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<nettime> ars lecture on software / art / culture
Andreas Broeckmann on Thu, 25 Sep 2003 14:16:00 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> ars lecture on software / art / culture

[this is the script of the talk that I gave on the last day of the ars;
some of the themes discussed here over the last days resonate, and I
thought it might be interesting to chip it in; apologies for the loose
style, but it had to work as a talk way at the end of a 5-day conference;
comments welcome, of course; -ab]

Notes on the cultural dimensions of software and art

Andreas Broeckmann, Berlin

(lecture manuscript; ars electronica 2003, CODE, Software and Art 2, 911.03)

(Thanks for the invitation, etc.) At transmediale in Berlin, we have been
organising a competition and conferences about software and generative art
since 2001. It is curious that this initiative which brings me to this
festival about Code started here at the ars five years ago when John F.
Simon, with whom I was in the net art jury, said there should really also
be an art category in the competition besides net art and interactive art,
the new one devoted to artworks specifically dealing with computer
software. In Berlin, we took up that challenge and have been exploring the
field over the last three years; other initiatives devoted to software and
art have, amongst others, been the eu-gene mailing list, the Read_Me
Festival and the Runme.Org website, the Generator art exhibition curated
by Geoff Cox in England, the Electrohype festival in Malmoe Sweden, and of
course Christiane Paul's CODeDOC project in New York.

The polemical equation in the title of this year's ars electronica,
Code=Art, is of course wrong; code in general is not art, 1st because code
is mostly written for completely instrumental reasons without an artistic
intent or expression, and 2nd because art is not in the code, but in the
social process that we call art and that involves the cultural context of
production and reception in which art is articulated. There was some
reference here to the separation between the liberal and the mechanical
arts and to the fact that their separation is not universal but a product
of European culture since Greek antiquity; while I agree that it is
important to point out the fact that that separation thus has both
historical and cultural specificity, I would also maintain that there are
good historical reasons for this separation, and I would like to defend an
understanding of art, call it Old European if you like, that places art at
the intersections, and the lines of friction between different social and
political systems, where it dramatises these lines of friction, where it
expresses the beauty and the rawness of the most unlikely possibilities,
where it makes strange the most familiar constructions of our culture. Art
can thus do much more than illustrating, pleasing, window-dressing. And I
believe that art using software as its main material, can also work in
this direction and push the boundaries of our understanding of art in the
age of digital computing. I'll try to talk about that in the next 25

The starting point of the debates about software and culture is the
realisation that we have to take software seriously as a cultural artefact
with a history, a sociology, and culture, in fact _different_ cultures and
histories attached to them. As we have heard, these are a variety of
cultures of invention, production and application, communities of
different shapes and intent, programmers and user groups, nerds, geeks and

A name that has been strangely absent from the debates of the last days is
that of Matthew Fuller, an English writer and Software critic who has
worked quite extensively about the social implications of software.
(Another one is that of Graham Harwood, who has done both theoretical and
practical work as an artist programmer on issues of social and critical
software.) Fuller's text 'It looks like you're writing a letter' is an
extensive analysis of Microsoft Word and the social assumptions that have
been coded into this programme. In the more recent text, 'Behind the
Blip', Fuller makes the useful distinction between critical software,
social software and speculative software. Critical Software questions
socalled 'normal' software by drawing out its hidden, yet traceable flaws,
as Fuller did in an installation in which he printed all the hundreds of
dialogue boxes that you can find in MS Word and pasted them on a wall. The
other strategy Critical Software can take is specially written software
that comes along looking like 'normal' software, yet unexpectedly behaving
very differently. Social Software, in Fuller's understanding, is software
that directly addresses the social conditions of using specific software
tools, by making them explicitly accessible and low-threshold, and Social
Software is also engaged in and emerging from social networks and
communities.  Thirdly, Speculative Software is described very lucidly by
Fuller 'as software that explores the potentiality of all possible
programming.  It creates transversal connections between data, machines
and networks. Software, part of whose work is to reflexively investigate
itself as software. Software as science fiction, as mutant epistemology.
Speculative software can be understood as opening up a space for the
reinvention of software by its own means.' - I used to argue that this
notion of speculative software probably comes closest to my understanding
of software art; but I now tend to believe that art projects can equally
belong to the areas of critical or social software, and that the notion of
art cuts across these different fields - I will come back to this later.

