The VICE Channels

    Disturbance Was Accomplished: An Interview with Droneologist and Hacktivist Ricardo Dominguez

    Written by

    Eveline Chao

    Ricardo Dominguez in 2008, performing a reenactment of a speech given by Chicano labor leader and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez at a Vietnam veterans memorial rally at Exposition Park in Los Angeles on May 2, 1971. Via Port Huron Project.

    If you fancy yourself any kind of radical, then getting personally attacked by Glenn Beck is pretty much the best thing you could hope for. This happened for performance artist and activist Ricardo Dominguez in 2010 when Beck raised a public outcry over a project of Dominguez’s called the Transborder Immigrant Tool, which aims to provide poetry and directions to water caches via GPS cell phones to migrants crossing from Mexico into the US, most of whom die from dehydration.

    Dominguez and the other artists involved, alll from Calit2’s b.a.n.g. lab, which Dominguez runs under the University of California, San Diego umbrella, were investigated by the FBI and several members of Congress. UCSD began looking into the possibility of revoking Dominguez’s tenure, ostensibly in response to a virtual sit-in b.a.n.g. lab had organized against the university to protest budget cuts and tuition hikes.

    This was all old hat for Dominguez. Decades ago, he became known for being among the first to bring artistic activism to the electronic sphere through his role in Electronic Disturbance Theater, which during the 90s developed, as he puts it, “the practice and artistic expression of electronic disturbance via civil disobedience, via virtual sit-in technologies.” Dominguez has been called “the godfather of “hacktivism”; in reaction to a planned EDT protest against its public website, the Department of Defense said, “If it wasn't illegal it was certainly immoral.”

    Dominguez first began to sympathize with the Zapatista movement in 1993 (allegedly while on E), and has devoted his career to “disturbance” ever since. I had the chance to catch up with Dominguez, who opened up on his continued work on border issues, studying potentially toxic nanoparticles used in our food and product packaging, and how he drew attention for helping to stage a drone crash on the UCSD campus last year. 

    MOTHERBOARD: Tell us about the circumstances surrounding the brouhaha over your immigrant apps. 

    The Transborder Immigrant Tool is a project developed by the Electronic Disturbance Theater 2.0 and b.a.n.g. lab, which stands for bits, atoms, neurons, and genes, which is a lab that I run at Calit2, a transdisciplinary institute here at UCSD. When I was hired by Calit2 here at UCSD in 2004, I was asked to establish the parameters of my research in relation to milestones and areas that would be the focus.

    So I proposed three areas that would be the predominant research trajectories for b.a.n.g. lab. They were electronic civil disobedience and hacktivism, whose core agenda would be to analyze what it meant to use the supercomputing infrastructures of a university system like the University of California against corporations, nation-states and social entities that we felt needed to be disturbed via this history of electronic civil disobedience. And more importantly, beyond what it meant to use the technology or infrastructure of a wide-area university system, was what would happen if you were to use it against that self-same system, which I found to be even more interesting as an area of research.

    Number two was border disturbance technology. I wasn’t quite sure how border disturbance technology would manifest itself in 2004, although I did have a strong understanding that there is a long history of border disturbances, border art, that goes back into the 70s and 80s and 90s, and certainly I was well aware that a number of the faculty of the visual arts department that I was a part of as an associate professor had been involved in border art. So I knew that we wanted to investigate that.

    Transborder Immigration Tool, courtesy Ricardo Dominguez.

    Then I was also very lucky at the same time to find myself in an institution where my longtime collaborator, new-media artist Brett Stalbaum also taught. And he like a number of artists when the military released the GPS in 2000, was involved in exploring that platform, in what has become known as located media art practices. We began to consider the situation here at the San Diego-Tijuana border, and the Mexico-US border in general, about the nature of walking this Devil’s Highway, as it’s called.

    And certainly there’s a history, with Operation Gatekeeper in 1994, with the hardening of that border where immigrants have been pushed into these dangerous desert territories and of course uncountable deaths. So that evening after our discussion I went and wrote the first gesture, a cognitive mapping of the manifesto for what I called the Transborder Immigrant Tool. The imaginary landscape of it was that it was going to be built on an inexpensive cellphone that had available to it GPS that would enable us to redesign the midlets of the phone in order to allow in a safety-net-like narrative the movement of immigrants across these difficult territories.

