Category Archives: Interviews

Interview with Huong Ngo

The following conversation took place between Huong Ngo (bio below) and Melanie Crean during June and July, 2010.

Melanie:  So to begin with, what changes do you think might need to take place to change the political environment of our nations school systems?

Huong Ngo: This is a big question. First, I think that the changes should happen on all levels, not just in the universities. It is a mistake to think that we can create real change if we neglect the time in our lives when we are most enculturated, which is when we are young. Second, I think that we need to abandon our notions of what we teach as being neutral. Everything that we do as educators is political–the materials we choose to show our students, assignments that we give, what we value in their work, how we interact with them in class, everything. Once we do that, we can see so-called “neutral” subjects in a new light. History is not just history, but is a narrative that favors the male body, Western European culture, capitalism, and normative sexuality. We will then see the language in which information is presented as also political. Take the obvious example of Texas’s new textbooks, which will be “corrected” to rename the slave trade to “Atlantic triangular trade,” claiming that the civil rights movement created “unrealistic expectations of equal outcomes” among black and white Americans, and many more linguistic slights of hand that erase histories that were already pretty hidden. Look at Arizona as another example of violence in the name of neutrality, where soon you won’t be able to teach in schools if you have an accent. Differences are erased, alternate histories are silenced, and teachers and students are coaxed into believing that what they are learning is neutral. Why aren’t students getting up and leaving their classrooms? Because teachers aren’t getting up and leaving to support their fellow teachers. As students, we need models for how to become politically active by seeing our teachers struggling with other teachers, attending community board meetings, being leaders, not just by being told to vote.I remember one history class in which I had an African-American teacher who was teaching us about the native tribes in North Carolina. Actually, we were just reading our books about the tribes and then answering some factual questions from the back of the book. Now when I read about them, the stories are horrific, but at the time, I had no way to connect to them. Here we were: me, a Vietnamese American, and African-American teacher, and the ghosts of Iroguoians and Algonquins sitting in this room with no conversation about our collective colonial pasts. Such a wasted teaching moment! I don’t blame my teacher (though I would have preferred a more active role model), but I do believe that educators must understand where they fit in the world socially and politically. This sometimes takes some research, discussion, soul-searching, and self-actualizing. It doesn’t mean that the entire class must be based around that, but an understanding of it will pervade your teaching, regardless of the subject taught. As teachers, we are recreating larger structures of the world in our classrooms. If unjust structures of the world are never challenged in our own minds, then they will merely be reproduced in those of our students.

MC: Some of the self actualizing you mention reminds me of the analytical thinking we had discussed  earlier in terms of John Dewey’s model of education.  Because Dewey was one of the founders of the New School for Social Research where we both teach, and where this project originates, I feel a very special relationship to it.  Can you describe Dewey’s model for education and how he saw art situated in that model?  Has that model influenced your teaching in any way?

HN: Dewey envisioned art at the center of education as a way to test out and reflect on our observations of the world. It rounded out his concept of a meaningful intellectual experience, the foundation of his ideas of education. He described art as a “device in experimentation, carried on for the sake of education.” Thus, art is merely a part of an experimental process with a goal of learning. Art is the process, not the end. This is fundamental shift from how we often define art in our society.  I am interested in how Dewey’s ideas are connected with Antonio Gramsci, Paulo Freire, and bell hooks through their respective philosophies of praxis. By placing art at the center, we give permission for education to be an aesthetic practice–something ongoing, messy, and forever incomplete. Since my work as an educator is also a learning practice, it is a perfect excuse for me to constantly experiment with different ways of leading discussions, configuring the architecture, encouraging collaboration and risk-taking, and challenging inherent powers structures within the classroom.

MC: It seems that Dewey was a pragmatist who saw art as a means to an end, a way to engage in a transformative experience that stimulates analysis & reflection.  The end it seemed; was democracy.  I find that triangulation quite telling: education, art and democracy.  You mention experimenting with variables that alter power structures in the class room.  How do you feel that different forms of education are related to democracy and the production of citizenry?

HN: It’s a bit of a paradox, because as citizens of the US, we are told to value our democracy, yet in most schools situations, we have little choice about what we do. Do you remember (in K-12) ever being given a choice about what you read in class, who your teacher would be, what your assignments were? I never remember a discussion about an important decision that the class would make as a whole, yet I was expected to be able to work with others, use diplomacy over force, favor reason over emotion. In the average school classroom, we can witness the teacher regulating what students do with their bodies, their speech, and their minds, yet we question why the citizens of our society so blindly follow figures of authority. This is not to say that students should be given free reign and make every decision in class, but that, with the guidance of the teacher, they should call out and question the status quo, systems of power, and even the teacher’s authority. Introducing critical engagement into the classroom thusly is risky for the teacher, but that is as it should be. As a society, we perceive teaching as a safe alternative to practicing the discipline which one teaches. This is an unhealthy perception that will in the end corrupt the discipline itself, its teachers, and thus its future leaders. All of the educators that I deeply respect have risked themselves and their positions of power in some way in order that we as students can become more active participants in our learning and thus in society.

MC: I would like to take this one step further then, to think about the connection between the cultivation of risk and democratic choice in the classroom, and the pursuit of freedom.  Not necessarily the recent American flavored brand of freedom that gets used in military slogans, but more along the lines of bell hooks’s concept of education as the practice of freedom.  Can you elaborate more on this concept?

HN: The concept of education as the practice of freedom, a quote from Paulo Freire whose philosophy has greatly influenced Hooks, is dichotomous to the “banking” system, which Freire sees as education as the practice of domination. In the “banking” system, the teacher deposits information to a docile student much like, of course, a bank. Education as the practice of freedom is based on the student being an essential part of a praxis that involves questions, dialogue, action, and reflection. It is a creative process that implicates the student in naming the world and in so doing, understanding it.Where the experiences of Freire and Hooks tend to differ is that Freire worked with groups of illiterate laborers in Latin America who are primarily of the same socio-economic bracket. They collectively understand themselves as the oppressed facing an outside oppressor (save for the teacher who must understand his potential for being an oppressor). Hooks bases much of her work on university classes which are comprised of unpredictable mixes of female and male students from different ethnicities and economic brackets. Oppressor and oppressed may exist in the classroom together. Thus, class dynamics that reproduce larger power structures must be acknowledged in order for a sense of equality to be defined and internalized.

MC: If you can be empowered by an educational setting, can you leverage this practice of freedom to more clearly articulate thought and speech? How do different models of education, then, relate to the politicization of speech?

HN: Critical, dialogic education has the enormous power to help us articulate ourselves and aid us in deconstructing speech delivered daily from different sources with different motives. This speaks to Freire’s idea of reading the world by reading the word. A speech, a sentence, a word are all windows in the consciousness of the speaker and her or his perception of the world. Even understanding that all speech is politicized is an important first step.

Huong Ngo was born in Hong Kong, grew up in North Carolina, and now lives in Brooklyn, NY. She has exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, the Aldrich Museum, Smack Mellon, the Soap Factory, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the National Gallery in Prague, the Neuberger Museum, and Conflux Festival and has received awards and residencies from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs. She received her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and currently teaches at Parsons the New School for Design and Pratt Institute. Ngo’s deepest desire is for radical aesthetics to invade the classroom, and education to resume its subversive role in the practice of freedom.Melanie Crean: By way of introduction, the Shape of Change project investigates the perception, structure and representation of political change in a world that has seemingly negated the term of late.  In the 2008 US presidential election the term ‘change’ meant whatever a particular political party wanted it to mean;  now two years later it appears to mean the opposite of whatever it had previously referred to.  The project also looks at the process of speech as a political act to testify to people’s beliefs, and how that speech functions in different contexts, whether it be online, in person, public, private, anonymous, in conversation with others etc.  The nature of information itself is investigated, transferred as an inevitable agent of power, emotion, corporate branding, nationalism, idealism, etc.To this end, I wanted to write to you about some of the work you are doing with Secret School and education, that questions how we transfer knowledge.  I know that sometimes there are not designated teachers in these sessions, and that they might take place in spaces that don’t promote students facing a ‘higher authority,’  You had mentioned that some of these alternative methods are being used in current school systems today, but that they are under utilized.

