Hacktivism as High {Tech} Art

Posted by Alexander Galloway | Tue May 28th 2002 1 a.m.

Currently on view at New York's New Museum of Contemporary Art is
"Open_Source_Art_Hack," a group show of artists poetically conflating
hacking with open-sourcing. There is, already, a bit of a hacker ethos
to open source. The idea that often commercially-valuable, always
laboriously-constructed codes should be openly accessible (openly
modifiable!) by all begs the invention of naughty plots a la Bruce
Sterling's 1993 cult classic, "The Hacker Crackdown." But the artists
in this show are not rerouting police emergency calls to phone- sex
lines or breathing heavily into payphone receivers to rip off Baby
Bells. They are co-opting existing means of surveillance or
surveillance-culture indoctrination to make new comments about life in
network culture. Incidentally, by participating in a major museum show,
they are also helping to launch "hacktivism" into the colloquy of
contemporary art...

On Sundays, in New York, the curious can take a walking tour of the
city's hidden cameras, led by members of the Surveillance Camera
Players. The group has mapped over half of the city's estimated ten
thousand strategically-placed cameras--though the total figure continues
to rise, following post-911 rally- cries for increased surveillance.
The Players have worked, through tours, performances, protests, and
other activities, to protect the rights of Americans, outlined under the
4th Amendment to the Constitution, "against unreasonable searches and
seizures." Americans, they say, have a right to observe those observing
them. This mantra plays out, self-reflexively, in all of the work
included in "Open Source Art Hack."

In SCP's case, the surveillance camera is treated like a television
camera, before which the group performs theatrical gems from George
Orwell's "Animal Farm" to Alfred Jarry's "Ubu Roi." After six years of
interventions, SCP has come to feel that passersby have become more
their audience than the police eyes trained on their target cameras, as
evidenced in protests in which members inform oblivious strollers that
they were being watched. Videos of these performances and walking-tours
comprise SCP's contribution to the show. Museum visitors (or otherwise
oblivious strollers) will find themselves peering in at the videos in
the museum's storefront window--an at-once typical site for the
investment of scopophilic energy and atypical site for the
museum-display of art.

Next to SCP's videos, and further inside the museum, are the Radical
Software Group's "Carnivore" clients. RSG's packet-sniffing machine
monitors the traffic on a selection of computers--in this case, those in
the museum's media lounge-- and visualizes the docking-sites and use of
pre-programmed keywords. Putting the "art" in "art hack," each RSG
client has created a unique interface for this visualization.
Particularly poignant is entopy8zuper's representation of active users
as globe-circling airplanes trudging a crash-and-burn path where logoffs
leave fiery pock-marks in an ambiguous web world. While "Carnivore" is
modeled after the FBI's surveillance engine, RSG-founder Alex Galloway
has shrugged off the typical hacker coat of arms, claiming to be more
interested in exploring positive models of observation than undermining
the state apparatus.

Here, RSG, like its "Open Source Art Hack" peers, reestablishes mimicry
as a beautiful, if scientifically-complex, form of defense. But what is
it that is being defended against? For starters, it's the infusion of
panoptic strategies into network culture. Whether it is packet sniffing
or search engine data- cataloguing, internet users are always-already
vulnerable to the search and display of their activities and
communication. Indeed, it is not just that Google is archiving one's
chat-group confessions, but the possibility that any and all future
actions might be monitored that invokes a Foucaultian digital
panopticon-an always-present eye casting an impact upon the moves we
make.

LAN's "Tracenoizer" clone sites exploit the abundance of unfiltered
personal information online, creating sources of mis-information about
websurfers bearing a data-based resemblance (say, a similar name) to
"Tracenoizer" users. Filmmaker Harun Farocki, a welcome addition to the
cadre of what has become a too-tight nepotistic circle of "new media"
artists, explores these panoptic issues in his "Eye/Machine." Exposing
the means and motives by which war machines look, Farocki pairs
interviews of surveillance pilots with sample footage. The result is a
document of the constructed realities (read: visions) of war and the
impetus for incorporating military machinery into civilian life.

Both Knowbotic Research and Cue P. Doll have turned established search
mechanisms on their heads in creating alternative means of gathering
information about the world's major companies and organizations.
Knowbotic Research's entrancing installation has at its heart a portal
for the exposure of the crack- vulnerabilities of a public group's
server. Plastic containers flash and buzz with varying intensity--a
comment on the physicality of the firewall--as data rolls and pops on
screen, Vegas-style. Cue P. Doll's "CueJack" bites the tongue of the
"CueCat," a barcode scanner that delivers users at the door of retail
websites. "CueJack" also reads barcodes, but rather than touting the
many fine products for sale by the manufacturer of the item you've
scanned, "CueJack" takes you to a database of the corporate wrong-doings
and related boycotts of said retailer. Both Knowbotic Research's
installation and Cue P. Doll's scanner require readings with the body,
thereby making users corporeally complicit in the {art-} hack
activities.

Radioqualia calls for sonic participation in their "Free Radio Linux"
project. Artists Adam Hyde and Honor Harger have created an online and
on-air radio station in which a computerized voice reads the Linux
operating system code--an endeavor that will take years to complete.
"Free Radio Linux" is the ultimate self-reflexive case of artists
commenting on the character and relative complexities of existing
channels of representation, distribution, and interpretation. Their
project provides the sonic backdrop for the asking of several key
questions underscored by "Open Source Art Hack." Perhaps most important
is the question, "What is a code?"

The Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions (ATIS) defines it
as "a set of unambiguous rules specifying the manner in which data may
be represented in a discrete form." The fact that we use the same
four-letter word to describe a system of representation that we do to
refer to social norms (see dress "code") is less a matter of irony and
more an indication of the degree to which that system of representation
is a reflection of a dominant ideology. That special milieu we've named
"network culture" is no more than a percentage of the population at
large behaving and interacting in such a way as to self- reflexively
trace their patterns of protocol-driven activity. Seemingly mechanical
activity like the ping-pong game of one computer chatting with another
was scripted by humans who have been enculturated in a society in which
there exist elaborate codes of propriety and impropriety, in
communicative exchange, and where a sort of social Darwinism has
translated keeping up with the Joneses into keeping up with the OS's.
However phantasmatic the traces of these social scripts are upon
computer codes, their products are entirely tangible. Hacktivism, while
admittedly entrenched in recognizing--if not following--rules of
engagement, then seems a worthwhile means of attempting to dissect the
ideological apparatuses at play in this closed circle of coded
signification.
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