Activist reading group – week 5 – internet activism

What we read:

Evgeny Morozov, RSA Animate – ‘The Internet in Society: Empowering or Censoring Citizens?’ (found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uk8x3V-sUgU)

Critical Art Ensemble, ‘Introduction’ in Digital Resistance, 2001 – (found here: http://www.critical-art.net/books/digital/)

William Saletan, ‘Is the Internet driving the revolutions of the Arab Spring?’, 2011 (found here: http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2011/07/springtime_for_twitter.html)

ImageFour of us gathered in The Mitre on the 1st March to discuss readings concerning the internet and activism. Our questions prior to the discussion included:

How is the internet is shaping activism today, especially given recent events in the Middle East?

Is the internet useful for us and how can we as activists harness control over the internet, using it as a tool in the struggle for social change?

What forms of activism take place on the internet – which ones should we/do we engage in?

We started with a brief summary of Evgeny Morozov’s lecture, coming to the conclusion that it perhaps dwelt more on the idea that the internet in and of itself could effect social change – which we agreed with him, that it probably could not. His points about the negative effects of the internet are valid, and that it is unlikely to effect serious behavioural change. However, we felt that he didn’t do enough to recognise the role of the internet for activists, i.e. those who approach using it with a definite aim of communication (between each other, and also with a wider audience), or what Critical Art Ensemble call ‘Digital Resistance’.

ImageThe former of these is evident in the role that the internet played in the Arab Spring – of course the internet did not create a revolution, but the actions of activists on it, and the tools it gave them facilitated wider mobilisation. This is something that we can learn – the internet has the potential of expressing to external power structures that public opinion is against them, and the force of this is not to be underestimated, particularly as it can help an issue ‘snowball’ – such as the example of the Keystone Pipeline petition, gathering hundreds of thousands of signatures in an hour.

The latter point was hard to discuss, given none of us had direct experience of what we’ll call ‘hacktivism’. There is some concern over the preponderance of conspiracy theories amongst those who are most politically active online – many of which are harmless, but in the case of things like climate change, could have a negative impact on the wider political struggle if they were to spread.

If the primary way that we, as ‘non-techie’ activists in Britain, are to use the internet is as a tool of mass communication with a wider audience, and a tool of internal communication for our own organisation, then we must face up to issues of cyber security. At this point in time it is important that we act not only to secure our own routes of communication and mobilisation, but also to raise the public consciousness about the dangerous nature of corporate control of the internet and its potential for censoring our access to information and communication.

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The internet develops fast, to ignore its potential to help activism (and the potential to damage/isolate activism), would be stupid. Some key points (with links) to summarise our discussion:

  • As a tool to win hearts and minds, it may not meet our requirements, so much of politically engaged action relies upon an individual’s perception that they need to act.  But to approach it as activists, with the express desire to use it as a tool for communication and information gathering it has incredible potential.
  • Though less effective as a tool for mobilisation, there are many people out there for whom the internet is their only tool for action – and so it’s benefits as an outreach mechanism to the so far non-active, potential activists should also not be underestimated. How to reach them would be another question.
  • The internet can result in paralysis of action, sucking people in to the point of inactivity.  It can be good to spend time in and out of the internet – this way using it as a tool, and absorbing received information.
  • Security is already an issue of great importance, and will become ever more so.  To protect ourselves and others, we need to secure our own usage, and raise awareness about security as an issue.

 

 

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creating an activist discursive space

Sometimes when doing research I can find myself getting increasingly frustrated that there is so much good academic literature on activism, campaigning, social movements, the interaction of creativity and the struggle for social change, direct action, and a whole host of other topics. I get frustrated because there is this body of literature that seems to be so alien to the grassroots networks I am a part of – that this literature is geared towards the ‘academic/artist’ side of what I do, not the ‘activist/being there on the streets’ side of what I do – and how the latter has not learnt from the former; likewise how the former often makes little attempt to engage with the latter. There’s even a body of recent literature by people such as Chatterton and Routledge that talks explicitly about this very dichotomy – the division between activism and the academy, and how to bridge it.

But academic articles are approaching the issue from within the academy, from a space where the value of what they are doing is obvious – from a position that values research and views it as a developmental tool. So out of my frustration at finding their writings was borne a new frustration that there was nothing written from the opposing (or perhaps parallel) activist stance: How we, as activists, should engage with academia as a tool that could help us develop what we do, as well as learn from earlier activist narratives.

