“Exposing systems of power and injustice.” An interview with the Disruption Network Lab

“Exposing systems of power and injustice.” An interview with the Disruption Network Lab

Since the preparation of the conference “Practicing Sovereignty”, FG8 collaborates with the Disruption Network Lab, a platform for events and research focused on the intersection of politics, technology and society. Based in Berlin, the Disruption Network Lab is well known not only for their widely received conference series at Kunstquartier Bethanien, but also for their online format “Disruptive Fridays”, offering a platform to keep the discussion going on topics such as feminist health care, (neo-)colonial borders, or whistleblowing despite the pandemic lockdown. We are grateful to Tatiana Bazzichelli and Lieke Ploeger for taking the time to talk with us, and to Alannah Travers, who kindly copy-edited the transcript. The Interview took place on December 12, 2020 and was led by Bianca Herlo and Daniel Irrgang (FG8).


Bianca Herlo: Our research topics at the Weizenbaum Institute are very in line with your interests, I believe, as we also deal with questions of civic engagement, empowerment, and inequality, and how to frame all this within the context of digital sovereignty. My first question regards the name of your organisation, Disruption Network Lab. I know that “disruption” is a contested and also controversial term. Within the ideologies of Silicon Valley, it frames how the mechanisms of the capitalist systems maintain themselves, namely by disruption. And this is what makes the engine of this system going. I’m sure you have a totally different take on this term?

Tatiana Bazzichelli: I elaborated the notion of disruption in relation to network culture in the framework of the research that I was undertaking between 2008 and 2011 as part of my PhD project, “Networked Disruption1, during my studies in Denmark, at Aarhus University. At that time, my reflection was to consciously adopt the term “disruption” from the language of business and the context of Silicon Valley. Back then, at least around the mid-2000s and onward, there was a lot of debate on in which way network culture was developing and whether it was going to be coopted by corporate business or not. This was the time in which Web 2.0, that then became a buzzword for user-generated content platforms of capitalism, started to be used to describe the idea of networking and social networks. The big question which came to my mind when I was writing my PhD was, is this the end of peer-to-peer network sharing among people in a way we have imagined it in the 1990s, or can we still imagine that criticism and activism that go beyond the neoliberal logic are possible within participatory networks?
I consciously decided to use the term “disruption” in order to appropriate it from business and transfer it into a political and technological context. Clearly the discourse of networking had already been co-opted by business, especially with the emergence of social networks and Web 2.0. Disruption is a very interesting term, because in business culture, it means to introduce in the market a product that the market does not expect, which is connected with the old idea of disruptive innovation by Clayton Christensen and which is widely used in business culture, for example when companies disrupt the market by introducing an innovation that makes it change very fast. But if you reflect on this kind of mechanism, it is also interesting to determinate it politically. If we think about a disruption that comes from within, as an unexpected change that comes from inside the systems and which provokes something that is unexpected, then it could be compared to a form of hacking. Or even a form of art when we think of the history of the Avant-gardes and the idea of the “shock” that is provoked as a form of aesthetic and social change. I wanted to use a term that is very rooted in business culture, turning it into something political, from the corporate world to network culture.
My PhD thesis is titled “Networked Disruption”, as an attempt to analyse unexpected changes that come from within closed systems, disrupting the business logic itself, before and after social media and social networks. Disruption becomes an open possibility of interfering with systems from within: politically, technologically and artistically. At the Disruption Network Lab, the concept of disruption informs the practice of exposing systems of power and injustice. The aim is to figure out the logic of systems that are closed, and then play with this logic to create a change that comes from within. This process of change creates a reaction that is very interesting, because it can bring something completely unexpected. In 2014, I started to connect the discourse of disruption with whistleblowing. Whistleblowing can also be described as a mechanism that tries to bring the unexpected from inside a closed system, to create change from within. The whole concept behind the Disruption Network Lab started with this approach, to connect the different expertise of people from various backgrounds. We bring together artists, hackers, activists, whistleblowers, investigative journalists, lawyers, researchers – and then, by connecting these people, we analyse which systems of power we need to explore and in which way these systems of power could be changed by operating in the mode of disruption. Disruption, if detourned politically, offers a creative field to investigate changes of perspective and it becomes a powerful form of criticism towards business logics. Many of these events that we organize are a techno-cultural critique of power mechanisms and neoliberal economies, as well as an opportunity to expose forms of control and surveillance that are technologically driven. Often, the forces of resistance that come from within the systems are a form of action of the actors within these systems themselves: people trying to change them.
In a very funny way, this creates also a bit of “conceptual disruption”. Just to give a concrete example, on Twitter we are “@disruptberlin”, which is also the name of a business conference by TechCrunch that takes place every year. Many people started to use our hashtag or even tag us on Twitter while trying to refer to this conference and even started to follow us. After a while they realize that we represent a very different position. But usually they don’t unfollow, so we are also able to connect to this people and inform them with our ideas [laughs].

1Tatiana Bazzichelli, Networked Disruption: Rethinking Oppositions in Art, Hacktivism and the Business of Social (Aarhus Universitet Multimedieuddannelsen, 2013).

BH: I like this appropriation of the term, especially when it brings in tactics for critical thinking. It is also interesting when looking at its historical development: Originating in the economic theory of Karl Marx and subsequently adapted by the economist Joseph Schumpeter, it always outlined the opposition between revolution and disruption, the latter being understood as a force operating within the system. Do you consider yourself in this tradition?

TB: I am actually often told that we use the term in the same way as Schumpeter. But there is a difference between our notion of disruption and the ways that it is understood in these contexts, because disruption for me is not a rupture – this is very important – it is interference. This also opens a completely different political perspective. Our understanding of disruption does not refer to a dialectical process, rather to a form of perturbation, provoking the model of coexistence of oppositions, generating the shock, the unexpected, and mutual layers of interference.
My book came out in 2013, the research started in 2008, but it really goes back to my own experience inside the political framework of hacking and of political activism in Italy back in the 1990s. After many grassroot political experiences I arrived at a point where the idea of frontal opposition didn’t really work anymore as a strategy of change. This also came from my experience of the G8 summit in Genoa in July 2001, which was really a terrible experience for the whole Italian and international grassroots movement. I was not in Genoa at the time but in Florence providing information on what was happening there for a live radio together with the collective “Strano Network”. The violent repression of many demonstrators in Genoa by the police, for me, was the end of believing that frontal opposition is able to create a change because often the opponents just become the victims of a system that tries to instrumentalize them and legitimize “the enemy’s” confrontation. It becomes a circular loop of opposition and co-optation.
Assuming that the point of disruption it is not really a rupture, but an interference, I created a model based on a disruptive feedback loop that you see here; it is a completely different theoretical point of view of opposition. The idea is that there are different layers that are all coexisting and often interfere with each other. In my research I analysed how business was operating to influence art and technology through disruption. One example was the hacker culture idea of “Do It Yourself” and horizontality that was completely taken over by the social networking business. Alongside, art and technology could also operate through disruption to interfere with business, and I analysed how practices of hackers, artists and, later, whistleblowers could operate disruption from within closed systems generating new forms of social and political change. Instead of having a political opposition that comes from the outside, while often creating the legitimation of an enemy you want to contest, the perturbation comes from within. There is not really a way out of the system because, as we know, business always copies and thus copes with counterculture. And counterculture always, in a sense, criticizes business. It is an endless cycle of disruption and reinvention. Change is possible not when just trying to oppose this, because then you will be co-opted at a certain point. This explains why it’s not a rupture but an interference, and the interference come from within the loop by the agency of actors such as hackers, activists, artists, networkers and so on. The concept of “disrupting from within” later led to the Disruption Network Lab’s activity. This whole idea became our motto: Exposing systems of power and injustice. For each event, we take a question mark as our point of departure. This question mark is usually related to different systems of control. Each conference focuses on a topic with which we want to analyse how systems of power work. And then we try to create solutions by, first of all, analysing what is the right question that we have to ask. Why is a phenomenon happening in this specific way? It is not just about analysing, but trying to look at specific issues to understand what it is that creates certain consequences that influence us all in our lives. After we have understood what the reasons are, which are usually global, we try to find answers through people that are part of these systems, because they work with them. People that work with technology because they develop programmes and software, or lawyers that work with laws that are related to a certain topic that we analyse, or whistleblowers that, in the past, worked inside the system – they are the best example for me because they know the logics of the systems really well. And then, of course, the activists and artists that always try to find solutions are critical. That is really the basis of the whole programme. It is not just about organising events but that it is applying a political philosophy that comes with the notion of disruption, which is related to the discourse of questioning corporate business culture andsystems of controls.

