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Storming the digital barricades

Let us tell stories about resistance and adventure, from the margins of our cities to the edges of our online lives.

En Liang Khong
2 June 2015
Zemos98 Hackcamp. Julio Albarrán. Some rights reserved.

Zemos98 Hackcamp. Julio Albarrán. Some rights reserved.When I returned to London in the summer of 2013, the UK Home Office was busy laying the groundwork for a new immigration enforcement crusade. Operation Vaken was geared at encouraging illegal immigrants to volunteer for repatriation. As vans toured the streets, with the slogan “In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest”, the Home Office tweeted photos of migrants being arrested. (This was adorned with an #immigrantoffenders hashtag). The online campaign backfired spectacularly, ricocheting across all corners of the social network. A #RacistVan hashtag swiftly made its appearance, alongside spliced images of the vans that drew attention to more pressing issues instead, like tax evasion.

It may have spawned a popular backlash. If Operation Vaken had taken place in a vacuum, then I might have easily brushed it off as a mere misstep. But I remember my parents complaining, of feeling more unwelcome, that “this is not our home”. There was too much to ignore, to favour make-believe, to float care-free. The series of images and tweets that composed Vaken’s online advance had grown out of a very real confluence of violent, racist signifiers that now fill the British media’s imaginary.

What happens when this constant waterfall of slogans, images and sound bites, often weaving a contrapuntal pattern, finds a natural home in our media landscape? People are reduced to a convenient set of stereotypes, removed from lived experience, and the possibilities of dreaming social struggle are flattened. That, I thought, points to the urgent need for a platform from which to launch a dissident audiovisual conversation, one capable of lancing the persistent stream of images that corrupt our networks. And that was the promise of a small activist-led collective, the Zemos98 #reclaimthecommons project held in Seville over three days in April. People joked when I told them that I was going to a festival with a hashtag in its name. But as the indignados make their way from the squares to the gates of power, digital stakes hold more sway over the Spanish imagination.

Remapping Europe from Doc Next Network on Vimeo.

“The creative misuse of technology”, as more than one filmmaker put to me, went to the heart of the ‘hackcamp’ staged by the Zemos98 collective.  Drawing on a kind of hacktivist subculture, and populated with activists and journalists from across the European left, we asked: how do we reverse the constant circulation of images that enclose the ways we imagine living? As Zemos98’s Charlie Tims cuttingly observed, one of the UK’s most famous pieces of television, Eastenders, is ostensibly about the life of a working class community in east London. And yet at the same time, it is a complete fabrication, “a yearning for common spaces, especially now when the promise of community is jeopardized”.

As my flight landed in Seville, it was dusk, and the rain and spring haze made the city look darker. I decided to end the night early, and holed myself up in a quiet bar with a couple of books. If we are to recapture and remix media, and use this to meaningfully lay claim to our common resources, then what exactly are the politics of these ‘commoners’? I reread Garrett Hardin’s infamous 1968 essay in which he declared “the tragedy of the commons”: the irresolvable clash between the individual desires of commoners, and that of the commoning community at large. But in Hardin’s assumption of a conflict which erodes the idea of the common good, he had made no room, I thought, for the ways in which we, as commoners, can communicate, and lay the foundations for structures and norms that manage these potential disputes.

Zemos98 Hackcamp. Julio Albarrán. Some rights reserved.

Zemos98 Hackcamp. Julio Albarrán. Some rights reserved.As a journalist at openDemocracy, a platform that declares itself a ‘digital commons’ in a captured media world, refusing to see humanity as pure utility-maximising individuals is an important part of our mission. Rather than selling our readers to advertisers, rather than seeing stories as nothing more than something to be run for a profit, we try to save what is lost in the commodification process. But as the rhetoric of open source is increasingly appropriated, ideas of openness have travelled all the way from the remit of radical philosophy to the business section of the airport bookshop. Information has become another of the perpetual conflicts surrounding exploitation and liberation. The traditional gatekeepers of knowledge may have been replaced – Google and Facebook now joining the ranks of legacy media. But in large part, the digital era has been one of profound conservatism. Cheerleading for the internet’s expansive architecture goes hand in hand with what amounts to little more than shilling for big tech.

