Google Will Eat Itself


One of the things I picked up on Transmediale08 was GWEI – Google Will Eat Itself, a project by the UBERMORGEN collective that has a straightforward mission: “We generate money by serving Google text advertisements on a network of hidden Websites. With this money we automatically buy Google shares.'”Anyone can join this noble mission by becoming a shareholder of GTTP (Google To The People Public Company). Google itself has not been a big fan of GWEI: the project was actually removed from Google’s search engine (so that it was impossible to find it with Google), but after a few months it was allowed to appear again. The creators never received any proper information from Google about why they were banned and why the ban was removed.

Some of the folks behind GWEI have also been involved in Amazon Noir – The Big Book Crime, an automated piece of software that makes books available online for free by grabbing them page by page from by missusing the “look inside” feature. This was carried out by sending 5.000 – 10.000 requests per book. After this process the data was logically reassembled into pdf-format by the SIB-Book-Generator. “Amazon Noir was scripted as an internet-movie. The whole digital action (media hack) was carried out in the global massmedia, within the art world and on a highly sophisticated technical level in the clandestine matrix of our global networks.” Amazon USA, U.K., Germany and France were vulnerable targets. During the attack they transformed part of the Search Inside the Book technology to defend the rights of the copyright holders – without actually solving the problem. Over 3000 Books were downloaded and distributed through p2p between April and October 2006. In July 2006 Amazon France and Amazon USA threatend to litigate. The matter was resolved out of court October 30th, 2006. Amazon (USA/France) bought the Amazon Noir software for an undisclosed sum – both parties signed a non-disclosure agreement.

The law system definitely tries its best to shut down these projects. An earlier UBERMORGEN project, [V]ote Auction (a satire about campaign financing and free-market economics that billed itself as “the only election platform channelling ‘soft money’ directly to the democratic consumer”), resulted in multiple lawsuits in US, the total amount of paper that detailed these lawsuits weighted around 700 kilograms (!). James Raskin said about the project: “These people are just 50 years ahead of their time in seeing that the ultimate destination of the current [electoral] process is that everything will be for sale.” After lawsuit threats by the New York State Board of Elections and Chicago Board of Elections officials (and heavy-handed comparisons to treason), the site was sold on August 18th, 2000, to maverick Austrian entrepreneur Hans Bernhard, who re-opened it. The deal was brokered by legendary culture jammers ®TMark. On October 21, 2000, the company Domain Bank illegally froze the domain, capitulating to authorities. Bernhard immediately registered the site as with a non-U.S. company. On November 1st, 2000, Network Solutions (the for-profit company that administers .com, .net, and .org domains) violated international law by removing from its root servers. See here for the story.

Keep on rockin’ in the free world


”Trying to control music sharing – by shutting down P2P sites or MP3 blogs or BitTorrent or whatever other technology comes along – is like trying to control an affair of the heart. Nothing will stop it.”
(Thurston Moore, adapted from an article in the book ‘Mix Tape: The Art of Cassette Culture’, 2005)

Looks like Radiohead’s stunt, releasing ‘In Rainbows’ online for free, was an eye-opener for quite a few people in the music biz. In their footsteps some other “household” names in the world of popular music have recently published their music for nada: The Charlatans, back from the dead, have released their new album via the servers of Radio Station Xfm. The Verve, also freshly reformed (do I see a pattern arise? No, Axl Rose, no!), teamed up with to give away a 14-minute jam from their first session back in the recording studio. And Trent Reznor, no longer constrained by a record label, uploaded part one of Nine Inch Nails’ new four part (sigh..) album ‘Ghosts I-IV’ to several BitTorrent sites. The other parts can be bought via their website. Reznor did a similar experiment with the latest Saul Williams album, on which he collaborated. Williams, never one to mince words, explained this choice as a way to get rid of the middlemen: “Each label, like apartheid, multiplies us by our divide and whips us ’til we conform to lesser figures. What falls between the cracks is a pile of records stacked to the heights of talents hidden from the sun. Yet the energy they put into popularizing smut makes a star of a shiny polished gun. … The ways of middlemen proves to be just a passing trend. … And when you click the link below, i think it fair that you should know that your purchase will make middlemen much poorer…”.

Although this project had obvious similarities with the Radiohead experiment (free low quality with the option of buying a higher-quality digital download), the lack of an obsessive fan-base has certainly made a difference: just 28,322 of the 154,449 people who downloaded Williams’ album before January 2008 chose to pay ($5). At the same time though, that’s nearly as many as who bought Williams’ previous traditional release and far more who are hearing his music – which will probably translate to increased concert ticket and merchandise sales, which was the basic goal anyway (“to set the stage for me to perform in the way I like to perform and maybe get more people at a show than I normally would”). Furthermore, by cutting out the “middlemen” Williams is likely taking a much larger cut of the download revenue than they would receive of CD sales revenue.

