This article reflects on the notion of recursive publics proposed by Christopher M. Kelty in the book Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (2008), analyzing the consequences of disruptive dynamics both in so-called underground artistic networks and in the business context of the digital economy. Public interfaces are contextualized through the analysis of disruptive actions in collaborative networks, showing that the vulnerability of networking dynamics in recursive publics might be an opportunity to create political criticism, while the act of generating a/moral dis/order becomes an art practice. This analysis questions the methodology of radical clashes of opposite forces to generate socio-political transformation, proposing more flexible viral actions as relevant responses to the ubiquity of capitalism. The strategy of disruptive innovation as a model of artistic creation becomes a challenge for the re-invention and rewriting of symbolic and expressive codes.
On Social Imaginary and Recursive Publics
As Kelty pointed out in his investigation about geek communities and what binds them together, “geeks share an idea of moral and technical order when it comes to the Internet; not only this, but they share a commitment to maintaining that order because it is what allows them to associate as a recursive public in the first place”. What Kelty defines as moral and technical order, which could be easily related with the hacker ethics even if Kelty prefers the term “geek” to that of “hacker”, is a common social imaginary about technology and the Internet. Geeks share a moral imagination of the Internet, which lives through hardware, software, networks and protocols, and which shapes everyday life practices. The geek community is a recursive public since it works on developing, creating and maintaining networks, and at the same time it is the network and the social infrastructure to maintains. Geeks speak and argue about topics, which they directly create and bring to existence: therefore, they are the developers of their own social imaginary.
But even if Kelty’s concept of recursive public adds a new layer in the analysis of social imaginary – since it is not only interpreted as a shared background but as a tool of creation and autonomous development – the concept of “social imaginary” still has to be questioned. Describing the imaginary shared by geeks, Kelty brings the example of Napster’s collapse and its battle against the musical industry. A battle strongly supported by hackers and geeks worldwide, who found a common goal expressed by the openness of information, the freedom of exchange and the right to use decentralised technologies in opposition to monopoly. This is one possible way to analyse the matter; but if we adopt another perspective, we might discover a different meaning.
A business enterprise like Napster managed to attract the will and the energy of many activists to follow a cause with a deep commercial purpose. Napster was able to get so many followers because it managed to absorb their values turning them into its business. It was a business, which decided not to follow the moral order shared by its “recursive public”, the one given by the economy of monopoly. Napster opened a (new) cycle of appropriation of values and ethics, moving them from the so-called underground culture to the business field, just like many of the new generation of social media and Web 2.0 companies have been doing since the middle of the 2000s. It demonstrated that the idea of social imaginary as cohesive moral order could be disrupted, and the change could be done exactly by being strategically a/moral – thus adopting values that were apparently in contradiction to its own set of relations and practices. This explains how today it might be reductive describing network dynamics only trough a singular point of view, and that not only the notion of moral order, but also the one of a/moral dis/order might be a valid perspective to analyse recursive publics, both in the business and in the technological field.
A/Moral Dis/Order as an Art Practice
An example of a strategy of disruption as a method of political criticism beyond clashing of moral orders, is given by a Neoist prank which followed an intervention by Alexander Brener and Barbara Schurz at the Club der polnischen Versager in Berlin, during the rebel:art festival in 2004. This intervention shows that the notion of social imaginary as a comprehensive order of values is not always effective to interpret collective dynamics, especially referring to underground communities that work staging a meta-critique of themselves. Even if the idea of sharing moral orders and social imaginary might be effective for explaining the activities of some independent groups (as Kelty demonstrated), it becomes questionable when referring to groups that practice negation, appropriation and cooptation of their very own values as a form of art. When the act of disruption becomes art, it reveals the weakness of a mono-dimensional opposition as socio-political resistance. And, at the same time, it might open the path for more invasive and effective interventions in the field of art and politics.
The rebel:art festival in Berlin brought together underground activists and artists, apparently connected together under the notion of “rebel art” and the topics of culture jamming, hacktivism, media art and urban interventions. Among them, Alexander Brener and Barbara Schurz were giving a lecture, “Texte gegen die Kunst”, under the heading “Demolish Serious Culture”, also the title of one of their books.
