Ryan Griffis on 18 Dec 2000 22:03:08 -0000

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<nettime> interview with Critical Art Ensemble

Tandom Surfing the Third Wave, Part One:
Critical Art Ensemble and Tactical Media Production

This interview, with Critical Art Ensemble, is the first part of a series
of investigations into collaborative/group artistic practice taking place
in, and critical of, the e-conomy.

Critical Art Ensemble (CAE), a collective of 5 artists working since 1987,
produces cultural products ranging from books to Web projects to
performances that investigate moments in art, technology, activism, and
critical theory.

Ryan Griffis: How did CAE come to be a working group?

Critical Art Ensemble: It's too bad CAE has no heroic formation story
about a grand international like the one the Situationists are often
mythologized as having. CAE's story is much more mundane. We were students
looking to develop a network that would have a cultural impact--some way
of organizing that would give us enough financial, hardware, and labor
resources that we could begin to construct a platform for a public voice.
Collective activity seemed (and still seems) to be the best option.

RG: Many people, including artists, don't understand how most individual
artists finance their work, much less large-scale public work projects and
ephemeral/"conceptual" works. With the work that your group (and others)
is involved in, being "politically" involved and controversial (in a way
that doesn't always lead to "ticket sales") as well as potentially
expensive (time & resource wise), could you talk some about the economic
strategies of CAE as a collaborative venture?

CAE: We don't understand how to finance work either. No granting agency
has ever given CAE money. We raise funds in three ways. First, we all have
straight jobs. Second, we do a lot of visiting artist and speaking gigs in
conjunction with writing, so we get royalties, writer's fees, and speaking
fees. This money goes exclusively toward projects. Finally, we try to
throw as many expenses as possible at any institution that wants to
sponsor a project. We just hobble along from project to project, usually
working with an extremely limited budget. A lot of our imaginative power
goes into figuring out how to make things for minimal cost. However, it's
better than it was when we first started. At least we don't have to
liberate materials anymore.

RG: CAE has written quite a bit of theory for the practice of
collaborative art activity, and from a perspective of involvement. At the
current time, where does the group see itself, and other art/activist
groups, in relation to other practices, for example the (very youth
oriented) electronically aided organizing efforts of recent demonstrations
in Philly, LA, and DC?

CAE: It all depends on what the group is geared toward doing. Over the
past five years, CAE has primarily focused on biotechnology and the
colonization bonanza that it is launching. We are working in a very
straightforward manner, and trying to do events that demonstrate through
participatory theater just what is at stake. Other groups like the
Institute for Applied Autonomy (www.appliedautonomy.com) are focused on
ground developments, with projects like Graffiti Writer (a
remote-controlled, programmable graffiti-writing robot) or their GPS
project, designed to offer protesters escape routes so that they pass by
the minimum amount of surveillance hardware when on the run. There is so
much to be done. Happily there is no single metanarrative that describes
intercollective associations, or that maps the intersection between groups
working on direct material levels and those working in cultural

RG: I've read statements from a member of RTMark expressing uncertainty
about the labeling of their activity as art, or rather how the label can
be a double-edged sword. I have also heard Guillermo Gomez-Pena say (of
his and Sifuentes' work) that they can get away with much more than
straight activists because they're artists. How does CAE deal with the
reception issue, and are there times when the "Art" label is useful, and
others when it's not?

CAE: If CAE has to pick a label, we prefer "tactical media practitioners."
However, in keeping with this tendency, we use labels in a tactical
manner. If the situation is easier to negotiate using the label "artist,"
then we will use it; if it's better to use "activist" or "theorist" or
"cultural worker," then we will use those labels. Regardless of the label,
our activities stay the same. Labels are useful only in so far as they set
expectations among those with whom we wish to have a dialogue. The label
that best taps the knowledge resources of the audience is the one we try
to choose.
    A lot of this problem has to do with the social constructions of the
roles of artist and activist. For the most part, these roles are placed
within a specialized division of labor, where one role, segment, or
territory is clearly separated from the other. We view ourselves as
hybrids in terms of role. To CAE, the categories of artist and activist
are not fixed, but liquid, and can be mixed into a variety of becomings.
To construct these categories as static is a great drawback because it
prevents those who use them from being able to transform themselves to
meet particularized needs.

RG: In looking at many art strategies that have taken an "oppositional"
stance towards the various forms of hegemonic oppression, be it blatantly
political or theoretical, it usually seems to become assimilated into the
larger art world. Overtly political artists become just that (Haacke) and
more theoretical work becomes academic style (Kosuth, Art-Language). But
such criticism seems to suggest that to become mainstream is death, so
opposition is doomed to always stay marginal. But it would also seem that
our society (and probably most) are resistant to drastic change, without
catastrophe, and such assimilation is a necessity, one that must be
carefully watched, but a necessity nonetheless. What are/have been CAE's
thoughts on such issues? And how does this play out specifically through
CAE's interventions into a discourse like biotech.?

CAE: Whether to take a position at the center or the margins really
depends on the goals that have been set by the individual or group. The
reasons for doing projects on the margins are obvious. Work in such areas
is great for education and organizing. From a collective history
viewpoint--many individuals and groups working on a specific issue can
bring about some positive changes. Working in the center is trickier,
because as you stated it can always be used by the center for its own
ends. The same can be said when the margins are organized well enough to
have a public voice. Take the example of ACT-UP. This group collectively
changed the protocols at the NIH in regard to HIV. At the same time, it
was used as an example of democratic action that can impact bureaucracy,
an example of people having free speech, etc. In many ways the movement
was used to reinforce the public perception that democracy exists in
capitalist economy. Someone like Hans Haacke is used in this same manner
on a cultural level. However, the ability of the sight machine to
reconfigure resistant actions (particularly once they address the center)
is not a reason to criticize. If a group is creating resistant initiatives
as a public practice (as opposed to an underground or otherwise hidden
practice) then the cycle of resistance and assimilation is just a given.
The important thing to watch is how well a group negotiates this give and
take, and not whether or not it does it perfectly.

In the realm of biotech, CAE is just trying to make a specialized
discourse a public (nonspecialist) one. CAE is worried that nonspecialists
in general may not understand the significance of the biological
revolution. So many elements are hidden, and there is so much
misinformation (generally from market directives and science fiction) that
it is difficult just to create a reasonable discussion. Specialization is
a scary thing under these conditions. Unlike with the communications
revolution, few people (directly) use the applications and information
from the biorevolution, although almost all are indirectly touched by it.
Since the public has almost no direct experience with biotech, it seems
abstract and too difficult for a nonspecialist to understand. CAE's
intervention in this situation is to give people direct experience and
reliable information so that individuals can come to understand that
biotech is within their power to think about and actively affect.

RG: Speaking of the G.E. and biotech developments that CAE has
investigated, there seems to be a lot of overlap with concerns coming out
of communication technologies, that other groups, like RTMark and The
Redundant Tech. Initiative, are taking on. Many aspects of CAE's
activities appear to address this as well in different ways. Could you
address some of these overlapping issues occurring between biological and
communications technologies?

CAE: There are two primary narratives in regard to this issue. The first
is the digital and the second is control. Recent developments in
information and communication technologies (ICT) and in biotechnology are
on a parallel course. Contemporary ICT is slightly ahead of biotech, but
they are both products of the digital era. When speaking of the "digital,"
CAE means this in a grander sense than just as a category of technology.
We are speaking of a worldview, of a new cosmology. When we use the term
"digital," we are referring to the idea of replication. Western cosmology
has traditionally been analogic. That is, a process moves from chaos to
order and back to chaos, and products exist in a binary pattern--the
original and the counterfeit. For centuries the principle that order came
from chaos and chaos from order was unchallenged. This situation really
started to change in the early 20th century with Fordist
mass-manufacturing. Ford intuitively understood the digital in terms of
manufacture, in that he knew the distinction between the original and the
counterfeit was actually an impediment to profit, and that profitability
was increased by employing principles of replication and equivalence. This
new model was directly understood and addressed in the development of
digital technology--the technology of replication and equivalence. The
model is based on the principle that order comes from order. Such an idea
had tremendous impact on biology, because without it, the reproductive
process could not be understood, because biological reproductive process
is about replication. Once this idea was accepted, it was possible to
understand DNA in a whole new way. Manufacturing, ICT, and biotechnology
(the primary markers of the 20th century) are linked in that they share
this new principle of order from order.

The second narrative, control, also links ICT and biotech. Both of these
revolutions are about greater determinacy in complex systems. ICT
primarily functions as a means to improve the gathering, storing,
exchange, and distribution of information in the virtual world. Biotech is
about the same processes in the realm of the organic. Through improved
control of complex systems, capital can achieve its own ends in terms of
constructing bigger and more efficient profit machines and maintaining the
social hierarchies that best lubricate this machine. Take the example of
work. ICT has contributed to its intensification to such an extent that
the worker's body (particularly the technocrat's) is failing to function
in the high velocity marketplaces of capital ( since the body is a
low-velocity constellation). Biotech is partially an initiative to prop
the body up, to redesign it, so it can keep up with the demands of a
society of speed.

RG: With respect to GE/GM technology and human medicine, what are the
group's interests in visualizing aspects of this technology that have a
significant impact on access to health care and other privileges relating
to the understanding of "healthy" vs. "unhealthy"? For example, denied
access to managed health care, or jobs, based on "genetic

CAE: The group hasn't really addressed this issue specifically, although
it does come up in relation to our investigations into the reconfiguration
of eugenics in pancapitalist economy. The question for CAE is perhaps
broader, and concerns categories such as fit/unfit or normal/abnormal.
These categories clearly stretch beyond the specialization of healthcare
and into generalized social and political organization. As tactical media
artists, the group has completed four major projects examining various
aspects of biotech revolution in a theatrical form that invites public
participation (participatory theater). These works raise questions
concerning (1) eugenic traces in assisted reproductive technology ("Flesh
Machine" - both the book ( published by Autonomedia) and the performance
project); (2) extreme medical intervention in reproduction and the attack
on sexuality ("Society for Reproductive Anachronisms"); (3) the
acquisition of "fit" flesh materials ("Intelligent Sperm On-line"); and
(4) the utopian promissory rhetoric spinning off of the Human Genome
Project ("Cult of the New Eve"). The most recent project is one that CAE
began to investigate in the "Cult of the New Eve," and that is the
politics of transgenics. What the collective is exploring in particular is
the relationship between transgenic production and biological
environmental resource management.

RG: Could you talk a little about this project and specifically explain
the significance of the concepts of transgenic production and biological
environmental resource management?

CAE: Transgenic engineering is the formation of new combinations of genes
by isolating one or more genes from one or more organisms and introducing
them into another organism. It was once believed that species boundaries
were for the most part impenetrable. Now, all bets are off. Any species or
combination of species can be combined with any other (although the limits
of these recombinations are still unknown). Once the genomes of all the
species are mapped and sequenced, and this information becomes readable,
highly functional organisms can be created to suit the needs of the
institutions or states that create them (hence the huge investments from
both public and private sectors in various genome projects).  Biological
environmental resource management is mainly concerned with introducing
species particular to one ecosystem into another ecosystem, in an
intentional attempt to preserve or to reclaim a desired version of
ecological equilibrium. The problems with this method are clear from the
beginning. How is equilibrium defined? What is a desirable ecosystem? The
ideological repercussions are overwhelming. Be that as it may, the method
has been used for over one hundred years. There have been successes and
disasters, although the disasters tend to get more press--kudzu, cane
toads, etc. With transgenics, the possibilities for new species
introduction grow exponentially. Resource managers are no longer limited
to the catalogue of life as it existed in the past, but can create a
nearly infinite amount of recombinations (eventually with very specialized
characteristics) from this catalogue. New organisms are already being made
on a daily basis using transgenic processes. The question of what can be
made and what happens when these creatures are released is of central
importance to all specializations concerned with the environment. Indeed,
the commodities market is already testing the possibilities by releasing
transgenic bacteria, farm animals, and plants into the ecosystem. This
form of testing and of biological environmental resource management is a
relatively gray area. The possibilities are both utopic and dystopic, but
public mistrust of transgenics makes public discourse on the subject all
the more difficult. To complicate this situation further, capital is in
the midst of an ideologically schizophrenic moment. On the one hand, the
ideology of transgenics (the mixing of categories) has traditionally been
used as a means to mark the other and justify colonization. Colonial
subjects have been considered dangerous because of the high value placed
on transformation and mixing of natural constellations, which to the
western colonial mind shows them to be out of harmony with the law of
nature (according to which species can only combine with like species). To
be sure, such activity in western mythology results in making of monsters
in the most extreme sense--vampires, werewolves, and witches. Not to
mention that the territory of the other, like hell itself, has
historically been sprinkled with projected fantasies of horrific
recombinant creatures (harpies, sea monsters, cyclops, etc.) that are
abhorrent to nature. Yet now that this law of nature (like with like;
species with species) has been reduced to a simple boundary to be crossed
for profit, capital has to produce a kind of double think that maintains
colonial signifiers but allows the recombinant to be accepted in everyday
life. Now that this new organic realm is open for invasion, centuries of
ideological signage have to be re-engineered. The sharply divided opinions
about transgenic food are indicative of the problem. On one hand, the
traditional transgenics fears sweep through the general public, and on the
other hand, those concerned with maximizing profit in food resources are
building data that show that transgenic food is neither a health hazard
nor an ecological threat. This battle between the dystopian/utopian form
of representing these new initiatives is the perfect dramatic friction for
a theater of transgenics, and biological environmental resource management
is one key discipline where material conditions will play themselves out
in the extreme.

RG: One thing that I've noticed frequently in CAE's writings is the
examination of our (US mainstream) culture's focus on the spectacular and
unusual when it comes to death and memorialization. The group seems to
like using Greg Ulmer's concept of a memorial for automobile deaths as an
opposing point of focus. This seems to me to suggest an attempt to do
something not often done in "activist" art practices (Adbusters, etc.),
which is mainly addressing latent desire(s)  behind the mundane acts of
living, along with being critical of the actions themselves.

