Crime and the Culture Industry

One of the favourite subjects of the film industry is itself, but its even more favoured subject is crime. Crime is the hero and the villain of thousands of films: its dramatic plot, its tragic end and thrilling faultline. Breaking social, moral and economic taboos keeps filmgoers on the edges of their seats and makes for great entertainment. Comics, novels, the best-selling non-fiction books and computer games all provide us with abundant sources of information and excitement about the lives and actions of criminals. Even the latest drivers of commercial value, computer geeks, are turned into cool anti-heroes in a number of films of the last few years. Film is certainly the place where the action happens. As soon as cinema became a mass media it became the place where urban audiences could gather in their hundreds or thousands to marvel at the antics of gangsters and criminal masterminds. Bank-robbers, cowboy outlaws and daring thieves thrilled populations through most of the Twentieth Century, filling their dreams with ideas of living beyond the law.

Crime as the thing depicted in the products of the culture industry seems crucial to its history. But equally important in this story has been the culture industry as an economic platform for criminal activity. Because cinemas, theatres, strip-clubs, games arcades, magazine stands and other places have always involved large amounts of small scale payments they have always been great places to mask the movements of illicit funds. Money laundering would be one of the currents mapped in any truly holistic account of the history of the culture industry. The side effects of this have, extraordinarily, even been quite positive, allowing access to funds by otherwise quite marginal, ahead of their times kinds of operations. One landmark intellectual bookshop in London during the late part of the last century was widely reputed to have been founded as a way of masking money made from heroin shipping. Now closed down, the magazines, books, manuals and zines sold there were crucial in the development of many of the key cultural figures of our time.

So far then we have crime as the subject of the culture industry and crime’s use of the culture industry for its own ends. What might happen if we imagine culture’s use of criminality, or at the very least, what happens when culture starts to inhabit legal grey areas? In London, a key driver for the lively music cultures of the city has long been illegal radio stations. Without pirate radios we would have had no punk, no reggae, no rave, no jungle, no dubstep and no grime. It says a lot about the emphasis on creativity in the culture industry when this crucial backbone of popular music is criminalised. But despite the fact that every aspect of their activity is illegal you can easily find thirty or so stations broadcasting through the week and especially at the weekend in London.

But important though they are the radio pirates are simply doing something useful that just happens to be illegal. Is there anyone actually using the semi-legal edges of the culture industry to make culture? Yes! Austrian-Swiss artist group Ubermorgen, (Hans Bernard and Lizvlx) are specialists in what they call ‘basic research’ into contemporary culture. Winners of several major cultural prizes in Europe they produce what is probably one of the most significant bodies of work in contemporary art. Working from their homepage at this operation have produced some of the most brilliantly insightful operations in contemporary digital culture.

One project, Vote-auction was a site which allowed registered voters in particular countries sell their votes to the highest bidder. Active in the 2000 elections in the USA it caused a national scandal. The generation of the wave of outrage and media frenzy form part of their complex aesthetic. Following this work he Injunction Generator project was a piece of server-based software that generated legal injunctions. The leading German curator Inke Arns has described this line of work as dealing with “Authenticity as consensual hallucination.” So much of contemporary media and politics is basically a hoax that in order to understand it and find out what kind of world is being made in the present day, sometimes it is necessary to make the wildest kind of experiment. For another project, Google Will Eat Itself, they collaborated with an Italian hacker group EpidemiC and a journalist Alessandro Ludovico. They say, ” We generate money by serving Google text advertisments on a network of hidden Websites. With this money we automatically buy Google shares. We buy Google via their own advertisment! Google eats itself – but in the end “we” own it!” Another project, from 2007, with the same line-up of people was called Amazon Noir. Here, they used custom software to scrape the text of thousands of books from the online book vendor Amazon in order to make them available online. As Ubermorgen tell it, Amazon apparently made an effective legal block to this project. This tale itself however gets woven into an installation which is now touring Europe.

On the borderline of legality, these projects show how abstract systems such as laws, software and ownership systems shape culture and the means we have to understand it. In so doing, they also make some very funny comments about the way in which rational well-designed useful systems always contain their own kind of craziness. The culture industry, which is often set up in order to rationalise creativity engenders its own novel pathologies.