Mayan Technology, Hacktivist Performance: the Electronic Disturbance Theatre
By Jill Lane
A performer takes center stage in an unlikely theatre. He is dressed in black, and wears a Zapatista ski mask, emblazoned with the letters EZLN, which stand for the Ejercito Zapatista de Liberación Nacional or the Zapatista Army for National Liberation. As with other Zapatista soldiers, the mask is a mark of an insistent, politicized presence, as well as a sign of the neglected anonymity to which the indigenous peoples of Mexico’s Chiapas region have been long subject. If, however, we have become accustomed to media images of resolute, bullet-belted Zapatistas surrounded by the harsh landscapes of highland Chiapas, this particular Zapatista may come as a surprise: he stands before an electronic switchboard, DJ-style, producing a range of discordance ambient electronic sounds. These provide an alternate, but evocative, soundtrack to the projection at stage left of Jean Luc Godard’s 1965 classic science fiction thriller, Alphaville, an early portrait of technological dystopia where the liberating potential of technology instead provides a context for fascistic regulation of all human pleasure. A parallel screen to the right projects images of Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos, delivering a communiqué. Completing this unusual technoir performance, we find another actor, upper stage center, on a platform, reading a rather grave narrative about contemporary information warfare, netwar, and the new techno-military-industrial-entertainment complex.
There are many reasons why this performance is remarkable. Not least, that you had to be invited by the leading National Security Administration expert on “Information Warfare” in order to see it. This 90-minute performance took place in a conference hall near the Pentagon on the ninth of September, 1999, for an audience of military top brass, top level law enforcement, and corporate leaders in the information and security industries. I imagine it is quite rare that the NSA takes an active interest in new trends in political performance art. But such was the situation when Ricardo Dominguez and Stephan Wray, self-styled “digital Zapatistas,” were asked to demonstrate the work of their company, the Electronic Disturbance Theatre (or EDT), at a high profile conference on InfoWar. EDT’s successful attempts to stage electronic civil disobedience on the internet—a hybrid theatrical form they call network.art.activism—had earned the interest of the Pentagon.
In the middle of this performance, the masked Zapatista—Ricardo Dominguez—suddenly interrupted his compatriot’s lecture, left his switchboard, and ran out into the audience of corporate and military suits. “Todos a la conjunta! “Todos a la conjunta!” he called, loudly, adopting the voice of a young Tojolabal boy, Pedrito, apparently rallying all the townsfolk to a conjunta, or local assembly. Dominguez thus began a story, one originally told by Subcomandante Marcos himself, which Dominguez calls, simply, “Mayan storytelling.” This storytelling offers an effective mode of contesting the usual language we have to discuss technology and social change, with its over-saturation with discourses of rationality and enlightenment progress.
“The village is in assembly when a military airplane from the Army Rainbow Task Force and a helicopter from the Mexican Air Force, begin a series of low flights overhead. The assembly does not stop; instead those speaking merely raise their voices. Pedrito is fed up with the menacing aircraft, and he goes, fiercely, in search of a stick inside his hut. Pedrito returns with a piece of wood, and declares: ‘I'm going to hit the airplane; it's bothering me.’ When the plane passes over Pedrito, he raises the stick and waves it furiously at the warplane. The plane then changes its course and leaves. Pedrito says ‘There now.’
We slowly move towards the stick that Pedrito left behind, and we pick it up carefully. Trying to remember what Pedrito did, I swing at the air with the stick. Suddenly the helicopter turned into a useless tin vulture, the sky became golden, and the clouds floated by like marzipan.
‘But it's a stick’ I say.
