UC San Diego professor who studies disobedience gains followers — and investigators
Ricardo Dominguez, an electronic civil disobedience expert, is the target of probes examining whether his work improperly uses public funds and violates security laws.

May 07, 2010|By Richard Marosi, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from San Diego — When protesting students spilled into University of California campus courtyards in March, Ricardo Dominguez took to the streets in his own way — digitally — leading a march to the online office of the UC president.

The bespectacled associate professor triggered a software program that continuously reloaded the home page of UC President Mark G. Yudof’s website.

“Transparency,” hundreds of protesters wrote, over and over again, in the search box of the home page.

The jammed website responded with an error message: “File not found.”

The protesters’ message: Transparency doesn’t exist in the UC system.

It was a virtual sit-in, an oft-used tactic from Dominguez’s academic specialty at UC San Diego: electronic civil disobedience. Another project last year took as inspiration the debate over illegal immigration. Dominguez, a new media artist, unveiled a prototype for a modified cellphone that he called a “mobile Statue of Liberty.” He said phones like it would provide immigrants with directions and inspirational poetry readings during arduous desert crossings.

Never mind that few of the phones will probably ever end up in immigrant hands — there are no plans to mass produce them — or that the virtual sit-in may not have actually disrupted the UC president’s computer.

The projects were political statements meant to agitate, which they did, with unexpected consequences. Campus police are probing whether the virtual sit-in broke any computer hacking laws. The phone has drawn fire for allegedly encouraging illegal immigration. The media showed up, and faculty and students have rallied to Dominguez’s defense, slapping black tape over their mouths at a campus protest.

To his detractors Dominguez is a leftist prankster who wastes public funds pursuing projects that border on the criminal. Three Republican congressmen in San Diego county have written letters to the university questioning his work.

“Time for a change in this country,” wrote Nick Vecchio, a La Mesa resident, in a letter to the San Diego Union Tribune. “My taxes are sky high, and I’m paying a state university to employ activists and professors specializing in civil disobedience? What, pray tell, is a ‘new media artist?'”

Disturbance, answers Dominguez. He ponders the controversy with professorial detachment, studying reactions to his esoteric stagecraft, which is intended to blur the line between advocacy and performance art.


On Ricardo Dominguez

Visual-arts professor Ricardo Dominguez is in a tight spot. His tenure at UCSD is currently in jeopardy, because — ironically — he was living up to his reasons for hire.

It all started with the Zapatista Army of National Liberation. Hailing from Chiapas — the southernmost state of Mexico — the Zapatistas are self-proclaimed libertarians who have been living in a declared state of war against Mexico since 1994, using nonviolent avenues like the Internet to spread their message.

As fate would have it, the Zapatistas and Dominguez have a few things in common. In fact, the professor partnered with the group in 1994, leading to his 1998 invention of an online activist tool called Virtual-Sit-In — a modern form of rebellion that, once used to spread rumors about the UC President Mark G. Yudof’s resignation, has raised the eyebrows of the UC higher-ups who might just fire him for it.

The Virtual-Sit-In technology — which allows protesters to flood and potentially take down a Web site — is only one of Dominguez’s peaceful weapons in social activism. Dominguez has started projects all over the country aimed at stirring up controversy in a modern, artistic manner.

Virtual-Sit-Ins use a HTML-based program to target a specific Web site by allowing individuals to sign up to participate. For each individual that joins the protest, the targeted Web site is forced to refresh, drawing in additional traffic, essentially clogging it and preventing use, just as if it were a real location filled with protesters in a real life sit-in. Similar programs, generated by specific programs or computers, can also target Web sites in such a manner, refreshing their servers and forcing, almost like a virus. Additionally, the technology Dominguez developed reveals the individuals participating in the demonstration, their reasons for the protest and how long it will last, giving it far more meaning.

“Electronic civil disobedience allows us to think about the question of art becoming a social manifestation, allows us to think about art allowing communities who do not have access to power to make themselves present, that allows the unbearable weight of human beings to put a stop to the crisis that is around us — especially the juicy crisis of education,” Dominguez said. “It allows us to see that art is an active space in public culture and that it cannot be disregarded.”

Dominguez employed a Virtual-Sit-In on the UC Office of the President Web site on March 4 to allow individuals to protest online for the Day of Action to Defend Public Education.
“On March 4, when about 400 of us and then some did the virtual sit-in, at the same time we had our real bodies protesting,” Warren College Senior — a student of Dominguez — Holly Eskew said. “We are reaching the time when we can compare our real bodies to our digital bodies and online environment.”

Dominguez joined the UCSD visual-arts department in 2005, hired specifically for his work in electronic civil disobedience, and has become involved with CalIT2, acting as director of the b.a.n.g. laboratory – an . Since then, he has used the internet as a means of displaying a number of art projects aimed at stirring discussion in the UC system.

In November 2009, Dominguez created a Web site, nearly identical to the current UC Office of the President Web site, with an announcement for a new “Zero Tuition” program to be employed by the UC system. The project was designed to stir discussion in the community. Several news outlets called in, believing the statement to be real, which the UCOP brushed aside. Soon after Dominguez created a mock Web site holding a resignation statement by Yudof, which also drew much attention and discussion over such an idea.

“Art is as important as science or engineering or philosophy,” Dominguez said. “Art is a space that allows us to expand the way that we can think of the future. This is a product not of activism, and not a product of politics, not a product of science — it is the outcome of artistic investigation.”

While much of Dominguez’s research centers around the Web, his full range of work utilizes nearly every artistic medium. Dominguez began his career in the arts in the early 1980s by studying classical theatre, later moving on to agitprop theatre — a type of politically-driven theatre performance drawn from the terms agitation and propaganda. But after a few years on stage, Dominguez again looked to the future of his field bringing him to his obsession with technology based art outlets.

“In the early 80s, I became interested in thinking about the future of theatre,” Dominguez said. “I began to theorize new forms of electronic theatre, and we wrote a series of books, one called “The Electronic Disturbance,” and another book called “Electronic Civil Disobedience.””

It was at this point that Dominguez moved to New York City to start the research that would lead him to his work with the Zapatistas, who had…

“I started working with the Zapatistas in developing an intercontinental network of struggle and resistance,” Dominguez said. “We initiated the practice of electronic civil disobedience and electronic action in 1998, and there we did a series of performances for the Department of Defense, Congress and many other communities who responded to the issue of civil disobedience as an area of interest and dialogue.”

Since he was hired by UCSD in 2005, Dominguez has significantly expanded the forms of technology he involves in his art, as exhibited by his involvement in *particle group* — a group of artists, poets, new media artists and sound artists who are interested in (poetically) investigating the nature of toxicity in unregulated products that use nanotechnology — especially nanosilver.

Nanotechnology uses particles on the atomic scale that can often create new compounds which, may in turn, be toxic. One of *particle group*’s main projects is large equipment that acts as a “particle sniffer.”

“It allows you to walk through the installation, sniffs you and then tells you the level of toxicity is in your body because you’ve been using say Maybelline lipstick or transparent suntan lotion,” Dominguez said. “The response by the sniffer is a series of poetic scannings of your body. That’s the core vision of the *particle group*.”

Through the numerous projects Dominguez is involved with campus and nationwide, he holds that working in concert with his students and other artists is crucial.
“Collaboration is at the core of the perfomative matrix that I do with all the different groups I work with,” Dominguez said.

Eskew echoed that Dominguez’s attention and respect for with his students is truly an asset to the to the members of the visual arts departments.

“He is equally handed in the way that he gives to his students and his projects,” Eskew said. “He happens to be one of the most spectacular lecturers and the most giving caring professor I have ever come across.


Transborder Immigrant Tool

Funded by Arts and Humanities (Transborder Grant 2007-8), UCSD.

Transborder Immigrants Tool:
A Mexico/U.S. Border Disturbance Art Project
By Ricardo Dominguez and Brett Stalbaum (Principal Investigators)

(Electronic Disturbance Theater/b.a.n.g lab)

Lead Researchers: Micha Cardenas and Jason Najarro

The border between the U.S. and Mexico has moved between the virtual and the all too real since before the birth of the two nation-states. This has allowed a deep archive of suspect movement across this border to be traced and tagged – specifically anchored to immigrants bodies moving north, while immigrant bodies moving south much less so. The danger of moving north across this border is not a question of politics, but vertiginous geography. Hundreds of people have died crossing the U.S./Mexico border due to not being able to tell where they are in relation to where they have been and which direction they need to go to reach their destination safely. Now with the rise of multiple distributed geospatial information systems (such as the Goggle Earth Project for example), GPS (Global Positioning System) and the developing Virtual Hiker Algorithm by artist Brett Stalbaum it is now possible to develop a Transborder Tools for Immigrants to be implemented and distributed on cracked Nextel cell phones. This will allow a virtual geography to mark new trails and potentially safer routes across this desert of the real.

The technologies of Spatial Data Systems and GPS (Global Positioning System) have enabled an entirely new relationship with the landscape that takes form in applications for simulation, surveillance, resource allocation, management of cooperative networks and pre-movement pattern modeling (such as the Virtual Hiker Algorithm) an algorithm that maps out a potential or suggested trail for real a hiker/or hikers to follow. The Transborder Immigrant Tool would add a new layer of agency to this emerging virtual geography that would allow segments of global society that are usually outside of this emerging grid of hyper-geo-mapping-power to gain quick and simple access with to GPS system. The Transborder Immigrant Tool would not only offer access to this emerging total map economy – but, would add an intelligent agent algorithm that would parse out the best routes and trails on that day and hour for immigrants to cross this vertiginous landscape as safely as possible.

This art project would be developed in 5 stages:
1)GPS mapping the Mexico/U.S. border on both sides of this border for 3 to 4 weeks, which allow us to find the exact coordinates needed to anchor the triangulations that would frame the start and points for the Transborder Immigrant Tool.
2)3 months to research current and pre-emptive transborder networks and infrastructures, such as, Homeland Security activities, Halliburton border security projects, border patrol and Minutemen activities and water/food anchors established by support communities along the border – with the goal to improve the odds of immigrant safety and determine which of the computationally mediated paths are likely to be currently useful to follow.
3)5 to 6 months to develop the Transborder Immigrant Tool algorithm code and test the GPS coordinates and develop the Spanish and English interface and instructions for use.
4)A 1 week Walkabout Testing of the Transborder Immigrant Tool algorithm by the Principle Investigators and invited artists. We would first walk south into Mexico and then walk back north into the U.S. in the tradition of Richard Long’s walking sculptures, Situationist psychographic gestures and x-border art work of artist Heath Bunting.
5)Passing out the Transborder Immigrant Tool to communities of immigrants on both sides of border for use in developing this project. Each tool would be branded as an art project by Electronic Disturbance Theater and b.a.n.g lab (bang.calit2.net) – all users would be requested to return the Transborder Immigrant Tool for distribution once they safely reach an end anchor point for upgrades and further distribution.


Published November, 2009

The Transborder Immigrant Tool in action. It’s not much to look at, but it has the power to safely guide migrant workers from Mexico to the US and back. (Photo by Ricardo Dominguez)

Over the past two decades, Ricardo Dominguez has been utilizing electronics and the internet to piss off just about every high-level administrative authority in the US. In the late 90s, his performance-art-cum-activist organization the Electronic Disturbance Theater (EDT) set up a participatory website-jamming network called the FloodNet system, which allowed anyone with an internet connection to gum up the official sites of the US Border Patrol, White House, G8, Mexican embassy, and others, rendering them inaccessible. The Department of Justice retaliated with an electronic attack on the EDT that aimed to destabilize the group and interrupt their online meddling. As any conspiracy wonk can tell you, it’s illegal for the government to use military force against civilians without declaring martial law; that’s the job of cops and FBI agents.

Dominguez, a Zapatista sympathizer and close friend of Subcomandante Marcos, claims the various forms of online mischief conducted by the EDT were experiments in electronic civil disobedience rather than true acts of sabotage. Their work led to massive virtual and physical sit-ins protesting the Mexican government between ’98 and ’99, attracting more than 100,000 participants. But his current project—the Transborder Immigrant Tool—is poised to enrage a much broader spectrum of the North American populace. By augmenting a low-cost Motorola phone with GPS and a battery of applications, Dominguez’s goal is to help illegal immigrants complete safe border crossings without being sent back by the Border Patrol or getting shot in the face by American “patriots.”

The primary goal of the Transborder Immigrant Tool is to increase safety during border crossing by directing heavy-footed immigrants to safe routes, shelter, food, water, and friendly sympathizers. With the recent surge in militia membership and the Obama administration’s announcement that they will be reducing the number of Border Patrol agents next year, it looks like we’re getting ready to witness a showdown for the ages. And Dominguez couldn’t be happier about the level of shit he is about to seriously disturb.

Vice: How did you first become involved in electronic civil disobedience?
Ricardo Dominguez: In the 80s I was a member of something called the Critical Art Ensemble. We wrote a series of books published in the 90s that speculated on what the future, and computers especially, might bring. Our core speculations were that we would see the emergence of three different arcs of capitalism in the 90s: digital capitalism, genetic capitalism or clone capitalism, and particle capitalism or nano-driven technology. We decided we would speculate not only on the artistic aspect of these emerging capitalisms but also on how we could intervene as artist-activists into each of these areas. We developed the idea of electronic civil disobedience as a way to mediate the emergence of digital capitalism. Some Critical Art Ensemble members have even been arrested for their work. One in particular, Steve Kurtz, was brought before a grand jury in 2004. Homeland Security considered his use of nonpathogenic bacteria in certain museum installations a bioterrorist threat.

Sounds grim.
But good has come out of it too. In 2000 I was invited to become a principal investigator at Calit2 (California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology) at the University of California in San Diego, and I’ve been there ever since.

What sort of electronic civil disobedience led the DOJ to conduct so-called infowar attacks on the EDT?
The real core of this was when we conducted our largest project, the Swarm Action, which was an ongoing participatory denial-of-service (DoS) attack that mainly took place on our website thing.net. It allowed anyone with internet access to overload the websites of several governmental entities. We created a JavaScript that basically hit the Refresh button over and over again on these sites, rendering them unusable or at least limiting their usability. We’d been running the program for a while when the Pentagon responded on September 9, 1998. They unleashed an “information war weapon”—at least that’s what they called it—on our civilian servers hosting thing.net in NYC. It simply redirected our requests to an empty page, which caused multiple pop-up windows to open until eventually the screen was full of them and we’d have to shut down the computer.

And the government’s response to the public DoS attack was considered illegal? Why?
It was unprecedented because there is a law called the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, which says that the US government cannot directly use military force on protests staged by civilian populations. Any interference has to be conducted via the local police or FBI. We had tested this gray area and lost, but we also won because launching this type of attack on a civilian server was the equivalent of B-52s dropping bombs on a group protesting on Wall Street, at least legally. The Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard contacted us and asked if we wanted to sue the Pentagon. We thought that might be interesting but instead decided to develop and distribute the disturbance kit so anyone could use it.

For the past few years you’ve been working on the Transborder Immigrant Tool, which sounds like it’s really going to chafe the asses of millions of people—civilians and government entities alike. What was the impetus for this project?
My research lab at Calit2 is called BANG Lab, which stands for Bits, Atoms, Neurons, and Genes. One of the areas I’ve focused on since I’ve been in San Diego is developing what we call border-disturbance technologies. There’s another teacher here at UCSD, Brett Stalbaum, who really enjoys traveling in the desert, but he has no sense of direction, so he developed what we call a Virtual Hiker Tool—a GPS you can wear on your wrist that always coordinates the most beautiful view, the most beautiful way to go, on the day you’re traveling.

What potential did you see in the Virtual Hiker Tool from the standpoint of an artist-activist who wishes to disrupt the standard protocol for crossing the US-Mexico border?
I thought it was really interesting because it moved GPS away from an urban application and placed it in the natural frontier. I’m always interested in how we shift these ubiquitous technologies and configure them toward other issues and disturbances, as I like to call them. And of course, the border is right there. We know individuals crossing the border mainly die because they get lost or run out of water. It’s the devil’s highway, and it’s been that way for 500 years.

What is the device, exactly?
We looked at the Motorola i455 cell phone, which is under $30, available even cheaper on eBay, and includes a free GPS applet. We were able to crack it and create a simple compasslike navigation system. We were also able to add other information, like where to find water left by the Border Angels, where to find Quaker help centers that will wrap your feet, how far you are from the highway—things to make the application really benefit individuals who are crossing the border.

When will it be available to the public?
We’re at the end of the alpha stage, in terms of the technology, so the next level, which will be the most difficult, is interfacing with communities south of the border: NGOs, churches, and other communities that deal with people preparing to cross the border. How can we train them to use this? What is the proper methodology? Those are really going to be the most nuanced and difficult elements with, let’s call it, the sociological aspect of the project.

Are you worried that you’re going to rile anti-immigration militias?
One of the first things we did at BANG Lab was to interfere with the Minuteman Project in 2005. They were quite angry because not only were we committing public actions against them, but Calit2 and the UCSD system were also supporting it. They’re well aware of who we are and what we do. Once they get full knowledge of the Transborder Immigrant Tool—and we’re very transparent about it—I’m sure they’ll be quite critical.

That’s one word for it. You sound like their worst nightmare.
I would imagine they won’t be too happy with us, but again we’re not trying to hide. It’s a safety tool. It’s not trying to resolve the political anxieties of these communities or resolve the inadequacies of a fictional border for a so-called free-trade community. Again, our position is that it’s not a political resolution; it’s a safety tool. That, at the core, is what we’re attempting to do.

What are some of the other projects you’re working on?
We’ve got a lab where we’re working with similar applications using nanotechnology and labs where we teach researchers about electronic civil disobedience and border-disturbance technologies. For instance, one of our researchers recently developed a pay phone that connects to a free Skype system. When Homeland Security drops Mexican laborers back over the Mexican border, they’ll have this pay phone right there when they get off that they can use to call home or wherever they want. But it’s all interconnected—from the Critical Art Ensemble, to electronic disturbance, to the work I’m doing at BANG Lab today. It’s all a single matrix of investigation and performance, which is quite fruitful in its horizons in an unexpected way.

Do you ever say to yourself, “Wow, I can’t believe my life’s work went from something the government completely freaked out about to a legitimized academic endeavor”?
I guess, yeah. I’m not really quite sure how to interpret it, but what I can say is that I’ve received tenure. I’m an associate professor, which was highly unexpected considering the work I have been doing throughout the years. I suppose one can say, “Well, you know something strange is going on, and it’s not exactly clear what it is,” but certainly I do hope that it shows a positive shift in the way we think about the border and about communities outside our own zones. It’s not about doing away with or altering borders, but about opening new forms of communication and understanding.



11.17.07| CorinneRamey

Ricardo Dominguez calls himself an “artivist.” Half political activism and half art, Ricardo’s projects blur the boundaries between the aesthetic and the political. “We always view our activism within the frame of art and the poetic,” said Ricardo. Ricardo was part of a team that was recently awarded the Transnational Communities Award for a Transborder Immigrant Tool that uses GPS-enabled mobile phones to help immigrants crossing the border between Mexico and the United States.

MobileActive recently had a discussion with Ricardo on art, activism, and mobile phones. Ricardo, a researcher in the Calit2 lab at the University of California at San Diego, was given the award along with colleagues Brett Stalbaum, Micha Cárdenas and Jason Najarro. The project seeks to create a way for immigrants to orient themselves while crossing the border between the United States and Mexico, which is traversed by thousands of immigrants each year. The device seeks to reduce the number of deaths along the border by helping immigrants locate resources such as water caches and safety beacons.

The idea for the project arose from a program called the Virtual Hiker, a project of UCSD visual art professor Brett Stalbaum. “Brett gets lost even going to his house,” joked Ricardo, “so he started working on a locative media project called the Virtual Hiker…He developed an algorithm that took into account a certain terrain, and created a virtual trial or hike based on those algorithms.” By using GPS, the program created virtual hikes and would orient the user towards certain landmarks. Brett was able access “the kind of utility cloud that GPS offers,” said Ricardo.

The Virtual Hiker program led the team to question ways that GPS technology could be used to help immigrants crossing the border. “We asked ourselves, what were the spaces of necessity or danger on the border, and how could we plug in this new element of the GPS structured cell phone?” said Ricardo. The answer to that question was the Transborder Immigrant Tool.

The tool is built on a Motorola i455 phone, which offers several advantages. Not only is the phone cheap — about $40, according to Ricardo — but no service is required for GPS functionality. “What we needed was a really inexpensive telephone, one that we could crack the GPS system, and one that would accept new algorithms.”

The team took language into account when designing the application. “We needed to design the interface in a way that would be somewhat universal in terms of the community that would be crossing the border,” he said. Many of the migrants are from indiginous communities, and wouldn’t necessarily speak Spanish. The end result was a navigation system that looks like a compass. The phone also vibrates in response to certain landmarks, like water or a highway. The vibrations allow the user to concentrate on the surrounding environment instead of constantly looking at the screen of the phone.

Ricardo sees even the interface of the phone as having artistic value. “We were trying to think of many layers of communication — iconic, sound, vibratory,” he said. Additionally, the program helps the user not only avoid getting lost, but helps him or her find a more aesthetic route. “The algorithm would look at it not just in terms of a map or a politics but by suggesting the most aesthetic crossing,” he said. Eventually, the people using the tool to cross the border would form an imaginary “mass desert painting” or “walking art,” Ricardo said. “All the immigrants that would participate would in a sense participate in a large landscape of aesthetic vision.”

The project is still in its preliminary stages, but by the end of next year the team hopes that it will be a working and usable tool. “In the next stage, the research team will go to both ends of the border and work with the tools directly in terms of triangulating the info to the satellites,” said Ricardo. The final step of the project will include workshops and trainings with groups that work with immigrants who are getting ready to cross the border. Possible partners include Casa Imigrante and the Centro de Informacion para Trabajadoras y Trabajadores (CITTAC). “We hope to get them to communities that interface with people getting ready to cross,” said Ricardo.

Ricardo says that the team currently has enough funding to pay for 500 phones, and hopes to purchase more in the future. He also mentioned the possibility of adding about $50 of phone time to each tool, although, he said, that team recommended only using the tools as phones in emergencies for security reasons. The team is also working with a group of teachers to design a simple pamphlet with instructions on how to use and upgrade the tool. He hopes the instructions will be similar to the safety cards available on airplanes — they’ll rely more on pictures and icons than language.

Ricardo sees the Transborder Immigrant Tool as part of a larger trend of border disturbance art. “There’s a long history of artists at the border creating gestures that question the very nature of the border,” said Ricardo. Because disturbance art is framed as art, and not as solely political activism, the “artivists” are given more leeway politically. “The reason they can’t stop us is that we always frame all these gestures within the poetic frame.” By framing politics as art, and art as inextricably linked to politics, projects like the Transborder Immigrant Tool are able to survive as both a life-saving device and an “artivist” concept.

Using Mobile Phone Technology to Transcend Borders, Dimensions

San Diego, CA, June 4, 2009 — As they become more and more ubiquitous, mobile phones have made it possible to communicate with virtually anyone on the planet at any time. But one researcher at the University of California, San Diego, is taking the technology even further by using cell phones to prompt communication in unlikely places: The microscopic arena of nanotechnology; restricted border regions between nations; and even the realm of the paranormal.

Calit2 Principal Investigator Ricardo Dominguez will spend all summer in Spain engaging in a series of projects that will extend the scope of his sometimes controversial research.
“For lack of a better word, we tend to call what we do ‘artivism,’ or the cross between art and activism, where art is always the predominant function,” says Ricardo Dominguez, an associate professor of visual arts at UC San Diego and a principal investigator at the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2).

Dominguez will spend all summer in Spain engaging in a series of projects that will extend the scope of his sometimes controversial research. Along with several colleagues from UC San Diego and other institutes of higher learning, Dominguez will use cheap cell phone technology to make artistic statements about the many ways human beings ‘cross over.’

“A lot of the work we do is about this issue of crossing over,” explains Dominguez. “We’re working at the cross-section between the social implementation of ubiquitous technologies such as the cell phone and new media aesthetics such as poetry and performance.”

Electronic Poetry Festival
Dominguez began his sojourn in Spain late last month, when he took part in Barcelona’s Electronic Poetry Festival, the largest conference of its kind in the world. Along with members of the Calit2-funded *particle group,* Dominguez and his colleagues explored “the question of nanotoxicology from a poetic disposition.”

To call into question the unregulated use of nanoscale materials, Dominguez and his group created a series of multi-lingual poems they call “Illuminated Nanoscripts,” which will they display, by way of handheld Pico projectors, onto the buildings and sidewalks along La Rambla, Barcelona’s heavily trafficked central boulevard.

“We also connected a Blackberry to one of the projectors, which allowed us to download the latest news articles on nanotechnology in relation to products,” adds Dominguez. “That way, we were able to develop new poems as we go. We also had members of our group wear lab coats, and we projected the poetry onto their coats.”

Explains Dominguez: “The main core of the question for our group is what unregulated products are being sold in the global marketplace. Because products are unregulated, they have no markings that indicate nanoscale properties. Right now, over 1,000 companies use nano-carbon 60 in their products, from Hugo Boss fabrics, to Maybelline 72-hour Lipstick, to diaper rash lotion. Our interest is in how we can use poetry and performance art to elucidate these kinds of questions.”

Transborder Immigrant Tool
Also while in Spain, Dominguez — who leads Calit2’s B.A.N.G.lab (short for “Bits, Atoms, Neurons and Genes”) — will meet with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and activists from both Spain and Morocco to consider possible uses for the Transborder Immigrant Tool. Developed by the B.A.N.G. Lab, the tool pairs inexpensive Motorola cell phone technology with a global-positioning system and continually updated online data to orient individuals who are trying to cross dangerous international borders.

The tool was originally designed for use along the desolate “Devil’s Highway” spanning the U.S.-Mexico border, but NGOs in Spain and Morocco would likely use it to assist those attempting to cross the sometimes dangerous waters of the Mediterranean and North Atlantic.

“With the southern border of Spain, we’re dealing with open water and ocean navigation,” notes Dominguez. “We’ll be looking into ways that a compass navigation safety tool may or may not be useful in that passage, and also the GPS availability within that navigation. The question will be: Is it a useful tool, or do we have to rethink it?”

Although the Transborder Immigrant Tool has not yet been officially deployed along the U.S.-Mexico border, Dominguez’s group will conduct “dress rehearsals” this summer with various U.S.- and Mexico-based churches and NGOs that assist migrants with safe passage. Most NGOs counsel migrants to forego the dangerous crossing; however, those individuals who insist on making the trek will be provided with a $30 Web-enabled Motorola cell phone that will receive a constant flow of data from a remote server. That data might point border-crossers to nearby sources of water, parse out the best routes or trails, or suggest the coolest time of the day to traverse the desert.

The Transborder Immigrant Tool, developed by Domingez and members of Calit2’s b.a.n.g. lab, pairs inexpensive Motorola cell phone technology with a global-positioning system and continually updated online data to orient individuals who are trying to cross dangerous international borders.

“The main problem has been that people die of dehydration trying to cross the Devil’s Highway,” explains Dominguez. “But there are other factors at stake. We need to look at, for example, whether this tool will disturb the coyote (human smuggling) economy, and if maybe that’s a good thing, since many of these people have been led by coyotes into bad situations.”

Dominguez and his collaborators are also looking into ways to make the cell phone batteries last longer, such as employing wind-up charging technology, or instructing users to keep the phones turned off unless they have lost their way. Further emphasis is being placed on the importance of fresh data, and partner NGOs are being trained to update the information on the central server at regular intervals. Likewise, the team is making efforts to equip the phone with multiple languages, since more than 40 different dialects are spoken by migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border alone.

Considering that passage along most international borders is illegal without proper documentation, the Transborder Immigrant Tool is not without controversy. Dominguez says the tool and its deployment are not intended as a political statement, but rather as a new-media research project that combines a long-established aesthetic tradition (regional border art) with the UC San Diego artist’s reputation for digital civil disobedience.

“We are, in the end, artists,” Dominguez explains. “We’re not trying to create ‘effective’ tools but ‘affective’ tools. One of the layers of the tool is a poetic interface — a series of short haikus that welcome individuals and offer poetic respite. In this way, the tool will not only serve as a guide toward sustenance and survival, but will provide another layer of poetic sustenance. This adds another layer to the question of GPS technologies, which can now be named the Global Poetic System.”

“With this project,” he continues, “we wanted to bring new media arts into the space of non-urban research with the goal of creating an inexpensive safety tool. We’ve kept the project very transparent, so for the most part, the reaction has been positive.”

Dominguez says that he and many of his counterparts abroad envision using the Transborder Immigrant Tool (or incarnations thereof) to aid migrants crossing border spaces around the world. To expand the use of the tool, Dominguez and his U.S. colleagues — who include UC San Diego visual arts lecturer Brett Stalbaum and Calit2-affiliated researcher Micha Cardenas, as well as University of Michigan Professor Amy Sara Carroll — have created walkingtools.net, a Web site that catalogs open-source development code to allow for replication and custom design.

Passages: Benjamin’s Ghost
Dominguez’s summer in Spain will also mark a collaboration with Professor Carroll on a project known as “Passages: Benjamin’s Ghost,” an endeavor inspired by a dream Carroll had about the Transborder Immigrant Tool and its ability to help people “cross over.”

The ghost in question is Walter Benjamin, an influential Jewish literary critic, essayist and philosopher who died in 1940 in the French-Spanish border town of Portbou, after attempting to flee France in the wake of the Nazi occupation. Dominguez and Carroll will use mobile phone and GPS technology, combined with a custom-designed virtual algorithm, to create a “locative specter” that traces Benjamin’s final hours after he checked into Portbou’s Hotel de Francia, where he later committed suicide.

“I’ve always been interested in thinking about impulses beyond why we’ve created with mobile phone technologies, specifically around the issue of telephoning,” Dominguez says. “With the “Passages” project, we want to recreate the day leading up to Benjamin’s suicide and ultimately reconfigure his movements so that his ghost will be offered the final passage he was never able to take.”
To visualize Benjamin’s final hours, Dominguez and Carroll will create GPS “hot spots” for each of the places he visited in Portbou: The cafe where he sipped coffee, the Hotel de Franzia, the coroner’s office, the Catholic cemetery where he was unceremoniously buried (and later disinterred), and the potter’s field where he was ultimately reburied.

Dominguez says the project stems from a tradition in the locative media community of psychogeography, a playful, inventive means for exploring cities.

“One example of psychogeography would be the use of narrative hot zones, where you’re walking and your cell phone would go off and say, ‘A murder took place in the spot where you’re standing.’ It’s a means for people to interact with the environment in a way that enables them to enter into a narrative by way of a particular location. We want to do the same sort of drift gestures with the ‘Passages’ project.”

Adds Dominguez: “Once we’ve pinpointed the relevant GPS coordinates, the computerized algorithm will create an automated program that will send messages to our mobile phones, telling us which of these places we should visit. So instead of us connecting to living person via this technology, the idea is that we’re actually connecting to Benjamin’s specter.”

by Tiffany Fox, (858) 246-0353, tfox@ucsd.edu