    The other thing that was important to me as an artist all the way back to the 80s, with Critical Art Ensemble, is an interest in poetry as a space of speculative conceptual exploration, which often disturbs even the codifications even of art in general. I’ve always been interested in disturbing not only social spaces, technological spaces, but aesthetic spaces. So in addition to this GPS last-mile safety tool, there would be embedded in the TBT experimental poetry by Amy Sara Carroll that would allow us to reconsider the question of sustenance as Carroll has foregrounded. That is, that the immigrant is not bare life. There is a history of the poetic, of aesthetic encounter, intellectual understandings of the atmospherics of contemporary culture. Often we see them as these sort of zombie labor-takers without sensibilities beyond the issue of economy.

    So between 2007 and 2009 we, along with artists Micha Cardenas and Elle Mehrmand, were able to develop the TBT, and we began to have discussions with NGOs who leave water here in the southern California area like Border Angels, a radical Chicano group, and Water Station Inc., a fundamentalist Christian group, who all work to create these water caches out in the desert.

    So this was really coming together quite well and then in 2010, a kind of viral collision between fashion magazines, Fox News, the US congress, the FBI, and my own university just went, you know, spasmodic, in considering the TBT. UCSD, which had given me tenure for the project and had funded in a limited way–about $5,000–described it as a traitorous application, which as Glenn Beck said would “dissolve” the border with its explicit poetry.

    So yeah, I mean that was really a whirlwind of investigations, attempts to de-tenure me, investigations of all the members of EDT 2.0, a lot of very violent, aggressive attacks via email, calling for our deaths, and whatnot. I had to get lawyers, and ultimately by 2011 all these investigations lost, art was victorious, and disturbance on multiple levels was accomplished.

    In December 2010, Ricardo Dominguez and Ian Alan Paul presented records of their “Drone Crash Incident”.

    The idea of being punished for the same work you were given tenure for sounds like an interesting conundrum.

    Yeah. I always thought that was quite strange. Among the lawyers I had was a labor lawyer and what became the core of our argument against the university was that I had been given tenure for hacktivism and electronic civil disobedience specifically against the university. I had been given tenure for the TBT as well as my interventions into particle capitalism around nanotechnology, so it was very odd that that same group who had signed off on tenure were now in extreme duress and calling for an end to any work that might be disturbing.

    So the conclusion was that they didn’t want me to do any work for ten years in this area, and I said no and that I’ll only not do anything for a year, and they said 5 years, and then I said a year and a month. Eventually it came down to a couple years of not doing anything “disturbing,” but at the moment I signed it my researchers launched a virtual sit-in against the university so I’m not quite sure how the agreement really folded out.

    But one thing the university also wanted me to agree to was that I would never mention any of this again, and that all of these issues would be removed from my file and I would be able to live as a clean and pure artist again, without fear. But I felt that my research and the reason that I would want to be in a university, was that I would want to make available to my own research everything that had happened, the legal docs, the emails, what have you. So I didn’t agree to let that research go. And the outcome was that I was then given even a larger lab. So that just goes to show you that no good disturbance goes unsupported.

    What’s going on now with the Transborder Immigrant Tool?

    One of the problems we face on the southern side of the border is that the narco war has really blossomed to a massive degree, and has taken over the routes that had traditionally functioned within a more civil society called coyotes, who were just individuals who would help you cross. But now all of that is under the control of the narcos, and they are not friendly people.

    So one of our concerns of spreading this tool to communities south of the border, immigrants specifically, is that it was very dangerous for those communities to have any access to support beyond what the narcos were willing to give, which was not very much. For an individual to have access to a tool like this would place an immigrant who’s already in a highly dangerous territory of crossing under even more duress and danger.

    All these investigations lost, art was victorious, and disturbance on multiple levels was accomplished.

    And so in speaking with southern Mexico-based NGOs, they felt that we need to come up with another way to make those tools accessible, beyond making them on the south side of the border, because those people are always already under such intense violence, that it would not be beneficial. So our plan at this time is to create equivalents to the water caching that is left out in the northern US section of the border. So we would then leave the TBT phones on the northern side of the border, connected to solar panels, with comic-book-like information on how to use this tool, as perhaps a more readily available site somewhat outside of the conditions of direct narco violence but certainly not completely out of that field.

    You're a pioneer of the virtual sit-in. How does that kind of sit-in work?

    What happens is that there’s a disturbance. Like any act of civil disobedience, if only one person participates then there’s only the effect of one person. So if somebody is protesting the UC president’s office and it’s only one person then that’s all you get. But if it’s 100,000 people in the UC office then they may not destroy the office, but it’s going to be difficult to get work done. So electronic civil disobedience works the same way. It’s a browser-based technology – the code is not secret, we always tell people who we are, what we are, what we’re going to do and how long we’re going to do it for. Of course we never know how many people are going join.