Interview with Ben Shepard

Ben Shepard

This conversation took place over video Skype with Lauren Larken, Provocateur from Shape of Change, and Benjamin Shepard, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Human Services at City Tech/City University of New York. He is the author/editor of five books, including the second part of this study, Play, Creativity, and the New Community Organizing (also under contract with Routledge) and Community Projects as Social Activism: From Direct Action to Direct Services (Sage).

LL:  How do you define change over time? How do you see it manifest in your personal life and work?

Ben: Organizing change isn’t a soccer game. It doesn’t end after two hours with a 2/1 score or a 1/0 score.  From a positivist point of view, even in the corporate world, you can look at quarterly reports and see- we are ahead, we are winning, change is happening!

Howard Zinn, who was with SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) will talk about how historians in Albany, GA site Montgomery as a big win with de-segregation of buses.

There was no clear identification of a score or a winning. Except that when the campaign was over the people that lived there felt like the city was never going to be the same again.

Winning takes place in lots of cultural ways in very subtle ways life. On a one on one basis. doesn’t have to be just the way I thought it was, itis definitely not a soccer game.

When I moved to New York Giuliani wanted to shut down all the sex clubs as the Triple X zoning law was going into place. It felt freeing to join the fightagainst prohibitive progressive politics.  The basic argument is, “get the Government out of my underpants,” [and that] this is a moral panic, this is a sex panic. I remember how freeing it felt in that moment to say, Yah this is completely right, “The People Perverted will not be Converted!” It felt liberating from the East Coast Social Moore kind of stuffiness. I didn’t have to worry about what the people in the Country Club or in Princeton would think.  I was gonna live my own life. Being able to come out on my own terms and be okay about it and let the chips fall where they are going to fall.

LL: What would constitute true political change in our country?

Ben: It’s real personal. When people find space for their own self determination and they can define that on their own terms.

Change starts with real personal real micro tribes building their own spaces and practices. The Radical Faeries have been building their own rituals of freedom and enjoyment and convivial social relations for many years and if you look at the second biggest parade in California is the Folsom Leather Parade where a bunch of people get together all weekend long saying, “we are gonna engage in our own practice of self and it is going to be meaningful and we will set our own terms for democracy and self determination on our own level.”

Sarah Schulman said, “You have to have a plan for what you want to have happen, a strategy to get that done that you are willing to do”  If you can’t get all those three things done you may not have change.

Being flexible about Strategies and Tactics. You can fettishize one tactic over and over and over and not get anything done.  Some of this is a stage. What is the audience for the performance.  Who do we want to perform for?

What are stages of a campaign? There is something really useful for getting what you want.  What is your ask?  Where is your research-where is your policy in the food-chain? Who/What/When/and How? Who is affected by this problem? Who is affected by this issue. First is the Ask, Then the Strategy, then the Research, then the  communication and media.  How are we going to mobilize people around communicating about this ask.

We are thinking about not just a press conference or a policy briefing but also thinking about creative policy. Perhaps some direction action or theatre.  But also prefiguring that solution. Creating an embodied solutions. If you want  to get out more clean syringes because you know that HIV is being spread through intravenous drug use then pass out those syringes; if you want more green space, build more community gardens.  It is not just saying what you are against but building what you are for with in your direct action.

Research around the legal strategies in terms of a short and long term solution.  If you want to give out clean syringes you need to figure out whether it is legal or not legal. If it is illegal have cameras with you if you are willing to take the bust, what is the extent of the bust you will be taking. Know your rights.

Also know if it is an enforcement strategy for a campaign, such as National Welfare Rights Organization. Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven [Cloward/Piven Strategy] knew there were some welfare laws on the books that weren’t being used so they said, lets enforce these laws that are on the books.

In a group I am working with on the Bike Lanes in New York we have spent five years asking the city to enforce it’s own traffic laws that cars aren’t allowed to park in bike lanes. It doesn’t say that this is a parking lot or a taxi stand. Bikes ride in bike lanes. They don’t paint cars on the lanes, they paint bikes in the lanes. They are bike lanes, they are for bikes.

Viable feasible strategies on the ground to show what a more sustainable non polluting city looks like and bike lanes are a really simple ways of creating a healthier city in the here and now.  Using clowning and positivity we get cars to move out of the bike lane.

Research, Media, Direct Action Mobilizing and Play.  For creative change we have to have some level of enjoyment along the road while we are doing the heavy lifting. If there isn’t a play element we are going to really miss a big piece. A lot of people leave the culture piece until the very end

The people I know that are in organizing for the long term they play allot. If people don’t get their needs met when they go to a demo or a meeting it’s like walking away from dinner with out a meal.

If there is not celebrating along the road people will loose interest. In 1977 the Young Lords a group in New York stopped organizing because of all COINTELPRO [ (an acronym for Counter Intelligence Program) was a series of covert, and often illegal, projects conducted by the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) aimed at investigating and disrupting dissident political organizations within the United States.]  when Richie Perez and Ricky Meléndez hung the Puerto Rican flag from the Statue of Liberty and of course they all got arrested.  Tito Puente was Ricki Malendez’ uncle and played benefit parties for their legal funds.  They had a pretty good time when Puente was playing those shows. Benefits are a way to celebrate life honor their relationships. People who stay in organizing for a long time make this a part of their daily life as much as possible.

LL:  What is Utopia?

Ben: It is right here and right now. I am trying to build it today. Utopia seems like Socialist Propaganda. It is not some day to be seized.  I am tyring to enjoy my day every single day. A creative sense of the solution in the here and now.

I get very scared about the suburbanization of New York City. I also get excited about fabulous things people are doing in their cities all over the world.  Last year I went to a community event called Earth Celebration lead by Felicia [Young]…..and they had a right of Spring Celebration where people dress as vegetables and flowers and I was walking over with my daughter and I remember seeing a few of my students and friends playing double dutch right by a fountain on the West Side Highway.  The little moments that take shape in front of our eyes. Nothing planned nothing big. Those little moments are what I live for.  Last summer I came back from traveling in Sweden and Berlin. There is a park right where the wall used to be and it has become a big public space where the wall used to be. There are these big surrealist sculpture for kids to climb on, there was live music and graffiti art murals where the wall used to be and I thought this is a really an indigenous community space that transformed a once repressive space.

There was an 80’s bike dance ride and we were dancing in Tompkins Square Park.  Any one who says the streets of New York are dead hasn’t spent a summer night in New York City, the city is pulsing with life.  There were 5 guys on low rider bikes and we were playing punk music and we were playing, “It’s Raining Men” and “Push It” and at the West Side Highway people were gesturing what “Push It” meant to them.  Then a police officer came and told us that we couldn’t have the sound system but he wasn’t trying ruin the party. Then there is the Wilhelm Reich stuff where the people don’t want anyone to enjoy themselves because they aren’t enjoying themselves.

I’ve taken to calling John Boehner the Republican, John “Boner” and these guys who are kind of misanthropes and they feel comfortable get rid of Habeas corpus, denying people health care, [the sentiment]  “I’d like income distribution  to move towards one percent owning 90 percent of the wealth in this country, one of five new yorkers living in poverty, I am really comfortable with that separation.”

The people who feel connected. The people who sing and perform and work in community gardens with their neighbors go to gospel choirs with their friends. They feel connected with other people so they want them to have health care, they want them to have embodied gestures with each other and a healthy community.

People that don’t  have that enjoyment in their lives try to live larger than others.

LL: The people who are oppressed become oppressors.

Ben: Immigration reform will be next, rhetoric, [Emma] Lazarus, “Give me your poor and your hungry,” would be called a Pinko Commie. I wish there was a social change story that a lot of people could participate in. I was really happy seeing health care move towards a re-distributive program, it is a building block, a process.

