The Research Center for Proxy Politics aims to explore and reflect upon the nature of medial networks and their actors, that is, machines and things as well as humans. The proxy, a decoy or surrogate, is today often used to designate a computer server acting as an intermediary for requests from clients. Originating in the Latin procurator, an agent representing others in a court of law, proxies are now emblematic of a post-representational political age, one increasingly populated by bot militias, puppet states, ghostwriters, and communication relays. During the period of the project (September 2014 to August 2017) the center will host a series of workshops at the Universität der Künste, Berlin, revolving around a wide range of relevant topics including the politics of digital networks, the political economy of crypto-currencies, the genealogy of networked thought, the mediality of physical landscapes and strategies of opacity. The center will also conduct material, experimental, investigations into the conception and construction of alternative networks, or alternets.
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(TEXT) 15/07 2015

Plunge into Proxy Politics

Boaz Levin, Vera Tollmann

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The essay was first published in Springerin, hefte für gegenwartskunst.

By July this year, protesting in the public sphere in Spain will become an expensive affair – the Citizen Safety Law, dubbed the “gag law”, criminalizes protests that “interfere with public infrastructure”. Under the new law, which was passed by the governing “Popular Party” last December, protestors will be liable to fines of up to hundreds of thousands of euros for marching in front of congress, blocking a road or occupying a square. The law is the most recent in a series of attempts by the government to curb a wave of popular protests that has swept the country since 2011. With unemployment rates reaching over 25% and one out of two Spaniards under 25 jobless, hundreds of thousands of outraged citizens took to the streets, occupying squares and universities. With a discredited political class, tarnished by years of political scandals and corruption – the Indignados (Spanish for “The outraged”) sought to revert to the most basic tenets of political agency by reclaiming the public sphere. Protests similar in their occupation strategies were taking place across the globe, in Tunisia, Egypt, Greece, Israel and the U.S. Though many commentators pointed out the role played by new technologies such as social networks and smartphones in facilitating these protest, it was the city square, as old as political thought, which was the star of the show. Thus, when the ironically titled Popular Party passed its new draconic law protesters were quick to seek an alternative solution to their bodily presence.

The result was a hologram protest, the first ever, as media outlets were quick to point out, skillfully choreographed and hastily projected in front of the congress gates. Specters were – for once quite literally – haunting the sterile streets, voicing the grievances of those citizens prevented from being there. The event had been rehearsed and performed in a nearby city, and the equipment (voluntarily) installed by a PR company in what was a clandestine operation. This was a proxy protest fit for the age of proxy politics (1).

The proxy, a decoy or surrogate, is today often used to designate a computer server acting as an intermediary for requests from clients. Originating in the Latin procurator, an agent representing others in a court of law, proxies are now emblematic of a post-representational, or post-democratic, political age, one increasingly populated by bot militias, puppet states, ghostwriters, and communication relays.

On a broader level, proxy politics can be seen as both a symptom of crisis in current representational political structures, as well as a counter-strategy, which aims to critically engage and challenge the existing mechanisms of security and control.

In his book Post Democracy (2), Colin Crouch describes the current political condition as one, which increasingly relinquishes power to business lobbies and non governmental organizations, with the result being that “there is little hope for an agenda of strong egalitarian policies for the redistribution of power and wealth, or for the restraint of powerful interests.” The vision of an autonomous, potent, political subject is devastated by the growing power of privileged elites standing at the nexus of transnational co-operations, extra juridical zones, infrastructural authorities and non governmental organizations. To give but one example: when the house of representatives recently voted to end bulk surveillance by the NSA (3), it was made clear that though it would take “the government out of the collection business, it would not deny its access to the information. It would be in the hands of the private sector — almost certainly telecommunications companies like AT&T, Verizon and Sprint” (4). In other words, even after a seemingly successful move towards reform, the corridors of power are revealed to lay elsewhere, between politics and the private sector. One could also think of strong relations which Google Inc. keeps with the White House.

Which forms of resistance and evasion could apply to this vague techno-political condition? How not to become a walking sensor platform generating indices of data?

Just as proxy politics is a condition – the name of a political regime, which thrives on obscurity, opaqueness and decoys  – it may also designate the possibility of a corresponding counter-insurgency. Ideally, proxy politics encompasses a myriad of modes of withdrawal and retreat, technical as well as metaphorical – it’s utensils could be a VPN, a 3D scan of a fingerprint, P2P technology, a surrogate, a stock image – it’s outcome is always concealment, evasion, subterfuge. Hito Steyerl (5) recently framed proxy politics as an answer to the “terror of total Dasein”. Most certainly, strategies like these might be significant for an interim phase, a time during which any difference between real virtuality and virtual reality, the tangible and the digital, is increasingly difficult to discern, while it is becoming evident how severely controlled both spheres actually are.

