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ncc48 - netART community congress     people     Andreas Broeckmann     Networked Agencies
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Networked Agencies
As I am writing at the beginning of February 1998, there is a potential storm building up around the public disclosure of large-scale surveillance operations and infringement of privacy by the big bad guys of the Internet. It's not much worse than what any passionate conspiracy theorist could have predicted years ago, but it will worry a lot of people and will marr people's pleasure in using the Net. Which is just as well, because the combination of intelligence agencies-operated surveillance and the culture of placing cookies and creating large data bases of WWW user profiles will, sooner rather than later, make for an increasingly unpleasant atmosphere on the Net, turning it into the virtual shopping mall that we've been told it ought to become anyway.

Even if this next onslaught on the digital dream-machine comes as no great surprise, it will still sober up yet a few more artists and media activists who only recently thought that they had, over the last five or so years, discovered a new, more potent, more empowering tool with which to work and develop new creative strategies. Whatever the outcome of the dawning re-discussion of network security will be, it reminds us of the necessity to be critical and inquisitive about our toolboxes, and to learn to deal with their effects and side-effects.

The Internet is a large machine, composed of cables and computers, power lines and software protocols, people and expressive material, and it is connected to other machines, like the global financial markets, international security systems, political grass-roots movements, journalistic enterprises, and an ant hill of individual activities in the field of communication, experimentation and artistic practice.

This machine has its own, heterogeneous topology, it is fractured and repetitive, incomplete, expanding and contracting. What I want to suggest here is to think about the topology of networks as a topology of agency, of events and of subjectivity. Questions that can then come into view are: what is the `place' of a translocal encounter, what are the social dimensions of a networked event, and what forms of distributed subjectivity can emerge from it? The machinic character of Internet-based creativity means that there are multiple modes of intervention, action and production in its formations, its multiple cracks and fissures. When I say `machinic', I mean it in the sense that Félix Guattari talks about the machine, that is not so much as a technical apparatus, but as a heterogeneous assemblage of elements which introduces a productive disequilibrium into a given structure. The machine Guattari describes is precarious and destructive. The introduction of breaks and singular points of discontinuity, the machinic cut ('coupure'), that's the interface, the 'Schnittstelle', which brings forth an event or incident. It is a field of potential agency and a field of potential subjectification.

The fascination with connectedness, with online presence and communication is a characteristic feature of telecommunication art. Over the last years, such experiments have been extended to the World Wide Web, mostly under the label of `net art'. I want to refer to a few of these projects in order to point out some of the topological features of the Net.

Refresh: The transfer protocols, programmes and languages used in Internet communication facilitate a wide array of machinic interactions and interventions between humans and machines. The Refresh project of October 1996 was, as the subtitle proclaimed, a `Multi-Nodal Web-Surf-Create-Session for an Unspecified Number of Players'. It peaked in a live-Refresh session, when participants in ten different European countries linked their specially designed webpages into a loop, using the `refresh' meta-tag that can be hidden in the html-code of a webpage. Each page would refresh to the next after 10 seconds, catapulting the surfer from Moscow to Skopje, and on to Riga, Berlin and London. Original, low-K designs were produced on the fly, and an IRC channel served to comment on new designs and to coordinate the inclusion of newly arrived pages. The Refresh loop was designed to employ the interconnectivity of the computers and the software infrastructure to create one distributed project that was simultaneously happening at more than twenty different locations. The `place' of the project was the browser trajectory. The experiential effect of the Refresh project both depended on and transgressed the physical distance between the participants, and the mechanical communication between the networked machines.

Multiple homepages: If you go to the website of Alexei Shulgin's Moscow WWW Art Center, the first page offers links to a whole list of homepages for the site, made by different net.artists. This website does not have an individual face, a homepage and logo that would make it possible to identify it, but it has multiple entrances and multiple faces - an idea that was used again in the multi-author Remote C project for the 1997 ars electronica in Linz (Austria). Deleuze and Guattari, in Milles Plateaux (1980), introduce the concept of `facialisation' (fr. visagéité) to describe the process of subjectification `in the image of' a face. In short, the subject emerges from the abstract machine of the facial surface which reterritorialises a multiplicity of diverse forces around a `facial' pattern and brings forth a recognisable and self-recognising individual. The multiplication of entrances, the multiplication of homepages and `faces' of the website, then, produces a multiplication of selves, an acknowledgement of the multiplicity of the technological subject. The gesture means neither: this is my home, this is my face, this is me, nor: be my Doppelgänger, but it means: be my triplegänger, quadruplegänger, my septuplegänger, and then: visitor, guest, parasite, be welcomed, enter the machine through the passages of our multiple selves. What we witness is not a dissolution of borders, but a distribution and interconnection of potential subjectivities.

