This post appeared in Italian on CheFare: Conflitto e trasgressione: Anonymous all’Unione Europea
Bruxelles, February 2015. NetFutures 2015
A series of interesting discussions are going on In the post industrial building of The Egg, the congress center few steps away from Gare Du Midi: smart cities, Internet of Things, social innovation, cloud and, in general, all those scenarios according to which the network – in all of its ubiquitous manifestations – will lead Europe into the future.
In a small room, hosting the CAPS (Collective Awareness Platforms for Sustainability) program’s plenary session, an unexpected collective laugh explodes, followed by a moment of slightly embarrassed silence.
The scenario: we have been invited to talk about Ubiquitous Commons, the research project with which we are creating a set of legal and technological tools that can be used to mitigate the enormous power imbalance which currently characterises the relations between data-subjects (those subjects who, consciously or unconsciously, produce data and information in their daily lives) and operators (Facebook, Google, cloud operators, large Big Data aggregators…): people don’t know (and can’t know) which data/information they generate and are harvested, and operators can substantially do whatever they want, buying and selling people thousands of times each second, transforming us into guinea pigs for social and cognitive experiments, and deciding with a few clicks the destiny of information and freedoms for a large part of the planet.
Fabrizio Sestini, CAPS creator and leader, a few minutes beforehand, while illustrating the program’s innovations for the next few years, highlighted an important fact: it appears evident how supporting and financing only large and well-known organisations and consortiums is not enough anymore. What is needed are ways in which to also support informality, emergence, the impermanent, and peer-to-peer. How is it possible? Mr. Sestini asks for the collaboration of the participants to discover solutions.
Fast forward: it’s presentation time. Right after Sestini’s statement – which, for us, is important, fundamental – we added a slide to our presentation, describing the partners of the Ubiquitous Commons initiative.
When we get there, we start the list: “… and thus these are the participants to the initiative: University X, Department Y, Research Center Z… and Anonymous.”
We throw in some humour, to make sure that people have received the message: “And, thus, also considered Mr. Sestini’s statement, to understand how an organisation such as Anonymous could participate to an Horizon2020 call.”
Laughter in the audience.
Go on with the other slides.
The theme is not really taken seriously. Perhaps it suggested in people’s imaginations strange cinematic scenes of peculiar groups of masked people presenting themselves at the doors of the European Commission to claim the payment in Bitcoins of the freshly obtained Horizon2020 funding with the “Anonymous Social Innovation” project proposal.
For us, this theme is of central importance, as it directly confronts a subject matter which is a fundamental concern for any innovation process: conflict and transgression.
But let’s step back in time for a while.
We’re always in Brussels. Always at the European Commission. It is September 2014, at the High Level Group Meeting on Smart Cities. Rem Koolhaas, from the stage, tells how, with the coming about of the “market”, in the 70s, the city has become an enormously less adventurous and more predictable place.
According to him, this is the place where all the apocalyptic effects of climate change, of the ageing of society, of water and energy find supposed solutions in smart cities, to the sound of sensors, drones, Internet of Things and efficiency.
Specific consideration is given to the visual language dedicated to the citizens of the smart city.
We quote here this part of his intervention:
When we look at the visual language through which the smart city is represented, it is typically with simplistic, child-like rounded edges and bright colours. The citizens the smart city claims to serve are treated like infants. We are fed cute icons of urban life, integrated with harmless devices, cohering into pleasant diagrams in which citizens and business are surrounded by more and more circles of service that create bubbles of control. Why do smart cities offer only improvement? Where is the possibility of transgression?
This term defines multiple different concepts.
Here we refer to its sociological understanding, according to which we transgress whenever we infringing a certain social norm.
Transgression implies going beyond a boundary, a limit, but also its existence. As described by Bataille in Eroticism: “Transgression opens the doors towards what is beyond the limits of what is usually observed, preserving them.”
There is little space for transgression in this age of smart (smart cities, smart communities), of innovation and creativity. Thus, there is little space for conflict.
The creative class has already been absorbed by the industry. Hackers, makers, startuppers and the other human profiles in the new scenario create the ranks of the new research laboratories and of the production lines of the industrial complex. They are the unexpected blue collars of this type of industry, perfectly encoded in the new models of labour and production.
This economy relates to an industry which has understood creative thinking as its pre-requisite, as highlighted by Pine and Gilmore in their Experience Economy. There is no doubt, from the point of view of the architectures of power, on who runs the show.
Troublemakers, in this scenario, are precious commodities.
Enzensberger used this exact word in his Industrialization of the Mind essay in 1962.
According to his thesis, the cultural industry lives in a state of paradox: it cannot produce its own product (conscience), as conscience is a social product and, thus, it can only be induced and reproduced by them.
