Hacktivism also includes the idea of electronic civil disobedience (ECD), which brings methods of civil disobedience to cyberspace. I have never really found the term Hacktivism useful, but the dominant media really loved it, so I don't fight it any more and just let it be. I prefer the term “electronic civil disobedience," which I think offers a deep link to historical Civil Disobedience and has less to do with the use of contemporary technological dynamics (such as, hacking).
It is the trajectory of electronic civil disobedience that the group that I co-founded, Electronic Disturbance Theater (EDT), have put forth since 1997 in solidarity with the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico as a theory and practice.
Your interest in net activism began in the late 1980‘s when you formed a group called the Critical Art Ensemble (CAE), and helped develop the theory of electronic civil disobedience. How did this group come into being and at that time, what were you reacting against?
I joined the Critical Art Ensemble (CAE) in the 80's in Tallahassee Florida. CAE had already started a year before. CAE was a group of artists of various specializations dedicated to exploring the intersections between art, technology, radical politics, and critical theory.
We were reacting to the rise of the hyper-conservative politics of the 80's and the space of market driven art. We wanted to create work that would disturb both of those conditions by working on the cultural frontier in a deeply collaborative manner, an everyday process that became a form of life itself. We felt that the new performative matrix that was emerging would play its self out in three stages during the 90's: digital/Virtual Capitalism, genetic/Clone Capitalism, nanotechnology/Particle Capitalism. That it would be our goal to shift and disturb each of those zones via counter gestures. The first counter-gesture would be in the form of Electronic Civil Disobedience, the second in developing different models of Citizen Laboratories and the third would be constructing nano-socialist matter engines.
The single most important political encounter for CAE in the 80's was the first wave of the AIDS Crisis. We took part in developing work for our ACT UP/Tallahassee (ACT UP, AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power). I was a member of both groups. This encounter allowed theory to hit the ground in a very focused and specific way. The echoes of this encounter persist in my work and CAE's to this very day.
I would recommend drifting over to CAE's homepage and reading all the downloadable copyleft books at (critical-art.net ). CAE's recent work on biotech and its many manifestations has gotten at least one member into some difficulties with our current fear driven Homeland Security State. A trial is to take place in the not distant future and CAE needs a great deal of economic support to deal with the case. To read all about it go here: caedefensefund.org.
Then, in the 90's, you founded the Electronic Disturbance Theater (EDT) and began staging virtual sit-ins. How did this become your canvas? What is a virtual sit-in and what were some of your initial experiences with this form of protest?
In the 90's I wanted to pursue the development of ECD as a practice and not just a theory. I found the support I needed from very distinct camps on-line: the net.art community in NYC and the Zapatista communities around the world. They both understood that we needed to explore the use of the digital space beyond communication and documentation – we needed simple gestures of mass-non violent direct action on-line. EDT's actions were an open type of digital activism that did not need you to be part of very small and elite groups of individuals at the deepest levels of code to participate. (Read: Electronic Civil Disobedience and the World Wide Web)
How did EDT come about? Well, Digital Zapatismo is and has been one of the most politically effective uses of the Internet that we know of since January 1, 1994. Zapatistas have created a counter-distribution network of information with about 300 or more autonomous nodes of support. This has enabled the EZLN (Zapatista National Liberation Army) to speak to the world without having to pass through any dominant media filters.
The Zapatistas use of communication on the Internet, e-mail and webpages, created an electronic force field around these communities in resistance. Which literally stopped a massive force of men and the latest Drug War technologies from annihilating the EZLN in a few days. The Zapatistas themselves really did not expect to live very long after January 1. In fact the New York Times the very next day stated that Zapatistas represented the first “postmodern revolution." It also completely shifted the cyberwar theories of the RAND Corporation, the leading U.S. Military Think Tank. How could a group of people without electricity, telephones or computers manifest themselves so quickly on-line. They had to work very hard to understand the new model that the Zapatistas had developed.
The movement of information through various Zapatista networks of resistance can be said to have occurred via a strange chaos moving horizontally, non linearly, and over many sub-networks. Rather than operating through a central command structure in which information filters down from the top in a vertical and linear manner - the model of radio and television broadcasting - information about the Zapatistas on the Internet has moved laterally from node to node.
The primary use of the Internet by the global pro-Zapatista movement has been as a communication tool. However particularly since the Acteal Massacre in Chiapas at the end of 1997 in which 45 indigenous people were killed, the Internet has increasingly been used not only as a site or channel for communication, but also as a site for direct action and electronic civil disobedience.
