The first thing that drew me into participatory politics (though I didn’t understand it as such at the beginning) was a profound personal dissatisfaction with the rampant injustice both in Mexico and the world. I thought that the main field in which I could have any influence, considering specifically Mexico’s educational system, was through radical pedagogy both at university level and in informal contexts, mainly by community education. I started working with media literacy under the belief that it is through the defiance of ordinary appropriation of media technology that we can renovate the way we imagine (and therefore live) our shared world. It didn’t take long for me to spot in artistic practice a concrete way of radical media use, which lead me to build an interdependent practice-research that weaves art and pedagogy.
My understanding of radicality depends on the defiance of ‘normality’, a normality that underpins the necrophilic regime that has extended its tentacles to every corner of the globe and that needs to be contested even if we know that victory is either ‘imaginary’ or very limited in its impact. In this sense, I’ve worked mainly with what I call ‘documentary and experimental’ art, and I do so for different reasons. First, it is through research and intervention of reality that documentary art finds its place. Second, in order to achieve radical media forms, one needs to investigate expressive tools at hand and ‘put them to test continually’. This means that radical media involves pushing technological appropriation to its limits constantly, questioning the market-imposed values on media and renovating their expressive potential. In a way, documentary-experimental practice focuses on the research and intervention of media technology with a critical focus.
In this line of action, I’ve done transmedia documentary projects, experimental films, video and art installations, and organized alternative educational platforms both as a professor at university and as part of different art collectives in Mexico, organizing artistic workshops both for artists and communities. With this work I don’t only try to resist ‘the evil ways’ of the world, but mostly my own evil ways, for I believe that art and education are paths towards transformation mainly because they help us transform ourselves incessantly. And so, my dissatisfaction is still present, but now I manage to recognize my own complicity with those destructive and oppressive forces that surround me, and try to work with myself and with others to achieve discrete yet meaningful transformations on a daily basis.
Around 2010, the concept of participatory politics gave shape to something that I felt, but could not name, about politics, popular culture, and the internet. I’ve taken the opportunity of this forum to reflect on that moment and how my expectations of participatory politics have changed in the face of right-wing terror and platform indifference.
Prior to becoming a teacher and researcher, my experiences in media arts, music, and nightlife set me up with certain expectations about what it meant to “do politics.” I had low expectations of any institutions to support social change. Rather, I believed that our collective aim was to set up situations in which alternative aesthetics, relationships, and ways-of-being might flourish. As my research interests took me out of my ideological enclaves, however, I began to see the limits of “making space” as an end in itself. The concept of participatory politics was especially compelling because it combined grassroots, do-it-yourself values with a commitment to challenging dominant political institutions.
Looking back, I am surprised to find how strongly issues of access shaped my early understanding of participatory politics. For years, access to information, access to tools, access to networks, and access to audiences felt like urgent pre-conditions for any sort of participatory politics. Of course, there was some justification in this concern because participation requires low barriers to entry. Yet, today, I rarely think of access alone as a goal. Instead, my sense of urgency shifted from the pursuit of access to examining how we make use of the access that we already have. Instead of access to information, I find myself calculating the cost of preservation and the burden of stewardship; instead of access to tools, I’ve been reading arguments for the cultural value of maintenance and the right to repair; instead of access to networks, I’ve been listening to those who strategically disconnect or refuse to connect; and instead of access to audiences, I have been reflecting on who is targeted and surveilled as an audience member. The battle for media access, it seems, was just a proxy for a much more intense struggle for media justice.
With some distance, I can see that my concern with access was shaped by a unique moment of media change. Growing up in the suburbs of the northeast U.S. during the 1980s and 1990s, I was fixated on barriers and gatekeepers. Even as media-making tools were becoming more widely available, the networks of circulation and legitimacy remained opaque. Preparing to write this piece, I remembered walking past the public access cable TV station in my hometown. The studios were housed in a brick building at the bottom of a hill, on the site of an old railroad depot. At the top of the hill, my friend and I recorded hours of home video in the hope of getting on the air. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the station managers could never find room in the schedule for our tapes. We privately raged at being left out while “Senior Scene” entered its umpteenth season.
Bumping up against these barriers in my local media system shaped how I later experienced political activism and the internet. In 1999, I felt a strong identification with the Indymedia activists who covered the anti-globalization movement. Their grassroots journalism—hand-made in HTML and low-res JPEGs—seemed like an end-run around media gatekeepers. Likewise, in the early 2000s, I regarded peer-to-peer file-sharing and remix culture as new fields for production and circulation, alternatives to the dominant media industries. In each case, my mistake was to diminish the role of administrators as always obstructionist rather than seeing them as potential allies, caretakers, or stewards.
I began to feel the limits of my access-oriented media politics in the mid-2000s with the restructuring of Silicon Valley around platform economics and user-generated content. While platform providers such as YouTube were clearly committed to providing access to those who were left out of conventional circuits of visibility—remember “Broadcast Yourself”?—they offered no vision for the world that would come after access, no imagined future, no articulation of utopia. Many other critics have written about the moral failure of venture capitalism and the doctrine of perpetual growth so I won’t repeat those arguments here. But, suffice to say, the pursuit of access without a commitment to justice resulted in a media system lacking accountability. With growth as the only measure of value, platforms celebrated the creation of any and all “content” regardless of the content of that content.
In the spirit of critical utopianism, I want to consider new futures for participatory politics. I believe that these futures must involve a form of radical care and stewardship for our shared media ecology. In the United States and elsewhere, access without accountability has provided discursive space and material support for reprehensible, reactionary, white supremacist voices. With the leadership of scholar-activists such as Joan Donovan and Whitney Phillips, we are learning short term tactics for stopping the flow of visibility to these figures. However, to thrive in the long term, we need a shared vision of the future marked by accountability and justice. In this future, who will tend to the information in circulation? Who will maintain the tools and repair the networks? Who will introduce barriers and filters and enforce periods of disconnection? Who will be accountable?
Kevin Driscoll is an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia where he specializes in technology, culture, and communication. He is currently writing alternative histories of the internet from dial-up BBSs and CB radio to CompuServe and interactive TV. Together with Julien Mailland of Indiana University, he co-authored Minitel: Welcome to the Internet and runs the Minitel Research Lab, an online archive dedicated to the pioneering French videotex platform. Links to Kevin's papers and projects are up at kevindriscoll.info.]
Dr. Pablo Martínez-Zárate Pablo Martinez Zarate (Mexico City, 1982). Mexican filmmaker, writer and artist. Professor at the Communications Department of Iberoamericana University, where he coordinates the photography lab and is head of the Master in Film programme. Pablo’s work bridges memory, territory and identity through film, photography, multimedia and writing. He has exhibited individually at Laboratorio Arte Alameda, Interactive Museum of Economics, Spain’s Cultural Center in Mexico and Mexico’s National Museum of Art. Amongst his films are Ciudad Merced (2013), La Película (2014), So Much Light (2015) and The Monopoly of Memory (2018).