A sterile industry follows from this, in which the larger part of production is of the derivative type, and in which only a limited few (the troublemakers) are able to really innovate.
This is not sustainable for the industrial complex, which, thus, has perfectly learned how to deal with conflict, using all sorts of techniques: from violence; to financial pressure; to media exposure and display; to cooptation.
In a few words: encoding, recruiting, aestheticising.
Subversive action has already been internalised by the market, under the form of instruments for the creation of value, to increase sales and for marketing. This is clear, for example, when we consider the linguistic (and, thus, perceptive and operative) transformation of the word “hacker”.
In his “Preface to Transgression” (on Bataille: a Critical Reader, by Bolling and Wilson) Foucault explains how transgressions forces limits, boundaries and norms to recognise themselves, requiring them to deal with their imminent disappearance.
Transgression creates a space, and innovates
Elizabeth Grosz defines this process as spatial excess, a new dimension which is able to go beyond preconceptions, prejudices and worries about utility, “beyond the relevance for the present, looking towards the future.” The revelation and discovery of this excess depends on the possibility for transgression.
Excess is in the “problematic”, which is full of potential.
The clandestine, the unacknowledged, the unofficial find their survival – beyond crime – in the transgression of social norms and limits. Those same limits which have excluded them in the first place. The recycle trash, appropriate spaces, invent communication channels, create styles, fashions and trends. They don’t cross borders: they move on them. Moving, they innovate.
De Certeau, Lefebvre, Maturana, Bateson, Bhabha and other show how this system is a cybernetic system of the second order.
Citizens continuously re-program their space, appropriating, hybridising, creating relations, reactions and transformation in the system.
Systematic transgression creates innovation.
Using a term from Massimo Canevacci Ribeiro: it is the methodological undiscipline.
The conflict as represented in the spectacle (by all participants, conflictual ones included) is not the one which innovates: the one with violence, molotov bottles, batons.
It is rather the polyphonic and undisciplined stride of myriads of uncoordinated individualities, actuating their own style of spatial re-appropriation (both physical and digital), continuously creating conflict, transgression and movement along and across boundaries and interstices.
The industrial complex has already reacted to this scenario, trying to resolve Enzensberger’s paradox intervening on languages and imagination, by encoding the roles of troublemakers.
For example, it is interesting to note the Italian case of Telecom Italia, whose ascent in the arena of digital cultures began with digital arts. With Venice’s Future Centre and initiatives such as RomaEuropa Web Factory, they opened up the way to the encoding of digital troublemaking, establishing de facto the rise of the new class of creative blue collars.
(In fact, one of our first interventions in this sense was through the RomaEuropa FakeFactory collective performance.)
Of course, this type of path is present across the whole world: cultural institutes, “factories” for digital arts, workshops for creativity flourish everywhere. Linguistic metaphors are in plain view. Spaces and events are created (co-working spaces, incubators, hackathons). Creatives are co-opted (makers and hackers). They are transformed in precarious research labs (startups, incubators, fablabs). Value and scalability/replicability are created (acceleration). The few good ideas are taken and sold (exits), generating profit.
This model, which is potentially virtuous, has a number of disadvantages, most of them at the level of the social and political discussion.
On the one hand it quickly comes back to the paradox of the creative industry: by encoding, conflict and transgression are integrated and, this, unable to innovate.
On the other hand, it creates precariety, by dumping business risks.
The initial funding of about 20 thousand euros (or similar amounts) for a startup are much inferior of the risk of hiring a single researcher. Large operators place the calls for proposals; they receive proposals from groups of precarious workers, offering their idea; the accurately select the most feasible ones, and the ones which are more in line with their business strategies (in direct and indirect ways); they give out the small capital; the incubate, instructing teams on reference imaginaries and work methodology; if something goes wrong, they spend much less that what they would have spent for a single employee, but having extracted from this cost a whole team, working day and night, without contributions, social security, holiday leaves, benefits, overtime, unions, and so on; if everything goes as expected they perform exits of which they will have a share, which will be higher than what they would have earned through other industrial or financial investments.
On top of that, by doing this they become able to promote the social imagination formats which are useful for the cultural infiltration of their business: innovation becomes the chase for a single form of future, instead of opening up to the opportunity of a plurality of possible futures. They typically promote optic fiber, sensors, robots and all of the other products, services and approaches of the industry financing the initiative.
Furthermore, this model promotes large differences and inequality in the distribution of wealth: the imaginary heroic startupper; the culture of failure; the “billion dollar startup”. They look like a lottery, more that resembling a model for fair distribution of wealth.
Technology’s role, in all of this, is banalised, reducing the complexity of the perception of how it could be possible to find solutions to the planet’s major problems.