Beta actions of electronic civil disobedience occurred early in 1998. Information about the Acteal Massacre, and announcements of Mexican consulate and embassy protests, were transmitted rapidly over the Net. The largest response was a street protest, drawing crowds of between 5,000 and 10,000 in places such as Spain and Italy. But there were also calls for actions in on-line communities. On the low end of digital activism people sent large numbers of email protests to select email targets of the Mexican government. The Anonymous Digital Coalition, a group based in Italy, issued a plan for virtual sit-ins on five web sites of Mexico City financial corporations. They issued information about the time zones so people could act together when it was 10:00 a.m. in Mexico City. They instructed people to use their Internet browsers to repeatedly reload the web sites of these financial institutions.
The idea was that repeated reloading of the web sites would block those web sites from so-called legitimate use. This idea was the jump off point for the Zapatista FloodNet which automated the reload function to happen every 3 seconds, which was developed by the Electronic Disturbance Theater. The group is composed of myself and net artists, Carmin Karasic, Brett Stalbaum, and Stefan Wray, an activist and media scholar. Carmin and Brett were the artists who created FloodNet.
Tell us a bit more about the mass participatory aspect of Floodnet.
FloodNet encourages interaction on the part of individual protesters. Net surfers may voice their political concerns on a targeted server via the "personal message" form which sends the surfer's own statement to the server error log. Such as, “does Justice.html reside on this server?" The Mexican government website automatically responded "Justice.html does not reside on this mx.gov server". Additionally, a mouse click on the applet image (containing a representation of the targeted site), sends a predefined message to the server error log.
The Zapatista FloodNet system advises you that your IP will be harvested by the government during any FloodNet action. When you click and enter FloodNet, your name and political position will be made known to the authorities. This is similar to having your picture taken during a protest action on the street. There could be possible damage to your machine that may occur because of your participation in FloodNet action, just as in a street action the police may come to hurt you.
As far as we know during the past FloodNet actions only two individuals have reported their machines crashing out of 80,000-plus that have participated, and the only time this happened was when the Department of Defense, the Pentagon attacked us on September 9th, 1998.
The FloodNet also disturbs bandwidth, it may make it difficult for individuals using small pipelines around the world to get information. FloodNet does not impact the targeted web sites specifically, as much as it disrupts the traffic going to the targeted web site. Something similar happens on the street, when individuals find themselves unable to get to work or buy a newspaper because of an action out on the bridge. Once you enter FloodNet you see that targeted URL on the bottom three frames. You begin to see President Zedillo's web site reloading, every 3 to 7 seconds on three different frames. The more people come, the faster it reloads.
This creates a disturbance, a symbolic gesture that is based on mass participation in a non-violent manner. It cannot destroy a server necessarily since many such .gov servers, like the Pentagon's are quite robust and expect millions of hits. But FloodNet does create a sense of solidarity, what I would call 'community of drama' and protest. It also creates a mirror that brings real criminal acts into view. This gesture calls forth the most aggressive tendencies of the information war community.
Take for example the Department of Defense. They attacked EDT during the September 9th, 1998 VR Sit-In we did during the Ars Electronica Festival, in Linz, Austria – the DOD used a counter-hostile Java applet against FloodNet, which is the first offensive use of information war by a government against a civilian server that we know of.
We believe we should be protected from such actions, that the government cannot attack civilians using any kind of software or hardware. What has become apparent is the kind of violence that these information war systems are now implementing against civilians to control whatever public space there is.
EDT took part in the "Toywar". What was that all about?
At the end of 1999 etoys.com a mega toy e-corporation decided to economically attack and take down a famous net.art etoy.com (without an “s") that had owned its domain name since 1994. The mega virtual toy company decided that the net.art groups URL was disrupting some percentage of its profits because of custumers forgetting to use the “s".
When the net.art group eToy refused the companies offers they went after them using a U.S court in L.A. to take away the groups domain and e-mail system. At that point EDT, rtmark.com, The THING, fakeshop.com and many many others created a series of smart swarm actions that forced the company to give up its legal actions against etoy.com and return its domain and email function. A few days later the company crashed because it had lost so much Christmas revenue during the Toywar.
What was important about the Toywar was that it allows us to envision the nature of public resistance to digital Capital in the future. A future where most trans corporations will be completely virtual and no longer found on the streets. At that point in time Electronic civil disobedience (ECD) may become a much more important tactic than it is now. Since for us ECD now is really about getting people in the streets and having those people reflect themselves as data bodies that amplify real bodies.
