#81 - Feb. 2001

Critical Art Ensemble and Tactical Media Production

By Ryan Griffis

This interview, with Critical Art Ensemble, is the first part of a series of investigations into collaborative/group artistic practice taking place in, and critical of, the e-conomy.

Critical Art Ensemble (CAE), a collective of five artists working since 1987, produces cultural products ranging from books to Web projects to performances that investigate moments in art, technology, activism, and critical theory.

Ryan Griffis: How did CAE come to be a working group?

Critical Art Ensemble: It's too bad CAE has no heroic formation story about a grand international like the one the Situationists are often mythologized as having. CAE's story is much more mundane. We were students looking to develop a network that would have a cultural impact-some way of organizing that would give us enough financial, hardware, and labor resources that we could begin to construct a platform for a public voice. Collective activity seemed (and still seems) to be the best option.

RG: Many people, including artists, don't understand how most individual artists finance their work, much less large-scale public work projects and ephemeral/"conceptual" works. With the work that your group (and others) is involved in, being "politically" involved and controversial (in a way that doesn't always lead to "ticket sales") as well as potentially expensive (time and resource wise), could you talk some about the economic strategies of CAE as a collaborative venture?

CAE: We don't understand how to finance work either. No granting agency has ever given CAE money. We raise funds in three ways. First, we all have straight jobs. Second, we do a lot of visiting artist and speaking gigs in conjunction with writing, so we get royalties, writer's fees, and speaking fees. This money goes exclusively toward projects. Finally, we try to throw as many expenses as possible at any institution that wants to sponsor a project. We just hobble along from project to project, usually working with an extremely limited budget. A lot of our imaginative power goes into figuring out how to make things for minimal cost. However, it's better than it was when we first started. At least we don't have to liberate materials anymore.

RG: CAE has written quite a bit of theory for the practice of collaborative art activity, and from a perspective of involvement. At the current time, where does the group see itself, and other art/activist groups, in relation to other practices, for example the (very youth oriented) electronically aided organizing efforts of recent demonstrations in Philly, LA, and DC?

CAE: It all depends on what the group is geared toward doing. Over the past five years, CAE has primarily focused on biotechnology and the colonization bonanza that it is launching. We are working in a very straightforward manner, and trying to do events that demonstrate through participatory theater just what is at stake. Other groups like the Institute for Applied Autonomy ( are focused on ground developments, with projects like Graffiti Writer (a remote-controlled, programmable graffiti-writing robot) or their GPS project, designed to offer protesters escape routes so that they pass by the minimum amount of surveillance hardware when on the run. There is so much to be done. Happily there is no single metanarrative that describes intercollective associations, or that maps the intersection between groups working on direct material levels and those working in cultural representation.

RG: I've read statements from a member of RTMark expressing uncertainty about the labeling of their activity as art, or rather how the label can be a double-edged sword. I have also heard Guillermo Gomez-Pena say (of his and Sifuentes' work) that they can get away with much more than straight activists because they're artists. How does CAE deal with the reception issue, and are there times when the "Art" label is useful, and others when it's not?

CAE: If CAE has to pick a label, we prefer "tactical media practitioners." However, in keeping with this tendency, we use labels in a tactical manner. If the situation is easier to negotiate using the label "artist," then we will use it; if it's better to use "activist" or "theorist" or "cultural worker," then we will use those labels. Regardless of the label, our activities stay the same. Labels are useful only in so far as they set expectations among those with whom we wish to have a dialogue. The label that best taps the knowledge resources of the audience is the one we try to choose. A lot of this problem has to do with the social constructions of the roles of artist and activist. For the most part, these roles are placed within a specialized division of labor, where one role, segment, or territory is clearly separated from the other. We view ourselves as hybrids in terms of role. To CAE, the categories of artist and activist are not fixed, but liquid, and can be mixed into a variety of becomings. To construct these categories as static is a great drawback because it prevents those who use them from being able to transform themselves to meet particularized needs.

RG: In looking at many art strategies that have taken an "oppositional" stance toward the various forms of hegemonic oppression, be it blatantly political or theoretical, it usually seems to become assimilated into the larger art world. Overtly political artists become just that (Haacke) and more theoretical work becomes academic style (Kosuth, Art-Language). But such criticism seems to suggest that to become mainstream is death, so opposition is doomed to always stay marginal. But it would also seem that our society (and probably most) are resistant to drastic change, without catastrophe, and such assimilation is a necessity, one that must be carefully watched, but a necessity nonetheless. What are/have been CAE's thoughts on such issues? And how does this play out specifically through CAE's interventions into a discourse like biotech?

