The Elevate Awards

Every year, the Elevate festival recognises organisations and individuals who have done outstanding work in the struggle against alienation, selfishness and capital; in the struggle to liberate creativity and compassion in the name of humanity and the planet.

The Artivism Award supports creative projects as ambidextrous as Elevate, projects that use the left and right hand, both art and activism, in concert. Meanwhile, the Steiermark Award and the International Award honour the festival’s local heart and global vision.

The €1500 prize money is as welcome to the winners as the publicity granted by the Elevate stage is to all nominees.

Nominations for the Artivism Award included Hypertopia, an ambitious city planning project, NANK Wien, a revolutionary shoe factory, openArtist, a piece of open source universal creative software, and Reni Hofmuller, a musician who took the opportunity to recognise the refugee protest camp here in Graz.

Hassan, a Syrian living in the protest camp, delivered an impassioned speech to the Dom, describing his journey to Europe like “ashes blowing in the wind, while our wives and children are still in the land of death”.

The winner of the Artivism Award was Manu Luksch, an artist who studies Big Brother and the constant surveillance of CCTV cameras.

Festival chocolatier, Josef Zotter, was on stage to present the Steiermark Award and once again the breadth of local activism was an inspiration, showing that not all action must be grand in order to be revolutionary.

A food cooperative, a network for regional self-sufficiency, a homely social centre and a group dedicated to the promotion of digital data encryption were all recognised on stage with interviews and presentations. But the winners were AllerLEIHLaden, a social club based in Graz where people can swap and gift their unused objects that would otherwise collect dust.

Given this year’s Elevate theme, creative response, it is fitting that the International Award celebrated a very immediate response to perhaps the greatest political and social challenge facing European citizens today: migration.

The White Helmets are a group in Syria who respond to rescue survivors from bombed out buildings. So far, over 70000 people have been saved by their fast reactions. On stage in Austria is a video screen and on the video screen is Mohammed, the scars of war clearly marked on his face, to accept the award on behalf of the White Helmets.

“Thank you to the Austrian people and I know that you support us from your heart,” Mohammed says. “I’m so happy to feel somebody behind us.” Mohammed himself had been seriously injured and then rescued from a collapsed building before he joined the White Helmets to help others. “I should help the people because we are all human, we must help each other,” he says.

The work is not easy, of course, and the rescue missions themselves have recently been targeted by bombing. “Thank you to the people who support us,” Mohammed says. “I will make sure that the money will be for injured people and for the situation.” Applause echoes around the Dom in standing ovation.

Vandana Shiva, a bolt of colour in the darkness of the cave, picks up the threads of the Syrian story. In 2009, there was a drought in Syria, a particular tragedy in the fertile crescent where agriculture first took root. Following this drought, one million farmers were displaced. This was the first wave of refugees, forced to the cities, where they were met with violence instead of justice.

Vandana sees the parallels with the 1984 agricultural crisis in the Punjab. In the same year as the Bhopal disaster that killed 3000 people after a pesticide factory leak, Punjabi farmers protested the use of chemicals that was destroying their agriculture, just like it would destroy Syria. The protests descended into violence and the violence was recast as religious conflict: “No more about land and water, no more about farmers’ livelihoods,” Vandana says. “And exactly the same thing has happened now.”

“My own history goes back to my own mother being made a refugee by India and Pakistan being chopped up along religious lines in 1947,” Vandana explains. “A world order which is based on grabbing the last drop of water, the last inch of land and the last seed can only create refugees.”

“We’ve got a twisted mindset that labour and land are inputs into an economic process,” Vandana says. “Land is the earth, she’s not an output; she supports all life. Humans are not just labour; we are bursting with creativity, as the Elevate festival so deeply celebrates.”

But Vandana assures us that there is a way out of this economic process. “If only we align our energies and our intelligence and our hearts with the amazing creativity of nature, and, instead of seeing ourselves as conquerors and masters, we start to see ourselves as co-creators and co-producers, there is limitless abundance.”

In order to reach this abundance, however, we must come together. “As fear becomes the currency for winning the next elections, let’s hold our hands together, let our hearts touch the earth and say we will not be conquered through fear, hate and insecurity.”

