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interview/essay on art and dissent on the net

The "Death at April 1st pro-war rally" feature I posted here and at DU got me a few emails including one from the artist I interviewed for this essay. The response he got from his 1st anti-war net art included a bill from his ISP for $19,182.07. Beyond his story I wanted to use this piece to conclude my online look of PDX dissent with a look at a possible future in which we defeat the corporate media. I hope some of you will respond to the questions at the end.

an interview about art & dissent on the net

I'm old enough to remember when we had a counter-culture and the power that it had. I guess that's why I had to ask Ian Bruce, the art director who created what may be the most successful anti-Bush piece ever placed on the Internet, this long-winded question:

"Do you think all the independent anti-Bush artist/activists -- all the Photoshop crazed image saboteurs, Flash cartoon satirists and the online communities that are inspired by their work are coalescing into an internet-based counter-culture? -- an alternative media and community capable of fighting for control of the American conscience as the counter-culture did in the 60's?"

"If 2 million viewings of "Technical Difficulties" in a 2 week period is any indication, I'd have to say 'yes'. Obviously, better coordination is required. Organizations like MoveOn.org, for example, have been very effective. But like Al Jazeera, draw too much attention to yourself and somebody's gonna try to drop a GBU-38 on your ass."

[editor's note: The GBU-38/B Ian Bruce mentions being dropped on an Al Jazeera Arab TV news crew is a 500lb JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Munition) manufactured by Boeing. A JDAM is a low-cost guidance kit that converts an existing unguided free-fall bomb into a "smart" weapon that is accurate about 90 per cent of the time if the target is laser illuminated throughout the entire descent of the bomb.]

Educated at Parson's School of Art & Design in New York, Ian Bruce has been an art director for corporate clients such as Sony, Volvo and Minolta. That's not exactly the background you'd expect an anti-war activist to carry. But it may help explain why he was able to create in a week an attack on the Bush regime that had such wide appeal. In December 2002 he set a Flash animation entitled, "Technical Difficulties" down as a place holder on the only page on his web site. In Ian's words, "it went viral within 48 hours, at one time becoming #45 on the entire internet (comfortably ahead of CNN)";

How does a "viral" phenomena like that happen?

"I did post it to DU [the DemocraticUnderground.com forum] to show a couple of DU buddies like Symbolman. I think people started sending the URL out to friends -- and the whole thing just cascaded from there. I was getting mail from people who took the trouble of looking me up through WhoIs some from as far away as Japan. I think I know what happened, and I'm confident I can tap into it again..."

So it really took down your Dubyadubyadubya.com site?

"I took down the site once I'd learned that over 2 million people had downloaded it, and EarthLink was sticking me with the bandwidth. My December Earthlink bill for the two weeks it was up, came to $19,182.07."

You didn't actually have to pay the $19,182.07 did you?

"No, fortunately. I negotiated EarthLink down to $2,238.25. I think People for the American Way will help pick up the tab. Norman Leer of People for the American Way called me out of the blue to arrange a meeting about the video. At that 2 hour meeting, he told me that it was probably more effective than anything MTV's done with the 'Rock the Vote' campaign."

If you haven't yet seen Ian's famous Flash animation you can see it by clicking on the words, "Technical Difficulties" or on the TV screens. You will be taken to MoveOn.org's servers to see a version of the animation that is identical to the original until the final frame. The MoveOn.org version ends with a pitch to sign up on the MoveOn.org mailing list, Ian's ends with links to four newspaper articles.

What made Technical Difficulties such a uniquely "viral" internet phenomena? My guess is that Ian's Flash animation distinguished itself first from other anti-Bush pieces by not attacking Bush. Technical Difficulties is an anti-Bush piece that never mentions Bush or refers to the President in anyway. Therefore it doesn't appear to be a partisan attack. Hundreds of thousands of us thought when we saw it, "This just might get through to Dad, or Aunt Ethel" or whoever we knew that wasn't yet standing with the opposition. And we had to send a link to it to all the activists we corresponded with so that they could send to their uncommitted friends. What Technical Difficulties does so effectively is concisely define Bush policies that almost everyone opposes. Each claim about a Bush policy is documented at the end with an article from the mainstream press. "Denying benefits to disabled veteran's..." for example, is linked to a column from Ollie North printed in the right-wing Washington Times! Here are the links that you won't see when viewing the MoveOn.org version:

"Revoking aid to desperately poor Women and Children...",

"Provoking wars to increase profits for oil companies...",

"Denying benefits to disabled veteran's..."

