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Dancing with the Zapatistas

Diana Taylor, Lorie Novak, Authors

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Ricardo Dominguez: Interview about the Zapatista Movement

Diana Taylor: Ricardo, thank you so much for talking with me. I’m very curious to hear how the Zapatista movement has inspired you, both in relationship with what they have been able to achieve and your work with them, and then also this kind of second generation of work that has been inspired by the Zapatistas but then has taken their strategies into other contexts, and other moments, and places in the world. So how did you get involved with the Zapatistas in the first place? 

Ricardo Domínguez: Well, just to a sort of prehistory: in the 80s, I was part of Critical Art Ensemble in Tallahassee, Florida and also part of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), Tallahassee. But we worked with ACT UP Miami, CT UP Atlanta. This was circa 84, 85, 86, 87. And so there was a sense in which we, as Critical Art Ensemble, had begun to theorize these questions of electronic disturbance, electronic civil disobedience, trying to imagine how it would happen. And at that time it was really the first sort of popular sense of hacking—that, somehow, there was an elite group of young people mostly, we imagined, who had the knowledge to break into systems, reconfigure them. And there was this evolving notion in the media of the hacker’s evil entity, what have you.
So, between the ACT UP AIDS coalition work that we were doing, our realization that artists like Gran Fury and many others could develop aesthetics that were formal, evocative, but also participated in the language of a movement, really configured for us the possibilities of how we might think about our own work: this collision between the streets and imagining these networks of contestation. And if you read the original sort of theory that we published in 93 and 94, they were really text and thoughts of the 80s—they just happened to be published a bit later. But the sense was that it would be an anonymous, elite group of hackers who would enact electronic civil disobedience. So when I came to New York in the early 90s that was really how I was imagining that space. I would gain knowledge of the infrastructure. I would gain knowledge of the protocols—in those days there weren't browsers; it was BBS [Bulletin Board Systems], MOOs, what have you. 

And in 1991, the RAND Corporation published a paper by [David] Ronfeldt and [John] Arquilla called "Cyber War Is Coming." And they also had this tendency to imagine that it would be an elite group who would manifest electronic civil disobedience, electronic disturbance, cyberwar, cyberterrorism, cybercrime, and that it would come from the US, Israel, China, Europe—these kind of elites. They never imagined that it would come from a community without access to any of the infrastructures—telephones, electricity—or even speak the dominant languages. So I functioned along that sort of protocol.  

But then, a couple of things happened at the end of 93 and beginning of 94. At the end of 93, the browser Mosaic, the very first browser, emerged. This really shifted the conditions of who had access and who could function within the protocols of "the network." And there was a question of hot links, and there was a question of image: that you could place this kind of information on a readily available sort of system—the browser, if you will. And then there was the earlier... in the 80s there was the movement of early “Listservs:” email Listservs called PeaceNet, which were focused on the Central American wars. But as we moved into the 90s, they began to focus on NAFTA[ the North American Free Trade Agreement]: that is, the free trade zones. So there were conversations on these Listservs of what’s going to happen when Canada, the US, and Mexico establish this NAFTA system. So there were these conversations that were going on. And so there was this focus on this triplet—the US, Canada, and Mexico. What’s going to shift? 

And on January first, 1994, I am in New York City, I’m living on the Lower East Side: Clinton and Rivington, right around the corner from a fairly well-known space ABC No Rio. And I come online after New Year’s Eve, and one of the first things I get in Spanish is—it’s maybe about two o’clock in the morning—La Declaración de la Lacandona: The Declaration of the Lacandon [First Declaration from the Lacandon Jungle], followed by the women’s laws [Women's Revolutionary Law]. And everybody is going, "Zapatistas? What is happening? What are these entities? And why am I getting the email at this point?" So, very rapidly... I imagine it was a woman but I could be wrong. She was called Irlandesa. And Irlandesa, very rapidly, after midnight to seven o’clock, started rapidly translating the text that was coming through into English. And there was like a South Korean individual who was translating. So, very quickly, this network of Zapatismo emerged just via language and these declarations. And certainly the NAFTA question of hearing somebody saying, “It is a question of neoliberalism.” I had not really been cognizant of the term. I might have seen it, but I wasn’t really cognizant of the neoliberal ideology and how it manifested within this other notion of free trade or what have you, which was more predominant, at least in the conversations that I was having. So the next morning, at ABC No Rio—as I was going to have my New Year's breakfast near Tompkins Square Park or something—I saw a little Post-it note that said, “If anybody knows anything about the Zapatistas, let’s meet here at ABC No Rio in the basement and talk about it.” And so I had my emails, and we met, and we started out with a group of gente del DF [people from the Federal District or Mexico City], some people from Chihuahua, then there were dancers from New York, from Canada. And we just gathered there, and we started to have a conversation, and that very day we started the New York Committee for Democracy in Mexico or the New York Zapatistas. 