‘Yes’ says the Sea. ‘It is Mayan technology.’”1
The Zapatista masker returns to his electronic switchboard, and the actor lecturing continues his talk. The performance continued through this play of layered contrasts and juxtaposition. Mayan storytelling sits in counterpoint with the learned lecture, just as Alphaville contrasts with the world of present-day Chiapas. Thus the technofascism of Alphaville, where the supercomputer Alpha 60, records and analyzes all social behavior according to the laws of reason in order to “eliminate” those whose illogical or “incomprehensibe acts”—such as weeping or writing poetry—make them unfit for Alphaville’s efficient future, is contrasted with the possibilities of mass cybe-rsurveillance in the present day. Similarly, the outlaw hero of Alphaville, Lemmy Caution, is contrasted with the insurgent Marcos: Subcomandante Marcos, himself a poet-insurgent whose political communiqués more often resemble lyrical prose, faces down techno-military complex of the First World with in the name of human dignity; in turn, Lemmy Caution, sent from the “Outerlands” to “save those who weep,” outwits the fascist technocracy with the strategic ambiguity of poetry. In both cases, poetry, like Pedrito’s “Mayan technology” defies the rationalized discourse on which centralized state-control depends.2
In his important 1991 essay, “Hacking Away at the Counter-Culture,” Andrew Ross suggests that we should not limit our understanding of technology to hardware or sophisticated electronic objects; rather, given the absolutely routine mediation of experience through a wide range of electronic hardware, technology should be understood as “a lived, interpretative practice for people in their everyday lives.”3 Technology is not the hardware; rather it is the density of social relations that hardware implies, enables, or disguises. Critic Anne Balsamo similarly suggests that the term “cyberspace” is a description of “the space of the disembodied social in a hypertechnological informational society.” Like Ross, Balsamo questions the supposed division between physical embodiment and virtual experience. Balsamo notes that enhanced visualization technologies—from ultrasound to miniature cameras used in surgery—challenge the assumed boundaries of the material body. These technologies blur traditional boundaries between bodily interior and exterior, depth and surface, and organic aura from mediated projection. In an insight particularly relevant to studies of performance, Balsamo argues that embodiment is itself an effect of the processes by which bodies are imagined and constituted. If embodiment is an effect, we can, she writes, “begin to ask questions about how the body is staged differently in different environments.”4 Following her lead, we can examine cyberspace as an increasingly important environment in which bodies are now routinely staged.
I will suggest that the Electronic Disturbance Theatre represents an important new direction for exploring embodiment in virtual space. Many performance artists have recently attempted to bridge or cross the divide between bodies and technological régimes—from the video-broadcast cosmetic surgery performances of the French artist Orlan to the cybernetic experiments of the Australian body artist Stelarc. In these experiments we find the representation of what we might call the “mimetic cyborg,” where the interface between the body and the machine is imagined as literal: the performers’ body is rather literally plugged into or manipulated by the circuits of the machine. Further, in these experiments the “problem” of the body’s relationship to technology is always staged in relation to individuated bodies: the cyborg is staged as a single body produced in and through larger discursive networks of technology or information flow.5 Electronic Disturbance Theatre stands in contrast (although not necessarily in opposition) to these mimetic cyborgs. Their work in electronic civil disobedience explores the relationship of cyberspace to forms of collective—rather than individual—embodiment and social practice. This paper will suggest that in so doing, their work represents an important new direction for contemporary theatre activism, in particular for imagining materialist performance in cyberspace.
