Urban Hacking as a Practical and Theoretical Citique of Public Spaces.
Public Space as Text
What is generally referred to as ‘public space’ is, in fact, an intricate bundle of cultural-geographic and discursive structures – i.e. a social artifact. Once we have moved away from the perspective according to which late capitalism’s social environment is naturally given, then this statement may very well appear to be rather trivial. But this perspective is nevertheless hegemonic – despite the fact that this supposed naturalness has now been interrupted by a financial crisis, a crisis which, after an appropriate homeopathic meditation, will bail out on us again, leaving only a ruin of individual catastrophes of the individuated subject’s everyday lives in its wake.
Perhaps it soothes one’s own as well as everybody’s, the global as well as individual suffering from capitalism to picture capitalism as the naturally given environment; as a power of destiny, effacing human lives and the products of their endeavors arbitrarily, unpredictably, and seemingly without affection. This perspective no doubt reconciles us to our late capitalist fate of hopelessness, lack of alternatives and relieves us of guilt feelings generated by our entanglement in social, cultural, and ecological catastrophes, catastrophes that we like to think of as occuring blindly, naturally – not as the consequences of our own actions.
But the manner in which capitalism presents itself to us as an all so natural environment is, in fact, the effect of social, cultural, economic, and ideological landscaping. This is especially the case in spaces we treat as public in our everyday communicative and cultural lives. Spaces we frequent and use, spaces which absorb and form us and, thus, allow us to appear.
So as not to be powerlessly subjected to their formative forces, we need to understand how these spaces – where we communicate, participate, and represent – are constructed. We need to know both how and why they function, as well as who has an interest in their smooth functioning.
It is clear from the well-known and tiring lamentations of helplessness crying about the loss of good old publicity that such an understanding is by no means self-evident. Lamentations which generally dress themselves up in the language of nature conservation. What this outfit is missing is the fact that this seemingly idyllic public community is also only a product of capitalist dynamics, one that just happens to belong to a product-line now discontinued.
Classical theories of public space and publicity have failed to provide a critical understanding because they are unable to acknowledge their own ideological position within spatial structuring.
Of course the public sphere’s functional relationships cannot be reduced to media’s self-referential mode of production, as Marshall McLuhan would have us believe. Nor can they be deduced solely from systemic innerworldliness, as Niklas Luhmann and his systems theory claims. And they certainly cannot be grasped through an exploration of the interactional dimension of social communication according to the model of Jürgen Habermas, who regards the unequal political and economic distribution of power exclusively in terms of a distortion of ideal social communication. For the latter, communicative inequality is, at best, a problem to be corrected through social means – not the very condition of possibility of the utilitarian system and the spaces and places produced by its labor.
Habermas’ strictly idealist argument, which regards social being as a causal effect of consciousness alone, betrays the analysis of economic relations to liberal practices of self-ascertainment. Such a theory cannot want to know about the economic constraints binding social subjects; it cannot want to see whatever a shirtsleeve meliorism fails to conceal.
In contrast to this, an emancipatory theory of social communication must be capable of delineating the way in which the principles of mediality inscribe themselves in the forms and modes of articulation of the subjects it organizes; such a theory must lay bare the way in which this mediality is both a function of social power relations, as well as the very form of presentation it inaugurates and arranges.
Thus, we would like to suggest that public space be treated as a text. As such, it always has an author: those social relations which constitute, coordinate, and control it: technologically, economically, or juridically.
As text, the public space is an articulation of power relations, an ensemble of hegemonic symbols, in which dominance decrees itself and its presence; a conglomerate of forms of custom and conduct, wherein each organizes the desired forms of social practice.
Or, to put it differently: the public space is ruled through and through; a formation that is economically and politically pre(infra)structured and which, as such, always already precedes our communication, which always already exposes subjects to power relations.
These subjects glide through the text, let themselves be trimmed by it, gain sense and form through it, hand over their voice and all it seeks to express in and through these subjects to its constitutive laws and means of communication.
In order to obtain a general ‘communicable’ form, our communicative desire must adapt to the public sphere’s mode of presentation. Our wishes, our self-conception and our criticisms must pass through public spaces. But they are not just being forwarded, as the classical model of communication might suggest, a model which regards the realm of mediality as an unproblematic pipeline. And through the concrete form of concrete media concrete content arises, as McLuhan has argued. But because these media do not exist in a vacuum, because they are the result of social production, they themselves are socialized in an ideological way. That is to say, the media that bring our messages (and thus, also, ourselves, as senders) into being are themselves only a product of economic and political relations and it is these relations that are conveyed to the user of such media. We are that function of texts and textual forms through which we appear. At the very least, because the ways in which we speak about ourselves reflect back onto the ways in which we perceive of and construct what we speak about.
Therefore, every public space is also a metatext which structures our forms of articulation and communicative behavior. This metatext regulates the specific modes in which communicative desire has to adjust to medial environments. And within medial communicative competition, that communicative desire that best manages to adjust to the functional principles and conditions of expression of the chosen medium (and the social form it bears with itself) will succeed. Practically speaking, this will bring the optimization of medial forms of adjustment to the center of one’s own communicative desire, as has been impressively demonstrated by Media Darwinist types (cf. extensively Harald Schmidt).
It is from this perspective that a certain type of media careerist comes to dominate the bourgeois public sphere of late modernity. This type acts largely indifferent to the contents transmitted through it and are thus able to represent any ideological content on the agenda.
But even where we, as the so-called “counter-public sphere,” attempt to articulate our discomfort with existing public structures, through verbal criticism or practical intervention, through democratic participation or opposition to both formal and substantial alienation, as well as the trimming (‘commercialization’ etc.) of our spaces of articulation, we nevertheless affirm and legitimize those structures anew, each and every time. We do this by using them and by exposing their significance through our criticism of their form. And it is compulsory for us to do this in order to be heard. But in doing so, we only become increasingly entangled in those structures.
This is the public sphere’s vicious circle we cannot escape: articulation renders it necessary to make use of a prestructured “grammar” and “aesthetic.” But neither this “grammar” and “aesthetic,” nor the text constituted by them, are immutable. Because even though public modes of relations are artifacts, they (as well as those social relations inaugurated by them) are necessarily subject to change. As texts, they continuously write themselves anew and, through this, write themselves forth. They too have to adjust to the changes and expansions of the social structure. This is why a global “financial crisis” (and its newly structured social relations) gives rise to the need for forms of speech and communicative interactions different from those that belonged to times of economic prosperity.
The success of bourgeois society – the invisibility and unseizability of its dominance – is due to its integrative dynamics and reactivity, which, historically, have prevailed over totalitarian rigidity (even the theocratic backlashes of the beginning 21st century could not change this).
It thereby depends on our willingness to actively participate and improve it, update and optimize it. We, therefore, do not only receive its orders and turn them into our communicative desire’s “natural environment,” we also renew and improve it by adjusting its public spaces to our needs (of articulation).
For this we need competence. The cry for media competence uttered by bourgeois media is, in this regard, by no means random. They are well aware: the texts’ functioning depends on the cognitive abilities of those who read them. They must be able to understand their demands. Of course, they do not have to “understand” them in the sense of a disenclosure of its hidden intentional meaning, but only in terms of a semiotic competence. Only through this are readers able to participate in the constitution, distribution and writing forth of texts.
What presents itself to us as public spaces are therefore composed and continuously changing texts that are, nevertheless, controlled and corrected from certain privileged positions. If we apprehend them as texts we co-produce – whether we want to or not – we thereby enable ourselves to form them by writing them forth differently. But since this is intended, since public spaces have to channel our wish for change, the question of a different, unpredictable access to public spaces presents itself. This is a question of the subversive potential of medial praxis. Paraflows 09 aims to once again posit this question.
Public spaces are a political issue. They provide unavoidable means of communication through which we relate to texts, institutions, and people. As such, it does not suffice to talk about them theoretically; they must also be appropriated practically. To point this out strikes us as important, especially since our assumption that the public space is to be regarded as a text may sound similar to the academically domesticated jargon prevalent in “cultural studies;” a jargon which offers itself to utilitarian principles in the way of an uncritical but still glamorous salon-poststructuralism. Even with the knowledge of the function of gender, race, and class relations– in the form of footnotes to the general text – this depoliticized jargon of cultural studies long ago put on the uniform of that noncommittal academic critique it once sought to smash. And in doing so, it proudly and devoutly accepts – as a paying off for the abandonment of fundamental critique – those professorships and temporary teaching contracts which the relations of exploitation are willing to afford.
We, however, regard the conception of the public space as texts as a challenge: a challenge to rewrite the text. But this, of course, can only work as long as we are aware that the possibility of change is itself precarious, always at risk of being reabsorbed by the monotony of the monologue, a monologue which must, in practice, disguise itself as bourgeois dialogue so as to not endanger its own conditions of possibility.
Urban Hacking as critical poetics of the public space
Paraflows is concerned with presenting and contextualizing the positions and possibilities of intervention within digital culture. Contextualization shall be carried out through the choice of topics.
Out of the plethora of arbitrary and plural cultural positions we choose those which take, as their starting point for critique and intervention, the knowledge of the public spaces’ (especially the internet’s) knowledge of their own mode of operation of public spaces; those cultural positions which – just as we do – assume that they are modes in which power represents itself at the same time as they are spaces digital culture must necessarily enter in order to represent their concerns. From this paradoxical position two concerns arise:
Firstly, we have to devise a critique of public spaces in terms of spaces of power struggle. And secondly, we have to find ways to articulate our criticisms of what presents itself to us as public space without subjecting ourselves to the processes of standardization and adaptation described above.
