The Chronicle Review

Digitally Incorrect

Ricardo Dominguez's provocations: art or crimes?

Photo illustration by Wayne Roth, original photograph by Sandy Huffaker for The Chronicle Review

Ricardo Dominguez
October 03, 2010

"America, this is madness and you know it." Glenn Beck stares into the camera during an early-September broadcast of his show on the Fox News Channel. "While you have been working hard, while you have been busting your butt, while you have thought that we all generally agree on things, we have been setting up re-education camps." Beck flashes a look of concern. "We call them"—pause for emphasis—"universities."

Beck's diatribe—he went on to liken the threat of indoctrination at universities to "terror groups in Iran or North Korea"—was provoked by Ricardo Dominguez, an assistant professor of visual arts at the University of California at San Diego. In particular, Beck was enraged by the Transborder Immigrant Tool, a GPS-enabled cellphone application developed by Dominguez and his colleagues at b.a.n.g. lab, a research collaborative he directs at the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, or Calit2. The TBT is designed to guide migrants to water caches in the desert on their way into the United States from Mexico. Since the mid-1990s, an estimated 6,000 people have perished trying to make that journey. Most have died from dehydration.

Saving lives might be the primary goal, but Dominguez and his collaborators do not see the tool in strictly utilitarian or humanitarian terms. Rather, they insist—as they do for all of the lab's productions—that the cellphone application is art. Loaded with audio recordings of original poetry, the app provides migrants, in the words of Brett Stalbaum, a lecturer in the visual-arts program at San Diego, "emotional and informational sustenance."

The project's poet, Amy Sara Carroll, an assistant professor of English at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, says her verse is aimed at "interrupting the aesthetic of hate and fear that dominates the debate about immigration." (Carroll and Dominguez have a child together.)

"Immigrants should not only be able to move safely, find water, and hear poetry," Dominguez says, "but they should also be able encounter the landscape in a way that American painters have approached the landscape: as a sublime object."

Ricardo Dominguez is no stranger to controversy. A pioneer of electronic civil disobedience—a blend of political activism, conceptual art, and technological innovation—he has often raised hackles. His ascent in academe has nonetheless been rapid. Aside from a few semesters as an adjunct at New York University, he has never before held a faculty position. His field, variously known as new-media art, tactical media, or digital art, emerged in academe in the past few decades. The first generation of new-media artists who migrated to academe include Mark Tribe, now at Brown University, and the social-activist pranksters the Yes Men, Andy Bichlbaum (real name: Jacques Servin), at Parsons the New School for Design, and Mike Bonanno (real name: Igor Vamos), at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. They are, like Dominguez, "deeply anti-establishment," says Grant Kester, chair of San Diego's visual-arts department. As one journalist put it, Dominguez has spent a lifetime "utilizing electronics and the Internet to piss off just about every high-level administrative authority in the U.S." So it was perhaps inevitable that he would eventually grate on the mores of a large institution like the University of California system.

Early on the morning of March 4, a post went up on the Twitter feed of b.a.n.g. lab announcing a "virtual sit-in" at the Web site of the University of California's office of the president. Elsewhere that day, thousands of students and faculty members gathered on the steps of the Capitol, in Sacramento, on highways in Oakland, and on university campuses to denounce budget cuts and tuition hikes. Amid those spectacles, b.a.n.g. lab's quixotic protest, with 400 or so digital activists, barely registered—or so it seemed. For Dominguez, the online protest had a déjà vu quality: By his own count, since arriving at San Diego, in 2004, he has organized at least 18 virtual sit-ins—including a protest in 2008 that went after the same server at the president's office—eliciting no response from the university. Indeed, a year later he was awarded tenure.

But a few weeks after the virtual sit-in, Dominguez was notified that the incident was being investigated as a denial-of-service attack: an illegal attempt to swarm and degrade a Web site. Charges could be filed against him with the university's Committee on Privilege and Tenure, the professor was warned. His career is at stake.

"I find it ironic that UCSD, an institution that has done so much to establish and promote my work, has suddenly reversed course," Dominguez told me on an overcast morning this spring. He sat in his office wearing baggy jeans, black skateboard sneakers, and a furrowed brow, his hair black and wavy, his goatee flecked with gray. Posters of past art exhibitions were pinned to the walls, books about electronic civil disobedience were scattered on the desk, and packed in human-sized cardboard boxes were the components of a nano "particle sniffer," part of an exhibit on the potential toxicity of nanoparticles, which are used in a variety of consumer products. "I mean," he said, arching his eyebrows and casting a knowing look, "what changed?"

