Life in Cultural Smog – On the Value of Junk, Leaks, Spills, and Noise

Spring 2014 I was invited to talk on a panel organized in Hito Steyerl's exhibition at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven. Theme of the panel was 'circulationism', a term Steyerl uses for the online distribution of images. I was asked to speak about alternative networks, or rather, about the possibility for the creation of alternative networks after the revelations made by Snowden showed the Internet is heavily surveilled by the NSA. In my talk I try to show alternative networks already exist, and will be very hard to erase or control completely by authorities.

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“The location of power - and the site of resistance - rest in an ambiguous zone without borders.” Critical Art Ensemble, The Electronic Disturbance,1994.

The dirt and chaos of the muddy media reality that surrounds us, does not match the cleanliness of popular visions of both technology and society. Is this a sign of failure? Or is the road towards a utopia (or even a dystopia) simply unfinished? I argue it is neither, and that instead of this, leaking, friction, distortion, incompatibilities, glitches, obsolescence and loss are an inherent part of the hybrid, techno-cultural networks that underlie our society.  Hybrid networks appear in different shapes. We need to accept their different inherent qualities, and recognize their potential.

In my talk I focus on the material basis of present day networks, a basis that includes the desires and behaviors of humans.  The process of circulationism in the sense Hito Steyerl describes is in my point of view an inescapable and logical result of the techno-social environment of the Internet. The dizzying visual vortex created by popular sharing cultures and rampant commercial sites is only a surface view of how representation takes shape in new media networks.

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My view here is influenced by the work of the American media theorists Alexander Galloway and Wendy Chun. Galloway explores the site of power and representation in his analysis of networks, games, and software. Chun looks at the inconsistencies between the logic of technology and the ideologies of people. Their work tells us that (a) representation has disappeared from view into hybrid and automated processes, and (b) networks are by definition leaky, or they couldn’t be operational as networks. We must learn to see the shape and shaping of representation today, rather than focus on side effects, to be able to make informed decisions about the future of network cultures.

Leaks, Friction, Loss

The production of goods (media objects or otherwise) will always also produce waste and accidents, as well as take time and energy. The rise of personal media, from pocket photo camera to VHS tapes to laptop and smart phone, multiplied the appearance and experience of the so-called ‘darker’ qualities of media technologies. The editing and production process left the studio, along with the trash it inevitably produces. Situations that used to only appear in for example dark rooms, science labs or editing studios now pop up in our office, our home, or in the palm of our hand. The moments where media objects are created, are cut, are directed, deleted or published have multiplied alongside the use of consumer media products. Classic media objects, be they text, image or sound based, are increasingly experienced through handling them, rather than through simply consuming them. Computing is at the heart of this revolution.

This change of media experience raises the question whether we maybe need a new perspective on the shape of media objects, and on the shape of narrative and art in the expanding media context (which has also started to include physical space). When audiences become creators and editors the classic media object no longer reaches them the way it used to. Criticizing the popular concept of remediation, in which digital media are said to have evolved from film, Alex Galloway explains how, rather than remediating a visual language like that of cinema, the computer “remediates the very conditions of being itself”.[1] The computer near seemlessly blends into the life of its user. In this situation the image loses its prominent place to the interaction between human and machine. Instead of being a thing to just look at and reflect on, in the hand of an active audience the image is (potential) raw matter for processing. Even if it is decided to leave the image ‘as is’, the experience of the image is still different from what a classic audience experiences, because a conscious choice is made to not manipulate or interfere with the image object. The image therefore has become part of a larger process of a physical experience and decision-making. It is no longer the central point of representation.

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Representation seems to at least partly escape the screen. It no longer exists in plane view, but rather increasingly manifests itself as an experience, as a campaign or event, and as an appropriation of a variable media space, a space shared through the networks. In new media sharing is an inevitable part of the creation of representation and memory. In the words of Wendy Chun: “Behind every act of dead representation are vibrant acts of renewal. (..) Things remain if they become habitually.” Fragmented, unstable, and seldom producing a clear view, representation has dissolved rather than died. It haunts us like a presence of something familiar, in the cultural smog of the post-representative state.

Hardware Wastelands: the Value of the Obsolete

These vague media objects and participatory representational events (which can be as seductive and manipulative as the simple image) need not spook us if we understand what they are, and how they emerge.

Our cultural experience cannot be separated from the hardware and software it is produced and shared through. Hardware in this case does not only refer to computers, but also to cameras, projectors, televisions, printing presses, radio transmitters, smart phones, and so on. The (relatively) universal machine, the digital computer, which has started to invade all these technological objects in some form or another, is given different purposes through software. In turn, software, code written to perform as an object, as a machine within the machine, has become the invisible force that drives ever-larger parts of our human economies and communities. Both hardware and software are produced in such abundance and with such speed that individual machines are obsolete almost the minute they leave the factory. Many of these near-zombie media[2] are products for the consumer market, where a fast change of equipment and tools is the least damaging and the most profitable.

