In a series of special posts, guest blogger alum Marc Herbst and regular contributor Catherine Wagley chronicle the University of California education crisis. Following is Wagley’s take. — Ed.
When I was in college, a woman named Chris Gaunt worked in our main library. She would frequently disappear for a day or more. She’d go to Des Moines, our state capital, or to D.C., or even Muscogee County, Georgia. She’d protest torture of detainees, war funding, or unfair trials. If she was gone for an especially long time, she’d been taken into custody, maybe for assaulting a peace officer — which can be hyperbolic for going limp upon arrest — trespassing in a Senator’s office, or crossing a line set up by police. Gaunt, who had the kind of short perm women get when their not-quite-gray-but-getting-there hair no longer warrants hassle, wore sweatshirts with collars and didn’t look like trouble. Though her disappearances were as predictable as her wardrobe, we students respected her more each time she returned.
“Civil disobedience in the United States has a very specific legal tradition,” said Ricardo Dominguez, in a video clip aired by Fox 5. “That is, you do a non-violent mass action. The police come, they take you in, they book you, [you spend] 24 hours in jail. You go before the judge, the judge says, ‘try not to do this again, and then you go do it again and you go through the same thing.’” But Gaunt, who has spent upwards of 6 months in jail, knows that the penalty for civil disobedience can be more severe, especially if you insist on “doing it again.”
Dominguez, like Gaunt, works at a university — though he’s a tenured professor at UC San Diego, not a librarian — and has a penchant for crossing lines. Unlike Gaunt, who primarily identifies as a peace activist, Dominguez identifies as an artist. In his May 7 post on this site, Marc Herbst detailed Dominguez’s most recent line-crossing and explained how Dominguez’s online laboratory, b.a.n.g. lab, staged a virtual sit-in to protest the University of California’s budget cuts and tuition hikes. Protesters “sat” on the UC Office of the President’s website and the few hundred who participated became the equivalent of thousands, thanks to a “spawn” feature that multiplied the effect of each computer.
Herbst also described markyudof.com, a hoax site hosted by b.a.n.g. lab and created by UC Riverside professor, Ken Ehrlich. The hoax site, which launched a few days before the sit-in, announced President Mark Yudof would resign to “go back to school to study the history of social movements.” Yudof did not, of course, really resign, or give social movements a shout-out. And even though Dominguez’s and Ehrlich’s work in digital activist art contributed to their employment at UC schools, they turned their expertise on the wrong target. An investigation into the legality of their actions is underway.
Most people who know about b.a.n.g. lab learned about it after the creation of the Transborder Immigrant Tool, a cell phone app that would hypothetically lead illegal border-crossers to water. It would also provide MP3 files of poetry, for immigrants’ listening pleasure. There were never plans to mass-produce the device, and there have been no reported uses by border-crossers. The project was about the political perceptions, possibilities, and reactions that could be generated by technology. This doesn’t make the gesture any less tangible. Perceptions are tangible, reactions even more so.
According to Richard Marosi of the LA Times, the virtual sit-in didn’t aim to disable Yudof’s website. It aimed to make a statement. Same with markyudof.com; a hoax it may have been, but a transparent hoax. Yoduf, resign to study social movements? Unlikely.
While Herbst actually participated in the recent b.a.n.g. lab protests, I did not. But even as an outside observer, being vested in what happens to b.a.n.g. lab makes me feel like a participant. That’s how art’s supposed to work — you participate with your ideas and allegiances. Activism, however, is sightly different.
To participate in activism, you have to put your body in places it doesn’t belong, which is why activists end up in jail and art ends up in galleries and museums (I know I’m being reductive here, but even artists who make dangerous, physical work, like Ron Athey or Franko B., often do it in sanctioned spaces). Activist artists put their bodies into it too, but sometimes it’s difficult to tell exactly what they’re putting their bodies into. It’s especially difficult with b.a.n.g. lab participants, because their “bodies” often manifest virtually.
When Chris Gaunt was arrested in Georgia a few years ago, it was pretty clear what she wanted. She held the School of America responsible for training soldiers to torture Latin American civilians; she wanted the training and torture to stop. When b.a.n.g. lab created the Transborder Immigrant Tool and staged the virtual sit-in, they didn’t necessarily want immigrants to listen to poetry on cell phones while making a desert trek that could be dangerous with or without a water-locating app. When they staged the sit-in, they didn’t intend to bring down the president of the UC Regents. They wanted to make big enough splash, and to do it in an unfamiliar enough way, that people would take notice and react. They succeeded.