Meaningless Protest in The Name of Art

by Paddy Johnson on October 26, 2010 · 17 comments Opinion

Screengrab AFC

Needless art actions strike again. Yesterday at around 3 pm, Brad Troemel’s latest work, Assembly, managed to get his popular Tumblr blog The Jogging deleted by its host. The concept of this piece was simple: JstChillin.org would host a poll asking readers what site they would like to oppose. Once the offending site was chosen, JstChillin.org would serve as the site of protest, hosting 25 constantly reloading iframes on one day only (November 1st). Troemel then invited people to visit the site and keep their browsers open all day. This would use up the bandwidth, and result in a denial of service (DoS).

Unsurprisingly when JstChillin’s hosts got wind of this, they deleted the blog, (though it seems the site may be generously restored should the agree not to host Troemel’s project – a few pages still work.) Sure protests such as Troemel’s are legal, but JstChillin shares their server space with other websites, so the DoS would have effected other customers. Those people were never given the opportunity to vote on whether they wanted to participate, despite being the ones most effected by the project.

When Troemel moved the project to his blog, tumblr told him Assembly violated its terms of service. They gave him 72 hours to do one of three things: keep the project up as is and have it deleted, remove the text outlining the project’s intentions shut down a democratically decided website, or delete the project. Troemel conducted another pole and readers decided Troemel should stick to his guns and have the blog deleted.

So just what did this art action achieve? As far as I can tell, nothing. Amongst the top sites targeted for protest on jstchillin were, Rhizome.org (24 votes), Troemel’s own blog The Jogging (22 votes) and facebook (19 votes). All these results show is that people will click on anything.  After all, nowhere did Troemel even attempt to discuss what readers would be protesting, though the statement loftily describes “an undesired possibility of a world without the website” as an “eye opening” experience similar to It’s a Wonderful Life. Yeah right.

Jogging You Were No Martin Luther King, writes blogger Tom Moody, who also complains that The Jogging’s refusal to change the project now appears as though it was a noble act. It most assuredly is not. Past this, Assembly merely garners nuisance status amongst website hosts, all in the name of art. The founders of the ill-fated Wikipedia Art would be proud.

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  • Anonymous

    In my post I linked to a recent Nasty Nets thread where I mentioned EDT and Floodnet: http://nastynets.com/?p=3319#comments (Interestingly – or digustingly – it seems Google disabled the Google Books link to a page from an Alex Galloway text explaining that vintage flooding controversy. Apparently, these days, if enough hits come to a Google Book the page is erased, like disappearing ink. Who needs to hack when our rulers do it for us?
    Back to the topic: Paddy, I don’t think Troemel’s idea is all that simple. It’s still not clear to me who was hosting, who was protesting, what was being protested, and who was going to be shut down. I had to keep updating my post this morning. This isn’t complexity in the academic sense of “problematization” but in the “not thinking it through and explaining it clearly” sense. As a certain wise man has said (I’ll let him take credit for it), if you can’t explain a net art idea to someone at a bar, it’s probably not so hot.

    • p_g

      The project is apparently a restaging of EDT’s Zapatista Tactical FloodNet, but as an indifferent act. Jstchlln would host a set of iframes which would not use much bandwidth on their end. The iframes would repeatedly load the target page. Except for the fact that there is a slew of technical problems. No mention is made of disabling browser caching, for instance, which of course would be integral to using this method of attack. Why they wouldn’t use a more contemporary tool such as LOIC, is curious as well. (http://dnathe4th.porfusion.com/partyvan/07-31-08/index.php/Low_Orbit_Ion_Cannon.html)

      Ricardo Dominguez went to great lengths contextualizing the virtual sit-ins as theatrical events by using language in the form of 404 errors and faced a number of legal problems I do not believe any parties involved in this restaging would be prepared for, or even had any conception of. Of course, Ricardo is also operating in the history of civil disobedience, presupposing a moral justification.

      • Anonymous

        Restaging FloodNet as an indifferent act suggests that the undefined perimeters of Troemel’s protest are purposeful. In the sense that there’s probably some rationalization behind not working out the details that’s probably true, but since Troemel has produced copious screenshots and text on this project, without once mentioning FloodNet, there’s no reason to believe that this was as calculated as all that. I’d much rather assume the project lacks clarity than conclude that Troemel willfully left an essential source of the work uncredited so that he could take on some of that shine himself.

        As for the tech details, I think that is a minor point in all this. They could have been adjusted closer to the date.

  • Anonymous

    Actually, I was thinking this morning about how easy to understand Wikipedia art is comparatively. The premise of a DoS is in essence a simple one, though the project lacked clarity. This has to be a bit of a bummer for Troemel, who has had his entire tumblr deleted for an act of protest against nothing defined.

