A few days ago i was in Bergen in Norway. Where everything is so postcard pretty...
that fast food joints are afraid to stand out from their surrounding.
I was in Bergen to attend Piksel, the 8th festival for Electronic Art and Technological Freedom. If i could participate to events as exciting as this one more often i bet i wouldn't sound so relentlessly blasée. I'll talk later about the exhibition, workshops and live events but i'll kick off this series of report with one of the most interesting presentations i heard at the festival.
In his talk, titled Golden Shield Music - Sonification of IT censorship technologies, Marco Donnarumma spent some time refreshing our memories about internet censorship before presenting a sound project which was directly inspired by it.
The name of his work, Golden Shield Music, refers unequivocally to China's Golden Shield Project aka the 'Great Firewall of China'. This censorship and surveillance project operated by the country's Ministry of Public Security involves the massive use of web technologies such as IP blocking, DNS filtering and redirection, URL filtering, packet filtering to censor specific contents through web search engines such as Google, Yahoo and Msn. Donnarumma noted that it's easy to point the finger at China but internet censorship is fairly widespread elsewhere in the world. Australia has gained fame for its attempts at censoring online content. The UK too. And even Italy. It's been quite infuriating to live there while Berlusconi's government was blocking The Pirate Bay as a 'preventive measure'. The artist informed us of a secret deal that Facebook would have signed with the Italian police, giving them access to the personal data of any user suspected of identity theft, phishing scams and possession of child pornography.
Another website the artist highlighted -albeit with much less enthusiasm- is the very fancy-looking Recorded Future. Funded by the CIA and Google, the project monitors tens of thousands of websites, blogs and Twitter accounts in real time to find the relationships between people, organizations, actions and incidents. The goal of their intense data mining is to 'predict the future' by looking at the 'invisible links' between documents that talk about the same, or related, entities and events.
With Golden Shield Music, Marco Donnarumma wanted to use the censorship technology in a creative way. Because it was difficult to find precise information about the targets of censorship, the artist had to go through dozens of papers to finally find a list of websites blacklisted by China.
The generative composition for eight audio channels was created as follows:
Golden Shield Music collects the twelve website's IP that are most screened by the Golden Shield.
IP numbers are listed in a text file which feeds an automated MIDI polyphonic synthesizer. The latter translates each IP in a single note formed by 4 voices with a specific velocity.
Data organizes the musical notation, establishing an abstract relationship between Internet information and musical algorithms which sounds harmonious and "handcrafted".
The objective was not to make good sound but to raise the awareness about the phenomenon of web censorship.
I never paid much attention to the machinima genre so far. The FILE Machinima section of the FILE festival in Sao Paulo proved me how wrong i was. Many of the movies selected by Curator Fernanda Albuquerque de Almeida are indeed little gems. I'll just mention Wizard Of OS: The fish incident by Tom Jantol, a short based on Nikola Tesla's notes on his experiment with a mysterious antivirus device he named "The Wizard of OS" and Clockwork, by Ian Friar aka Iceaxe. Set in the totalitarian Republic of Britain, Clockwork tells the story of a police officer on a mission to track down an "undesirable".
The movie that received most attention from both the public and the members of the File Prix Lux however is War of Internet Addiction, a machinima advocacy production that voices the concerns of the mainland Chinese World of Warcraft community. Although the machinima was created with WoW players in mind, the video strikes a chord with the broader public by pointing the finger to the lack of Internet freedom in the country and conveying a general feeling of helplessness.
The main frustration of mainland Chinese WoW players is that the access to the game has been limited and interrupted for months because of a conflict between two government regulatory bodies. The video also denounces battles and issues that took place in China over the previous 15 months or so: electroshock therapy for purported internet addiction (the Health Ministry has mercifully asked for the treatment to stop); the government's attempts to enforce installations on all new pc sold in mainland China of the Green Dam Youth Escort filter; the competition between the county's primary game servers over licensing renewal rights, etc.
Players are also tired of being stigmatized by mainstream media as 'addicts' because of their love of game or simply because they tend to spend hours in front of their computer. The character of the villain of the film, Yang Yongxin, is actually based on a psychiatrist who used shock-therapy to treat so-called "Internet Addiction."
Within days of its release the 64-minute video was banned from a few video sites in China, but that didn't prevent the movie from becoming even more popular on-line than Avatar nor from winning the Best Video award in the Tudou Video Film awards for online films and animations in an awards ceremony that some see as China's version of Sundance. The machinima also received an honorable mention at FILE Prix Lux. Not bad for a zero budget film made in 3 months with the help of 100 volunteers who cooperated through the Internet.