Vandana shares, as she did last year, her favourite quote from Gandhi: “The earth has enough for everyone’s needs, but not for a few people’s greed.”

Elevate: Lightful! Yes! Workshop

I am currently documenting Elevate, a festival of arts and political discourse that takes place every year in Graz, Austria. This workshop brought together a roomful of creative activists to share ideas on how to give our ideas a colourful and powerful impact on society. (Follow these guys through their Twitter feeds.)

First, Mike Bonanno from The Yes Men took us on a magical mystery tour of creative protest, from the suffragettes dressing up as Ancient Greeks and Gandhi’s salt march, to bread helmets in revolutionary Egypt and the KGB’s flying penises.

“Big campaigns are won by small numbers of people,” Mike says, pointing to the US Civil Rights movement. “It wasn’t even the majority of the minority that was involved.” This is why being creative and making a big noise in the media is important: you can have a disproportionate influence on the political process. “The tendency of the media is to re-tell the same story the whole time,” Mike says. “Keep reminding them what the real story is.”

You can find a lot of Mike’s inspiration through these three resources for creative action:

Ksenia Ermoshina brings a creative perspective from a very different part of the activist world: Russia. Ksenia describes the Russian activist environment, where the police have a tendency to over-react, arresting people who protest by dancing in cathedrals, for example. This has the pleasing effect of amplifying the activists’ message.

Equally, however, Russian civil society has no repertoire of action, as you find in Europe or the States. In France, where Ksenia currently works, the activists can immediately draw on a palette of actions, from die-ins to occupations, that everyone is familiar with. They don’t have to reinvent protest every time.

Ksenia describes her adventures in adbusting, creating speech bubbles for inanimate objects like bricks: “Only for throwing at cops.” Ksenia’s inspiration is Hakim Bey, who declared that, even if only one or two people are awoken, the action is still a success. She also always insists on filming the whole process of preparing the action, whether it’s printing and posting photos of Syrian children or making a Vladimir Putin puppet, so that other people can see exactly how it was done and how they too can protest.

Ksenia’s action has a very immediate and personal element, however. Her mother, a journalist, recently lost her job at one of the few remaining independent publications in Russia. Her question for the workshop: How can we talk to more people, reach more people, in countries where regimes are becoming more authoritarian?

Bruno Tozzini comes from the very different background of advertising, a $137bn industry in the US. And yet he shows us a series of creative responses to social problems, some created by advertising agencies and all using corporate platforms, including an intercultural language exchange over Skype, an online street art exhibition using Google Maps, and the sharing through Facebook of the “invisible” stories of homeless Brazilians.

Bruno then takes us through his “four steps of making” and, in the afternoon, we launch into a workshop focussed on generating creative responses to the refugee crisis in Graz. We brainstorm together and formulate half a dozen actions that could be implemented today, from wifi sharing, a refugee hackathon and SMS skillsharing, to the simplest imaginable creative response: “Just go and say hi”.

Christian Payne is a networked storyteller. It wasn’t always thus, as he shows us through his journey from Alpine pastoralist to newspaper photographer and finally encrypted multimedia archivist. “All media is social,” he says. Christian himself promiscuously shares, not only text, but audio, video, geographic data and photos to tell the stories he encounters from Sudan to Iraq, from Twitter to Storify – from a man holding a smartphone to our ears, eyes and hearts.

Christian is a particularly big proponent of unobtrusive, lightweight, multitasking audio storytelling. He is usually to be found in some quiet corner of the Elevate festival, deep in conversation with some bright philosopher, hacker or DJ, seamlessly sharing their words and thoughts with an audience far away in time and space. He describes audio as an intelligent and intimate storytelling form, akin to reading a book, rather than watching a film.

Christian finishes with a warning about posting online. “You don’t own your image, your image belongs to popular opinion,” he says. “You can attempt control your content, but not the way people react to it.” When it comes to protecting yourself online, his advice is simple: “Connect with kindness.”

The final input of the workshop came from Charles Kriel, founder of Lightful and former game designer and circus performer. Lightful is an app that attempts to solve a problem Charles has encountered when advising NGOs on how to share their stories and get access to funding.

Charles opens, however, by discussing the tragic death at a Turkish airport of journalist Jacky Sutton, a former colleague working in the Middle East. The Turkish authorities claim that she’d missed a connecting flight, been unable to afford a new ticket and had, as a consequence, gone into the ladies’ toilet and hung herself. Charles points out that such a course of action would be ridiculous for a seasoned journalist like Jacky, who’d been working in the region for a decade.

Besides the fact that Jacky had €2400 in cash on her person when she died, enough for a dozen new plane tickets, Charles himself has experience of that same fateful flight. “I’ve missed that connecting flight,” he says. “Everybody misses that connecting flight. It’s a guarantee.”

That starting point shows how dangerous is the work of promoting a free press, particularly in the Middle East. “The region is in even more turmoil than is being reported at the moment,” Charles says. His dream is to create an app that will do some of the dangerous work that puts journalists, NGO workers and activists in such mortal danger. Lightful is that app.

Charles and his small team hope to launch Lightful in stages, starting with registered NGOs in a limited geographical space in the next three weeks. The start may be small, but his aim is quietly ambitious: “I’d like people to get into the habit of doing good work.”

You Are What You Don’t at Elevate Festival

I’m super busy working and writing at the Elevate Festival in Graz, Austria at the moment. But between catching thoughts, ideas and arguments in my butterfly net of words, I managed to find time for a conversation with Christian Payne, AKA Documentally, which he kindly recorded and uploaded to Audioboom.

We talk about Calais and his recent trip there, as well as positive constraints and new publishing models – including You Are What You Don’t at Unbound.

You can listen to the conversation below and make sure you check out more audio from Documentally at the Elevate Festival – a dozen conversations with people even more fascinating than me! 😉

Elevate Creative Response/Ability

Creative Response is the theme of this year’s Elevate festival. Fittingly, this was a vast, sprawling session that spread over two hours, with six guests and more than a dozen contributions from the audience. Unfortunately, that means this blog post can only be a short introduction to a small part of the stimulating discussion.

Creative response is the brain-child of film-maker and writer Antonino D’Ambrosio. He starts the session by trying to capture some of the main ideas behind the concept.

“It’s how we’ve survived as human beings since the beginning of time,” Antonino says. “It’s a rejection of the things that hold us back and advancing systems that bring people together. And you do that through creativity, not just film, music, art, photography, but economics, science, in every way we can break down these barriers socially, politically, culturally.”

For many on the panel, Antonino’s definition of “creative response” was not one they had come across, but the ideas were, of course, already embedded in their personal creative philosophies.

DJ Ripley finds the idea “very appealing”, but makes the point that not everyone is struggling for survival – under the current system, some people are doing very well, often through exploiting others. For her, therefore, “creative response is particularly rooted in people whose survival is and has been challenged right now.” As a DJ from New York, Ripley is aware of her great privilege and must herself consciously resist the temptation to exploit the musical resources of other cultures, which she describes as a “delightful buffet” – a short step from the cruel domination of colonialism.

Cultural researcher Elisabeth Mayerhofer picks up on Antonino’s comments about creative response being a tool that brings people together. Tracing the history of the artist in the western world, she makes the point that eighteenth century emergence of The Artist was “very intertwined with the concept of capitalism”. It was only when capitalism emancipated the artist from feudalism, through the financial independence afforded by the market and intellectual property rights, that they were able to rise out of the community and into the position of cultural Genius.

Today, however, Elisabeth sees the slow erosion of the role and self-perception of the artist as genius. New forms of intellectual property, including the Creative Commons, are acknowledging that everything is created out of what has gone before. “The artist is moving back into society,” Elisabeth says. “In the end, the production and the consumption of art both have a very strong aspect of collectivity. You can’t think of arts without community.”

Mike Bonanno from activist collective The Yes Men tells a story that illustrates what’s possible when a little creativity is stirred into the pot. He was in Australia at a conference for accountants – “These are people who are not usually associated with creativity,” Mike notes – and announced the shutting down of the World Trade Organisation, to be replaced by the Trade Regulation Organisation. He wasn’t expecting what came next, however.

“They were so thrilled with the idea that the framework had changed and they’d be able to do something good with all of their expertise that, without us asking them, they formed working groups at the luncheon that followed the speech and started to rebuild the World Trade Organisation themselves – and they started by redesigning the logo.”

When the laughter falls away, Mike tells how these high-powered accountants, who’d spent their lives off-shoring money for the super rich, discussed where they could site the headquarters of this new organisation so that the least developed nations could have full representation.

“The point is that lifting that weight gave them this moment where they suddenly felt incredibly creative and spontaneously became these incredibly creative accountants.”

For Elevate moderator Daniel Erlacher, this perfectly encapsulates creative response at its most powerful: activism combined with creativity to create a new world.

Elevate: The Politics of Data in a Quantified Society

“Are you a robot?” says the disembodied telephone voice. “You sound so much like a robot. Will you say ‘I am not a robot?’”

So begins a presentation from Marek Tuszynski and Stephanie Hankey from Tactical Tech, a presentation that lurches easily from the surreal to the terrifying, but ends with a full bodied embrace of evil.

The central question Tactical Tech pose is: what does it mean to live in a data-ised society, for individual and for corporations?

The luckless telemarketer on the end of the disembodied question refuses to confirm that she is not a robot. That’s the point: when we’ve automated ourselves to the eyeballs with algorithms, how do we still know that we are not being controlled by robots?

Balthasar Glattli, a Swiss national councillor, gave away his smartphone data so that everyone who had voted for him could see exactly what he was doing. From the data that leaked freely from the phone, analysts were easily able to track where he was, who he was talking to and what he was likely to be doing. Over time, it was simplicity itself to build up a network map of all his friends and colleagues.

Marek makes the point again: This is not a hacked phone. This is information that you all have agreed to share with the network provider – and with anyone else who buys that data. “Data is not a carrot,” Marek helpfully points out. “You can’t eat it and it’s gone.”

And if you’re thinking that “vintage” phones are the answer, Marek will swiftly disabuse you of the notion. Non-smart phones still broadcast meta data – location, movement, times, connections – from which you can build up a very detailed profile of a user.

Marek shows us a tool called Trackography, which shows tracking data for media websites all over the world. Every time you browse for your daily news, you are inadvertently sending data to third parties all over the world. Some of these companies you already know, like Google, Amazon or Facebook; but some are completely masked and anonymous.

Marek shows us what happens when we browse through 7 local and national Austrian media sources: Trackography counts 95 unintended connections with institutions all over the world, curious about your clicking behaviour.

Next, Stephanie Hankey introduces us to the marketing concepts of geo-targeting, geo-fencing and geo-conquesting. Geo-targeting is pushing people content based on their location. Geo-fencing is about marking out 100m² areas and targeting adverts at people who are in those areas right now, or who have been there within the last 30 days, say. Geo-conquesting takes it to a new level. This is when a company can see when you’re on a competitor’s territory and pushes you an advert to attempt to lure you away.

Stephanie herself was a victim of geo-conquest just yesterday. As she arrived at Frankfurt airport, she was pushed an ad by Easyjet, innocently asking if she wanted to buy a flight. Easyjet don’t operate from Frankfurt, but they knew she was there and they knew she hadn’t flown with them. But, as Stephanie says, “Paranoid is okay, paranoid is good.”

Furthermore, while older tech companies do have a slightly different business model – Apple and Microsoft also make money from selling soft and hardware – as data reaches further into our lives, more and more companies are joining the data model, including the car industry, to take one notorious recent example.

But Stephanie and Marek aren’t here only to terrify people with the reach of data into our lives. They are also here to encourage us to take control back from the algorithms.

Life insurance companies have started giving customers a discount for wearing a device that tracks your physical activity. The discount is worth about €50 per year. These devices track your geo-location, of course, but also your exertion. Using those two data streams, it is easy to tell, just for example, who is having sex, with whom and how much they’re both enjoying it. Is that worth €50?

But why not take the €50 discount and subvert the business model: fix your device to a metronome, to the wheels of a taxi cab, on the end of a drill or to your dog’s collar.

These comedy subversions belie serious questions, like what constitutes political autonomy in the quantified society? Stephanie questions whether “Big Brother” is even the right metaphor. “Big Mama” might be better; these data-driven surveillance intrusions seem utterly banal, rather than sinister.

Churchix, for example, is a surveillance tool that uses facial recognition software to track which of your flock regularly attends your mass. How do these things become normal, even for a church? Even if Churchix doesn’t take off, how did it come to pass that someone thought this was a good idea?

Corporations have been leading the way, of course. Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, has spent $14m buying the 3 houses around his property so that he would have no neighbours. Contrast that personal decision with Facebook’s real name policy and business model that encourages us to make the private public. And let’s not forget that it’s a business model that made a $3bn profit last year, paid UK staff bonuses of £35.4m, yet only £4,327 in UK tax.

According to Stephanie, these huge data corporations are going around government. They see themselves are being “uber government” and it seems unlikely that they will be pulled into check now.

Microsoft have developed a chip the size of Scrabble tile that can be implanted into women and control their fertility. Calico are in the business of “radical life extension”, curing death. Google are building a space rocket so they can mine the moon.

These are not the things we think of when we think of our favourite Silicon Valley apps.

Marek ends with a provocation to action: How can we counter the creativeness of these uncompanies?

Tactical Tech have a number of projects to help people answer this question:

Elevate Creative Response: Opening Speech

“My speech was going to be very simple,” Antonino D’Ambrosio says with leather jacket Italian-American charm. “The Elevate festival is creative response, thank you.” He takes a step back off stage and smiles.

Antonino steps back, more serious. “I’d like to acknowledge the refugees who were on stage,” he adds. “Please give them a round of applause.” The applause rises again for migrants who are fighting for compassionate and humane treatment in Austria and around the EU.

 The Elevate organisers used their opening show to give a louder voice to migrant protesters who have set up a permanent camp near the police station in Graz. That voice is broadcast live on Austrian television and videostream online around the world. They’d been welcomed to the stage with the biggest round of applause of the Elevate opening night.

The refugees gave a simple speech also: “We are not from Iraq or Syria, we are just humans like you,” a young man called Hussain says. “Many of us want to serve this country as a thank you for putting us in a safe place. We can do something for this country, but we are unable under the current conditions. Please help us. We are humans, just like you.”

Back to Antonino: “This is a point that makes me fucking very angry, being an immigrant kid from the United States and seeing what’s happening.” He echoes Hussain’s words. “There are only one people. When you’re creating situations through wars of aggression in pursuit of expanding a dying economic system and watching countries like Greece collapse, you’re affecting your own people.”

For Antonino, this idea is deeply embedded in the concept of creative response, and the Elevate Festival embodies the concept perfectly: “Ideas that turn into action, actions that bring people together, [helping] people to think differently about the world around them, to remember that we are indeed one people.”

“Creative response is about reminding people that we share the human condition,” Antonino says. “And that requires storytelling.”

 Antonino developed his concept of creative response as a counter to the Reagan and Thatcher ideology that was dominant when he was growing up – and that has been successful to a great degree in fostering today’s political and social cynicism, the idea that “society” does not exist, that compassion is a form of weakness and that self-centred consumerism is selfless.

But Reagan and Thatcher were wrong. Compassion is not weakness; compassion is central to the human condition, central to the cooperation, coexistence and communication of families, which are the founding blocks of a society that does exist.

“Don’t fight back, fight forward,” Antonino urges us. Creative response stakes out what we are for, not what are we against. Antonino uses storytelling to look back at the past, understand the present and, in the words of punk demigods The Clash, “grab the future by the face”. This leads us to the overwhelming question: “What kind of a world do you want to live in?”

That question raises a discussion over “the possible”. Slavoj Zizek, the Slovenian philosopher, notes that, in the United States, flying to or even colonising the moon is talked about as being “possible”, but decent healthcare for all or eliminating poverty is not “possible”. Here, creative response has the power to change our definitions or ideas of what is possible.

“Before I step off the stage, I want to ask you a question that Ai Weiwei had asked me: Imagine one day that the hateful world around you collapses and it is your attitude, your words and your actions that put an end to it – would you be excited?”

“This is our challenge, our creative response, our big vision of the world. Not I, not you, not them, but we. A dream that we dream together is reality. We are creative response. We own the future.”

We stand, raise our hands above our heads, join them with our neighbours. We are creative response. We own the future.