During the last 15 years, while everyday life is being increasingly datafied, an emerging scene of network practitioners from different fields has been actively involved in building alternative networks of communication and file-sharing. Among the practitioners of this DIY networking scene, a growing number of artists has been playing a crucial role in offering alternatives and critical perspectives. The aim of this paper is to present and discuss these particular initiatives in relation to the needs of the different time-periods that they emerged in.
DIY networking, art, community networks, ad hoc networks, offline sharing, network commons
By Daphne Dragona and Dimitris Charitos
In the Post-Digital period, there is no room left for promises or illusions. As Cramer (2014) has suggested, after the Snowden disclosures users are more and more faced with a contemporary disenchantment with digital information systems and media gadgets. The other side of today’s datafied world is the one shadowed by what we don’t know about the networks and the platforms we are using. While our lives are becoming more and more transparent, network infrastructures are becoming invisible and little do we know about how processes and architectures work (Dragona, 2014). The networked world is a world of opacity and this is gradually becoming one of the fundamental asymmetries in the manner that users relate to the networks. Artist Julian Oliver (2014) suggests that “without edges we cannot know where we are, nor through whom we speak,” while artist Danja Vasiliev (2014) also remarks that “we hardly know what our device does behind our back.”
Reaching the point where “the internet does not exist” (Aranda et al., 2014), where all we know is the presence of the Cloud, new facts need to be taken into consideration. When technology is becoming invisible, we as users at the same time are losing our rights on it. Olia Lialina (2012) claims that we can no longer protect or delete our files, we cannot get them back, nor can we see technology itself. The emergence of the Invisible User is, according to her, more important than the one of the Invisible Computer. Similarly, Bratton argues that the “stack” has “staged the death of the user” allowing other non-human Users, like the sensors and the algorithms, to become actors (Bratton, 2014). This phenomenon can also be understood as the blackboxing of society and culture (Pasquale, 2015) that does not allow us to have an understanding of the network infrastructures we depend upon. The sciences of behaviourism, game theory and cybernetics have assisted in the formation of a system that is recording it and predicting it all, carefully exposing only its “inputs” and “outputs” (Galloway, 2010). As Latour (1999) has written, “the more science and technology succeed, the more opaque and obscure they become.” Today the contemporary infrastructure space has become “the secret weapon of the most powerful people in the world precisely because it orchestrates activities that can remain unstated but are nonetheless consequential” (Easterling, 2014). So what could be done under these circumstances?
Networks should be made visible, computerised systems should become transparent, and technologies should be made responsive and available, Sassen writes (2011). The “right to infrastructure” can be reclaimed by re-appropriating networks and infrastructures (Corsin Himenez, 2012). But for this to happen, a new form of ownership (de Lange and de Wall, 2012) supported by a new form of literacy (Parks, 2010), directly related to infrastructures, seems to be needed. This suggestion is in accordance with what Greenfield (2009) has also framed as a need for translators, for “people capable of opening these occult systems, demystifying them and explaining their implications” to the others.
During the last 15 years, while everyday life is being increasingly datafied, an emerging scene of network practitioners from different fields has been actively involved in building alternative networks of communication and file-sharing. Building their own infrastructures by using open hardware and software, they have been developing and communicating models that can be considered as current “counter-infrastructures” (Dragona, 2014) that aim to provoke change of a bottom-up structure. Community networks, ad hoc offline networks and local WiFi access points are examples of such infrastructures that users themselves can own, manage and control. They formulate what can be described as DIY networking, which comes as a response to the opacity of today’s centralised network platforms and the issues of surveillance and commodification that they entail. Among the practitioners of this DIY networking scene, a growing number of artists have been playing a crucial role from the very beginning, offering alternatives and critical perspectives. The aim of this paper is to present and discuss certain exemplary initiatives within the time-period they emerged in.
From organizational aesthetics to the network commons
“Don’t hate the machine. Be the machine,” Pasquinelli wrote back in 2004, addressing a call for “radical machines” that would function “as places of autonomy and autopoiesis” that would allow the sharing of knowledge, tools and spaces. Just when Web 2.0 was about to emerge, such responses as “radical machines” could already be seen coming from the field of art. Becoming the machine, becoming an apparatus or a network could be translated as designing a set of relationships, deciding the topology and the protocols that will define the organisation between links and nodes and the exchange among them (Dragona, 2015).
This idea of becoming the machine or even the system and the node can be traced already back in previous decades of art history; Systems Art, Mail Art and the Fluxus offer such examples from the 60s and 70s. Haacke wrote in 1969 (Haacke, in Graham and Cook, 2010: 52-53): “The working premise is to think in terms of systems; the production of systems, the interferences with and exposure of existing systems. Such an approach is concerned with the operational structure of organisations, in which transfer of information, energy and/or material occurs.” This stance is apparent in the work of artists like Haacke himself who were interested in the exposure of the organisation and functioning of art institutions but it can also be identified in the performative projects of feminist artists like Mierle Laderman Ukeles who aimed to make visible the invisible human infrastructures of care and maintenance in a city context. Process was primary for such works, which were commenting on the influence of cybernetics, on the systematisation of society and lived experience (ibid.). These aspects were also tackled by the Fluxus who followed a different, rather playful, yet radical and open approach of seeking new ways of understanding with their logging activities, their fluxkits and scores. In addition, Mail Art was an early community network born and expanded as a virus by artists who used the postal system to exchange small-scale works or to send instructions for the creation of DIY products (Bazzichelli, 2013: 73). Despite their differences, all the above artistic interventions and projects focused on experimenting with and opening up channels of communication for free exchange.
