When Art Goes Disruptive: The A/Moral Dis/Order of Recursive Publics

Paper presented at the Public Interfaces Conference, 12-14 January 2011, Aarhus University, Denmark.



This paper reflects on the notion of recursive publics proposed by Christopher M. Kelty in the book Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (2008), analyzing the consequences of disruptive dynamics both in so-called underground artistic networks and in the business context of digital economy.

Public interfaces are contextualized through the analysis of disruptive actions in collaborative networks, showing that the vulnerability of networking dynamics in recursive publics might be an opportunity to create political criticism, while the act of generating a/moral dis/order becomes an art practice.

Although the analysis of geek community as a recursive public sharing social imaginary of openness, and a moral order of freedom, is a valid frame to understand geek culture through a sociological point of view, adopting a dialectical perspective in the analysis of network dynamics might open an opportunity to question the notion of artistic intervention itself. This thread connects multiple identities projects and hacker practices of the last decade with business strategies of today, reflecting on the role of activists and artists in social media. Their interventions are thought as a challenge to generate a critical understanding of contemporary informational power (or info-capitalism), and to imagine possible routes of political and artistic action. Furthermore, this analysis questions the methodology of radical clashes of opposite forces to generate socio-political transformation, proposing more flexible viral actions as relevant responses to the ubiquity of capitalism. The strategy of disruptive innovation as a model of artistic creation becomes a challenge for the re-invention and rewriting of symbolic and expressive codes.

On Social Imaginary and Recursive Publics
As Christopher M. Kelty pointed out in his investigation about geek communities and what bind them together:

“Geeks share an idea of moral and technical order when it comes to the Internet; not only this, but they share a commitment to maintaining that order because it is what allows them to associate as a recursive public in the first place. They discover, or rediscover, through their association, the power and possibility of occupying the position of independent public – one not controlled by states, corporations, or other organizations, but open (they claim) through and through – and develop a desire to defend it from encroachment, destruction, or refeudalization (to use Habermas’s term for the fragmentation of the public sphere)”[1].

In other words, what Christopher M. Kelty defines as moral and technical order, which could be easily related with the hacker ethics even if Kelty prefers the term “geek” to that of “hacker”, is a common social imaginary about technology and the Internet. According to Kelty, what brings geeks together is “a shared imagination of order” perpetuated by whom contributes to create it and to develop it. Geeks share a moral imagination of the Internet, which lives through hardware, software, networks and protocols, and which shapes everyday life practices. The geek community is a recursive public since it works on developing, creating and maintaining networks, and at the same time it is the network and the social infrastructure to maintains. Geeks speak and argue about topics, which they directly create and bring to existence: therefore, they are the public of themselves, the developers of their own social imaginary.

Speaking about a public sphere that refers to a specific moral and social order, Kelty refers to the analysis of the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, and to the previous investigations by Jürgen Habermas and Michael Warner. But even if Kelty’s concept of recursive public adds a new layer in the analysis of social imaginary in the so-called modern society – since it is not only interpreted as a shared background but as a tool of creation and autonomous development – the concept of “social imaginary” still has to be questioned.
In 1936 the psychoanalytic analysis of Jacques Lacan pointed out that the notion of social imaginary, seen as a coherent unity of a body’s image, is just an illusion of control and totality. In 1995, George E. Marcus’s ethnographical exploration of the relationship between contemporary science and technology questions the notion of technoscientific imaginary, beyond authoritative and comprehensive conceptual schemes, suggesting unexpected connections through the dialogue of various subjects.