What changed, according to many observers, was the uproar caused by the Transborder Immigrant Tool. In January the university began a financial audit of the project and of b.a.n.g. lab. (The university says it can't disclose the reasons for initiating the investigation.) The furor intensified in March, when three Republican congressmen from California sent a letter to San Diego's chancellor, Marye Ann Fox, requesting an account of the cellphone app's financial backing. "It seems that tax dollars are being used in an effort to actively help people subvert federal law," they wrote. The congressmen—Brian P. Bilbray, Duncan D. Hunter, and Darrell Issa—suggested that the lab might be in violation of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which makes it a felony to encourage foreigners to enter the United States illegally. Writing on the opinion page of The San Diego Union-Tribune, Hunter called on the university to "immediately denounce" the tool and "ensure it does not move forward."

Battle lines have now been drawn. To Dominguez's supporters, he is a bellwether of how scrupulously the state's cash-strapped, politically volatile university system will protect faculty members from external pressures. To his detractors, he is a digitally savvy Ward Churchill, a tenured radical who doesn't belong near a classroom. (Beck called for him to be fired.)

Dominguez's journey from the radical fringe of the art world to the center of campus politics in California and beyond has transformed his life into its own political theater. By all appearances, the mischief-minded, publicity-savvy professor couldn't be happier. "This is exactly what he wants: Anything that will give him a platform that he can work off," says Steven J. Kurtz, an art professor at the University at Buffalo, who has known Dominguez for decades and had his own brush with the law in 2004, when he was charged with mail and wire fraud for receiving bacteria that he planned to use in his art projects. The charges were dismissed in 2008. "The thing you need to understand about Ricardo is that he is always performing."

On Monday afternoons, Dominguez teaches a graduate seminar, "Trans( )infinities: Aesthetics, Performance, Interventions," in a high-ceilinged room in the visual-arts facility on San Diego's campus. According to the syllabus, Trans( )infinities are "an (empty set) of potential aesthetic practices that move between, through, across and beyond the post of the postcontemporary ... ." Seven students take seats around a long table. Dominguez greets them warmly as he removes his jacket and sweatshirt and begins talking—and doesn't stop for almost three hours. His sentences are knotty and opaque, sprinkled with words and phrases like "gestures of actualization," "utopian plagiarism," "anonymous poetics," and "heteroaffectivity." He fidgets, paces, pounds the table, and takes his eyeglasses on and off so incessantly that they eventually fall apart in his hand. "And now I've broken my glasses," he announces faux theatrically, before propping them lopsidedly on his nose.

Born in 1959 in El Paso, Tex., Dominguez moved before his first birthday to Las Vegas with his mother, who went to work in the casinos—using her beauty, Dominguez says, to distract men from the money they were leaving on the table. His father, a plumber, stayed in El Paso. "He wanted my mom to be a conventional mother, but she loved gambling and the nightlife," Dominguez says. In high school, he took up acting, spending his summers traveling the country via Greyhound and performing in regional productions of Shakespeare. (One of his fondest memories is being spit on in a scene by Jeremy Irons.) Dominguez also began to familiarize himself with agitprop groups like the Living Theater, El Teatro Campesino, and the Bread and Puppet Theater. He absorbed the writings of Bertolt Brecht, who famously declared, "Art is not a mirror to reflect reality, but a hammer with which to shape it."

Dominguez studied classical theater at Southern Utah State College (now Southern Utah University) and enrolled at Florida State University, in 1981, to get an M.A. in dramaturgy. Richard Hornby, who directed the graduate program in theater at the time, remembers him as "a brilliant student." According to Dan Carter, a former classmate who is now director of the School of Theatre at Pennsylvania State University, Dominguez stood out for his "keen interest in the arcane."

Dominguez's sensibility at the time was shaped by the work of people like Chris Burden—who in an infamous 1971 performance in Santa Ana, Calif., had a friend shoot him with a .22-caliber rifle. Assigned a paper on questions raised by the Oresteia, Dominguez says, he instead turned in a piece of performance art: After placing his paper in a bucket, he walked to a corner of the classroom and urinated into the bucket. He explains that he wanted to convey how Aeschylus's tragedy captures the way one culture flows into another. "I thought pissing in the corner would allow us to enact that thing which shouldn't be seen, shouldn't be heard, but would signify that a new flow is occurring," he tells me, deadpan. Dominguez also put on performances in which he cut himself and ate bits of his own flesh. "It was part of an auto-cannibalism trajectory," he says. Pondering the memory, he adds, "I was young."

