Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Kevin Driscoll & Pablo Martínez-Zárate (Part II)


I read your opening statement before writing mine and it got me thinking about the relationship of art and education. I think of art as a way of approaching the world that is surprisingly compatible with research and teaching. In both art and research, you're out there in the world, looking for strange details, asking odd questions, testing out materials, and making little prototypes. As a pedagogy, art has the one unique requirement that you must to make things. You have to get your hands dirty.

Making things is where I feel art and education and participatory politics coming together. Whether someone is producing a documentary video or crafting a perfect email to send to a friend, participation always involves production.

So I am intrigued by the idea of putting tools to the test "continually", as you put it in your opening statement. To me, this suggested a kind of endless cycle of making and appropriating and re-making radical media. There is no single moment of transformation but, as you concluded, a commitment to on-going transformation.

Have there been particular projects or technologies or techniques that helped you to adopt this way of doing your work?


Well, the idea of putting the tools to test as a basis of a particular form of art based research is the foundation of what I've been calling an experimental documentary art. I have tried to approach this from from different perspectives in multiple projects. I will get to that, but your initial prompt takes me to a broader reflection on art and pedagogy which I would like to take as a start.

I totally agree that one point of encounter between participatory politics, art and education is the act of "making things". This takes me to the concept of poiesis (from the ancient greek "making", "creating", "fabricating"), and also to the relationship between the act of creating (getting our hands dirty) and our involvement with the world as historical subjects. In this line of thought, I believe that the act of making or creating something that was not in the world before we created it (an idea, an image, a song, a text) underlines the fact that as activities related with the building of the world (and the creation of meaning regarding our shared experience), these activities are strongly charged with a historical force. Therefore, art, education and participatory politics are ways in which individuals and collectivities not only build the world but also weave the historical narratives that allow us to give sense to our experience of this world we live in.

In this sense, the idea of production holds a strong historical implication (if not responsibility), and this is why I defend an experimental approach to artistic production and pedagogical intervention. The experimental take means, in its simplest form, to never settle with the standards, always push the limits of the possible (and so, of our expressive potential). They are both (artistic production and pedagogical intervention), I think, a form of participatory politics, of involving actively in the common issues of our world. And to your question, a couples of the most recent projects I have developed in Autumn 2018 and Spring 2019 deal with these ideas from multiple angles. For example, activating a photo archive of the 1968 student movement in Mexico through a collaboration with a performance collective, and transforming it into a 360 installation for 6 projectors, that was originally filmed by 10 cameras in both analogue and digital formats. This was a mode of activating memory through the incarnation of history, so the technique is both performative and technological (for it required the design of strategies for integrating different media and the complexity of the montage). In the most recent transmedia project called Dissections over planes, an essay on a huge modernist urban complex in Mexico City, I also deal with different materialities (analogue film, architectural models, performative practice and VR technologies) to explore the possible dimensions of such a labyrinthine and historically charged site as Tlatelolco (the web documentary can be explored at

I guess one of the issues that arises from our conversation is how we can define the uses of technology (especially, media technology) when thinking about our historical conscience. Do you think that art education and artistic practice could be areas of challenging and reinventing our relationship with technology? How does this affect our understanding of memory and history? And thinking also about your work, have you noticed an evolution of the interrelation between the artistic realm and the media horizon regarding to the latest trends in social media (the use of image and moving images, text and sound in aesthetic frameworks –i.e., Instagram–, as a basis of contemporary interaction and participation)? If we say that media are the platforms for building the historical narrative (transforming events into archival material, that is, media memory),  what are your thoughts on the evolution of media platforms in relation to a broader, perhaps more general historical consciousness?


I agree that experimental approaches to production are important and I think education creates the context for low-stakes experimentation. When we are learning a new technique in a classroom or studio setting, no one expects to be good. In fact, it's normal and OK to make mistakes, ask questions, and try new things. This connection between learning and experimentation seems crucial if we are concerned with social change. Participatory politics relies on low-stakes modes of engagement for newcomers.

In my research, I am especially interested in the media produced by amateurs and non-experts. One aspect of social media that is easy to take for granted is that it prompts people to make weird things. The "story" format that started on Snapchat and has since turned up on Instagram and other platforms is a very unusual form of video. It's been interesting to see how different people are exploring the "story" as a new format. It doesn't yet have strong norms or standards so experimentation is the default mode for creating a story. It seems appropriate, then, that Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is such an active user of Instagram Stories. As with her nascent political career, the story format conveys a sense of excitement, creativity, and unknown future potential.

At the same time, I am also curious about a tension between the process of media making and the products. If I might make a crude generalization about the formal art world, it seems that an artist's career depends on creating clearly-defined works that may be organized into a portfolio or a CV. Yet, the kind of everyday experimentation that happens in a classroom, studio, bedroom, or on a social media platform can feel quite ephemeral. We make something and forget about it. Or, give it away. Or, trash it. The Snapchat/IG story was designed in much the same spirit. The images exist for a few hours and then disappear.

I realize now that much of my thinking about media, culture, and participatory politics has hinged on the circulation of somewhat durable artifacts. Whether they are films or little GIFs, I am imagining media that have the potential to become an archive. As you put it--they transform events into memory. But if the media are designed for ephemerality, do they lose this memorial quality? Can we have a participatory politics organized around flows of fleeting images? Perhaps there is something freeing about the lack of accumulation in these new social media formats that will enable more experimentation?

Have you been making Instagram Stories? How do you find that this format compares with some of the materialities you have been weaving into your recent works?


It is not only normal and OK to make mistakes, I would say that it is necessary and almost a condition for innovation and social transformation. I like what you say about low-stake experimentation as an entrance to a more active and high risk participation. At the same time, it seems that in contexts such as contemporary Sudan or Venezuela, even Mexico, it is this low stake experimentation in media (mainly social media and other grassroots communication forms) where the potential of revolutionary action and social transformation evolves. This seems as a particularity of our hypermediated era, as an extension of course of pre-electronic dissident media. Low-stake media are often used for larger social causes, such as a social revolution, an economic or a humanitarian crisis.

Another thing that I find really interesting of what you say is the relationship between products and processes in art. I agree that there's a sort of fascination with the work of art itself, yet I am no so sure if this is more rooted in the art market (and the public) than in the artists and the creative process in a broader sense. I think that as artists we are often driven by the research and development of this investigation rather than by the products that come out of it. At least that is something that I consider crucial in the experimental approach described before. I also think that this applies to pedagogical processes (for example, a university degree is important for the market, for students and teachers transformation occurs in the path of attaining a degree). This prompts the idea of participatory politics as an ongoing process as well, one that beyond specific aims and results, is a motor of community building, sustenance and transformation.

Well, your question about IG stories touches a sensible issue. I've been thinking about it for so long! Should I start using it? There is certainly something seductive and truly powerful about it. I once wrote an essay entitled 'Snapchat time or the unsuspected murder of Godard', where I considered this ongoing flux of images as a clear manifestation of an emergent time-space paradigm just as film condensed the modern, industrial perception of reality. As the star system depended on photogenic creation of ideals, the Instagram body model is altering our human self-representation in unsuspected ways. I have really been preparing my first IG story because I know that once inside, there might be no way out (though I wonder - I already peek into stories every now and then, so I guess I am already trapped). How about you? If so, how do you approach it?


I am a big fan of the story format! For one, I like that it is intended to be created and seen on vertically-oriented mobile phone screens. But the primary reason that I love stories is that they encourage people to be playful with their social media. All the drawing tools and wacky fonts and GIFs and filters make it possible to create very different kinds of images and videos than other social media systems. And because they eventually disappear, I see people posting much weirder stuff on Stories than they do on their conventional feeds. It's a throwback, in a way, to an earlier time on the Web. When I'm watching my friends' stories, I get the same feeling of joyful chaos as browsing their MySpace pages. (I will never forgive Facebook for forcing every user's page to look the same. So boring!)

The way that celebrities and friends and coworkers and strangers all appear in seemingly random order on my Stories reminds me of one of the trickiest things about our media environment: there are no clear boundaries between low- and high-stakes, high- and low-budget. So when it comes to massive platforms like YouTube or Instagram, the exact same software, networks, and platforms carry everything from Hollywood blockbusters to clips of my dog at the park. It seems like this collapsing of boundaries (at least within platforms) is part of what links low-stakes media to larger movements for social change. Whether or not the creator of a Snapchat Story is seeking attention and visibility, they must know that the technical potential exists for the things that they make to reach bigger audiences than originally expected.

Of course, over the past few years, the access to big audiences afforded by these platforms has been most beneficial to extreme, far-right media-makers. To the cynical and strategic, the potential to reach mass audiences looks like a game. As sociologist Francesca Tripodi recently testified to the U.S. Senate, far-right groups exploit search engines like Google and YouTube to gain visibility for their otherwise marginal opinions. With the (substantial) financial support of wealthy donors, these groups look less like the experimenters we've been discussing but it seems important to note that we are all swimming in the same digital waters.


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] 

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).