As the folks on PBS say - Learn more about the Toywar at: http://www.rtmark.com/etoy.html
You talk of the digitally correct community versus the digitally incorrect. What are the differences between them and where does your work fall?
Electronic Disturbance Theater is a digitally incorrect group in that we are not hackers. We are transparent; we always let people know who we are, where we live and what we plan to do ahead of time. Hackers have traditionally focused on being secretive, using avatars and letting very few people know what they are doing or going to do. Hackers have in the past much more involved in the question of code politics with very little concern for street politics. EDT is the exactly the reverse.
For the digitally correct hacker groups code should be hyper-efficient, where as EDT's code is purely a site of mass symbolic efficacy. EDT code functions as net.art And political simulation, what the Zapatistas call the politics as magical realism. So the digitally correct groups function under the standard laws of digital realism, EDT functions between the law of gravity.
Yet your critics have charged you and your fellow hacktivists with using technology destructively, criminally and hypocritally, demanding to be heard yourselves even while silencing others through "Denial of Service" attacks. One critic went so far as to call those who take part in your protests "petty fascists who see plurality of opinion as dangerous." How do you respond to such criticisms?
Well, the above statement answers the critics of the VR Sit-In tactic. EDT would be silencing goverment and corporate sites if the Zapatista FloodNet functioned in the technically efficient manner: in the manner of a “Denial of Service" attack or as a “Distributed Denial of Service" attack which only takes one or two people to launch from enslaved servers – and very few networks, even Microsoft, can take that level of take-down.
If you ask the digitally correct hacktivist/hackers they will tell you quite quickly that FloodNet does not work as a “Denial of Service" it is completely inefficient. But, EDT's work does create a space for a mass performance to take place that does create a disturbance at the level of infrastructure, of software, of code and most importantly at the level of symbolic culture. To a degree sites of power feel they must respond to this discursive space behind the digital mirror. This was the case when Dr. Dorothy Denning presented before the House Arms Committee session on cyberwar and cyberterrorism in 1999. She allowed the language of Electronic Civil Disobience to emerge as something other than cyberwar, cyberterrorrism or cybercrime – but as part of our very American tradition of social protest from the Boston Tea Party to Henry David Thoreau to the Million Mother March on Washington D.C.
Have you had any run-ins with the courts or with governments as a consequence of your actions?
Well as I said above the Pentagon launched an offensive information war weapon at civilian servers in protest, which by the way is against the law in the U.S. During the Toywar the etoys.com gang requested that the THING's router be shut down from another corporate friendly company Verio who hosted our T1 connection.
This type corporate response occurred again later on in 2002 during a performance project we did with the theyesmen.com against Dow Chemical during the 20th anniversary of Bhopla Disaster to be found at dowethics.com. Beyond those specific events I have had encounters with the powers that be.
Also, EDT did a show at the NSA for the D.C infowar crowd in 1999 entitled the NSA SHOW lots of spies, military, security experts, congress types and a couple of senators. I must say they never enjoyed themselves and had a very difficult time understanding Mayan technology.
There has been some discussion that government should help support hacktivism. Do you agree with this? On what grounds?
I believe that one of the core problems with politically correct hacktivism is that it can easily fall within para-legal doctrines of U.S military and law enforcement needs. This is happening because the very nature of social netwar is that the civilian population is now a very important part of fighting war. Like that old Sci-fi novel Ender's Game where the super game playing kid finds out that he has been killing for real. It is much more difficult for the government to use digitally incorrect ECD. Corporations, governments, military and some segments of the cracker/hacker groups enjoy secrecy and elite knowledge as the core of their arsenal.
In the past you have offered critiques of traditional offline forms of protest, calling them obsolete. Are the streets really dead and if so, how do you reconcile your frequent offline lectures/performances (i.e. " Tales of Mayan Technologies: A Performance") with this view?
During the late 80's Critical Art Ensemble did begin to state that the streets were dead Capital. Since it was becoming evident that Virtual Capital was assuming a greater position everyday. Not so much that streets had no political value – but, this shift in power called for an emphasis on a virtual response. A response that was not going to come from street activist, hackers or cyber warriors since it as not in their interest (cyber warriors that is).
Once the Digital Zapatista groups emerged in 1994 street activists began to accept the use of on-line communication to build actions on the streets and on-line. When EDT started performances in 1998 we put forth our idea that all digital actions must be part of parallel street action. That via transparency and simulations data bodies and real bodies could act in unison. At the start of 2000 after the rise of International Hacktivism we began to see a very real dialogue opening with the Hacker community all over world around the issue of off-line politics connecting with on-line applications.
There has always been performance under the sign of performance art and agit-prop theater. Remember our name is Electronic Disturbance Theater. I was trained as an actor and the theory of ECD is framed within the theory of the performative matrix – so doing performance off-line about on-line gestures is all part of the same continuum and the main point of EDT work.
You wear a black hood during your public performances. Could you tell us a bit about the underlying artistic or political purpose behind this?
My black mask with EZLN stitched into it in yellow reflects my solidarity with Zapatista movement. The mask allows those who are invisible to the accounts of Capital, who have no voice in the global space of Power and Profit, who are no longer considered to be part of the world's future to become visible.
To wear the Zapatista mask is to gain presence as a community, to speak as a network, to disturb the condition of globalization. The Zapatista mask is the mask that takes the mask off globalization. It is the mask of the multitude that speaks of another world, of an alter globalization – of a specific form of (lo)balization, which the Zapatistas have been building for more than 500 years.
What is "Mayan Technology" and how does it relate to your work?
I will respond with a story from sub-comandante Marcos.
Hola. Bienvenidos, hermanos y hermanas. Welcome sisters and brothers, I'm going to tell you a little story, una pequeña historia: Pedrito (a Tojolabal, two and a half years old, born during the first Intergalactic) is playing with a little car with no wheels or body. In fact, it appears to me that what Pedrito is playing with is a piece of that wood they call "cork", but he has told me very decisively that it is a little car and that it is going to Margaritas to pick up passengers. It is a gray and cold January morning and we are passing through this village which is today electing the delegates (one man and one woman) who will be sent to the March meeting. The village is in assembly when a Commander-type plane, blue and yellow, from the Army Rainbow Task Force and a pinto helicopter from the Mexican Air Force, begin a series of low over flights above the community. The assembly does not stop; instead those who are speaking merely raise their voices. Pedrito is fed up with having the artillery aircraft above him, and he goes, fiercely, in search of a stick inside his hut. Pedrito comes out of his house with a piece of wood, and he angrily declares that "I'm going to hit the airplane because it's bothering me a lot." I smile to myself at the child's ingenuousness.
The plane makes a pass over Pedrito's hut, and he raises the stick and waves it furiously at the war plane. The plane then changes its course and leaves in the direction of its base. Pedrito says "There now" and starts playing once more with his piece of cork, pardon, with his little car. The Sea and I look at each other in silence. We slowly move towards the stick which Pedrito left behind, and we pick it up carefully. We analyze it in great detail.
"It's a stick," I say.
"It is," the Sea says.
Without saying anything else, we take it with us. We run into Tacho as we're leaving. "And that?" he asks, pointing to Pedrito's stick which we had taken. "Mayan technology," the Sea responds.
Trying to remember what Pedrito did I swing at the air with the stick. Suddenly the helicopter turned into a useless tin vulture, and the sky became golden and the clouds floated by like marzipan.
EDT and FloodNet are an example of Mayan technology. A stick that crosses the boundaries of what it is and becomes the unbearable weight of human beings saying “Ya Basta! Enough is Enough!"
You have expressed that you are against the war in Iraq. What have you done to give voice to your opposition?
Well like almost every other New Yorker I marched in both of the large anti-war demonstrations that took place before the Iraq War started. An amazing event that was mirrored by millions around the world at the same time.
I marched with members of different groups during the NoRNC March. And at the same time EDT and a group of hackers did A traditional VR Sit-IN on the RNC/Bush sites. Those sites went down at the moment Bush hit the stage to accept the nomination: close to 400,000 people were online at that moment. Other cracktivists got into the RNC Servers and performed a series of actions.
I also collaborated with New Media artist Diane Ludin, artist Angie Eng, Postmaster Gallery and the Netomat Company during NoRNC days to do a rapid SMS and Picture sharing performance entitled “Upload_Protest: A Netomatic Action".
Considering how fast this project was developed it went quite well – and would like to explore it more in the future. What I like to call *Anchors for Witnessing, or little sister Who Watch Big Brother*.
You speak about the Fourth World War. Is it currently taking place? If so, who is involved and how is it being fought?
The Zapatistas consider the Cold War, which had over a 140 wars in different parts of the third world occurring, the Third World War. The Fourth World War starts with the Berlin Wall going down and neo-liberal globalization emerging with full force.
The Third World War was about Nation-States vs humanity. The Fourth World War is about Transnational Corporations vs. the multitude. While World War Three was waged between capitalism and socialism, World War Four involves a conflict between metropolitan financial centers and the world's majorities falling into deep intense zones of poverty.