Climate Rush are an example of trying to use an earlier activist narrative (of the suffragettes) to better understand and communicate the actions they are taking

My frustration was not unique. Many that I have spoken with share the same concern – that activism could be more effective, better thought through and use previous experience to grow and develop further. But how to find this literature… What to read… How to communicate the value of what is being read… What is the point in an activist, sitting alone in a room, reading academic articles if we are then unable to discuss, engage with, and potentially implement the ideas and lessons we are reading about.

Together with others who felt the same frustrations I did, but were also keen not just to learn from academia, but also to find ways, with other activists, of practically using it – we decided to set up an activist reading group. Different to a traditional political reading group as a prerequisite of any reading we do and discussion we have is that it has a practical application.

We want to open up a discursive space to read and discuss articles, podcasts, videos, books and other media that might help us as activists develop into the kick-ass system-changing collective we aspire to.

It may be that this discursive space, this opening up of activism through academia, is one way that Paul Routledge’s ‘Third Space’ could be put into action – not a project ‘from’ the academy, but one that ‘uses’ and is in dialogue with the academy (through the attendance of those who operate within academia) – each continually informing the other so that both develop in accordance with each others needs.

Now one month old, I hope to document the discussions we have on the blog – as well as (copy-left and creative commons permitting) post up the readings we are doing.

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developing ‘lifting the veil’

We started the week-long residency, ‘Resistance is Beautiful’ at Grow Heathrow, with an introduction to a site I’ve heard a lot of about, and through various activist networks have met many of those who live there. After a series of procrastinated opportunities I decided this was the perfect opportunity to visit.  This post is about the project I developed, in a separate post I’d like to visit the projects of others.

What is resistance? That is where we started. To some it is the standing in opposition, to the others it is the proactive search and enaction of alternative realities. I err towards the first as my definition of resistance, and in my own work call the latter ‘imagineering’. Grow Heathrow is a site of resistance and imagineering – and embodies different meanings to different people – visitors and residents.

As the week progressed towards an ‘exhibition/show’ on the Saturday, efforts were made towards pulling together some collaborative work.

My thoughts began with the idea of ‘The Great Eviction Game’ – a playful enaction of the potential eviction that could happen later this year in which the evictors are only allowed to evict the residents if they win a game that is played out on site, by the site’s rules. Taking the format of a ‘wide game’, i.e. different tasks to be completed at various stations – teams are not necessarily in competition, rather, the aim is for all to have an educational experience in which they are given opportunity to embody the ethos of the site through shared activity.

After spending some time developing this idea, decided it focused on an eventuality that did not need to be evoked at this point in time. I still think it would be a challenging and engaging way to approach police if/when they come to the gate – to challenge them to a game, immediately taking on the eviction in the site’s own terms – when the police refuse to play, it is they who first break the rules.

After hearing about others’ ideas I couldn’t see a place for me to take part in them – partly due to lack of experience/skill/interest, and partly because I needed to leave site for the entire day preceding the show and so wouldn’t be able to help in any way with their development at a key point.

I started to think about my own relationship with the site – how was I engaging with it. I felt very at home in Grow Heathrow, largely because I could see the similarities between life there and my own, very outdoors-focused life on a boat. A big part of my decision to live as I do on a boat was my search for aesthetic living – aesthetic in the Greek sense of ‘enlivened’ – awakened being in life where one is connected with the processes that construct our existence.

On this thought track I started to consider the life aesthetic and how one might convey this experience and way of life in a deeper mode to any visitors to the site; allowing them to engage with the site beyond the visual superficial.

I began with the notion that we should do nothing on the Saturday, simply allow visitors to observe the site ‘in action’ and make some effort to ensuring that they feel able to ask questions/enter into discussion – potentially through shared food or participatory tasks. This idea was then challenged by another member of the group, with what I felt was a valid opposition – people are only coming to the site in the hope of seeing/doing something. To do nothing would be to disappoint, and could potentially be harmful. Not doing anything wasn’t avoiding the performative, as the ‘audience’ had already been invited and so performance was intrinsic to the day.

