Conversation between CAE and Mark Dery - Part 1

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Posted by NetTheory on September 01, 1997 at 15:50:23:

Critical Art Ensemble (CAE) is a collective of five new
genre artists of various specializations including
computer art, film/video, photography, text art,
book art, and performance. Formed in 1987, CAE's focus has been on the
exploration of the intersections between art, critical theory, technology, and political

Mark Dery is a cultural critic. He wrote
Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the
Century_, a critique of fringe computer culture, and
edited the essay collection, _Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture_. He's
currently at work on _The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium_ (Grove Press,
1999), a book about madness and mayhem in millennial America


MD: _The Electronic Disturbance_ includes scorched-earth critiques
of traditional theater ("a hollow bunker divorced from power") and
performance art, with its Me-Generation exaltation of the
solipsistic self (a "futile attempt to reestablish the subject").
You call for a "postmodern theater of resistance" that incorporates
acts of poetic terrorism in the real world and information warfare
in virtual realms: "Effective performance as a site of resistance
must utilize interlocking recombinant stages that oscillate between
virtual life and everyday life."

I was surprised to stumble, in the thick of your argument, on
an approving reference to the Living Theater's attempts to demolish
the proscenium arch and take its psycho-politics into that mythical
site of all '60s resistance, the streets. "It collapsed the art
and life distinction, which has been of tremendous help by
establishing one of the first recombinant stages," you write, the
other being the virtual world of the Net.

I couldn't help wondering: To what extent does CAE draw
inspiration from the radical theater of the '60s---from the Living
Theater and the San Francisco Mime Troupe to Yippie pranks such as
the celebrated attempt to levitate the Pentagon to the media
manipulation of proto-postmodernists such as Abbie Hoffman and the
New York-based anarcho-Situationist group, the Motherfuckers?

CAE: Radical American theater of the '60s certainly contributes to
our identification with street action, but no more than the many
other manifestations of resistant performance. Berlin Dada,
Theater of the Oppressed, feminist performance of the '70s,
Guerrilla Art Action Group, or the Situationists proper were just
as inspiring.

Street action is a strange project because there's no more
progress to be made. The tactics have been thoroughly researched
and tested, its spatial limits are understood---it's really only
useful at a local level, and its primary function is to create
pedagogical situations for consciousness-raising. Certainly,
guerrilla art activity continues ever onward, reintroducing itself
with each new situation that calls for shifting political
perception; however, the research and experimental phase of the
genre seems finished---the early '70s was the last time it had an
experimental form.

CAE's interest in the Living Theater stems from our belief
that it offered a proto-postmodern model of cultural production.
The group quite consciously located itself in the liminal position
between the real and the simulated. Various behaviors were
appropriated and redeployed so perfectly that, regardless of their
ontological status, they had the material impact of the real. The
Living Theater performed the crisis of the real before it had been
adequately theorized, and contributed to the conceptual foundation
now used to understand and create virtual theater. It helped make
it clear that for virtual theater to have any contestational value,
it must loop back into the materiality of everyday life.

We're much more ambivalent about Abbie Hoffman. His sense of
excess and his language of perpetual negation were compelling, and
yet the prankish quality of much of his activity gets pretty
tiresome. In the case of electronic resistance, the prank has
become the dominant model. Unfortunately, it's the one with the
least political impact. While we can take personal delight in
pranks, they're not tactically viable in any political sense. CAE
wrote _Electronic Civil Disturbance_ in an attempt to create a
narrative to show what was at stake, to present the contestational
opportunity that is currently available, and to hurry the
research process into more sophisticated forms of resistance.

MD: I'm disheartened to hear that CAE feels pranks aren't
"tactically viable in any political sense," since the best ones
would seem to incorporate the postmodern tactics you advocate,
striking at the heart of the spectacle, to update the battle cry of
the Red Brigade. I'm thinking of the infamous phone hack that re-
routed calls to the Palm Beach County Probation Department to a
phone-sex hotline, free of charge, or the covert addition of
kissing men to _SimCopter_ by a gay employee who wanted to call
attention to the absence of gay characters in computer games, or
the Barbie Liberation Organization's corrective surgery on Barbies
and "Talking Duke" G.I. Joes, transplanting sound chips so that
Barbie bellowed, "Vengeance is mine!," while Joe chirped, "Will we
ever have enough clothes?" Then, too, such pranks display a sense
of humor sorely lacking on both the old Left, with its flatfootedly
earnest agit-prop, and the postmodern Left, with its hectoring
identity politics and its poured-concrete jargon. In _The
Electronic Disturbance_, you assert, "There is a critical place for
comedy and humor as a means of resistance."