The Fourth World War is a battle between those who seek an alter-globalization/(lo)balization like the Zapatistas, a manifestation of global citizenship on a very local level. It is part of a call for global health care, global rights to education, a living wage as a global right, global law vs. Phantom-States that commit every resource to creating a neo-liberal Empire of Disorder of unregulated and mobile market forces that polarize social differences among and within societies.
The old joke about all this, is that in the days to come people around the world will have the same rights as a Coke Can, the same ability to move across borders without restraints, the same global protection from harm, the same icon value for all humans and posthumans across the arcs of the realities.
You might enjoy reading hereThe Fourth World War Has Began by Subcomandante Marcos.
What‘s next for you?
Right now I am working with New Media artist Diane Ludin on developing and distributing a new work: The Ibiology Patent Engine (I-BPE), “ ibiology.net. I-BPE is a developing tactical media/art project designed to disturb the growing power of the global patent structure. The project was an official selection at this year ISEA (International Society of Electronic Arts) and will also be presented at the Madrid Media Lab next year, as part of an Art and Science gathering on ibiology (informatic biology) and global patenting. Our performance will be a mapping of the Patent Bombs that are being dropped on the poor all over the world.
I have been invited to develop a new media project with Coco Fusco for the International Art Festival, InSITE, in San Diego/Tijuana next year.
I have also started to work with the Zapatista and activist groups working along the border. I will be working to set up and up grade the local area networks and develop micro cam surveillance equipment for people working in the factories in the Free Trade Zone who want to document the consistent disregard for labor rights and human rights inside this unregulated spaces.
At CAL (IT)2 my long term plan is to build nano-socialist matter engines (All atoms to the people! I say!) and in the short term, researching the toxicity of products currently using nano-materials: cosmetics, lotions, suntan products and fabrics. What current health standards do we need re define to meet the nature of this type of manufacturing material?
Finally, starting, THINGPacific is also on my agenda, to build another node to the THING network (NYC, Rome, Vienna, Berlin and Amsterdam). I also plan on becoming bi-coastal and returning to my lovely town as often as possible. Wish me luck on that.
Give an example of something you witnessed or experienced that had you think "only in New York" or "damn, I'm glad I live in this city."
Becoming a Saint of the Church of Stop Shopping and having Rev. Billy giving me the activist blessing.
Since this is the "city that never sleeps", tell us a good 3am story.
Running a 4am club called PSSSSSSSST in 1993 in a squatted Korean Bordello that had been busted on 2nd Ave and 6th street. We had a shower the size of a room with lots of plastic furniture – we had a blast. The place would be full till 11am the next day. Full of vampires, disco divas, night crawlers, DJ's, roller skating gay boys and a very very clean shower party! We made enough to eat and have insane fun at the same time!
Who is your favorite New Yorker, dead or alive, and why?
Emma Goldman, she was a hardcore activist and a dancing revolutionary. Something I keeping hoping I can achieve some day.
Who is/are your heroes?
All the mothers in Juarez, Mexico who fight everyday against overwhelming poverty and fight for the truth about who is killing all those women. Who have faced every level of the Mexican governments repression and delays. Part of a project I did with Coco Fusco.
You're in a time machine that can take you back in time. What day in NYC history_would you go back to?
Back to the 70's when Plato's Retreat was still open and rocking! I would never leave.
Billy's Topless is now a bagel shop, no more smoking in bars or restaurants, Times Square has been Disneyfied, what's next?
New York City will be divided into two warring segments: north of Central Park will all Columbia University, south of the park will all be NYU. The rest of the Brooklyn, Queens and the rest will become student dormitories. Roving gangs of scholars will be beating the tourist on 42nd street who can't quote Homer in the original Greek.
If you could change just one thing about New York City, what would it be?
The cost of the subway it is getting insane. Vote NO on the West Side Stadium.
You've got $5.00 in your pocket, an unlimited metro card and a day to kill. What do you do?
I would go to the Magicbox movie theater in Chinatown and catch a double feature of John Woo and Wong Kar-Wai. Smoke a lovely joint with the rest of the balcony crowd. (another time machine only event type of thing).
What source(s) do you turn to for news?
I read salon.com, indymedia.org, alternet.org, NYTimes, counterpunch.org and the Mexican newspaper Jornada.
What advice would you give Bush as he embarks on his second term?
Quit and walk away!
It's the year 2024, what do you think will be the hot topic of discussion at the water cooler?
I lost my nanobot last night at the party and it has not come home.
If you could ask God one question, what would you ask?
Who does your hair?