What came out of that was: first, this sense of, for me, that the Zapatistas were really manifesting what the New York Times called the next day “the first postmodern revolution.” Why was it postmodern? Because they had somehow accomplished, by ripping into the electronic fabric, this possibility of expanding a network and manifesting a network without having access to a network. And that really mobilized me to begin to think about what was this this definition that the RAND Corporation had established about cyberwars coming, which were very bound to infrastructure, very bound to protocols and technology. But yet the Zapatistas, from what I could tell, were not participating in that language at all. They were participating in a very rapid reconfiguration of themselves as a traditional guerrilla group: armed, ready to kill, ready to die, to take over the state, march to Mexico, battle. But suddenly, they became aware of this intercontinental network that had expanded what they called “civil society.” And they began to—within the first 12 days of traditional battle forces, of taking over the town, shooting the Mexican solders—they very quickly marched onto the network as a way to reconfigure themselves, from what I could tell. That is, no longer to be an Ejército Zapatista de Liberation Nacional [EZLN, or Zapatista Army of National Liberation] as an avant-garde condition of the communities, but that the communities became the avant-garde of the EZLN, who was marching backwards and out of this sphere. Because there was this other tendency that was going on of understanding the intergalactico [intergalactic] that was at play in a certain sense. 

So, we have this network that happened within a few days. The New York Committee for Democracy in Mexico started doing encampments in front of the Mexican consulate, which I forget that at that time in New York, it was near the library. I think like 41st, 40th Street—I just found some pictures the other day, because I just moved, of photographs of us at the encampment; very much kind of an Occupy [Wall Street]. We had our tents, we did hunger strikes. So it was very much an embodied response to the networks that was based on reading these emails. 

The other thing that occurred was that the Zapatistas then really shifted for me the notion of what electronic civil disobedience might be. And I started having conversations with the New York Committee, and I was as going, “Well, you know, what do you think about electronic civil disobedience?” And they were going, “We don’t even know what you are yakking on about, Ricardo. We’re going to do tents, hunger strikes”—all that sort of stuff. And so there’s this space called CHARAS Space. It used to be there, right on the other side of Tompkins Square Park. It had been a school that had been shut down. And so we decided we could take over CHARAS Space and have the first gathering of northeastern Zapatistas that had emerged in the network. And we received an email from the Zapatistas, saying that the representative of the Zapatistas was a writer and scholar in El Paso, Texas: Gloria... She had been chosen as a representative. So we contacted her, and unfortunately everybody was trying to contact her. She woke up one morning as the representative of the Zapatistas United States. So I can imagine all the emails from everybody. So our email was, “Could you please come to New York City and give us a better sense of how we can work and what we can do beyond the exchanges that we’re having right now in email.” 
And at this time, as I’m participating in the on-the-ground organizing and trying to take the histories of ACT UP and that, I’m also working at—an art-based Internet service provider that started in 1990 with Wolfgang Staehle, an artist and conceptual painter. And we were hosting the beginnings of tactical media: RTMark, etoy, many of the groups that sort of have blossomed by the end of the 90s and turned into the Yes Men and other particular groups. So I was trying to understand what were ways in which this emergent tactical media and infrastructure connected to the on the ground work that Zapatismo had seemed to call on the northeastern community: embodied actions, blockage, protests, going into the consulate, doing bloody hands, doing everything that we could to stop the Mexican government from eliminating the Zapatistas. But there was this other aura that I felt that the Zapatistas, whether by purpose, by intent, or by accident, were calling for the strengthening of what I would call electronic disturbance, electronic civil disobedience. They seemed, in their network intergalactico, to be creating a platform that I had not imagined. In the same way they ripped into it, I was ripping into the space they had created. That aura was that somehow there could be a possibility of interconnecting real bodies embedded outside of the grid as a direct manifestation of the ethics and aesthetics of how networks and tactical media should really respond: not as anonymous, techno-driven cells who took on the power of whatever the issues were, but really a bridging between those who are most marginal outside the system and those systems that seemed to be the site of new power. And that they could really reconfigure it at a distance what was important about that element: we could dislocate it and reconfigure it. 

