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Ricardo Dominguez

interview transcript

Date of Interview: Jan 01, 2011
Location: USA
Topic: Interview with Ricardo Dominguez
Interviewer: Mathew Schum

LatinArt:  January 1st, 1994: The Zapatistas mount an armed revolt to coincide with the inauguration of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), immediately linking the plight of indigenous groups in Chiapas to the supposed goodwill of a new phase global economic expansion. A crisis ensued threatening the collapse of the Mexican economy, eventually costing the Clinton Administration an international humiliation- to the tune of a $50 billion bailout. From the Lacandon Jungle emerged one of the most significant challenges to an aligning global regime. Looking back, it seems one of the most ’global’ moments in the anti-globalization movement that came to define the latter part of the 1990s, to the extent that it showed how a local movement could make a huge impact from the most provisional of local circumstances. Obviously a leftist movement, its ideology was nonetheless founded largely in its tactical means, by utilizing tools such as the Web for the distribution of its grievances and communiqués. Below the radar an international community was built on tactical savvy as much as subversive sentiment. Considering you were a collaborator from the beginning, how does the Zapatista movement remain influential over a decade later?

Ricardo Dominguez:  It continues to be a highly influential gesture on just about any level that I’ve been involved with, from the emergence of the alternative globalization movement, indy media, Electronic Disturbance Theater. Any new modalities of resistance that have emerged in this last decade have always basically anchored themselves in the power of the Zapatista gesture because they are the ones who named the gesture, they’re the ones who actually called NAFTA the product of neoliberalism. They’re very specific in naming the condition upon which the Fourth World War is based; it is one that continues along the same parameters as the last 500 years of resistance. With the Zapatistas it’s an anchor to a deep history of resistance and a deep contestation against the new parameters of neoliberalism and what we now call globalization. Whether it’s January 1st, 1994 - the New York Times says it’s the first postmodern revolution, Manuel Castels said it is about the first informatic warriors-, for the Pentagon the first hactivist (cybernetic activist) happens in 1994 - the Zapatistas. So this "matrix" emerges in a very clear way.

The other thing the Zapatistas bring to the foreground is the issue of legitimating a vision of another world being possible. One thing one often finds in dialogues in or outside of the art world, is that there is no outside of capital, in the same way that Derrida would say that there is no outside of the text. Well, the Zapatistas declared that there are sites that capital does not subsume. There are sites that bring to the foreground another possibility outside of the Bermuda Triangle of neoliberalism, if you will. And they have been very clear in the way that these tactics are to be developed and the strategies of these systems. Those echoes, very clear marks on a tactical and strategic level, influenced a wide variety of groups - South Korea, Australia; I was in Poland a couple of years ago and there were Zapatistas in Krakow, in Warsaw, in Russia. So there are these networks that emerged that night, after midnight, that are not only embodied in the digital Zapatista movement, but have embodied themselves as social groups, social ethics, and, more importantly, a social hope.

And as the Zapatistas very clearly put forth it’s not a hope based on a utopia, that is, it’s the Zapatista Sublime. It’s trying to imagine a future you cannot imagine, but that you can say, "it’s a future that’s not subsumed by capital."

LatinArt:  Does the international movement ever eclipse what’s going on at the local level in Chiapas?

Ricardo Dominguez:  No, I don’t think so. There is a constant gaze toward Chiapas from many different groups because the Zapatistas are creating an alter-global pedagogy. A pedagogy that allows us to not just reconsider the situation, but activate in a decisive manner a condition. I don’t see it altering Chiapas as an influential node in the wider networks of disturbance-resistance-contestation - and those that have a sense that another world is possible which can exist outside of the subsumption of capital.

LatinArt:  Do you agree with those that say the Zapatista movement is dead?

Ricardo Dominguez:  One of the articulations of theory that played itself out in the seventies and eighties was that everything was dead. The author is dead, theory is dead: the basic idea was that if it is named, if it is manifested, it is dead. I think there is an inherent nihilism in the conditions upon which this sort of knowledge is developed. If it were dead, then there wouldn’t be the continual involvement of social groups, say the Zapatour of 2001. Right now the other campaign it’s playing itself out. The Zapatistas are starting to travel throughout Mexico starting on January first [2006], in order to integrate the nonaligned left and create another movement called "The Other Campaign." This campaign is based on two core issues that the Zapatistas bring to the foreground, silence and listening. Most Zapatistas aren’t going to speak, but they’re going to listen to the nonaligned left and then see what occurs.

Another element, for instance: when the Zapatistas first emerged as an electronic force field they did not have machines. There were no computers, there was no electricity; there were no telephone lines. But now we do have networks there. You can listen to [sic], and listen to EZLN radio every morning, created by the Zapatista community. The autonomous zones continue, the armies have not gone in there and eliminated everybody. The resistance continues, but it continues by inventing new possibilities by which that society declares its voice.

The Zapatista movement isn’t bound to the Twentieth Century tragedy of Latin American Resistance, which is one of arming, resisting, and dying in the literal way. They have refused to move in that direction since the first twelve days of action. I have the book Hactivism and Cyberwar, and I would say half of it is on the Zapatistas. I have books that have come out just recently. Subcommandante Marcos wrote a mystery novel and raised over eight hundred thousand dollars for the Zapatista community. During the hurricane [Katrina] they were willing to send food, to Cuba and other places. What is gone is the originating ’94 to ’96 emergence, rather than the lived reality, which is to, as the Zapatistas say, resist for another five hundred years. Often because of the chronological history that we have, that is, our need for speed, even in the spaces of knowledge, if utopia isn’t achieved in the next click it’s over with. The Zapatistas are much more inculcated in the history of strategy, which is long term. If you look at the history of the civil rights movement, every president from Eisenhower to Nixon said, "This movement is dead, it’s over with. They killed Martin, it’s dead." And they actually did try to kill it. If you look at the history of the abolitionist movement, starting in the 1750s, twelve guys hanging around in a bar saying, "Slavery’s no good, let’s write some pamphlets. As soon as people read the rational statements, it’ll be quick." What they didn’t know was that it would be another eighty years from that point, small tactics, sugar strikes by British women, and civil rights are the continuity of that abolitionist movement. There is this overweighing of theory and this death-driven analysis. And I suppose if something is named it shifts the condition of invisibility, but I don’t think it really shifts the process of its continuation and influence.

