Activist Media and Distributional Aesthetics in the City

No Somos Delito “Holograms for Freedom” protest, Madrid, Spain, 2015. The demo was in response to a law that made protests illegal. Screenshot from YouTube:
Carrie Rentschler explores urban porosity via a feminist infrastructural focus on key points of transfer and transit in the city that activists target for change using a range of aesthetic and political strategies
[Ed. note: this post is part of a Roundtable discussion on “Porousness and Cities.” For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

Sabine Haenni’s second post invites us to consider how we might think about the aesthetics of the porous city. That question is bound up with how we imagine what porosity is, and how it works. Haenni prompts us to examine urban pores as media: as that which allows materials to pass, something I find quite useful.  If porosity is about movement (and its limits), then we might think about the concept more directly as one of distribution. Porosity as distribution points to different scales of dissemination through which ideas, people, things, commodities and other stuff moves and are moved.  A doorway in my home functions at a different scale than a lock and dam system on the St. Lawrence river. Each was designed to function to let some things pass more easily than others. What moves through them also differs. They each share transit in common.

In this second piece, I want to focus briefly on what a feminist infrastructural disposition might enable us to account for at key points of transfer and transit in the city, especially those points that activists target for change using a range of aesthetic and political strategies. To think about the question of aesthetics in relationship to distribution — or distributional aesthetics — raises a series of interesting questions about what distribution looks and sounds like, and how it is experienced. Distributional aesthetics are the aesthetics of what moves, how, under what conditions and around what kinds of interventions.1Jace Clayton used the term first in his 2016 book Uproot: Travels in 21st Century Music and Digital Culture to examine how global transit and shared practices between DJs and other contemporary musicians shapes how they think about where they play, how their music circulates, and under what conditions. For more, see an interview with him here. In their edited book Signal Traffic, Lisa Parks and Nicole Starosielski call for an infrastructural disposition in the field of media studies, an analytic orientation that “foregrounds processes of distribution that have taken a back-seat in humanities-based research on media culture.”2Lisa Parks and Nicole Starosielski “Introduction” in Signal Traffic: Critical Studies in Media Infrastructures, ed. Lisa Parks and Nicole Starosielski. Duke University Press, 2017, 5, emphasis in original. Their concept of “signal traffic” tunes in to “how content moves through the world and how this movement affects content’s form.”3Parks and Starosielski, 2017, 1. The feminist protocols I discussed in my first post are not “signals” in the way Parks and Starosielski describe, but they do shape the look and sound of their content in ways tied directly to their movement. In turn they offer particular kinds of feminist aesthetics for material that moves, is designed to move, and is meant to help organize people’s movement. Ideally, they also model processes for how to transform the ways municipal infrastructure is being designed, built and managed.

In my work, I examine materials that are often not understood in terms of their aesthetic qualities, but they do have certain aesthetic qualities that are tied to their circulation and use: things like training guides, resource lists, print and online activist toolkits and the open Google documents so many activists use. Some are, in fact, beautifully and accessibly designed; and increasingly, socially conscious designers are working with activists and researchers to create compelling materials for popular education and social action. Many of them think very concretely about the dissemination and use of their materials in urban environments in the context of their design process. Take the example of the Riot ID project by professor Anna Feigenbaum at the Civic Media Hub at Bournemouth University in the UK, the Omega Research Foundation, and Minute Works design studio. Riot ID provides well-designed guides to help protesters identify tear gas and other weapons used against demonstrators in order to hold their users and producers accountable for the harms they cause.

Screenshot from the #Riot ID Guide.

Their project materializes feminist activist processes around a clear distributional logic – and aesthetic — that makes the project easy to share, replicate, and use. The designers of Riot ID also think very concretely about dissemination, as their guide explains. Materials like these have a clear (and, I think, beautiful) distributional aesthetic. How the guide looks is designed for its optimal use, use which depends upon the guide being shared by activists across different locations. The first RiotID image provides clean drawings of tear gas canisters to make identifying them easier. It also uses clear iconography to communicate the different activist uses to which the guide can be mobilized (e.g. public opinion, accountability, and medical intervention). That is, the guide is meant to be used for, and in the context of, direct action that extends beyond the event of a protest or demonstration.  It uses easy-to-identify icons in order to do so. The second example from RiotID, below, provides images that show people how to disseminate the guide on Twitter while also using straightforward, high contrast black-and-white drawings. In the second image, when viewed on the RiotID webpage, the upside-down page from the guide in the middle of this example is shown being folded into different configurations for its use. Dissemination is built into the very design of the project. I took a workshop with the creators and designers of this project, where I learned that their process focuses on having participants develop the images to be used, based on what they determine will best communicate the issues and goals of their activist design. The images are meant to do the bulk of the work of communication. And, as the social media model of the street protest on the right side of the image also illustrates, projects like this one presuppose, but also re-imagine, city spaces as sites of contentious politics.

RiotID’s guide to dissemination

As I wrote in my first post, the concept of urban porosity captures some of what I’ve been thinking about how the supports that urban spaces provide for social relationships (and of what kind) are not givens, but are being struggled over and re-defined in the process. In many contexts, this struggle is met with highly militarized and dangerous responses meant to, often literally, disable protests and protesters and to criminalize dissent. Within these  conditions, activists design tools like Riot ID to counter the militarization of police departments and municipal laws that make protest illegal. Protests like that of No Somos Delito and its “Holograms for Freedom” project offer another model of audio-visual political demonstration that centres a distributional (and projectionist) aesthetic. The project counters a Spanish law against public demonstrations, peopling the streets of Madrid with holographic protesters that create spaces of choreographed dissent (echoing some of the political aesthetics of public art projects that Annie Dell’Aria analyzes). While Haenni wonders if porous aesthetics overlay the built environment, projects like “Holograms for Freedom” literally and figuratively open up the law’s attempts to close the space of Madrid’s streets.

Embodied activist practices and activist media mark the city as a contentious political site that can better serve the communities and those made most vulnerable by urban policies, laws and police practices. Each of the projects discussed here enacts a distributional aesthetics and politics that aim to remake the relations of power between people, and between people and institutions, in urban spaces.  Similarly, the feminist protocols I examined in my first post speak to a political aesthetic attuned to the thresholds of urban movement and transit, and the relations of dominance and resistance enacted there.

While these activist tools and their distributional aesthetics are representational – they create pictures of the world and utilize representational logics – I think what makes them interesting (and significant) is how they move, get used, and become key tools for action that create conditions of social change. I think about them infrastructurally, as the channels, technologies, levers and scripts, that people use to open up new social possibilities precisely around key points of connection and transit in urban environments. They point to what Anna Viola Sborgi calls a “contemporary receptiveness to porosity as a deliberate strategy” for transforming urban spaces and their social relations. A place where, as Erin Schlumf imagines, “chance encounters, wanderings, and choice are still possible,” and not fully determined by the durable patterns of encounter between people and the infrastructures that shape their daily lives. A city’s porosity, as Sabine Haenni noted in her first post, “allows for ‘new unforeseen constellations,’” and “modes of informal family formations beyond blood relations” that create broader networks of kinship and stranger sociability.  It is these possibilities for relating with others – both known and unknown – to create better, less violent, ways of living and laboring that feminist protocols model and transmit. The question now is: are we ready to receive them?


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