Alexander Brener, originally from Kazakhstan, but internationally known as a Russian performance artist, become popular in the art field for the act of defecating in front of a painting by Vincent Van Gogh at the Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow and for drawing a green dollar sign on Kazimir Malevich’s painting Suprematisme, for which he was jailed in 1997. His radical writings and actions, often created in collaboration with Austrian activist and researcher Barbara Schurz, have inspired many subcultures, from Neoism to NSK. Proposing the concept of technologies of resistance, then reformulated into anti-technologies of resistance in 2000, Brener and Schurz claimed a radical critique of the art world and of capitalism, through “familiar and traditional methods of political struggle and cultural resistance, as well as individual ‘transgressive’ techniques”.
Such techniques of resistance are what they proposed in Berlin in the Club der polnischen Versager performing their poem “Texte gegen die Kunst”. Denouncing the compromise of the rebel art festival with the art system, they started asking for the director of the festival, holding a basket full with eggs. Actually, the rebel art festival was a small underground event, managed by only one person, Alain Bieber from rebelart.net, with the support of all of us, contributing with our networks and ideas. The presenters were basically the main public of the festival, a “geek recursive public”, apparently sharing the same “moral order” of activists, hackers and independent artists, which in our mind also included Brener and Schurz. In their view, however, we were just part of the art system. While Bieber was running away after receiving threats from Brener, a member of the audience suddenly stood up, claiming to be the director of the festival. Brener and Schurz’s response was an egg in his face, met in turn by screams from the audience and demands for them to leave. Brener and Schurz now stood there visibly surprised and embarrassed, slowly realizing having been fooled by an imposter, who explained his actions simply: “Because I am Monty Cantsin and I love you”.
Disruptive Actions Between Art and Business
It is not a case that such an artistic act of disruption came from Monty Cantsin, the open-pop star of the Neoist network, Neoism being “a parodistic –ism”; a subculture that constantly negates itself and whose definition is constantly disputed – this constant disputation being still another side of the Neoist art practice. “The best product of Neoism is anti-Neoism” is the favored aphorism of the Neoists, a detournement of a famous saying by Amadeo Bordiga (WuMing1, from December 1999). This self-negation and a/moral disruption of dis/orders is also a mirror of a multi-dimensional approach that might be considered an inspiration to reflect on contemporary forms of socio-political criticism.
Today, the increasing commercialization of contexts of networking, and the co-optation of cultural instances of 1990s hacker culture by proprietary platforms (from openness to do-it-yourself), shows the ability of business to adopt and invade “moral orders” which were once proper of their opponents. Napster was one of the first examples of this. Similarly but with a different purpose, the Monty Cantsin disruption of the Brener and Schurz intervention in Berlin, might be seen as the example of an a/moral reaction to the notion of resistance as a whole, corrupting the mechanism from within, showing the crisis of encompassing political intents and strategies. Monty Cantsin demonstrated that the challenge lives in the encounter with the symbolic dissolutions of powers.
A path to follow today is to deconstruct power structures in the digital economy. Analyzing artistic practices in the time of social media implies to acknowledge the strategy of being constructive and destructive at the same time. Innovation becomes possible by disruption and disruption becomes critical when it is transformed into an art form. The point of departure is to apply the concept of disruptive innovation in the art field, and at the same time to open up a critical perspective to business. To reach this objective, it is necessary to analyze the marketplace adopting a “hacker perspective” trying to understand how the market works after de-assembling its strategies and mechanisms of production. This is the challenge for artists and activists who want to deal with networking in the configuration it has taken today, ruled by corporate models of profit. Not clashing against them, but developing within them, while challenging them critically – and ironically.
Alexander Brener, B. S. “Anti Technologies of Resistance”. In EuroArt Web Magazine. 13, Fall 2010. <http://euroartmagazine.com/new/?issue=20&page=1&content=54>.
Kelty, Christopher. M. Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2008. Print.
rebel:art festival, 2004. <http://www.rebelart.net/f001-02.html>.
WuMing1. “Flesh and Blood, One Person After Another: Muddled Reflections In Articulo Mortis on the L****** B******** Project and on Neoism”. December, 1999. <http://www.wumingfoundation.com/english/g_digest0.html>.