On the Network
Let’s start from the focus of your audiovisual project: the network as a concept and dispositif. What is the reason for focusing on the network as both an organisational process and a theoretical concept?
It was once possible to consider the network, its contents and contexts, separate from the physical world. The two were fairly distinct, with the network, contained in cables, intruding on the physical world only through fixed terminals. Of course the cables cut through or were submerged beneath the material of the physical world, but the network data was contained, and constrained, within them.
Wireless technology changes this, as do mobile or other, smaller, connected devices. An increasing amount of “things” able to talk the wireless language exist today, often perceived as magical and secure. While perhaps not technically in-secure, wireless things carry the promise of ease of use, the luxury of immediate set-up and the lure of affordability. They do not require a raising of technical skills, and the consequent awareness of how to shield from external ears. They multiply and through them the network is released.
The realities of the network become a part of the realities of the physical world. Instant and often free access to information and communication whenever, wherever are shadowed by the heightened possibility of surveillance and tracking. The positive and negative effects of wireless networks become inherent, somewhat functionally imperative, part of everyday life: “Free Wifi here”, a smart fridge, Siri & Alexa.
Throughout this, the network, the delivery medium of the internet, remains largely hidden. The stack of technologies on which web pages and emails rest precariously is deep and obscure, while that which is experienced as text, image or sound is constructed as it bubbles up through numerous technological layers. This complexity and prevalence, along with its global nature, puts the network on a similar level to the forces of nature, the wind and waves that surround us. There is something similar in its unpredictability, its constant change, its potential impact: beautiful or devastating.
The network, then, is a man-made natural force, a chaotic structure through which we pass and which, wirelessly, passes through us, but it is silent and for the most part invisible. To put it somewhat differently the network can be seen – following Keller Easterling – as a consequential infrastructure space of its own, exerting control and shaping flows of power. The project asks, what if we could experience the network, this infrastructure space? Not its results – the messages, videos, articles – but its actions: the transmissions and transformations that carry and assemble these results.
The WiFi, as well as being one of the key parts of the network also provides opportunities for investigation. It is in some respects the accessible crest of the larger infrastructure offering connection through personal devices or networks within buildings to the deeper layers, such as internet exchanges or submarine cables. That it offers this, with only a requirement of proximity, not physical connection, makes it a useful point of entrance and departure from which many paths can be taken.
On experimental tools
A unique aspect of the project is the custom-building and self-initiated production of data-collection tools and assembling software operating them. Why this choice?
We create tools as an initial research process. The necessary starting point is looking and listening. Donna Haraway puts it disarmingly simply: research is knowing a bit more in the evening than you did in the morning. We often align a number of readily available hardware and software tools and create assemblages through which we gather information in multiple ways.
Through this initial process we come to know a bit more about [network] data, the structures that produce it, the conditions which create it and which it creates in return. Once an assembled tool is completed or consistently usable [tools are never completed – only ever abandoned] there comes the process of operating it, exploring with it.
We create tools as a refining process. We suspend our disbelief, adopting an approach similar to dowsing: a type of divination employed in attempts to locate hidden materials without the use of a scientific apparatus, and without a full understanding. If we waited for a full and complete understanding, we would be paralysed in the face of complexity. Dowsing into the unknown, we gradually improve our divining rods in an iterative fashion. In this case, looking at and listening to the urban environment and the WiFi data found within it refine our tools and, in return, our understanding of those networks and their operations.
We create tools as a necessity, stemming from an inability to access existing tools, whether due to the structures of control around them, their complexity or the fact that a tool for a particular task does not exist. In this case, tools exist to read networks, and tools exist to make sound, but a tool for both has to be bespoke.
We create tools as a tactic. Different situations call for different approaches, particularly when collecting data in sensitive locations. In this case, software tools operating within a laptop allow for covert data collection, preventing scrutiny when on a plane, in an embassy or by a governmental building.
We create tools as an open box, so that they be pulled apart and understood, visually if not physically. Enough with black boxes and impenetrable assemblages: our most successful machines should be structured to describe their machinations. In this case the NE3, a tool to turn WiFi packets into a source of data-noise, is conceived as a compact board where all components are exposed and their connections visible, facilitating an initial understanding of how information flows within it. There are, of course, further levels of complexity within this – within a world of software and microprocessors it is not necessarily possible to fully expose the workings of an active object, but we hope that its presentation in this way encourages questioning and exploration.
