Hacker Perspective: Johannes Grenzfurthner / monochrom

The Medium is the Mess-Up, or; How to Hack the World

Most of us know and understand that the major power of today's world is the media.  Whoever controls the media controls everything.  And since the media is not nature but culture - Western culture - it is always owned by somebody.  There's no such thing as free media.  It's (as always) about controlling the means of production.  So long as you can't download your iPhone, all our so-called free media, our Creative Commons tracks, freedom of speech and Twitter, it's all bullshit.

Media is the strongest political, economic, and, of course, heuristic power in the modern world.  And most of us do not own significant parts of it.  So if you want to do anything about it, you have to hack the system.  That can be done with something called guerrilla communication.  And I am about to tell you what that is and how it works, my black-shirt-with-penguin-wearing friends.

Guerrilla communication exists to fight the media system and the reality produced by this system.  The word "guerrilla" suggests that there's a war going on.  It also suggests that media defines and preserves the status quo.  The status quo of a society in which knowledge and information are not only means of controlling people but also ways of segregating people into classes, like the working class and - that's us - the networking class.

So what can be done about it?  The classic guerrilla communication tactic is to launch small but effective attacks on an enemy which is much bigger but also hampered due to institutionalization.  These tactics are adapted from classical guerrilla warfare (which already made use of guerrilla communication against its enemy's communication system).

Unlike guerrilla warfare, guerrilla communications aim to interfere in the monologue of bourgeois mainstream media and to show how reality and normality are defined through media control and access to public spaces.  It is inspired by various theories on social communication and includes positions that tend to focus merely on the government while excluding other factors from analysis, creating a simplified portrait of social powers.  Some guerrilla communication theories may take left-wing or Marxist positions in regards to the social factors underlying and forming a society, such as class, race, or sex.

There's a wide range of strategies guerrilla communication could use.  Most of them have something to do with mocking or mimicry of official communication.

I'm part of the political art/tech group monochrom.  Some years ago we used these techniques to stage a deadly virus outbreak at "Art Basel Miami Beach," one of the biggest art fairs in North America.  We wanted to address the hysteria of the post-September 11, 2001 attacks about biological warfare and the media coverage about bird flu.  And we wanted to create a statement about the disgusting networking and business aspects of the art market.  Our press release stated that Günther Friesinger (a member of our group) was carrying a "rare, but highly contagious subform of the Arad-II Virus (Onoviridae family)."  Günther was walking around the fair and did what every good businessman should do.  Small talk, shake hands, spread business cards.  But the business cards, of course, were "contagious" and a small group in hazmat outfits later tried "to retrieve and destroy the business cards he has spread."  Additionally, we told all the people that we had to take Günther into custody and would have to dissolve his body in acid.  It was interesting to see how many people were thanking us for our service.

Mocking strategies are especially useful in attacking a single player like a multi-national by trying to stain his image and tactically embarrass him as a warning to stop the evildoing.  While this strategy is useful in pointing out the power of consumers, it still remains within the construct of "good" capitalism versus its evil twin "bad" capitalism.  Never forget that there is no such thing as "good" or "bad" capitalism.  Capitalism is a totalitarian doctrine whose very structure, purpose, and operating mode is considered to "alienate humans," to take control of and to modify their basic human needs and relationships.

Publicity means to expose yourself and therefore you can be attacked.  Advertising is inherently public and something that tries to give instructions can be obeyed or disobeyed by not playing by the rules.  You could, for example, decide to boycott a product as long as it is advertised.  This could be a personal interpretation of guerrilla communication.  One that sucks, I guess, because it's rather naive: it tends to be the best products which are advertised because they are advertised.

You could sabotage instructions by misinterpreting them and acting dumb.  That goes for factory workers as well as for all you white collar supremacists: why not use the CD drive in your office computer as a coffee cup holder?  It's got a tinge of freedom to it which you, of course, wouldn't want to experience because it's dangerous.  It's the freedom of something that exists beyond the mere functionality of the way it was intended.  Oh wait - are you a hacker?

One of the basic strategies is faking things: press releases by political parties or companies, websites, even your own life.  You could say that it's all about playing with representation and identity, alienation and identification.  It means that you use affirmation to a degree that goes beyond the conventional to show what something really means - but also to act out the habits and conventions of your enemy.  Guerrilla information, for example, mimics classical marketing tools and knowledge, but twists it in the opposite direction.  This works for press releases and interviews, as well as for personal habits.  The Yes Men, for example, are masters of the typical company spokesmen body language and tone of voice.  What they do is no longer parody, but mimicry.  You could say that guerrilla communication is not trying to destroy the dominant codes but rather to deconstruct and strategically abuse them for its own purposes.

