#asa2012 panel notes: Technologies of Empire and Resistance

This is the last of the panels in which I typed frantic and exhaustive notes. As always, these are my interpretations and may be wrong––contact the panelists or look up their work for confirmation.

My own panel was right after this one, so I had to slip out before Q&A. Which was a great shame, because these were fascinating and wonderful talks and I would have loved to hear what the audiences had to say about them.

Technologies of Empire and Resistance

Chair: Wendy Chun (Brown)
Panelists: Anne Balsamo (New School)
Lisa Parks (UCSB)
Nicholas Mirzoeff (NYU)


Wendy Chun,
Pre-comment. Against a beautiful backdrop of slide screen starscapes: Why have networks become the image for both the spread of neolliberal capitalism and resistance to it? How do we understand the contamination of the technological and the natural?

Anne Balsamo, Dean of the School of Media Studies at the New School and author of Designing Culture
Lisa Parks, prof and former chair of film and media studies at UCSB.
Nicholas Mirzoeff, prof of Media Culture & Communication at NYU, author of The Right to Look.
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Anne Balsamo. ASA is like a party with all your best friends…

designingculture.org. The book and transmedia project; conceptualized as transmedia since its origin 16 years ago. Does its work across different modalities; the last piece put into place was the print artefact.
Research design in public interactives: here to advocate for the development of this kind of thinking. As a designer within and outside the academy: we should think about public interactives as an emergent category of mediated experience that will become more significant.

Public interactives: devices that serve as the stage for interactive experiences in public settings. (museums parks streets). An emergent form of public communication, designed to engage people in conversations with digital media for purposes including information exchange, education, entertainment, cultural memory. And they are an art form that evokes new experiences and perceptions through experiments with scale, mobility, built space, modes of human sense engagement in public spaces. Overall, her polemic developed in the book is that these are significant cultural technologies, subtly shaping the technological literacies of the future. Insights were broadened and deepened in research project.

Taxonomy of public interactives (shown in a really beautifully designed Prezi).

Urban screens, immersive environments, buildings as instruments, interactive advertising, reactive sculpture, relational architecture, walk-up games (more casual than casual games), interactive smart furniture, digital memorials. Last year: working to create digital experiences for AIDS memorial quilt, installed in DC last summer.

Taxonomic impulse brought Balsamo to Shanghai World Expo: Public Interactives on the World Stage. World expos as spectacular events built on promotion of nation: performing the future as seen from a national point of view. (Forthcoming book from her collaborator in the project, Kara Wallace: Telemobility in China [I may have misheard this name; looked it up and can’t find it.].

Theme: Better Cities, Better Life. Expo framed as a tournament of cultures, conflict-free: pavilions are venues for public diplomacies where carefully designed public faces are presented.
Infrastructural contexts: global framing of world expo as global spectacular experience; national pavilions assembling collective audiences in different configurations of the public, of masses; architectural installations connecting with the interpersonal. Using mobile devices to connet people to branding experiences.

Saudi Arabia Pavilion, a gold medal winner; the largest after the Chinese pavilion (negotiated in advance): “Moon Boat” resembling an oil tanker; the world’s largest walk through 3D IMAX cinema. An immersive panoramic cinematic experience, created to celebrate a joint Chinese/Saudi project, railroad from Mecca to Medina. “Architectural cinema.” Viewers on a moving walkway were transported through the film. Will remain at the expo site. The design brief was “romancing the dragon” and designed as the basis of a cultural exchange between Saudi and China: SA is the largest trading partner with China.

US participated in World Expo. Theme was “rising to the challenge” which couldn’t have happened at a worse time in US economic situation. US dragged its heels over the commitment to put a pavilion in Shanghai; cost $60m and was the only national pavilion funded purely by multinational corporations. Rumor has it that Beijing got some China based multinationals to give the US money bc lack of US presence would be a faux pas. In 1994 ruling passed that Congress would have to fundraise for any future pavilions of this kind; 2008 not a moment when that could have happened.

