John “Global Guerrillas” Robb interviewed

Paul Raven @ 16-06-2010

Regular readers will know I follow John Robb’s Global Guerrillas blog quite closely; Robb cropped up yesterday as an interviewee on Boing Boing, restating his case for turning our backs on our governments (who have, in many ways, turned their backs on us) and building grass-roots “resilient communities”:

BB: Do you see a diminishing role for the state in large-scale governance? Does this compel communities to do it for themselves?

JR: Yes, large scale governance is on the way out. Not only are nearly all governments financially insolvent, they can’t protect citizens from a global system that is running amok. As services and security begin to fade, local sources of order will emerge to fill the void. Hopefully, most people will opt to take control of this process by joining together with others to build resilient communities that can offer the independence, security, and prosperity that isn’t offered by the nation-state anymore. However, this is something you will have to build for yourself. Nobody is going to help you build it.

Robb’s is a potentially grim vision (and he appears to rather revel in that grimness from time to time, like any good gadfly); some commenters have pointed out to me that a pinch of salt added to Robb’s posts is a sensible precaution, and I’d agree, but I still think there’s a lot of useful stuff in what he has to say. That said, it’s good to question received wisdom, especially when it confirms what you already believe to be true… so via Technoccult, here’s a critique of Robb’s last book at Reason:

… Robb claims global guerrillas can successfully wage strategic war on nation-states. But a successful strategic war is one in which a guerrilla group attains its strategic goals. If global guerrillas really just want failed states, the world has no shortage, and Robb is correct. If they want the things guerrilla groups have always wanted—regional autonomy, a greater share of the economic pie, dominion over ethnic or sectarian rivals, an end to foreign occupation, social revolution, national control—it’s much harder to say that any global guerrilla group has yet been “successful.”


What most of the global guerrilla groups have managed so far is to not lose. It’s a truism of counterinsurgency that “guerrillas win by not losing,” but successful guerrilla movements eventually win by winning. It’s much harder for global guerrillas to “win” than Robb thinks, because most of these groups have larger goals than he acknowledges.

These peer-to-peer networks of resistance would be pretty easy to hijack, I suppose; we’re rather attached to hierarchies as a species, though whether that’s a predisposition or a psychological artefact is beyond my knowledge. So, what starts as a scattering of people who think of themselves as freedom fighters can be corralled together and steered by another group with a wider agenda and more resources… or maybe just a bigger axe to grind. But perhaps I’m naively assuming that most small insurgencies start as a valiant resistance to some sort of oppression. More research needed (my hourly mantra).

Still, Robb’s points about having to look out for ourselves as nation-states decline and stability decreases ring pretty true, even if they have a Mad Max-esque vibe of dramatic overstatement to them. Security can be offered to you (in exchange for taxes, or whatever else, and not necessarily delivered on when it comes to the crunch), but resilience you must make for yourself. Resilience can fail as well, of course, but then you can blame no one but yourself… perhaps that’s why we’re all so resistant to the idea?

Crop-mobs, seedbombs and mall-farms

Paul Raven @ 01-06-2010

The Zeitgeist seems to have developed an obsession with agriculture. Observe:

Ecological fashion trends or economic necessities? I’m thinking a bit of both, and wondering how long they’ll last… hopefully for a while.

Speaking of sustainable living and community development, Futurismic fiction alumnus Douglas Lain (author of the grimly excellent “Resurfacing Billy”) plans to write a “radical self-help book” called Pick Your Battle, which will be…

… a book that will explain and explore urban gleaning, situationist theory, and unschooling while telling the story of my own and my family’s attempt to revolutionize our everyday lives. It will support efforts to organize local foraging, community gardens, psychogeographic field trips, and a confrontation with the current system.

He’s got a funding drive running on Kickstarter; if a mash-up of science fiction, situationism and sustainable living sounds like your cup of tea, why not go pledge Doug a dollar or two to keep him fed while he writes it? An interesting topic, and an adventurous funding model for creative writing.

Interesting stuff happens in the cracks: interstitial art festivals

Paul Raven @ 17-05-2010

The Lost Horizon Night Market sounds like the sort of thing I’d love to see roll into my town: like some mad mash-up of the travelling free-party sound-system crews of nineties Europe with a half-squatted house full of installation art students, it’s a peripatetic mobile art festival housed in rental trucks and parked up for one night only in empty industrial lots. It’s…

… an ongoing participatory project with an elegantly simple idea: “Proprietors” rent a truck and do something creative in it, with public interactivity a central element.

There are no admission fees. Participants mainly provide enthusiasm (or homemade jam, or lap dances, or ukulele serenades), and get to soak in a hot tub or share a smoke in the Jesus Christ Hookah Bar. The proprietors exchange their time, money and artistic energy for the distinctive euphoria of seeing people interact with an environment of their own creation.

“For one night, we make an autonomous neighborhood,” said Lost Horizon Night Market co-founder Mark Krawczuk, who enjoys spurring people to act on their creative desires. “I get a kick out of seeing people do stuff. I’ve got 40 people into the game … got people who’ve never done installation art before to do it.”

The Lost Horizon Night Market

Shades of Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zones, of course, and of the really weird things you could still see and do at Glastonbury festival before its Millennial gentrification. Breaking down the barriers between consumer and creator, between participant and artist, between art and activity… cool things temporarily inhabiting otherwise uncool spaces. Culture subverting geopgraphy, ideas on the move. (As you’ve probably gathered, I’m a serious sucker for this kind of stuff.)

