A Brief History of the Lumpen Times
A.J. Liebling once said: that the ‘freedom of the press belongs to those who own one.’ So it’s a good thing we do.
The Lumpen Times started in Champaign, Illinois in 1990 while we were at the University of Illinois. It was a naive attempt at creating a zine inspired by left journals and magazines like The Nation, Mother Jones, In These Times and The Progressive. We wanted it to be critical of mainstream consensus as presented on CNN and to become an antidote to the growing influence of monopoly corporations in our lives.
Back in the 90s, a few dozen corporations owned 90% of all the media in the US. We believed this corporate control of the media was very much like the state control of the media in authoritarian countries. As we watched the first Gulf War on television it alarmed us how easy it was for the media monopoly to drum up patriotic furor and support to invade a country and marginalize or silence dissent. We were part of the protest movement to stop that war and we felt our voices were ignored.
So we blamed the media. We wondered: Armed with an informed opinion wouldn’t we all want to live in a more equitable, peaceful, world? Wouldn’t we all want to destroy capitalism?
We thought it was important to Become the Media in order to provide a diversity of opinions and information about the issues of our day. We also wanted to support the Left, and the other freaks that were making indy and DIY cultural scenes that we lived and breathed in.
We moved to Chicago and re-booted Lumpen in 1993 and created a monthly free circulation newsprint magazine. By this time we discovered the legacy of the Underground Press of the 60s and became inspired by the notion of becoming a voice of the countercultures.
It was produced monthly for about 5 or 6 years and that experience proved that we were great underground media makers, but not really good at smashing the state. By the mid 90s The Chicago Tribune calls us “Anarchist with barcodes”, and derails Lumpen in the headline “Slacker Mag Has No Ethics”. It was quite the honor. We felt we succeeded at becoming the underground paper our city needed. But we didn’t destroy capitalism and we were dependent on advertising revenue to keep the magazine going.
LUMPEN ROUND THE COYOTE ART FAIR STREAK 94 from lumpen on Vimeo.
By the late 90s the internet and the world wide web became an opportunity to create a space to confront mainstream media. We made a Lumpen.com website. We realized that this new environment coupled with desk top publishing and the new architecture of internet browsers and ‘information super highways” were an opening to confront the hegemony of the media monopolies that owned most of the media. This revolution in information technology and affordable computing allowed Lumpens like us to compete head on in this new arena. We could make and build a better website than media giants like the Chicago Tribune or CNN. We were part of the new wave of activists creating innovative ways of using emergent technologies to organize protests, and network with our allies. The internet also allowed us to communicate, organize and disseminate information to Lumpens and progressives all over the world. Finally everyone with a computer could have access to the information we needed to make informed decisions about how to make a more just and equitable society.
We were naive.
In 1998 Lumpen took a back seat to a new project we built called Supersphere.com. The site was basically Lumpen on acid. We become Dot Communists and started working head to head with and against tech companies and new dot com start ups to create new business models, applications, media and who knows what in a delirious attempt at flipping it all upside down. We could use The Man’s weapons against them, we thought. We promoted the notion of a Digital Commons, a shared eco-info system that would not be controlled by the media and corporate giants, and would thrive and overturn the balance of power in the dissemination of news and opinions. Our Supersphere became a portal for alternative media, activist news and indy media in general. We published articles from over 40-50 zine partners, made live streaming radio stations, and recorded live performances of indy and underground bands and then streamed the videos from our website. We also had a team that travelled around the word to document the growing anti-corporate globalization movement that was making headlines and progress seemingly everywhere.
By the turn of the century global capital had aroused the anger of a lot of organized regular people all over the world. Almost monthly gatherings of protesters at G8 Summits, WTO gatherings and other international pig system acronyms had been met with massive resistance and with it the idea of challenging Global Capital. The internet was used as an incredible connector and organizer of these efforts. The November,1999 Seattle World Trade protests became a major watershed moment for the left in America. We finally had a movement of movements to confront The Man on a global scale.
At this point Lumpen magazine comes out a few times a year documenting the moves of this movement of movements. Supersphere.com continues to publish tons of media getting millions of visitors a month, but a bunch of misfit lumpens see the writing on the wall. Our funding collapses. We have to retreat from our digital front in the information war. It is a major setback and lesson. Innovative uses of new technologies can be developed by creative peeps but they will often be recuperated and capitalized upon by the dominant corporations.
Bush “wins” the November 2000 election. We rebooted the magazine with an issue of Lumpen featuring John Dee’s Coup 2K, an investigative piece that examined the history behind the theft of the 2000 election. The New Dark Ages have begun. After the 9/11 attacks, it seems the Left collapses and heads for the hills. It takes a long time to recover.
The US invades Afghanistan and Iraq. We decide to ramp up our activities. We are energized and enraged. We launch a bunch of Lumpen projects including: Freedom Kissing parties, a cable access tv show called TLVSN, Terror Free Zones, Elevated Cinema, Cultural Interference art exhibitions, and the Freedom Festival. Unfortunately our new Lumpen.com website sucks.