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The result is a huge pile-up of both e-waste and junk media, particularly at the low end of the market. The democratization of media happens through the cheap and fallible devices that flood the streets and homes of every part of the world. Much like the content they carry, these devices are shared, re-used, taken apart, reproduced, and tweaked. The vast spread of especially digital and networked media junk means these devices no longer are at the fringes of the media landscape. Their aesthetic and their drive start to influence the larger network, and they leak into old media like television, where they first make their entrance as simple entertainment. The changed attitude towards the image however makes old media content stuff to sample, material to process. The Internet itself is trashed with scraps and mixes of old media content, used to fulfill whatever need for communication or provocation.

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Messy Networks: hard, soft, and wet.

The Internet is not a 'clean' space. Most networks are hybrid and messy, comprised of old and new media, of humans and machines, of technical and social connections. The Internet is itself a cluster of such networks, which keeps growing erratically. Sometimes chunks fall off, like off a glacier, to almost magically reconnect later. In case of an incompatibility or obstruction the process towards representation has to find another route, another path, through the network, even if it means having to go offline. Purely digital networks are rare.

In the last decade the metaphor of the rhizome to describe large networks seems to have become romantic and outdated. Topics like stealth surveillance and tracking in social media dominate popular debates about the Internet in the post-Snowden era. These meta-issues make the Internet appear as a homogenous, centrally ruled space. We could however maybe say the notion of the Internet as a thing is a myth. The Internet is more like an open invitation to join a basic (though sophisticated) network, but it is not, in its entirety, a clear-cut structure. The Internet is the network of networks. These come in different shapes. There are gray areas, loopholes, and fringes in the network society. Let me give you some examples of how alternative networks exist.

SneakerNet and Dead Drop

In the probably oldest digital network information is transported from one computer to the next manually. Floppy discs (the retro, hipster memory storage of our current digital times), USB sticks, or external hard drives are simply filled with data at one computer, walked, driven or flown elsewhere, and the data gets uploaded to another computer. This form of network, lovingly called the SneakerNet, is still very popular. It is used by people who want to move large amounts of data quickly, or by people who want their information to stay off-grid, away from prying eyes.[3]  

Hackers and artists have developed a funny take on the SneakerNet in recent years, the dead drop. In this sharing method a USB stick is left in a public space, often cemented into a wall. The stick becomes a drop off and pick up spot for data sharers. Initiator of the USB dead drops practice in art is German artist Aram Bartholl, who started cementing USB sticks into walls in Brooklyn during a residency at Eyebeam in New York.

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The dead drop project may seem like an absurd way to share data, or to build a network. The project however is part of a growing tendency among media artists and hackers to develop tools and practices that escape commercial network structures and abundant surveillance systems. The USB dead drop and the SneakerNet in their simplicity and straightforward networking methods each in their way disclose the essence of sharing, namely generosity and trust.


Wireless Hacks and Exhibitions

From the clearcut physicality of the SneakerNet and dead drop we move to the ethereal. The easiest way to connect many network devices over large distances is through wireless networks. Radio waves are a wonderful way to create network spaces that can move through walls and still be closed for intruders. Wireless technologies have developed rapidly. The smart phone, a telephone and computer in one, quickly transforms public space.

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Wireless technologies are not just about Wi-Fi networks, but also include GPS (location) and RFID (radio frequency identification chips, much used in warehouses, shops and id cards) technologies. Augmented Reality (AR), a way to create a virtual layer over specific locations on the GPS grid, is one too. AR creates something that looks like something in between the hologram and screen-based visualizations. Virtual 3D objects become visible at their designated site through the use of the smartphone camera and the app software used to create the object. AR has been used to create guerilla exhibitions at the MoMA and the Venice Biennial. The MoMA invasion was organized by Dutch artist Sander Veenhof and  American artist Mark Skwarek, and curated through an open call on the Internet. Science fiction writer Bruce Sterling gave the opening speech, also through AR, in the entrance hall of the museum.

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More obscure is the use of the RFID signal space as an exhibition ‘space’. Last year American artist Anthony Antonellis implanted a chip is his hand. The RFID chip sends a weak radio signal that can be picked up by mobile phones that are held near the artist’s hand. The limited memory space of the chip in Antonellis' hand allows for only one work to be shown at a time.

The use of Wi-Fi signals to create independent network spaces however offers a much broader range of opportunities.  Not only can Wi-Fi signals be connected to create a large network that can cover a country or more, like in an independent initiative in Greece two years ago,[4] Wi-Fi also allows for all kinds of experimentation, from building temporary exhibitions to creating online data interventions.

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To give you an example of each: Aram Bartholl curated an exhibition called ‘offline art’ in Paris in 2013, in which every artist was represented through a separate Wi-Fi router. To view each work the audience had to log in to a different network. This particular exhibition architecture has been used by others as well. Early 2014 the BrowserBased study group at the Rietveld academy presented their work in the lobby of the school this way.

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A very different, stealth approach to spreading your data is used in a work by American artists Ethan Ham and Ethan Miller called The Virtual State of Jefferson. The work plays with the desire of residents of the county of Jefferson to form a separate, fifty-first state of the USA. Using the possibility to program routers to intervene in the data stream of people on a wireless network, the artists replace all location searches in Google through this router with ‘Jefferson’. The work is similar to Newstweek, a project by Danja Vasiliev and Julian Oliver, in which a wireless router is programmed to manipulate news read through its wifi signal. Both works reveal vulnerabilities and possibilities within digital media many of us are not aware of. They add specifically altered network spaces to the familiar space of the Internet.


