Commonality, pixel property, seduction: As If…
Is talent important in net art? This group of works gives us the answer. Let us remember that the name Talent was that of an ancient coin. What is a coin but a condensed power to take something out. The possibility to move a thing, an action, a power, from one state into another, to magnify, to set in motion, to store up or to kill. To set something aside, to make it separate.
Scarcity of talent is what allows net art work to be seen in two ways. Firstly, each piece of work is not especially apart from the other works by the artist or groups that produced it – it is part of a practice. Secondly, each work is assembled out of parts that belong to a collectively available resource. So this again, is something set aside from the standard issue art modes, unique visions, talentated individuals and all the rest of it. It is the power to connect. Here, no talent delivers the goods.
This is what is meant when Q Tip says of B.I.G. “You know everybody has they personal opinion of what they like musically or whatever. But he’s one of our own, you know what I’m sayin? We all know a B.I.G. You know what I’m sayin? He may not necessarily be on the mic. He may be working you know, say UPS, he may be on the the corner, you know what I’m saying handling his or somethin. But we all know that and we all recognise that. So what I want everybody to do is just remember B.I.G. and remember all those B.I.G.’s that we all know that’s around and so lets really think about, you know what I’m saying, keeping each other around and trying to avoid unnecessary shit ya’ll…”1
Marcel Duchamp suggested that fifty percent of a work a work of art was in any case done by its audience2. This is obviously an appallingly low estimate. The aim of all artists should be to up this percentage.
These statements of connection, of mutual interdependence are a declaration of the poverty of privatisation, but they are also the acknowledgement of the condition of working in a technologised, media culture. Vilém Flusser suggests that an archetypal post-industrial object is the personal camera3. This is an ‘apparatus’ programmed to take all possible pictures. The users of the apparatus provide the libidinal and inquisitive drives to carry this program out. Will every picture that it is possible to take with say, and average 35mm camera ever be taken? No, for the simple reason that the problem involves a fractal recursion. To take every possible photo would require that those pictures also would require to be snapped, in infinite combination.
At the same time, there are millions of cameras at large. They roam the planet as the probe-heads of a recording angel. Whilst certain forms of image: babies, footballers, bored naked women, ‘moving’ tramps, politicians, beaches, run almost to the edge of exhaustion, there is no end to the archive, simply because there is no end to what offers itself up to the lense.
We cannot stop at the level of the camera. As the results of each media system are expelled, they attempt to find some way to worm inside another. The exit pipe of photography is into other media systems: magazines, family albums, shoeboxes, websites, police records, newspapers, gravestones or shrines. Each of these has its own protocols of filtering, editing and amplification – economic, political, aesthetic, technical, religious… Digitisation potentially refuses the possibility of any end to this process.
Copying is inherent in the use of computers. Even when you open up a file, you open up a copy of it rather than the saved version. You can then save it as a different file, or replace the first version with the changed copy. Any digital file can be reproduced an infite number of times.
It is to this extent that it is perceived as pathological to many of the protocols we are supposed to operate under. In digital media, as everywhere else, there is a constant conflict between commonality and property. Here are some of the battle lines.
Freenet, software for distributing a peer-to-peer network across the internet in which, ‘information is encrypted and replicated across a large number of continuously-changing anonymized computers around the world.’4 In this case, multiple copies make censorship almost impossible.
At the other end of the spectrum, the recent case of Dmitry Skylarov, a Russian programmer arrested, imprisoned and then held in California on bail under the US’s Digital Millenium Copyright Act5 for co-writing a program by which the password to an encrypted proprietary file format (Adobe’s clunky .pdf) could be recovered. The DMCA makes it illegal to distribute “circumvention technology”. You might forget the password to a document, or you might want to break copyright protection schemes.
Creation and defence of commonality against property does not mean the abolition of protocols, or of rule sets. Scientists for instance, increasingly publishing research papers online, are refusing the protocols imposed by the property system of commercial journal publishing. By contributing to such archives, they enhance the protocols of commonality – peer-review and citation – which allow their work its value within their research communities6 Such work is in its early stages, but there is much to be hoped for here.
The terms by which digitally derived information is expressed into matter have also become a key battleground. Genes derived from a species, the result of thousands of generations of evolution, may be patented and turned into property. Its characteristics are turned into objects in a database, again privately owned. The uses of that gene, shuffled up with thousands of others, are determined by the needs of the corporation which has them locked down7. The bunkered database becomes the garden of eden.
Seed libraries and other initiatives, such as Navdanya which acknowledge that ‘Farmers have been innovating collectively over centuries’8 provide another set of protocols which sustain and open up the possibilities for agriculture and ecology rather than privatise them.
Within this wider context, what are the protocols that artists work on? Firstly, we must say that the conflict between commonality and property is never finished. The stakes are raised by the capacity for any aspect of life to gain enough velocity, enough thickness of interest and activity to tip things out of kilter. Art has such a capacity for invention and escape.
This is not to say that every patch of space within the territory created by the interplay of such forces, of formats, rythmns, economies, languages, street systems, food, gendering… affords equal possibility all the time. Such moments may be chosen in anger, carefully, or off-handedly… but it is the way in which they incorporate a consideration of all these confluences and their capacities to generate, freedom, surprise, cruelty, isolation, resources, other possibilities… by which they may be judged. What Q-Tip said about us all knowing a B.I.G. is true. They are everywhere. It may be a crack in the road, a hole in the law, or in some crypto – which amounts to the same thing, a strike, children, even a website…
At the same time, even a few shifts of relations between these forces can turn what once looked like, or once was, an escape route, a thickening of open interrelations, of communality, of innovation, into a black hole, an academy, a car park.
This immense shifting untotalisable territory is the collectively available resource out of which art is assembled. But it would be dumb to privilege any location with a monopoly on such a capacity. There is also such a phenomenology, of seduction, in ‘Young Adam’9, where Trocchi enumerates some of the different capacities for intimacy and transversality of the senses. ‘Sight and touch may be correlative but their objects are vitally different… …their impressions existed together like a stone and a melody’. At the same time, such perception is already involved in arrays of power, codification, the mapping out of zones by clothing, the possible behaviours allowed in certain locations – the denial of which may be transgressed by one or another manouevre, the ways in which even consideration of these can be eluded by a particular closing of the eyes, the availability of heat, the strangeness of someone who does not yet have a name, hot abstraction as signalling is done by consent to do nothing, to be a body caught up in a pause between connections, or to be overtaken by them.
“It is necessary only to act ‘as if’ one’s conventional categories were arbitrary for one to come gradually to know that they are, that the profoundest experiences are in the ordinary situation locked out from one’s arena of experience by the inflexible barrier of good character.” Such acting as if allows the construction of an experimental framework wherein something can occur. It does not require for there to be any ‘as usual’ or ‘as we know’ and it is also the procedure by which connections are made elsewhere.
What if we were to propose to treat the one system’s output as the input for another? Feed a blockage into an opening? Pursue a series to its bitter end. Feed a run of protocols that are too easy to consider seriously together, do the obvious see what happens. Feed a bunker more blockage, or slide round it. Lift a string of words from there and place it in the mouth of this software here. Grab a face, turn it into a tongue. Stash an emulator of every possible operating system one inside the other, let them run, crash, disembowel each other, freeze, then run.
A: So if fifty percent of a work is done by its audience, a smart artist will try and double that?
B: Certainly, if we can judge by the lifestyles of the best programmers. All they have to do is download a couple of Perl scripts every week or so, make a minor adjustment, upload a new version then go back to their sleeps.
A: They’ve arranged it so it’s like that.
B: So it’s done together?
A: One kind of together, different kinds at different times. I mean you might get someone who thinks they’re mainly doing it alone. But then they might just be thinking that at a time when they need to trick themselves into forgetting about it.
B: So that’s the art or the programmers?
A: It’s the pre-existing elements they’re working with, the objects, classes, codes.
B: I mean you’ve got to occassionally, you’ve got to do some programming here and there.
A: But it’s more a question of having a good grasp of what you’re trying to do, what people have done before, do a little research, define the problem, keep in contact with what’s being uploaded to the class libraries and stuff. I mean keeping yourself nicely rested does come into it too…
Pixel Plunder brings together a series of websites that operate by creating conjunctures between different symbolic, historic, emotional, technical and other protocols. Some of the artists here work explicitly at the level of that loose current of work which functions directly at the level of technical protocol mixture and formation. Infrastructures are developed through which new signals might pass, transversal pipes between one body, one dynamism and another are built. This is a strand of work which directly intervenes in the proliferation of digital media, upping the ante on its pathological capacity of connection – and, working those percentages in the right direction.
Others work by shifting and splicing symbolic units in order to make them leap out of their skin, erupt in farts and laughs, bad memory. Elements are slurped up from one coding procedure and parsed through another. The process of doing so can be read in the shift of an object, a mode of address, from one ecology of reference through to that of another. In both cases, the disjuncture or coincidence of layers, protocols, elements, potentials and intensities allows the work to provide a map of routes into the ‘as ifs’ the work is built through. And it is by means of the topology of ‘as ifs’ that a work provides that its powers of seduction can be measured.
1 Q-Tip, Outro Live at the Lounge, ‘Lyricist Lounge 2’, Rawkus 2000
2 In, Pierre Cabanne, ‘Interviews with Marcel Duchamp’, Da Capo, 1987
3 Vilém Flusser, Towards a Philosophy of Photography, Reaktion Books, 2000
4 The Freenet homepage is at http://freenet.sourceforge.net/
5 A quick summary of the main features of the Act, and links to its full text, are available the UCLA Online Institute for Cyberspace Law and Policy, http://www.gseis.ucla.edu/iclp/dmca1.htm/ Campaigns by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, http://www.eff.org/ amongst many networked others brought the case to light fast.
6 See for instance ‘Creating a Global Knowledge Network’, by Paul Ginsparg of Los Alamos National Laboratory for information on the ‘arXiv’ project at: http://arXiv.org/blurb/pg01unesco.html or the campaign for an open archive of all publicly funded science research at ‘Public Library of Science’ http://www.publiclibraryofscience.org/
Thanks to Bruce Sterling and Frank Hartmann for posts to the nettime list http://www.nettime.org/ providing links to some of these sources, and to Gary Hall for further information on electronic archives.
9 Alexander Trocchi, ‘Young Adam’, Rebel inc. 1996