|over here over there
home ||| avant gardening |||
||| Bare Code:Net Art and the Free Software Movement |||
||| [part 1] ||| [part 2] |||
Bios and Backlash
Avant-garde net art does not limit itself to a critique of the artwork's autonomy, but extends its critical activity beyond art-internal discourses to address precisely this condition that Negri and Hardt, after Michel Foucault, call "biopolitical production" in their recent book Empire. This could be summarized as the general subsumption of the social bios--entailing the free contagion of ideas, the compulsive flow of communication, the affectiveness of bodies, the inventiveness of communities--by capital. Negri and Hardt pick up and extend Foucault's observation that "life has become ... an object of power," by which is meant that there is now a power struggle over the production and reproduction of life itself. Biopolitical production is understood as the mode of production and power that accompanies a historical shift from the "disciplinary society" to the "society of control." Where the disciplinary society controlled and fixed bodies within institutions such as factories, schools, hospitals, or asylums and used "closed, geometrical, and quantitative logics," the society of control is "open, qualitative, and affective." The disciplinary society can be described as working to contain subjects, while the society of control centers on the production of subjectivities. In other words, where once there was an outside to the factory, an edge to the spaces of discipline, now, in the information age, the behavior of the individual is continuously tracked and aggregated (or at least potentially) so that our entire existence becomes entwined with production. One has only to think of advertising slogans such as British Telecom's "It's good to talk" or its "helping people make connections" to get a sense of this. The phone company no longer represents itself as the mere provider of a communications infrastructure, but as a potent social agent conjuring community out of the alienation of modern life. "Talking" is no longer something we do, and always have done, but something that British Telecom helps us to do, even reminds us we should do!
The net artist Rachel Baker's 1997 project TM Clubcard is a riposte to corporations' biopolitical masquerade as community builders--in this case the U.K. supermarket Tesco's attempted disguise of a consumer profiling system behind the form a social "club" for which the "Clubcard" acted as both membership card and tagging device. In an article written by Baker on this project, she singles out this insidious aspect of the scheme, which her own "disloyalty cards" address:
"...the Clubcard encourages the idea that customers are joining a "club". However, the members of this club exist in separate datafields and remain, to all intents and purposes, alienated from each other. The "club" only defines a relationship between the individual Clubcard holder and Tescos superstore, with little contact encouraged between other members. Some club!" 6For this project, Baker applied the "earn points as you shop" system to surfing. Encouraging a number of "partisan" websites to display the pirated Tesco Clubcard logo, Baker then assigned an immediate personal identification number, derived from real Clubcards "acquired" from Tesco stores, to anyone who clicked on the logo and filled out a questionnaire. These cards were later mailed to the subscriber. Every time subscribers visited one of the sites in the TM Clubcard catalog, they were then rewarded with loyalty points, but the points no longer related to a money-off reward. Instead, using the database of email addresses collected through the questionnaire, Baker would send "erroneous junk mail" to the card holders. This included communications addressed to other people or a printout of the database's own faulty program. Baker explains: "This strategy ensures that recipients know that they are on a database, that it is dysfunctional, and, more importantly, that there are other members of the club with whom potential contact is possible." Out of "the machinery of a monstrous incorporated presence" Baker seeks to build a truly sociable club.
Tesco quickly spotted the project, however, and tracked down its author via a search made with the InterNIC domain name registrar, which provided Tesco with the address of Irational Gallery Limited (the organization name used by Rachel Baker and fellow net artist Heath Bunting to register the Irational.org domain). On April 21, 1997, Irational.org received a letter from Tesco's solicitors Willoughby & Partners accusing them of copyright and trademark infringement as well as the more serious crime of passing off, which referred to Baker's use of the Tesco brand identity to extract personal data from web users. As a result of Tesco's threat of civil action, rather than simply taking down the site as the Tesco lawyers had demanded or transferring the site to another domain hosted by a foreign server, Baker decided to switch the branding to that of the Sainsbury's supermarket chain. This was largely due to the fact that the site was dependent on the various catalog sites and was consequently not a discrete, easily transferable data object. At this point Baker foresaw what the project would indeed become: "The project's trajectory could be a series of solicitors letters each telling a story of a different loyalty card hijack and trademark transference." Today, the site no longer functions as originally intended but is instead a collection of disassembled components serving as a record of the project, its participants, some of the data collected, and the legal correspondence generated by it.
This project is interesting because it attacks the corporate production of a controlled community using its own tools. Hacking the supermarkets' own branding and data-collection system, the project attempts to fabricate a true community of interest off the back of the dysfunctional "loyalty club." This relates back to the free software movement in the sense that the artistic "coder" modifies the source code of a piece of corporate "software" to a different end. Rather than building the artwork from scratch, Baker plagiarizes the work already done by supermarket chains to liberate a new potential hidden within it. TM Clubcard also participates in the spirit of free software in the sense that it combats the extension of proprietary rights over what was formerly freely available in the public domain or outside the scope of corporate interest: in this case, the contingent decisions of shoppers or common phrases (such as "Baker's finest," which she lifted from the store's bakery section) that Tesco has copyrighted as part of its brand identity. Of course, where this differs markedly from the free software movement is the illegality of Baker's activity. Where the free software movement can rewrite software from scratch rather than ripping off preexisting pieces of code and thus coexist with the commercial software industry, the force of Baker's work depends on the creative hacking of social, technical, and corporate systems. This reveals that the question of original invention is one of the limits to the analogy between the free software movement and net art. Where it is possible to write code entirely from scratch (albeit collectively and notwithstanding the possibility of its infinite reuse thereafter), the whole ethos surrounding plagiaristic net art prohibits any return to a notional ground zero. It is not possible to totally rescript the "society of control," and the dialectic between art and life is such that it cannot merely coexist alongside the status quo as an alternative system.
Having characterized the free software movement as capable of producing a discrete stratum of software that can coexist with proprietary software, it must, however, be stressed that this harmonious relation pertains only to the legal status of the code. In other words, free software may not infringe copyright laws by plagiarizing proprietary code, but it certainly poses a threat to big business by promising to incite a mass consumer flight away from commercially created products to nonproprietary ones. An insight into the potential scale of this flight was given when, in 1998, the Mexican government announced its decision to install the GNU/Linux operating system in 140,000 elementary and middle-school computer labs nationwide. The decision (subsequently rejected on the grounds that people did not possess the necessary user skills), was made primarily on economic grounds, since Mexico simply could not afford to pay for all the licenses on proprietary software. Extrapolating from the example of Mexico to the rest of the developing world, it seems reasonable to speculate that this huge emerging market might truly be persuaded by the economic and cultural wisdom of using free software. Speculating yet further, but not beyond the bounds of reason, it is possible to see how the free software community of coders will spread far outside the western world to include the emerging coders of the developing world. The open protocols (HTTP) upon which the World Wide Web itself operates, and which the numerous commercial and proprietary operations that depend on it take for granted, might yet be instrumental in helping to connect up the software industry's nemesis: a world wide web of free software users and producers. Here it is hard not to be struck by the fit between Benjamin's idea of the revolutionary potential of the self-transforming production apparatus and the history of networked computing. It is also this potentiality inherent in the communicative nature of biopolitical production or biopower that Negri and Hardt identify in their book Empire and that forms the grounds for their unflagging optimism. "The immediately social dimension of the exploitation of living immaterial labour," they argue, "immerses labour in all the relational elements that define the social but also at the same time activates the critical elements that develop the potential of insubordination and revolt through the entire set of labouring practices." 7
I/O/D's Web Stalker (1998) is one of several "art browsers" that reconfigure standard interfaces to reveal this selfsame "potential for insubordination." The Web Stalker's premise is to break with the "technical-aesthetic monopoly" of Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Explorer browser software to reveal, on one level, that there is nothing in the HTML code being streamed to a computer that forces an adherence to its design instructions.8 As group theorist Matthew Fuller has put it: "These instructions are only followed by a device obedient to them." I/O/D conceives of the HTML stream as a current that could be interpreted by a different kind of software in a way that has nothing to do with its purpose. In practical terms, the Web Stalker has six main functions: the Crawler, which actually links to the Web, looks for links inside a URL and logs them; the Map, which takes the HTML stream from the Crawler and represents all HTML documents as circles and all links between them as lines (this map is dynamically linked to the Crawler's constant production of new data which can, in turn, be mapped); the Dismantle function, which gives more detailed information than the Map function; the Stash function, which is a way of saving the user's web use; the Stream function, which demonstrates how the HTML "feed" from all the sites being explored is mixed together as a single stream; and finally, the Extract function, which strips a document of its text and then displays the text in its own window. When the Web Stalker is opened, it turns the entire screen black, and the users then take the cursor and draw a window, repeating this action for every extra function they want to employ. Although the background color can be altered, its default setting is black, something that Fuller describes as announcing "a reverse nihilist moment," by which he means that where browsers conventionally screen the network activity out, "suddenly everything is there."
Although I/O/D built the Web Stalker using the commercial software Macromedia, its effect--of baring the HTML stream and creating an encounter between the user and the normally hidden activity of the net--relates directly to the spirit of free software. The user's normally amnesiac passage through the net is suddenly rendered mappable as past links are displayed, and a galaxy of potential links made evident. Likewise, the blinkering produced by the universal adoption of GUI metaphors is thrown off, and the user is able to gain the sense of the multiple possibilities of which the computer-mediated communications (CMC) environment is actually capable. This realization could be an important step toward the Benjaminian ideal of consumers becoming collaborators through the model character of the work. In this respect, an artistic interpretation of the principles of free software entails the exposure of what is ordinarily screened out, the introduction of the raw into the cooked. This, in turn, relates to earlier avant-garde inclusion of previously "obscene" or unacceptable material whose introduction into the artwork, if only temporarily, sent shockwaves through culture and society as the coordinates of possibility were traumatically redrawn. The cubists' inclusion of real-world materials into the space of the painting, the surrealists' inclusion of the unconscious and its automatic drives into the production and subject of the artwork, and the minimalists' discovery of the actual space of the gallery are just some of the examples that spring to mind. This "obscene" or excluded material contains within it a double potential. On the one hand, it is the "bare life" that the biopolitical mode of production fixes upon and subsumes within itself as the new object of power. On the other hand, it contains within it the potential to explode the workings of power--be this cultural, technological, or political--through a kind of macrosocial act of desublimation that makes it impossible for the repressive social fictions to be sustained.
In the case of 0100101110101101.org's recent work life_sharing, the construct of privacy and individual identity is deployed as the point of rupture. Taking its cue from a technique called "file sharing"--by which computers, usually connected via an ethernet or intranet, can share the files stored on other computer hard drives--0100101110101101.org opened its computer's entire hard drive up to the net. Although it is necessary to access this computer via the membrane of the browser, the viewer can nonetheless access all the files stored on the artists' hard drive simply by visiting their home page. In a certain sense, this project simply draws attention to how the Internet already functions: When visiting a website, one is in any case downloading a file stored on a server computer's hard drive, which is constantly connected, via a phone line, to the net. 0100101110101101.org's life_sharing essentially operates on the same principle except, rather than making only certain files available as HTML documents, all the files are accessible, including its software and the GNU/Linux OS. In a more overtly political sense, the project identifies the attempt to ring-fence and protect information (on the hard drive or the server computer) as both a futile exercise and a fearful capitulation to the myth of individual identity: "Consider the increasing tendency toward intrusion in the private sphere," the artists proclaim. "0100101110101101.org believes firmly that privacy is a barrier to demolish. life_sharing must be considered a proof ad absurdo. The idea of privacy itself is obsolete." In several ways, then, excess and abjection are summoned up to combat the entrapment of the individual within the individuating microphysics of power. A total data surplus is suggested as a means to combat the paranoia of surveillance systems operated by the state and private enterprise, and the controlling boundaries of the viewable website are ruptured to lay bare the potential for the entire hard drive--and by extension the private sphere--to become viewable from the outside.
To end by returning to where we began, the decision to award the GNU/Linux operating system with the Prix Ars Electronica signals the entry of the free software ethos into the popular imagination, but it should be remembered that this includes the corporate imagination as well. As we have also seen above, biopolitical production is a two-way street and the flow of traffic moves back and forth between strategies of power and counterpower. It might then come as no surprise to discover that, shortly after this "radical" decision, four members of the Ars Electronica jury (Derrick de Kerckhove, Lisa Goldman, Joichi Ito, and Marleen Stikker) apparently published a joint statement announcing that the decision had been rigged, or at the very least steered, by some of the big commercial sponsors of the festival: Siemens, Microsoft, Oracle, and Hewlett-Packard.
"From reliable sources," they announced, "we also learned that the decision was made weeks before the '.net' jury decision on linux. [We are going public because] we have also just learned that the above-mentioned IT-companies are involved in a linux distribution joint venture and a strategic alliance. Their joint venture startup will most probably become one of the leading linux distributors, directly attacking Red Hat and SUSE. This is the classic oligopolistic strategy. They cannot buy linux, nevertheless, they will take control over the distribution of the competitor." Although this post later turned out to be a fake, the substance of the mail points to the truth of the judges' decision, or the commercial logic that it reveals: the realization, touched on above, that what is given freely by communities is seen ever more as the ideal object of power and commodification. Here, however, is where the tactical mode adopted by net artists and other independent media operators starts to show its strengths. Where the logic of capital, despite the shift to biopolitical production, must always seek to derive profit from its investments by extracting a product, the tactician eschews the proper (proper names, fixed identities, defined territories) in the name of the makeshift, precarious, ephemeral, and improvisatory. The free software movement--which is based on the idea of the complete open-endedness of software's code and the belief that the chance innovations of open collaboration outstrip the battened-down defensiveness of private R&D--should, in this respect, be considered tactical. The tilt of production toward the biopolitical--subsuming the communicative and affective relations of society--seeks to harness the innovations of everyday tactical activity but, through converting what is in flux into something fixed, continually misses the true possibilities of tactical invention. Net artists, in the best instances, can articulate both the new modes of production defined by CMC and their potential radicalization. By baring the code--be it social, technological, or aesthetic--that underpins the Internet environment, net artists provide an insight into the potential for anyone to become a producer or to extend the free software ethos to cultural and social production in general. Cooptation always looms, but, as we have seen from the fictitious comments of the four dissenting Ars Electronica judges, this usually hinges on converting the "obscenity" of what is freely produced or given into the "properness" of what can be packaged and distributed. Hence, baring the code or revealing the unseemly openness of technical and social operating systems augurs an alternative kind of biopolitical production--one that defies any easy recuperation and sale and that contests the production of subjectivity by means of an open cultural practice.
||| [part 1] ||| [part 2] |||
6 Rachel Baker, "TM Clubcard. Remember: Language Is Not Free", Telepolis, July 22, 1997
7 Ibid, p. 29
8 Matthew Fuller, "A Means of Mutation: Notes on I/O/D 4 The Web Stalker," in Readme! Ascii Culture and the Revenge of Knowledge--
Josephine Berry is deputy editor of the culture and technology magazine Mute. This piece was specially commissioned for Open_Source_Art_Hack, part of the NetArtCommons site.
Also available online at the anti-copyright library, textz.com.