And part of the energy that the auras of the Zapatistas was that they had the ability to also create a poesis, a poetics that was very different from the usual marching orders that one might imagine getting from earlier kind of guerrilleros [guerrillas]. You know, “This is what’s gonna happen.” That was the beginning of these sort of odd, Dadaist gestures: the intergalactico, Pedrito—the Tojolabal child who had Mayan technology. These stories that seemed to, at least to me, speak to the fact that electronic civil disobedience, electronic disturbance theater had to be about a certain aesthetic process, rather than a technological process or an embodied process as in the way that we were doing it in the streets. Not that they were wrong. They just seemed to be calling for a different configuration than had been there. "What was postmodern about them?" was the way I was reading them. What was Mayan technology that Pedrito had that could be implemented in the work of, say, electronic civil disobedience? 

So, you had browsers, which brought many people the first time access, a window into the cyberspace. You had NAFTA and the neoliberal definition occurring. You had this contestational movement that redefined, for me, not cyberwar, not cyberterrorism and cybercrime, but the possibility of electronic disturbance from the margin to the very center, and that it had to be done aesthetically. And so what were the aesthetics? Well, at that time, anonymity was the selling point. In cyberspace nobody knows you're a dog. You see the early ads, “Oh fantastic!” So we said, perhaps what we need to do is a radical transparency, antagonistic to the sell of anonymity as one of the poetry; that you use browsers as a way to allow people to participate and understand. So rather than heavy code, it’s html, which was basically viewable. You could open it, everybody could see. It was like a sentence. There was no secrecy. So it was a way of begin to imagine what Mayan technology might be. So, out of that came these practices of electronic disturbance theater. 

The other thing that occurred was that because the New York Committee for Democracy in Mexico had made contact with the representative of the Zapatistas who was in El Paso, she came, and she brought with her members of the Comandancia [EZLN]. They weren't there as Zapatistas; they were just there as visitors. And we did our presentation—we the New York Committee for Democracy in Mexico—about what we were doing. And I did a piece on electronic civil disobedience and intergalacticos, and I was able to take them to our office to show them the beginning prototype of electronic [disturbance theater]. And they thought it was interesting, not exactly how things should be mobilized really, but interesting. And the response was, “Well, you know, we think that perhaps it’s not useful at this moment but there might come a time soon where it might be. You’ll either get something from us directly, or there will be a general call for manifestation of this sort of stuff. But it’s good to have some knowledge of this.” And so I was rather depressed. The activist on the streets saying, “We don’t know what you’re saying.” The Zapatistas, you know, “Well, it’s interesting but hold up on it.” So, really the first encuentro happened, the intergalactico. So I felt that this poesis was really occurring. 

And then on December 22, 1998 the massacre of Acteal occurred. Women, children, and men were killed by paramilitary. And there was a general call for direct action, manifestations of all scales: “Whatever you could do, you must do it now.” So I felt that that was... Okay: we have to not speak about it but accomplish it. So it was that moment, even thought it was much later, four years, that electronic civil disobedience, electronic disturbance is put into practice. And during that time, I began to think of the question of digital Zapatismo: what is digital Zapatismo as a site of shifting the conditions of infrastructure and power? And it was quite important to me to consider digital Zapatismo as not bound to technology, not bound to a specific sort of instantiation, but to a poetics. So I began to develop this kind of rereading of the Mayan stories that Subcomandante Marcos and other communities were sending out. So that when the government entities—the Mexican government and others—started responding to electronic civil disobedience, the response, the performative matrix was, “Well, it has nothing to do with technology. Whatever is disturbing you, it’s really this other poetics that is disturbing, this other voice that’s coming from there into your spaces.” El presidente de Mexico tenia los Zapatistas [The President of Mexico had the Zapatistas] right there on the screen. The DOD (Department of Defense) had the Zapatistas in their infrastructure, or at least they imagined that it was going on. And when they began to be antagonistic—launching information war weapons at us or sort of what have you—the postmodern revolution of an aesthetics allowed us then to repel their definitions of cyberwar, cyberterrorism, cybercrime and really have to deal with questions of electronic civil disobedience, questions of the aesthetics. So it dislocated, you know. When we went to the NSA in 98, they were going, “Why can’t we arrest you guys?” Well, it’s Mayan technology. It’s a difficult thing to stop and arrest; it's like a poem. 

