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<eyebeam><blast> Art and Digital Practices

This is a brief intro to two following contributions. One attempts to
explore the nature of online politics and the other two digital
practices I find compelling. The first aims to continue the discussions
around politics that have inhabited this forum, but to focus explicitly
on the politics of cyberspace. The second introduces a couple of digital
practices because I find it impossible to talk about art (as opposed to
politics) in the abstract.

Tim Jordan


Instead of trying to abstractly discuss what 'art' and 'digital
practices' are or might be, I'd like to discuss two particular Internet
based practices. One is the IOD Web Stalker and the other the MIDS
Internet Weather Report. One is explicitly an artistic practice and the
other is not. One offers tools for invention and the other aims for
objectivity. One requires active participation and the other passive
contemplation. They both generate virtual cartographies-map  or traces
of online activity. They both interest me because they simultaneously
produce visions that make online social activity, even power, visible. I
will briefly outline their particular practice and the sort of
'power-trace' that they generate. Apologies for the descriptions to
those who are familiar with either of these two practices. 

The Web Stalker is a Web browser but rather than attempting to
seamlessly integrate all the Web's resources into one multi-media
experience it deliberately dissects web  sites. It begins as a blank
page. You then draw up to six boxes and assign one of six functions to
them. These are crawler (connects to web-sites), map (maps links between
html documents in a site as lines to circles, the more links a circle
has the brighter it is), dismantle (maps the links between different
elements-text, sound, picture, etc.-of a specific html document, also in
lines and circles), stash (a way of saving urls), HTML stream (shows all
the html language as the crawler window reads it), and extract (shows
all the text from an url). You can have six different windows of
different sizes (your choice) all dissecting and mapping the particular
web-site you have chosen. By clicking on the circles produced in map or
dismantle you can navigate around the web-site.

The Web Stalker provides a means of exploring the structure of any
web-site. Almost by accident it produces fascinating pictures which seem
to draw out meaning, though often it's hard to know exactly what that
meaning is. Whereas the usual experience of the Web hides its underlying
structure the Stalker's windows each bring to the surface a different
view of the Web's construction. The Stalker seems to offer a way of
drawing the particular structure (social? power? html?) of any web-site
and producing simultaneously 'art' and power-analysis. A friend who
spent some time using the Stalker on the Microsoft site, claimed to have
begun to see the more important corporate connections of the web-site
through the mapping produced by the Stalker. He also concluded that,
ultimately, the Stalker's productions were both beautiful and pointless.

MIDS Internet Weather Report (IWR) is an attempt to measure and map
flows of data on the Internet. It uses a particular command (PING) to
send messages to different computers and then record the time it takes
for the message to be returned. It then maps these varying lengths of
time over the geographical location of the relevant computers. Both the
number of hosts and the latency (time a ping takes) of Internet traffic
are visible as coloured circles laid over maps. The final product is a
series of maps that measure changes in the speed of Internet
connections, usually over a day. MIDS then produces short animations for
a number of geographical regions in which the data storms can be
followed as they rise with the sun and fall with night. A map of the USA
will see major activity first on the West Coast and then it can be
watched as it travels east. An animated spinning globe has been created
that follows Internet weather as it travels around the world.

The Internet Weather Report allows both the varying nature of the
Internet and its geographical distribution to be mapped. As with the
Stalker, the underlying structure of the Internet is made visible via
pictures. Unlike the Stalker, the IWR was never intended to produce
'art' but to provide information about the Internet. Again, the IWR
produce little maps of power both social and technological; where are
the data flows? which regions remain unmarked by data sun or data rain?
Ultimately, like the Stalker, IWR seem both beautiful and a little
pointless. Who needs to be told that data is thickest and the Internet
slowest during the developed world's working hours?

These two different and similar digital practices create mappings that
have an 'aesthetic' pleasure while also exploring the power relations of
virtual lives. In fact, what I like most about these two practices is
that the two moments of analysis and pleasure come simultaneously and
depend on each other. I'm not sure if they qualify as art but, I think
they qualify as politics.

Tim Jordan

Web Stalker: http://www.backspace.org/iod
MIDS: http://www.mids.org

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