LL: How do you define Freedom? Where do you feel the most Free?

Ben: I define freedom in the body. When your body can move in directions that it wants to move in. Freedom of thought. Freedom from Shame.  There are all sorts of horrible antiquated consequences for People who live shame based lives.

Look at what is happening with the Catholic Church and the cover ups of the abuse of the kids.  In a German paper last week it said, when you create a system of celibacy that prohibits people from enjoying their bodies and engaging with people the way we feel that we need to do you are going to have a context  of inhibition and repression. Repression finds expression. Maybe not conscious expression. I think there was a priest in Milwaukee that had non-consensual sex with 200 deaf boys so he wouldn’t be caught.  I think  that [Elena] Juerdo was right with the authoritarian personality, I think Wilhelm Reich was right in the Mass Psychology of Fascism.  When sex is repressed and we are not allowed to feel connected with other people, on a personal, chemical, physical level, it’s easier to annihilate or torture them. Walt Whitman, ” I am you, you are me.”  The Martin Buber, I Thou:  If we don’t have respectful, sane consent mutual connection the consequences are horrible.

I think War is instigated when we aren’t connected with our self we want to define our sense of self by who is crazy, and who is not me versus–when you are connected with other people you don’t need to define yourself by what you are not.   I am interested in the politics of freedom based in affirmative gestures of care and community, pre-figurative gestures creating a better world, one that we want to live in with public space, green space, bike lanes and community gardens. Affirmative connection with other folks. Freedom to connect or not connect with other people as we wish.

LL: Where do you feel the most free?

Ben: Walking down the street, in my apartment, riding my bike, hiking. To me it’s that sense that I can navigate multiple parts of myself in one day, in one city.  Walt Whitman said “Do I contradict myself? Yes I contradict myself. I’m bountiful.”

The freedom to walk into the class room in a suit, work well with my students and then put on a clown outfit and ride on my bike, then come and see my family and enjoy those multiple identifies as a part of my life. To feel free and open being comfortable talking about being part of all those communities in one week or one day. Self determination leads me to feel the most free in multiple ways. cheap Zetia online pharmacy Valtrex

Interview with Krzysztof Wodiczko

Melanie Crean: I know from your website that you refer to your work as “Interrogative Design” and I wondered if you could elaborate a little bit on what that means.

Krzysztof Wodiczko: I can try. This Interrogative Design has to do with responding to the needs that should not exist in a civilized world. Unfortunately they do exist. It is a scandalous situation that they exist. Therefore the design of response to such needs should also make a scandal of their existence. These designs have multiple objectives.

One objective is to respond to the needs that should not exist as an emergency matter so that it will help some people to ameliorate the conditions of life and help them to survive.

The second objective is to articulate the situation and conditions them selves to people who do not have such needs. By disseminating an understanding knowledge and emotional contact with the needs that should not exist, such projects and design hopefully will contribute to an increase of consciousness about such unacceptable situations and conditions. Then with the help of media and all of those who exaggerate and further amplify the visibility of the scandal behind such project, actions will occur that will make such design obsolete.

This is the utopia of this project. It is a kind of horizon to which some project is moving. So it’s temporary characters are a very important part of such utopia. It must be temporary. We might say that it is the wrong thing to do to respond to needs that do not exist because it might legitimize something. I feel it is important to really articulate needs with design in order to really make these unacceptable circumstances a legitimate problem. So it’s not legitimization of the crisis but through presentation of the crisis as legitimate problem, an attempt to solve that problem.

The Interrogative Method will attract while scandalizing. In order to scandalize it cannot be boring. Therefore I would call this kind of design Scandalizing Functionalism. Finding a form that best articulates the function in order to expose that it is a scandal must come into account.

There are critics of the design I propose, but if we follow their logic, then they would also have to oppose bandages. In emergency hospital situations bandages are often used. According to the reasoning behind the logic of the moralizing approach referred to by these critics; bandages should not exist because there should not be wounds. However since there are wounds, we should bandage them to heal them. My proposal is to add to the bandage another function not only as an emergency measure trying to heal but also the capacity equipped with the ability to transmit, articulate and speak under what conditions that the wound won’t happen. Therefore the community design aspects are very important.

MC: That’s an interesting circularity that the designs are created to make themselves obsolete if the discussion happens and people start to solve problems. Then the design, if its successful, is no longer needed.

I have a question about some of the instruments: I have seen some of your projects referred to as “Prosthetics for Communication.” I don’t know if that’s a fair term. There are pieces like Aegis, the Equipment for a City of Strangers. Can you talk about the motivation behind some of these designs, just to further your last answer. Are they meant to promote discussion, or the idea of healing in the user, or a change in the people who are interacting with the user?

KW: The prosthetics contain a part of such an Interrogative Design project: creating equipment for people who are silent, marginalized groups who have lost faith that their voice will make any difference, who need to develop or redevelop those capacities because of the qualities and conditions under which they live.

If we are able to transmit the messages and help the capacity to communicate, we would really be extremely inspired by assisting those who we could learn allot from about the very systems that need to be changed for all of our lives. The objective of equipment that I design for strangers, immigrants, homeless, war veterans, and women who survive abuse and neglect and for children (like high school students in Japan) whose voice is never been heard and who never get a say in questioning the way society operates and questioning their own fortunate future in such a society.

M: I wanted to move on to the different vehicles which help people speak. You’ve previously done many projections on buildings which seem to give a voice to what architecture might testify to if it was allowed to speak. Can you talk a bit about how you have used architecture to convey issues of power and perform speech acts in these works?

K: In early projects in which I animated the facades of monuments in public places with iconic projections I was trying to teach those buildings about the events that were surrounding them in the present time, and make some link between their memory or revealing some contradictions between what they were intended to say and what they were hoping for ideally, and the situation that contradicted their hopes today.

In them there is not so much a critique of architecture or monument that counts, but the possibility of appropriating governmental structures with prestige as historical witnesses to the events by those who are themselves silent monuments of their own. Here people, who are the same people who may be operating the instruments and prosthetic devices I designed, may also use the monuments and facades as equipment.

When people talk about public they talk about spectators or a crowd who comes, whether invited or passersby, who are forming this audience. I like to stress the importance of something that I call “inner public.” They are in touch with the people who choose to take part of the project, and are becoming in the process co-artists in the project. It is they who become authors of what they say, they are the ones who are actors, and they are the ones who are the first public. In a sense they start listening to themselves, and they recognize themselves as if they were people other than whom they really are. In this process of healthy alienation as Brecht would like, it actually turns them into people as actors and characters and scriptwriters and they share allot with their families and friends and colleagues. They have to consult them for example if it makes sense to do this. They have to calculate the risk very often, of doing it very often, whether it is safe or not.

For instance, one person who put her husband in prison was expecting him to come out of the prison soon, and she was afraid that he was going to kill her. So the question is: was it safer to become visible through media or stay hiding. She decided that it was safer and important to be in the public in the open. She consulted many people in making the decision. Then there is the editing crew, projection crew, curators, people who film and organizers of festivals where specific projects are produced. There are of course media people and social workers (without whom this project would never happen), as they are the people between the project and those that bring their lives to the project. They bring trust and light to the project. Then there are a number of people who are generated by the project from within. Lets say 8 or 10 people, and then this number multiplies to maybe 200 people. These 200 people are part of the project and people will come to the projection because of them. It creates a kind of buffer zone between this core public and the outer public. There is a kind of intermediate public, who Brecht would say is, “not without interest.” So this is what I have to say, but I have to pose this question and ask this question. When people say, “What was the response of the public?” it means that they have no idea what is really happening here in the social plane and the discourse in that space to which the project responds and which the project generates.