Given the limited time available, I spent most of the days thinking about how to make visible the life aesthetic and opted to do it through objects – offering insight into the operations and history of the site through its material objects – telling the stories of these objects through explanation and anecdote, integrating the ‘explanatory signs’ into the fabric of the object. This in turn, I hope allowed the viewer to interact with the object, and therefore the site and its workings, in a deeper way. I didn’t flag up the signs, however, and perhaps this was mistake – as it was few of the other artists even noticed them. But then, if they are uncovered by chance one day, whilst weeding, or re-reading postcards, by a resident, or by a guest, their message could be made stronger by the element of chance.

I made five signs as part of the project I’d call ‘lifting the veil’:

On a piece of sheet music I stuck to the piano I wrote the notes ‘A’ and ‘E’ which on the site’s piano were linked to the adjoining hammers. Between staves I then wrote ‘play these notes…”when you hold down one thing you also hold down the adjoining” Augie March – and something also on dissonance and resistance

On a T-shirt in the free shop I wrote about the idea of a free shop being more than discarding unwanted items and picking up freebies, but as its potential to be a tool in helping us imagine futures without monetary transactions forming the basis of everything we do.

On plant pot signs I wrote about the radical nature of growing our own food

On the inside of an inner tube situated within a car tyre I wrote of the multi-function of car tyres, as plant pots, barricades, etc. and this link to permaculture.

On a postcard I hung up in the main living area, I mentioned how the postcards, pictures and posters hung up in that area are not just memories and histories, but also locate the site within the wider activist movement.

In terms of my experience working collaboratively – I felt as though I’d come to the residency expecting a greater focus on radical politics and activism and their link-up with the creative arts. At first I was disappointed that this was not the focus, however, I did gain a lot from working with artists who have a defined and developed artistic practice. In reflection, I also see that what I gained was the lived experience of merging radical politics and creativity by living in Grow Heathrow whilst having a creative practice.

I also now feel as though I can’t claim credit for ‘lifting the veil’ as it only came out of discussions with group, around the fire, whilst working, washing-up and cooking – and in discussing their own projects. And so in that way, ‘lifting the veil’, like so many projects, is made up of collaborative and communal experience – it is just my own interpretation made manifest.

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the discursive space

this article on indymedia (copied below) was my response to an evening spent at a screening of Just Do It / i left the panel discussion with a desire for new discursive spaces to open up / that the autonomous space of direct actionism can also on occasion found through conversation and fora for exploratory conversations should be accepted and taken up willingly – even if it does mean sitting as panellists theatre-style (as long as they are not the situations we look to for conversations that might lead to resol/volutionary actions)

“This evening a panel discussion was arranged by those involved in the making of Just Do It after the first Oxford screening of the film. The panel consisted of five individuals, from a variety of organisations/backgrounds, who each expressed their thoughts on several issues surrounding direct action. An audience asked questions and received responses to genuine concerns about direct action and the ecological crisis.

This article isn’t intended as a review of the evening, rather as a reminder that these are important discussions we should be having on a more regular basis. Although what took place was necessarily limited by a panel format and a theatre-like setting, it was empowering to be discussing issues of such vital significance to the lives of many activists in a public forum. With the demise of TVCA [Thames Valley Climate Action] as an open forum of discussion, those interested in direct action on climate change have lost an entry point to a tactic that has much wider social and political implications – a tactic that radicalises through the active embodiment of resistance.

New avenues to pursue a desire to put one’s body on the front line are available: anti-austerity marches and demonstrations can provide that space. But there can be limits in those spaces; imposed by the fact that such action can just be a radical enactment of demands its participants are making on existing socio-political structures – not action that directly challenges those structures in the way that action on climate change can through its desire for an entirely new alternative set of structures.

It’s confusing, and these are big issues, and I want a space to discuss them – a space that I felt I had in the not too distant past. Not within the confines of a TVCA meeting, nor the academic clique of a reading group – but the social aspect of the pub that facilitated engaged conversation. I want to be having more of these exploratory conversations – and I don’t think I’m alone. Whatever I thought of Just Do It as a film is irrelevant – the evening was worthwhile because it created a discursive space that the Oxford activist scene sometimes lacks; overly formal perhaps – but not invalidated by its formality.”

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guerrilla ballet

on july 13th we participated in an act of guerrilla ballet / performed at the site of one of BP’s summer screens in opposition to the oil and gas industry’s continued greenwashing campaign through sponsorship of the arts

the action was simple – we performed the finale of Swan Lake in the centre of Trafalgar Square / many things went wrong – our soundsystem encountered too many obstacles and didn’t enter the site – and our molasses oil [to be poured over a dying swan] was confiscated before that scene could take place /

our message was not one of anger or accusation towards those who attended / rather an awareness raising intervention to spark discussion and encourage a critical stance towards BP’s sponsorship of the arts and cultural/family-friendly image whilst at the same time engaging in one of the most environmentally destructive projects on the planet – the Canadian tarsands / our flyers explained this to the audience and the performance finished with us raising banners and exiting slowly and deliberately from the event

the action gained a lot of press – some good – some critical / funnily enough – the most positive and the most negative appeared in the same online publication / in answer to the positive – written by Mark Donne – thank you – you took the message of the action which was to see our performance and use it as a starting point from which to develop your own opinions on corporate sponsorship of the arts rather than simply accepting it as something that happens /

in answer to the negative – by Nathalie Rothschild – criticisms such as yours fulfill Richard Bolton’s 25-year old prophecy that we would come to a time when we are unable to envision a non-corporate art world – and that this time would coincide with the degradation of the arts due to the vested interests of its patrons / we are not arguing that corporate funding simply be replaced with government funding – the state’s vested interests can be as domineering and repressive as those of a corporation – although with a ‘democratically’ elected government one can hope that arts funding might represent a wider variety of creative voices than that of a commissioning corporation with a more singular agenda /  one could also argue that at least with governmental funding in this country  the decision of what to fund was usually left to other artists – rather than a PR savvy researcher who knows what art investment would portray their company most favourably / in stating that we simply haven’t thought that far ahead I would argue that you actually didn’t consider the action we presented – was not our ballet performance a non-corporate work of ‘art’?

what we are proposing is not that one method of funding be replaced with another but that we consider the idea that it is funding sources that actually dictate what we perceive to be ‘art’ in that the only ‘art’ presented to the public is that which has been deemed ‘art’ by the powers that be – corporations and governments / what we want is that our culture represents the aesthetic needs of the people / this may well have space for artistic heritage in which we remember bygone masters of their profession – but it would also have space for new and emerging artists and most importantly for the Beuysian ‘expanded conception of art’ /

my refusal to engage fully with the issue of specific funding sources and where is the money is not a naive escape from reality but a belief in the idea that whilst we will conceive of an alternative not by intellectualising the problem and being put off action by the impossibility of imagining alternatives / rather that it might be possible to develop alternatives by focusing instead on the creative aspect and the aesthetic that we as citizens wish to see in our culture / in doing so we might create a space in which alternatives can be imagined – alternatives that arise out of the necessity / you might pour scorn on this idea – but in return I can only say that I am unhappy living in a society that allows external agencies to cleanse themselves of misdemeanors in some kind of sponsorship catharsis

and there we have it – fallen into a trap of focusing on the negative media rather than using the action itself as a medium to generate and stimulate further actions and projects / but it felt as though this issue of ‘well if they don’t fund it nobody will’ is rarely addressed and those activists that take part in art not oil actions

(the project went ahead with the help from many other organisations and individuals – including Artist Project Earth, UK Tarsands Network, Platform, Rising Tide and others)

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but we did play

it rained – and rained – and rained – and rain made most people stay safe indoors instead of coming out to play / most but not all / because for those who did come we did play

it might be said that by reducing the game’s play area down to a football pitch sized area in Haggerston Park we didn’t manage to subvert any spaces – parks woz made for playing etc – but we did play / and grownups don’t play enough / we got competitive [in a healthy kindofway] / we fell off a few times / we were already drenched by the rain so the water pistols made little impact / but we did play / and it was fun

who knows what next / but we now have 100 water pistols / so next time we have time to spare on a sunny day – let’s head outside to reclaim the streets for games and bikes

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bicycle capture the flag

Richard Roaf (http://alter-eco.co.uk/bicycle-capture-the-flag-poster/) designed this for the event / great use of propaganda imagery

reclaiming the streets for playing and cycling / empowering cyclists to move freely through the streets by creating a fun, temporary space in East London in which they feel comfortable doing so

we’re playing on the 12th of June at 6pm – meet at the Arcola Theatre / the theme is Save the Humans / evil forces are at work – corrupting the arts with dirty money – flooding the seas with dirty oil – emitting dirty fumes into the air – and killing all the humans / come and play in the battle between humans and these evil forces – for more details see here

cycle confidence training by some amazing instructors is offered at 2pm and 4pm / because it’s just not fair that cars and other machines have made some people too scared to come take part in bike funandgames

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crowdsourcing creativity

for some inexplicable reason I have ended up with about 100 A6 black and white copies of Nick Griffin’s face:

just what shall I do with his face?

instead of throwing these away in a fit of disgust – I thought it might be more interesting, to attempt to crowdsource on twitter to find some use/creative project for them

let’s see what we come up with using some online social media participatory-ness – I will post suggestions below as they come in on twitter.

