Technarchy: Exploiting Technology

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William Gibson, an original cyberpunk, once stated that “the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” But if it’s already dropped, who exactly is making it? Gibson would probably say it’s bubbling up from “the street,” like this issue’s reggaeton and baile funk. But some of the most radical and significant works of today are hurtling in from other trajectories besides the music world, including places such as galleries, laboratories, and the net.

Art has always been political. So it should come as no surprise that as it catches up with itself, it draws new material from new media. Splice together an artist and a technologist and you seem to wind up with new creatures: the hactivist, the tech-prankster, the cyber-joker, the collective–all with new methods of attack and response and 3D-rendered middle fingers in the air.

From Natalie Jeremijenko’s packs of hacked robot dogs to Cory Arcangel’s Nintendo cartridges, from Critical Art Ensemble’s anti-GMO enzymes to the Yes Men’s internet-fueled PR stunts, these artists are flipping technology, popular perception, and the information age in upon itself; they’re directly harnessing the vast energies that corporations use to sell their image and products and transforming these energies into creative, humorous, and refreshing experiences. A new kind of mobile artist/activist has been born, one who realizes that hacking technology is art, that making art is inherently political, and that politics is an artform unto itself. Abe Burmeister & Daniel Perlin

Artist collective neuroTransmitter is working to reclaim radio broadcasting technology as a guerilla means for criticizing corporate control of the public airwaves. By building portable radio transmitters and teaching people how to make their own low-power pirate radio stations (among other projects), neuroTransmitter’s artistic mission is to “[create] tools that seek to enable communication and amplification of voice and action.” Think of it as radio-wave graffiti for the post-modern city.

Using historical military communications devices as inspiration for their latest project, neuroTransmitter created a portable radio station in a bag; a self-contained, battery-powered, backpack radio transmitter. This device, called com_muni_port, allows an individual to travel freely while broadcasting a stream of live audio commentary, interviews, or pre-recorded segments that can be received by anyone within range; this allows “[for] potential use[s] within public rallies, mapping of audio frequencies within a city, spontaneous interviewing, information dissemination, and public participation.” While the federal government controls the airwaves, regulating those who are allowed to broadcast over the FM dial, “these regulations allow for very few voices to be heard,” according to neuroTransmitter–hence the need for their low-tech but highly effective intervention. The com_muni_port, built using standard Radio Shack parts, is not only small and light but also cheap enough to allow anyone with access to a soldering iron and a will to bend the laws to build a version of their own.

neuroTransmitter also envisions their device as a way to create “sonic spatial interventions in the urban environment”–a sort of street theatre. During the Republican National Convention last summer they staged one such intervention, entitled the Low Power to High Power Broadcast Media Tour. They toured the sites of major media conglomerates in midtown Manhattan, using the com_muni_port to broadcast site-specific bits that highlighted the way those companies monopolize mass media, influence the FCC, profit from the war in Iraq, support conservative policies, and otherwise act to keep the power of the media in the hands of the powerful. Ben Godsill

Institute for Applied Autonomy
Taking a military model “and flipping it on its head,” The Institute For Applied Autonomy asks you to take control of your environment. Their earliest work, the Graffitiwriter–a robot that can be remote controlled to write graffiti of your choice on the ground–is a key introduction to their approach. Combining real autonomous engineering (the robot itself) with hacked technologies (the interface is a modified graphing calculator), the IAA starts with the premise of the hactivist: take what’s there and appropriate, then tweak it to make your own statement. Member John Handy aligns their activities with those of Critical Art Ensemble, calling for a new generation of “contestational robotics.” “It’s great when Girl Scouts and businessmen make graffiti,” says Handy of the robot-driven spectacle. “Maybe they’ll rethink the legislature afterwards.”

The Institute for Applied Autonomy’s work questions how Americans are being pushed and surveilled, then challenges the user to subvert the everyday methods of control that dominate their lives. For instance, the IAA’s iSee is a web-based application that charts the locations of closed-circuit television surveillance cameras in urban environments, allowing the public to avoid detection.

Their TXTmob project takes a different tack. Launched at the Democratic National Convention, this distributed cell-phone network allows users to share their experiences and observations through text-based contributions, keeping protesters and observers linked continuously with the latest information. By teaming up with, Text Mob was harnessed to support the Ukranian revolt against the recent elections and, of course, protestors at the Republican National Convention in New York took advantage as well. Another example of IAA’s desire to help you adopt then adapt. Daniel Perlin

Natalie Jeremijenko
The setting is the near future, Mission Bay Landfill, San Diego. A pack of feral robot dogs is on the prowl. They roam the landscape sniffing for toxic waste, letting out a digital howl as they cluster towards the sites of intensity. This is not a scene from science fiction–rather, it’s the latest installment of an ongoing project by tech artist Natalie Jeremijenko. Working with engineering students at Yale and junior high schools in the Bronx, she has developed technology to hack commercially available robot dogs (whose prices range from $39.99 to several thousand dollars). As she is happy to point out, these products of the military industrial complex and consumer culture are literally “sniffing their own bottoms,” mapping out sites of industrial pollution in urban environments.

Jeremijenko freely admits to “exploiting the economies of scale” with judo-like moves. It’s because of mass production, for instance, that robot toys are cheap enough for an artist like Jeremijenko to “add in a brain.” This act liberates the toys, bringing them to the point where “they are no longer following the corporate imagination” and instead serving an open-source public. Watching her pack of robot dogs sniff out and cluster around toxins illustrates environmental issues in ways that statistics in the morning paper never will.

