The UnderNet World: IRC as Resistant Media
(This Paper was initially presented at Consciousness Reframed Š art technology and consciousness, the 3rd Centre for Advanced Inquiry in the Interactive Arts International Research Conference, University of Wales College)
The Internet Relay Chat, once the communication information layer populated only by computer geeks, has become a primary means for information based piracy, hence a new conceptual, non-objective, artistic arena unfolds. Today, cyberculture is pop culture and capitalism has evolved into its highest form. Yet, deep below the on-line malls, web entertainment, porn, sports and latest mediated news lie hundreds of communication channels in which participants converse in real time, transfer files and enjoy interactive communications. This paper will discuss the use of IRC as a means of dissemination of artistic projects that challenge status quo use of electronic networking.
Temporary Autonomy in Datasphere
Ten years ago, in his electronic manuscript "Crime and Puzzlement: Desperados of the DataSphere," John Perry Barlow wrote:
Cyberspace, in its present condition, has a lot in common with the 19th Century West. It is vast, unmapped, culturally and legally ambiguous, verbally terse (unless you happen to be a court stenographer), hard to get around in, and up for grabs. In this silent world, all conversation is typed. To enter it, one forsakes both body and place and becomes a thing of words alone. It is, of course, a perfect breeding ground for both outlaws and new ideas...1
The Golden Age of the Internet as described by Barlow has ended. The networks of capital have fully integrated themselves into and overtaken computer-mediated communication. The once wild and unsettled Internet now belongs to commerce and surveillance. As the highest evolved capitalist vehicle to date, the Internet requires panopticon-like surveillance to ensure the free exchange of safe information. The merger between mass media and new media suppresses the radical potential that the Internet once presented as a place of unregulated communication. In retrospect, we must ask firstly if the Internet was ever unregulated or is this merely an illusion and secondly if it is regulated, is it possible to establish autonomy within an electronically serviced network? Thirdly, is the Internet increasingly simulating the "real"?
As the Internet becomes fully embedded in the functions of the "first" world it appears to fully personify Guy Debord's spectacle more so than any other single element of mediated society. The Internet "is both the result and the project of the existing mode of production, it is the heart of the unrealism of the real society. In all its specific forms, as information or propaganda, as advertisement or direct entertainment consumption, the spectacle is the present model of socially dominant life" 2. As the Internet expands, it more closely parallels the society that uses it. It parallels the "real" in both content and interaction and in some ways it may perhaps be more truthful than the real itself. Therefore just as underground cultural production exists in the physical society, temporary autonomy is alive in the datasphere. Temporary sites for illegal exchange are suddenly announced on public channels, "mp3 site's up and running, leech away!" And just as quickly as they are announced, they disappear. Such sites facilitate the exchange of material that may otherwise be inaccessible.
A Network of Surveillance
As Brian Winston documents the early history of the Internet in his book Media Technology and Society: in the mid 1970s, the Stanford Research Institute "established the prompt system, now used for log-in name and password, by creating the L-O-G-I-N command. Also host to host protocols, Telnet, Networks, Control Protocols (NCP), File Transfer Protocol (FTP), were all created by the main frame teams titled the Network Working Group (NWG)" (pg.328).3 These are the protocols that created autonomous zones of virtual interaction between independent users to decentralize the structure of computer networking.
However, underlying the academic research and developments of the 70s was the Department of Defense. Of great importance to the war effort in Vietnam were the university computing centers and even "ARPANET itself was used to move illegal army intelligence files" (Winston 331). In 1974, the National Science Foundation (NSF) declared that it was in the midst of creating "a frontier environment which would offer advanced communication, collaboration, and the sharing of resources among geographically separated or isolated researchers" (Winston 332). Within five years of this declaration the NSF "agreed to commercial exploitation and on-line services sprang up. Compu Serve, the first of these, started in 1979 and fifteen years later claimed 3.2 million users in 120 countries and was part owned by Time WarnerÉThe NSF, finally, in 1995 handed the backbone and its management over to the private telecommunication giants Sprint, Ameritech, and Pacific Bell which became the gatekeepers of the principal access points" (Winston 333).
