Strategic interactions of hacktivism and contemporary visual culture

A hacker is a person who tries to discover or overcome the barriers of certain systems because of intellectual curiosity, pure creativity or joy1

The evolution of hacker culture is a definitive phenomenon of contemporary culture, radically changing the effect mechanisms of information and media. Hacker ethics are greatly inspired by 20th century art movements and artworks, as a gesture dismantling a certain existing canon within its own self, using its own code. The aim of my research is to analyse the story of the similar behavioural patterns found in both hacker culture and contemporary art. Gestures of a hacker’s attitude can be numerous by goal, creator and tools, from politically engaged events (eg. Femen) to online hacktivism (eg. Anonymous, Wikileaks), mass mis-use of social media (eg. the Occupy Movement), hacks becoming the art canon itself (eg. Duchamp) and phenomena on the periphery of the artistic canon (eg. street art). (See expanded below) Remix in this context can be defined as a strategy to disassemble a certain sequence to pieces to put it back together, in order to give it a potential new meaning.

The sampler is an element of postmodern artwork, but also a symbolic emblem of postmodern attitude” 2

The original meaning of the picture is lost, but the ingredients remain, gaining a new meaning.”3 What is most important in this process is the person doing it, usually not from within the institutional system of media, but rather an interfering outsider, using remix as a method. „[…] Our era is constructed of millions of images, sound samples, quotations and quotations of citations. REMIX means to take possession of parts of this world, by availing oneself from the rich milieu of consumer culture- the construction materials of ones own world. […] In this sense, the process of REMIX can constitute an act of protest but can also represent a process of taking responsibility for the formation and content of the media space that surrounds us everyday.4 …VJs do not purchase, but rather hack, rip, record, and edit in order to create their works, the visuality, contents, and qualities of which define the style of a VJ [collective]. Remix can be considered a method of protest, but at the same time, it equals taking responsibility for shaping the surrounding media space, where participation does not need serious previous skills reserved for the privileged. By reprogramming the memes of consumer culture, remix sends the altered messages back to its source, providing new points of view, smartly using the infrastructure of the consumer culture itself. Remix culture continues what dadaism had prepared for the art of the future: “The DJ and VJ culture questions the conventional definition of culture and has deconstructed the function of the author”. 5

During my teaching internship, I intended to make my students familiar with the practical basics of 20th-century experimental picture making techniques. The planning, experiences, and conclusions of this process formed the spine of my second thesis. The pedagogical programme consisted of experiments with the application of mediums with a past related to both fine and applied arts, dating from the 20th century, pushed to the periphery in the current teaching practices of drawing, visual culture, motion picture, and media education.  Key concepts included:
apocryph genres in public visual education;
on the adolescence of 20th-century avant-garde trends;
the banality of technical pictures in the age of technical omnipotence;
the development and innovation of the visual language of electronic picture making:
the manifesto of understanding Light;
analog pictures: transparency, photogram – ”the medium is the message”;
recycled pictures: visual diary, collage, concept photography, xerox, comic strips –”the medium is the medium”;
portable pictures: mobile phones, video performance, Internet: (”the medium is the massage”)

Hacking as a 20th century avant-garde strategy
The genre of collage, the provocation of the audience, the destruction of schemes, redefinition of functions are core elements of the bodies of work for many 20th century avant-garde artists and movements (such as dada, Fluxus, feminist art pursuits, etc), and for contemporary processions (eg. Maurizio Cattelan, Banksy), that have become a cliché.

Gender issues relating to power-structures in art
The feminist art movement of the ’70-ies relies a lot on guerilla tactics within the art scene not only with its topics, but as well with its methodology. The reflective gender-related artworks are highly considerable provocations of power structures in art using similar methods to the above mentioned. The outsider’s point of view applies to feminist art just as postcolonial issues in contemporary practice.

Analogue and digital hacking gestures on the periphery of art and culture
Thinking about any public visual work, like street art or guerilla gardening, it is reasonable to think that everyday tools like flower pots and spray cans are closer to open source programming than commercial licenses are. Civil endeavours and the DIY revolution play a big role in such current progressions.

