Andreas Broeckmann on Sat, 8 Mar 97 18:24 MET

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nettime: Net.Art, Machines, and Parasites

Net.Art, Machines, and Parasites

Andreas Broeckmann

1. The electronic networks, most notably the Internet, are creating new
artistic spaces which are currently being explored in a multiplicity of
ways. Alongside industrialists, designers and stock traders, artists are
fascinated by the possibility of almost instantaneously transmitting and
receiving data on a world-wide scale - the 'world' in this case obviously
being those parts of the globe which have an infrastructure of telephone
lines, personal computers, modems and Internet providers. The World Wide
Web (WWW) with its hypertextual structure and multi-media possibilities is
the most prominent, though not the only domain of the new network art.
        There are a variety of network-based art practices that have
already existed prior to the popularisation of the Internet in the 1990s
and that have used, for instance, the telephone network for live-audio
performances, or fax machines for the instant exchange of written and drawn
messages. In a similar way, mail art circles have, for more than 25 years,
used the postal service which has allowed artists to stay in contact and
collaborate in a widely spread network of friends and colleagues.
        Time, space, speed, collective creativity and communication are the
primary themes of the projects that were realised in these fields. The use
of computers in the electronic networks has added independent machine
agency as an extra dimension of such practices: the communication and data
exchange among networked computers in processes which are not controlled or
initiated by human actors, has taken on an aesthetic quality.[1]
        In the telematic spatial sound installation by the Austrian group
x-space, 'Ping - Die Metrik der Zeit' (1994), for instance, sounds made in
front of a microphone were delayed by digital signal processors before they
were played over a set of loudspeakers in the same room. The time-lag
between input and output was determined by the time that it took for a
certain data packet to be sent from the installation site in Austria via
the Internet to New Zealand and returned from there. This protocol is
called Ping and is used regularly in electronic networks to check whether
there actually is a connection between two computers, and how fast this
connection is. Its speed depends on the amount of data traffic going on in
the network, as well as in the server computers at the nodes that the
signal has to pass through. Ping thus becomes a measure of time, distance
and speed that is relative to the activity and communication on the
network: the acoustically created spatial dimension which can be
experienced in the installation room is dependent on an uncontrollable,
machinically induced process.
        Such a use of the technological disposition has become typical of
some of the art projects realised with digital media. They do not aim at a
beautiful or effective artistic expression, or at a convincing
representation of an abstract principle, but use the fact of machinic and
interpersonal communication across the network, the technological structure
and functions of the network dispositive, and amplify, mock or playfully
subvert them.

2. A number of artists and groups are currently concentrating on the World
Wide Web for this kind of work. The WWW is a protocol on the Internet that
allows for an integrated transmission and presentation of textual, visual
and audio material, mainly using graphically designed screen 'pages' as the
interface. This multi-medial quality, and the fact that the interactive
functionality of the interfaces is rapidly expanding through the
development of plug-ins, has meant that since its launch as a new mass
medium in 1993, the WWW has been embraced by media practitioners of every
sort, artists, activists, companies, advertisers and media conglomerates,
to communicate with their audience, present their products and entertain
WWW users. Connectivity and bandwidth are still too small for the Web to be
a serious competitor for television, but there is a possibility that a lot
of the mass communication that is currently being conducted via TV will, in
the future, be transported via the electronic networks.
        Whether this means that the quality of Web content will be as poor
and as limited as that of television, will largely depend on the way in
which the technological infrastructure of the networks will be developed.
The Internet has the potential for being a genuinely open, many-to-many
medium where every user can post his or her own contents which can then be
accessed by all other users of the network. Practically, however, there is
now a real danger that this new public communication space gets squeezed by
commercial interests on the one hand (advertisers and broadcasters who want
people to consume rather than use the medium), and by government censorship
on the other (regulating what content is available to whom). It is
important to understand that the development of the electronic networks as
media for personal and artistic communication and expression is dependent
on the political and technological decisions that are now being taken, and
that it is necessary to demand open and flexible infrastructures in which
private and non-commercial initiatives can flourish alongside the
commercial usages of the networks.