Technology becomes a fetish which can be a per se guarantee for solution for energetic, environmental and social problems. It becomes perceived how small groups of people, by coming together for 24 hours of hackathon, can produce an App or a website to confront with large issues which are political, social and cultural, not certainly technical.
This obviously is reductionist and simplistic.
In times of crisis, this potentially becomes an apocalyptic scenario. When education, institutional initiatives, arts and cultural expense become flooded with these types of initiatives – with the “hour of coding” becoming more important than philosophy, just to mention one –, it becomes immediately clear who holds the strings of this process, supporting their own strategies.
And, going, back to the initial question: how can preserve the possibility for conflict and transgression, to maintain all of their positive effects on the world, starting from the possibility for critical visions, and the consequent possibilistic opening to the perception of a multiplicity of futures and imaginaries?
To look for a possible answer, it can be useful to adopt the metaphor of the garden.
In his Moving Garden, Gilles Clément explores the possibility for a new type of garden, emergent, mobile and in perennial mutation, which lives in friches, the abandoned, uncultivated lands, those which history denounces as the loss of power of man over nature.
“What if we lay a different gaze on them? Could they not be the new blank pages which we need?”
On the one hand, historically, form – controlled form – was considered powerful in protecting us from the diabolical residues of the unknown.
On the other hand “friches have nothing to do with dying and decay. In their beds species abandon themselves to invention. Walking in friches is a continuous process of self-interrogation. […] Could this great power of reclaiming and conquering space not be placed at the service of the garden? and of which garden?”
The Third Landscape is a moving challenge, with mutating borders and boundaries, in a state of perennial conversation. It is the weeds which grow in-between bricks and train tracks. It is the natural space of our cities which has not yet been encoded.
In our cities, the largest part of biodiversity is found in the Third Landscape. It is an interconnective tissue, composed by residual spaces, which resist government and form. In this, it is transgressive. It is a multiplication of narratives. It is not a property, but a possibilistic space for the future.
If John Barrell spoke about the “dark side of landscape”, alluding at its controlled forms as imposition of the point of view of a single social class, Clément speaks about a “light side”: the Third Landscape is not an exclusive model, but an inclusive one; it is a “shared fragment of a collective conscience.” It is a mutating transgression, which operates in emergent ways through multiple points of view and intentionalities. It is a syncretic map which evolves together to the mutations of the residential, industrial and commercial areas of the city.
It is the geography of the mutation of the city.
Clément openly speaks about the need to educate a new type of gaze, to be able to understand the importance and valence of the Third Landscape: a new possibility for vision and for knowledge dissemination in natural urban environments.
In synthesis: the need for new aesthetics, new sensibilities
This is a potentially revolutionary point of view, opening up to the possibility to perceive emergence, conflict, transgression, and to transform it into a form of shared knowledge,
The same type of discourse can be made, for example, starting from Marco Casagrande‘s considerations on ruins, intended as the progressive reunion of objects and architectures to nature.
If, on the one hand, ruins represent a loss of power from human beings to nature, on the other hand, according to different aesthetics, they represent the life of the city, demonstrating its usages and non-usages: the action (and non-action) of human beings leads buildings into a different state, transforming them into ruins and, thus, producing the evidence of their and nature’s history.
Ruins, to all effect, constitute a shared, extremely usable and accessible source of knowledge and information.
According to Casagrande, the Third Generation City is the ruin of the industrial city, and becomes real when it recognizes its own local knowledge, becoming part of nature.
It is possible to search for solutions in these types of metaphors. How?
A new aesthetic system is needed, a new sensibility, which allows to recognize the value (and, thus, to directly support) of the continuous stratification, in our cities (and, in general, in the environment) of the unconscious, of the transgressive, of the conflict, of the different, to attribute value to it, as a new construction material which is able to innovate and to preserve history and knowledge, and to transform spaces and processes.
From Bhabha’s and Soja’s Third Space, to Clément’s Third Landscape, to Casagrande’s Third Generation City, to Pistoletto’s Third Paradise, to our Third Infoscape, alluding at its informational manifestations.
A new aesthetics, a new sensibility, a new imagination, corresponding to the possibility for institutions with a new form: ecosystemic; not only responsible for strategies, but also for the possibility for the emergence of tactics, transgressions and conflicts.
Not only “normative actuators and certifiers”, but also – and most of all – direct and responsible supporters of the environment in which transgression and conflict may take place, as a form of emergent, shared knowledge.
Going back to Clément;s metaphor, together with the imagination for a new type of garden, we need a new conception of gardner:
“it is hard to imagine which aspect these gardens will assume, in which existence is expected to assume no form. From my point of view, gardens of this kind should not be judged on account of their form, but, rather, on the basis of their capacity to generate and translate a certain joy of existence.”