From 2016 to 2018, the Hacking Practices research line brought together Pierre Akrich (artist), Fabrice Gallis (artist), Tamara Lang (who obtained her DNSEP – National Postgraduate Diploma in Visual Arts – at EESAB Quimper in 2020), Karine Lebrun (artist and teacher at EESAB Quimper), Julie Morel (artist and teacher at EESAB Lorient), Jan Middelbos (polymorphic worker and PhD student at the University of Rennes 2), and Stephen Wright (practice of theory at the European School of Visual Arts – Angoulême / Poitiers).
Hacking Practices were initiated by Karine Lebrun and take place at the European School of Art of Brittany (EESAB). They are a continuation of the courses on the impact of digital culture on artistic practices taught at EESAB since 2006.
In 2015, an inaugural study day took place at EESAB Quimper, and this laid the groundwork for Hacking Practices. While the research line was yet to begin, we deemed it necessary to study the tricks and skills developed by hackers to thwart control systems with the intuition to bring these processes closer to artists’ ways of doing things, in line with the Snowden case.1
The persona of the artist is often associated with non-conformism, with their critical and liberating relationship with society. At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, art broke free from the academic institution – which reflected State-controlled art – to get rid of the norms in force at that time. Whether from a modernist discourse or an avant-garde position, art has more or less radically opposed capitalist domination and continues to claim its ability to liberate people.
Yet, far from such claimed independence, we couldn’t help but observe lately the proliferation of artistic productions in line with the expectations of an institution that is largely dependent on State policy, itself largely porous to the effects of capitalism2. In fact, this supposed non-conformism has turned into an art form integrated into the consumer and leisure society, as former Minister of Culture and Communication Jean-Jacques Aillagon stated: “Art has become – and that’s one of the great effects of the democratization of culture and the sedimentation of public actions – a cultural object that participates in a singular way in the development of the leisure society, and has sometimes become one of its most appealing centers.” This quotation is from Tristan Trémeau’s article3, which demonstrates in detail how private sponsorship has infiltrated the choices of public commissions, and how institutions have imposed “[…] a relationship of reification and instrumentalization of art, both economically and symbolically.”4
“The artists who interest us”, to quote Jean-Baptiste Farkas,5 refuse to take part in an art practice that asks for excessive appearance modes, to highlight who will be the most visible, who will get the greatest number of exhibitions, reviews and events, in order to capitalize on attention. Instead of wanting to legitimize their practices and go along with the regime of the “attention economy”6, they play with operational modes that are similar to those used by hackers. It is not about surrendering and playing along, nor about giving up and stopping all artistic activities – it is about infiltrating by ruse and slipping in an “established order”.7 Hackers do not act in the open and the trouble that some of them maintain – sometimes via a pact with the company they hack – participates in the shadow rhetoric and opens up fruitful dialectics between what is hidden and what is visible. What would be an art detached from the criteria of visibility? How can we reconcile the ambiguous relationship between the hackers’ experience and their need to express themselves? Which visibility regimes develop in the shadows? What are the hackers’ ancestral personas and the modern-day poaching practices? Which similarities do hackers maintain with artists? What is an art whose motive is hacking?
The research line started in 2016 in support of these initial questions. Espace Khiasma in Les Lilas, the Phakt – centre culturel Colombier in Rennes, and Practices in Remove in Paris joined the research team and took part in various experiments with EESAB students and several guest participants until 2018.
During those two years, it appeared to us that the hack was a much larger gesture than the one we usually attribute to the computer programmer, offering a whole constellation of personas, from the solitary deed to collective movements, from the anonymous person to Edward Snowden. Hackers, as represented in our collective imagination, develop a wide range of differing interpretations, are being referred to as cyberterrorists by the media or, in a more positive vein, called cyberactivists and hacktivists. Even within hackers’ communities, from Black hats to White hats, from Grey hats to Script kiddies, the activities differ depending on intentions – or even territories – and cannot fall into a category of homogeneous political subjectivity.
Our research started from the hacker before moving towards the notion of hacking that is more open to the heterogeneous realities of our practices and is less subject to the still dominant image of the “white western male”. We also felt that it was necessary to free ourselves from the current trend that is turning hacking into an innovation-looking phenomenon. The start-up replaced the hack that is now part of Newspeak thanks to a well-tested reversal mechanism. Engaging in double dealing and maintaining the trouble, thwarting classifications, making our practices less identifiable and therefore less seizable in the face of attempts at assignment and recontextualization, are all main elements that have contributed to the foundations of Hacking Practices.
This publication is not a report of the activities that have been carried out since 2015. It presents some of them and extends the research with new contributions from artists, theorists, researchers, teachers, and activists.
This second part further highlights feminist hacking practices with contributions from Sophie Toupin, theSCRUM brigade, and Maïa Izzo-Foulquier, who passed away in late 2019 while we were still working on the website. She was an artist and an activist who campaigned for the STRASS8, and who defended an artistic practice characterized by multiple identities.
One of the new contributions comes from Cédric Mong-Hy who, through his mushroom hunting activity, walks with the “entanglement of the living” that he connects to the world of hackers. Olivier Marbœuf revisits the Black Code Sessions and the film Black Code / Code Noir by Louis Henderson in a text that echoes the murder of George Floyd, an African-American man, in the continuity of the necropolitical history that his analysis puts into perspective. Ann Guillaume takes another look at the notion of “ninja practice” in an interview that resituates her work in the current state of her practice.
In the course of the meetings organized during the research, Tamara Lang – a student until June 2020 – enlightened us with her critical point of view. She chose to contribute to this second part with an account of the years she spent at school, documented by a few pages taken from her final year dissertation. Jan Middelbos imagined the “BOTe secrète” in the manner of the samizdats that were secretly distributed, and thus took on the edition’s digital format. Fabrice Gallis recounts the history of the experiments he has carried out since 2015, which he questions and compares with examples from art history. Pierre Akrich relates daily actions supported by images, sound and video recordings. Julie Morel publishes a downloadable book that refers to the multiple layers of a work revealing itself in the folds of its variations. Finally, Jean-Baptiste Farkas, Stephen Wright and Karine Lebrun’s contributions take another look at the research line’s key moments and thus complete the multiple entries of Hacking Practices.
The whole project works like a continuous movement whose dynamics do not stop with the publication of these pages. Hacking is a deed that we are all capable of committing.
In 2013, Edward Snowden – who used to work for the NSA (National Security Agency) as a network administrator – revealed that the latter was running a global surveillance program. American companies like Google, Facebook, Youtube, Microsoft, Yahoo, Skype, AOL and Apple, to name a few, gave access to their users’ data and thus participated in this surveillance program. See Dan Schiller’s article, “Géopolitique de l’espionnage – Geopolitics of Espionage”, Le Monde diplomatique, November 2014. [↩]
This movement began as early as 1981 during Lang’s term as a Minister, when the State policy consisted in raising public awareness regarding the most diverse – including the most subversive – artistic practices through a program of extension and decentralization of art centers. Thus, by subsidizing artists and by encouraging corporate sponsorship, the State has positioned itself as a mediator and main sponsor. [↩]
“The Good, the Bad and the Hacker”, transcript of the lecture delivered at EESAB Quimper in 2015. [↩]
L’Économie de l’attention. Nouvel horizon du capitalisme? – The Economy of Attention: New Horizon of Capitalism?, under the direction of Yves Citton, La Découverte, 2014 [↩]
Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, Paris, Gallimard, 1990 [↩]
Syndicat du travail sexuel en France – Union of Sex Workers in France [↩]
The Good, the Bad and the Hacker
Transcript of the conference held on October 1, 2015 in EESAB Quimper.
My intervention was prepared from an artist’s viewpoint and not that of a hacking specialist, so it required some work since I really asked myself “what is a hacker?”, which was challenging. I’m now going to present to you some thoughts that I had during this process, hoping that this will have resonance and that you will be able to resume from what I’m about to announce here.
First, I checked out what could be said about the hacker in general. What do intellectuals think of the hacker? I found one of the most characteristic extracts regarding how intellectuals may see the hacker – very positively, in my opinion – in an interview with Alain Damasio dated August 7, 2014. For many writers and artists, the hacker is an extremely positive persona, but one that also brings about a lot of expectations. It is quite idealized, I would say that it’s almost romantic, and by the way Damasio states: “To me, the romantic hacker, the rebel hacker […] who destroys a harmful system is a key figure of resistance. – That is obviously the hacker mentioned by Karine, the activist hacker – That’s very good news since he could help us out of hell and he is “the” counter-power figure in the massive anthropotechnical universe that is already ours. First, he is the happy delinquent of the future, capable of breaking into computer security. The analogy with real delinquency is quite obvious: he is a burglar too, he breaks in, he steals, he squats, and he forces safes. But his delinquency is first and foremost productive and fruitful: it alerts, reveals, updates and removes the network’s occult forces from society, it counter-effects insufferable powers […].” It’s a pretty nice quote. What I notice above all is the association of extremely ambiguous, almost contradictory words done by Damasio, the word “delinquency” with strong negative connotation next to the words “productive” and “fruitful”, it is something that we find a lot on the Internet in the way people see the hacker persona. It associates something that is usually negative, related to attack, to destructuring, or almost to terrorism, with something that will bring good things. He says it very well: “to counter-effect insufferable powers.”
Following on from this research, I went back to the definition of hacker, a completely classic definition found in Larousse I guess : A person who seeks to circumvent software protection measures, to break into a system or a computer network, for fun, out of a taste for challenge or for fame.
“A person who […] for fun, out of a taste for challenge or for fame” is what I retain and also find absolutely accurate in this definition, and the question of fame is often addressed, when you look into it. Because – and here I take a critical look at the hacker – a lot of people who hack do it like artists, it is one of the common points they have with artists, they also do it in search of recognition and, paradoxically, in search of media recognition – something that is also stated in the dictionary definition.
Third, I’m going to come back to your mail, Karine, to the report you sent us to prepare this conference and that I found very interesting for several reasons. I used a sentence you quoted from McKenzie Wark. We met McKenzie Wark in 2005, 2006, when Stephen Wright invited him to present the Hacker Manifesto as part of the Paris Biennale1. It’s almost a best-seller now but at that time it was yet to be published in France.
Karine Lebrun : it was published in 2006. Jean-Baptiste Farkas : it was just before, because we worked on the English text, which I believe Stephen had translated for the red catalog of the 2006 Paris Biennale, and he had selected a few fragments. “The class that can express its desires, rather than represent them”. This sentence strikes me because it makes sense from an art practice viewpoint, for the art practice that interests us, and perhaps Karine has invited us to talk about that too. The artist, whose position might be close to that of the hacker, might belong to a class that has abandoned the idea of representation for that of expression. That’s an old idea that could already be found in romanticism, with Goethe for instance, the idea that some kind of meta-work might almost be mystical and go beyond representation to find a higher form of expression that would exclude representation. But today let’s ask ourselves a few questions. You were talking about a working base to be developed, I formulated a few developments, for the moment it’s quite simple. What does it mean to express your desires instead of representing them? In terms of art practice it is strange but very interesting. You were talking about deeds meant to challenge a system. How would representation be an obstacle? McKenzie Wark basically tells us that we might have moved into a new register which is that of expression in no longer need of representation. For example, this question is of great interest to me as an artist: how can I express myself without representing? But isn’t representation characteristic of art? This is what we are taught, we need to make objects etc to be perceived. Consequently, if we are talking about art but not about representation, what kind of art are we talking about?
I went back to a fairly nice and funny text that circulated on the Internet at the turn of 2000: Hakim Bey’s “Poetic Terrorism”2, which you already mentioned once, which was a very strange text because at first it was anonymous, then the name Hakim Bey appeared a few years later. No one really knows that person, there could be a collective behind this name, I guess it’s a very secretive person. Poetic Terrorism offers a uniting position for both artists and hackers. For instance: “Organize a strike in your school or workplace on the grounds that it does not satisfy your need for indolence and spiritual beauty.” “Poetic Terrorism is an act in a Theater of Cruelty which has no stage, no rows of seats, no tickets and no walls – here we also leave representation behind. In order to work at all, Poetic Terrorism must categorically be divorced from all conventional structures for art consumption (galleries, publications, media). Even the guerrilla Situationist tactics of street theater – by the way, he is wrong because the Situationists never did street theater, but it may be an American viewpoint on Situationism – are perhaps too well known and expected now.” This is reminiscent of some of the least interesting, most artistic hackers. “The Poetry Terrorist behaves like a confidence-trickster – there is always this trickster rhetoric – whose aim is not money but change. […] Dress up. Leave a false name. Be legendary, the best Poetic Terrorism is against the law, but don’t get caught. Art as crime; crime as art”.
It’s a bit summarized. The hacker persona establishes an ambiguous relationship between the negative side and positive side. Damasio’s opinion on hackers reflects that since he manages to associate the delinquent with someone who brings something to the world, someone who brings something positive. The hacker persona establishes an ambiguous relationship between light and shadow. We still find this kind of dialectic between something hidden and something visible, anonymity and fame. It’s obvious, but it aims to summarize what I managed to find right away. The hacker persona is mystical, this echoes Hakim Bey’s definition, and can only be identified in relation to mystery. The hacker persona establishes an ambiguous relationship between experience and the need to express oneself. Your mail included another quote that I really liked: “neither named nor identified, neither accused nor condemned”.
As for my title, I used the title of a western spaghetti film because I thought that diverting this title offered the possibility to present three figures, three possible positions in the field of contemporary art. Here I speak as an artist, and the third one would be the hacker, but we can call it something else, we can also call it the artist who interests us here. The first position in the art world is that of the Good. The good follows the route traced by the powers that be, and does exactly what he is told. He will go to art school, get very good grades, then he will go from art schools to galleries, from galleries to art markets and fairs, and his career will match the expectations of the art market.
The second position is that of the Bad, there’s a lot of them too and I believe the figure is real. He is the one who directly opposes the powers that be, the activist who is perpetually against institutions, against the art market, against curators, against other artists. Ultimately, he is completely a part of this world, but in opposition. This persona is extremely close to that of the good. We find them in certain forms of terrorism, specifically terrorism of the 60s or 70s. Instead of offering alternatives, they incessantly criticize the status quo and somehow waste their time in perpetual confrontations without proposing any renewal or real alternatives.
The third one is the hacker, or the artist who interests us here. He works in the shadow of the powers that be and is therefore much less dependent on the system. He works by breaking in, he is a freelancer, he is an artist for two years and then he stops being an artist, as Jean-Claude Moineau would say he works where you don’t expect him etc.
The bad is the one who takes a Kalashnikov rifle and shoots at a banquet in Berlin in 1984, 1985. It is an offshoot of the RAF group, Rote Armee Fraktion, from the movie The Baader-Meinhof Complex3. We typically had this firm opposition to the powers that be that leads someone to find the banker and shoot him in the face. It also exists in art, there is this kind of position in the art world.
Actually, to me this image offers a much better representation of the hacker as the person from whom we can assume everything. I said earlier that he was mystical, and could only be identified in relation to mystery, that is the person whose face you never really know, which is very interesting because some hackers hide several people. Sometimes a collective uses the name of a person, and until the case is revealed we somehow see a person. I was talking about Hakim Bey, some say that Hakim Bey, the author of TAZ4, is actually several people based in the United States, who publish books as Hakim Bey. It’s quite an old story because we used to say the same thing about Shakespeare and Bacon I think, Francis Bacon, the English philosopher who wrote Shakespeare’s books. This unclear image hides the fantasy of a monster behind the hacker. Comments on the Internet show that people are quite fascinated by him but also see him as a predator, a shark, someone who understands the challenges of today’s world and finds strategies to endanger it – much more interestingly than with a Kalashnikov rifle.
Another point of interest to me – and I think Stephen will come back to it later – is that the hacker existed way before the anthropotechnic era. The hacker mindset has existed for centuries. The evidence being the existence of the Reivers in the Middle Ages, river pirates who had developed crossing strategies, they knew the routes of the army and royalty on official rivers and had developed additional routes on small channels that allowed them to hop into a boat, pillage it and clear off. Their system was so well thought out, much like hackers, that the king’s army could never get their hands on them, they’re very much like hackers. Another interesting fact is that they came from all classes. Just like in hacking, those rallies mixed rich and unemployed people, or peasants who had abandoned their lands. There was a Reivers spirit, an anarchist spirit. You should know that they were killers, rapists, it was way more violent than hacking.
Let me now address my practice. In the report that I sent you, there is a link to a ten-page text which describes this experience much better than I am about to do now. There’s no obligation but if you’re interested, you can find the PDF which explains all of this in much more details on this website: http://contrecoup.fr/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/La-part-de-lombre.pdf
First of all, some general thoughts: my artistic position is a bit particular although I am not the only one and many of us share it. To me, the art object is a burden and has become inessential. I still practice art but I don’t make art objects. The exhibition is an outdated ideal that needs to be abandoned in favor of other approaches such as manoeuvre or operation. I defend the word operation, just like Allan Kaprow for example, but also artists of the 70s in Montreal, Canada, who worked a lot on the word “manoeuvre” and developed strategies to disrupt the metro, air traffic. Operating characterizes an art practice that pushes art into the background in an attempt to conquer the field of everyday reality. Subtraction must be considered a major gesture in the present context. I really fight tooth and nail for this, there are too many things and too many works, we have reached saturation point. I’ve been doing it since 2002 through a project called Glitch, Beaucoup plus de moins (a lot more of less). Now there’s also a structure called Remove, in which we develop strategies of withdrawal, reduction, weakening, many gestures that tend to reduce the mass of everything that circulates inspired by philosopher Ivan Illich. The author is a delusion, a convenient shortcut that has to be rethought. I work collaboratively, and lots of people are involved in my operations, be they patrons or colleagues. There is no longer one single author behind each artwork, but many authors and several potential results for each artwork.
By service I mean a set of instructions waiting to be implemented. We could say protocol or notation, there are many possible words with several levels of participation; implementing an instruction, ordering the implementation of an instruction that you don’t want to activate on your own, proposing a new instruction, many spontaneous contributors during a meeting, today for instance, proposing a variation on an instruction that has already been implemented at least once, acquiring a service because I work with an agent, Ghislain Mollet-Viéville, who sells my services with the very important characteristic that they remain free services. This works well with institutions but not with collectors, since private collectors who acquire a service do not want it to be free and transactions are almost impossible. However, we have designed an agreement stating that the service that is purchased must remain free. Maybe I’m getting closer to the Internet world with that.
Two examples of service: n°12 (variant 2), Fatal Upgrade, enhances voluntary pleasures, constraints, pains and challenges to the point that they become toxic. This kind of activation gets no special documentation and there is nothing to show in an exhibition space, what actually happens is an experience shared by several people.
Other service: n°33, Inertia, to determine what should neither increase nor decrease, to strive to keep it at a standstill. Karine, you already activated it, you even activated it here once, several years ago.
Now let’s talk about service 35, Gloom, written in 2007 and that I call the figment’s occult extra. A bit earlier, I was talking about hackers and the unclear distinction between negative side and positive side, light and shadow… Well, I used this game and dialectic to create a service. Instructions for use: as part of a commission, accompanying the delivery of an order with a spiteful action turned against the client. Notes: a work and its shadow, a “white” work (right hand, official, legal) and a black work (left hand, unofficial, illegal). Kinships: “Just as irony is representations and ideas’ sleight of hand, cunning is deeds’ sleight of hand.” This quote is from an author that I really like: De Certeau. Essential: renouncing to commit literal acts of vandalism. My position is that of the hacker. Among the three positions I have announced, it is precisely not the bad because of the “renouncing to commit literal acts of vandalism” aspect. Example: in October 2012, French curator Laurent Lebon invited me to participate in La Nuit Blanche which is a highly publicized, kind of abominable event in Paris. Lebon had worked hard to make it more interesting and I think he might have injected more work into its contents than many others before because he had set up a night school where you could come and listen to quite interesting philosophical subjects. We worked together on the kind of activation to envision for this October 2012 event. We thought of lots of crazy things, like removing the Mona Lisa from the Louvre while inviting people to come and see it. This ultimately resulted in the activation of service n°4, which is called The Cancellation of Space and consists in canceling spaces for a given time.
There were political frictions between the Nuit Blanche and the prefecture of Paris, so he wanted to cancel the banks of the Seine to piss off the prefecture and support the town hall’s idea of pedestrianizing Paris. It was a pretty beautiful idea, and it was crazy because it aimed to cancel 12km on each side of the Paris banks, but I felt completely instrumentalized since Lebon had come up with the idea of service activation without my participating in the negotiations, and only negotiations interest me. As Gloom is part of a commission, I asked Lebon to accept the activation of a spiteful action against the Nuit Blanche, something that would even be announced in the catalog although no one would know its exact content.
Virginie Barré: I did not understand. What does “cancel the banks” mean? JBF: the service consists in canceling square meters of space for some time. Canceling means that you make them unusable. VB: by banning traffic? JBF: it was done. Canceling traffic was Lebon’s idea, against the prefecture which wanted heavy traffic during the Nuit Blanche. VB: And what did you add to that? JBF: as I was being instrumentalized, and as he no longer needed me, I suggested that we add another activation – Gloom, which gives the artist the possibility to commit a spiteful action turned against his hosts. VB: what was it? JBF: I won’t tell. VB: was it in the catalog? JBF: what was in the catalog was the announcement of both services at the same time. It was very important to me that it was announced, and that management accepted that the artist might do something that would wriggle out of it. VB: and it was announced in the Nuit Blanche program? JBF: we met the coordinators, 100 of them, and everyone wanted to know what this second activation would be, so we had to hold on… Christine Lapostolle: has there been speculation regarding what that service was afterwards? JBF: there have been rumors. People made a lot of assumptions regarding what this second activation could be. Taxi drivers flipped out because they thought it was an attack on them, there was a general blackout for 1.5 hours in Châtelet-les-halles, they thought it was that. There was all this waiting regarding something that I will never reveal. CL: you kept it to yourself? No one knows? JBF: no. Thanks for asking as sometimes the flow of ideas gets a little chaotic.
In an era that seemingly calls for more and more visibility, against good morals, I would like to defend the concept of “elitist art practice”. I’ve made a lot of enemies with this idea but I like the word elitist because it’s a bit scary. When it comes down to it, this gloom, this liberty of choosing who you’re addressing wasn’t aimed at all artists but only at myself. This would be like encryption, only some people would know what I did. Since 2012, I have reproduced Gloom several times, pretending to do something and actually doing something else, and warning a few people of this change. What I call “elitist art practice”. This is a poor choice of word, you could say “selectionist”, “cryptic” or “encrypted”, there could be other words, but I like that it leads to debates. In the growing cultural industry, artists are increasingly dominated by an imperative: that of being visible. Generally speaking, artists often fail to use the modalities of their artistic practice to take part in “reputation economics” – here I’m quoting Stephen Wright – that would be different from that of the cultural industry. What I call elitist art practice would therefore amount to inventing ways of escaping the regime of visibility imposed by the cultural industry and to rejecting any didactic intention. Such elitism is a firm opposition to the idea of “art for all”, the cornerstone of all works set in the dominant regime. And obviously, the more massive the regime is (think Beaubourg or Palais de Tokyo), the more complicated this position is. In fact, it derived from the fact that announcing my intentions always led to my being denied the opportunity to act. So the tactics must be rethought, I must announce things and then do something else. This is the freedom that I was able to regain. Another kind of freedom would be not to work with the cultural industry, which would be fine too. The shadow is a unique way to participate, because there too I oppose artists who leave, there is all this theoretical work on artists who leave art, but I find it interesting to continue despite everything, despite a saturated era, despite the cultural industry which is quite violent towards us over security standards issues or whatever, “to be in” vigorously despite everything, while allowing ourselves to be sovereignly free, we know what we are doing but others do not necessarily know. The shadow is a determination. It comes down to the will to work in a gap: the one that supposedly exists between what is required by the world we live in and what we’re willing to give. A gap that is gigantic, stimulating and also disturbing. I found a criticism of this position. I started with an old text dated 1972 and written by Carl Schmitt – a very interesting author, although not a recommendable one. Francesco Masci had recommended it to me a few years ago, particularly the text entitled Theory of the Partisan6. During the Cold War, Carl Schmitt, who had issues with the Nazis, developed a general theory of the partisan which is, in my opinion, a clever critique of the hacker and the artist who interests us here. “The partisan fights irregularly […] for a complete theory of the partisan, it is important to recognize that the power and significance of his irregularity has been dependent on the power and significance of the regularity that he challenges.” Partisan, in that the clear distinction between war and peace is abolished. Partisans come and go just like hackers or casual combatants, which is different from normalized war where combatants fight until the end. Due to the irregular dimension of his status, the partisan establishes a regime of “absolute enmity”. That is true for the hacker who goes beyond the rules of war and finds another approach. So I would say that in negative, the partisan according to Carl Schmitt describes the irregular battles of hackers and artists who interest us. “Fundamentally, in any case, war remains bracketed, and the partisan stands outside of this bracketing. The modern partisan expects neither law nor mercy from the enemy. He has moved away from the conventional enmity of controlled and bracketed war, and into the realm of another, real enmity, which intensifies through terror and counter-terror until it ends in extermination.” “It is not only [the] life [of the partisan] that is at risk like that of any regular combatant. He knows that the enemy will throw him out of the categories of right – regarding major hackers, the question of right is constantly raised. We are somewhere outside the limits of right and states faced with hacker strategies are continually rewriting the law -, law and honor, and he accepts to take this risk. But the revolutionary fighter does the same, as he declares his enemy to be a criminal, and that all the enemy’s concepts of right, law and honor are ideological swindle.”
In 2001, Jean Baudrillard had quite a similar view on the evolution of the terrorist, who is very close to the hacker persona. “Like viruses, terrorism is everywhere – gloom allows us to be everywhere. If you’re in a gallery room, you’re not everywhere. But you are everywhere if you develop other approaches – There is a global drip of terrorism, like the shadow cast by any domination system ready to reappear everywhere like a double agent. There is no more demarcation line to surround it, it is at the very heart of the culture that fights it, and the visible fracture (and hatred) which internationally opposes the exploited and the underdeveloped to the western world secretly joins the dominant system’s internal divide. The latter can counter any visible antagonism. But the former, which is of viral structure, as if any domination apparatus exuded its anti-device, its own ferment of disappearance, against this almost automatic form of reversion of its own power, the system is helpless. And terrorism is the shock wave of this silent reversion.”7
Virginie Barré: can you tell us a little more about the difference between your practice and that of conceptual artists, and the difference between your agent’s practice and that of a gallery owner? JBF: I don’t think my practice is in keeping with the conceptual tradition, although of course the scripts idea comes from American philosophy, people like Nelson Goodman, artists like Laurence Wiener, but that is only a starting point. And their work is completely conditioned by the art world, precisely what I call the Good. Their words will end up on walls, which is sad regarding Laurence Wiener’s wonderful initial potential for example. I am very detached from these people. The people who influenced me the most are George Brecht of Fluxus who, in the 1950s, was already developing stories of protocols to activate, and Allan Kaprow’s last phase, when he moved away from the happening and developed what he called the un-artist, that is to say artists who do actions for themselves or for people, there is a direct connection here, in Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life // Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, Allan Kaprow, Paris, 1996 // there is a text written in 89 I believe in which he describes some of his actions. It’s a bit ambiguous, there are interesting contradictions, precisely between light and shadow, between anonymity and recognition. Such contradictions need to remain because too much radicalness would lead to fascism. We must maintain these contradictions and find a position. VB: so the position is always uncomfortable. JBF: very uncomfortable. Payment is constantly questioned, it’s hard. VB: and what about your agent? JBF: my work is not exhibited. He never forces me to make derivative products. He’s very good at making agreements. We have several assignment agreements, activation agreements, which are not mandatory at all. He gives me freedom, he knows me, he knows how I work. I’ve worked with gallery owners before and they always wanted to have pictures on the walls, that’s their business but I don’t think that’s mine. Tension appears very quickly because they are a bit tricky at first, they say it’s great then a year later they ask for pictures to put on the walls. VB: but the agent’s aim is to sell things. JBF: yes. VB: it remains immaterial? JBF: there is only one agreement and, as I said, we see the buyer as a contributor, not as a collector in the classic sense, because signing the agreement means that he accepts the free aspect of it all. If someone finds the protocol on the Internet they can do what they want with it. VB: there is nonsense in wanting to acquire… JBF: there is sense in helping us financially, it’s a contribution. CL: does that change the kind of people who get involved? are they also collectors? JBF: some are, these are institutions. CL: artistic institutions? JBF: mainly artistic ones. Institutions want to give people free content, so they’re interested in protocols. Take the CNAP for instance: thanks to Sébastien Faucon, the CNAP has developed a whole sector on the immaterial, on transmission, sometimes even from person to person, without an audience or through workshops, things that are much more subtle than what the collection comprised 20 years ago. From that point of view, things are changing in institutions. A student in the room: I think that you closed the field of art with what you did on the banks of the Seine. The negative consequences of your project will impact many people. Instead of welcoming people, it turns them away. JBF: it’s a possible criticism but I accept it because I’ve had it with the idea that everyone should be welcome, which was like a diktat in art – my point in saying that “art for all” was the cornerstone of the cultural industry. At the same time, this very cultural industry requires that you fix everything. “No, you can’t do that because of standards…”, in the end the work is deprived of anything interesting. The negative effect of my position regarding art for all is that I was accused of being elitist.
Ken McKenzie Wark, A Hacker Manifesto, Paris, Criticalsecret, 2006 [↩]
L’art du Chaos, stratégie du plaisir subversif, Nautilus, 2000 [↩]
Ça fait 20 ans, là je suis en mode invisible. C. dit invisible en anglais. C. répète, clean profile. Nous buvons installés à la table d’un café. C. parle du passé.
À treize ans, j’ai commencé à programmer en BASIC1 avec mon premier ordinateur Zx81 processeur zilog Z80A2 Tout le monde voulait des mobs à l’époque, moi j’ai eu un ordi. Après, j’ai eu un Commodore3 puis un Atari 10404 avec lequel on jouait de la musique en midi. J’étais dans les clubs informatiques, on crackait juste des jeux, on ne peut pas appeler ça du hacking. Plus tard, au lycée, on programmait des PB15 avec un langage objet.5 Le Turbo Pascal6 est plus intéressant que le BASIC, interprétatif et lent, alors que le Python,7 qui vient des Monty Python, est un langage simple. A côté, je bricolais des émetteurs pour les radios libres, je flashais les ROMs8 des calculatrices, c’est à dire que je modifiais leurs micro-systèmes, je mettais des micros dans le congelo, ça ne plaisait pas trop. Après un BAC E, j’ai fait math sup techno. J’ai décroché au bout d’un an.
C’est un vieux pseudo, un nickname9 d’IRC.10 Pas d’action ou de revendication comme les hackers mégalos qui prennent des noms de romans. Je fais partie de ceux qui sont dans l’ombre. À partir du moment où l’on passe dans l’hacktivisme, on cloisonne tout. Je gagne rien avec du hack. Le but est de jouer, le moteur reste le jeu animé par un esprit libertaire. Quand tu hackes, la règle de base est OHM, observe hack and make11. Tu envoies une requête, tu observes, tu attends des semaines. La plupart du temps, le système en face est du Windows, du DOS,12 une faiblesse de Windows, une coquetterie de Gates. J’ai commencé à fréquenter les free parties dans les années 90 au moment des Spirale Tribe. Avec le Do it yourself, les free parties étaient une grosse révolution, un hors système complet, tu te démerdes. D’un côté, j’étais attiré par la musique électro, je suis branché Deep ou Fly, mais je n’avais pas une vie de traveller, je fournissais de l’infrastructure au niveau machine. On s’occupait aussi des Beige Box13 en haut des poteaux téléphoniques pour y brancher des répondeurs avec un magnéto. Les gens appelaient le numéro de la Beige Box et savaient où les raves avaient lieu. Puis, j’ai arrêté les free. Moi c’était l’informatique, eux les DJ.
Tu vas chez Yahoo, tu t’introduis sur le serveur, tu fais sauter tous les niveaux et tu envoies la liste des mots de passe pour montrer que le système est waste15. Les crackers portent atteinte au code source d’un logiciel mais le but, à 98%, est de pénétrer une machine. Tu regardes un DIVX, tu joues avec la vie. Ils peuvent cracker ton compte bancaire, ta machine peut devenir un zombie.16 D’abord, tu flingues l’adresse MAC, tu as une entrée royale que l’utilisateur ne peut pas détecter. Tu ouvres un port avec un microserveur en Python, la machine est infectée, tu la scannes, tu dégages ta ROM, tu flashes et tu la mets en adresse MAC façon broadcast. C’est pas mon rayon. Je suis un cypher, mon domaine de prédilection est la cryptanalyse.17 Les crackers introduisent du code et modifient des logiciels, les mappers font des repérages et créent des botnets.18 Moi, je récupère l’info cryptée et je casse le code, mais je ne me vois pas monter une massive attack en brutale force.19 Maintenant, je suis un backidea, je ne suis plus hacktiviste mais consultant. Je ne suis plus impliqué dans quoi que ce soit. Il y en a beaucoup dans le milieu qui se mettent en stand-by. On décroche tous les uns après les autres.
Le CCC n’est qu’une partie des autres collectifs auxquels j’ai participé. C’est un space. Autrement dit, un endroit où tu peux éditer de l’information, un outil de communication avec une logique ultralibertaire. On était une centaine dans les années 90, on est 3600 aujourd’hui. Jusqu’en 99, j’ai surtout fait de l’intrusion. Tu rentres, tu sors, sans laisser de traces. On faisait très white, j’ai énormément appris. Pendant 10 ans, on a créé des contacts en IRC, puis on s’est rencontrés. Le premier camp en 99 a été violent, les gens n’ont pas de visage sur Internet, ça fusionne, c’est une vraie communauté par la pensée, mais les idées fondamentales naissent des rencontres physiques. Les camps durent une semaine sur un terrain, en autarcie, c’est du camping avec des séminaires et des conférences 24 heures sur 24. Je n’ai pas de vie de famille. C’est trop prenant. Malgré que je sois relié aux autres, c’est solitaire. Quand tu es sur un réseau, tu dois être à 100%, tu ne peux pas être dérangé.