2 Electronic Civil Disobedience
“Civil disobedience is not what it used to be,” or so claimed Ricardo Dominguez as a member of the acclaimed Critical Art Ensemble (CAE), in their important text on electronic civil disobedience, The Electronic Disturbance.6. In an analysis of the contemporary representation of power, CAE claims that subversive or oppositional art is obsolete in our new times. Globalization—as we know—has been marked by ever more complex, asymmetrical transnational flows of capital, goods, labor, information, and peoples; marked by the corrosion and de-centering of previously stable categories of national-ethnic identities in the West.7 In this context, CAE reverse the familiar Deluzian figuration which sees the nomad as the site of the Other, and instead insist that it is now power which is nomadic, rendering our social condition “liquescent.” The only viable avenue for oppositional practice is to produce calculated “disturbance” in the rhizomatic, “liquid” networks of power itself. This critique resonates with Zygmunt Bauman’s understanding of our present state of “liquid modernity,” in his book of that title (2000) and Arjun Appadurai’s notion that current cultural flows happen in the shifting disjunctures between fluid social landscapes—part material, part imagined—of technology, media, ethnicity, ideology and finance.8 For CAE, elite power has abandoned territorial bases and their former “architectural monuments of power”—the courthouse, the statehouse, even the street, and perhaps the theatre. These are now merely hollow “bunkers,” fit for the “complicit and those who acquiesce.” The new geography, they say “is the new a virtual geography, and the core of political and cultural resistance must assert itself in this electronic space.”9
The implications of these critiques for activist theatre are many. For Critical Art Ensemble, the cultural work of traditional theatre is anachronistic—“dead on arrival.” Efforts to reclaim the theatre, or the street, as art/activist stages are in their view nostalgic performances, recalling a past “when the performative matrix was centered in everyday life, and focused on organic players.” CAE reminds us that the representation of self as data is not only routine—educational, medical, spending, tax and voter information stored in databases all extend the representation of self into virtual realms—but indeed this “data body” now routinely carries more social authority and consequence than the presence of organic bodies themselves; we need only imagine an error in our credit rating, or the loss of a passport abroad, to illustrate the ways our public or social identity bears almost no relation to the “facts” or assertions of our physical embodiment. (Stelarc reiterates this notion in slightly different terms: “Technologies are becoming better life-support systems for our images than for our bodies.”10) CAE has developed what they call “Recombinant Theatre,” a practice which works in dynamic relation between the organic and virtual, moving in the various electronic networks where elite power actually resides.11
In this way, Critical Art Ensemble advocated the kind of electronic political conscience described by Andrew Ross in 1991. Ross argued that the 1960s counter culture formed itself around the “technologies of folklore”: an “expressive congeries of pre-industrialist, agrarianist, Orientalist, and anti-technological ideas, values, and social structures” (258). By contrast, the 90s cybernetic counter culture would, he suggested, be formed around the folklore of technology: “…feats of survivalism and resistance in a data-rich world of virtual environments and post-human bodies.” (258). The new cyberactivists could offer a font of “guerrilla know-how, […] maintaining fronts of cultural resistance and stocks of oppositional knowledge as a hedge against a technofascist future.”
When Ricardo Dominguez left Critical Art Ensemble in the mid-90s to begin a lengthy training in New York City in what were then relatively new and rapidly expanding internet technologies, he sought to extend this theoretical guerrilla know-how into a more concrete practice. Born in Las Vegas to Mexican parents, and originally trained as a theatre actor, Dominguez situated himself in the tradition of materialist critique through theatre which included Bertolt Brecht, the Marxist Brazilian director Augusto Boal, and the Teatro Campesino’s agit prop theatre in support of Cesar Chávez and United Farm Workers Union strike in California in 1962. Dominguez sought to translate these social aesthetics onto a digital stage. While these figures were inspirations, it was the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas, Mexico, which ultimately provided the impetus for the formation of the Electronic Distrubance Theatre, which Dominguez founded with collaborators Stephan Wray, Carmin Karasic, and Brett Stalbaum in early 1998. The practices of EDT—which they call “hacktivism”—not only support and extend the cause of the Zapatistas, but can be seen as an effort to reconcile CAE’s theory of electronic civil disobedience with the challenges posed to such a theory by the Zapatista uprising itself.
The Zapatista rebellion—staged in the early hours of January 1, 1994 on the day NAFTA went into effect—both engaged and challenged these critiques of “subversive” or “revolutionary” activism. On the one hand, the movement revitalized abandoned notions of “traditional” civil disobedience and uprising on behalf of indigenous peoples; the long Zapatista March to the seat of government in Mexico City in January of 2001 demonstrates the continued support and impact these “traditional” tactics continue to have. Further, the particularly theatrical character of their actions, particularly those of their leader, Subcomandante Marcos, earned him the name “subcomandante of performance” by artist Guillermo Gómez Peña. “The war was carried on as if it were a performance,” wrote Peña, “Most of the Zapatistas, indigenous men, women and children, wore pasamontañas [black ski masks]. Some utilized wooden rifles as mere props.” Wearing a “collage of 20th century revolutionary symbols, costumes and props borrowed from Zapata, Sandino, Che, and Arafat”—Marcos became “the latest popular hero in a noble tradition of activists which includes Superbarrio, Fray Tormenta (the wrestler priest), and Super-Ecologista, all self-proclaimed ‘social wrestlers’ who have utilized performance and media strategies to enter in the political ‘wrestling arena’ of contemporary Mexico.”12.