The present reality of 2009 renders it necessity to deal with these issues and express one’s opinion because the public sphere, especially the digital public sphere, now finds itself increasingly confronted with rigid regimentations. Interestingly enough, these restrictions are born from those places where alleged or actual free spaces collide with the economic interests of utilization (especially in questions of copyright).
The correlation between repressive interpretations of copyright and the extension and fine-tuning of the (digital as well as non-digital) surveillance of communicative spaces within the internet and “real” living environment requires a cohesive theory of the public sphere.
In opposition to the connection forged between surveillance and utilitarian standardization, we want to present possibilities of intervention which diverge from the norm and encompass various fields of social praxis. And we want to show why and how they relate to each other. These relations shall be represented via the concept of “Urban Hacking,” which can be applied to the urban spaces we live in as well as to the events taking place in the internet metropolis.
Today, both sites have been condensed into a new correlative urban space. Here, real and virtual spaces interrelate in order to form one living environment on account of the fact that the digital space had long ago became an integral constituent of the city itself, building its own cities – and not only doing so through second-life-surrogates.
“Urban Hacking’s” interventions seek – in specific ways – to access this homogenized global urbanity, connecting cities and people with each other so that they can enter the new relations of a cultural-spacial neighborhood.
But the aim of “Urban Hacking” is by no means the mere integration of the local into the global. To defend the local as something which is becoming endangered and displaced by the global generally points towards a regressive schemata of thinking, as we will point out later. What is at stake for us is, instead, the capitalist utilization of newly established forms of relations. Hacking strategies directed at urban spaces defy this utilization, refusing to approach public spaces from the outside and rejecting the public sphere’s forms of legitimation by conceiving of these spaces as already structured from the inside.
Approaches like “Cultural Jamming,” “Communication and Media Guerilla,” “Media Disturbance,” and “Hacktivism” share this strategy of “delegitimization.” They are not concerned with the establishment of a “counter” public sphere in order to supplement or correct the bastard form of the existing one. What unites them is that each knows how easily this counter public can be integrated and reabsorbed into a public realm that needs such counter publics in order to update its hegemonic culture. These approaches have come to terms with the structural similarity of the counter and hegemonic public, as well as the tragic cries for political change which already carry within themselves the marks of a compromising reformism capable of transforming counter public spaces into normalized ones.
Digital culture should not, therefore, repeat the counter culture’s historical errors and overestimate its own possibilities. This will only install a sober disillusionment of its desire and a willingness to foreclose the impossible in order to, at least, get hold of the possible.
Its field of influence remains restricted – in spite of several spectacular and well selling media campaigns. And, generally speaking, their interventions do not lead to any deeper political or economical changes. Their greatest possible success remains to – in a symbolic way – damage the public sphere’s medial surface in order to force open its smooth and hidden functioning.
As a symbolic action and an explicit politics of symbols, Urban Hacking has a principally aesthetic function that refers back to the constructed character of that which has been disrupted in its seamless flow. Urban Hacking is able to represent changes (in the traditional function accorded to artworks), which can only be put to work in a broad social movement. This is the potential specific to the intervention of the artwork.
It is, therefore, reasonable to present motivated digital forms of intervention within the framework of a festival for digital art and culture with those forms more closely related to the field of artistic production. Both operate within the realm of the symbolic. The fact that this symbolic can, at times, strike to the core of “the real” becomes evident in several interventions of the Yes Man.
To overcome the traditional division separating art from politics has always been a sign of the rise of broader interventionist movements that manage to bring together artistic, musical, and literary producers, as well as those working in the media, in order to articulate their political demands. Together they put a – momentary – counter cultural praxis to work whose common belief did not generally consist of a shared political vision, but rather a temporary agreement that whatever is characteristic of the situation they find themselves thrown into is a mere imposition.
The last couple of years rendered visible a timid and difficult reapproximation of political activism, subcultural praxis, the artistic scene, and students as well as theorists. Concepts such as “intervention,” “appropriation,” and “hacking” arose out of that scene independently and point towards a commonly shared praxis.
What they hold in common is a novel understanding of the public sphere that follows from those strategies in which they treat – often in quite practical ways – the public sphere as a text, according to the understanding outlined above. Their approaches to this text can often be read as poetic experiments with its materiality. They both address its constitutive foundations and engage with it semiologically. They reappropriate its symbols in order to play with them. Through this, they point out the arbitrary character of those elements of our everyday lives that would otherwise only present themselves to us as destiny or doom. Yes, they treat them the same way poetry treats signifiers. Or, more precisely: they treat them the same way as all modern poetics which have, as their starting point, the materiality of the signifier.
Therefore, they sometimes succeed in rendering visible the powerful signs and symbols that had been foreclosed through their an omnipresence that ruled social spaces through and through. As they are damaged, highlighted, and rearranged, these signs and symbols are released from their entanglement in a society which appears as naturally given. And they can speak differently and newly about how, for example, the public space constitutes itself; about which class, race, and gender positions sediment and manifest themselves in it; about whom it belongs to and who is deprived of access.
In this respect, a poetics of urban space always already carries out the work of poetology, i.e. a hermeneutics and critique of signifying systems. And it is, therefore, fully aware of (local) signs’ and symbols’ molecular significance for the whole of the order. The supremacy of this order’s structures can no longer be attacked by a form of (fantasmatic) revolution. At most, they can be challenged by an aesthetic praxis, in a guerrilla war of representations.
By referring to themselves as “city guerillas,” the Sponti-Movement, a faction in Germany’s student revolt of the 1970s, not just exhibited its own, indeed often unreflective, anti-imperialist passion for questionable liberation movements. Its praxis also and more importantly consisted in a symbol-political adaptation of guerrilla warfare that did not seek out a grand exchange of bowls but, instead, pursued a form of micro-political interventionism that articulates itself in local details.
As an effect of this, their praxis became unforeseeable and difficult to attack.
It is, therefore, hardly a surprise that the concept of “guerrilla” returns in the self-description of urban hackers; this concept corresponds to the superiority and over-presentation of their antagonists, an excess that is then turned – into a weapon – against those antagonists.
A number of urban hackers reject the type of uncritical, regressive and tautological revolutionary romanticisms that the historical city guerrilla was willing to accept as the price for its name. In this respect, to understand one’s own praxis as a form of art may be instructive. This allows urban hackers to distinguish themselves from other forms of political activism that confront bourgeois publicity as some kind of interventional event tourism, without having first reflected their own position and function. Even should such a reflection have taken place, it will express nothing but the well-known discontent of modernity and its modes of appearance.
As a “poeticalization” of public spaces, interventionism needs critique at its side, just as art requires art critique, in order to question the symbolic value of interventionism. This form of critique must not be indifferent to whatever succeeds in breaking through the monologue of the public sphere. It should, instead, be able (and enable others) to question the mediality of intervention’s surfaces – that is, what they have to say, by saying it.
This includes the romantic view of the street as a privileged place of social struggle . “The street” is itself a public space and, as such, produced discursively. But again, this is to say that the street cannot be the authentic and realist predicate that activism frequently attributes to it in its dreams and speeches.
As is well-known, when art leaves its original place – or, at least, claims to do so – it is in danger of falling prey to a mystic-vitalistic flush of immediacy, i.e. to regress. This is due to the fact that it continuously strives to exchange the museum, which it remains attached to even in its digital articulations, and those forms of net and subculture which function analogously to this museum, for that form of “real life” which melancholic art believes to reside in the “street’s” liveliness.
This wish for such a “life” returns periodically on account of the structural lack enclosed in the ideological framework of art; art must pay for its proverbial freedom by accepting a specific form of isolation. It is allowed to depict freedom and criticize bondage, but only if it accepts the symbolic space that has been provided for it. It is here that art performs its specific function as the jester of bourgeois society. As such, its specific form of freedom is to be thought of as part of a system of institutionalized dependency. The forms in which these special spaces hush up art and its artists are then experienced, by the latter, as a loss of vitality. But what is missed is that this procedure should be regarded as integral to the constitution of a functional splitting: on the one side, the economic reality of everyday life and a war of all-against-all; on the other side, an aesthetic exception to reality in the form of a humanity which unfolds in the context of reproduction.
Interventionist cultural praxis also seeks to overcome its quarantined state. And when this task is carried out with a theoretical concept of the public sphere in mind, its praxis can become aware of the specific forms that restrict it. In this way, it can reject a conceptless vitalism and begin to understand why it demands public spaces different from those it comes across: not because it simply wants to “live” and “return into life,” but because in such spaces its interventions have different effects and take different forms (these are, again, aesthetic categories). This can best be achieved wherever such space have not already been a priori identified and waved through as art.
A deterritorialization of art in public spaces must not, therefore, seek to compensate for its perceived lifelessness with that surplus of vitality the real seems to promise. Instead, this is the very place where a deterritorialization of art has to be in order to traverse the context of legitimization of its own critique. Its critique must take the form of a direct confrontation. But this can only be achieved illegitimately, through an illegitimate form, because legitimacy and legality have always already internalized bourgeois society’s discursive structure of spaces. The inner workings of such an internalization are best demonstrated by a particularly well-known rejoinder: “I do not have to fear surveillance in my own usage of public spaces because I do not do anything illicit.”
In this respect, the critique performed by Urban Hacking does not take the form of contemplative opposition towards the criticized, but one of transgression, dismantlement, aggressive reappropriation or sabotage of, for example, those advertising spaces (adbusting) which take over greater and greater areas of the public sphere. To state this in an article – which is itself subject to editorial and non-editorial advertisement – in a critical medium, might record a punctual non-agreement, but it will also illusrate the well-known impotence every legitimized, “embedded” critique is forced to face.
The Political Concept of “Urban Hacking”
As has been stated above, the keyword “Urban Hacking” contains a wide variety of interventionist strategies and (cultural) practices, theoretically binding them to each other and creating a toolbox for an alternative praxis, for a shared action field of political activism and aesthetic-artistic intervention. Its aim is to occupy the public space from within, much like the task of historical models such as the situationist movement, the Sponti-movement, the graffiti-movement and the city guerrilla.
These actions must be understood as conscious delimitation of those discursive fields (urbanism/city analysis, media, university discourse) which – according to their own self-understanding – speak about the public space without wanting to engage with it. They legitimize their criticism by claiming that their embeddedness in mediality and institutions allows them to account for the spaces they talk about by taking an exterior position.
This external position is, of course, only a fiction because it too is subject to the public sphere’s discriminating allocation of space. And because it transgresses the fictional space of symbolic forms by making use of a language which – in its discursive execution – is then retranslated into relations of dominance and positions of power, it has a real and forceful side. Indeed, its modest speaking only affirms these constellations.
But it is not only places where we talk about the public space, but also speaking and language as such that are always already constituted as such a “public space.”
This is precisely why the discourses of journalists, scientists and civil society around the question of public spaces are unable to throw into question the diversity of such spaces. In the same way, its questioning of the status quo already accepts, reproduces and – in via own speaking – actualizes the rules and normative behaviors of the public sphere.
By constrast, “Urban Hacking” signifies strategies that do not talk about the public space but rather through it, in it and with it, through its disruption, interruption, and opening (or: through disabling its mechanisms of closure). Thus, these strategies consciously recognize the active part they play in designing the public sphere, the part they – as a means of communication – always already (unconsciously) played.
Through a conscious transformation of both the spaces and the positions of speech, these strategies reject the consensual form in which bourgeois society imagines itself: in principle, it imagines itself as an emancipated social conversation of everyone with everyone. In The Structural Transformations of the Public Sphere, Habermas calls this an ‘unconstrained discourse’. But even in this benevolent soliloquy of everyone with everyone – in which even those in dissent agree in general - interventions are – in principle – interjections which negate and destroy the semblance of consensus. It follows that these interjections then delineate spaces of articulation and objects of dissent.
Looking at matters from this angle, it becomes visible that the public space is by no means congruent with itself, but a battle field of non-pacified and unsatisfied representations. As is generally known, each representation comprises and verbalizes the writing-over and displacement of another. In this respect, the idealism of “consensus” is opposed by a realism of “dissent,” whose aggression depicts, i.e. represents in the afore mentioned sense, the aggressiveness of social, gender, and ethnic positions.
Power is always a succession of representations and non-representations whose everyday praxis depicts this in various ways (for example, in the form of the command for women to veil themselves in Islamic regimes). In this respect, the public space is the field wherein power decrees itself. But this is the very reason why opposition, critique, or at least a subversive pleasure principle can – even here – come into being.
Attempts to monitor public spaces and document the data traces of its subjects’ movements as completely as possible demonstrate that the public sphere is perceived to be an element of power’s uncertainty which is – at the same time –dependent on that very power in order to anchor itself within the consciousness of its subjects. Security, cameras and data collection are embodiments of the wish to monitor the subjects’ every movement. Not until the rise of the internet was it possible to record and track cases of copyright breaches to the extent witnessed today.
The publicity of spaces is, therefore, an effective way of reading the subjects’ desires, desires that manifest themselves “in the ways in which they use public spaces.” And in order to produce the desired information about the subjects who “frequent” them, public spaces need to promise a certain form of “freedom” in order to be frequented at all.
It is for this reason that the possibility of a preventive constraint of mobility is already inscribed in the public sphere’s structure, just as, according to Foucault, the architecture of the prison was designed to monitor the movement of subjects by way of a hidden and non-moving observation post in its center. Yes, the modern public sphere is nothing other than appearing for an O/other.
In the interventions of Urban Hacking, the public space is no longer conceived of as a social given where democratic (and sometimes: undemocratic) decision-making takes place. And it no longer aims at influencing or reconfiguring that public space via a detour in which an attempt is made to influence these forms of decision-making. Urban Hacking is, in fact, concerned with generating signs of dissent that express forms of (symbolic) resistance. The rights to speak and form are no longer demanded through institutionalized negotiations within the bourgeois public sphere. Instead, these demands directly appear on the public space’s body: they take the form of disruptions, disseminations, creative reconceptualizations as self-empowerment and reappropriations. To evoke a concept developed in anarchist theory, we could say that these newly reconfigured demands are now “direct actions,” which do not merely mourn an incorrect, contorted or ruined form of the public sphere but, instead, deconstruct those very forms.
Such actions not only seek to re-conquer the definitional monopoly established by local and global environments. They are, instead, primarily concerned with producing signals and establishing symbolic forms within these environments that oppose the late capitalist fatum of immutability with practical changes. These changes need not have the consistency of either a revolution or a reformation. Confined in space and time, these revolts point towards the subjects’ need to exorcise the status quo’s superiority. They are spontaneous articulations of antagonism which do not want to exhaust themselves in the complex actions of consensual social constitutions. They are acts of spontaneous, creative self-realization and joyous dissent which cannot easily be frustrated by social integrative mechanisms. Insofar as their critique realizes itself in the medium of sabotage (in contrast to the medium of constructive, serious, and well-reasoned critique), they do not offer themselves to dialogue. Although their critique may be well-articulated, it always carries with it a non-articulated remainder: desire in the form of a desire to revolt.
“Urban Hacking’s” specific form of resistance, therefore, entails a modified concept of the political. It rejects the system stabilizing actions taken by “official” and legitimate politics as well as those claims which simply bow down in front of social relations of order (the concepts of property, communicative morality, reformist role models, political morals). By contrast, “Urban Hacking” tries to escape this political paradox of participation through critique.
The Difficult Relationship of “Urban Hacking” and Advertisement
To regard environments as constructed may appear – as has already been noted – a merely trivial insight for the realm of reflective understanding. But our apperception of and orientation in everyday life, which proceeds preconsciously and is structured unconsciously, tends to naturalize our environment, making us accept it as a given. This becomes apparent in experiences which point towards the artificiality of our “nature,” when, all of a sudden, we find it changed, interrupted or disrupted. This can happen through either systematic intervention (graffiti, vandalism, dismantlement of structural attributes) or by a “higher power.” Only the lack and loss of familiar surroundings and conventions renders these constructions tangible.
By scratching and fracturing the smooth surface of the symbolic order, the strategies of “Urban Hacking” direct us to an understanding according to which this order is no longer an irrevocable cultural fate, a fate that may very well have seemed unavoidable given the ubiquity of commercial and political symbols of annexation and economic symbols of valorization. These are the symbols that give the public sphere its familiar face.
The experience of helplessness is written onto the faces of those who pass through rather than linger in the degraded spaces of a public sphere reduced to mere advertising and administrative space. Generally speaking, this feeling is experienced as either resignation or inner emigration, as when one claims, for example, that, of course, we are able to block out advertising messages even though we are well aware that this is nothing but a (white) lie.
As an illegitimate form of resistance, Urban Hacktivism legitimizes itself via the dispossession to be found at the core of this structure. But it does so without spreading the word of a better, alternative space; a space exterior to capitalism’s utilitarian relations. Bourgeois society can comfortably snuggle up to such a space. In spite of this, this form of intervention should still be able to accurately measure the gradual changes within the distribution of the public sphere. Advertisement’s aggressive appropriation of niches and free spaces is an indicator of the way in which all that once belonged to, if not to everyone, then at least the great majority, was broken and pocketed. In this way, the depressing and degrading nature of advertisement is a political issue because it is there that the mindless monotony of bourgeois society and culture are to be found in its most concentrated form. At the same time, advertising clearly illustrates the fact that the design of public spaces is by no means the result of collective negotiations. Advertising’s pretense thus raises questions about the ownership of public spaces, urban structures, the media and the internet.
In the case of advertisements, it is clear that the public space, as a fundamental sphere of articulations and projections, is always already occupied. All those spaces which offer themselves to communication are already owned by PR companies. The diversified and formative power of advertisement displaces and marginalizes all other messages. And even if they are not blocked out, these messages are forced to rely – if they want to be heard – on the form and symbolic language of advertisement. The struggle against the public and communicative monopoly is always already a struggle against aesthetic and discursive impositions (sexism, racism, stereotyping of certain societal groups, specific forms of value transmission through advertisement, clichéing of almost all aspects of social life).
Digital culture has always been sensitive to the problems the public sphere has to face within a capitalist structure of society because it takes as its working material the specific forms and spaces of social communication. Most of the time, it concerns itself with those trendsetting and contemporary fields which – in the not yet closed digital epoch – are especially endangered by economic mechanisms of closure. Fields which are often gawkily referred to as especially subject to “commercialization,” as if – within capitalism – there could exist something not subject to such a process. In this way, the struggle to re-seize the monopoly held over public spaces has always been its concern.
This fact is reflected in the forms of intervention proper to digital culture and can, for example, be illustrated by the work of the Graffiti Research Lab, which now has a branch in Vienna: for example, its activists use Laser Tags and mobile projection units to project dissident messages on suitable urban surfaces (skyscrapers, for example) from a great distance. They thus recall the classical graffiti movement, whose nightly spraying actions repoliticized urban spaces through sloganeering (which, in fact, outmatched advertisement’s slogans in their continuous repetition of the same), images or the secret language of so-called “tags” (an endless, monotonous and uncontrollable novel of minority movements within the public space) from the end of the 1970s on. But graffiti’s traditional repertoire and material aesthetic are altered through digitalization. Projected messages are temporary. They reject graffitis’ static form which can only too easily become an object of exploitation within the culture industry. Additionally, governmental mechanisms of repression aimed at stopping sprayers no longer have a hold. The LED-Throwies developed by the Graffiti Research Lab are thus regarded as a simple, “illuminating,” and successful means of intervention.