“To analyse networking dynamics requires reflection and consciousness in the use of technology and media,” Bazzichelli argues (ibid., 77) and this is a process that artists building systems and networks today greatly need to engage in. Goriunova (2012: 3), in her book about art platforms, similarly remarks that, “The art platform is a conceptual device that allows for a differentiation and problematisation of networks […] It is not only a way of looking, but also a dynamic of assembling and coming up with such a body.” In order to underline and express this dynamic of assembling that can be found in art, Goriunova uses the term “organisational aesthetics” that is more than a way of looking. “Organisational aesthetics is a process of emergence and a mode of enquiry that gives us a way to understand a digital object, process, or body” (ibid., 7). Adopting this term, Fuller (2010: 4-9) also notes that the aesthetic undertaking can be found “in the development, movement and transformation of a loosely, precipitously or precisely assembled system of people, technologies, words, signals, the sense of those cohering, evaporating and reshaping over time,” as well as, “in the ethical dimensions of relations between processes, forms of access, cultures and their carriers, whether they are people, languages or technologies.” On a similar direction, we can also recall Lovink’s (2008: 226-227) codeword about “distributed aesthetics” that is in accordance with an approach that “no longer highlights technology as something revolutionary or disruptive,” and that manages “to point to the social formations” that the technologies of connectivity provoke.
Taking these last points into consideration, that is the assembling not only among people, but also among languages and technologies and the attention paid to issues of access, openness and inclusion when such networks are developed, this paper presents and discusses a series of appropriately selected alternative DIY networks, platforms and initiatives that are being proposed by artists as a response to today’s datafied and controlled connected world. At the same time the paper examines these organisational dynamics as decisive factors towards the formation of what Armin Medosch (2014a) framed as “Network Commons”. These new infrastructures may involve both social and technological topologies and may be based on the fundamental cultural commons, such as the languages, the affects and the codes. Additionally, if we follow the thought of Hardt and Negri (2012: 64), it can be suggested that these infrastructures are significant, in that they are “constructed, possessed, managed and distributed by all.” To return to Pasquinelli’s older call, becoming the machine nowadays, can be understood as commoning the machine and therefore assigning to it new properties and values.
DIY networking & Art
The fundamental idea behind DIY networking is that it offers its users the possibility of ownership of the infrastructure, as well as of all generated digital information (Antoniadis and Apostol, 2014). Being based on affordable infrastructure, open source software and hardware and topologies that are distributed or decentralised, this approach opposes today’s dominant centralised control paradigm, formulating “an interesting alternative for an autonomous option for communication” (Antoniadis et al., 2014) and file-sharing. Local Wi-Fi networks and user-controlled distributed systems of connectivity not only offer new opportunities for a combination of virtual and physical encounters, but also allow for anonymity and protect privacy creating feelings of ownership and independence (ibid.). For this reason, DIY networking of different scopes and scales can be regarded as a substantial alternative to today’s centralised on-line communication, for escaping the fears of surveillance and commodification. Following a rich culture of DIY practices that starts already in the 60s (Ratto and Boler, 2014: 9), DIY networking offers systems and models based on low-budget bottom-up solutions.
As earlier suggested, the aim of this paper is to discuss the role of art in the field of DIY networking. For this reason, a particular categorisation of DIY networking artistic interventions is proposed and certain significant examples of such interventions are presented and situated within the categorisation. Taking into consideration their different services and aims, as well as the different periods that they emerged in, the paper focuses on Community Networks, Tactical Mesh Networks, Off-the-cloud Toolkits and Speculative Networks, arguing that these are the main fields where artistic initiatives can be located. While highlighting the role of artists for each section separately, at the end the paper draws a set of common conclusions in order to define the features and aims of these initiatives.
“The sleeping beauty of mesh has been kissed into life by the community.” (Elektra, Medosch, 2015)
The need to connect offline is not new. Although mesh networking has become especially known in the last few years, as a response to issues connected to state surveillance, data profiling and Internet blackouts, its first peak is located in the first half of the previous decade. This is when the well-known mesh networks, such as the Spanish Guifi, the German Freifunk, the Austrian Funkfeuer and the Athenian AWMN, were built, establishing their first urban mesh nodes and links. While, at first, their popularity grew thanks to the greater speed that these connections offered, which was important for both communication and file-sharing, it soon became clear that the potentiality and the outreach of these networks could go far beyond that.
In his analysis about why it is important to build free wireless networks, written in 2006, Lenczner lists the following points (2006: 228-229):
- They are free as in speech: They are based on network-neutrality and non-interference.
- They are free as in beer: They provide free metropolitan traffic.
- They raise awareness: They make people aware of other ways of doing things.
- They bring in alternative design values for networks: They offer opportunities to have a group’s priorities reflected in the infrastructure of the community.
- They invite people to think globally but act locally: They bring people together physically in order to build and sustain the network.
