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Activism Beyond The Interface: notes on an itinerant production lab
by Roberta Buiani and Alessandra Renzi

Alessandra Renzi likes to use DIY media to bring together disparate groups and communities, experimenting with collective forms of inquiry and narration. She is involved in various projects, like the pirate television collective insu^tv in Naples, Italy, the Alt Media Centre and Institute for Community Inquiry in Toronto, Canada. Alessandra is also a post-doctoral fellow at Infoscape Centre for the Study of Social Media, Ryerson University where she conducts research on the criminalization of dissent, and on the design and use of FOSS platforms for collaborative media-making.

Roberta Buiani is a cultural theorist and a media-activist working at the intersection between science, technology and the arts, challenging their traditional uses and looking for threads that facilitate cross-communication between disciplines, individuals and creativity. This investigation has brought her to Cambridge, London, Turin and Montreal. For the last few years, she has been grappling with the role of the “viral” as concept and creative practice that carries potentials to transform and reconfigure social customs and communication. Her (always satirical) viral interventions (”The Viral-Knitting Project,” “Megaphone Choir,” “YorkisUs”) are the result of collective inspirations and collaborations.


In the last decade or so, we have witnessed an unprecedented diversification of activist tactics and strategies aimed at fighting injustices, raising awareness on social inequality and unscrupulous resource exploitation through all possible media. As protests and critical mass actions continuously experiment with colourful and joyous (though not less militant) modes of interfacing with their interlocutors through music, street theatre, and carnivals, technology is harnessed at different levels of organizing. Information technologies and D.I.Y. media have become fundamental tools to connect groups, reach wider audiences, instigate active responses and make activism more open to creativity. Many of these diverse practices are overtly linked, or complementary to more traditional expressions of activism, yet, in the wake of tactical media, a new set of subtle, often ambiguous actions has developed independently from those circles normally recognized as activist. Whether acting in coordination with a network of community groups, responding to calls for collective action, or establishing independent, guerrilla-style campaigns, activism today spans across all circles, genres and media, counting on a growing, and diverse crowd of individuals whose skills and abilities can be utilized in different ways.

Rather than an opportunity for inclusion and growth, this formal and substantial variety of practices is often seen as an obstacle to the achievement of a common goal and is a source of divisions among activist circles. We hardly seem to have tools and time to bring different practices into communication with each other, if not by recognizing their coexistence as part of a diversity of tactics. Even when no other political or strategic considerations position us otherwise, we still tend to remain anchored to our favorite strategies; to those with which we are most familiar; or to those that because they have proven successful in the past will satisfy specific agendas. In other words, different forms of activism employing different media and expressing different subjectivities often pose a series of problems to the process of movement building.

There are multiple grounds for this perceived incompatibility. In the case of new media practices, some of the reasons pertain to scarce knowledge about potential outcomes, and to mistrust in information technology because it is easily coopted by capital. Lack of time and resources often discourage groups to experiment with new (media, performative, or tactical) solutions, excluding any possible engagement with fringe and minority clusters within movements. In all approaches to activism, clashes of egos, or disagreements between factions are very human factors that hinder the adoption of new or different practices, or that cause groups to ignore them and even condemn them as suspicious. Above all, different positioning and assumptions about modes of struggle are not always conducive to developing a vocabulary to share knowledge and respect difference, to learn from different approaches and tend to stronger ties and lines of alliance.

With these considerations in mind, a series of questions arises:

1. What does it mean to think compatibility within activist practices and how can media be more than a static interface?
2. How can we learn to thrive on difference without having to erase it?
3. How do we address skepticism and lack of trust towards perceived incompatible interventions and turn them into respect, acceptance, and even collaborative spirit? (Here the idea of being positive does not preclude exercising constructive critique).
4. How can we invest in processes of collaboration and rearticulate our politics of inclusion while still focusing on urgent actions prompted by a constant state of social emergency?

We imagine a series of two-part events consisting of a “Lab” leading to the production of a “Radio Show” to approach these recurring, difficult questions in an indirect and practical way.


The Lab

The lab invites activists and artists to reflect upon the conflictual coexistence of diverse tactics, interventions, and performative actions gathered under the same umbrella term “activism”. In order to foster an environment that prioritizes collaboration, sharing and thinking together, the lab filters this inquiry throughthe production of a radio show about contemporary activist practices. Rather than focus on abstract discussions about social struggle or ideologies, or showcase a range of activist groups, this radio show requires of participants that they draw productive connections among disparate and in/compatible elements, catalyzing sharing and reflection––and functioning as a virtual networking space among activists. Both the actual production process and the content of the show are decided collectively, and developed following only some general rules and guidelines aimed at kick-starting a brainstorming phase and guaranteeing a safe space where everyone is able and comfortable to participate. As lab participants investigate what holds in place the interface through which we make sense of local groups, projects or communities (i.e. their actual media presence but also their discourses, or forms of action, etc.), they will have to bring them into conversation with each other for the radio show.

The Radio Show

The second part of the event, the radio show, connects the producers and the audience (in the studio or intervening from other locations through live phone calls) to react to and discuss the actual show’s content. We understand the radio show as a way to rethink and further question the process started by the lab itself, as much as the content presented in the show. This aims to sustain further analysis of the modes of relation among groups, the shared values and tools (e.g. media, forms of collaboration, tactics, etc.), to understand how to critique generously and learn from the work of others.

