Disturbances is a self-assessment of the group’s 25-year history, examining the environmental, political, and bio-technological themes of their various initiatives. The projects selected range from their early live multimedia productions; to their development of models of electronic civil disobedience, digital resistance, and contestational biology and ecology; to their most recent tactical media projects.


Critical Art Ensemble: Disturbances. Introduction by
Brian Holmes. London:  Four Corners Books, 2012;  272 pp.;
illustrations. $40.00 paper.

Critical Art Ensemble is probably more famous for writing books than for making art. Beginning with their 1994 The Electronic Disturbance, CAE has produced a steadily growing oeuvre of pamphlet-sized offerings whose prescience, rigor, and readability make them required reading for generations of artists, students, and digital activists. In short texts like Electronic Civil Disobedience, Flesh Machine, Digital Resistance, The Molecular Invasion, and Marching Plague, CAE has written the blueprint for Anonymous and Wikileaks-style internet activism while a young Julian Assange probed telecommunications infrastructures as “Mendax” and most of the Anons were still in diapers. Despite the word “art” in CAE’s name, its collective output doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the objects one would find in an art gallery or contemporary art museum. And no one cares — CAE’s world is a whole lot bigger than any white cube, and there is a lot more at stake.


CAE’s new offering, Disturbances, is everything that the earlier books, published by the anarchist Autonomedia press, aren’t. It’s a 270-page full-color monograph/scrapbook/reader documenting nearly three decades of performances, multimedia installations, public interventions, provocations, exhibitions, workshops, hoaxes, and even a cookbook. As such, it is an essential and long overdue counterpart to CAE’s more familiar books. Disturbancesfunctions as both a history of the group, and by extension, as a non–New York centric chronicle of American political art, and as a catalog of CAE’s attempts to put its own theories into practice, foibles and missteps and all.


Disturbances is a window into contemporary political art from the American periphery. CAE isn’t from New York or Los Angeles but began as a group of students from Tallahassee, Florida, in the 1980s. “Entrenched in educational institutions at that time,” CAE explains, “was the idea that art was a gesture of individual expression manifested through the filter of aesthetic genius. We had two major problems with these assumptions. The first was that we could not figure out why someone’s individual artistic expression would be of interest to anyone else but the person producing it […A]n even bigger problem was the exclusionary clause about artists having to be geniuses. That principle left us out” (19).


Disturbances follows scores of CAE projects, from early sound and video performances at clubs and storefronts in Tallahassee, Florida, and Jackson, Mississippi, through public interventions (such as giving away free beer and cigarettes in Sheffield, UK, and Kyoto, Japan) to more recent projects (re-interpreting chemical weapons experiments on Isle of Lewis and setting off mock “dirty-bombs” in Halle, Germany). As such, Disturbances is not only a catalog of the group’s tireless output, it is also a guide to approaches, forms, and paradigms of art-making that often completely eschew the white cubes and static walls of galleries and museums. As such, it is an indispensable resource to anyone interested in the group’s history, and, perhaps more importantly, it serves as a kind of dictionary or guide to critical creative practices in general. In sum, Disturbances is an essential document for politically minded students and creative practitioners. Disturbances is not only a document of past political practices and interventions, it is a guide to the future.

— Trevor Paglen

Trevor Paglen is an artist. paglen.info@gmail.com

TDR: The Drama Review 58:3 (T223) Fall 2014. ©2014
New York University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology