Greening the Network Commons
In 2001, Shu Lea Cheang created Steam the green, Stream the field (Cheang, 2001-02), a work which anticipated a major shift in the discourse and practice of post-media art by 10 years. Shu Lea Cheang insists on calling herself a 'self-styled' artist, emphasising her autonomy to define her activities as art. Her projects highlight the potential of the coming together of social self-organisation with a social and trans-media art practice that combines landscapes and datascapes, the natural and the digital commons.
Cheang's work from 2001-2 simultaneously did three things: it proposed a re-orientation to ecological topics and collaborative practices in digital art; a central aspect of the work was the wireless commons - community networks using WLAN built by network activists; and this idea was brought together with the notion of barter and solidarity economies as practised in Argentina after the crash of its economy.
Today all those issues have become very urgent. After the crash of the financial system in 2008 capitalism is undergoing one of its deep structural crises. This opens the chance for a fundamental re-thinking of the goals and value systems of industrialised civilizations. At the same time neoliberal capitalism keeps destroying natural resources and uses intellectual property and other legislation to expand its regime of accumulation to new areas.
The reproductive basis of plant life, what the EU calls the 'agri-food chain', is now under threat of falling under complete corporate control through patenting and seed registration schemes. The growing resistance internationally sees the idea of the commons as a potential future paradigm for a political economy that is based on unforced, free collaboration, sustainability and economics of solidarity.
Cheang launched the project with an email to the mailinglist of Indymedia NYC, the independent news network that had emerged from the 'battle of Seattle', when the global anti-capitalist multitudes challenged the free trade policies of the World Trade Organisation. A key person in setting up the first Independent Media Centre (IMC) was DeeDee Halleck, life-long community media activist and founder of Paper Tiger TV and Deep Dish TV.
Cheang, who had been born in Taiwan, came to New York as a film student and joined Paper Tiger TV in the early 1980s. In 1994 she finished her first 90 mins. feature film Fresh Kill (Cheang 1994) which summed up a lot of the tense atmosphere of NYC in the late 1980s and early 1990s, mixing cyberpunk aesthetics with media activism and environmental issues. Roughly at the same time Cheang finished her first interactive digital art installation Bowling Alley for Walker Art Centre.
Since then, her work oscillates between the mindset of a film-maker keen to conceptualise complex scenarios which demand in-depth treatment, and the quick-and-dirty aesthetics of social art practice which is based on process and popular participation rather then finished products. The solution she has found to bridge that gap is the 'socio-politico real-time fictional scenarios', a fictitious scenario as in a movie, but played out in reality. The artist plants certain elements in reality and in people's minds and makes them - wittingly or not - actors in her movie, a movie which is never shot but only exists as an assemblage of real and imagined episodes.
In Steam the green, Stream the field Cheang intermixed the political economy of communications with that of the real economy, by involving participants in a gift economy on- and offline. She had organised the harvesting of 10,000 garlic plants in collaboration with artist Tovey Halleck, son of DeeDee Halleck. Those organic cloves were to become something resembling the gold standard transferred onto a gift economy. She created a narrative based on what became a trademark of her work, 'a fictional after-the-crash scenario': capitalism had collapsed, the only networks still working were those made by the wireless community network activists of NYC Wireless, the currency was worthless, and organic garlic became the 'new social currency, serving as credito' in the global shared networks of the multitudes (Cheang, 2002)1.
In her email to Indymedia, people were asked to sign up for an 'online barter economy in the digital commons' (Ibid.) and to contribute images, code, writing. Inspiration was provided by the Argentinian truque clubs that had formed after the Argentinian credit crisis in 2001.Then, as people's bank accounts were frozen and money supply had dried up, people created coupons, which served as a means to keep an exchange economy going, based on mutual trust rather than money provided by a central bank.
The artist and supporters drove around Manhattan for three days in a designed pick-up truck, that carried hundreds of kilos of freshly harvested garlic and wireless equipment, and had the slogan GET GARLIC. GO WIRELESS painted on its doors. Supported by performance artists Ricardo Dominguez and Reverend Billy, performing on location across New York, from Wall Street to Tompkins Square Park, the Rich Air truck challenged public institutions to offer free bandwidth for re-distribution among the connectivity-starved public. This mobile urban wireless network node as a farm stand made people get involved in barter economies by the curbstone, as they dealt truque coupons for garlic bulbs, bandwidth for services, accessing simultaneously landscapes and datascapes.
