When protesting students spilled into University of California campus courtyards in March, Ricardo Dominguez took to the streets in his own way — digitally — leading a march to the online office of the UC president.
The bespectacled associate professor triggered a software program that continuously reloaded the home page of UC President Mark G. Yudof's website.
"Transparency," hundreds of protesters wrote, over and over again, in the search box of the home page.
The jammed website responded with an error message: "File not found."
The protesters' message: Transparency doesn't exist in the UC system.
It was a virtual sit-in, an oft-used tactic from Dominguez's academic specialty at UC San Diego: electronic civil disobedience. Another project last year took as inspiration the debate over illegal immigration. Dominguez, a new media artist, unveiled a prototype for a modified cellphone that he called a "mobile Statue of Liberty." He said phones like it would provide immigrants with directions and inspirational poetry readings during arduous desert crossings.
Never mind that few of the phones will probably ever end up in immigrant hands — there are no plans to mass produce them — or that the virtual sit-in may not have actually disrupted the UC president's computer.
The projects were political statements meant to agitate, which they did, with unexpected consequences. Campus police are probing whether the virtual sit-in broke any computer hacking laws. The phone has drawn fire for allegedly encouraging illegal immigration. The media showed up, and faculty and students have rallied to Dominguez's defense, slapping black tape over their mouths at a campus protest.
To his detractors Dominguez is a leftist prankster who wastes public funds pursuing projects that border on the criminal. Three Republican congressmen in San Diego county have written letters to the university questioning his work.
"Time for a change in this country," wrote Nick Vecchio, a La Mesa resident, in a letter to the San Diego Union Tribune. "My taxes are sky high, and I'm paying a state university to employ activists and professors specializing in civil disobedience? What, pray tell, is a 'new media artist?'"
Disturbance, answers Dominguez. He ponders the controversy with professorial detachment, studying reactions to his esoteric stagecraft, which is intended to blur the line between advocacy and performance art.
"I'm interested in how different forms of power respond to this," said Dominguez, 50, in a mellifluous baritone. "Our work has always been to bring to the foreground what artists can do using available low-end, new technologies that can have a wider encounter with society than just the limited landscape of the museum, the gallery and the scholarly paper."
There are complications, however, when reality pierces the bubble of conceptual art.
"The negative end is police coming to your door," Dominguez said, mentioning that the university also shut down his laboratory's computer server for eight days.
Dominguez, a Mexican American raised in Las Vegas, majored in theater arts — Shakespeare's vainglorious Malvolio in "Twelfth Night" was among his favorite roles — and moved to New York City in the 1990s, pulled more by the burgeoning digital subculture than the bright lights of Broadway.
With fellow new media artists and social activists, he co-founded the Electronic Disturbance Theater, which developed virtual protest tactics against computer systems across the world. The online protests flood network servers with automatic "reload" requests that can disrupt and slow systems, but not destroy data, Dominguez says.
The group targeted, among others, the Frankfurt stock exchange to protest mining investments in Mexico, and the Mexican government for its military actions against the Zapatista rebel movement. Dominguez likens the protests to thousands of people standing in the middle of the information superhighway, or massing as if they will.
In 1998, for example, the U.S. Defense Department, anticipating a virtual attack from the Disturbance Theater, set up a program to divert the virtual swarm to a nonexistent website, the New York Times reported.
"When the Department of Defense launched the information war weapon at us — that's kind of a brilliant moment in that performance," Dominguez said. "One can take the measure of power by not doing anything. That is the power of art, that is the power of performance, that it creates not effect, but affect."
In 2005, Dominguez was hired as an associate professor at UC San Diego's prestigious Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology. He joined an eclectic group of nanotechnology experts, computer musicians and game designers exploring cyberspace trends in a gleaming, postmodern building at the La Jolla campus.
His students in the visual arts department have created a sound sculpture exhibit featuring columns of white speakers, that draws attention to the presence of nanotechnology particles in everyday products. Another student spent 365 hours as a virtual-world dragon, her movements mimed with motion-capture technology in a three-dimensional visual laboratory
In class, Dominguez's students are taken on a brain-twisting journey into abstract ruminations on cyber-hallucinations and the nature of beauty.
To the uninitiated, the language is incomprehensible. Want to learn about "Trans( )infinities," his latest course offering? It "will be imagined as an (empty set) of potential aesthetic practices that move between, through, across and beyond the post of the post-contemporary by transfixing on the loanwords," reads the course description.
Last year, Dominguez was granted tenure.
"Professor Dominguez ... has been a defining figure in the migration of performance art from physical space to virtual space," wrote Professor Paul Drake, UC San Diego's senior vice chancellor of Academic Affairs, in a tenure notification letter quoted by the UC Faculty Coalition in a letter to administrators.
With the public unveiling of the immigrant cellphone, Dominguez seized the spotlight. The phone's global-positioning system program directs immigrants to desert water stations and has a "poetry-in-motion" audio feature.
"May the road rise up to meet you," says one poem. "May the wind always be at your back."
The phone is more conceptual than practical. Similar border-inspired projects have been dreamed up by several artists over the years, including an illegal-immigrant shoe equipped with maps and a compass. They languished in galleries, generating little interest beyond art circles.
But the immigrant cellphone — created with three colleagues for about $10,000 — scored public relations riches. CNN named Dominguez one of its most intriguing people in December, and the associate professor shared the media stage with conservative lawmakers, giving him a platform to draw attention to the plight of immigrants.
Distributing the device is beside the point now, Dominguez said. "Deployment has already been made," he said. "This spasm of interest is what the project is about."
Colleagues cheered. Dominguez and his co-creators received an award from the university's humanities department and were honored at an international electronic art festival in Mexico City.
On March 4, Dominguez dusted off his virtual swarming software to protest college fee increases. This time, there was no ovation. Administration officials shut down his computer server in the middle of finals week. A few days later, campus police showed up at his office.
According to Dominguez and a faculty group, the university has launched at least two probes: One to determine whether creation of the phone was a proper use of public funds, the other to see if legal grounds exist for filing criminal charges for the virtual sit-in.
The charges, they said, could lead to disciplinary measures and the revocation of Dominguez's tenure. Dominguez's salary was $65,000 before furloughs.
"We'd be better off taking his salary and hiring more math teachers...let's get back to basics," said Peter Nuñez, a former U.S. attorney from San Diego. UC San Diego President Marye Anne Fox has been asked to provide a financial accounting of the immigrant phone project in a letter signed by Reps. Duncan Hunter, Brian Bilbray and Darrell Issa.
UC officials, in a statement, said the university doesn't take positions on the political implications of researchers' work, but reviews allegations of law breaking. The university declined to comment on Dominguez's case.
Around campus, some professors and students say the probes strike at the heart of academic freedom.
"We are astonished that work that earned tenure [for Dominguez] can be turned on its head and form the basis of a criminal investigation," said Ivan Evans, a sociology professor.
This twist puzzles Dominguez. He suspects outside political pressure may be driving the probes and that officials may be sensitive to criticism after dealing with a series of racially charged incidents earlier this year at the San Diego campus.
Dominguez met with his lawyers this week, making them the newest cast members in a performance that could end with the protagonist being yanked offstage. Dominguez, for his part, still revels in the plaudits he has earned from his fellow artists and colleagues.
"That has been a kind of glorious moment in the performance," Dominguez said. "It's the humanity that has gathered around ... Electronic Disturbance Theater."