Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Zapatistas and Electronic Disturbance Theater

The Background

On January 1, 1994 as NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) came into effect, the EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation—Ej√©rcito Zapatista de Liberaci√≥n Nacional), a revolutionary group based in Chiapas, MX, reformed as a revolutionary movement. Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico, is one of Mexico’s richest states yet it suffers from a massive array of inequality and poverty. January 1, 1994, people have declared a war against the Mexican state. In declared opposition to the Mexican government, the EZLN believe that their wishes, needs, and desires of the (largely indigenous) Zapatistas and the supporting communities. They released their declaration of war and issued a First Declaration from the Lacandon Jungle. The Zapatistas gained power from the lack thereof. It would be impossible for them to defeat the Mexican (and US) army directly in armed conflict, so they attacked their oppressors with public democratic activity…and art. Resorting to the internet, the self-proclaimed libertarians have used nonviolent avenues like the internet to spread their messages.

A New Experimentation with Civil Disobedience

Ricardo Dominguez, a current professor of electronic civil disobedience at University of California-San Diego (UCSD), partnered with the Zapatistas in 1994 to “[develop] an intercontinental network of struggle and resistance.” (Dominguez) Dominguez along with others in 1998 co-founded the Electronic Disturbance Theater (EDT). The EDT is composed of “a group of four net.artists and net.activists engaged in developing the theory and practice of Electronic Civil Disobedience.” At this time, EDT pushed for new experimentation with electronic civil disobedience actions aimed mostly at the Mexican government. EDT drew attention to the world through usage of the internet to show the war waged against the Zapatistas and others in Mexico. Since 1998, the Electronic Disturbance Theater has been working at the intersections of radical politics, recombinant activism, performance art, and software design.

In a lecture given by Stefan Wray on Electronic Civil Disobedience and the World Wide Web of Hacktivism, before 1998, Electronic Civil Disobedience remained in a large part a theory, a concept. However, after the Acteal Massacre of 1997 in Chiapas, a shift occurred into a more crossbreed position viewing the Internet infrastructure as both a means for communication and a site for direct action.


EDT produced Electronic Civil Disobedient software called FloodNet, created by co-foundersCarmin Karasic and Brett Stalbaum. FloodNet is a java applet that is the code equivalent of going to the target website and constantly clicking the reload button. Stalbaum discusses FloodNet on the ECD website. FloodNet functions by reloading a targeted web page several times per minute which “disturbs” the webpages. It is also used to function for the conceptual-artistic spamming of targeted server error logs. FloodNet performs automatic reloads of the targeted server and encourages interaction of the individual protestors. Voicing political concerns and the uniting of Netsurfers allows FloodNet to post a public call for participation in a tactical strike.

FloodNet has been the source of virtual sit-ins practiced by EDT members and participants all over cyberspace. The FloodNet software allowed EDT to invite participation to artists, digerati, and political activists in order to make a “symbolic gesture” in support of the Mexican Zapatistas (Wray).

The Electronic Disturbance Theater uses art and other forms of media to politically take a stand and promote electronic civil disobedience. FloodNet is an example of that empowers people through activist/artistic expression. They look for unique ways to send their messages across the servers. For example, activists will select a phrase such as “human_rights” and using the “bad” url, the FloodNet software is able to upload messages to server error logs by intentionally asking for a non-existent url, causing the server to return a message like “human_rights not found on this server.” This imitates the way many http servers process requests for web pages that do not exist. In Stalbaum’s article, this concept of using FloodNet has been practiced during the Zapatista battle for equality and proper treatment by the Mexican government. On June 10 activists protested when the names of the Zapatista farmers killed by the Mexican Army in military attacks on the autonomous village of El Bosque were used in the construction of the “bad” urls. Using art as an asset of FloodNet and the EDT, this was a way of remembering and honoring those who gave their lives defending freedom. FloodNet’s performance “symbolically” returned the dead to the servers of those responsible for their murders.

Stalbaum describes the philosophy of FloodNet in its relation to the Mexican Zapatistas:

The Zaps FloodNet represents just such a collective weapon of presence. Designed as a collectively actuated weapon, inverting the logic of wide open propaganda pipes by flooding network connections with millions of hits from widely distributed, fully participatory nodes, the FloodNet enables a performance of presence which says to Mexico (and its close ally the United States): "We are numerous, alert, and watching carefully." After the initial design, the roles played by communications artists are best described as only the initial low-dimensional attractors upon which the critical tertiary projection of similarity in the dynamic net-system of cybernetics is articulated. This is not only evident in user participation with the FloodNet performances, but in other similarly directed mass actions. Instead of the return of the Renaissance artist/engineer or the sedentary seclusion of the fortress, we seek instead the self-organization of human-machinic networks of good conscious, visibility, and presence.

Electronic Civil Disobedience

This form of non-violent civil disobedience borrows the tactics of trespass and blockade from earlier social movements such as Gandhi’s Satyagraha, protests against the Vietnam War (post link) and Martin Luther King’s public and non-violent sit-ins. Utilizing the internet takes the typical concept of civil disobedience, people physically blockading official entranceways or physically occupying oppenent’s offices and transforms it. An ECD actor can participate in virtual blockades and sit-ins from home, work, university, or any other place where there is internet access. Eliminating travel time from a three hour plane ride to Washington D.C., to seconds and mouseclicks away from delivering the same unified message of protest.

1 comment:

  1. the "human rights not found on this server" was an excellent find, and makes a super post - all of this was really interesting to me. Myabe you could even use some images to make it concrete, since it takes a lot of words to really describe it - like find an actual screenshot of the "human rights not found on this server."