The postmodern prank may not be the "most radical gesture" envisioned by the
Situationists, but at the least it's a momentary glitch in Michael
Eisner's Magic Kingdom---a glimmer of hope to the unhappy campers
here in the "Happiest Place on Earth." Isn't there a family
resemblance between CAE's "symbolic disturbance" and the
"semiological guerrilla warfare" (Umberto Eco) of activist hackers,
media hoaxers, billboard bandits, and other, so-called "culture

CAE: First, we need to make some distinctions. There is a very big
difference between a piece like Igor Vamos' BLO action, and
rerouting calls to a phone sex hotline. The latter is exemplary of
what CAE means by the term "prank." The call reroute gag is
unquestionably funny, but it's a lot like putting a tack on the
teacher's chair. The teacher sits on it, the class gleefully
exclaims "ha-ha," and then it's business as usual. Other than
demonstrating a brief moment of defiance, there's no real purpose.
CAE looks at the BLO action as interventionist art. What makes the
BLO action different from the reroute prank is that it creates a
pedagogical situation in which people are given the opportunity to
escape the taken-for-granted authority of stereotypical gender
codes. In this moment of liberation, they can think about
alternative possibilities for gender identities and roles. This
kind of work is extremely important, and CAE gives it full respect
and support. However, such action is pedagogical, not political.
It prepares the consciousness of individuals for new possibilities,
and in the best of cases moves them to political action. The
activity inspired by the piece is the political action. (In this
context, by political action, CAE means the temporary or permanent
redistribution or reconfiguration of power relationships.) By
changing the Department of Justice's web page logo to the
"Department of Injustice," we're all going to get a big laugh, but
the bunkers of power are in no way changed. Just think what could
happen if the skills used to hack that web page were used
politically as CAE suggests in _Electronic Civil Disobedience_.

MD: Could you recap a few of the examples given in _ECD_, for the
benefit of my readers?

CAE: What CAE suggests in _ECD_ is moving the tactic of civil
disobedience (CD) into cyberspace. CD has lost most of its power
as tactical leverage in political struggle (except on a local
level) because the use of electronic equipment allows those under
pressure to simply move their operations to another location. This
is the major advantage that the nomadic corporate state currently
has over traditional street activism. This leaves the question:
What is of value to the corporate state and how can it be
appropriated? The answer, of course, is its data and/or means of
communication. Without it, the velocity of information capital
slows, and the system collapses into its own inertia. Relentless
strikes of this kind would cause such financial disruption that it
would be cheaper for capitalist agencies to offer tangible
concessions to the activists than to continue the battle with them.

As for examples of this activity, how could we know of any?
No activist would publicly speak about it since such activity is
currently placed under the sign of high criminality bordering on
treason. This framing occurs in spite of the fact that _ECD_ does
not destroy or vandalize data, it only blocks it. Any institution
which was struck by this action would never go public about it for
reasons I'm sure you can deduce. And if CAE did know of any
examples, we certainly wouldn't speak about them! This kind of
activism is real political action, and not the politics of
spectacle, so it has no public forum. Only the theory can
appear; the activity is underground.

MD: In _The Electronic Disturbance_, you exhort "resistant cultural
producers" to use consumer media technologies to parry the
relentless assault of corporate media---a call to arms that reminds
me of Andrew Ross and Constance Penley's vision, in the
introduction to their _Technoculture_ anthology, of everyday
cyberproles "turn[ing] technocommodities into resources for waging
a communications revolution from below." We've heard this before,
of course, from the media theorist Hans Magnus Enzensberger, who
admonished the New Left to make "proper strategic use of the most
advanced media," and more recently from cyberpunk novelists like
William Gibson, whose streetwise, techno-literate nomads use
technology to tip the balance of power, however briefly, in their
favor ("the street finds its own uses for things").

