Beyond culture jamming—digitally augmented artivism

by Michael O’Regan

They say empty vessels make the most noise, and that’s certainly borne out in the hollow cacophonies projected by many practitioners of culture jamming, a celebrated sub-division of activist art, which all too often problematically conflates the petulant with the profound. 

Lievrouw, pace Dery, locates the phenomenon’s origins in ‘80s New York, where subcultural actors like Robbie Conal pioneered the alteration and appropriation of commercial space as a modality of counter-hegemonic commentary on Reagan’s America.

Contra Diction

© Robbie Conal

 

As that decade unfolded, billboards, posters, newspapers, and magazines became the sites and subjects of playful parodies of corporate consumerism, “min[ing] mainstream culture to reveal and criticise its fundamental inequities, hypocrisies and absurdities” (Lievrouw, p. 80).

The practice of culture jamming has prospered in the internet age, where remix aesthetics, productive malleability, and minimal costs of distribution have afforded jammers a virtual tabula rasa on which to work, and Lievrouw writes admiringly of how groups as diverse as ®™Ark and the Electronic Disturbance Theatre retain a demonstrable capacity to conjure “small interventions [that] can make a big difference in popular perception, even briefly” (p. 84).

But to my mind, the demerits of culture jamming now outweigh the benefits. Indeed, its inadequacies as an artistic and political form can be extrapolated from the very qualities that Lievrouw ascribes to it. Its focus on the ironic take contributes to a studied unseriousness, reminiscent of a minor English public school common room: its interventionist character alienates as much as it enlightens (Brisman, 2014, p. 58); its characteristic ephemerality militates against sustained movement mobilisation.

What’s more, the ever-accelerating cycle of image exchange between jammers and the capitalist apparatus inevitably leads to co-optation and domestication, leaving, in Frank’s formulation, no “authentic space for genuine cultural expression apart from the market” (quoted in Lievrouw, p .83).

So, for all its supposed aesthetic sophistication (p. 96), in its refusal to offer a systemic critique, culture jamming fails where its analogue antecedents like the Imaginist Bauhaus and the Situationist International excelled. By trading mainly in superficiality and spectacle, jamming reduces itself to a “discourse radicalism that leads us willy-nilly down a path where collective politics takes a back-seat to individual gestures of transcendence” (Brisman, p. 59).

A more meaningful realisation of the potentialities of net art can be seen in the work of the Los Angeles based Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC), particularly its UCLA-housed Cesar Chavez Media Lab, “one of the most important digital creation and preservation institutions in the world” (Reed, 2013).

SPARC Logo

 

SPARC is the brainchild of Chicana muralist Judith Baca, who, since the early 1970s, has used artivism—understood as “the mobilisation of minoritarian perspectives through a repoliticised art practice” (Robinson and Cambre, 2015, p. 83)—as a means to excavate and articulate the experiences and contributions of those citizens typically overlooked in official histories.

Her most famous project, ‘The Great Wall of Los Angeles’, a half-mile long alternative history of that city, painted, over many years, on a disused cement flood-control barrier by Baca and 400 disadvantaged youths, is a monumental representation of racial and gender realities.

In Baca’s conceptualisation, muralism can serve as an “antidote for the hatred and disconnectedness in society […] a choreographed dance between team members, community residences and street life” (Baca, 2005, p. 168 and p. 155).

New media tools have transformed the process of manufacturing and maintaining murals, and, since the mid-1990s, Baca has successfully transitioned to a digital artivism “vested in the convergences between creative expression, social activism and self-empowerment” (Sandoval and Latorre, 2008, p. 82).

Her approach contains an intoxicating mélange of pragmatism and romanticism, slaloming between the oppressions and liberations of cyberspace to craft “real-world and on-the-ground strategies for youth of color to enact empowerment through digital technology” (p. 83).

For example, participants in her ‘Beyond the Mexican Mural’ emancipation workshop combine canvas and computer to forge a style of inter-generational, mixed-media portraiture that bears ‘active witness’ to their intimate and social selves, the public display of which “advanc[es] the expression of a mode of liberatory consciousness” (p. 82).

2013 Graduation Ceremony

 

Baca’s digital artivism is something of a slow burn; unlike culture jammers she refrains from lighting the explosive blue touch paper. Yet by dissolving the artificial dichotomy between community and activist art, and prizing, above all else, an unpretentious dialogue of inclusion, she embodies an ideal model of sustainable new media activism.

 

References

Baca, J. F. (2005). The human story at the intersection of ethics, aesthetics and social justice. Journal of Moral Education, 34(2), 153-169. DOI: 10.1080/03057240500137029

Brisman, A. (2014). Creative Crime: Kudzu and the Third Branch. In M.H. Jacobsen (Ed.), The poetics of crime: understanding and researching crime and deviance through creative sources (pp. 51-71). Farnham: Ashgate.

Lievrouw, L. A. (2011). Alternative and activist new media. Cambridge: Polity.

Robinson, L. and Cambre, M. (2015) Youth Artivism in Uganda: Co-Creators of Our Own Becoming. In P. Ugor and L. Mawuko-Yevugah (Eds.), African Youth Culture in a Globalized World: Challenges, Agency and Resistance (pp. 75-95). Farnham: Ashgate.

T.V. Reed (2013, June 10). Digitizing the Arts of Protest Retrieved from

https://mobilizingideas.wordpress.com/2013/06/10/digitizing-the-arts-of-protest/

Sandoval, C. and Latorre, G. (2008). Chicana/o Artivism: Judy Baca’s Digital Work with Youth of Color. In A. Everett (Ed.), Learning Race and Ethnicity: Youth and Digital Media (pp. 81-108). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

 

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3 comments

  1. […] O’Regan’s post Beyond culture jamming—digitally augmented artivism on the Beauty is in the Digital Street: Mobilisation in the Internet Age blog asserts that […]

  2. Baca’s process oriented work certainly provides a more complex response to structural, environmental and cultural conditions – while avoiding turgid theory or slogans and soundbites. But any collective endeavour, whether interest group, movement or genre, will inevitably draw prominent egos, and some voices and modes that offend.

    While lines should be drawn before underlying intent is lost and there is no route towards critical engagement or further action, I wonder whether you draw that line too close to one camp? Arora and Rangaswamy article in Media Culture Society 35, 2013 considers competing entertainment and social activism in a ‘Developing’ context and raises some of the same concerns, with the recognition that this is ‘not a homogeneous terrain open to uniform ICT4D interventions. It comprises people of varied material status, economic aspirations and social dynamism’.

    This is the social and digital environment that we are operating within. Irony and wilful misunderstanding are the arsenal of these boys (http://new.spectator.co.uk/2015/09/pig-ignorant-click-activists-are-in-charge-now-jeremy-corbyns-success-proves-it/) and clickitivism, social documentary or well established research that points the finger of ‘pig-ignorance’ the opposite way, doesn’t always stick.

    • Michael O'Regan

      Hey Claire,

      As a pure point of order, I can’t rebut your assertion that I’ve gone out of my way to accentuate the negatives of jamming; the piece was written as a deliberate provocation. That said, I think there’s more than a kernel of truth in my suggestion that a lot of this stuff is the product of middle-class kids playing silly beggars for the onanistic titillation of their like-minded mates, originating faux-rebellious copy for the advertising industry, and little else besides.

      My fragile sensibilities aren’t offended by these groups; they just bore me to bloody tears! The current push to instrumentalise art for social change heralds a bureaucratic vitiation of the creative process, which is—in the case of theatre, at least—more often than not best carried out by a person alone in a room, rather than by a committee armed with a toolkit full of ideological checklists.

      Speaking for myself, I’ve learned more about the political realities of contemporary society from watching the West End revival of Hare’s ‘Skylight’—a 20-year-old popular confection!—than I did from perusing the entire oeuvre of the Electronic Disturbance Theatre. This tells me that there’s more than one way of participating; when Fugard, Havel, or Shaffer skilfully articulate what’s hidden in the heads and hearts of their audiences, those same audiences gain greater political consciousness than if they were stood on the stage themselves, ham-fistedly organising their own production.

      Anyway, I appreciate the comment. I’ve very much enjoyed your blogposts, which have engaged with a subject matter ignored by most everyone else. It’s a shame there hasn’t been more discussion of art activism, but I guess that’s the product of the subject only being represented on the reading list by a single, desultory chapter in a rapidly-aging general textbook.

      Finally, I’ve got no truck with Rod Liddle: I’m more of a (Peter) Hitchens type.