Only 1% of war veterans speak in public. Almost none of the members of their families and people closest to them do. A small number will decide to take advantage of the project that I propose. That small number actually is a big number in comparison to total silence. The sickness of the war occurs between those who know what war is and those who don’t. The number of those who know what war is, is enormous because of secondary trauma. Each soldier coming back from war (more or less traumatized) will re-traumatize perhaps 7- 9 more people. Those people who are recalled several times back re-traumatize and traumatize more. So probably the entire population is traumatized by this war If you consider all of the families who have social ties to the troops, soldiers, those in the National Guard and Reserves. Many of the veterans will break their social and familial ties and become homeless. Working with war veterans is a serious matter. We will be suffering this war for generations as much as we suffered from the Vietnam War. Probably more so because of the wounds. There are more people coming back alive from war than ever before because of military technology, medical technology and armament.

Therefore there is enormous sickness mentally and psychologically of people who will be making lots of damage to their own lives and the lives of others. Taking this into account the responsibility to produce any project with war veterans becomes a responsibility to an entire society. So from this point of view, it’s a different game because of the scale of the problem. Now in terms of the method of work, this created need to make much more of a direct kind of technology. So I have been transforming war vehicles from those meant to eject projectiles into those which emit projections. Replacing the projectile battle station in those vehicles. This in itself says, life after the war is a continuation of war with other means. This continued war breaks the wall between those who know what war is and those who don’t. This wall is actually physically the equivalent of blank walls and blank facades of monuments. Blasting the truth of their experience against those walls, using the vehicle which is their war vehicle adapted to the new warfare is part of the project. The relationship between the vehicle as a very aggressive type of prosthetic device and what is being projected: this time words and explosions. It actually looks and sounds as if the as if the vehicle is actually really firing the truth and shelling the cities with the truth which is an important interruption and wake up call. A painful process of piercing the hole between those who know what war is and those who don’t.

Keeping in mind that the wars from which they are coming from are taking place in cities. Public space is usually the most fearful place for war veterans. They are afraid to show up in crowds in public places and roofs of buildings because that is usually where they were attacked. That’s where the snipers were. They are the ones who have to attack and defend themselves against the nightmares and post traumatic emotions.

These elements are born of the specific needs in response to the specific situation of war veterans. This kind of advanced armament brings up the relation to the conditions from which they are coming which, are really foreign to us. Like the homeless and the immigrants they are coming from a totally different environment that is hard to imagine for the civilians in our cities. So when they continue the warfare in front of us with the use of the equipment, the reference to their own experience comes across more clearly and for them it is much easier to speak. The project makes use of the same kind of weaponry which they used in Iraq and Afghanistan.

MC: The last question is about peace. I was reading in an interview with you about the Hiroshima Art Prize, where you described quite eloquently, how working towards peace involves sharing the unspeakable, defending others rights to speak and to engage in discourse that can sometimes get messy. The death of speech is the death of democracy. I wondered if you could elaborate on the idea that creating peace is not always a peaceful process, that sometimes it’s a very difficult and messy process.

KW: Yes that sounds exactly like what I would say.

M: I am thinking about the situations like the mosque in New York that that people are trying to build but this interesting pastor in Florida opposes. There very tense exchanges that bring up the right to protest and the consequences that this type of speech can have.

K: One has to make a distinction between kind of bad open speech and good open speech. Not every moment you open your mouth and exercise your first amendment guarantees good results. The issue is not that people speak what is in their stomach and heart and mind. The issue is how we are talking about their speech; reprimanding and discussing whether that was a right thing to say or not.

In general all of this is quite healthy. However it doesn’t mean that I endorse every act of speech.

There is a kind of bad parusia or good parusia and Greeks in Antiquity kind of already knew about this. So one has to reprimand someone who is saying stupid things in public. I am sure that this is all fine, but I don’t want to get too involved in the very core of this debate in our discussion. It is clear that I am on the side of building this cultural center in the center of our city.

Democracy has to be a communicated process. What I am trying to say through my work is also that not everybody has equal capacity, ability and luck to participate in this discourse. We all have the right but not have the same access to the right. Therefore we should try to compensate for this lack of symmetry and be on the side of communicative arts. Artists, media artists, and performance artists, there are many people who could work with those who need inspiration and assistance. Media artists could learn a lot from the communicative arts about the terms of what ever role and impact our work could have in the democratic process. It’s not simply our role to provide tools and equipment but to work together with those who wish to become themselves artists in speech, artists in survival and in transformational action, in the process of becoming agents for change.

There is an artistic aspect in democratic process that’s an expression and it is protected in the 1st amendment. It’s right there: the seed of the kind of art that I would like to continue and that I advocate. Though I do not expect that everyone should or will follow this path, but there should be room for artists to work together with non-artists or with artists that are kind of existential artists in the process of transforming and interested in ameliorating their conditions of life for themselves and also acting on the behalf of others. Those fearless speakers, as Foucault or somebody who translated Foucault wrote, those “free fearless speakers” the new Parusiasties are our colleagues. We could work with them. I try.

Interview with Sharon Hayes

Melanie Crean: In many of your pieces you employ the act of re-speaking: the recitation of historical texts. Can you talk about the method of interpretation you are exploring, by shifting historical contexts and spaces? What types of issues are you playing with by inserting the past into the present?

Sharon Hayes: I arrived at this set of strategies that I call, “re-speaking” which has to do with taking an oral text that was once spoken and “re-speaking” it in a different moment. An oral to oral translation with out the idea of shifting language but rather shifting time. Shifting temporality and location. I came to that through two influences: one was my history working in downtown theater, dance and performance in New York in the early/mid nineties. Using the conventions of theater using scripts and having scripts, having to script yourself and to repeat yourself again and again as if you are speaking anew.

That intersected with my content interest in historical narrative. The way in which historical narrative is constructed and the way in which history interacts with the present moment.

Re-speaking gets at the operations which are already happening in the present moment. The ways in which our root and our ability to access history is always fragmented, fraught, interrupted, mistaken or there are mistakes or mis-identifications in that attempt to understand or to recuperate a certain understanding of a past event, past moment, past articulation, past understanding, past speaking.

MC: There is no seamless understanding of history. You use the word “operation.”
Operations are rule based and structured, not necessarily invested in a particular emotion or character necessarily. So what is the relationship between the action and the speech? The idea of the language you are dealing with as a material, and the idea of the action also as a material: there are two things you are dealing with at the same time.

SH: There is a slogan that I used in a piece, In the Near Future, where I stand on the street in different iterations in different cities, for a number of days with a protest sign with anachronisms or citations culled from some past moment. Some were conditional or future. But most were from the past. One citation read: “Actions speak louder than words” and it’s actually only half of the slogan. The second part read “Ratify the ERA now!” and I ended up splitting them and using them in two
separate slogans.

The idea of me holding a sign and saying “Actions speak louder than words,” is the impossibility of separating the speech and the action. Most of my work has been animated by a foundational understanding and interest in speech as action. On a theoretical level I could call it, “JL Austin’s performitive.” The speech act that does something rather than says or tells something. It is also something that comes about or evidences itself in the way I experience the world (not just in a theoretical framework). Even if we are outside of the space of the “performative” and even if we
are outside of the space of rhetoric, explicit classic parliamentary debates or speech debates. There is constantly speech that is doing things. All of this crap that is being said about Park 51 is doing something really powerful and potent and horrible that may make it impossible for that center to ever come about. I don’t know how to separate the speech from the action in those cases. They are bound up with each other

That is where my ground is. On a precise level, from project to project I engage different strategies to work through a set of questions that varies. In very similar types of terrain. It is my interest in these intersections of history, politics, and speech. But in each given piece it is a different set of questions I am trying to ask. In the Near Future, which is the piece where I am holding the sign, I am interested in the speech act of protest and how that speech act makes meaning. It is not just the words that form the meaning of the speech of protest. It was something that I was interested in asking and had to do the piece to understand. To fully feel the triangulation between the words on the placard and the body that holds those words and the time and place in which they are held. The speech act only has meaning when those three things are together. When one is disconnected there is kind of a rupture that has to go on. A double take.

