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May 14, 2010

When the Art of Protest Goes Virtual

A friend who is a professor at the University of California at San Diego was visiting this week, and she mentioned that she was despondent and angry over the apparent witch hunt against an artist and faculty member at the university. The new media artist, named Ricardo Dominguez, who is an associate professor at UCSD, reportedly may have his tenure revoked for staging an online sit-in on the home page of Mark Yudof, the president of the 10-campus University of California system. The protest was over tuition hikes and involved hundreds of participants typing the word "Transparency" in the page's search box.

Dominguez got some attention last year when he created a modified cell phone that would provide people illegally crossing the border from Mexico to the U.S. with inspirational poetry and directions to water stations. (The L.A. Times called the device "more conceptual than practical," though it "scored public relations riches.") Three Republican congressmen from the San Diego area have asked the UC San Diego chancellor to provide a financial accounting of the cell phone project and, according to the Times, Dominguez and other faculty members say that the university is considering whether creation of the phone was an improper use of public funds, whether there are grounds for filing criminal charges against him for the computer sit-in, and whether to revoke his tenure.

My friend argued that the university had hired Dominguez -- an expert in electronic civil disobedience -- and granted him tenure for exactly the kind of creative acts for which he was now being investigated. Total hypocrisy, she said. While I think that Dominguez's projects are interesting and praiseworthy, my first response to my friend's rage was, "What do you expect? Universities today are no different than corporations. Their trustees are usually from industry and they're more in the business of preparing students for jobs than educating and enlightening them."

Plus, there's nothing that terrifies institutions -- including universities -- more than cyber attacks, which they fear will lead to the opening of confidential records, depletion of funds, and the breakdown of all operations. I recently met a student and computer whiz who was kicked out of a major university for trying to show them that their computer security network was vulnerable. They didn't want anyone to know and preferred to send him packing. It doesn't matter that Dominguez's action did not cause any harm, that his "Transparency" action was done in the name of art, or that he was hired to teach his students his provocative trade. Biting the hand that feeds you -- especially in cyberspace -- is a no-no.

Then I started thinking, "Shouldn't the UC system be more tolerant than other universities? They may rely more on private funding than they used to, but we still think of these schools as institutions whose advisory boards are not packed with executives who might prefer to keep the status quo at all costs. So UC should be more accepting of civil disobedience. Plus, many of its campuses led the charge during the '60s protests. They have that legacy to live up to. Or do they?"

In April, my wife and I took our teenage daughter up to look at UC Berkeley. We had an enthusiastic student tour guide. We met at Sproul Hall, the administrative building that was the center of the Free Speech Movement actions of late 1964. It was occupied by hundreds of students in December of that year, leading to campus reforms and a wave of protests at other universities around the country. We later stopped at California Hall, which houses the office of the chancellor and was the site of other protests. The guide asked us if we noticed anything strange about California Hall. He pointed out that there were no handles on the exterior doors. He said that they had been removed so that protestors could never take over the building again.

While I'm sure there is still a progressive faction at Berkeley, we didn't see any protestors on the campus that day. Oddly enough, I think that campus administrators would be much happier to deal with people marching on their building than cyber attackers whom they can't round up and haul away very easily.

In any case, Dominguez is not an evil cyber attacker. He's an artist/provocateur who knows how to get attention for a cause. I don't know for sure whether Dominguez chose to launch an online action in San Diego because that's what really frightens administrators or because students are too preoccupied these days to take their hands off of their keyboards and actually march. And whether or not you think that what he did is art is another matter entirely. But one thing's for sure: He's got the UC San Diego chancellor backed into a corner, and there are no door handles to remove.

Guest blogger Mike Rogers, an artist and writer based in Los Angeles, is the author of an illustrated novel about the art world, "The Third Eye," published by Edicions 30/kms of Barcelona. He has been a reporter for Fortune magazine and the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, among other publications.
May 14, 2010 12:00 AM | | Comments (0)

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