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<nettime> Signals, Statistics & Social Experiments
Brian Holmes on Mon, 22 Nov 2004 10:19:46 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Signals, Statistics & Social Experiments

[Here is a paper I just gave at the VIPER conference in Basel. I wanted to 
directly address the new media institutions, and raise some questions a 
bout the dreams and realities of so-called "governance." Amazing what 
Foucault gets used for these days - BH]


The governance conflicts of new media

The term "governmentality," coined some 25 years ago by Michel Foucault, 
describes what is essentially a feedback process: the endlessly 
renegotiated balances of a "microphysics of power" in which each 
individual contri butes a vital force to the production of the social 
frameworks that condition his or her behavior. Under this view, power does 
not just come down on a population from above, that is, from the state and 
those whose interests it serves. Rather, it also arises from the activity 
of those whose i nvention and conviction are required to shape the 
prevailing usages and norms. Thus the substantial reality of citizenship, 
for a governmentality theorist like Nikolas Rose, does not only consist of 
participation in a formal "public sphere," where enfranchised individuals 
debate over the dis positions and meanings of universal law. Instead, 
"games of citizenship" are played out in the most diverse arenas: 20

"The citizen as consumer is to become an active agent in the regulation of 
professional expertise. The citizen as prudent is to become an active a 
gent in the provision of security. The citizen as employee is to become an 
active agent in the regeneration of industry and as consumer is to be an 
agent for innovation, quality and competitiveness.... This kind of 
'government through freedom' multiplies the points at which the citizen 
has t o play his or her part in the games that govern him. And, in doing 
so, it also multiplies the points at which citizens are able to refuse, 
contest , challenge those demands that are placed upon them."

The strength of Rose's book, Governing the Soul [London: Free Association 
Books, 1999] is to have retraced in detail some of the procedures that 
have been developed since WWI for conceiving a population's self-conduct i 
n psychological terms, observing and measuring it in its variability, 
inscribing it as statistics, and then calculating the effects of the 
governm ent programs, advertising messages and market offers that are 
designed to channel it in specific directions. On one hand, these are 
procedures for producing the objective truth of behavior, and thereby 
norming it. But the claim being made in the analysis of governmentality is 
that a large de gree of hitherto unsuspected freedom lies in the 
continually changing subjective production of that which can only be 
guided, directed, cajoled an d seduced from the outside, i.e. 
self-conduct. Here is the source of the Deleuzean dictum that "resistance 
is primary," along with the correspondi ng theory of social control by 
"apparatuses of capture" - two ideas that have inspired much recent social 
theory. But instead of just celebrating the breakthrough that such ideas 
represent, one could ask about the specific kinds of games that we have 
begun to play today, in the age of the so -called new media. For our 
embrace, as a population, of miniaturized, networked electronic devices, 
has made us into avid producers of signals, em anating from all aspects of 
our psychic, sexual, professional, political and affective lives. These 
signals of belief and desire are eminently sus ceptible to interception, 
storage in databases, and transformation into statistics, which can be 
used as guidelines for the informed manipulation of our environment, and 
thus of our behavior. It then becomes important to know what kinds of 
social experiments we might be part of. And I will g o further: it becomes 
important to produce counter-experiments, to up the stakes of the game, to 
deploy the primacy of resistance in the key arena s of our epoch. This 
could be a worthwhile use for the relative autonomy of the new media 
centers, festivals, exhibitions and educational programs . That is, it 
could be, if participants can find the inventions, the critical 
disco-urses and the political will to assert their autonomy in the f ace 
of their funders - i.e. the state and the electronics industries.

