What does it mean to select fellows for the discipline web-based media? What is the role of artists in this field? And what »web« are we talking about? From the romantic utopia of the World Wide Web to the myth of the Internet of things, the current version – the »sacred object«, states Solitude juror for web-based media Nishant Shah – is in crisis.
For this years selection of fellows, he chose three artists, developers, researchers to start their fellowships in 2018: Dina Karadžić and Vedran Gligo from Croatia who applied as a team with their darknet art gallery project Pivilion and Zeljko Blace from Bosnia-Herzegovina, who works on Queer Webs.
Read an essay by the juror on the story of the web and how art may have the capacity for a more human-centered story-telling.
The story and history of the web have gone through many phases. In its initial cycle of discovery and revelation, the web was closely wedded to the logics and logistics of informatics and hardware, mixing mathematics with physics, producing computational models of data transfer. In this first phase, the web was the object to be discovered, decoded, and deployed to understand the possibilities of disruption and disjuncture it offered. Its presence was a question being posed to multiple practices of life, labor and language, insinuating but not clearly explaining the reordering that might emerge as we become more networked.
Once the web was extricated from its extinction impulses gendered by its military-corporatization ontologies, and especially with the romantic utopia of the World Wide Web, the web evolved from the object of discovery to a tool of discovery. As geographies of political sovereignty started getting mapped on to the hubs of information exchange, the web became an answer in search of a question. Different disciplines, domains of life and living, and regimes of regulation had to accommodate the web, often realizing their temporalities and (dis)locatedness in the accelerated distributedness of networked globalization. The web was a divining device, a scrying glass that sought to dismantle the surfaces of meaning making, producing visions that were simultaneously greater than and smaller than the human subject, which has been central to the 20th century modernity project.
The rewiring of the human model on to the aestheticized visualization of analytics, marked a shift from information to data, from representation to simulation, and from centrifugal to centripetal conditions of existence. The ubiquitous presence of socialized media and mediated sociality, the pervasive nature of technological connectivity, the quest for singularity and the myth of the Internet of things, all boasted of plurality, diversity, alterity, and collectivity through connectivity, which have been critiqued and analyzed for their perpetuation of power hierarchies and systemic violence on those who can least lay claims to the affordances of digitality.
This is the state of the web in its state of the art conditions. These short-lived epochs of the web find their inquiries and investigations in the development of art and design practices. The early days of virtualization of reality and reification of the digital, the exploratory phase of building networked online models that eschewed existing collectives, the formal inquiry into the materiality of the digital and its provocations to the tools and techniques of meaning making, the building of new circuits of distribution and consumption, and the emergence of born digital objects that are connected in their ontology rather than in their intentionality, have all shaped and been shaped by art and design practices that have critically engaged with the emergent webs.
Thus, the accessibility of computing was engineered and given form by the presence of GIMP architectures that made human-computer interaction possible. The development of human centered coding languages owes their debt to art movements that sought to develop universal languages of communication. The conditions of archiving, indexing, preservation, retrieval and circulation of information on the interface continue to draw upon the critical principles of art and design and their capacity for human-centered story-telling. Especially in the age of big data – where for the first time we have a knowledge ecosystem where the author, the distributor, the recipient, and the intelligence that attributes meaning to data are not necessarily human – arts and design play a crucial role in both rehumanizing non-narrative information and reorienting the politics of authorship, authority, and authenticity in our everyday practices of the web.
»Especially in the age of big data – where for the first time we have a knowledge ecosystem where the author, the distributor, the recipient, and the intelligence that attributes meaning to data are not necessarily human – arts and design play a crucial role in both rehumanizing non-narrative information and reorienting the politics of authorship, authority, and authenticity in our everyday practices of the web.« Nishant Shah
This co-emergent but dissonant developments in the historical intertwining and the reluctant merging of the web on the one hand and art and design practices on the other is important to frame the central theme of The Practice of History in Everyday Life, put forward by Dr. Kaiwan Mehta for this year’s residencies at Akademie Schloss Solitude’s art, science, and business program. The web has reached an ambiguous simultaneity, where it is both a historical artifact and the tool-kit through which this history is examined, thus becoming an ›opaque metaphor‹ (Chun 2006). The current version of the web (and some would argue that calling it the web, as if there is only one definitive web is already a misnomer) is so far removed from its first technical, technological, electronic, regulatory and usership regimes that it is possible to think of the web as a historical ossification of different values, politics and ideologies. The emergence of global standards, the increased monopolization of the digital spectrum, the ›googlization of the world‹ (Vaidyanathan 2011), and the emergence of a dominant grammar and aesthetics of our connected webs have all resulted into a form of connectivity that has made the older cluster of devices, platforms, applications, languages, standards, and currencies obsolete. This historicization of the web produces it as a sacred object which is tied to one particular history, one set of meanings, and a forced temporal linearity which rehearses the axes of power in the geopolitical and sociocultural identification of the world. The forcefully documented past of the web produces a definitive history that is exclusive, exclusionary and emphatically in the service of the hegemonic closing down and consolidation of the possibilities of the web. The stories of the computer, the computed, and processes of computing have all been subsumed under the history of the web, making invisible, feminized labor, racial exploitation, economic violence, and political inequity that the web has come to embody.
