The concept of radical democracy has a funny, even strange sound in it. Somehow it connotes with notions and sentiments which you tend to recall and recognise, but which you cannot seem to put your finger on. Ambiguity, uneasiness and fascination are the connotations. It injects a sudden rush of hope, but for what? Does it refer to the famous student demonstrations of the end of the 60’s or does it imply the hotly hyped possibilities provided by the new media? And even more importantly: is there any substance in it?
To be sure, radical democracy begs and demands very varied interpretations and definitions. (See, for example, Laclau & Mouffe) The way I will proceed here, and the way I believe SUPERFLEX want to support it, is to see the content of radical democracy as two interlinked acts of questioning and analysing. On another level, radical democracy is also about bringing back politics into the domain of everyday life. In terms of space and usage of space, the aim is to revise the trend and to repoliticise the public domain which is being turned into a privately controlled zone by neo-liberal arguments and ideologies.
As ever, to state what it is not makes the framing of the content easier. In other words, the concept of radical democracy does not refer to any kind of a radical change such as overthrowing government, sacking the board of trustees or offering an alternative to capitalism. The word radical stands for a rethought and revisited version of demo-cracy. It is in its fanciest and most powerful form when it stands for concrete and practical openings of possibilities — be they new, mis-understood or forgotten ones.
In considering radical democracy and linking it with the practice of contemporary art, I will focus on a particular project of SUPERFLEX. The project has the name Karlskrona2, or in its shorter version, which I will use henceforth: K2. Its background signifies the starting point, the project being a virtual remake and transposition of the city of Karlskrona into the internet environment. It is not, and this is extremely important, a one-to-one version of the city, but an experiment which wants and tries to construct a new, different version of Karlskrona. It is an experiment in city planning, community building and in radical democracy. The aim of SUPERFLEX, as in most of their projects, is to get the given location, this time people in Karlskrona, involved in the making of K2.
SUPERFLEX chose Karlskrona for special reasons. It is a small coastal city in Sweden, mostly known for its Baltic Sea navy complexes and its fishermen. Lately, the area has grown into one of the most dynamic centres of concentration of IT companies and new media businesses in Sweden. The point being that in a community of circa 60,000 inhabitants, and with the de facto existence of substantial ground know-ledge of the internet environment, this experiment is planted in fruitful soil. It would hardly make sense to try to restructure a new version of a huge city such as London or Berlin — as it would be scarcely sensible to try to introduce this type of internet activity into new unaccustomed territories.
The K2 project has two phases. At the beginning, an open programme was launched in the internet which provided a version of Karlskrona. SUPERFLEX constructed about 1/5 of the city area, not willing to make the framework larger, but stressing the necessity of the people themselves participating, later on as the need arose, to extend the available area of K2. During this first phase, everyone interested was able to log into K2 and to start to make the city.
The first results of the project were very promising. There was a great deal of activity in the site, which daily drew between 300–500 visitors. As expected, a lot of the action led to various levels of chaos and confrontation when people were building on top of each other, with little control and collaboration or common rules. Participants also started up their own K2 internet newspapers and different social clubs. Moreover, quite soon certain types of loose rules of behaviour began to be formulated and followed.
In its second phase, taking place in the near future, K2 is to be fully available only to people living in the real Karlskrona and who register with the project. People from outside will still be able to visit the internet city as tourists, but they do not have the right to decide and to vote on the contents of K2. At this point, a big screen showing the current situation of K2 is to be set up in the main square of Karlskrona, reflecting the changes and differences to its ‘real’ version, from now on referred to here as K1.
As mentioned above, the radicalism of the approach of SUPERFLEX is not in the claim that activity in K2 in itself would immediately lead to something significant in K1. SUPERFLEX are very aware of the plain ridiculousness of the most avid comments and hopes which see internet and participation via it as a new radical form of democracy. Internet in itself is just a tool, a means of communication which can be used and abused in endlessly varied ways. What’s needed is critical distance; self-evidently, the content comes from outside the medium of communication. Nor is this to deny that the internet has obviously affected and dramatically changed the lives and habits of people today.
The radicalism of the K2 project is to question and to analyse. It is a way to experiment with the new medium in the context of meaningful topics and matters already present and operating in the ‘real’ world. And one of these themes is democracy; especially how we want to understand it, and what kind of alternative ways and possibilities are embodied in it. In short, it is about how people decide to deal with each other, what kind of community do they establish and sustain, and how? Who is included, who is excluded, how much flexibility and uncertainty can it tolerate, and why? The radicalism is seen in the way the project opens up new horizons and means of acting and being together. When successful, it adds up and opens up new means of participating in the act of making and maintaining a community. Thus, it is to return politics and politicisation back into the daily routine of choosing or not choosing. It is about taking the chance of responsibility and freedom seriously.
