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Robert Atkins, Writer, New York City

Eye/I Witness: AIDS and Digital Art Activism

March 3, 2003; 6 Minutes; Video

As the global, anti-war demonstrations of mid-February remind us, progressive political impulses are sometimes most effectively expressed by taking to the streets. This, of course, taps into a central, electronic-era issue; that is, the efficacy and desirability of embodied versus remote action. When it comes to political activism, where do artists fit in? New forms of electronic activism from pioneering groups including RTMark and Electronic Disturbance Theatres have proved both inspiring and problematic--and rarely contextualized within the overlapping realms of mass media, art and activism.

This lecture will analyze the remarkably effective role artists played in ameliorating the AIDS crisis in the US, while advancing innovative forms of art and strategies for distribution that included culture jamming, agitprop and institutional infiltration. The author asserts that a rare confluence of historical factors resulted in the production of the most influential body of public and "private" art in American history. What lessons might be learned from artists'practices of just 10-15 years ago that might be applied today? Or has the Internet so profoundly altered the nature of mass media that they are already irrelevant? The author intends to raise crucial cultural and artistic questions that have been ignored in the rift between discourses separating electronic and non-electronic art, and in the cultural responses to 9/11 at a moment when dissent has been demonized and civil liberties threatened.