C’est un salon de discussion. On échange sur des serveurs que l’on connaît, à 10 puissance 18 fois les niveaux bancaires. Il faut théoriquement 400 milliards d’années pour casser ces codes. Les nouveaux venus sont mis à l’épreuve, il va falloir qu’ils connaissent des choses qu’ils n’ont pas appris à polytechnique. Ceux qui viennent sans que l’on sache pourquoi et qui demandent comment cracker tel ou tel logiciel, on lock en F8 -Google is your friend- ça arrive souvent. Je me connecte à partir de 22h, j’aime bien la nuit pour le silence, l’esprit est plus open. Une fois qu’on est dedans, la discussion est ouverte sur pas mal d’actualités geek, c’est plutôt technique. Une problématique peut durer plusieurs mois, on échange du code mais on travaille sur des projets communs aussi. Plus tu donnes, plus tu reçois. Ceux qui retiennent l’info sont éjectés. Dans les années 90, on parlait en leet,21 la totalité de la conversation était chiffrée. Maintenant, ce n’est plus exactement du leet, le langage et le code sont mêlés, tu codes et tu tagues pour discuter. Il y a des IRC plus tendus, plutôt black. Si tu ne parles pas comme eux, tu te fais traiter comme un chien. Beaucoup sont russes et d’ex-Yougoslavie, ils produisent du malware, des cracks, ils foutent la merde. La seule accroche est les jeux vidéos. Je joue quasiment plus mais Warcraft m’a beaucoup occupé. Il y a pas mal de no life qui sont dessus. J’en connais des no life, ils commandent tout sur Internet. J’ai un ami qui n’est pas sorti depuis 6 mois, il est à un niveau très haut du jeu. Il scripte, il code, il parle de code, de Java,22 de Python. Plus personne ne contrôle Warcraft.
La NSA24 a Bullrun, nous on a Bullshit. Bullrun est un outil qui permet de casser n’importe quel code. La puissance de calcul est phénoménale, aucun dispositif d’écoute n’est inaccessible. Bullshit est plus astucieux, il inonde le système de cryptographie.25 C’est un leurre qui change tous les mots de passe et crypte 3/4 des données. Ce qui est plus intéressant encore, ce sont les botnets. Ta machine devient une machine zombie. Tu décuples ta puissance de calcul et tu disperses ce que tu es en train de traiter sur environ 500 000 machines. Tu peux utiliser la carte graphique d’un ordinateur en veille à 80%. Même si tu as un sniffe, même si tu as un firewall, tu n’arrives pas à détecter l’activité d’un botnet. 70% ou 80% des machines sont sous botnets.
Je suis un grey
On a tous fait des études scientifiques à des degrés différents. Du BAC au doctorant, la base est scientifique et mathématique. Si on remonte plus dans l’enfance, on a tous été gamers, on a tous été bidouilleurs. À partir de 2001, les choses ont basculé. Le mouvement est devenu tel qu’il est car la NSA a hyper fliqué le réseau. Elle est à l’origine d’un logiciel de reconnaissance faciale capable d’investiguer des milliers de personnes par heure sur les réseaux sociaux. C’est le plus grand système de fichage mondiale et l’information n’a jamais été relayée par la presse. Que tu sois grey, black ou white, la logique libertaire irrigue toute la communauté. Les white cherchent les failles de vulnérabilité et les corrigent dans le but d’améliorer la sécurité, les black sont des mercenaires et les grey défendent des idées politiques. On est plus ouverts sur les outils de cryptographie et les logiciels libres, l’argent n’est pas le moteur. Notre premier interlocuteur est quand même la machine. On réalise des choses qu’on ne pourrait pas réaliser avec des choses réelles. J’ai passé des heures, des jours à coder, au bout d’un moment la relation devient intime, le principe est animiste. Avec les ordinateurs qubit,26 les machines prendront des décisions, on ne sera plus dans un rapport de 0 et 1 mais dans un rapport proche de l’intelligence artificielle. L’Internet est complètement dépendant des hackers. Les hackers ont toujours essayé d’améliorer le système. S’il n’est pas parfait, il est perfectible, une grosse partie du chiffrement qu’utilisent les banques vient de là. Les entreprises sont très cloisonnées, la logique est propre alors que les hackers connaissent bien le réseau global. En France, la politique est répressive, l’hacktivisme n’a pas pu éclore, les hackers se sont réfugiés vers les logiciels libres pour exister. Depuis la Loi de programmation militaire votée en 2013, les outils de cryptographie sont considérés comme des armes de guerre. L’information est édulcorée et commerciale, j’utilise à peine 1% du web. Nous, on est très hype.
BASIC : en programmation, le BASIC (acronyme pour Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code, littéralement “code d’instruction symbolique multi-usages du débutant”) est une famille de langages de programmation de haut niveau ayant pour but la facilité d’utilisation. Source : Wikipedia [↩]
Ordinateur Z81 processeur zilog Z80A : le Sinclair Zx81 est un ordinateur personnel 8 bits, conçu et commercialisé par la Sinclair Research en mars 1981. Le boitier était noir avec un clavier à membrane; l’apparence distinctive de la machine venait du travail du designer industriel Rick Dickinson. Source : Wikipedia [↩]
Commodore : le Commodore 64 est un ordinateur personnel conçu par Commodore Business Machines Inc. en 1982, sous l’égide de Jack Tramiel. Il fut la première machine vendue à plusieurs millions d’exemplaires (de 17 à 25 millions selon les estimations), et il reste le modèle d’ordinateur le plus vendu à ce jour. Source : Wikipedia. [↩]
Atari 1040 : les Atari ST forment une famille d’ordinateurs personnels conçus par Atari dont le succès commercial a marqué la deuxième moitié des années 1980 et le début des années 1990. Le succès fut autant grand public (Jeux vidéos) que professionnel (Traitement de texte, PAO et surtout MAO). Source : Wikipedia. [↩]
PB15 avec un langage objet : le PB15 est un automate programmable créé en 1975. Le langage objet ou la programmation orientée objet (POO) est un paradigme de programmation informatique. Il consiste en la définition et l’interaction de briques logicielles appelées objets; un objet représente un concept, une idée ou toute entité du monde physique, comme une voiture, une personne ou encore une page d’un livre. Source : Wikipedia. [↩]
Turbo Pascal : Turbo Pascal est un environnement de développement intégré pour le langage Pascal. Pascal est un langage de programmation impératif qui, conçu pour l’enseignement, se caractérise par une syntaxe claire, rigoureuse et facilitant la structuration des programmes. Source : Wikipedia. [↩]
Python : Python est un langage de programmation objet, multi-paradigme et multi-plateformes.Source : Wikipedia. [↩]
ROM : l’expression mémoire morte (en anglais, Read-Only Memory : ROM) désignait une mémoire informatique non volatile (c’est à dire une mémoire qui ne s’efface pas lorsque l’appareil qui la contient n’est plus alimenté en électricité) dont le contenu était fixé lors de sa programmation, qui pouvait être lue plusieurs fois par l’utilisateur, mais ne pouvait plus être modifiée. Avec l’évolution des technologies, la définition du terme mémoire morte a été élargie pour inclure les mémoires non volatiles dont le contenu est fixé lors de leur fabrication, qui peuvent être lues plusieurs fois par l’utilisateur et qui peuvent être modifiées par un utilisateur expérimenté. Source : Wikipedia. [↩]
IRC : Internet Relay Chat (en français, “discussion relayée par Internet”) est un protocole de communication textuelle sur Internet. Source : Wikipedia. [↩]
Observe hack and make : observe, détourne, fabrique. [↩]
DOS : on appelle généralement DOS (disk operating system) le système d’exploitation PC-DOS développé par Microsoft pour l’IBM PC, ainsi que la variante MS-DOS vendue par Microsoft pour les compatibles PC. Source : Wikipedia. [↩]
Beige Box : technique de fraude aux télécommunications consistant en un branchement sauvage d’un téléphone à une ligne téléphonique quelconque. Source : Wikipedia. [↩]
Kill your MAC : flinguer l’adresse MAC. Le MAC (acronyme de Media Access Control) n’a aucun rapport avec le Mac d’Apple. Source : Wikipedia. [↩]
Machine zombie : ordinateur contrôlé à distance à l’insu de son utilisateur. Source : Wikipedia. [↩]
Cryptanalyse : science qui consiste à tenter de déchiffrer un message ayant été chiffré sans posséder la clé de chiffrement. Source : Wikipedia. [↩]
Botnet : de l’anglais, contraction de “robot” et “réseau”. Un botnet est un réseau de bots informatiques, des programmes connectés à Internet qui communiquent avec d’autres programmes similaires pour l’exécution de certaines tâches. Source : Wikipedia. [↩]
Massive attack en brutale force : en cryptanalyse, l’attaque par force brute consiste à tester toutes les solutions possibles de mots de passe ou de clés. Source : Wikipedia. [↩]
CCC : le Chaos Computer Club est un groupe de hackers fondé en 1981 à Berlin. [↩]
Leet : le leet speak, de l’anglais “elite speak” (littéralement, “langage de l’élite”), est un système d’écriture utilisant les caractères alphanumériques ASCII. Source : Wikipedia. [↩]
Bullrun : programme américain secret, utilisé par la NSA, ayant pour but de casser des systèmes de chiffrement. Source : Wikipedia. [↩]
NSA : la National Security Agency est un organisme gouvernemental du département de la Défense des États-Unis, responsable du renseignement d’origine électromagnétique et de la sécurité des systèmes d’information et de traitement des données du gouvernement américain. Source : Wikipedia. [↩]
Cryptographie : une des disciplines de la cryptologie s’attachant à protéger des messages (assurant confidentialité, authenticité et intégrité) en s’aidant souvent de secrets ou clés. Source : Wikipedia. [↩]
Qubit : en informatique quantique, un qubit est l’état quantique qui représente la plus petite unité de stockage d’information quantique. C’est l’analogue quantique du bit. Source : Wikipedia. [↩]
What does “hacking” mean?
Transcript of the filmed version that was shown on February 22, 2018 at EESAB Quimper.
What does “hacking” mean? Not in an etymological or technical or semantic or strategic or forensic sense. But in a purely pragmatic sense: in this context, namely that of an art school, what is “hacking” about?
At least two things, undoubtedly.
Firstly, it’s about using minimal force to break into the implicit algorithm that governs the ecosystem of autonomous art and allows art to claim that special status which is still recognized; in other words, it’s about hacking its specificity (its medium, object, site, or regime of visibility) – in short, its exceptional status. Secondly, it’s about accompanying art in its migration out of itself when it shows up in other circles, precisely where it invents its compatibility with other worlds through affinity or contagion. Hence the ambivalence of the term and gesture, prey to institutional capture. All in all, hacking is the destituting moment which takes some of the instituted’s promise away and guarantees us a part of the future we desire, while also guaranteeing the instituted a future it needs but certainly does not deserve. Let’s take a brief look at the instability of this dialectic, without for all that answering the main question: What does “hacking” mean?
The fundamental algorithm of art’s autonomous regime was invented in the late 18th century by a philosophical computer scientist whose name was Emmanuel Kant. He asserted in his Critique of Judgment that unlike any other human activity, art was characterized on the one hand by its “purposiveness without a purpose” and was meant on the other hand for the “disinterested spectator”. Thus, he situated the art of the coming two centuries in a sphere immune from use and utility. The algorithm was all the more perverse as it did not state that art was useless, but rather that its utility (its purposiveness) was to be useless (without a purpose). It’s easy to see why such conceptualization is so well received: in a society increasingly devoted to utilitarian rationality and which analyzes the cost-benefit that derives from it, it may indeed seem desirable to define an activity that avoids this logic. And autonomous art – the pride of modern age – was not conceived as an innocuous and inconsequential activity (even if it has become that way); its autonomy was supposed to give it enough space-time to explore and freely deploy its internal formal logic, with no interference from political and theological authorities. Today, if we are to believe an increasing number of practitioners who are fleeing (or hacking!) this specifically ontological exceptional status, such autonomy has become a trap: the performative affirmation on which the system of contemporary art is based – “This is art!” has become at the same time an admission of ontological helplessness: “This is only art…” The “black code” of the algorithm governing modern art’s functioning and way of being has emerged little by little. Through it, modern art can still claim its permanent ontological exceptional status: its specificity. Clement Greenberg talked about the specificity of the medium. To which Donald Judd responded with the specificity of the object. Meanwhile, Robert Smithson defended the specificity of the site. More recently, Jacques Rancière has argued that art stands out for the specificity of its regime of visibility. This demonstrates the lasting power of Kant’s algorithm in its capacity to adapt to so many uses and users claiming incompatibility… Yet, art history is much older than modernity’s two hundred years – a relatively brief parenthetical moment after all – and was never characterized before nor after modernity by its specificity or autonomy, but rather by its compatibility and multi-purpose versatility.
Today, from an art schools point of view – and other instituted places –, it is a matter of acknowledging this so-called specificity for the ideologically determined structure it claims to be in order to reinvent its compatibility with other experienced worlds. Hacking may well be a computer term; yet it is aimed at the codes which govern our assumptions about ways of being and doing without our knowing. More precisely, art is condemned to act on a small scale if it remains governed by the specificity algorithm. Yet hacking is not and cannot be performed on a small scale, but only on a scale of 1:1, the real life scale, with a grip on reality. Hacking practices, be they small, furtive or invisible, operate on a scale of 1:1, the scale of hacking itself. That also means that hacking is nothing specific or autonomous: the hacked system itself constitutes the medium (again, in the computer sense) of hacking, even if it’s in an absolutely figurative sense: for example (one among many others), let’s particularly consider the 14,000 geostationary satellites in orbit around the Earth, most of which are now unused but absolutely exploitable and therefore hackable by artists or art school networks. Such satellites could form a platform of compatibility for a network of alternative communications, if art would break away from its small-scale specificity in order to act in and out of the world…
An exemplary image of a possible meaning of “hacking” can be found in this dialectic between specificity and compatibility that largely defines the current post-autonomous condition of art. Because, whether it acts out of affinity or of contagion, hacking is always the moment of destitution that the instituted, unknowingly and sometimes even reluctantly, really needs to perpetuate. But hacking obviously is not only about doing the instituted “a favor” as it is first and foremost about extorting some of the latter’s promise and ensuring a part of the desired future. As a first generation of hackers would say, it’s about “unleashing the powers” of vectors… But when we hack the specificity of art, for instance in the name of extensive compatibility, do we not bring into play and execute the dialectic between institution and destitution which is at the very heart of the constitution of the act? It can be said that without a hack – in the broad sense of a destituting force – nothing can be done, and no event (in the sense of a rupture in pure mechanical predictability) would ever occur. Hacking is not and does not aspire to be autonomous. We need the instituted if we are to act, but as the instituted hinders and delays the action, it takes a moment of destitution to make the flow fluid again and release the unforeseeable. It can be said that this double structure of any constituted body is the driving force of the dialectic and what makes it possible.
Perhaps it would be useful to clarify what we mean by the instituted that is to be hacked if we are to get a better understanding of what we mean by “hacking”. Language, for instance, is instituted: it is an institution that allows communication but uses our words to preserve its identity over time. Speaking, however, falls under the hacking practice (well, in the best case scenario!). Speaking is done spontaneously. It is a moment when subjectivity breaks or hacks language and becomes apparent. But if the instituted side becomes exorbitant, communication is obstructed and we end up with stereotyped and reified sentences. Of course, if hacking was to become autonomous and the destituting side was to achieve its ends, thus destituting language through speech, communication would not happen at all. But again, hacking is not aimed at creating autonomy (even if it is done with full autonomy, it goes without saying!) and does not fall under a specific action. It is simply about getting – through play – into any activity (including art) which claims specificity in order to release and increase its compatibility.
To me, an art school student, hacking first of all means: to go out of your workshop and beyond your practice in order to comprehend and question the place, function and organization of the art school as a complex system that I find important to learn to decipher. Then comes the time to work on (re)programming: which languages, situations, relationships, actions are to be proposed in the face of dominant models?
“We are not trying to go against the school. We are trying to deconstruct the school within us. We are not against the school. It contains something that we like, and something that we do not like – it may be its didactic part, its production-driven part, or its interventionist part. Perhaps there is nothing we can do about it, perhaps there is no answer, but at least we are wondering. We are therefore neither pro-school nor anti-school, but alter-school. We are looking to build or discover truancy, invisible or stealth schools. We think about the possibility of being in the periphery of its gaze, of occupying its margins, of going beyond the interior framework. We seek to use school as a study tool, we seek to understand what is just like society in it. It’s not about waging war on authority, it’s about understanding what makes it possible, and trying to find tools to play with it or remove it. We know that the school is but a sandbox in comparison to the desert that grows outside.”
Regarding the line of research, I agree with the Hacking Practices team on the idea that the hacking gesture is a creative one. It is a cloudy and ambiguous notion, a transitive verb that entails precise techniques and territory knowledge in order to target and achieve concrete objectives. Starting by questioning and unlearning, but also providing yourself with a power to act and confront, deciding to take off, diverting, regrouping, co-creating, learning individual and collective commitment, making tools and languages, developing alternative networks are all possible hacker methods.
On-the-fly-compilation is a series of facsimiles of a selection of pages from my Master’s thesis Du pain sur la planche (2019), which is available below in PDF format. The extracts provided here for Hacking Practices operate like an intermediate representation (bytecode) in computer language that is reinterpreted when executed. In other words, I wanted to offer a feedback, a rereading and personal critical rewriting of the workshops and inter-student gatherings that I attended in Paris, Cherbourg and Quimper between 2016 and 2018, after Avignon and Châlon. It is both a visual and documentary contribution to be added to the corpus of archives and collective and/or anonymous works produced during and after the inter-student gatherings. Regarding this work, I share Edouard Glissant’s hope (Introduction à la poétique du divers): “I hope that, upon reading, the feeling of a research prevails, be it an uneasy or wandering one, and not that of an inward-looking system”.
Some of the source principles of hacking that I retain are free software, with an open source code that can be transformed, shared, modified and copied without proprietary control or exclusivity, and the need and quality to always adapt and update in a second phase, to allow the development of other possibilities by activating and reacting to programs, their evolution and their flaws.
Before answering this question, let’s start by recalling what hacking is. For professor and researcher Gabriella Coleman, a feminist hacker (the term feminist hacker is used in this text to reflect the epistemic practice of many feminist technology collectives) is “a technologist with a penchant for computing” and hacking is “a clever technical solution arrived at through non-obvious means” (Coleman, 2014 :1). This definition goes well beyond the popular conception of the hacker persona. Indeed, our perception of hacking is largely influenced by movies and the media, which depict the hacker as either a teenager who lurks in his parents’ basement and manages to uncover a computer security loophole in order to demonstrate his talent, or a criminal trying to get your credit card number.
Women researchers working on feminist hacking practices draw on Coleman’s definition, but expand the concept by going beyond computing (Nguyen, Toupin et Barzell 2016; Fox, Ulgado, et Rosner, 2015). They identify three main feminist hacking practices: 1) the development of autonomous feminist infrastructure, 2) body hacking, and 3) the practice of feminist hacking to fight against gender-based violence.
The development of autonomous feminist infrastructure:
In the last few years, feminist hackers have started developing their own technological infrastructure in order to meet their needs and desires. They did so as a reaction to the fact that the Internet has become a centralized space of consumption, surveillance and control of dissenting voices. For them, the battle of the Internet does not only take place at a discursive level, but also and perhaps even more at a technological materiality level. To talk about the materiality of technology is to talk about the Internet’s invisible infrastructure (such as data centers, servers, submarine cables, etc.). Moreover, to acknowledge the materiality of technology is to understand the life cycle of technologies, from mineral extraction to the assembly of said technologies and the technological waste that ensues. Highlighting this materiality emphasizes the impact of technology on the environment, social matters and neocolonial relations between countries of the Global South and the Global North. When they talk about “infrastructure”, they include the source code, software, hardware, spaces such as hackerspaces, social and technical solidarities as well as people. An infrastructure is also composed of people or a “people as infrastructure” (Simone 2004), a notion which expands our understandings of infrastructure from that which is usually characterized by physical terms such as systems of highways, pipes, wires, or cables to that which focuses on people’s activities. They use the term “autonomous” and increasingly the term technological sovereignty » to express self-determination against a system of production and values they describe as capitalist, racist and patriarchal. Let’s focus on concrete instances of autonomous feminist infrastructure. First, there is the creation of feminist hackerspaces. Such spaces allow technofeminists including queer and trans people to meet in order to discuss feminist hacking, to work on individual or collective projects and to organize training workshops, free software support workshops, and other thematic workshops of all kinds. Feminist hackers also designed and maintain feminist servers such as AnarchaServer or SysterServer. There are feminist servers in several European and Latin American countries. These servers host feminist content and provide services such as applications designed to host WordPress websites, mailing lists, email services and IRC channels, among others. All this infrastructure is developed and maintained by and for feminists.
Body hacking :
This feminist hacking practice regards gender or the human body as a technology that can be hacked, or transformed. There are many body hacking practices. First, gynepunks, are a group of queer feminist hackers that brought (back) to light reproductive justice practices. For instance, one purpose of these practices is to control one’s fertility through menstrual extraction techniques or the development of DIY emergency gynecological kits that any woman can use if need be. Academic Laura Forlano (2016) identifies with the practice of body hacking through her discourse on her diabetic body. Using self-ethnography, she describes her life from the moment she discovered she was a Type 1 diabetic, a condition that forces her to use an insulin pump and a continuous glucose monitor on a daily basis. She identifies as a feminist hacker since the only way for her to stay alive is if her flesh, bones and blood constantly coordinate with sensors, tubes and other external devices.
Finally, feminist hacking practices have developed to fight against sexism and violence, particularly online. Feminist hackers refute the stance according to which online violence is only caused by a few “bad apples” rather than a consequence of systemic patriarchal practices. For instance, feminist hackers deal with Twitter trolls by sharing lists of blocked trolls with other users through the (Block Together) feature, or by using the (Block Bot), feature to block known stalkers. Finally, feminist hackers can analyze the links between their Twitter attackers thanks to the Foxxydoxing script.
What is the relationship between feminist hacking practice and technological, environmental and social justice ?
Feminist hacking makes visible several forms of exploitation that are directly connected to the use of digital technology. This practice aims to denounce mineral exploitation in conflict zones and unacceptable working conditions in manufacturing plants, as well as decisions related to the management of electronic waste (landfilling or burning of technological material). The feminist hacking practice takes into account the materiality of technology, that is the life cycle of technologies. Therefore, the impact of technology on the environment, social matters and neocolonial relations between the countries of the Southern and Northern hemispheres is known. This is one of the reasons why autonomous feminist infrastructure is designed to minimize the encountered contradictions.
Where is feminist hacking practiced ?
Feminist hacking takes place both online and offline (AFK or Away from keyboard). In the last few years, feminist hackers have decided to create spaces that meet their desires. These spaces are known as feminist hackerspaces, where various women, queer and trans people meet to hack, talk or organize training workshops such as feminist encryption courses (femcrypts), dance sessions to understand encryption (cryptodance) or cell phone unlocking (jail breaking) (Goldenberg 2014; Savic & Wuschitz 2018; Toupin 2014). Researcher Maxigas (2012) identifies two types of spaces where hackers meet: hackerspaces and hacklabs. This research shows that hacklabs (for instance the Lag in Amsterdam) are way more politicized than hackerspaces (Technologia Incognita is an example of a hackerspace) and therefore attract audiences with distinct goals and ideologies. Projects emerging from these spaces are also influenced by each and everyone’s ideologies. Besides hackerspaces and hacklabs, other types of spaces have developed frantically over the last few years such as fablabs and makerspaces, thus giving everyone the possibility to become a “maker” and have access to machines that would otherwise be too expensive for the average citizen (Braybrooke & Smith 2018). Several women researchers reckon that makerspaces are often more welcoming and open to women so they prefer them to “traditional” hackerspaces that may look like “boys clubs” (Reed 2018). Eventually, biohacklabs have allowed DIY biologists or citizens to experiment and share scientific knowledge (Delfanti 2013). The gynepunk lab where a DIY feminist gynecology is practiced is the example that resembles the most a feminist biohacklab.
What is the role of feminist futurotopias ?
For a long time, hackers and feminist hackers have been drawing some of their inspiration from science fiction novels. For instance, William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer (1984) has influenced the development of the World Wide Web. Moreover, the imaginaries of many hackers and feminist hackers as well as feminist hacking practices are still influenced by women writers such as Ursula Le Gouin and Octavia Butler. Afeminist futurotopia methodology was developed through feminist hacking practices partly as a reaction to the dystopian observation that the Internet and our technologies have become consumption, surveillance and control tools. This methodology was designed to decolonize our minds and allow those who develop technologies and/or feminist hacking practices to create new collective imaginaries. Feminist activist, researcher and technologist SpiderAlex in particular has created a methodology designed to organize workshops on feminist technologies’ speculative writing. The purpose of these workshops is to rethink feminist, appropriate, ancestral, sovereign, autonomous, liberating and anticapitalist techniques and technologies speculatively.
Where are the Women, Queer and Trans Hackers ?
In early scholarship about hackers, two gender-related questions were often posed: Where are the women hackers? Why are there so few women hackers? The invisibility or absence of women in hacking was often explained by their less deviant minds: women were just less interested in hacking into computer systems. What we however know today is that women’s contributions to the field of computing and hacking have been erased and made invisible (See What happens when women’s contribution to science and technology becomes visible? for a longer explanation). But while scholars were trying to figure out why women were largely absent from the hacking scene, filmmakers were already prefiguring the persona of the female and feminist hacker. Filmmakers were actively creating an imaginary around female and feminist hackers and in turn offering a social commentary on the kind of hacking they were involved in.
Hackers in films and their impact
Before turning our attention to female or feminist hackers in films, how did hackers come to be in movies in the first place? The increase presence of hackers in films in the 1990s can be attributed to a number of highly mediatised events ranging from the famous Crypto Wars to the arrest of hackers and phone phreakers such as Kevin Poulsen and Kevin Mitnick (Levy 2002). However, as early as 1983, the film WarGames was released. In her book Cached: Decoding the Internet in Global Popular Culture (2013) Stephanie Ricker Schulte demonstrates the importance of the film WarGames in the United States first at the policy making level, and second, at the level of social imaginary. Policy makers used the film in an attempt to avoid a “WarGames scenario” and in an attempt to regulate computer networking, which included definitions of illegal computer infiltration and punishments to those caught in the process (2013: 21). Schulte also argues that the film created a social imaginary and a discourse around who were hackers (teenagers) and what were their technical capabilities (inadvertently triggering a nuclear bomb).
How are women and feminist hackers and their hacking practices portrayed in films ?
While earlier films portrayed white cisgender women as hackers, films made since 2011 have been more diverse and are more likely to feature women, people of colour and transgender or queer characters (Fast and Furious includes a Black female hacker while the protagonist of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a queer woman). In the 1990s and early 2000s, films that featured female hackers largely followed the same storyline: women helped fight against hackers who behaved as criminals (such as stealing money, for instance). In Hackers (1995), a young Angelina Jolie plays a high school student who, with her group of male friends, reveals the plot of a criminal hacker who designed a computer virus to salami slice millions of dollars from companies. In the film The Net (1995), the hacker played by Sandra Bullock fights against a cyberterrorist group that has stolen her identity. Her computer skills, intelligence, and courage allow her to solve the mystery and reveal the malicious intentions of the cyberterrorist group. In many of these films, the depiction of hackers, including women hackers, largely corresponds to the mainstream stereotype: someone who is asocial and atypical, but who has exceptional computer skills. In Coleman’s (2004) article, The Hacker Conference: A Ritual Condensation and Celebration of a Lifeworld, this myth of asociability is challenged by exploring the sociability of hackers through the ritual of the conference. Recently, in addition to a few women of colour, queer and transgender people have started to be portrayed as hackers (Sense 8, Fast and Furious 7 and Mr. Robot). These new female characters also tend to be presented in films as the lead hacker (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Kahaani and Fast and Furious 7) or, on television, as integral to a team. The scenario we now tend to see, at least in films, are feminist hackers battling violence, rather than necessarily the criminal hackers they were fighting in the 1990s. Feminist hackers are often depicted as using their hacking skills to oppose various forms of violence, including violence against women. In other words, the function of hacking for feminists in films seems to have expanded. This expanded role is apparent in the Indian film Kahaani (2012) and in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011). Kahaani features Vidya Bagchi, a pregnant Indian woman who has travelled from London, UK, to Kolkata, India, to unravel a mystery. A few years earlier, a poison gas attack on the Kolkata metro system killed many passengers; among the dead was Bagchi’s husband. In the film, Bagchi is a software engineer, referred to as a hacker, who navigates a world of men: Indian police officers, Intelligence Bureau Officers, and the villains who have carried out the terrorist attack. We see her cleverly and hackerishly pursuing her investigation, not only revealing the identities of the terrorists—among them governmental officials—but also killing those who were responsible for the attack. It is thanks to her strong computer skills and her fearless investigation in Kolkata that she is able to uncover the truth. The American film The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo features Lisbeth, a 23-year-old queer woman, who is presented as a highly skilled computer hacker. She is portrayed as a mentally unstable young woman who is subjected to rape and sexual abuse by a male social worker who is supposed to protect her as a ward of the state. Owing to her elite computer skills, she is hired to work with a journalist who is investigating the disappearance of a young woman. Lisbeth is essential to unravelling the mystery of the missing woman and she also saves the journalist from death at the hands of a serial rapist. In general, the representation of feminist hackers in films and TV series has been a positive one. They might break the law or take fate into their own hands, as they do in Kahaani and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but audiences are usually encouraged to feel sympathy for them and their purpose. Women, especially queer and transgender women, experience more violence than cisgender men in society because of systemic violence, and so the targets of their hacking are often related to this particular issue. The same can be said for people of colour. For cisgender, transgender, and queer women, hacking might function as a new tool in their toolbox to fight against violence. These onscreen depictions highlight the freedom, agency, and benefits that elite technical skills might afford to all women.
What happens when women’s contribution to science and technology becomes visible ?
In Western countries, the percentage of women in the field of computer science specifically, and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) more generally, is not only low, but has dwindled since the 1980s. The historical contribution of women in computing has recently received increased visibility, powerfully demonstrating that women have played important roles in the field (See below for Ensmenger 2003, 2012; Grier 2005; Hicks 2017; Light 1999). Making visible this history of women’s contribution to computing might have an effect not only on reversing the trend of women in STEM, but also on the ways in which feminist hackers and computer geeks are represented in the media and in popular culture. Already in 1999, Jennifer Light’s article When Computers Were Women stressed that the historical contribution of women in technology had been unacknowledged. Light notes the existence of feminized jobs in the sciences from at least the late 19th century (1999). This is echoed by the book When Computers Were Human, in which David Alan Grier (2005) examines the role of women as the first human calculators. Highly educated women were prohibited from a scientific profession, but it was nevertheless they who performed the unappreciated computational labour of science. Referencing Margaret Rossiter, Jennifer Light outlines some of the conditions that facilitated women’s work in technology, particularly during wartime, including a pool of educated women and the absence of men. Moreover, she argues that the celebration of women as part of the war effort did not challenge gender roles. Instead the representation of women in technology and science during wartime was appropriately feminine and framed as domestic work for the nation. She also notes that media reports did not acknowledge the contribution of women—even those who were highly technically skilled and essential to projects such as ENIAC, one of the earliest electronic general-purpose computers. As a result, their contribution to the field of technology was largely erased by those at the top of the professional hierarchy, by the media, and by computing historians who believed that those in lower status occupations could not be innovative. She argues that looking at primary sources—the words of women themselves—brings to light a hidden history. In Computer Boys Take Over: Computers, Programmers, and the Politics of Technical Expertise, Ensmenger (2012) also examines the historical association of men with computing. During World War II, women were involved in the military computer projects ENIAC in the United States and Colossus in the United Kingdom. While the leaders of these projects were men, it was women who were executing the operations and entering codes into the machines. The women working on these two military programs were in fact engaged in programming, a field, which, at that time, was recognized as a low-level type of clerical work. But the men who built the machines have often been represented historically as the sole contributors to the field of computing. Writing about how the computer industry successfully associated masculinity with computing, making women and their historical contributions invisible, Ensmenger (2003) notes : “The association of masculine personality characteristics with inherent programming ability helped create an occupational culture in which female programmers were seen as exceptional or marginal. Only by behaving less “female” could they be perceived as being acceptable. Many women still did continue to be hired as programmers and other computer specialists, but they did so in an environment that was becoming increasingly normalized as masculine.” (Ensmenger 2003: 129)
In her book Programmed inequality, Mary Hicks (2017) argues that computerization has been designed as a project built on a type of labour organisation that reproduces a sexualized division of labour. She concludes her book wondering whether the increase number of women and girls with programming skills will simply succeed in flooding the market and creating a feminized sphere of computer labour rather than changing social and economic inequalities (2017). This short historical context on the invisibility of women’s contribution to computing and their involvement in hacking helps to explain some of the main assumptions that are embedded in contemporary culture. By understanding the forces at play in erasing the contributions of women in science and technology gives us the tools to contest the narratives we usually hear in the media or in popular culture regarding women in computing and in hacking.
Black Hacking: From the riot of objects to scattered properties
As we finish editing this text, the murder of George Floyd – an African American man killed by a police officer in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020 – is producing an unprecedented movement of protest against racism and police brutality all around the world. These themes and the question of the representation and circulation of images of violence against Black people largely pervade this text, which we therefore decided to keep as such in order to emphasize the continuity of this necropolitical history.
Towards a critical milieu
This series of notes was imagined at the invitation of Karine Lebrun who, within the framework of the “hacking practices” research line of the European School of Art of Brittany, asked me to reflect on the experience of the Black Code Sessions, one of which took place in Rennes in November 2016.1 This text was conceived from the dual perspective of a producer – of films with political and critical ambition – and curator – as the first Black Code Session was held at a place where I was artistic director from 2004 to 2018: Espace Khiasma in Les Lilas (93). Besides what it attempts to explore in the particular regimes of representations of Black bodies (( This text belongs to a series of essays dealing with scenes of minority representation that attempts to imagine a specific form of “Black Life Cinema”. See: Marboeuf, Olivier, Those who hold a wake for negro images, in the 12th Bamako Photography Festival’s reader, Archive Books, Berlin, 2019. See also Vers un cinéma déparlant (une hypothèse Caraïbe), Presses Universitaires de Rennes, Rennes, 2021.)), this short essay also questions the nature of the activity and the critical potential of a so-called creative producer – that is to say a producer whose scope of intervention is not limited to finding financing for a film, taking on the organization of its production and then its conditions of distribution, but who is also involved in structuring its content in various ways. To me, creative producers are thus assigned a somewhat uncomfortable dual function: that of witness and partner – considering the latter in its friendly sense, but also its criminal connotation. In a sense, they are particular witnesses to the scene of a crime they are involved in, which is why they are both present and silent. However, it seems to me that creative producers occupy a position with particularly interesting critical potential regarding films which circulate at the intersection of contemporary art and research cinema – that is, part of an economy of knowledge rather than an industry. That is because they are in a position to bring events and knowledge back into the discursive space where they may not be found naturally if we only consider the work as it appears as a finished product and articulated discourse – sometimes an even strategically armed one.
Throughout this text, we will see that it is possible to grasp a wider political spectrum and to critically rewrite cultural productions in the space from which they extract their resources if we go from the heart of the work to its suburbs, from the events that accompany its production to those provoked by its distribution. And we shall also see to what extent its extractions and their transformation into capital pose a general problem on the one hand, and a particular problem on the other hand when said resources come from minority cultural forms.
The second persona of this perspective is the contemporary art curator, a term that evokes care, but that I choose to problematize through attention here. What should curators pay attention to? I would posit that they are often excluded from part of the work’s production and distribution process, and that they focus on a specific segment situated in space and time – whereas creative producers can follow the life of a work over a long period of time. It seems to me that the curator’s challenge is to create a precise milieu in which the work will circulate, a sequence. Here, I will pay attention to what this circulation causes and how it affects the reception of the work. In this text, I will not have the opportunity to dwell on the discursive devices of contemporary art, on the way they have slowly moved towards those of the university through the form of the seminar, and I will focus more specifically on the workshop’s potential as a mode of conversation within works and not only about them. This will lead us to consider the Black Code Sessions as forms of assemblies that produce what I will later call unproduced versions of a film.2 And what’s important is that these versions appearing after the making of a film and after an interruption in its distribution are not seen as resolutions for any of these two events to which they are obviously linked. It is not about correcting a film but imagining from it, and here even partly from what it is not.
Although this text is based on a film – Black Code / Code Noir by Louis Henderson – I must admit that the path that I will try to follow is based on the observation that film festivals very rarely succeed in constituting critical milieus and that, on the contrary, they have developed exponentially on the principle of rapid circulation of an ever-increasing film flow that nothing seems to be able to interrupt – except for the disruptive powers of a virus; and the coming years will tell if said virus had a persistent effect on the ecology of this activity.As of now, this flow is accompanied by the brief question-and-answer ritual that serves as debate after the screenings and that exposes directors as the sad trophies of an economy of visibility. Yet, despite the thinness of their critical apparatus, festivals can sometimes undergo forms of interruption, i.e. a brutal change of milieu which sometimes violently leads to situations of thought. Here I will choose to welcome these interruptions as vital hacks, grains that slow down the flow, and I will try to imagine my proposals after these untimely presences and not against them, that is to say with some form of pursuit in mind.
Through this text and others, the pursuit is the critical motif that I would like to assign to creative producers as an opportunity to return to the scene of a past work that they know particularly, and to re-examine its conditions, limits, circumstances while always remaining partners and witnesses to what they’re watching and perceiving.3 This opens the possibility of another story and another critical temporality. Therefore, the form of this text wavers between a film’s impossible narration, digressions on missing objects, hypotheses on representation and cultural appropriation, an attempt to describe past events, and finally, an escape into the imaginary of assemblies as a possible future.
Heritage, treasures, trash cans and cine-tracts
I began to awaken to the reality that our criminal justice system functions now more like a system of racial and social control, than a system of crime prevention. We use our criminal justice system to label people of colour criminals. As a criminal you have scarcely more rights and arguably less respect than a Black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial cast in America, we have merely redesigned it.
Fragment of a speech by Michelle Alexander in Black Code / Code Noir (2015) by Louis Henderson.4
The starting point of our critical adventure is the film Black Code / Code Noir by the English director Louis Henderson. Here is the synopsis thatwas written for the release of this short film in 2015:5
Black Code/Code Noir brings together temporally and geographically disparate elements into a critical reflection on two recent events: the murders of Michael Brown and Kajieme Powell by police officers in Missouri, USA, in 2014. Taking an archaeological perspective on these murders, the film looks at the existing material and travels through history to capture the complex origins of such tragedies. Arguing that behind this present situation is a sedimented history of slavery preserved by the Black Code laws that were written in the 17th century for the colonies in the Americas, the film claims that these codes have transformed into the algorithms that now guide the analysis of police Big Data and the necropolitical control of African Americans. Through a historical détournement towards a past-future, this project focuses on the animist origins of the Haitian Revolution as the symbol for a future hope. If the Black Code was the original form of algorithmic governance, then the Haitian Revolution was the first instance of its hacking. Could this imaginary still manage to deconstruct this code through hacking?
This synopsis exists in different versions, and those announcing the Black Code Sessions in particular introduce both the notions of cine-tract and urgency while retaining the essence of the film’s description.
Urgently made in 2015, Black Code/Code Noir is a cine-tract that was assembled in reaction to the deaths of Michael Brown and Kajieme Powell, two young African Americans killed by police…
Just like the term cine-tract, the introduction of the concept of assemblage tends to move the artist’s gesture towards an imaginary inspired by activist cinema. Most of the presentation also remains very close to the first version of the synopsis. It should be noted that it does not tell anything about the specific temporalities and contexts of the two terms that make up the film title – and which may thus incorrectly look like synonyms. Although the dates of the two codes do open the film itself – allowing us to appreciate their territories of application and especially the two relevant periods separated by two centuries – Black Code/Code Noir is more interested in the intersection of those two codes – the criminalization of Black lives – than in their particularity. However, I find it necessary to begin this analysis by recalling some of them, even briefly.
The Code Noir is a French royal edict; its first version dates back to 1685. It came into application that same year in Martinique and Guadeloupe, then in 1687 in Saint-Domingue – sometimes with significant text variations – and finally in 1704 in French Guiana. The edict of 1685 filled a legal vacuum since slavery had been unknown in France for several centuries, but was in fact established in the French West Indian islands since at least 1625. One of the code’s most important provisions sealed the fate of mixed-race people. Children of slaves – most often people with at least a slave mother – became slaves in their turn. Masters thus had to marry female slaves and accept responsibility for their descendants. Likewise, it was on this sole condition of marriage that free people – White people and people of color alike – could confer the status of free men and women upon their children. One of the most noteworthy aspects of the Code Noir is that it legitimized and even defined the punishments to be meted out to slaves – in particular to runaways whose escape interrupted the economic process of the plantation. Violence was thus graduated and organized by a legal framework which, on paper, fell under royal law and not under domestic practices. But in reality, what was left to the masters’ discretion was broad enough for the whip to set the rhythm of everyday life on plantations. However, the Code Noir should be seen as a state attempt to maximize the mercantile economy of the islands – especially the economy of sugar and coffee, for which France was aiming for leadership in Europe. In this respect, limiting the number of free people through the control of interbreeding strategies like legalization but also the codification of violence against slaves are to be understood from a profit perspective first – the code was an operating guide to get the most out of one’s slave “possessions”. Finally, the few rights granted to slaves – day of rest, baptism – allowed the nobility to bring this framework of radical exploitation into line with the great principles of Catholicism.
The Black Codes – also called Black Laws – appeared much later in the United States. At the end of the Civil War that pitted the North against the South from 1861 to 1865, the victory of the northern states particularly led to the abolition of slavery in the whole country, according to a proclamation made by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. This was a hard blow for the South where slavery was still very deeply rooted in the economy, as well as in the social and political life. The states of South Carolina and Mississippi enacted the first Black Codes in the early hours of the Reconstruction era that followed the Civil War, around 1865. They were designed to restrict the recently acquired freedom of nearly four million African American slaves and to ensure that the latter remained available as cheap labor. Among other things, enslaved people were restricted in their movement and civil rights, and they were forced to have a work contract to avoid falling under the laws that criminalized vagrancy. In addition to poor and disempowered workers, these laws created a potential criminal life form that would legitimize the continuity of a history of racial violence. The essence of the Black Codes spirit continued to apply for almost a century in the South through the “Jim Crow laws” and was only interrupted by the Civil Rights Movement which, over the course of a long struggle going from the 1950s to the end of the 1960s, particularly gave Black people the right to vote and equality before the law – at least on paper. Yet, although that struggle was a breakthrough, the climate of the Jim Crow laws still looms over many African Americans’ lives today, as the writer and journalist Michelle Alexander points out about the US prison system in an excerpt from a speech we quoted above and that appears in Louis Henderson’s film.
Therefore, the “/” in the film title is to be considered as a first effect of editing and of spatio-temporal contraction, as the announcement of a method that is specific to the filmic vocabulary of Henderson’s visual essay. Black Code / Code Noir thus assembles different codes and situations. On the one hand, the Black Code as the landscape and climate of different forms of exploitation and death of Black people from the abolition of slavery in the United States to the murderous incidents in Missouri in 2014; incidents in which we find the pattern of the potential danger of – yet unarmed – Black men and the question of legitimate violence that made up Jim Crow laws’ climate. On the other hand, the Code Noir like the one that defined the legal violence imprinted on the bodies of slaves in the French West Indies more than two centuries before Jim Crow. In order to refine the intersection between both codes, it could also be pointed out that the definitive abolition of slavery in the French colonial territories in 1848 came with a series of laws that fought vagrancy in a way that was quite similar to the system of Black Codes. Criminalizing former slaves who had become citizens, denying them the exercise of their rights as well as any form of material autonomy were, so to speak, the law in the shadow of great declarations and ceremonies.
It is indeed the primitive code of the edict of 1685 that was broken by the Haitian Revolution which started in 1791 in a process of struggle against the French colonial army. This struggle, which notably involved rebellious slaves who had fled the plantations, gave rise to the first ever independent Black Republic in 1804, more than forty years before the abolition of slavery in the other French colonies and sixty years before its abolition in the United States – although, as I pointed out earlier, both were immediately followed by laws limiting the exercise of newly acquired freedom. From this point of view, it is indisputable that the Haitian Revolution not only hacked the colonial influence of one of the greatest powers of the time, but that it also hacked the official historical narrative of abolition. The latter gives pride of place to the generosity of Westerners at the expense of the continuity of struggles aiming to break away from slavery that took many forms from the very beginning of the plantation economy and ended up making it less profitable – and therefore less defensible. Although Henderson’s film deals with this motive for fighting, it leaves Haiti in the stage of a ghostly and phantasmal apparition whose revolutionary power does not seem to be examined in the present of the island and of its population.6
Black Code / Code Noir therefore presents an archipelago of episodes of struggle assembled in a short film – 21 minutes – according to a series of rapid movements in space and time. They recall the principles of hypertext cinematographic writing where one literally jumps through an image to reach another. Because, just like the director’s two previous films – All that is Solid (2014) and Lettres du voyant (2013) – Black Code / Code Noir is part of an aesthetic project intimately linked to the Internet. The Internet which is seen as both a mine and a trash can;7 as a space for extracting affects, fiction and friction; as toxic ecology rather than virtual economy; as both a mausoleum and a mass grave. Also, as a space of appropriation, accumulation and saturation. Black Code / Code Noir travels from window to window, from the Place de la Bastille in Paris to fragile shadows dancing in a nocturnal Vodou ceremony,8 from cell phones filming a murder to the on-board cameras of the New York police, from CGI reconstructions of crime scenes to the victims’ digital tombs, from riots to speeches made by the big NICT firms’ bosses, from captive bodies in a photograph of cotton fields to the woman looking directly at the camera and saying the names of the great heroes of the Haitian Revolution one by one, like a powerful mantra of emancipation.
A 2.0 cine-tract, Black Code / Code Noir ventures into the aesthetics of the din, at once power and annihilation of and through the image, shadowless dialectic and time without respite. In addition to the speed of digital flows, Henderson’s editing takes full advantage of the aesthetics of windows as a visual expression of multitasking and the fragmented emotional state of humans in the era of connected computing. Windows as entries in and to stories, images, but also as concomitance and sometimes overlapping of images and stories, one by the other. Although the process succeeds in expressing a state of confusion, it runs the risk of putting all sources on the same level as possible “resources” according to an economy of quotation – here quoting is equivalent to showing – which would be questionable and which will be brutally disputed later on regarding the exposure of Black morbidity. As we shall see, what can be shown and/or hidden depends on a situated practice, and the question of the situation of the gaze, speech and thought takes a more complex turn when the position of enunciation is made up from the Internet. We will discuss the precariousness of the line that separates the committed witness from the avid spectator later.
Repetitions and interruptions
(…) and I can’t stand watching the plague of telly dramas where young women are butchered by psycho serial killers and end up on a slab with their torso slit open down the middle with a coroner holding their bloodied heart in their hands I used to love those shows, now I feel they’re ultimately a way to wield power over women, to frighten them – us Bernardine Evaristo, “Girl, Woman, Other”.9
At its world premiere in October 2015 at the New York Film Festival – just over a year after the Missouri murders – Black Code / Code Noir did not fail to trigger a reaction from the audience during the debate which followed the screening. One of the reasons is that its creator is a White English man who uses the perspective of the Internet to immerse himself in a particular history of the United States; a dark and painful history, an unresolved racial history. The distribution of this film in the form of a cine-tract then came up against a particular milieu – and a production history of the Black subject that is inseparable from its production as a slave-object, i.e. from a particular eye, under its reign and in the service of its enjoyment. The milieu that suddenly arose was that of a racialized audience – which did not need all spectators to be so. This audience spoke from the perspective of a body, a community10 that happened to be speaking through, and represented from an outside eye whose status of witness was being criticized. The film can thus be part of a discourse on cultural appropriation whose nature I would like to observe more closely, perhaps to look at a more singular part evoked by the film. First of all, I would like to separate cultural appropriation into two distinct but connected movements: extraction and capitalization. First, in order to say that any passage of cultural practices inscribed within a community in forms of life and transmission to a sign, an object, a cultural form as a capitalist market value proceeds from extraction. So this first movement is the marker of what is called “culture” in the liberal economy which is no longer a form for itself but an apparatus that stages and reifies experiences into merchandise. Extraction is obviously the prerequisite for any capitalization arising from the circulation of a form outside its strict community functions – and it can go as far as diverting the form’s very meaning, invisibilizing its political scope or the historical context of its appearance. Most of the time, extraction is experienced as an inevitability of globalization and the debate about cultural appropriation then essentially becomes a matter of negotiation among the wealthy. To put it in simple terms that echo the problem of representation/appropriation of Black existence, it is no longer about the properties of a situation, a form of life and a form of being, but about one’s property. The consequence of this conception of culture is that it produces owners and properties where there were not necessarily any – and we find a problem that is almost identical to that of land ownership imposed on indigenous cultures. In the end, the debate centers on the legitimacy to extract a cultural value from a set of life forms. Insofar as the life of many communities has become properly unlivable, that they have been destroyed, displaced or expropriated, the claim to cultural property can only be understood as a survival strategy, even if it derives from capitalism’s expansion to all possible margins and spaces.
Beyond the desire to denounce an American necropolitical economy, there is indeed a process of extraction and cultural capitalization at work in the form of Black Code / Code Noir, the benefits of which do not accrue to the concerned community. But there is something else that is much more specific to the film and this same community: an economy of death. That is because the cultural heritage of the African American community includes the question of its exposure to violent death which, as part of a long genealogy that goes from slavery to police brutality through scenes of lynching, has become more than a social fact: a sort of dark element of culture that composes and produces a particular body. Although this is a constitutive element, it poses a problem of representation that has to do with the destructive repetition evoked by the writer Bernardine Evaristo at the beginning of this chapter and that the academic Saidiya V. Hartman states as follows:
At issue here is the precariousness of empathy and the uncertain line between witness and spectator. Only more obscene than the brutality unleashed at the whipping post [where slaves are flogged, editor’s note] is the demand that this suffering be materialized and evidenced by the display of the tortured body or endless recitations of the ghastly and the terrible (…) By defamiliarizing the familiar, I hope to illuminate the terror of the mundane and quotidian rather than exploit the shocking spectacle. What concerns me here is the diffusion of terror and the violence perpetrated under the rubric of pleasure, paternalism, and property.
With these words, in which she tries to convey her narrative approach of American 19th-century slave scenes, Hartman places the representation of violence under conditions. Making the daily and hidden violence visible and above all manifest, while avoiding the display of the most radical punitive violence. This twofold assertion poses a major challenge to the apparatuses of critical representation of the violence perpetrated against Black people from those primitive scenes to today’s police brutality. And Hartman is right to expose the uncertain line between witness and spectator that over two centuries of image flow have blurred. This problematic becomes all the more acute inasmuch as a large part of the images in the film we are talking about comes from the Internet. As the question arises with the photographic archives of racist lynchings, what can we do with and against the images of police brutality perpetrated against Black people that end up on the Internet so that their toxicity is not redoubled and does not destroy the ambition of a resistance force?
But Hartman’s proposal has two meanings: there is the desire to leave the dazzling light of the spectacle of the most visible violence – the most recognized violence – to focus on everyday forms of violence – which, just like in the past, still threaten women’s lives in a more particular way, far from the public area, in the secret terror of the home. Hartman therefore calls for an economy of attention. A mere subtraction of the most unbearable part of primitive scenes and their replicas would not be enough to achieve the full realization of the representation she calls for. It will also be necessary to tackle the examination of underrepresented forms that make up a daily climate of unlivable lives. And in order to do so, to invent a relational regime and probably rites of representation that address this less spectacular violence. For works that commit to the representation of the Black body, its life and performance forms, Hartman’s operation clearly invites us to look at the world of captive lives with no value where this theater of violence is played out with particular intensity every day. In the field that concerns us here – the visual arts with a critical design – the question of the representation of violence must also go beyond the strict framework of artworks to engage lucidly in a criticism of their production and circulation’s ecosystems, that is to say their milieu. And this path brings us back to the preoccupations evoked at the beginning of this text. The critical adventure proposed by Hartman will really be undertaken on this condition in visual arts, probably far from an economy of strategic subtraction of violent images avoiding any contentious relationship. On the contrary, it will be necessary to confront the reluctance and harshness of relationships with those on whom the danger of death hangs, rather than endlessly celebrate Black heroes as the sole and sad litany of a comfortable critical scene.
Following Hartman’s path, we could also criticize the excerpt from Malcolm X’s speech used by Black Code / Code Noir:
[…] but then you had some field Negroes, who lived in huts, had nothing to lose. They wore the worst kind of clothes, they ate the worst food and they caused hell, they felt the sting of the lash. They hated their masters, oh yes they did! If the master got sick they’d prey that the master die. If the master’s house caught afire, they’d prey for a strong wind to come along. This was the difference between the two. And today you still have house Negroes and field Negroes. I’m a field Negro.
As impressive as Malcolm X’s eloquence is, the way he clearly separates the affects of the different categories of slaves – of Negroes – runs the risk of concealing the daily domestic violence to which house slaves were subjected. As the African American thinker and activist bell hooks brilliantly pointed out,12 this narrative is constructed at the expense of Black women – the majority in this category. It conveys the refusal to recognize the physical and emotional cost of care work as well as the constant exposure of female domestics to physical and sexual violence. For hooks, this makes up the patriarchal dimension of a large part of the emancipation movement, and one of its critical limitations. This situation exemplifies Hartman’s problematic of the representation of violence, which even conditions the political agenda of Black counter-power.
On the property of death
Let’s come back to the interruption that followed the New York screening of Black Code / Code Noir; I think that it composes a necessary form of hacking of a ghostly flow which wields power in a way that resists the trial by the image attempted by the film. The colonial specter and its power of appropriation persist and terrify at the same time, in a form of morbid echo. At that precise moment, a part of the film audience thus imposed conditions on its modes of appearance. The interruption put the visual arts back into the field of extractive practices. The criticism focused on the modes of commodification of Black lives and the way Black subjects – however heroic – are produced according to the modalities and laws of White subjects. So the challenge is not only to find a place in a capitalization circuit, but also to regain a social life sheltered from the production of certain gazes. To put it another way, it is not only about knowing who produces the gesture of representation – someone who may or may not belong to the community – but also knowing its destination – i.e. towards whom, towards what, where is this gesture going? And to know this according to the way the work states it, but also according to the economy and social life it outlines – and that does not always lead us to the same place.
The African American artist and filmmaker Arthur Jafa develops strategies of representation that are significantly different from that of Hartman in his work, which largely addresses the question of violence and death. In the famous video Love is the message, the message is death (2016), he uses a process of juxtaposition and saturation which takes the form of a musical assemblage of images that is reminiscent of Black Code / Code Noir’s logic of friction. But for Jafa, it is clearly about using images to fabricate a principle of equivalence between the Black body’s morbidity and exaltation that places it in a state of exception – and permanent urgency – a fundamentally ecstatic state, beside oneself and with no interiority, which condemns it to the most radical performances until reaching exhaustion. Jafa’s operation thus treats two forms of spectacular productions of the Black body – one morbid and the other one supernatural, hypersexual and heroic – in much the same way. Jafa somehow responds to the two reasons for the New York interruption. In terms of capitalization, he shows how much the “good Black images” contribute to the exceptionality of African Americans who have got to be powerful and desirable. In terms of violence and its representation, he responds differently to Hartman’s concerns by using saturation rather than subtraction. He tries to disturb the spectator’s position and make it unbearable, unsettling, obscene. Saturation is a camouflage method of Black cultures that has even been tested in language.13 Here more than elsewhere in his work, Jafa uses the power of delirium not as an object but as a mode of representation. For my part, I imagine the delirious film as a commitment to the political rupture of the reign of the reason – of the strongest – of which the most famous example remains Soleil Ô by Med Hondo.14 In the epic final scene of the Mauritanian director’s 1970 movie, the main character, a wandering immigrant who’s looking for his place in France, leaves the toxic and falsely benevolent atmosphere of a left-wing bourgeois table to get lost in a forest. And all the frustration that he has accumulated turns into a cry, like the only possible answer to open a new cycle, a revolutionary cry. The director deliberately concludes the film with “to be continued” instead of the word “end”, thus highlighting how much Black history has yet to be written from this noisy caesura.
Contrary to this rise in delirium which has to do with the powers of carnivalesque and political noise, one could also imagine a return to banality, a deconstruction of exceptionality as a mode of exposure to death – this return to banality cannot be totally confused with a desire for respectability or adherence to normative self-representations, even if the latter can be understood as responses to the permanence of terror. I will address this direction later on, but I note for now that this is my interpretation of the proposal made by the artist, teacher and researcher Karine Lebrun during the Black Code Sessions. As she shared a collection of photos of African Americans killed by the police, she enriched the picture chosen by the press and the justice system to represent the culprit with other, often softer portraits. She thus literally detached the victim from the visual evidence of their guilt, producing what I would call soft hacking. Here the term does not dispute the power and efficiency of the gesture, but on the contrary underlines its strategic delicacy. It is not a good heroic image that repairs, nor a counter-image, but once again an attempt to extend representation in order to take it out of its necropolitical exceptionality.
Towards rioting as a cultural form
Now that I’ve dealt with the potentialities of interruption, the criticism of appropriation and the limits of the representation of death, it seems important to me to come back to the question of mourning since it occupies a central part of the murderous episode chronicled in the film Black Code / Code Noir. I would say that living in mourning is both a Black cultural fact,15 and a Black cultural form that resists representation by going back inside – the body, the community. And my hypothesis is that the race riot – as an event most often initiated by murder – is the expression and paradoxically externalized form of this noisy return to the self, and therein a particular performance of mourning. The riot is then a radical interruption but also a political event and a cultural form of underrepresentation, a space for the formation and transmission of knowledge without an owner. It somehow hacks representation by emptying it or by opacifying its surface. Therefore, it violently exits the collection of objects of contemplation and escapes appropriation. It becomes “an instance of community of elements with no quality and no organizing principle, hierarchy or law (…) not a universal and unified object but a constellation of parts and properties.”16 Black rioting must be understood with this in mind, not only as a stretch reflex in the sense of a violent response, but also as a constituent element of the wake, a rite connecting different regimes of existence, different properties, the living and the dead, a necromancy that is already recomposing the community in a potential and secret future’s direction. This is why riots resist political or aesthetic representation, which amounts to the same in the Black tradition we are talking about. They are the space of (re)composition of the part which fled capture and escapes the object – the cultural object in particular. And these particular characteristics, this fleeting material, are what we will seek to animate later on in the assembly gestures.
Fighting for the good image or the good (re)presentation brings the Black life back in the logic of the White subject deciding which becomes an object or a subject, whereas real Black hacking would probably claim the opposite: an ecology of underrepresentation and a social life marked by underrepresentation, i.e. below what is grasped and discussed as a value. The mourning of a community is not representable – in the sense of a value circulated towards an exteriority – it is a particular space of transmission. It is from this question of representation and value that we can understand how Black rioting is literally indecipherable and unspeakable for traditional political forces.17
Pursuits and assembly hacking
As the distribution of the film Black Code / Code Noir was rolling along at a steady pace18 – despite the episode of the New York interruption – Louis Henderson and I started thinking about a specific mode of accompaniment and mediation for the film. We knew that debates were reduced to very short times in the context of festival screenings, and interruptions like the one that happened in New York were ultimately deprived of the necessary space that would make them really productive. To me, it was also necessary to construct an extended conversation space as we had experimented with at Khiasma for years, while adding a propositional principle to it; as the saying goes: no criticism without proposal.
Before presenting the protocol of the Black Code Sessions – and here we will essentially talk about the two sessions that took place in France – I find it important to highlight that these proposals are based on the gesture of speaking about the film/the film’s language from a situated perspective. In this case, this means speaking from the French context, its particularities, its history – particularly its imperial history, its affects and its apprehension of racial issues as political categories, a task that is known to come up against the powers of universalist discourse and the opacity of the citizen persona in France. And that, in two cities – Rennes and Les Lilas, in Seine-Saint-Denis – which do not make up the same environments and the same resonances regarding these issues. However, the question is not to speak from materials belonging to these contexts only, and the participants are not necessarily all locals or French, but they live in what I have chosen to call the French climate.
This is how we imagined the first Black Code Session at Espace Khiasma in Les Lilas (93) as part of Louis Henderson’s monographic exhibition, Kinesis (June 2 – July 3, 2016).
During this critical workshop, a group of guests, artists, researchers, filmmakers, was invited to reflect on the film Black Code / Code Noir in order to try to imagine what could be added or removed. Over the course of a day, as conversation went by, each participant proposed one or several audiovisual documents, images and texts which could critically extend the film.19 For a while, we had imagined that each iteration of the Black Code Sessions would be an opportunity to edit, produce and distribute a new version of the film, but the idea was quickly abandoned. Looking back, I don’t regret it. Black Code / Code Noir continues to circulate in a form close to that of 2015, which retains the essence of its purpose, its rhythm and its particular aesthetic, although the film has in fact been retouched and the images explicitly showing scenes of murders have been cut out, which does not quite allow us to understand the whole original controversy. In fact, the work of the Black Code Sessions acts more along the lines of what the artist Kader Attia means by reparation when he writes:
Repairing means, etymologically, in Western culture, returning to the original state, therefore denying injury. In traditional African and Asian societies and even ante-modern societies in the West, repairing meant that an injury was treated, and that repair was given an equally important role alongside the injury, in short, the injured object was given a second life.20
Rather than bringing multiple editing versions to life and distributing them online as we had envisioned for a while – according to the circular principle of sources returning to the Internet, where they had been extracted – the Black Code Sessions led to what I announced earlier in this text as unproduced versions of the film, which only exist ephemerally during an evening. So these sessions avoid the idea of resolving the film’s conflicts and focus on the pursuit of what it could be, like a series of potentialities without an owner. Thus, the Black Code Sessions assembly is not a collective voice that intends to reach an agreement, but a community of diverse coexisting properties. That is why these sessions led to a form of hacking that echoes that of the riot while responding to the issues of cultural appropriation – in particular by slipping away from the proprietary regime since in this case quotations are not destined to integrate an artistic object but common knowledge.
A Black Code Session is a two-stage event. One day of workshop in a closed group is devoted to discussing and clarifying the guests’ various proposals. The next evening, a choice of materials is presented again in public after the projection of Black Code / Code Noir. The apparatus acts in a cumulative and non-conclusive way – each speech, projection or reading is an opportunity to bring the fragment of a possible film into existence. Here, the idea of “reinterpreting” a conversation for the public presentation is an exercise that does not attempt to eliminate fragility. The various guests were not chosen for their eloquence, but as possible witnesses who agreed to take time to construct a proposal, i.e. hack the film by critically expanding and scattering its properties instead of interrupting its property. It is not a question of turning this moment of sharing into a “performance”. Guests sit with the public and speak from that place. This placement shifts the notion of stage as a focal point in favor of a space that incorporates the audience, an assembly with no center.
Let’s come back to some of the proposals without being exhaustive – since, as stated before, forming a work is not the aim of the Black Code Sessions. They are fundamentally more spread out, less concentrated, like an endless film that never stops expanding. And at the same time, they cannot be confused with conversations following a screening or even film study days because they make use of forms of pursuit and getaway instead of polite analysis and comments. So here I chronicle two of these moments with the desire not to freeze them. Let’s admit that they could be told in a completely different way, and that the order, assemblage or sound could be very different too.
The first Black Code Session took place on June 15, 2016 at Espace Khiasma in Les Lilas as part of Louis Henderson’s monographic exhibition, Kinesis.21 This exhibition was structured around two spaces dedicated to the films Black Code / Code Noir and The Sea is History,22 a documentation area – which comprised books, photocopied texts and a selection of projected films – as well as an installation made up of three screens connected to YouTube channels. This last piece consecrated the importance of music and music video in the aesthetics and imaginary of the artist’s work, an interest which can particularly be found in his way of assembling the film Black Code / Code Noir.
Among the guests, the historian Sophie Wahnich looked back at the writings of the French Revolution in order to outline more continuous and complex relationships between the debates in the Metropolis and the revolutionary struggle underway in Saint-Domingue, two political moments that she did not oppose as radically as Henderson’s film did. Jephthé Carmil, a doctoral student from Haiti, focused for his part on the persona of the Maroon. A hacker of slave capitalism par excellence, the Maroon fled, haunted, pillaged and terrorized the plantation. With his deeds and misdeeds, he contributed to making it less and less profitable economically and to building an imaginary of possible life outside its limits – a contribution that, as we noted earlier, was too often underestimated at the end of slavery. But beyond any romantic temptation, Carmil also dwelt on the Maroon’s fate in Haitian historiography. This figure of the revolted rabble was soon cast in the shadow of the pantheon of great heroes, only to be later celebrated by the noiriste regime of the Duvalier family – whose reign lasted from 1957 to 1986 – which erected the famous statue of the Unknown Maroon in 1967, blowing the conch to sound the revolt just when all popular protests were repressed in blood. The Maroon, the fugitive persona of an ever-forthcoming revolution, did not escape the political capture of the dictatorship’s tales. And the people’s desire to unbolt this statue symbolizing the struggle, all the while chasing Duvalier’s son away from power, found its source in the malicious appropriation of the history of the revolution. For the journalist and editor Pascale Obolo, as we shall see later with Frédéric Ekegue-Mve, an art student in Rennes,23 the hacking point of the dominant and necropolitical flow was probably to be found in rap culture, its disturbing personalities and its texts that create other narratives of the self and other words and rhythms from the colonial languages. The self-archive of undocumented workers from sub-Saharan Africa that the photographer and activist Bouba Touré constituted over several decades of struggle in France then looked like a powerful, utopian and yet non-heroic response to the need to (re)compose another story than that of the death and worthless lives of the African immigrants who rebuilt France after World War II. All of Touré’s work tends to thwart the imaginary of the desirable West and the waves of dazzled immigrants that come crashing against the harsh borders of a besieged fortress. It tries to outline the path back home which is also the path to rebuilding true autonomy, especially in terms of food.24 And as stated by the programmer Clémentine Dramani Issifou, this autonomy is also dependent on the ability to produce one’s own cinematic imaginary regarding the continent, which requires unearthing and transmitting the experiments and alternative narratives of African cinema. For their part, the filmmakers Silvia Maglioni and Graeme Thomson criticized the libidinal economy of riot images that may detach themselves from what they represent – the struggles – by dint of repetition – according to Hartman’s idea that repetition turns the witness into a spectator of scenes of violence, as mentioned earlier. In another proposal, the duo put in parallel two film trailers in which the main role is played by the same Black actor, Forest Whitaker. Whitaker embodies the slow empowerment of a dark hero in Jim Jarmush’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999), whereas he is entirely subject to his function in Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2013). So, although the same body is caught in two different power directions, it seems to take us back to the same need for life (or survival) represented by masquerade and a certain idea of preparation, rehearsal,25 projection towards a future to be conquered. It is a form of postponed life. Black performance can then be understood as a way of being – here we could say, of presenting yourself – without a presence / a present. Like a body living under control and waiting for its time. The trailers were also discussed as particular editing processes, which summarize and strengthen the meaning in the manner of the cine-tract economy. The formal audacity of the latter was also celebrated by the researcher Olivier Hadouchi – and Black Code / Code Noir tries to bring its legacy to light. Finally, as we mentioned earlier, the gesture initiated by Karine Lebrun’s chosen images was a form of hacking that diluted the visual strategies of the American police and justice system. By searching for and distributing images where victims of police brutality were represented in their daily lives and not as potential gangsters, she somehow drove away the image of the risk of death by saturating the representation with banality. Here too, the hack is anti-heroic since it develops a strategy of masking of different selves, which opposes the possibility of freezing individuals through portraiture, of targeting them.
Now that we’ve quickly reviewed the stories that intersected during the session in Les Lilas, let’s take some time to do a similar exercise for the one that took place in Rennes a few months later, in November 2016.
In Rennes, three proposals tackled computer and electronic codes more directly through hacks that diverted and reversed functions, and transferred the capacity to act. Their authors followed on from a tradition of hacking that uses the enemy’s powers for other purposes. The art student Jérémy Gispert explored alternative databases to those of the police. Created by activists, these databases feed a dynamic plan that no longer presents iterations of crimes, but situations of police brutality revealed by citizens themselves. This is a reversed perspective as legal and institutional violence becomes the dangerous body that needs to be monitored. The artist Thomas Marchal also proposed to divert uses, this time by deprogramming machines in order to make them produce other poetic potentialities. With his piece “esprits frappeurs”, the artist Thomas Tudoux engaged in a techno-animist gesture. He came back to the episode of the Vodou ceremony that inaugurated the Haitian Revolution and that he saw as a call on the dead to join the struggle of the living. He tried to express this transfer of energy from a diversion of the forms of numerology. He thus proposed “to awaken the power of the dead through a numerological activation of the spirit of the deceased by replacing the ‘life path’ with the ‘death path’. Each new dead person [then] joins the ranks of a phantom army in support of the resistance.”