It should be clear that guerrilla communication doesn't have a military goal in the classic sense of destruction, occupation, suppression, or extermination.  It's about putting special groups like the people of Bhopal on the map of global consciousness.

One of our own exploits was started in 2001.  My group monochrom was chosen to represent the Republic of Austria at the São Paulo Art Biennial in São Paulo, Brazil in 2002.  However, the right-wing political climate in Austria (f*ck, that was a bad time!) gave us concerns about acting as representatives of "our nation" (well, f*ck our nation).  But we decided to deal with the problem by creating the persona of Georg Paul Thomann, an irascible, controversial (and completely fictitious) artist of "longstanding fame and renown."  Most of the work was writing his 500 page biography.  The media reported about Thomann as the official Austrian representative - I guess they just didn't know how to Google - and so our strange art avatar suddenly was a cultural ambassador of "our country."  And all the members of monochrom were his technical support team.  Through the implementation of this ironic mechanism - even the catalog included the biography of the non-existent artist - we tried to hack the philosophical and bureaucratic dilemma attached to the system of representation.  But moreover, Georg Paul Thomann proved to be a potent payload for political content.

The artist Chien-Chi Chang was invited to the Biennial as the representative of Taiwan, but Taiwan's name tag was removed by people working for the administration.  The country's name on his cube was replaced overnight by new adhesive letters: "Museum of Fine Arts, Taipei."  For Chien-Chi Chang this was very irritating.  His art piece dealt with the mistreatment of Taiwanese people in mental asylums, so it was very import for him to be the official Taiwanese representative.  He tried to get information, but nobody wanted to inform him.  We started some research and discovered that China had threatened to retreat from the Biennial - and create a bunch of diplomatic problems - if the organizers of the Biennial were thought to be challenging the "One-China policy."  So we started a solidarity campaign and began to collect letters.  A "t" from Austria (equals Ausria).  And the Canadians really didn't need all three "a's," etc., etc.  And after some time Chang could remount a trashy new "Taiwan" outside his room.  Chang was very pleased and several reporters took pictures and took notes.  Several Asian newspapers reported on the performance.  One Taiwanese newspaper headlined: "Austrian artist Georg Paul Thomann saves 'Taiwan.'"

A non-existing artist saves a country that shouldn't exist?  Well, I love postmodernism.

You see, guerrilla communication is a versatile practice of cultural resistance.  Information and political education are completely useless if nobody wants to listen.  But this fact can be a powerful ally.  Guerrilla communication doesn't focus on arguments and facts like traditional communication.  Rather, it inhabits a militant political position; it is direct action in the space of social communication.  But it doesn't aim to destroy the codes of power and signs of control.  Communication guerrillas do not intend to occupy, interrupt, or destroy the dominant channels.  They focus on detouring and subverting the messages transported.

What's new about all of this?  Nothing.  But standing on the shoulders of earlier avant-gardes, the communication guerrilla doesn't claim the invention of a new politics or the foundation of a new movement.  It is merely continuing an exploration of the jungle of interaction processes, senders, codes, and recipients.

The earliest forms of modern guerrilla communication can be found within the WWI art scene, when a group of international artists and deserters met in Zurich on neutral Swiss ground to launch the Dada movement, laying the foundations for such radical art movements as The Situationist International, Punk, and Neoism.

These people developed strategies to provoke and challenge society, to implement their political agenda into the public space, and to start reclaiming the streets.  The street is synonymous for public space and the humdrum surface of society.  Therefore, it was considered the perfect stage for informing people or, rather, for counter-informing people.  Most activists came from a classical art or journalist background but had reached the conclusion that nobody really listens when you speak in the traditional art space.  Your average guy does not go to exhibitions or concerts and rarely sees counter culture media.  Even if people would go, they would consider what happens there to be "just art."  Art is the place where things might be reflected, but that amounts to nothing since it's removed from everyday life.  Art is a special task and a special place for special people.

The post-bourgeois artists tried to bring art back to the people - not as a service (as it is to the bourgeois elite art consumer), but as a form of irritation.  This was one of the many starting points of guerrilla communication as well as the so called "reclaim the streets" movement which includes funny yet irritating activities like Flash-mobs - and Adbusters.

In the 1970s, (((counterculture))) split into a more traditional Marxist wing consisting of small parties and groups that wasted a lot of their precious time and beautiful youth to fight each other.  Plenty of their strategies, like throwing pies at celebrities, are still around in the guerrilla communication movement of today.  They too started working with fake information and actions distributed via the bourgeois media, oblivious of the fact that it was spreading a hoax.  A popular slogan suggested people "Invent false facts in order to create real events," but they too made real objects and did cultural piracy stuff like pirate editions of the socialist classics or handing out counterfeit subway tickets.  Pirate radio stations appeared and hijacked radio frequencies.  Graffiti was an important weapon of that movement to overwrite the text of the city.  In its best and most far-out moment, they came up with the post-modern idea that social structures are texts, too, and therefore can be overwritten in the same way you can overwrite an advertisement.

At the same time the squatters' movement emerged: Post-bourgeois artists attacking actual private property as well as non-material cultural property.  Guerrilla communication - unlike everybody else - shows no respect for the fact that the media and the public space as well as the images and cultural frameworks we live in belong to the bourgeois.  Its fundamental strategy is to misappropriate images, words, and radio frequencies and shift them to different contexts.  In France, the Situationist Movement defined a form of art called "détournement."  It means that you roam aimlessly around the streets and take what you find and then do something with it.

As part of monochrom, we promote a concept called "Sculpture Mobs."  To quote our own pamphlet: "No one is safe from public sculptures, those endless atrocities!  All of them labeled 'art in public space.'  Unchallenging hunks of aesthetic metal in business parks, roundabouts, in shopping malls!  It is time to create DIY public art!  Get your hammers!  Get your welding equipment!"  So we started to host training sessions and we began teaching interested people how to erect public sculptures in under five minutes.  Why under five minutes?  Because that's the time you have if you set up a sculpture - let's say at a Walmart parking lot - before "security arrives."  As part of the project, we created a political illegal public sculpture called "The Great Firewall of China" at the Google Campus in Mountain View, California.  And we set up various realistic looking anti-tank obstacles in inner districts of various cities.  We named these pieces "New Kids On The Road Block."

So, in a certain way, guerrilla communication is hacking.  And hacking is a means of guerrilla communication because it is a hostile assault from outside the system trying to find a way to change or manipulate it from within.  You have to know how everything works - the way in which the media shapes and constitutes reality - just like hackers not only know what a website is and what it looks like and how it works, but also how the code - the very structure - works.

But what do we know about the cultural code of messages?  Do we really understand how, for example, heterosexism is cemented in our society via texts and images?  What about cultural stereotypes?  How do we - or at least some of us - come to believe that a handful of Jewish males are meant to rule the world without even once spending a thought on it?  How is the sexist and racist and classist subconsciousness of the liberal society shaped through the media and access to it?

Any suggestions?

I'm sure you won't have any because it is just the nature of the capitalist and bourgeois media flow.  And that is what must be hacked and changed to make it visible and questionable.  Only once something can be seen will we realize what has been invisible before.  That's why we need to hack into media and change its message flow and the stereotypes it communicates.

But that should by no means be the ultimate goal.

What is lacking is a concise theory of what bourgeois society is like and what should be attacked by us.  As long as you simply play around with the media - even as a media pirate or hacker - you are still part of the system.  You have to change the political economics of a society.  Otherwise, we will just be going round in the same old circles as the history of guerrilla communication clearly shows.  Looking back at the guerrilla communication movement, it becomes clear that these strategies were an early form of viral marketing for the rebels themselves.  A great part of the movement has made it to the top of our society and its institutions - like the former German minister of foreign affairs, Joschka Fischer, once a notorious player in the huge Sponti-movement in Frankfurt before turning into a complete butthead.

So in the end, it is all about success.  Success is what you want, isn't it?  If so, do me a favor and erase all the information I just gave you.  Maybe not sharing the information would be the utmost guerrilla communication act.

Johannes Grenzfurthner is an artist, writer, director, and DIY researcher.  He founded monochrom (an internationally acting art-tech-theory group) in 1993.  He is head of Arse Elektronika (sex and tech) festival in San Francisco and co-hosts Roboexotica (Festival for Cocktail-Robotics).  He holds a professorship for art theory and art practice at the University of Applied Sciences, Graz, Austria.  Recurring topics in his work are: contemporary art, activism, performance, humour, philosophy, sex, communism, postmodernism, media theory, cultural studies, popular culture studies, science fiction, and the debate about copyright.  www.monochrom.at/english/

Return to $2600 Index