Similarly, Medosch, mentions that what was, and is, of central importance for community networks is the fact that they are formulating a different dispositif—following Foucault’s use of the word—based on the idea of network and communication freedom: They offer “the ability to connect without having to apply to a central point of governance” and the “ability of people to express themselves and communicate freely without top-down hierarchical control” (Medosch, 2014a).
Artists were involved in the development of mesh networks from the very beginning. Medosch explains that James Stevens, founder of Backspace, and Julian Priest, artist-designer-entrepreneur, started designing a model of community networking already back in 1999, naming it at first “Model 1” after Henry Ford’s first mass produced car (ibid.). Being interested in this “freedom to connect”, from node to node, from user to user, they proceeded in building an actual mesh network prototype, called Consume.net, in collaboration with artist Alexei Blinov and a team of theorists, developers and admins working on relevant fields during that period (Medosch, 2014b). The network was brought in different areas of U.K. with workshops run by the artists between 2000 and 2002. Right after London, this same team of people went to Berlin to influence the birth and creation of Freifunk, Berlin’s popular mesh network in 2002 (ibid.). The new “growing” infrastructure of Consume.net came to a city with no functional broadband and infrastructure at the time and it was activated by them along with local artists, theorists and practitioners working in the fields of new technologies, radio and electronics (ibid.; Petersen, nd). Interestingly, as Medosch explains, in Austria, the free network Funkfeuer was also build by an artist, Franz Xaver, who designed it initially for a company, but as the plan did not go through, it passed to the hands of active volunteers (Medosch, 2014c).
Apart from being initiators, artists in the last decade were also invited to use and animate networks in order to communicate their advantages to the citizens. Such was, for instance, the case of the SonicScene project, which was developed in 2005 for the ISF network in Montreal; although the network is principally a network of independent, free Wi-Fi access points for the citizens of Montreal, the nodes were connected through a group of artworks. Artists Michelle Teran, Kate Armstron, Michelle Kasprzak and Tobias van Veen created fragmented artworks that could be experienced when the visitor would drift from one access point to the next. “Each fragment is unique to its hotspot, developing a relation between wireless art and its physical space—one must travel to a certain hotspot to experience a particular fragment” (ile sans fil, nd). The aim of the initiators was to encourage, discover and use creatively the nodes of the networks in the city. From the point of view of the audience, however, this work could be also characterised as a location-based artwork, since it combines a physical world experience with the representation. A different example is the playful invite to discover the nodes of a mesh network, planned as a workshop by Adnan Hadzi and James Stevens in Luneburg in 2013. Wishing to empower Freifunk they invited inhabitants to walk around and discover QR code stickers that were adjacent to the nodes of the network (Hadzi, 2014).
The involvement of artists in community networks is not to be traced only in known urban mesh-nets of big metropolises though; their role has been especially significant in cases where community networks were built for distant villages, poor areas and socially-isolated populations. Such an example were the efforts of activist Elektra, a member of Freifunk, in Valparaiso and Santiago. The Valparaiso Mesh for instance was a network aimed to build mesh nodes in a part of a city that was destroyed by a fire. Electra ran workshops in a local hackerspace where she taught people the basics of wireless mesh networking and involved them in practical networking building (Nieto, 2015). In these cases, it is important to remember that free connectivity and communication among inhabitants was meant to build not only an infrastructure after their needs, but also strong links among the members of the community and a sense of shared responsibility for its maintenance. A distinctive example is the community network of Sarantoporo village found in northern Greece for which the artistic collective Personal Cinema undertook the production of a documentary. These villages—the economy of which depends on agriculture—did not have any Internet infrastructure until 2010. Around that time, a young group of people coming from these villages took the initiative to design and build a network of networks that would connect the inhabitants of the wider area. What was of special interest in this effort and is highlighted in the documentary is the way in which the network empowers the relationships among people; the initiators of Sarantaporo.gr see infrastructures as a commons that can build a community around them (Kleisiaris, 2015). The network brought to the villages the possibility to communicate freely at any time, while access to the Internet was also made possible and considered of great importance.
Other artists who develop mesh networks, merge this commoning of infrastructures with their artistic practice. Such is the case of Christoph Wachter and Mathias Jud, who are known for their sociopolitical projects and interventions, working with different groups and populations in different countries. As Landwehr (2014: 137) explains, the low-cost routers they use for their mesh projects are empowered by a simple hack; once a tin can is attached to the antenna of the router, the signal becomes directional and can travel a larger distance. One of their well-known projects is Hotel Gelem (2011), developed in collaboration with Roma Communities living in settlements in different cities. Hotel Gelem was an awareness-raising tourism project inviting citizens and tourists to live for several days with the community. As part of it, they also built a community network to empower the Roma people living there. This was the community’s greatest wish, as the French government requires an address of a permanent residence and a bank account in order to provide a SIM card and, therefore, mobile Internet access (Landwehr, ibid p.138). For their network they used qaul.net, a platform that allows free connectivity from device to device via WiFi, and low-cost router antennas empowered with simple tin cans. Once the community network was established, they also equipped it with a bicycle carrying an antenna and a computer. When this bicycle was pedalled around, it would first collect the wishes of the community members for downloads and then when taken to the city it would connect to hotspots and download these requests. At a later stage, Internet connection was also provided to them through their neighbours (ibid., 139) so the community members could use the network to communicate, to get files but also to access the Web.