Consider the case of Jakob Boeskov and his pseudo-company "Empire North," 
which signed up in 2002 as the sole Danish exhibitor at "China Police 20 
02" - the first international weapons fair in the People's Republic. 
Empire North's security product took the form of a prototype, advertised 
on a poster under the name ID Sniper. The poster, displayed at the empty 
stall that a trembling and uncertain Boeskov occupied at China Police 
2002, c ontained this explanation:

"The idea is to implant a GPS microchip in the body of a human being, 
using a high-powered sniper rifle as the long distance injector.... At the 
s ame time, a digital camcorder with a zoom lens fitted within the scope 
will take a high-resolution picture of the target. This picture will be 
sto red on a memory card for later image-analysis. GPS microchip 
technology is already being used for tracking millions of pets in various 
countries, and the logical solution is to use it on humans as well, when 
the situation demands it.... "As the urban battlefield grows more complex 
and intense, new ways of managing and controlling crowds are needed. The 
attention of the media chang es the rules of the game. Sometimes it is 
difficult to engage the enemy in the streets without causing damage to the 
all-important image of the st ate. Instead, Empire North suggests marking 
and identifying a suspicious subject from a safe distance, enabling the 
national law enforcement agenc y to keep track on the target through a 
satellite in the weeks to come." 
[http://events.thing.net/Boeskov_text.html] [http://backfire.dk/EMPIRENOR 

Jakob Boeskov is an artist, a young but obviously politicized one, 
satirizing the excesses of his state and corporate nemeses through a 
radical fo rm of what Slavoj Zizek once called "over-identification." He 
took an undeniable risk to realize his project, and by his own account 
became almost unbearably afraid when, for instance, a French diplomat saw 
the impossibility of the weapon, given the damage it would inevitably 
cause to the in ternal organs of protesting citizens. Nonetheless, the 
heart of his proposal - the miniature radio frequency ID tag to be 
injected in the bodies o f the demonstrators - is quite real. It is 
produced by a company called "Applied Digital Solutions." It is sold under 
the trade name "VeriChip" [w ww.4verichip.com]. It is offered in several 
different packages: "VeriTrack" for continuous surveillance of mobile 
materiel and personnel; and "Ver iGuard," an implanted, infra-cutaneous 
access badge which "cannot be forgotten, lost or stolen." Verification 
guaranteed. This bit of silicon and wire is a technology for producing 
effective truth. And as of October 13, 2004, it has been cleared by the 
American Food and Drug Administration f or health-care use in the United 

The chips are supposed to provide "easy access to individual medical 
records." But that apparently benign application could smooth the way for 
oth ers, as is so often the case with surveillance technologies: "Applied 
Digital Solutions of Delray Beach, Fla., said that its devices, which it 
cal ls VeriChips, could save lives and limit injuries from errors in 
medical treatment. It hopes such medical uses will accelerate acceptance 
of under -the-skin ID chips as security and access-control devices." Of 
course, Old Europeans will rest assured that only the U.S. could condone 
such a bar baric idea, developed for control and security. On the 
Continent it is pure pleasure that provides the necessary legitimacy: "In 
March, the Baja B each Club in Barcelona, Spain, began offering VeriChips 
to regular patrons who want to dispense with traditional identification 
and credit cards.  About 50 'VIPs' have received the chip so far, 
according to a company spokesman, which allows them to link their 
identities to a payment system."  One man's unlimited whisky is as good as 
another man's medecine it seems - and both are sufficient excuses to get 
surveillance chips under our col lective skin.

The disturbing thing is how easily such invasive technologies are accepted 
and made into norms. Under these conditions, the work of an artist like 
Boeskov becomes a rare chance to actually play the governance game, by by 
opening up a public space for refusing, contesting and challenging thes e 
new tracking and recording regimes. To make such challenges effective on a 
broader scale, however, at least three requirements would have to be 
fulfilled. First, high-risk projects like The ID Sniper would have to be 
accepted as valid and ongoing experiments within the new-media institutio 
ns. Second, controversies around them would have to be produced, at the 
largest possible scale, and not only in the realms of discourse. And 
third, the artists involved would have to be defended, when their 
investigations of corporate and state experiments succeed in generating 
the all-too p redictable repression.


The obvious critique of governance theory is that ordinary citizens have 
no imaginable possibility to accumulate the vast amounts of data that sta 
te and corporate actors hold on them. Their desires and usages can provide 
the vital thrust of an initial transformation; but subsequent expressio ns 
will unfold within the established frameworks, to the point where 
"expression" itself comes to feel programmed, solicited and channeled by 
the manipulated environment. And of course, the procedures for stacking 
the deck of governmentality are nothing new. Nikolas Rose shows how the 
normal izing gaze of the psychological researcher comes to fall on 
earliest infancy, scrutinizing the gestures of the gurgling baby and 
recording them on film in order to produce abstracted and codified models 
of behavior (plates 1-3, pp. 146-49). The cool efficiency of this gaze is 
one of the sour ces of intense alienation experienced by industrialized 
populations in the 1950s and 1960s, always unsure of which technocratic 
mirror may have be en installed at the heart of their subjectivity. A 1974 
installation by the artist Dan Graham, under the title Present Continuous 
Past(s), provide s a public experience of this disturbing tension between 
fluid self-presence and the return of the technocratic gaze. We see our 
image in an ordin ary mirror, where it is as mobile as life itself; but at 
the same time, and in the same mirror, we see a video device continually 
projecting a sur veillance-camera recording from 8 seconds before, 
haunting our present experience and informing it with its own capture. The 
question of how one w ill play out this game between the spontaneity of 
the present and the recorded traces of the past is at the center of this 
paradigmatic artwork, which is nothing other than a meta-model of 
innumerable social experiments.

It would be interesting to reconsider the production of the postwar 
installationists, to see to what extent the feedback loops of 
governmentality became an issue in their devices. Another artist one would 
soon encounter is Bruce Nauman, whose long-term obsession with behaviorism 
becomes explicit in a late installation like Rats and Bats (On Learned 
Helplessness i n Rats), from 1988. The piece takes the form of a yellow 
plastic labyrinth, using video monitors in the place of the traditional 
bait that lures l aboratory rats through the maze and a soundtrack of 
painfully loud rock'n'roll drumming in the place of the traditional 
electroshock. The commerci al media are staged as the determining stimuli 
of a social experiment. But the pathos of Nauman's art betrays all the 
melancholy of the objective and objectifying model; and it culminates in 
his anguished emphasis on "withdrawal," which is precisely the syndrome 
that postwar industrial psych ologists sought to cure in the alienated 
worker. More interesting would be to look at all the phases that lead from 
the resurgence in the 1950s of concrete poetry - with its corporeal and 
respiratory foundation for direct human expression - through cut-up and 
montage procedures conceived aga inst televisual continuity, to the 
dynamic interactions of the 1960s happenings and the political psychodrama 
of Oyvind Fahlstr 96m's game-pieces, and then on to the early media work 
of an artist like Nam June Paik. These are just a few of the ways that 
artists engage in an active resistance to formatted behavior, and in a 
channeling of alternatives -- literally, in Paik's case, with the famous 
satellite-relay video piece of 1973, ent itled Global Groove.

The examples I'm quoting here are canonical, they are found in textbooks 
and in prestigious white cubes. But they and many others could be used as 
a genealogy, leading through a history of twentieth-century art in its 
subtly or explicitly conflictual relation to what the sociologist Alain To 
uraine once called "the programmed society." So the point is that 
interventionism in the forms and devices of technological governance 
really is a rt, and a quite important form of art (though not the only 
one, of course). But what has to be recovered today is the symbolic and 
practical antag onism that pits one kind of social experiment against 
another. This is the kind of game that can unfold within the computerized 
media, where the c ontemporary forms of data-gathering are practiced, and 
where the new control regimes are being imposed, through the use of 
truth-producing devices like the VeriChip. But an interesting conflict 
rarely just happens - particularly since contemporary art itself has now 
been normed, organized, c hanneled into the safe-havens of museums. The 
debate must be created, extended, deepened and resolved in public, where 
the issues themselves exist.


