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Hacktivists repaint the town green
Going well beyond the society of the spectacle, artists are reappropriating urban spaces by enchanting cities, alerting us to irresponsible behavior and publicly exposing the contradictions of an environment damaged by humans. Above ground, their works contrast with gray reality. Poetic and political, environmental hacktivism is an international phenomenon. Out in the streets, they’re repainting the town green.
A little blue globe immersed in the darkness of the universe. This gripping image, titled “Earthrise”, was taken during NASA’s Apollo 8 mission in 1968. For the first time, humanity saw the whole Earth, and thus became collectively aware of its fragility. This photograph catalyzed the emergence of the environmental movement. More than 40 years later, as the planet counts its 7 billionth citizen and more than half of the world’s population is concentrated in cities, producing images that can impact the public and change behaviors is ever more a challenge. Ecological issues are at the heart of numerous interventions in public space, where urban art, activism and innovation converge. Emblematic of such genre-mixing, the Yes Men and their resounding online hoaxes revisit the antics of Greenpeace for the Internet age. The NGO that reinvented the militantism of the 1970s with its “mind bombs” (shock images meant to replace an old cliché with
a new vision, such as the inequal fight between a dinghy and a whaler), has inspired myriad irreverent actions. Take, for example, the World Naked Bike Ride, a human-powered protest on wheels against our dependence on oil. In Paris, the “Dégonflés” nailed down 4x4 vehicles, imitated by the “Raplaplas” in Lyon, the “Mous de la roue” in Lille and the “Flagadas” in Brussels. Some are ready to go even further to rescue the planet, such as Fuck for Forest, a young Norwegian couple who copulates on the Web in exchange for donations to save the rainforest.
The Yes Men impostors
Far from being just for fun, environmental protest has taken an artistic turn with the dadaist performances of the Yes Men, precursors of the eco-hacktivist wave. Using false websites, these aces of media imposture have impersonated representatives of McDonald’s, the World Trade Organization and even Exxon Mobile, proceeding by what they call “identity correction”. During a conference dedicated to “black gold” professionals held in Calgary in 2007, they assured industry leaders that they could prosper by transforming the human flesh of billions of victims of natural disasters... into petroleum. Then they invited the attendants to light commemorative candles sculpted from this promising material: “vivoleum”! Wearing protective “Survival Balls”, supposed to allow rich people to survive a climate catastrophe, they unfurled across the United States, the cradle of car culture, to raise awareness among citizens still addicted to gasoline. Between militant artists and creative activists, operating both online and in the street, the Yes Men are emblematic of the international disobedience that emerged in the mid-1990s, in the era of globalization and the announced ecological apocalypse. They embody the resistance to savage financial capitalism and its consequences on nature, but also on employment, human relations and on life itself. So it was only logical to find them in the frontlines in 2004, commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal catastrophe by announcing live on BBC World a compensation for its 15,000 victims... just as today they stand behind the indignant “99%” occupying Wall Street.
From spectacular to imperceptible
The first challenge of eco-urban hacktivists is to mobilize the public around themes as unappetizing as pollution, waste and recycling without succumbing to simplistic moralizing. It’s a tour de force achieved by HeHe, whose Green Cloud follows the fluctuating shape of steam from a coal plant in Helsinki or an incinerator in Ivry near Paris (see page 20).
Here, the esthetics are open to interpretation, as is the street painted in blue by the artist Henk Hofstra in Drachten, Netherlands, in April 2007. The 8-meter-wide, 1-kilometer-long strip of paint covering the asphalt could be seen, as well as read, from Google Earth: “Water is leven” (Water is life). On the street, the most spectacular action rubs elbows with the most imperceptible gesture, the most low-tech contraption with the most sophisticated installation. A few graffiti artists have put down their spray cans to go green, such as the Brazilian Alexandre Orion, who transformed a tunnel into a boneyard. The gallery of skulls was not painted but in a way hollowed out by scraping the layer of soot deposited from vehicle exhaust, using the “reverse graffiti” or “clean graffiti” technique (which has since been claimed by eco-friendly ad campaigns). These “catacombs to show the people of São Paulo the tragedy of pollution that is affecting the city” were a grisly reminder of what we try to forget –or what we don’t see...
Like the “electrosmog” that we live in every day. Students from the school of architecture and design in Oslo set out to reveal the invisible landscape of Wi-Fi networks by carrying a giant stick equipped with LEDs and a Wi-Fi antenna measuring the signal’s intensity and photographing it with long exposures (Light Painting WiFi). Already in 2004, the artist Usman Haque had visualized this hertzian space with Sky Ear, a cloud made of helium balloons, sensors and LEDs that changed color according to the electromagnetic atmosphere created by storms, cell phones, ambulance and police radios, Tv shows...