I'm as much of a sucker as anyone when it comes to romantic
myths of political resistance, but isn't it time we dissected some
of these stories in the unforgiving light of the "materiality of
everyday life" CAE ritually invokes? In _Temporary Autonomous
Zone_, Hakim Bey writes, "Many anarchists and libertarians have
deep faith in the PC as a weapon of liberation and self-liberation-
--but no real gains to show, no palpable liberty." At the end of
the day, isn't symbolic disturbance just that---symbolic?
Obviously, classic Marxism's hardheaded materialism blinds it to
the significance of *cultural* politics---the subcultural acts of
subversion and perversion that Stuart Hall calls "resistance
through rituals." But just as obviously, Michel de Certeau's
argument that consumption can be a form of production has its
limits, and we slam headlong into them in cultural studies essays
that place our last, best hopes for micropolitical resistance in
the Dionysian promise of the rave, the Bakhtinian carnival of the
Burning Man festival, pornographic _Star Trek_ fanzines, or (not
again!) on-line gender-bending. Even Hal Foster, whose critical
anthology _The Anti-Aesthetic_ helped secure the art-world
beachhead for postmodernism, has heralded the "return of the real"
in his book of the same name, proclaiming the resurrection of art
and theory grounded in---heaven forfend!---"actual bodies and
social sites."

How do we (and CAE) wriggle out of the philosophical Catch-22
implicit in the fact that any analysis of the flux and flow of
power in the late 20th century has to reconcile the material
effects of power---the deskilling of blue-collar workers, the
stagnation of spendable hourly wages, the yawning income gap
between the economic elite and the downsized masses, the vogue for
automatic-sentencing laws and the rise of the prison system as a
growth industry, to name a few---with the growingly *immaterial*
nature of power in the Information Age, where labor consists
increasingly of the manipulation of symbols on screens and
firsthand experience is fast being superseded by headfirst
immersion in cyberspace? CAE argues, on one hand, for an engaged
activism grounded in "the materiality of everyday life," and on the
other for an ontological anarchism whose brief-lived pirate utopias
recall Deleuze and Guattari's "deterritorialized" social spaces or
Hakim Bey's temporary autonomous zones. Can you (and we) really
have our politics both ways---materialist and Surrealist?

CAE: Let's begin with "symbolic disturbance." The impact it's
going to have depends upon what symbols are disturbed. If the
disturbance is aimed at cultural representations such as gender
codes, then you're correct, all that's being disturbed is the
symbolic plane, although it can be for a very good purpose and
have very good results. As we just stated with the BLO example,
pedagogical action is not political action, but it's still an
essential part of the resistant political process. However, other
symbols have a material impact when disturbed. If Baudrillard
taught us anything, it's that simulated activities and the
disruption of simulations can have direct and dramatic material
results. An obvious example is information. If a lab can't access
its research data, can that lab function? If a wholesaler can't
access he/r shipping data, can that business function? In both
cases, symbolic disturbance causes deep disruption on the material
plane because the representational and the material are
interdependent, so much so that there are times when it's difficult
to tell which is which. This kind of appropriation of
representation can be used as a point of political leverage that
can, in turn, can be used to reconfigure the material arenas that
you just listed.

So to answer your question about whether we're "Surrealists"
or "materialists," CAE is both, not by choice, but because we have
to be. As *cultural* activists, we have to be prepared to
continuously produce new cultural possibilities in the minds of
others---or, to put it negatively, to help people escape from
dominant cultural codes---and we have to be able to create
environments that thwart separation and allow people to come
together in a situation where social activity is not predetermined.
As *political* activists, we must aggressively confront vectors of
domination with the goal of reducing their velocity. These are two
different but equally important tasks, and they both require action
on the symbolic as well as the material planes. CAE doesn't see
the situation as either/or. In order for there to be success in
one arena, there must also be success in the other.

MD: To my mind, CAE's synthesis, in the late '80s, of politics,
postmodern philosophy, and performance art prefigured the now
voguish genre of performance theory typified by Arthur Kroker, who
declaims Baudrillardian one-liners over Wagnerian techno, or
Allucquere Rosanne Stone, whose lectures are a sort of avant-
vaudeville, incorporating props, slides, and audience
participation. Do you see CAE as a precursor of this trend? More
importantly, what does it say about the academy's relationship to
pop culture in general and performance art in specific? Are we
witnessing the "voguing" of theory by the academic hipeoisie, here,
or something more substantive?

CAE: I suppose CAE deserves part of the credit or blame (depending
on one's perspective) for the emergence of performing criticality
as opposed to limiting it to the domain of reading. I do want to
note that CAE was no precursor to the Krokers. Early on, CAE and
the Krokers successfully collaborated on a couple of projects
(although the Kroker's techno sound postdated our collaborations).
Sandy Stone had already developed her practice, too. It was
something that was in the air at the time. Now, CAE has pretty
much given up on the "wall of words" style of performance. We
still approximate it when we're at universities and conferences,
but the linguistic muscle-flexing is gone. I should also add that
for CAE, performing criticality was and is only one weapon in our
cultural arsenal, and that we're very careful about selecting the
situation for its use.