The historical legacy of the web also gives it the authority to write history in the making. The documentary nature of the digital web, where every transaction, every action, every utterance and movement is recorded, makes it the largest project of history writing in human history. The capacity of the digital to be providing continuous testimony to the acts and facts of our mundane existence, and the silent insidious nature of its intrusive presence produces data in such astronomical minutiae that the decisions of sorting, sifting, storing, and supplying information of ourselves are no longer relegated to the human subject. The rise of algorithmic governances and database directionalities point to the embedded reality of our located lives – that we are no longer able to exercise authority, ownership, control, or meaning making capacities on information and data that is about us, often produced without our consent or cognition. To borrow from Terry Pratchett (1992), this current state of the digital is wonderful. It provokes wonder. It is marvelous. The cause marvels. It is fantastic. It creates fantasies. It is glamorous. It projects glamour. It is enchanting. It weaves enchantments. It is terrific. It begets terror. And perhaps, the most terrifying part of this digitality is that it records, reorders, recalls and revises our present to form a historical narrative that is critical – it is in a state of crisis.
»…this current state of the digital is wonderful. It provokes wonder. It is marvelous. The cause marvels. It is fantastic. It creates fantasies. It is glamorous. It projects glamour. It is enchanting. It weaves enchantments. It is terrific. It begets terror. And perhaps, the most terrifying part of this digitality is that it records, reorders, recalls and revises our present to form a historical narrative that is critical – it is in a state of crisis.« Nishant Shah
The three fellows who are invited for the next web-based art residencies, perform, critique, and develop an alternative to these conditions of historiography in the time of crises. All the three fellows recognize that the relationship between art and the web is not one of instrumentality or formal transformation. They identify the current materiality and locatedness of the web and the ambitions and aspirations of art and design as intervening in contemporary cultural practices of living life as history in very specific ways. They help triangulate the almost unbearable conditions of our life by mapping them at the centre of artistic practice, technological processes, and historiographical impulses that continue to build precarious and threatening futures for those who cannot afford the touch of the web.
The Pivilion project which is a collaboration between an artist (Dina Karadžić) and a computer programmer (Vedran Gligo) identifies the crisis of history writing to the ecosystems of digital existence that we have naturalized. Instead of focusing on the content of history, or the voices and visibilities of alternative histories, they look at the infrastructure of knowledge production and the politics it espouses. Their project begins in identifying that the intertwined nature of art and the web, is not just in form, materiality, aesthetics and design but in the very conditions within which these two persist. Their project is a political intervention with material consequences – where in the post-truth, leaky world that we have come to occupy, they realize more than ever that in order to control the narratives of our lives, we will need more ownership of the tools, devices, platforms and protocols that shape these stories and histories. The project postulates that if we relegate the responsibilities of archiving and storage to the different power nexuses that hide behind the seductive opacity of transparent surfaces, guiding in their invisibility, the vectors of algorithmic memory building, then the privilege of remembrance and recall will also belong to these concentrations of power. In order to step away from this naturalized state of being, it becomes important to think not of tools, devices, interfaces, and applications of web in art practices, but in the digital ecosystems of artistic life.
They propose to build shadow platforms that produce a different weightage of meaning making, collaborative, decentralized and independent data sets which can be customized and manipulated to exercise control of their truthiness, and multiple ways by which the histories which are archived to be forgotten can find form and function in web based artistic practice. They propose to integrate this distributed art archive into cryptocurrency economies, thus offering a different way of evaluating the economic circuits of artistic practice and processes. The project shows how art practice has intersections with multiple layers of the digital web, and that we need a series of calibrations to contain the contingency built into this system. The project reminds us that histories are systemic recollections of individual pasts translated into collective memory, and that the role of the artist in this process is not just to be the producer of information or curator of voices, but building responsive, responsible, and critical voices that betray the blind spots of digital art production and amplify the artists’ ownership and control over their own processes and productions. Pivilion, in its ambitions seeks to produce a suite of tools that can be used, reused, upcycled and expanded by participatory structures of web politics.