Warning! Many of the jokes, memes and references in War of Internet Addicition are hard to grasp if you're not familiar with Chinese net culture. Fortunately, a public document listing the background information has been posted posted online.
Interview with Corndog, director, script writer and coordinator of the movie, on WSJ.
See also: Homo Ludens Ludens - Gold Farmers.
Previous entries about FILE festival: Heart Chamber Orchestra, Scrapbook from the ongoing FILE festival and Feeding the Tardigotchi. The FILE exhibition is open until August 29, 2010. Address: Fiesp - Ruth Cardoso Cultural Center - Av. Paulista, 1313, São Paulo - Metro Trianon-Masp.
The National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST) in Athens is currently hosting the painfully timely online exhibition Esse, Νosse, Posse: Common Wealth for Common People.
Curated by Daphne Dragona, the open platform takes a critical look at the economy of the network society and the tension between, on the one hand, a wealth of information, knowledge, code, communication freely provided by web users and on the other hand the market's attempts of to appropriate and exploit it.
A virtual sweatshop, a game opposing copyright and free exchange of knowledge, a documentary about gold farmers, a subversive web browser software, internet art for poor people , etc. Esse, Νosse, Posse offers a thought-provoking mix of artists' projects commenting on the new forms of networked economy, platforms based on exchange and collaboration everyone can contribute to and a series of statements and texts by researchers, critics, theorists discussing art, networks and economy.
In her curatorial text Dragona lists some of the issues at stake:
How is this new common wealth then formed? What are its mechanisms of development and support and which are the new forms of economy that emerge? What is the importance of new terms frequently mentioned such as the attention economy or the gift economy and of phenomena such as the sweatshops, the crowdsourcing or the merging of free and working time? Can free and open source software and knowledge exchange play a significant role?
"Esse, Nosse, Posse: Common Wealth for Common People" focuses on "posse", on the mode of production and being not only of the creators presented within this context but of all the contributors of today's common wealth , as well as on the possibilities of re-appropriation of knowledge that may occur only through knowledge itself.
So far, i've spent at least a couple of hours going through the projects, platforms and texts collected in Esse, Νosse, Posse. I also caught up with Daphne Dragona, the curator of the platform. And i had just one question for her:
This is not the first time you curate an online exhibition for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens. I'd be interested to know more about your experience on this particular issue. How do you make this platform successful? How can an online exhibition reach the usual museum audience?
Esse, Nosse, Posse, Common Wealth for Common People follows last year's Tag Ties and Affective Spies, also hosted in the website of the National Museum of Contemporary Art. The two exhibitions connect on purpose actually as they both relate to the digital networks discussing principal questions and issues around their structures and their functioning. Tag Ties and Affective Spies aimed to present critical approaches by artists on the very features of the social media whereas Esse, Nosse, Posses focuses on the issue of networked economies and today's user generated common wealth.
Esse, Nosse, Posse is however more a platform rather than an exhibition. I saw it as a chance to discuss ideas, notions and opinions and not merely as an opportunity to present online art . For this reason, except for "net art" works, also videos, texts and collaborative platforms are included as initiatives that comment on the topic of common wealth in various ways. Moreover, the platform is open, anyone having a relevant project can submit it , enriching the content. It is an ongoing presentation of resources, of ideas, of inspiring efforts.
From this point of view, this platform will be considered successful if people can learn things from it, share the data and use it, if the works and texts by the contributors meet new audiences, if new collaborations and ideas are born through it. I do not know yet if this happens or if it will happen but my aim was to include interesting content against the info - noise of the social web.
In any case, "success" does not get any easier when you do online projects . The National Museum of Contemporary Art the last few years has shown an interest and a commitment for digital and internet culture. The online exhibitions are also hosted in the physical space of the museum but it takes some time to trigger visitors' curiosity and interest. Some people are still very hesitant when confronted with computers in an exhibition space. Even if technology is part of their everyday lives, even if they are connected at home and at work, still in a museum they are reserved. Maybe it's the remains of the white cube culture but this issue is still open for a country like Greece. On the other hand, no one expects visitors to spend an hour viewing an online exhibition in the museum. The point is rather to get informed and follow online activities at their own place and time. The virtual space does not negate the physical one of the museum or the opposite; they interconnect but different opportunities are given in each case.
Other exhibitions curated by Daphne Dragona: Tag ties & affective spies, a critical approach on the social media of our times, Mark Amerika retrospective at the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens. She also co-curated Homo Ludens Ludens.
DIGITAL FOLKLORE - To computer users, with love and respect, edited by Olia Lialina & Dragan Espenschied. Brilliantly designed by Manuel Bürger. Published by Merz & Solitude and available on amazon UK, DE and FR*.