While the Zapatistas thus made tactical use of embodied—and theatricalized—presence, the movement also took advantage from the beginning of the internet as a means to build a global grass-roots support network. Dominguez describes this “digital zapatismo” as a “polyspatial movement for a radical democracy based on Mayan legacies of dialogue [that] ripped into the electronic fabric not as InfoWar—but as virtual actions for real peace in the real communities of Chiapas.”13 Within a week of the first uprising, a massive international network of information and support was created through the most basic digital means: email distribution and webpages; witness the extraordinary internet site, “Zapatistas in Cyberspace,” to grasp the scope of that network.14 That network, according to Dominguez, routed around dominant media filters and acted as a kind of protective force field around the Zapatistas, who surely would have been subjected to a far more repressive military response without this international presence.15 The radical disjunctures between the sophisticated presence of the Zapatistas on the internet, at the same time that Chiapas has had none of the requisite infrastructure—in most cases, not even electricity—earned the movement its reputation as the “first postmodern revolution.”16 Their effective cyberrevolution is, surely, the realworld equivalent of Pedrito’s “Mayan technology.” Thus the Zapatista’s own recombinant theatre of operations meshed virtual and embodied practices in a struggle for real material change and social well being in Chiapas.
3: Social poetics, social bodies
The story of Pedrito’s Mayan technology is a rich metaphor—indeed an inspiration—for the work of Electronic Disturbance Theatre. Already involved in promoting the Zapatistas’ cause on the electronic global stage, the artists that formed the Electronic Disturbance Theatre were radicalized by the Acteal massacres in 1997 that left 45 indigenous civilians dead. The first action that emerged to protest the killings and honor the dead was EDT’s creation of Zapatista Floodnet. FloodNet was a programmed applet on the EDT website which directed the internet browsers of participants to targeted servers at the same time, and “flooded” those servers with automatic “reload” requests. FloodNet’s effects are double: part virtual “sit-in” and part interactive conceptual performance art.
As virtual sit-in, Floodnet targets symbolically important websites—in 1998, the website of then-President Zedillo in Mexico; later the US Defense Department, among others—and allows hundreds, thousands, of participants to stage a public, albeit virtual, action of protest. Hitting “reload” or “refresh” is the basic, public—entirely legal—manner in which any user requests updated access to a webpage—analogous to knocking on the front door of a public building. If one person hits the reload icon every 3 seconds on the same website, it has no more effect that one person knocking at that door. However, if 1,000—or, as was the case with Floodnet 10,000 (and later 18,000)—people reload a page every 3 seconds, then it resembles having 18,000 people congregate at a public site to make themselves heard. Unlike computer hacking or cracking, and very much like traditional civil disobedience, Floodnet uses a public space to create a politicized action: as more people enter, FloodNet reloads not only more times, but more quickly. Its goals are social and symbolic: no data is destroyed, no webpage altered, most high capacity servers won’t even crash—but, just like the daily routines and traffic near a large street demonstration, the usual operation of the system will be less functional, slowed, and possibly overwhelmed by the gathered public. Thus, EDT creates a site for mass participation in electronic disturbance, a “performance of presence [… ] in solidarity with the Zapatistas.” Dominguez adds, “this disturbance points to the nature of what public space means and who is allowed to be present in the public space of the Internet.”17
Thus, FloodNet’s goal is less oriented toward actual disruption of the site, and instead frames an aesthetic intervention in the fluid operation of the rationalized social organization that the electronic medium presumes. Floodnet moves from sit-in to a kind of abstract theatre or conceptual performance art with several of the innovations programmed into it. For the duration of the flood (or better, the performance), the automatic reload requests compel the targeted sites to produce—to perform—a kind of electronic social revelation. In one iteration, the Floodnet repeatedly requested nonexistent pages, with such names as “justice” or “human rights” from the Mexican government site; this compelled the server to produce a steady, flashing stream of “404 error-reply” messages stating: “justice not found on this site” and “human_rights not found on this site.” In another iteration, FloodNet filled the site’s access log with the names of people killed by Mexican government troops at Acteal, in an effort to create an online memorial to the dead. Writes Stephan Wray, “FloodNet was conceptual internet art of becoming” because “it required the participation of thousands of online participants to become fully actualized.”18 Far more than mere cyber-graffiti, Floodnet enabled 10,000 calls for the dead— “Ana Hernandez is not found on this site”—to be embedded into the digital memory of the information center of their military assassins, compelling the site itself to register symbolically its complicity with their disappearance.