Going back to the imaginary shared by geeks, Kelty brings the example of Napster’s collapse and its battle against the musical industry. A battle strongly supported by hackers and geeks worldwide, who found a common goal expressed by the openness of information, the freedom of exchange and the right to use decentralised technologies in opposition to monopoly. This is one possible way to analyse the matter; but if we adopt another perspective, we might discover a different meaning.
A business enterprise like Napster managed to attract the will and the energy of many activists to follow a cause with a deep commercial purpose. Napster was able to get so many followers because it managed to absorb their values turning them into its business. It was a business, which decided not to follow the moral order shared by its “recursive public”, the one given by the economy of monopoly. Napster opened a (new) cycle of appropriation of values and ethics, moving them from the so-called underground culture to the business field, just like many of the new generation of social media and Web 2.0 companies have been doing since the middle of the 2000s. It demonstrated that the idea of social imaginary as cohesive moral order could be disrupted, and the change could be done exactly by being strategically a/moral – thus adopting values that were apparently in contradiction to its own set of relations and practices. This explains how today it might be reductive describing network dynamics only trough a singular point of view, and that not only the notion of moral order, but also the one of a/moral dis/order might be a valid perspective to analyse recursive publics, both in the business and in the technological field.

If we start adopting a dialectical perspective, which proposes disruptive practices as the engine of critical change beyond the idea of oppositional moral orders, which conclusions might we reach? And which challenges might be open when the concept of recursion becomes a dialogical intervention with and not only against the object of criticism, transforming it from within?  This is where the artistic practice intervenes.

A/Moral Dis/Order as an Art Practice
An example of a strategy of disruption as a method of political criticism beyond clashing of moral orders, is given by a Neoist prank which followed an intervention by Alexander Brener and Barbara Schurz at the Club der polnischen Versager in Berlin, during the rebel:art festival in 2004 [2]. This intervention shows that the notion of social imaginary as a comprehensive order of values is not always effective to interpret collective dynamics, especially referring to underground communities that work staging a meta-critique of themselves. Even if the idea of sharing moral orders and social imaginary might be effective for explaining the activities of some independent groups (as Kelty demonstrated), it becomes questionable when referring to groups that practice negation, appropriation and cooptation of their very own values as a form of art.
When the act of disruption becomes art, it reveals the weakness of a mono-dimensional opposition as socio-political resistance. And, at the same time, it might open the path for more invasive and effective interventions in the field of art and politics, transforming flexibility and virality into a tactical advantage.

The rebel:art festival in Berlin brought together different underground activists and artists, apparently connected together under the notion of “rebel art” and the topics of culture jamming, hacktivism, media art and urban interventions. Among them, Alexander Brener and Barbara Schurz were giving a lecture, “Texte gegen die Kunst”, under the heading “Demolish Serious Culture”, also the title of one of their books.
Alexander Brener, originally from Kazakhstan, but internationally known as a Russian performance artist, become popular in the art field for the act of defecating in front of a painting by Vincent Van Gogh at the Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow and for drawing a green dollar sign on Kazimir Malevich’s painting Suprematisme, for which he was jailed in 1997. His radical writings and actions, often created in collaboration with Austrian activist and researcher Barbara Schurz, have inspired many subcultures, from Neoism to NSK (especially through the book Demolish Serious Culture!!!). Proposing the concept of technologies of resistance, then reformulated into anti-technologies of resistance in 2000, Alexander Brener and Barbara Schurz claimed a radical critique of the art world and of capitalism, through “familiar and traditional methods of political struggle and cultural resistance, as well as individual ‘transgressive’ techniques” [3].
As they write in 2001,

“On the one hand we tried to analyze critically technologies such as demonstrations, sit-ins, hunger strikes; on the other hand we discussed the effectiveness of showing your ass in front of your enemy, throwing eggs and spitting on your opponent’s dress. Resistance must take into consideration concrete circumstances of place and time and must act from very precise strategies and tactics of local struggle, if it wants to be effective. Borrowing from Foucault, who spoke about the ‘specific intellectual’ we suggested the term ‘local and specific resistor’ [4]”.

Such techniques of resistance is what they proposed in Berlin in the Club der polnischen Versager performing their poem “Texte gegen die Kunst” (here the video), marching while reading and denouncing the compromise of the rebel art festival with the art system, from the selection of the artworks to the publication of the pop-stylish yellow catalogue. They started asking for the director of the festival, holding a basket full with eggs.
Actually, the rebel art festival was a small underground event, managed by only one person, Alain Bieber from rebelart.net, with the support of all of us, contributing with our networks and ideas in the development of the program. The presenters were basically the main public of the festival, a “geek recursive public”, apparently sharing the same “moral order” of activists, hackers and independent artists, which in our mind included also Alexander Brener and Barbara Schurz. In their view however, we were just part of the art system.