3. This is the context in which a loose group of artists, almost a
movement, is currently realising projects under the name Net.Art. They are
based in various European countries, team up in real and virtual
institutions like CERN, Netlab, the WWW Art Centre, etc., working locally
as well as translocally, sometimes remotely and together on the same
project, at other times individually or with local collaborators. An
important feature of projects realised on the WWW is that they can
constantly be updated and changed, so that there is never a ready and fixed
creation or 'work'. Net.Art works are temporary (though not necessarily
time-based) and as unstable as the networks themselves.
        At this moment, Net.Art is certainly in a transitory state, in
permanent flux, and it will change and develop as its agents and
environment change. The following is therefore a snapshot rather than an
historical analysis.
        The main tool of Net.Art is the hyperlink through which one WWW
document can be linked to another, no matter where on the Internet that
second document is located. This means that (if we disregard the documents
that allow only restricted access) all the millions of documents on the WWW
are potentially linkable, they belong to the same horizontal surface of
material, a felt of singularised objects, on which artists and designers
can draw. The WWW Art Medal project, for instance, consists of links to WWW
pages that are not meant to be 'art', but that have an 'arty' feeling to
them. These pages, often accidentally found, are awarded the WWW Art Medal
and are complemented by pirated art critical quotations which describe what
may be seen as artistically valuable in the individual pages. The project
creates a distributed artistic space and exhibits 'objets trouvŽs' from the
networks, diluting the boundary between intention, gesture,
collection/presentation, and object. The artistic practice, 'project' in
the literal sense of the word, is a sliding across the surface of the
webbed documents.
        In another project, Net.Art.Per.Se, the designs and images of
existing WWW sites of major media companies, search engines, etc., are used
to contextualise a series of speculative statements about Net.Art. Net.Art
presents itself as a hypothetical thread, as a possible trajectory through
the mediatic space. It incorporates and structures found material, and it
inscribes itself into the expanses of the Web, tilting some of its smooth
surfaces, creating little channels in which the digital material can change
the direction of its flow.
        For the Refresh project, more than twenty WWW pages located on so
many different servers all across Europe and the US were linked together in
a loop through which the visitor would be 'zapped' automatically, one page
following the next after ten seconds. The project made use of the 'Refresh'
meta-tag, a command within HTML, the language that is used to design WWW
pages. The command tells the WWW browser software on the personal computer
of the user to automatically go to a particular page after a certain time.
By making sure that all these links created a loop, Refresh would take you
through all the pages over and over again. The project was exciting for
those immediately involved as they could experience how the loop grew page
by page, while they were simultaneously communicating and negotiating via
an IRC chat channel how to solve certain problems. More generally, the
Refresh loop was designed to employ the interconnectivity of the computers
and the software infrastructure to create one project that was
simultaneously happening at more than twenty different locations, a
genuinely distributed artwork whose experiential effect both depended on
and transgressed the physical distance between the participants.

4. The aesthetics of such projects is dependent not so much on the
intention of a single or collective author, but on the process initiated by
and within the complex machine of people, the network infrastructure,
desires, technical hardware, design tools, interfaces, behaviours. Machines
in the sense in which I am using the word here are not only technical
apparatuses, they are assemblages of heterogeneous parts, aggregations
which transform forces, articulate and propel their elements, and force
them into a continuous state of transformation and becoming. Machinic
assemblages are made up of singularities which dynamically transform the
environment by which they are being transformed and recomposed. And the
machinic assemblage as a whole has an aesthetic effect. The artistic
explorations of the machinic are attempts at formulating an understanding
of production, of transformation and of becoming that is no longer
dependent on a humanist notion of intentional agency. Its place is taken by
an ethics and an aesthetics of becoming machine.

5. The media theoretician Toshiya Ueno has claimed that the key aspect of
network art is the creation of a relational field in which people who are
physically far apart can collectively maintain a strong ideological,
ethical, or spiritual relationship amongst each other. Interestingly, Ueno
directly relates this to the situation of people living in a diaspora,
suggesting a function of network art that aims at recreating broken or
weakened ties within a particular community. For Ueno, networked
relationality is based not only on the technology which makes the contact
and communication possible, but also on travelling and physical mobility.
Translocality means that, in order to create a forceful relational field,
technically supported interconnectivity is not sufficient: network art that
is based on and aims at translocal communication needs the fluid movement
of people, objects and ideas. More than anything, Net.Art is a dynamic felt
of relations constituted by movement.
        Ueno also points out that the social practice associated with
Net.Art, in which the sharing of food and data is central, resembles the
principles of Immediatism described by Hakim Bey, who writes that the
gathering and the potlatch are crucial levels of the immediatist
organisation, where friends meet and exchange gifts and food. Collaborating
on specific projects (the Bee) and the creation of temporary autonomous
zones (TAZ) are further levels that are deployed to achieve the goals of
the Immediatist organisation, i.e. conviviality, creation and destruction.