CAE: Whether to take a position at the center or the margins really depends on the goals that have been set by the individual or group. The reasons for doing projects on the margins are obvious. Work in such areas is great for education and organizing. From a collective history viewpoint-many individuals and groups working on a specific issue can bring about some positive changes. Working in the center is trickier, because as you stated it can always be used by the center for its own ends. The same can be said when the margins are organized well enough to have a public voice. Take the example of ACT-UP. This group collectively changed the protocols at the National Institute of Health in regard to HIV. At the same time, it was used as an example of democratic action that can impact bureaucracy, an example of people having free speech, etc. In many ways the movement was used to reinforce the public perception that democracy exists in capitalist economy. Someone like Hans Haacke is used in this same manner on a cultural level. However, the ability of the sight machine to reconfigure resistant actions (particularly once they address the center) is not a reason to criticize. If a group is creating resistant initiatives as a public practice (as opposed to an underground or otherwise hidden practice) then the cycle of resistance and assimilation is just a given. The important thing to watch is how well a group negotiates this give and take, and not whether or not it does it perfectly.

In the realm of biotech, CAE is just trying to make a specialized discourse a public (nonspecialist) one. CAE is worried that nonspecialists in general may not understand the significance of the biological revolution. So many elements are hidden, and there is so much misinformation (generally from market directives and science fiction) that it is difficult just to create a reasonable discussion. Specialization is a scary thing under these conditions. Unlike with the communications revolution, few people (directly) use the applications and information from the biorevolution, although almost all are indirectly touched by it.

Since the public has almost no direct experience with biotech, it seems abstract and too difficult for a nonspecialist to understand. CAE's intervention in this situation is to give people direct experience and reliable information so that individuals can come to understand that biotech is within their power to think about and actively affect.

RG: Speaking of the GE and biotech developments that CAE has investigated, there seems to be a lot of overlap with concerns coming out of communication technologies, that other groups, like RTMark and The Redundant Technology Initiative, are taking on. Many aspects of CAE's activities appear to address this as well in different ways. Could you address some of these overlapping issues occurring between biological and communications technologies?

CAE: There are two primary narratives in regard to this issue. The first is the digital and the second is control. Recent developments in information and communication technologies (ICT) and in biotechnology are on a parallel course. Contemporary ICT is slightly ahead of biotech, but they are both products of the digital era. When speaking of the "digital," CAE means this in a grander sense than just as a category of technology. We are speaking of a worldview, of a new cosmology. When we use the term "digital," we are referring to the idea of replication. Western cosmology has traditionally been analogic. That is, a process moves from chaos to order and back to chaos, and products exist in a binary pattern-the original and the counterfeit. For centuries the principle that order came from chaos and chaos from order was unchallenged. This situation really started to change in the early 20th century with Fordist mass-manufacturing. Ford intuitively understood the digital in terms of manufacture, in that he knew the distinction between the original and the counterfeit was actually an impediment to profit, and that profitability was increased by employing principles of replication and equivalence. This new model was directly understood and addressed in the development of digital technology-the technology of replication and equivalence. The model is based on the principle that order comes from order. Such an idea had tremendous impact on biology, because without it, the reproductive process could not be understood, because biological reproductive process is about replication. Once this idea was accepted, it was possible to understand DNA in a whole new way. Manufacturing, ICT, and biotechnology (the primary markers of the 20th century) are linked in that they share this new principle of order from order.

The second narrative, control, also links ICT and biotech. Both of these revolutions are about greater determinacy in complex systems. ICT primarily functions as a means to improve the gathering, storing, exchange, and distribution of information in the virtual world. Biotech is about the same processes in the realm of the organic. Through improved control of complex systems, capital can achieve its own ends in terms of constructing bigger and more efficient profit machines and maintaining the social hierarchies that best lubricate this machine. Take the example of work: ICT has contributed to its intensification to such an extent that the worker's body (particularly the technocrat's) is failing to function in the high velocity marketplaces of capital ( since the body is a low-velocity constellation). Biotech is partially an initiative to prop the body up, to redesign it, so it can keep up with the demands of a society of speed.

RG: With respect to GE/GM technology and human medicine, what are the group's interests in visualizing aspects of this technology that have a significant impact on access to health care and other privileges relating to the understanding of "healthy" vs "unhealthy"? For example, denied access to managed health care, or jobs, based on "genetic predispositions".

CAE: The group hasn't really addressed this issue specifically, although it does come up in relation to our investigations into the reconfiguration of eugenics in pancapitalist economy. The question for CAE is perhaps broader, and concerns categories such as fit/unfit or normal/abnormal. These categories clearly stretch beyond the specialization of healthcare and into generalized social and political organization. As tactical media artists, the group has completed four major projects examining various aspects of biotech revolution in a theatrical form that invites public participation (participatory theater). These works raise questions concerning (1) eugenic traces in assisted reproductive technology ("Flesh Machine" - both the book, published by Autonomedia and the performance project); (2) extreme medical intervention in reproduction and the attack on sexuality ("Society for Reproductive Anachronisms"); (3) the acquisition of "fit" flesh materials ("Intelligent Sperm On-line"); and (4) the utopian promissory rhetoric spinning off of the Human Genome Project ("Cult of the New Eve"). The most recent project is one that CAE began to investigate in the "Cult of the New Eve," and that is the politics of transgenics. What the collective is exploring in particular is the relationship between transgenic production and biological environmental resource management.

RG: Could you talk a little about this project and specifically explain the significance of the concepts of transgenic production and biological environmental resource management?

CAE: Transgenic engineering is the formation of new combinations of genes by isolating one or more genes from one or more organisms and introducing them into another organism. It was once believed that species boundaries were for the most part impenetrable. Now, all bets are off. Any species or combination of species can be combined with any other (although the limits of these recombinations are still unknown). Once the genomes of all the species are mapped and sequenced, and this information becomes readable, highly functional organisms can be created to suit the needs of the institutions or states that create them (hence the huge investments from both public and private sectors in various genome projects). Biological environmental resource management is mainly concerned with introducing species particular to one ecosystem into another ecosystem, in an intentional attempt to preserve or to reclaim a desired version of ecological equilibrium. The problems with this method are clear from the beginning. How is equilibrium defined? What is a desirable ecosystem? The ideological repercussions are overwhelming. Be that as it may, the method has been used for over one hundred years. There have been successes and disasters, although the disasters tend to get more press-kudzu, cane toads, etc. With transgenics, the possibilities for new species introduction grow exponentially. Resource managers are no longer limited to the catalogue of life as it existed in the past, but can create a nearly infinite amount of recombinations (eventually with very specialized characteristics) from this catalogue. New organisms are already being made on a daily basis using transgenic processes. The question of what can be made and what happens when these creatures are released is of central importance to all specializations concerned with the environment. Indeed, the commodities market is already testing the possibilities by releasing transgenic bacteria, farm animals, and plants into the ecosystem. This form of testing and of biological environmental resource management is a relatively gray area. The possibilities are both utopic and dystopic, but public mistrust of transgenics makes public discourse on the subject all the more difficult. To complicate this situation further, capital is in the midst of an ideologically schizophrenic moment. On the one hand, the ideology of transgenics (the mixing of categories) has traditionally been used as a means to mark the other and justify colonization. Colonial subjects have been considered dangerous because of the high value placed on transformation and mixing of natural constellations, which to the western colonial mind shows them to be out of harmony with the law of nature (according to which species can only combine with like species). To be sure, such activity in western mythology results in the making of monsters in the most extreme sense-vampires, werewolves, and witches. Not to mention that the territory of the other, like hell itself, has historically been sprinkled with projected fantasies of horrific recombinant creatures (harpies, sea monsters, cyclops, etc.) that are abhorrent to nature. Yet now that this law of nature (like with like; species with species) has been reduced to a simple boundary to be crossed for profit, capital has to produce a kind of doublethink that maintains colonial signifiers but allows the recombinant to be accepted in everyday life. Now that this new organic realm is open for invasion, centuries of ideological signage have to be re-engineered. The sharply divided opinions about transgenic food are indicative of the problem. On one hand, the traditional transgenics fears sweep through the general public, and on the other hand, those concerned with maximizing profit in food resources are building data that show that transgenic food is neither a health hazard nor an ecological threat. This battle between the dystopian/utopian form of representing these new initiatives is the perfect dramatic friction for a theater of transgenics, and biological environmental resource management is one key discipline in which material conditions will play themselves out in the extreme.

RG: One thing that I've noticed frequently in CAE's writings is the examination of our (US mainstream) culture's focus on the spectacular and unusual when it comes to death and memorialization. The group seems to like using Greg Ulmer's concept of a memorial for automobile deaths as an opposing point of focus. This seems to me to suggest an attempt to do something not often done in "activist" art practices (Adbusters, etc.), which is mainly addressing latent desire(s) behind the mundane acts of living, along with being critical of the actions themselves.

