Interview By Alex Dunbar
The Transborder Immigrant Tool in action. It’s not much to look at, but it has the power to safely guide migrant workers from Mexico to the US and back. (Photo by Ricardo Dominguez)
Over the past two decades, Ricardo Dominguez has been utilizing electronics and the internet to piss off just about every high-level administrative authority in the US. In the late 90s, his performance-art-cum-activist organization the Electronic Disturbance Theater (EDT) set up a participatory website-jamming network called the FloodNet system, which allowed anyone with an internet connection to gum up the official sites of the US Border Patrol, White House, G8, Mexican embassy, and others, rendering them inaccessible. The Department of Justice retaliated with an electronic attack on the EDT that aimed to destabilize the group and interrupt their online meddling. As any conspiracy wonk can tell you, it’s illegal for the government to use military force against civilians without declaring martial law; that’s the job of cops and FBI agents.
Dominguez, a Zapatista sympathizer and close friend of Subcomandante Marcos, claims the various forms of online mischief conducted by the EDT were experiments in electronic civil disobedience rather than true acts of sabotage. Their work led to massive virtual and physical sit-ins protesting the Mexican government between ’98 and ’99, attracting more than 100,000 participants. But his current project—the Transborder Immigrant Tool—is poised to enrage a much broader spectrum of the North American populace. By augmenting a low-cost Motorola phone with GPS and a battery of applications, Dominguez’s goal is to help illegal immigrants complete safe border crossings without being sent back by the Border Patrol or getting shot in the face by American “patriots.”
The primary goal of the Transborder Immigrant Tool is to increase safety during border crossing by directing heavy-footed immigrants to safe routes, shelter, food, water, and friendly sympathizers. With the recent surge in militia membership and the Obama administration’s announcement that they will be reducing the number of Border Patrol agents next year, it looks like we’re getting ready to witness a showdown for the ages. And Dominguez couldn’t be happier about the level of shit he is about to seriously disturb.
Vice: How did you first become involved in electronic civil disobedience?
Ricardo Dominguez: In the 80s I was a member of something called the Critical Art Ensemble. We wrote a series of books published in the 90s that speculated on what the future, and computers especially, might bring. Our core speculations were that we would see the emergence of three different arcs of capitalism in the 90s: digital capitalism, genetic capitalism or clone capitalism, and particle capitalism or nano-driven technology. We decided we would speculate not only on the artistic aspect of these emerging capitalisms but also on how we could intervene as artist-activists into each of these areas. We developed the idea of electronic civil disobedience as a way to mediate the emergence of digital capitalism. Some Critical Art Ensemble members have even been arrested for their work. One in particular, Steve Kurtz, was brought before a grand jury in 2004. Homeland Security considered his use of nonpathogenic bacteria in certain museum installations a bioterrorist threat. Sounds grim.
But good has come out of it too. In 2000 I was invited to become a principal investigator at Calit2 (California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology) at the University of California in San Diego, and I’ve been there ever since.
Ricardo Dominguez is very happy that the Border Patrol considers him a nuisance. (Photo by Brett Stalbaum)
What sort of electronic civil disobedience led the DOJ to conduct so-called infowar attacks on the EDT?
It was unprecedented because there is a law called the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, which says that the US government cannot directly use military force on protests staged by civilian populations. Any interference has to be conducted via the local police or FBI. We had tested this gray area and lost, but we also won because launching this type of attack on a civilian server was the equivalent of B-52s dropping bombs on a group protesting on Wall Street, at least legally. The Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard contacted us and asked if we wanted to sue the Pentagon. We thought that might be interesting but instead decided to develop and distribute the disturbance kit so anyone could use it. For the past few years you’ve been working on the Transborder Immigrant Tool, which sounds like it’s really going to chafe the asses of millions of people—civilians and government entities alike. What was the impetus for this project?