"Criminalizing dissent..."

In an interview with Skull Crew Labs Ian Bruce explained:

"You'll notice that I've deliberately used only used mainstream and 'respected' news outlets in compiling the references. That's not because I believe Independent Media is somehow less reliable or accurate -- quite the opposite. It's only because some of the more recalcitrant people I'm trying to reach won't be able to dismiss this information completely out-of-hand."

Ian Bruce's Dubyadubyadubya.com will return in a few months to the net to take another shot aimed squarely at the American sense that, "That's not what we're about..." In his interview with Skull Crew Labs he suggested a likely theme for a future animation:

"I have serious problems with the proprietary, unaccountable, and un-auditable touch-screen voting systems being supplied by Diebold, and others. If I need a receipt to return a $19 toaster, shouldn't I get one for something as valuable as my vote? For all I know, my votes going into a low-tech suggestion-box/paper-shredder."

I began exchanging e-mails with Ian Bruce after he saw a photo essay I had posted to DU about an April Fools Pro-war rally, visited my site and noticed that I had the flyers he designed for MoveOn on display.

Ian designed these flyers and as well as posters and billboards on the same theme. In February 2003 MoveOn placed the billboards in major cities across the country, and the bus posters on 1/4 of the buses in Washington DC. In addition MoveOn members like myself used MoveOn's sophisticated web site to organize in one week a campaign that passed out close to 1/2 million of the leaflets. MoveOn, one of the most powerful progressive organizations in America, is really just a big mailing list -- there are no dues or fees of any kind. You can sign-off the list as easily as you can sign-on. They have about a million members.

Not all of Ian Bruce's protest pieces have been as well circulated as those I've just discussed. He did a relatively unseen fake Time magazine cover as a tribute to the day Portland brought dissent back to America's streets.
I was thrilled to see another sign of the significance of that August 22nd protest. Until that August afternoon it seemed GW Bush had succeeded in squelching all public dissent in America. I think the police knew that it would be folly to try to herd the citizens of Portland into a free speech concentration zone as they had in other cities. They set up barricades across the street and half a block away from Bush's fund-raiser. We were peacefully assembled behind those barricades when some government official decided that we were close enough to be noticed. That was when, as you see above, they attacked the crowd. However, we kept marching all afternoon and into the evening. Even the corporate press carried the story. We wound up taking back not just Portland's streets, but America's streets.

An unadvertised Flash animation tossed onto to a new one page web site that got a million hits a week, web software that lets a grass roots organization create a nation-wide leafletting campaign in seven days, a protest organized in about a week and publicized largely through Portland's Indymedia community that brought American dissent back to the front page -- we need to remember these successes, when we remember our failure to prevent America's unprovoked invasion of Iraq.

We have powerful new tools. But will we use them to build a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts? A powerful internet organized counter-culture exists in one of our possible futures. Why is a counter-culture powerful? Because people don't want to oppose and protest as much as they want to be part of something. That is the power of the establishment. That was the power of the 60's counter-culture. For a time the establishment was terrified that it might lose control of the minds of an entire generation because it had lost the ability to define for America's youth what is desirable and what has status. It's a battle for the heart and mind of America that we win in one possible future.

- Brian Thomas

P.S.

I would appreciate it if readers would reply with links and comments concerning the anti-Bush/anti-War pieces that they found most effective.

I am also very interested in links and comments about efforts to take "desire" back from the advertisements of capitalism. Do you think this is essential or possible?

Sony, Volvo, Minolta, Time, Diebold, Macromedia, Boeing, Earthlink, People for the American Way, MoveOn.org. Flash, Fireworks, and PhotoShop are no doubt registered trademarks. GBU-38/B and JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Munition) are probably not.

Copyright, Brian Thomas, 2003

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