The curator and art critic Raphaële Jeune and the art student Frédéric Ekegue-Mve focused on alternative stories based on the introduction of untimely personas that disturb – and sometimes interrupt – the framework of colonial history and postcolonial narratives. Anne-Marie Von Seck caught Raphaële Jeune’s attention. Von Seck – a name sometimes Gallicized as Fanesèque, but whose spelling is itself the subject of much speculation – was a young woman from Hamburg and one of the King’s Daughters, as we like to call the eight hundred or so young women sent from France to New France (a former colony of Canada) from 1663 to 1673 at the national treasure’s expense and at the behest of Louis XIV. They were to start a family there and thus contribute to solving the “settlement problems”. But the young Anne-Marie, who was only sixteen when she first set foot in the “New World” in 1673, was not one of those docile, hard-working women that the kingdom of France was hoping to send to its new distant province. She married twice and divorced her second husband who was a drunkard and a violent man – a divorce that was uncommon at the time – before leading a so-called dissolute life – prostitution was particularly evoked – punctuated by legal trouble, fines and even prison stays. By refusing to submit to a certain wife-mother economy and to the customs of the family in a logic of settlement, Anne-Marie Von Seck hacked the patriarchal project of Canada’s colonization. And as Raphaële Jeune pointed out, she regained possession of her life, her work capacity and her womb through this form of biohacking. On a different note, Frédéric Ekegue-Mve summoned the rapper Booba. Booba is a famous French rap figure, a member of the no less famous group Lunatic that comes from the department of Hauts-de-Seine, in the suburbs of Paris. Besides being now one of the most popular singers among young people from French working-class areas, he is also a successful entrepreneur who notably founded the street wear brand Ünkut. But behind his muscular physique, his manly look of a bandit wearing caps, his megalomaniac tendencies and his taste for challenges and provocations directed to those who have the audacity to think they might be his competitors, Ekegue-Mve sees Booba as the narrator of an off-center history of France and of a possible pan-African popular alliance embodied, for instance, by the music video for the song DKR, which was shot in 2016 in Dakar and in which he celebrates his Senegalese origins. Therefore, Booba is both a troublemaker and a bridge between the Black diasporas, and he breaks away from the desire for respectability imposed by the White gaze and power. He runs away from this eye and proclaims his own kingdom. The choreographer Morgane Rey continued the thread of this conversation that conveyed the struggle between the desire to speak and to tell about oneself from a Black perspective – Mohamed Ali, Harriet Tubman – and the dispossession of this speech by the violent production of the Black subject from White supremacy – which can be found in many of Donald Trump’s speeches. With this same narrative perspective in mind, the author and director Paloma Fernández Sobrino took us back to the pages of Diderot d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, published between 1751 and 1772, precisely at the “Negro” entry to see how this wild figure and radical otherness of humanity was described within the world of objects.26
Each idea and proposal of these assemblies found its place in vast diagrams, mental maps that showed the complex intertwining of conversations.
These diagrams composed free partitions by leaving all the arguments on view without synthesis. In the case of the Black Code Session hosted at Khiasma, this wall diagram remained visible throughout Louis Henderson’s Kinesis exhibition, like a trace, an echo. Left to the visitors’ interpretation near the room where Black Code / Code Noir was projected, this fresco became a special label that turned mediation into an exercise in divination and archaeology. Something happened – we don’t know what, but a vestigial and fragmentary trace remains, and visiting the exhibition then amounts to investigating a crime scene where the representation / repetition of death has been replaced by the narrative of a ghost event. What particularly interests me here is that the diagram also becomes a possible commentary on the place and not just an address to the film – in fact, it literally goes beyond the latter to develop a climate. And we know that police brutality, in addition to its concrete deadly power, is also a climate of death that some bodies perceive more intensely than others
In Rennes, the apparatus was different since it did not host a permanent exhibition – the workshop and a public showing took place at Le Phakt – centre culturel Colombier. The diagram, which was drawn live, was a form of ghostly double of the conversation which was (re)played in public.
As a provisional conclusion – since everyone is free to spearhead Black Code Sessions elsewhere and in some other way – we could resume the thread of successive hacking forms that this text goes through: from hacking within the film to the film’s Black hacking that led to its property’s interruption, to hacking from the film that follows and develops the scattering of properties. To me, this last gesture – that I would call assembly hacking – seems to go beyond the riot as a moment of overcoming death and to continue a thread of the particular relationship that the Black tradition has with the object from the primitive scene of slavery. This scene of reification requires thinking about particular strategies of becoming which, beyond the desire to exist as a whole and complete subject in the eyes of yesterday’s masters and according to their definition, could take the form of an escape from the object to recompose a material in which “the community of its contingent moments subsists”.27 Here, assembly hacking moves away from the critical conversations on the film to prefer possible elaborations based on the film and its aporias, while resisting the idea of completing it, i.e. increasing its capital. Assembly hacking thus turns its back on the idea of a collective production – of an object – which seems to us to have become the name of a new strategy of capital accumulation, a clever camouflage of particular interests in a discourse of multitude, some happy resolution to the interruption of flows of the economy of the art object when it exploits minority gestures and knowledge for proprietary purposes. Now more than ever, we need to invent forms of hacking of this art economy – its forms, its personas, its narratives and its ecosystem – to imagine a common future and its moving representations.
Black Code Session #1 June 15 & 16, 2016 Guests introduced themselves as follows in 2016: Jephthé Carmil (PhD student at Paris-Diderot University working on the links between postcolonial iconography and contemporary art), Pascale Obolo (filmmaker, performer and editor-in-chief of the journal Afrikadaa), Karine Lebrun (artist and professor teaching courses on “the Internet, digital technology and documents” at the European School of Art of Brittany), Olivier Hadouchi (film historian and film programmer, author of a dissertation entitled “Cinema in the fights for liberation. Geneses, practical initiatives and formal inventions around the Tricontinentale (1966-1975)” in 2012), Graeme Thomson & Silvia Maglioni (filmmakers), Sophie Wahnich (historian, French Revolution specialist, member of the editorial board of the journal Vacarme), Bouba Touré (photographer and filmmaker), Clémentine Dramani Issifou (general delegate of the cinema association “Belleville en vues”), Louis Henderson (filmmaker) and Olivier Marboeuf (author, curator, performer and director of Espace Khiasma).
As part of Louis Henderson’s Kinesis exhibition produced by Khiasma, an event co-produced with Spectre Productions and the research program «Document and contemporary art» of the European School of Visual Arts (Angoulême-Poitiers) with the support of the Institut Français, the Cité internationale des Arts and Dicréam.
Black Code Session #3 November 17,18,19, 2016 – Rennes Guests introduced themselves as follows in 2016: Raphaële Jeune (independent curator and researcher in aesthetics and theory), Karine Lebrun (artist and teacher at EESAB Quimper), Damien Marchal (artist), Thomas Tudoux (artist), Morgane Rey (dancer and choreographer), Paloma Fernández Sobrino (director and author), Frédéric Ekegue-Mve (artist and student at EESAB Quimper), Jérémy Gispert (artist, student at EESAB Quimper)
A project co-produced by le PHAKT – centre culturel Colombier, EESAB (European School of Art of Brittany) and Espace KHIASMA (Les Lilas – Paris) – as part of the “Hacking Practices” research line – an EESAB research line led by Karine Lebrun, and a program co-developed with Spectre Productions (with the support of DICREAM).
Black Code Sessions took place on June 15 and 16, 2016 at Espace Khiasma in Les Lilas, in the region of Paris; on October 13, 2016 at the Akademie der Künste der Welt in Cologne and from November 16 to 18 at the European School of Art of Brittany in Rennes and at Le Phakt – centre culturel Colombier. The Cologne session that I won’t discuss here took the form of a conference and conversation that did not lead to any proposals from the participants, so it seems to us that it has not completely resulted in the object that this essay is trying to define. [↩]
In the past, I have tried to give substance to this idea of version in cinema in the text “Since I don’t want to die, I’m walking with time” in Sowing Somankidi Coura: A Generative Archive, edited by Rapahël Grisey in collaboration with Bouba Touré, Archive Books, Berlin, 2017. [↩]
This initiative began with the text “Producing in conversation: dark landscapes of cinema” that I wrote in winter 2018 and that will be published during the summer of 2020 in the book How does the world breathe now? Film as witness, archive, and political tool to address the current state of the world, Berlin, Archive Books / SAVVY Publishing series. [↩]
The African American author’s book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, New York City, 2010, new edition in 2020) seems to provide some important arguments for the film Black Code / Code Noir. [↩]
The distribution ecology of such a short film is essentially composed of film festivals which, from the 2010s onward – although some festivals were precursory in this field – have significantly started to welcome films made by artists, which were long confined to the field of contemporary art. Black Code / Code Noir is a linear narrative form that does not particularly call for other apparatuses than the movie theater, although it was also screened in museums or on the occasion of artistic seminars. [↩]
Here I deliberately compare the term “mine” with “trash can” to convey the peculiarity of extraction modes attached to the Internet culture where everything that is online or “buried” in the digital strata is deemed to be necessarily authorless and available. Like the clandestine gold panner, the Internet “miner” is rewarded for the sweat that his “discovery” cost him, and such discovery quickly becomes his treasure and then his capital. It is not so much a question of reconstructing proprietary rights as of defending spaces of digital commons that are not the object of appropriation but of transmission and relation. This question partly covers the artists’ appropriation of the archive that transforms it into a private and proprietary value, and requires that we revisit the notion of artist-researcher from the perspective of private property and the production of commons. [↩]
The film uses texts and images to evoke the 1791 ceremony of Bois Caïman, which is often seen as the Haitian Revolution’s starting point – the moment when a Vodou rite sealed the alliance of all the island’s Black forces. Here Henderson uses this ceremony as a symbol of French counter-revolution. A woman’s voice recounts this event as the camera revolves around the Place de la Bastille in Paris at nightfall. The same place is depicted again later, upside down, as if to recall the paradox of a French Revolution whose means came from a flourishing colonial economy and that was going to proclaim the equality of all people while slavery was still prevalent within the confines of the Empire. [↩]
Bernardine Evaristo, Girl, Woman, Other, Hamish Hamilton, London, 2019. I would like to thank Shela Sheikh for bringing this book – and this extract in particular – to my attention. [↩]
The very existence of a global Black community will not be discussed here. We will simply follow the idea that it exists at least negatively through its particular exposure to death, which is one of the film’s themes. [↩]
Saidiya V. Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America, Oxford University Press, USA, 1997. [↩]
See bell hooks, Ne suis-je pas une femme? Femmes noires et féminisme (Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism), South End Press, Boston, 1981, Editions Cambourakis, Paris, 2015. [↩]
Both Martinican thinker and poet Edouard Glissant and African American theorist and poet Fred Moten attach great importance to noise and cacophony in the expression of Black people in the Americas. Glissant’s clamor of Creole meets with Moten’s cry of free-jazz as a language that frees up vital space and produces particular modes of visibility, fleeting images. On this subject, see Glissant, Le Discours Antillais (Caribbean Discourse) Editions Gallimard, Paris, 1997, particularly chapter 44, “Poétique naturelle et poétique forcée (Natural Poetics, Forced Poetics)”. See also Moten, In the break, the aesthetics of black radical tradition, University of Minnesota Press, 2003, particularly the chapter “Resistance of the Object: Aunt Hester’s Scream”. [↩]
Obviously, we could say many things about this magnificent film released in the early 1970s, whose visual audacity and narrative experiments shake up a certain history of cinema that places African productions in a sleepy rearguard in the heart of eternal bush villages. [↩]
For instance, the author Cristina Sharpe develops this idea in her songlike book, In the wake: on Blackness and Being (Duke University Press, 2016 [↩]
David Lloyd, The racial Thing : on appropriation, Black studies, and Thingliness in Text zur Kunst, issue no. 117 : « property / eigentum », March 2020. [↩]
I dealt with this idea in the text ‘The Rioter and the Witch’ published in 2012 in the catalogue Witches – Hunted, Appropriated, Empowered, Queered edited by Anna Colin (Editions B42 and Maison Populaire) on the occasion of her exhibition series “Plus ou moins sorcières (Witches, More or Less)” in 2012 at La Maison Populaire (Montreuil, France). [↩]
There were nearly forty screenings of the film in festivals and art centers in 2016 alone. [↩]
See the list of participants of the two sessions in the appendix. [↩]
Text written by Kader Attia for the exhibition Repairing the Invisible (March-October 2017) at Smak in Ghent, March 27, 2017. I found out about it in the doctoral dissertation of the artist Pierre Michelon. [↩]
The Sea is History (27 min, 2016), is a film by Louis Henderson inspired by the eponymous poem of Saint-Lucien Derek Walcott. [↩]
Like Jérémy Gispert later on, Frédéric Ekegue-Mve was an art student at the time of the workshop in 2016. [↩]
See Sowing Somankidi Coura: A Generative Archive, edited by Rapahël Grisey in collaboration with Bouba Touré, Archive Books, Berlin, 2017. [↩]
One thinks of how the philosopher Elsa Dorlin describes the practice of capoeira as the rehearsal – in the theatrical sense of the term – of an upcoming fight in her book Se défendre, une philosophie de la violence (Self-defense, A Philosophy of Violence), 2017, Paris, Editions la Découverte [↩]
Let’s note that each session was introduced by Olivier Marboeuf and Louis Henderson, and Karine Lebrun gave her presentation in Les Lilas and in Rennes. [↩]
Hackerage : Contraction of the words “hacker” and “rage”. This term was chosen to highlight rage as a driving force of action and in response to institutional and systemic violence. SCRUM : Sorcières pour un Changement Radical de l’Université Merdique (Witches for a Radical Change of the Shitty University).
Spaces generate meanings and values: they play an active role in the construction of the identities of people inhabiting or visiting them. Institutional spaces are designed to reproduce power dynamics and maintain the established order. University spaces, especially classrooms, are designed to further control and confirm the teachers’ authority. Spaces are the material translation of a vision of learning and knowledge transmission based on coercion, fear, and the threat of ‘failure’. University walls give tangible form to the dominant discourse and to power relations based on the privilege of the teaching class. Is it possible to reverse their function? If their main functions cannot be neutralized easily, is it possible to inject deviant elements into them? In this regard, we think that the university space can be hacked: it is possible to insert a virus into it and help short-circuit the system of oppression, the instrument of subordination. One space is particularly conducive to this kind of action: the classroom. Although we cannot use the master’s tools to dismantle the “master’s house” (Lorde 2003) from the inside, we can still slip into a rift, sneak into an interstice, and settle there.
Diana Torres, Pornoterrorista (2011, p. 197).
The interstice offers a point of view, a privileged position to look at the dominant system and experiment with strategies of places contamination and virus diffusion. Transgression is also taught (hooks 1994) by diverting, bypassing, overstepping the institution’s norms and rules. Then we can aim to turn a university classroom into a refuge space, a space perceived as less hostile, less violent, less oppressive1, a space to heal the wounds inflicted by institutional violence, a space of entrenchment. With this in mind, it can become a laboratory of resistance to sexism, racism, classism, and all kinds of discrimination produced and rendered invisible by society and the institution.
#The teaching staff or the incorporation of dominant knowledge
According to Frédéric Lordon (2018, p.34), “society only exists through institutionalization”. Indeed, society is shaped by institutions that constitute “power supplements” (p.120). The university institution uses places to reconfirm and reify its power. The university’s power relations are visible in classrooms, auditoriums, but also in the floors’ arrangements: for instance, the spaces dedicated to students are on the ground floor and staff rooms are on the top floor. Such spaces deploy the order that people incorporate in their behaviors and in their unquestioned reiteration.
The institution relies on a broad base of foundations and supports. Teachers are individuals-turned-institutions who allow the university to remain a university. The institution chose and valorized them by appointing them as scientists; which produces a sympathetic circle of valorization and mutual legitimization. In addition, they’re asked to stick together, and to always stay united2. The teaching staff is an entity that brings the institution to life by perpetuating the processes of knowledge valorization, among other things. In itself, dominant knowledge is no more legitimate than minority knowledge, but it’s empowered by the credit given to it by the institution (Walsh 2007). In French geography for instance, knowledge has not been decolonized. There is a “colonial unconscious” (Singaravelou, 2007, p.57), coloniality (Grosfoguel 2016) in this discipline that is not perceived as such but as a scientific vision of the world (Maldonado-Torres 2007). That’s because the university acts as a valorizing agent for knowledge and chooses both the dominant knowledge and its acquisition modes:
“There is no value, only valorization processes. […] to be dominant in a field is to have succeeded in imposing one’s way of doing things as the worthwhile way” (Lordon, 2018, pp. 119-120).
The knowledge chosen by the institution can thus appear ‘neutral’, ‘objective’ and ‘true’. Attempts to silence “alternative” epistemic approaches contribute to the reproduction of a teaching model that sees itself as flawless and without weaknesses. That way, epistemic violence can never be recognized as such since the episteme that could criticize it is denied.3 Finally, teachers do not think they can possibly discriminate students because, according to the dominant universalist thought, they treat all of them equally and assess their work according to merit. Several studies have dismantled this rhetoric of merit (e.g. Tenret, 2011). Yet, the idea of being able to ‘objectively’ assess the performance of students in accordance with their merit is still alive: one only has to apply the current parameters, that is to say, the parameters that largely circulate among teachers. This neglects the situated aspect of this choice of criteria and how they can contribute to the perpetuation of the inequalities and violence represented by notation.
#Betraying one’s class with class
How could a member of the institution resist this system?
We are convinced that people in the dominant group must choose their field and make it explicit. For us, the only possible field is to commit to find practices that do not all reproduce the oppressions and dominations the university system leads us to perpetuate. This is possible through a constant practice of individual and collective thinking on our position and our privileges. But we believe that being aware of one’s privileges within the university should not be limited to a reflexivity practice. It must turn into a mobilization of one’s privileges, a momentum to get out of one’s comfort zone in order to accept the risk there is in co-constructing spaces of resistance. And this must happen from the space we’re in and from where we speak, the space of our everyday life: the classroom. Our dominant position in the university context leads us to look for ways to rid oneself of the oppressor’s clothes and to put on those of the allies, as feminoska reminds us in the introduction to the Italian translation of Sarat Colling’s book “Animali in rivolta” (2018) regarding the privilege of species:
“To acknowledge one’s privilege (is) to look at the world from the standpoint of those who are deprived of such privileges, and to choose to get rid of the oppressor’s clothes – no matter how unconscious the oppressor is – and to wear those of the ally.” (Feminoska, 2017, p. 39).
Reflecting on one’s privileges also means recognizing one’s place and position when speaking. Nassira Hedjerassi explains how bell hooks denounces feminist pedagogy as an approach based on a white feminist position.
“What constitutes the major limit of feminist pedagogy is that feminist theories are situated this way, and that these analyzes are not anchored in the realities of black women, nor are they concerned about poor or unprivileged groups, which leads bell hooks to advocate for a transgressive pedagogy that she describes as engaged and revolutionary.” (Hedjerassi, 2016).
bell hooks insists on an engaged pedagogy,
“Going beyond critical or feminist pedagogy as it aims at the self-formation, well-being and empowerment of all subjects (hooks, 2003, p.33)” (Hedjerassi 2016).
bell hooks calls on those involved in teaching to adhere to an engaged pedagogy conducive to talking and listening spaces. To us, fighting the posture of silence in which students are confined by the dominant teaching and learning model means trying to get out of one’s comfort zone in class, being seen, introducing oneself, and making visible the power mechanisms that govern the class and that we are all supposed to respect (and embody in the case of teachers) when we share this space. This attitude creates some kind of loophole allowing the virus of knowledge counter-production to be injected into the space of the classroom. A process of freeing speech can therefore take place. Yet, a space dedicated to freeing speech is not included in the university’s planimeter, so it must be built. Co-creating a benevolent space (Prieur, 2015) in a space of oppression and institutional violence encourages people to speak out, develops mutual trust, circulates reflections and makes it easier to share experiences and personal journeys.
“In my classrooms, I do not expect students to take risks that I would not take, to share in any way that I would not share. When professors bring narratives of their experiences into classroom discussions it eliminates the possibility that we can function as all-knowing, silent interrogators. It is often productive if professors take the first risk, linking confessional narratives to academic discussions so as to show how experience can illuminate and enhance our understanding of academic material.” (hooks, 2013).
In a context that does not recognize the situated aspect of knowledge and that renders its political aspects invisible through notions of distance, neutrality and objectivity, teachers who inject their personal experience into their teaching consequently practice hackerage: they introduce unexpected elements into a system that is not ready to receive them. Teachers can then become a weakening vector for the institution instead of a strengthening one. Offering alternative knowledge by teaching not to fear threats of group exclusion or any kind of counter-resistance designed to weaken minority speeches and praxis can be the teachers’ way of resisting. Professors who are aware of their privileges must elucidate the knowledge of the oppressed. Institutional violence is a systemic violence that excludes oppressed groups from the knowledge production circles by over-legitimizing oppressive epistemologies. Referring to the discipline of geography, still very much intertwined with power dynamics that are part of its colonial heritage, Simon Springer states that:
“We can no longer accept the decaying, archaic geographies of hierarchy that chain us to statism, capitalism, gender domination, heteronormativity, racial oppression, speciesism and imperialism. Geography must become beautiful, wherein the entirety of its embrace is aligned to emancipation.”(Springer, 2018, 15).
We are a small group of teachers and, for the last 5 years, we’ve been trying to hack institutional spaces from the inside.4 We start from the classroom, which we seek to temporarily re-signify through an explicit, unabashed teaching in line with the engaged pedagogy. We like to think of them as intermittent TAZ5 (Bey, 1997).
#Phase 1: Becoming a hacker or the necessary empowerment of the teacher
From Rachele’s journal:
Auditorium, geography epistemology lecture, 2015. Presentation of the course, the bibliography and the thinkers mentioned in the course. A student asks to speak: “Ma’am, why are we reading a lot of texts by women, black women, and lesbians?” My answer to her question: “I’m looking to develop a radical approach, one that gets to the roots; and some roots of postmodern geography come from black women, lesbians, chicanas and African-American women. A large amount of concepts and especially references have been simply forgotten or – even worse – rendered invisible by the production of legitimate and institutional knowledge, that is to say, in this particular case, of those we consider to be the main thinkers of postmodern geography, who are white Anglo-Americans and males. This is exactly what Latin American geographers have shown in discussing the decolonial turn in geography.”
The student’s question presupposes the illegitimacy of this knowledge in an academic scientific context. Hesitation and distrust are linked to the internalization of the positivist paradigm – still widespread in many fields of French geography – confirming the students’ idea that neutrality exists, as well as objectivity, the distance of a field and research object. We then have to make an extra effort to react to resistances. For instance, talking about a central concept of geography in epistemology class – the border, in reference to Gloria Anzaldua’s “Borderlands/La Frontera” – is tricky because it is not a common and legitimized reference in geography in France. The mistrust that this may generate is understandable, especially if the teacher talking about it is not a straight old white man wearing a suit and a tie… What is being discussed is the legitimacy of your place within the institution. Therefore, one often reacts through a self-injunction to legitimize oneself at all times. In conservative academia, finding one’s place when one does not share the same values, the same world view, the same scientific paradigms, when one is a foreigner or belongs to a minority… often turns into a battle – but primarily against oneself. The injunction to continually choose a side, always feeling obliged to justify one’s epistemological choices, reference paradigms, methods and practices, thus create a very weakening device of self-control and self-censorship. It is also exhausting. Giving “the right answer” to students’ questions means having already thought about the possibility of being challenged, and making a performance effort in the answer, not feeling intimidated by the question, and most importantly feeling at ease and being confident about one’s “sense of belonging”. Something that is far from easy. To become aware of the mechanism in which one is involved, to realize that one’s personal experiences have a political meaning, to create a web of affinity relations, to build a collective dimension, all this promotes an order inversion: we go from fragility to empowerment. We have to stop feeling out of place and be bold, because a space needs to be taken by force.
#Phase 2. Modifying planimetry: opening a space for speaking out
In 2016, 1st-year geography students and their teachers faced difficult teaching situations: noise and chatter in lecture halls, delays, absences with end-of-semester results marking the main knowledge and learning difficulties. The second semester started with permanent difficulties: loud and almost constant noise during lectures, conflict among students or between students and teachers, with some episodes of verbal altercations. How can we deal with this impasse without resorting to “exemplary punishments”? Indeed, the first discussions among teachers evoked the solution of the punishment.
“Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?” (Foucault 1975, 264).
Surveillance remains the structuring element of such places where people are subject to regulations based on hierarchical dichotomies: students/teachers, patients/doctors, prisoners/guards. If surveillance maintains power relationships, punishment is a tool deployed in case of emergency, if a place and its world are temporarily endangered. When a student insults a teacher in a lecture hall, they also attack the university system, the institution, and therefore the current social system. Such events are immediately described as “serious”, as the “violence” of students is always presented as the problem that needs to be solved without questioning the institution’s functioning. Emphasizing the violence of students erases the very violence of the university system. This operation aims to decontextualize the event by removing the complex materiality of power relations intertwined in places and in bodies. The word “respect”, synonymous with acceptance of domination, has been repeated many times. “Respect” strengthens the disciplinary society insofar as the dominant group remains unchallenged. Beyond the facts and elements of discourse evoked here, we can also perceive the infantilization of students who, just like minors and animalized people, are not seen as persons able to think and act autonomously. Such a vision of others remains in the colonial approach of subjects.
In “Defending Yourself, a Philosophy of Violence”, Elsa Dorlin (2017) explains how the application of the colonial and patriarchal discourse has led to an “instrumentalization” of the notion of violence that systematically refers to the oppressed. The author recounts the United States’ history of racism by explaining how the fear of black people was constructed among white people. Black men were accused of raping white women, which justified their public lynching in the eyes of whites. Systemic violence cannot be exercised if the violence of the oppressed is not constructed first to legitimize and reinforce it.
Although the situation of students here is completely different, it is relevant to take an interest in discourses and their similarities regarding this construction of the “dangerous nature” or “violence” of people who endure systemic violence. Such similarities show us that institutional academic discourses still descend from the colonial and racist periods of the Western worlds. And yet the “violence” of the oppressed is nothing but self-defense against an unfair system. Since we were opposed to “punishment” and wished to listen to students and understand them, we proposed to replace seminars with workshops for a week. The department accepted this proposal. We sought to create a a space for dialogue by using a collage about life in university during the first semester of first year students as our starting point. We entered the classroom with colored markers/crayons, glitter, stickers and colored paper instead of registration lists and attendance sheets, which first surprised and destabilized students, who thought that this activity was “weird”. For us, it was about giving a new meaning to social cohesion at the university and in class. Our goal was to try to establish a benevolent space conducive to exchange and the freeing of speech, therefore showing the difficulties encountered. There were numerous issues to deal with so the quest for meaning could not be vain. Faced with the issues raised by our teachings, we teachers had to find meaning(s) in teaching and students had to find meaning(s) in studying. Three phases ensued. First, it was necessary to inspire trust. The creation of a benevolent space was developed through the “I like” game, which Rachele had learned from Cha Prieur in a master’s workshop a few years ago. Students pushed the tables and started to move about in the classroom. Each time we stopped in front of a student, the person had to say what they liked. Upon hearing the “I like…”, other participants had to get closer or move away according to their agreement (or disagreement) with the uttered sentence. Thus students could see whether they had common tastes (or not) and could especially discover personality traits of others who, up to that point, were considered to have no rightful place in the space of the class. In a second phase, we invited students to gather around a large table to work on the creation of a collage whose subject was “my first semester at university” or “the ideal university”. The various works were produced in about 25 minutes. We put some music on to create ambient sounds familiar to students, conducive to relaxation and personal expression. At the end of the 25 minutes, a display of the work was organized. Everybody could look at the works placed on the table. Comments, laughter, questions were audible. Some “artwork” was very moving and some recounted touching and poignant journeys. They also evoked the hopes and difficulties faced by students in their studies. Thirdly, we sat in a circle on the floor with students. Those willing to do so could present their work or talk about the first semester and the second semester that was already underway, about and how “teachers and students can succeed in sharing the university’s common space in the coming years”. Many questions were raised and a lot of people spoke. Despite initial reluctance and differences of perception, all the groups were almost totally involved in the proposed activity. We were particularly touched by the trust shown by all the students. Because sharing one’s playlist (“Madam, this is your playlist? You like rap and RnB???!!!”), talking about one’s preferences (“I like strawberries”, “I like the color yellow”, “I like to watch TV shows”), or taking an unexpected place (“You’re gonna sit on the floor with us?”) showed them that we, as teachers, were ready to get out of our comfort zone, to step down (literally as well as figuratively) from our pedestal.
Therefore, some students were able to share their frustrations regarding a difficult educational background. They talked about experiences of discrimination based on their place of residence and their origin. Finally, messages were posted on the classroom wall to re-signify our students/teachers relations based on an invitation of continuous dialogue as opposed to tension and barriers/walls. This was also a way to “make walls talk” in their place and to send direct messages to teachers.
Phase 3. Injecting militant world’s methods into the university space
From Emilie’s journal:
“Rachele suggested doing a collective reading workshop. In the lecture hall, she climbed onto a table and from there threw sheets of texts to be studied in the seminar program of geography epistemology in the air: students then started reading the pages where they had fallen, on or under tables, on chairs. For my part, I had just read an article on the decolonial approach that really caught my attention and taught me that ideas circulate and theories travel (Boulbina, 2013). So, to work on the documents, I took the photocopied texts, made paper planes, and threw them before going to their landing place to read them: theory travels (link articleBoulbina:https://www.cairn.info/revue-rue-descartes-2013-2-page-19.htm ), paper flies ».
In 2016, the “Geography in Human and Social Sciences” seminar (1st year of Bachelor’s Degree) and the Geography Epistemology seminar (3rd year of Bachelor’s Degree) included the creation of a comic book that responded to a big challenge: spreading scientific geographical knowledge differently and fighting the frustration felt by people who are unaware of the conventions regarding certain languages and media (articles or others), and potentially fighting boredom, which often goes along with a lack of understanding. First, we studied texts conducive to the questioning of discourses in geography. Through the revisited method of collective reading6), we aimed to desacralize texts, reveal possible polyphonic readings, and facilitate the approach and appropriation of the text.
After reading a page, students could highlight the parts they wanted to remember and indicate the words and key phrases they wanted to keep on a post-it. Then other students could read the text, stick the post-it on a large white poster on the wall, and cut out pieces of the text that they could keep. That is how we created a “collective heritage frieze”, i.e. a resource document on which every student could stick post-its or pieces of cut-out sentences on which they could comment. A relaxed, collective reading of the text thus emerged, allowing for the expression of all subjectivities. This work brought out various themes, reflections and desires to say what geography/ies can be. Proposals ensued and allowed everyone to make a choice regarding the comic book projects. In groups of five to six, students chose to make short comics on various themes. A first group chose to present the comic book from “behind the scenes”: to create the work in progress’ “making of” in order to document the difficulties encountered. We needed materials to create this comic strip (markers, papers, pencils). According to the official response, our funding request had come too late, so we had to resort to crowdfunding: the comic book recounts these events. A second group chose to recount their three years of undergraduate studies, from revelations of domination relationships within the university to disillusions and hopes. Other stories were told : the relationship between history and geography in the nineteenth century through the tribulations of the science family, or the advent of Yves Lacoste’s geopolitics or of the history of geography’s feminization. From Julie’s journal:
“PhD student in geography since September 2017, I handled my first teaching assignment in the first semester. I taught two groups of freshmen and a group of sophomores. The planning of the 1st-year “geography in human and social sciences” seminar was based on a joint project with juniors in epistemology. The goal was to create comics that would present geographical thoughts. I had no teaching experience back then, it was my first time behind the teacher’s desk. It was hard to feel like I “corresponded” to this new role. I was convinced that the university needed an alternative and engaged pedagogy, so I overcame my feeling of uneasiness. During the first seminar, I insisted on the benevolent aspect of our workspace. I told students about horizontality, talking space, and collective construction of knowledge; then I asked them to present their definitions of geography in order to talk about the various points of view on the discipline that they had just chosen. This first discussion did not work at all, and few students were willing to speak. I then understood that talking about a benevolent space was not enough for it to materialize, but that it was necessary to co-construct it and that it could take some time. Throughout the semester we carried on together, and students helped me become a teacher over the weeks. I was looking for this horizontality that was still abstract in September, but I understood its dynamics and its richness by the end of the semester. Students created their “tool-kits” in the second seminar. These tool-kits were folders that contained their personal files. Each student wrote a personal file at the end of each class, indicating what they had liked in the course, what they had rejected, which concepts they had understood and which reflections had followed. Students illustrated their folders according to their definitions of geography at this initial stage of the semester. Students then transformed the room by moving tables and chairs to create their own workspace. Through this suggestion, students can reclaim the space of the classroom and turn it into a “resistance site”. Unfortunately, tables were fastened together after the “All Saints” vacation. It was impossible for us to break the linear distribution of the tables. Power had materialized in space, reminding us that it was not ours. However, we found a strategy to align two rows of tables and create a space conducive to exchange and sharing. A capacity for adaptation and a permanent restructuring of space are necessary to turn an institutional place into a place of resistance. The following seminars were devoted to the study of concepts and notions essential to an approach of postmodernist epistemology. We addressed notions such as intersectionality, norms, privileges or decoloniality in order to initiate a process of dominant discourse questioning through the study of texts and other materials, but also through exchanges in class. A course was then dedicated to the study of comic books related to geography. Novels, songs, films, series, comics, and other so-called “mass” cultural objects are relevant objects of study for social scientists, insofar as they reveal spatial practices, representations, and social dynamics. Marvel comics show a certain representation of the night and the American city (Landot, 2014); Tintin comics show a very Eurocentric and colonial vision of the world; whereas other comic books meant for young children highlight gender norms, for example. The introduction of the “comics studies” field made it possible to demonstrate the variety of topics covered in human and social sciences, as well as the multiplicity of possible geographical objects. The following four sessions took the form of workshops devoted to the creation of comics. Students gathered in different groups to produce a comic strip from a scientific article included in the bibliography distributed during the first class. They could also suggest another article that was not part of this bibliography.”
In all our classes, the selected texts offered a broad overview of the discipline. Epistemologies of Geography brings together several histo rical and political currents of the discipline, from Paul Vidal de la Blache to Cha Prieur. Students could then find their “geographical sensitivities”, which they were mainly looking for in this discipline. This educational initiative gave us the opportunity to propose a collective and creative action in the form of a common project. The students knew that their productions would be subjected to a publication and an exhibition. The goal was to go beyond the context of the class, to make them work for a “real” project that they would believe in and like, and not just for a grade at the end of the semester. During the workshops, students could use drawing materials obtained through crowdfunding. Some students chose to work with computer software dedicated to comics. They were free to choose the form of their creation, which led to a greater diversity of proposed objects. Students worked with music on, which created an atmosphere quite different from that of the university context. Many students were quite hesitant when the project was presented and during the first workshops. For some of them, this project had little appeal and the visual aspect delegitimized the result. Others felt a sense of anxiety regarding the lack of strict instructions as to what they had to do. Freedom, or at least the absence of a rigid framework, destabilized those who had put up with a school system for years and were used to responding to its expectations without really questioning them. Throughout these workshops, students seemed enthusiastic about their comics. They were more worried about approaching scientific texts for the first time than about the form of their production. This long-term work on the same article reduced the distance between the texts and the students. The latter had time to tame, control, question and finally appropriate the text through its illustrated result. Through this work of transmission, students thus acquired knowledge, relied on what they knew, and practiced criticism. The quality of the productions conveys the students’ desire to learn something else and especially to learn differently; to be participants in class and to be able to express themselves in benevolent spaces.
“I liked the participative aspect of this course as it made me aware of how diverse people’s tastes were regarding comics, and how diverse comic strips themselves were – this material is richer than it seems. Regarding the general learning atmosphere, only taking parts of the text made me feel like it would be kind of amputated, less understandable. Wouldn’t it be a sacrilegious to cut out a scientific text? But ultimately, it is a way to desacralize knowledge. Yet, is this a good learning method? I don’t remember the texts we discussed during the sessions, only the images. I had the opportunity to use my knowledge when creating the comic strip with my classmates. You have to question yourself and ask whether you have assimilated a concept if you want to explain it. I discovered all the upstream work that some professors do, the way a course is built is ultimately quite similar to that of a personal reflection.”
“Regarding sessions dedicated to geographic epistemologies, my first remark concerns the fact that the environment we worked in was noticeably different from those we have encountered so far in our curriculum.”
“It was very important to change the use of the classroom to understand the dominant relationships it induces. Being in the classroom without using it the way we are used to made me question how I usually occupy space. I sensed some embarrassment in the group because students are not used to pushing themselves forward. Everyone knew from the beginning that this class was a unique space of freedom in the program.”
“If you want to teach a critical course, you need to avoid tension by creating a safe and peaceful work environment.”
“I really enjoyed listening to music in class. For a moment, I was able to forget that I was at the university and felt like I was in a more dynamic workspace.”
“In one seminar, listening to music disturbed me and I did not like this method. I could not concentrate on my work. I still haven’t understood the usefulness.”
“Fact is, being encouraged to build relationships with students and with our teacher undoubtedly makes it possible to break the psychological “barrier” that we often consider to be impassable.”
“The teaching method and the almost personal commitment of the teacher in this course made studying really comfortable for me, which is something I had rarely experienced in my school years.”
“One of the sentences that struck me is from bell hooks, who says, “While shifting paradigms can be difficult for professors, it is also difficult for students.” Moreover, the author clearly explains the principle of a “community of critical teaching” by working on the course conception framework. Her goal is for individuals to trust others and develop a sense of security.”
“At first, I thought that our teacher’s method was a bit weird. But afterwards, I understood that every gesture counts, every word or sign really influences the way knowledge and legitimacy transfers from one individual to another.”
“We covered several themes during the sessions. I had the opportunity to discover what epistemology is and to enrich my knowledge of architecture and spatial design. Before this course, I thought that architecture was the only correct and logical mode of knowledge that it would never change. But this idea is no longer part of my knowledge dictionary.”
“However, I would have liked a little more guidance in the realization of the comic. A practical session could have been organized to teach a specific methodology applied to the theme of comics (format, framing, typology).”
“Personally, I had a hard time visualizing how the sessions would occur and how we would manage to mix the art of comics with the different currents of geography.”
“For my part, as a black man, I felt quite concerned and took a particular interest in the session dealing with the issue of privileges because this cartoon taught me that people benefiting from these privileges do not necessarily claim them. Some are not even aware of the existence of such privileges.”
“Now, when I think of knowledge accessibility, I remember the time you stepped over the tables with no shoes on to dispatch texts throughout the room; it made me laugh a lot. Not to mention, I heard that Emilie Viney’s group had made paper planes with the texts before throwing them. I thought it was a good method too.”
“In this seminar, it seems to me that we managed to use non-academic methods (appropriating a study room, drawing on the wall, splitting a scientific text into different parts, transmitting “knowledge” among students, listening to music…) to show that there is more than just one way to transmit knowledge, than the traditional way – a unilateral transmission from the professor to the classroom – drives students away from a mine of information represented by their classmates.”
“From a more personal perspective, the course really made me think. Indeed, to reverse the norms associated with the teaching authority through space appropriation (climbing onto tables, putting students in the teacher’s place) made me realize that human relationships and our relationship to space are not neutral. This also showed us that many things we do routinely and unconsciously can be a passive participation in principles to which we do not necessarily adhere and that the way knowledge is both represented and transmitted is never impartial.”
“I think your intention to create a benevolent work community is commendable, in line with the notion of “transformative class”. Know that I share your concern about creating a welcoming and respectful environment. Then again, I disagree with you on inclusive writing and the notion of “white privilege”. (…) In conclusion, I want to insist on the relevance of the work on comics. As you can understand, I disagree with you on some subjects.”
“Taking off our shoes for a course, putting post-its on the walls, working with music on, having guest teachers, making a comic! I felt a lot of excitement and interest regarding the surprises of each class.”
“The creative process we used to find a theme and solve the different ‘challenges’ we encountered highlighted everyone’s qualities; our group was composed of an Algerian girl, three French people and myself. We all have our ways of thinking, our personalities, our strengths and weaknesses. As this is my first time I studying in France, this dynamism and the exchanges with other students helped me understand their way of thinking and seeing things, as well as the way I can be understood in the French context.”
As a conclusion
Militant knowledge is meant to be picked up, touched, adjusted and then assembled into bands to be transmitted in a viral dynamic of commitment contamination. That’s our aim since
“We claim the production of a liberating knowledge that allows for everyone’s emancipation since it arises from the analysis of our respective material conditions, trajectories, social and political histories, as well as of oppressions we have experienced or witnessed” (Collective, 2016, 137).
The educational experiments that we have developed so far are only the beginning of an adventure, and a lot of energy is required to continue in this direction. The force required to exist and to take root must be nourished. We think this is only possible in a collective dimension. Building a protective fabric around us means that we need to integrate our emotions and effects as elements that are consubstantial with our daily work. It also means that we have to accept and claim our place at the margins of the academic institutional environment. We created the SCRUM brigade (SCRUM: Sorcières pour un Changement Radical de l’Université Merdique or Witches for a Radical Change of the Shitty University) to share our experiences, feelings and approaches, to reinforce one other, to create alliances and complicities.
We claim our position in the interstices. We gave up consensus, legitimacy, acceptance. We want to experience the freedom and creativity of inhabiting the margin. We do not agree with our colleagues’ pedagogy and we refuse to be crippled by fear of taking other paths.
It is a question of starting from one’s position in order to use one’s privileges and nourish the space that has been created, because “to be in the margin is to be part of the whole but outside the main body” (bell hooks 1984, 2017, 59).
We strengthen each other in the face of fear by weaving the web of care and advocating the integration of a care ethics to the production of academic knowledge. We create alliances among teachers and complicities with students. We join the resistance.
Resistances to academic scientific standards imposed in teaching, in research methodology, in the scientific knowledge communication media; resistances to knowledge elitism expressed in language and its different forms, which makes knowledge frustrating and beyond the reach of those who do not have all the tools to decipher a scientific text; resistances to the grading and selection system that is violent and does not allow students to develop critical thinking and creativity; resistances to vertical modalities of exchange preventing dialogue and co-construction of knowledge.
“We can paraphrase Freire and talk about an education that would raise awareness about inequalities, render them visible, break with their mechanisms of standardization and create, generate and build alternatives for action. Thus, education as the practice of freedom is also defined as feminist in that it transforms and supports social and human relations towards equality and social justice” (Martinez Martin, 2016).
Bringing ethics of care or militant practices into the classroom, visibilizing dominant relationships – starting with those that exist within the academic space –, talking about race, gender, class through experience contribute to resist the production of subjectivities based on notions of success and competition, to educate about subjugation, to hack the reproductive neoliberalism system that the university proposes to be.
Our work in the interstices aims to contribute to the construction of an imagined community of teachers engaged in a transmission of knowledge centered on empowerment rather than power, on benevolence rather than authority. For that reason, we started translating our experiences into performative conferences. Bringing the elements of performance and codes of art within the academic apparatus represented by the conference means creating media of knowledge transmission that are explicitly hybrids. Music, our bodies’ movements in space, stories of our experiences and nudity contribute to the hackerage of the institution starting from the hacking of apparatuses that reproduce it. Dropping the injunction to express ourselves on printed paper only is also part of our process of empowerment. In response to the division between theory/practice, academia/militant world, academic/artist, our intention is to break these dichotomies by showing that academics assigned to the production of “theory” can produce performances and that, in the same way, performers also produce “theory”. Our performances involve the physical and voluntary co-presence of the SCRUM brigade members, performers, researchers, artists, who produce a performed knowledge that is claimed as legitimate in the field of academic research. Performative conferences are also a way to create interstitial spaces where interaction between people attending the events creates a new field of research. Performance then feeds on performance itself, becoming research-performances that are always in the process of being created and developed. They are processual, their integrity depends on the physical co-presence of all the volunteer and irreplaceable performers-researchers. Thereby, SCRUM performative conferences vary greatly. We hope that the creation of spaces designed to “transmit knowledge without creating powers” (Primo Moroni, cit. in Silvia Corti 2018) is possible. It is also a way to overcome the feeling of loneliness, the frustration that many feminist, militant and activist people feel when working in educational institutions (especially the university), so that we can continue to dream collectively that another university is possible.
-ANZALDUA Gloria, “La conscience de la Mestiza. Vers une nouvelle conscience (La Conciencia de la Mestiza. Towards a New Consciousness)”, Les cahiers du CEDREF, 18, 2011, 75-96. -BEY Hakim, Zone d’autonomie temporaire, TAZ (T.A.Z.: the Temporary Autonomous Zone), Paris, Éditions de l’Éclat, 1997. -BOULBINA Seloua Luste, « La décolonisation des savoirs et ses théories voyageuses » (The Decolonization of Knowledge and its Traveling Theories), Rue Descartes, 2013 , pp. 19-33. -COLLECTIVE (Alexia M., Emilie Viard, Marie C., Diane K., Annaïg Mesnil, Natacha R., Katia Storaï, Cécilia G., Mélo P.G., Tiffanie D., Audrey P.), Éducation populaire et féminisme. Récits d’un combat (trop) ordinaire. Analyses et stratégies pour l’égalité (Popular Education and Feminism. Stories of a (very) banal struggle. Analyzes and Strategies for Equality), La Grenaille, 2016. -CORTI Silvia, “Socializar los saberes, sin fundar poderes – la utopía encarnada de una transmisión del conocimiento horizontal (a través de la practica del taller)”, symposium on Pédagogies critiques et féminisme (Critical Pedagogies and Feminism), Paris, ESPE, June 8-10, 2018. -DORLIN Elsa, Se défendre. Une philosophie de la violence (Defending Yourself. A Philosophy of Violence), Paris, Zones, 2017. -FEMINOSKA, “Introduzione”, in Sarat Colling, Animali in rivolta, Milano-Udine, Mimesis, 2018. -FOUCAULT Michel, Surveiller et punir, naissance de la prison (Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison), Paris, Gallimard, 1975. -GROSFOGUEL, Ramon (2016). “Interview”, RED 1 http://reseaudecolonial.org/2016/09/02/entretien/. Website created in 2016 (editorial board: Claude Bourguignon Rougier, Sébastien Lefevre, Paul Raul Mvengou Cruz Merino, Laura Nguyen). Visited on November 2, 2019. -HEDJERASSI Nassira, “A l’école de bell hooks : une pédagogie engagée de la libération” (bell hooks’ school: an engaged pedagogy of liberation), Recherches & Éducations, n°16, 2016, pp.39-50. -HOOKS Bell, Yearning: Race, gender, and cultural politics, Boston, South End Press, 1990. -HOOKS Bell, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, New York, London, Routledge, 1994. -HOOKS Bell, “La pédagogie engagée” (Engaged Pedagogy) (presented and translated by C. Fourton), Tracés. Revue de Sciences humaines, 25, 2013, https://journals.openedition.org/traces/5852?lang=en. -HOOKS Bell, De la marge au centre. Théories féministes (Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center), Paris, Cambourakis, 2017 (1984). -LANDOT Aymeric, “La ville dans les comics, entre urbaphilie et urbaphobie (cities in comics, between urbaphilia and urbaphobia)”, https://labojrsd.hypotheses.org/1734. On the website Hypothèses (creation Cléo-Open Edition), on the Sciences Dessinées research blog of the Laboratoire Junior Sciences Dessinées (editor-in-chief: Solenn Huitric, Editorial team: Thomas Crespo, Solenn Huitric, Aymerci Landot, Tristan Martine, Bénédicte Tratnjek). Visited on November 2, 2018. -LORDE, Audre, Sister Outsider, essais et propos (Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches), Mamamélis, 2003. -LORDON Frédéric, La condition anarchique (The Anarchic Condition), Paris, Seuil, 2018. -MALDONADO-TORRES, Nelson, “Sobre la colonialidad del ser: contribuciones al desarrollo de un concepto”, In (Castro-Gómez S., Grosfoguel R. dir.) El giro decolonial Reflexiones para una diversidad epi- stémica más allá del capitalismo global, Bogotá, Universidad Central –IESCO–, Pontificia Universidad Javeriana –Instituto Pensar– y Siglo del Hombre Editores, 2007. -MARTINEZ MARTIN Irene, “Construction d’une pédagogie féministe pour une citoyenneté transformatrice et contre-hégémonique (Constructing a feminist pedagogy for a transformative and counter-hegemonic citizenship)”, 2016 http://www.questionsdeclasses.org/./?L-empowerment-par-la-pedagogie-feministe-postcoloniale (trans. Irène Pereira). Website created by the Questions de classe(s) collective in 2013, visited on November 2, 2019. -PRIEUR Cha, Penser les lieux queers : entre domination, violence et bienveillance. Étude à la lumière des milieux parisiens et montréalais (Understanding queer places: between domination, violence and “bienveillance”. In light of the Paris and Montreal cases), dissertation defense in Paris IV under the direction of Louis Dupont, 2015. -SINGARAVELOU Pierre (dir.), L’Empire des géographes. Géographie, exploration et colonisation, XIXe-XXe siècle (The empire of Geographers: geography, exploration and colonization, 19th–20th century), Paris, Belin, coll. “Mappemonde”, 2007. -SPRINGER Simon, Pour une géographie anarchiste (The Anarchist Roots of Geography: Toward Spatial Emancipation), Montréal, Lux Editeur, 2018. -TENRET Élise, L’école et la méritocratie. Représentations sociales et socialisation scolaire (School and Meritocracy: social representations and school socialization), Paris, PUF, 2011. -TORRES, Diana J., Pornoterrorisme, Gatuzain, 2012. -WALSH, Catherine, “¿Es posible unas ciencias sociales/culturales otras? Reflexiones en torno a epistemologías decoloniales”, Nómadas, Bogotá, Universidad Central, 26, 2007.
In accordance with Cha Prieur’s thinking (2015), we’d rather not use the terms safe nor safer as such terms feed the illusion that some spaces may be exempt from all the power and domination mechanisms that govern social relations. Cha Prieur talks about benevolent spaces to give them a new dimension of co-construction by people connecting with them. Through the recognition of the spaces’ relational and temporal dimension, places can be seen as being ‘temporarily’ re-signified by the people visiting them. [↩]
During the student movements (spring 2018), many colleagues sent us messages asking us to support them although they did not support the student movement and called for the intervention of the riot squad. We were asked to stop supporting the students so that the teaching staff could look united from the outside. [↩]
The dominant episteme relies upon a discourse that sees science as a way to access objectivity and neutrality, truth edification, and thus rejects all other alternative discourses as illegitimate on principle. [↩]
In September 2013, Rachele was appointed associate professor in the same university as queer activist and feminist Cha Prieur, then a PhD student and teacher. We started to work together and reflect on the dominations and power relations that surrounded us as teachers. Meanwhile, many of our colleagues expressed contempt towards our feminist views and the fact that we visibly belonged to (and claimed to be part of) a class and sexual minority. We then began to understand that sharing our situation and our minority position with students in class could contribute to question power relationships and modify the image of teachers as the incarnation of all the dominant categories. Our group has always been flexible in number, with people coming and leaving, but we never stopped thinking about the creation of an even more structured engaged pedagogy. [↩]
“A method of collective reading that comes from the working class (working circle) and was then reused by mental training practitioners during WWII, by the French Resistance (around Dumazedier), and spread more widely by Peuple et Culture, a popular education movement, from the 1950s “. http://la-trouvaille.org/arpentage/ (last access: 11/07/2019 [↩]
Each seminar student gets two grades from which we calculate the average. This average will be part of the final grade. To encourage the students to get involved and go beyond the violent process of the often incomprehensible notation, we opted for self-evaluation. The grade criterion has become their ability to take a critical look at the course, the dynamics of the group and their individual involvement. [↩]
Filmed performance, 2017
Ninja practices, an art of diplomacy
2018 - Followed by an interview with Ann Guillaume conducted in July 2019.
This speech comprises a few references to Warring States. We don’t know exactly who they are and how they got there.
War is of vital importance for the State. It belongs to the field of life and death. The preservation or loss of the empire depends on it. Not making serious reflections regarding it would be guilty indifference.
The ninja is known for his infiltration missions. On a mission, the ninja uses scouting to prepare his route, he notes which places are best protected and defended by the enemy, where he can hide, blind spots, places which will allow him to hide before an infiltration or, if necessary, before disappearing quickly. He who starts a training does so through commitment.
The first volume of Maintaining a Correct Mind explains that whoever wants to learn how to be a ninja should not use this art for personal gain, and that, if one possesses the correct mindset, one will succeed in infiltrating everywhere.
The ninja therefore vanishes into his environment by imitating it perfectly – same shape, same color. This kind of imitation – this camouflage – even influences the way he moves, talks, lives… But why would one want to go completely unnoticed? With patience and know-how, he goes incognito in order to develop his main quality: the sense of observation in the aim of carrying out a stealth or frontal attack; the shinobi or ninja therefore engages in espionage to discreetly gather as much information as possible.
This art is not easy to detect; situating it is not simple since it takes the form of its technique and conversely. This art plays with invisibility, it does not show itself with force and authority; this art assures that it is an epiphenomenon rather than a starting point in History, it seeks to create a “wonderful anomaly” that is hidden in the most secret folds of time and space. This art does not arise from the desire to control the world but from the desire to get involved in it. Unpredictable and random, it can slip away in a second, it is an “almost-nothing”, it escapes knowledge while inventing new knowledge. Undisciplined, uneven, irregular, in motion, seeking to sneak in a place that has no rule, it has been seen in a word, a place, a discipline, an era or a line.
Confucius used to say that no one needs to be recognized, yet not recognizing others is harmful. To shine or to disappear, or how can this art act as things stand, in real time?
The ninja waits for the right time to implement his action plan. For him, the ideal is to take advantage of favorable weather conditions. A rainy and windy weather makes it possible to reduce the sound of his footsteps, to cover the possible sounds that his action entails. Obtaining intelligence has always been a crucial area of military strategy, and it is not possible to acquire such preliminary information through comparison, purely theoretical speculation, or divination. A high-level shinobi who can skillfully conspire – who can first of all hide his true nature – is a talented shinobi (his wisdom is as big as the sky).
He is aware that nothing is immutable, that there is no beginning or end, that everything is change and transformation, so he adapts to all circumstances as naturally as a ball rolling on a tray.
Mastering the art of arranging troops, knowing the different paths, not refusing to go into detail, and getting acquainted with each of them in particular; this forms a body of discipline whose practical knowledge should not escape the sagacity and attentions of the ninja art.
But beware! Observing and infiltrating involve great risks and require before everything else to have a strong stomach, to have a mind like the blade of a saber – solid and sharp. Like a “falcon in a dense forest, or a fish in the abyss”, it is necessary to act modestly, without leaving any traces. To achieve it, we must leave the utilitarian practices behind, as they have dominated for too long.
You, whom the prince’s choice has put at the head of the armies, lay the foundations of your knowledge. Victory will follow you everywhere: on the contrary, you will only experience the most shameful defeats if, out of ignorance or presumption, you omit or reject them. Among the princes who rule the world, the one with the most doctrine and virtue gives, receives and gives back. Then, a landscape appears, in which we detect new and shareable experiences.
Invisibility is therefore a means of reaching the edge of all surfaces. Considering the environment, the milieu and its capacity – or incapacity – to welcome something new, having an influence and taking part are great opportunities to shape the common things. Common things do not precede us; they are rather the result of an association ready to form a renewed field of experience, a place of indefinite pluralization.
Finally, the ninja method of investigation – of inquiry – involves a form of participating observation. And that’s precisely because we never observe what we expect to see that it is essential. Let us not lose sight of the fact that espionage, observation, recognition and analysis always tend towards action – kind of like a social laboratory that aims to study the transformations of environments in order to design new relationships between things in the world. Remember the path outlined a long time ago now, which described an art allowing a qualitative increase in human life. What’s the situation today? In the best case scenario, making everyday life one’s subject, starting from what already exists, connecting with the field, being in total immersion gives things the possibility of changing, of provoking society’s established order.
Then the sense of giving is set up, and a society is invented. Wouldn’t the project of this practice be quite simply to recognize, to give attention?
Recognition always starts with a gesture that consists in moving something towards someone else – oneself in this case. The initiative of giving is a claim of autonomy and freedom favoring the circulation of the imaginary. Giving constitutes a concrete form, making it possible to feed a kind of solidarity and responsibility for justice and the common good. What if ninja practice really invented the establishment of new social relationships? All these different scenarios bring out stories and representations.
These tectonic forces in action are heuristic and allow to make new discoveries in various fields. Now, everything can finally be considered. Given that the ninja has called the shots in the shadows, that he has not left any names and has erased the evidence of his existence, we have reason to assert the supreme strength of his art, therefore of his existence. This ninja practice then gives rise to an art which, with no intended or specific existence, is paradoxically what makes it possible to get effects in the real world. The ninja strategy bestows a role of scout upon him, such is the privilege of the ninja. Who wouldn’t like to control all these parameters in order to serve as guide for the regular troops, just like the ninja?
Ninja or shinobi are terms that refer to a category of spies in Japan. Active from the 14th century until the 17th century, these warriors used unconventional hidden methods of warfare that earned them criticism from the samurai caste. The text relating to the art of ninjas is inspired by the literature of: Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and Natori Masazumi’s Shoninki: The Secret Teachings of the Ninja.
Karine Lebrun: In what way is your artistic practice influenced by the ninja? Ann Guillaume: We could say that ninja practice is the visibility fight. I do not entirely agree with the obligation to show, to be seen… Everything does not need to be seen to be effective! The persona of the ninja allows – me – to withdraw. I seek to bring about the effects of my practice; in order to do so I start from a field that I must know quite well before acting, hence the link with the ninja practice. As the subjects can be sensitive, sometimes you have to act like a detective to access it, i.e. with small steps and cautiously. Thus, ninja practice is a form of methodology that somehow dismantles the rules which have governed everyone’s functions up to this point. What is an artist? What is our function? Who are we speaking to? Ninja practice is meant to “reform” our habits, which painfully need to be questioned again.
Ninja practice interferes in social and political issues, in public affairs, which raises the question of what holds us together? What is a public issue and why work from it? The public issue revisits the practices of collective governance, of living together, of what affects us all. Public issues thus stem from the public sphere, they are part of an established pattern, habits, an anchored imaginary. When art is based on a public issue, it highlights what we have in common just as much as what we could/should try to build together through the ability to work collectively. We then see a work appear, one which is co-created by artists, local actors and partners. This is what’s at stake: transforming and engaging all kinds of audiences from the start of the creative process. The artistic practice that is enhanced here and that uses the ninja strategy ultimately defends the idea that there are as many works as there are stories to be transformed, various and varied issues, and individuals.
Given that a collective and circular practice stemming from the field and from a public issue highlights it, we can expect art to be in capacity of regenerating new imaginaries, new narratives that can have an effect on new forms of social life.
I always start by looking for the ecosystem that constitutes it; the actors composing it, the urban and natural borders delimiting it, the living things inhabiting it, the administrative and political components, the inflows and outflows, the controversies… Many elements which arouse my curiosity and sometimes require a little discretion and a lot of attention. So it seems important to me to start with an immersion in order to perceive and understand what animates this field. Ninja practice is a policy of raising awareness about what constitutes a place.
Why is it necessary to intervene on this ecosystem, and how? I keep repeating certain rules to myself: reformulating rather than exploiting, inventing mediatory tools that encourage debate between several actors and ensuring that they can reclaim what was taken from them, what was lost or what needs to be re-established thanks to formulation and representations.
Could you give us an example of a concrete case of ninja strategy? When I joined the Villa Arson in Nice as a doctoral student in 2018, I noticed disenchantment in the way students were acting. Of course, the emerging fields are very subjective; at Villa Arson, I discovered that many young students did not think that art could interact with reality, they no longer “believed” in art at all.
I had to adapt a discreet way of reaching out to young students, of approaching pedagogy and the history of art schools in order to question the link that art maintains with politics, the crisis of representations, the ecological crisis, and to revitalize political art. I invented a school within the school, where the way we produce as artists is not limited to tinkering in a workshop, but also involves engaging in the real world with one’s own tools stemming from art forms. The idea was to take the students outside the school to invent new forms of commonality situated in a field that is not necessarily theirs. I have nothing against artistic pedagogy, which is often based on technical knowledge, but I think that it could be improved through a dialogue between the experience of art and its territory. Stepping out of school means redefining the exchanges with the environment, shifting one’s habits and developing collaborative approaches which I think are necessary today to dare to dream of a common future.
The ninja is a strange persona who works for someone else.Isn’t that the limit and the paradox of the ninja? Ninja practice has its limits and is paradoxical indeed. Yes, there is an ordering party among ninjas. For us artists, if the order was simply to highlight what needs to be more visible, then the ordering party would be social, economic, ecological reality…
My thesis takes several forms – that of a long research notebook, a film, an analysis. It turns out that all these forms are the result of an investigation that has brought to light how art can be in capacity of renewing the representation of nature, our relationships with living things while inventing new artistic forms based on the question of reciprocity and giving.
We talk about creation-action-research or political arts because they seek to pool a shared methodology, which gives the possibility to explore the reasons behind the crisis of representations and to resolve it through other forms of relationships. The hypothesis of I Can Swim Home (fiction film) is that art can connect worlds. It features three young artists who, like Ulysses, are looking for answers and the strength to return home. Leaving behind a legacy dictated by modernity, they finally manage to find peace.
Depending on situations, do you take on different identities to better infiltrate your field, like ninjas? We could say that, yes, because ninja practice promotes an art of decentering. I find the idea of anonymity interesting since it allows you to take on different roles depending on your interlocutors, to be more attentive. Being an artist is being a bit of a scientist, a journalist, a politician… Unlike the artist, the ninja does not decide to be a “ninja”, but plays the role that he thinks is the most suitable for the context to infiltrate. The “ninja” status or name do not interfere in the actions of the ninja and thus ensure his anonymity while, as Jean-Baptiste Farkas notes, the artist and the hacker share a “need for recognition”, and their deeds have some kind of authorship.
Perhaps the name of the artist or even the term artist are obstacles to the ninja practice? Absolutely, but art – if we are to believe its wildest definitions – must be capable, multiple and generous, and ready to renew itself at any moment?
The term “diplomacy”, which you use in the title of your proposal, is interesting in many respects; it creates political relations with other people and communities, and that’s also the term used by Baptiste Morizot to recast our relationship to the world, particularly with non-human living beings. Could you clarify this diplomatic art? By definition, ninja practice enhances a form of diplomacy. Involving notions like care, attachment, giving, attention. Ninja practice is intended to create the conditions to make art a politicized place. A place where diplomacy is used as much with humans as with non-humans, objects, the environment… Practicing field art requires taking all these actors into account, as stated earlier. Thus, ninja practice is part of creation-action-research, because it promotes the act of caring, taking charge, taking care, and meeting the need for reciprocity and solidarity. It is obvious that in some way, whether consciously or unconsciously, art has always paid attention to things and people in need of visibility, but here particularly and consciously.
This approach seeks to take responsibility, to become politicized by starting from the field and creating appropriate situations in the aim of having effects in the real world. This effectiveness is thus based on judgments that go far beyond individual consciousness. We can say that diplomacy is the result of a militant and collective struggle, it is a generous practice that brings together many entities, which are replayed and used to mess up our shared foundations of knowledge and imaginaries in order to use them differently.
Changing our approaches then amounts to redefining the meaning of otherness (Otherness refers to what is different, what is external to oneself). Otherness is a chance given to everyone and everyone can practice it. Therefore, the practice that I defend consists in trying to revisit what it means to cooperate and to take care through art, in order to understand and create what we can leave to future generations.
Funghi Genius Hacker – On hacking as a property of mushrooms and the living world
I have eaten radioactive mushrooms on several occasions during Danish summers, where I have my own spot. In fact, many mushrooms are radioactive ; for instance some of them – such as laccaria that I will evoke again later – have the particularity of absorbing isotopes of cesium en masse. That’s why you should only pick a few of them, but it rarely stops me: I have mushroom fever. I have occasionally scared relatives with the feverishness and obsession that seize me when I feel the call of the wild, and when the subtle exhalations of the undergrowth tickle the vestiges of my vomeronasal organ. Maybe that is radioactivity?!… Be that as it may, I regularly have crazy ideas in mind regarding these creatures that haunt our forests, our imaginations, our dishes, our bodies, the air and the oceans, and the subsoil of course… The following few lines provide an overview of these strange ramblings that plug me into the fungal world. “Plugged into”, yes, that may be the idea in the back of my mind, as I believe that the fungi world is not a separate kingdom but a hyper-connected network in the entanglement of the living. In its own way, fungal engineering is hacking engineering. I imagine that fungi and hackers share many things in their way of life, in their paradoxes, in the way they connect to others and to giants. The fungi stories and mycological models that are very briefly taken into account here are part of the interpenetration of these two worlds. And they would certainly benefit from being studied thoroughly considering their almost pirate-like nature and their contribution to the creation and maintenance of living worlds.
Commensality and drunkenness: the fungal origins of culture
Most gourmets know that Roquefort and Bleu d’Auvergne owe their color to mold, that the white velvety rind of Camembert comes from the same type of creature, that the whiteness of sausage casings is not due to flour but to a microscopic fungus,1 or that, just like bread, wine and beer are the products of the unicellular fungus called yeast. An amazing taste combination is offered by this renowned French aperitif, forged in the depths of time of gastronomic memory, and I would even say: within the dilated past in which we still plunge our hyphae.2
The civilizations of Homo sapienssapiens really began to burgeon in the Neolithic about twelve thousand years ago, when our ancestors discovered animal husbandry and agriculture. I would add that they also discovered fungiculture. However, their discovery was not like that of the Chinese, who were the first to grow shiitake on dead wood a thousand years ago. Our prehistoric ancestors’ access to the cultivation of mushrooms was much fainter, much more confidential, and at the same time infinitely more promising.
One day, our nomadic ancestors stopped walking owing to the clemency of the climate; an interglacial period showed them the green grass and wild grasses, but was that reason enough for them to put an end to their several-thousand-year-old walk? What motivated this cultural disruption? Current and past paleoanthropologists and archaeologists have an answer: technology, and more specifically biotechnology. Unlike genetic engineering, biotechnology is as old as life itself; it is implemented in a lagoon, in the hollow of a rock or inside a flask made of animal skin. So it is said that the best reason for stopping the journey around the world was the discovery of a manna3 that was nourishing and tasty enough to make it worthwhile: in addition to the mammoth steak, the cereal seed led to the field, which led to the daily bread, and here we have a prebiblical humanity ready to perform quirky miracles.
This improbable Arcadian picture,4 obviously lacks the Dionysian element, because if yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) – commonly known as baker’s yeast – was at the origin of bread, it was also at the source of the fermentation that brought us joy through our first sips of alcohol, especially beer (cerevisiae alluding to Cervoise, the ancient beer of the indomitable Asterix). So this double drunk and gourmet innovation was at the very least what managed to distract us from roaming and to make us settle down, even if that meant that we were staggering. Without knowing it, we had come to cultivate mushrooms that would change our whole civilization and that would even found the latter in the exploitation and leveling of the soil.
Singularity: a billion years of symbiosis
I really like that story. I intuited it in the woods before learning that it was an established theory. But it doesn’t leave me in peace, especially since it wasn’t the mushrooms’ first stunt in the history of life, it wasn’t the first time that they had formed a singular alliance with another life form. Indeed, fungi were among the first living beings to occupy the earth’s soil, and mainstream mycology postulates that they provided the algae that came after them with their initial roots5. Let’s remember that Planet Earth is five billion years old, life emerged four billion years ago, fungi were born in the water probably two and a half billion years ago and colonized terrestrial spaces a billion years ago. So besides being there to welcome all the plant and animal life that only emerged from the water four hundred million years ago, they prepared the very conditions of all life as conquering pioneers, first by covering and digesting volcanic rocks, turning them into fertile soil and assimilable nutrients.
Despite this substrate, when the plant world started to hit the shores, it was vulnerable and helpless due to the lack of a suitable extraction system. Fungi called glomales then associated themselves with the pseudo-roots of the first terrestrial plants, forming an extraordinary symbiotic system called mycorrhiza (a portmanteau word whose prefix “myco-” refers to the fungus and whose suffix “-rrhizae” refers to the root). Just like connectors, the fungus’ hyphae slipped into the plant’s cellular tissues and established an unprecedented mutualistic biochemical dialogue with it: the hyphae absorbed water and mineral salts from the soil while the plant supplied the mycelium with glucose through photosynthesis.
This mycorrhizal symbiosis is now the rule in forests. For that matter, this is how the latter are built and maintained: if the tasty girolle mushroom or the deadly amanita phalloides or the scarlet-stemmed bolete were not there to plug into the trees and thereby interconnect them, we would have nothing to say or enjoy about the sylvan environments as they would simply not exist.6 Non-specialists and even specialists have long seen the fortunate symbiotic capacities of fungi as the paragon of natural cooperation. In this respect, it is certainly important to note that the living world is not subject to Darwinian thought and that, aside from the laws of competition and devouring, there are also reciprocal collaborations everywhere that are revolutionizing our nineteenth and twentieth century notions regarding the interactions of living beings in the biosphere.
