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Future Now! Criticism Machines Strengthen Communities

I am pleased to report that, in a lot of ways, the promising future of cyberspace that dawned in the early 1990s has come to pass a decade and a half later.

Mike Mosher

In my first contribution to this publication, in Bad Subjects #18, I discussed what the world needed to proceed "Towards Community Art Machines". Essentially, I called for a world of criticism machines, where the end product was not consumption but the reworking, unpacking, hacking, deconstructing and remixing of images from mass media, our personal lives, the world around us. Hand-waving idealistically, in its summary I called for promotion of a critical collage aesthetic, technologically-enhanced progress in the global spread of collaborative processes, and the application of lessons drawn from, and advancing, the then-nearly-thirty year history of community murals. I am pleased to report that, in a lot of ways, the promising future of cyberspace that dawned in the early 1990s has come to pass a decade and a half later.

I. The Collage Aesthetic, or John Heartfield's Photoshop

As John Heartfield commented on Weimar-era Berlin and the rise of the Nazi Party using cut-up magazine photographs, politically-conscious creatives in our time have used the computer to cut and paste. DJ Spooky has recut D.W. Griffith's 1915 movie to a new musical/audio mix, for a "(Re)Birth of a Nation" in which the damn Ku Klux Klan doesn't win. The cover of the DVD of Craig Baldwin's 1996 movie "Sonic Outlaws", documenting Negativland, the Barbie Liberation Front and similar sensibilities, features "Dr. Cosmo's" (George E. Mahlberg's) doctored photograph. In the original version, snapped by Bob Jackson in November 1963, Jack Ruby is shooting Lee Harvey Oswald, presumed to be the assassin of President John F. Kennedy, as a tall Texas Ranger gazes in horror. In this doctored version, Oswald is the impassioned lead singer of a band, as Ruby leans forward with his guitar and the Ranger stands frozen at his keyboard. The image challenges historical assumptions, rewriting a remembered event, for as a little boy, along with millions of Americans I saw the Oswald shooting happen live on TV. Sometimes doctored photos merely deceive: one circulated late in 2001, presuming to show a tourist atop one World Trade tower as a plane advances several stories underneath him, purportedly found in a camera upon the ground on 9/11. In 2004, opponents of John Kerry used Photoshop to snuggle him next to Jane Fonda at an antiwar rally. Yet these techniques had long been performed in the darkroom; a 1940s Democratic candidate was positioned attentively beside CPUSA leader Earl Browder, while Russia's Communist Party often removed purged party members from historical photographs.

Among many activist sites on issues large and small, the political website documents abuses by police of their parking permits, photographing and posting the license plates of police cars illegally parked. The Internet has been a site and transmitter of political humor, such as the photos of George Bush juxtaposed with monkeys with similar facial expressions in 2000. Political animations from have been staples of the Jay Leno Show since 2004, as if Leno realizes his writers couldn't come up with satire as ripe as that which peppers the Net.

One mashup appearing on YouTube, which according to the NY Times received 1,731,000 views in its first week in mid-March, has Hilary Clinton on a giant screen speaking about her wish to have a conversation with Americans about the future, inserted into Apple Computer's "1984" Macintosh commercial, whose oppressed drones march in lockstep until a female athlete hurls the hammer which smashes their oppresser's message. Apple's old rainbow-striped logo appears, morphed into an "O" for Obama. The video was the work of Philip de Vellis of political consultancy Blue State Digital, which had been under contract to the Barack Obama campaign, but was unauthorized by the candidate, which forced de Vellis' resignation from the firm.

Though a Viacom lawsuit now seeks damages for a SpongeBob segment a user posted, YouTube makes all variety of videos freely available. A Japanese friend told me about MC5 videos to found there. A NPR radio feature on a 1930s classical violinist sends us to videos of his performances to be found there, and opera buffs are delighted to find major performances of long-dead divas preserved. Cineaste Gerry Fialka spoke at the 2007 Ann Arbor Film Festival about how early independents like Maya Deren and Harry Smith are readily available to students (Hey, let's check out Jonas Mekas, and then "Jackass"!). Undoubtedly like many, my own university's network sputters under broadband requirements.

II. Collaborative Processes

The first three decades of computing, until the 1970s, were blessed by necessity with sharing of software resources. Need text-editing capabilities, or a game of Spacewar, for your lab's IBM mainframe? There's a programmer at Princeton who, if you ask, will send it over the new DARPAnet we're hooked into. The collaborative open-source development of Linux, first created by Linus Torvalds to sidestep UNIX's restrictive ownership by AT&T, is testimony to this ethic's continuance.

One resonant model of collaboration for men of my Johnny Rotten generation has always been the rock band. Some bands embodied (or purported to) this ideal more than others; the MC5 was the first band I ever saw play live, in a park a few blocks from my parents' house. They were affiliated with the revolutionary White Panther Party, and were succeptible to its habit of manifestoes. A cut on their third and final album had the inspirational name "Future Now!", from which came this essay's title. Sadly--much like Hieronymous Bosch's 1517 painting "The Garden of Earthly Delights", the utopian ideal world of "rock n' roll, dope and fucking in the streets" that the early MC5 promoted has not come to pass.