The works of Wachter and Jud, as well as the initiatives taken by the artists mentioned before, are all examples of networks designed for particular communities or urban territories. In a way, these are works that perfectly respond to what Fuller wrote when discussing early forms of aesthetic organisation: “The question is to make something happen: Don’t moan, organise” (2010: 4). The significance of these interventions can be found in the disposition and interest of the artists to use the technology in order to build social links that will endure the community, while at the same time opening up prospects for an infrastructural literacy responding to the community’s needs.
Tactical mesh networks
The use of tactical mesh networks is often connected to cases of emergency. In periods of insurrections or of environmental disasters, when Internet black outs might occur, ad hoc networks can establish communication within the vicinity; connectivity used in this case is independent of the default one, which is no longer functional. Ad hoc networks are most often dependent on mobile devices or on routers with mobile clients, formulating a distributed network called “on demand”. Hu et al. (2003: 175) explain that “an ad-hoc network is a collection of wireless computers (nodes), communicating among themselves over possibly multihop paths, without the help of any infrastructure such as base stations or access points.” The topology of such networks is therefore dynamic and in constant change; a node is free to connect to any other node, creating single sessions of data exchange, whereas failures or drop-outs do not significantly affect the network (Damiot, 2015); it is robust and flexible thanks to its independent nodes. Nodes co-operate to send packets to each other, allowing messages or files to spread like viruses. Although “ad hoc” is the term most often used in relevant literature for such networks, the word “tactical” is considered more appropriate, as it implies the need and the intention behind the deployment of such networks. This term also clarifies how tactical mesh networks differ from community mesh networks, although they often share the same infrastructure.
A recent example of an ad hoc network is Firechat, which became especially known during the time of the student protests in Hong Kong in 2014. Firechat is a mobile phone application, launched by the Open Garden start-up company, which allows users who are at a certain proximity to communicate with one another with no Internet access, using bluetooth or multi-peer connectivity on their mobile devices. Firechat though has not been considered secure; it is public, with no encryption, thus making it possible for everyone in the particular area to read the messages being exchanged (Baraniuk, 2014).
Activists and artists have been responding to the emergency conditions with tactical mesh networks and actual tools, involving devices and technologies that the citizens either already have in their possession or may acquire at low cost and set up themselves. Fluid Nexus (2009) by Nicholas Knouf, for instance, is a model that in a way resembles today’s Firechat. It is “a mobile phone application designed to enable activists and relief workers to send messages and data amongst themselves, independent of a centralised mobile phone network” (Knouf, 2009). Planned for peer-to-peer, node-to-node connection, the network necessitates the physical movement and presence of people at the same location. Once the application is downloaded from the Web to the phone, text, images, audio and video can be transmitted, using bluetooth anonymously, from one device to the next. Messages are encrypted when stored at the device but not when sent to the next node. Knouf’s project, though, raised concerns in the U.S. for the reason that it could also become a weapon in the hands of terrorists having thus a negative, rather than a positive impact.
Qaul.net (2011), by Matthias Jud and Christoph Wachter, mentioned before as part of Hotel Gelem, is also an ad hoc network project, created as a response to communication blackouts and natural disasters. The artists referred particularly to the need to connect freely and independently that arose after the shut downs of Internet and mobile connections in Cairo in 2011 and the atrocious earthquakes in Haiti in 2010 (Wachter and Jud, 2011). The interesting aspect of qaul.net is that it is a software programme and a mesh net at the same time. Joining the network is quick and easy via any device. Once a qaul.net node is located in the area, the software can be instantly downloaded, installed and the new node can join. This is of great importance as no Internet access is needed; the software can be downloaded and installed by any inexperienced user. Computers, mobile phones and tablets can all become part of the network. Chat, Twitter function and movie streaming are all possible. Therefore qaul.net offers a wide spectrum of options that users could install and use according to their needs, when wanting to connect to other people nearby.
Tactical mesh networks are, therefore, activating at the same time nodes and people in order to facilitate communication. As Galloway and Thacker (2007: 30) have suggested, they can offer opportunities for “political action in the network”, “guided deliberately by human actors”. Compared to community mesh networks, the case here is not only about users building up and maintaining a node, but about users actually activating the nodes purposefully only when needed.
Several examples of ad hoc communication and file-sharing have been presented as artistic interventions, often with a critical, playful or challenging disposition towards the structure itself. Ad hoc networks have also been associated to sneakernets and clandestine modes of communication, where information is transmitted secretly and anonymously to serve different purposes. One such project is Dead Drops (2010) by Aram Bartholl, an ad hoc network of USB sticks mounted on walls in cities around the world waiting for users to go, attach their computers and share files surpassing fears and concerns of copyright and trust. Another playful example is Telekommunisten’s Deadswap (2009/2015), a social game of exchanging data in USB sticks, notified through an anonymous SMS gateway. In such cases, questions arise for the very use and functioning of such networks. How easy it is for users to trust and organise their communication or file sharing through a network? Does it really work? Telekommunisten purposefully use the provocative descriptions “platforms of miscommunication” for their works. Their project r15n (2012) was a great example of such a critique inviting people to use an ad hoc phone network in order to try and communicate with each other when phone calls and messages come in randomly. The “revolutionisation of communication” as the artists called it, highlighted the fact that merging the social and the technological does not necessarily lead to a success. Ad hoc organisation might not be such a simple task for the citizens of the connected world. Thus, it becomes clear that the understanding of the potentialities and difficulties connected to their topologies is of primary importance.
