Brian Holmes on Wed, 24 Mar 2004 06:59:28 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Reverse Imagineering: Toward the New Urban Struggles

Geert just posted some recent thoughts that Marion von Osten and I came up with
on the contradictions of cultural labor. Here's a few observations about what
can be done, subversively speaking. Best to all, Brian


Reverse Imagineering:
Toward the New Urban Struggles
Or: Why smash the state when your neighborhood theme park is so much closer?

"What are the steps in the creation of a Disney attraction? 
According to literature sent out by WDW [Walt Disney World], the steps are:
storyboard, script, concept, show models, sculpture, show set design, graphics,
interiors, architectural design, molds and casting, wardrobe and figure
finishing, electronic and mechanical design and manufacture, show sets and prop
construction, animation, audio, special effects and lighting, and engineering."

The Unofficial Walt Disney Imagineering Page (

On October 17, 2003, seven groups of some 20 to 30 persons descended into the
Paris underground, with paint pots, glue, rollers, brushes, spray cans, sheets
of paper and marking pens in their hands. Their aim? To overwrite, cover up,
deface, subvert, recompose or simply rip to shreds as many advertisements as
possible, without violence to any individual or to any piece of property other
than the images which impinge on our most intimate desires. Arising against a
background of aggressive cuts in public programs which had originally been
designed to withdraw specific activities and times of life from market
pressures - cuts which affect teachers, the unemployed, retirees, researchers
and performing artists, among others - the movement declared its intention to
"attack the driving force of this commodification: advertising. It invades our
public space, the streets, the metros, the television. It is everywhere, on our
clothes, our walls, our screens. Let's resist it, with creati ve, peaceful and
legitimate means." And resist it they did, organizing three more major actions
in the underground before the end of the year, defacing over 9,000
advertisements and causing almost a million euros of "damage" - at least from
the viewpoint of the organization charged with selling the display space, or
more precisely, the psychic space of millions of people who ride the metro
every day. 

The "stop publicity" campaigns of fall 2003 would have been unimaginable
without a previous event: the cancellation of the most important summer culture
festivals just a few months before, in the face of strikes by performing-arts
and audiovisual workers. This movement includes actors, stage directors, set
designers, decorators, dancers, choreographers, tightrope-walkers,
fire-breathers, clowns and jugglers, sound and lighting technicians, costume
makers, film directors and editors, gaffers, cameramen and women, best boys
(and girls?), location managers, dubbers, special effects creators, animation
designers and innumerable other professionals: the people whose job it is to
create imaginary worlds. Since 1969, all these "intermittents du spectacle" had
gained the right to a specific form of unemployment insurance which recognized
the inherent discontinuity of artistic practice, and provided a supplemental
income to cover the periods when paid labor gives way to volunteer prod
uctions, rehearsals, training periods, the quest for inspiration or, more
prosaically, the search for another job. But in June of 2003, the agreement
governing this form of unemployment insurance was modified by the French
employers' organization and three minority unions, with a change in eligibility
requirements that is predicted to eliminate roughly 30% of the beneficiaries.
The cancellation of the festivals had the effect of dramatizing resistance to a
generalized attack on social programs. But it also revealed another surprising
fact: the vast economic benefits generated by cultural activities, primarily in
the form of tourist revenues (estimates ranged as high as 40 million euros for
the city of Avignon alone). Never before had the functional relations between
socially subsidized creativity and entrepreneurial profit appeared so clearly
before the public eye.

What kind of imaginary world do we want to live in? And how shall we pay for
it? At the outset of the twenty-first century, on a planet at war, one of the
primary social conflicts in the overdeveloped countries revolves around what
some call culture, and others, entertainment. The free use or "pirating" of
music distributed without cost through the Internet offers another example of
this struggle within what the Situationists termed "the spectacle."  At stake
are the human creations which make up our everyday environment: the fictional
narratives and perceptual stimulations which, like other forms of knowledge,
can be conceived either as common goods or as commodities. The essential
theater of this conflict is the productive terrain of the globalized
metropolis, or the so-called "creative city." But not only corporations strive
to "create worlds" for their producers and consumers, as Maurizio Lazzarato has
written.  City and state governments do so as well, using the techniqu es of
network planning and complexity management, in extensive collaborations with
the private sector. The stars they are installing above our heads - with the
help of transnational corporations - deserve to be met with an alternative
vision, an antagonistic cosmology. It is a matter of bringing the stars back
down to human level, of dissolving the commercial mythologies. It is a matter
of assembling what Deleuze and Guattari call a "war machine," to subversively
deconstruct the imaginary environment that transnational state capitalism is
constructing.  At the outset of the twenty-first century, we re-enter the
struggle over the right to create the world-city.

The ground of the new urban struggles began to take form some three decades
ago, in the wake of changes in class composition that first became apparent in
the overdeveloped countries in the late 1960s. Mass education was one aspect of
these changes, as important fractions of the former working classes gained
access to socialized universities. Alexander Kluge and Oscar Negt point out
that research and education form a major contradiction in the planned economy:
because innovation is centrally necessary, but rare and largely unpredictable,
requiring investments vastly in excess of functional production.  Thus, all
kinds of autonomous investigations could proliferate in state-subsidized
educational institutions, independently of any market regulation. Experiments
with pure use values - participatory cultural activities withdrawn from the
rules of monetary exchange - ran parallel to calls for even greater state
entitlements, and theorizations of a post-capitalist society. To this must be
added what the Italian autonomists have termed "the refusal of work": a
widespread rejection of the alienating conditions of factory labor, ultimately
resulting in the relative decline of large-scale, labor-intensive manufacturing
processes (delocalization, automation), and the exodus of workers from the
direct control of managerial hierarchies.  After the deep recessions and
prolonged social conflicts of the 1970s, the shift toward a territorialized
productive network was first noticed in the so-called industrial "districts" of
Northern Italy in the early 1980s, with the resurgence of relatively
small-scale, semi-artisanal modes of manufacture, depending on interconnections
between specialty operators within a closely knit fabric of neighboring towns.
Yet the productive networks of the "knowledge economy" that emerged as the
motor of capitalist growth in the 1990s were located on urban or even
metropolitan territories  - where autonomist studies, pursuing the insp
 irations of the 1960s, pointed to the subversive dimensions of cooperative labor, whose motivations are at least partially independent of money. 

The conception, and even more, the practice of the city are altered through
this double dynamic of mass intellectuality and the refusal of hierarchical
structures. Consider a characteristic formulation of 1960s counter-urbanism:
Henri Lefebvre's The Right to the City, written with the explicit aim to "break
up systems," to overcome rationalized specialization and class segregation.
Lefebvre no longer sees the city as a production machine, a market or a
decision-making center, but as an enduring artwork to be freely appropriated:
"The city is itself 'oeuvre,' a feature which contrasts with the irreversible
tendency towards money and commerce, towards exchange and products. Indeed, the
oeuvre is use value and the product is exchange value. The eminent use of the
city, that is, of its streets and squares, edifices and monuments, is la Fete
(a celebration which consumes unproductively...)."  Lefebvre envisioned an
urban theater of mobile centers, constituted and dissolved at wil l by the
city-dwellers' appropriation of their environment. The aesthete will recognize
the links to Huizinga's figure of homo ludens, to the nomadic designs of
Constant or Archigram, to the playful, labyrinthine architecture of Aldo van
Eyck - while the activist thinks of the Situationist derive and the
antagonistic quest for "higher games," or of the disruptive theater of the
Provos in Holland and the Yippies in America. Of course, this aesthetic
politics culminated in the world-wide outbursts of 1968. But to understand how
this conflictive play combined with a changing class composition to produce
long-term transformations of urban culture, we need another reference: Andy
Warhol's "Factory" in New York. Against a background of industrial decay, an
artist-impresario opened the doors of a now-archaic manufacturing building to a
gallery of marginal figures - drifters, drug users, transvestites, gays and
lesbians, bohemians escaping their class origins - who would experiment with
photography, film, television, musical styles (The Velvet Underground), but
also with transgressive parties, open to hedonistic excess. From this voluntary
blurring of the social classes emerged two key things: a new model of
subcultural production, freely translating the energies of transversal social
mobility and conflict into hybrid media commodities; and a new aesthetic of
urban inhabitation, based on the attraction of "transitional neighborhoods."
Subcultural production would become an integral part of the postmodern economy
identified by Frederic Jameson;  while the aesthetics of the fringe would play
a leading role in the speculative revaluation of the former industrial areas of
modern cities (gentrification).  These two dynamics, unfolding in Europe since
the early 1980s,  have laid the ambiguous ground for the urban struggles
beginning today.

(Hot) Air
How should youth energies be captured, transgressive desires satisfied,
egalitarian claims laid to rest despite the ongoing progress of segregation and
homogenization? The integrative functions of the postmodern economy's "cultural
turn" should not be minimized. The compromise-formation of subcultural
production acts to absorb the energies of class mobility, stabilizing them in
multimedia proximity to the hard data of the financial sector.  Spatially you
see similar outcomes: the computer-assisted service industries scattered
throughout the renovated manufacturing zones, the edge-city clubs and bar
scenes located within prowling range of the glittering business districts.
Cultural and subcultural production - of media, fashion, live performance and
urban space itself - become important assets in metropolitan rivalry, as cities
with global pretensions compete to attract businesses, tourists and talent.
Today, the "creative city," and even the "creative class," are the buzzword s
of urban development.  Against this background, it is hard to disagree with Eve
Chiapello and Luc Boltanski's contention that the "artistic critique" of the
1960s has furnished, if not a blueprint, at least a productive rhetoric for
networked business strategies.  And these in turn become the coveted object of
urban governance: the ten-year strategic plan for Barcelona's cultural sector
explicitly aims to "strengthen Barcelona as a factory that produces cultural
contents," to "make culture a key element of social cohesion," to "incorporate
Barcelona into the flows of digital culture" and to "project Barcelona as a
platform of international promotion."  Recognizing the specific characteristics
of networked social structure as described, among others, by native son Manuel
Castells - ironically enough, since Castells was, with Lefebvre, the prophet of
urban struggles in 1970s  - the strategic plan of the Catalan capital outlines
"a new management model for culture," based on contractual agreements or
"pacts" rather than strictly hierarchical relations between actors,
acknowledging the need for autonomy in the development and progressive
adaptation of projects to changing situations, and proposing evaluation
techniques for the "follow-up" (or control) "of the cultural pulse of a
specific territory (the evolution of cultural practices, the economic dimension
of cultural activity, the analysis of the impact of culture in the economic and
social context, the analysis of creation, etc.)." This cultural/economic
planning appears as the public-sector equivalent of what is known in business
circles as "complexity management." But can the creative class or "cognitariat"
be successfully controlled? And what happens to the subversive dynamics of
transgressive mobility and social cooperation?

In Europe, the British government has most deliberately developed the planning
of pop-cultural production, with an explicit concern for the destinies of the
new labor force that is reflected in the culture ministry's publication of the
"Creative Industries Mapping Document" in 2001. It attempts to delineate a
bewildering range of new professions: Arts Promoter, Incubator, Consultancy for
Inventor, Cultural Strategist, Multimedia Artist, Visual Support Consultant,
Media Initiatives and Relations, Digital Design Consultant, Branding and
Communications, New Media Agent, Bio-Entrepreneur (!), etc.  This official
document proves Felix Guattari's claims about the deliberately programmed, even
serialized production of contemporary subjectivity. It emerges against the
background of the "Young British Art" in the mid-nineties (driven by the
advertising magnate Saatchi), accompanied by the media froth generated around
the slogan "Cool Britannia" in the years 1996-98, the publication of the book
Creative Britain by Culture Minister Chris Smith in 1998, and Tony Blair's
early flirts with the pop-star milieus - all concurrent with the massification
of the Internet and the emergence of so-called "new media." But it also follows
a long period of high unemployment and casualization of the labor market
brought on by two decades of neoliberal policy, as well as a serious recession
in the early 1990s which saw a fresh influx of marginal cultural producers to
London, to occupy spaces temporarily abandoned by capital.  The dream of
integrating a whole wave of new arrivals to the labor market via highly
individualized career-paths articulated around the promise of creative autonomy
and the productive tools of the latest technology may now sound rather
unlikely, after the krach of the "new economy" and the dramatic rise in social
tensions all across the planet in the wake of September 11. Yet this is the
solution being sold by high-level consultancies  to municipal planning
departments across the overdeveloped world, with the eager approbation of local
and transnational corporations - perpetually obsessed with the rebranding of
everything, even the city itself, for global consumption.

