[iDC] Occupy the University: Reconsidering the Local

micha cardenas / azdel slade azdelslade at gmail.com
Sun Jan 17 18:54:09 UTC 2010

Hi all. Here's an article I wrote for our newly released journal from the
UCSD visual arts department. Hopefully, it'll continue some of the
conversations on this list and start new ones...

Occupy the University: Reconsidering the Local

Online with images at

 *Micha Cárdenas*

*Author’s Note
As this article goes to publication, the University of California is
erupting as a site of political conflict over the recent budget cuts,
tuition increases and furloughs. A UC wide strike and walkout of faculty,
staff and students has been called for on August 24th, 2009, the first day
of instruction. It seems that the UC’s disregard for the health and
wellbeing of their employees, as well as for the quality of education, has
reached an intolerable point for many. Many academics have taken this
opportunity to turn their research back to the university itself, which is
exemplified by UC Berkeley’s colloquium event entitled “The University in
The Dismantling and Destruction of the University of

In a conversation recorded for *pros** journal, Teddy Cruz and Rick Lowe
agree that socially engaged art has the ability to actually change the
material conditions under which art is made and in which people’s lives
occur. They seem to agree that the best way to change housing conditions is
to engage at the level of local legislation, housing associations and city
governments. I would like to intervene on this point. While I agree that
socially engaged art can change people’s lives, my intervention, to be
simple, is to say that the decision about how to intervene is not so simple.
Cruz and Lowe urge artists to engage in local city politics, yet I argue
that perhaps an even more local focus may be more beneficial. In her book *When
Species Meet*, Donna Haraway describes a feminist approach to political
ethics, which accepts our finitude, contingency and historical situatedness.
Her approach acknowledges that from a position of a lack of certainty,
“there is no outside from which to answer that mandatory
what political action to take. Refusing to take a political action is
still a political action, and so we are faced with “bearing the mortal
consequences” of our choices of where to put our artistic energies in this
expanded field where any artistic practice is apparently acceptable. My own
affinity with a feminist ethics of uncertainty grew out of my work with
Avital Ronell at the European Graduate School where I asked, “But how can we
sit and discuss the deep meaning of this punctuation mark while bombs are
being dropped on people?” Her response was, to paraphrase, that by
introducing doubt into commonly accepted definitions of ideas and political
strategies, that the decisions about dropping those bombs, or imprisoning
people, may be stalled, changed or ended.

By considering the university institution in which this discussion takes
place, with its framework of research and knowledge production, we can find
ourselves implicated and complicit on a new level. While the rhetoric of
humanist charities or of helping the poor children of the world may sound
convincing as a call to involve artists in questions of social engagement,
it also serves the institution to appear engaged in the communities. In
fact, one could argue that reproducing this dialogue serves to entrench the
existing conditions instead of changing them. I propose that a wide section
of contemporary artists are concerned with shifting, altering, rethinking
and recreating the material conditions of society and choosing very
different approaches from Cruz and Lowe, a few of which I will outline here.
These artists and activists question the structures that create and enable
political and economic conditions, and structures of knowledge production,
such as scientific dogma and medical definitions. The Electronic Disturbance
Theater’s notion of Science of the Oppressed will serve as a useful guide
for understanding practices which seek to re-imagine knowledge production in
the service of social movements and oppressed peoples. The practices
presented here seek to intervene in society at the level of the causes of
social inequity, of the underlying knowledge structures, instead of working
through local legislation, which could be seen as merely a symptom.

One trajectory of contemporary politically engaged art is centered around
the notion of community research initiatives, ways of conducting research,
which are based in the concerns of oppressed or politically active
communities. The *particle group*, a nanopoetic art
Electronic Disturbance Theater (EDT)
[4] <http://bang.calit2.net/pros/?page_id=11#footnote-4> have proposed and
developed this idea of the Science of the Oppressed. Science of the
Oppressed describes a form of knowledge production which is based in and
arises from a social need, and whose contours are shaped by the community
from which it arises. A Science of the Oppressed, as I read it, is an
invitation to re-imagine knowledge production and the way in which it could
improve the lives of oppressed communities by empowering the people of those
communities and existing social movements. Implementing this science, the
*particle group* describe their work as “combin[ing] digital technology,
investigative research, and multimedia formats in works that forge
subversive relationships with the twenty-first century’s frontiers of
nano-science and the
“nano_Garage(s): Speculations about (Open Fabbing),” a performance at
Medialab Prado, the *particle group* refers to a number of research oriented
gestures, saying:

We can imagine Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, Chela Sandoval’s
Methodology of the Oppressed, Critical Art Ensemble’s tactical science,
Natalie Jeremijenko’s public experiments and what the Electronic Disturbance
Theater has framed today as the “science of the oppressed” – each of these
parts of a wide area call for a re-framed relationalilty between spectator,
poesis, praxis, experimentation and Sandoval’s differential consciousness of
the “la conciencia de la mestiza.” Each gesture diagrams alternative social
forms of life and art that fall between the known and unknown, between
fiction and the real, between clean science and dirty science – each a part
of a long history of an epistemology of social production which privileges
the standpoint of the proletariat, the multitude, the open hacks of the DIY
moments, and of autonomous investigators who stage test zones of cognitive
styles-as/and out of – concrete practices as speculation and speculation as
concrete practices – at the speed of

Here we see a wide selection of practices concerned with research itself,
with knowledge production as a method of political action, concerned with
addressing questions about technologies and their effects on the public. The
*particle group*’s own work engages in Science of the Oppressed by
researching current nanotechnology and creating their own transperversal
responses based on this research. Similarly, the Electronic Disturbance
Theater is currently engaged in research into the effects of access to GPS
technology for post-contemporary border geographies with the project The
Transborder Immigrant Tool, working with immigrant rights movements to
prefigure the changing nature of virtual geographies.

One approach, which could be seen in dialogue with Science of the Oppressed,
involves the development of tools to aid social movements. Situation Room is
a project by Hackitectura.net, which focuses directly on the issue of
providing information to social actors in order to facilitate informed
decisions about what action to take, consisting of a room sized installation
including a number of mapping and communications technologies. The work
comes out of their experiences “in the design and implementation of several
temporary media-labs.”[7]<http://bang.calit2.net/pros/?page_id=11#footnote-7>These
labs are actually a common feature of major mobilizations against
corporate globalization. I have participated in a few of these kinds of
Situation Rooms, which often involve a map of the city, lots of computers
and phones and a flurry of activity as people in the street send in
information about what actions are happening, where arrests are being made,
and what police activity is being taken. They serve as a valuable part of
facilitating distributed political action, in which small affinity groups
engage in their own direct action instead of simply joining a publicly
announced mass action. Due to the increasing militarization of these events,
this strategy, a particular instance of distributed creativity, is
increasingly common and necessary. For example, at the Republican National
Convention in New York City in 2004, the police literally swept up masses of
people in orange construction netting, arresting bystanders and protesters
alike. Due to actions like this, distributed political action is critical as
an intervention in events like the Republican National Convention or any of
the meetings of international financial institutions such as the World Trade
Organization (WTO), Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), or the
International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The installation by Hackitectura, presented at LABoral in Gijon, Spain,
sought to “advance in the design of a situation room that could be actually
used in the context of social movements, for special events or for daily
research, strategic planning and
accomplish this, Hackitectura created a large Situation Room in the
gallery space including projections of maps, computers and phones and
engaged in a series of discussions and hacking sessions. For example, they
developed an interactive map that users of the Situation Room could
dynamically add content to and see related independent news stories about.
While they see the gallery installation “more as a simulation,” because it
was not attached to a particular event, it demonstrates the way in which art
practice can be used to empower social movements by developing tools and
strategies in collaboration with these movements.

Many of these movements are inspired by a notion of direct action, which is
closely linked to the idea of Civil Disobedience, but also to Cruz and
Lowe’s ideas about art practice. Direct Action is the idea that political
actors can directly create change instead of asking legislators to do so. In
the case of Situation Room, Hackitectura are supporting networks of social
actors who are engaging in Direct Action, in actions such as Fadaiat, a
previous event held on the Spanish-Moroccan border where they set up a
communication network, autonomous from the state, across a highly
militarized border. The tools and techniques used in Situation Room may
empower social actors at future gatherings.

Many of the examples mentioned by the *particle group* are concerned with
biotechnology and health. Aids Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) is one
early example of activists and artists who were directly engaged with
research as a form of social struggle. In “Make it Work For You: Academia
and Political Organizing in Lesbian and Gay Communities,” Maxine Wolfe
describes some of the research process of ACT UP:

In the four year ACT UP campaign that changed the Centers for Disease
Control (CDC) definition of AIDS, ACT UP women, working with others, wrote
lots of critiques of the existing system and continual critiques everytime
the CDC made one of its inadequate proposals… But the basis for the campaign
had come from working with infected women who described the infections they
had but were never mentioned by the

Here we can see a clear example of how research-based activism can address
the needs of the community of HIV positive people. ACT UP had access to
knowledge arising from their connections with the community of HIV positive
people and their work challenged and eventually changed the official CDC
definitions of AIDS. This can be seen as an example of the kind of hybrid
political action/artistic practice/research the *particle group* describes
in their call for a Science of the Oppressed. Wolfe goes on to describe the
way that the Direct Action movement of ACT UP acted as a kind of laboratory,
generating new hypotheses and then experimenting with them in the streets:

People who do grassroots, unpaid political work talk about and discuss
political issues and world ideas continually, as we are acting to change a
world that would like to see us die or disappear. We have to have an
analysis to do what we do. And, we have to know a lot —from how government
operates to how long traffic will be backed up if we block it; from
constitutional rights to the politics of the Irish community; from how
institutions operate to how to make a chant people will remember; from where
to buy an air horn to how to design research trials; from right-wing theory
to left-wing theory. We are constantly analyzing our successes and failures
and having to come up with something based on the outcome — something we can
act on again. It is intellectually challenging work of the most creative
sort.[10] <http://bang.calit2.net/pros/?page_id=11#footnote-10>

Wolfe describes here the complex feedback loop involved in social struggle.
Political struggles are in themselves a form of knowledge production where
social actors form ideas about contemporary society, power, and social
change and then test those ideas out in the street. ACT UP is one example,
which included a complex interweaving of strategies including art, politics
and knowledge production. Their mission statement says, “We protest and
demonstrate; we meet with government officials and public health officials;
we research and distribute the latest medical information; we are not
silent.”[11] <http://bang.calit2.net/pros/?page_id=11#footnote-11>

While ACT UP is an art and activism group concerned with changing the way
that bureaucracies such as the CDC work to distribute AIDS medication, their
strategy for doing so is one of direct action and knowledge production,
questioning the structures of medical authority and science itself by
engaging in their own medical research. Similarly, the later projects by
Critical Art Ensemble bring the public into the practice of science through
public demonstrations and performances in both GenTerra and Free Range
Grain.[12] <http://bang.calit2.net/pros/?page_id=11#footnote-12> GenTerra
was a series of public performances involving a machine, which would release
a harmless genetically modified bacteria, aimed at informing the public
about genetic engineering.[13]<http://bang.calit2.net/pros/?page_id=11#footnote-13>Free
Range Grain also involved public demonstrations in which food could be
tested for genetic modification in a mobile laboratory. These projects
attempt to shift the public understanding of genetic engineering by inviting
the public into a realm of knowledge production from which it has been
excluded. They attempt to shift the conditions in which scientific knowledge
is presented to the public by the public relations division of corporations,
such as Monsanto. I see Science of the Oppressed in this trajectory, of
questioning and reinventing the very conditions of knowledge production and
science, asking under what logics it should operate.

Our own university is a good example of the need for such a Science of the
Oppressed. Currently a heated debate is occurring between the administration
of the University of California, San Diego and the students and faculty over
evidence of an on-campus “cancer cluster.” More than eight cases of breast
cancer, two resulting in deaths, occurred in women working in UCSD’s
literature building. A study was commissioned by the Chancellor’s office in
response to Literature faculty requests. The study by UCSD epidemiologist
Dr. Cedric Garland found that “women who worked in the Literature building
had a roughly four- to five-times greater chance of developing breast cancer
than if they didn’t work in the
report ruled out potential causes, such as the domestic water supply,
radioactive chemicals, mold and exposure to carcinogens. Garland did,
however, suggest that there could be a link between the cancer cluster and
the building’s electrical and elevator
systems.[15]<http://bang.calit2.net/pros/?page_id=11#footnote-15>As a
result, the only response from the administration has been to shut
the elevator in the building. Students and faculty want to be moved into a
new building. However, the university has commissioned a new study and is
waiting on results from this study before taking action. The crux of the
issue is a question of knowledge—knowing what the cause of the cancer is—and
the university’s reluctance to accept blame and to act. In this case, a
community research initiative seems necessary. Discussions online have
claimed that there were four more cases in the late
is clearly a situation where the institution conducting the research
heavily invested in a particular outcome and a community based fact-finding
project could be incredibly valuable. In the short term, it is clear to me
that no one should have to work in this building. Yet in the long term, a
feminist community based research project could help to overcome the
university’s bias in the case as well as to consider the fact that the
cancer has only affected women.

The cancer cluster leads me to ask why the UCSD Visual Arts department’s
discussions about *Public Culture* are not focused on a more local context
and on considering the issue of building construction at UCSD, its health
effects and the accountability for such decisions. In a recent issue of
e-flux, Tom Holert critiques university institutional structures, which
shape art into a type of knowledge production, pointing out that “for
applications and project proposals to be steered through university research
committees, they have to be upgraded and shaped in such a way that their
claims to the originality of knowledge (and thus their academic legitimacy)
become transparent, accountable, and
quotes Simon Sheikh as saying:

The notion of knowledge production implies a certain placement of thinking,
of ideas, within the present knowledge economy, i.e. the dematerialized
production of current post-Fordist capitalism; and goes on to add that the
repercussions of such a placement within art and art education can be
described as an increase in ‘standardization,’ ‘measurability,’ and ‘the
molding of artistic work into the formats of learning and

Perhaps, though, this university based knowledge production can be utilized
and turned around in the mode of Science of the Oppressed to use the
university’s own structures to investigate and undermine it, as in the case
of the UCSD literature building. Other university occupations provide
interesting examples of such a strategy. Holert cites the 1968 student
occupation of the Hornsey College of Art as an early inspiration of the
introduction of knowledge production into art education. The documents from
the occupation state that “research activity must also deal with the
educational process itself… it must be the critical self-consciousness of
the system, continuing permanently the work started here in the last weeks
[June, July 1968]. Nothing condemns the old regime more radically than the
minor, precarious part research played in it. It is intolerable that
research should be seen as a luxury, or a rare
these drives for critical research can be realized by combining a
drive for knowledge production with a concern for socially responsible art,
at times referred to as Public Culture. Perhaps an occupation of the UCSD
campus is precisely the gesture, which could create the space for such a
public laboratory of knowledge production to occur, as in the case of
Hornsey, and could illuminate the types of local engagement brought forth in
this discussion in order to produce some answers about the literature

Looking closely at the wave of recent student occupations, from the Athens
Polytechnic University in Greece to the New School for Social Research to
NYU [New York University] to Helsinki University, one can see a deep
reconsideration of local action and social engagement in a university
setting. In the essay “Preoccupied – The Logic of Occupation,” written and
distributed as a photocopied zine, the occupiers of the New School wrote:

The university shall never again be merely the lukewarm appendage to civil
society that our (hypo)critical theorists so highly acclaim; rather, as our
friends in Greece have shown, the university can also be an appendage to
civil war, a space in which impenetrable bodies and inflammable knowledges
can conspire towards the dissolution of their very condition, that is,
separation. Yet it is exactly that sharing between life and thought that is
preemptively banned from the territories marked under the sign “university”.
Such territories betray their innocence not only in their concrete
unfolding, but in their very name. There is nothing “universal” about the
university anymore except the universality of emptiness. Students and
professors spend their waking lives covering up this void with paltry
declarations and predictable nonactions. The void should no longer be
avoided; it should be unleashed. Seceding from the university is no longer
enough. One must bring it down as

To even write this academic article for a journal about the need for an
occupation of our school seems futile, or somehow cowardly to me. To invoke
the names of the brave students of NYU or of Greece in such an article feels
to me somehow hypocritical, yet the very argument I am trying to make here
is that knowledge production itself can be a transformative act, and that
one must examine and acknowledge the structures in which we place ourselves,
and our own complicity with the neoliberal economic system which is robbing
the university of its possibility to be a space for transformation of self
and of society. My hope is that the movement for action in response to the
cancer cluster will grow and that this article may in some small way help
that momentum, add to the resonance of discontent.

In this paper I have described projects by artists which engage in knowledge
production, direct action and questioning the structure of science, in
collaboration with oppressed communities and existing social movements. I
claim that by considering a more local form of action in the university, by
more ardently striving to change the conditions under which we ourselves
live, learn and create art, we might find many more strategies for local
political engagement outside of local laws and housing associations. Yet
doing so may endanger our very positions within the institutions that we are
attempting to subvert, so one’s course of action must be carefully
considered. Still, the urgency of the current issues being faced, such as
the UCSD cancer cluster, the deaths of our own colleagues and friends,
illustrate the serious need for a reconsideration of the stakes of local
action and the effectiveness of current strategies.


[1] More information is at http://ucfacultywalkout.com/ and
http://option4.ning.com/profiles/blogs/the-university-in-crises [Accessed
September 10, 2009].

[2] Donna Haraway, *When Species Meet* (Minneapolis, MI: University of
Minnesota Press, 2008), 88.

[3] Ricardo Dominguez and Amy Sara Carroll, “Nanosferica,” Hermispheric
Institute, http://www.hemisphericinstitute.org/hemi/en/particle-group-intro[Accessed
March, 19, 2009].

[4] The *particle group* consists of Ricardo Dominguez, Amy Sara Carroll,
Diane Ludin, Nina Waisman, Marius Schebella, and a number of other
collaborators. Electronic Disturbance Theater includes myself, Ricardo
Dominguez, Brett Stalbaum, Carmin Karasic, Stefan Wray, Amy Sara Carrol and
a number of other collaborators.

[5] “Particle group opens at CAL NanoSystems Institute (CN(S)I) – Jan. 14th,
2009,” Particles of Interest, http://bang.calit2.net/pitmm/?p=120 [Accessed
March 19, 2009].

[6] Ricardo Dominquez, “[-empyre-] nanoGeoPolitica/Poetica/Pelicula –
fabricating with minor scales,”
March 19, 2009].

[7] Regine, “Situation Room,” *We Make Money Not Art Blog*,
March 19, 2009].

[8] Ibid.

[9] Maxine Wolfe, “Make it Work For You: Academia and Political Organizing
in Lesbian and Gay Communities,”
http://www.actupny.org/documents/academia.html [Accessed March 19, 2009].

[10] Ibid.

[11] Mark Harrington, “AIDS Activists and People with AIDS,” *Tactical
Biopolitics Art Activisim and Technoscience*, ed. Beatriz da Costa and
Kavita Philip, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, c2008) 326.

[12] “Critical Art Ensemble,” http://www.critical-art.net [Accessed March
19, 2009].

[13] Critical Art Ensemble, “Project Links,”
http://www.critical-art.net/Biotech.html [Accessed March 19, 2009].

[14] Amanda Ripley, “Cancer cluster at UCSD,” San Diego CityBeat,
March 19, 2009].

[15] Ibid.

[16] David Harvey, “Lit. Community Reacts to Cancer Cluster, Calls for
Action,” The Guardian,
http://www.ucsdguardian.org/news/1.1486588-1.1486588[Accessed March
19, 2009].

[17] Tom Holert, “Art in the Knowledge-based Polis,” *e-flux Journal*,
http://www.e-flux.com/journal/view/40#_ednref9 [Accessed March 19, 2009].

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] “Pre-occu-pied: The Logic of Occupation,”

micha cárdenas / azdel slade

Lecturer, Visual Arts Department, University of California, San Diego
Artist/Researcher, Experimental Game Lab, http://experimentalgamelab.net
Calit2 Researcher, http://bang.calit2.net

blog: http://transreal.org
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