»The project reminds us that histories are systemic recollections of individual pasts translated into collective memory, and that the role of the artist in this process is not just to be the producer of information or curator of voices, but building responsive, responsible, and critical voices that betray the blind spots of digital art production and amplify the artists’ ownership and control over their own processes and productions.« Nishant Shah
The proposition by Zeljko Blace brings a different intersection to the problems of art and the web. If for Karadzic and Gligo the problem was that the digital web as owned by a few facilitates forgetting of alternative and dissident voices, then for Blace the problem is the limitless capacity of the digital web to remember, track, circulate, and keep alive data beyond its immediate after life. Drawing from his existing practice as a queer activist who works with the different intimacies and interfaces of the web, Blace proposes that the non-forgetting surveillance nature of the web puts into precariousness communities that need the liminal lands of libidinal survival. Looking at the shadow lands of queer bodies and their practices, Blace suggests that a queer body is in need of a voice but not necessarily of a historicization. He recognizes that history requires the mapping of responsibility, authorship and thus culpability to bodies that might not be able to bear the burden of these markings. For queer bodies, in varying societies of liberal acceptance and discrimination, their power comes from safe appropriation, pseudonymous interaction, and selective opting-out of the transactional recording that the digital web naturalizes. In a social media engineered reality where every user becomes a set of data, which, through complex correlations and causalities, can be identified beyond its agency and control, as belonging to particular groups and collectives, it becomes important for us to have a queer vocabulary and framework for the web. In Blace’s proposition, the queer Internet is not just about how queer people use the Internet but about identifying the checkpoints and chokepoints of the web, which continue to identify, filter, contain and punish those identities that they see as discordant with their visions of the world. Queer Webs brings the idea that between the relentless speech and the forced silence, which seem to be the only two binary positions on the web in its documentation of everyday history, there is a need for a »politics and poetics of reticence« (Peng & Ding), where the body has a voice and visibility but the right to be silent and be illegible to the accounting and accountability systems of the digital web. Through artistic experimentation and iterations with communities that desire invisibility, Blace calls for a queer web that allows for these pauses and pockets of safety, security, and belonging that need to be rescued from the demand for continued surveillance and tracking that the indexed web has to offer.
In both the projects, you see a clear point of departure from standard tropes often found in thinking and talking about web based art – these were also tropes that informed a large portion of the applications which we could not accommodate this time: The selected projects are no longer making distinctions between online and offline, but producing a comprehensive and integrated view of lives as lived in the circulated and simulated realities of our times. They understand that the role of the artist in web based media is not to be the producer of content but of facilitating the production of content. They move away from the authoritative voice of the artist as a documenter and a witness, and instead think of the artist as a catalyst who is able to take multiple disparate streams and weave them together in the web. Both projects resist strongly the digitization, archival impulses which are often imposed upon arts and design, which become vehicles for regulatory control and containment.
»In the vision that the projects share, there is a clear thrust for the re-humanisation of the web – reorienting it to human needs and protections, calling for conditions of memory and forgetting that can be defined and determined by the person in the web. The strength of the projects is in their understanding of the digital not as a medium but an ecosystem, the web not as an application but a lived reality…« Nishant Shah
In the vision that the projects share, there is a clear thrust for the re-humanisation of the web – reorienting it to human needs and protections, calling for conditions of memory and forgetting that can be defined and determined by the person in the web. The strength of the projects is in their understanding of the digital not as a medium but an ecosystem, the web not as an application but a lived reality that has material, political and fatal consequences on the accord and record of our lives. And perhaps, in both the projects is the re-imagination of the geopolitical boundaries that web based art practices can produce – where they stop the unthinking rehearsal of neocolonial messianic impulses that inform the techno-utopians who seek to save the world through the web. Instead, they offer the web as a space of experimentation, iteration, reflection and critique. They bring in elements of collaboration, openness, and a foundational belief in collective action towards building new vocabularies and frameworks of the forms, formats, and functions of art . And as they weave the web, they gesture towards the responsibility and capacity of art to exploit the medium of the digital web and the need for vocabularies and frameworks that bookend our lives in the time of deep, dirty, and forbidden webs.
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Vaidhyanathan, Siva (2011). The Googlization of Everything: (And Why We Should Worry). Berkeley: University of California Press.
Pratchett, Terry (1992). Lords and Ladies. Victor Golancz: London