Like the lab, the radio show also unfolds within a respectful and safe space for productive discussion. Lab and radio show are intended to catalyse a series of reflections and refractions, meaning the creation of new lines of production of practices as well as modes of talking about them (e.g. more ideas, more alliances, more labs, or...).

Beyond its D.I.Y. interface, radio becomes the catalyst medium drawing from its history, flexibility and interoperability with other technologies to foster creative potential, allowing producers and audience to make sense of the fragmentary ideas brought in by the lab without flattening, simplifying or rigidifying them. We are not interested in producing a set of rules that calls for a homogenization of activism but an ever-evolving practice (maybe even an ethics) of understanding and thriving on incompatibility that speaks to wider and more diverse networks of communities and groups. To us, when dealt with creatively, this very incompatibility marking the field of activism can be a source of self-examination and growth.

The radio show format does not exclude the possibility of experimenting and unpacking the medium itself, for instance by playing with the juxtaposition of audio and video, analogue and digital, closeness and distance among people. Radio can also easily include humour, music and other surprise events... Finally, the simplicity of radio as a medium avoids spending too much time solving technological glitches, while it also does away with the anxiety that some of us may feel when images of us are made public.


The Process: toolkits, toolboxes and sandboxes

Self-examination often engenders personal growth but collective (self)inquiries spur collective growth that maximizes each individual potential and makes it resonate. Thus, the process of formulating questions together and attempting to answer them creatively becomes itself a moment of movement building. Some call it D.I.T. (Do-It-Together), others coined the verb “to we”. In all their incarnations, these kinds of collective inquiries are a moment of co-production of alternative practices of communic/action: the speaking as common action. Communic/action, rather than communication is what we need, since speaking to each other does not always result in listening to each other. Where communication fails, doing together forms a precondition for understanding each other better. For the same reason, we refuse to use the lab to provide a toolbox (a set of guidelines to understand and practice activism), or a toolkit from which to develop interfaces with the world. While these are both important and useful, they tend to rely on typologies and taxonomies of practices and media forms that implicitly pose incompatibility as negative.

We conceive of this lab as a sandbox, that is, as an open container or better as a platform from which to build ad hoc structures and constructions. A sandbox has loose boundaries, since sand always spills outside and is carried away. Here conversations and discussions don’t follow determinate protocols, but they are not random either; experiments are inspired, yet not directed by the material available. While we expect that participants interact with each other, we don’t want to anticipate or predict any outcome, neither do we bank on fulfilling any specific production goals.

Grains of sand aggregate and disaggregate by action of wind, when they are inserted into a mold by a child, when they become wet and are then dried by the sun. The materiality of the sand and its leaky container illustrate how the space of the lab and its attendant show become populated: they become an open space where people converge from other domains (e.g. call-in); where they aggregate through a newly-found affinities, or through combination of uneven, yet unexpectedly fitting bits.

We believe that this platform can be instrumental in starting a conversation that allows all groups involved to become more familiar with each others’ practices, but also to appreciate (or constructively critique) them as substantial to and deriving their force from specific social struggles. Importantly, by working together at times when there is less pressure and the stakes (and stress factors) are lower, the platform can also be conducive of forms of interaction that help us deal with incompatibility during emergencies, when groups have to find ways to co-exist.

Again, from a conceptual perspective, what we are interested in is not the container itself or the content of the container. We focus on the process of construction of the container, as a dynamic space where interactions unfold according to circumstances and encounters, and not according to rules and conventions. We especially hope that those in the sandbox will take some sand with them, disperse it, and be surprised to find some useful grains in their pockets or shoes, later on, when they least expect it.

Movability and Relays

This is the first of a series of labs that will take place in different cities (Toronto, Montreal, New York, Berlin), and that will adapt and grow with each situation, creating a relay among groups, and producing resources and links to continuously rethink and (re)imagine activism. We are currently working on an online space where to collect notes, links, documentation, responses and ideas produced during each lab/radio show (the interface of beyond the interface...).

Making this lab itinerant is important to enable the development and continuous transformation of languages and practices. In addition to facilitating the mutation and the easy transportation of the concepts across places (the outcomes from an initial lab might suggest that we modify the questions asked and the issues addressed in the next lab; issues addressed will change from place to place too), this format promotes a more covert but also profound series of transformations that might gradually affect the whole fabric of the lab and its participants. These transformations are not noticeable immediately. In fact, this format allows participants to appropriate the content of previous labs and develop it further. Every time the lab moves to a different city it becomes possible to formulate new questions, drawing on the local contexts as well as on the experiences from past events. These new questions may originate from conscious reflections on issues arisen during previous labs, or, they may result from the involuntary assimilation of previously expressed ideas.

Ultimately, “activism beyond the Interface” shifts the focus of the inquiry away from understanding communication among groups/a wider public through the interface itself to how communic/action nurtures movement building. As each phase of the project addresses specific issues (e.g. how to foster productive connections; how to “peer review” the analysis produced), and each lab delves into local contexts and connects participants, we create a relay among constituent parts that facilitate changing elements without having to start communic/action from scratch or having to abandon the search for practices that thrive on incompatibility.

                                        tinto coffee house