Participatory EconomicsFebruary 12, 2014
Locating Technology considers technology and artworks in rather broad terms, such as: mechanical objects, analog and digital photography and video, and computer and web-based work. Through these types of works, writers explore the evolution of technology and its effects on artists’ processes, disciplinarity, and the larger social context of media creation, dispersal, access and interactivity.
The trajectory of history suggests that increased opportunities for individuals to engage in art and technology facilitates or represents egalitarianism and innovation, i.e., that greater participation is a social, cultural, or technological good. With today’s unprecedented levels of interactivity, the “Facebook Revolutions,”1 and the constant bombardment of “smart technologies,” status updates, and GIFs both affirm and challenge this paradigm. In contrast to escalating high-tech interactive solutions, some decidedly low-tech and DIY projects provide simple routes to participation and economic consciousness-raising. For example, Bernie Lubell’s interactive wooden contraption A Theory of Entanglement (2009) operates as a physically interactive diagram of capitalism. Additionally, Packard Jennings’s website Destructables (2011–present) aggregates and distributes DIY projects that interrupt corporate marketing campaigns at the local retail level. While lighthearted, Lubell and Jennings use technology to facilitate participation with sharp critique while viewers engage in learning, teaching, exploring, and challenging their roles in the economic system.
Like the economy, the elaborate and sprawling machine dwarfs the three or more individuals who operate it.
Lubell’s A Theory of Entanglement is an elaborate yet low-tech wood construction that references string theory and economics. With a set of two bicycles and a couch, the participants must cooperate to power the giant knitting machine hung from the ceiling in a large foyer at FACT in Liverpool, U.K.2 Lubell creates a physically active diagram, as a model for capitalism, that positions the bicyclists as laborers (literally providing the energy to power the contraption), the couch sitters as capital (whose inactivity and physical weight activates a clutch to cause the machine to engage), and the knit tube as product. Like the economy, the elaborate and sprawling machine dwarfs the three or more individuals who operate it. As riders and sitters labor, the machine’s gears and pulleys grown to slowly knit a loose black tube, reminiscent of graphic depictions of black holes.
As a machine that utilizes physics, rather than electronics, A Theory of Entanglement harnesses manual labor, like the medieval textile or agricultural machines that relied on human or animal labor. Lubell’s participants have little input in their activity, as they execute a preordained task within a highly scripted scenario—like the rote procedures people might perform in the actual economy. Lubell’s work prioritizes the moving body as the instigator for the mind in a form of learning or thinking through doing. As people pedal and sit, the sheer labor that they are expending to produce a knitted version of a matter-sucking black hole becomes apparent.3 Moreover, data pertaining to black holes suggests that their immense gravitational pull possibly holds the universe in balance. However, the difficulties in exploring black holes render our knowledge weak, making them an almost mythical subject in the world of astrophysics.4 The mysterious immensity of black holes and the absurdity of Lubell’s machine parallel our unavoidable participation in the economic system and the incongruity between our efforts and outcomes therein.
Though based online, Jennings’ Destructables also employs relatively low levels of technology to engage his viewers in direct action as economic agitators. Rather than providing directions for simple and affable DIY craft or science projects like Instructables (an online DIY site that seeks to expand knowledge and craft), Jennings’ Destructables instructs viewers in disrupting or subverting economic, political, or social systems.5,6 Jennings describes Destructables as,
[a]ny instruction-based guide to creating an action, or artwork that is inserted into the world without consent from governing power structures... It can also be a strategy or a tool that is used to engage or interact with a public or other audience for political/expressive purposes.7
Projects on the site range from covert ways to hide a spray can while stenciling sidewalk graffiti to bolder (and hypothetical) acts like how to rob a bank, as submitted by the Center for Tactical Magic.8 Like Instructables, Destructables facilitates two forms of interaction: Individuals may propose and/or execute projects. Jennings shares authorship over the individual projects, with contributors credited for their individual submissions. While the participation is less scripted than Lubell’s work, Jennings has also set up a technology-based system or platform for engagement
Included in Destructables are several projects that instruct users on how to create product labels that intervene in corporate marketing campaigns. One example sticker highlights the problematic use of Native American symbols on products unrelated to Native American Nations, as with Natural American Spirit™ cigarettes.9 In this sticker, “Native American Stereotype” replaces the original packaging that reads “Native American Spirit.” In another example, Taylor H. uses the household herbicide Roundup™ to highlight the less well-known divisions and histories of Monsanto. The amended labels inform consumers that Roundup™ is a “premium death solution.” Additionally, the label declares in ad-copy language that Roundup™ is brought to you by the “Creators of Agent Orange,” which the United States military used during the Vietnam War, causing mass trauma and casualties to Vietnamese civilians. Both labels impeccably mimic the original packaging’s font style and color, such that unaware or distracted retail employees and customers may not notice the swap. This subtlety plays on our rote consumerism but shocks the discerning label-reading consumer.
Destructables inverts the top-down approach to marketing campaigns—which typically start from a corporate headquarters—and invites participants to intervene on the local retail level.
Destructables encourages users to create their own labels, or download existing labels from the site, and then distribute them by placing them on products in the stores. Destructables inverts the top-down approach to marketing campaigns—which typically start from a corporate headquarters—and invites participants to intervene on the local retail level. To further disrupt the standard flow of corporate marketing, this project also suggests that collaborators “contact [the] local news and tell them about the new weird product/packaging you've found in several stores.”10 While graphic and print technologies allow mass marketing campaigns to be uniform and streamlined, these very processes are now widely available to consumers, allowing them to intervene in the marketing process.
In Walgreens Local Business Coupon, submitted by Jennings, participants are invited to download a PDF that can be printed out as a fake coupon and inserted into Walgreens coupon books. The fake coupon begins by stating that,
[h]ere at Walgreens we understand how any national chain-store is able to destroy locally owned businesses. We want to help you in finding those local stores so you don't have to shop here. Please ask our staff for a guide or directions to local businesses near your home or office.11
Jennings instigates interaction between customers and employees that may not occur naturally. Moreover, Jennings expands the scope of involvement to unaware employees.
While we all interface with technology, our various roles, e.g., as laborer, creator, owner, consumer, and so on, affect our relationship to the economy. Jennings and Lubell engage their viewers with different levels of engagement and types of technology. While Lubell’s participants involve themselves in rather minimal and at times comic acts (such as sitting on a couch), the physical involvement not only provides the energy for the mechanism to operate, but also becomes a form of learning through action. Destructables also provokes learning through action, in which participants design and execute projects to share with the online community. Destructables hijacks existing communications (like the internet), and graphic and printing technologies, that have trickled down to the consumer level, allowing individuals to participate or interrupt the social and economic status quo.