“The user of the future will own her own computer. She will own and control her own identity and her own data. She will even host her own apps. She will not be part of someone else’s Big Data. She will be her own Little Data. Unless she’s a really severe geek, she will pay some service to store and execute her ship—but she can move it anywhere else, anytime, for the cost of the bandwidth.” (Future User, Lil Data, 2015)
The challenge for the future of DIY networking may successfully provide tools for our networked everyday life. Just like community network infrastructures appeared in relation to the restrictions of early Internet connectivity and ad hoc topologies responded to times of emergency, new counter-infrastructures are expected nowadays to provide users with the hardware, the platforms and the knowledge that will help them escape the sovereignty of the Cloud. We are now witnessing the phenomenon of “States … evolving into Cloud Platforms just as Cloud Platforms come to take on traditional functions of States” (Bratton, 2015), allowing the interests of the market and the government to meet. Facebook, Google and Amazon are examples of Cloud Platforms, which store the data of users, while the latter have no control over these data after uploading them. As Miss Data and the Israeli Pirates write about their work the Internets (2015), in which five routers generate five closed Internets, the Internet space is now nothing but a monitored space, governed by corporations. Fears about constant surveillance and the commodification of users’ data are directly connected to the formations of the cloud(s).
Having this contextualisation as a starting point, we wish to refer to a new family of projects introduced by artists and hacktivists and examine them as potential counter-infrastructures and “off-the-cloud” initiatives. With the term “off-the cloud”, we wish to discuss a new constellation of offline Wi-Fi access points, sharing networks, autonomous mesh networks, personal servers and syncing platforms that together not only bring in alternative infrastructures, but also communicate to users the essential new forms of literacies needed for using and appropriating them. In other words, it is not only about sharing and storing data safely and locally, but also about knowing how to set up the system, how to use it, maintain it, control it and own it. It is not enough only knowing that you can share locally files with your colleagues; it is important to know how it is done and what other possibilities such a system has. The projects discussed in this section are introduced by their initiators mostly as toolkits. All information about their set-up can be found online, while some have plug-’n-play ready solutions, which are sold by the artists almost at the cost of the equipment used. Instructions, forums, as well as public talks and workshops, are often planned in order to support them. As it will also be shown, off-the-cloud toolkits are by their nature open, gaining the life and the features that their owners want them to gain.
One of the predecessors of today’s projects addressing the need of a critical perspective to centralised infrastructures was Hive Networks, a project initiated by Alexei Blinov, Vladimir Grafoc and Ciron Edwards of Raylab in 2006. Described by their creators as networks that could “watch, listen, sense and touch the world around them”, Hive Networks were designed to “actively source, distribute and create content” promising to “turn the world on” and to empower users with autonomous networked systems (hivenetworks, n.d.). Nodes of the network could therefore capture data, disseminate data and store data. The project emerged in a period of “embedded capitalism” and of growing discussions around the “Internet of Things” and its invisible connections (Medosch, 2006: 235). To respond to this condition, artists used a logic addressed as “creative exposure” inviting users to learn how to build and set up their own devices (Granof and Blinov, 2007). Hive Networks was based on open hardware, open software and open spectrum (Wi-Fi), and at the centre of its philosophy was the idea that low-cost, off-the-shelf technology could be repurposed to offer systems that users themselves could own and control. The creators of Hive Networks were making clear at the time that they were proposing a new model, a new creative solution. It was no longer “the artists asking technicians for a creative solution”, but rather the engineer-artists who were proposing “a new framework for artists and other media practitioners”, “a hiving network of desires and artistic creations” (Blinov, 2006).
This idea of providing a new cell, a tool for artists to use as a starting point for their work is also identified some years later in Sarah Grant’s Subnodes project. Subnodes (2012) is an open-source initiative proposing an offline mesh network that users can set up themselves in order to communicate, share and distribute content within the immediate geographical location. The nodes are Raspberry Pi devices configured as Wi-Fi access points, working as Web servers not connected to the Internet. The selection of a Raspberry Pi, a micro-computer used to learn how to programme, is not of course accidental. Although she runs workshops open to the public, the artist is mainly interested in how it can be used by artists “to express ideas” and by educators to use it in their activities. “It is important to also ask people what they will do with the network, to make them think about it,” she argues (Grant, 2015). A derivative of Subnodes was her project Hot probs (2012), a Wi-Fi access point, a Raspberry Pi where users could connect to in order to chat anonymously. This also brings to one’s mind Dan Phiffer’s well-known project Occupy Here (2011), a Wi-Fi access point built with an inexpensive router for the New Yorkers in Zucotti Park.
