What is hactivism and how does it relate to remix art?

The word hactivism is a neologism that mashes up the creative use of digital tools associated with the computer hacker with the interventionist strategies of political activists. Cleverly inserting themselves into the networked space of flows, digitally inclined hactivists use whatever new media technologies they may have access to to subvert the mainstream media discourse and tweak the way we construct meaning in the corporate media economy. Often employing humor, especially outrageous forms of parody, as a strategic device to challenge traditional media narratives, the hactivist is at once aligned with the rival tradition in literature (think Jonathan Swift) and the rambunctious performance art associated with street theater.

In critical theorist McKenzie Wark’s A Hacker Manifesto, a philosophical treatise on the emergence of a hacker class that simultaneously and continuously intervenes in the mainstream media culture’s meaning-making process, he indicates to his readers just how ad-hoc the network of remixologists really is:

And yet we don’t quite know who we are. While we recognise our distinctive existence as a group, as programmers, as artists or writers or scientists or musicians, we rarely see these ways of representing ourselves as mere fragments of a class experience that is still struggling to express itself as itself, as expressions of the process of producing abstraction in the world. Geeks and freaks become what they are negatively, through their exclusion by others. Hackers are a class, but an abstract class, a class as yet to hack itself into manifest existence as itself.

One of the more prominent hactivist art groups whose work has gained international recognition are collectively known as The Yes Men. On the home page to their website accessed in early 2011, The Yes Men state their intent to alter the criminal activity of identity theft into the altruistic act of “identity correction.” As politically active performance artists, their modus operandi is to impersonate “big-time criminals in order to publicly humiliate them.” Any entity that contributes to the moneyed dictatorship of the ruling oligarchies is fair game. This could include Exxon, the World Trade Organization, Dow Chemical, CNN, or even BBC World News.

The Yes Men are self-conscious remix artists who actively engage themselves in the creative process of manipulating data so as to intervene in the traditional media narratives that drive conventional wisdom and moneyed interests. In this regard, they have been known to sample from the content, design, and html code located at various corporate websites whereupon they beginning remixing the data to tell a completely different story than the one being projected by the corporate or government entity they are hacking. Once they have successfully reconfigured the data and, consequently, the corporate media narrative, they then post the remixed website on a different domain name that confuses the proprietary presence of the corporation they are spoofing. The end result is a web site that appears to be sponsored by the corporation but is in fact being hacked by the artists.

One of the best examples of this hactivist method, as seen in their self-titled first movie, The Yes Men, is the creation of the gatt.org website. The site is a complete remix of an earlier version of the World Trade Organization (WTO) website. Prior to its constitution as the WTO, the organization was known simply as GATT, or the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. The Yes Men “correct” the WTO’s identity by mocking their position on various issues including intellectual property, electronic commerce, and of course, world trade.

Another active hactivist art group is known as Ubermorgen. An example of their hacking aesthetic can found in the project Torture Classics. Impersonating the corporate entity known as Time-Life, the press release for the project reads:

Seoul / Daebudo / Vienna, August 13, 2010

TIME LIFE announces the release of the TORTURE CLASSICS COLLECTION. Torture Music is the kind of music that’s perfect for sitting in the Afghan or Iraqi Desert, sharing a prisoner for a night, or relaxing in a  military barack or a CIA black site in some godforsaken country on a lazy afternoon. It’s music thats just makes you feel free and drives others crazy. But, the artists included in the TORTURE CLASSICS COLLECTION have taken the Torture Music sound and given it a psychotic and everlasting quality. This  Torture Music compilation includes 60 songs, tons of images, uncensored videos, pdfs and extra bonus material. The Ultiimate Collection DOWNLOAD-DVD includes both The White Site Album and The Black Site Album.

Ubermorgen is also widely known as the art group who created the popular EKMRZ trilogy of hacktivist net art works consisting of GWEI – Google Will Eat ItselfAmazon Noir – The Big Book Crime, and The Sound of eBay. In GWEI, the group proceeds to

generate money by serving Google text advertisments on a network of hidden Web sites. With this money we automatically buy Google shares. We buy Google via their own advertisment! Google eats itself – but in the end ‘we’ own it!’

Referring to this programmed remix process as an “autocannibalistic model,” the group makes clear their intention to  deconstruct the emerging forms of global capitalism in cyberspace promoted by enterprisess like Google’s AdSense program,  “rendering them into a surreal click-based economic model.” The goal for Ubermorgen is to eventually hand over the common ownership of “their” Google Shares to the GTTP Ltd. [Google To The People Public Company] which distributes them back to the users (clickers) / public.

An Exercise in Hactivism:

The website for The Yes Men lab has many opportunities to participate in online activism.

For educational purposes, a politically motivated remix artist could download the data from a corporate entity such as, say, the Recording Industry of America, and create a satirical Web site that cleverly exposes how mainstream music is turned into prepackaged corporate product and that ridicules the insensitivity shown by many record companies toward amateur remix artists by attempting to criminalize what is otherwise normal behavior . For example, what are the legal implication of capturing video of your young daughter dancing to a copyrighted song and posting that video on YouTube? It is not far-fetched that you would soon receive a cease and desist order from the the record company’s lawyers asking you take the video off the Web since the background sound is copyrighted. In fact, this has already happened. For more examples of these corporate overreaches, see Lawrence Lessig’s Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy.

Questions for the discussion:

1) After viewing the first The Yes Men movie, discuss the following questions:

a) Exactly how do The Yes Men operate? Try to describe their creative work process and the methods they employ as part of their hackivist [hacker+activist] aesthetic.

b) Are there other artworks that you know of that employ similar methods? Describe those works and articulate the similarities (and differences) with The Yes Men’s approach to activism.

c) How does the collective/collaborative and pseudonymous network practice of The Yes Men challenge standard/conventional notions of “the individual artist as genius” model we generally associate with a studio arts practice?

d) What is the relationship between their practice and what some refer to as tactical media art? Are The Yes Men 21st century situationists practicing digital détournment? How do they differ from the situationists?

Bonus question: how does remixthebook hack conventional forms of scholarly theory? Is there an implicit rage against the academic machine? Could this be construed as a political intervention on behalf of the artist-as-theorist or is there more here than meets the eye? When it comes to hybridizing print and digital forms of theory, what does it mean to be wrestle freedom from necessity?


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