While Alain Bieber was running away after receiving threats from Brener, a member of the audience suddenly stood up, claiming to be the director of the festival. Brener and Schurz’s response was an egg in his face, met in turn by screams from the audience and demands for them to leave. Alexander Brener and Barbara Schurz now stood there visibly surprised and embarrassed, slowly realizing having been fooled by an imposter, who explained his actions simply: “Because I am Monty Cantsin and I love you”.

Disruptive Actions Between Art and Business
It is not a case that such an artistic act of disruption came from Monty Cantsin, the open-pop star of the Neoist network, Neoism being “a parodistic –ism”. Neoism “refers both to a specific subcultural network of artistic performance and media experimentalists, and more generally to a practical underground philosophy. It operates with collectively shared pseudonyms and identities, pranks, paradoxes, plagiarism and fakes, and has created multiple contradicting definitions of itself in order to defy categorization and historization”[5].
A subculture who constantly negates itself – the hat Monty Cantsin was wearing during the Berlin event in 2004 read “(not) a neoist” – and whose definition is constantly disputed, this constant disputation being still another side of the Neoist art practice. “The best product of Neoism is anti-Neoism” is the favored aphorism of the Neoists, a detournement of a famous saying by Amadeo Bordiga [6].

This self-negation and a/moral disruption of dis/orders is also a mirror of a multi-dimensional approach that might be considered an inspiration to reflect on contemporary forms of socio-political criticism. Answering to power with a contra-power strategy, only contributes to enlarge and develop the spiral of encompassing oppositions, without really resolving the overall contradictions within the economical and political framework, as for example the concept of resistance proposed by Alexander Brener and Barbara Schurz demonstrated.

Today, the increasing commercialization of contexts of sharing and networking, and the co-optation of many cultural instances of 1990s hacker culture by proprietary platforms (from openness to do-it-yourself), shows the ability of business to adopt and invade “moral orders” which were once proper of their opponents. Napster was one of the first examples of this. Similarly but with a different purpose, the Monty Cantsin disruption of the Brener and Schurz intervention in Berlin, might be seen as the example of an a/moral reaction to the notion of resistance as a whole, corrupting the mechanism from within, showing the crisis of encompassing political intents and strategies. Monty Cantsin demonstrated that the challenge lives in the encounter with the symbolic dissolution of powers.
A path to follow today is to deconstruct power structures in the digital economy through the act of experience them from within. Analyzing artistic practices in the time of social media implies to acknowledge the strategy of being constructive and destructive at the same time. Innovation becomes possible by disruption and disruption becomes critical when it is transformed into an art form.

The point of departure is to apply the concept of disruptive innovation in the art field, and at the same time to open up a critical perspective to business. To reach this objective, it is necessary to analyze the marketplace from within, adopting a “hacker perspective” trying to understand how the market works after de-assembling its strategies and mechanisms of production. A challenge for artists and activists who want to deal with networking in the configuration it has taken today, ruled by corporate models of profit. Not clashing against them, but developing within them, while challenging them critically – and ironically.

by Tatiana Bazzichelli


[1] Kelty, Christopher M., “Geeks and Recursive Publics”, In Two Bits. The Cultural Significance of Free Software. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2008, pp. 50.
[2] Rebel:art festival: www.rebelart.net/f001-02.html.
[3] Brener, Alexander & Schurz, Barbara, 2000, “Anti Technologies of Resistance” in EuroArt Web Magazine, Issue 13, Fall 2010, http://euroartmagazine.com/new/?issue=20&page=1&content=54.
[4] Brener, Alexander & Schurz, Barbara, Ibidem.
[5] Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, Neoism: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neoism.
[6] Wu Ming 1, “Flesh and Blood, One Person After Another. Muddled Reflections In Articulo Mortis on the L****** B******** Project and on Neoism”, December 1999, www.wumingfoundation.com/english/g_digest0.html.

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