Technical innovations shape only a small part of computer and network culture. It doesn't matter much who invented the microprocessor, the mouse, TCP/IP or the World Wide Web; nor does it matter what ideas were behind these inventions. What matters is who uses them. Only when users start to express themselves with these technical innovations do they truly become relevant to culture at large.
Users' endeavors, like glittering star backgrounds, photos of cute kittens and rainbow gradients, are mostly derided as kitsch or in the most extreme cases, postulated as the end of culture itself. In fact this evolving vernacular, created by users for users, is the most important, beautiful and misunderstood language of new media.
As the first book of its kind, this reader contains essays and projects investigating many different facets of Digital Folklore: online amateur culture, DIY electronics, dirtstyle, typo-nihilism, memes, teapots, penis enlargement ...
Something both good and absolutely irritating happened while i was reading the book. I usually jot down tons notes on bits of paper while reading a book i have to review. This time however, i was so engrossed and entertained, i have only two lines on the notebook. I wasn't expecting that, i thought the book was for real geeks, not Sunday web drivers like me.
Digital Folklore fills a gap in the computer and network culture you'd never know existed if you attend only big tech or web design conferences. Subcultures peopled by lolcats, memes and unsightly fonts are conspicuously absent from these polished gatherings, but that doesn't mean that they are less relevant to computer culture than what you see in the PowerPoint of usability strategists, information designers and other web gurus.
Almost everything i abhor and love about the internet is in this book. I was hoping not to face again those dreadful Blingee cards that many of my french-speaking contacts from Belgium were so keen on inflicting upon me during the Holiday season but the damn Glitter Graphics are indeed featured in the book. My eyes closed themselves at the mere mention of the Blingee but other than that, i learnt so many things that i'm sure i'm a bit closer to satisfying the authors who, while writing the book, were guided by the moto: "You can and must understand computer culture NOW"! I wish my education had always involved so much fun.
The first part of the book is made of essays, articles and observations by Espenschied and Lialina. Computer culture has evolved and been submitted to guidelines and 'best practice' since they started the authors activity of web users and creators in the mid-90s. As they told Marie Lechner in an interview for Libération: "The excitement raised by the Web as a new medium has disappeared. Nowadays every single interest has its own, perfectly-organised online space, communication has become very standardized. The Web is regarded as a tool also by amateurs. The idea of a homepage supposed to communicate from a bright future is regarded as a silly romanticism."
Then come four essays by former Merz-Akademie students about online phenomena.
The last section presents projects of New Media and Interface Design students at Merz Akademie.
Here's one of my favourite, Bootyclipse. Dennis Knopf's YouTube channel archives and loops the few seconds that precedes the arrival in the frame of a girl who is going to shake her booty in front of a camera. Don't pay attention to what youtube writes, This video is suitable for minors.
I found the design of the book particularly appropriate, smart and playful. The objective of the designer Manuel Bürger was, as he wrote himself, to create a real amateur spirit - though you can feel that there's a "proper" design approach which makes everything practical and clear.
Previous post on this panel: Positions in Flux - Panel 1: Art goes politics - Hans Bernhard from UBERMORGEN.COM
Art goes politics, the first panel of Positions in Flux, discussed how/whether media art has the potential to contribute to global and local problems such as religious and territorial conflicts, environmental or social crisis.
One of the three artists invited to participate to the discussion is Wafaa Bilal. Born in Iraq, Bilal gained worldwide fame in 2007 with his performance Domestic Tension (aka. Shoot an Iraqi) which enabled web users around the world to control a paintball gun and shoot at him 24 hours a day. For a whole month. His works are being exhibited and discussed internationally and he is currently Assistant Arts Professor at Tisch School of Arts, NYU.
The artist presentation was articulated around his artworks:
How can artists today make images mean something, stimulate people and provoke them? Problems that political art face: disengagement of the issue and tendency of some artists to express the issues at stake through aesthetic pain rather than aesthetic pleasure. Bilal grew up in an oppressed society and didn't have the leisure to meditate on aesthetic alone. He therefore works with both aesthetic pain and aesthetic pleasure.
On May 4, 2007, Bilal set up his living and working quarters in a Chicago art gallery to perform Domestic Tension - Shoot an Iraqi. The project was a way for him to deal with the grief over the death of his brother in his hometown back in 2004. Bilal realized that he lives a comfortable life in the USA while his family is still in Iraq. Americans have been relatively shielded of the pain and suffering people experience in Iraq in their name. What kind of ethical consequence would seeing the consequences of war trigger? Would it humanize the issue? How can an artist go beyond a mere street protest (which alienates people most of the time anyway)?