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it’s been a long time

a very long time since posting anything / does not mean inactivity – rather than write words about our moves – it is better at this stage to just show some nice pictures.

in the past few months artofactivism has been involved in loads of activity:

Squatting a disused pub and trying to turn it into an arts centre:

Improvised theatre at protests – lightening the mood when things get tense

Robin Hood taking on the police carriages

organising a beautiful snowy street party in December, and dressing up as the republican couple for a ‘never mind the royal wedding’ street party last month

and many other little acts to use creative processes in forums of social change whilst also learning that formatting blogs is not a particularly strong point – excuse the bizarre shapes our words and pictures have taken in this post.

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what’s in a zine

with origins in science fiction novels and the public’s response to seemingly impossible narratives and fictitious creations – the zine’s origins are literary and relatively humble / how then have we arrived at a stage when in an effort to demonstrate the power of community art / in an effort to engage in a small piece of artistic activism by inviting contributions on the theme of ‘belonging and not belonging’ have we turned to a zine /

the answer in some ways is simple / it is perhaps the easiest method to empower artists – individuals – and activists on a grassroots level to be a part of an artistic project / there is no set standard that one must reach in order to achieve entry to the ‘publication’ / and yet publishing one’s work in such a piece is less daunting than perhaps an invitation to contribute to a community gallery exhibition /

several factors of zine making ensure that this is so :

like a magazine it invites many contributors to submit ideas along a single theme / enabling a multitude of views – or artistic demonstrations – to be expressed – and due to their parallel publication in the same document – no single section carries more authority than any other / in such a way – I believe – a zine can be a physical manifestation of non-hierarchical dissemination of information – opinion – and artistic expression

its size – it is not imposing and its small – somewhat handmade – appearance can lend it a more DIY exterior / empowering those that might not wish to put their work or opinions on display to be a part of a more low-key project / its size and consequent low costs also facilitate a wider dissemination enabling the content of the zine to reach more people

Hoopla : A Radical Craft Zine - just one example of thousands of political zines made - art as a means of political expression

the process of compiling and constructing a zine can be particularly collaborative / an invitation to contribute can be spread widely and contributions can be collected electronically – without the need for a central point or excessive funds / the zine can be put together in a group – and it is here than one can engage those who are unfamiliar with any artistic methods or processes – through running a whole day-long series of workshops that explore the submissions and put them together to form the zine / in this way the compiling of the zine itself becomes a community arts project / and if the effect is to engage a wider community in the artistic process that due to its theme is fundamentally concerned with social justice and the inclusion of the traditionally marginalized – then there we have it – a project that links with the themes and methods of the art of activism

one idea that we have spoken of with relation to the east oxford zine currently in the process of being made is to also include an element of DIY for the recipients / this might be the inclusion of origami instructions that transform the zine into their own small piece of art – this could further be extended by including suggestions of where they might place/hang such a piece / or perhaps include on the reverse of a fold out zine a large image and beneath it instructions to make wallpaper paste – encouraging that the reader/viewer takes part in the project /


although this is not an image of the origami boats made in burma – when in 2008 several activists wrote political messages on paper boats in support of a country-wide referendum – they are currently serving prison sentences of over 30 years for this act

the final point to mention here is the inherent ability of such publications to look forward towards future projects / asking for submissions in response to a zine is one way of further engaging not only those already involved – but anyone who sees the zine / thereby prompting and inspiring further artistic activity /

the flexibility and versatility of zines – only a small part of which is described above make them a project that can involve a much wider community than a more formalised artistic endeavour / going some way on the road towards a cultural democracy that includes as many as possible and has the capacity to continue to grow /

in the meantime / while east oxford’s own is in the process of being made / a zine as mentioned above on the theme of ‘belonging and not belonging’ – and which due to the nature of the zine will not belong to anyone but hopefully be accessible to all / check out many hundreds on this website: http://zinelibrary.info/ and also see another excellent zine made in east oxford: http://radicalx.ox4.org/playfight

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