HOUSE 2014: Interview with Tobias Revell
15 June 2015
As we count down to the launch of The Monopoly of Legitimate Use on 2 May, artist, critical designer and futurist, Tobias Revell discusses his three film piece with Natalie Kane, Storyteller & Technologist.
So, tell us about The Monopoly of Legitimate Use.
The Monopoly of Legitimate Use is three short films, Blackspot, Bumper and Stateless, all of which are based in the near future and deal with issues around the conflict between the geographies of politics, technology and networks. In this case I mean geographies literally, so the films examine how invisible things start to manifest in the physical world, gain physical presence, and therefore can cause conflict, as well as how control is exercised through physical and invisible things.
The title of the series comes from Max Weber’s famous phrase ‘The state is defined by having the monopoly of legitimate use of violence.’ Maybe it’s not violence anymore, maybe it’s a different type of control that’s not necessarily exercised through violence and the state doesn’t have this control either, so I took away the ‘state’ and the ‘violence’ and was left with The Monopoly of Legitimate Use. Since a lot of the films are about exploits – exploiting technology, systems and spaces – ‘legitimate’ seemed like quite an interesting word , because for whom and why are these exploits legitimate.
Why did you choose to respond to HOUSE 2014’s themes of Migration, Refuge and Territory?
I wanted to highlight the fact that migration doesn’t necessarily need to be physical, it doesn’t necessarily have to happen across the surface of the earth. When you migrate from one country to another, or one city to another, you make a political decision; you realign yourself politically with wherever you’re going and wherever you’ve left. Moving is a political act, but also you can move in a vertical geography. Moving through the layers of networks, systems and technologies, on top of this flat geography, is a form of migration which is a lot less visible, a lot less trackable and a lot less physical. It’s less easy to understand and tangible but is nonetheless equally as powerful and political. I wanted to make films about this vertical migration rather than horizontal migration.
Why these particular stories, and why now? Why do you feel that they are particularly relevant, is it responding to a particular scenario, a particularly contemporary issue or one that has always existed?
These films all respond to very contemporary issues, particularly things that have been happening in the last few years. It’s also come from research that friends and peers have been doing in the last few years in a very technical way, and I wanted to create fiction to talk about them rather than looking at those technical aspects. Stateless in particular looks like a very real scenario; the ability for the Home Secretary to remove citizenship from an individual without charge has been going on for the last couple of years. It’s only in the last six months that it’s been made totally legal and justified by parliament.
Blackspot is a bit more polemic, it looks at trying to find a place where there’s no kind of network or sharing. There’s two aspects present, one is concerned with surveillance, which is the obvious one, but the second is about being able to find peace and quiet. It’s polemical and holistic in its approach, imagining having to find a place where you’re not being forced to share or connect all the time.
Bumper is about a very specific technical aspect, and references the work of Julian Oliver and the Critical Engineers. It looks at the idea that you essentially put yourself in another place if you jump onto another network in different physical space. The World Press Photograph of the Year showed people on the Djibouti City coast holding up their cellphones to pick up coverage from neighbouring Somalia because it was better and wasn’t censored. In Ukraine, during the riots, citizens were being messaged ‘Dear subscriber. You are registered as a participant in a mass disturbance’, so people started hopping on to other networks to avoid it.
Bumper is a very good fable, it’s very obvious because you have a distinct physical space and yet he’s in a distinct, other, network space. Blackspot is quite polemical, it could be like any one of the scenarios and could be quite different, but it’s more about the journey she takes and the extremes you would have to go to physically to disconnect yourself. Stateless is difficult in the sense that what’s happening is quite intangible and doesn’t really have a physical analogue, so trying to show it was quite difficult as it’s a very specific problem.
What do you get from film that you wouldn’t get from creating an object, speculative or otherwise, to illustrate this?
I think that because with these they are quite complex technical things to get your head around, I like the idea of a linear narrative where a person enters at the beginning and their hand is held through the story through to the end. They are very simple stories, they aren’t very complex, there’s only one character in each one and they generally just perform one action. With previous projects I’ve found that I’ve tried to overburden the visitor with things to do and ways to read into it, so this time I wanted to say that you don’t have to think about anything, you can just sit down and watch it. You don’t have to make an effort, or do any research, or to go away and interpret it, you just have to watch the film and understand the story. They aren’t abstract so it’s not hard to have a conversation with someone to figure it out and then leave with it. I really wanted something that lots of people could access rather than something that looked beautiful but wasn’t as accessible as I’d like.
Your films revolve around notions of deviancy, and finding alternative uses and backdoors to technology, why do you think it is important to explore this?
This is hugely important. I think that most practitioners now are roughly in agreement now that the technology, which is such a blanket term itself, that we’re handed, we don’t question it enough. It’s Latour’s Black Box – we don’t understand how it works, we just know that it works and that it’s useful for us. When it breaks down we take it to someone else who fixes it, but we don’t know what they do or how they do it, only that it comes back and works again.
With events like the NSA revelations and the securing control of companies like Apple and Google over how we consume technology, it’s more important than ever to understand that these things can be legitimately used in other ways. You own them and you are allowed to take them and use them outside their intended purpose, that you can create political tools from the objects and technologies and the networks that you’re involved in, and don’t simply have to follow the guidelines on what’s supposed to happen. I think that’s really important, as it also starts to reveal. I’m really interested in this idea of the loss of imagination, an idea from David Graeber that says ‘technology and capitalism have strove to build an apparatus of hopelessness crushing any imagination.’ Strong words, but this is the idea that we’ve lost the ability to imagine plausible alternatives to what’s handed to us. So, even if examples that show this are really extreme, it can be like the Overton window technique, which shows a really extreme alternative in the hope that people might imagine more subtle ones in their daily lives.
Hear More from Tobias Revell
To hear more from Tobias Revell on this and his other work, he will be in conversation with designer Anab Jain on 15th May. Book tickets here.
Venue: Lighthouse, 28 Kensington Street, BN1 4AJ
Dates: 3 – 25 May 2014
Times: 11am – 6pm
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