Daniel Irrgang: You mentioned 2008 as starting point for your PhD research. This is the time where, very generally speaking, the net utopia narratives of the 1990s began to cease and the whole story turned towards a much more critical, sometimes even fatalistic or dystopian narrative, even before the Snowden revelations. Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker used the term “the exploit” when they described a theory of networks in their book with the same title back in 2007.
What I find fascinating in your approach is that you see network culture as critical, but you also see that there is a mechanism inside the network structure to work against its power inequalities. It’s not about getting rid of the whole narrative but about working from the inside with the means of digital networks or ICT. Your model of a Disruption Feedback Loop (fig. 1), which I was happy to learn about because I am very interested in cybernetics, has “Art” as one of its three nodes. And this is a nice transfer to the next question, because I know your background with transmediale where you were responsible for the “reSource” network initiative, and also for the conference. I also have been an avid visitor of Spektrum (2014–2019), the Berlin art space Lieke co-founded. So my question is, since both of your backgrounds are connected to art and technology, and critical approaches in art crossing the borders to activism, if there are any borders at all: do you see yourself coming from the arts and moving towards a more discursive approach?

Lieke Ploeger: Back then when I was doing Spektrum, I would always state, as a sort of disclaimer, also to have a kind of distinguishing feature, that I’m not coming from the art world, as in that I don’t have a background in arts. I come from a background of community building and was interested in communities and group work and I wanted to bring that into the art space. I’m very interested in art in general, but I have no educational background here. So, for me it was more about mixing different fields. As for my personal interests, they are more about how people can work together in new ways, such as the artistic group dynamic aspects of community building. But then, of course, being in Berlin there are a lot of interesting people around and when we started Spektrum I got to know a lot of people from the art scene, from art and technology and other fields. Besides Spektrum, I was also working for the Open Knowledge Foundation, an organisation advocating for open data and open access. So, I was also working in this activist kind of field, trying to educate people and why they should open up their data, how they could interact more with it, connect with each other and have a much bigger impact by using data. There was already a focus on data and technology, while advocating for a certain, well, “better” use of data. Now, the Disruption Network Lab brought in both aspects, working with communities while trying to make a connection with data and technology, giving people more skills to actually understand how to work with data and to apply it in other fields. Because usually the most interesting things happen when people don’t just work in their own field, but when they take something from other fields and work with that. For example, when an artist starts to get into data and then does something new with it, it is different than when a data scientist works with data in a very specialized way. For me it’s very interesting to find these crossovers. And usually that happens more often when you bring together different people.

DI: That’s the Activation Programme you brought to the Lab. Could you maybe tell us a bit about its concept and goals?