The structure of the Internet is not one of free space, rather it is guarded and regulated and has been so since its initiation forty-years ago. What presents the illusion of free space are the activities and mass exchange that go on within it, very much like the physical world. As more people acculturate to the Internet and developers add versatility and function to the Internet (according to its sponsorÕs desires), the Internet increasingly simulates the physical environment that most of us live in. Internet service jobs grow and greater passive entertainment is churned out.
However, the radical potentiality of the Internet remains alive through the synthesis of independently created shareware. These are programs that develop through free (of charge) exchange between individuals that are at once users and developers. Internet Relay Chat (IRC) programs are amongst the most popular of these independently written programs (that were once a norm). IRC is used primarily as a mode of synchronous communication as typed conversations appear on users' screens nearly instantaneously. Although the great majority of conversation that goes on in IRC channels is inane, sychronisity allows for sudden announcements of temporary autonomous sites for exchange of illegal data; these are leech and token sites. And, perhaps of even equal interest is the asynchronous use of IRC for immediate delivery of data packages. The multiple uses of IRC transform it into both a vehicle for resistant media and a resistant medium in itself. As the Critical Art Ensemble puts forth: "the new geography is a virtual geography, and the core of political and cultural resistance must assert itself in this electronic space."4 Drawing from the many uses of chat channels I would like to briefly discuss the near instant dissemination of real activities, and the transformation of computer based work through IRC exchange.
Next week, in the second part of this article, I will discuss these elements by presenting two art projects that make use of IRC, both as a means of dissemination and development or collaboration.
The Immediacy of Communication and Dissemination via IRC
At times of civil strife, IRC becomes a means for decentralized reporting to the exterior world, as we have seen over the last few years in Israel, the Philippines, Kuwait, Yugoslavia and a host of other countries. Such usage of media draws a parallel between the Internet and early guerrilla video. In the mid 1960s when Sony introduced its first consumer video equipment, media artists and activists immediately sprung upon it. Portable video presented immediacy rare in network television.
In the pages of Radical Software and in the alternative movement's 1971 manifesto, Guerrilla Television, written by Michael Shamberg and Raindance, they outlined their plan to decentralize television so that the medium could be made by as well as for the people. Adopting a sharply critical relationship to broadcast television, they determined to use video to create an alternative to the aesthetically bankrupt and commercially corrupt broadcast medium.5
Due to the expense of video production and broadcast, such idealization of cable and video has been marginalized to the extent of public access television stations (that now run on badly outdated equipment) and small video banks that must overprice their collections or independent video rental stores that tend to have short lived existence due to the power and convenience of such monopolies as Blockbuster. However today's Internet and digital artists inherit the same grassroots spirit. Of course, the Internet is by far a more expansive mediascape than television or even radio. It is an ever-expanding medium that allows flexible response, accumulation and transformation of independent creative efforts, but in being such a huge space it can be difficult for artists to gather an audience. It is exactly for this sort of situation that IRC becomes a great means of communication beyond inane chat. Just as a club or a band may hire a handful of kids to post flyers on the streets, one person may visit a number of the more popular IRC channels to copy and paste the same announcement of a new on-line art project. In the same way other IRC users will network the same message to other channels and soon knowledge of the site is disseminated to hundreds of IRC users.
This was exactly the means used by the Centre for Metahuman Exploration to garner nearly two thousand visitors over a three-day period to the on-line version of Project Paradise: An Interactive Telerobotic Exhibit. Initially in 1998, the project could only be experienced by gallery visitors via a closed phone line circuit, but the group later revamped the project to allow on-line interaction. Housed in an art gallery is a metal cylindrical tank that contains an artificial garden. The interior walls of the cylindrical tank are painted sky blue to create a cyclorama that simulates the sky and horizon. At the center of the garden stand two nude actors, a female and male, an Eve and an Adam. The actors' right arms are augmented by custom machined robotic exoskeletons. Remote on-line users are able to choose between the cyborg Adam or Eve to control their robotic exoskeletons. Electronics receive the data from the Internet and convert the data into precise motor controls. Motors attached to the robotic exoskeletons of the cyborg couple allow remote users to move the actors human arms and hands into whatever position the viewer desires. Mounted onto the robotic exoskeleton were cameras conveying a first person perspective that allows on-line viewers to watch and control the interaction. (They watch from the perspective of the cyborg that the viewer/user chooses to be in control of.) In this way two distant users remotely interact by telepresently existing in the remote paradise. The paradise itself is not visible to anyone, because the steel cylinder is closed, it is only made visible through one's monitor. Both sight and touch are mediated.
When Project Paradise was first exhibited only a few hundred gallery visitors were able to interact with it and there were a few hundred because the exhibit traveled from the US to Europe. But once on-line and announced via IRC thousands of visitors viewed the project over a single weekend.
The second project functions more as a data package in relation to IRC. Initiated in April 2000 by Adrian Mailahn and Jackie Bell, the project REM VR has a quickly growing on-line following. A concept art project authored with Macromedia Director, Bell and Mailahn constructed a seductive interface for viewers to voyeuristically enjoy others' dreams. The interactive movie opens with an artificial female voice welcoming the user: "Welcome to REM VR, a virtual experience in dream reality." The user's name is requested and an "enter" button appears. Upon entering the user is prompted to select a sleeper from two lists, "In REM State" and "In nonREM." Once the user selects a name, s/he watches the sleeperÕs dream. To the left of the dream is information about the sleeper such as physical description and occupation. The dream is no more than a video piece that has been inserted into the interactive movie and linked to a sleeper's name. Each frame of the project is seductively designed with moving graphics and audio.
Once Bell and Mailahn constructed the premise, interface and the first three sleeper identities and their dreams, the two artists decided to pass along an editable version of the interactive movie via FTP on IRC channels. The anti-copyright folder contains the initial Director project, the audio used, their three videos and detailed instructions on inserting new sleepers with new dreams. One could more easily construct a portal site for independent video work or a site where one may deposit compressed video projects to be viewed. But REM VR has quickly become popular amongst IRC users. Over the last month I've encountered four different versions of the project with many more sleepers and dreams than Bell and Mailahn initially sent to interested parties. Herein lies the beauty of networking digital projects, electronic data can be modified by anyone who has the appropriate technology, in this case Macromedia Director, either PC or Mac, since they enclosed both versions. And for those who do not have the program, but are on-line, they can simply download a trial version of the application. It seems that the lure of the project is due to its sci-fi elements and the fact that it remains enclosed as a package, a sort of data surprise that may be FTPÕd from one computer to another, but never entirely open like a (free of charge) web site. The travel of ideation as data packages through the vast mediascape is not unlike mail art in which an article may bounce from one spot on the globe to another undergoing change by the various receivers/senders. Mail Art has been traced back to the 60s, when only a small number of cultural workers were involved in the exchange. By the 70s, this small number of people "mailing each other slightly crazy messages suddenly mushroomed into several thousand individuals engaged in a new cultural form".6 Alternative use of IRC for cultural exchange presents a much greater network of participants.
The use of IRC by The Centre for Metahuman Exploration to announce the Project Paradise site and Bell and Mailahn's use to have an art project evolve and take on new direction, represents a new form of Tactical Media. Such net/digital projects are at once performative and conceptual. It is the evolution of cultural production from the lineage of artistic creativity in opposition to the elitism of art as a bourgeois paradigm. But even beyond the democratic nature of these network-oriented projects, they as well present an alternative to the current popular use of the Internet as a commodity and entertainment oriented environment.
2. Debord, G. 1970, reprinted in 1983. Society of the Spectacle, Detroit: Black & Red, section 6
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3. Winston B. 1998. Media Technology and Society A History: From the Telegraph to the
Internet, London and New York: Routledge pp.328-333
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4. Critical Art Ensemble, 1994. The Electronic Disturbance, New York: Autonomedia, p.3
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5. Boyle, D. 1990 "A Brief History of American Documentary Video," essay published in Illuminating Video: An Essential Guide to Video Art, edited by Doug Hall and Sally Jo Fifer, Aperture in association with the Bay Area Video Coalition, p.55
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6. Home, S. 1991. The Assault on Culture: Utopian Currents from Lettrisme to Class War Edinburgh: AK Press, p.70
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