Eduardo Navas describes remixes born by hacking, reflecting on their original meaning with a new function, as transmedial pieces. Most of these phenomena are remixed or redubbed youtube videos, like a scene from “Der Untergang”, redubbed and re-titled thousands of times according to local political scandals. “Patchworks” like this are spread online, gaining an incredible amount of views and becoming memes in no time each day. But not all of these works are DIY, coming from outside of the art world. Many are within it, like the works exhibited at MUMOK’s Gender Check: Masculinity and Feniminity in the Art of Eastern Europe6, or the outstanding and accounted video installations of Candice Breitz, sourcing footage from mainstream media. By the definition of Navas, all teenager youtube videos and the LHOOQ are transmedial works as well.

One of the first successfull mediahacks in mainstream media was done by Orson Welles, who broadcasted his own science fiction novel as news on radio in 1930, spreading country-wide panic. Since then, numerous artists and groups has used mainstream media to deceive viewers with a critical aim, like Adbusters or The Yes Men. Guerilla campaigns with a commercial background do not belong to this category, but have some attributes in common.

Tactical media: a critical mass
Tactical media is the mass use of web2 technology and social media for political issues by civil crowds. As such, it is not exactly the same as the process of hacking, but it follows a similar trajectory in mainstream media while (ab)using its infrastructure. Social media takes a huge bite of the internet cake: facebook, flickr, youtube, twitter, etc., available on cellphones, have become tools, and maybe even symbols of political protest against authoritarian regimes (eg. Spanish Revolution, Egypt, Libya, Occupy, Israel-loves-Iran, etc.)

The paradigm-shift from copyright to open knowledge, facilitated by the mass use of internet, is closely connected to the ideas of remix and hacking, if one examines the hackers’ manifesto. If hacking is understood as “illegally breaking into computers”, then hacktivism could be defined as “the nonviolent use of legal and/or illegal digital tools in pursuit of political ends”. … Hacktivism is a controversial term, and since it covers a range of passive to active and non-violent to violent activities, it can often be construed as cyberterrorism.”7 In the communication model-sense, hacktivism may be seen as the very opposite of tactical media, but the desperation is the same: (details from Steven Levy’s Hacker Manifesto) 8

Access to computers and anything which might teach you something about the way the world works should be unlimited and total. Always yield to the Hands-On Imperative!

All information should be free.

Mistrust Authority. Promote Decentralization.

Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race, or position.

You can create art and beauty on a computer.

Computers can change your life for the better.

All the above described phenomena, and the way they relate to one another, are in the focus of my research. The main claim of the thesis is to examine and further develop the strategic behaviour that they have in common. I would also like to discover the image this behaviour evokes: a kind of romantic countercultural image known from sci-fi literature, affecting the image of artist in time. How do these two relate to one another in current history, to activism and activist art, and to the institutions of their own power-structures? Is there a common ground to these strategies, and how does it affect visual culture?

1 H.A.C.K., Hungarian Autonomous Center for Knowledge http://hsbp.org/HomePage

2 FEJER Balazs: Az LSD kultusza /egy budapesti kulturális színpad krónikája > A parti, Antropologiai sűrű leírás

3 Himmelsbach, Sabine. (2008) “Sampling als kulturelle Strategie – drei Beispiele.“ In: Fischer Sound:Frame catalogue 2008:

4 Uli sigg: Keimzelle Club. In: sound:frame. Festival zur Visualisierung von elektronischer Musik. 2008, p 45 Ein Bildmusiker in Wien, in sound:frame catalogue 2009

5 Karl Bartos (Kraftwerk) interview,, Ein Bildmusiker in Wien, in sound:frame catalogue 2009



8in HACKERS Heroes of the Computer Revolution STEVEN LEVY To Teresa A Delta Book Published by Dell Publishing a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. 1540 Broadway New York, New York 10036

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