The early 2000s were the pioneering phase of wireless community networks. People who had a background simultaneously in social activism, and technological freelance culture - sometimes called hacking -, had found out that a technology originally conceived for replacing cables in home networks, Wireless Local Area Networks, short WLAN, also called WiFi, could also be used for building much larger networks, weaving together local networks across streets and city districts. In London, this idea had been propagated by James Stevens, founder of the legendary net art and hacker space Backspace, and artist-engineer-designer Julian Priest, who together started Consume. The name was tongue-in-cheek, because the whole point of Consume was to de-commodify communications.
In industrial capitalism, the main form is the object form based on the commodity. As Karl Marx had explained in a famous passage right at the start of Capital, Volume I., the commodity is a thing that acquires a fetish-like power. Every commodity has a use-value and an exchange value, but because the only thing that matters for capital is the exchange value, the human relations involved in the building of the commodity become concealed. What are human relations become perceived as relations between things. George Lukacs and primarily Western Marxists have elaborated this into a theory of reification.
The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard extended Marx' critique of commodification to the sphere of media. According to Baudrillard, the relation between exchange value and use value could be understood in parallel to the relation between signifier and signified, whereby the signifier acquired a thing-like quality and dominated the signified. Communication, a fundamental human activity, becomes reified in the commercial electronic media.
In the age of electronic mass media, the thing-like character of one-way media was also conceptualised as the 'spectacle' by French revolutionary philosopher artist Guy Debord. The 'spectacle' was not just a metaphor for electronic media, but described social relationships in the postwar era, where 'the passive consumption of radio and television programmes was the most dramatic manifestation of the workers' loss of control over all aspects of their lives' (Barbrook, 1995, pp.92–93). The separation between consumers and producers was understood as structurally analogous to the separation between transmitter and receiver by another French communications theorist, Armand Mattelart, and the German poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger.
This issue had been raised first in the 1930s by the writer Bert Brecht and the philosopher Walter Benjamin. More and more people in the 1970s began to think that the emancipation of the working class had to start with the liberation from being passive consumers of media. To an extent largely unrecognised today, the 1970s saw a thriving culture of video workshops who tried to make audiences producers of video work and or television. Some of those projects were rather small and self-organised, but others received state support and funding, such as the project Workers Making Television in Austria. There was a belief that people should not only get a better understanding of media, but make their own media.
Many of those projects went into a decline during the 1980s, when Neoliberalism took over, and Postmodern media theories such as Baudrillard's denied the possibility of an emancipatory media use. This abbreviated presentation of a historical tendency does not insinuate that Baudrillard was a supporter of neoliberalism, but rather that his critique from the left saw usage of media with emancipatory ideals as doomed to fail for structural reasons. Baudrillard saw another diagram, the relation sender-message-receiver as part of these series of hierarchies. Every media use, even a leftist one, that reproduced those relationships, was only supporting the existing power structures.
Jacking into Network Culture
The internet, which had emerged from state funded research carried out in the public sphere, bore the potential of realising the emancipatory media ideal. Fully egalitarian one-to-one, one-to-many and many-to-many communications could become realised without having to pass censors or other filters. The internet appeared to realise a high-tech gift economy (Barbrook), thereby proving Baudrillard's pessimism wrong.
The development of the New Economy, however, and all the events since its boom and bust, have reached a situation where the net has become overcoded by the dominant commodity form again. While the potential of its peer-to-peer structure is still strong, in the age of web 2.0 and social media, our own communication is sold back to us as a commodity, while our data are harvested by business and government.
Wireless community networks offer an alternative to that as they de-commodify network communications, making the users of a network its owners. Consume, but also others who emerged at the same time, independently of each other, like Personal Telco in Portland, or Seattle Wireless and NYC Wireless showed that it was possible to build networks based on sharing and free and open source technologies in a network commons.2
The key aspect of the whole affair was not a technological one but to bring together people to take networking back into their own hands. Those Free Networks, as I have called them in my book in German, Freie Netze (2003), brought the use-value of networks back, showing how local communities, individuals and culture could thrive around self-built networks, thereby proving Baudrillard wrong. The commodification of communications was not an inadvertent attribute of technological progress, but a specific, historically contingent failure of market capitalism.
A series of projects initiated by Cheang after Steaming the Greens, Streaming the Fields, together with cultural and technological activists Take2030, - whose core consisted of Cheang plus Latvian curator Ilze Black and Russian technology wizard Alexei Blinov - propagated ideas around the wireless commons. Take2030 showed that techno-social activism didn't have to look dull and dreary. In a string of performances, girls on rollerskates with tiny electrical lightbulbs in their hair distributed wireless bandwidth carrying 'chiputers', wireless computers built into Japanese sushi lunchboxes.
The projects of Take2030 highlighted the potential of the coming together of social self-organisation and a DIY-technology spirit, mediated by social art practice. The projects culminated in Porta2030 when a local community used Portapaks -- a technological remake of the portable video equipment that was released by Sony in 1965 -- in a low-cost free network form. The Portapaks built by Alexei Blinov and Hivenetworks, were pouches made of a synthetic material. It contained cleverly slung together cheap gear to send audio signals and images within a local area. The pack also had an emergency button, to warn the community about threats such as rogue developers sending demolition crews. Porta2030 played itself out in a tense social setting around Broadway Market in southern Hackney, London, where at the time a very real gentrification process threatened to rip apart communities (Cheang, 2005)3.
Return to Reality
More recently, Shu Lea Cheang has been linking different data sets of nature and culture with Composting the city, Composting the Net (2012-13).
'While Composting the city investigates urban food waste management system, Composting the net sources the net cultures’ accumulated data' (Cheang 2012). Her latest project, under the double title Accidental Landing / Seeds Underground (2013 and ongoing) returns to the commons, but now the net serves the purpose of supporting real-world action. She builds sculptures and organises events that accentuate the struggle for a free seeds culture. As parts of the Fieldwork residencies curated by the author of this article, she builds first test versions of a float on which pumpkin types from around the world are grown. A Seeds Underground Party marks the beginning of similar events (Check --> seedsunderground.net).
In the year 2008, the financial system of the rich nations crashed, pushing them into a prolonged economic crisis, still ongoing at the time of writing. As austerity measures are ploughing their ways through social systems, failure to act on climate change and a looming energy crisis create rising dissatisfaction with the current regime and its inability to tackle questions of such fundamental importance. As the Former West appears to go into a long decline, Cheang's vision from 2001-2 seems to become real earlier than anticipated.
Eleonore during floods of June 2013
At this historical moment, many artists are working out post-capitalist and ecological survival strategies. in which the commons occupies a central position as a potential new framework for a political economy not based on markets. The separation between digital and natural commons is not taken so important anymore. The interest is turned to the conditions and rules that allow commons to prosper. The sensibilities and issues brought up by the culture and politics of the net are combined with eco-, bio-, post and trans-media artistic practices to create works that possibly have an impact in the real world, however tiny, but also offer themselves as models of action to be taken up. In this sense, the artist is offering modes of 'commoning' -- new ways of connecting the physical with the informational layer -- that still try to prove Baudrillard wrong, but through methods he may have possibly approved of himself.
[to be continued]
This article is published on the occasion of the Fieldwork Residencies hosted by Donautics http://donautics.stwst.at/ at STWST
Launch event of Seeds Underground Party, Wednesday 12th of June 2013
- 1. Cheang, Shu Lea. “GET GARLIC. GO WIRELESS. GARLIC=RICH AIR,” September 19, 2002. http://archives.lists.indymedia.org/imc-nyc-coverage/2002-September/0000...
- 2. The opportunity for doing so legally had been provided by a decision of the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) to open up certain bands of radio spectrum for public usage, without the need to apply for an exclusive licence. Based on those premises, the availability of free spectrum, the open protocols of the net and relatively affordable hardware, wireless community networks set out to show the social potential of networks.
- 3. Shu Lea Cheang interviewée par Jérôme Sans. Interview by Jerome Sans, March 23, 2005. http://www.arpla.fr/canal10/shulea/interview.html.