Conviviality and parasitism: “the coup d’état of the symbiotes”
However, alongside the romanticism and biophilia that preside over the existence and development of natural science, cutting-edge research in mycology sometimes shows us that all things are equal, as the strange saying goes. So now we should not be afraid to say that there’s a fine line between symbiosis and parasitism, just like between cooperation and conflict; the ally may just as well be the jailer, or vice versa. We learned this from laccaria bicolor, a small mushroom that is very common in the European forests. You may have seen it – or its cousin, the splendid and obviously colored laccaria amethystina – under the spruces. Nevertheless, it is a star in laboratories more than in forests: although it is a beautifully colored edible mushroom, it is above all the first mycorrhizal fungus whose complete genetic sequencing has been carried out. With American researchers from Tennessee, the mycologists at INRA Nancy led by Francis Martin analyzed the genome of Laccaria bicolor and thus unveiled the unexpected tricks of fungal engineering.7
Indeed, the symbiosis between this fungus and the trees that its life depends on is a symbiosis only if you wish, the dividing line between mutual aid and reciprocal theft being once again a fine and porous one. The fact is that Laccaria, like probably all fungi, initially remains a potential parasite for the tree and therefore an enemy to be eliminated: so when the microscopic hyphae come into contact with the rootlets, the plant once again triggers an immune response aimed at preventing infection of its cells, but the fungus’ totipotent enzymes can inhibit this molecular defense and establish an exchange relationship that benefits both of them in the end, despite the tree’s initial and utter annoyance. The fine roots of the tree are thus penetrated and specifically hooded by the hyphae so that a continuum is formed that ensures the existence of each in the most appropriate way.
The intimate and warlike details of this mycorrhizal trade prompted Martin to speak of the mushrooms’ “coup d’état”.8 This state metaphor is obviously quite meaningful: faced with the giant that is the tree, laccaria is a priori a tiny and negligible individual, a “whatever singularity”9 as Giorgio Agamben would say, yet it is able to force the giant to establish a way of life that provides mutual satisfaction. After all, isn’t the mushroom the ancestor? It knows what it needs and what the tree and the forest need. It knows the basics of the biological system since it is simultaneously one of its major architects and compounds, so to speak, which is why it knows how to hack it so well and make it convivial thanks to the relevance and power of its biotechnological tools.
Ivan Illich used to say that a “convivial” society was a society where the tool was not an end in itself but a relational measure for the creation of togetherness.10 Thus, the social life of fungi and plants can easily be described as such, but on the condition that the struggle comes first and that the tree must be convinced of the merits of the relationship’s full reciprocity. This persuasion must have had a form of violence, for such is the topology of forest biotopes, and perhaps of the entire biosphere: more than anywhere else, the colossal verticality of giants owes everything to the apparent “whatever singularities” of the mycorrhizomatic horizontality that is the link which connects the living.
Symbiopoiesis, sociogenesis and omnibiosis: the entanglement of the living
“Coup d’état” for symbiosis, for life as a whole or even for its plural: why do we always speak of life in the singular? James Lovelock was mocked by his fellow biologists when he proposed the Gaia hypothesis, according to which life on Earth is one single organism, a planetary omnibiosis.11 The fact remains that at a time when the idea of the unity of the living is increasingly obvious and integrated, such visions of the biosphere confound us and bring us back to school to relearn everything about what we call “life”.
We are living in the golden age of individualism, social neo-Darwinism and autopoiesis, many components of the obscene Anthropocene that make it difficult to comprehend true cybernetics of the living, that is to say a theory comprising a biological system which, in its very foundation, would only exist through its interrelationships and not through the isolation of beings as kingdom, family, genus, species, individual… Fortunately, mycology has helped to forge the concept of “symbiopoiesis”, which is likely to reconsider all living relationships within nature: “Almost all development may be codevelopment. By codevelopment we refer to the ability of the cells of one species to assist the normal construction of the body of another species”.12 Thus, if we thought that we were alone, trapped in an aggregate of competing loneliness, if we had faith in the power of the self-creation of things, we would now have to re-examine the entanglement of self-organizations and therefore “convert” because, as ecologists say, “[…] more and more, symbiosis appears to be the ‘rule’, not the exception […]. Nature may be selecting “relationships” rather than individuals or genomes.”13 The isolation of living beings in their membrane or in their group has probably been designated by blind biology. One-eyed biology may today see unsuspected interactions, connections so subtle and so ubiquitous that so far they have escaped our inattentive eyes, our big fingers and our tense brains. The consideration that we started giving to fungi reflects this willingness to reassess what we thought we knew about the concept of life.
I even believe – let’s repeat the idea in the back of my mind – that the fungi world is not a separate kingdom, it’s a hyper-connected network in the entanglement of the living. It is increasingly evident that fungi not only plug into trees but also interconnect many other beings. We now know that they are everywhere, they live in all sorts of biotopes and they are extremophiles: they are found in meadows and gardens, but they can also be observed in deserts, in the abyss or in the depths of the Earth’s mantle. They are also in other living beings’ bodies; we discover new species of fungi every day in the entrails of humans or animals, and many of them are in symbiosis with our organs and essential to our health. An adult human body of average size and corpulence has about three kilograms of symbiotic fauna, flora and fungi in its belly, which is enough to disprove the concept of “individual” forever, as the individual is in fact divisible into a multitude of beings; one thought he was alone, but he is a population.14 As mycophile artist Katherine Ball likes to claim: “Katherine Ball is a habitat for fungi and bacteria located on planet Earth. Moving together in symbiosis, like waves moving an ocean, they practice the art of living on a damaged planet.”15 Eliminating all ostentatious subjectivity, the artist presents herself in the third person of the singular, she is not her, since she is them, Multiple.
The entire biosphere is traversed by this complex weave of life forms. “No living being is alone”16 wrote Alfred Espinas, a pioneer of the sociology of nature. More than others, fungi could do justice to this rule and be the ultimate omnibiotic creatures. The sociogenic character of nature was at work when algae and fungi combined to produce the first lichens and plants. When fungi developed mycorrhizal systems millions of years ago, it was the need for survival and gathering that was pressing. When yeasts entered human lives and colonized both our intestines and our counters, it was the relational engineering of fungi that revealed itself. You could say that, everywhere, fungi made the living settle down: they made mycorrhizae as they made what we could call “mycanthropes”, specific symbiotic connections between humans and fungi.
Superorganism, integration and retro-integration: fungal web and fungus-growing ant
It’s a great story again. And I’m even less at peace with it. So maybe I need to tell the idea in the back of my mind of the idea in the back of my mind. While being in the forest and metabolizing this data that I am reporting on, I actually asked myself some simple and a priori completely twisted questions that could be clumsily summed up like this: did humans domesticate yeasts for cultivation or did fungi tame humans to turn them into breeders? Who’s hacking whom? In other words, where does symbiosis begin? Where does parasitism end?
At the designated time, every day, several times a day, and sometimes at night, I walk in the forest. A few years ago, a mushroom hunter initiated me through one sentence, an answer to a question. He is a painter from Russia, where there are big fans of mushrooms. He himself owed his passion to his father, an anatomist. So, on one of the rare hunts he agreed to do with me (a hunter rarely reveals his favorite spots to another gourmand), I asked him: “What do you notice first, the shape or the color of the mushrooms?” I probably imagined that some kind of professional bias might have affected his way of seeing them. But he told me very modestly and very mysteriously: “I don’t know… I know the forest, I’ve joined the network…” And after that he gave me a direction and a meeting point before scooting in the opposite direction. That day, as usual, he brought back many more mushrooms than I did because he had, as he put it so well, “joined the symbiotic network” of the forest. He knew how to detect the “veins” that moved from embankment to embankment, the knots that gathered under certain types of trees, the seasonal slackening.
From what I know of hunters and myself, this integration is not only metaphorical, it also has a full form attached to the nature of omnibiosis, therefore of the co-existence and co-participation of the living. No less than deer, wild boars and slugs, I took part in the dissemination of billions of spores every day. In exchange for a fresh and excellent meal, I worked as a day sower for my favorite fungi. But then again, who cooked whom? Who had the other one to their liking?
These questions are difficult to formulate because from a clinical point of view they are crazy and bring me closer to psychosis (I think mushrooms have invaded my mind…). However, I felt a little less crazy when I read them in a very concrete form in a book written by the biologist Edward O. Wilson, an expert on ants. The fact is that fungiculture has been the prerogative of certain kinds of ants for about forty million years.17 Two hundred and ten species of so-called fungus-growing ants have thus been described, of which the best known genera are Atta and Acromyrmex. Feared by farmers in the tropical regions of the Americas, these ants exfoliate vegetation as they pass and carry leaves to their gigantic nests to make mush, in fact a substrate in which they inoculate a few cells of a fungus called Leucocoprinus gongylophorus, a distant cousin of the shaggy mane. This fungus – which can be as big as a human head – is cultivated, cared for and maintained by ants in cavities specially designed for its needs, that is to say real mushroom beds, and in return for this care, the fungus produces outgrowths, vacuoles filled with nutrients essential to the survival of these ants.18
On a tangent path, some termites also grow mushrooms, but the case of Atta ants is all the more vertiginous since, as far as we know, their immemorial symbiosis with the fungus has modified their body as they have an internal receptacle designed to transport and transplant it. This is real surgery in a body that is limited neither to the anthill nor the fungus, but to what Wilson calls a “superorganism”, so that is symbiotic self-surgery. Concluding on this case, Wilson confides: “Through a unique step in evolution taken millions of years ago, the ants captured a fungus, incorporated it into the superorganism, and so gained the power to digest leaves. Or perhaps the relationship is the other way around: perhaps the fungus captured the ants and employed them as a mobile extension to take leaves into the moist underground chambers.”19
Indeed, who from whom? That’s my question too, Wilson. Scorn is too quickly poured on the species that is a priori immobile and not acting, but that’s because we don’t yet measure the weight of its ancestral presence. Nor is the weight of its locomotory engineering and its symbiopoietic capacity measured: nothing would be in motion if it were not immobile. Now, it goes without saying that the same applies to the entire fungi…
The impossibility to conclude: “philosopher à l’arc”
So am I a zombie piloted by fungi, like the ant victim of Ophiocordyceps unilateralis? Or am I still “me”, if this soft pronoun refers to a community of symbiotic elements? To what extent has the fungal kingdom hacked the biosphere? Will hackers draw inspiration from mycology work to develop strategies for struggle, decentralization, resource sharing, etc.? Could human policies follow the example of elegant mycorrhizal conflicts? Will the state giants hear the symbiotic reasons of the ‘whatever singularities’, soils and subsoils? Will I keep on eating radioactive laccaria?… Yes, I will keep on eating small quantities of laccaria, in omelets. As for the rest, I will hunt and eat so that perhaps, one day, I will find. And I have no despair because, let it be known, I hunt mushrooms with a bow…20
Alongside flora and fauna, fungi describes the mushroom kingdom. [↩]
“Hyphae” is the name given to the filamentous mycelial growths that travel through the subsoil in search of food, allies, and habitats. The mycelium itself is the subterranean form of the fungus. [↩]
It has been said that the “Manna” of the Old Testament might have been fungal by nature. See François Le Tacon, Jean-Paul Maurice, L’odyssée des champignons, Paris, Quae, 2019, pp. 59-61. [↩]
Anthropologist James C. Scott, a former colleague of Marshall Sahlins and David Graeber at Yale University before the latter was fired for his role in Occupy Wall Street, recently suggested that the discovery of grain farming was by no means the only deciding argument for humans settling down. James C. Scott, Homo Domesticus – Une histoire profonde des premiers États (Against The Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States) (2017), Paris, La Découverte, 2019. [↩]
Lisa Curran, The ecology and evolution of mast-fruiting in Bornean Dipterocarpaceae: A general ectomycorhizal theory, PhD dissertation, Princeton University, 1994, quoted by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing in Le champignon de la fin du monde – Sur la possibilité de vivre dans les ruines du capitalisme (The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the possibility of life in capitalist ruins) (2015), Paris, Les empêcheurs de penser en rond/La découverte, 2017, p. 213. [↩]
Francis Martin, « Le laccaire, ami ou ennemi ? » (Laccaria, friend or enemy?), in Sous la forêt – Pour survivre il faut des alliés, Paris, HumenSciences/Humensis, 2019, pp. 121-129. [↩]
Giorgio Agamben, La communauté qui vient – Théorie de la singularité quelconque(The Coming Community), Paris, Seuil, « Librairie du XXIe siècle », 1990. [↩]
Ivan Illich, La convivialité (Tools for Conviviality), Paris, Seuil, « Points Essais », 1973. [↩]
James Lovelock, La terre est un être vivant – L’hypothèse Gaïa(Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth) (1979), Paris, Flammarion, « Champs Sciences », 1993. [↩]
Scott Gilbert and alii, “Symbiosis as a source of selectable epigenetic variation: taking the heat for the big guy”, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, n° 365, 2010, p. 673, quoted by Tsing, in op. cit., p. 218. [↩]
S. Gilbert and David Epel, Ecological Developmental Biology, Sinauer, Sunderland, MA, 2008, pp. 672-673, quoted by Tsing, in op. cit., p. 219. [↩]
Biologist Lynn Margulis used the research of her colleague Lovelock to show the scientific community and the general public the fundamental importance of such bio-microcosm. See Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan, L’univers bactériel (Microcosmos, Four Billion Years of Evolution from our Microbial Ancestors) (1986), Paris, Seuil, « Points Sciences », 2002. [↩]
Edward O. Wilson, Biophilie (Biophilia) (1984), Paris, José Corti, “Biophilia”, 2012, pp. 54-55. [↩]
Jean-Paul Curnier, Philosopher à l’arc, Paris, Lignes, 2016. [↩]
Poaching practices: on hacking’s rural prehistory, and modern-day poaching
Transcript of the conference held on October 1st, 2015 at EESAB Quimper.
Although I’ve had a long-time interest in the hacker persona (which is, more precisely, a category of political subjectivity), I’m more interested in the hacker’s origins. Curiously enough, the hacker seems to be the very incarnation of a particular contemporaneity that was born with digital connectivity in the general consciousness. I suggest linking the hacker to the more marginalized persona of the poacher in order to see in the ancestral practice of poaching a precise prefiguration of today’s definition of hacking.
Let’s focus on the hacker first. As an Anglo-Saxon, I guess this word may hold a connotation that the French language doesn’t convey. Hack is an old Saxon word which means “to chop irregularly with an ax” so that the damage can hardly be fixed. It’s not a clear cut but a slant one, so the wound can’t heal. It’s related to Ken Mckenzie Wark’s definition of the hack as an opening of vectors holding information hostage.
In a post-Marxist spirit, he defines the contemporary world as two classes in intrinsic opposition: it’s no longer the bourgeoisie owning the means of production against the proletariat who can only sell their labor, the bourgeoisie has been replaced with another class: the vectoralist class that is in possession of vectors: vectors of communication, logistics, distribution, diffusion, i.e. cables, pipelines, satellite launch systems etc. The other class is no longer composed of proletarians but of hackers, and the difference is crucial. Obviously hackers work for the vectoralist classes but they do so ambiguously. That is, they run the vectors’ delivery of information but they’re also constantly and intrinsically eager to open and release said information. And unlike the proletariat, the hacker class is not a collective subject and it can’t be unified. It’s rather characterized by individualistic opportunism. It’s both a weakness, according to a Marxist analysis, and a great strength.
I’m not going to comment on Wark’s book, I recommend that you read it if you haven’t already, if only for the pleasure of reading and for the precision of its analysis. I’d like to talk about my experience as a reader. When I read it, it seemed to me that besides discovering a new definition of the hacker – because I had in mind the hacker who steals banking information from other Internet users at night, but that’s not that –, I felt that I was also discovering the hacker inside me, and a vocabulary that I understood slightly differently, as if Wark was hacking language, more exactly the contemporary lexicon. As if the crisis that pitted the hacker against the vectoralist class could initially be experienced as a lexical crisis.
You can read this book numerous times; every reading leads to new discoveries. One interpretation that immediately came to mind was that we could replace the word hacker with a whole series of other words, and that the hacker might not necessarily be an extremely contemporary persona. Although it is contemporary, it might also be something withstanding time. Today, with the galloping privatization of everything, we’re facing a situation comparable to the one faced by the Diggers, a seventeenth-century ultra-radical movement in England. The Diggers come from another movement – Wark doesn’t mention any of that, but for instance replacing the word hacker with digger can lead to another interpretation of his book. I don’t know if you’re familiar with this movement, but during the English Revolution, there was an unprecedented action of privatization or enclosure of common lands in Commonwealth England.
In the past, if people lived somewhere in bad conditions and in poverty, they could at least go hunting, cultivate something, and somehow survive. At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in England, a larger workforce was needed to build factories in cities. This need grew stronger and something had to be done to incite people to migrate to Manchester and London in large numbers. The solution was to enclose common lands, that is to physically put up fences, but especially to prevent people from living where they were. They had to become either owners or tenants, and preferably in the city. There was a resistance movement against this which was organized by an activist called Winstanley on behalf of the Levelers. So, as their war name suggests, they wanted to level the differences to allow peasants to keep going. The movement became more radical, then split and diverged, one group sought compromises with the government like nowadays’ social democrats, and then a more radical vector channel changed its name to become the Diggers. They even went on a hill, St George’s Hill – I know this name because in the popular and subversive imagination of English speakers, St George’s Hill and the battle led by the diggers represent a real but very powerful folklore. They went there, only a few of them at first, but then they were joined by peasants who had been chased out of their lands – well not really, but they had found themselves surrounded by fences with no possibility to meet their needs. They arrived by the dozen, then by the hundred, and in the end by the thousand to cultivate the land and dig. So the police sent very alarming reports to Cromwell stating that “if this keeps going, soon there will be tens of thousands of them and then we will have a real problem.” Cromwell ordered their assault, the destruction of their sheds, the removal of their crops, and their killing, or at least their definitive dispersion. His instructions were followed. But this phenomenon didn’t completely disappear and it gave birth to the poaching phenomenon in England. Either people moved to the city, and many of them did, or they had to poach to continue making a living.
So what is poaching? Poaching is a form of hunting that is forbidden by authorities. I know that when we talk about poachers, we think of mercenaries in Zimbabwe killing the endangered African fauna, but it seems to me that this is a biased misuse of the term and that, historically and in popular imagination, poaching is something else. Poachers, who act at night or behind the lords’ backs, hunt their prey on lands that are not theirs and take it to another land while always remaining anonymous. I think we are very close to the hacker persona and also to a certain persona of the modern-day artist. I know very well that in attention economy – the economy of attention embodied in the dominant art world, where attention catching practices are tested before being implemented –, I know that artists must be visible, and not only visible but as visible as possible, there is an obligation of visibility. There is an extremely powerful ideology in the world of performance art. I even saw, in a rather fashionable Parisian arts center known for a certain discursive level in its practices, a cycle of conferences called Performing Rebellion. To me, this is absolutely catastrophic because one performs instead of being rebellious, one performs rebellion instead of rebelling. And – here I leave the reputation, attention and art economy behind – this performativity has become contemporary capitalism’s most important word of appropriation of added value. We’re constantly invited, I put “invited” in quotation marks, to perform our consumer subjectivities not only as consumers, but to perform this consumer power so that it can be appropriated by the forces of attention economy. Thus, today performativity and appropriation of added value are inseparable from the predatory capitalism that is sort of practiced by the vectoralist class, but that is very similar to what happened in seventeenth-century England with the system of common lands enclosure. But of course poachers never perform their work nor do they exhibit it, because a poacher performing poaching wouldn’t last long. While the dominant art world bores us stiff with performativity as a so-called subversive strategy, in reality performativity is nothing but a predatory strategy of expropriation of energy and added value. Another persona of the artist, and therefore simply of the cultural worker, stands out. Obviously this could be the hacker, but this could also be the more historical persona of the poacher.
The poacher is not alone. Poaching is reminiscent of – and may be the radicalized and illegal version of – another practice tolerated and supervised by the law, by ancestral and even biblical laws, something that was even evoked in the Old Testament, which is the practice of gleaning. Gleaning is very similar to poaching except that it’s not illegal, and it’s strictly regulated. Gleaning is allowed if the gleaner picks up the fruit or the crop once the harvest has been completed or if it has been canceled for climatic or economic reasons. You absolutely have the right to go to another person’s field after the harvest to get onions, potatoes, apples, all that comes from the land. The owner can’t stop you. This is an extremely important persona and I think another artistic sensibility could make use of it.
I’d like to add a few more things. I’ve talked about performativity in strong terms, which may have surprised you. Let me tell you an anecdote before moving on to the next point, which could be a little surprising too. Not long ago, at the International Institute for Art History in Paris, I talked about performativity and its inflationary use in the art world as well as its reality in the framework of the most predatory capitalism. Someone, a seemingly left-wing young art historian, could hardly believe he had understood me. Since I’m a foreigner, he believed that he had understood the opposite of what I had meant. “I don’t understand because you said that performativity was bad”, well I didn’t exactly say that it was bad, I said that it’s currently the most specialized mode of capitalistic expropriation. I tell this anecdote because for him and for the dominant art world in general, that is to say for the attention economy – and here we are at the heart of the ideology questioned by the poacher persona – it goes without saying that performativity has an anti-establishment and subversive value, which I absolutely dispute. I think that this ideology is the opposite of the logic of poaching that interests me. All this allows us to poach some evidence in the art world, especially regarding the cult of the event. I think it’s safe to say that art is punctuated by events. How does art occur? It occurs through exhibitions or publications, performances, etc. Moreover, I’d say that art defines itself as an event. We talk about artistic revolution, a paradigm shift, evidences circulating in speeches about art.
There is a frontal yet underground confrontation between a logic of poaching and a logic of events. Considering events this way forces us to situate them in a comfortable past, i.e. something we can contemplate if we can look to the future and say, oh indeed, the French Revolution was a shift in the expected causality. Or, something that will take place in the future, that is to say a revolution, something we must wait for, but in any case something that never takes place in the present and to which the present is necessarily dependent. Whereas for the poacher, it is something that always takes place in the present and therefore does not obey a logic of events but a logic of use. Something that is common and that is related to everyday life. Michel de Certeau’s formidable book on everyday life is one of the few scholarly and philosophical works to positively evoke poaching. The poacher is not someone who performs poaching but someone who operates clandestinely, thus deliberately weakening the coefficient of visibility as much as possible in order to be able to hunt on a land that’s not theirs and bring back their prey with no possibility of exhibition. What a magnificent image of a modern-day artist at a time when, instead of trying to enter this attention economy, thousands of artists each year seek quite the contrary and exit this economy to go poaching clandestinely, and that’s what makes the authorities paranoid.
If you accept that we’re now in an attention economy, and certainly we can reply as some seek to do by talking about attention ecology, because attention is so consumed and over-consumed that according to some we must rethink an ecology of attention, but poachers are more interested in an exodus under cover of nighttime than in an attention ecology. Admittedly, poachers and hackers are very connected. I tried to sketch out some cousins or subjective neighbors of the poacher persona, but – like the hacker or the gleaner for that matter – it is connected to another persona, another category of political subjectivity that is of great interest to me. This is a double-edged category – perhaps like the poacher in a way: the category of the user. I’ve been an observer of artistic practices for some years, and I’ve noticed that the spectator persona, while celebrated by a philosophical ideology, particularly here in France with many scholarly works devoted to the subject in the last 5/10 years, well more and more practitioners are turning away from spectator-oriented art to focus on user-oriented art claiming usage rights and with use value. The user is not only confined to the aesthetic sphere and therefore opposed to the spectator, the user is also a persona in frontal opposition to the expert persona in the epistemic sphere, in the sphere of knowledge. For experts and for those seeking to police the boundaries of disciplines, including in art schools or in the art world – which may think they are beyond the control system, but it’s always better to do so without people’s awareness –, but for experts, obviously, the user is simply a misuser, someone who only pursues their own interest opportunistically, like the poacher. Also, and we see here how the user category is linked to the logic of poaching that I seek to highlight in this constellation where we find the hacker in contemporaneity, and the poacher in a more historical imagination – connected perhaps in a circular way by the notion of user, who’s opposed to the owner the way use is opposed to private property. Users don’t aspire to become owners even though all countries aim to convert use into property. One example among many others: social housing tenants in France were strongly encouraged to become owners, as if nothing should be communal. Here, users are the heirs of the poachers of olden times. Obviously, all users are not hackers, but this accusation of misuse must surely mean something. All users aren’t poachers either, but in the highlighted triple opposition, we see a number of characteristics specific to users, specific to the logic of poaching.
There’s a more hackneyed persona that I’ll evoke briefly, which is obviously the subjective persona of the pirate. When I talk about modern-day poaching, I think among other things about this great online platform we use every day that is the Pirate Bay. How many times has the Pirate Bay been forced to disappear, and now, instead of one Pirate Bay, there are over 50 of them. This phoenix comes back to life with more heads every time. Now there are Pirate Bay mirror sites that will continue to exist as long as there are hackers, i.e. users, because the content is made available to users by users, that is to say by poachers for poachers. Anyway, I think there’s romanticism in the pirates that embody this persona, an asserted bad boy style, and we see pirate parties that are pretty successful in the public space and even in the electoral space in northern Europe. Today, the real pirates are the ones who try to deprive us of our common spaces, and although it’s in our interest to reclaim and appropriate these marginalized and devalued personas, sometimes we would also be well advised to reverse them and to assign some of these subjectivities characteristics to our adversaries. That is to say, the ones who privatize and deprive us of common spaces. I’d like to show you an image I found the other day. This picture was taken in Argentina at the Argentine customs. Can you see what’s on the screen? I really like this image: customs officers are using a war machine to destroy seized DVDs, misappropriated DVDs that therefore transgressed private property, and deprived rich people of their rights. To me, this image depicts official pirates in conflict with poachers. I shared a lot of ideas and now I’d like to stop here and continue through exchange.
Karine Lebrun: you’ve talked a lot about performativity. Could we make a distinction between performance and performativity, because it seems to me that in performativity, and in the performative act more exactly, there’s something about the present and the act of doing that wasn’t obvious in your speech, as you said that art was flooded with performativity instead of action, whereas performativity is precisely the moment of action, it’s about simultaneously speaking and acting. StephenWright: it’s an extremely complex term. I’m gonna take 5 minutes to answer this question because it’s very important. It’s a slippery word, partly because of its history. It comes from the French language, was exported to English and then re-imported in 2 steps into French, although it’s a French term; firstly to name a well-known artistic genre in the attention economy: performance – first in language philosophy, then in the performativity art field. Especially what we call performative utterances in the philosophy of language. American philosopher Judith Butler theorized performativity a lot, and she doesn’t use the word performance, the artistic genre, even if she makes connections to it and there are some, but she takes it from the philosophy of language. Until the 50s – I don’t want to be pedantic but there’s a history that can enlighten things, so I’m just going to tell it quite quickly. Until the 50s, in the philosophy of language, it was believed that speech acts could be true or false, sincere or not, authentic or inauthentic, but that they were used to describe something, to state facts. This was St Augustine’s idea for instance, and this lasted until the 50s, until John Austin, who was the student of 20th-century great philosopher Wittgenstein, detected a minor language phenomenon that existed nonetheless and that according to him didn’t fall under the notion of description. He called it the performative utterances. In a work that was very well translated into French, Quand dire c’est faire, and I refer to Karine’s question, Quand dire c’est faire has nothing to do with the English title How to do things with words. How do you envision a speech act like I marry you? It’s a rather rare speech act that has been said a lot, but it’s not something we say every day, and besides, if I say it here, if I find 2 people in the room and say I marry you, it doesn’t work because felicity conditions are not met. But if those conditions are met, if I’m the mayor of a commune, if I live in another country where I’m invested with powers by a religion, I have the right to do it in front of other people, under certain conditions, if I say I marry you, the speech act doesn’t describe something in the world, the speech act doesn’t anticipate something that will take place in the world, the speech act does something, the act of marrying 2 people is inseparable from the act of saying the words of the marriage ceremony. I can say that you are married, that you will be married in a few days, that you will be married in 3 seconds, but if I say I marry you when felicity conditions are met, well the thing is done. Austin pretended that there was magic in speech so his theory was much criticized afterwards but we ended up extending this notion of performativity to almost all speech acts. What Austin didn’t want to say or see is that there are implicit performative utterances in every speech act. All this has been of great interest to the art world because modern art comes from a performative gesture made by the greatest artist of the 20th century, and sometimes I think the only artist of the 20th century: Marcel Duchamp, who thought that felicity conditions were met and took an everyday object, put it in an art framework, a performative framework, and implicitly said that this was art. Christ used another performative speech to say “this is my body” about a piece of bread. Eucharist is not a symbolic gesture, Christ did not mean to say that the Host symbolized his body, it is his body, it is absolutely performative. Duchamp meant to say that this was art, countering the whole theory of fine arts and that art is a genre or whatever. So what do I mean when I say that today we are forced to perform our consumer subjectivities? What happens in attention economy when we do a Google search? The most anodyne thing in the world. We reveal a desire. We deliver, for free, without being paid which is very curious, a desire to a machine. Because if we’re looking for something, it means that we want this thing, so the word we use is a way to name that desire. Since billions of us do it every day, Google knows our desires better than we do by paying attention to our attentions, that’s how it works in attention economy. It’s a gesture made to activate or perform a desire of which we are immediately dispossessed in some way. Then, we find it weird to receive information or targeted advertising based on words we typed, websites we visited, trips we made. We’re becoming accomplices of our own self-exploitation. What I like about poachers, and that’s why I think it’s an interesting persona, is that they don’t perform anything. They poach. Users don’t perform use, they make use. I’m possibly interested in the imperformative character of these personas. Today, we are dispossessed of our power of doing since our power can’t be separated from impotence. What Aristote calls dunamis. Aristote does not speak of performativity, but I think it is enlightening to put it in opposition. Aristote uses the term dunamis, which is the Greek word for power, to say that, for a certain philosophical trend, power is the power of doing. But, and I think Aristote is absolutely right to say this, dunamis is also the power of “not doing”. He states that otherwise, an architect who would not build anything would no longer be an architect, a doctor who would not be practicing medicine would no longer be a doctor, and according to him that would be absurd. To highlight this dimension, we can add another persona that is also related to poaching and to the hacker: the slacker. The slacker is the one who does less, the lazy one. Idle and lazy are extremely pejorative terms, just like impotence. When we talk about impotence, we think of erectile dysfunction or something like that, but impotence is something that needs to be valued. Artists think that being an artist means making art. That’s pathetic. Unfortunately, we all know someone who thinks that being an artist means making art. For one thing, it’s better when we meet artists who admit that being an artist can consist in making art, but in other cases, and I think all artists have experienced this sensation, to be an artist is also to refrain from doing art. Any poet has recognized that sometimes silence is preferable, more sublime than any poetry. Sometimes not acting is better than action. I think true artists are what Aristote suggests – and I think we see the death trap of performativity –, true artists are into “not not doing”. This double negative, “not not doing” art, is what being an artist is about in a sense. With this performative mania, we take the risk of being deprived of the equivalence between power and impotence. Through this permanent solicitation to perform, we lose the ability to drag our feet, do the bare minimum, not not do. The only viable and even realistic strategy today, the only way to avoid performative appropriation – which is also an ontological appropriation in art –, is to be assigned to art. So one has to remain obstinately in a certain imperformativity to avoid this performative appropriation. Nowadays it’s performativity, 5 years ago it was resistance. This logic of resistance is a way of validating the authority we seemingly resist. Nowadays it’s performativity, we perform our rebellion. But we know that true rebels don’t perform rebellion, they’re in rebellion. The circle is complete with this gesture, this aslant hack that opens the vector and makes all that is held hostage splash. I think the hacker is surrounded by a constellation of other more or less united subjectivities. A student: are you familiar with Melville’s Bartleby? I think it’s a good slacker persona… SW: I’d like to say that indeed, Bartleby is a slacker, but you have to be careful because Bartleby is celebrated. There’s a very good book by Agamben on Bartleby, Deleuze wrote about Bartleby, Zizek too, so he’s obviously a fascinating character. But just like these thinkers, we mustn’t forget that Bartleby dies tragically. Admittedly, he resists his boss who is mystified by his behavior, but at the same time he dies because he refuses other survival tactics. He lets himself die. So I think this persona is a more paradoxical and more complex source of inspiration for us. He offers no other horizon than this refusal, so let me talk about someone else, a contemporary of Melville: Lafargue, who was married to Karl Marx’s daughter, and who therefore shared with Marx a certain analysis of society. Marx’s son-in-law was not really in favor of work. He wrote about his right to be lazy. His strategy was different from Marx’s and Bartleby’s: to him, we have all these machines that could work for us, and yet we consent to go to work every day instead of going fishing. To me, this eulogy of laziness seems to complement Bartleby’s persona, who is all the same very relevant despite his irreverence and impertinence, but needs to be completed with someone like Lafargue’s praise of laziness. KL: this morning we talked about the positive or at least ambiguous side of the hacker; hacker, pirate, poacher are terms that are quite difficult to define, elusive personas. SW: you sent us a text when you invited us to take part in this event, and I think you mentioned Edward Snowden in the first or second sentence. To me, Edward Snowden is a true hero of our time. I know he is very often characterized as a whistleblower, but when I heard about his gesture and its extent, I immediately saw the poacher in him. EimerBirkbeck: can I stop you? I just want to ask you. Are you in contact with Edward Snowden? It’s trick question. SW: it’s very difficult to be in contact with him. EB: I know. If you were in contact with him, what would you want to say to him? I’m very curious by your analogy to poaching going back to the seventeeth century in Cromwell but Edward Snowden didn’t act with so transparent. He made a decision to do something so much light. SW: hang on… He had to do in the dark night. EB: I know but he also made that decision to transpose to transpire the information. Isn’t there official? For me, that’s a very strong metaphor to put light on economy, surveillance… I just want to know your interpretation of his act. SW: […] about James C. Scott: an infra-political form practiced by the powerless, practiced by users, poachers, hackers, gleaners etc. And he wonders: why be a target for authorities when you can act imperformatively in the shadows? And I think this question needs to be addressed today in the public space-time, but among other things in the art space-time. Why engage in the attention economy when you can act more efficiently in the shadows? KL: this falls in line with Jean-Baptiste’s remark in his presentation about the dark side this morning. Are there other comments? Otherwise, this question makes a good conclusion. Jean-Baptiste Farkas: Stephen, just a remark. What would be the equivalent of those who put up fences on common lands in today’s art world? SW: they are numerous. Let’s take the example of music, when I say that privatization is galloping it means that I think the positioning of fences happens as fast as lawyers can imagine ways to move them forward. In musical practices for example, it is now forbidden to use samples of more than two seconds of music. We can say that it belongs to someone but, come to think of it, we don’t have the equivalent of eyelids on the ears. In order not to hear music or ambient sounds, we have to invent some kind of occasional and makeshift eyelids for the ears – like our fingers, etc. So when we walk in the street, in malls, in cafes, in the subway… We hear, we have sound experiences, we hear bits of music, but if we are composers for instance, what are we gonna use to make music if not our experiences, our own sound experiences? But now that’s forbidden, and that’s what killed folk music. Once someone says that a melody or a composition is theirs even if it was something that used to circulate and be reproduced, once it’s been appropriated by someone and protected by copyright, then someone else will have to pay fees to use more than two seconds of it. This is an example of fences being placed on common lands. In literature – and that’s why I’m virulently opposed to the conceptual institution of the “author”, which is a fiction anyway, but a powerful legal fiction –, if we go back to the origins of Western literature, if we go back to Homer for instance, there was never one Mister Homer but narrators and lyric poets improvising from common repertoires. At some point in the history of ideas that can be situated between Hobbes and Locke, i.e. in the seventeenth century, precisely when fences were set up in England, the notion of what we call possessive individualism in political and legal philosophy, the idea that I only owe what I am or what I can become to myself and that I owe nothing to the community. By the way, the privatization of knowledge is driven by this ideology today; unfortunately if things stay the same we’ll soon have to pay for studies in France, local authorities will no longer have the duty to reproduce such knowledge and it would be up to everyone to do so, and that is connected to possessive individualism. Through this idea, which is obviously linked to the author institution, I keep the use or knowledge of something for myself, unless someone else pays me for it. This logic of author and possessive individualism is very precisely related to the fences that move forward on common lands, and it’s in complete contradiction with a logic of creativity – which is also a source of hope. For example, a few years ago, there has been an attempt – and I think there will be another one – to put copyright on neologisms. For instance, with the technology that will soon be available, if I invent a word that’s a little clever and I think that other people might want to use it, I will be able to charge a fee for it – e.g.: Ludovic Chemarin, the name of an artist that was used by other artists. There is a Ludovic Chemarin copyright. It’s an ironic and playful proposition. In the end, one could imagine a fence surrounding the words themselves. It’s possible in music, it’s the case in literature, so there’s no reason to suppose that this logic of enclosure will have limits. But the system itself will be penalized since value is also produced by use. That’s another debate, but to me there’s hope since free use is not just a source of consumption but of production, there is a conflict between two accumulation modes. This is connected to practices of poaching, of use, of hacking etc. I come back to Wark, who consistently highlights the ambivalence of the hacker persona. On the one hand, hackers work for vectoralists and operate on vectors, but on the other, they are unrelentingly attracted to the idea of breaking things and making repairs complicated.