    Let us imagine that a browser is a public agora, and there are certain things in browsers which are part of its long history since Mosaic emerged at the end of 1993. There is a refresh or reload button, and so basically a program developed by EDT called FloodNet counts how many people are joining the virtual sit-in and then it hits the refresh/reload button over and over, pinging the website. Now most websites want to be hit as many times as possible. To the millions if at all possible.

    The other things the FloodNet does is it asks questions of the website. Say for instance, “Does democracy exist on this government web server?” Then the web server 99.9 percent of the time responds, “Freedom is not found here – 404.” These are 404 files; anytime you look for something that doesn’t exist in a database, you get 404. So we often ask, “Does democracy live here?” “Does student support live here?” and you find that these issues are not part of the database of a system. So at the same time that one is reloading the website, 404 files are uploading, and those are basic components of any browser.

    So the code is not enslaving any machines, it’s not a zombie botnet, it’s not being done anonymously, we always work on a level of radical transparency. And that’s the core aesthetic of how we do our work. We’ve had history where the Department of Defense launched information war weapons at us, and the FBI and the NSA all get very very angry, and disturbed, but there’s nothing they can do, because the work functions as an aesthetic project, as opposed to a technological project. And most laws are based on the question of technological efficiency, and not symbolic efficacy, or the aesthetics of disturbance.

    How did you first become interested in all this?

    Through the 80s and early ‘90s I was part of a group called Critical Art Ensemble, and we met and started developing in Tallahassee, FL. Of course during the ‘80s we did not have access to any computers whatsoever. But we did have available to us emerging metaphors, such as William Gibson’s notion of cyberspace, as a possibility for new radical gestures or what we would call disturbances. And so in the ‘80s we began to speculate and work on thinking about the possibilities of what the atmospherics of the ‘90s would be, and how we would then intervene into these spaces.

    We imagined that in the ‘90s, three types of capitalisms would begin to emerge. Between ‘90 and ‘94 would be virtual capitalisms, the integration of network economies; between ‘94 and ‘98, you would have an aggressive building of genomic capitalism or clone-based capitalism, since the Human Genome Project would come to an end at that point; and also having read K. Eric Drexler’s book on the Engines of Creation, the coming era of nanotechnology in 1985, we had a good idea that between ‘98 and 2001, particle capitalism, that is bionanotechnology, would become a predominant aggregator of capital.

    So in the mid-‘80s then we started to design contestational forms that again were speculative since we didn’t have access to these technologies. So for instance we came up with the idea and began to theorize electronic civil disobedience, taking the traditions of trust, pass and blockage as enunciated by Henry David Thoreau in 1848, and began to imagine how these potentialities might work. So we wrote in the ‘80s a series of books that are copy right or copy left, and available at Critical Art Ensemble. One is called The Electronic Disturbance, another one Electronic Civil Disobedience, another is on popular ideas, the Flesh Machine and other works on pan-capitalism.

    Our encounter and my encounter with network culture, computing culture, hacktivism, really emerged from this kind of moment of radical aesthetics in the cultural frontier of Tallahassee, FL, where we as artists began to speculate about the aesthetic possibilities of new forms of disturbances. So it was all speculative and based on the questions of contemporary art production that I came to encounter and think about and eventually participate in manipulating the politics and aesthetics of code.

    Having now seen what’s played out, how do things match up with what you speculated back then? Is reality even weirder and stranger than what you imagined?

    No I think we were pretty weird and strange ourselves, so I do think we for the most part were about 70 percent correct in the atmospherics that would take place and what would be consolidated. Of course we were quite cynical that hackers as we knew them in the ‘70s and ‘80s and activists as we knew them in the ‘70s and ‘80s would ever take on the issue of e-civil disobedience. We thought that hackers would probably be much more interested in the politics of code than in the politics of the street, we thought that activists were luddites for good reason, and so it would really be necessary for artists to take on the issue.

    But certainly after 2000 you began to see a movement among the hacking community, a younger generation, who both accidentally and with some understanding take on new forms of e-civil-disobedience from a more explicit technical side, like say Anonymous, and of course activists soon became acquainted with the potentialities of “networked streets,” if you will.

    So I do think we were very cynical in the 80s to a certain degree, you know, saying the streets were dead capital. They were not. So obviously in terms of speculative culture one cannot be 100 percent on target, but I think as artists we did a fairly strong reading – that is I said about 70 percent correct – to such a degree that, you know, I’m now a tenured professor in research laboratories. Yet I would not say that I’m a hacker or an activist or somebody who has a depth of knowledge in relationship to engineering or anything of that sort. But I do have a strong capability of understanding how to materialize robust and expansive conceptual disturbances in unexpected ways in places where it’s not necessarily wanted. But no matter what, they’re hungry for it.