In its deployment of “Open Source Tools,” the Graffiti Research Lab links its own forms of intervention to the general demands of Hacktivism in a way that points towards the self-understanding of the scene in general: its adopted means and aesthetics are part of a broader solidarity movement which treats city space and net space as principally congeneric places that have to be re-claimed in exactly the same way. The “Open Source” approach does for the realm of digital allocation and processing of information what graffiti does for the city space: like traditional public space, digital technologies are by no means free to access; they must become so. At the same time, this approach is – in its intended manner of usage – subject to economic limitations that have a tremendous impact on digital culture – and, subsequently: for the entire culture of our digital times as such.
But the communication guerrilla’s strategies have already been taken over by advertisement. They themselves embody the reshaping advertisement has undergone; they are a mere mimicry of marketing, a signifying of those desiring machines which try to recalibrate our desire every time we use the internet, every time we go for a walk, etc. Through “viral” or “guerilla marketing,” they themselves are now subject to torsion and dispossession.
This homonymy is also borne out by the fact that those working in public relations often have a biographical relation to counter cultures. In this way, the advertising industry is able to draw ideas from an inexhaustible reserve of creative workers who – by false promises of artistic freedom – were led into the afflictions of the ‘creative’ industry. Their experiences and abilities in relation to “Urban Hacking” – as a daily component of digital cultural praxis – are the human capital they can now sale. The above mentioned usability of counter culture grounds itself in this appropriation of human capital: the capitalist near-impossibility of not selling one’s labor to the highest bidder.
Which Space Has to Be Opened: Regressive and Emancipatory Perceptions of Space
Linking concrete interventions with the general idea of “Open Source” is an important move beyond the, often deliberately, limited spheres of agency and responsibility proper to the historic paragons of the 1970s (city guerilla, etc.).
These paragons often understood their work as legitimate forms of articulation in a regionally defined resistance. As such, they either tried to repeat the liberation movements of Africa, Asia, and South America within Western European urban spaces (Tupamaros, “City Indians”) or sought to identify seemingly authentic projects of resistance in rural spaces (for example, the wine grower initiative against the nuclear power plant Whyl am Rhein). But their increased interest in local and site-specific markers of difference (for example, dialect as a counter-position to standard language) gave way, in most cases, to identitarian references and authenticistic folk cultural projections. And, in some cases, even led to an unreflected idealization of folkish-separatist movements: the step from “Volk,” the German notion of people, which bears connotations of servitude and race, to folk often was not taken at all and the reactionary concept of “rootedness” remained exclusively positive within the leftist communities of the 1970s.
All this secretly contributed to the institutionalization of anti-Americanism in leftist circles during the Vietnam War era. Americanism was taken as the law, as a globalized, culture-industrial form of adjustment, leveling differences and idiosyncrasies of local life, replacing them with standardized paradigms. These paradigms were identified, without further ado, with “American culture.”
The fact that such ideological premises often translate into questionable (and sometimes even neo-right-wing) concepts of Heimat, the German word for homeland, the connotations of which are quite similar to that of “Volk,” or into the idea of a multiculturalism of pure ethnical collective subjects, is a result of the momentum of their conceptual setting. Where theory formation, as a corrective procedure, was finally dismissed, a vacuum-like revolutionary or alternative pragmatism arose: through an idealization of “direct action,” one’s own “anger,” as well as other sentimental witherings of the political (as Sponti-slogans such as “Sentiment and Relentlessness” or “Tenderness and Wrath” illustrate). Replacing the old dialectic, a new jargon of leftist authenticity established itself, which began to long for, as “Heimat,” that long fought after space. No longer was it claimed to be a place of articulation; instead, these leftisits sought to preserve it as a space for regressively unarticulated identity. This is how that nature, which was later taken up by social-ecologism as necessary for preservation, was produced.
This idealization of authenticity was constitutive of the bourgeois movement that transformed alternatives into strictly green alternatives: in most cases, those local references that had become detached from any meaning led to a romanticization of fictive or empirically given traditions.
In the decadence of their history, many (formerly) leftist activists found themselves in projects of resistance that tried to escape from the ruthless praxis of modernization of the public realm, turning, instead, towards a fantasmatic “once upon a time” (e.g. the Berlin initiative “Sink Media Spree!”). These leftists made an – historically untenable – deduction from the current state of urban spaces that there must have been a pre-capitalist or early-bourgeois city-publicity where all subjects were able to equally participate in. Back then, “once upon a time,” when even lemonade and rock music were better, forms of human interaction must also, somehow, have been better.