Unintentionally or no, the response of the State becomes part of the extended electronic performance. Here the disturbance becomes a kind of mirror, forcing power—which had been invisible, naturalized behind the rationalized workings of “new technology”—to reveal itself. Such was the case in September 1998, when the Department of Defense attacked the Floodnet server directly with what they called a “hostile-applet,” which—unlike Floodnet—actually did aggressively and intentionally crash the EDT server. This was, apparently one of the only instances of the military directly attacking civilian property—the electronic equivalent of the military deciding to drop a B-52 on a local street demonstration, and is, needless to say, illegal. Indeed it was precisely the questions raised about what constitutes civilian or national space in cyberspace raised by this incident that prompted NSA to invite Dominguez and Wray to “perform” for them a year later. Dominguez and Wray took the opportunity to make their case that electronic civil disobedience must be distinguished from the grossly drawn notions of cyberterrorism that had motivated the Defense Department’s attack.
Thus while the NSA and Hollywood spend ample time imagining elaborate paranoid plots of high-tech information war as threats to security, Floodnet uses a simple, transparent act to make known that impressive communal social protest can be made and registered on the internet through the simplest of actions: click, “reload.” “Like Pedrito’s stick,” says Dominguez, “gestures can be very simple and yet create deep changes in the structures of command and control societies that neo-liberalist agendas, like NAFTA, represent.” EDT’s subsequent software tools, Swarm in 1998 and the Zapatista Tribal Port Scan in 2000, follow the same principle: they use the basic technological means of public access in order to contest and reveal the commercial and surveillance logics on which such access is usually predicated.
Dominguez has connected this seemingly “poor” and “non-mimetic” social aesthetic to magical realism. Departing from those “who see the internet as a site of a class-less, race-less, gender-less utopian future, and also from those who see the internet as an apocalyptic site of overwhelming hegemonic control by a techno-elite,” Dominguez sees his metaphorical “Mayan technology” as a sign for a third—of fifth or seventh, he says—approach. Magical realism is a social poetics of scarcity, which cannot constitute itself through rational mimetic forms because the reality it would describe is inherently distorted by historic asymmetries of power and abuse. The term, we might recall, was originally proposed as an alternative not only to bourgeois realism, but as an alterative materialist aesthetic from that proposed by the equally rationalized mimesis of socialist realism. As Dominguez says, the peoples of Chiapas, where constant low intensity warfare meant that any simple trip to the well might be your last, “knew that sometimes a story or a poetic gesture might get you around danger—more so than carrying an M-16”; thus the Zapatistas “use the politics of magical realism to create spaces of invention, intervention.” 19
Invoking magical realism is especially apt here, as it illuminates new possibilities of what kind of body an electronic magical realism could create, that might usefully contrast with the rationalized disembodied technological gaze of most virtual reality representations today. For Electronic Disturbance Theatre, the process of embodiment enabled by the internet is collective, created through mass participation. Back in Alphaville, Lemmy Caution overloads Alpha 60’s networks with poetic ambiguity to which he hopes the computer may someday be reconciled, and thus become “his equal, his brother.”20 In Chiapas, Subcomandante Marcos issues communiqués to hostile systems of the state, proposing to wage a resistant peace to create “a world that makes all worlds possible.” EDT, in their turn, stage a participatory social poetry in the very data logs and rationalized code of what they call the “Informatic State.”
