Tactical design and activism in NYC and Moscow – research talk by Nitin Sawhney

Nitin Sawhney is a graduate of the MIT Media Lab and taught in the Art, Culture Technology program at MIT. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Media Studies at the New School in New York City, and a research affiliate with the Center for Civic Media.


Nitin starts by showing some photos of lower east Manhattan where he currently lives. The hurricane has severely affected his area and travel in that area remains slow.

His latest project was inspired by some of the Center’s OccupyData hackathons during OccupyBoston. It was an exhibition called #SearchUnderOccupy with his students at the New School. The exhibition designer designed it to look like an Occupy camp and the exhibition contained numerous archives of Occupy’s media. They also used the exhibition space to host hackathons. The exhibition was up for a month.

OUR STREETS: An Occupy Wall Street Celebration from Balaclava Films / IriartePhoto on Vimeo.

At the same time, they hosted a number of artistic teach-ins to think about how to use the ethos of Occupy as a means of art production. One of Nitin’s students produced a video called “Our Streets: An Occupy Wall Street Celebration”, a video documentary of Occupy Wall Street. Nitin taught a course on DIY Culture last Fall and many students examined the DIY culture of Occupy. For example, one student produced a film about the Farmer’s March that was part of Occupy.

Student perspectives were various. Nitin shows a student film made from the perspective of capturing the sounds of Occupy titled Discarded Commodities Repercussions of the Detritus (FC).

Discarded Commodities Repercussions of the Detritus (FC) from Danny Kim on Vimeo.

The film is a soundscape of a person traveling through Occupy zones with street noises, static, and voices. There are no interviews. The film is more of an aural phenomena.

Nitin shows us The People’s Skype, a project out of Parson’s which helps address problems using the People’s Mic across distances in large crowds. Users call a number to broadcast their voice in a one way conference call. Other users can call in and hear your voice as you broadcast to the crowd. People’s Skype also included phone-based vote tallying to enable users to vote on issues in real-time.

Finally, Nitin shows us a project out of his Tactical Design class from the Spring called Illuminating Student Debt. The students used a truck and large-scale projections to drive around the city and project student loan figures onto buildings. This was equipment originally donated to Occupy Wall Street by Ben & Jerry’s to be used explicitly for this purpose. Later there was some controversy over the involvement of Ben & Jerry’s and the Occupy movement ended up raising money on Kickstarter for their own truck and large-scale projection system.

Next Nitin discusses the Occupy Data Hackathons that he and his students have been holding across New York City. The tools produced at these hackathons did various things: they analyzed network relationships among participants and groups, they visualized police brutality, and more. All of the tools created were not just about visualizing but also about enabling participants and users to take action with the data. Many of these tools are still works in progress. These included information visualizations but also things like an Occupy Poster Database which looked at how the visual communications of the Occupy movement changed over time. Stop and Frisk is another project to see which neighborhoods in New York have the highest rate of people detained on the street. The project is on-going. The most recent hackathon was in September and there will likely be another before the end of the year.

Catherine asks if the hackathons are about only a certain time period (“most active”) of the Occupy movement or whether there were new data sets being generated. Nitin responded that each hackathon works with some older data sets but also newer ones. New datasets are being generated all the time, for example from the MayDay protests in Spring 2012. And the OccupyResearch methodology and tools and events are being used to analyze and deploy tools for other social movements beyond just Occupy.


Nitin moves on to show his projects in Moscow at the Strelka Institute with students from their summer school. For example, one group he worked with creates guerrilla crosswalks, bike paths and benches in Moscow. For their contribution, Nitin and Strelka students were inspired by the report Microrayon. The students did analysis in various neighborhoods and worked in teams of 12-15 designers and activists. They alternated excursions in neighborhoods with intensive workshop sessions at Strelka. The students conducted interviews with activists, residents and other stakeholders in the neighborhoods they worked in. They created maps of communication in the neighborhoods (who speaks to whom and how, levels of trust between groups of people) and maps of time (who has free time? who would care enough to improve their space? how to sustain changes?). Out of the workshop, they decided to build an online/offline platform. Offline, the project had mailboxes which requested feedback from residents. Online, the students wanted people to be able to identify issues, set priorities, and organize to effect change. They created an online pinup board with on-going mini-actions that are happening that people can become involved with. There is also a barter system built into it – offering services in exchange for help on their issue.

Erhardt asks who was helping to fix the problems identified on the website. Nitin responds that the people fixing the issues were small activist groups but they were always trying to get others and particularly young people involved.


Now that Nitin is back in New York, he’s working with an international team to re-work the platform around “microacts”. They are trying to come up with an architecture for being a “micro-activist” and contribute in many forms and fashions. You would be able to see different communities of practice and how each project/issue is progressing from the system. Nitin is also working with Occupy Moscow who is doing projects to create Activist Living Rooms across the city to have conversations against Putin. This is partially in response to Putin’s new anti-protest laws for public spaces.

Nitin’s last slide asks the question – “Can MikroActs be forms of New Collectivism?”. These could connect virtual and physical spaces to activate citizens, be based on ideas of barter and trade, connect communities and activists both online and offline, showcase DIY urban tactics, replicate microactions across different contexts. Nitin will be conducting a pilot in New York City where they will adopt a neighborhood and pilot these ideas with that neighborhood.

Erhardt offers that based on his experience Russia has a fascinating DIY culture coming out of communism and the black markets.

Ed asks about bartering and trading, “Did elements of it change over time? Were there aspects of a gift economy?” Nitin responds that there was little exchange that was happening initially. In neighborhoods where the activists are already established there is enough trust for that. It’s harder if people are not embedded. That’s why Nitin is unsure how they’ll proceed with trust building in the NYC environment.

Erhardt talks about a friend who did his thesis on social capital building after the Iowa floods. Where there was no overt neighbor to neighbor sharing, it just springs up based on a traumatic event like that. Nitin remarks that the hackathons are also interesting in this regard. They build networks of partnership and trust.

Pablo asks how to continue the Occupy Data hackathons after the Occupy movement has lost momentum. Nitin says he tells his students that these issues are on-going and while they nominally call the hackathons “occupy” they are about issues that will live on even if the Occupy movement itself loses steam. The hackathons are a great way to thematize events and make some progress on them. Occupy is a seed to work on new issues.