Occupying public networks

by Joasia Krysa and Geoff Cox

Public art has been much debated in terms of its ability to reach beyond the institutions of art and engage wider constituencies. Commentators on public art, such as Miwon Kwon, have expressed concerns about “socially-engaged” art operating as a form of social work.1 The well-meaning artist unwittingly becomes part of a cynical strategy where communities and social relations are effectively commodified. Through such means, critical arts practice is subsumed into a neoliberal agenda that corresponds to the social inclusion agendas of governmental public policy which attempt to gloss over social inequality and result in the exclusionary practices of urban regeneration. In Kwon’s essay Public Art as Publicity he refers to New genre public art, as defined by Suzanne Lacy, which seeks a “democratic” model of communication based on the participation and collaboration of audience members in the production of a work of art. This emphasizes the shifts in public sphere discourse and their impact on contemporary art, encouraging “a shift in thinking about the function of art as a form of publicity” or “public address”.2 We are reminded of the uncompromising message of the public art billboard poster by the art collective Freee, which states: “The economic function of public art is to increase the value of private property”.3

So if, in general, this leaves public art as neither really serving the interests of the public or art, then where do we find alternatives? Even Freee’s billboard poster ultimately renders political art as part of the same machinery that turns dissent into value. Critique is indeed an essential part of capitalist production and the ability to express opinions in public allows the system to verify itself as democratic and open to people acting and speaking freely. But what kind of freedom is expressed here? If the political realm arises from acting together, in the sharing of words and actions in public, as Hannah Arendt stated in The Human Condition (1958), then it is no wonder that this has become a battleground and that communications technologies limit rather than enhance our inability to speak and act.4 To what extent have commodified technologies appropriated collective speech acts and social intelligence? If Twitter has become the technology of choice for political mobilization then what does this indicate about politics today? Is it still possible under these conditions to imagine public art, whether online or offline, as anything other than soft control? Certainly the pseudo-public space of the internet has long since been subsumed, not least inasmuch as the private monopolistic practices of social media and cloud computing dominate online networks and increasingly offline ones, too. It is questionable whether it is possible to conceive of the public sphere at all. F.A.T.’s parody of the Occupy movement, Occupy the Internet! (2011), resonates with this problem, suggesting revolution from the comfort of your private home computer by “force-occupying” a chosen website.5 All you have to do is paste the following JavaScript into an HTML file, and an animated GIF army appears on the webpage:

<'script src=http://occupyinter.net/embed.js><'/script>

But even with the apparent triviality of this project, other possibilities are registered that might encourage wider interpretations of what constitutes public action, and more encouraging conclusions than those presented thus far. Furthermore, the Occupy movement serves as an interesting example of the way that public space has been reappropriated in places where power is centred (initially to express indignation about the handling of the financial crisis since 2008 as #OccupyWallStreet).6 #OccupyGezi unfolds in Istanbul as we write, as yet another more positive instance of the public reappropriating its ability to speak and act freely. Perhaps we might claim that publicness has itself been “occupied” in such examples. If a few years ago the very notion of public space seemed to be subsumed into tightly controlled urban plazas for commercial activity, recent events have tended to revive the politics of publicness. In Two Bits (2008), Christopher M. Kelty argues that the free software movement is an example of what he calls a recursive public, extending Arendt’s definition of a public through speech and action, to incorporate technical and legal infrastructures.7 Thus publicness is constituted not simply by speaking, writing, arguing, and protesting, but also through modification of the domain or platform through which these practices are enacted. A good example of this might be the trend for artists to occupy public networks, to expose how connectivity increasingly operates in the tensions between corporateowned telecommunications infrastructures and community- owned networks. For example, Danish artist and critical designer Linda Hilfling’s A Public Domain (2011) does just this, parasiting existing network structures and filtering content accessed via that network to question the utopian notion of the net as a public space.8 The project is a network intervention into language as a commons using an open wireless network to expose words that are registered as trademarks in the National Trademark Registry.

