"Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather." This is how Perry Barlow addressed the world in 1996 in his Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace , an emotional call to let the Internet be a free haven, far away from politics or marketing. Set up as a network of a few academic computers in the late 1960s, the Internet was expanding rapidly into the 1990s to become Cyberspace, a term coined by William Gibson in the story Burning Chrome. Cyberspace referred to the Internet as a place cut off from the physical here and now. A place that allowed you to experiment with identity, race and gender, where matter dissolved in virtuality and atoms became bits. Where you could be free, no matter who you were in the ‘real’ world. This utopian and libertarian ideal envisioned the Internet as a home for the mind, not determined by the underlying technological system but mainly by the imagination and the human desire for autonomy and self-realisation.
We now know that things turned out differently for the Internet and in 2004, even Barlow himself had admitted to being a bit too optimistic: we are all “sadder and wiser”. The Internet today is anything but an independent sanctuary of the mind, resembling an attention market instead; a commercial junkyard for anything and everything, rife with untransparent business models, appropriation and political backstabbing – behind the scenes or centre-stage. Meanwhile, it has become impossible to tell whether the interplay of design, algorithms and protocols leaves us the freedom to make our own choices.
Gauging our times, MU wonders what it means to be human in this online era while it explores the influence of the Internet. Online and offline, digital and physical, have become completely and irreversibly entwined; questioning this reality and its manifestations can change our perception, reveal their meaning and mitigate their effects. Art as an antidote.
So what is the difference between the real world and the Internet today, between the physical world and the one onscreen? Looking at the work of Jip de Beer, the answer to this question appears to be less straightforward than we are inclined to think. With the use of an automated system the artist translates apparently flat websites into three-dimensional architectural models. They are digital, so you can explore them with an avatar and a game controller but they also exist as golden 3D prints: the rigid architecture becomes tangible, leaving the so-called virtual world behind. To De Beer this way of working is not just a playful transformation from 2D to 3D; it also signifies an act of defiance against the dependency on technology he experiences and the dominating influence of large online players. He appropriates it, giving it a new place in his own world, in a new form. He literally pulls the Internet through the screen, making it possible for us to relate to it in a completely different way.
Clement Valla also focuses on the relationship between 2D and 3D that the Internet implies but now from the viewpoint of serial photography. Combined with social media, big data and a culture of surveillance, to him it represents the predominant means of communication, even more so since the rise of Instagram and Snapchat. Inspired by the Shroud of Turin, Valla explores the connection between two-dimensional images and physical forms: wrapping crowd-sourced still-live images made with free photogrammetric programs like Autodesk 123 Catch around physical objects, he constructs a new reality that confuses the distinction between object and representation. In Postcards from Google Earth, a previous work also included in this exhibition, we find alienating images from Google Earth in which the world we recognise from aerial photography has become strangely distorted.
Our first impression would probably be that we are dealing with glitches here, disturbances in the software system. But Valla points out that on closer inspection things are even more interesting: the images do not result from glitches but from the system’s logical consequences. The two-dimensional aerial captures of the earth’s surface made by Google’s satellites are sometimes at a loss of how to relate to the three-dimensional elevation model of the globe, and fold around the data like a wrapper around an orange. It can produce fascinating images of waving bridges and free-wheeling highways that are surreal and yet familiar. They are deviations within the system rather than failures.
These delusional moments within Google Earth have another effect as well. By directing our attention to the software behind it they expose this new model of representation, not as a series of photographs but as an automated database generated from different sources. As Valla puts it: “Google Earth is a database disguised as a photographic representation”. The artist draws our attention to the actual process, to the network of algorithms, computers, maps and automated cameras, and not just to the visual outcome.