MC: I wonder if there might be one other axis, if the viewer has been a part of the era when the original slogan took place and maybe they took part in the original action. Like the piece you did in Warsaw that referenced some of the things that were going on in the 80’s. Some of those people who saw your signs could have been at the original event. What is the difference between people who were a part of those original protests and maybe connected the dot back, and people who were teenagers who didn’t? In addition to those other axis, maybe there is connection to a past moment as well.

SH: Things that function as citations reverberate in a field of differing reception. Someone’s understanding, age, geographic or national background, someone’s
linguistic competence and identity, all determines their relationships to a given
citation. That is true of how citations function. Some people who wear Che Guevara tee shirts have no idea who Che Guevara was, but they got it because their friend identifies with an idea of revolution, but don’t really know. This is an example of how historical events ripple. Both how they ripple into a present moment or how they more violently rupture into a present moment. Our differing access to those moments is a big part of our relationship to history. We all have different reaches and proximities to various historical events.

There are three elements that for me collaborate to create the meaning of the speech act of protest. What I am doing is then a demonstration in a Brechtian sense, I don’t think of what I am doing in that case as a re-enactment. Rather, I am putting something into play, pointing to it, in order to ask questions about how protest in a general sense, about how protest functions in a present moment. To do that I have to speak indirectly to an audience, to a public.

Both the people who had no idea what the slogan meant and the people who remember it and recognize where it’s from are still addressed indirectly. The only people who are addressed directly are the people for whom the sign was originally intended, which was maybe never totally codified but was direct because most protests are in a certain sense directed and goal oriented. The actions that I did weren’t goal oriented in that same way, but rather an attempt to call up questions around protests and our relationship to them in a present moment and what possibilities there are for public resistance that uses that kind of speech.

MC: You are not necessarily acting, but you are executing a task. In your methodology of performance I would guess that you would not consider yourself a character. How would you describe the methodology that you are trying to enact and what is the reason for it?

SH: In The Love Address I do think I am a character of sorts. It is not a named character that goes through an enormous amount of character development. Because I am speaking from the “I” to a “You” who is not who I am actually speaking to. I am doing and not doing what I seem to be doing. I am speaking to the people on the street literally, through a microphone or a bull horn. Who ever is in proximity can hear me. As I often repeat in that work, the ears are an orifice that cannot be closed. There is a fictional story between an “I” and a “You” and I am the “I.” I did use strategies unlike some of the other work that are strategies toward character. I did wear a costume of sorts. It is not far off from me and my persona but my character is not equal to me. I am not just a body with certain identity characteristics. I am also a speaking subject who talks about her home, apartment and work and this “You” and the things they have done together. In the other work I don’t think of myself as a character. In The Near Future I am in the task of holding those signs. I am a
white woman having characteristics that can be observed on the streets. Part of why I am doing that work is that I felt like it was important that it was an act that I took responsibility for. It changes the meaning of the piece if I hire an actor or cast someone to do it. In an attempt to limit what it is I am trying to find out. If I cast and then hire someone I am making choices about who would do the piece who would hold that sign and would they always be the one to hold it and why and those factors aren’t really relevant in the piece.

MC: In the SLA pieces there are issues with memory and accuracy and repetition but mostly this idea of historical memory being imperfect. I wanted to ask you about the purposeful difficulty you have in that piece and how it relates to the inaccuracy. I wanted you to speak a bit about your idea of an accuracy and what that exposes and why.

SH: I did four live performances to generate 4 video tapes. I never repeated a live
performance. I partially memorized the text intentionally and gave the transcript to the audience and asked them to correct me when I was wrong. I remember after one of the performances, one of the people came up to me and said that it was really frustrating because they couldn’t hear the text. It was so interesting because he wanted to have an uninhibited relationship to the words that Patty Hearst had spoken. I don’t think it is ever possible even if one can read the whole text and take it in or hear it spoken, I don’t think it can ever be a smooth process with full understanding or recognition. I think that speech and speech acts, the words we say, are repeatable and are repeated constantly. How they function as an act and hit an audience is very particular to each enunciation. Each enunciation happens at a different place and time.

MC: There is no seamless understanding, experience or access to history. It is always
mediated by something. This segues to the idea of “publics.” The frustrated man was an active participant trying to make meaning in his own way.

SH: Frustration is not a bad response.

MC: You’ve treated publics in different ways. You’ve performed in public where people have come up and spoken to you as part of the experience. You’ve filmed people watching different pieces of media. In After Before with the two newscasters speaking to people and calculating public opinion. You have made work where the audience was a character in the performance. It seems like you’ve been moving through different constructions of how to work with audiences in different ways. What kind of explorations are you trying to do?

SH: Doing work in largely theatrical venues in the downtown dance, theatre, and
performance scene in conditions where I would perform in a room by myself and there was an audience that came in and then watched and then got up and then left. One thing that was uncomfortable to me was that I was speaking words that I had written in another time and yet addressing to this group of people as if I was saying the words to them for the first time. I picked up this set of systems and incredible respect for the community of performers but always rubbed up against this idea of the “wink wink nod nod” I know that you know that I am not truly having this experience with you but that I’ve scripted it. There are two bodies that are functioning differently but both as themselves and something different than
themselves. One is me as the performance. The first five performances I did started with, “Hi I am Sharon Hayes.” But clearly it wasn’t the same Sharon Hayes that wasn’t on stage that hadn’t scripted themselves who would be talking to you after the show or as I am to you know. Similarly there was this contract that we make sitting or standing across from each other in the theatre that they are functioning and sitting there as an audience, or a collected body. In the artificiality of that encounter, from the beginning of that work I was very interested in the position of the audience. In
the last theatrical piece I did I named the audience as a character and they didn’t do anything. It wasn’t audience participation. I named them and I even said there was a scene that we just didn’t have time to do but I gave them a script of the scene that was theirs.

I am creating imagined positions for a public and an audience in all my work. In SLA I made the work by doing four performances where there was an audience. I gave that live audience the transcript of each text, I said I was going to speak it and that they would have to correct me so you hear their voice on the video tapes that are eventually made from those events but they are never imaged. The viewer of the video tape in a sense could be them, it’s not an extraordinary thing that they are doing, you can recognize that they are a group of people who are there with
me at a particular moment, which is what the viewer to the video is, in a sense. There are these kind of layers of audience which hopefully allow people to understand their own participation in these speech encounters. By giving them an imagined body that could be them, either a character called the audience or a group of people on a videotape that respond as the audience, it creates something that they can look to as the choices that are available to them in those motions and how that position in itself functions. The position of the public.

In the works that I do on the street, In the Near Future and The Love Address, work a little bit more so that there is an interesting interaction between the audience and the public. The audience being people who know that I am going to be there doing a performance and come because they get an email that I am going to be there. I lightly advertise, I inadvertently try to keep it a little under the radar because I want there to be a balance between an audience and the public. There is the audience who shows up to see me and the public who doesn’t. We three interact in those moments. For many audience people The Love Address work talks about how the piece is about the public and me and they would notice things that happen between me and
the public. Something I said would layer itself onto that body, the public. For the public the piece is me and the audience. They are also aware that they are there, in the case of The Near Future, taking photographs, which is what I asked audience members to do. I invited people to come and document me. In The Love Address work the people that gathered in a small semi-circle in front of me becomes something and turns peoples heads. They think something is happening because
people are watching. They don’t exactly identify themselves as people who are watching because they are not yet watching but if they choose to watch then maybe they fold into the audience.

There are these positions which are different but which are all a part of these encounters. For me it is part of the question of the work.

MC: Your work addresses who is allowed to speak, and when it is appropriate and in what venues? Does your work address notions of freedom of speech and if so how?

SH: For me maybe because of my privilege the notion or idea of “Freedom of Speech” is not helpful. The more pertinent questions are the ones you were just posing. Who has the right to free speech and who doesn’t, who has the right to be heard and who doesn’t – the provisions through what sanctioned lines. In New York City it is present in and under “Free Speech Zones” which of course is a myth and doesn’t exist. The classic free speech zones that were designated over the past 10 years in certain protest areas look like a prison. As great bastions and defenders of free speech we still exist in states of changing power relationships. The work I do is invested a lot in the operation of public speech, in particular speech that has rules and roles and it has exclusions and inclusions. A lot of the work I have been invested in doing in a small way allows those parameters and constraints to be seen or heard.