Distributed Serving: When the E-Lab in Riga first started their online Radio OZOne early in 1997, they were using the data base of Radio Internationale Stadt in Berlin to place the RealAudio sound files. When accessing the homepage of Radio OZOne, the screen would split into two frames and the left frame would be served from Riga, while the content for the right frame would come directly from the server of the IS in Berlin. In a similar way, the Belgrade-based Radio B92 has been netcasting live via the RealAudio server at XS4ALL in Amsterdam. A year later, the E-Lab has initiated the Xchange network for audio experiments on the Internet. The participating groups in London, Ljubljana, Sidney, and elsewhere, use the Net for distributing their original sound programmes. Rasa Smite describes how the Xchange network is 'streaming via encoders to remote servers, picking up the stream and re-broadcasting it purely or re-mixed, looping the streams (an absolute loop we at ozone-riga once did with backspace-london)'.

These examples of interventions indicate models for thinking about the topological shifts that we are becoming rather used to, yet, which we will have to understand much better in order to become able to apply them more strategically. One such strategic application of the topological transformations in networks is Paul Garrin's NameSpace project. Garrin has challenged the main US-American Internet agencies to open up the allocation of top level domain names for the Internet which is currently still restricted to abbreviations like .com, .org, .edu, and to country codes like .at, .nl, or .uk. Garrin claims that the artificial restriction of namespace is technically unnecessary, and that the current system of commercial exploitation of domain name registrations is unconstitutional. Garrin's NameSpace project allows for the registration of an unlimited number of top level domain names, including .art, .radio, .news, .sex, or .gender. Beside the important political question of the ownership of the Internet, NameSpace challenges the hierarchical and linear system of symbolically mapping the Internet through these names and suggests an open, multi-dimensional and heterogeneous cartography for the Net.

Presence and connectedness are crucial factors for the aesthetics of network art. Moving from the vertical paradigms of representation and manipulation to the horizontal paradigms of communication and distribution has meant an important step away from the classical modernist traditions in the field of electronic arts practice. A great challenge now is to understand not only the new topologies of form and of presence, but to tackle the problems of agency and events in connective translocal environments. On a political level, this eventually leads to the question of the possibilities of a new type of public sphere that may or may not be established in and by the electronic networks. This public sphere will only come into being if there are complex forms of interaction, of participation and learning, that fully exploit the technical possibilities of the networks and that allow for new and creative forms of becoming present, becoming visible, becoming active, in short, of becoming-public.

The experimental sites of these explorations are the shared workspaces which many groups and distributed network communities are currently developing. Networked computer environments allow for all sorts of real-time data exchange and file sharing that can immensely extend an individual desktop - whether physical or on the computer monitor -, and facilitate new forms of cooperation between different agents. At the moment, many such models still look very much like the well-worn and low-bandwidth BBS systems. Yet, we might soon see a new generation of shared workspaces available to artists and others, and designed for their needs, in which distributed creative processes become possible on a translocal scale.

In developing such environments, designers and engineers have to deal with the fact that the forms of agency as they evolve in networked environments are neither individualistic nor collective, but rather connective. Whereas the collective is ideally determined by an intentional and empathetic relation between agents within an assemblage, the connective rests on any kind of machinic relation and is therefore more versatile, more open, and based on the heterogeneity of its components or members. What online communities sometimes lack in commitment and responsibility, they gain in versatility, openness and speed.

A crucial, yet, still hugely under-researched question is that of the cultural specificity that persists in online environments. There is, with many commentators, a clear sense that network practices are deeply embued with cultural and historical currents and contexts, however, there is as yet no language for these phenomena, and their phenomenology is observed only on an anecdotal level. The social anthropology, the cultural studies, the history of mentalities, the sociology and the aesthetics of translocal networks are disciplines of critical reflection which will have to be brought into existence.

An exemplary case through which it might become possible to ask such questions is the latest project by the artist group Knowbotic Research +cF, IO_Dencies (1997 ff), which aims at developing an artistic and discursive process in which the questions of connective agency in translocal machinic environments can be posed and investigated. The analytical tools of the project are developed in relation to different urban environments and regarding the cultural and social specificities of such diverse cities as Tokyo, Sao Paulo, and Berlin.

In Tokyo (October 1997), a Java-based online interface allowed visitors of the lobby at the exhibition site, as well as Internet users elsewhere in the world, to log in and intervene into transcoded, hypothetical processes and flows of forces that were analysed in and remapped onto the Shimbashi area in central Tokyo. These activities in the `zone of intervention' on the Net triggered controlled light and sound effects in an installation at the exhibition site. Entering this `zone of effects' meant that the visitors could not use the online terminals that were placed in the entrance area and that allowed for active interventions in the processes which were determining the experiential field of the installation. While the agents on the Net were physically absent, yet visible through their activities, the visitors of the installation were physically visible, yet passive and absent with respect to the 'zone of intervention'.

The project explores the phenomenon of agency in the urban machine on different levels. Initially, it seeks to develop innovative ways of reading and notating city environments, drawing out their energetic and dynamic elements. This analysis provides the basic data for the following, hypothetical manipulations of specific urbanic strata. The next step is the designing of interfaces that are able to transcode the analysed data and that enable new forms of collaborative, connective agency. These interfaces facilitate different forms of access to the urban machines, local and translocal, passive/receptive and active/projective. Analysis, interface design and practical involvement are all part of a process that represents an inquiry into the structures and the points of potential transformation in urban environments.

