Power and Protocol: Problematising control over the digital and producing media art on the deep web

In preparation for the May 24 Research Lab A Sensorium of Cinematic Apparatuses, the students of the UvA MA seminar Curating the Moving Image reflect in their blog posts on a particular aspect of the themes in the required theoretical readings or on the development of the curated EYE on Art evening.

Curating 2.0
By Alex Jost

The transferral of media art to the digital domain is fraught with problems. Are we dealing with a reduction in complexity of works? What might be lost in the conversion process? How does curation of a digital archive handle the variability and seriality inherent to a great deal of media art?

A start is made to answering these kinds of questions by Cosetta Saba in her article ‘Media Art and the Digital Archive’ (2013) [1]. It is a text concerned with the 1 epistemological implications of digitisation; how is our experience and knowledge of media art affected by digital archiving? The crux of this matter resides in the ontological complication of the artwork. Information objects are created out of artworks’ documentation, and their dissemination to the consumer is problematised by issues such as dead links and incomplete or inaccurate metadata. The need for constant maintenance via cyclical monitoring programs is clear. Saba’s survey of these inherent complications of digitisation goes into depth concerning protocol: the methods by which data is organised, channeled and distributed online. Herein we identify the narrative­forming jigsaw piece in a distributed network. Is the Internet really a place of unrestricted freedom? Through the silent dimension of protocol, says Saba, we really find power at work. Says Wolfgang Ernst “this power is analogous to the power of media, which depends on the fact that media hide and dissimulate their technological apparatus through their content, which is an effect of their interface.”[2]

What about digital­born media works? What if a work’s procedure and metadata coincide in the same operative field? The distinction between a works data and metadata then implodes[3]. The case I shall present here illustrates this implosion. On 3 the esoterically named http://0100101110101101.org/ we find the work of New York based Italian artists Eva and Franco Mattes. Commissioned by Abandon Normal Devices (link), Dark Content (2015) is described as “A series of videos about internet content moderators: the extraordinarily significant, yet elusive, individuals who determine how much breast is too much breast for Instagram, or are tasked with scrubbing photos of Osama bin Laden from search engines.” Accessing the videos is not as simple as visiting the website, however. Further instructions: “New episodes are released periodically only on the Darknet. To watch them download the Tor Browser and go to http://5cqzpj5d6ljxqsj7.onion


‘I would prefer not to give my name’ Dark Content (2015), Eva and Franco Mattes

The first question, to my mind, is how does one go about archiving a work like the video series Dark Content? The experience of the work is irrevocably entangled with what for most viewers may well be their first time using the ‘deep’ or ‘dark’ web via the Tor browser. Given the media coverage this side of the Internet has conjured over the last few years, through things like trade of illicit goods and services, one’s first forays in the Tor browser are likely to produce an edginess to the experience that a regular visit to a regular website would do in a regular browser. The confessional descriptions given of working as web content moderators are delivered by animated people with uncanny facial movements and text­to­speech voices. This somewhat casts a veil of anonymity over Dark Content, rendering our viewing of the work, to a degree, complicit in something shadowy. The process of arriving at the work, and complicity upon arrival triangulate to form a unique inclusionary media art experience.

I would argue that this angle to experiencing Dark Content is fundamental to the work, and also fundamentally unarchivable. The reduction of the complexity of feeling is too extreme ­ by effectively making innocuous a work whose process is an invitation to the internet’s dark side, we lose too much meaning by folding the work into a neatly documented institutional page. As the volume of online­based media work with dark locales increases, must we discuss the potentialities of a dark archive?

Dark Content addresses the very topic of control via Internet protocol. The next time we encounter dead links online, the surprising lack of something where we expect it, we would do well to pause to consider if our desired destination was deleted for a purpose. Alex Galloway’s 2004 volume Protocol describes its subject, viewed as a whole, as “a distributed management system that allows control to exist within a heterogenous material milieu.”[4] I previously mentioned that exercising control over 4 data is a silent but power­demonstrating dimension to information flow discourse. An immaterial realm is demonstrated in Dark Content’s third episode ‘His Reign Stops Here’ to have a crushingly mundane material reality. The narrator describes the cubical style working environment at IAC, the parent company of Vimeo. Here he worked as a moderator in shifts of up to nine hours at a time, staring at two screens, reviewing videos that had been flagged for inappropriate content. An analogy is made to brick­and­mortar stores and businesses: in these establishments inappropriate or offensive language and behaviour leads to arrest ­ why is an online service any different? He describes his work as ‘keeping the peace’. And so Dark Content goes on, making quite material the work of those silent actors online whose presence is intangible but whose work carries a tremendous importance.

I’d encourage the reader to take the steps advised of downloading the Tor browser and following the link to the Dark Content series. A unique vantage point for awaits: reflecting on how information is organised online, and how difficult processes of forming an archive can be with works as involving and subversive as Dark Content.

[1] Saba, Cosetta. “Media Art and the Digital Archive” in Julia Noordegraaf et.al, eds. Preserving and Exhibiting Media Art: Challenges and Perspectives. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2013. 101­-120.
[2] Ernst, Wolfgang. “Underway to the dual system. Classical Archives and/or Digital Memory” in Dieter Daniels and Gunther Reisinger eds. Netpioneers 1.0 Contextualizing Early Net­based Art. Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2010. 87.
[3] Ibid. 51.
[4]  Galloway, Alexander. Protocol. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004. xix & 7­8.

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