My research lab at Calit2 is called BANG Lab, which stands for Bits, Atoms, Neurons, and Genes. One of the areas I’ve focused on since I’ve been in San Diego is developing what we call border-disturbance technologies. There’s another teacher here at UCSD, Brett Stalbaum, who really enjoys traveling in the desert, but he has no sense of direction, so he developed what we call a Virtual Hiker Tool—a GPS you can wear on your wrist that always coordinates the most beautiful view, the most beautiful way to go, on the day you’re traveling. What potential did you see in the Virtual Hiker Tool from the standpoint of an artist-activist who wishes to disrupt the standard protocol for crossing the US-Mexico border?
I thought it was really interesting because it moved GPS away from an urban application and placed it in the natural frontier. I’m always interested in how we shift these ubiquitous technologies and configure them toward other issues and disturbances, as I like to call them. And of course, the border is right there. We know individuals crossing the border mainly die because they get lost or run out of water. It’s the devil’s highway, and it’s been that way for 500 years. What is the device, exactly?
We looked at the Motorola i455 cell phone, which is under $30, available even cheaper on eBay, and includes a free GPS applet. We were able to crack it and create a simple compasslike navigation system. We were also able to add other information, like where to find water left by the Border Angels, where to find Quaker help centers that will wrap your feet, how far you are from the highway—things to make the application really benefit individuals who are crossing the border.
Chris Head and Elle Mehrmand, two of the many graduate students at UCSD who helped develop the free-pay-phone project with Brett Stalbaum, install a Skype system on a pay phone before placing it just past the border in Tijuana. Later they direct deported migrants to the phone with a handmade sign. (Photo by Micha Cardenaz)
When will it be available to the public?
We’re at the end of the alpha stage, in terms of the technology, so the next level, which will be the most difficult, is interfacing with communities south of the border: NGOs, churches, and other communities that deal with people preparing to cross the border. How can we train them to use this? What is the proper methodology? Those are really going to be the most nuanced and difficult elements with, let’s call it, the sociological aspect of the project. Are you worried that you’re going to rile anti-immigration militias?
One of the first things we did at BANG Lab was to interfere with the Minuteman Project in 2005. They were quite angry because not only were we committing public actions against them, but Calit2 and the UCSD system were also supporting it. They’re well aware of who we are and what we do. Once they get full knowledge of the Transborder Immigrant Tool—and we’re very transparent about it—I’m sure they’ll be quite critical. That’s one word for it. You sound like their worst nightmare.
I would imagine they won’t be too happy with us, but again we’re not trying to hide. It’s a safety tool. It’s not trying to resolve the political anxieties of these communities or resolve the inadequacies of a fictional border for a so-called free-trade community. Again, our position is that it’s not a political resolution; it’s a safety tool. That, at the core, is what we’re attempting to do. What are some of the other projects you’re working on?
We’ve got a lab where we’re working with similar applications using nanotechnology and labs where we teach researchers about electronic civil disobedience and border-disturbance technologies. For instance, one of our researchers recently developed a pay phone that connects to a free Skype system. When Homeland Security drops Mexican laborers back over the Mexican border, they’ll have this pay phone right there when they get off that they can use to call home or wherever they want. But it’s all interconnected—from the Critical Art Ensemble, to electronic disturbance, to the work I’m doing at BANG Lab today. It’s all a single matrix of investigation and performance, which is quite fruitful in its horizons in an unexpected way. Do you ever say to yourself, “Wow, I can’t believe my life’s work went from something the government completely freaked out about to a legitimized academic endeavor”?
I guess, yeah. I’m not really quite sure how to interpret it, but what I can say is that I’ve received tenure. I’m an associate professor, which was highly unexpected considering the work I have been doing throughout the years. I suppose one can say, “Well, you know something strange is going on, and it’s not exactly clear what it is,” but certainly I do hope that it shows a positive shift in the way we think about the border and about communities outside our own zones. It’s not about doing away with or altering borders, but about opening new forms of communication and understanding.