CAE: Nonrational economy, or the under economy, has always been of primary
concern for CAE, considering that capitalism has an immense stake in
limiting the scope of desire to work and commodity relations. The task of
trying to productively agitate the nonrational is by far the most
difficult because it is where organizational and analytic abilities are of
modest use in insuring successful actions. The standard tendency of
cultural and political activist practices to react and counter a given
activity that reinforces or expands dominant social hierarchies with a
strategic or a tactical initiative (logos opposed by antilogos) will not
work in the realm of the nonrational. All we can ask in such a case is
what can we do to create conduits into territories of visibility where
repressed/invisible desires can find public expression. When done
successfully, such expressions can introduce a productive level of chaos
into society (usually at a micro level), which in turn offers organized
(rational) movements or activities a more liquid space to act effectively.
In other words, the political chess match between oppositional forces does
not have to follow standard patterns of interaction. While this narrative
sounds good in theory, the problem is that there is no way to know who
will benefit or what the final result of agitating the nonrational may be.
It's a real roll of the dice that can have as disastrous (authoritarian)
consequences as it can have good (liberationist). However, given the
current situation, resistant forces have little to lose by working in this

RG: Does CAE see the "Us/them" dichotomy common to many oppostional camps
problematic? If so, what theories/practices do you use to not fall into
that trap, while remaining actively critical?

CAE: That really depends on the situation. For example, CAE is in favor of
what we term tactical essentialism. When this is employed, people can
successfully use universal binaries to establish the social solidarity
that can in turn produce a resistant movement. It has been used well in
the past by the Women's Liberation Movement or the Black Power Movement.
However, this choice is tactical, meaning that it must be surrendered once
the movement has been established. If resistant vectors are to continue to
increase in mass and velocity, they must then establish more complex
critiques and actions that recognize the inconsistencies, aporia, and gray
areas involved in separation.

CAE's main principle for not falling into the binary trap is our use of
tacticality. Obviously, this a very long discussion that goes beyond the
limits of this interview, but here is the short version. The five
principles of tactical media are: specificity (deriving content and
choosing media based on the specific needs of a given audience within
their everyday life context); nomadicality (a willingness to address any
situation and to move to any site); amateurism (a willingness to try
anything, or negatively put, to resist specialization);
deterritorialization (an occupation of space that is predicated upon its
surrender, or anti-monumentalism); and counterinduction (a recognition
that all knowledge systems have limits and internal contradictions, and
that all knowledge systems can have explanatory power in the right
context, and that contradiction in general is productive). Our practice is
about process only--the process of resistance. We have no final cause in
mind, no utopias, and no solid social categories. CAE interacts with the
becomings of lived time in an effort to expand difference.

RG: I don't want to naturalize technology here, but what does CAE make of
certain trends in technology that seem to favor more democratic (less
specialized) forms of communication and commerce (shareware, Linux)as
opposed to the more dominant forms of private property and intellectual
property rights? How is biotech connected to these changes?

CAE: We have to be careful with this issue. The primary conflict, if not
crisis, that is happening within capitalist economy concerns how digital
economic power should be configured and consolidated. Currently, capital
is split. On one hand, there are those who believe that profits can be
maximized by doing away with older notions of property. From this
perspective, in an economy based on replication, the only thing that
matters in terms of profit generation is the speed of replication. The
faster information is replicated and thereby consumed, the higher the
profits in analogue economy. For example, if a company gives away free
music on Napster, that company will in turn sell more CDs, more concert
tickets, more band merchandise, etc. From CAE's perspective this is the
position that will eventually become dominant because it is a digital
strategy. On the other hand, many still believe that digital products
should be governed under the same property principles as analogue products
(traditional privatization). The struggle within capital is intense on
this issue. Whichever way it goes, the public is not going to win. Capital
will only tighten its hold on digital economy. The good side is that
during these conflicts it's possible for actual anti-capital initiatives
to accomplish more by camouflaging themselves with this discourse and
reaping benefit from the confusion emerging from the crisis. It's so nice
when the capitalists turn on one another over a principle that was beyond
question prior to digital economy.

Biotechnology is a part of digital economy in that it is primarily about
speed and replication, so we are witnessing the same struggle. From the
research point of view, scientists are generally good about sharing
information, but there are limits. Patenting is still alive and well. From
the corporate perspective, it's the same split as with digital
information. Some want to treat genetic and molecular breakthroughs as
analogic, others don't. Take GM food for example. Some argue that it is
best to give away genetically modified seeds (a common occurrence in
postcolonial food initiatives in the third world). The belief is that once
food production is cornered from the molecular level up, that profits from
other related goods and services will increase. Others want payment from
the beginning. Since much of this happens on a case-by-case basis (for
example, Monsanto uses both strategies), it's difficult to tell what the
future will bring.

Critical Art Ensemble can be found on the web at www.critical-art.net.

Ryan Griffis is a member of artofficial construction
media (www.artofficial-online.com)

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