The story of the theft of the avant-garde, 2017
R22 Tout-Monde radio broadcast recorded on October 12, 2017 at Khiasma. Pierre Akrich recounting the theft of the avant-garde.
Fake doormat of the avant-garde.
Homer-making: a tactical art at work
Publishing an article that focuses on homer-making on a website devoted to practices of hacking might seem somewhat extravagant since this practice has long been described as being “in decline”,1 a decline supposedly concomitant with the emergence of numerical control in the production process. Though, until then, homer-making could still slip into the interstices of industrial production, it has allegedly been relegated to a bygone era by this “technological and digital revolution”. However, as Michel de Certeau wrote in the introduction to his chapter about homer-making: “The operational models of popular culture cannot be confined to the past, the countryside, or primitive peoples. They exist in the heart of the strongholds of the contemporary economy. Take, for example, what in France is called la perruque, “the wig.” […] la perruque reintroduces “popular” techniques of other times and other places into the industrial space (that is, into the Present order).”2 Therefore, in light of the survival of these “tactical arts” throughout ages, it is possible to demonstrate that homer-making (la perruque in French) is still connected to modern-day hacking, and that the hacker and homer-maker personas are connected in many ways. Incidentally, hackers working in the computer field, whose mission is to manipulate the code and computer hardware, will often have the opportunity to become homer-makers and indulge in parallel productions during work hours (creating or maintaining websites, designing and producing programs, games or other software, etc.). And, for their part, homer-makers working in other industries will increasingly feel the need to turn into hackers. Indeed computerization, artificial intelligence, robotization and the automation of production means have considerably changed the conditions of homer-making in contemporary production workshops, so much so that programming skills are now the essential correlates of this practice. Employees who want to divert preprogrammed machines (or numerically controlled machine tools) from their primary function – which is to perform production tasks defined by management – must then be able to reprogram them.3 Thus, alongside old forms of factory do-it-yourself that workers still use when possible, new tactical tendencies take place in workshops where new technologies prevail. In such companies, the machine operator who holds the numerical control is now – just like a computer hacker – the most qualified person and the one who is in the best position in the production line to make homers. Also, if we can make a poacher into a “prehistoric hacker” persona,4 it could be the case for the homer-maker persona too, at least since the creation of wage labor, because just like poachers who “use what’s not theirs”5 or hackers who “break codes and divert machines to adapt them to their use”,6 homer-makers make a misappropriated and reappropriated use of the means of production to which they have access in the workspace and during work hours. However, although the homer-maker might foreshadow a certain type of hacker and that it would therefore be tempting to consider homer-making as a form of “hacking at work”, it should be remembered that each practice is peculiar. Thus, although poaching and homer-making have a lot in common with hacking – especially understood as the activity that consists in modifying, diverting, fiddling or tinkering with… elements (such as computer hardware and/or software) so that they may work differently than they were designed to – these different practices shouldn’t be mixed up with each other. For this reason, this article will focus exclusively on the practice of homer-making, starting by trying to find a definition that could delimit the relevant field more precisely.
Homer-making: what’s it all about?: games and stakes of a definition.
When we question the definition of homer-making – a name whose very origin is unknown7 – we can see quite quickly that there are as many definitions of this practice as there are different playgrounds and practitioners. However, one could try to define homer-making this way: it consists, for a worker in wage labor (in the workspace and during work hours), in the (individual and sometimes collective) reappropriation of the available production means (materials and production tools) to manufacture or transform artifacts outside of the company’s official production. Obviously this definition can only be understood as a game here (the very rules of which are debatable) because, like all given definitions, it would never be enough to cover all the implications of homer-making or to qualify it through differentiation, in relation to what it is not. Thus, if the merit of our definition – derived from that of Robert Kosmann8 – is to avoid turning homer-making into a work done exclusively “for oneself” – a homer can be ordered by or for others (colleagues, friends, family members…) or it can even clandestinely contribute to a political scheme that goes beyond the sole satisfaction of the operator who indulges in it –, it nevertheless omits to specify that it is always non-commercial work for example. In this sense, homer-making is defined in distinction to other “parallel practices” such as the clandestine enterprise (here the product of the activity made at work is sold) or undeclared work (the paid activity is carried out outside of the company) and also differs from other marginal practices such as worker idleness, online gaming or shopping, etc. The aim is not to hierarchize these practices – according to their supposedly more or less moral nature –, but since homer-making is often confused with other types of diversion at work, it seems useful to specify its outline. Made in the workspace and during work hours, homers are non-commercial. They are not sold because the makers do not see them as merchandise: homers are free, that is one of their main characteristics. When they are not made “for oneself”, they are mostly offered and, in a “gift/counter-gift” logic, they can be exchanged. In the same way, if this “clandestinely produced” work implies theft – the last step of this practice is to bring the artifact out of the company9 – it is not reducible to a simple theft, since it is above all the expression of a technical know-how often acquired during professional training attended by the “worker/homer-maker”. An employee who wants to make a casquette10 is therefore dependent on his position in the company, the time he may have – or take, to be more accurate – and his practical know-how.11 It is necessary to have access to the means of production, that is to know how tools work (milling machine, lathe, torches…) and how to work with raw materials (wood, metals, glass…). This is why homer-making is firstly done by skilled workers and, under these circumstances – those of the division of labor – it is not always possible to “return the favor”, for example among colleagues. Any workstation is not conducive to the production of bricoles and therefore does not offer the same reciprocity opportunities. However, if it is not possible to return the favor, it is the custom to trade a homer for a drink, a pack of cigarettes, a bottle of wine or Ricard, a restaurant invitation, etc. The “counter-gift” varies according to the time spent and the difficulty of the work done by the homer-maker. As we can see, if there is an ongoing discussion and controversy about the definition of this term, it is probably because we could add a number of other rules which are all essential to the refined understanding of the game of homer-making. Thereby, rather than adding an umpteenth definition of homer-making, we would have probably been well advised to present some rules of the game directly [which is the case in the box entitled: Short summary of the main rules and constraints of the game of homer-making].
From homer-making as deviance to deviance as a resistance art.
Practiced on the terrain imposed by the other and with the means available in situ, homer-making is therefore an art of tactics according to the definition given by Michel de Certeau.12 This activity can be fun because it turns the context of work into a place devoted to play and tactical diversion of routine constraints. There are few studies about this practice that is quite common in the worlds of wage labor, although it is most often associated with industrial production methods. Although we do not know exactly when the term perruque appeared, we can say that this practice of diversion of the means of production is probably as old as wage labor.13 Its practice is more or less clandestine because the tolerance and repression policies vary according to companies. But although it is not always repressed by employers, it would be inaccurate to see this practice as a simple vector favoring work regulation. In opposition to sociologist Michel Anteby, according to whom homer-making may well belong to these “gray zones tolerated by the company’s management” and could be seen as “a discretionary remuneration” even endowed with a “regulatory function” of the “factory’s productive order”,14 it would be tempting to inventory these different practices and automatically place them in the generic category of the resisting ones. But the issue we may encounter with such a practice, whose nature is to be underground, sporadic, most often solitary and without claim, is that by systematically naming it a “resistance”, we decide to make it say something whereas practitioners themselves speak very little of it – and even more rarely to describe it in terms of resistance. Practiced anonymously and (semi-)clandestinely – unlike a collective protest that uses a platform of demands for support for instance – it is difficult to decide to interpret this practice as a resisting one without over-interpreting it. The question could then be: what creates resistance? Not so much from the point of view of those who indulge in this practice as from that of those that it penalizes: business owners and their delegates. What creates resistance according to management? We think this question can tell us what creates – or not – resistance. This is somewhat the same logic that Howard Becker uses to define the notion of deviance: “…deviance is not a quality of the act the person commits, but rather a consequence of the application by others [those he also refers to as “moral entrepreneurs”] of rules and sanctions to an “offender”.”15 Therefore, the question is not to substantialize the act of transgression committed by an employee in the company (there is no “good” or “bad” deviance) but, in order to spot deviance (what deviates from official production) and as Howard Becker encourages us to do, we can look at the rule that is being broken, at those who made it, and observe the applied sanctions. And although deviance is set by the rule, it should be remembered that homer-making is most often considered illegal – including in the companies rules and regulations. And Michel Anteby is right to make the analysis of these regulations the way to find “a “negative” evidence of the existence of a practice. If a practice is systematically prohibited or sanctioned, then it must exist. »16 And Robert Kosmann adopted the same reasoning to find the clues necessary to assert the existence of homer-making as far back as the seventeenth century. The author of Sorti d’usines thus drew on the royal decrees adopted under the reign of Louis XIV and managed by Colbert, then Secretary of State of the Navy – decrees which particularly specified that workers were forbidden to manufacture (for them or their officers) “furniture and other works”, and detailed the penalties incurred by workers who would be caught in the act (sanctions ranging from “a fine amounting to one crown for those who would bring out pieces of wood and shavings” to corporal punishments for “those who would be found with nails or other things belonging to His Majesty”) and the conditions of searches upon exiting the Brest Arsenal17 – to attest that homer-making is indeed a practice as old as wage labor. That way, the examination of these regulations prohibiting homer-making not only confirms its “existence”, but allows us to simultaneously identify where, when and for whom… this is a resistance practice – to the extent that bosses seek to prevent it through the explicit use of threats of sanctions. And although it is no longer punished by corporal punishment, as it was the case in the seventeenth century, it still exposes those who indulge in it to managerial sanctions that can lead to dismissal. Marie de Banville and Bruno Dumont’s movie Perruque, bricole et compagnie… gives us access to the testimony of Mr D, who was fired for making a barbecue during work hours18 Of course, in some limited cases, employers or supervisors can embrace what they cannot avoid and then accept to “turn a blind eye” to the bousille, under an implicit contract that aims to give the homer-maker their blessing in return for a job well done on behalf of the company. But such tolerance remains precarious and revocable: “It is absolutely not an acquired right with recognized permanence.”19 The case of our unfortunate barbecue lover speaks well for it. While management was changing, he kept manufacturing his barbecue in plain sight, unsuspecting that the rules and regulations would henceforth be effectively implemented and that he would pay for it.20 Moreover, the boss of bosses Xavier Boniteau (who was president of the employers’ organization Union Patronale des Industriels de la Loire at the end of the 90s) helps us clarifying – from the point of view of the owner – the expression “authorized homer”, which sounds like an oxymoron. To the question asked by Marie de Banville in the movie Perruque, bricole et compagnie…: “What is the tolerance policy regarding homers?” the boss answers that there is no tolerance margin: “…as soon as an employee diverts either raw material or time – which is paid for by the company [sic] – for their own benefit to manufacture any object whatsoever, that is theft. As soon as there is a tacit agreement, there’s no homer anymore. If there is a tacit agreement, then there is no theft. Whether it is explicitly said or simply tacit, this is no longer homer-making.”21 Paradoxically, this boss/perruquier (the one who endures homer-making)22 – a “moral entrepreneur,” as Howard Becker would say – offers an entirely acceptable definition of what homer-making is – or is not – and of its normative boundaries.
Homer-making as an art of resistance recycled in the service of class struggle.
Homer-making is therefore prohibited by employers in most companies because it is a practice of direct reappropriation of the means of production during work hours. In this sense, homer-making questions the legitimacy of the employers’ power to dispose of the private ownership of the means of production alone but also to enjoy the surplus value offered by work hours that in reality – and unlike what the big cheese tells us – they do not pay. “Left-hand work” is one form, among others, of direct reappropriation of what Karl Marx calls “unpaid surplus labor”.23 Through homer-making, we seek to get a little bit of what was stolen from us back, even if such gleaning only represents a tiny reappropriation in relation to the wealth produced and the surplus value achieved by the company. And it is undoubtedly to assert this unleashed time and these reappropriated means that some homer-makers proudly indicate how long they have worked on objects they present: “It took me one week to make this saber [which is a homer]! »24 Also, the object as a summary of the production activity is the trace resulting from a moment taken, or rather snatched, from the regulated and divided control of work. The obtained object is the trophy of what one could call a “resistance making do”, it is the victory of a “Let’s do it ourselves!” over the employers’ order and the hierarchy that always single-handedly decide, direct, supervise and control work execution. Therefore, from a political point of view, this practice is a close cousin of other practices that can be described as libertarian communist or anarcho-syndicalist. Indeed, in the embryonic stage, homer-making allows for the daily exercise of self-organization (“this is a work we plan on our own and execute as we see fit”),25 direct action (it means a reappropriation and a direct turnaround of the means of production), and it implies a profound questioning of the technical and social division of work understood as a source of alienation because those who engage in it are determined to fight a monotonous, fragmented and alienating work. But all homer-makers definitely do not relate to this type of political legitimization and only see this as one more theoretical construction: we do that just because, to keep ourselves busy and also because we know how to do it, that’s all. However, homer-making is often associated with the ideal of a socialized production, or what Miklós Haraszti calls the Great Homer: “If production experts were not at the same time dispensers of our means of existence and masters of discipline and performance, this would be the age of the Great Homer. Instead of the alienated meaning, imposed from the outside by wages (and their negation: the nonsense of forbidden comfort), the ecstasy of genuine need would come. Precisely what is senseless about homers from the point of view of the factory announces the tranquil insistent affirmative of work motivated by a single incentive stronger than all others: the conviction that our labor, our life and our consciousness can be governed by our own goals. The Great Homer would be made on machines but these would be subordinated by our experts to the double requirement of real needs and of our freedom from them. It would be the twilight of timer technology. We would only produce what associated homer-makers would need and what would keep us united as homer-makers. And we would produce it a thousand times more efficiently than anything produced today.”26 Thus, the different ways of action used by homer-makers are not radically different than those used by revolutionary and anti-fascist Spain’s workers in 1936 as, for instance, they recycled Hispano-Suza factories into an armoring workshop for luxury cars. There are only differences of degrees between them. They proceed from a similar practical state of mind, since it is always about finding a certain freedom to manufacture or transform artifacts outside of the company’s official production; the whole difference – and a major one according to our barbecue maker – stems from the fact that the homer is produced by a worker in a traditional capitalist company and the other – the Great Homer – is mass produced by workers who put the Hispano-Suza luxury car business under worker supervision via factory committees and assemblies.27
Far from being an obstacle to the expression of a collective protest, homer-making can be considered a daily exercise, gymnastics that will allow one to put these skills and recycled means of production at the service of class struggle, when the time comes. More simply, this practice is, incidentally, often associated with an “art of recycling”, which trains imagination and ingenuity in making hybrid objects from “anything and everything”. The homer is indeed a composite object made from selected pieces (precious or semi-precious metals, silver soldering wire, copper, piece of lace or leather…) and/or waste (wood or metal scraps, defective piece…). In light of this “art of recycling”, the bricole could then not only be considered a worker resistance to the industrial order but also, according to F.X. Trivière, “a form of resistance to industrial disorder” because some workers justify it by “a preemptive right in the name of good industrial waste management.”28 This argument, which aims to consider workers who grant themselves a right of priority use on waste (in the name of its “good management”) as legitimate, is reminiscent of the argument of workers struggling to make the claim that a company belongs primarily to its workers effective and get it recognized. A claim that would thus prioritize, against private property, a preemptive right for workers on the means of production (tools and raw material) and their shared uses, self-managed by makers but also, why not, in cooperation with user-consumer groups. This is the case when workers, finding meaning in self-assigned work, relaunch the production of goods and/or services in order to socialize the profits or to popularize, finance or protect a struggle. The occupation of companies by striking workers can then provide a context conducive to the manufacture of “self-defense homers” for instance, which are used to keep the police at a distance. This was the case in May 2009 in Gijón (Asturias), when shipyard workers resisted the closure of their site. To defend themselves against the repeated assaults of the riot police, workers and boilermakers built on the premises several small protective sheet metal sentry boxes on wheels. These small mobile sentry boxes (about 2 meters high, thick sheet metal, spot-welded with a blowtorch, closed on three sides, with protective roofs and frontal and lateral loopholes) thus allowed them to go to the right distance to shoot projectiles and repel tear gas on repressive forces. They also used “50 mm diameter and 1.5 meter long tubes to shoot small-caliber “garden” fireworks (20 to 25) at Spanish civil guards. Videos show that there’s an opening, a “light” tinkered to allow firing.”29 To keep the police at bay, workers also fought back with slingshots, fire hoses, Molotov cocktails, bolts… and also used cranes to maneuver burning containers.30 Beyond the fact that it can assume an explicitly political function – in the extraordinary context of an open conflict –, the “hidden work”, as small as it may be, offers several levels of resistance. As we have seen, it calls into question the legitimacy of the employers’ power to be the sole beneficiary of the production means’ private property but also to dispose of the surplus value generated by unpaid work hours. But such work also resists by reversing the constraints imposed by the conditions of production and thus becomes a form of resistance to the organized division of labor. In the case of the “individual” production of a homer,31 the operator does his best to use the materials available in situ and is thrilled to be able to produce an object from A to Z by foiling the constraints of his particular workstation. Therefore, homer-makers resist by producing a complete object from a specialized and parcellized workstation. They resist through the production of a “free” and “creative” work that is organized in constant back and forth between design (what to do?) and manufacturing (how to make it with what one has to hand?). They – temporarily at least – regain control of their work power: during the object’s production time, all operations are their responsibility. In a way, it is a critique of the division of labor in manufacturing using its own means and constraints. In this sense, the cultural practice of homer-making can fall under a culture of resistance to the division of labor in the industrialized capitalist world – a resistance that the Luddites led from the outside.32 We can take the risk of a historical transposition and say that homer-makers, just like the Luddites, are faced with the orchestrated division of labor, but also that their attitudes differ: whereas the Luddites destroyed the production tool, homer-makers use it from the inside to produce something else, and differently.
Yet, if a homer is made through the manufacture or transformation of an object, it is primarily a utilitarian production, which serves to improve the daily life of the homer-maker or that of their friends of family: tools (rulers, triangles, protractors, compasses, hammers…), domestic equipment (cutlery, knives, mincers, shovels, bowls, saucepans, barbecues, lamps, ashtrays, magnetic soap dishes, coat racks…). But the pinaille can also be “useless”, “an art of doing just for the sake of doing”, or more exactly of symbolic utility, and can thus consist in objects in three dimensions: figures of protesters made of screws and bolts, miniature wheelbarrow, miniaturized machine tools…33 We had to wait until the 1970s, a period that saw the emergence of mass distribution and consumption (particularly through the emergence of large-scale retailers), for homer-making to appear more as a reaction to the uniformity of production, and for it to offer more “creative” or “decorative” objects: paperweight, chess set, brain-teasers, solitaire, candlesticks, key rings, pencil cases, pendants, dice, dildos, electronic music box, TV antennas, pirated Canal+ decoders, hi-fi amplifiers,… There is also a certain attachment to the production of weapons: slingshots with steel balls, brass knuckles, pistols, crossbows, swords, halberds… Thus, the term homer, which covers both the production activity of this object and the object itself, can be considered a process object. But its exhibition becomes problematic as such. By dissociating the object from its particular context of production, from the everyday and ordinary environment in which it is supposed to take place, we participate in the reification of the homer. The exhibited homer-object, taken away from its process, its history, its maker and the rules of the game that motivated its production, but also taken away from its (whether domestic or political) function or its decor, is given a change of scenery and decontextualized. Although the object is not considered as a commodity by its maker, it can be reified, merchandized as a work of art.
Homer-making and Art
However, for the last twenty years, it seems that spaces dedicated to art have become ideal places to observe these “small works” produced in the shadows and then brought to light. This sudden interest of the art worlds for the bousille seems to be the sign of this object’s change of social status. Homer-makers and those who study homers (sociologists, ethnographers, philosophers, historians, etc.) also seem to find correspondences with artistic practices in this practice, despite their mistrust of the “art” category. Yet the “becoming art” of this practice does not go without saying and the ambiguous relations between art and homer-making need to be questioned, just like the misunderstanding that lingers between the different actors of these two worlds. On the one hand, although homer-makers accept to define their objects in terms of “technical pleasure”, “aesthetic emotion”, as “beautiful” or “ugly”, they do not claim, at least in principle, any artistic legitimacy and refuse the “art” category. Just like the workers who, from the factory to the house, transform their interior or their garage into a museum (self-patrimonializing their own productions) and indulge in the creation of diverse “useless” objects – statues, paintings, models in wood, cement, iron, etc. – and that Véronique Moulinié calls “ordinary workers of art”, also to avoid using the term “artist” that would almost be perceived as an insult by many of them: “Do you think I have the mug of an artist? I’m just a worker. I do that just because. To keep myself busy. Also because I know how to do it. That’s all.”34 Étienne de Banville drew on Véronique Moulinié’s study to note – this time about homer-makers/workers of art – that “refusing to accept the “art” category seems to be based on the rejection of the social, if not sociological, category of “artists”; not only their “mug”, but especially the lifestyle and social category attributed to them: according to many – though not all – homer-makers, being a (recognized) artist could be seen as a betrayal, an unacceptable rupture with their worker career, with the relationships they maintain with their buddies, in short with their own image. Art is for others! in a way, while homer-making is “beautiful work”.” ((Étienne de Banville, Ibid., p. 71-72.)) And on the other hand, if we consider these productions in the light of processual art, it is not surprising that they make the libido of the small art world run at full speed. But any attempt to redefine the practice of homer-making (understood in the sense of the worker of art who seeks to achieve a beautiful work) as artistic could not ignore this cumbersome professional know-how that rehabilitates a modernist conception of art with the image of artists as subjectivities that are free to leave their mark on each of their “works” – or “pieces”, to use the same Newspeak as some current art worlds which, under cover of using a term intended to replace that of “work”, continue nonetheless to distinguish their own productions by emphasizing their preciousness –, to achieve a “beautiful work”, a “work well done”, which becomes something “unique”. Such a vision does not quite fit with the art movements that, since Marcel Duchamp’s paradigmatic – if ever there were one – work Fountain, have constantly sought to get rid of an aesthetic overvaluation, the surplus value attributed to the supposed “unique” know-how of the artist,35 and to avoid the reification of traces – embarrassing or even compromising residues – left behind. In this sense, the museographic recontextualization of such objects in the performative framework of art represents, step by step, an artistic revaluation that is suspect from both the makers’ point of view and an artistic point of view.
The exhibition of homers
The ambiguous relations between art and homer-making are therefore much questioned by this museification in the making because, as we have seen, a homer is not obviously produced to be exhibited. The exhibition of homers made at the request of Étienne de Banville in September 1996 at the Château des Bruneaux ecomuseum (in the city of Firminy near Saint-Etienne) was first threatened with a ban due to the presence of the city’s police chief and a court bailiff – who aimed (as a result of a complaint lodged by local employers: l’Union Patronale des Industriels de la Loire) to draw up a detailed inventory of the objects on display on the opening day, to describe them, and to specify the authors and the origin of the enterprise.36 Ten years later (on November 24, 2006 at Saint-Etienne’s Trade Union Center), the mayor and the city’s VIPs inaugurated the very same exhibition. This institutional recognition – which can be attributed to “some members of the intelligentsia worrying about the disappearance of some labor know-how in France”37 – could be perceived by homer-makers as a funeral announcement regarding a certain type of labor homer-making.38 It seems that homer-making makes much more sense in its processual phase than in its instituted phase. Once recontextualized in museum institutions – artwork cemeteries (?) –, it loses its grandeur. The methods used to exhibit or represent these homer-objects largely determine the position and commitment of the curator39 – or the artist-turned-curator’s one when their work is made of objects created by others – regarding their models, homer-makers. The practices of representation thus reveal often antagonistic positions and interests, and place the subjects in positions that can be asymmetrical. Depending on which side of the mediation they are on, representatives and represented people do not always find the same interests. In his chapter devoted to homer-making (une pratique de détournement : la perruque – a diversionary practice: “la perruque”), Michel de Certeau questions the place from which we study this practice. He observes “a gap that separates the time of solidarity (marked by docility and gratitude toward one’s hosts) from the time of writing; the latter reveals the institutional affiliations (scientific, social) and the profit (intellectual, professional, financial, etc.) for which this hospitality is objectively the means. The Bororos of Brazil sink slowly into their collective death, and Lévi-Strauss takes his seat in the French Academy.”40. Paraphrasing Michel de Certeau, we could probably see something similar in the artistic representation of industrial workers in France. The workers of a certain industry and their associated cultures sink slowly into their collective death,41 and Jean-Luc Moulène enters Beaubourg with their represented strike objects.42 Indeed, although the collection and archive work regarding strike objects – or “strike homers”43 – done by Jean-Luc Moulène and his donation to the Archives Nationales du Monde du Travail must be recognized,44 we find the artistic representation of such objects problematic, to say the least. And the artist, – self-proclaimed (?) – actor of this redefinition of “strike objects” into “art objects”, is not mistaken when he says: “There is an ambiguity. In my mind, this work is a place of conflict, not a peaceful place. Beaubourg buying the photographs represents the assumption of a manifest object in art. Thus, in a way, the subversive content of the strike object is appeased.”45 The artist’s mind is not the only place where this work is a place of conflict, as it can only distend a little more the bonds of hospitality and solidarity that could exist between the “artist-archivist” and the striking workers who are the collective producers of the “strike homers” that have been transfigured into “art objects” and also somehow into objects of speculation. And in this case the tumble is quite severe. In October 2011, the photograph of a strike object – including that of the Gauloise packet with a CGT stamp that was offered in 1982 with a five franc support voucher and which clearly stipulated TASTING-SALE PROHIBITED – was sold 7500 euros including VAT by the Galerie Chantal Crousel46 (which represents the artist), which gives the twenty-four photographs of “strike objects” a commercial value of 180,000 euros including VAT and gives an important surplus-value to the photograph of the Gauloise packet produced by the striking workers of Seita. The reclassification from “strike homers” to “art objects” creates this kind of schizophrenia. For whom do artists work and what reputation – a priori or a posteriori – do they leave behind? Does this mean that artists – just like curators, anthropologists or sociologists… – are always at risk of betraying their hosts’ hospitality and increasing even more the divisions of labor between representatives on one side and represented people on the other? Of course one has to work on the homer and “transform the material or personally contribute to its added value”47 and the homer “can also represent an artistic creation: sometimes it can be unique, playful and creative.”48 But the surplus value brought by know-how, which is the pride of any self-respecting homer-maker, can become a speculative criterion for collectors of “unique” objects. The possible reification – or commodification – of this practice is exactly where all its richness is. The many particularities of the homer-object (hybridity, uniqueness due to its unusual production, creativity, ingenuity, diversionary tactics, etc.) can give it an uncertain attention. Its possible commodification makes it face likely “decontextualizing” attentions. These objects can then be turned into “exotic” art objects – just like African masks in their time – because they were made with the production means and know-how of a bygone era. This would be the end of what Haraszti calls the Great Homer, as “connoisseurs of folklore may look on homers as a native, decorative art. As yet, they aren’t able to see further than that. But they will, and the day will come when homers are no longer forbidden but are commercialized and administered.”49 Besides its possible reification, homer-making can find its own spaces that would promote other kinds of trade, not only merchant ones. Emancipation in the pragmatic sense would imply – beyond trying not to dissociate them from their environment – constituting institutions adapted to such practice. Institutions that would give workers (and users) the means to gather around “parallel labor exchanges” to share experiences of diversion, and socialize the fruits of our know-how and a direct reappropriation of the production means. But these institutions would be all the more effective if they escaped such identification. Homer-makers from all over the world: let’s unite!
A short summary of the main rules and constraints of the homer-making game:
To be in wage labor: homer-making is practiced in the workspace and during work hours.
Homer-making implies that the worker – or workers – has access to the production means and reappropriates the available tools and materials.
The aim is to manufacture or transform an object, which implies the expression of a “technical and professional know-how”. In this sense, homer-making is not always possible.
Produced outside of the company’s official production, homers can be ordered (the work is not exclusively “for oneself”, it can be ordered by or for others: colleagues, friends, family members, etc.), but it is non-commercial. Homers can’t be bought!
Finally, the “clandestinely produced” artifact is to be brought out of the company, which involves pilfering.
A bent tank to be fastened at the waist, under the jacket, to pilfer fluids such as expensive gearbox oil, manufactured at the Renault Billancourt factories, undated (between 1960 and 1970). Robert Kosmann’s photo collection.
Armchair, chairs and large conference table: homers – Foreign – made in Derby city’s rail factories – between 1870 and 1910 – on behalf of the trade union of English railwaymen RMT (the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers). Jan Middelbos’s photo collection.
Training saber for a child practicing Vo Vietnam (martial art), Blade: aluminum, brass, wood and steel. Handle: Castorama bed leg. Salvaged eye bolt. Entirely done and finished using shears and lime. Made in an airline maintenance workshop, 2006. (about 5 days of work). Serge Meillat’s collection and photo.
Slingshot, leather, salvaged rubber (factory warehouse), and aluminum (18 cm x 8 cm, 2 cm thick), marked with punch letters and a hammer: “RNUR ST-OUEN”. Used in a demonstration to support the “takeover” of Saint-Ouen’s Citroën factory during clashes with the CFT-CSL, 1982. Homer made in the workshops of the Régie Nationale des Usines Renault – Saint-Ouen. Robert Kosmann’s photo collection.
Cylinder manufactured in 1986 at St-Ouen’s Renault plant, made of steel (turning + milling + fitting), about 5 hours of machining in total, serial production (4 copies) 2 for the homer-maker himself and 2 for those who helped him (welder, fitter). The cylinder is a copy of a single shot 22 long rifle that could be purchased freely at the time to turn it into a 6 shot 22 magnum. This was for private use, to shoot in the forest (weapons collector). Robert Kosmann’s photo collection.
Knuckledusters made at St-Ouen’s Renault plant between 1977 and 1983. The aluminum model is engraved (“Long live the dictatorship of the proletariat”), the other two are made of copper, with one marked “Hasta la victoria siempre venceremeos” it’s a personalized gift, a caliper was used to measure the size of the person’s fingers and adapt the holes to them. Sawing, drilling and fitting. The standard model in aluminum was serially manufactured, with about ten copies for the workshop. About 2 hours of work for each. Robert Kosmann’s photo collection.
Chair-stool made from a bike saddle and pedals (steel, wood, plastic, airplane spring…), in an airline maintenance workshop, 2008. Serge Meillat’s collection.
“a protester and his son” made at Dept 37 at St Ouen’s Renault plant, bolts salvaged and assembled by welding. Arm bent with a blowtorch. 30 mm nut for the head. About 2 hours of work, Robert Kosmann’s photo collection.
Clamps used to hold pieces, manufactured in the mid 80’s at the wood dept 57 of the Renault Billancourt factories, steel, salvaged bolts and nuts assembled with two pieces of machined steel (about 3 hours of work), production: Marc Forestier, Robert Kosmann’s photo collection.
Circlip pliers, tool made at the Renault dept 70 in Billancourt, late 1970s, 22 cm, salvaged steel, shaping made by a fitter (about 5 hours of work), Patrick Schweizer’s collection and photo.
Beaten collar, tool used to flare copper pipes in plumbing, steel, dept 37 Renault in St Ouen, 1988, turned, drilled and milled. 3 hours of work.
50 mm diameter and 1.5 meter long tube to shoot small-caliber “garden” fireworks (20 to 25). The images show an opening, a “light” crafted to allow firing, Gijón shipyard (in Asturias), May 2009, screenshots from the bella ciao website and from the website: https://berthoalain.com
Armoring of cars in Hispano-Suiza factories, Barcelona, 1936, copies of photographs from Abel Paz’s book, The Spanish Civil War, Hazan, Paris, 1997, p. 154 and 155.
Armored vehicles made in revolutionary and anti-fascist Spain in 1936.
Photomontage of an armored vehicle made in revolutionary and anti-fascist Spain in 1936 with an armored vehicle made by the Kurdish Resistance in Rojava (undated, around 2014).
