Digitizing the Arts of Protest

By T.V. Reed

My topic will be the impact of new digital media on visual protest art, but before I take up that subject, let me briefly offer a few comments on digital protest methods in general. It seems to me that there are very few things that have been traditionally done by grassroots organizing that cannot be done also by netroots (online) organizing. And there are some clear advantages for digital activism in terms of speed, geographic reach, and costs of communication. There is also one huge limitation—roughly 70 percent of the world’s populace has no access to the Internet at all, and many millions more have minimal access. That represents some 5 billion people who cannot be reached by digital means of communication alone. That is one reason that no digital activist worth her of his salt would rely exclusively on the Net. Even in this case, however, a variety of digital means are being used to help reach the offline world, including low-cost printing of posters, flyers, banners and alternative newspapers, as well as digital radio broadcasts, and cheap CDs and DVDs containing organizing materials.

I also have some doubts about the Net as a true organizing tool, as opposed to a mobilizing one. I draw this distinction from the great civil and human rights activist Ella Baker. For her, mobilizing was getting lots of people to follow a path laid out by leaders, while organizing was facilitating the process by which people felt empowered to lead themselves. To me, this is a crucial distinction for anyone seeking radically democratic change. And the level of understanding and commitment Baker has in mind by the term organizing requires a depth of interaction that, while surely not impossible through digital media alone, is not easily achieved without prolonged face-to-face engagement over time.

With those caveats in mind, I am reasonably enthusiastic about the possibilities for progressive organizing opened up by the Net and other digital media. But these are only possibilities, and they are equally open to opponents. Contrary to some, I see nothing inherent in digital technologies that will inevitably lead to greater democracy. The great Arab Spring movements that are often cited as evidence of some preordained worldwide democratization have been mislabeled as Twitter or Facebook revolutions. They were no such thing. The role of digital media in those events was important, but hardly determinative. Rather it was years of organizing, often clandestinely, by unions, students groups, NGOs and underground movement groups that laid the groundwork and infrastructure for those upheavals. And the same digital tools that were used to make the revolution have been used to track down and round up recalcitrant activists who don’t see the revolution as anywhere near complete.

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As digital forms have reshaped movement organizing, they have likewise reshaped every form of protest art (music, drama, etc.), while adding some new forms variously called new media art, digital art, computer-mediated art and so forth. Given limited space, here I will address only visual art.

To begin with one of the most ubiquitous forms of protest art, the poster, it is clear that it has had renewed life in the digital world. In the lead up to the first Iraq war in 2003, the Web was flooded with poster-style images like those decrying “No Blood for Oil” and “Iraqnica” (Fig. 1), an homage to Picasso’s Guernica. These images, unlike paper posters, could be re-post(er)ed an infinite number of times, on social movement and NGOs websites, on blogs and personal web pages, on social media sites and so on. While spreading posters and other graphic images online is immensely powerful and can instantaneously reach thousands of people, the best protest poster producers realize that it is equally important to reproduce and disseminate their works out into the offline world. Like the best social movement organizers in general, poster makers realize that it important to reach those people, 5 billion of them, who do not have the privilege of access to digital culture.

Reed, Iraqnica

Fig 1. “Iraqnica” by Russ Donegan. Used by permission of the author.

Another aesthetic form that has long has a major role in protest, the mural, has also been transformed in the new media era. While murals painted on walls the traditional way are still very much alive, they have also been augmented by digital murals that can be made and remade in a more timely fashion. Queer Chicana artivist  (art-activist) Alma Lopez, for example, executes her striking protest murals in both traditional and digital form (Fig. 2). Two distinct advantages of digital murals over painted ones are that they are almost infinitely reproducible—rather than being confined to one wall in one neighborhood, they can be appear in many neighborhoods, and they are scalable—they can be projected on the side of a building in grand scale, but they can also be reproduced in every size from gallery painting size to postcard size to poster size (and the process can be reversed, as when an Irish museum turned the “Iraqnica” poster into a full size mural on the outside of their building).

Reed, Heaven

Fig. 2. “Heaven.” Digital Mural by Alma Lopez
10’ x 24’ November, 2000.