The artist Gordan Savicic took the experience even further, if only for the sake of feeling our intangible digital architecture “in the flesh”. He walks through electromagnetic wave-saturated cities wearing a techno-enhanced corset that tightens when it detects a closed encrypted wireless network. It’s this refused access that constricts –what Savicic calls the “pain of information society”. As electronic neo-bondage, Constraint City: The pain of everyday life shows us the concept of the city as suffered.
Eco-urban interventions also come in the form of artists and modest citizens spontaneously “greenifying” the city by recycling its waste and infiltrating nature into the asphalt, opting for interference rather than explosion. If you listen, you may be surprised to hear... crickets (the solar- activated, but not so eco, audio graffiti of Sound Tossing, see page 55). You might also see common plastic bags tied to sidewalk vents suddenly transforming into polar bears (by Joshua Allen Harris), dusty fur coats returning to their original forms of foxes, stags and bears (Neozoon’s fur graffiti), or rabbits and deer made of moss, a fragile bestiary growing on the city walls like wild anomalies inviting urban dwellers to pet them, care for them and renew their bond with nature. Hungarian artist Edina Tokodi, author of these eco-tags: “If everyone had a garden of their own to cultivate, we would have a much more balanced relation to our territories”.
As gardens in the city are rare, a whole armada of amateurs is now digging and ploughing abandoned spaces, wastelands, curbs and cracks in the pavement capable of hosting one or two tulip bulbs. All illegally, of course. Since 2004, “guerilla gardening” has been scattering and sowing within cities around the world. Launched in England by Richard Reynolds, the movement has been propagating through forums and blogs. “The goal is to make the cityscape more fun, but it is also a form of expression and reappropriation of public space confiscated by the commercial areas.”
This friendly flower-power is also claimed by other terra-rists such as Coloco, a group of Parisian landscape artists who catapult their “green bombs” of seeds into urban areas in an effort to reintroduce biodiversity. Protesting the paucity of green spaces in Madrid, Luz Interruptus created their own miniature gardens by implanting 15 tiny ecosystems in glass spheres, lit like glowing advertisements. Those without green thumbs can still climb the trees on International Climbing Day, which falls on the last Sunday in March since 2003. It’s an innocent and subversive gesture that allows us to reconnect with the natural environment by reindulging in this childhood pleasure and breaking with the social conditioning that prevents us from climbing trees all the other days of the year.
This friendly flower-power is also claimed by other terra-rists such as Coloco, a group of Parisian landscape artists who catapult their “green bombs”of seeds into urban areas in an effort to reintroduce biodiversity. Protesting the paucity of green spaces in Madrid, Luz Interruptus created their own miniature gardens by implanting 15 tiny ecosystems in glass spheres, lit like glowing advertisements. Those without green thumbs can still climb the trees on International Climbing Day, which falls on the last Sunday in March since 2003. It’s an innocent and subversive gesture that allows us to reconnect with the natural environment by reindulging in this childhood pleasure and breaking with the social conditioning that prevents us from climbing trees all the other days of the year.
Occupy the streets
This reconquest of urban space allotted to the automobile is also expressed in PARK(ing) DAYS, launched in 2005 by the American activist John Bela. The idea is to occupy a parking space by feeding the meter a few coins and setting up, if only for an hour or two, a little green corner, bar or play area, in order to create mini leisure spaces in the dense and overworked city. But why settle for a few square meters when you can transform the entire city into a playground? The French Service Sauvage d’Aménagement Urbain et Rural (Wild Service of Urban and Rural Planning) hacks urban installations to improvise a sidewalk-table kit here or a ticket-dispenser- cum-bottle-opener there.
The common characteristic of all these actions is that they are designed as tools, which the general public can reappropriate, whether it’s an idea, a technology or a method (Yes Lab). More than an audience, the artists are searching for users to take their acts further. Most of the projects are open source, the manual is published on the Web to involve the viewers, and the role of the artist has become more complex, collaborative and social. Whether it’s using pigeons equipped with sensors to record air quality (Beatriz Da Costa’s Pigeon Blog), growing vegetables in your apartment (Re-farm, see page 19) or reducing energy consumption (Green Cloud), dependent city-dwellers are incited to be more autonomous –to produce their own energy with organic waste (Supergas, by
the Danish group Superflex) or with algae-sourced hydrogen (DIY Bioreactor, by the Californian Futurefarmers), to identify edible urban plants (Irational’s Food for Free), to manufacture their own objects as needed in fablabs, or even to establish alternative communication systems in case the Internet goes down by creating peer-to-peer networks in physical space by way of USB sticks cemented in the walls, where anyone can upload and download files (Aram Bartholl’s Dead Drops).
If the Whole Earth Catalog, 1968 bible of the techno-hippies, aimed to make a wide variety
of tools accessible to back-to-the-land communities (see page 105), today’s artists are supplying weapons for survival in the urban environment. The ultimate proof can be found in the emerging theme of digital art festivals: survival kit.
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