Back in 2008 we created REFF, RomaEuropa FakeFactory, a fake cultural institution.
The story is simple, really. At the time, in Italy, we sat at the beginning of corporate assault on creativity.
It had been a while since progressively more initiatives, competitions, contaminations of art festivals and design challenges started to appear all over, sponsored by corporate interests.
They were nice initiatives, don’t get me wrong. Artists, designers and, in general, creative people were able to showcase their creativity by creating installations, mobile apps, artworks, design concepts, you name it.
The mind industry can take on anything, digest it, reproduce it, and pour it out […] This is its overwhelming power; yet it is also its most vulnerable spot: it thrives on a stuff it cannot manufacture by itself. […] The mind industry’s main business and concern is not to sell its product; it is to “sell” the existing order, to perpetuate the prevailing pattern of man’s domination by man, no matter who runs the society and no matter by what means. Its main task is to expand and train our consciousness — in order to exploit it. […] This is an industry that has to rely, as its primary source, on the very minorities with whose elimination it is entrusted: those whose aim it is to invent and produce alternatives.
In the end of the Experience Economy, and at the beginning of the Attention Economy, every industry transforms into a cultural industry, whose main product is conscience, and the definition of what is “future”.
During the times of information overload, of the crisis of finance, meaning and truth, of the information bubbles, of the constant raise of the divides, of the rise of Stacks with power beyond the ones of national states, power comes by shaping consciences and the perception of possibility, of opportunity, and of normality.
And this is what these organizations were doing. By spending a few euros on prizes and fellowships they introduced as normal and desirable the concepts of precariety, of free work, of the exploitment of creativity, of the culture of failure.
It was particularly meaningful that they chose to start their intervention from digital cultures, the arts and their intersections. In Italy we have a very strong tradition in these domains. Originating from the social centers popping up in cities (Rome, Milan, Florence, Naples, Bologna and Turin on top of all), from the faculties of Sociology, Anthropology and Engineering, and from a couple of Fine Arts Academies from all over the country, hacking was a big thing in Italy at the time. And it was remarkable in its aptitude to crossing boundaries, bringing its influence to the arts, queer cultures, biopolitical studies, technological and social innovation, to the design of novel sustainable economic models, and more.
In the arts, digital cultures brought together a wide community of theorists and practitioners (for example gathered around the AHA mailing list, just to name one): a thriving ecosystem of initiatives, actions, collectives, individuals and innovative forms of expression existed at the time.
One of these corporate initiatives (a competition) was peculiar. It was named RomaEuropa WebFactory, and in its first edition it promoted digital artworks under many forms, but with one exception: they could not feature works using the technique of remix.
Yes, you read right. No Remix.
Worried about copyright and intellectual property issues, and not yet educated to the themes of open licensing — and to their implications in terms of freedoms of expression (Creative Commons was just starting to be a “big thing” in Italy at the time) — the competition decided to exclude maybe the most important characteristic of digital content: the possibility to remix, hyperlink, modify, interpret, connect, cut-up, overlay, etc.
And there was more. While they excluded remix-driven works, they reserved for themselves the possibility to reuse the content submitted to the competition. They themselves could have made remixes out of them, and videos, and ringtones and anything they wanted.
When we found out about this thing, we immediately reacted.
We created a fake competition, and we transformed it in order to systematically reflect on how a cultural institution could/should have done it and, along the way, on the significance of remix/mash-up and open licenses for freedoms, rights and human dignity.
To make a long story short, the fake competition was really successful. We created initiatives in art spaces, universities, festivals. We gathered artists, activists, academics and we organized an initiative at the Cultural Commission at Italy’s Senate (the event was called REFFerence). We were even nominated as a relevant event for the Year of Creativity of the European Union (and, ironically, the “original” competition was not :) ).
REFF obtained substantial media coverage, both online and on paper, and it became a cultural phenomenon. At the time, if you searched online for the “original” competition, you would find most results being about the “fake”. The Fake was becoming more real than the Real.