Vehicles armored by the YPG Kurdish Resistance in Rojava (undated, around 2014).
Barbecues made in the boilermaking workshop of the Alstom Saint-Ouen factory, sheet steel, rubber, (undated, 1980s). Collections and photos of the anonymous boilermaker called “the Spanish”.
“Homer-making is in decline… This practice followed the evolution of industrial work. The establishment of production lines gave less leeway to workers in their workshops. But the final blow especially came from the introduction of robotics memorizing all production operations as well as the operators’ identity. Anonymity is not possible anymore. This phenomenon is reinforced by a “hunt for time” and the ever-increasing restriction of autonomy at work. Nowadays, traditional homer-making can only be found in small or artisanal companies.” Étienne de Banville interviewed by Luc Peillon for Libération, “Perruquer l’antistress ouvrier”, Libération, April 24, 2006 and quoted by Robert Kosmann, Sorti d’usines, La “perruque” un travail détourné, Paris, Syllepse, 2018, p. 148. [↩]
Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1984, p. 25-26. Emphasis added. [↩]
In an interview with René F (near Lyon) in 1996, Étienne de Banville demonstrated that a night shift (it’s easier to make homers and bring artifacts out of the workplace at night) could entirely reconfigure a production line manufacturing metal packaging (intended for the food industry) in order to make cans of air. The line was completely diverted from its programming, diverted from its primary function in order to make floats that were to be used for the creation of rafts to go down the Rhone, on behalf of a youth center association. Étienne de Banville, L’usine en douce, le travail en “perruque”, Paris, L’harmattan, 2001, p. 51. Emphasis added. [↩]
Stephen Wright, “Poaching Practices: On Hacking’s Rural Prehistory, and Modern-day Poaching,” Hacking Practices Study Day# 1, EESAB – Quimper, October 1, 2015. [↩]
Karine Lebrun, Presentation of Hacking Practices Study Day # 2, EESAB – Quimper, February 22, 2018. [↩]
In French, the word perruque (literally: wig) is the most commonly used term. Although its etymology is uncertain, this slang expression is likely to be related to the idea of a postiche, a forgery, a trompe l’oeil. It could also be related to the wigs made by hairdressers between two appointments in the past, from clients’ hair that they recycled. [↩]
Robert Kosmann defines homer-making as: “the use of materials and tools by a worker in the workspace, during work hours, to manufacture or transform artifacts outside of the company’s official production.” Robert Kosmann, “La perruque ou le travail masqué.” in Renault History n° 11, Société d’Histoire du Groupe Renault, Billancourt, June 1999, p. 20. [↩]
Although large homers exist (Étienne de Banville reports the homer-making of an eighteen meter long boat with two masts and cabins, while Robert Kosmann reports the manufacture of a small single-engine aircraft made over ten years at Air France’s equipment maintenance workshops. The plane, unambiguously registered as P-RUQ, took off in 2000), they are exceptional because they require complicity with guards, drivers, colleagues, etc. Homers are usually small, so that they can be brought out more easily. Étienne de Banville, op. cit., p. 59 and; Robert Kosmann, Sorti d’usines, La “perruque” un travail détourné, op. cit. p. 41. [↩]
Terms vary depending on the company, region or country: bousille among glassmakers, pinaille in Belfort, bricole in Le Creusot and in Brittany, casquette in Tulle, foreign in the railway factories of Derby city in Great Britain, etc. [↩]
For instance, maintenance workshops are places conducive to homer-making. [↩]
The tactic is what remains heterogeneous to the systems protecting the norm, what infiltrates them by ruse. It is a way to circulate over “an imposed terrain”, to slip in “an established order”. It then becomes a circumstantial resistance organized from a “making do”, and develops tactical know-how in relation to a given context. It thus responds to a context through a “way of doing”, as opposed to the strategy that is indebted to manipulation and long-term calculation. Tactics can resist the domination exerted in a specific and particular way. Michel de Certeau, op. cit., p. 37. [↩]
The Trésor de la Langue Française informatisé (Digitized Treasury of the French Language) dictionary, based on Gaston Esnault’s Dictionnaire historique des argots français (Historical Dictionary of French Slang) (Paris, Larousse, 1965 and 1966.), reports a definition of homer-making dating from 1856 as follows: 1856 arg. Homermaking “working for oneself during work hours, often with diverted materials”. Trésor de la Langue Française informatisé, or TLFi, ATILF – CNRS & University of Lorraine, seen on January 31, 2019 on the website:http://atilf.atilf.fr/dendien/scripts/tlfiv5/visusel.exe?11;s=217304625;r=1;nat=;sol=0; [↩]
Michel Anteby, Moral Gray Zones, Princeton University, 2008, and “Factory “Homers”: Understanding a Highly Elusive, Marginal and Illegal Practice”, Sociologie du travail, N°45, 2003, p. 466. [↩]
Also, to define the types of deviance (including at work), we can say with Howard Becker that “…social groups create deviance by making the rules whose infraction constitutes deviance, and by applying those rules to particular people and labeling them as outsiders. From this point of view, deviance is not a quality of the act the person commits, but rather a consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions to an “offender”.” Howard, Becker, Outsiders, studies in the sociology of deviance, Paris, Métailié edition, 1985, p. 9. [↩]
Michel Anteby studied a random sampling (10% or 35 regulations) of 354 workshop codes of conduct dating from 1798 to 1936 (see Anne Biroleau, “Les règlements d’ateliers : 1798-1936”, Printed catalog, National Library, Paris, 1984.). He was able to demonstrate that 84% of those “refer to material, tools or objects channeled out of the workshop and 20% discuss specifically work done for one’s own benefits. Bringing out objects, materials, or tools is always forbidden (except with an “exit slip”). […] These regulations also allow for extensive employee searches. […] But, in general, however, codes remind workers that it is forbidden to manufacture something for their own use inside the shop, even during lunch hours”, to “engage in a work other than usual work without express supervisory consent” or “to bring work from home in the shop”. Michel Anteby, “Factory “Homers”: Understanding a Highly Elusive, Marginal and Illegal Practice”, op. cit., p. 460-461. [↩]
Drawing on Serge Borvon’s Ethnology thesis, Robert Kosmann highlights several articles pertaining to the two royal ordinances passed between 1674 and 1689: Article XV.- “Workers who work on the ships and in the shops of the Arsenal are forbidden to exit by water after work, and have to go through the ordinary doors guarded by the Swiss soldiers.” Article XVI. “A fine amounting to one crown for those who will make waste out of places intended for this purpose.” Article XVII. “Same sanctions for those who would bring out pieces of wood and shavings. Those found with nails or other things belonging to His Majesty will also suffer corporal punishments.” Article XVIII. “Sailors, soldiers, guards, and other day laborers are forbidden from buying ropes, scrap iron, wood, and other vessels utensils…” Article XXXVI. “All officers are forbidden from taking goods or other things in the shops and arsenals for their own benefits, and all workers in the arsenals are forbidden from making furniture and other works for them.” Articles XXI and XXII. “Only the number of boats ordered by His Majesty will be maintained in the port, as well as the guardians of these boats sent to Arsenal works when not on duty.” Serge Borvon, “La perruque, la bricole et la resquille”, 1st year of Master’s Degree ethnology thesis: Être ouvrier à l’arsenal de Brest, University of Western Brittany, 2007. And Robert Kosmann, Sorti d’usines, La “perruque” un travail détourné, op. cit., p. 17-18. [↩]
Marie de Banville and Bruno Dumont, Perruque, bricole et compagnie…, audiovisual VHS document, Solimane Production, 1998. [↩]
Mr. D was fired without notice for “gross negligence” and, in labor court, was “dismissed from his claims for the cancellation of dismissal or compensation [and Étienne de Banville goes on to testify]: it was as if he believed in good faith that he had simply exercised a right that the labor court members could not recognize in any way.” Ibid., P. 81. [↩]
Marie de Banville and Bruno Dumont, op. cit.. Emphasis added. [↩]
In 1807, “Être le perruquier dans l’affaire (to be the one who endures homer-making in business)” meant: “to be the one who gets fooled”. Definition proposed by Gaston Esnault, Le Dictionnaire historique des argots français (Historical Dictionary of French Slang), Paris, Larousse, 1965, and quoted by Robert Kosmann, Sorti d’usines, La “perruque” un travail détourné, op. cit., p. 13-14. [↩]
Regarding the relation between surplus value and surplus labor, Karl Marx states that: “[The] usufruct is spread over two periods. During one the labourer produces a value that is only equal to the value of his labour-power; he produces its equivalent. During the other period, the period of surplus-labour, the usufruct of the labour-power creates a value for the capitalist, that costs him no equivalent. In this sense it is that surplus-labour can be called unpaid labour. […] All surplus-value, whatever particular form (profit, interest, or rent), it may subsequently crystallize into, is in substance the materialisation of unpaid labour. The secret of the self-expansion of capital resolves itself into having the disposal of a definite quantity of other people’s unpaid labour.” Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, Paris, Garnier-Flammarion, 1969, p. 383. [↩]
Homer-maker and professional in an airline maintenance workshop, interview for the Bourse de Travail Parallèle, October 24, 2006. [↩]
Miklós Haraszti, Salaire aux pièces : Ouvrier dans les pays de l’Est, Paris, Le Seuil, 1976, p. 139. [↩]
In this respect, it is always surprising to see the resurgence of certain forms in history. The vehicles armored by the Kurdish resistance in Rojava – by militants of the People’s Protection Units (in Kurdish: Yekîneyên Parastina Gel, abbreviated YPG), the military wing of the Democratic Union Party (in Kurdish: Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat, in abbreviated as PYD), who fight against Daesh in Syria and now against Erdogan’s Turkish army offensive for instance – look exactly like those made in 1936 in revolutionary and anti-fascist Spain. [↩]
François-Xavier Trivière, “Objets de bricole, De l’usine à l’univers domestique”, in Carrières d’objets, Mission du patrimoine ethnologique de la France (Ethnological Heritage Mission), 1999, p. 92. [↩]
Robert Kosmann, Sorti d’usines, La « perruque » un travail détourné, op. cit., p. 104. [↩]
Numerous interdependence relations (notably related to the division of labor) take place during the production of a homer. So much so that even in the context of the “individual” production of a homer, it often happens that the operator activates networks of complicities to solicit the imagination of colleagues, their know-how, or the position they occupy in the company. And many homer-makers we interviewed are aware of the fact that a homer is never really an individual production but rather a collective one. Also, in many cases, several homers were eventually produced so that everyone could have one as the production of the homer required the cooperation of several trades. As Miklós Haraszti said, “most friendships begin with a homer made together.” Miklós Haraszti, Salaire aux pièces: Ouvrier dans les pays de l’Est (A Worker in a Worker’s State: Piece-Rates in Hungary), Paris, Le Seuil, 1976, p.142. [↩]
Indeed, as the latter understood that they were losing control of the social regulation of the production process, they fought against the machinery that they saw as tools at the service of the division of labor. The industrial revolution then imposed, through its new emerging technologies – the steam engine – “…[an] ever-increasing production, necessary to pay back high investment and operating costs, and important centralization and specialization because factors of efficiency and economy supersede those of, say, craftsmanship or aesthetic expression”. The industrial revolution led to “large-scale units of production governed by regimentation and control, increasing refinement and complexity of machinery, a division of labor and hence of training and hence of social status, expanding markets, expanding resources, expanding wastes”. Kirkpatrick Sale, Rebels Against the Future: The Luddites and Their War, Paris, L’Échappée, 2006, p.51. [↩]
These miniaturized machine-tools are often manufactured as part of what is known as “retirement homers” or “behavior homers”. They are offered to colleagues during retirement ceremonies. [↩]
Quoted words, Véronique Moulinié, “On “ordinary workers of art”, When workers make something beautiful…”, Terrain, n ° 32, March 1999, p. 40; and quoted by Étienne de Banville, op. cit., p. 70-71. [↩]
“The exclusive concentration of artistic talent in particular individuals, and its suppression in the broad mass which is bound up with this, is a consequence of division of labour. Even if in certain social conditions, everyone were an excellent painter, that would by no means exclude the possibility of each of them being also an original painter, so that here too the difference between “human” and “unique” labour amounts to sheer nonsense. In any case, with a communist organisation of society. there disappears the subordination of the artist to local and national narrowness, which arises entirely from division of labour, and also the subordination of the individual to some definite art, making him exclusively a painter, sculptor, etc.; the very name amply expresses the narrowness of his professional development and his dependence on division of labour. In a communist society there are no painters but only people who engage in painting among other activities.” Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, Paris, Éditions Sociales, 1976, p. 397. [↩]
Robert Kosmann, « Perruque et bricolage ouvrier », op. cit., p. 166. [↩]
And the logic has been reversed to the point that it was the artist – Bob le Bricoleur – who took up the role of “homer counselor” for the account – and the public – of the 2008 Rennes Biennale whose main patron, let’s remember, was Bruno Caron, boss of the agribusiness group Norac. (See the article by Cédric Schönwald, “Les Ateliers de Rennes, La fabrique de l’entente”, in art 21, n ° 18, summer 2008, p.39). [↩]
This term refers to the museum curator or the curator of exhibitions and, just like in French (curateur), it also refers to a “Person appointed by the judge supervising a guardianship to assist an emancipated minor, an incapacitated person in the administration of their property. Curator of the property of an absentee. Curator of vacant successions. Curator ad hoc, appointed to take care of personal interests. Lat. jur. Curator, from curare, “take care of”, 1287.” Dictionnaire, Langue, Encyclopédie, Noms propres (Dictionary, Language, Encyclopedia, Proper Nouns), Paris, Hachette, 1989. [↩]
Yet this notion needs to be put into perspective as on average, 22.6% of men and women – having a job in France – are still laborers. And 29.3% of positions are held by employees. INSEE, “Employed population according to sex and socio-professional category”, INSEE, Employment surveys from the 1st to the 4th quarter of 2008, seen on the website: http://www.insee.fr, April 2, 2010. [↩]
As part of its acquisition policy, the Centre Pompidou bought the photographs of the “strike objects” presented by Jean-Luc Moulène. [↩]
Strike objects are produced outside of the company’s official production, just like homers but with the – once again quite significant – difference that they were produced in a strike context, that is to say during a time – that of the occupation – where workers chose the company’s production themselves. These objects are primarily used to popularize and finance the strike. [↩]
Forty strike objects are kept at the Archives Nationales du Monde du Travail located in Roubaix. They were first deposited by Jean-Luc Moulène before this deposit was converted into a donation in 2006. [↩]
Quote taken from Jean-Charles Leyris’s article, “Objets de grève, un patrimoine militant”, In Situ, revue des patrimoines [online], 2007, n°8 [visited on 08/14/2011]. [↩]
Stealing tire valve caps on luxury vehicles. Via this daily activity, I’m looking for adrenaline, pleasure and of course transgression. I ask passers-by to use my cellphone and take a picture of my action to keep track of my passage.
38 “vols au bonjour” are referenced on the Hacking Practices website.
I was not inclined to look at the figure of the Hacker. During the first meetings and discussions with the Pratiques du hacking research team, I very quickly decided to work on a proposal that would be a kind of “decoy:” web pages or art works materialized in the exhibition space which point elsewhere, or which hide a place or a situation which appear urgent to me. Clear, Deep, Dark was born from the desire to show the tree that hides the forest, the desire to give formal access to a reality that I encountered daily while living in New Orleans: the disappearance of the South Louisiana coast at an astonishing speed.
This book, available online, downloadable or available for publication on demand, is an attempt to show the links, whether objective or subjective, of the process that led to the exhibition series Clear, Deep, Dark.
This project follows on from the Tactical Arts Facing Everyday Life (Les arts tactiques aux prises avec le quotidien) workshop, which took place from January 31st to February 3rd, 2017 with the students of EESAB Quimper. Through this event, we had the opportunity to offer a space to discuss “tactical know-how” and to make proposals for public space interventions. The creation of this BOTe secrète (in reference to “botte secrète”, a French expression which can be translated as “secret weapon”) is therefore the logical outcome of reflections and discussions initiated at that time, and the following presentation is to be understood as a call for contributions in order to create a subjective and collective inventory of these practices. Designed as a collective “tool-kit”, this platform aims to collect the turnaround practices that question and amuse us, so that they can be shared and used as an inspiration for us to act too.
A Tactical Tool-Kit
Throughout this workshop we used a “repertoire of actions” as a shared and available “reservoir”, and we sought to reveal the infinite richness of possible interpretations through its contextual update – be it through political or artistic actions, or actions of “tactical behaviors” facing everyday life. Thus, the aim was to create a Tactical Tool-Kit1 that would particularly focus on some of this “kit’s” practices of turnaround, such as sleight of hand, blocking and diverting flows, homer-making, use of forgery, game, do-it-yourself, strike and inquiry.
Of course, our research proceeded through trial and error and was not meant to be exhaustive. We rather tried to deploy a wide range of proposals – from a discretionary action to a more obvious one, from a fictional action to a more real one, from an action claiming to adhere to art to one that doesn’t, and from a critical action to a co-opted one… – in order to understand various tactics that are to be activated from an everyday life perceived as the “established order”. In a second time, art students were encouraged to intervene in the city of Quimper and its everyday life. Through a turnaround practice, they were asked to play with its constraints without necessarily claiming to take part in any artistic practice or giving their deployed arts any “artistic identity” (to use Jean-Claude Moineau’s expression). Indeed, although this project called for a “here-and-now” history update of practices developed by every one (that is, in art and beyond), the resulting documents could not be delivered as such in spaces of artistic legitimacy and had to be recontextualized, discussed, criticized and judged according to the relation between these actions and a certain effectiveness on reality.
What we mean by tactical arts
Therefore, if we keep talking about art here, it is not in the exclusive sense of what artists (claiming to adhere to “art”) could do with it in “the small art world”, but rather “art” as ways of doing. Art as art of the game, do-it-yourself, theft, poaching, inquiry… and art of war. Indeed, the word “tactics”, defined in relation to – or distinguished from – “strategy”, most often uses a warlike lexical field. Strategy is usually considered part of the military art, i.e. the art of combining operations to achieve a long-term goal, whereas tactics refer to the art of leading a limited military operation as part of this strategy. However, the meaning of the words “strategy” and “tactics” has been extended far beyond mere military use, and has spread to diverse fields of action and battlefields such as economics, mathematics (game theory), sport, politics, etc. Thus, from the classic opposition between strategies and tactics, Michel de Certeau states that “The space of a tactic is the space of the other. Thus it must play on and with a terrain imposed on it and organized by the law of a foreign power. […] It is a maneuver ‘within the enemy’s field of vision’ […] and within enemy territory. […] It must vigilantly make use of the cracks that particular conjunctions open in the surveillance of the proprietary powers. It poaches in them. It creates surprises in them. It can be where it is least expected. It is a guileful ruse. »2
From a samizdat to la BOTe secrète
In our initial proposal, our goal was to conclude this workshop with a publication in the tradition of the secretly printed and distributed newspapers called samizdats. But this editorial project that aimed to summarize our subjective inventory and to reveal the actions undertaken by students in the city of Quimper was much discussed. One argument particularly questioned the need to leave traces throughout this workshop. Although we were aware that spreading and sharing these experiences of détournement was of interest, objectifying the documents-recordings that could result from our actions through an artistic publication was likely to weaken the effectiveness of practices in the real world (this was, ultimately, only art). Another argument, in line with the first, expressed the need to maintain confidence in the oral transmission of such experiences. Therefore, it seemed that the best way to share the narrative of these tactical arts was bit by bit and from friend to friend. As for the form, besides its “fanzine” photocopy aesthetic, the “samizdat” project was also criticized for maintaining an excessive separation between authors and receivers. We took these different criticisms into account to come up with the idea of a BOTe secrète (for Boîte à Outils Tactiques électroniques, or electronic Tactical Tool-Kit). This takes the shape of a web space (integrated within the Hacking Practices website) that gives access to its content but also to direct contribution for the purpose of its enrichment. Those willing to play the game can thereby share their documents (visuals and/or sound as well as practical or theoretical documents). For now, this BOTe secrète comprises a “repertoire of actions” that contains a dozen “drawers”: sleight of hand, blocking and diverting flows, homer-making, use of forgery, game, do-it-yourself, strike, inquiry, boycott and computer hacking. Each “drawer” will also be divided into “compartments” (subcategory) so that each “tool” (practical example) will find its place. Thus, the Blocking and diverting flows “drawer” could contain the following “compartments”: Blocking and diverting transport flows, appropriation of financial flows, diverting the public from the artistic institution, etc.
Obviously, we are aware of the subjective and porous aspects of the “drawers” categories and “compartments” subcategories: for instance, “use of forgery” or “sabotage” could turn into “diverting flows”. An example with the Robin Hood operations: EDF-GDF workers first cut off the power in the secondary residence of former European Commissioner Fritz Bolkestein (compartment: “mechanical sabotage”) before reconnecting it for the benefit of those in need (compartment: “diverting energy flows”). Of course, we also want additional “drawers” and “compartments” to be added to existing ones each time contributors deem it necessary. Also, to stay true to the concept of samizdats and to the idea of a project circulating from friend to friend, we wanted this BOTe secrète to remain secret and to be protected by a code. It is not out of distrust, or to stand out as members of a selective society looking to perpetuate an art focused on itself, but rather to develop the idea of “under-the-table” diffusion of tactical know-how, so that the diffusion of the access code by word of mouth can gradually create an active network of participants who aren’t necessarily part of the art world. Finally, to avoid an exhaustion of the effectiveness of current practices, we have decided that the contributions made to this BOTe secrète will take place over a long period of time and won’t be revealed on the spot…
We can understand “repertoire of actions” or “reservoir” the way sociologist Ann Swidler speaks of culture as a “Tool-Kit” that we may consider limited, unlike the operation of subjectivation offered by this same kit and that appears infinite. Ann Swidler, “Culture in Action: Symbols and Strategies,” American Sociological Review, vol. 51, No. 2, April 1986, pp. 273-286. On this subject see also: Olivier Fillieule, Stratégies de la rue : les manifestations en France, Paris, Presses de Sciences Po, 1997, p. 210. [↩]
Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1984, p. 37. Emphasis added. [↩]
Following on from questions initiated during the study day that took place in EESAB Quimper in October 2015, the relationship between art and hacking led to a set of proposals made in various artistic contexts.
During this study day, I developed a method that aimed to define hacking in a performative way. After setting up a makeshift table and fixing a jigsaw on a chair leg, I used the chair to cut the table, thus demonstrating the essential aspect of deeds in an educational context.
A group of students then gathered to conduct a workshop entitled « double détente ».1 We met in a third place (The Pôle Culture Partagée2 in Saint-Nazaire) to anticipate the scenario of the upcoming workshop. The official workshop started a few days later at EESAB Quimper, and we just repeated the actions that had already been carried out in Saint-Nazaire. We then experienced a double situation that allowed us to focus on other actions, more discreet ones. They took shape stealthily in and around the school during the next few weeks. This double reality and camouflage logic performed like a special effect imported into a real situation. We then worked twice as much to give the impression of not doing anything at all.
This logic persisted within the research group during the following meetings. Researchers involved in “Hacking Practices” met in Rennes on December 13, 2016. That morning, I had decided to activate a series of breakdowns or failures adapted to this work session situation. Following a programmed scenario, I organized a half-day delay and a set of failures regarding the situation of discussion that seemed to take shape. I said I had a car breakdown and arrived late morning covered in grease and disoriented. All my tools conducive to discussion were defective: a mechanical pencil with no lead, a filled up notebook in which no note taking was possible, a computer with a broken screen. My intervention was based on a bibliography comprising a stack of books that I had mixed up with another stack of the same color. The deployment of these tools turned me into an outsider. As I had also lost my wallet, Karine Lebrun lent me some euros to help me buy lunch, a sum that I still owe her… I revealed the principle in the afternoon. Yet, my efforts to make this apparatus explicit were pointless. The interconnection of my failures with presumably real clumsiness completely confused my colleagues, who could not get rid of the sense of reality coming from the vagaries experienced in the morning. The deployed system was more powerful than I thought, and the contamination of failure was quick and flowing.
In January 2018, I was invited by La Tôlerie art center3 to reproduce the experience of a shipwreck that took place in the Bay of Biscay the previous summer. Instead of providing a narrative, I found it wiser to interconnect the disaster with the place itself. A real shipwreck took place that evening: the collapse of La Tôlerie. As we had lost the keys, the public had to wait outside of the art center for almost an hour before a member of the collective ended up breaking a hidden door open with a crowbar. Inside, the public discovered an artist casually repairing his utility vehicle. He had totally forgotten the event scheduled that evening. This was followed by a series of failures, mistakes, falls, blackouts, impossible buffets, and a permanent agitation aiming at making up for the errors and delay. Dining tables were collapsing, neon lights were falling, and uninformed spectators were left to fend for themselves. Confronted with an artist who obviously did not have time to talk to them, they were forced to act either as empathetic actors or harsh critics of the amateurism emanating from this situation. Similar to a sociological experience, this event generated a diversity of behaviors which lead us to think that failure could be a co-construction tool. By inviting the public, the institution and the artist to reinvent their relationships together, beyond a pre-established dogma, it re-evaluated conventional interactions. The trick of the situation was not one-sided so the programming of the disaster endangered both the public and the structure that invited the artist, but also the artist himself, who was really overwhelmed by the events. Everyone had to improvise through chaos.
As effective as these experiences might have been, recounting them here shows that they can be invoked to strengthen any discourse. Designed to exist only in the here and now, they stumble over a communication that will somehow deactivate them and turn them into mere performances with no impact outside the art field. Could we get rid of this limitation and create tools capable of escaping this constraint, and take less conventional drastic action?
To hack, « to cut roughly, cut with chopping blows ».4
Designating a technical deed, an attitude of rupture regarding an omnipotent digital world or political activism, hacking is a term that covers multiple dimensions, as real as fantasized. Hackers are makers who use a broad range of skills as well as a technical and militant culture. They share principles of transgression, counter-power, resistance, but also transparency and pleasure in diverting systems. Hacking can also be seen as a knowledge method that involves the destruction of the studied subject. The techniques used by hackers to solve a situation can be brutal or subtle, but they are always deeply adapted to the context they want to enter or reveal.
Hackers have a certain number of skills that they use to compete with a given system. Whether they use a whistle to allow long-distance phone calls5 or reveal sensitive data,6 hackers make their way to levels of power lay citizens should theoretically not reach. Such transgression, the result of a seized opportunity and technology amplification, disrupts the conventional relationships between people and the system, and reveals the abusive nature of control structures. Even when hacking is made for pleasure, violence against the system is considerable. The attack weakens the system on an economic, technical and also often symbolical level by breaking the chain of trust that maintains the speculative value of targeted companies. The anonymous origin of the attack will be tracked until its authority can be reassigned to an individual who will be legally treated as an enemy of the state. The transparency claimed by hackers annoyingly tends to question power relations by revealing the systems’ architecture. Serge Humpich, Chealsea Manning or Julian Assange are still paying a high price for the way they challenged institutions.
The hacker persona that nourishes our unconscious is heroic. Alone against titans, they manage, just like Ulysses, to overturn a system using cunning intelligence.7 But this apparent success is quickly distorted by the capitalist logic that offers the most talented hackers crucial positions in computer security optimization. Jailbreaking genius George Hotz was hired by Facebook in 2011 and then by Google to secure new applications that were being developed.
Hacking in art?
A form of hacking practice in art could involve questioning the success models, cutting in the mass of projects by inserting errors, hiding traps, organizing failure. One could even expect the artistic practice itself to be based on absurd decisions, implementing radical and persistent actions carried out against the desired goal.8 But even when it comes to art, the question of success is central; artists, who often feign idiocy or disinterest, are nonetheless subject to the efficacy injunctions imposed by society. The structures that invite them must justify their activities, communicate and show their credentials to the authorities that finance or accommodate them.
What was called institutional critique in the 90s could have undermined the mechanical legitimization of critical works, but we can see that institutional critique artists occupy a place that is absolutely recognized within institutions, which see them as troublemakers.9
The denunciation of sexism, paternalism or power games is possible when artists manage to redirect their attack from the art world to a society considered external. Andrea Fraser’s work manages to highlight a large number of domination relationships but does not change the way artistic institutions work. Tino Sehgal dematerializes his proposals thanks to an extreme connivance with the system allowing him to get rid of certain constraints. Similarly, when Joshua Scwhebel steals an object from art collector Jochen Kienzle, proposing a removal, his deed is purchased and integrated into Kienzle’s collection10
The aim here is not to judge the artists’ honesty but rather to highlight a logical impasse in the implementation of these practices. There’s no outside. Imprisoned in art, any dissident practice ultimately becomes a strengthening lever for the art system, the market, institutions or their financing methods. The art world becomes the place of a possible enunciation of society’s deviance, as if it had no part in it.11 If we trust Jean Dubuffet who, in 1960, tried to convince us that “art does not just lie in beds we made for it; it would sooner run away than say its own name: what it likes is to be incognito. Its best moments are when it forgets what its own name is”,12 then there must be tools to test this borderline question and shake it like a plastic coconut tree.
If brute force13 can only solve a few hacking questions, then should we appeal to the weapons of the weak,14 and radical weakness, just like James C. Scott? Would resistance techniques with no direct efficiency or ones that challenge the injunction of visibility in art work? Failing involves an irreducible community; one never fails alone (for instance, academic failure is the failure of a system in which unsuitability is reciprocal). In the common relationship to failure, the responsibility of the person who fails is pointed out as the source of an error that is quite often described as “human”. Yet, failure is a vehicle of public transport. Although one never fails alone, failure allows a minority to embark on a larger context, to exert sufficient force on the situation to make it pivot, float and derive. So that’s a significant lever to move boundaries with few resources. Can the collective dimension of failure foil the dominant central figure of the lonesome artist that the market needs to organize profitable speculation? Maintaining art in an individual pattern also makes it possible to deactivate criticism by swallowing it up, as the lonesome artist persona always comprises some ethereal romanticism, disjointed from any social function which would involve a wider community
The possibility of failure brings into play the implied context like the tools used by hackers. The limits of this principle can be found in the factors of inclusion and exclusion from a system, in the question of the visibility of actors. In order to implement their programs, hackers and whistleblowers must disguise their real activities and delay the appearance of their actions’ results. Such appearance is often synchronized with their disappearance from the very system they attack! Of course, many active hackers are utterly stealthy and stop their activity before being identified. Thus, they never benefit from the heroic veneer. Action will remain their sole satisfaction.
If hacking is done through a loophole that causes a mechanism’s unexpected termination, the organization of a failure triggers the system’s general breakdown. Could the art world be the field that allows one to play as closely as possible to this borderline notion? In 1968, Robert Filliou created the principle of equivalence,15 thus inventing a production method that stumbled very quickly on the gallery’s walls, abolishing the hierarchy between success and failure. Artists activating failure bring their credibility into play and are then closer to feminist and queer strategies in their fight against domination. Judith Halberstam notes that “as a practice, failure recognizes that alternatives are embedded already in the dominant and that power is never total or consistent, indeed failure can exploit the unpredictability of ideology and its indeterminate qualities.”16 Unlike the stereotype of failure that separates the individual from society, a weakening drags the dominant system along with it since the latter somehow always stands on the edge of the abyss. Dominant groups expend a lot of energy excluding or crushing losers precisely because their own position involves a potential fall. So losers can fight to maintain their weakness in order to send the system back to its fears. This fight inevitably incorporates a loss of control, whether we accept it or not. In 1970, Lee Lozano decided to disappear completely from the art world that was praising her work, and carried out a radical boycott: she stopped talking to women. First designed as a month-long performance, this boycott lasted until her death in 1999. The artistic deed overran the real world, endangering the artist’s professional and social sustenance but especially materializing the oppression that permanently hinders a minority. Failure as a resistance deed or combat tool physically questions our relationship to representation and to the world. Alexander Koch notes that this withdrawal can also be a failure. “In 2004, PS1 New York organized an exhibition of Lozano’s work based on her original collection, after a 30-year denigration of this artist. This presentation displayed all her paintings, drawings and even some of her Language Pieces, yet her act of art abandonment remained invisible.”17 Failure is out of control and makes situations creak at all levels. When Finnish artist Pilvi Takala worked for a month as a trainee within the Deloitte company, she tried hard not to do anything for days, staying in the elevator and not playing the company’s game. Despite worrying about her at first, her coworkers were eventually outraged by her lack of will to succeed (The Trainee, 2008.18) Benevolent advice was quickly followed by denunciations to her superiors. This representation of withdrawal, which brings to the surface the fear of failure, takes on its full meaning in Takala’s work but once again relates to the limits of the identification of artists’ work in their own professional context. Although Takala pretended to be an inefficient or depressed trainee, back in her own universe she fulfilled her community’s expectations by making quite effective installations. She became one of the most prominent artists of her generation.19 What does failure indicate and by whom is it done? Whoever reveals it somehow becomes the author and takes responsibility for its appearance. We keep failure at bay because it systematically infects situations. Therefore we always avoid the error that points out an individual’s faults.
Organizing a failure is paradoxical and complex, but it is possible to accompany it in a given situation by accepting to abandon the comfort of one’s position. Therefore, failure in art is an operator that can highlight the structure of the receiving context. When it happens, we have access to the skeleton of the situation and we live the common experience of a world collapsing.
What would be an art practice that would activate failure at the risk of its performativity? Quoting Gilles Deleuze, would it be possible to “not stop becoming-minoritarian”,20 to do anything to avoid the dominant positions? What would be the artists’ playing field if they are to act like hackers? Can we talk about hacking without practicing it?
From Walter Hill’s movie « Red Heat » (double détente in French, or “double trigger”) (1988). [↩]
Gilles Deleuze, « G », in L’Abécédaire de Gilles Deleuze (“Gilles Deleuze’s Alphabet Book”), a movie by Pierre-André Boutang, interviews with Claire Parnet, Paris, Éditions Montparnasse, 2004. [↩]
– The partners of Hacking Practices, artists, students, teachers, researchers, and activists.
– The contributors of this website.
– And those who took part in the research line:
Pierre Commenge, Frédéric Ekegue-Mve, Paloma Fernandez Sobrino, Bastien Gallet, Jérémy Gispert, Louis Henderson, Raphaële Jeune, David-Olivier Lartigaud, Jean-Jacques Leroux, Damien Marchal, Pascal Nicolas-Le Strat, Morgane Rey, Thomas Tudoux.
– The EESAB team.
– Coordination : Karine Lebrun
– Development : Nicolas Gans
– Graphic design : Julie Morel and Karine Lebrun
– Logo : Audrey Jamme
– FR/EN translation : Caroline Thuillier
(Except for “Hidden” : Julie Morel)