But how far do these experiments go, really? Radiohead shut down its download section in December, as did Williams (but of course, the mp3’s remain available illegaly on most P2P networks). Are these just one-off strategies, aimed at exploiting novelty factor and marketing value? After all, didn’t Prince, who released his ‘Planet Earth’ for free with The Mail On Sunday last summer, reach more people than the he did with his previous releases – with 21 sold-out concerts in Brittain as a nice extra? And didn’t these stunts generate loads of media attention (while diverting the attention away from the music itself, in some cases for the better perhaps)? But how long before the novelty value wears off? The Radiohead people already let us know that it’s improbable that they will publish their music in the same way again. Does that mean they go back to more traditional models (since they have an agreement with the XL label now), or that they are willing to dig further in the dynamics of network culture? Anyways, the latest NIN stunt prooves that the trick still works: soon after the release ‘Ghosts’ has grown out to be the most downloaded torrent at The Pirate Bay, and the $5 entire download version has shot up to the #1 spot on the sales charts of Amazon. And for the hardcore fans (boys and their toys) there’s always the double CD version or the “deluxe” package with CD, DVD, and Blu-Ray copies, and even a “ultra-deluxe” edition that also includes vinyl copies and signed “art” prints ($300!!) – apparently, It took just over a day for that package to completely sell out, earning Reznor $750,000 in revenue from just that option alone…

Also, the availability of free music via the net has proven to be a indispensable way of creating and reaching a fanbase – see f.e. the internet-based hypes like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. The most cited example in this context being the one of Wilco, who after being dropped from Reprise Records in 2001 over creative conflicts, made ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ available for free, which was picked up by enthousiastic listeners worldwide, got subsequently releases on Nonesuch (ironically, also a sublabel of Warner, like Reprise) and reached higher on the charts than any of their prior releases. They later tried new internet forays, like the first-ever MPEG-4 webcast with Apple, as well as more free online offerings, made a documentary partly funded by online donations, and are now one of the most celebrated (by critics and audience alike) popular bands. Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy in an interview with Lawrence Lessig, april 2005: “Music is different from other intellectual property. Not Karl Marx different – this isn’t latent communism. But neither is it just a piece of plastic or a loaf of bread (…) We are just troubadours. The audience is our collaborator. We should be encouraging their collaboration, not treating them like thieves.”

Other experiments are interesting as well: Einsturzende Neubauten has their supporter project, an attempt to continue producing music through online support of fans, who for a financial contribution, get loads of exclusive stuff: not only CD’s and DVD’s, but also webcasts which provide insight in “the working process of the band at rehearsals and recording”. ArtistShare provides a service for musicians to fund their projects outside the normal recording industry, utilizing micropayments to allow the general public to directly finance, and in some cases gain access to extra material. Furthermore, the ‘honor system’, used in the Open Source communities, has been tried out by several musicians, like Juliana Hatfield. Of course, all these ideas have been discussed before, as far as in 1983, when Frank Zappa published the article ‘A proposal for a system to replace ordinary record merchandizing’, in which he wrote about the nonsense of the traditional mechanisms of the music industry (“Ordinary phonograph record merchandising as it exists today is a stupid process which concerns itself essentially with pieces of plastic, wrapped in pieces of cardboard”) and the “positive aspects of a negative trend – hometaping”.

But what Zappa couldn’t predict was the way people deal with music has fundamentally changed. In Marshall Kirkpatrick’s article ‘Is it Time to Declare Music Downloads a Loss Leader?’ he quotes somebody “close to the business”: “Value is ascribed to things that people covet- at one point people coveted what they downloaded. They still do to some extent (ie, dimeadozen and the bootleg market, which is a nice self regulating distribution system) but with rapid adoption of one behavior, the commodity behind it shifts and goes toward ubiquity, ie free. You just have to shift what people will covet. It’s the same way with books, newspapers, TV, movies, memory, CPU, etc – every free market system follows this path. Intellectual capital complicates it but can also provide more impetus to be innovative.” The Intellectual Rights system as we know it sure is a “complication”, one that is being challenged more and more. Creative Commons offers an alternative, albeit not fundamental, and is being explored by projects like Opsound (“a gift economy in action, an experiment in applying the model of free software to music”) and musicians like Reznor, who released his ‘Ghost’ album with a CC license (free for non-commercial use), and recently also distributed multitrack versions of some pieces, incouraging appropriations and remixes. Brian Eno and David Byrne made a similar geste with some tracks of the remastered classic ‘My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts’.

So it looks like almost everyone agrees that 1. contemporary standards of what constitutes (monetary) value or fairness in music consumption have changed and 2. that the Sharing & Sampling Culture is here to stay = so there has to be a shift towards new business models, at least for those who really choose to make a living out of creating music (I have to say, some of the musicians I know couldn’t care less). Lots of musicians are starting to think and act outside of the industry models, taking in control production and distribution, and are realising that relatively more revenue has to be made from playing gigs (although there’s, at least where the big money is, also an industry involved, with quite a few “middlemen” in the way – cfr. Clear Channel) and merchandise sales (aren’t we still here to spend, spend, spend?), and hell, if that doesn’t add up, one can always start to maneuver into Hollywood (look what ‘Juno”s success did for Kimya Dawson), commercials (So, how did YOU get to know Jose Gonzales? And what the hell, good old Bawb gave in too, didn’t he?) or even the contemporary art world, where’s there’s still money to be made by making “sound art” (what’s in a name?) installations, suitable for museum halls, walls and elevators, and selling silly priced limited-edition copies, dressed up as desirable “art” objects, creating artificial scarcity for maximum profitability (well, it did Trent some good too). Nowadays, where’s the shame in that, huh? Where is the shame?

Cinema in the digital dark age


“The great creator is the great eraser”
Steward Brand (Long Now foundation)

As always, I’m involved in a few different projects right now. One of them is the compilation and editing of a (Dutch only) reader on ‘Cinema in Transit’, consisting of a few essays describing and reflecting on current transitions in the world of cinema, taking in account the expansion of cinema over countless media, technologies and modalities, the fragmentation and individualisation of the cinematic experience and the digital image replacing the analogue one. Another project is titled BOM-Vl. (an acronym which stand for something loosely translated as “preservation and disclosure of multimedia archives in Flanders” – yeah, governement funded projects tend to have expensive titles), a quite prestigious project that involves the local broadcasting industry (in the driver’s seat, of course), several universities and cultural organisations, who are trying to figure out a way to digitalise and archive all their data via a communal platform. Slightly Utopian? You bet. One of the elements that, for me, tie together these two projects, is the issue of the digital access of audiovisual archives, and the question whether “film” (so I’m not talking about digital-born content here, but film, with all it’s material and technical characteristics) can (or should) actually be digitalised to match its ‘look & feel’.

Since quite a few years we have all been enveloped in the rhetoric of the so-called digital revolution, promising a brave new world of media, and the moving image not in the least. While most of us celebrate the immense potential of this techno-social shift (see the Video Vortex category on this blog, a.o), we are forgetting about the things we are loosing in the process. One of the things that is fading away is the (traditional) cinema experience, which is really a way, an art perhaps, of seeing the world. Now it seems that celluloid is doomed, and that experiencing the moving image has become something completely different for a whole new generation out there, enjoying cinema when-ever, where-ever, on their iPod or portable phone, on the bus and in the bathroom, what’s becoming of the photochemical cinema, and the places that show, nurture and feed it? Will all of this be a folklore phenomenon soon?

One of the people who tackles these questions, in a provocative way, is Paolo Cherchi Usai, who’s the Director of the National Screen and Sound Archive in Australia right now and published, a.o., the inspiring book ‘The Death of Cinema’, which is, as Martin Scorsese notes in the introduction “an elegy to the thousands copies of films being destroyed every day, all over the world…” and “a portrait of a culture ignoring the loss of its own image (…) a devastating moral tale, the recognition that there is something very wrong with the way we are taught to disregard the art of seeing as something ephemeral and negligible.” The subtitle of the book is “History, Cultural Memory and the Digital Dark Age”, which is derived from the The Clock of the Long Now (01999), a wonderful project of Steward Brand of the Long Now foundation, who seek to “promote ‘slower/better’ thinking and to foster creativity in the framework of the next 10,000 years”. The Clock of the Long Now is one of the projects that provokes us to think outside of time, extending the idea of the length of the future that we think about. It’s a monumental-scale 10,000 year clock that is intended to ‘tick’ once every year, ‘chime’ every 100 years, and ‘cuckoo’ every 1000 years. The Long Now intends to situate the monument in an artificial cave, built within a mountain range in the Nevada desert. Btw: another member of the Long Now is the great Brian Eno, who has always been interested in he experience of time and the idea of the eternal present, something that can be heard in some of his albums he made since the 1970’s, in which he developped sonic landscape as extended present tense, music that expressed “the Long Now” and “the Big Here” (remember ‘Music for Airports’?).


Cherchi Usai, like the people of the Long Now, points to the fact that we we’ve lost the ability of thinking long term, now that time has been sliced into ever finer parts, and there seems to be an ever-decreasing horizon into the future, with very little encouragement to lay long term plans, not in corporations, not in the government… and even in education and the cultural world we are only looking as far as the next quarterly results, the next public project, the next exhibition, the next opportunity “to score”. Cherchi Usai ultimately want to question this “self-perpetuating wave of cultural fundamentalism”, especially when it comes to cinema, where digitalisation quickly has become a pervasive ideology (as everywhere). “Why”, he asks, “is our culture so keen in accepting the questionable benefits of digital technology as the vehicle for a new sense of history?”

So we’re very happy Paolo is willing to publish one of his recent writings in the ‘Cinema in Transit’ publication (in Dutch) – and it’s a text that deals in a very critical way with the matters which I’m supposed to “research” for the BOM project. Titled “Four Unsatisfactory Answers to the Question of Digital Access” (it is an early draft version of an essay which will be included in the forthcoming book Film ‘Curatorship: Archives, Museums, and the Digital Marketplace’, co-edited by Usai with David Francis, Alexander Horwath and Michael Loebenstein (Vienna: Synema – Gesellschaft für Film und Medien / Österreichisches Filmmuseum, 2008)), the essay structures the popular perception of the digitalisation of film against the concrete work of the filmarchivist (or curator), constantly dealing with a complex web of factors including market value, aesthetic value, history, public funding etc.. One could read his writings as the product of bitter nostalgia easily, I guess, but here is someone with a genuine love of cinema, dealing on a day-to-day basis with the decay of the things he cherishes, and honestly, working with people who can’t wait to transfer our audiovisual heritage into bits and bytes, no matter what, to exploit via Video-on-Demand and what not (although I understand their concerns), this is a voice that I want to hear, a necessary voice. As he writes: “In practice, the commercial world is already within our gates, and it has been within our gates for quite some time. This is no longer a matter of whether or not we want to deal with it; it is a matter of how we can we deal with it without betraying our cultural mission.(…) Digital access” is the name of the game, now and in the foreseeable future; we all know that, but the word “digital access” is embedded with a whole array of philosophical, ethical and strategic questions. How will “digital access” change the way we look at film or we listen to a sound recording in an archive or a museum? And how are we going to explain the history of projection and recorded sound in the digital age, and still protect our own integrity as archivists and curators?”

These are valuable questions to be integrated in the debate, questions that we have to try to work out, before we get trapped in an impossible choice: preserve or show? Because, face it, who will want to pay for the continuous work of audiovisual archives (in the traditional, object-oriented meaning) if everything is commercially available via the internet, in a nice digital package, in different formats to suit all your needs?

“The future is process, not a destination.”
Bruce Sterling


Horror in a world of video narcissism


As in ‘Cloverfield’ and ‘(REC)’ (see earlier post) George A. Romero’s new installment (the fifth) in his ‘Dead’ series, ‘Diary of the Dead’ also tells a story from a subjective in-the-thick-of-the-action viewpoint. It’s about a group of film students who are making an independent horror film when they become trapped in a world being consumed by flesh-eating zombies. They then turn their attention toward making the film into a documentary on their personal horror experiences. Romero reworked a script he drafted a decade ago and chose to shoot with hand-held cameras only, after witnessing the ballooning growth of mobile and networked audiovisual media. Like in ‘Cloverfield’, this choice has had a huge impact on the choreography (since it’s based on long, continuous takes and “the camera was 360, so everybody was an acrobat, ducking under the lens when the camera came past you”), soundtrack (no music, just sound effects) and image framing (instead of using ‘product shots’ the action is off-hand – in an interview in Empire Romero says “we’re trying to ‘happen’ upon the violence rather than focus on it.”) In another interview with Romero (‘Videotaping is believing’), Chris Vognar made an interesting comment: “horror finds itself in a new world of video narcissism. In this world, nothing exists unless it’s on camera, and life and limb are no more valuable than multimedia immortality”, something Romero agrees with: “The world is a camera these days, and it seems to be part of the collective subconscious”. But Romero’s skepticism of an all-video, all-the-time society pokes through the film’s surface. In ‘Diary of the Dead’, the show must go on, even with a bunch of flesh-eating zombies on your trail… YouTube awaits. If the camera is rolling and the footage uploading, even if you’re (a living) dead you’re still alive.

Romero’s film also features a chorus of voices questioning mainstream media and their “official” account of “the truth”. A more outspoken critical exploration of the politics of image-making and reception is on display in Brian de Palma’s ‘Redacted’ – a word meaning ‘edited’ or ‘blacked out’ (the film’s first image is a written disclaimer on the screen, with more and more words gradually being deleted). This low budget movie ($5 million) offers a reconstruction of the events leading up to and following the widely reported rape and murder of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl by four U.S. soldiers in the town of Mahmoudiya in 2006. De Palma negotiates with reality and fiction, using only (mostly staged) footage that was (supposedly) recorded via mobile video, security cameras and webcams (but actually shot in HD video, as it was funded by HDNet films), published via video platforms, blogs and (Iraqi) TV news reportages. By recreating images which are systematically removed from the official “news” reports about Iraq, de Palma questions the filters through which we see and accept the world, the power of the mediated image and how presentation and composition influence our ideas and beliefs. This movie triggered quite a bit of critical responses and political controversy in the States, so I’m curious to see how Europeans will look at it (it should come out in traditional roulation soon, but it’s available online if you look for it a bit. More on this when I watched it in the cinema)

Look! Voyeurism in the panoptic society

“Sure he’s a snooper, but aren’t we all? I’ll bet you that nine out of ten people, if they see a woman across the courtyard undressing for bed, or even a man puttering around in his room, will stay and look; no one turns away and says, ‘It’s none of my business.”
(Hitchcock, When asked by Truffaut if the main character in ‘Rear Window’, L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart), is a snoop. Later in the interview they expand that perspective to include the cinema audience)

The beginning of the 21st century may just well be among the most culturally and socially confused eras to emerge in recent history, when you consider society’s mass-fascination with reality shows, webcams and camera phones on the one hand and its ever-present obsession with surveillance and mass observation technologies, fueled by the Post 9/11 anxiety, on the other. This dichotomie has been explored by lots of creative producers in the past decennia, which was the subject of exhibitions like ‘ctrl (space): Rhetorics of Surveillance’ (curated by Thomas levin for ZKM) and ‘Balance and Power: Performance and Surveillance in Video Art’ (curated by Michael Rush), with great work by Sophie Calle, Jim Campbell, Jordan Crandall and Harun Farocki, to name a few. The impact of ubiquitous observation technologie was also very present in recent feature films as varied as Andrea Arnold’s ‘Red Road’, Michael Haneke’s ‘Cache’ or Paul Greengrass’ ‘Bourne Ultimatum’. But while these movies use CCTV footage to draw on feelings of paranoia and unease, here is a new film that has another take on the complex relationship between the intentional exibitionism that seems to be an essential part of our relation towards the internet and television, and our involuntary relinquishing of privacy to the cameras of power systems. The official description of ‘Look’ (it came out in december in the States) goes like this: “There are now approximately 30 million surveillance cameras in the United States generating more than 4 billion hours of footage every week. And the numbers are growing. The average American is now captured over 200 times a day, in department stores, gas stations, changing rooms, even public bathrooms. No one is spared from the relentless, unblinking eye of the cameras that are hidden in every nook and cranny of day-to-day life.” By shooting his feature entirely from closed-circuit viewpoints (but actually shot with Hi-end cameras – the ‘dirty’ look was created in post-production!), director Adam Rifkin wants to bring forward the question: “who are we when we don’t think anyone’s watching?”

But is this really a critical statement, or just a marketing stunt? The trailer suggests the latter. It suggests a film that draws on the new fascination of surveillance and sousveillance, as new playgrounds of the mass media, as a new market based on narcissism, exhibitionism and voyeurism in a so-called “panoptic” society (pan = everything; optikos = to see). This looks like a film that lures us, uncritically, in a silent acknowledgment and even enjoyment of the “tyranny of intimacy and the end of privacy” (taken from ‘ctrl (space)’ catalogue). No trace here either of a perspective on the voyouristic notion of cinema itself, while brilliant films like Powell’s ‘Peeping Tom’ and Coppola’s ‘the Conversation’ have proved that giving cinema an opportunity for self-reflection, can have an unsettling impact. In ‘Peeping Tom’ director Michael Powell plays a brilliant mirroring game, involving himself, as filmmaker, and the spectator in the process of voyeurism, so that by the last shot – showing a blank cinema screen – we are all aware that we have become victims of our own gaze, confronted uneasilly with the relationship between watching and participating. Is ‘Look’ equally confronting, or will it just provide us with a way to get around our prohibitions and exploit our voyeuristic tendencies, using a format that is just another smoother way to bridge the the gap looming between us, the screen and the events in the image, between our notions of reality, simulation and fiction?