Hornby has no recollection of such behavior. In an e-mail, he writes that Dominguez was "definitely no rabble-rouser." Other acquaintances say he has a tendency to embellish, even prevaricate. "He likes to exaggerate and distort, a lot, if he thinks it will make good theater," says Kurtz.

Whatever the case, Dominguez left Florida State in 1984 without a degree. Working in a lesbian-oriented bookstore in Tallahassee, Fla., he steeped himself in the works of the radical feminist Mary Daly as well as the writings of French cultural theorists like Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, and Paul Virilio. Around the same time, he befriended Kurtz, then a graduate student, who, along with his wife, Hope, and Steven Barnes, a local artist, had recently formed the Critical Art Ensemble.

The mid-1980s, the height of the Reagan era, was "a time of discontent," Kurtz recalls. "Artists were failing to address the pressing issues, like the AIDS crisis." Kurtz envisioned the ensemble as a response to what he regarded as the tepid and old-fashioned university-based art scene in Tallahassee. The group began to brainstorm new ways to marry art and activism. There was a ritual to those sessions, as Dominguez described in an interview in 2000: "We would gather at Hope Kurtz's big glass table and she would put out lines and we would read Adorno, we would read all these great books, and go, 'This is a great bit of critical theory—write that line down,' and then do another line of cocaine."

Among the realizations that percolated around that table was that capitalism was changing. The world was becoming more wired, and politics and art were moving online. In two books, The Electronic Disturbance (1993) and Electronic Civil Disobedience and Other Unpopular Ideas (1996), both published by Autonomedia, the art ensemble presented its analysis. "Even though the monuments of power still stand, visibly present in stable locations, the agency that maintains power is neither visible nor stable," they argued in Electronic Civil Disobedience. The new geography of activism, they wrote elsewhere, "is a virtual geography, and the core of political and cultural resistance must assert itself in this electronic space."

Dominguez made his first foray into the realm of electronic protest when he jammed a fax machine at the National Institutes of Health with messages about an antiretroviral drug, asking, "How many people has AZT cured?" When a supermarket chain in Florida stopped carrying condoms, he adopted a strategy of "phone zapping." Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, a rotating crew of activists called the store to complain about the policy. After two weeks, the supermarket reversed its decision.

The extent of Dominguez's contribution to the two ensemble books is disputed. In 1998, Kurtz posted an open letter expressing frustration that Dominguez had spoken of the books as, in part, his own work. Kurtz said Dominguez had already left the ensemble by the time the group began writing, in 1993. Dominguez hasn't so much denied the charge as reaffirmed that the work was a group effort. The issue, like much else about him, remains vague.

Dominguez spent New Year's Eve in 1993 at the Tunnel, a nightclub in Manhattan. Early the next morning, at home in Brooklyn, where he had moved a few years earlier, he couldn't sleep. "I think I was tripping on E or something," he later recalled (referring to the drug Ecstasy). He checked his e-mail and learned of the uprising by the Zapatista National Liberation Army, or EZLN, a movement of Indian peasants led by a charismatic, ski-masked man who went by the name Subcomandante Marcos, that had just begun in southern Mexico. After two weeks, the fighting settled into a low-intensity conflict, and the EZLN morphed into something like a postmodern guerrilla-theater troupe. In one characteristic attack—or piece of performance art—it sent hundreds of paper airplanes into a Mexican army base. Each plane—the "Zapatista Air Force"—carried a message or a fragment of poetry.

The whimsical tactics enthralled Dominguez, who by that time was working at The Thing, a Web site devoted to digital culture—"the first place," the artist Carmin Karasic tells me, "that had its act together about art plus technology." Around the world, Web sites and e-mail lists sprouted up in solidarity with the rebels.

Dominguez bombarded his acquaintances with e-mails about the Zapatistas. "The volume was overwhelming," recalls Karasic. "To be honest, I stopped paying attention." Then, in December 1997, an e-mail caught her eye. It was a report of a massacre of 45 Zapatista-sympathizing civilians in the Mexican village of Acteal. The lists lit up with outrage—and ideas. A few years earlier, a group of Italian activists, the Anonymous Digital Coalition, had attempted to swarm a French government Web site to protest that country's nuclear policy. A reprise of that tactic was suggested, this time aimed at flooding the Web sites of financial institutions with close ties to the Mexican government.