Tasked with challenging the convergence of commons and commerce through the creation of radical art and new media, the easiest mistake to make is to miss the ways in which technology is embedded within and amplifies existing power dynamics of our socio-economic system. As Melvin Kranzberg notes, “technology is neither good or bad, nor is it neutral”. One strategy to pierce through this falls to the use of self-organising, open-source, grass-roots technology, as advocated by several activists embedded at Zemos98. 

Out of this milieu, Claire Tolan, of the Tactical Tech Collective, reflects on how tech-activists, rather than focusing on the creation of digital space as free and non-commercial, can capture the power of the corporate internet as it is and exploit the flaws of our current landscape of data privacy in order to expose the abuse of power. “Open-source investigative journalism does not need high-tech tools or extensive training”, she argues, “but rather a sense of perspective that asks the right questions”. Enthusing about activists in Israel using kites for aerial topography to examine power relations in Jerusalem, Tolan points to the possibilities offered by open-source journalism – a reservoir of low-tech narrative tools – that can empower communities to recapture their landscapes.

From My Point Of View (Exposing the Invisible) from Tactical Technology Collective on Vimeo.

Zemos98 is itself part of the Doc Next network, a collective which uses digital media to straddle free culture and education, deploying a sprawling collection of socially conscious videos that range from documenting attacks on migrant rights through to the housing crises across Europe. Over 500 films of life in Europe at the beginning of this century, from citizen assemblies in Bosnia through to Gezi Park, offer fleeting sketches of memories, thoughts, snatches of voices, and deeply personal and human stories. Many of these films housed under the Doc Next archive recast our encounters with immigration, power, and the city, shifting our view from the borders back to communities. They mark out public spaces as crucial to the seizure of radical alternatives.

We began to think through how to use this digital archive to imagine new narratives for activists laying claim to the commons, providing an audiovisual interface for educators, while at the same time telling the all-important stories from below. We started by mapping the videos through time and space, drawing on cartography and timelines to chart European responses to the economic crisis, the social explosions of 2011 as the indignados swarmed into Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, and the emergence of new democratic experiments. We picked our way through an enormous wealth of video footage that documents new forms of grassroots society and novel experiments in learning to live together – particularly the proliferation of autonomous social centres across Europe.

Zemos98 Hackcamp. Julio Albarrán. Some rights reserved.

Zemos98 Hackcamp. Julio Albarrán. Some rights reserved.With a focus on how cities are always political creations, we played with the prospect of a progressive urban politics. At times, this took the form of artistic practice. Extracting sounds from the Doc Next videos allowed us to imagine the city as an instrument itself, removed from the cascades of natural and artificial light. Elsewhere we designed an online platform for neighbourhood activists to upload their documentation of the abuse of power in their cities. Here the city became an activist interface for those Doc Next videos that cover urban issues, from the housing crisis through to dreaming different ways of living. The focus was on creating a call to action – not just a narrative – but a resource for a movement of citizen-led, open-source journalism.

Velitas from ZEMOS98 on Vimeo.

For those of us who seek alternative ways of being that might lead to a life less alienated, where do we go next? Working together, drawing narratives and creating art out of an archive is an experience both progressive and at times regressive. The act of remixing, causing a profound disequilibrium in our common imaginaries, involves being alert to the reactionary ways in which images can be fused together, as well as alive to the radical stories that can be told. Setting acts of audiovisual resistance and dissidence against this, a radical left understanding of the commons has much to give in how we reflect on the right to public space, the right to digital worlds, and the future of social struggle across Europe.

How do we resist the enclosure of the commons? By pushing against pacification, the dominant power networks behind our material and immaterial worlds. We must always push against the boundaries of the stories we tell ourselves.

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