Empty Gestures? Wikis, Blogs and Activist Performance
In the process of deciding to set up an online space (that resulted in this blog), we went through some agonising over what activities on different platforms might constitute as gestures in themselves. Our initial idea was to create an Activist Performance wiki. Inspired by wikipedia and other derived projects, the intention here would be to create an encyclopaedic collection of descriptions of activist performance gesture that would be iteratively and collectively authored by a self-constituting community. However after experimentation with a prototype wiki and much discussion we moved to this wordpress platform.
The utopian appeal of the wiki is obvious. We wanted such a platform in order to include a wider community of readers and writers than can routinely access an academic journal such as Contemporary Theatre Review (CTR). CTR is a Taylor and Francis journal that is categorised as “Open Select”. This means that articles published within the journal are available through “green” open access, so can be made freely available after 18 months behind the publisher’s pay wall. We do theoretically have the option of making all or some of the articles “gold” open access and therefore freely available online on publication. At current rates, this would cost £1788 per article assuming that the author, their funder or institution does not have a pre-payment arrangement or can negotiate a fee waiver. Publication fee waivers are available through the significant initiative Research4Life providing free or cheaper access to research in low income countries. Our project is not funded so we did not feel that paying for this type of immediate access was a viable option. Setting up a wiki alongside the journal issue seemed a good way to enable some of the content to be more freely available before the journal becomes open access.
However, as we discovered, ‘freely’ is a complex term legally and politically. Wikipedia is based on the principle of “copyleft” and the GNU Free Documentation License giving “everyone the effective freedom to copy and redistribute [content], with or without modifying it, either commercially or noncommercially” alongside the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike License. Taylor and Francis Open Access offers Creative Commons Licenses without the “Share-Alike” dimension – a permissive license which do not commit future users of the content to publish under the same license as well as more restrictive options. When choosing a license for this blog we opted to restrict use to non-commercial although we struggle to visualise scenarios in which this might come into play. Similar licensing choices will need to be made about the journal articles after the 18 months is up. However our shift from wiki to blog in the mean time was prompted less by these legal considerations and more by issues to do with authorship, knowledge practices and the online interfaces.
Wikis and copyleft are closely connected with the Free Software/Open Source (FOSS) movements. FOSS projects are ‘object-oriented’ and are constituted around the need to produce a particular programme or product that is free of bugs and does “one thing well” (Jordan 2008: 52-59). There is therefore shared understanding of the point at which the project reaches closure. Within the hacker world it seems to be the case that the object-orientation even overrides any need for identified authorship and the product. Linux for instance is authored by “many” although Linus Torvalds and Richard Stallman are credited with key aspects of its foundation and it is often represented by Tux (see above).
Our contention or niggle with this principle seemed to emerge partly from the fear that many artists and academics (and perhaps some activists) with whom we wanted to engage (and we include ourselves in this) cannot or would not easily subscribe to such anonymised community membership. The social, political and economic reasons for this relate to the extent to which individual identities are closely bound up with forms of dependence on intellectual property and commodification of discourse. In blunt terms, for a UK academic, this might mean concerns around whether an anonymised contribution to an Activist Performance wiki might constitute part of a REF submission or case for (self) promotion. Journalists and artists will have their own parallel concerns.
The difficulty with FOSS principles might also have to do with an emphasis on discursive forms of knowledge (gestures?) and a consequent lack of an identifiable object around which the community might be oriented. Our project is about documenting Activist Performance in its diverse political and aesthetic forms. However documentation alone can seem like something of an empty gesture. An (anonymous) reviewer of our original proposal to CTR showed a concern with the potential uncritical framing of performance activism as “inherently progressive.” Whilst we had not intended to present the proposal in such a way – aware as we were of numerous forms of violent and non-violent activism whose politics we could not remotely support – the reviewer helpfully highlighted an ongoing concern about the relationship between gestural forms and political objects with which we are still struggling to come to terms.
This blog and associated twitter account @ActivistPerform, of course, constitute a form of action research (subject and object) into the same terrain we are trying to research. These gestural forms can seem at the same time liberating and dangerously empty as modes of publication and research methods. Slavoj Žižek has characterised the “empty gesture” as an offer “which is meant to be rejected” . This offer “is the opportunity to choose the impossible, that which inevitably will not happen” (1997: 27). For Žižek, cyberspace makes this kind of offer, the virtual realm being one in which we escape awkward bodily and material contingencies (130). Our move from wiki to blog, in his terms, is to shift from the (modernist) programmers’ utopian vision of a virtual world in which the wiki allows egalitarian – for those who can work the machinery – direct access to knowledge production to the (postmodernist) blogger who disseminates tweets and posts within a realm which is both “transparent” and “unfathomable” (132).
This critique resonates with the third reason we made the switch that had to do with the ‘use-ability’ of the interface. Unable to use the code required to construct a wiki ourselves, we found the technology somehow opaque and restrictive of the flow of ideas. WordPress in contrast offered a “transparent” interface that beginners like us could use with ease. We resigned ourselves, as Žižek points out, to a situation in which we have no idea of what digital machinery sits behind this blog and are forced, to use Sherry Turkle’s joke that Zizek quotes, to “take things at their interface value” (131).
The freedom to disseminate ideas quickly and widely comes at a price which perhaps explains our nagging desire to bring the process back to ground with live events such as the one we are holding next week at Madlab. At this event we are hoping to draw on the expertise of Madlab communities some of whom (with their Arduinos and Raspberry Pis) might identify more closely with the utopian ideals of FOSS and understand the machinery better than us, as well as hear more about activist performance Virtual and Real. We hope to return to this reflection better equipped in future posts (or other media) and invite comments from others.
Tim Jordan. 2008. Hacking. Cambridge: Polity.
Slavoj Zizek. 1997. The Plague of Fantasies. London: Verso.