Interview with Steve Kurtz

This conversation took place between Steve Kurtz and Melanie Crean on 06.23.10.

Melanie Crean: I just started recording.

Steve Kurtz: Well, my whole life is recorded. I’m used to cameras and tape recorders and whatever else. As far as free speech goes, I am not sure my case was so precedent-setting. I think mine was part of a long list of free speech cases, from the Palmer Raids to McCarthyism and Cointelpro to the present day. Where it was precedent-setting was in how the federal prosecutors were framing the charge. It would have completely changed contract law. It would have done away with civil law completely, by making any contract dispute potentially a criminal case. The Department of Justice would then have had the discretionary power to make a civil complaint a criminal case any time it wanted to; in other words, they would have had the ultimate tool for selective prosecution. They had never tried to pull that before.

MC: Who brought the civil complaint?

SK: There was never any criminal or civil complaint in my case—that was the crazy thing! Those who I supposedly defrauded didn’t bring any charges, whether civil or criminal. It was the government that brought charges. They were saying, “You broke this civil contract” (the Judge later ruled I didn’t even do that)—“and actually this isn’t a civil dispute but a criminal offense.” This outrageous claim was what was really out of control in my case.

They were doing this for three main reasons. One was to control free speech. Second, it was the birth of Ashcroft’s preemptive justice policy, and for whatever reason the Department of Justice decided that I was the kind of person who might commit a crime against the state sometime in the future, and hence needed to be put in jail immediately. And third, they were trying to intimidate artists, academics, and activists—demographics they viewed as left-leaning and out for trouble. With me, they got all three demographics in one person.

MC: So you mentioned McCarthyism, and I know that there were plenty of literary people and cartoonists that were convicted at that time. Were there any artists or activists over the past 10 or 15 years that had similar charges brought against them?

SK: Not that I know of, but many activists were arrested who were doing what could very easily be considered performance art. Most notably a student who was re-enacting one of the infamous Abu Ghraib Torture scenes was arrested and charged with the very serious felony of creating public emergency. “Disciplining The Avant-Garde, The United States versus The Critical Art Ensemble” by Gregory Sholette also chronicles how people were arrested for freedom of expression, and charged for going outside the bounds of what the Bush Government thought was proper speech.

MC: I know it’s very complicated, but could you give a brief summary of the charge that was brought against you so that it can be put in the context of this interview?

SK: The Defense Fund Website goes into detail in the Overview paper by Claire Pentecost, but basically, I was charged with mail and wire fraud. What the government alleged was that one of my colleagues (Bob Ferrell, a professor of Human Genetics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health, who served as a consultant on a number of our projects) had sent me some bacteria: two samples of completely harmless Bio Safety Level 1 bacteria. The Department of Justice [DoJ] said that the school had an agreement with the American Type Culture Collection (the distributor) that disallowed the transfer of their products to a third party. The DoJ claimed Bob and I “schemed” to send bacteria to me through the mail, which in turn broke the contract and defrauded the distributor. Because Bob mailed two “fraudulently” acquired samples to me it was two counts of mail fraud. Then he had written me an email saying: “I mailed you the samples.” And I wrote back and said: “Thank you, Bob” and that constituted the two counts of wire fraud.

As it turned out, there was no agreement whatsoever between the University of Pittsburgh and ATCC about sending bacteria back and forth. In fact, according to the University, their position was that anything sent to them, they owned outright. They didn’t even recognize the intellectual property of ATCC.

When you open a package from ATCC there’s a paper, which Bob would have received, with a bunch of liability clauses, some of which say the product can’t be sent to a third party, and others of which say the product can be sent to a third party—in other words it’s self-contradictory. But the point is, a company can’t send someone something after the fact and say: “Now you are bound to a contract.” Yet this was what the government tried to claim, and they further claimed that since Bob was bound to this “contract,” and that since he sent the samples to me, therefore we were guilty of mail fraud. Perhaps you could try to make a contract dispute out of it (which the judge also threw out), but the DoJ was going for broke and trying to make a criminal charge out of it.

An investigative reporter at the end of the case indicated that the prosecuting attorney, William Hochul, might not have even been trying to win this case. Instead, he thought Hochul was actually hoping that he could get me on the witness stand and cross examine me about books that I had written in the hopes that I would incriminate myself in some way. He hoped that I would admit that I was advocating terrorist activity in my books. In this way, they could reinstate a terrorism charge, which is what he really wanted.

MC: So there was an incriminatory aura surrounding the case in the hopes that artists, scientists or researchers might in some ways incriminate themselves. This is disturbing, especially since the charges were eventually dropped. Do you think the case had a chilling effect on artists’ and researchers’ activities that has remained? Do you think the case was in any way a win for the government for this reason?

SK: Yes, they got something out of it. It was a public relations disaster for them, but they didn’t completely lose. I doubt they will ever try it again (especially given the precedent set by the case), but it did put the clamp down. It didn’t work very well with activists—we are used to going to jail and we expect that we are going to have run-ins with disciplinary agencies. It didn’t work that well for artists, either, because what have they got to lose? Nothing really. If an artist gets sent to jail it gives them street credibility.

MC: What about scientists?

SK: Scientists are scared to death. They are completely beholden to their institutions. They are completely reliant on their funding…

MC: Public funding.

SK: For a scientist, if you are put into a situation where you are accused of a felony, you will have problems getting funding. If convicted, you might only be sentenced to probation, but your days as a scientist are over because you will never see another cent of public funding. As we all know, you can’t do serious science without a great deal of money. It scared scientists, and they were watching our case very carefully. It scared them more than the Butler prosecution because this one seemed so frivolous, and it showed how easy it would be for our situation to befall any them. It was a problem because in order to do life science, samples have to be mailed around, often in a casual way. One slip in the paper work and you could be facing jail time.

I had an interesting experience in Austin where I met a molecular biologist who had been a friend of Bob Ferrell for years. I assumed that if our case went to trial, he would serve as an expert witness for us. But he said he wouldn’t do it. I was shocked. I said, “You’re Bob’s friend, you’ve known him for forty years, you came through the ranks together! You’re not going to come to his defense?” He still refused, and I said, “How can you live with yourself?” He said, “I get what you’re saying—’First they came for my friends, and when they came for me there was no one left’ —but I’m not doing it. I’m not jeopardizing my career.”

It had a very strong effect on the sciences.

Apparently the FBI also gave a very serious warning to one of the distributors I used to get various enzymes that I needed for molecular biology. Now they won’t sell to amateurs anymore, only to universities and corporate labs.

MC: The relationship between the legality and issues of free speech is interesting on so many levels. I had also read from your defense website that you were never Mirandized.

SK: That is true, I was never Mirandized. Now the Supreme Court has ruled that you don’t have to be Mirandized anymore. To get your rights you have to say, “I want my rights.” Of course, anyone who has ever been arrested knows you don’t get Mirandized. The police want to coerce you as long as possible and will do almost anything to try to get a confession or to create “evidence” and better link you to a crime. They are not interested in Mirandizing anyone and hardly ever do so unless they absolutely must.

MC: How did it affect your ability to articulate your defense? Did it make a difference?

SK: No, I don’t think it would have. I was arrested on the way to the funeral home to make arrangements for my wife who had died the day before. At that time I was not thinking very clearly to say the least. In terms of trying to figure out my legal options, it really was not working out for me. It wasn’t until the next day that I had a moment of clarity about what I should be doing. In the beginning I just wanted them to let me go so I could finish arranging the funeral. I was talking to them and I should not have been doing that. I didn’t give them any “evidence,” but generally speaking, you never talk to police or an FBI agent or any agent of the law. You never say anything to them for any reason without your lawyer present. The Center for Constitutional Rights and the National Lawyers Guild both have good primers on this—on how to protect yourself if you’re ever arrested.