LP: It kind of grew organically from both our experiences. I met Tatiana through the transmediale reSource network, which connected different project spaces in the city with each other. As for me, when starting Spektrum, I didn’t know so many people in Berlin. So, it was great, I could go to reSource events and get to know people, and it totally worked out in that way. We also always saw it as something valuable to have this network of people connecting with each other that wouldn’t otherwise frequently meet but that are involved in different initiatives which can be well brought together at a sort of central point.
When doing Spektrum, for me it was very interesting to have this hub where many different people would come to. If somebody was into art or technology or science or hacking, they would know that if they come to Spektrum, they could experience something of interest and would also meet other people which they wouldn’t normally meet with. That was a central point.
Actually, when we started the first summer, we already had some Disruption Network Lab events. And then we collaborated kind of quickly because we knew it would be interesting to do something together. We started doing some extra events around Disruption Network Lab conferences, for example an extra screening or another performance that would suit better in a smaller place than at Kunstquartier Bethanien’s Studio 1. So, we were already organising some things around the conferences but were not yet directly working together. I was usually the one coordinating the collaboration on the Spektrum side. When Spektrum ended, there was this idea to continue both the community work and the relations that had already started to be built at Spektrum. And also, to do it in a more structured and extensive way and make something that connected to the Disruption Network Lab with the community that had already formed around it, to set up a specific programme for it. When we decided to put this in a shape, we called it the Activation Programme, and we do mainly these meet-ups and workshops around the conferences. It’s a programme that, I would say, is always under development because we keep changing things and adapt what works best. We used to do a meet-up before and after each conference to warm up the topic and then, after a conference, to go deeper into it. But this year, also because of the pandemic and different reasons, it developed more into doing community workshops connected to the conference. Like an additional conference day focused on the community with more hands-on participatory formats. We did two meet-ups leading up to the conference and then the community workshop days were a nice way to close the topic, because having the workshops and then another meet-up would be too much. So, now we are doing more like a run up to the conference, to really prepare the topic, and then the workshops as a closing point.

DI: This is interesting because then developing the concept is open to your partners as well, not like in a one-way curatorial, opaque approach.

LP: Yes, and we also want to shape it in a way that makes sense at the time and not to be stuck to a specific format. In general, the idea is to always give our community and the people around the Lab more opportunity to interact beyond the conferences and to provide different formats that are more hands-on or take place in smaller settings. For example, if people are at a conference and they hear somebody speaking and they would like to know more, there is the opportunity to go to a workshop and to dive deeper into it. There are different levels of engagement, but it is really nice to meet the people on a regular basis and to build various relations with the audience. Because when there is a conference and then there is nothing for a longer period of time before the next conference, some of the momentum is fading away. And there are in fact a lot of interesting people showing up at the meet-ups. I always really enjoy the anticipation of who will come to each meet-up. Of course, they are different for each topic as well, but there is also a certain core of people around the Lab joining the meet-ups.

DI: Tatiana, would you say that your engagement with the arts plays a role in your work at the Lab?

TB: That is an interesting question, because for me, it is important how we define art. For 20 years now, I have worked on a specific approach that brings art in connection with networks. It started with my interest in this field of art and technology in the 1990s. In the beginning of the 2000s, I was trying to connect the discourses of hacking, of activism and of art. These three components have always been completely central for my perspective as a curator, but also as an activist because I come from the grassroots scene of the Italian social centers before I moved to Berlin in 2003. Here I developed further this perspective as a curator, first independently and then with transmediale, now with Disruption Network Lab.
Art is seen as a context of interaction in which the curator becomes the networker and a person that is able to create a context that is open, because you don’t know how this context will develop as people enter into it. What shapes this kind of curatorial approach is creating connections. And usually, these connections come in the form of a creative montage, often provoking interesting juxtapositions, to try to have people with different backgrounds participating, and still sharing a certain way of understanding a problem.
If we interpret art as a form of network development, as a concept that is constantly becoming – that is the kind of art I talk about. Here, art becomes a process like in the notion of artistic practices within Fluxus, which has been also my inspiration for many years: the idea of art as a social process that is completely open to the interaction of the public and the artists themselves. This can also become a political perspective, applying the whole idea to try to connect a diversity of approaches in a way that is often unpredictable. The Disruption Network Lab conferences also want to connect, for example, artists and whistleblowers, or other experts coming from various backgrounds that usually don’t really cross each other in a mutual exchange, such as hackers and lawyers. By connecting this kind of expertise while analysing the conference topics, one discovers a new form of criticism and understanding.
This is a very inspiring line of disruption in the art field that I’ve been interested in since the 1990s, which also refers to artists that try to work in a disruptive way by provoking unexpected reactions. When I finished my PhD, between my work for transmediale and with the Disruption Network Lab, I organised an exhibition at the Aksioma project space (“Networked Disruption. Rethinking Oppositions in Art, Hacktivism and Business”, Aksioma – Institute for Contemporary Art Ljubljana, March 11–April 3, 2015). This was another ground before the foundation of the Disruption Network Lab. It was an exhibition that presented interlinked practices of groups such as the Luther Blissett project, the Neoism network, the Cacophony Society, and Anonymous, together with practices of whistleblowing and art as evidence. The artistic practices that were described in this exhibition understood art as a material of intervention and which is also very playful. Not really in the case of whistleblowing, of course, that is much more related to dismantling power mechanism. But the artistic approach was in both the cases related to the idea of interference, understanding how to work with technology to make technology do something else. Anonymous, for example, as a fluid entity has been very interested in understanding how to use technology by bending its limits. This is also rooted in the hacker culture that uses technology as material of reinvention. Something that is never a black box, because one can be enabled to open it and see what is inside and play with it. The hacker approach has always informed my conception of art and my ways of curating and networking.