LatinArt:  What specifically has been your involvement with the Zapatista movement and community?

Ricardo Dominguez:  Well, starting in1994 at one minute after midnight, I became a digital Zapatista. With many other people around the world, exchanging e-mails, reading the first declaration of Anancondeur, seeing how rapidly the Zapatistas understood -what the RAN corporation freaking-out later said was- the first social net war. The next day at ABC No Rio, the squat on Clinton and Rivington in New York City, I was part of the group that started the New York Committee for Democracy in Mexico, or the New York Zapatistas. And there we started direct actions against the Mexican Consulate, set up an autonomous zone, did all the usual activist gestures, while at the same time I was at The Thing [] developing the platform for electronic civil disobedience. So I would say that I am both a real Zapatista and at the same time a digital Zapatista, accepting the protocols that the Zapatistas had brought to the foreground.

LatinArt:  You mentioned The Thing. Can you tell us more about that?

Ricardo Dominguez:  The Thing is an internet service provider for activists and artists started in 1991 by Wolfgang Stela, a conceptual artists and video filmmaker, which continues to this point in time to be an internet service provider. In terms of digital culture it is older than dirt, and that’s our motto at The Thing, ’We’re older than dirt." From ’91 to ’93 it was a rhizomatic explosion because we had Thing Vienna, Thing Berlin, Thing Amsterdam, Thing Roma, La Cosa en Argentina, we had The Thing in Cuba. It grew very quickly, in those days it was a bbs bulletin board system, because remember that Mosaic, the first browser, didn’t appear until the end of ’93, early ’94. You can look at all this; go to and look at what The Thing looked like as a Mosaic. Once Netscape emerged you can go to and see what culture was like in terms of The Thing from ’96 to 2003. And then you can go to, and see the post-contemporary Thing. So it continues, and it continues to be a hybrid in that we make money from hosting netsites like MoMA, P.S.122, Art Forum, and give free hosting to people like The Yes Men, ®™ark, Electronic Disturbance Theater, e-toy. Just about any net.artist or net.theorist and they’ve all been at The Thing, from Net Time to George/Jordan Crandall. It’s a fairly large cast of characters.

LatinArt:  Has Electronic Civil Disobedience [ECD] changed quite a bit since these early days or is the theory still pretty much in tact?

Ricardo Dominguez:  What has happened is that hactivism, or ECD has had enough of a distributed exchange that now we have it as part of a normal course of activist decision making. Civil Disobedience hasn’t disappeared. ECD is now a part of the way activists speak to each other as a possibility of action. It is now ubiquitous, it is part of the normal exchange and, as I said, the semantics of power, whether it’s the NSA, or cyber-infrastructure, or Dr. Dorothy Danning, whoever - cyber war, cyber terrorism, cyber crime, electronic civil disobedience, with a unique definition, trajectory, and history. The last action I did was SWARM the Minute Men, we had 78,000 people participate, and that was just this past summer.

LatinArt:  FloodNet and SWARM are self-explanatory terms and excellently simple tactics, but can you explain these methods more specifically?

Ricardo Dominguez:  What the Zapatista FloodNet does is it counts how many people have joined the Virtual Sit-in and then hits the reload/refresh button, which is part of the public agora of browser culture. There’s nothing illegal; we used to do it originally just by all together hitting reload/refresh.

The other element that we use is a traditional gesture, called a 404 file, or "file not found." What we do is upload questions onto government webservers, say the Mexican government we would say, "Does democracy.html exist on this, and the .gov would respond, "Democracy does not exist on this Mexican government webserver." "Does justice? Or the names of the Arteal dead?" We did it to Bush, "Are weapons of mass destruction here?’ "Weapons of mass destruction are not found..." It’s part of the FloodNet action. It started with only they did it in a Dadaist manner. They were looking for smelly dead fish. We politicized the condition. Those are the two things that FloodNet does, counts the reload function depending on how many people come and upload 404 files onto the server that we’re doing the sit-in on. It can make it very slow if there are a lot of people. There have been times, like the World Economic Forum, when the server collapsed, but I wasn’t quite sure if that had anything to do with the 400,000 people that participated or just that the World Economic Forum’s infrastructure was as badly built as their economic ideology.

LatinArt:  How do you see the potential and limitations of these tactics after over 15 years as a new media artist / activist?

Ricardo Dominguez:  How far is the artist within the framework of cultural jamming and tactical media? Are they willing to risk encountering the conditions of power? I can certainly see going to Power and saying, "This is an art project." But I would much rather them use that quality to develop the semantic dialogue, not as a fallback defense. I would have liked to see them push the boundaries a bit further.

Ultimately what you want to do with these things is begin to shape the semantic strings in the way power is instituting definitions. If you just fallback and say that it’s art and are unwilling to push the semantic process, I suppose it’s seeking the equivalent in a different way. But it’s a question of risk. Good gesture, but you could have gone further. And that’s always the question of tactical media, cultural jam: How far are you willing to go, in the social risk, in the aesthetic risk, in the performative risk? This year there was a big conference in L.A. on the issue of risk, and I have a book that I made called Risk. At least to me, performance art, at a certain period of time, was about this issue.

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