What we can easily glean from people like Fuller or Ellen Ullman, whom
Fuller quotes, is that software is embedded in social practices.  This is
why we can speak of the cultural dimension of culture as the heterogeneous
social field in which software gets built and used, in which it operates
and in which it gets developed; the software 'environment', this ecology,
is of course technical, but by being technical it is also social and
political - in its production cycles as well as in the fields of its

Think of the Sobig.f computer virus, a mail worm which has been plagueing
the Internet since mid-August. Hundreds of thousands of E-Mail messages
with attachments have been mailed to servers all over the world, clogging
up the lines, servers and mailboxes, intended to prepare for a major
attack on Microsoft servers at a given time. The other day I said to
Pierre Levy that what we experience on the Net is often not a sign of
collective intelligence, but of collective stupidity. I should have been a
bit more balanced in saying that, but what I meant was that the Net is a
social environment in which many things go wrong, in which there is a lot
of spam, conflict, violence, and redundancy. I understand the value of
connecting human intelligence in a network, and if we apply a notion of
collective intelligence that is more fractured, so that it applies to
smaller, definable collectives, then I am all in favour. I think the way
in which the Sobig.F worm was dealt with by systems administrators was
amazing - in my experience it took less than 36 hours from the first
attacks flooding my mailbox, to the solution being implemented as software
filters on the mail servers; through message boards, analyses of the worm
code were shared and possibilities for stopping it were discussed, and the
most effective solution, written I believe by a Viennese programmer, was
then adopted world-wide. The guys at IN-Berlin were part of that
exposition of collective intelligence, which made it possible for me to
return to my mailbox without fear very quickly. But at the same time, that
intelligence is not universal, because some people are still affected by
the roaming worms, and the whole problem only started because many users
were downloading and executing the worm software innocently, which is why
it spread so quickly. What I meant in my comment to Levy was that I think
that it sounds very ideological when he mentions collective intelligence,
without referencing the dimensions of conflict on the Net, without
referencing the widespread lack of media competence, and the inbuilt
stupidity of some commercial software applications. My guess is that a
semantic system that is based on a consensual social model will be doomed
to fail. But that is, of course, my own ideological perspective.

The gist of my argument today is that the cultural topology of this
software 'environment' is articulated by art projects. I'm not saying that
all art with digital media has to address the specifics of software, but I
think that Software Art should.

When Alex Galloway quoted me yesterday as the supposed author of saying
that software was a cultural technique I was kind of surprised, because I
believed that that is a widely shared understanding of any artefact,
whether technical or mechanical, which has no 'original author' any more
(so I kind of refute that reference which Alex took from a text posted on
Nettime and featured on Autonomedia's Interactivist blog). Academic
training in post-structuralism in the 1980s spoon-fed me the rhetorical
reflex that artefacts have specific historical, social, mostly also
economic contexts, and that any conscious attempt to conceal that
specificity must be hiding specific interests or motives. Such training
makes for useful critical questions, and for good conspiracy theories,
which these days turn out to be true more often than not.

Cultural techniques are the practices and applications that you can use
for your everyday survival, and they can go from table manners and
communication skills to the ability to programme your VCR or to set a
filter in your E-Mail programme to avoid messages from certain people.
Writing and reading software is a less widely distributed, yet very
valuable cultural technique which can be empowering and otherwise
satisfying in a variety of ways. Even a text-based Mac user like myself,
completely code-illiterate, is confronted with this fact more and more

The 'cultural topology of software' is the, excuse the metaphor,
multi-dimensional 'landscape', the different layers, plateaus, call them
what you like, that intersect in the practices that are constituted by the
practical application of software. This is of very general. What I mean is
that when you take a web browser like Nebula, by Netochka Nezvanova, you
have, for instance, the context of the World Wide Web and of the
normalised assumptions about the representation of HTML code; connected
with Nebula are also the social complications introduced by the NN or
antiorp character of the author, the economic dimension of having to pay
for downloading this alternative web browser, and so on. It does not make
sense to strictly separate the software from this context, quite to the
contrary, Nebula is an interesting project precisely because it plays on
those different registers of software culture. Similarly, Adrian Ward's
Signwave Auto-Illustrator, an enhanced and partly perverted re-engeneering
of normal graphics programmes, plays on the aesthetic and ergonomic
expectations normally brought to a piece of software.  You can buy the
Auto-Illustrator like any other software package, but what you get will
make you think a lot about what your achieved notions of 'normal software'
and its usage have been.

I don't have the time to elaborate on this much further, but I guess it
becomes clear what I mean by the cultural topology of software with its
political, legal, economical, etcetera, dimensions. I took the two
examples, Nebula and Auto-Illustrator, because they were the first winners
of the transmediale software competition in 2001, which were followed by
LAN's Tracenoizer and Alex McLean's forkbomb.pl in 2002, and by the
Gnutella network browser Mini-Tasking in 2003. As a recent example of this
kind of work I would like to mention Franz Alken's Machines will eat
itself, which just won the German Digital Sparks student award and which
allows you to create ficticious identities, bots, which then go about
filling in forms on websites with their fake personal data, thus junking
the databases of overly eager data mining companies. The cultural
practices that emerge with technologies, like today weblogs or wireless
communications, further transform this techno-social topology.