    How do you see yourself and your work in relation to groups like Anonymous?

    I’m not sure that there is much of a relationship. I think Anonymous comes from a very techno-political, technical series of interventions which I think are great. A good 89 percent of the time I certainly agree with Anonymous. I think what is unexpected from Anonymous that I really like is the agglutination of data bodies and real bodies in the street, whether it was accidental with their protest against Scientology, or now joining Occupy and other movements, that their data bodies hit the street. I think that was unexpected to the politics of code, and I think there’s certainly a lot of discussion in Anonymous about the history of civil disobedience, so I really appreciate and am in awe of that generation that has been born with that sort of serious consideration.

    Of course in terms of the aesthetics of radical transparency, there’s obvious disagreement. That is we feel that the proper aesthetic is to put your data body online as well and not to hide it. But you know, these are dangerous times for many communities around the world, so, not everyone is a citizen of empire that can say here I am and do with me what you will. And I suppose the other difference is that we always approach our work within the history of contemporary and post-contemporary art, which I don’t think is necessarily part of the language or patois or consideration of groups like Anonymous.

    What do you think about the use of drones along the border, and also revelations about immigrants being placed in solitary confinement?

    I certainly am in general disgusted by the history of Operation Gatekeeper, through Clinton and Bush and Obama and their continued consolidation of immigrants as somehow dangerous to the welfare of the supposed nation-state and a globalized economy. They are in fact the drivers of this economy, the innovators of this economy. This enforced isolation is more – look at Arizona, the coalition of prison networks who are making a bundle out of this sort of consolidated aggression against immigrants. So I hope that as some modicum of immigration reform comes to the foreground that these sort of prison complex economies are somewhat deleted along the way. But they’re very rich, very wealthy, and they have a lot of representation in Washington so I’m not quite sure to what degree that might be possible.

    In terms of droneology, or the game of drones that’s going on here on the border, we did a year-long exhibition called Drones at Home, where we investigated the relationship of UCSD to the production of the Predator drone, the Gorgon Stare drone... Here at San Diego we produce 80 percent of that kind of killer product. So it was important to investigate on multiple levels, first, awareness of this history that is very current, the other is how have artists since 2000 been developing alter-drones to disturb the kind of accelerated droning of the border.

    The Drone Incident, December 2010 (Photo: Ian Alan Paul)

    It culminated with a drone crash that was investigated here at UCSD where we established the “UC Center for Drone Policy and Ethics,” of which I am the lead researcher, and there was just an intense interest from the media about this mystery drone that crashed, perhaps from General Atomics, the producer of the Predator, which is located near the UCSD campus.

    And of course it was established that the crash never happened, but it allowed the communities, both local and national and international, to begin to ask, what is the nature of this sort of killer economy, and what are we to do with it? So for instance one project that I’ve been focusing on is the Palindrone, which is a singing border drone that will chase down Homeland Security drones and sing to them music from the border.

    What else are you up to, work-wise?

    Another area of research is interventions into particle capitalism, or bionanotechnology as an economy, and our focus has basically been around the performative matrix of nanotoxicology. An overwhelming number of products are being produced now that are using nano silver or nano gold–the wrapping of foods at Whole Foods, McDonald’s, Maybelline 24-hr lipstick, Hugo Boss fabrics–and very little toxicology has been done.

    What little has been done shows an aggressive infiltration of the lymph nodes and brain by these nano-scale particles. So we’ve been developing a series of gestures and our current one is the development of a do-it-yourself atomic-force microscope, to enable artists to develop a nano-poetics of disturbance, rather than having to work directly with highly filtered nanotechnology labs.

    It’s another way to say we don’t know what a disturbance is. It just really depends.

    The aim is to begin to do our own kind of community research initiative to test the level of toxicity in this growing database of worldwide products that use nanoscale technology but yet do not state in any way on the product that such tech is being used in the development, and to ask the question of nano engineers and nano scientists: why is nanotoxicology receiving so little funding on a state, national and international level?

    What's your definition of "disturbance"?

    Disturbance is a condition of performance that takes the measure of power without participating with power. So, it’s another way to say we don’t know what a disturbance is. It just really depends. For instance, one can imagine that technology is always presented as utopian—we’re going to cure cancer—or apocalyptic—we’re going to give you cancer. So a disturbance would participate in that in-between space in a critical way. Not looking at utopia or apocalypse, but critically engendering another question that is difficult for utopia or apocalypse to answer.

    So I can end with this sort of framing about what disturbance is: the work that we do does not function at the speed of technology, but moves at the speed of dreams. So that might be a poetic disturbance.