The long, dark days of early November are here and another American election is upon us. This one, unique as a hotly contested midterm followed around the world. At stake, a Republican agenda fueling the global march towards fascism versus some kind of checks and balances in one of the world's great democracies. Winter is coming!
Trolls, hackers, spyware, internet, wikis, electronic voting, once the coded terminology of a long forgotten digerati, have become common currency on the speculative market of popular public opinion generators. Social media, mobile devices and ubiquitous mainstream media coverage fuel conspiracies and economies now feed a public hungry for constant communication. Just days before citizens were to go to the polls, there were accusations of cybercrime. Americans are more networked than ever. A pity one cannot say the same for informed or empathetic. Today, different kinds of bubbles need bursting.
Rewind back to 2000, when the bubble was the boom-and-bust internet economy, and a couple of European techno-capitalists were out to commodify another hotly contested US election—between Al Gore and GW Bush. UBERMORGEN (lizvlx and Hans Bernhard), fronting as shady East European dot.com entrepreneurs, riffed off of James Baumgartner’s legally challenged website, voteauction.com, by buying it. Suddenly an international start-up was outsourcing Americans’ sacred claim on democracy: the vote. It not only played into, but off of the deeply held fears and values of the population. Their votes could be auctioned off to the highest bidder—or they could cash in on not voting.
In reality, voteauction.com was a highly sophisticated conceptual performance-cum-media hoax-cum-experiment that was acted out on the international stage of the internet, mass media and the American judicial system. The news was real but the auction was a fake—it was a news fake.
Eighteen years ago, the internet was a different thing, in the process of casting off its utopic metallic cast of ’90s cyberspace and entering the popular imaginaries of people around the world (if not their homes). Dial-up modems were still a thing, website design was a viable career, the cool kids were surfing, Europeans were sniping at WIRED, and the whole world had just survived the impending doom of Y2K—the Millennium Bug—when the 20th century computer codes would reset the date to ’00. There wasn't any social media, not a Friendster in sight. East Europe was another dangerous, exciting place (almost a real life second life in the American mind), where money could be made, wars could break out, and anything was possible. The masses mostly experienced this virtually, through the firmly established screen of the 24-hour cable news cycle. Like today, there was a deeply entrenched fear of election rigging, albeit for very different reasons. For the mainstream populations in Western Democracies, and especially in the US, the internet was a fantastical space and networked computers held a sexy, promising, and slightly dangerous allure. An oft-cited new wild west, similar to Eastern Europe, distant places where dreams could be realized—both offered gold, freedom, unlimited space, porn, perverts, and outlaws. Y2K and its attendant fear-mongering had given people some idea of just how networked and omnipresent computers were in the world. Al Gore’s electronic superhighway was also a potential space for a different kind of gerrymandering and vote rigging. Cable news was rife with speculation about how the internet could be used to rig the vote and how computers could be infiltrated by those with bad intentions.
Meanwhile in Europe, the not-so-glittery digerati were busy in smoke-filled independent media labs (later to be anointed hackerspaces) where net.artists, actionists, media activists, and hackers were wildly tapping into a network full of unrealized potential. UBERMORGEN were working on the fringes of an emergent Netzkultur built around conferences like MetaForum, The Next Five Minutes, and Ars Electronica, and practiced in the real and virtual spaces of backspace, bootlab, C3, nettime, the internet, and across East and West Europe. It was a rich context for Viennese Actionism, Situationism, Deleuzian/Guattarian ideas, pirate radio, zines, and net.art to proliferate, and for experimenting and testing the boundaries of what a networked world could be. This zeitgeist also informed how UBERMORGEN could perform virtual election fraud in the real space of media and the abstract space of international law.
Vote-Auction was not only in time, but of its time. And like all great works of art, it can be read through a contemporary lens (or on a screen) as less of a historical artifact and more of an avant garde indicator of the things to come. With a typical low tech dot.com aesthetic and the slogan “Bringing Capitalism and Democracy Closer Together,” it was performed in the public space of mainstream radio, internet, print media, television and evan a half-hour feature on CNN. In a rare moment for performance, it caught the attention of a global audience of over 500 million people and quite a few legal authorities. Vote-Auction was never explained or presented as an art project because UBERMORGEN refused for it to be tamed into some wacky European art action. Like the best net.art, it worked outside the space of art, exploiting the media, not to act as a mere descriptive or symbolic gesture, but to actually operate as a participant in that moment.
Similar to the work of JODI, Vote-Auction played on anxieties about the instability of the interconnectedness of the world and all the dangerous elements that might lurk in the dark corners of the internet. It went further by looking at the the financialization of elections and the operational logic of neo-liberal capital. Weirdly, the website had a built in educational feature, with links to actual credible sources on the candidates, campaign finance and an early user generated content function. Combined, all this exposed the faultlines of the unregulated space of the internet, as injunction after injunction sought to have the site taken offline, the deeply embedded weaknesses of American political campaigns, and what a market-driven democracy might look like.
Nikita Khrushchev once noted, “So in the end your country is ruled by one judge, one American, not even elected.” In 2000, this was proven true when the election ended with a decision by the Supreme Court. In 2018, this particular election begins with a decision about the Supreme Court. It's not that history repeats itself, just that the past is always reminding us of what is going to happen after tomorrow.