Apparently the Night Market people would love to see other iterations of the same idea spring up elsewhere, like a vaguely-defined open-source museum franchise. And they may well get their wish… after all, it’s only taken Burning Man a decade to achieve metastasis, and ideas move much faster than they did ten years ago. [image credit: Michael Gwilliam; blagged from linked Wired article, please contact for takedown if required]

Fake Big Brother, bogus Balls of Steel: the *real* reality television

Paul Raven @ 11-09-2009

video cameraNow here’s an example of the serendipitous way that stories seem to glom together when you blog regularly. A few days ago I noticed a post at MetaFilter about Ikea Heights, a rather silly guerrilla drama show filmed entirely in a large Ikea store without the permission (or, apparently, the awareness) of the staff, and I felt a push on my “interesting” switch. [image by ZapTheDingbat]

I felt sure there was something to say about the eroding barrier between “official” television and amateur media, about the reappropriation of corporate spaces for unofficial purposes, and about the potential for a more genuine (if no more pleasant) form of reality television – namely, one not constrained by the laws and vetting processes that a real production company would have to obey to get clearance for their shows.

I kicked the post around a bit, but I just couldn’t find a decent hook to lead from Ikea Heights to where I wanted to go… until last night, when I noticed a story at The Guardian about a fake Big Brother-esque set-up in Turkey where someone convinced a bunch of young female models to move into a luxury villa full of cameras:

The women had responded to an ad seeking contestants for a reality show which would be aired on a major Turkish television station, Dogan said. The nine captives, including a teenager, were selected from other applicants following an interview.

They were made to sign a contract which stipulated that they could have no contact with their families or the outside world, and would have to pay a fine of 50,000 Turkish lira (£20,000) if they left the show in the first two months, the agency reported.

Dogan and HaberTurk newspaper both reported that the women realised they were being duped and asked to leave the villa. According to Dogan, they were told they could not leave unless they paid the fine. Those who insisted were threatened.

Thinking about it, I’m almost surprised that no one had done it before. But that story really highlights how much of an oxymoron “reality television” actually is… reality programming is in many senses less “real” than almost any other sort of television, thanks to the editing processes used to make the tedium of normal human interaction more interesting. The only way to make real reality shows would be to circumvent not just laws but customary production values… would the results be more popular than television or less? I rather suspect they would. Would the excitement of the best moments of totally unfiltered reality balance out the long stretches of mundanity that inevitably accompany the daily lives of real people? In other words – would people watch a house full of people who had no idea they were being watched?

I’ve also been wondering about “candid camera” shows, which appear to be making something of a comeback in a more edgy format – I’m thinking specifically of a show here in the UK called Balls of Steel, wherein the contestants go out into the world and do weird, shameful, embarrassing or provocative things in front of the unsuspecting public. [There are some clips on the Channel 4 website, if you’ve not seen it.]

Now, if I understand the law properly, these shows can’t be as completely guerrilla as they claim to be – at the very least, I’m sure they’d have to get permission from the victims to broadcast their humiliation or risk a lawsuit, and I imagine that financial recompense of some sort comes into the equation… and that’s charitably assuming that the things aren’t fakes from the ground upwards, with the “victims” being completely aware of what’s about to happen to them. While it’s never explicitly stated that the stunts are set-ups, every effort is spent on framing them as if they definitely aren’t – the jokes lose all force when you realise that the guy who just had a bag full of cheeseburgers lobbed at his head from a passing car knew they were coming.

But we now have the affordable technology (hand-held video cameras of passable picture quality) and the multicast infrastructure (YouTube, Vimeo and all the others) for genuinely anonymous and unsanctioned candid camera and reality programs. Remember the “happy slapping” fad? If the participants had taken more care over making themselves and their uploaded videos untraceable, and focussed on doing things that the victims would be too embarrassed to report to the authorities, you could have had a viral guerrilla video success on your hands.

Genuine discomfort, genuine humiliation; the television networks would do it if the law would let them, because they know how popular it would be, and how valuable the ads accompanying it. It won’t be long before a few smart people come to the same conclusion… and that will be the final death-knell for broadcast television, reality or otherwise.

Moats in Mexico – villages under siege

Paul Raven @ 26-03-2009

The moat around Cuauhtemoc, MexicoThings are getting pretty rough in the northern states of Mexico, with criminal gangs acting increasingly like marauding guerrilla armies. So much so that the tiny town of Cuauhtemoc has taken medieval measures to prevent further attacks:

Since right before Christmas, armed raiders repeatedly have swept into both villages to carry away local men. Government help arrived too late, or not at all.

Terrified villagers — at the urging of army officers who couldn’t be there around the clock — have clawed moats across every access road but one into their communities, hoping to repel the raids.

It’s probably not very reassuring to find yourself in a position where the army tells you that you’re pretty much going to have to look out for yourself against armed gangs. Sure, the Mexican government has its work cut out dealing with the problem, but that’s going to be cold comfort to townspeople who just want to be left alone to get on with their lives… and it leaves the door wide open for another gang to step in and offer protection, which will destabilise the region even further. [via Global Guerrillas; image by Julian Cardona for the Houston Chronicle – contact for take-down if required]