Networked_Performance

Artists’ responses to the so-called “crisis” | MAICgregator

[…] It’s strange that it’s the 16th of the month (at least where I am), yet there has been little sustained discussion of present-day artistic responses to this so-called financial “crisis” — one that exists in a mythical realm of numbers- that- we- cannot- perceive, but that sadly has very real impacts on people. Responses by students, academics, and activists have not been limited to the resignation of acceptance, nor abstract theorizing in and of itself, but rather have taken, at times, forms of protest and occupation throughout the world, as well as direct actions against banking institutions. (See, in particular the story of Enric Duran here and here.) How then might we understand these actions within the context of our own theorizing activities?

This should reflect a special concern as to the impact of this “crisis” on academic and cultural institutions. Indeed, the occupations and protests at schools — NYU, the New School, University of Rochester, institutions in Italy and France and Spain and … — suggest the deep worry that many have regarding how the “crisis” might ultimately move to transform culture and learning into more and more reified situations governed by numbers and the market. (The Bologna process is coming to the states) In response there have been discussions and interviews about how we can use this time of “crisis” to develop new models that exist in parallel to concurrent struggles to force governments to provide for the basic needs of people. (See in particular “Interviewing the Crisis“.) How might we then reconsider actions and activities of the past and present and future — TAZs, tactical media, pirate radio, and many, many, more — in light of calls for more standardization and more “accountability”?

And whither the academic institution? Corporations have fairly free reign in many departments at colleges and universities in the United States. Are we to expect even more of these so-called “public-private partnerships” in the future? What is the role of the institution in producing the people who created the “crisis” in the first place? Who will follow the links between the powerful actors in order to map their impact?

I present here a recent project of mine that is my own attempt to face some of these issues. MAICgregator is a Firefox extension that aggregates information about colleges and universities embedded in the military- academic- industrial (MAIC) complex. It searches government funding databases, private news sources, private press releases, and public information about trustees to try and produce a radical cartography of the modern university via the replacement or overlay of this information on academic websites. MAICgregator is available for download right now. If you want to see what MAICgregator does to a website without downloading it, you can look at some screenshots. This is its first public release, so expect that things might not work properly.

I have written an extensive statement about MAICgregator that tries to contextualize it within discourses of net.art, the military- academic- industrial complex, “data mining”, and activist artistic practices. As the statement is rife with embedded links, please read it online.

I welcome any feedback or discussion that this might provoke; if you want to e-mail the project authors directly, please e-mail info [at] maicgregator dot org.

nick knouf [-empyre- archive]

Anna Munster wrote:

Nick,

I have had a brief look at the MAICaggregator and really like what you are trying to do here (as well as your statement, which is also an interesting analysis and summary of a shift from net art to networked aesthetics – or something like that!). I wanted to ask you a couple of things:

1) Have you used the extension on universities outside the US and if so which regions? Additionally what kind of data has this aggregated? I guess I ask because military funding into the academy is a US tradition – although of course operates in other regions – bit not in the same ways. I’d be interested to know if the way the aggregator in fact operates is specific to a US-university system or not and indeed what it might or might not reveal about other kinds of alliances else where. Would it show up more or less state-based funding in different geopolitical regions, more or less corporate funding etc…

2) This leads me to my second question(s) – to what extent are the sources that you use to aggregate data themselves a part of the complex which you are trying to make perceptible? By which I mean, that the ‘hard’ data possessed by the military on its projects and research never really enters the public arena of the ‘web’ and therefore isn’t open to such forms of aggregation. We all know that information/ data sits on military servers that never see the light of day. Here we encounter the ongoing problem/ question of dark nets vs the semantic web. And while I think that the Firefox extension mode of networked art practice is really interesting, it does encounter the problem of dealing only with semantic web sources. I am wondering what you response you might have to some of these issues?

Best Anna [posted on [iDC]]

Nick Knouf wrote:

Anna, Bryon, and Myron,

Great questions/points and I will try to respond in sum.

Anna Munster wrote: 1) Have you used the extension on universities outside the US and if so which regions? Additionally what kind of data has this aggregated? I guess I ask because military funding into the academy is a US tradition – although of course operates in other regions – bit not in the same ways. I’d be interested to know if the way the aggregator in fact operates is specific to a US-university system or not and indeed what it might or might not reveal about other kinds of alliances else where. Would it show up more or less state-based funding in different geopolitical regions, more or less corporate funding etc…

Interesting question, and one that I’ve thought about. As for where I’m getting the current data I’ve written a lot about it in the FAQ section of the website. These types of data are not exactly the best for answering the questions that you (and I and others I’m sure) are interested in, however they were the easiest sources to start aggregating and parsing.

