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What have I done? - James Lawton

This research project uses an autoethnographic narrative to intervene in my own artistic practice. It attempts to ask questions about how we intervene into things, if that intervention can be harmful, and then it attempts to suggest a possible way forward by openly discussing the negative possibilities of artistic and technological intervention. This essay uses this blog, as a type of digital tool or artefact, to record my own intervention into my original speculative intervention project. It asks questions about my first project idea and the problems that I considered as I thought it through. It will begin with the original project and highlight its problems, it will follow with a review of definitions and relevant history, and it will then provide examples of the proposed problems in current work that are well respected, in order to prove that the issue exists outside of my own experience. Finally the essay will attempt to reimagine an alternative way of intervening that considers these negative outcomes and encourages positive alternatives.

Original project and intervention
My class was given an assignment to create an intervention within an existing system. We were to "focus on an existing infrastructure, digital practice or tool and rethink it otherwise or imagine an intervention into it engaging with methods from critical technical practice, black feminist thought, digital ethnography, digital witnessing and/or multispecies storytelling." [1] During an exercise in class I spoke to a fellow student about my interest in the way digital technology and communication affects communities for better or for worse. I was interested in examining an intervention of this sort, but I was unsure how I could do so in a way relevant to the assignment. In the discussion with my classmate, we narrowed down my current practical community to the local Brockley/New Cross area and the Goldsmiths community itself. I spent the following days wondering how I might successfully intervene in the Brockley or Goldsmiths communities over the course of the short time frame of this assignment.

Goldsmiths has a longstanding problem with things often being broken or unusable. [2] Sometimes these are minor things, like unusable DVDs for borrowing, or stained and mouldy carpets in the library, and sometimes it is more serious, like overflowing or chronically broken toilets. [3] The items are often left unusable for a few days to a few months. My experience is that they are eventually fixed briefly and then broken again within a few weeks. During a particularly difficult episode with unusable toilets at the library this term, after anther classmate and I had passed a small waterfall coming from a library toilet and draining noisily down the central stairwell of the library, this classmate and I expressed our disbelief that Goldsmiths could be having this much trouble fixing poor facilities and resources. Both of us were in the same class where this essay assignment originated and the topic soon turned to this subject. At one point in the conversation I laughed and said my intervention was going to be the creation of a website called Broke Shit at Goldsmiths. It is important to note that the title has a reason to it and is not simply intended to be caustic. It is based off a well-known humorous quote by comedian Jon Stewart about privatization: “Must be nice to be a Republican senator sometimes, because you get the fun of breaking shit and the joy of complaining the shit you just broke doesn't work.” [4]


Quote at 3:45. See footnote 4 for two more serious takes on this concept.

This project was intended as a speculative digital intervention and during my initial discussions about the project it also seemed quite plausible. The idea, as we discussed it, would be a website connected to various social media that would invite users to upload images of all the broken, unfixed, and embarrassingly neglected aspects of the university. They would be time-stamped and efforts would be made to verify that the thing was in the condition claimed. I would then track how long it takes before the item is fixed, and then how soon it broke again. The general idea was to use a type of digital witnessing to create an intervention into the existing infrastructure of the university community that would expose neglected aspects of the university and push for positive fixes and changes. The overt publication of the problems, especially broadcast over the same social media that most new students would be familiar with and using, would apply pressure on the university to adequately fix those problems.

This was an enjoyable daydream but a realistic problem also quickly emerged, and that was success. In my research project from the previous term, my research group had built a small website and advertising campaign as part of our project and we were curious to know if anyone would react to it. [5] We did get significant reactions including invitations to speak at Hacksmiths [6] and Waterman’s Art Centre. This made me consider what the result of this project might be. What would be the result of any actual success to this idea of Broke Shit at Goldsmiths? Would the results necessarily be good or could they possibly be bad? What were the possibilities for problems? Could those problems be mitigated? Perhaps the most important question was to ask if any of these problems could hurt anyone. These questions began with a daydream of the good the project could do, but the more I thought about it, the more concerns began to surface. What if many people do see the website and form a very negative impression of Goldsmiths? What if fewer students attend the university? What if declining numbers resulted in job losses and pain? These are very lofty presumptions of what a little website designed to improve the toilets might do, but our conversation then changed to Goldsmiths’ recent history, including the student protests in 2018 and 2019, the occupation of Deptford Town Hall, as well as many of the practices of the senior leadership, including trying to outsource some services at the university and then deciding not to do so only under great pressure. [7] This is where I considered the possible negative consequence to arise. What if the complaints about the poor upkeep of facilities didn't result in more spending to improve those facilities for long term use, but instead was used as a public relations cover to claim that the student body supported removing the current staff and outsourcing their jobs? People may lose jobs and given Goldsmith's recent history, it was a very reasonable outcome to predict. This seemed so plausible to us that we ended the conversation on this note. I dwelt on the idea for a bit afterwards but the negative possibilities were too much for me and I formally abandoned the idea for this website as a project. I considered the curious fact that I was intervening in my own intervention project.

The posters developed for the previous terms project that successfully garnered attention outside the class.


An example of the discussions about the tenuous position of some workers at Goldsmiths.

Definitions and history
As artists, activists, and technologists we look at intervention as a way to voice our opinions and potentially correct wrongs that are perceived to exist in society. From the popular interventions of the Dada artists, through performance art, street art, artivism, and others, art itself has a long history of intervention into the systems and events of society. These actions are strongly related to the general activism that has always existed to some degree but has been especially prevalent since the enlightenment due to changes in communication and group assembly among people. The influence of the academic concept of the public sphere, as defined by Jurgen Habermas in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, plays a central role in the way people have viewed their ability to discuss issues in order to influence and change the world around them. The rise of the correspondence and debate, as defined in his book, as well as the corresponding decline of these actions in the midst of an increasingly aggressive industrial and consumer culture has forced new avenues of action that are used to intervene and influence the societies that people live in.

The interventions of technology have existed since tools were used and major developments such as the industrial revolution have always created a profound change both in the world in which they occur, as well as in the generations that follow. To intervene in the existing order subversively or disruptively has always been a hallmark of technology and innovation. Popular considerations about technological intervention might centre on major for-profit technologies, especially in the tech sector. These may include Microsoft’s profound changes to personal computing, as well as Google or Facebook’s changes to online behaviours. Similar to these, but of a different economic nature, has been the rise of open source and freeware solutions such as the GNU, Linux, and licenses such as copyleft, MIT, Creative Commons, and many others.

Using Wikipedia, a popular source for accessible information, we can find nuanced definitions associated with intervention. A search for just the term “intervention” results in a disambiguation page. [8] The larger idea of intervention theory is defined as "the analysis of the decision-making problems of intervening effectively in a situation in order to secure desired outcomes. Intervention theory addresses the question of when it is desirable not to intervene and when it is appropriate to do so. It also examines the effectiveness of different types of intervention." [9] Art intervention may have slightly different definitions depending on who is doing the defining and within what context. Wikipedia's Art Intervention article begins with this sentence: "Art intervention is an interaction with a previously existing artwork, audience, venue/space or situation. It has the auspice of conceptual art and is commonly a form of performance art." [10] Historically it is strongly associated with Dada, Situationism, performance, and Neo-Dada artwork. [11] Urban and street art has increasingly been defined as interventionist art, with many situations arising within the socio-political landscapes where the street art itself has become a type of intervention and criticism of the society within which it exists. [12] Finally, Wikipedia's article on Human Systems Intervention defines it thus: "the design and implementation of interventions in social settings where adults are confronted with the need to change their perspectives, attitudes, and actions. " [13]


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Examples of art intervention from Wikipedia.

A new intervention
I have been asked to imagine an intervention into an existing infrastructure, digital practice, or tool. It seems necessary to me to intervene in my own intervention and by doing so ask questions about our presumptions regarding both the psychological as well as the practical infrastructure and practice of intervention and whether more consideration needs to be taken in this regard.

Mountains of literature exist about the possible negative outcomes of every conceivable technology that exists, including literature by those creating the technology themselves. [14] There are plenty of theoretical debates on art and art intervention. There is also plenty of literature about general media ethics. [15] This is usually framed within an “us vs them” framework. What a cursory glance finds little of is the question, “When I, specifically myself alone, choose to create this thing or take this creative act, will I or my creation harm someone else?” It is important to distinguish that this is not a question of "They, them, we, or us". It is about only me, this creation, and this action, specifically in this scenario. I am also aware that this has surely been dealt with by an art theoretician somewhere at some point, but compared to the large amount of literature on whether it is acceptable for "them" to do “that” in art, or the endless volumes of "should we do this" in the technology sector, the people who may be asking, "Should I, with only my own ethics in consideration, do this specific action, even for a good cause, if it could possibly hurt someone?" seems silenced. I feel that with the incredible power invested to us as creatives using new technology, these questions should be as loud as those of the larger artificial intelligence debate. This is especially true for the technologies we are able to freely use in order to create. My intervention has become the task of asking this of myself, before I hurt someone, and to suggest how this could add to a richer and more egalitarian success of our need to change perspectives, attitudes, and actions.

The definitions of intervention above may have some words and concepts in common but the decision of a nurse, trained in and professionally employing intervention theory for the life-and-death decisions of medicine, is decidedly different than Marcel Duchamp resigning from the board of the Society of Independent Artists because of their rejection of his Fountain sculpture. [16] Between these two examples is a wealth of case studies that this small essay assignment can't begin to either digest or properly review. While my proposed solution is to ask these difficult questions of ourselves, it is also fair to ask if this is indeed a prevalent problem. Is this truly an issue that needs to be reimagined in a better way? Does it occur outside of my own project? My research says it does. Even in regard to witnessing, as the method of critical technical practice that I have chosen for the project, examples from our lectures contain many nuances of ethical dilemmas.

Garnet Hertz in his protest publication Disobedient Electronics, has an introduction and list of points that seem confusing when I consider their overlapping implications. [17] In the text, the author talks about post-truth, facts mattering, filter bubbles, and the usefulness of design in communicating complex issues while also twice mentioning the phrase, "punch Nazis in the face". In the first instance he considers design to be a way to “punch Nazis in the face” without the word “punch”. Just removing the word punch doesn’t change the violent intent of the sentence. It also does not address how the statement solves the problems listed in the previous sentence of the paragraph, such as human rights, racism, sexism, and others. Presumably, the intention here would be to criticise or counter Nazi-like ideas. The presumed implication, though without explicit statement, that design can be a non-violent way to effect change, whilst using violent wording and imagery, is an excellent example of how the “usefulness of design in communicating complex issues” fails if there is no consideration for how the message itself can fail. If the text itself is written in its own kind of filter bubble, it begins to suffer from the same problems it is trying to fix. Why are we considering punching anyone, even facetiously? Are there alternatives to this? In his second use of the phrase, he rephrases the statement as a question, “Is it moral to punch Nazis in the face?”. He replies saying it should be “answered with smart alternatives to violence that are provocative pieces of direct action”. I am understanding this to mean, “No, you should not punch Nazis in the face”, but that I even word it this way is indicative of its lack of clarity. What are the alternatives? Disobedient electronics? How are they used? What counts as violence? What counts as acceptable provocation or action? Who decides this? How will someone who is not Garnet Hertz read this? Will the reader’s understanding change if they are angry, scared or desperate? This is very much the key to my criticism of this text. The document encourages much direct action and provocation, which in many ways we need more of in order to affect change. However, when does direct action become provocation and when does provocation provoke violence? Should we consider that an undesirable end could be the outcome of our actions even though it’s not our intention? Garnet Hertz is a brilliant designer and creative technologist, but that is precisely why it’s important to understand that these important considerations occur constantly and for everyone. [18]

While the Garnet Hertz example is mostly about semantics, perhaps a more serious example of considering the implications of intervention is the organisation Bellingcat. In our readings and lecture on digital witnessing we briefly discussed the role of Bellingcat, an "investigative journalism website that specializes in fact-checking and open-source intelligence (OSINT)." [19] I had been aware of Bellingcat for some time and greatly admired the work they were doing. In a moment of providence, I learned that a Bellingcat investigator would be in London the following week as part of a talk and they would give a presentation about the work they were doing. [20] I eagerly attended this meeting, as excited as I would be about going to a concert. It was a fantastic presentation and I would go again, and yet I walked away slightly haunted by a few things said by the Bellingcat researcher. The most significant was that they openly pay black hat hackers for access to existing collections of illegally obtained public data. When pushed on this during the question and answer afterwards, the representative acknowledged the ethical dilemma, but said they felt the good work they achieved far outweighed the damage done by financially rewarding the hackers. His reasoning seemed to be that since they weren’t commissioning the hackers to break into the files originally, but only paying for access after the break had occurred, this wasn’t an ethical problem since the illegal deed was already done. [21] This answer is up for much debate. Is it acceptable to purchase a stolen laptop if you didn’t commission the theft? He further felt that any hacked data and databases that were already free to access were fair to use, based on public interest. [22] Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with the answer, that the ethical question was part of the consideration is very clear. Further, these are very serious questions about solving problems in society and I begin to fall back on older ethical debates. Is it moral to do something wrong in order to right a previous wrong? Then, does that mean the present course of action has to change?


See 34:40 for the Q&A.

Neither of these arguments are meant to disparage Garnet Hertz or Bellingcat, both of whom are well respected, but instead it is intended to highlight how quickly these ethical conflicts come into play with anyone and how deeply they affect the creative work we are doing. These are simple examples, tied directly to this assignment, and coming to my attention within a few successive weeks. What happens day after day, in the rhythm of constant work, business, development, creation, and survival is arguably of great concern.

This information seems to conclude that we need to ask many more questions than we do now of ourselves when we create. I don't mean to advocate for self-censorship, nor is this a plea for inaction. I am fully aware that we can all become mired in our own indecision once we understand the possible negative outcomes of our actions. I don't want anyone to stop trying to improve our world and I certainly don't want those who hope to change the world for the better to give up and sit quietly on the side. Yet that doesn’t mean these considerations aren’t of vital importance. "Technology" said Donna Haraway, "is not neutral. We're inside of what we make, and it's inside of us. We're living in a world of connections — and it matters which ones get made and unmade." [23] If interventions are a major part of positively changing human behaviour, and if art and technology are a major force of intervention, then we have to consider how that intervention is done. If we can reasonably conclude that even some of the best works can have a confusion of meaning, or worse, that they can cause harm, it seems we need to reconsider how we approach these interventions. I therefore purpose to reimagine interventions in a way that we would ask these ethical questions of ourselves as we create and that we will also ask them out loud, so others can respond and then they can ask of themselves as they create. My first example of this is this essay on this blog. Asking these questions of ourselves matters and saying it out loud so others can hear it and so others also ask out loud, also matters. It matters because, though it certainly already exists, it is not loud enough.



[2] For an example of union requests for an upgrade of buildings and facilities see The Goldsmiths University and College Unions statement here: For student specific requests about toilets and sanitation see the next footnote.

[3] For one example see this article:

[4] Jon Stewart’s original broadcast can be found here, specifically at the 3:45 mark: For more serious variations of this theme see Noam Chomsky, The State-Corporate Complex: A Threat to Freedom and Survival, “That’s the standard technique of privatization: defund, make sure things don’t work, people get angry, you hand it over to private capital.” Another example is Dean Baker’s book, Rigged.

[5] and


[7] See Statement of commitments made by Goldsmiths Senior Management team to Goldsmiths Anti-Racist Action, for an example of the requests and results of the Deptford Town Hall occupation regarding “Cleaners, Security & Outsourced Workers to be Brought in House” and GARA’s notes that they don’t believe this has adequately been addressed.



[10] as well as from the Tate,, and this interesting article from

[11] ibid. Wikipedia article on art intervention

[12] ibid. Wikipedia article on art intervention

[13] ibid. Wikipedia article on art intervention

[14] A popular example of this is the well-known Wired article by Bill Joy, Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us. There are numerous books, articles, debates, and other media on this subject.


[16] As an example, contrast above note 9, which talks about a nurse’s use of intervention theory, and note 10, which mention’s Marcel Duchamp’s famous work.


[18] I realise I sound like I’m being tough on Garnet Hertz but the publication was part of our lectures and so was examined closely and critically. For an excellent example of his ideas that do not have these same concerns see his Makers Manifesto, especially bullet points 6 and 8 which align very closely with the solution proposed in this essay.



[21] See 34:40 for the Q&A question

[22] ibid. At 35:55 the audience member seems to say, “But it’s stolen.” The researcher replies, “Yes but it’s opensource information, so regardless, it’s fair-game. Um, in terms of that… ah, when it comes to using a database that anyone can access anyway and the public interest, the public interest is way up there anyway, yea.” 

[23] Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature



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