CAE: Nonrational economy, or the under economy, has always been of primary concern for CAE, considering that capitalism has an immense stake in limiting the scope of desire to work and commodity relations. The task of trying to productively agitate the nonrational is by far the most difficult because it is where organizational and analytic abilities are of modest use in ensuring successful actions. The standard tendency of cultural and political activist practices to react and counter a given activity that reinforces or expands dominant social hierarchies with a strategic or a tactical initiative (logos opposed by antilogos) will not work in the realm of the nonrational. All we can ask in such a case is what can we do to create conduits into territories of visibility where repressed/invisible desires can find public expression. When done successfully, such expressions can introduce a productive level of chaos into society (usually at a micro level), which in turn offers organized (rational) movements or activities a more liquid space to act effectively. In other words, the political chess match between oppositional forces does not have to follow standard patterns of interaction. While this narrative sounds good in theory, the problem is that there is no way to know who will benefit or what the final result of agitating the nonrational may be. It's a real roll of the dice that can have as disastrous (authoritarian) consequences as it can have good (liberationist). However, given the current situation, resistant forces have little to lose by working in this arena.

RG: Does CAE see the "Us/them" dichotomy common to many oppositional camps problematic? If so, what theories/practices do you use to not fall into that trap, while remaining actively critical?

CAE: That really depends on the situation. For example, CAE is in favor of what we term tactical essentialism. When this is employed, people can successfully use universal binaries to establish the social solidarity that can in turn produce a resistant movement. It has been used well in the past by the Women's Liberation Movement or the Black Power Movement. However, this choice is tactical, meaning that it must be surrendered once the movement has been established. If resistant vectors are to continue to increase in mass and velocity, they must then establish more complex critiques and actions that recognize the inconsistencies, aporia, and gray areas involved in separation.

CAE's main principle for not falling into the binary trap is our use of tacticality. Obviously, this is a very long discussion that goes beyond the limits of this interview, but here is the short version: The five principles of tactical media are as follows: specificity (deriving content and choosing media based on the specific needs of a given audience within their everyday life context); nomadicality (a willingness to address any situation and to move to any site); amateurism (a willingness to try anything, or negatively put, to resist specialization); deterritorialization (an occupation of space that is predicated upon its surrender, or anti-monumentalism); and counterinduction (a recognition that all knowledge systems have limits and internal contradictions, and that all knowledge systems can have explanatory power in the right context, and that contradiction in general is productive). Our practice is about process only-the process of resistance. We have no final cause in mind, no utopias, and no solid social categories. CAE interacts with the becomings of lived time in an effort to expand difference.

RG: I don't want to naturalize technology here, but what does CAE make of certain trends in technology that seem to favor more democratic (less specialized) forms of communication and commerce (shareware, Linux) as opposed to the more dominant forms of private property and intellectual property rights? How is biotech connected to these changes?

CAE: We have to be careful with this issue. The primary conflict, if not crisis, that is happening within capitalist economy concerns how digital economic power should be configured and consolidated. Currently, capital is split. On one hand, there are those who believe that profits can be maximized by doing away with older notions of property. From this perspective, in an economy based on replication, the only thing that matters in terms of profit generation is the speed of replication. The faster information is replicated and thereby consumed, the higher the profits in analogue economy. For example, if a company gives away free music on Napster, that company will in turn sell more CDs, more concert tickets, more band merchandise, etc. From CAE's perspective this is the position that will eventually become dominant because it is a digital strategy. On the other hand, many still believe that digital products should be governed under the same property principles as analogue products (traditional privatization). The struggle within capital is intense on this issue. Whichever way it goes, the public is not going to win. Capital will only tighten its hold on digital economy. The good side is that during these conflicts it's possible for actual anti-capital initiatives to accomplish more by camouflaging themselves with this discourse and reaping benefit from the confusion emerging from the crisis. It's so nice when the capitalists turn on one another over a principle that was beyond question prior to digital economy.

Biotechnology is a part of digital economy in that it is primarily about speed and replication, so we are witnessing the same struggle. From the research point of view, scientists are generally good about sharing information, but there are limits. Patenting is still alive and well. From the corporate perspective, it's the same split as with digital information. Some want to treat genetic and molecular breakthroughs as analogic, others don't. Take GM food for example. Some argue that it is best to give away genetically modified seeds (a common occurrence in postcolonial food initiatives in the third world). The belief is that once food production is cornered from the molecular level up, that profits from other related goods and services will increase. Others want payment from the beginning. Since much of this happens on a case-by-case basis (for example, Monsanto uses both strategies), it's difficult to tell what the future will bring.

Critical Art Ensemble can be found on the web at

Ryan Griffis is a member of artofficial construction media (