6. I would like to add some reflections about the parasitic activity, based
on Michel Serres' book Le Parasite (1980), implicitly suggesting that its
parameters and attitudes might be useful for a description and further
development of the economy, ethics and aesthetics of Net.Art. The
connection drawn in the following between Net.Art and parasitism is a
hypothetical one; it attempts to describe an artistic practice that aims
neither at representation nor at interactivity, but at a tilting of, and
sliding across, the technological dispositive.
        The relationship between network art and parasitism was earlier
suggested by Erik Hobijn who introduced a concept for Techno-Parasites:
"Parasites live and feed on other plants and animals. Techno-Parasites use
whatever technical systems or apparatuses they can find as hosts, drawing
on their output, their energy supplies and cycles to procreate and grow. A
Techno-Parasite can be a simple or a complex system which is attentive and
adapts to its host's structure where its inventive struggle for survival
causes technical disruptions. Techno-Parasites suck other machines empty,
disrupt their circuits, effect power cuts, disable them, destroy them."[2]
        Hobijn insists that the parasite is not alien and exterior to
technological systems, but that each system, whether natural or
technological, brings forth its own counter-forces which will disrupt its
stability and continuity. The techno-parasite, Hobijn claims, is an
integral part of the technological ecology, it helps to make the
technological system viable. (It should be noted that Net.Art, in its
current form, is much more benign than the TPs.)

7. "To be a parasite means: to eat at somebody else's table." (Serres,
p.17) To be a parasite means to divert food, money, energy, anything
material, from its destined path. But the parasite is neither thief nor
villain: the host creates the conditions for the parasite to come and
welcomes it, explicitly or implicitly. The host is not the victim, but the
home of the parasite. In its host's house, the parasite must be humble and
quiet; being too visible can be fatal. Similarly, the parasite must know
when to eat, and it must know when to go.

8. The parasite is not fixed and it is not attached to the source of its
nourishment directly. It "has a relation not with a station, but with
another relation." (55) The mouse eats the bread crumbs that fell to the
ground when its host was eating the bread. The mouse does not go to the
bread box, which is locked, but to the crumbs that result from an
instability in the relation between host and bread. Similarly, the leech
will not enter the body where it would drown in the blood, but it makes a
hole in the skin and consumes the blood that wells from it.
"The parasite is 'next to', it is 'with', it is detached from, it is not
sitting on the thing itself, but on the relation. It has relations, as one
says, and turns them into a system. It is always mediate and never
immediate. It has a relation to the relation, it is related to the related,
it sits on the channel." (64-5)
        It is important to remember that the parasite is always dependent
on a host. It can leave and search for new hosts, and it can flee from
danger, but it will have to return to a host, "its outside is always the
inside of something else." (300) The pact that the parasite has to make is
to convince the host, again explicitly or implicitly, that the inequality
of exchanged goods is for the mutual benefit.
        The parasitological economy and ethics are not based on an exchange
of equal values, but on presents, offers, and on gratitude. "The logic of
debt and credit is ruled by exchange, it relies on the accounts and
calculates the balances; in the logic and the economy of thanking, of
gratitude, exchange does not exist. One collective is ruled by demands
while in another, gratitude circulates. Two societies which are not
comparable. In the second system there is a lot of eating, lots of
invitations for festive meals and dinners." (51)

9. Just as white noise plays a constitutive role in acoustics, parasitism
is constitutive for relations. "The background noise is the basic space,
and the parasite is the basis of the channel that leads through this space.
Parasitism is nothing but a linear form of white noise." (83)
        There is a direct correlation between the intensity of activity on
the channel and the communication of the message, between white noise and
communication, between parasitism and functionality. Heating up the cable's
fibres, for instance, will increase the white noise. "This agitation
prevents the message from passing through. However, sometimes it only makes
the communication of the message possible, which would not be able to pass
through a channel that is not agitated or energised. The background noise
is the precondition of transmission (of meaning, of the sound, and even of
the noise itself), and the noise is its interruption or disruption. In
turn, the noise - the parasite in information-theoretical terms - is at all
three corners of the triangle simultaneously, it is sender, receiver and
channel. Heat it up a little, and I receive, send, I collate; heat it up a
little more and everything breaks down. A minimal increase in one direction
or the other can transform the communication system as a whole." (298-9)

10. The parasite is a strategist and an ecologist, it knows its environment
and, like a nomad, it is good at 'passing through' and at conquering
through movement, rather than at occupying, settling, and conquering by
force. "The strategist we are looking for is not a dynamicist, he laughs at
physical strength, he is a topologist, he knows his ways, the channels, the
terrain. In short, he is a geographer. May the enemy come with a hundred
divisions, heavy tanks and artillery, I will let him walk through the
swamps and drown in them. The parasite of the networks does not go into
battle; no message has any meaning any more, it gets lost in the noise. The
white noise is distributed where meaning is scarce, chaotic long waves from
which the message emerges, short and sharp. Nothing can be produced more
easily than these little waves, nothing can be maintained more stable."