Conclusion: the electronic lettered city
In his posthumously published work, La Ciudad Letrada or the Lettered City, Latin American social critic Angel Rama analyzes the legacy of Spanish colonialism in the rationalized urban spaces and bureaucracies of Latin America. Spanish colonialism took shape, he argues, at the nexus of carefully planned baroque cities and their lettered counterparts—discursive cities, lettered cities—maintained by armies of literate bureaucrats (letrados) across the continent, for whom writing always equaled access to power. Just as state, church and civil society were mapped on a hierarchical grid of urban space, so social hierarchies were carefully maintained in the rigid order colonial administration, an order inscribed in a lettered culture that kept the letrados always patronizingly above and in certain control of the non-lettered populace.
Today we can imagine a different “lettered” social space: an expansive transnational network of servers, monitors, and machines, run by our new electronic letrados, organized—in Ross’s terms—a “caste hierarchy of systems analysts, designers, programmers, and operators followed by a range of high tech workers.”21 (261). The colonial lettered city survived the transition to independence intact, explaining why, generations later, the Zapatistas are still waging their anticolonial struggle in highland Chiapas. The new electronic lettered city—a cybernetic Alphaville—is perhaps the heir of to its colonial predecessors. Extending the magical realism of Zapatista “Mayan technology,” EDT insists that we must struggle to make and claim public space in the rationalized social grid proposed by our new letrados. To do so, we can act through a newly social embodiment, that is now as transnational and contingent as the social order it contests.
After the performance for the National Security Administration, a student from the War College, rushed to ask Dominguez and Wray, “So does Subcomandante Marcos give you orders?”
Dominguez replied: “He tells stories.”
Wide-eyed, the student asked, “Are they in code?”
Said Dominguez, “Oh yes, they are poetry.”
1 Dominguez tells this story frequently in his presentations. Because his storytelling at the NSA was not documented, the iteration told above is excerpted from one telling in Coco Fusco, “Performance Art in a Digital Age: A Conversation with Ricardo Dominguez,” unpublished interview, 25 November 1999, Institute of International Visual Arts.
2 My knowledge of the NSA performance is drawn from a personal telephone conversation with Ricardo Dominguez, 12 December 2001; as well as from Electronic Disturbance Theatre’s “NSA Performance,” unpublished performance text (performed by Stephan Wray), dated 9 September 1999. My discussion of Alphaville is drawn from the film, Alphaville, dir. Jean-Luc Godard, Chaumaine-Filmstudio production, 1965; and from Jean-Luc Godard, Alphaville, trans. Peter Whitehead (London: Lorrimer Publishing Incorporated, 1972). Note that the screenings also included portions of other short “hacker” films as well, and were not exclusively centered on Alphaville.
3 Andrew Ross, “Hacking Away at the Counter -culture,”  in The Cybercultures Reader, Ed. David Bell and Barbara M. Kennedy (London: Routledge, 2000) 266.
4 Anne Balsamo, “The Virtual Body in Cyberspace,” in The Cybercultures Reader, Ed. David Bell and Barbara M. Kennedy (London: Routledge, 2000) 497.
5 On Orlan, see, among many sources, Tanya Augsburg, “Orlan's Performative Transformations of Subjectivity,” in The Ends of Performance, ed. Peggy Phelan and Jill Lane (New York: New York University Press, 1998) 285–314. On Stelarc, see his extensive website, “Stelarc,” at http://www.stelarc.va.com.au/. 12 February 2002.
6 Critical Art Ensemble, The Electronic Disturbance, Autonomedia, 1994. Available at http://www.critical-art.net.
7 See Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996); May Joseph, Nomadic Identities: The Performance of Citizenship (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).
8 Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid modernity (Cambridge: Polity Press; Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000); Appadurai, Modernity at Large.
9 Critical Art Ensemble, The Electronic Disturbance – Digital Resistance --XXX
10 Stelarc, “Phantom Body,” at http://www.stelarc.va.com.au/phantbod/phantbod.html. 22 February 2002.
11 See Rebecca Schneider “
12 Guillermo Gómez Peña, “The Subcomandante of Performance,” in First World, Ha Ha Ha! The Zapatista Challenge, ed. Elaine Katzenberger (San Francisco: City Lights, 1995) 90–91.
13 Ricardo Dominguez, “Digital Zapatismo” XXX
14 The site can be found at http://www.eco.utexas.edu/faculty/Cleaver/zapsincyber.html. 22 February 2002.