On that third album's cover, singer Rob Tyner was shown with his artworks, beneath the entreaty "Think of a world where Art is the only motivation". Now, art for art's sake is a tricky proposition: it either presupposes a society where social needs are taken care of so creativity contmplative can flourish in all persons (Tyner's suppostion), or it is the province of a privileged, economically secure class unconcerned with social issues and approval beyond that of a self-limiting cognoscenti (Edouard Manet's crew). For over three decades, one bulldozer-path out of that artists' dilemma has been the medium of the community mural.

In 1997 I created my first digital murals, for a client in San Francisco. Proud of his 1904 (earthquake-survivor building, he wanted to celebrate San Francisco's labor, vaudeville and political history 1880-1930, largely centered around his Civic Center district of Market Street, in panels that resembled old newspaper cartoons Recognizing the small budget, I proposed I draw the cartoons, scan them, tint them sepia like old newsprint, blow them up from inches to feet and have a billboard printer print them. Seven years later, in a project for a social services agency in Saginaw, Michigan, two of my art students produced three 3' x 22' panels incorporating their sketches from life, caricatures, neighborhood children's artwork, photography and text using this method. By minimizing production time, it allowed maximum development time, in and with the community that will interact with the mural in daily life. These students--one from a Michigan suburb, the other from Goa, India--learned about the inner-city African American neighborhood around the mural by working with it.

Community arts organizations in Black and Latino are realizing how the digital realm advances them and their artists. Galeria de La Raza in San Francisco commissions a digital mural monthly, and has a traveling exhibition of smaller versions printed from the same image files. Digital graphics, like any print technology or communications medium, can--and must!--be used for inclusive and progressive policies beyond corporate advertising.

III. Muralworlds?

"The digital community" was popular trope of the early 1990s, promoted by Howard Rheingold and others. Yet these authors felt it sufficient that it was a community of verbiage, text-based. Rheingold used information he'd been given on WELL discussion lists about his daughter's rare illness as an example. Ten years ago, there were participants who claimed the Bad Subjects list--a discussion list that complemented the largely paper-based journal--was a community. The most interesting commentators were core members of the Bad Subjects Production Team, yet there were also a variety of flames and counter-flames (one member who had served in the Israeli army was told by a respected progressive economics commentator how he surely "enjoyed killing Palestinians"). Yet for all the entertaining, sometimes enlightening sturm und drang, it didn't seem like a community to me. A community demands both a future orientation and sense of obligation. The future orientation can animate an ad hoc community, such as assembling normally indifferent neighbors in a petition campaign to ban big trucks on their street. The Bad Subjects list had people who posted their opinion, then left, feeling no obligation to listen to others or answer their critics objections. The Bad Subjects Production Team had the latter, in the shared purpose of producing Bad Subjects, the next issue and planned issues following that. Soon this included maintaining the website, plus writing, editing and posting Editorials and Reviews.

But what of community imagery, the visuals of connectedness and collective power? Spearheaded by early advocate of onscreen avatars (virtual actors representing the users) Bruce Damer, the loose federation of three-dimensional avatar worlds the Contact Consortium was set up in the 1990s, but it was a small group. When there was sufficient broadband penetration--assaultive adjective noted--there appeared the avatar worlds Second Life, and for kids, Club Penguin. Rather than merely writing and handwaving, this author should turn his attention to prototyping within Second Life his ideas for "Muralworlds"--community murals as interfaces within 3D environments. It's time to build, not only imagine, collaborative walls with politically critical virtual imagery, created in response to changing political evens and circumstances with the speed of graffiti, perhaps faster. And though media walls cover the buildings of Times Square and similar urban nodes in Asia and Europe, we don't see "Smartwalls"--touchscreen public walls with adaptive, shifting community murals--for the displays remain in the hands of corporate capital, not yet those of communities and their individual voices.

Fifteen years ago, John Perry Barlow and others worried about the failure of the Internet to make inroads into Africa, outside of South Africa. There has been progress. In Dakar, Senegal this January, dark-skinned African heads passing me on the street were adorned with the gleaming jewelry of Bluetooth telephone earpieces. Female students at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Parisian designer jeans demonstrated their devotion as Muslims by flipping out their phones to show me their pictures of the mahouts (local religious leaders) they respected. One day I came downstairs in our French-style hotel to find three employees sitting around the computer, looking at a Google satellite map of the inland farming village from whence one or more of them hailed. Once I was back home, I assembled and colorized my sketchbook drawings of a friend in Senegal, receiving emails with attached photographs of him DJing for an outdoor party (where keeping the sand of the dusty Sahel out of electronic equipment must be a chore). My friend also shared pictures of his brother's African funk band in Kalamazoo, Michigan; his brother's day job is a bus driver there, which--despite snow and ice--he must find a piece of cake after the roiling, densely-packed traffic jams of Dakar.

In the United States, the need to maintain "Net Neutrality" among corporate internet providers is one important struggle, as its backbone has been increasingly privatized in the last decade. This struggle parallels those of other nations with filtering imposed on web searches from Google or MSN. Despite stifling corporate domination of daily life and mainstream discourse, horrible wars (especially the US occupation of Iraq), the rise of fearful religious fundamentalists mistaking discipline for anti-colonialist struggle, I still believe that liberatory communications technology in the hands of the people mean this is going to be the best century ever. May it raise all boats, like a message in a bottle, a meme or political cartoon in cyberspace. My hope still floats.

Mike Mosher has been a member of the Bad Subjects Fight Club, uh, Production Team since 1995.

Copyright © Mike Mosher 2007. Mural panels @ SVSU Digital Mural Workshop 2005. Drawing © Mike Mosher 2007. All rights reserved.