Artivism as research and tenure - Ricardo Dominguez

Ricardo Dominguez (Associate Professor, Visual Arts, UCSD) is currently being threatened with criminal action and the revocation of his tenure by UCOP and several UCSD senior administrators. This is a long, rapidly-developing story. Time is of the essence; Ricardo meets with our SVC on the morning of Thursday, April 7.


UC Office of the President has reportedly been upset over Ricardo's involvement in the Transborder Immigrant Tool - these are recycled cell phones loaded with software that points border-crossers to caches of fresh water in the desert, obviously saving lives. It's a controversial project, to say the least; and Ricardo has received death threats from people in the SD community and beyond. The project was picked up by the national and international presses, and CNN named Ricardo one of its "Most Interesting People" of 2009 because of the project. Several Republican congressmen also recently sent a letter to UCSD demanding that the project be ceased and Ricardo be censured. In response to this, the university has been scrambling to find a way to shut it down. Importantly: the project has been included in every one of Ricardo's professional reviews over the last few years, all of which have gone successfully (and have been signed off on by this very SVC); in addition, the project has been FUNDED by UCSD (and yet again, signed off on by this SVC). Now that the controversy has gotten attention in DC, they're reversing course.


More recently, as part of the March 4 actions, Ricardo's bang.lab created a virtual sit-in on the UCOP web site. A virtual sit-in works in this way:
participants go to a specified web page, which continuously "refreshes" connections to the target web page (in this case, ucop.edu). This obviously increases traffic to that site - much like a live sit-in at a specified locale - with the potential effect of making it too busy to accept new incoming connections. It is similar, in form, to what's called a "Distributed Denial of Service Attack" (DDOS). There are several critical difference between a virtual sit-in and a DDOS: a DDOS is prolonged and unending, used by various governmental groups to censor a wide variety of free speech groups, activist groups, etc, and non-transparent (the creators of the DDOS set up virtual robots to blast a given site with millions of hits, and hide the creators behind various firewalls and filters. A virtual sit-in is open, does not use such "robots," and the creators are identified freely).



The Transborder Immigrant Tool is an innovative project that cross-cuts technology and the arts. Using low-cost and recycled mobile phones loaded with mapping software, the project aims to reduce deaths and serious illnesses/injuries for those traveling through California's deserts.
Although this project has been met with some controversy in the press, we see this work as being imminently ethical and, perhaps just as importantly, a serious and innovative extension of precedents in performance research that have similarly aimed to pose questions about structural inequality, citizenship and civility, and humanitarianism. Such questions have occupied performance traditions throughout the 20th and 21st centuries; Dominguez's work, in this regard, is both part of a longer disciplinary tradition in performance and the visual arts and, importantly for the UC, an innovative and forward-thinking extension of these queries to the problems and conditions that define our contemporary age.


It is also important to note, despite sensationalist media reports to the contrary, that the Transborder Immigrant Tool has not as yet been used by anyone unaffiliated with b.a.n.g lab. It is still in development, with input from non-profit border organizations and the Border Patrol. We understand that UCSD has received complaints from several members of the US Congress who have unfortunately been misinformed about the project's scope, and who are attempting to intervene into the practice of academic and artistic freedom. As scholars and artists who have chosen to work in the context of a public institution in the interest of the "greater good," we find such interventions from political representatives into university research projects to be unethical and in breach of their responsibilities as elected leaders.

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