We create tools in the attempt to produce unique, beautiful artefacts. Sometimes this presupposes the establishment of a visual system. In this case, a symbolic representation of network activity was conceived: a set of icons screen-printed on the original Network Ensemble machines visually describe six categories, or network slices, within which WiFi packets are found. The same icons become the vehicle of audiovisual experimentation during the Network Ensemble performances, establishing a different network aesthetic.
Is your approach to contemporary technology one of decomputation or, in other words, of deconstruction of the obscure side of technological power?
“Whether enthralled or enslaved by machines and algorithms, we want to understand them, either to bend them back to human will or push back against them!” announced John Fass introducing his Decomputation class.
Decomputation is a methodology, perhaps a mindset, we were introduced to as part of the Information Experience Design MA at the Royal College of Art in London. At its simplest, decomputation helps designers study the ways algorithms shape behaviour and mediate our experience of the world. It thus acts as a means to approach technology, and conversely to view design through a computational lens.
A decomputational approach aims to humanise technology, harnessing its speed and capacity for creative benefit, and showing ways of resisting its inexorable logic. As a two-way exchange between design and technology, it combines elements of design making with computational thinking. In other words, we find decomputation applies effectively to studying and making things, or even formulating a tactic.
With the Network Ensemble, we identify at least two approaches falling under the umbrella of decomputation. One is a process of demystification. We consider the network a black box, an impenetrable assemblage. We strive to understand its operations by travelling down the layers, protocols and structures that form it, deconstructing it as we go with both an analytical eye and a dowser’s hope and belief.
The other is an active process of deconstruction. We strive to build machinery which expose some of its machinations and construct tools as an open box, so that they be deconstructed.
Selected Network Studies is released through Rizosfera, a music label grown out of the Italian collective Obsolete Capitalism. Through its releases, Obsolete Capitalism gives voice to accelerationist artists influenced by the work of Nietzsche, Foucault and Deleuze. What do you make of accelerationism — a philosophical current that partially owes to UK influences, where you are based, and where a wide range of (not only) musical forces co-exist?
‘[…] an acceleration which is also navigational, an experimental process of discovery within a universal space of possibility’
—Alex Williams & Nick Srnicek, Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics [MAP]
We founded the Network Ensemble in London at the end of 2015, a period of time during which we also formalised our collaboration under the moniker Demystification Committee. The Network Ensemble is the sound unit of the Demystification Committee and it aligns to other projects we run, part of a greater effort in investigating the extra-state, large-scale networks and covert systems of late capitalism.
The systems we investigate make themselves known, often unintentionally, through the production of an incredible amount of noise. The Network Ensemble especially focuses on this noise that we can read as data to identify its actions and intentions, track its machinations and influences, and foreground its accelerated processes.
The exploration of such fluctuating technology encompasses, but is not limited to, the study of platforms, machines, physical networks (of networks), virtual and artificial forces and legal and juridical frameworks. With a focus on these processes, the Demystification Committee attempts to understand and represent clashing technological and societal trajectories through artistic experimentation.
This necessitates a will “to become literate in these technical fields” [MAP 3, 9], and a direct involvement that moves beyond the use of specific techniques, tools or tactics.
Conceived as a vehicle to explore a “universe of possibility”, the Demystification Committee adapts to ever-changing scales and ever-accelerating speeds [MAP 2, 1—2]. Around us, perhaps not geographically but cognitively, we see others that operate across similar scales. Particularly relevant are the writings of Benjamin Bratton and Keller Easterling: their exposition of infrastructure space and its operating systems allows us to consider apparatuses such as cities or states as computational technologies.
Hidden in the crack of these systems, we see artists such as Goldin & Senneby working with the correspondence between conceptual art and finance capital; Shintaro Miyazaki and Martin Howse channeling infrastructure through custom tools, transforming large-scale technical systems as raw material for sound; Sam Conran, literally in the “universe of possibility”, synthesising signals from outer space to make music; Stine Deja exploring the gap between virtual and real spaces; Maximo Recio using data to fabricate (financial) fictions; Hayden Anyasi using the algorithms of surveillance to fight biased media representation of black bodies; Jelka Kretzschmar investigating the global crisis of migration; Andrew Brash dissecting the symbiotic relationships between visual identity and the urban environment; CMP office, infiltrating subversive ways of making, publishing and consuming to unveil the machinery of global mass production; and so on and on…
“The existing infrastructure is not a capitalist stage to be smashed […]” but a stage to perform from.