With three collaborators, Dominguez set up the Electronic Disturbance Theater. Brett Stalbaum, then a graduate student at San Jose State University, created a Java program, FloodNet, to automate the reloading process; Karasic volunteered to design the program's user interface; and Stefan Wray, a graduate student at New York University, helped spread the word. On April 10, the group staged a virtual sit-in at the Web site of then-Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo. According to Dominguez, 14,800 people participated. Some of them searched the site for terms like "peace," "justice," and "human rights," as well as for the names of the victims in Acteal. The queries returned "file not found" error messages, leaving behind a log of unsuccessful searches: "human rights not found"; "justice not found"; "Ana Hernandez not found." "That log," says Karasic, "is a unique piece of conceptual art."

A few months later, when Dominguez's activist group went after the U.S. Department of Defense, the military struck back with a program that crashed computers participating in the sit-in—the first known cyber-counteroffensive by the U.S. military within the United States. The incident landed Dominguez on the front page of The New York Times and highlighted the ambiguous legal status of virtual sit-ins. "If it wasn't illegal it was certainly immoral," a Pentagon spokesman told the Times. Dominguez has always tried to distinguish electronic civil disobedience from hacking, cracking, and other criminal acts. By presenting itself as a collective of digital artists, and emphasizing the theatrical nature of its actions, the group has managed to forestall efforts to criminalize its behavior.

But that doesn't mean such actions are legal. Dorothy E. Denning, a professor of defense analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School and author of Information Warfare and Security (ACM Press, 1999), says there is no legal standard to distinguish a virtual sit-in from a denial-of-service attack. Even the high-profile hacker Oxblood Ruffin has argued that virtual sit-ins are "illegal, unethical, and uncivil. One does not make a better point in a public forum by shouting down one's opponent." He describes the difference between a standard denial-of-service attack (which relies on "botnet" software to drive traffic to the target) and a virtual sit-in (which requires the willful participation of thousands of people to be effective) as "the difference between blowing something up and being pecked to death by a duck."

Members of the Electronic Disturbance Theater, which has informally been incorporated into b.a.n.g. lab at San Diego, insist that virtual sit-ins cause no permanent damage. "The idea," Dominguez has said, "is not to destroy or disrupt these Web sites. It's to disturb." Targets are warned in advance, and his crew has never obscured its identity. Karasic, now living in the Netherlands, says, "Ricardo would always tell us, 'Everything we do is in front of the curtain.' In other words, it's staged, it's a performance." Stalbaum adds, "Unlike hackers, we are committed to radical transparency, and I think that is why we have never been prosecuted. No one wants to take on the free-speech aspect. We are putting messages in their error logs, and those messages are meant to indicate to system administrators the error of their ways."

Dominguez says the publicity that accompanied the Defense Department's response to the virtual sit-in led the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, at Harvard University, to offer to sue the Pentagon for violation of the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, which limits the military's role in domestic law enforcement. Seth Young, a spokesman for the Berkman center, says, "It's not implausible that someone here at Berkman discussed a legal action against DoD with Dominguez—I just can't figure out who it was." Dominguez says he declined the offer.

In 1999, the activist group released the "Disturbance Developer Kit," a do-it-yourself version of the FloodNet software. Internet-activist cells around the world agitated for a variety of causes. The Electrohippies, a British-based group, staged a virtual sit-in of the World Trade Organization's Web site, coinciding with major antiglobalization protests in Seattle during a WTO conference. The group claimed—perhaps apocryphally—450,000 participants over five days. Whatever the true figures, the spectacle of "data bodies" online amplifying the effect of "real bodies on the streets" was evidence, Dominguez later argued, of how electronic civil disobedience can transform a local protest into a global event.

One afternoon this spring, Stalbaum and Dominguez join me for a walk across the San Diego campus with the Transborder Immigrant Tool. Our movements are punctuated by occasional bleats of unintelligible, crackly poetry. There is no discernible logic to the dance of its compass arrow. Stalbaum is an expert in so-called locative media, and when he designed this software, his aim was to make it as simple and intuitive as possible.