BH: As a designer, I advocate for design to get out of the capitalist logics of a service provider, and to rather position design as a powerful resource for civic engagement, for bringing different disciplines together while fostering civic participation. Of course, there is a difference between our approaches, but maybe not a significant one, as the ideas behind and the ways we address issues of inequalities and social inclusion have a lot in common. However, do you think the discourse on art and technology has been a quite elitist one, or rather not? Because in the 1990s, (new) media art seemed very elitist to me – but maybe you disagree. So, how to initiate this momentum – and I have the impression that this is one of the main aspects of your work – of engaging people that are not really trained as artists or technologists or lawyers to develop critical thinking and practice with regard to the topics you tackle?

TB: My perspective is the idea of opening the concept of art into everyday life. That is what was done in the past with Fluxus, for example, but in a very different way, because this idea of bringing life into art came with the Avant-gardes. I connect this approach with other practices like punk culture that brought art into life: You go out of the artistic context, you are not even speaking about “art” anymore, it is just your life that becomes art. This is also the approach of hacker art, to bring to the art context something that is not defined as art by many. I find this very liberating. Because often, when you are thinking about contemporary art or artistic contexts, it is always inside a specific system of legitimation. When you start saying that a hacker is an artist, or a whistleblower is an artist, you allow art to be free of the systemic limitations and unspoken rules of power and legitimation.
I have been trying to foster such a conception of art for many years, to start defining art as a context that usually doesn’t define itself as art. Sometimes hackers would even be upset with me when I said that a hacker was an artist. This was a big debate I had in the 1990s with many hacker friends. But for me, it was very interesting to make this conclusion – showing that hacking can be defined as art since it is also embedded in the idea of trying to play with codes, to open closed systems and bring in a critical perspective, and to affect society in a very constructive way.
I think that much of net art, for example, is now defined as elitist because it was a very small crowd that was interested in it. But I would state that what was behind the whole idea was not elitist, because it was trying to understand art beyond the system of artistic culture – and by bringing art into codes, codes become culture. The whole perspective was to radicalise the notion of what art is. Then of course you have to reflect on how much of this one can transfer into the wider society. I always tell people, please do not to read papers when speaking at our conferences, not because I am against academia, I also come from there, but because it’s a very different approach. Trying to meet people and to solve issues in conversation rather than presenting your own written text, trying to connect people to actually answer to a question it is a really different approach than talking about your individual research. I always try to remember that you have a public in front of you that could be an expert in your topic or maybe not, you don’t know. It is a great challenge to discuss what could be interesting for an audience that is not really coming from your specific expertise. What we discuss are usually issues that are quite global and impactful, in a sense, such as migration or real estate speculation or artificial intelligence. But then, by bringing in these different points of expertise, we try to address very specific questions.