Also referring to language, Kelty’s argument is that free software is a special kind of speech act, underwritten by the freedom to be able to modify the discourses and infrastructures through which it operates. Yet sharing and releasing source code represents a number of ambiguities in representing both a belief in open standards and, at the same time, a business move to capitalize on the ethic of sharing and free labour. Furthermore, the analogy to freedom of speech that the free software movement promotes – “free as in free speech (and not as in beer)” – is problematic in other ways, too. As we know the very notion of free speech is enshrined in hypocrisy: and is used both to legitimate state power through allowing diverse voices to be heard and to promote the fantasy of individualised freedom of choice. Similarly, free speech by technology is subject to covert and overt regulation, and further compromised by the increasing use of filtering software and surveillance practices when running on proprietary platforms. Under such conditions, social media offers the freedom to speak and act but paradoxically only through the neoliberal logic of the so-called free market. Indeed if the liberatory claims for free software seem exaggerated nowadays, this is partly explained by the ways in which speaking, acting, and running code have become incorporated into the mechanisms of domination, especially in the extreme case of service-based online platforms, where code is locked down and simply not available to be shared in public. If the concept of the public has lost some of its efficacy, and its actions have been largely nullified, it is because the rationality of the market as an organizing force tends to offer choices, experiences, and subjectivities that suit its own narrow definitions. Instead, alternatives need to be posed that explore the many paradoxes over open/closed forms that arise when code is invaded by economics – for it is the recognition that all language is inherently paradoxical that reveals the political realm. If lived experience is ever more prescribed through scores, scripts, and programs, then a reconceptualization of political action might be developed through running code inasmuch as arguments can be run by speaking, acting and coding freely in public. To conclude, we present an example.

Export_friends.py (written by Alex McLean, in 2012) destroys each of your Twitter friendships, in turn, so you are left following no one.9 Yet before “unfriending”, the program script also sends a message, asking each friend to meet one of your other friends in the same public space. The social network that relates to the proprietary space of Twitter is replaced with an embodied social network of a quite different character. The script responds to a paradoxical situation in which the human capacity to speak and act in the world remains restricted despite the proliferation of devices and software that seemingly allow for increased communication; with Twitter as a case in point. The export_friends.py script indicates something of this possibility as well as the enduring capacity of the public to modify preprogrammed scripts that delimit their actions and speeches. Could this be a way of reconceiving public art?

#!/usr/bin/env python
import twitter, random
api = twitter.Api(consumer_key=’xx’, consumer_secret=’xx’,
access_token_key=’xx’, access_token_secret=’xx’)
friends = api.GetFriends()
for friend in friends:
friendName = friend.GetScreenName()
friend2 = random.choice(friends).GetScreenName()
message = “%s wants to meet in the main public square
tomorrow” %
api.PostDirectMessage(friendName, message)

Joasia Krysa is the Artistic Director of Kunsthal Aarhus (Denmark), and co-founder of KURATOR, an association of curators and researchers interested in algorithmic culture. Geoff Cox is an Associate Professor in the Dept. of Aesthetics and Communication, and Participatory IT Research Centre, Aarhus University (DK). He is also an occasional artist, adjunct faculty member at the Transart Institute (DE/US), Associate Curator of Online Projects, Arnolfini, Bristol (UK), and part of the self-institution Museum of Ordure.

1. Kwon M. (2004), One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
2. Kwom M. (2005), Public Art as Publicity. In: In the Place of the Public Sphere? On the establishment of publics and counter-publics, Sheikh S.(ed.), Berlin: b_books. Available at http://republicart.net/disc/publicum/kwon01_en.pdf
3. The Freee Art Collective: http://freee.org.uk/
4. Arendt H. (1958), The Human Condition, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
5. The Free Art and Technology (F.A.T.) Lab, Occupy the Internet! (2011), http://fffff.at/occupy-the-internet/
6. See http://occupywallst.org/ and http://www.occupytogether.org/ for instance.
7. Kelty C. M. (2008), Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software and The Internet , Durham: Duke University Press.
8. Hilfling L. (2011), A Public Domain, http://www.skor.nl/eng/site/item/netartworks-linda-hilfling/
9. McLean A. (2012) export_friends.py was written as an example, along with others, in: Cox G., Speaking Code: Coding As Aesthetic and Political Expression, Cambridge, Mass:, MIT Press.

Figure 1: Freee billboard poster, 2004

Figure 2. F.A.T., Occupy the Internet!, 2011

Figure 3. Linda Hilfling, A Public Domain, 2011