Out of this, I feel that the auroras of the Zapatistas then began to translate into the emergent qualities of tactical media, the playfulness that tactical media then began to have. You began to see it with the emergence of the Alter-globalization Movement. For me, there is like disunity. I always felt that there was an intimate connection between the encuentros and the emergent Alter-globalization Movement; that there was perhaps not a spirit but these auroras of how the conversation was happening. And to me the tissue was: what was neoliberalism? How was it being enacted? How were the contracts happening? How was it hitting the streets? And so the conditions of dialogue were also very much about different communities, especialmente en [especially in] Mexico, having discussions about what it meant to enact digital Zapatismo. There was a group called Amor y Paz [Peace and Love] out of Atlanta at that time. They were doing great work. It was a group who is gathering medicine and then flying into Chiapas to help the communities of the Good Government. They became very angry with us, especially when we started doing the virtual sit ins against El Presidente Zedillo, because they said, “That’s going to make the Mexican government attack what servers we have, email exchanges, and the Zapatistas would never break the law.” So there was this whole discourse online, you know. It seems the Zapatistas had armed themselves, gone against the state, had basically done secession from the State—following these very older, you know, traditions,—I’m not even sure we can call it secession. So would the Zapatistas say that electronic civil disobedience was illegal?  So basically we went to Atlanta and other places to have conversations about what was actually going on. Again, for us, our response: “Well, it’s art. It is about Mayan technology. I think that if you attach it to technology, then we fall into the RAND Corporation's marching orders of cyberwar, cyberterrorism, cybercrime.” 

So I think that digital Zapatismo allowed a conversation to manifest itself around what these gestures were. And also what emerged at the end of 98 was that digital Zapatismo was then able to try to translate through its practices of electronic disturbance theater into the growth of hacktivism. 1998 is also not only the emergence of the Alter-globalization Movement—say in the Battle of Seattle—but we began to see activists, who were not artists, who were not Zapatistas, take on electronic civil disobedience, but within a certain spirit of Zapatismo: you get the Electro Hippies in the UK, Federation of Random Action in France, S11 in Australia, who take the codes of transparency, who take the codes of virtual sit-ins as a way to manifest an activist tendency. That’s the difference, say, between the electronic disturbance theater and hacktivism. It’s no longer bound to the question of an aesthetic project. And they use our code, and they develop it, and think that out. In the Battle of Seattle, then, you get a coalition around this digital Zapatismo of embodied action and digital action. While there are 50,000 people in the Battle of Seattle, there are triple that online doing a virtual sit-in against the WTO, and it goes down. So there is, for me, the first kind of major aurora of the Zapatistas then is embodied in these practices. 

The next sort of stage that I found amazing was that in 2000 they had the Zapatista Air Force. You have traditions of the [Royal] Chicano Air Force. And I think the Zapatistas created this action where they took paper airplanes, and they have messages of peace, of questioning the ejército [army] that was surrounding them. And they would just fly them over, and they would be read. And I thought that this again was a poetic gesture: a simulation of imagining that there is a Zapatista Air Force, that it can create a sense of empowerment for the community on multiple scales. So, I was invited by Fran Illich to do a border hack gesture of the Electronic Disturbance Theater in 2000. So we took on that idea, again, of the poetic gesture, and we created the Zapatista Tribal Port Scan. And what we did is we set up these servers in Tijuana, because that’s where the border hack was. It was the first time I had been in Tijuana, San Diego. And the idea was a port scan. A computer has 65,000-plus ports—that is, doors. We usually only use 2020 and 80: your email and streaming media. So it’s like your mother saying, “You only use 10% of your brain.” We only basically use 10% of the computer. But the United States has said that it is illegal to do port scanning. And port scanning is basically that you’re jiggling doors to see if they’re open, and then going in. And they say that’s the beginning of breaking in. But what we decided was that we would port scan the Border Patrol servers. And we would do all 6,000 plus servers, and every time we found an open protocol, we would take a Zapatista story, a Zapatista poem, and shoot it in. Number one: we, as US citizens, pay for those servers. So just like you have the right to go into your congressman's office and offer them your petition, we felt we had the right to offer the Border Patrol some Zapatista poetry. We're not trying to break your place; we just want to offer you poetry. And of course, they became very angry and what have you. So there,\ I think you see another instantiation of what might be Mayan technology: the auroras of Zapatismo that shift the conditions of technology away from technology. That is, it’s not just the protocol—scanning of doors—but offering a voice that is unexpected, a voice that is poetic. We’re not going to take you down due to the actions. It’s for them to have to translate whatever the poem, the encryption of the poem, is. 

And you begin then to see different indigenous communities, also globally, begin to have discussions around how the Zapatistas began to manifest the notion of indigeneity. So we began to, in the 90s, to get emails from the Samoas, from the Pacific Rim area, from communities in the Woomera desert of Australia who are becoming aware of what the Zapatistas have done and to begin to translate what these auroras of the Zapatistas might mean. So this is for me one of those things that I would call the indigenous avant-garde. Because they really start moving us away from these earlier formations that I had around how electronic knowledge was going to be developed, how electronic disturbance, how these electronic poetic was going to play out. 

And in 2000, I was also invited by the indigenous community of the Woomera desert to come and do actions against the Western Mining Corporation, who were doing illegal uranium mining and also toxic waste, because they would clean it with the water of the sacred lands, so the radiation would go into... From what I understand, Australia doesn’t have a whole lot of water, so the last clean water is underground. But the company cleans the uranium, so it seeps into their water. And part of the conversation in the Woomera desert was the community’s desire to get a better sense of how the Zapatistas were enacting these spaces. So Zapatismo, then, for me, is something that reconfigures the emergent conditions of what we would call network power, that is no longer bound just to technology: that one as a community can be external to it—because you are forced to do it or because you choose, there's different ways—can still configure what that power is. That the Zapatistas called for the creation of a new poetics that would formalize the possibilities of different stories, different narratives, different gestures that were seemingly impossible; that they would begin to create the possibility of critiquing this larger scale entity that we have now—the savage neoliberalism and how it's participating in different modalities around the world. And you see Alter-globalization emerge out of that; you see hacktivism emerge out of that; you see the indigenous avant-garde began to formulate different ways to counter this. And ultimately, the Zapatistas in the recent past have produced a different sort of durational politics, one which is, first of all, the politics of listening. They did La otra campaña [The Other Campaign]: went throughout Mexico, and they came up in Tijuana, and what did they do? El Sub [Subcomandante Marcos] and La Comandancia, they sat and they said, “What do you have to tell us about the problems of neoliberalism here?” And so you had transgender community, workers, labors, all speaking to: “These are our issues.” And the thing was that you got a sense of the Zapatistas, in the politics of listening, would take it back to the communities, the Good Government. The community would look at the research that was brought, and then at some point in the next year, they would have a sense of response. 

The other thing that the La otra really brought to the foreground for the Zapatistas was the way different communities in the different areas of Mexico have taken on the notion of autonomy and contestation—whether it was the battle in Antenco over the airport that the DF wanted to do, or in the coastal zones where the tourist industry wanted to take over communities. There, people basically set up Zapatista encampments—not just encampments: neighborhoods. And I think that was also unexpected to the Zapatistas. If you look at the footage... there’s a lot of, I think, reflection for them, as well. So like we used to say La otra: “Antes fumaba cigarros, ahora fumo de la otra.” [“I used to smoke cigarettes, now I smoke the other stuff.”] That is the way we used to play it out. So I think the importance of the Zapatistas is that they are an experimental community that is durational, that has allowed to consider not just globalization, but the intergalactic, intercontinental condition of contestation and resistance in other ways than even they themselves, as Marxists, Leninists, all these things, had to reconfigure for various reasons, for their own self-knowledge. And that they have had an influence, whether people know it or not, on spaces of tactical media, hacktivism, and even this unexpected spirit now of, say, Anonymous and others who take on this question of embodying data and real bodies together. And I think the Zapatistas were at the lead of really thinking the poetics of real bodies and electronic bodies in contestation, in invention, and walking towards a utopia that we can’t really define, but perhaps we’ll know it when we get there—so anti-anti-utopian in a certain sense. So, todos somos Zapatistas [we are all Zapatistas].

DT: Thank you Ricardo.
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