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REVIEW: Escape the Overcode: Activist Art in the Control Society by Brian Holmes

Written by Maiko Tanaka

There is no need to fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons.
(Deleuze 1992)

My ears always perk up when I encounter network theory that invokes the practice of 'art' to
activate potentials for intervention and evasion of communicative capitalism (Dean 2003, 95). Net
theorists often look to art as a field of possibility for creatively retooling a control society, as run by
global corporate elites. Alexander Galloway even calls for the explicit politicization of any artistic
online practice that inevitably must use the protocols designed, “If the network itself is political
from the start, then any artistic practice within that network must engage politics or feign
ignorance” (Galloway 2004, 214, emphasis added). What these theorists and researchers are often
unable to do provide or refer to however, are case analyses in which successful artistic intervention
are made.

For art critic, activist and sociologist, Brian Holmes, there is no question as to whether artworks
engaging in networks would necessarily be political, but the task for him is to go further into how.
“What can subversive art accomplish in the political arena? And what are its limits, how can it
exceed them in the future?” (Holmes 2009. 25) These questions are the launching point for the book
Escape the Overcode: Activist Art in the Control Society, in which Holmes's key essays have
recently been compiled into a book1 The ambition of Escape the Overcode, is to provide an
extremely dense and lucid account of artistic activism; but in its thorough exploration of scale,
duration, and effectiveness in today's regulated and 'overcoded' information society, the book also
helps to fill some aching gaps in Net research and theory interested in countering communicative
capitalism. For this book review I will puncuate out the moments of Holmes's text that elucidate
well on various Net debates and discussions around this subject.

Firstly, the question of how to create effective, sustained interventions in cognitive capitalism is
indeed a challenge that Net writers such as Jodi Dean have written extensively about. Holmes takes
a more radical position from these theorists, mainly when it comes to the question of how, claiming
that “both compass and coordinates must be reinvented if you really want to transform the dynamics
of a changing world system” (Holmes 2009, 198). Actually, the book's philosophical trajectory
resembles more of what Ulises Mejias theorises as the 'paranode' which “disidentifies from the
network but continues to be appended to it (Mejias 2010, 615)” It is the excess and the debris left
from the nodocentric top-down web mapping of global powers, where Holmes starts his
investigations, the 'paranodes' of a given network.

One could say that the compass utilised in the practices of Escape the Overcode is activated by its
'affective' potential, and it is art's expressionist, sense-based and intensifying capacities that Holmes
is interested in for new political and generative possibilities of aesthetics (Holmes 14, 2009). This
takes further recent gestures that Jodi Dean made when she (uncharacteristically) lauded the
effective role of “sense” in the use of social media in the context of Cairos's so-called Facebook
revolution (Dean, 2011). It also aligns with Galloway contention that the power of protocol lies in
its affective aesthetic capacity (Galloway 2004, 81). For Holmes the expression of constant
affective renewal is a strategy to counter the desire-producing flexible 'protocols' utilised by
communicative labour structures. This is exemplified by his description of Marcelo Exposito's
multi-part film project Entre Suenos (Between Waking and Dreams) which traces the gestures and
stories of current social movements, a new generation of precarious workers subject to neoliberal
policies (Holmes 2009, 17–21).

1 Co-published by the Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven and Zagreb-based curatorial collective
WHW (What How and for Whom?).
The legend that Holmes uses to describe the work of artistic activism resembles much of the critical
history of mapping, geography, and charting that Eric Gordon uses to found his analysis of the
shifting metaphor of mapping in early and contemporary internet technologies (Gordon 2007). Like
Gordon, Holmes takes the view of mapping that has shifted from a cartography of containing the
world, to one of describing a cyber-netherworld, and then to co-constructing the world (Gordon
2007, 886), but contends that the task requires an “affectivist cartographer to “try to approach a
diagrammatic level where the cartography of sensation is reconfigured through experiment (Holmes
2009, 199)”. In a chapter called “Network Maps, Energy Diagrams: Structure and Agency in the
Global System” Holmes offers the example of the generative diagram, or “energy” maps of Bureau
D'etude, which he claims are tools to harness the energy of “free cooperation” residing in different
resistant formations (Holmes 2009, 46-57).

The “meta-theory of critique” which Holmes uses in his work is something he calls
“extradisciplinarity” a theory/device used to produce immanent critique beyond disciplinary borders
towards creating new points of departures, for a renewed practice of “institutional critique” (Holmes
2009, 100), siting the listserve network “nettime” as exemplary in this regard (Ibid). In its
'extradisciplinary' practice Escape the Overcode activates a variety of knowledge from biology,
cybernetics, art history, geopolitics and critical theory, weaving pertinent points throughout the texts
in a fluid and poetic fashion; into a necessarily collective formation that sophisticated nature of
neoliberal control structures demand if activists, artists, researchers and intellectuals wish to make
some positive interventions. “Disconnecting the Dots of the Research Triangle” describes the role of
corporatization, flexibilization and militarization in universities, making clear how even research
institution are implicated. Escape the Overcode is not just a task for activists, artists, precarious
workers and disaffected youth.

Although convincing in its argument of enabling transgression of institutional confines, Escape the
Overcode can be extremely difficult to read precisely in trying to follow its extradisciplinary lines
of inquiry woven through the text, especially for those unfamiliar with the fields that Holmes draws
upon. What saves this important book from becoming inaccessible is through its function as an in
depth illustrated catalogue (or tool box) of projects created in response to neoliberalism in a lot of
ways, and embedded in their various genealogies. In between the deeply philosophical and
reflective texts, there is never a hanging thought left without a concrete project, historical event,
research image, diagrammatic extension or model illustration rendering the theory in action in some
way. From simultaneous editing strategies to satirical soccer games, the artwork examples Holmes
provides are themselves concepts, tactics, workshops and tests that suggest their lending quality for
application in other situations that may inspire a like response.

This toolbox function is also successfully executed in a clean, simple design with syncopated
accents. Out of the 416 recycled-page book, at least two hot-pink highlighted footnotes, often
including direct web addresses, are offered per spread and countless reproductions of artworks and
diagrams are paced rhythmically throughout, including the work of 0100101110101101.ORG,
Ursula Biemann, Makrolab, Sangdon Kim, 16 Beaver, Lin Yilin, Dragan Zivadinov, The Yes Men
and Hackitectura. The first pages open in a spread of men and women floating in a container in a
no-gravity zone, as if to prepare the reader for entering into the space operating under upturned
physical laws. This image is quite fitting as a backdrop for one of the questions Holmes asks, which
also effectively sums up the affirmative call for collective creative networked practices of the book:

“Where is the art that will rearrange the stars above our heads? And the science that will shift the
ground beneath our feet” (Holmes, 2009, 383)?
Works Cited

Dean, Jodi. 2003. Why the Net Is Not a Public Sphere. 95-112. Constellations 10:1.

Interview with Jodi Dean. 2011. “Behind the News with Doug Henwood” 5 March. http://shout.lbo-
talk.org/lbo/RadioArchive/2011/11_03_05.mp3

Deleuze, Gilles. 1992. Postscript on the Societies of Control. October 59: 3-7.
http://www.n5m.org/n5m2/media/texts/deleuze.htm

Mejias, Ulises A. 2010. The Limits of Networks as Models for Organizing the Social. 603-617.
New Media & Society 12:4.
Galloway, Alexander R. 2004. Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization, 1-53.
Cambridge, MA:MIT.

Gordon, Eric (2007) Mapping Digital Networks: From cyberspace to Google. Information,
Communication & Society. 10:6.

Holmes, Brian. 2009. Escape the Overcode: Activist Art in the Control Society. Eindhoven: Van
Abbemuseum.

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