In the artistic and design fields, as in research and education, the emphasis
falls invariably on immediately marketable skills and products - continually
augmenting the levels of frustration, even at the heart of the well-paid
cognitariat. Freelance work, offered as an emancipation from hierarchy, reveals
its price in subtle or blatant forms of surveillance and control through mobile
communications devices, introjecting professional responsibilities into every
hour of the day, every space and interpersonal relation.  Meanwhile, relentless
increases in ground rent restrict access to the city, while rising police
pressure (modeled on New York Mayor Giuliani's "zero tolerance") is applied to
any kind of deviant behavior. The danger of "slipping through the cracks" in
societies which have abandoned their welfare safety nets can now be felt
throughout the casualized labor force. Yet even the most basic jobs
increasingly call for "facework," spontaneity, affective presence, intell
igence, creativity. Ours is the age of what the German labor ministry has
called the Ich-AG, the "I-corp.," the self as a business. The subjective
consequence of the knowledge economy is a new blurring of the personal/the
economic/the political, pushing the counter-culture to experiment with free
cooperation and temporary autonomous zones in response. "When self-exploitation
acquires a central function in the process of valorization, the production of
subjectivity becomes a terrain of central conflict," remarks labor specialist
and leftist philosopher André Gorz. "Social relations withdrawn from the grip
of value, from competitive individualism and market exchange, make the latter
appear by contrast in their political dimension, as extensions of the power of
capital. A front of total resistance opens up. It necessarily overflows the
domain of knowledge production toward new ways of living, of consuming, of
collectively appropriating public space and everyday culture. Reclaim
the Streets is one of its most successful expressions." 

The cycle of antiglobalization protests, launched in the overdeveloped
countries by the European wing of the People's Global Action network in 1998,
constituted the first eruption of this "front of total resistance" on the
networked urban territory of the world-cities. Marked by a confluence of
traditional social movements, single-issue activist groups, disaffected urban
youth and rebellious cultural producers - visual and performance artists,
musicians, open-air DJs, media freaks and computer hackers - these
demonstrations often take the form of politically oriented techno-parties, no
longer simply eluding police repression, but using all the resources of
cooperative cultural production to actively target the sites and symbols of
corporate control over intimate consciousness and public expression.  If
Seattle brought this front of resistance to a higher level, it was not only
because of the greater complexity of the social movements involved, nor only
because of the direct i nfluence that the movement could now claim over
decision-making at the summit. It was also because of the intensity of the
urban battle, sparked off by disciplined affinity groups using sophisticated
techniques of civil disobedience, and pursued by anarchist "Black Blocs" and
untold numbers of city-dwellers revolted by the violence of what one analyst
called a "police riot."  A "Niketown," epitomizing the exploitation of distant
labor, the cooptation of subcultural creativity and the transformation of the
city into a corporate theme-park, was deliberately attacked and destroyed,
giving rise in the process both to a transnational urban legend and to a
complex form of solidarity between the social classes - whose public disavowal,
all but obligatory for the middle-class activists, could be negotiated through
the (quite plausible) attribution of the violence to undercover agents.
Similar demonstrations took place in Washington D.C., Sydney, Prague, Nice,
Seoul, Quebec City, Barcelona, Göteburg and other metropolitan centers,
accompanied by the development of the Indymedia network and a process of
intensive translocal exchange. For many in Europe, the movement came to a head
in July of 2001 in Genoa, with a police riot on the scale of the one in Seattle
and the murder of a protestor, Carlo Giuliani, followed soon after by the
paralyzing shock of September 11. But a giant step further was taken in the
highly developed but peripheral country of Argentina, where a currency crisis
brought about an alliance between unemployed workers and the middle class,
toppling the government with massive demonstrations on December 19 and 20,
2001, and opening a year-long period of radical social experimentation.

Today, the Argentine movement has at least temporarily fallen, and the
counterglobalization demonstrations, while as powerful as ever - with a major
victory at the 2003 WTO summit in Cancun - have been pushed by terror and
imperial warfare into the background of mediated consciousness. But the
knowledge engendered during this cycle of struggles has given rise to a vast
network of subversive potential, which permeates the breadth and depth of the
world-cities. The autonomous marxist Harry Cleaver likens contemporary
rhizomatic or meshworked social movements to the flux of what he calls the
hydrosphere: "Oceans with their ever restless currents and eddies, now moving
faster, now slower, now warmer, now colder, now deeper, now on the surface."
The intermingling currents which have begun to change class composition on a
planetary scale  convey both an intense awareness of the ways in which intimate
desire can be manipulated, and a willingness to intervene in the creation of
imag inary worlds. In this context, artists have regained a political
protagonism. An example is the project "Nike Ground - Rethinking Space," by Expanding on the corporate-chameleon strategies of
rtmark,  this group collaborated with the alternative cultural center Public
Netbase to illegally set up a 13-ton "infobox" on the Karlsplatz in Vienna. The
imposing, glass-walled container distributed an enthusiastic and bizarrely
serious proposal to rename the historic square "Nikeplatz" and to install a
gigantic red "swoosh" sculpture at its center. One of the texts reads: "Picture
this: rethinking space. Having the chance to redesign the city where you
live... It's Nike Ground! This revolutionary project is transforming and
updating your urban space. Nike is introducing its legendary brand into
squares, streets, parks and boulevards: Nikesquare, Nikestreet, Piazzanike,
Plazanike or Nikestrasse will appear in major world capitals over the coming
years..."  Residents were outraged at the project, and a furor arose in the
press; Nike threatened legal action, then finally withdrew all charges. As a
01001 spokeswoman explained: "For this work, we wanted to use the entire city
as a stage for a huge urban performance, a sort of theatre show for an unaware
audience/cast. We wanted to produce a collective hallucination capable of
altering people's perception of the city in this total, immersive way." 

