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UC San Diego professor who studies disobedience gains followers -- and investigators

Ricardo Dominguez, an electronic civil disobedience expert, is the target of probes examining whether his work improperly uses public funds and violates security laws.

May 07, 2010|By Richard Marosi, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from San Diego — When protesting students spilled into University of California campus courtyards in March, Ricardo Dominguez took to the streets in his own way — digitally — leading a march to the online office of the UC president.

The bespectacled associate professor triggered a software program that continuously reloaded the home page of UC President Mark G. Yudof's website.

"Transparency," hundreds of protesters wrote, over and over again, in the search box of the home page.

The jammed website responded with an error message: "File not found."

The protesters' message: Transparency doesn't exist in the UC system.

It was a virtual sit-in, an oft-used tactic from Dominguez's academic specialty at UC San Diego: electronic civil disobedience. Another project last year took as inspiration the debate over illegal immigration. Dominguez, a new media artist, unveiled a prototype for a modified cellphone that he called a "mobile Statue of Liberty." He said phones like it would provide immigrants with directions and inspirational poetry readings during arduous desert crossings.

Never mind that few of the phones will probably ever end up in immigrant hands — there are no plans to mass produce them — or that the virtual sit-in may not have actually disrupted the UC president's computer.

The projects were political statements meant to agitate, which they did, with unexpected consequences. Campus police are probing whether the virtual sit-in broke any computer hacking laws. The phone has drawn fire for allegedly encouraging illegal immigration. The media showed up, and faculty and students have rallied to Dominguez's defense, slapping black tape over their mouths at a campus protest.

To his detractors Dominguez is a leftist prankster who wastes public funds pursuing projects that border on the criminal. Three Republican congressmen in San Diego county have written letters to the university questioning his work.

"Time for a change in this country," wrote Nick Vecchio, a La Mesa resident, in a letter to the San Diego Union Tribune. "My taxes are sky high, and I'm paying a state university to employ activists and professors specializing in civil disobedience? What, pray tell, is a 'new media artist?'"

Disturbance, answers Dominguez. He ponders the controversy with professorial detachment, studying reactions to his esoteric stagecraft, which is intended to blur the line between advocacy and performance art.

"I'm interested in how different forms of power respond to this," said Dominguez, 50, in a mellifluous baritone. "Our work has always been to bring to the foreground what artists can do using available low-end, new technologies that can have a wider encounter with society than just the limited landscape of the museum, the gallery and the scholarly paper."

There are complications, however, when reality pierces the bubble of conceptual art.

"The negative end is police coming to your door," Dominguez said, mentioning that the university also shut down his laboratory's computer server for eight days.

Dominguez, a Mexican American raised in Las Vegas, majored in theater arts — Shakespeare's vainglorious Malvolio in "Twelfth Night" was among his favorite roles — and moved to New York City in the 1990s, pulled more by the burgeoning digital subculture than the bright lights of Broadway.

With fellow new media artists and social activists, he co-founded the Electronic Disturbance Theater, which developed virtual protest tactics against computer systems across the world. The online protests flood network servers with automatic "reload" requests that can disrupt and slow systems, but not destroy data, Dominguez says.

The group targeted, among others, the Frankfurt stock exchange to protest mining investments in Mexico, and the Mexican government for its military actions against the Zapatista rebel movement. Dominguez likens the protests to thousands of people standing in the middle of the information superhighway, or massing as if they will.

In 1998, for example, the U.S. Defense Department, anticipating a virtual attack from the Disturbance Theater, set up a program to divert the virtual swarm to a nonexistent website, the New York Times reported.

"When the Department of Defense launched the information war weapon at us — that's kind of a brilliant moment in that performance," Dominguez said. "One can take the measure of power by not doing anything. That is the power of art, that is the power of performance, that it creates not effect, but affect."

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In 2005, Dominguez was hired as an associate professor at UC San Diego's prestigious Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology. He joined an eclectic group of nanotechnology experts, computer musicians and game designers exploring cyberspace trends in a gleaming, postmodern building at the La Jolla campus.

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