(projects to mention here include IOD's Webstalker, KRcF's Minds of
Concern, Jodi's Browser and game manipulations, retroYou r/c, and

When talking about software and art, we have to speak about aesthetics,
that is engage the value systems that inform our experience of art, and
our perceptions in general. References have been made to the traditions of
Fluxus, Conceptual Art, or Net Art, each of which implies a set of
assumptions about the ways in which to judge the artistic quality of
artworks. Over the last 200 years, European culture has seen aesthetics of
beauty, aesthetics of the sublime, aesthetics of ugliness, and aesthetics
of formal order. But this history teaches us, that there are alternative
ways of approaching software-based artworks than Max Bense's extremely
formalistic Generative Aesthetik which he formulated in the 1960s.  
Sakane san has discussed the different approaches to media art in the 20th
century in his lecture on Tuesday, and he has shown how different the
approaches to this kind of art practica have been. Just as an aside: I
believe that it would also be interesting to revisit the debates about
Realism vs Formalism between Lukacs and Brecht in the 1930s in this
respect, if only to sharpen our perception for the level of critique that
can be brought to significant artworks.

On this note, I fully agree with Christa Sommerer who called for a more
engaged, more critical debate about specific projects and practices in the
field of media art. That debate will hopefully help to distinguish the
qualities and aesthetic specificities of different works, and even if we
are not headed for some sort of normative aesthetics, it will hopefully
help us to make and articulate our value judgements.

My own idea of art practice, which I also bring to this field of
software-based work, is opposed to bland visualisations and translations
from one formal system to another. I understand the need for a kind of
software formalism in an early period of exploring the material and formal
specificities, but as Christa Sommerer said yesterday, these are sketches
which should not be considered as serious attempts at making art. I
believe that we need a strong notion of what constitutes art, and we must
argue about that, but it would help immensely if we could agree on drawing
a bottom line which excludes some attempts. For me, and again I put this
up for discussion, art is about the transgression of boundaries, about
making familiar experiences strange, about dramatising what pretends to be
innocent, and about exploring the virtualities, the potentialities of
technologies and human relationships.

I would like to spend the last minutes mentioning some such unlikely
projects in order to open up the debate about what it is that interests us
about software and art. The projects mentioned earlier by Christian Hübler
(Crack It! - connective force attack, open way to public, and Minds of
Concern) should certainly also come into that equation.

First there is the whole question of identity in the digital age, the
issues of data-mining and privacy, the protection of our databodies, also
the aspects of race and gender come into play here.

(discuss Eva Wohlgemuth: Body Scan, mention Ulrike Gabriel: Sphere,
Nathalie Jeremijenko's tree cloning project)

A second area that, as we have seen over the last days, is relevant here
is, speaking in general terms, the technical infrastructure, the software
code itself and the computer languages it is written in, the translation
modes, the question of the representation of code, and of visualisation.

(present Jaromil: forkbomb, discuss Jahrmann/Moswitzer: Nybble Engine

Let me say that the polemics I am putting forward here is not a claim for
taking the fun out of art; to the contrary, I belive that both of these
projects exhibit a very good sense of humour, they work like jokes in a
Freudian sense exactly because they reference the cultural context in
relation to which they formulate their own narrative or process.

In many cases, art projects relate to or express their cultural
environment in very restrained or benign, at times even banalising ways.
This is not only an issue in software-based art, but of digital art
practice in general - it often tends to be affirmative of the technology,
uncritical of its corporate politics and superficial in its formulations
and expressions. Where is the desire for excess in software-based art?
Where do we find, as Stefan Riekeles said the other day, the surplus, the
surprise, that which we do not know yet and that is not already legible in
the software code or the technical dispositif that artists prepare so

By way of closing, I would like to read you the jury statement of the
obscure Lux Ziffer award, which has been awarded for the second time at
transmediale last February. Like the anonymous jury, I do not want to
infer that the winning project is an art piece; but I do want to suggest
that we look for art projects that are able to elicit such excited
responses as this one:

"everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right
includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek,
receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless
of frontiers." article 19 of universal declaration of human rights

the anonymous award lux ziffer 03 goes to the anonymous artist vladimor
chamlkovic alias melhacker aka kamil for his project "scezda", a
polymorphic superworm threat.

he has successfully infected the international press with a new virus:
mistaking al qaeda for al gorithm thus feeding the myth of cyberterrorism
and mass hysteria.

his threat to release a blended megavirus in the case of a us attack on
iraq introduces new parameters to media art: boolean vengeance and
political threat.

"scezda" is supposed to be a 3-in-one recombination of sircam, klez and
nimda, the three virii having had the most impact within the last year.
however, melhacker's past background in artistic success is rather poor by
number of infections, distribution, threat containment and ease of
removal. in terms of quantity, his work has failed. in terms of quality,
his publicity attack obsoletes the real existence of "scezda", it has
already raised a profitable discussion of security myths and hysteria
amongst corporate fear-feeders: trojan whores consuming trojan horses,
spreading the news of worldwide economic damage and loss of daily

we do never wish to see "scezda" in the wild, because this would merely
mean, that fossil panic has triggered war. and this is bad.  and so are

if the unwise have an unwise leader, all are led to ruin.

Thank you for your attention.

andreas broeckmann - artistic director
transmediale - international media art festival berlin
klosterstr. 68-70 - d-10179 berlin
tel. +49-30-2474 9761 - fax +49-30-24749-814
ab {AT} transmediale.de - www.transmediale.de
transmediale.04 - Fly Utopia! - 31 jan - 4 feb 2004

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