Indie Web movement, Guardian Project

Encryption and ‘re-decentralisation’ are important aspects in alternative network tools that explicitly exist inside the Internet. The idea here is to improve the Internet according to notions of freedom of speech and freedom of information. There is a deluge of projects developing software that enable the user to stay anonymous, to keep control over her own data (un-clouding it), or both.[5]

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In August last year Wired magazine featured an item on the Indie Web movement. This loose group of Web developers aims mostly at what they call a ‘re-decentralization’ of the Web. What this group mostly tries to do is create an alternative to the appropriation of our data by the databanks of a few companies such as Facebook or Google. The basic ideas here boil down to keeping control over your content, while still using Facebook, Twitter, and other large social media companies as a platform, but for announcements only. Their key phrase is POSSE: "Publish (on your) Own Site, Syndicate Elsewhere.”[6]

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Next to the groups as the Indie Web movement, which anybody can join, a great number of alternative software developers work on ways we can protect our data. Some of the software produced in this realm is very useable for a non-technically savvy audience as well. An example of a group of coders, developing anything from secure chat software you can use within Facebook, software to encrypt phone calls, and a secure camera app, is the Guardian Project. What is interesting about their website, and of many other alternative software sites, is that they offer downloads of apps on their site. We can avoid the Google Play store or the Apple store. It is worthwhile having a look around the Internet for sites such as these, because it shows we are not entirely trapped in the claws of Apple, Facebook or Google just yet.


Hackerspace Global Grid

Apart from an alternative software movement, there is since a few years also an alternative ‘hardware network movement’. Like with software, this movement consists of various groups of individuals with as many different approaches. The most ambitious one can be found in Germany. The German hacker movement started a space program about 3 years ago. They did so not so much because they want to fly to Mars, but because they are looking into ways to develop a completely new, independent Internet with the use of satellites. As they put it: “The hacker community needs a fallback infrastructure in case of natural and economic disaster to stay connected.”[7]

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Though this seems like a wild plan, satellite technology has become a lot more accessible in recent years. The development of the smart phone has also changed the world of space exploration. NASA launched miniature satellites in spring 2013 that were constructed around the HTC Nexus One android phones. “The unmodified phones operate as the brains of NASA's 10cm-cubed CubeSat, constructed from commercial off-the-shelf components. Each satellite cost between US$3500 and US$7000 to build.”[8] Not much later several companies in the Silicon Valley area have launched their own mini satellites. One company already rents out its “Arduino-controlled CubeSat to schools and space enthusiasts for $250 a week.”[9]

Getting a satellite into orbit, or renting one for a reasonable price, should soon be quite easy. To create an alternative communication network however takes more than having one’s own satellite. On March 3rd of this year a call went out via YouTube to collaborate on building a network of ground stations.[10] The organizers envision ground station to be based in back gardens and on balconies. The project is still in an experimental phase, but it shows how the ambition and know-how to build independent networks does exist.

All in all, alternative networks run through and alongside the networks they seek to replace or improve. They are not solely technological in nature, but tend to be unstable, hybrid socio-technological structures. Their components come in many different shapes.


Paraphrasing the words of Wendy Chun, anxiety over surveillance (and commodification) and hope for empowerment complement rather than oppose each other. Exposure and leakage are necessary aspects for networks to work. Power over representation today exists within the structure and experience of media, more than it does in the visual products of it. In his book The Interface Effect Alexander Galloway calls for a new form of visualization, one that reveals the important political and cultural objects and events in the network society that exist beyond the visual plane.

In the words of Critical Art Ensemble: “one should seek an aesthetics of confusion that reveals potential choices, thus collapsing the bourgeois aesthetic of efficiency.” Learning to see beyond the surface might achieve just that.

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[1] Galloway, Alexander. The Interface Effect. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012. P. 21. Print.
[2] Hertz, Garnet, Parikka, Jussi. Zombie Media: Circuit Bending Media Archeology  into an Art Method. Leonardo, Volume 45, Number 5, 2012, pp. 424-430. Print, Pdf.
Patterson, Dave. A Conversation with Jim Gray. ACMQueue, 31 July 2003, Web.
Free Wi-Fi around Greece from fall., 26 March 2014, Web.
Github started collecting links to alternative Internet projects in an overview a while ago, and it is still growing. I counted 157 projects on 23 May 2014, from social media to peer to peer networks, content management systems and chat software for computers and mobile phones.
Shackspace, wiki website of Stuttgart hackerspace Shack.
Starr, Michelle. NASA launches three Nexus Ones into Orbit. CNET, 22 April 2014, Web.
England-Nelson, Jordan. CubeSat miniature satellites poised to disrupt aerospace industry. Daily Breeze, 18 May 2014.   [10] IAC2014 Next Generation Plenary - Andreas Hornig (Round Two). Youtube, 3 March 2014, Web.