This belief is omnipresent in debates concerning the modification of urban environments and usually takes the form of that well-known culture-pessimist dirge about the bereavement of the public space. What is deliberately overlooked in all this is the fact that such a public space – understood as a structure free from domination – never existed, because there is no such thing. As “public,” space has always already been subject to relations of domination. This even holds true for the agora and its ancient slave-owner-societies.
The public space always appeared to its subjects as a distributed and – via specific relations of ownership and permission – preselected structure, which constituted itself through mechanisms of in- and exclusion. All historical concepts of urbanity contain such restrictive elements concerning usage, patterns and forms of movement, city access and structural markers for specific social groups or individuals (for example “women,” “people without residence,” certain ethnic groups).
To try to save the “good old city” from a vaguely understood commercialization is traditionalism proper. By revitalizing the “old,” it only seeks to save the warranted identity and cultural competence it gained there. Such a critique does not deal with the economic foundation of capitalist society – i.e. the market; instead, it is preoccupied with the aesthetic user interface that this specific historical form of the market takes: what, in the form of a medieval market, appears as a contemplative event of lost intimacy of pre-bourgeois social relations, becomes threatening when it presents itself in the form of a single store within a supermarket chain. The fact that both follow the same principle and that, historically speaking, one would not be possible without the other, is deliberately ignored.
As such, it is not capitalism as the social form of trafficking of goods and producers that disturbs the image of a city engulfed by advertising; instead, it seems to be this very form of annoyance that brings capitalism to mind. But this annoyance cannot, in turn, be separated from capitalism because it embodies the necessary historic state of its development. Only in the regressive wish for bourgeois Heimatpflege, the preservation of the homeland in its purported authenticity, can the two appear as distinct.
Every bourgeois city has always been – in proportion to its time – a reification of the current development status of capitalist socialization. And the retrospective phantasmagoria of free accessibility remains, at best, a vague idea of utopian bourgeois theory formation that has never corresponded to any form of reality and will never do so. This is the core problem of bourgeois utopias, which cannot, in principle, take their fundamental ground into consideration. They are nothing but a traditional comedy of mistaken concepts in which the leftist-liberal “urbanism discourse” masks the necessary theoretical analysis of changed relations of ownership within the public sphere by – in the tone of tourism brochures – mourning the traditional city’s disappearance, producing the kitschy image of an all so beloved “Heimat.”
If “Urban Hacking” wants to pursue its emancipatory agenda, its interventions must avoid this identity trap in two ways:
Firstly, in the perspective in which it grounds itself. Although “Urban Hacking” occasionally has to orient itself towards local conditions and characteristics, it should still seek to develop the supra-local consciousness that necessarily arises out of its anchoring in the field of a globalized digital culture. The “World Wide Web” serves as “Urban Hacking’s” most important referential space. Yes, the internet’s globalism is recognized as a correlate of local environments. Both are subject to a wide variety of practical relations of dependency.
The net, as a universal public space where long ago local specificities entered the public sphere, has given way to the imperative for a universalism of demand. The internet is equal to the universality of what is to be fought: because advertising strategies are, in most cases, similar in principle, whether they manifest themselves in street appearances, cultural forms of presentation (Product Placement, Event Sponsoring, editorial advertisement), the email inbox or a pop-up. Global harassment through optic, acoustic, and electronic spamming sharpens the consciousness of a global difficulty that “Urban Hacking” displays as constitutive of a “globalized movement” which is not, after all, preoccupied with “Heimatschutz” of endangered local forms of articulation but with a universal that should also be treated as local.
Secondly, “Urban Hacking” conceptually refers to “Hacking” as a genuine form of resistance within the digital age, which manages to keep pace with its globalization. Hacking (in the narrow sense of a computerized attack on the knowledge of domination which has become inaccessible in computers and networks), in this context, refers to the following: the shaping of a new public space corresponding to digital environments.
Paraflows 09 seeks to realize these insights through the ways in which we present digital culture – as a (counter) public space and possibility of intervention. The form we chose in order to achieve this is a container installation at Karlsplatz, a central place in Vienna’s inner city. Karlsplatz has a long history of being a site for interventionist art and counter culture as part of tradition of interventionist projects that have taken place there. We want to follow this tradition and write it forth. Karlsplatz, as one of those historic places which are inseparably connected to the associational field “Vienna,” shall be disentangled from its local (e.g. touristic and identitarian) utilitarian relations. We already find it linked. And we want to strengthen this link. This place is linked in the same way in which the local – fetishized in Austria already long before the ÖVP-FPÖ government – can be integrated in global reference systems, thus able to posit a universal demand. This is the genuine demand of digital art and culture. At Karlsplatz, we want to posit it anew.
Frank Apunkt Schneider / Guenther Friesinger