As Alexander Galloway has observed, “instead of a politicization of time or space we are witnessing a rise in the politicization of absence- and presence-oriented themes such as invisibility, opacity, and anonymity, or the relationship between identification and legibility, or the tactics of nonexistence and disappearance, new struggles around prevention, the therapeutics of the body, piracy and contagion, informatic capture and the making-present of data (via data mining)” (6).

Once considered to be a deterritorialized technology, the Internet is reterritorialized by way of security mechanisms, the TCP/IP control protocol and national jurisdiction. Emblematically, the NSA have attempted to map the internet using a program called Treasure Map.

The shadow-like figures in the hologram protest embody a double movement – a process of deterritorialization and reterritorialization: at first slogans and shouts were crowd-sourced online, and then they were synced with holographic images which were filmed in a nearby city, where the distances and angles of the scene in front of congress were meticulously reproduced.

Finally, scattered, dispersed voices were composited, montaged and reassembled in public space. The blue-ish tone of the hologram projection is reminiscent of surveillance camera footage, alluding to the popular depiction of a dystopian totalitarian state. Instead of public space, the simulated protesters inhabit a new medium, the proxy. In this case, a hologram, a digital object which manifests itself in three-dimensional space. Could these people be convicted on the basis of the actions of their holographic avatar? Would face recognition software criminalize them, or their doubles? Here, the individual is rendered into an intersection of profiles and data. As Nishant Shah has recently put it, “regulation of data is closely tied in with regulation of bodies, and that a failure to effectively govern data puts biological bodies in conditions of precariousness and danger.” (7)

While constellations of physical and digital spaces are under continuous negotiation, recent publications have shifted focus either towards the physical infrastructures (Keller Easterling (8) ) on which global networks are relying, or, towards the extended meaning of networks as “imagined networks” (Wendy Chun), considering “gaps between the experience and the representation of networks”. According to Chun, networks enable us to imagine the unimaginable, like global climate change or global capital as they create unforeseeable futures. Within these imagined networks, we are rather a series of “you’s” than a collective of “we”(9). This non-communitarian tendency might be considered as one of the shortcomings of proxy politics and its apparatus. The body double, the scan or VPN all refer to the individual user, rather than to a collective. But might the proxies mobilize en masse?

When the Turkish government banned Twitter during March last year, protesters and users turned to Google’s public DNS, using it to circumvent the ban, while spreading the word both in real life meat-space via graffiti, and online virally. Similarly to the hologram protest, once again public space and the screen were for a moment conflated. The proxy, whether as hologram or communication relay, metaphor or infrastructural intervention, brings forth the possibility of political agency in an age in which ruling powers increasingly enjoy a prerogative to obscurity, while political subjects are rendered increasingly transparent. Proxy politics is hinged upon a struggle for opacity, it is both a new form of power as well as a mode of resistance.

Footnotes

1: Hito Steyerl, Proxy Politics: Signal and Noise. In: e-flux journal #60, december 2014, http://www.e-flux.com/journal/proxy-politics/

2: Colin Crouch: Post-Democracy, Cambridge, 2004. p 6

3: Edward Snowden described the 5 Eyes as a supranational organization that ignores the laws of their respective countries – the leaked NSA documents have revealed that FVEY intentionally and mutually spied on eachothers citizens, collecting and exchanging information amongst themselves in order to circumvent restrictive regulations for domestic spying.

4: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/14/us/house-votes-to-end-nsas-bulk-phone-data-collection.html?ref=topics

5: Radical Philosophy Conference, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, January 2015, http://www.hkw.de/en/app/mediathek/audio/3826

6: Alexander R. Galloway, “Black Box, Black Bloc”. A lecture given at the New School, New York City, April 12, 2010.http://cultureandcommunication.org/galloway/pdf/Galloway,%20Black%20Box%20Black%20Bloc,%20New%20School.pdf

7: Nishant Shah, The Selfie and the Slut: Bodies, Technology and Public Shame. In: Economic & Political Weekly vol l no 17, April 25, 2015

8: Keller Easterling, Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space, London 2014

9: Wendy Chun, Imagined Networks, Affective Connections, 2013 Marc and Constance Jacobson Lecture, Michigan University, https://youtu.be/KnqZBIv_Zn4

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