In the last few years, this attitude towards an open use of alternative infrastructures became more and more apparent. The toolkits discussed here, offer multiple functions and different services. One of the most well-known examples is the PirateBox (2011-2015) introduced by artist and NYU Professor, David Darts. Initially conceived as a local offline access point where users could connect to and share files, PirateBox became known as a counter-proposal to the piracy laws. The latest version of PirateBox does more than sharing though. Built with an inexpensive router and a USB stick, and configured with firmware of the artist, it also allows users to chat and to stream videos from the device, while the possibility of creating a mesh network, connecting node to node, pirate box to pirate box is also under development. It is also important to mention that different variations of the PirateBox have been introduced by users and colleagues: Such a case is, for instance, the Library Box, a portable digital file distribution tool especially addressing people working in education and healthcare. Similar to the Library Box is the Datafield (2013-2015) project by Henry Warwick, a Network Attached Storage Unit, that works as a Temporary Autonomous Field indexing and openly sharing files wherever it moves.
Superglue (2014) is a project that opens up to a different direction. This particular toolkit, using the same infrastructure with PirateBox—that is off-the-shelf technology, a USB stick and modified firmware—offers users a Web authoring tool and a small personal server in the size of a plug where their data is stored. While the toolkit was officially launched in 2014, its team—led by artist Danja Vasiliev—is working towards its next step and the creation of a social network that Supeglue would support. “We need to try to optimise it the whole time. Now it is a publishing platform. It needs to also become a communication platform,” Vasiliev explains, pointing out the disposition of the creators to constantly upgrade and improve the tools that they make available (2015).
This shift towards off-the-cloud initiatives is also embraced and empowered by artists developing systems in relation to today’s existing infrastructures. Such an example is Dowse (2013, ongoing), a project by Jaromil and the team of Dyne.org, that aims to counterbalance the asymmetry of the Internet of Things and the automation that happens beyond users’ control. Dowse is a “transparent” proxy for home network privacy that aims to connect objects and people in a new friendly, conscious and responsible manner. It offers users the possibility to become aware when new devices connect to their network, by notifying them with a light signal and a noise and to decide what kind of access is granted to them, which “flows of data comes in and which goes out”. At the same time it filters web traffic removing undesired content and advertisements. Dowse, just like Superglue and the other aforementioned initiatives, place the user in the centre of their design, highlighting the importance not only of awareness, but also of decision and permission for their data.
Off-the-cloud projects are initiatives still in progress at the time of writing this paper. Artists keep working on them, while offering them to the users for further exploration and use. The “right to infrastructure” signals the rise of the prototype Corsin Himenez (2012, p.12) writes about, while interestingly referring to Fuller and Haque; prototypes, according to them, are always “pre-broken”, open to deconstruction and re-assembling. They are actually released as such, so that they can be re-used and re-purposed. This might also mean tools that are inexpensive and easy to build. As Vasiliev (2005) says, the point is to use the “existing topologies and infrastructures but separate them from the topology of the internet. Maybe there is no way for an individual to own infrastructure. Maybe we should identify new ways to use what we are provided with. This would be much more pragmatic.”
Apart from the tools and prototypes that the artists contribute with to a wealth of user-owned and controlled infrastructures, imaginary or future scenarios for networks and the sharing of information are also being proposed through works presented as artworks. Often with a speculative character, but yet again functional, these projects discuss issues of surveillance and the possibilities for users’ empowerment over networked infrastructures. Sharing features with what has been addressed as “critical design” (Dunne, 2005; Dunne and Raby, 2001) or “design fiction” (Sterling, 2012), they tell stories about optimal and playful future worlds of connectivity and sharing.
Trevor Paglen known for the way he exposes infrastructures and materialises surveillance introduced in 2014 the Autonomous Cube, a project for exhibition spaces with a double mission. Having the appearance of a minimalist sculpture, the cube is a Wi-Fi access point that routes all traffic through Tor, through a network of distributed computers that anonymise users’ data. The sculpture is meant to be seen and used by the visitors and the gallery team. It is both an artwork and a tool, a functional alternative that in a way takes advantage of the art context in order to communicate and empower the urge for awareness towards data surveillance. Paglen goes against the “abstract” and “mystifying” words we use to understand mass surveillance and the Internet and words like the cyberspace or the cloud, inviting people to observe and use a tangible infrastructure (Paglen 2014).
A different use of a Wi-Fi local access point is made by Nicholas Knouf for the Sylloge of Codes (2014), an installation project based on an offline sharing network. Visitors in this case are invited to connect with their devices and contribute to a resource of ideas for the future of surveillance-free communication. Starting from the fact that encryption algorithms are less and less trustworthy, Knouf turns to imagination and asks visitors to come up with ideas for languages and ways of communication that the algorithms cannot read. Having the appearance of a box of secrets or a box of wishes, with a router hidden within it and a projector showing the different submitted ideas, the work opposes the opacity of today’s technology with a collection of ideas proposed by users for users. “Maybe you had a secret language as a child. Or you communicate the most amazing insights through a poem. All of these methods are potential ways to resist the NSA or the GCHQ” (Knouf, 2014a). When one enters an idea, or a code, he can get another one submitted from a previous user in return. Knouf proposes therefore a collection of “possibilities for resistance” beyond encryption, which aim to re-activate language and go beyond encryption in the “we-are-all-too-aware” condition (Knouf, 2014b).