MC: I read some strange information that they had a warrant to search your house. I don’t know if they got it for legal reasons or if they manipulated facts to get it. The FBI took your files and manuscripts and writing, possibly in hopes of you incriminating yourself. Did they ever give you a complete list of what they had taken from you? Did you even know what they had taken from you? Did you know what you were defending yourself against at the time?

SK: There are disclosure laws. They have to give you a receipt for everything they take. They have to tell you what evidence they are bringing against you in court. Once I won the case they had to give everything back. We got everything back 4 years after they took it.

MC: The manuscripts and years of stolen work seems pretty bad.

SK: It was bad.

MC: I don’t know if you are following this so much, but just recently the Supreme Court has been deciding issues about the First Amendment. Under the PATRIOT Act, how do you feel lfree speech has been affected? What affect do you think it has had on artists?

SK: In June the Supreme Court ruled that the 1996 “material support for terrorism” law, which was really enhanced under the PATRIOT Act, could legally prohibit speech and advocacy, even advocacy in support of human rights and international law. Under this interpretation, anti-apartheid and solidarity activists in the 1980s could have been subject to harassment and prosecution. Pure speech advocating lawful, nonviolent activity can now be criminalized. In September the FBI raided homes and issued grand jury subpoenas to anti-war activists in several cities in search of “material support for terrorism” charges, and it appears the witch-hunt is continuing, with the FBI continuing to harass other activists at their homes and workplaces. So while the Obama Administration is not pursuing pre-emptive justice in the same way the Bush Administration did, the Department of Justice has clearly not been de-politicized. This should concern everyone. The fight against authoritarian power is a never-ending one, regardless of who is in office.

MC: Is performance speech? Are their qualitative differences, like I am sitting here at this lunch counter, and with my body I am saying something? Would it be the same if I were speaking? Is it more or less?

I know you do bacterial releases in your work. Performance and speech are often grouped together under freedom of expression, but are there important differences between them that people tend to overlook?

SK: I look at it from a semiotic perspective. I see performance as being a subcategory of speech. The thread that ties them all together, whether images or sounds or spoken words, is that they are all coded textualities. If you are in that realm you are in the realm of speech. Those are speech acts.

MC: Do you think your work has changed in a way that it wouldn’t have if this experience had not happened?

SK: No, it hasn’t. Critical Art Ensemble’s work is very forcefully anti-authoritarian and anti-majoritarian power. That has never changed. After I got arrested we were even more emphatic. We knew people were watching us and that we were role models. Even though the role was forced on us and my whole life was on camera, we felt we had now, more than ever, to walk it like we talk it. We had to show that we would not be intimidated and that we would continue exactly as we always had, regardless of the pressure that was put on us. The projects that the FBI were so keen to confiscate, we just remade.

Interview with Sean Gourley

This between Melanie Crean and mathematician Sean Gourley was conducted for Where We Are Now Magazine in October.

The Shape of Change

October 16th, 2009
By Melanie Crean and Sean Gourley

This conversation took place between Melanie Crean and Sean Gourley via email during the month of September 2009. Their discussion focused on notions of change as a physical, political and cultural phenomenon whose nature and impact, though sometimes measurable and predicable, still cannot be strictly defined. Crean is an artist and teacher, living in Brooklyn and teaching at Parsons The New School for Design. Gourley is a mathematician, political advisor, and current TED fellow who lives in San Francisco.

Melanie Crean: I am currently working a project called The Shape of Change, an online database of American and Iraqi perceptions of change to be used by artists and activists as the basis of art works and discussion. To begin our conversation, I would like to ask how you define change over time? How do you see it manifest in the world around you? How do you address it in your own work?

For me, the word change, as with any signifier in language, is tightly bound to its cultural context. To state the obvious: the meaning of change itself seems to be changing, in fact quite rapidly emptying itself of meaning. Recently, there has been a strange unspoken international agreement on change; it has become a self-replicating brand. In the last U.S. election, for instance, it was deliberately undefined. Used by both parties, the word appeared in information visualizations in the New York Times and you could see how often both parties used the term at their national conventions. But neither party defined it; it was deliberately left to loosely encompass whatever the listener considered desirable. Though deliberate ambiguity is a time-honored tradition in politics, I feel it has been noteworthy recently because the more powerful the “brand”of change becomes the more meaningless it seems to become.

The Shape of Change project brings up several questions: why and how does the nature of change change? Is it a predictable pendulum (change-stasis-change-stasis), or are there more complicating factors at work? How can it be quantified? Can it be predicted? And, if so, can change be seen to be at all fixed?

Sean Gourley: For me change is defined by “something being different.” In general, as time moves forward, something is always different. But then time is defined by difference. Time and change are inextricably linked. Change cannot happen without time moving, and time cannot happen without change. The very way we measure time is defined by the changing position (vibration) of Caesium atoms within our atomic clocks.

So your question, how do you define change over time almost answers itself. And yet even with all this change some things remain constant. The laws of physics remain the same, unchanged in the short term. The rules that govern the vibration of the Caesium atom, or the rotation of the earth around the sun, remain constant while the objects they act on change. In many ways too, change is dependent on the observer. Dependent on what is being measured. Hold a ball above your head and then drop it. The ball has changed position, but it is still the same ball. If you ignore its position relative to the earth it has not changed. But if position is important to you, then change has occurred.

From a personal perspective, I see change around me everywhere I look. From the people moving on the street, to the traffic lights flashing from red to green. And yet there is something constant. When viewed from a distance, people seem to move in a predictable fashion, every day exhibiting the same general behavior. The light changing from red to green every ninety seconds. Many of the rules that bring about change themselves remain constant. The interesting question then becomes, is something that is changing in a predictable way still changing?

I look at change in my work from the perspective of measurement. Measurement reveals change. We cannot know if change has occurred if we cannot measure it. This has been one of the difficult elements in the study of conflict, as conflict by its very nature is difficult to measure. Yet we can measure some variables, including the way people are dying, the type of attacks that are occurring, the size of the attacks and how all of these variables change through time. We even measure popular words that are used to describe wars like Iraq and see how these change with time – from WMDs to Shock & Awe, to quagmire and civil war. Yet, for Iraq, throughout all of the war, the laws that underlie the conflict seem to remain constant. The laws that govern how people die are predictable and defined by mathematical equations that we see repeated in war zones around the world. One person dies and for them and their family this is a massive change. The world for their relatives changes beyond belief. Yet as we step away from the case of the individual, we see that their death is part of a broader pattern that is repeated in wars around the world. A pattern that has not changed because of their death.

Economic indicators can be a driver of conflict. The unemployment rate amongst fighting age males is a significant predictor of future violence in a region. Increase this variable and probabilistically speaking you move a step closer to war. The link between financial markets and conflict is perhaps even stronger. An oil pipeline is blown up and the price of oil futures increases. The first plane is flown into the World Trade Center and within minutes large amounts of cash are moved to the Swiss franc.

Iraq is different now than it was in 2003 when the invasion occurred – it has changed. But is it better or worse, is America better or worse? Was the invasion good for some people? – yes. Was it bad for others? – yes. In many ways, this speaks to the ambiguity of change, of how our understanding of change depends on who you are and what you are measuring. It is difficult to say for any type of change, that the world is better or worse. When we drop a ball from above our heads, the world has changed but is it better or worse?

MC: Depending on the perspective of the observer, change is also valued differently. As a follow up to a question in your last email, I’d like to ask you now: How does change constitute a central challenge for the economy? How might American corporations have been better prepared for change? How might they incorporate some of those strategies now, in the midst of current economic restructuring? And to follow something that you wrote, how might our current economic situation both drive or respond to political conflict?

SG: With regard to American corporations being better prepared for change, it requires one of two things. Either a better ability to see where the world is heading (i.e. what is change going to look like), or being more flexible in their organizational culture so that they can respond to change.

