For the second year of its existence the Disruption Network Lab connects artists, hackers, researchers and activists around topics like drones, internet porn, whistleblowing and computer games. What do these things have in common? We talked to its director and founder, Tatiana Bazzichelli.
iRights.Media: What is the Disruption Network Lab?
Tatiana Bazzichelli: The Disruption Network Lab is a series of conference events that happen regularly in the Kunstquartier Bethanien in collaboration with the Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien in Berlin. We started with the idea of creating a metaphorical laboratory. We wanted to use the word lab because it implies an experimental approach. Our aim is to experiment with themes and subjects. At the same time it is also a network of people that I am a part of and helped establish over a period of 15 years.
The idea of the Disruption Network Lab is to combine different aspects of my research, of my practice, into a conference stream. It is also a network by itself: the methodology of the events works by combining different kinds of expertise not normally found together. The idea is to try to bring together people from the hacker community, the whistleblower community, the art community, the academic community, the queer community and so on. We want artists talking to researchers talking to porn activists to hackers.
The format is easy: each day always has one keynote and a panel. Sometimes we do a film screening. Each event can be one day or two days long. At the moment we are always doing two days, but last year we also did one day events. This tight time frame is a curatorial choice. We want to focus on one specific topic and actually give space to the people we invited so they have enough time to develop their subject, get the right attention. But it’s also good for the audience: in my experience with other events, having a thousand parallel activities, panels, workshops is overwhelming and distracting so we wanted to do it differently.
The term disruption comes from the world of business. What was your intention when you used it as a name for a conference series in a cultural context?
For me disruption means trying to understand and analyze practices that work from the inside of systems—whether they are economical, political, technological. Disruption as a concept did arise in the business world when, in the 1990s, Clayton Christensen wrote about disruptive innovation and disruptive technologies. From his perspective disruption meant introducing a technology or a product into the market that the market doesn’t expect. This creates a disruption from within. This product changes the environment not only in the markets but as a consequence also in the social and political realm.
I transferred this concept of disruption into art and technology practices. For me disruption means trying investigate practices that work from the inside of systems that are usually closed. I am interested in the moment when an unexpected perturbation changes the system from within. This unexpected aspect has a long history in terms of art and culture. The artistic avant-garde in the 20th century were working with the concept of the shock and the unexpected. It relates also to the current discourse about whistleblowing: you literally have somebody inside the system who interferes with the system from within by virtue of their intimate knowledge of its workings.
How do you decide on the topics?
The events don’t follow the same threads but they are still connected and make sense together. I usually call it a montage methodology, but you can also call it hypertext like a webpage where you have links to other pages. It’s also a bit of a conceptual experiment. The topics come together in different ways. Usually we have a general idea about the themes we want to cover but we are also flexible in responding to current events so we can move one topic up or push it back.
Could you give us a concrete example? What are some of the topics you organized events about?
Our first event was about drones in April 2015. The drone technology is a totally disruptive technology because it changes the meaning of warfare. At the same time it is really perverse and has disruptive consequences in terms of social fabric and civil society.
A lot of events we do come out of the connection with others. With the drone event this started because I talked about the automatization of conflict with two Italian researchers, Chantal Meloni who now works as a criminal lawyer at the European Center for Constitutional Human Rights (ECCHR) and the journalist Laura Lucchini. Through the ECCHR I learned about Brandon Bryant, a former drone operator, a US Air Force veteran and whistleblower, and had the chance to approach him. Another event, “Samizdata” about whistleblowing, was done in collaboration with NOME Gallery in Berlin where I was curating the exhibition of Jacob Appelbaum. It was developed as a networked project in close collaboration with him. So each event has different partners depending on the topic.
Other topics covered in 2015 included cyborgs in May; games, and comics as social media exploration and exploitation, in August; strategies for resisting the surveillance regime uncovered by Edward Snowden in September; independent and queer porn production versus the development of mainstream porn tube technology in October; and political and artistic stunts and disruptions in December.
How many people normally attend an event?
The fact that we work with different networks makes it at the same time both easier and more difficult. Some events are extremely popular, for example the cyborg event. We didn’t expect that because we thought it might have been perceived as an outdated subject. Cyborgs were something talked about a lot in the 1990s. But this event was the one to pull the largest crowd—more than 200 people. Maybe this is because it was slightly more accessible for a general audience than something like the “Deep Cables” event this year, though that event had a quite big audience too. It focused on internet infrastructure and the fibre optic and undersea network cables that travel across the Atlantic and connect Europe, the USA and other countries, and the discussion around the wiretapping by the NSA and the British intelligence agency GCHQ, as well as other forms of structural powers on the internet.
So the audience is different every time depending on the topic. Also the community around it changes from event to event. Some are a bit more experimental and so less people show up. We do have a kind of core audience though, centred on the hacker, media art and activist scene.
What is this year’s framework after „disruption“ last year?
This year’s framework is called „Art and Evidence“ which connects to a panel I did at the art and digital culture festival transmediale 2014 called „Art as evidence“ with Laura Poitras, Jake Appelbaum and Trevor Paglen. We want to analyze forms of art, but also technological uses and practices related to producing evidence, revealing misconduct and wrongdoing, and transferring information that is hidden to the public. At the same time we want to analyze evidence in a more speculative way, questioning what evidence is and how knowledge is produced.
This was also part of our event in September 2016, when we discussed ignorance and the current phenomenon of “post-truth”. The event in November 2016 is about “Truth-tellers” and comes back to the subject of whistleblowers. It deals in more detail with the role of the source in leaks. Often, after a source blows the whistle and leaks documents they get left alone. One example is Jeremy Hammond, who was sentenced to 10 years of prison after the Stratfor-Leaks in 2013. Stratfor is an intelligence company working internationally for corporate clients. Today nobody knows who Jeremy Hammond is, outside of the whistleblower and hacker community, even though his leaks are seen by some as equal to Edward Snowden’s in importance.
What are your plans for next year?
We already created the program for the next two years—another eight events—but this is tentative. We are waiting to see if we receive the grants we applied for. We are also trying to export the Disruption Network Lab to other cities. We did an event in April 2016 at the Somerset House in London. It was called “Bots”, and the discussion ranged from drone usage in warfare to bots as automatic programmes with an artistic purpose. There are other offers in the pipeline—other organizations in other countries have shown interest so we will see.