Bilal found out that internet enables an artist to enter the safety zone of people's house whether they like it or not. Domestic Tension ended up exposing more complex issues than the artist had imagined at first. It was also a bigger success than he had hoped for. By the end of the one month performance in the gallery, the Domestic Tension website had received 80 million hits. The results of the work were both healing and disturbing for him. Some took control of the paintball gun in a very aggressive way, hacking the system so that the gun would shoot non-stop but by day 21, Bilal noticed that the gun was going right and left, not aiming at him. It turned out that a group of 39 people had united force to prevent people from shooting at the artist. They called themselves 'the virtual human shield.'
On day 14 of Domestic Tension, a link to the project was posted on Digg.com and Bilal was bombarded non stop, he couldn't fill the paintball fast enough to keep up with the demand.
The themes Domestic Tension explored:
Domestic Tension embedded the horror in the experience and allowed webusers to participate. People invested their own narrative and integrated the one of the artist.
After Domestic Tension
In 2008, while he was in residence at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Wafaa created Dog or Iraqi, asking people to vote who -- a dog named "Buddy," or an Iraqi, himself -- would be submitted to waterboarding, a form of torture that consists in immobilizing the victim and pouring water into the breathing passages to have them experience drowning. PETA obviously went mad about the idea that a dog would be harmed in the project, they were quite undisturbed by the fate of the Iraqi. Bilal lost to the dog and was submitted to waterboarding.
The next project was Night of Bush Capturing: Virtual Jihadi, a modified version of the first person shooter video game Quest for Bush, itself a "hacked" version of the commercial video game Quest for Saddam. In Bilal's version the artist inserted his personal narrative by casting himself as a suicide bomber who gets sent on a mission to assassinate President George W. Bush. He was intrigued by the idea that a terrorist organization had released a free game to recruit people. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute had to cancel the show after governmental pressures. At the time, the College Republicans called the RPI's Arts department "a safe haven for terrorists" on their blog. A second exhibition of the project had to be shut down due to the fact that the gallery didn't comply with some regulation about the size of its doors.
The objectives of the game were many:
For Bilal, new media art and interactivity presuppose the active involvement of a public whose function was once limited to viewing only. If the audience takes an interest in the work, they are more likely to engage in a dialogue that might, in the best cases, be revolutionary.
I would, once again, like to recommend Waffa Bilal's book Shoot An Iraqi, Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun to get to know more about his experience and art work. Previously: A few words with Wafaa Bilal and When interactive art becomes bored with you.
The first panel of Positions in Flux, a symposium organized by the Netherlands Institute of Media Art in Amsterdam last Saturday, was Art goes politics. The presentations and following discussion explored the artistic practices that turn their back on the assumption that art is something purely aesthetic, distant and contemplative. Instead, art can bite and get people involved in political, social or ethical issues: Does art have the potential to contribute to global and local problems such as religious conflicts, environmental or social crisis? Or is art constrained to raising awareness only? Should art become an agency for political and social affairs at all? How to successfully implement and conduct art projects in zones of crisis? How far do these projects benefit from the dubious attention of the mass media?
Some artists choose to stay outside conflict zones and reflect on the issues at stake, others step right inside the fight and either try to come up with possible solutions or subvert dominant systems.
The three speakers of the panel were Wafaa Bilal, Hans Bernhard from UBERMORGEN.COM and Christian Huebler from Knowbotic Research. It was fascinating to see that there's no such thing as 'just activism'. Each of them had a different view on the role and meaning of artists' involvement in burning issues.
I took notes from Hans Bernhard's talk but because i found his statement truly thought-provoking, i begged him to get his text. He was kind enough to upload it online. One of the points that i find most striking in his talk is when Bernhard explains that UBERMORGEN.COM are not, as most of us would lazily assume, activists but rather actionists in the Viennese Actionism tradition. Just go and read the manifesto, it speaks of their view on all sorts of media outlets, the real life (e.g. legal) impact and side-products of their online actions, and the group's lack of political agenda. But most of all, even if it is not written by self-declared activists, the text has nevertheless a deep relevance on the Art Goes Politics front.
If you're interested in going beyond the manifesto, i would recommend two recent books dedicated to the Austrian duo. The first one is UM.BOOK, UBERMORGEN.COM - MEDIA HACKING VS. CONCEPTUAL ART by HANS BERNHARD and LIZVLX (no worries, the text is all in english), a book compiling texts by critics, curators and artists and celebrating the 10th anniversary of UBERMORGEN.COM. The other book is UBERMORGEN.COM which provides an overview of work and features contributions by the art critics Inke Arns and Domenico Quaranta and the net.art duo Jodi.org.
Image on the homepage: Superenhanced Familiarization: S2E2, Fabio Paris Gallery.