LP: I would also say that we try to keep our events not too elitist: we want to keep the entrance price really low, so that it is possible for everyone to join. Also, we have solidarity tickets and we really try to advertise and promote the event in a way that it is accessible for anybody to join, not just somebody who is an expert on the topic. Also, for the community meet-ups, we usually write something like “no specific knowledge required”, so anybody is welcome, and the events are usually free, also for the community. Or if we do a workshop, it is really as low price as possible. We don’t want to do events only for specialised people but for anybody. Because, like I said before, I think it is interesting when people join us that are not necessarily into the topic yet. But then they come to our events and they learn something new and make connections.

TB: But still, I would say that we have something that is very specific: as mentioned, the questions always circulate around the idea of “exposing systems of power and injustice”. For every topic that we analyse – so far we have organised 22 conferences – we try to always have this question: How do we explain these systems of power, related to this specific topic, and how can we find counter measures to these forms of injustice? The approach is critical, coming from within the subject, but is also open to different expertise, and to the general public. As for our specific approach, we try not to narrate a problem but rather to investigate it. This investigative approach is, again, what we define as our programme.

BH: I appreciate this approach. In our understanding of scientific work in our field, such an approach is absolutely part of academic research, the transdisciplinarity of these discussions coming from different perspectives and with different expertise. To foster such alliances, as I understand you do, is what we try to bring into the academic field to be recognised as part of research. Especially if one addresses socially relevant questions, then it has to be opened up for wider discussion and not solely remain among peers.

TB: Yes, because then it becomes self-referential.

DI: You have a lucky hand with your guests – your conference line-ups are always characterized by a variety of different positions. I haven’t been to all of your conferences, but for example Denis “Jaromil” Rojo was one of the two keynote speakers at the “Data Cities” conference (“Data Cities. Smart Technologies, Tracking & Human Rights”, Bethanien, Berlin, September 25–27, 2020). He is an avid and experienced speaker, and you can tell that he is able to talk for example about blockchain, which can be quite a sturdy topic, in a very accessible way. I also talked with Julia Kloiber, the second keynote speaker at this conference, while preparing the moderation of the keynote section and the discussion between her and Jaromil. We discussed that her contribution doesn’t need to be too technical in detail, but rather an inside view of her work and her own experiences working in her field.

TB: And this is what creates the knowledge, the connections that are being made. By connecting one speaker with another in a discussion, this is really the plus we try to gain from our work. It is this form of connection that creates different layers of understanding. Also, to try to promote diversity in a way that is not often found in many other conferences.

DI: Especially when it comes to topics related to technology, unfortunately. Speaking of the Data Cities conference. What are your insights looking back? Especially with regard to the COVID-19 restrictions. I’m not talking so much about hygiene concepts and distancing, although you really took care of that in Bethanien very well, as far as I could tell. But rather about the problem that this huge topic – the pandemic –, which of course is very important, but which might distract the public agenda from other significant social problems. Like problems addressed at the conference, such as gentrification and privacy with regards to smart cities. Do you think it’s even more important to do events like this now, to have a platform for topics which may currently be neglected?

LP: Definitely. In fact, especially the topics connected to smart cities are quite interesting in times of COVID-19, because now, in various countries, there is a lot of monitoring and new technologies being tested and implemented that have a big impact on privacy issues, an impact people maybe don’t realize. So, I think it is definitely important. And I was really happy that this was at least one conference that we could do with audience in the physical space this year, in a form most closely related to how we used to do events. In the workshops before and after the conference we tackled some problems on how to handle personal data in times of COVID-19. Also, in the meet-ups we were faced with an issue that now a lot of people are dealing with, because you have to collect lists with addresses for possible contact tracing, so you leave your personal data everywhere you go. So, I think the topic only became more relevant. The follow-up meet-up to the conference we did on facial recognition databases was with Adam Harvey – there are a lot of connections between tracking and surveillance issues during the pandemic that relate to data cities, or smart cities.
As for the situation in Germany, it is also interesting that they have to be forced to go into digitizing the society so much faster. I’m from the Netherlands and some things have been implemented there for a long time, and now suddenly we see Germany kind of quickly switching to home office and online school environments and things like that. So, I think in some cases it may be even good to boost this understanding of why digital can be important and why we need to have a strong internet connection everywhere in Germany, which is not yet there.

TB: As for the Data Cities conference in September, the debate connects pretty well with what you are also working on, digital sovereignty. This is a very important aspect because the approach of being the agent of your own understanding of technology and using technology in a critical way to influence civic society goes back to the discourse of hacking, from the earlier days of hacking. With hacking seen as a political practice, the idea is to try to understand technology as something that is never neutral but that is usually informed by power mechanisms. But it is also something that you can study and understand. In the history of hacking, there is the core idea that people can become active agents of developing technology – and then inform society and culture through that. I think this is pretty much part of the concept of digital sovereignty. But it is not a new term, it is something that goes back to the old idea of “computer power to the people”, which is part of hacker culture.
And if you analyse this in respect to the development of city policy, then it is very important to reflect collectively on how this process could be done by the people themselves. How citizens could be actors of influence of city politics, how public activity can be fostered that may steer the debate in a way that becomes positive for the people and not for the corporations, to enable technology that is for the people rather than against them. Those who have been invited to our conferences all share a similar approach. Curating the conference Data Cities, it was important for me to work together with Mauro Mondello. He is an investigative journalist working on mapping and discovering the cities of the future, among other topics. He has conducted field trips to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, India and Korea to understand how the smart cities of the future are going to be created. There are a lot of plans for smart cities. This topic is strictly related to data exploitation, and I have been very interested in this debate for some time because it goes back to the idea of agency within technology and exposing systems of power and injustice. We decided to curate a conference in which from one side we were analysing what the city of the future might become, and from the other what we could do today to contribute to this futuristic dystopia of control not happening. We invited a diversity of people, researchers from computer science, hackers, artists, filmmakers, investigative journalists – and all the expertise that one needs to understand how one could influence this process to make the city environment become something in which there is direct agency of the people themselves. I found the debate that we had very interesting because it became clear to me that this kind of shift is already possible. And it is important to be shaped collectively. It is crucial to have a dialogue with the policymakers to understand what they are planning because we know that these plans are already in the making. And to understand how it is possible to influence them in a way that we can then enable active participation in the decision processes by people that often understand technology better, much better than the policy makers. And to concretely understand what it means if you speak about smart cities, which is a very vague term. Or even artificial intelligence – often I go to conferences and hear that artificial intelligence is a black box – but it’s not true. When you study technology or even know how to work with it, then the black box is something that you can understand and dismantle, to build it up in a better way. Current AI is based on machine learning, and we know that this comes from parameters built by programmers. So, I think the more interesting debate is cultural rather than technological, because it is also related to the question of which kind of future technology we are creating. What are the AI biases that we should avoid, the forms of discrimination that are embedded in technology? At our conference, we were analysing this cultural and political aspect of smart cities, which connects to the discourse of education as well, or of diversity, or of trying to understand how technology is built – and how this affects society.

BH: This is also being currently discussed in design education: raising awareness of the responsibility of designers, from the beginning – and not only in MA programmes. When designing – technology or let’s say, a park bench – it can be political and it for sure affects society. To include this kind of awareness or critical thinking in art school education and understand design as a cooperative and participatory practice from the beginning is crucial I think. That is why I would like to ask you about your take on the relation between art and design. Does this relation, or even distinction, play any role in your work? I’m very interested in it because I would say that many of your approaches are relevant for design research nowadays.

LP: For me, it is a bit hard to think even in this way because I don’t tend to see things like, “Oh, this is only art, and this is only design”. People that come to our programme and to our community events are often people that work in design, but they are also interested in art or in technology, or in this or that. So, for me it is quite interrelated. It should be interrelated.

TB: With design or technology of coding, the interesting question is not only, I would say, the product itself but also the culture behind it. If you want to design something, how do you do it? And what is the cultural background that you have to put into a specific object when you create it? This also creates very different consequences. With the Data Cities conference, we understood that the city of the future for sure will be all about data. And we have to avoid that it will become just a nest for extracting data rather than something that will make the life of the people more sustainable. We really have to be critical in understanding how data could be used in a more beneficial way for people.

DI: And not relying solely on a techno-solutionist approach. Even if smart cities technology is used in a socially beneficial way, we learned during the conference that it can only be a complementary aspect which has to interact with social projects and aspects of governance and participation on other levels.

BH: That is also why we address digital inequality as related to inequality in general society, which is then digitally amplified.

TB: This is what we called AI traps: in June 2019, we organised a conference, which is also very connected with Data Cities, called “AI Traps” (“AI Traps: Automating Discrimination”, Kunstquartier Bethanien, Berlin, June 14–15, 2019). It was all about how artificial intelligence is influenced by bias and often amplifies this bias, thus creating further inequality. AI Traps was about the reflection of forms of discrimination and inequality connected to machine learning and artificial intelligence while Data Cities focused more on the cities of the future. But basically, the perspectives were interlinked.

BH: I saw on your website that you have, as a future perspective, a four-years programme, with funding, which is amazing. Would you like to elaborate on that?

LP: We were very lucky. It is also the result of years of fundraising and talking to many different funders. But also, thanks to the fact that the Berlin Senate was made a bit more sensitive and aware that it is much more useful if you give long-term funding to organisations that are operating in Berlin for many years, because applying for funding every year and not knowing if you get it is very draining and takes a lot of time out of the usual work. So, we were lucky to receive funding from the festival fund by the Senate Department for Culture and Europe. There were 26 festivals chosen and each received a four-year funding to do their programme. There is a budget each year, so we get four times in a row the same budget to do our programme series. This also helped to establish a long-term programme that we can now continue to build for the next three years, as the first one is already over. It allowed us to have this office and a slightly extended team, so it has been a huge boost for our work.

DI: We were excited, from our research perspective, to read that you labeled your four-year plan “Tactics of Empowerment”. Because the terms “tactics” and “empowerment” act as a counter concept to “strategy”, which is much more, you know…

TB: …military.

DI: Yes, it comes from military. And compared to “strategy” it signifies much more responsive and flexible ways of acting. Is this why you choose these specific terms?

TB: It is again connected with this idea of trying to create change from within the systems, as explained above, but also change that comes from the people themselves. What are the tactics that people could embrace to provide change? It is not that we are empowering in a paternalistic way, but how people are empowering themselves. And they do this tactically, because it also implies a form of political criticism. We wanted to have a programme series that refers to this idea of exposing systems of power and injustice but that is also connected to the self-determination of the people and to grassroots social structures.
Each conference will bring this perspective of how we understand and investigate systems of control: How can we provide the change that comes from inside and what could be forms of self-organisation or empowerment of the people that are agents of this forms of criticism?
Next year, we will have, again, three conferences plus a community program. The first conference will be in March and will be related to whistleblowing in the healthcare system (Behind the Mask, March 18–20, 2021). So, it will be quite connected to the COVID-19 crisis. Here we invite investigative journalists and whistleblowers working in the health sector to try to understand the current phenomenon. The second conference will be about consensus and surveillance in China, related to the Chinese influence on politics and technology. I will be curating this one together with an investigative journalist from Denmark, Magnus Ag.
The third one is related to the discourse of self-empowerment of transgender communities and will be about the practice of transitioning. This goes back to another topic that is very close to my heart: queer communities, transgender communities and the discourse of critically reflecting on sexuality and gender issues, on forms of empowerment in that context and on civil rights.

LP: As for the Activation Programme, we will continue with workshops on the day after a conference and the meet-ups leading up to it. We plan with seven meet-ups next year and three workshop days.

TB: And the Disruptive Fridays!

LP: Yes, we will continue with this online format as well. It started because of the lockdown and because we had to delay some events, so we thought, let’s try that!

BH: This is the right attitude! We are very much looking forward to your events…

DI: …and to continue the dialogue, since we have – as the conversation made it clear again – a lot of common areas and shared interests in our work.

BH: Thank you for your time!