For her Ooz project, Jeremijenko moves onto robot geese, creating “artwork for birds.” Take these robot geese down to the park and you can try and “talk geese” to the real thing. The results get uploaded into a database and merged in a mind-boggling attempt to use “distributed intelligence” to finally learn the animal tongue.

Meanwhile, her Onetrees project tackles genetics, carefully placing cloned trees across the landscapes of the Bay Area in a deft illustration of the limits of genetic determinism. With the magazine she edits, Biotech Hobbyist she goes one step further, empowering readers to do it themselves. This is creativity in the spirit of Da Vinci–art and science collapsed into one. Abe Burmeister

Cory Arcangel
Cory Arcangel hits you when you’re not looking. By taking the everyday language of videogames and turning it in on itself, Cory makes the user and the viewer take stock of their current situation, taking the fun out of games and making them funnier.

Arcangel sounded less like an artist than a DJ when I asked him what inspires his work. “Do you know Screw music?” he said, referring to Houston DJ Screw’s now-ubiquitous technique of dropping tracks down to 80bpm and below, with voices pitched so low they sound Robitussin sweet. “That was the idea behind the Tetris game [I made]–[I tried] to “Screw” a videogame because time is the most important part of the game. And I also thought it would be a funny endurance video for the blocks to take hours to fall.” The Tetris pieces drop so slowly that instead of reaching a goal, you get to see the process of the game.

In another piece, based on the Mario Brothers game, Arcangel challenges the viewer to ask the question “What happens if you leave poor Super Mario sitting in the clouds, on a cube, all alone, with nowhere to turn?” “Mario is so sad, tragic,” Arcangel says of his work with the Nintendo icon, which both displaces the everyday image of Super Mario from its game environment and, like his Tetris work, slows the game to a painful grind.

Cory’s m.o. is to grab an image or icon, and then twist it so the user or the viewer has to do a double take. Engaging with his work forces us to both identify and separate ourselves from familiar icons, reminding us of our stake in the game as the viewer, user, and maker. Daniel Perlin

Yes Men
About five years ago, around the Seattle World Trade Organization meeting of the minds and the mindless, a core of hackers, activists, and programmers-at-large banded together to toy with the evil-doers in power. The Yes Men were born, and our comforting, blind trust in the information age has never been the same.

Like a Trojan horse, the Yes Men created a website that appears to be run by the World Trade Organization; they called it–an acronym for that General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade that the big boys throw around–and watched the hits roll in. Subsequently, Yes Men members were asked to speak around the world as WTO experts, and the group’s stone-faced attacks against the lies of big business, corporate globalization, and general corruption were not met with hostility but with applause. The people attending these events are so trained to applaud that they didn’t notice the ruse until after it was all over.

After all the hype–even the release of a documentary film called The Yes Men in theaters around the world–you’d think that the corporations would have had enough. But wait! Who was that on BBC news on the morning of December 3, 2004? Why, it’s being asked to talk about the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal tragedy in India. “BBC television came to us! They set us up in their own small studio in Paris,” says Andy Bichlbaum, co-founder of the Yes Men and sometime faux Dow spokesman. Stocks plummeted as the Dow rep calmly stated that the company was liquidating $12 billion of their stock in Union Carbide, and giving the funds to India for clean-up and healthcare. “We were trying to give reporters an excuse to write about it,” Andy said. It worked, again.

Drawing attention to the obvious fallacies of those in power is one of the Yes Men’s central goals. As SNAFU, a member of the YesBushCan campaign (a fake pro-Bush bus that traveled the country during the previous election) points out, a lot of the Yes Men’s power is documenting the aftereffects of those who’ve been tricked. What’s up next? According to Bichlbaum, some trips to India and another documentary on what’s going on for the residents of Bhopal and beyond. Daniel Perlin

Critical Art Ensemble
An article from The Buffalo News reads “A University [of New York] at Buffalo professor was accused last June of illegally scheming to obtain bacterial agents that he used in art exhibits sponsored by the Critical Art Ensemble. That group has protested policies of the federal government.” What the fuck? That’s right. Homeland Security has attacked the work of Steve Kurtz and his five-person collective, Critical Art Ensemble. It has confiscated his computers, his equipment, and plunged him into a quagmire of legal battles.

But why? CAE’s work, centering on Fuzzy Biological Sabotage (getting in where science and law haven’t fully defined the terrain), is meant to challenge the spaces between public and private control. CAE focuses on genetics, bacteria, genetic alteration, and the immortality claims made by popular genetics and science, and challenges us to question our positions on issues such as cloning and bacterial warfare.

Based around New York state, CAE is comprised of contestational biologists who turn science into art. “They attack traditional perceptions of biology with performances, posters, screen-based media, and large installations, many of which ask the question “When is a risk too high?” One performance/installation, “Gen Terra,” allows participants to actively engage with transgenics, organisms whose genetic makeup has been permanently altered by genetic engineering. Sound complicated? It isn’t. According to Kurtz, using the PCR (polymerge chain reaction) that amplifies DNA extremely fast is relatively simple. “Easier to use than a computer,” he says. “When I visited the Human Genome Project, I was surprised to find a political science major operating the machines.”

CAE engages a new field, ripe with controversies over cloning, stem cell research, and the US government’s billion-dollar investment in bacterial warfare. Kurtz says he wants his pieces to “change the cultural landscape, to make a difference, reveal hidden mechanisms of power, and to say ‘No‚ authority.’” Daniel Perlin