Can the sophisticated programs of corporate and municipal imagineering be
challenged or even undone by a "long wave" of subversive projects, operating at
different scales and temporalities, intersecting with the sudden outbursts of
generalized urban struggles? Reverse engineering, as a hackers' manual
explains, "is simply the act of figuring out what software that you have no
source code for does in a particular feature or function, to the degree that
you can either modify this code, or reproduce it in another independent work."
The conceptual group Bureau d'Etudes extends the principle: "The deconstruction
of complex machines and their 'decolonized' reconstruction can be carried out
on all kinds of objects, not just computational ones. In the same way as you
deconstruct a program, you can also deconstruct the internal functioning of a
government or an administration, a firm or an industrial or financial group. On
the basis of such a deconstruction, involving a precise ident ification of the
operating principles of a given administration, or the links or networks
between administrations, lobbies, businesses etc., you can define modes of
action or intervention."  Beyond virtuoso stunts like "Nike Ground," one can
see the tactics of the emerging social movements - such as the "stop publicity"
campaign or the  intermittents du spectacle in France - as attempts to
precisely deconstruct the neoliberal program of total social mobilization for
the needs of a flexible economy. These tactics receive widespread support from
the cultural/educational sectors, where there is an increasing awareness of the
way that all "free time" is subordinated to market calculations. An expanding
range of professionals and self-taught experts are turning their autonomous
energies - their "off hours," if you prefer - to urban subversion. But can such
efforts avoid the social and economic capture-devices which tend to isolate a
relatively privileged "cognitariat" from the rest of the casualized labor
force, or indeed, from the rest of the population? The "Chainworkers" movement
in Italy has raised exactly that question - and partially answered it with a
reinvention of the Mayday labor demonstration to match the new social
conditions.  The intermittents, uncomfortably conscious of the relative
privilege afforded by their unique form of unemployment insurance, often
conclude their texts and speeches with the phrase: "What we defend, we defend
for everyone."

The struggle over the definition of social services, scientific research,
cultural production and the natural and built environments either as private
commodities or as common goods under some form of collective stewardship has
become the central conflict of our time, disputed on a territory that extends
from intimate subjectivities to the networked spaces of politics.  Given the
manipulability of public opinion in the contemporary media democracies, the
destinies of this struggle will depend crucially on people's ability to
recognize and resist the new techniques of social management. In this regard,
some interesting news has arrived from one of the premier "creative cities,"
Barcelona. Spurred on by the successful instrumentalization of the Olympic
Games in 1992, construction and real-estate interests have again joined hands
with the city government to produce an urban infotainment project: "Forum
2004," also known as the "Universal Forum of Cultures." Held in a vast new se
aside facility built right next to the poorest district in the metropolitan
region (but without any particular benefit for that district), this 3
billion-euro project will act not only as a tourist magnet and an immense
source of revenue for construction companies, but also as a simulacrum of the
contemporary Social Forum movement, conducted under the sponsorship and direct
control of the municipality and its corporate backers. In this cultural
extravaganza, the manufacture of consensus is revealed as the primary
postmodern industry: "The Forum does not claim to maintain an equal distance
between Davos and Puerto Alegre, but to be the meeting place of the two poles,
an exercise of dialogue between opposites," wrote the director of the event.  A
few days before this declaration was published in a national newspaper, a
conference was convened in a public meeting hall, the Ateneu Barcelonés, under
the title "Fňrum 2004: la gran impostura." The keynote speakers claimed that
the forum is "something more than a lie and an imposture" - it is "an
expression of the new political management of life," designed to "promote the
trademark of Barcelona."  The hall was packed to overflowing, and hundreds of
people had been turned away for fear the structure might collapse! As though
the "stop publicity" campaigns were welling up from underground, onto the urban

--Anyone who wants the copious footnotes to this text, just look on the interactivist site:

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