The movement and potentiality to move freely towards any node and connect to it that characterises ad hoc networks inspired Danja Vasiliev to imagine a parasitic ad hoc network where the movement and the potentiality of the network is lived and experienced by users who become the nodes themselves. Taking advantage of the city transportation system Vasiliev envisioned Netless (2009-2013), a system where nodes would either be attached to carriers or carried by citizens-users. As transportation systems in most cities are well developed networks with nodes of different scale, transmitting messages through such a topology and through the movement of the inhabitants can allow messages to travel incredibly fast and efficiently. Messages are exchanged anonymously when nodes meet. No messages are to be logged and all messages can be encrypted but all messages are delivered to all. This means that Netless is proposed as a network for ephemeral and anonymous communication in cases of need that concern the many (Dragona, 2014). It is proposed as a network for tactical and not private communication. It is a safe way to allow information to be spread like a virus in times of insurrections and black-outs when connectivity is endangered and not considered safe.
The future of community networking was discussed by James Bridle for his Right to Flight (2014) project during a residency in London. The project was an installation, an event series and a research programme conceptualised and led by the artist. Aiming to address issues of surveillance and especially the urge for citizens to regain the power over infrastructures, the artist built and hid a network within a military surveillance balloon that flew over Peckman. Bridle used the model of Occupy Here (2011-2013) by Dan Phiffer to create a flying Darknet, which enabled local inhabitants to connect to it anonymously, to communicate and share files. The balloon also carried cameras and tracking devices that connected to Raspberry Pis and transmitted captured data to the connected public. At a time that Google developed its high-altitude balloon network to connect rural and remote areas to the Internet, the artist took a different approach. Inspired by Nadar’s utopia, a 19th Century air photographer and balloonist who was arguing that by using the balloons “to ascend to the heavens” mankind would be saved from wars and major piroblems, he tried to rediscover this “in the possibilities of contemporary technologies”, by returning some of the power lost to “the surveilled” (Bridle, 2014). Believing in the democratisation of technology that is otherwise used for surveillance, Bridle purposefully chose to combine a dark military-like balloon with the use of open-source software and hardware, opening up technologies to the users.
Τhe future of a community mesh network was envisioned as a flock of drones by roving security consultant Eleanor Saitta, architect and designer Oliviu Lugojan-Ghenciu, and architect Liam Young along with the team of Superflux. Electronic Countermeasures explored the design, functioning and manufacturing of such a drone network for an intervention performance that took place at the Glow Festival in 2011. The flying drones could form their own place-specific, local, Wi-Fi community and pirate file-sharing network. The project came almost at the time when the Pirate Bay was researching the possibility of such a prototype. “With the development of GPS-controlled drones, far-reaching cheap radio equipment and tiny new computers like the Raspberry Pi,” small drones should be able to float several kilometres up in the air and be used for sharing files (Pirate Bay Blog, 2012). The idea was that at the core of the network low-orbit servers would be used for holding proxies and rerouting the torrents to hidden servers. It is important to notice here that when artists build networks, they use and expose topologies, highlighting their properties and features. Electronic Countermeasures offers a tangible understanding of the topology as drones are nodes moving and exchanging files in the air.
Distributed networks assist in the anonymisation of data—what Tor does—while they are also more secure; when one node breaks, the network is still robust. This element is highlighted in the latest film of Laura Potrias, documenting Ai Wei Wei and Jacob Appelbaum collaborating for three days for a common project which took as a starting point the Snowden revelations and the material that Poitras was given by Snowden in order to communicate it to the press and the public. Panda to Panda (2015) was a performance, a statement and a provocation that gave birth to a distributed network of leaked information. The two activist-artists printed leaked information, destroyed it and used it to stuff a number of cuddly panda toys. A micro SD memory card was placed inside each panda at the same time. The toys were symbolically sent to art museums of big capitals considered as a secure place to store information. Panda to Panda referred to the necessity to turn towards Peer-to-Peer topologies, while playfully also referring to species in danger, to natural treasures, and therefore to our free communication being endangered and getting lost (Poitras, 2015). As the work was made in Beijing, it is also an ironic metaphor to the secret police called Panda in China (ibid.). From another perspective, Easterling (2014) interestingly notes the following in relation to the use of pandas: “Excessively soft and cute, the panda is a streamroller of sweetness and kindness—an arm-twisting handshake that disarms and controls with apparent benevolence.” The pandas according to her were used to “exploit a currency in values, social signals and sentiments.”
The cube, the box, the model of transportation system, the balloon, the flock of drones and the cuddly pandas look at first as playful or poetic views for the future of our networked communication and the future of offline networking. Objects are repurposed in order to serve offline connectivity. When asking how artworks as such can provoke change, it is important to take into consideration the stance the artists take when engaging with future scenarios. “My job as an artist is to try to see changes taking place,” Trevor Paglen (Kiss, 2014) argues, whereas James Bridle proposes making network objects visible (Huffington, 2014). He claims that strong metaphors are needed and that this is what exactly these projects offer; ways of understanding, seeing, using the elements of networks and questioning the possibility for a positive turn at the same time. As is the case with a critical side of design fiction, these networks/objects tell stories “about worlds that could or should become” (Bleecker, 2012).
As the paper has shown, artists have been involved in different directions of DIY networking, which respectively respond to different needs of today’s users. Going off-the-cloud not only is a way of escaping data surveillance and commodification, but also assists in building new bonds among a community, in connecting in times of emergency, and in having control of one’s data. Despite the different features and aims mentioned above, the following remarks can be made in order to draw some conclusions about the initiatives, toolkits and forms of organisation coming from the field of arts.
