Access/Trespass: Conference Commentary

Janet Walker

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Within two months of the April 2013 Access/Trespass conference, media outlets began to publish classified materials generated by the US National Security Administration’s surveillance apparatus and furnished by Edward Snowden. As has been suggested by abundant commentators, the question of whether or not Snowden’s actions constitute espionage (criminal trespassing of a top secret zone) or whistleblowing (heroic accessing and exposure of governmental wrongdoing) is fundamental to conceptions of our constitutional democracy—and of our increasingly media-rich environment. The Snowden case also exemplifies the felicity of the conference organizers’ use of the slash punctuation to evoke, not simply the logic of either/or, but also, more profoundly, the simultaneity/positionality of the both/and (“flip[ing] the idea of access,” in their pithy phrase[1]): Snowden’s avowed reason for the disclosure, of course, was to expose the government’s own trespassing on the privacy of communication media users whose “metadata” was collected without our knowledge and absent a court order. That same June of 2013, the San Francisco Pride Festival was particularly exuberant, occurring as it happened, on the heels of the US Supreme Court’s ruling on California Proposition 8 and additional decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act, thereby enabling the legal resumption and recognition of same-sex marriage. In the lead-up to the Pride celebration, one public intersection in the Castro neighborhood, already festooned with rainbow flags and artworks proclaiming “keep your laws off my body,” was further enlivened by the unplanned convergence of a peloton of naked cyclists protesting fossil fuel use (“burn fat not oil”) with a free Bradley Manning flash mob.

Figure 1: The convergence of the World Naked Bike Ride with a free Bradley Manning flash mob in San Francisco’s Castro district, June 8, 2013.

Figure 2: Window undressing in the Castro. Photo by Steve Nelson.

Figure 3: “Bradley Manning” in lights at the June 2013 San Francisco Pride Celebration. Photo by Steve Nelson.

In the humanities, our tradition has been to theorize, analyze, read; or, with sharpened political commitment, to rethink, resist, and—more convulsively—interrogate. Media Fields adds the crucial dimension of the spatial: proceeding up from below or down, through, and across as Media Fields co-founder and conference respondent Jeff Scheible is wont to say,[2] and turning ideas inside out. This current Access/Trespass initiative is a vigorous example, and I am delighted to celebrate the conference organizers Rachel Fabian, Hannah Goodwin, and Alston D’Silva and the editors and contributors to the Media Fields Special Conference Issue: Access/Trespass for your collective engagement of trespass “as a demand for access;” your critical foregrounding of power relations and rights discourses; and your brilliant eversion of center and periphery.

My commentary consists of three points (and three more images). The first above-broached point recognizes the benefits of conceiving the problematic, as the organizers have done, not only in terms of how we might enter or breach the corridors of power, but also in terms of how the power geometries[3] of media fields might be reconfigured so as not to cede the center. As was made clear in the Castro and via the Access/Trespass virgule, there are cases where it becomes politically expeditious (Lacanian Symbolic notwithstanding) to insist on the primacy of our bodies/our selves as a corporeal purview and collectivity, in relation to which state or (bio)security apparati are best remanded to the periphery.

Figure 4: Enacting and protesting biosecurity in The Host (dir. Bong Joon-ho, South Korea, 2006).

Figure 5: The Host.

Figure 6: Protestors pepper sprayed by a UC Davis campus policeman, November 2011.

To wit, Daniel Grinberg connects his discussion of Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country’s (dir. Anders Østergaard, Denmark, 2008) images of Burmese monks “reclaiming the streets” from the military junta—images recorded by video journalists whose bodies were also on the line—to further points about the spatial practice of citizens resisting curfews and house arrest while “tak[ing] measures to prevent the state from encroaching on their private spaces.”[4] Of course, it is no simple thing to forestall state power or mainstream mores, as Jing (Jamie) Zhao makes evident. The fan site Fei Se Chao Nv (FSCN) for the Chinese reality TV show, Super Girl (Hunan Satellite Television Station, 2004–2011), she shows, is not only “an inclusive, supportive cultural environment for homoerotic narratives and queer communities” as others have argued, but at the same time “an excellent embodiment of the tensions between the fans’ own slash identifies, queer desires, and normative assumptions of lesbianism in cyberspace.”[5]

Which discussion of cyberspace brings me to the second point: the importance of abiding the paradoxical yet generative materiality/immateriality of media infrastructures, and of the physical geographies more broadly construed. A number of conference participants, in their sophisticated negotiation of “media fields,” discovered domains that are physical, virtual, psychic, and overgrown. In his conference presentation, Steven Malcic referenced the still-common assumption that a clear distinction may be made between material interactions in the “real world” and supposedly ephemeral interactions zinging around the ether of cyberspace. But this way of thinking is flawed, he demonstrated through a discussion of the history of the internet and, in particular, the origins and infrastructure of ARPAnet: information today and digital identity are “contingent” and “material construction[s].”[6] As the eminent media culture scholar Lisa Parks has written, the “fantasy of digital nomadism” and the “fantasy of global presence” both, “negate the material specificities and limits of network infrastructures in order to privilege and centralize a transcendent Western subject that is imagined as existing above and beyond technology rather than in relation to it.”[7]

I could not agree more that media spaces are profoundly material in and of themselves, and connected in world-affecting ways with other physical features of the natural and built environment. While pointing out how resistance groups seek to repurpose actual public spaces that the military junta would restrict, Grinberg also discusses the groups’ strenuous cyberspace efforts to circumvent state control. The military is well aware of the tangibility of the cyber-resistance they aim to squelch. Zhao too identifies in FSCN a particular online space where a resistant community might thrive, and I appreciate her elegant discussion of how fans attempt “to manage their online and off-line environments.”[8]

But if we are more or less in agreement about the fact of the materiality of media environments and their significant relationships to “off-line” Burmese or Chinese or Western communities, what are the salient qualities of the “real world” with regard to this material/immaterial conjunct? At the conference, Greg Burris argued with particular verve that we absolutely do depend on that place from which “effective resistance can be mounted.”[9] And I must say that I was struck by the affective power of people’s physical presence in the room as Rahul Mukherjee, Andrew Gansky, Michael Tauschinger-Dempsey, and Monika Sengul-Jones, for example, shared their respective concerns for those imperiled by proximity to nuclear reactors, border crossings, the forces of global capitalism, or shopping at Target; for the stressful reality of (f)risked bodies, leveraged, modeled, and manipulated by a filigree of mediatized technologies and practices.

And yet I wonder whether participants and readers of Media Fields might also concur with Cathy Caruth that the “there” is nevertheless elusive, even to the point of unassimilability. As I have discussed elsewhere,[10] in setting out her groundbreaking work on temporal “belatedness,” Caruth has included a crucialalbeit passing—insight about space and place: “The impact of a traumatic event,” she writes, lies both in its belatedness and “in its refusal to be simply located, in its insistent appearance outside the boundaries of any single place or time.”[11] In fact, while insisting on the necessity of physically rooted resistance, Burris also called on Lacanian psychoanalysis to comprehend the co-implication of the Real with the Symbolic. Quite a few of the conference papers made clear their authors’ anti-essentialist comprehension of geography. Discussing her visit to the perimeter of the Nevada Testing and Training Range known as Area 51, Abby Hinsman detailed how the various surveillance strategies serve actually to produce the shape of the military base that is not, otherwise, pre-given.[12] Likewise, in “Graffiti in Motion: Trespassing New York’s Subways” Samantha Chang discusses the graffitied subways trains as a physical intrusion upon the suburban neighborhoods of the segregated city through which they run, while at the same time exploring how these “modern media objects” bring into being a new landscape they may seem only to exist within and traverse.[13] I am a strong believer in the inevitably epistemological, mediated, negotiated, changeable, and social production (as Léfèbvre would have it[14]) of space and place.

Finally, an enthusiastic suggestion to keep in mind, as Grinberg underlines, the historical and cultural specificity of any “conceptualizations of public and private”[15]—and, it follows, of the other simultaneously existing alternatives under discussion: cyber/physical, material/immaterial, and, of course, access/trespass. UC San Diego Professor Ricardo Dominguez’s keynote discussion of the Electronic Disturbance Theater that he co-founded and the Transborder Immigrant Tool he co-developed—“a GPS cell phone safety net tool for crossing the Mexico/US border” that incorporates poetry; a “geo-poetic-system”[16]—resonated deeply with the themes of the conference and the time and place of UC Santa Barbara as our university embraces its Dream Scholars.[17] Kudos to the organizers for extending the invitation, with thanks to Professor Dominguez for contributing such a significant and invigorating talk. At one point, illustrating the socio-cultural formation and mutuality of data bodies and literal corporeality, he called for a show of hands from the audience to register our respective guesses as to how a policeman would report the gender of a person he had detained when that individual appeared to be a woman but possessed a drivers license designating “sex M.” “Disturbances in the future should never move at the speed of technology,” Professor Dominguez encouraged us, “but only at the speed of dreams.”[18] And then he accessed the possibilities of trespass by refusing the southern border.

Speaking of auspicious historical moments, there is no doubt about the productivity of this theme of Access/Trespass and the scholarship of initiators and contributors; it is truly enlivening to contemplate your influence of going forward.


[1] “Medias Fields Conference 4: Access/Trespass Call for Papers,” (accessed 1 January 2014).

[2] Jeff Scheible, “From Mr. Pregnant to Mr. President: Prepositioning Katrina Online,” in Old and New Media after Katrina, ed. Diane Negra (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 203–230.

[3] Doreen Massey, Chapter 6, “A Global Sense of Place,” Space, Place, and Gender (Minnesota University Press: Minneapolis, MN, 1994), 149.

[4] Daniel Grinberg, “’This is My Country’: The Battle For Access and Space in Burma VJ,” this issue, my emphasis.

[5] Jing (Jamie) Zhao, “Fandom as a Middle Ground Fictive Queer Fantasies and Real-World Lesbianism in FSCN,” this issue, my emphasis.

[6] Steve Malcic, “Accessing ARPAnet: The Emergence of Digital Identity” (presentation, Media Fields Conference 4: Access/Trespass, Santa Barbara, CA, April 4­–5, 2013).

[7] Lisa Parks, “Kinetic Screens: Epistemologies of Movement at the Interface,” in MediaSpace: Place, Scale and Culture in a Media Age, eds. Nick Couldry and Anna McCarthy (Routledge: New York and London, 2004), 38.

[8] Zhao, “Fandom as a Middle Ground,” this issue, my emphasis

[9] Greg Burris, “Nothing to Lose but Bobby Seale’s Chains: Punishment Park, Vladimir et Rosa, and the Real-ization of Resistance” (presentation, Media Fields Conference 4: Access/Trespass, Santa Barbara, CA, April 4­-5, 2013).

[10] Janet Walker, “Moving Testimonies and the Geography of Suffering: Perils and Fantasies of Belonging after Katrina,” Continuum: An Australian Journal of the Media 24, no. 1 (February 2010).

[11] Cathy, Caruth, ed. Trauma: Explorations in Memory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 8–9.

[12] Abigail Hinsman, “The Terrestrial Encounter at Area 51,” (presentation, Media Fields Conference 4: Access/Trespass, Santa Barbara, CA, April 4­–5, 2013).

[13] Samantha Chang, “Graffiti in Motion: Modes of Trespass in New York City’s Subway System,” this issue.

[14] See Henri Léfèbvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1991; 1974).

[15] Grinberg, “’This Is My Country,’” this issue.

[16] Ricardo Dominguez, “Tactical Poetics, or How We Can Stop Worrying and Start Creating Disturbances (or Learning from the 80s)” (keynote talk, Media Fields Conference 4: Access/Trespass, Santa Barbara, CA, April 4­–5, 2013).

[17] The stated mission of The Dream Scholars Resource Team of the University of California, Santa Barbara is “to develop an awareness and understanding of the experiences of undocumented and AB 540 eligible students (while maintaining the confidentiality of individual students) and to develop campus responses and processes to address their needs related to persistence, retention, and graduation.” Accessed February 5, 2014.

[18] Dominguez, “Tactical Poetics.”

Janet Walker is Professor of Film and Media Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where her affiliations include the Environmental Media Initiative of the Carsey-Wolf Center. She also served as a co-organizer of the 2012-13 theme, “Figuring Sea Level Rise,” of the campus’s Critical Issues in America series. Author of Trauma Cinema: Documenting Incest and the Holocaust and co-editor with Bhaskar Sarkar of Documentary Testimonies: Global Archives of Suffering, Professor Walker has been engaging in site-specific research in Israel-Palestine and in post-Katrina New Orleans for her new projects on media and geography.