Manipulating the online interface is a distinctly collaborative experience in which the activities of all agents working on the same city profile are not only visible for the others, but an intervention will in fact immediately influence the effects caused by the activities of other users. The communication between the connected terminals is not routed via a central server, but happens via temporarily established links between the logged-in computer terminals on which similar forms of agency are unfolding. The machinic environment of IO_Dencies thus thrives on, and enables, the tendential enhancement of connected agencies. It prioritises tendencies of mutually compatible activities over conflictuous behaviour.

IO_Dencies positions itself at the precarious border between the local and the non-located, between a particular urban setting and the placelessness of the virtual networked environment. Without providing a conclusive answer, the Tokyo project formulated the question what it means to intervene into the hypothetical, yet specifically local environment via the Internet. It goes beyond the practical question of whether the 'right to intervene' should be reserved for local inhabitants, and directs its experimental investigation at the force field of translocal electronic communications which co-determines the development of the real sites of the Global City.

An interface to the urban machine like the IO_Dencies project forms a 'point of discontinuity' in the city's surface, it is both a point of presence and of expression. The site of agency is both absent and present. The subject becomes 'visible' as a potential in the process of transformation. Its presence is not necessarily manifested as a physical visibility, but through the perceivability of actions. The 'presence' articulated by the interface is the subjectifying feedback to actions in the machinic assemblage. A physical and experiential interface like this one is located at an 'early', pre-significant point where it may serve to take an hypothetical, experimental approach to the question of possibilities of agency. IO_dencies creates a topological cut through the heterogeneous assemblage of physical spaces, data environments, urban imaginations, connective agencies and individual experiences, and forms a model for the complex way in which network topologies will have to be questioned.

In this project, the networked localities and the translocal agents appear most prominently in the mediated, virtual space. The materiality of the translocal, and of the agents' embodiment was less dominant than in an earlier project by Knowbotic Research, called Anonymous Muttering, which was first realised in Rotterdam in 1996. Anonymous Muttering constructed a complex communication structure between disk-jockeys, computers, visitors of the physical location and visitors of the internet site. The music from dj-events is digitised and cut into small, granular units, and then recomposed by the computer set-up according to partly random parameters into a felt-like, matted sound surface. The physical installation consists of a platform surrounded by circles of strobe-lights and a 3d sound environment, and of several other, smaller stations, also equipped with strobes and speakers. In the installation and at each of these stations there is a flexible silicon membrane with inbuilt sensors which are connected to the data stream of granulated sound particles. By bending, turning and folding the membrane, the current flow through the sensors is modulated, and this in turn manipulates the felt of sound. On the website of the project, there is a Java-interface of a virtual membrane which can similarly be pulled, turned and manipulated by Internet users, an interaction which equally influences the sound output in realtime. The sound event can be followed immediately via a RealAudio live stream on the Net, and via the loudspeakers in the physical installation.

The dj's, the visitors in the urban space, Internet users and the computer set-up participate in a live-event which was directed and determined only by their joint interaction. Neither of them had a decisive influence on the outcome, but each of them can left their mark on this machinic process. Bending and folding the silicon membrane was quite pleasurable for many visitors, some of whom turned their interventions into dance-like performances. The experience of standing in the circle of strobe lights and extremely fragmented, granulated sounds was quite overwhelming. The relationship between one's own manipulation of the membrane and the audio-output was ambiguous, and it created an oscillation between fascination and frustration to be, at the same time, an active partner in the sound-generating process, and completely submerged in a borderless environment of sound and light in which there is no clear sense of orientation or feedback to one's own actions.

For me, these project indicate what translocal interactions in networked environments might be about, and how much further one will be able to go in the creation of new, temporary and heterogenic assemblages in the border areas of physical and digital spaces. These assemblages will bring with them the necessity to invent new forms of agency, and a new understanding of the potentials of social engagement. It is quite possible that what appears as new on the technological level brings us back to social, political and aesthetical questions which have been posed in other contexts over the last decades. And without doubt, the culture and the forms of agency emerging in these environments will be as inseparable as any mediated agency from the political and economic factors that determine the infrastructure and some of the meaning which they articulate.

The 'topology of the networks' is not another way of refering to the software with which to morph the city of bits. Taking seriously the challenge of the translocal as the trajectory between and the interlacing of the different machines and their functionalities, between the computers, the protocols, the interfaces, the agents, their politics and their aesthetics, the topology of the networks has to be conceived as the zone of hybridity where, in the friction between these different machines, the contemporary subject is whithering and emerging.
Text: Andreas Broeckmann
external links:
Covert Action Quaterly, information about Net surveillance etc.:
Refresh Project: (link broken)
Alexei Shulgin: WWW Art Center Moscow:
Remote C (ars electronica 97):
E-Lab - Xchange:
Radio B92, Belgrade:
Paul Garrin: Name.Space:
Knowbotic Research/Detlef Schwabe: Anonymous Muttering:
Knowbotic Research/Detlef Schwabe: IO_dencies:

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