Interview with RTMark
RTMark was the forerunner of the Yesmen. We met at Ars Electronica in 1997. Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno presented themselves as Ernesto Lucha and Francisco Gerrero, otherwise known as 'Frank and Ernest'. Their main focus was fighting the incredible power of corporations, which have the same rights as citizens in the United States. By removing the unfair protection this gives to corporations RTMark hoped to force them to act more responsibly.
RTMark was part of Open X at Ars Electronica in 1997. They had their information stand, with slick corporate video and all, which was manned by two of its members, who, for this occasion, were called Ernesto Lucha and Francisco Gerrero. RTMark had a substantial influence in the Infoweapon Award jury. This jury, which consisted of several die-hard art terrorists, managed to be an infoweapon itself, by giving its prize to the village of Popotla, Mexico. This village was destroyed during the filming of the movie Titanic there. As the big money prize of the Prix Ars Electronica went to a team that worked on Titanic, giving the Infoweapon Award to Popotla was not only a statement but also a mild subversion within Ars Electronica itself.
From an RTMark press release: "The real problem we are trying to focus on is not with Ars at all--the real problem is what 21st Century Fox is doing with Popotla, and what many, many other corporations are doing in the Third World." The following interview is not the one from the news/webcast, but was made the next day at the RTMark stand.
JB: When was RTMark founded?
Ernesto Lucha: In 1991 it was founded by a small group of people who were concerned with the power that corporations had arrogated over the years, and thought they had gotten way too far in getting rights as citizens. In the United States corporations became people, became citizens in the equal of people in 1886, when they used the fourteenth amendment of the constitution to gain rights. Now the fourteenth amendment was written to ensure that freed slaves became people and had the full rights of citizens. Corporations quickly moved in and got the Supreme Court to decide that corporations could benefit under the fourteenth amendment.
They got the rights of freed slaves; they got the rights of people. That has enabled them to own land, to sue in court, to do all kinds of things that people have the right to do, like to bear arms. With these powers corporations have simply amassed more and more power over the years, until finally they are what we know them as today. What that is, is simply trying to rework the entire world into a mechanism that will feed the corporations.
We wanted to attack that, criticize that. What we are criticizing is the actual system, and the people involved that have allowed this to happen. We want this to stop. Nobody can criticize corporations themselves because corporations are not people. Corporations do not have brains. They are simply organic entities, as has been repeatedly pointed out, but they are organic insofar as say blobs of acid plasma that eats through anything in its path can be considered organic. I don't know much about organic chemistry, but I think it is a pretty broad field. There is a lot they could be called, anything from sharks to amoeba, to carnivorous plants.
Corporations are basically just these big blobs, these big stomachs, that have only the imperative to grow, eat more, to improve their mechanisms of intake and to just devastate anything in their paths in the interest of growing. If that means they can't do it immediately, they figure out mechanisms to do it in the long term.
JB: How many people is RTMark?
Ernesto Lucha: About five at the moment, it is a fluid entity, as corporations are. We have a varying membership. We hide behind the name RTMark, we avoid personal liability for things that RTMark might be doing.
JB: Is that so you can fight them on the same level?
Ernesto Lucha: Exactly. We hide behind the corporate entity that is RTMark. We avoid liability that way, so as people we are not responsible. We can simply say: RTMark did it. If RTMark gets sued, then RTMark dissolves and the people behind it are not responsible. It does not matter whether we have devastated rainforests or ruined villages in Mexico or simply have simply attempted to further subversion of policies like devastating rainforests or destroying villages in Mexico.
JB: What are your methods?
Ernesto Lucha: We operate at present by means of a worldwide web list of projects that involve the sabotage of commercial items, of mass produced products. We have traditionally operated from the inside. These projects suggest to workers in companies ways to sabotage projects and they offer monetary rewards that are also posted by visitors to the internet. So a project usually begins it life by being suggested by a visitor to RTMark. It is posted on the RTMark list, one or the other RTMark lists, we have several and we call them mutual funds. This project, which has been posted by a visitor, is then funded by another visitor or perhaps by the same visitor or somebody offers funds for its accomplishment.
JB: So people actually earn money while doing this?
Ernesto Lucha: Very minor money relatively. It amounts to a few thousand dollars perhaps for any given project. We can't give a social safety net or anything like that. It is just that there are honorariums to indicate popular interest in actions of this sort.
JB: I have a horrible question: is this art or politics?
Ernesto Lucha: We don't really want to define it. Whichever context it works in will define it appropriately. For example at Ars Electronica Manual DeLanda said: "It works as art, but not as politics." If it is impossible for somebody like that to stomach as politics, for whatever reason, then we are happy to be absorbed as art, although art is much less powerful usually. If that is the only way it can be absorbed, that is fine. It is not. It is whatever context. When we present ourselves to the media of course art is not in the picture at all. If we present ourselves at a conference like this, art is one acceptable way of perceiving us if somebody is incapable of perceiving us as anything else.
Somebody like Manuel DeLanda for instance is incapable of perceiving anything outside of his very narrow definition of leftist critique as politics. That is sort of paradoxical, because even though people like him have this narrow definition of what constitutes a valid leftist critique (if in fact we want to bother calling ourselves leftists, that is another issue), their definition is incredibly lax when it comes to what is valid corporate behavior. In fact what their philosophy ends up becoming is an embrace of the corporate system, equal to that of the right. The new leftist, or whatever you want to call it, I don't think they even have a very solid name, they are trying to be fluid and corporate actually, what their approach amounts to is simply an embrace of corporate culture, corporate politics, the corporate system as it is today.
JB: And yours is not? You are a corporation.
Ernesto Lucha: We are using corporate effects on the outside to tell a story that attacks corporations. It is kind of Jiujitsu or a judo move. We are using the effects and strength of corporations, the strength they have arrogated over the years, to unseat them and to attack them. This much is possible.
JB: Have you had problems with the law?
Ernesto Lucha: A little bit. We have gotten a few cease and desist letters, but they quickly realized that it's not really worth pursuing. For example the last cease and desist letter we got from the BMG music company which owns Geffen, who actually both issued cease and desist letters at different times, and we took this letter and spun it into more news items. We took that letter and it quickly became ten more articles in various newspapers. They stopped at that point. They realized anything they do with us is going to result in publicity, and that there is a lot of interest in the sort of attack on corporations that 'Deconstructing Beck' representing the attack on copyright law, the attack on corporate use of the law.. and they did not want to risk further erosion of their respectability.
JB: How is the attention for your work in the United States?
Ernesto Lucha: It is much better in Europe. The US has been colonized to an incredible degree by American business, much more then Europe has. It looks like about the same as in the US: everything is corporate, everything is sponsored, you have Sunica, you have Sun, and you have the ICA in London instead of Packbell Stadium. Like say, in the US everything that is popular is basically run by a corporation, but people still have a tradition of thinking for themselves for some reason here. In the US it has been much more thorough. It is a much younger country.
Corporations have been in control for longer, socialism has been gone for a longer time, and people are simply through and through completely the tools of corporations. I am speaking in general terms and in terms which somebody like Manuel DeLanda who has got a specific kind of leftist critique would call irresponsible, but in fact that is just castrating and may reflect a sort of political impotence of his sort of thought, thought that has arisen to replace the impotence of old leftist thought, but ends by being a corporate boot-licking kind of illusory strength. It's the way this sort of thing always works.
JB: Would RTMark go as far as to do illegal actions that would be called a more 'dangerous' form of infowar?
Ernesto Lucha: Certainly we would, we don't generally. We are basically like corporations: if we do illegal things we are not going to advertise it. Whether or not we do them is a mater of privacy. It is our private matter. It is not a public matter; we have a right to privacy like any corporation. We have a right to computer security. We exist behind a firewall and you can't look behind it. You can't see what we are doing.
The case of Chiquita Banana recently, a well-known case in the United States: a reporter for a Cincinatti newspaper I believe. He got some very incriminating information by tapping into the voicemail system of Chiquita. Chiquita were bribing government officials. The journalist exposed some incredible information and published it. The next day he was fired and the newspaper paid ten million dollars to Chiquita and issued a full-page apology. That is the sort of thing we are dealing with.
What we are doing that is illegal is our business. People have no right to invade each other’s privacy, that is the dominant thing, and they don't have the right to invade a corporation's privacy, because corporations are people. This is the situation we are dealing with. Hackers often think that privacy is the most important issue. Security. We think that is bullshit unless a very strong distinction is made between corporations and people. At this point it isn't. Corporations don't have a right to privacy. If they do, it is a false right and it should be changed. They should not have a right to privacy. What they do should be in the public eye, you should be able to see what corporations are doing, their public face as well as their private face. They should be completely transparent.
I for one would give up privacy if corporations would.
The fear that seems to drive hacker behavior, the fear of an Orwellian government system that peers into everything is not really up to date, that is not the situation we are faced with today. The danger we are faced with today is corporate power by and large. Sure governments do terrible things, they are forces to be feared.
JB: But aren't they 'brothers in crime'?
Ernesto Lucha: They are not exactly brothers.
JB: Corporations own the government maybe. Then the hackers are still right. It is just that then in the end behind the government are the corporations.
Ernesto Lucha: The government is still an autonomous entity to a certain degree. It is just important to see the issues as corporate issues. In the case of privacy for example: why is Wired magazine, which is totally the tool of corporations, blatantly, why are they so concerned about privacy? Wired magazine is so concerned about security and not allowing the government to possess encryption keys to PGP [Pretty Good Privacy] and so on, so concerned about privacy rights for individuals. Why? Because corporations are individuals! And corporations need these rights to keep doing their dirty work, to keep perpetrating their criminal acts without public knowledge, without being seen by the public or the government, because sometimes the government actually -does- respond to the people.
The government is not entirely owned by corporations. We still do vote, you know, however flimsy that is. There is the potential at least for people to influence the government, and there is no potential for people to influence corporations. There used to be, when corporations were chartered very limited entities, then people had full rights to ban together and dissolve. We do have sometimes theoretical and sometimes actual control of government.
JB: This makes me very curious about the role of the unions.
Francisco Gerrero: Unions are a very important part of the political process. Increasingly we want to see more globalization of unions. I think it is the only way. With the global economy we can have some accountability for corporate actions against labor and against labor organizing. There have been some heartening moves in the last two years or so in the US. Labor has been re-invigorated and the unions are showing more political power then they have in the previous ten or fifteen years, certainly throughout the eigthies and late seventies. We at RTMark would like to support unions as much as possible, although we are not directly involved with union politics.
JB: Unions of course work within the 'individuals' that corporations are.
Francisco Gerrero: There is a big debate right now in the US about union political donations. There are in fact these large incorporated bodies so to speak. They function in some ways like corporations do, but we do feel like they function in the collective interest of labor, rather then in the interest of capital. That is why we feel that they, even as these so called larger bodies, are effective in delivering a more humane system, a more humane way of living and working.