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At the digital barricades

18.06.2015 by En Liang Khong

Photos by Julio Albarrán (cc)

Report about table 4 of the #ReclaimtheCommons Hackcamp: WebDoc Prototype.

A report from the 17 ZEMOS98 Festival #ReclaimtheCommons Hackcamp, Seville 2015.

Over the summer of 2013, the UK Home Office began the groundwork for an enforcement crusade, Operation Vaken, 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 also tweeted photos of migrants being arrested, adorned with the #immigrantoffenders hashtag. The campaign backfired spectacularly, ricocheting across the social network, with the emergence of a #RacistVan hashtag, alongside spliced images of the vans that drew attention to more pressing issues instead, like tax evasion.

Original campaign developed by the UK Office. Original source

Hacked van with messages produced by communities. To see more examples click here (original source)

Operation Vaken may have spawned a popular backlash. But the series of images and tweets that composed its online campaign grew out of a very real confluence of violent, racist signifiers that now fill the British media’s imaginary. The constant waterfall of slogans, images and sound bites, weaving a contrapuntal pattern across our media landscape, end up reducing people to a convenient set of stereotypes, removing us from lived experience, and flattening the possibilities of social struggle. The need for a platform from which to launch an independent, dissident audiovisual conversation is all too urgent, one capable of lancing the persistent stream of images that corrupt our networks. One way to go about this is through the deliberate and creative misuse of technology – a spirit which went to the heart of this year’s ZEMOS98 #ReclaimtheCommons festival, held in Seville.

Over three days in April, ZEMOS98 set the stage for a Hackcamp, drawing on a kind of hacktivist subculture as a mode for a working group, populated with activists and journalists from across the left. I joined a pan-european network of people working in the field of «the commons», tasked with meeting the challenge of political advocacy through radical art and new media. And in doing so, we hurtled towards a renewed demand for the right to the city – the resistance of what the sociologist Sharon Zukin calls «pacification by cappuccino».

ZEMOS98 is 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.

I was embedded within a set of deeply talented filmmakers and video editors – Andreu Meixide, Lucia Andujar, Nuria Campabadal, Lucas Tello, and Anna Giralt (fresh from documenting radical political change in Greece) – as well as Spanish journalists Natxo Medina, Belen Picazo and Simon Vialas, and coders Pablo Martin and Berto Yanez – all tasked with using the Doc Next video archive to imagine new narratives for social agents engaged in laying claim to the commons, providing an audiovisual interface for both educators and activists, while at the same time telling all-important stories from below.

We began to think through various ways of mapping the videos through time and space, drawing on the work of similar audiovisual projects – the work of the Crisis-Scape collective in Athens, for instance – to look at how cartography and timelines could be deployed 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.

Screenshot of «City Symphony» webdoc

With this focus on how cities are always political creations, we drew up two projects that play with the prospect of a progressive urban politics. The first was a City Symphony in which we extracted sounds from the Doc Next videos, allowing the city to become an instrument itself. Imagining the city as a pure symphony, removing from it the cascades of natural and artificial light, allowed for a particularly spectral, aural affect – the user holding the power to remove the rush of traffic that announces the city as a pure symbol of dynamism and modernity, to reveal a natural soundscape beneath.

The other project visualised the city as an activist interface for Doc Next videos that cover urban issues, from the housing crisis through to dreaming different ways of living. Here 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. Here, neighbourhood activists have a space to upload their documentation of the use and abuse of power in their cities, and thereby reclaim their right to the city.

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 so 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. Resisting the enclosure of the commons must always involve pushing against the boundaries of the stories we tell ourselves.

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