We can learn a lot from insurgencies about how to create organizations that can navigate changing environments. Insurgent forces have to operate in constantly changing landscapes, both militarily and politically. They do this by creating hundreds of groups that continually mutate their strategies until a successful one is found. The unsuccessful strategies are then replaced as the groups fail to survive and the successful groups grow stronger. This process allows an exploration of a constantly changing space, it allows the insurgency to quickly find new ways to operate in the changed environment. Being allowed to fail is an important part of dealing with change. Implementing some of the organizational characteristics of an insurgency might help large corporations successfully navigate this changing landscape.

MC: We have been speaking about the psychological underpinnings of change as related to the structure of financial organizations. For people to adopt change, it seems they must both accept its potential benefits (or at least its inevitability), in addition to being able to envision living, working, or operating differently. The ability to envision change is a necessity that cannot be understated.

One exercise that beginning designers often do to test the usability of a proposed design is to construct something called a “value fiction,” to imagine an environmental situation very different from their own, possibly with different social and technological norms, to consider how their design might perform in this “extreme” situation. It’s surprising how difficult this exercise is, simply because people have been compelled to behave the way current social customs, prevalent technology and interactive interfaces have structured their thoughts and actions. In short, it is very difficult to conceive of true change. When asked, many students begin with proposing that the new design be smaller, faster, and easier to use for its current function, sort of the “predictable change” that you referred to. Considering an entirely new way of using a particular device, or working, or thinking, often takes a bit of unlearning.

So I would like to ask: What kind of creative approach or thought process is required by all architects of the future, whether involved in the fields of design, science, education, politics or economics? What kind of methodologies are helpful to promote unfettered thinking?

SG: For the “architects of the future,” I think they first have to develop a good ability to look backwards. But to look backwards over a long enough timescale so that they can get a good sampling of “unexpected” events! For something that is unexpected may well have just faded from memory.

Another methodology is the random mutation of ideas within a fitness landscape. This is done constantly as part of nature’s evolutionary process, and we can do a good job of simulating it in computers to solve new types of problems. In applying it to the technique of unfettered thinking, one should take an idea that you already hold and understand the core concepts that go into this idea. Then randomly change one of the inputs and see how the idea changes. So instead of trying to guess the future, you simply accept a random input and then see what happens to your theories and ideas.

Of course some things are more likely than others. So a third concept that is very important is to understand probability (what is the likelihood of something happening) and risk (what are the consequences). Probability can be determined both empirically (I have seen the ball fall to the ground 1,000 times therefore I believe there is a good chance it will happen this time) and theoretically (I know that gravity acts on all objects and as such the ball will fall to the ground). Probability also allows us to imagine different futures simultaneously. Schroedinger’s Cat is a well known example in quantum mechanics. For as the world exists today there is a future where the cat is alive, and a future where the cat is dead. But for now the cat is both dead and alive and I can only know the probability that one of these worlds will exist in the future.

MC: Your last email about system-based thinking reminded me of a recent talk by Tim Brown (CEO of IDEO), on occasion of his new book about designing for change. He spoke about the commonality of convergent thinking, taking a set of available choices, implementing the best choice and optimizing the results. The problem with this method is of course that if everyone else is working with the same set of choices, they will come up with similar answers, and progress will remain static. To create innovation, you would need to change the entire set of options, or basically redefine the system. In the commercial world, if a company is making money by doing the same thing, what would their financial incentive be for investing in redefinition?

SG: In short, there is no incentive to change what you are doing if you are making money: You are wildly profitable and all the senior decision makers have nice bonuses coming in. Taking risks becomes less attractive as you have more to lose. Management has to sign off on everything in order for it to be approved and you start attracting a different group of people to come and work for you – employees who want a safe paycheck and a stable environment. The classic examples of these dynamics are found in Silicon Valley, where the more established tech companies have steady income streams. But they also have large R&D divisions to try and stay ahead of all the new startups trying to take their business as the technology evolves.

MC: You mentioned insurgent power structures being based on evolutionary models, mutating until they succeed, or being allowed to fail. In our political system, maintaining power means avoiding failure at all cost. If both our political and our financial systems are not designed to facilitate change, where does this leave us? Organizations will eventually fail if they refuse to adapt. But what of predicting the fall of powerful nations?

SG: There will always be change. What is somewhat under our control is how frequently this change happens. But that control of frequency comes at the expense of having any control over the size of the change when it does happen. Think of it like an earthquake: There is constant pressure buildup between the earth’s tectonic plates – they push together and store energy. This energy can be released in lots of very frequent short bursts, or it can be stable for decades with nothing happening until one day it all falls apart.

With companies, the smaller the company is the more likely it is to fail, this is not due to an inability to change but instead it is because of an inability to control their environment. The larger the company you are the more power you have to control your environment, the less likely you are to fail. And because you are large you can put off having to confront change for a long time (it took record labels the best part of a decade before they were willing to accept digital music as a revenue stream at which point they were beaten out of the game by a computer company called Apple).

Should a government or nation then, instead of trying to control everything and stop the small changes, actually encourage change to occur? Would this provide more stability at the expense of total control? The analogy of forest fire policies comes to mind. It was deemed that forest fires were inherently bad and they should be stopped at all costs. A lot of money was put into this project and for the most part it worked very well. But when a fire did happen, it was massively destructive as all the old dead timber that would previously have burned in the smaller fires is stockpiled as fuel waiting to burn.

But then if you had power (or money) would you, too, try everything to protect it? It’s a difficult concept to grasp, the need to let some fires burn in order to save the forest in the long run. Can we predict the fall of powerful nations? Given enough data I think we could get fairly close. We already know some of the main predictors of conflict.

MC: If you could somehow give change some visual form, what would it look like?

SG: For me, the way that I visualize change is to go to the beach and watch the waves moving towards the shore breaking as they come to land. For me, waves represent many of the elements of change. No two waves are ever the same, yet every wave is in a sense the same wave. The place where they will break is determined by the sand or coral underneath the water, yet the waves act together to change this over time. They are also a product of a larger system of tides and the movement of the moon. And their very shape is dictated by a combination of gravity and electrical charge of hydrogen atoms. You also get to see the tipping point of change – before the wave breaks, the water is calm and the wave reveals itself as a simple vertical displacement of water. But just a few short seconds after this, the water turns white and violent as the wave crashes over the sandbar. This change is predictable, which is why we can surf – but it is always changing and never the same. And change, like the wave, is nothing more than the simple transference of energy from one particle to another.

Melanie Crean
Melanie Crean is an artist and teacher based in Brooklyn, NY. She is an Assistant Professor of Media Design at Parsons the New School for Design in New York City, teaching production and theory based classes in experimental time based work, mobile media and gaming. As the former Director of Production at Eyebeam (eyebeam.org), she founded and managed a cooperative studio that supported the creation of socially based media, working with new forms of moving image, sound, public art and open source software. Previously, Melanie worked at the MTV Digital Television Lab, managing a team of artists while designing special effects, performance animation, motion capture and speech recognition systems. She produced documentaries in Nepal, India and the United States, on subjects that include women trafficking and the spread of HIV/AIDS along trucking routes in South Asia. Melanie received a BA in semiotics and film production from Brown University, and a MFA in computer art from the School of Visual Arts. Crean has received fellowships and commissions from Art in General, the Bronx Arts Council, Harvestworks, NYFA, NYSCA, Rhizome and Creative Time.

Sean Gourley
Sean Gourley is a mathematician, political advisor and current TED fellow. He is originally from New Zealand where he ran for national elected office and helped start New Zealand’s first nanotech company. Gourley studied at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar where he received a PhD for his research on the mathematical patterns that underlie modern war. This research has taken him all over the world from the Pentagon, to the United Nations and Iraq. Previously Gourley worked at NASA on self-repairing nano-circuits and is a two-time New Zealand track and field champion. Now based in San Francisco, Gourley splits his time between mathematical research and his venture capital backed startup Younoodle.com.