If interventionist projects have a much greater intensity today than the 
purely symbolic constructions of older artistic models, it's for a simple 
reason: the attraction of the reality show. What matters in The ID Snipe r 
is the fact that Boeskop was there, and beyond that, the fact that you 
might go there someday soon. What matters is that the effects of the inte 
rnational arms economy are shockingly real. So there's no use to cry 
populism and withdraw into hermetic abstraction. Much better is the 
productio n of an intelligent event, bringing reality to a more complex 
and challenging level of display. Activists have always known how to do 
this. A grea t example is the projection onto the building of the World 
Intellectual Property Foundation in Geneva, of the video by the San 
Francisco group Neg ativeland, Gimme the Mermaid, which deliberately 
infringes on the copyright of Disney 
[www.geneva03.org/polimedia/display.php?id 3D27&lang 3Den].  The screening 
on the WIPO building in the context of the World Summit on the Information 
Society in December 2003 could hardly been more significa nt where the 
intellectual property game is concerned. But the event itself was seen by 
a relatively small number of people and understood by even fewer; it has 
to be distributed. And this could be the real role of the institution in 
the process of contemporary governance.

Take a rare example: the Public Netbase in Vienna [www.t0.or.at/t0]. Two 
recent projects have been exemplary: Nikeground, by 0100101110101101.org, 
and System 77 Civil Counter-Reconnaissance initiative, by Marko Peljhan. 
Both events were held on the Karlsplatz, under conditions of semi-legali 
ty that contributed to the meaning of the display. The first went up 
against a powerful transnational corporation, to undercut the norm of 
logo-ty ping that installs corporate worlds as the very earth beneath our 
feet [www.nikeground.com]. It proposed renaming the historic city square, 
instal ling a gigantic swoosh sculpture to redefine the very notion of 
public art, and of course, providing a new style of shoe to put you into 
intimate contact with the transfigured ground of your existence. The 
second took on the issues of sophisticated surveillance techniques as the 
exclusive pr erogative of the state [www.s-77ccr.org]. It proposed a 
civilian appropriation of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to restore the 
balance between t he citizens and the police. In both cases it was 
necessary to engage with local bureaucrats and politicians, so as to push 
the artistic fiction in to the media and prolong the uncertainty 
surrounding its kernel of truth. Only by sparring with private interests 
and public authorities, while atthe same time distributing information and 
disinformation through every attainable channel, could Public Netbase give 
either of these two project s the presence they need - if we really want 
them to even begin to interfere with the ordinary games of governance. But 
is the media-art community capable of supporting such radical initiatives?


The answer, on the institutional level at least, is that things don't look 
particularly good. Public Netbase has seen the constant trimming of its 
operational budget, despite being the only Viennese cultural institution 
to take a radical stance against the Haider governments. Now it looks li 
ke this impressive new-media laboratory is going to definitively close its 
doors, having recently laid off its entire staff and ceased its operati 
ons. Meanwhile, as everyone knows, a more iniquitous and dangerous 
situation has emerged in the United States, where Steve Kurtz of Critical 
Art E nsemble is on trial before a federal grand jury for a technicality 
concerning the way that he obtained perfectly harmless sample of e. coli 
bacter ia. That technicality of mail and wire fraud could carry a maximum 
of twenty years in prison. What kind of social truth is going to be 
produced by that grand jury? It's urgent everyone make a cash donation to 
the CAE Defense Fund, which i-n November 2004 is down to zero and needs 
fresh resou rces [www.caedefensefund.org]. At a certain point, money and 
political support become the feedback loops that really make a difference.

These sorry situations are indicative of the immeasurably broader state of 
world affairs, which is not going to turn around very quickly. It's all 
very well to feel optimistic about governance theory, and to talk about 
power rising from below - but the question of what exactly happens on the 
way up can no longer be overlooked. Much more concerted efforts will have 
to be made, at a higher level of critique and political demand, if we w 
ant to keep a few experimental arenas open in the worlds of art, media and 
activism, to go on exploring the possibility of governing ourselves oth 

Brian Holmes

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs-Non 
Commercial License. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creative 
commons.org/licenses/by-nd-nc/1.0/ or send a letter to Creative Commons, 
559 Nathan Abbott Way, Stanford, California 94305, USA.

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