Eugene Thacker on Thu, 25 Feb 1999 22:44:17 +0100 (CET)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> New World (dis)Orders report

[techne]W3LAB: works-in-progress/works-in-process
An online group exhibit of presented
in conjunction with the "New World (dis)Orders" conference
at Rutgers University, Feb. 18-19th, 1999.

[techne] Conference Report :: 

New World (dis)Orders: Globalization, Culture, & Identity

Feb. 18+19, Rutgers University

The fourth annual Program in Comparative Literature conference, whose
theme this year was "globalization," was recently held on the Rutgers
University campus. Keynote speakers included Homi Bhabha, a keynote
panel on global feminism with Drucilla Cornell and bell hooks, and a
series of actions by Critical Art Ensemble. Panel topics included
"Mapping the metropolis," Nation, Identity, and Intellectuals," "Ethics,
Values, Human Rights," and "Cultural Commodification." 

[techne]'s involvement in the conference took place on several levels.
First, the [techne]W3LAB, an online group exhibit, was installed during
the first day of the conference at a computer station where users could
peruse projects. Secondly, [techne] had invited guests Critical
Art Ensemble (hereafter CAE) to perform their piece "BioCom" as part of
the conference's technology panel, which also included an installation
by Eugene Thacker, and a VRML station by Nikolas. Third, Critical Art
Ensemble, along with the Institute for Applied Autonomy, performed a new
work entitled the Society for Reproductive Anachronisms (SRA). Both
actions and the presentation of the online exhibit all went well, and
CAE's BioCom performance generated some scandal within the conference as well...

BioCom: On the first evening of the conference, during the technology
and globalization panel, CAE performed an action, appearing as the faux
biotech corporation BioCom. The action and panel followed a full day of
papers and discussions, and was to be concluded with CAE and [techne].
As CAE readers may know, BioCom is a piece which strategically
appropriates the discourse of corporate biotechnology to performatively
comment on the discursive, scientific, and economic colonialism of the
biotech industry. The BioCom presentation involved a lecture and
demonstration of BioCom's services and products (via a projected CD-ROM)
as well as a Q&A from the audience. BioCom also demonstrated the
efficiency of its services by offering an online genetic screening and
sperm donor service. Connected via CU-SeeMe video and chat, a BioCom
customer, "Susan," who was in the market for a sperm donor, was asked
questions concerning the type of genetically-engineered child she
preferred. An audience volunteer, "Scott," matched the qualifications
and was taken to a separate computer station where he filled out the
BioCom genetic screening form online. Though CAE has performed versions
of BioCom previously, this was the first instance where live webcasting
was utilized.

The Biocom action generated a variety of responses from the audience
members (most of whom were conference attendees). There were a number of
people who actually believed the BioCom action was real, and were, as a
result, offended by what one person called the "fascist science" of this
"corporation." Others assumed BioCom was a performance and a parody,
finding much of it humorous. There were also several professors who
stormed out during the action. One professor felt that the issue of
fertility was not being taken with enough seriousness, and another
professor expressed worry since he had brought with him several
prospective graduate students. Several other professors and graduate
students voiced their support of CAE and the BioCom piece, not only as a
critique of corporate biotech but also as a critique of academia and the
conference format. By and large, most of the audience members were, to
varying degrees, confused and intrigued by the BioCom demonstration. As
a member of CAE stated, "BioCom caused such an uproar partly because it
appropriated liberationist discourses of postcolonial theory and
demomnstrated how easily they could be turned to authoritarian ends." 

SRA: On the following day, CAE presented a new piece, this time
appearing as the Society for Reproductive Anachronisms (SRA), a
neo-Luddite activist group staunchly against BioCom. The action was
performed during the afternoon, at a recruitment table in the main lunch
hall of the Rutgers Student Center. Joining them was the Institute for
Applied Autonomy, who specialize in what they call "contestational
robotics," and who presented their pamphleteer robot, handing out SRA
propaganda. Many innocent passersby, including students, professors,
university and cafeteria workers, and even administration, were all
greeted by the SRA. Interested people were invited to take a genetic
screening test on one of the computers there, one which informed them of
the marketability of their DNA. In addition the SRA, being
anti-technology and anti-biotech, proposed several alternative options
to that of biotech, including natural aphrodesiacs and homeopathic
fertility remedies.

Later that day, the pamphleteer robot was transported to the site of the
conference, where, inbetween the talks by Homi Bhabha and Drucilla
Cornell/bell hooks, conference attendees took the SRA pamphlets and were
informed of SRA's intentions against corporate biotech.

Discourse/Truth: One of the strongest messages to come from CAE's BioCom
and SRA actions was the need for some crticial reflexivity within
academic discourse as it is presented in the context of the academic
conference. If the academic conference is one of the primary sites at an
educational institution (along with journal publications and the
classroom) where issues may be critically discussed, then the main
question which CAE asked of this context has to do with the transparency
of discourse. It is my guess that audience members were taken aback by
BioCom both by its content, but also by the radical shift in
communicative paradigms, from conference paper (in which a direct,
unmediated connection between the speaker and truth is assumed), to the
tactical action (in which performance, performativity, and reflexivity
are key elements). The BioCom action displayed with great clarity the
need for a critical de-essentializing of postcolonial discourse and
rhetoric. That biotech corporations are now, currently, incorporating
such discourses and rhetorics of postcolonialism into their programmes
makes this need for a critical reflexivity all the more urgent. The
conference was well attended and each of the papers presented
intelligent and insightful perspectives; however despite this, CAE's
BioCom action revealed that there was a general inability to "read" the
action and to get beyond a response of either offense or dismissal.

CAE is certainly not suggesting paranoia as a critical model; what they
are suggesting, though, is that critical perspectives can materialize
themselves via tactical media and strategic actions. Such media and such
actions are most effective in contexts where the question of mediation
and action are not questions at all - such as the academic conference.
The range and breadth of responses to CAE's actions present us with a
redoubled impression: that such actions are effective, but precisely
because they are effective they point to a disconcernting inability to
think critically and reflectively in relation to such manifestations of theater.

Eugene Thacker

[techne]W3LAB: works-in-progress/works-in-process
An online group exhibit of presented
in conjunction with the "New World (dis)Orders" conference
at Rutgers University, Feb. 18-19th, 1999.
#  distributed via nettime-l : no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a closed moderated mailinglist for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  URL:  contact: