Electronic Disturbance Theater

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Zapatista Tactical FloodNet, 1998

Technologies: E-mail, HTML, Java

Keyords: hacktivism, performance, tactical media, theater


New Media Art often takes hybrid forms, blending art's emphasis on aesthetics and creativity with the imperatives of other disciplines. In 1998, Ricardo Dominguez, Carmin Karasic, Brett Stalbaum, and Stefan Wray -- collectively known as the Electronic Disturbance Theater (EDT) -- blended art and politics by initiating a series of online civil disobedience actions in support of the Zapatista rebels of Chiapas, Mexico, a revolutionary movement of indigenous people fighting against ongoing governmental oppression. EDT used e-mail and the Web to promote its project to activists around the world, enlisting sympathetic supporters to download and run a Java applet called FloodNet. This applet repeatedly tried to open nonexistent Web pages at targeted sites, such as those of former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, former U.S. President Bill Clinton, the Mexican Stock Exchange, and Chase Manhattan Bank. Participants in EDT's actions were asked to select words for use in constructing "bad URLs" (Web addresses of pages that don't exist on the targeted server). For example, participants were asked to input the names of Zapatistas killed by the Mexican Army in military attacks on the autonomous village of Acteal, forcing targeted servers to return an error message each time one of these "bad" URLs was requested. In a deft conceptual gesture, this process inscribed the "bad" URL in the server's error log as a way of symbolically returning the dead to those responsible for their murders. If enough people had run the applet simultaneously, they would have overloaded the server, so that when a regular visitor tried to access the site, pages would have loaded slowly or not at all.

This disabling of a site in this way is known as a "denial of service attack." EDT's actions are analogous to sit-in demonstrations in which protestors block the entrance to a public building. Taking the civil disobedience actions of the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s as a model, EDT's members avoid destroying data and use their real names rather than hiding behind aliases. "The idea," according to Dominguez, "is not to destroy or disrupt these Web sites. It's to disturb, in the same way that paper airplanes coming through your window are going to annoy you." Dominguez alludes here to the symbolic Zapatista air force, composed entirely of paper planes.

The FloodNet software was used again in actions against the World Trade Organization and, in 1999, the group released their online civil disobedience software to the public as part of the "Zapatista Disturbance Developer's Kit."

EDT's work exemplifies the use of "tactical media," or the deployment of low-cost communications tools to protest against government and corporate institutions in a wide-reaching, high-impact manner. "We don't have massive PR firms or the ears of The New York Times. So we have to make gestures that are attractive to the media," Dominguez says.

Trained as an actor, Dominguez led agit-prop theater productions in the 1980s as a member of ACT-UP, the New York-based AIDS activist organization. He then worked for several years with Critical Art Ensemble, a group that published several books on media and politics, including Electronic Civil Disobedience & Other Unpopular Ideas, before forming EDT in 1997.

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