11. The irritation caused in the host system comes from the parasite's
ability to swap places, to be channel and disruption, to force the system
into oscillation. "The parasite is an infectant. Far from actually
transforming a system's nature, its form, elements, relations and paths,
the parasite makes the system change its condition in small steps. It
introduces a tilt. It brings the system's balance or the distribution of
energy into fluctuation. It irritates it. It infects it. Often this tilt
has no effect. It can bring forth effects - even massive ones, through
chain reactions or reproduction. (...) The parasites brings us close to the
simplest and most general agents of change in systems. It causes the
infinitesimal diversions to fluctuate. It makes them immune or blocks them,
it forces them to adapt or kills them, it selects and destroys them. Should
we generalise what Claude Bernard said about poisons and call the parasites
'the real reagents of life'? This is the case because the parasite brings
us close to the subtle balances of living systems, close to their energetic
balances. It is their fluctuation, their concussion, their test, their
shift." (293-4)

12. The hypothesis put forward here is that the parasitological aesthetics
described by Michel Serres is, at least in part, applicable to the
net.artistic practice. The latter's cheerful dependence on and exploitation
of the technological dispositive, the mild irritation that it causes at the
cost of the apparent functionality and rationality of the network system,
and the transgression of its symbolic system of sites and homes, suggest
that the parasitic might be a useful metaphor with which to describe the
gestures and interventions of Net.Art.
        A final example to underpin this hypothesis. As we saw earlier, the
host has a home, it is a home. The parasite, on the contrary, has no home
of its own, it chooses temporary homes, it is always a lodger. If one goes
to the websites of the WWW Art Centre or of, the first page
offers links to a whole list of homepages for these sites, made by
different net.artists. These websites do not have an individual face, a
homepage and logo that would make it possible to identify them, but they
have multiple entrances and multiple faces. Deleuze and Guattari, in their
monumental study Milles Plateaux (1980), introduce the concept of
'facialisation' (fr. visagŽitŽ) to describe the process of subjectification
'in the image of' a face. In short, the subject emerges from the abstract
machine of the facial surface which reterritorialises a multiplicity of
diverse forces around a 'facial' pattern and brings forth a recognisable
and self-recognising individual. The multiplication of entrances, the
multiplication of homepages and 'faces' of the Net.Art websites, then,
produces a multiplication of selves, an acknowledgement of the multiplicity
of the technological subject. Like the parasites, net.artists are never
one. The net.artist is a collective that becomes stronger and more
beautiful the further distributed and discretely interconnected it is.
        The gesture means neither: this is my home, this is my face, this
is me, nor: be my DoppelgŠnger, but it means: be my triplegŠnger,
quadruplegŠnger, my septuplegŠnger, and then: visitor, guest, parasite, be
welcomed, enter the machine through the passages of our multiple selves.
What we witness is not a dissolution of borders, but a distribution and
interconnection of potentialities. Friends inviting each other to their
homes, getting together in conviviality for festive meals and the
distribution of gifts, forgetting who is the host and who is the guest.


1. For a more extensive discussion of these aesthetic parameters, cf. my
'Art in the Electronic Networks', in: SCCA Quarterly, Autumn 1996, and
Nettime ZKP 3.2.1, Ljubljana 1996 (cf. below).
2. The concept of the Techno-Parasites has been elaborated in a text by
Erik Hobijn and Andreas Broeckmann, 'Techno-Parasites: Bringing the
Machinic Unconscious to Life', in: BE 4, Berlin, October 1996, p.91-7, and


Hakim Bey: Immediatism. Edinburgh: AK Press, 1994
Gilles Deleuze, FŽlix Guattari: Milles Plateaux. Paris: Ed. de Minuit, 1980
Michel Serres: Le Parasit. Paris: Grasset & Fasquelle, 1980 (quoted after
the German edition, Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 1987)
Nettime ZKP 3.2.1. (Ed. by Vuk Cosic & Heath Bunting) Ljubljana: Ljudmila, 1996
Toshiya Ueno: 'A Preliminary Thesis (...).' In: Nettime ZKP 3.2.1, p.21-3


Rachel Baker -
Cybercafe (Heath Bunting a.o.) -
E-L@b (Rasa Smite, Raitis Smits, Jaanis Garanc, a.o.) -
Jodi (Jodi) -
Olia Lialina -
Ljudmila (Vuk Cosic, Luka Frelih, a.o.; incl. NAPS) -
Moscow WWWart Centre (Alexei Shulgin, a.o.) -
NetLab (Pit Schultz a.o.) -
Techno-Parasites (Erik Hobijn) -

Net.Art conference -
Nettime -
Refresh - (multiple entrances; a.o.:)

Rotterdam/Berlin, January 1997

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