K2 is a simulation of a city in a new environment. As a simulation, it enables the participants to experiment and to take risks which are not possible in K1. To put in bluntly, in K1 things have their own important history and past, while in K2 the past is very recent and it does not limit choices to the same extent. Another important aspect is the question of ownership and money. In K1 these aspects also have an important history leading to the present tense, in K2 they are up for grabs, flexible and more than less constructable.
Looking into my magic bowl filled with ice-cold raspberry vodka, the future seems indeed sensationally blurry, but it does have some clearer variations in it. On the face of it, the people in K2 (and in every similar experiment) must very quickly make some important and long-lasting choices. Otherwise why bother spending time in just another version of endless but superficial role-play-games. The bag of troubling questions has the following line-up: Are they going to make certain clear rules and regulations for activity within the net? Or are they going to allow, and for how long, a certain level of anarchy and chaos? We have to remember that it is up to them, the participants in K2 to decide. SUPERFLEX take an active part in the discussions, but they are very aware of their role. Their task is to lure the others to add to and create the new city of K2.
Just imagine the possibilities? The city centre can, for example, be made car free, office free, planned only for dead cheap housing, fab-ulously wild clubs, superb restaurants and all the rest of the fun. Or the city centre can be made available for only the real sweet-and-sour Swedes, or only for people with a high enough income and level of intelligence. The rules can be such that they do not strive for consensus but that conversation is seen as a constructive way of facing and confronting various problems and views. Or the whole city collapses into endless quarrels and fights between the inhabitants.
Not wanting to speculate any further on these generalising aspects, let me return to the presuppositions of this experiment. Of course, K2 is not a neutral and completely free zone where anyone and everyone can participate to the same extent. This again underlines that experiments in the internet are always partly connected to the so-called real world. Whether we want to admit it or not, it is de facto only people with the powerful enough computers (K2 as yet only functions in PC format), the knowledge and time to use them who can participate in full. Similarly, the forces behind the experiment are not only showing good will. There are many different interests simultaneously at play, some keeping their distance and staying under cover for the moment. The aims of SUPERFLEX are perhaps already relatively clear. The other institutions involved, the city of Karlskrona and the Swedish telephone service provider Telia, both main sponsors of the project, obviously have and had their own needs and interests.
The interests of the other institutions can be outlined as follows. For the city of Karlskrona, and its Mayor, the project is about daily politics and the image of a city, and about proliferation of the city into an even more credible hot-house for hip-hop new media. And it is not too hard to see what was in it for the telephone company. It was a way for them to promote their expertise, to advertise themselves and to act as a sponsor for artistic activities using state-of-the-art internet facilities. That is until they got cold feet, and backed out of the whole Super-Telia deal.
Their reasons were very telling, revealing the highly volatile character and deep inner anxieties of contemporary market forces. All of a sudden Telia seem to have realised that K2 is not only about fun-loving internet consumerists. K2 in fact could contain material, which a publicly listed company would not want to be associated with — whether it goes under the name of art or not. As a sordid anecdote, the company had extra special problems with a certain feature in K2 where you are allowed and able to kick, hard and heavy, the other avatars: the other participants in the experiment. At this turn of the events, after heated discussions, Telia only calmed down when SUPERFLEX wondered whether they would try to forbid people cursing on their mobile phones.
Telia’s reaction was partly motivated by the sudden severe drop in their share value, but it is rather clear that their reasons went deeper. Telia had understood that they had entered an unknown world in which they cannot even dream of having control. And this is the crucial point, the intersection where radical democracy (questioning, analyses and politicisation) is not compatible with the demands and wishes of a stock market company looking for fat profits, a positive image and as much control as possible. The point is that, as in any ‘real’ society, K2 could equally well turn out to be a neo-hippie camp, a gay dad meeting, an Afro-American Nazi convention or a gathering point for people who refuse to pay taxes to the government. This is crucial: K2 must stay open, and face the risks. K2 has to mutate and grow into unknown fields, which is something a huge global player seems not to be able to come to terms with – neither practically nor ideologically.
Looking back at this mighty fight between the poor good and the unbearable rich evil, in the case of SUPERFLEX vs. Telia, it was the supercompany that got scared. However, does this mean that superartists beat the supercompany on their home turf? Undisputedly, SUPERFLEX made an event out of a stock market phenomenon, stripping off the clothes of the structures of the global stock market. It was an aspect of radical democracy at work. It was, for sure, unintended, but the action showed how a stock market company would not tolerate experiments, tolerance and plurality of values when the profits were in danger. SUPERFLEX laid bare the hollowness of the rhetorics of the global player in question, underlining the difference between what they say and what they really do.
With Telia gone, SUPERFLEX must find another sponsor, because the technology that makes K2 possible is expensive in the extreme. It is technology that divides the haves from the have-nots, making the gulf between them most likely to widen in future. Not only in the axis of north and south, but within each and every centre and periphery. Companies such as Telia make huge stacks of money with the new technology. And, of course, in itself there is nothing wrong with that. The problems for the artists and the people who want to analyse and criticise, ultimately to open new visions and possibilities, is how their views fit with the content of global companies running after glorious global profits. The question is how much openness, uncertainty and room for mistakes is allowed and possible in the whole project, ranging from what takes places in K2 to the question of the financial and technological framework in which K2 is realised.
In other words, what will always remain is that when SUPERFLEX is using technology paid for by a major business player, it is not without its difficulties – for both sides. On the other side there is the open-ended, actually anarchic, not so democratic process and platform of the internet where networking is almost completely horizontal and deterritorialised. There is no central point of control. The controlling aspect is very much apparent on the other, the oligopolistic side where we have seen a huge amount of consolidations and mergers such as Time and Warner. What we are witnessing is a major centralisation of control through the unification of the main players in the information and communication power structures. A structure which is turning into a quasi-monopoly. (See Hardt & Negri)
But, to stress it once more, it is these difficulties which make it interesting and also hopefully a worthwhile project. As is the case with democracy (as in common rule based on participation, continuation, responsibility, accountability and the system of checks and balances), there hardly can be any sudden major change or improvement, but partial and slow improvements for the better. And in this process you cannot overcome the global business players. The point is how do you collaborate with them?
One way to hit the nail on its head (with hands deep down in your pockets) is to be aware of the type of collaboration and the inner relation-ships within it. The distance from a critical attitude to affirmative action and plain ‘kissing ass’ is not so terribly far, and not always so easy to see or to avoid. And to be sure – it happens to all of us. Some-times the task of deciding what is the colour of one’s tongue is not a pleasant task. The dimensions of contrasts in the case of K2 are just enormous. The counterpart is the global business player, who is constantly out looking for the cultural legitimation for its activities. The global rather unregulated market economy needs its cultural symbols and artists. Of course, it will also get them, but at what price? To put it a little differently: is there any real possibility of critical distance and alternatives?
In general, and especially within the frames of SUPERFLEX project, I honestly do think that there are. But the possibilities are not vis-à-vis the global players. It is not us against them, but about us trying and being forced to refigure the ways and means of constructive resistance in today’s global economic situations. It is possible, if not too probable, and it is very difficult. And it is a little more complicated than changing from one brand of chocolate chips to another.
Resistance against the all-mighty capitalist forces gained a proud public face in the recent large-scale demonstrations from Seattle to Prague and back, following world-wide all the main conferences of global organisations such as the IMF, the World Bank and the Group of Eight. In the light of the generally shock-effect prone media, the protests might seem only to try to block the conferences or suffice with throwing rotten eggs at the baddies of corporate multinationals, but often there is a lot of serious work behind the opinions and actions. And this is said without a kilogram of extra-sympathy for any tree-huggers.
The protesters seem to be most effective when they are able to concentrate on one single brand, branch or company. The sneaker king Nike has learned – in a bitter lesson – to acknowledge this. Anti-Nike campaigning has grown into a large scale protest movement, mainly protesting against the working conditions, for example, their widely known use in developing countries of labour paid less than the minimum wage. The Canadian journalist Naomi Klein offers a conclusive view on such action by analysing the attitudes and working methods of both the companies behind the superbrand and their protesters.
Amid the hullabaloo she raises in favour of the protesters, Klein is also perfectly aware of the limits of consumer-based protests. The consumers are mostly in the developed countries, able to criticise and to act against the ad campaigns, but those mostly negatively affected are never the consumers but the workers in the sweatshops in Jakarta and Manila. In the Age of Shopping, consumer-based criticism turns too easily into a sophisticated variant of the famous but pathetic burden of the white man. This said, while the activities of the protests are by no means useless, they do have strict limits.
On a more theoretical level, one of the main and most ambiguous problems is the rhetorics of multiculturalism and pluralism. The demand, made by cultural and post-colonial critics, feminist and postmodern writers, for greater diversity and acknowledgement of it, has been met with wide-open arms from the side of global capitalism. Cultural diversity as in plurality of ways of producing and products, ability to ship products all around the globe is exactly what makes the global capital system tick and churn out more profits. Diversity has long since become a best-selling product, making it very problematic to consider only the themes of identity politics and the politics of representation. The double-edged motto must be remembered: every difference is an opportunity. Global market capitalism has consequences in which one must take into serious consideration economical questions. Amid vast tracts of lame deconstruction and self-congratulatory emancipation, this has been lacking too long. Klein herself nicely reflects the attitudes of the 90’s: “we were too busy analysing the pictures being projected on the wall to notice that the wall itself had been sold.”
However, returning to K2, my intuitive and wishful claim is that K2 is more than just a game, a simulation of architecture and city planning. It is more than just an opportunity to play around with various virtual chances. It is a brilliant way to be particular, to localise the vast problems and questions at hand, to confront within a specially framed context the demands and risks of global realities.
K2 is first of all political – and political in the sense that it is about opening a door to the process of redescription. And this is political, obviously not as in party politics, but as in each and everyone of us trying to describe and redescribe ourselves and our surroundings in accordance with our values, interests, wants, wishes and fears. (See Hannula) Theoretical, but personally lived-through back-up can be recalled from writers such as Albert Camus and Salman Rushdie, both of whom, even if in different time periods and contexts, have stressed that the most effective type of power available for an individual is the power of rede-scription. But it is a very demanding kind of way of telling one’s story. Shouting out loud that you are a hustler, faggot or a skin-head (or even all of them at once) is not really saying too much. The point is what kind of an A, B or C you are – and why.
This process of shaping and making the content of concepts is poli-tics as in politicisation. It is about making things political, questioning them and forcing them to openness. It is about the participation of the people in the K2 project. It is very vital that their participation is directly connected to a real situation. A comparative situation which makes the motivation of participation higher – and also raises the level of difficulty.
In my view, what is more in K2 is how it necessarily binds people into an experiment. An experiment which loses its driving force very soon without the commitment of the participants. The commitment comes only at a huge price. Firstly, there is the energy, which must be put in without any guarantees of success or pay-back. Secondly, it is a compromise. An endless, always continuing compromise which the partici-pants in K2 have to agree upon. And to everyone’s great surprise, here comes the concept of radical democracy into the picture again. Not as in any type of utopia, but as in a certain unique style of romanticism based on hope. The hope of being able to figure out better compromises of being and living with one another.
There is another source of power, something extra to rely on in K2. It is called experience. It is the experience of both individual and collective sense, which participation within K2 provides and encourages. Herein lies its very strength. It is an experience of doing something together – a sensation which most of the commercial applications of internet desperately try to use but fail to achieve, because a common face-to-face experience is always more than just consuming a product.
All of a sudden, even in the internet environment, we reach the age-old questions of a community. It must be an inclusive,flexible and tolerant community, which seeks to overcome the problems of exclusion based, for example, on race, religion or sexual preferences. Participation and compromises all come down to the process of being-with. It is essential that the activities and non-actions are bounding, launched with a sense of history of place and time, and reciprocal responsibility within the realm of K2. And here, once the rules and regulations start to develop, it will be very fascinating to see what kind of checks and balances the participants in K2 are willing or able to form. The possibilities are enormous, opening up paths for critical but positive and constructive political activity.
There is much more to K2 than building another support group to oppose multi-national companies selling soda pop. It can be about very basic concerns of organising and running a local community — as in deciding how long the buses run at night. Or it can be, as in an existing experiment in the USA – in the state of Texas, of all places – about managing people’s needs in internet. This means, for example, instead of queuing at the government offices, being able to renew your fishing license via the internet. An action, which does not change the world, but does perhaps make your daily realities a little more pleasant.
So the chances and the risks are there. It is all very much up in the air. For sure, when the compromises get tough in the virtual world, and when the house eventually burns down, the rats in this virtual boat will indeed almost effortlessly jump into the next experiment. But, does the experiment leave any traces on the person who clicked in and out?
And yes, how many internet experiences of experiments do we need? Is there any faint possibility of learning from one’s mistakes?