As for non-US universities, I would love to extend MAICgregator to them, but … it’s a difficult problem, technically. I knew how to translate a school website (say usc.edu) into an actual name (University of Southern California) that I could then use for later searches. (See http://maicgregator.org/FAQ) _And_ I knew how to demarcate schools from non-schools (based on .edu). Now, in other counties with other standards, I’m not sure how to do it; I know how to do it with with UK and Australian universities, but each country has a different standard (which would be an interesting question to look at how the standards of naming spread/mutated in the development of their university domain names … but that’s for another day). Needless to say I’m very interested in this question as well, but don’t know quite how to do it in MAICgregator; if anyone wants to help out, by all means let me know!

Myron, part of what I hoped to do with the Google News Search was exactly to return media reports of situations like the one you mention at the University of Manitoba. As I begin to use MAICgregator more, I’m not sure that google news is the best way to do so; if you know of any other aggregate sources of data that might be better, I’d love to know. Part of this is of course the limited sources (read: mainstream news) that Google News itself pulls from, a serious issue if you favor alternative or progressive sources of news. I’m looking at other sources now, and would appreciate any suggestions…

2) This leads me to my second question(s) – to what extent are the sources that you use to aggregate data themselves a part of the complex which you are trying to make perceptible? By which I mean, that the ‘hard’ data possessed by the military on its projects and research never really enters the public arena of the ‘web’ and therefore isn’t open to such forms of aggregation. We all know that information/data sits on military servers that never see the light of day. Here we encounter the ongoing problem/question of dark nets vs the semantic web. And while I think that the Firefox extension mode of networked art practice is really interesting, it does encounter the problem of dealing only with semantic web sources. I am wondering what you response you might have to some of these issues?

And this is another great question that gets very much to the core of what I’m interested in in these questions of “data mining”, so I will attempt some basic openings to what really needs to be an ongoing discussion. To take another example: I have colleagues of mine who work with proprietary datasets of web access logs, social network info, and the such, who present results that can never be questioned or “verified” (in the Popperian sense, which is the only sense for many of them) because no one else can access their data and produce an alternative interpretation. Most people see this as not a problem in the least; for them it’s their way of protecting “privacy” (instead of questioning whether these logs should exist in the first place). (As an aside, on the MAICgregator server I do not save the IP address of people who connect to the website, nor use the add-on.) And yes, there are indeed troves of data that remain behind the proverbial “firewall” (until they are leaked (un)intentionally) that will never be available for a “mashup” such as this one. However, by combining disparate sources together we might be able to start outlining the traces that are there but are just not linked together. I’m heartened by the work of Trevor Paglen and IAA who did just this with regards to planespotters and the extraordinary rendition program in their project Terminal Air.

MAICgregator should only be seen as a starting point here, one that opens up some questions that you (me, we, others, they) follow up on using this and other means.

And indeed the data is certainly part of the very complex itself. However, part of my choices of how to _present_ the data spoke to this issue. Instead of _only_ randomly presenting the results on the page (which is indeed an option), I wanted to see if I could _replace_ the “news” items of the schools’ own websites with these other options…as a way of maybe upsetting some of the control that the school holds on their choices of what they feature. And as a means of combining these different sources together in a way that the data’s owners would never have intended. Now, the sources that I have chosen have not always been the most critical, of course. Google News in particular is often returning articles about sport teams — which in and of itself is interesting, up to a point of course. Nevertheless, part of this is simply the juxtaposition of disparate sources of the MAIC together.

While there is a way that this could be seen only as another form of mashup, authorized by the availability of APIs to the data (and if you look closely at the MAICgregator source you will see an API to the data we aggregate as well, an API that I want to publicize, but have to write some documentation and work on some scaling issues first…), I think there is indeed something different here, something I’m trying to figure out how to articulate. And I think it has to do not only with the sources of what I’m pulling from, and where I deposit the results, but also with the ability of re-writing itself, due to the extreme freedom one has to modify the page if you work within the browser itself. This is why, at the moment, I’m very interested in the possibility of extensions that do just this, building upon and working from the recent projects (among others, such as ShiftSpace) that I mentioned in the statement.

However, the MAICgregator project right now is, for me at least, too rational; it’s too much about showing the data. Now, as Brian Holmes writes, perhaps we need that; even if we know that the university and the military are linked, maybe we need to know more about the specifics, the specific dollar amounts and names of projects (even if we can’t figure out anything more). If you look closely, this government spending data actually shows traces of labor as well. For example, with some searches we get amounts of “$0.00” that have a project title like “renaming the project to…” or “updating address” — traces of the reappropriation of the system from within that leak out through the public data. What can we do with this? Likely not much; but it does give us a certain viewpoint into things that wasn’t necessarily so visible before.