Apart from these reflections on technology, form and representation, we can ask more ethical questions regarding the voluntary or involuntary use of the Internet and online services. What do we give up as we become more and more entangled in the World Wide Web – and what do we receive in return? According to philosopher of technology Peter Paul Verbeek it is not a matter of refusing or embracing a certain technology or development, but rather of questioning it, allowing us to better guide such new developments and to ensure some form of control and impact. After all, technology makes us who we are. This is a subject that we also encounter in the work of Lauren McCarthy, an ambiguous performance called LAUREN in which both the artist and the spectator are actively engaged.
LAUREN is a flesh and blood version of the Siris and Alexas of this world. On request, the artist will install several instant smart objects in your home that allow her to monitor and observe you remotely and to maintain contact as well. Like a living voice assistant LAUREN will perform various tasks for you – even without being asked – and adjust herself to your desires and needs.
Transposing an originally automated system to a person of flesh and blood will highlight certain elements of the system, which become more sensitive as a result: why would you allow someone to monitor your daily life? At what point do things become (too) private? What will LAUREN do with all the information she obtains? McCarthy’s work isn’t judgemental, it merely creates a situation that allows these question to ensue all by themselves. It already starts when you open LAUREN’s project page at www.get-lauren.com: it immediately asks permission to use your webcam. Yes? No? If you choose yes, your camera will automatically switch on each time you return to the page. LAUREN evokes questions, she invites research without dictating the answers. She does so in a very non-automated fashion, by the way – which neatly fits another sign of the times that we can distinguish: that of personal experience. Away from the masses and the automated, towards the personal and the specific.
Jeroen van Loon also questions the Internet but in a totally different way, as he investigates its use in general. In his work Life Needs Internet he attempts to document our experience of the Internet through a collection of handwritten letters from all over the world: it includes stories from Brazil, China, France, India, Ghana and West Papua, and you can add your own letter if you like, at www.lifeneedsinternet.com. The work is actually a double document. On the one hand Van Loon shows various characterisations of our age from different parts of the world. On the other hand he sets the handwritten texts against the digital transliteration. The stories are personal and candid, they give us an impression of individual persons with their expectations, worries and dreams, and at the same time they touch upon the economic, social and political aspects of the surrounding society at a certain time.
Meanwhile, the digital archive notwithstanding, Van Loon researches its exact opposite in his other work: what would the Internet be without its archival function, when its data would only be accessible for a brief period of time?
The way Van Loon sees it, the Internet as we know it today is merely a first version that will be continued in many different forms. Prompted by a personal need, which he also observed among his peers, to escape the compelling force of digital memory he sets out in search of alternatives. In the work An Internet he lays out his idea for a different approach to data and communication. It visualises an Internet without memory where “the right to be forgotten” is no longer a problem. An Internet where data only exist for the present, where momentum matters again. Here, data evaporate in front of your eyes: how would it affect our communication when everything that happens online goes up in smoke as soon as it exists? What role could the Internet play then?
Another strand of thought we can distinguish in current artistic reflection on the Internet is that of the Internet as market place. Joshua Citarella and Brad Troemel founded the Ultra Violet Production House (UV), an online store for hypothetical artworks that no one has ever seen in a finished state. UV started out as an Etsy store and now offers do-it-yourself material kits and pre-fabricated works on their own website. Works on the store are advertised as digital composites of advertising images sourced from just in time online retailers. Buyers of a DIY kit will be sent all parts, tools, and tutorials for fabrication as well as a certificate of authenticity. Once received, they may then choose to assemble the work or leave their shipping boxes of parts and tools unopened in mint condition.
Several concepts converge at UV. First of all, it is a research into new revenue models in the art world: how can you keep costs for studio space and investments like supplies and storage at a minimum and still produce and sell art? All the artists have to do is visualise their ideas through digital means in a post-lens photographic process – and put them online. After that they don’t need to act until someone orders a work.
Second, this Do-It-Yourself mentality is reminiscent of the Whole Earth Catalogue, a precursor of the Internet referred to by Steve Jobs as ‘Google in paperback form’. First published in 1968, the idealistic magazine was packed with tools and tips to facilitate the autonomy of the hippie counterculture in California. Citarella and Troemel say their UV references the kind of autonomist communities that evolved from the hippie movement into the ‘preppers’ on the one hand – people who prepare for Armageddon or some other global disaster – and the idealistic social reformers on the other. According to the artists the two groups have much more in common than most people think. This is expressed, for instance, in Incense Fence that was ordered by MU as a pre-fabricated work and was consequently installed by the artists themselves. The incense represents the hippie world, while the fence stands for the owning class of cattle farmers and landowners. By bringing such an unlikely combination of materials together in harmony, the two opposing worlds become connected, not unlike what happened with the mental legacy of the 1960s: the ideals of flower power were mingled with big business, resulting in companies like Facebook, Uber and Airbnb.
Finally, the Ultra Violet Production House is also about the long-tail effect of the Internet, where search engines enable niche markets to sell less of more. As Chris Anderson claims: the future of commerce and culture isn’t in hits, the high-volume head of a traditional demand curve, but in what used to be regarded as misses – the endlessly long tail of that same curve. At the same time, however, we still see how the power of volume applies to social media and the economic principles behind the number of followers, friends and likes someone manages to amass. The pull factor of these reward systems is so strong that even Silicon Valley insiders start to voice their concern, as we can read in a recent article by The Guardian on smartphone dystopia and the loss of free will: “If Apple, Facebook, Google, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat are gradually chipping away at our ability to control our own minds, could there come a point, I ask, at which democracy no longer functions?”
It may be obvious that the systems driving attention and likes are big business but there is also very little the individual can do to change this situation. The system can be sabotaged though, and at the same time it can be criticised through the use of humour as Dries Depoorter is showing us: his vending machine sells one-Euro scratch cards with a chance of winning up to 25,000 Twitter or Instagram followers that will give you instant fame without any further effort on your part. This jolly form of inflation downplays the value of these systems, winking at the power, the mechanisms and the masses.
MU is positioning art as a laboratory for the future but also as a mirror of society, as a criticiser and a keen observer of the marriage, voluntary or not, between man and machine. The works collected in the exhibition cover the full width of this spectrum; playful, humoristic, sometimes sharp-edged or elusive. Whether the world will eventually free itself from the clutches of companies like Google, Apple, Netflix, Facebook and Amazon or whether the future holds a completely decentralised version of the Internet with power to the people, bitcoins in the bank and blockchain theory taught in sixth grade, it all remains to be seen. Meanwhile it is adamant that we continue to reflect critically on this process and step back from time to time to ask ourselves what it was again that we actually wanted and if things could perhaps be done in a different way. Technology in itself isn’t good or bad; technology simply is. And how we feel about it, is something you might as well contemplate in the comfort of that Netflix room you can book on Airbnb.
John Perry Barlow, ‘A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace’, Electronic Frontier Foundation, 8 February 1996, www.eff.org/cyberspace-independence
Marcel aan de Brugh,‘Wij hebben geen klauwen en dus hebben we ’n iPhone’, NRC, 6 October 2017, www.nrc.nl/nieuws/2017/10/06/wij-hebben-geen-klauwen-en-dus-hebben-we-n-iphone-13362323-a1576272
‘Ultra Violet Production House by Brad Troemel & Joshua Citarella’, O Fluxo, January 2016, www.ofluxo.net/ultra-violet-production-house-a-peculiar-etsy-store-by-brad-troemel-joshua-citarella/
Fred Turner, ‘From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism’, University of Chicago Press, 2006
Paul Lewis, 'Our minds can be hijacked': the tech insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia, The Guardian, 6 October 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/oct/05/smartphone-addiction-silicon-valley-dystopiaAs Chris Anderson claims: the future of commerce and culture isn’t in hits, the high-volume head of a traditional demand curve, but in what used to be regarded as misses – the endlessly long tail of that same curve.