Perhaps we're back to the Living Theater again: appropriate
and redeploy in accordance with what the situation calls for. The
ivory tower has done all it can (as an institution of information
managers) to remove itself from those not in information
management. In fact, it's even worse than that. The differing
specializations within the academy no longer have a common language
with which to speak with one another. I think the more progressive
to radical elements in the academy recognize the need to reconnect
with the public. To reach those outside the institution, popular
techniques, performative or otherwise, become a viable option.
Whether this research project will be fruitful or not remains to
be seen. Academics are just beginning to toddle into new
territories of process and presentation. The situation is at least
cause for some optimism.

MD: Some would argue that the ivory Tower of Babel is not only
unable to converse with itself, but incomprehensible to a larger
world that doesn't speak academese---a serious challenge to the
populist dream of "reconnecting with the public." To be sure,
carping about academic jargon is often just anti-intellectualism in
drag, or a tediously familiar refrain in the neo-conservative
demonization of "tenured radicals" spearheaded by William Bennett.
Still, there's no denying the obvious irony of a professoriat that
purports to speak for, and to, the proletariat in a language
foreign to it. The novelist and critic David Lodge's charge that
"the Left-wing intelligentsia is trapped in a kind of ghetto that
only they understand, and so can't bring leverage to bear on the
body politic" is all too common.

I find CAE's texts exciting but uneven---the inevitable result
of so many cooks stirring the soup. At best, they're as pithy and
plainspoken as IWW pamphlets; at worst, they descend into Arthur
Krokerian cybaroque, as in this passage on the Death of the Author
in the Age of Hypertext from _The Electronic Disturbance_: "The
recombinant text in hypertextual form signifies the emergence of
the perception of textual constellations that have always/already
gone nova. It is in this uncanny luminosity that the authorial
biomorph has been consumed." How does such arguably arcane po-mo
critspeak advance CAE's vision of an engaged academy that
"reconnects with the public?" In other words, how does CAE
reconcile the implicit elitism of academic jargon with the explicit
populism of its politics?

CAE: We may have an example of the tower of Babel right here. When
speaking of academia as an information management system separated
from those not of that profession, what was meant is that its
members have a very difficult time speaking to the "public." But
let's take some time to share the blame. The problem isn't
theory-speak; theory-speak is a small symptom of a larger tendency.
As the division of labor becomes increasingly complex, each segment
is forced to develop its own specialized language, since the
Enlightenment system of task differentiation rewards greater
specialization. This language is designed primarily for internal
discussion among specialists. It's rare to find a social segment
that doesn't have a specialized language. If you're not a part of
the profession in question, who can understand the specialized
language of a computer maintenance person, a mechanic, or a doctor?
Now, some professions that must regularly interact with
nonspecialists ("the public") have researched other methods of
communicating, and this is what more progressive elements of the
university are beginning to do. The retro elements still believe
they have no need to communicate with anyone else but other
colleagues. Talking to the public is a pretty new and contested
concept in the university. With any luck, academics will get
better at it.

As for the discussion of radical politics among intellectuals
using a specialized language, CAE has no problem with that, any
more than we would with any other social segment using one.
Admittedly, CAE uses specialized languages. The quote you gave is
representative of one of the styles the group uses, although it is
not representative of the style of _The Electronic Disturbance_ as
a whole. Who was our audience for this book? It's not "the
public," which in this case would mean everyone. We can't be
certain that even Stephen King reaches "the public." This work was
for Leftist segments open to shifts in Leftist political thought,
and that have enough beliefs in common that there is a potential
for coalition among them. In this book, CAE is speaking to a
spectrum of socio-political groups that range from
lumpen-intellectuals (street activists and thinkers with modest-to-
major formal education) to cybernauts and media freaks to artists
to university academics. No single style is going to be seductive
and compelling to that wide a range, so we use a recombinant style
that drifts in out of different rhetorical possibilities. The
result is not a problem of "too many cooks stirring the broth," but
a problem which emerges when researching and developing a
recombinant style of writing that speaks to a range of *literate*
social segments. CAE simply does not believe that there is some
pure style that is the language of the people and speaks to
everybody. The division of labor is much too complex for that.
When CAE wants to communicate with social segments that find no
significance in books, we use other methods. Writing is just
another weapon in our arsenal, and we like to think we efficiently
deploy it in appropriate contexts.