For the future I want to push the project into the potential spaces that surround the “poetic” of the “poetic-serious” conjoining, as right now it is entirely too serious. Yet it’s the proverbial starting point, an opening that, at least for me, is pushing me to think more about how to not only counter the MAIC, but also alternatives to/from/within/parallel to the MAIC, construction that grows out of the critique.

nick [posted on iDC]

Anna Munster wrote:

Hi Brian, Nick etc

I take your point Brian about the ‘open’ flaunting of science-military research etc. I too have been similarly amazed to see detailed descriptions of various data mining projects linked to homeland security concerns but which are funded via agencies such as NSF as ‘good’ almost ‘neutral’ projects ‘advancing’ knowledge. (see, for example >>).

I seriously wonder what the hell academics think they are doing – but then again, what’s new huh? Hasn’t this been an ongoing problem of/for the academy always…ie the always imbricated and evolving links between knowledge and power….

Nick – found your responses v. interesting and considered and thanks for pointing me toward further reading spots around your project – I’ll have a much closer look.

On 21/04/2009, at 2:33 PM, nick knouf wrote:

To take another example: I have colleagues of mine who work with proprietary datasets of web access logs, social network info, and the such, who present results that can never be questioned or “verified” (in the Popperian sense, which is the only sense for many of them) because no one else can access their data and produce an alternative interpretation. Most people see this as not a problem in the least; for them it’s their way of protecting “privacy” (instead of questioning whether these logs should exist in the first place).

Yes, indeed – the relations between privacy and propriety…I actually think this might be an area we all need to spend a lot more time considering in terms of the increasing constraints upon research within the academy. One area I see this affecting the humanities is where humanities academics are increasingly being pushed into taking on external private consultancies to make up shortfalls in research funding. (this is happening quite a bit now in Australia – not sure about elsewhere).

While I am not trying to say outright ‘no’ to these kind of arrangements, nondisclosure agreements are obviously an issue and one which many of us just don’t know enough about. At a recent workshop at my uni on codes of conduct for research (which one would hope addressed issues concerning the building of a supportive ethical environment), I was totally horrified to hear what my university’s research office had to say about a particular scenario. We were told that if we had signed a contract with an external party but had come across research that was of potential harm to the public – (eg discovered toxic waste in a public playground) – the university would not support us making that information public ie for the public good, if this meant contravening a nondisclosure agreement.

The reason? No prizes for guess the university is scared of litigation of course. AS it turns out there were law faculty in the room who got on their judicial high horses and said that a researcher had legal rights to disclose information in the public good even if they had signed a nondisclosure agreement. Thank god for the long arm of law!!

My point here is: what kind of interests are determining how research is conducted as well as what research is done? And how do we actually gain access to that information if it is locked behind nondisclosure or proprietorial doors?

Nick – I like the idea of you working to design the display of data into a page in order to bring to light thee kind of issues – there should be more of it but there should also be more discussion about the constraining of knowledge generally by the kinds of agreements and protocols researchers are acquiescing to…

cheers
Anna

A/Prof. Anna Munster
Assistant Dean, Grant Support
Acting Director Centre for Contemporary Art and Politics School of Art History and Art Education College of Fine Arts UNSW P.O. Box 259 Paddington NSW 2021 [posted on iDC]

Simon Biggs wrote:

I don’t want to be negative about my institution’s (Edinburgh College of Art) key regional competitor (Glasgow School of Art) but even art schools get into bed with the military and big business (very profitably).

http://www.gsa.ac.uk/researchandpostgraduate/content/default.asp?page=s18

As you will note, GSA undertakes research for the UK Army (via French military manufacturer Thales) looking at how to better equip infantry with hi-tech kit, QinitiQ (a major UK military R&D organisation) and the UK navy, on submarine defence systems (Clydeside is where the UK nuclear submarine fleet is based). GSA seems to have no ethical qualms about this, at least at senior management level and within the research unit involved.

I don’t know what other’s think of this sort of thing. My own institution is working on its research strategy going forward to 2014 and are planning to build it on an ethical framework focused on sustainability and avoiding certain research linkages. We will not get any browny points from the research councils for doing that. We do hope our students will appreciate it (their concerns in this area are in part driving our strategy). Nevertheless, it is always hard to keep your hands really clean, if not impossible.

Regards

Simon

Simon Biggs
Research Professor
edinburgh college of art
s.biggs@eca.ac.uk
www.eca.ac.uk
www.eca.ac.uk/circle/ [posted on iDC]


Apr 20, 11:08
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