Of course, the special power of murals largely stems from their size and their permanence; they are literally larger than life and they become fixtures in neighborhoods offering their powerful imagery to all who pass by. But that need not be lost, since digital murals can have that scale and can be rendered permanent. Already existing murals can also be photographed and then be reproduced in near-to-original quality via digital techniques, allowing classic murals to migrate to new location, and be preserved for longer periods. Of course, as with all things digital, there are purists or traditionalists who argue that some essential human quality is lacking in digital murals, an argument that in many ways parallels the preference for vinyl records over digitized music. Fortunately, no one is forced to choose, since traditional style murals continue to be created as well. For example, one of the most important digital creation and preservation institutions in the world, SPARC (Social and Public Art Resource Center) near Los Angeles, uses digital means to document classic traditional murals and remains committed to both older and new forms of political mural making.

Traditional satiric and parodic protest art has also been reshaped for and by digital cultures. One striking example is the site “Cybracero. The parody site began as a student project by Alex Rivera while an undergraduate Swarthmore College, and has been elaborated through several iterations. Cybracero works with an utterly straight face, much in the spirit of Jonathan Swift’s famous suggestion in “A Modest Proposal” that the solution to the famine in Ireland was to eat babies. It purports to be the website for  Cybracero Industries, a corporation that is solving the messy problem of Latino immigration to the U.S. by using robots controlled from Mexico to pick fruit and do other agricultural labor without Mexican bodies actually crossing the border. Elites in the U.S. can have all the benefits of Mexican immigrant labor without having those laborers actually near them. (The made up word cybracero combines cybernetics with bracero, the name for workers who in previous decades were bussed or flown into the States to do backbreaking agricultural field work, and then were shipped out again as soon as that work was done.) The shiny bright site brilliantly mimics the callous rhetoric of corporations for whom workers are workunits not people; indeed, it does so with such perfect pitch that many of my students when exposed to it without explanation have taken it for a real corporation (a few, alas, even thought it a good idea). Similar sites (see, for example, “Rent-a-Negro”) use parodic website imitation to address other issues from gender and ethnic justice, to environmentalism.

The emphasis on participation, interaction and collaboration in much digital culture has also played a role in re-shaping the protest arts. These are qualities particularly apt for adaptation to the collective process of political protest. In many of these works the artist is a co-producer along with those previously know as the audience. This is not a wholly new development in the arts, but, again, it is one that is enhanced and extended via the possibilities provided by digitizing cultures.

Two interesting examples of participatory art likewise address the issue of borders using digital technology. The “Border Haunt” project a one-time event that subsequently has life as a website using GPS (Global Positioning Systems/Satellites) to carry out its protest.  Each year many people die in vain efforts to cross the Mexico/US border without proper authorization. The project seeks to honor those who have died, while also demonstrating how surveillance technologies can be turned against themselves. Creator/facilitator Ian Alan Paul invited anyone sympathetic to the plight of immigrants to participate in the intentional misleading of border patrol officers tasked with tracking down border crossers. Close to 700 participants from around the world called the border patrol on the appointed day to falsely report the whereabouts of suspected illegal migrants, using the names of the departed, of those who had drowned, died of dehydration, been shot or otherwise perished in previous failed attempts to make the perilous crossing. These actions both threw the patrol officers off course, thus aiding folks trying to cross on that day, and paid symbolic homage to those who had lost their lives in previous crossings.

The second example is from another part of the world and uses a different kind of digital geography tool, Google maps. “The Wall-The World,” conceived and executed by Paula Levine and Christopher Zimmerman, presents you upon arrival at the website with a map showing a portion of the 439-mile long wall Israelis have built between Israel and the West Bank to essentially ghettoize Palestinians. You are then asked to take part in the project by typing in the name of the town or city in which you now live. Quickly, the Palestine wall is superimposed on your town, emblematizing what it would be like to have that kind of apartheid forced upon your neighborhood. With minimal commentary, a simple but powerful image is offered to quite literally bring the Israel-Palestinian conflict “home.”

These are just a small sample of how, used creatively and in tandem with offline work, digital protest forms can add a set of powerful tools to the arsenal of dissent.

2 Comments

Filed under Art, Music, and Movements, Essay Dialogues

2 responses to “Digitizing the Arts of Protest

  1. Pingback: Digitizing the Arts of Protest | OccuWorld

  2. A manifesto for the transformation of practices in the digital arts and humanities that was authored by over forty participants in the 2009 Mellon Seminar on the Digital Humanities at UCLA. The manifesto articulates a vision of the future of knowledge production in the arts and humanities disciplines.

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