US pavilion has 3 films: man on the street saying ni hao, one with spokespeople from corporate sponsors talking about the importance of education (U of Washington was the only university present). Blogosphere criticisms: ‘the message seems to be ‘America: it’s for the kids’’; US as a nation of soccer moms’; ‘forgettable as an advertorial’; ‘a disgrace.’ Bob Jacobson in Huffington Post: ‘the perfect embodiment of corporate America; like a shopping mall food court.’ Hilary Clinton, when asked about it, said “It’s fine. We’re here.”

Chinese pavilion: Oriental Crown, largest and most expensive. Themed “Chinese Wisdom in Urban Development” in the distant past, the recent past, and the future. No menton of Mao, the Cultural Revolution, or the years 1900-1976. Dioramas pictured Chinese domestic spaces in urban landscapes, beginning in 1978, 2 years after cultural revolution officially ends. Inviting people who probably lived in those kinds of domestic spaces to come and be photographed by their children. Window scenes outside were pencilled in, subtly showed the domestic scene moving up a high rise.

How to make sense of the work that these pavilions are doing? For Wallace, focus on the cultural and diplomatic work these designed experiences do in a domestic context. Goal for the Shanghai expo was to invite people into joys of urbanization, as China is in the middle of a giant urbanization plan: an urban billion by 2030.

Research changes your mind: public interactives as complex media systems for performance of social and political agendas: for brand engagement, public diplomacy, infrastructures of public culture. Infrastructures both of control and of resistance. Hasn’t yet seen the infrastructures of resistance, people hacking public interactives — but expecting that this is wat we will see.

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Lisa Parks. Things You Can Kick: Conceptualizing Media Infrastructures.

Infrastructure: term emerges in early 20th century. Substructure, foundation: the subordinate parts of a system. Military origin; now telecommunications networks, subways, etc.

In DH, researchers explore the topic of networks, developing important historical & critical studies of networked tech & communication. Fewer have focused on physical infrastructures through which audiovisual signals & data are trafficked. Dispersed yet integrated systems for distributing something of value: water or electricity or data. Engineers call them things you can kick; we often think they are beyond the purview of humanities research.

Phenomenology, cultural geography, object studies — to explore discourses that shape and inform infrastructural imaginaries. What infrastructures are, what they do, who controls them. Cable, satellite, wireless. Developing a critical methodology for analysing significance of systems in environments: infrastructures as objects of curiosity, investigation, concern.

Infrastructure over network: emphasises materiality, physicality through which audiovisual signals are trafficked. Concept of infrastructure can encourage DH to further interdisciplinary engagements with environmental studies, sci/tech studies, geograohy. Difficult to understand in a single frame, thinking infrastructure can help us rethink processes of media distribution — focusing on materialism, territoriality, conceptual visualization.

A critical vocabulary for media infrastructures. Media representations of three objects: mail sorters, power poles, satellite dishes. A critical provocation rather than a detailed historical study. Human workers as part of infrastructures; feminist theories of the posthuman, human/technology relations as integrated circuits, as part of bio/tech/social formations.

When viewing or consuming media, we must not only think about what they represent but also more elementally about what they are made of and how they arrived. All images can be read with an infrastructural disposition: with questions of resources and distribution in mind. When infrastructures are not in the frame, they can be inferred and imagined.

Mail sorters. Infrastructures are not only of the digital age; they must be thought in historical and intermedial sense. Distribution processes emerge, change, are layered upon one another over time. Short film: Throwing Mail Into Bags, USPO, 1903. 55 second glimpse of sorting office in DC. 3 postal workers coordinate labor, tossing mail into delivery bags. High angle shows as if the wall had been shorn off the building. Sequence addresses the viewer as a user of infrastructure.

Anticipates the current era of internet servers and cloud computing, where human sorting has been replaced with remote data processing and packet switching. A metonym for content distribution, mail moving through a portal where it is scanned and sorted to be delivered. We do not see or know where the mail came from and where it is going to; we could not see the whole infrastructure in a single frame, but we are invited to imagine the rest. An infrastructural disposition toward audiovisual media, a starting point for envisaging other resources (horse power, petroleum, human labor, paper, time) used to sort and transport mail. Foregrounding the physicality of distribution, the dynamism of media structure. How would one visualise packet switching or cloud computing, given the scales and speeds at which they occur? Image of facebook and google’s data center videos; Google’s release of “infrastructure porn” showing beautifully lit insides of data centers.

Even the cloud relies on human labor; equipment must be organized and installed and maintained, programs must be written, buildings must be secured and cleaned. Few have seen insitde the data centers that host the data they receive in their email. We are socialised not to think about back end, and data centers are hidden from public vew.

Power poles. Electrical infrastructure in the US. Michael Parker, media performance artist: Lineman features the workers who maintain US power lines. Collaborated with workers to produce a yearbook with electrical workers in LA. Captured training exercises in a poleyard “the vertical classroom”: practicing climbing poles, gloved and blindfoled knot tying. Worker said the work is about “being connected to all that we can’t see”. Linemen in training were largely Latino and African American men from South Central LA, many laid off from other jobs.

Photograph features 48 linemen vertically arrayed leaning out from poles, waving at camera; inviting viewer to recognize and celebrate human resources that make our digital media culture possible. Asking us also to confront the resource requirements of the digital age. How much energy powers our media? CNN 2011 story: “the internet: one big power suck?”

Parker’s project sharpens our focus on what can be understood as the underbelly of modern media — the infrastructures that undergird processes of world education. “Below below the line” labor; or a “pre-production culture”: the infrastructure that is a necessary precondition to digital media production, distribution, consumption.

Satellite dishes. As infrastructures are built, they are subject to disruption whether from weather or a repressive state. Images of satellite dishes being confiscated in Iran and of people improvising them: media contestation. Satellite dishes banned since 2005 because they “import negative influences from west” but they sprout across the country; 65% use in Tehran. Police confiscated 2000 dishes in a signle day in Tehran in 2011.

Iranian student news agencies, Mission for the Establishment of Human Rights, Iranian police have videoed these removals and posted them online. Photos published as warnings show speical forces suspended from ropes while removing dishes from apartment buildings: James Bond-type rapelling down buildings, cops stamping on dishes, the state terminating access to international signal traffic.

Visible part of infrastructure, the satellite dish is a people’s portal to global infrastructure whose sites and objects range from building facades to heavy metals to geostationary orbits.

When dishes are confiscated, they are often rapidly replaced. Images of women installing dishes; documentary on dishes crafted illicitly from old pots and pans. Part of a broader set of infrastructural contestation, where people refuse to give over the power to communicate to the sate.

Conclusion. Audiovisual media can be read infrastructurally. Processes are increasingly technologised, but not all infrastructures are fully automated and not all labor is immaterial. Theory of media infrastruture would not only focus on bodies that appear on screen but also the supporting acts: flow of current, movement of electrical signals. And biophysical resources required to make those sites possible: trees that power poles are made of, or the aluminum of a satelite dish. We know relatively little about historical contexts by which media infrastructures have emerged in different locations across the worlds. What are speciflc local, global, national manifestations? How does infrastructure mean differently across different contexts? The study of infrastructures must be interwoven with theories of difference, knwoledge and power, territorialization. We must get as close as possible to these massive and dispoersed things that always feel so incomprehensible.

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Nick Mirzoeff, Technologies of Direct Democracy
How do we make a direct democracy? Something he is engaged in doing mostly outside the university context, with Occupy. Started writing this about two weeks ago, but Sandy got in the way… we [in New York] know all about linemen!

This is going to begin depressingly, but I want you to be jubilant: it will end with a jubilee.

What pieces do we need to build a network of resistance? Theory, history, direct action — by which he does not mean what we are dong now.

Image: monument to Walter Benjamin where he died. Passages, Port Bou, Spain. The viewer’s image is projected onto the water, with Benjamin’s words: “It is more difficult to remember the anonymous than the famous. The historical construction is dedicated to the memory of the anonymous.”

Foucault’s phrase “the historu of the present” requires two steps: the construction of a present in which the anonymous can be given a name (the 99% etc). and the elaboration of a history in which to say that name, spaces in which those histories can be told and sustained.

Benjamin and Foucault write in the after math of their disasters. We keep using the language of “post 1968” but post 2008 we need our own language for our own disasters: economic, environmental. Zapatista: walking and asking questions. 2011: placing the body in space. Doing while thinking. The protesting body that engages in this makes democracy, because it is not yet known what democracy might be.

Ranciere, the part that has no part; as a French theorist he’s not so interested in going out and doing democracy. But in the last 3 years we have been doing it. Occupy has become about mutual aid and recovery from both climate and economic disaster. Actions have no center, are working in a series of localities. Cf The Coming Insurrection: movements do not spread by contamination but by resonance.

A chain of resonance from Haitian revolution, US moment of abolition, contemporary global justice movements. Context of debt. Strike Debt movement: poster from Occupy Portland, a “countervisuality”.

Countervisualities need:
– education, which is ability to leave the place allocated to you. Debt is a way of keeping you in your place.
– democracy: the right to look, an automuy that precedes law and can’t be told ‘move on, nothing to see here.’
– and sustainability: the physical sustenance of the self, and also sustaining democracy, not letting it lapse, not abdicating it or handing it on: ie, not representative forms.
Debt resistance and debt abolition are necesary but not sufficient means of creating democracy.

The debt resisters operations manual, collective publication. Debt as a calculated attack on the very possibility of democracy; an assault that targets people of color first. Debt as an “economic hate crime”: hard data on this since 2008, as home ownership has plummeted among African Americans and increase in the wealth gap between whites and African Americans. White households have 20x the net wealth of African American households. From this perspective (economic only) it is as if the civil rights movement never happened. Something that must itself be called a form of abolition is needed to make any kind of direct democracy. We can make comparison to the abolition of slavery, which was seen as indispensible right up to the moment of its abolition. “Debt slavery” in vernacular; we have to be cautions about the terminology, yet the resonance is felt by people.

Debt is about democracy, land, and the future viability of the biosphere. To pay back debt in classic economic terms you have to grow the economy. Which must mean a rise in carbon emissions and energy generation that we simply cannot afford. We cannot grow our way out of economic crisis. The choice is not between abolition and morality so much as between abolition and extinction; the largest mass extinction of species in the planet’s hstory is happening right now. Movements of mass protest in India, China, South Africa. Across the Caribbean, New York and New Jersey, we are reminded that climate disaster is now. Image from the Rockaways, where people are still without power; area where people of color were moved from what is now Lincoln Center.

Image from Lancet journal showing climate emissions and likely mortality consequences of climate change: the US huge with emissions, tiny in consequences, Africa swells hugely in consequences. “Climate debt”. Yet mortality is not the only measure; low mortality in New York from Hurricane Sandy, yet long term consequences including indirect death will be much greater.
How to situate and provincialize Manhattan as a north Atlantic island: an overpopulated island with poor infrastructure that badly serves its majority population of color.

Haiti’s declaration of independence, its first clause: “slavery is forever abolished.” Past, present, future; no formal authority claimed for this announcement of a world revolution that is still to play itself out. Moment of apparent success has key elements of failure. Toussaint needed to pay back his debt to the US, needing large scale agriculture to do so. The formerly enslaved had to work as wage laboreres on plantations they had formerly been slaves on; they revolted against the revolution in order to work on smaller patches of land. For Haiti’s first century of existence it was using cash crops to pay down debt to former slave owners. As Sandy moved through Haiti, it devastated agricultural growth that had begun to return in the region. Livestock drowned, soil erosion.

To end on jubilant note: a opportinuty and a responsibility. We must think about this in terms of mutual aid — how can we undo this ourselves? The People’s Bailout, organized by Strike Debt and the Rolling Jubilee. People in debt have their debt sold on by banks who will accept about 5% of the value. Debt collectors buy debt and harass people to pay. But we can buy that debt and abolish it. For $5 you can abolish $100 of somebody’s debt. A direct and a symbolic action of direct democracy. We don’t know whose debt we buy; it is random. Donations online through WePay and PayPal; raised $300,000 meaning abolishment of $6m debt. Debt abolition contract: signed by STRIKE DEBT. People who formerly had the debt will get a letter saying “we are Occupy Wall Street, we just abolished your debt.” Rolling Jubilee

In actively trying to build democracy, we find solutions we might not have thought about before.

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