In the Spring of 2002, We open the experimental art and freak space, buddY, in Liquor Park. It becomes the new Lumpen office and home for a wide range of freaks and miscreant weirdos and activists. Billed as hosting open source collaborations and tactical media actions, we will produce over 250 events in the next three years. It changes our lives. The convergence of people seeking ways to confront the conservative culture that surrounds us reaches a frenzy. That year we declare the Summer of Love. A renaissance of creative activism flows from our space as we seek relief from the horrors of living in the Bush Age. Laptronica, Select Media Festival, Select Magazine, Version Festival, WPBR radio and scores of campaigns and projects began at buddY.
By 2004 Lumpen magazine has essentially become a manual for creative activism. Version Festival is attracting educators, activists, artists and freaks from around the world. Our annual convergences, the burgeoning indy art space scene, and other cultural fronts formed to resist the Death Culture of the Bush Dark Ages keep us busy. We define our mission to become a document of the alternative and secret histories of cultural resistance in a time of growing corporate power and NeoCon politics.
In 2005 we are kicked out of buddY and leave for new pastures. After scouring the city for a new space we wind up moving to Bridgeport without a new HQ. By this time the commercialization of the internet has erupted and the professionalization/ mediatation of the web occurs. The Internet becomes a marketing of the self. It looks more and more like the Matrix.
We take over an abandoned building and transform it into the Co-Prosperity Sphere, our current base of operations. We continue producing various publications, festivals, events and activities throughout the city. We declare Bridgeport “The Community of the Future” and we start building from the ground up again.
It’s 2008.The economy collapses. We don’t really feel much pain because we have always been broke. Being the fools we are we start another magazine called Proximity. It’s an art and culture magazine that is perfect bound and has less agitprop than Lumpen. We investigate the intersection of art and activism, feature relational and social art projects and publish works by a wide variety of artists both locally and internationally. We fall victim to the HOPE of a Barack Obama presidency, and the possible end of the Bush Dark Ages and the neoliberal agenda. We believe we can win some battles in the Culture Wars.
In the ensuing years we produce Version as an annual springtime arts festival that brings together hundreds of artists, musicians, and educators from around the world to present some of the most challenging ideas and progressive art initiatives of our day. It becomes a convergence for creative resistance and new strategies for living in these trying times. The emergence of the Social Media giants like Facebook and technology corporations like Google and Apple have supplanted and complemented the array of control the media monopolies have garnered over the past decades. We feel like going hyper local is one last strategy that we have left in the face of this juggernaut. Lumpen continues to be published a few times a year in between publishing Proximity and a host of other projects.
In 2011 Occupy Wall Street emerges out of the ashes of the Bush Dark Age and the seeming impotence of the Obama presidency. The excess of the One Percent has been fully exposed. The power of Global Finance Capital is confronted. At the same time an age of Total Surveillance has become fully realized with the success of the militarization and capitalization of the internet. We now market to ourselves our needs and desires and they are mirrored back upon us via various apps, websites and social media platforms. We knowingly and actively give all of our personal information to tech companies, financial corporations and marketing firms. The Occupy movement does wonders at allowing everyone to communicate their ideas via a “human internet” and expose the excesses of capitalism, but somehow it looks more and more like a managerial style than a revolution.
The idea of truth no longer has relevance. Objective journalism, perhaps never perfect is now extinct. The naive idea that if people merely had access to all the viewpoints on any issue they would then make the “best” decisions has been confirmed to be a fantasy. It is impossible to know what is “real” or true” because we are unable to decipher if what we read watch or hear is sponsored content or part of a a ruling class agenda. And now Algorithms decide what media you should consume and who you aspire to be. We continue to be a “front for the left in the arts.”
By 2012 we published four different publications and produced a bunch of shitty websites. A decade ago it was easy to compete with the media giants, but by now having a robust website with multimedia and hourly news feeds is way beyond our capacity.
And today we have all become the media. We tweet, instagram, blog, post, re-post and become content creators for each other. It’s been amazing to witness the crowdsourcing of ideas and the blossoming of everyone’s ability to broadcast. But something is missing. While we each have the ability to create content, it has become subsumed by the Borg of infomediatainment. Our ideas, thoughts and words are now sold back to us via the apps and social media platforms we use. We create the product for the Machine in an endless feedback loop.
Lumpen is still grasping for ways to penetrate the noise of information, social control, propaganda and deceit with opinions, news, analysis and cultural forms that we think run parallel or counter to the Borg mind set. Through this journey we have been allowed to participate in various communities and bring people together virtually and in real life to share stories, tactics and strategies to create another world. And it has helped us keep on keeping on. And the Bernie Sanders candidacy really helped. Who ever imagined a Socialist agenda would have so much support?!
So here we are again. We must figure out a way to work together to envision a world that can confront he growing crisis of climate change, the massive power of banks, the corrupt system of funding of elections, and the rise of fascism and a hundred other pressing issues of our day. We need to organize together and go beyond new managerial styles or progressive systems of social automation. We need to imagine a Community of the Future we want to live in. And then we gotta build it.
We invite you to help us in formulating new models of resistance.
And we need you to not give up.
PS. Somehow we wound up starting a community radio station. We could use some help funding Lumpen Radio, 105.5 fm in Chicago. We are holding an online fundraiser called the “Lumpen Radio Holiday Swag-A-Thon” . Please visit this link and check our our SWAG.