MD: There's a tart critique, in _The Electronic Disturbance_, of
Leftist political documentaries, a time-honored form of agit-prop
which you argue is no less manipulative than the mainstream media
it decries: "Anywhere along the political continuum the electronic
consumer turns, s/he is treated like media sheep." Do you *really*
believe that independent media voices such as Paper Tiger and Deep
Dish TV are as pernicious as mainstream Rupert Murdochian media
simply because they're "monologic," as you put it, employing
coercive techniques familiar from network news? This strikes me as
a textbook example of the longstanding habit in academic theory
(taken to Laputan heights by postmodernists) of exaggerating the
effects of epistemological assumptions on everyday reality. I
mean, does raw power really work this way, in our daily lives?
Would CAE honestly argue that _Manufacturing Consent_, an
undeniably polemical documentary about Noam Chomsky, is no less
Orwellian than Leni Riefenstahl's _Triumph of the Will_, simply
because of a mutual reliance on persuasive cinematic rhetoric and
positivist assumptions about truth?

And---as long as I'm emptying my ammo clip, here---I'm also
worried by the whiff of vanguardist contempt for progressive
populism that lingers over CAE's argument against political
documentaries or community-based art projects, which you dismiss in
_ECD_ as "a sanctioned bureaucratic category" in which "very little
work pertaining to the 'community' is done." There's at least a
hint, here, of the elitism that makes strange bedfellows of radical
voices on the far Left *and* Right.

CAE: When documentaries replicate the status quo of power
relationships in terms of cultural consumption, CAE is immediately
skeptical, regardless of the message the work presents. The use of
such methods and forms indicates the dangerous duplicity of "do as
I say, not as I do." This is a behavior that I, for one, find very
elitist. Using a top-down method of presentation, the enlightened
attempt to illuminate the unenlightened---not a smart thing to do
when other options are available.

Your choice of Paper Tiger is a smart example of a viable
documentary style. Their tapes are presented as editorials, not
truth; they always call attention to the fact that the speaker is
a specific voice and not a universal one; and they always call
attention to the means of production and to the fact that their
tapes are manufactured products. CAE believes better and more
visually exciting models of production have been developed, but
this die-hard, New Left, Brechtian theater style is still useful.

Another thing to consider is the time when that essay was
written. In the early '90s, the documentary was so over-deployed
that video research nearly stopped. Everyone with a camcorder and
a protest to video all of a sudden had a significant tape. CAE was
doing everything it could to undermine this development, so there
is a tactical element to that essay that makes it appear slightly
overbearing, now that the recent documentary fad has passed.

As for your charges of elitism, we can't agree. Kept within
our social context, we're only promoting and defending our minority
location on the political continuum. How can we be elitist? CAE
has no power to separate itself from "the rabble," let alone
enforce our opinions as universals. Charging us with elitism is
like saying that a Black person who speaks against white popular
culture is elitist and racist.

Admittedly, CAE isn't fond of progressives primarily because
they still believe the state will save them. The Law/the Logos/the
Patriarchy is not going to help anyone, and empowering it further
only serves to increase the gravity of power bearing down us. But
because of faith in democracy (or at least its simulation), they
are always ready to be the dupes of various power vectors. You
mentioned community art---a perfect example of this problem. All
of a sudden, and out of nowhere, planning and institutional grants
have an outreach component. That's where the bulk of cultural
development money in the US is right now. Why? Because managed
cultural practice is a great way to buy some time in regard to the
problem of collapsing urban infrastructure. Instead of doing what
needs to be done to rejuvenate dying urban areas, you send in the
artists to do projects with the "community" (a horrid concept of
the same ilk as "family values"), run the documentation through the
spectacle engines, and show how things are improving. The most
nightmarish example I know is Suzanne Lacy's public relations
campaign for the SFPD. She would have us believe that the problems
between minority youth and the police don't stem from the fact that
the police are an occupying army dedicated to the preservation of
racist power relationships; the problems emerge because the two
communities aren't talking to one another. In a time when the
police are under a modest amount of pressure for acts of brutality,
those pictures on CNN of cops with happy kids have a lot of

Finally, this bedfellow thing. To reduce CAE's position to a
distorted simplicity, we are, admittedly, antistate and committed
to liberationist practices. The radical Right would probably say
the same thing about itself. However, CAE is not dedicated to
racism, sexism, militarism, Christian (or any other)
fundamentalism, patriotic revolution, laissez-faire capitalism, or
blind obedience to authority. These are, however, characteristics
representative of the radical Right. Given these characteristics,
one has to question how committed this movement is to principles of
anti-state or liberationist practice. In fact, CAE would go so far
as to say that the radical Right and Left have nothing in common at
all. This bedfellow accusation lives only in the minds of
liberals, conservatives, and other centrists.


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