  • Anonymous

    I’m actually still not clear on the mechanics. You said “Once the offending site was chosen, JstChillin.org would serve as the site of protest, hosting 25 constantly reloading iframes on one day only (November 1st). Troemel then invited people to visit the site and keep their browsers open all day. This would use up the bandwidth, and result in a denial of service (DoS).” Troemel invited people to visit the site–which site? The offending site or jstchillin? And whose bandwidth was going to be used up by this? The offending site’s or jstchillin’s? Had an offending site been chosen? (Democratically determined abuse–how nice.) I know Rhizome was chosen in the “Assembly” poll on Troemel’s blog, but was there an earlier poll on jstchillin and if so, what were the results? Was Rhizome actually going to be shut down by Troemel’s tumblr? Or was jstchillin going to be shut down? How would the latter be possible if jstchillin was already shut down by Dreamhost?

  • Anonymous

    This is how I understand it:

    jstchillin’s bandwidth would be used up since they were supposed to the host of the 25 iframes exhibition or whatever you want to call it. This is the site people would be visiting no matter who they chose to protest against. I suppose it’s like protesting a war — rather than going to the country to collect the soldiers yourself, you stage a protest in a place that’s a little more practical. Nothing happens to the soldiers, but you hope your numbers and actions are strong enough to prompt the government to act anyway.

    Here too, nothing would happen to Rhizome. It’s a “peaceful” protest in which users can crash on of their own sites in the name of a cause. jstchillin was shut down so Troemel and jstchillin would have had to have found another host for the protest. I’m sure they could have figured that out before November 1.

    All this concludes to a big so what though, because what’s entirely unclear is whether this is a protest or a love-in. Troemel begins by talking about protests and ends by talking about how there’s no such thing as negative attention. He then goes on to conclude that such an act would simply demonstrate how many lives said website has touched. But how were they touched? Was their effect positive or negative? Who knows.

  • Maxwell Paparella

    “what’s entirely unclear is whether this is a protest or a love-in.”
    I think this is the question the project was asking, albeit in kind of a clumsy way. It resulted in the (at least temporary) shut-down of two sites I like to visit, though, so the outcome is a bummer regardless of the intentions.

  • Anonymous

    Maxwell, your faith in sites willing to blow up for no reason is commendable!

    • Maxwell Paparella

      I am disappointed that these sites were willing to “blow up” for no reason. Internet pranks can be funny. Internet activism can be interesting. To conflate the two in a misplaced protest against common sense results in the unfortunate and unnecessary interruption of both the artist and the institution. It’s neither noble or abhorrent. It’s just silly.

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    i mean.. 24 votes? who is brad kidding.. having pages in an iframe on auto refresh is neither novel, illegal or in anyway with opportunity to cause significant a blip in server costs/bandwidth considering brad’s meager audience of about 50 other netarts who hate on/are jealous of each other…

  • Brad Troemel

    NOTES ON ASSEMBLY, 2010

    Chronology of events:
    1. October 19: ASSEMBLY is posted to JstChillin.org as part of the website’s ongoing artists’ projects series
    2. October 21: Dreamhost deletes JstChillin for hosting ASSEMBLY
    3. October 22: ASSEMBLY moves to Jogging
    4. October 22: Tumblr officials give Jogging a 3-day ultimatum to delete the project or be removed from their service
    5. October 22: Jogging holds a poll to decide what to do in response to Tumblr
    6. October 25: The poll closes, voters choose to leave the project up and face the consequences
    7. October 25: Jogging is deleted by Tumblr
    8. October 28: ASSEMBLY is re-opened at http://assembly.typepad.com/, and NOTES ON ASSEMBLY is distributed

    INTRODUCTION
    At the moment of this writing ASSEMBLY is unfinished. Nonetheless, I believe it’s necessary to help further contextualize this project in light of its complicated narrative of events and the confused publicity it’s since received. I will first address the structural components of ASSEMBLY then move to the implications of the project’s existence within digital media. This essay is not an attempt to convince readers of the qualitative merits of ASSEMBLY. Instead I wish to provide a theoretical and art historical framework of understanding that has thus far been absent from a brief but pointed discourse surrounding the project.

    What is new about technology is often deceiving. Against its novel appearance, ASSEMBLY is a project constantly indebted to the past. It first owes Conceptual Art, Institution Critique, and Relational Aesthetics’ contributions to history before even considering the intended dependence it has on those most recent digital participants who have came to define the project since its debut. Regarding Conceptual works, Sol Lewitt famously explained, “The idea is the machine that makes the art,” in the June 1967 issue of Artforum. Conceptual Art may be viewed as a dialectical progression of Marcel Duchamp’s attempt through the readymade to all but entirely remove the author from the subjective pitfalls of gestural visuality. Lewitt’s positivist Conceptualism was founded in his belief that through aesthetic empiricism there would be a final destiny for art. ASSEMBLY maintains Lewitt’s empirical starting point through textual clauses and a digital ballot, while foregoing his tautologically flawed ending; the destiny of ASSEMBLY is subjectively defined and willfully unknown to its creators in advance. Referring to the importance of textual contracts in works such as Robert Morris’ (Untitled) Statement of Aesthetic Withdrawl, 1963 or Piero Manzoni’s 1960-1961 certificates defining persons or partial persons as temporary or lifetime works of art, Benjamin Buchloh explains:
    Just as the readymade had negated not only figurative representation, authenticity, and authorship while introducing repetition and the series (i.e., the law of industrial production) to replace the studio aesthetic of the handcrafted original, Conceptual Art came to displace even that image of the mass-produced object and its aestheticized forms in Pop Art, replacing an aesthetic of industrial production and consumption with an aesthetic of administrative and legal organization and institutional validation.

    ASSEMBLY begins with two diametrically opposed clauses as a preface for participants’ willful involvement. One clause considers the virtual sit-in (a term coined and developed by Critical Art Ensemble’s Ricardo Dominguez) as a political protest that makes use of legal means to over-populate the amount of traffic a website is capable of and debilitate it. The second clause describes the artificially produced ‘mass migration’ of traffic as a tributary event, framing the possibility of the chosen website going temporarily offline as a chance to meditate on the importance of its social function. Each clause contained in the contract is numbered ‘1’ so as to provide no chronology in the viewer’s agreement to the stated terms.

    Combined, each opposing clause functions as a polemic used to exemplify the paradox of their dependence on one another as feasible outcomes. Criticism of an object is simultaneously reaffirming. Baudrillard writes,

    One can see that the iconoclasts, whom one accuses of disdaining and negating images, were those who accorded them their true value, in contrast to the iconolaters who only saw reflections in them and were content to venerate a filigree God.

    ASSEMBLY’s art-contextualized dichotomy of protesting versus supporting institutional bodies is most closely related to the history of Institutional Critique. The previously mentioned paradox made apparent by this project is that of IC’s hopes to separate institutions from art by exposing the flawed logic of art’s presentational bodies. Conflating the two clauses as identical number 1’s rejects the possibility of their feigned separation, reflecting the problematic logic expressed by Andrea Fraser when she says, “We carry, each of us, our institutions inside ourselves” .

    If the opposition of intentions outlined in ASSEMBLY’s clauses is an impossibility, so too is the belief that their identical method may carry out only one of the two intended results. Despite the project’s incompletion, I’d like to present the hypothetical situation that ASSEMBLY does freeze or crash a website. There would automatically be a great amount of public sympathy hoisted upon the victim of such digital ‘violence’. The symbolic suicide of a body that “rediscovers a glimmer of its existence and legitimacy” through death finds even greater legitimacy in an unwarranted symbolic murder. The only strategy better than Faking The Suspension to garner public support is To Be Wrongfully Suspended– the latter lies about nothing and may never be revealed for doing so. Protests responsible for symbolic death lead to reactionary support for the fallen victim, just as the ubiquitous support of an institution leads many to assail its critical weak points. Polemics tend to cause the greatest friction; this is why they are so naturally rounded off and fall into the same pile of dust as their opposites when put through the grind of use.

    After these clauses, ASSEMBLY’s participants are able to offer URL candidates of their choosing and vote on which of those websites will be visited en masse November 1, 2010. The passivity of ASSEMBLY’s organizers in allowing multiple (or no) conceptual-political intentions for participating in the show’s finale, combined with the agency granted to participants to define which site will be the object of that DDoS event recalls Benjamin Buchloh’s term the aesthetic of indifference; a tendency started by John Cage and Marcel Duchamp premised on “the commitment to an antihierarchical organization of a universally valid facticity, operating as total affirmation.” ASSEMBLY’s conclusion is determined by the results of a consensus democracy; here facticity exists as the empirical register of calculated group opinion. Similar to Hans Haacke’s MoMA-Poll, 1970 the URL candidates submitted and voted on through ASSEMBLY figure less as objects of critique themselves than as containers in which the largely abstract and invisible forces and relations that traverse particular social spaces can be made visible. The first of these invisible forces brought forth is the flawed, if egalitarian methodology of public opinion itself and its effects on determining the course of an artwork’s validity. Boris Groys explains:

    […] it is often overlooked that in the modern period, the artist has always been delivered up to the mercy of public opinion – if an artwork does not find favor with the public, then it is de facto recognized as being devoid of value. This is modern art’s main deficit: the modern artwork has no “inner” value of its own, no merit beyond what public taste bestows upon it.

    Instead of the project strictly being determined by such outer opinions (as according to Groys, all works fall victim to or are bolstered by) ASSEMBLY internalizes a range of potential differences in finalities that may take place, employing democracy as both a mechanism for production and an aesthetic object. By considering the combined social interactions of its participatory body a dimension of ASSEMBLY’s aesthetic whole, the project shares tendencies with Relational Aesthetics. As such, ASSEMBLY should be understood not only for its proposed DDoS result, but as a site of production where a tool (the ability to determine and disperse a DDoS attack) is placed at the public’s disposal in a way similar to how Seth Siegalub’s art events placed information at the disposal of the visitor.
    Though the voting process has not been completed, the language of ASSEMBLY’s existence has already created two definitive events. Each of the websites that hosted the project where deleted by corporate authorities shortly after security officials were made aware of the potential for a DDoS to occur using their server. The most curious of the two officials to remove ASSEMBLY’s host website was the Web 2.0 blogging service Tumblr, who deleted Jogging on October 25, 2010. In an e-mail sent on October 22, 2010 Tumblr official Marc LaFountain ordered Jogging’s organizers to remove the project or be permanently suspended from posting on their website. The decision was turned over to another voting process where a consensus was formed to leave the project up on Jogging and face the consequences, continuing the participant-defined path set forth by the original poll.
    The aim of Web 2.0 technology is to obfuscate its own existence so as to allow the greatest amount of streamlined use possible for profitable datamining and/or advertising exposure. Judging by the lightning fast 4-hour window it took to identify the language and polling presented on Jogging as a potential threat and send out an ultimatum to such an obscure blog, the surveillance mechanisms of Web 2.0 function as a panoptic nightmare. The authorities of Web 2.0 platforms market their purpose as something similar to Santa’s elves– to be helpful, efficient and ultimately invisible. They have no reason to present themselves as the disciplinary figures they are because the majority of possible subversions by users have been curtailed by the protocols of Web 2.0’s interactive design. The greatest source of concern for these platforms is that the efficient communication systems they’ve built be used as a middle ground to encourage participation in an unlawful decentralized act. The source location of illegal files or events may be in constant flux, but with forms of communication capable of making so many people instantly aware of any sudden change there is no need to establish a permanent site for anything prohibited . By disciplining the linkage of information, Web 2.0 authorities must conflate language and action, signifier and signified, the imagined and the real. An HTML link functions as a parody of a website or file by assuming a semiotically abstracted form that depends on its relation to an actualized object for meaning. The danger of a digital parody– that which describes or organizes what it is ultimately not– is why, despite Tumblr’s ban of the software necessary to enact a DDoS attack properly, Jogging was deleted for acting as a facilitator of an unrealized event implied by ASSEMBLY’s clauses. Baudrillard says,
    Parody renders submission and transgression equivalent, and that is the most serious crime, because it cancels out the difference upon which the law is based. The established order can do nothing against it because the law is a simulacrum of the second order, whereas simulation is of the third order, beyond true and false, beyond equivalences, beyond rational distinctions upon which the whole of the social and power depend.
    What the deletion of JstChillin and Jogging make visible is the antiquated method of corrective public discipline. ASSEMBLY’s brief existence on Tumblr was a slippage in Web 2.0’s structure of pre-emptive user limitation. Forcing the unseen hands of Web 2.0 law to symbolicly strangle one of its own subjects was surely a punishment for both parties– what lives in the shadows is injured by daylight.

    (to view essay with proper citations and formatting download here: http://www.mediafire.com/?zaom1oas2y2hlej)

  • A Concerned Citizen

    There needs to be an equation for deciding the newsworthiness of internet-art in which the time necessary for one to understand what happened, the time necessary for one to contextualize the event and then understand its significance to the context pumps out an “= WIN” or “=FAIL”. I’m not interested enough that I would look harder to know for sure but I suspect this would come up “=FAIL”, if only for its limited potential to generate image material which (as brad himself has noted) is the main currency of the internet. Can’t say I’ll miss thejogging either.

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  • Anonymous

    Thanks to Brad Troemel for confirming that the goal of the project was to shut down Rhizome.org (for the greater cause of ambiguity). But everyone knows you can be denied access to a plane for talking (or joking) in the security queue about a bomb, and threats of cyber-mayhem similarly have hosts in a panic–this is not a stunning insight about the modern world. References to Duchamp, LeWitt, Morris, Manzoni, Buchloh, Dominguez, Cage, Groys, Haacke, Bourriaud, Baudrillard, and Fraser do give the project more torque, though.

  • Anonymous

    It appears Troemel’s essay was deleted from Mediafire. No idea of the reason but a person might have more martyr-like sympathy if he were arrested for talking in a dispassionate way about yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theatre, as opposed to just doing the yelling.

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