Firstly, all networks discussed follow a user-centred approach. The human and non-human elements that a network involves are balanced by always allowing the users to have control of the nodes of the network; setting them up, controlling them and sustaining them. In the era of algorithmic automation and control, it s important to remember what Munster and Lovink (2005) claimed that the rise of networks should be made understood as an all-too-human behaviour. Although Medosch (2006) is correct when suggesting that “in ubiquitous computing, it is usually the devices which get smarter and the people who remain stupid”, in the cases of the above initiatives a “new Internet of People” (Nold and van Kranenburg, 2011), can emerge as opposed to the dominant Internet of Things paradigm.
Secondly, the topologies of DIY networking are exposed and understood by a merging of the social and the technological. As a user is always behind a node and in control of a node, it is easier to realise the edges and nodes, the architecture and potentiality of the network. This idea of “becoming the machine” that Pasquinelli (2004) mentioned can be understood as becoming the node and gaining control of the network.
Thirdly, all infrastructures of different scale are based on open software and hardware, affording users the possibility for modifying and even repurposing them for their own needs; this way, not only the DIY, but also the DIWO ethos is encouraged embracing the logic of thinking, sharing and working together. This is a manifestation of what Hardt and Negri (2012) have stated when they argued that “being with” is no longer enough; a “doing with” is necessary. Alternatives based on collaboration and sociality are introduced to spread and teach people how not only to modify and use infrastructures but also to make decisions, possibly based on criteria which are qualitative and humanistic (Bollier and Hellfrich, 2013). Staying out of the market of centralised systems and platforms, a new system and theory of value is embraced. Encouraging forms of exchange economy and providing tools and knowledge freely and openly, a significant effort is made for social value to outbalance market value, for sharing networks to surpass zones of property. Continuing the above argumentation, a fourth keypoint is that the proposed infrastructures can be seen as part of the new “Network Commons”, as discussed by Medosch. Although Medosch refers primarily to community networks, this can greatly stand for the wider family of offline sharing networks as they are systems in terms of infrastructure and content that are meant to be constructed, possessed and managed by all. Through such platforms, users are invited “to speak and think, to become informed and to participate”, as Stavrides (2010) has put it, for the necessity of the contemporary commons. Commoning in the case of infrastructures, is therefore a process based on the potentialities, skills and affects of the users with the aim to own, control and maintain as a commons systems of connectivity, communication and sharing.
Finally, to sum up all of the above and to understand the contributory role of art, it is useful to turn again to the notion of organisational aesthetics used by Goriunova and Fuller, as well as to the concept of distributed aesthetics coined by Lovink. The forms of organisation artists introduce as part of a DIY networking practice capture not only social and technological topologies, but also experiences, languages and codes, driven we could say by effect. Just like Goriunova wrote for the art platforms that she studied, one can point out about artistic offline sharing networks that they are not only a type of practice, but also types of networks and network organisation; following her approach, these forms of organisation mobilise and reinvent network systems and cultures, conditioning and co-creating new forms of life (Goriunova, 2012: 3). To understand this, one only needs to think how a community network might have changed the social life of the Roma, how a PirateBox toolkit facilitated a university course or how a flying mesh network in a balloon in the sky could have triggered discussions about free communication and sharing in the networked world. This is how the “cultural, the individual and the social” is constantly produced and organised (ibid.). While the different networks and systems proposed by artists cannot compete with the ones introduced by the market, nor can they easily become alternatives widely used, they do constitute initiatives for a world of connectivity that respects the rights of its users. This does not mean they should be just regarded merely as symbolic gestures; they should rather be seen as starting points for modes of networking and organisation that are driven by effect and are based on an interest for a substantial change.
The special role that the artists seem to acquire through these interventions, is therefore the one of the facilitator, the mediator, the commoner of knowledge and experience. The artists are building the bridges needed (Vasiliev, 2015), offering tools of understanding based on their will to expose and make accessible the opaque systems. Just as it happened in previous decades, this urge to render the invisible visible happens in order to empower people. Artists can be seen as the ones that invite today’s users “to a participatory journey aiming to capture the not yet described and yet visualised, going beyond poles as real, virtual, new, old, offline, online, global and local” and therefore to unite all these different elements in the experience of networking (Munster and Lovink, 2005). They respond to the exact need that de Lange (2013: 83) also points out: “We must shift attention from technologies that seamlessly blend in with everyday life, towards technologies that move people and enable them to move others.” Art’s special contribution in DIY networking is found especially in this capability; that is to build awareness, to motivate and activate people towards change which—in the particular context—concerns systems of connectivity beyond the possibility of surveillance and control. By turning the attention again towards the user, by making the topologies and the infrastructures tangible and accessible and by allowing their further modification and use by their users and their communities, new modes of organisation and responsibility are becoming apparent, beyond the sovereignty of the cloud.
This research has been co-financed by the European Union (European Social Fund – ESF) and Greek national funds through the Operational Programme “Education and Lifelong Learning” of the National Strategic Reference Framework (NSRF) – Research Funding Program: Heracleitus II. Investing in knowledge society through the European Social Fund.
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Daphne Dragona is Curator, with a PhD from the Department of Communication and Media Studies, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens
Dimitrios Charitos is Assistant Professor at the Department of Communication and Media Studies, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens