Ricardo Dominguez (center), with Electronic Disturbance Theater 2.0.

It’s a staging that feels, if not inappropriate, then at least a little unconventional: I’m seated in front of my laptop in the living room of my East Vancouver home, trying (and mostly failing) to ward off the September cold creeping up through the floorboards. On my screen, streamed in from a home office in San Diego, California, is Ricardo Dominguez, one of North America’s most wildly experimental and most deeply politicized media artists.

My microphone malfunctions, my Internet connection wavers, and my flimsy earbuds crackle. But all the same, Dominguez’ cavernous baritone vibrates across the pixelated static that separates us, asserting his “presence” with a startling authority.

It’s a timbre well suited to the impressive silhouette that Dominguez has cut upon the North American political landscape. Since the 1980s, Dominguez and his many collaborators have steadfastly challenged prevailing discourses of virtuality with a tremendous array of mind-bending media art projects that deploy a radical poetics of collective action and futurity to reckon with the politics of neoliberalism, globalization and migration.

Not surprisingly, in the process he’s also raised the ire of some formidable foes, including various bodies within the Mexican Government, the U.S. Departments of Defense and Justice, several Republican congressmen, and the FBI Office of Cyber Crimes. Ultra-right wing Fox News personality Glenn Beck has even claimed that Dominguez’ poetry threatens to “dissolve” the American nation state.

This remarkable trajectory of disturbance (which continues today through Dominguez’ work with the b.a.n.g. lab at UCSD’s Calit2 institute) finds its roots in the renowned Critical Art Ensemble, a collective of tactical media practitioners that emerged in Tallahassee, Florida in the mid-1980s.

Following the 1994 publication of one of the CAE’s first texts — Electronic Disturbance — the collective, including Dominguez, began to seriously explore the possibilities of what would become known as “electronic civil disobedience.” As he recalls, the concept “emerged in our dialogue as a way to imagine a new space of contestation and reimagine new forms of civil disobedience; we wanted to explore non-violent direct action through blockage and trespass.”

Inflected by the aesthetic and poetic grounding of the Ensemble, these imaginings were focused on establishing what Dominguez calls a “performative matrix or space of practice that enabled us to bring data bodies and real bodies together in a form of non-violent protest.” Electronic civil disobedience, thought along the lines of a critical aesthetic and artistic practice, would call up the tradition of “Gandhian satyagraha — that your body is a space of contestation and protest” but ask, “How does one do it online?”

That performative matrix, backed by the wild imaginations and dense theoretical wayfaring of Dominguez and his colleagues, eventually came to fruition in the form of the Electronic Disturbance Theatre and what has since become its hallmark performance: the virtual sit in.

Leveraging the basic functions (reload and the “404-file not found” protocol) of early browsers like Netscape and Mosaic, Dominguez and the EDT, in the early 1990s, began staging a number of participatory Denial of Service attacks on bodies such as the Mexican Government and the U.S. Department of Justice. To participate in the sit in, demonstrators would simply run a basic, open source JavaScript on their browser, the sole function of which was to refresh a target website over and over again. The target server would clog with the redundant requests and, in effect, shut down.

By the standards of contemporary hacker culture, the virtual sit-in might seem a rudimentary exercise. For Dominguez, that was precisely the point.

Against the “fetish of technological efficiency” and shadowy anonymity that informs state discourses of “cyber war, cyber terrorism, cyber crime” and much of hacktivist culture itself, the work of the EDT has, from the beginning, pursued what Dominguez calls “radical transparency.”

“The aesthetic practice” of the sit ins and similar disturbances, he says, “would be not to be anonymous, not to seek to crack into servers and use them as zombies that might or might not represent the number of people participating.” Rather, it was organized around “the public features of the browser,” and drew its strength from collective gestures that leveraged the force of multiple bodies acting together in virtual space.

It was a tactic that explicitly challenged “the myth of the hacker class,” and pushed both advocates and the various institutions they challenged to think more expansively about online activism. The virtual sit in made it clear that a digital politics (and a politics of the digital) exceeds technocratic considerations of efficiency, and demands that we explore as well questions of “symbolic efficacy,” of poetics, of human relationality, of bodies meeting in space and time.

Perhaps nowhere in Dominguez’ oeuvre does this call for an activist-artistic practice that overflows the “wired, California ideology” of hyper-efficiency resonate with more force than in the Transborder Immigrant Tool (TBT).

Making the most of the rudimentary GPS applets built into cell phones available aftermarket in Mexico for around $40, Dominguez and his EDT/Calit2 colleagues transform basic mobile handsets into navigation and survival tools for Mexican citizens attempting to cross the treacherous and heavily policed Mexico-U.S. border zone. Built into the hacked applet is data from NGOs like Border Angels, who maintain clean water sites and life-saving stations along migration routes, as well as information about where to find safe housing and shelter.

At its core an instrument of survival, the Tool nonetheless retains the radical artistic impulses (and explosive political implications) that animate Dominguez’ earlier work. Even as it intervenes into the life-and-death experience of migration, it remains a poetic meditation on the aesthetics of crossing, the creation and performance of trans-beings, and the volatile tensions (location/dislocation, mobility/enclosure, virtuality/materiality) that characterize digital neoliberalism.

The cell phone, after all, tends to be constructed by market rhetoric on contradictory but nonetheless related terms. On the one hand, it’s the ultimate symbol of the kind of mobile hyper-connectivity presupposed (and demanded) by globalized transcapital. If advertising images and narratives are to be believed, our mobile devices, tethered to what Mark Andrejevic has evocatively called the “electromagnetic umbilicus” of the network, enable us to traverse new terrains, to explore new horizons, to connect with a whole world of strangers, irrespective of geophysical constraints.

On the other hand, the cell phone also registers as an instrument of location and fixation. At the tap of a finger, our precise coordinates can be pulled out of the digital ether, triangulated and linked to all sorts of hyper-localized data, often in ways that retrench commercial imperatives and establish regimes of surveillance, enclosure and restriction.

Dominguez’s appropriation of the mobile phone, not surprisingly, turns this already-vexed relation between location and dislocation on its head. In the first place, as Dominguez remarks, the promise of mobility advanced by our various digital devides is almost always anchored in a specific — and extremely narrow — assumption about where bodies can and cannot exist in the first place. In his words, “a great deal of this new enclosure and mobility is very much rooted in the urban … where is my friend, where is coffee, how do we connect these two.” Against this city-centric tendency, which implicitly declares those in rural and migratory zones as somehow unlocatable (or perhaps not worthy of being located), the TBT explicitly asks “how can we reconfigure, disturb, dislocate?” How can we seek to “transform the very notion of what sustenance is on the border?”

These questions are incendiary precisely because the border is always configured by dominant systems of navigation as a non-space. For a border to function as a border, in the end, it must relinquish any and all claims over space. The instant the border stakes a claim upon something, it fails, since it is no longer simply the defining limit of something else, such as a nation state, a site of economic exchange, or a set of cultural practices.

Thus, despite the fact that, as Dominguez reminds me, at any given moment, there are likely more people on this planet traversing border zones than there are living fixedly in nation states, such zones remain not only invisible within dominant geopolitical mappings, but also impossible.

This impossibility raises urgent ethical questions about how we account for the lives that border zones hold, the communities that come together and dissolve along their contours, the specifically human bodies that are more than the labour power they exert; bodies that are poetic, thoughtful, excessive and, as Dominguez rightly insists, “transformative.”

How, then, are we to apprehend the border, its billions of inhabitants, and their uniquely transformative lives if our locative technologies — from cell phones to passports to traditional maps — exhaustively configure the border as a kind of anti-location that we may never witness?

Grappling with this failure of location to take account of lives in transit, the TBT turns toward poetics, aesthetics and mappings that jettison the very concept of location from the outset. The cell phone — the neoliberal locative instrument par excellence — once transformed into the TBT, becomes an explosive lever of dislocation that registers, in the place of finding, experiences of crossing. The moment a body enters the impossible space of the border zone, it “no longer responds to the arcs of triangulation” defined by words like “illegal,” institutions like U.S. Immigration, and forces like armies. In that moment, we must rethink — quite radically and dangerously — the relation of the body to the geophysical, to technology, and to itself.

And so, as it preserves human lives by increasing access to the most basic of necessities, the TBT also calls upon us to imagine survival anew and, to rethink (in an echo of Judith Butler’s work in Precarious Life) the resources that make life possible. It asks us to consider how new forms of life-in-common, beyond the “bare life” called up by the one-dimensional figure of the ‘illegal immigrant,’ might finally grasp at trans-border rights to health, education and labour.

What can this all mean for other activists working both online and off to dream of and build a better future? What can the TBT’s poetics offer us as we fumble toward new democratic models in the wake of the neoliberal crisis?

For Dominguez, engaging in political action through and alongside the digital realm is about exploring a “politics of the question.” “The virtual,” he says, “is a highly active ‘poster’ that allows social agglutination, social focus, allows a temporality of activation, and also allows a lived archiving of what has occurred.” Digital tools enable movements to “rip into the electronic fabric” with a persistent questioning of neoliberal globalization, and call upon related struggles to answer that question in their own way.

Recalling his encounter with the Zapatistas, Dominguez reiterates “It wasn’t ‘everybody come to Chiapas, become armed and let us take over Mexico.’ They were asking, ‘what are the qualities of neoliberalism in your space, how do you function in and contest that space, not by mimicking us, but by mimicking the question.”

And here, his constant rehearsal of the notion of poetics (which, until this point had admittedly seemed a bit bewildering to my early-morning brain) suddenly catches fire. Poetic spaces — dream spaces — ask questions yet offer no answers. They furnish the trace or specter of a world that may yet be, but leave untouched the paths that might guide us toward it. Confronted with and dislocated by this sprawling open space, the field that unfolds between today and alternative tomorrows, we must insistently traverse and trespass; we must write a poetics of translation. We must question.

I’m reluctant to hazard the guess, but I think this is what Dominguez means when he tells me, “we’re thinking borders not as science, but as science fiction.” To preserve a fictive, imaginative element within an institution (the border) otherwise violently enclosed by state armies and vicious racisms, means to preserve the radical possibilities of the question.

It means thinking of new futures, new bodies and new ways of sustaining the communities that emerge through and within the inescapable entanglement of the virtual with the physical. It means witnessing Dominguez’s pixelated image on my computer screen as an act of care and solidarity. It means fighting for the future precisely by fighting “against the future as its being defined for us.” It means creating an architecture for dreaming, one that empowers each of us to “start building a new democracy, one atom at a time.”

Ricardo Dominguez will be appearing at the Central Library on November 3, 2012 to deliver the opening keynote address for Media Democracy Days Vancouver 2012. Full details of the event are available at mediademocracyday.org. The event is free, but seating is limited.

Tyler Morgenstern is a Vancouver-based writer, activist and agitator.

This article was originally published by Art Threat and is reprinted here with permission. 

Tyler Morgenstern

Tyler Morgenstern

Tyler Morgenstern is a Vancouver-based writer, activist, and agitator. He is currently serves as spokesperson for Reimagine CBC.