The success was also very practical. The following year, the second edition of the “original” competition transformed, becoming fundamentally like the “fake” one: remix, open licenses, rights to authors, it was all there.
By means of a Fake, we had transformed the Real.
This was a major outcome for us. For this, we decided to take the initiative one step forward: REFF became “a fake cultural institution enacting real policies for arts, creativity and freedoms of expression all over the world.”
REFF “operated using fake, remix, reinvention, recontextualization, plagiarism and reenactment as tools for the systematic reinvention of reality.”
REFF’s website clearly stated:
“Defining what is real is an act of power. Being able to reinvent reality is an act of freedom. REFF promotes the dissemination and reappropriation of all technologies, theories and practices that can be used to freely and autonomously reinvent reality.”
This action was in line with the methods and initiatives promoted, at the time, by collectives and groups which were fundamental in the international scene of digital cultures (one for all: Luther Blissett): fake, pranks, plagiarism and reenactment as methods for making interventions on reality’s texture.
REFF started its action.
REFF became a book (published by DeriveApprodi), using Augmented Reality accessible directly from its pages to make a further statement about the possibilities and opportunities coming from “reinventing reality”.
And the fake cultural institution continued by creating open technologies and tools for the systematic reinvention of reality. One of them was an Augmented Reality Drug:
REFF, a fake cultural institution, systematically created interventions on reality (on Real), to transform the world, and was also sharing tools, technologies and networks for other people to be empowered to do this, as a means for liberation, expression, self-determination and dignity.
This morning, this long(-ish) story became really important for me again, because I read this article:
Hacking the Attention Economy
For most non-technical folks, “hacking” evokes the notion of using sophisticated technical skills to break through the…
From my point of view it is a meaningful history of reality hacking using digital tools and networks.
Towards the end of the article, danah boyd says:
“The techniques that are unfolding are hard to manage and combat. Some of them look like harassment, prompting people to self-censor out of fear. Others look like “fake news”, highlighting the messiness surrounding bias, misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda.
Companies who built tools to help people communicate are finding it hard to combat the ways their tools are being used by networks looking to skirt the edges of the law and content policies. Institutions and legal instruments designed to stop abuse are finding themselves ill-equipped to function in light of networked dynamics.”
And then she ends:
“For many who are learning these techniques, it’s no longer simply about fun, nor is it even about the lulz. It has now become about acquiring power.
A new form of information manipulation is unfolding in front of our eyes. It is political. It is global. And it is populist in nature. The news media is being played like a fiddle, while decentralized networks of people are leveraging the ever-evolving networked tools around them to hack the attention economy.”
It is the era of Post-Truth and of Fake News, some say.
Instead, we could focus on more meaningful questions.
Such as: how did the possibility to manufacture reality using digital technologies turn from tool for liberation, freedom of expression and human dignity into a tool for power and finance?
We could and should lay ground to avoid reducing ourselves to chasing this issue, and confront with broader ones.
Because, maybe, Fake News is not the problem.
Maybe the problem is Internet being transformed into that place in which people are guinea pigs for corporate experiments, behavioral data to be sold to the highest bidder, identifiers on databases to be tracked, followed, snooped upon, targeted.
This Internet only serves these purposes. Or, at least, this is what they teach us, directly or indirectly.
This Internet — in which Google, Facebook and the other Stacks detain more power than national states and of their governments — is used to capture and sell data, advertising, and to strategically steer flows of information and knowledge.
Everything goes in this direction.
Even network topology changes towards this. Even “network neutrality” has been bypassed and tricked through CDNs and strategically centralized or localized (geographically cached content) controlled topologies.
And, of course, all of this does not happen in the void.
The education system, universities, the instruments of the policies of labour are oriented to the models of professionalization, innovation and social transformation which are piloted by the Stacks.
Writing, reading, critique, construction, attention, time, patience, assimilation, conversation (not the emission of content) and reflection have become difficult to impossible.
We are restructuring ourselves and our societies just as we are restructuring the Internet.
We should intervene.
This should be the role of governments, today.
Paradoxically, we could and should use Fake to create a new Real.