The cellphone app, he says, isn't capable of long-distance overland navigation, and he scoffed at any suggestion that it might be exploited by terrorists. "Al Qaeda doesn't need us to reduce the cost of GPS navigation," Stalbaum says. "Anyone planning to enter the United States and cause harm would almost certainly be able to afford a GPS device at the Best Buy in Tijuana." The cost of developing the tool, according to b.a.n.g. lab, is thus far under $10,000, including a grant from the University of California's Center for the Humanities and funds from Calit2, the telecommunications institute. (Calit2 has been ordered by the university not to comment on Dominguez.)

Asked about the jumpy movements of the arrow, Stalbaum, who is wearing yellow-tinted glasses and a green paisley shirt, says, "We're still testing it." He holds out his phone, a much newer and more expensive model. The display looks stable. The older, cheaper device in my hand has proved too unreliable, he says—a blow to b.a.n.g. lab's hopes of making the tool widely available to migrant-aid organizations. "We have an internal Hippocratic oath," Stalbaum says. "We're not going to release anything until we are sure that it is safer to use it than not use it."

That standard might be met soon. In late July, the university completed its audit of the Transborder Immigrant Tool project, concluding that there was no evidence that the lab had misused research funds. (The report stipulates that its findings do not "include an evaluation of whether any federal, state, or local laws had been violated.") "We're extremely happy to be able to move forward," Dominguez told me a few weeks ago. "The investigation made it very difficult to find research funds." Stalbaum, who has been fine-tuning the software, hopes to have the application ready to go by April—"the beginning of the season of dying." Dominguez envisions workshopping the cellphone application with aid groups in Tijuana in the next few months."We want their feedback on the device's design."

For Dominguez, however, functionality has always been secondary to theatricality. His creations are "digitally incorrect," he told me in April, by which he meant deliberately inefficient. "They function insofar as they are unexpected, resonant, and offer what I think art should: a new space to imagine." They are, in short, conversation pieces. Given those criteria, he said, the March 4 virtual sit-in and the Transborder Immigrant Tool "have done everything that can be asked of them."

Dominguez seems comfortable in his role as a high-profile provocateur. CNN has placed him on a list of most intriguing people; talking heads on Fox News—not just Glenn Beck—have suggested that he should be thrown in jail; NPR has invited him on the air to discuss his work. In addition, the cellphone application is being exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego and will be included this month in the California Biennial at the Orange County Museum of Art. A play about the application, Sustenance, was written by members of b.a.n.g. lab and performed in June at Galleria de la Raza, in San Francisco. Printed Matter, a New York-based publisher and distributor of books by artists, has produced a handsome pamphlet version of Sustenance as part of its Artists & Activists series.

Moral support, meanwhile, has poured in from near and far. On April 7, the UC International Performance and Culture Multicampus Research Group began circulating an online petition that decries any attempt to revoke Dominguez's tenure; it has attracted more than 2,500 signatures. The Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory, an online network of institutions and individuals, has also expressed support. An open letter from the program in art, culture, and technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has declared its "deepest alarm and dissatisfaction" with Dominguez's "persecution"; his colleagues in the visual-arts department at San Diego have signed a statement that warns of "a chilling effect if faculty perceive that administrative support for the principle of academic freedom is dependent on a calculation of political expediency."

In mid-September, Dominguez was informed that the investigation into the March 4 virtual sit-in had found "probable cause" that he violated both the Faculty Code of Conduct and the university's Electronic Communications Policy. He and his team of attorneys—"I need a whole squadron of lawyers because no single lawyer understands every facet of my case"—are in negotiations with the university about what happens next. Meanwhile, the cybercrimes division of the FBI is looking into whether Dominguez has violated federal law.

He is prepared for a long legal battle. A support fund has been established to cover mounting legal expenses. Dominguez insists that "b.a.n.g lab's aesthetic and technical research will continue." Moreover, he retains a keen sense of the absurd. Back in April, after his Monday-afternoon seminar, Dominguez lingered outside the classroom door. As the sun dropped, we chatted about his predicament. At one of his meetings with university auditors, he said, "They asked if I am trying to be transgressive." He smiled and shook his head amiably. "I'm a performance artist. Of course I'm being transgressive.

Editor's Note: Shortly after this article went to press, the University of California and Ricardo Dominguez settled the investigation into the March 4 "virtual sit-in" at the Web site of the university system's office of the president. Dominguez will stay in his current position and has agreed not to interfere with the server of the office of the president or use university resources in any way that "might result in permanently or temporarily damaging the integrity or availability" of other Web sites.

Evan R. Goldstein is a staff editor at The Chronicle Review.