It can be argued that the history of the Internet’s infrastructure has largely foreshadowed the capitalist and socio-political activity that has played out in its network. Starting up as a U.S Defense Department research project, it was constructed by service provider backbones that perform as interconnecting points between computers, made up from the NAP (Network Access Point) facility, where commercial traffic was prohibited due to its government funded nature. Configured with motherboards, processors, IDE drives, replacement batteries, racks, wires, cage nuts, etc, the multitier architecture of these distributed servers fabricates a so-called “network”, but the origin points are all embryonically physical. These server programs, useless without hardware, are therefore very easily built, possessed, and privatised by gaining and transferring ownership and ultimately used as property. NAPs were then taken over by MAE (Metropolitan Exchange Area) which is a privately owned multinational service provider exchange point, selling bandwidth to smaller networks. At this point, commercial flow was enabled, computers became primary for work, media, marketing and entertainment, and an extension of capitalism was steadily born.
With its architectural essence, the Internet isn’t infinite. After its commercialisation in 1994, it began to rapidly grow and had to have its version 4 of Internet Protocol, which only had 232 addresses, be replaced with version 6, allowing 3.4 x 1032 addresses. Version 6 was developed by the volunteer-run Internet Engineering Task Force where entry fees to some forums were $650 per person. The management of building or re-developing the actual structure of the Internet has shifted from government to private corporation to neoliberal organisation.
In the early ‘90s, when online experiences have not yet been brought to 40% of the world, theorists, writers and artists such as Avital Ronell, Sadie Plant, and above all, Donna Haraway, registered a prevailing notion that the anonymity created by the Internet is a platform for self expression and a cognitive and expansive exploration. With a new presence of search engines, decentralized publication and documentation, chat rooms, blogs, and multiplayer games, we would be able to persist in several places (or function as several people) all at the same time. The term “public” was re-defined. Ideas about teleportation and even pansophy were comparable to this new technology, producing an inkling of excitement across both Marxist thinkers and scholars of individualism. The concept of it being able to liberate us from our flesh, boost bottom-up activity, use and experience other genders in online social contexts emancipated women as it rebelled against the “militant labour of older masculinist politics” (Donna Haraway). This brought the origins of cyberpunk literature, net-art, cyberfeminism, and the cyborg manifesto with its extricating anarchic dismissal of “meatspace” (which, perhaps not by coincidence, has a wicked macho sound to it, as if the physical world was inherently patriarchal).
Seen as a source of new consciousness and intellectualist transhumanism, the Internet was a future of extending our minds, perceiving things from all perspectives; we could reach out to more than two billion people and could have access to all of human knowledge with a few keystrokes.
This romantic thought is retrospectively incredibly intriguing but not surprising. Ursula K. Heise states in “From the Blue Plant to Google Earth” that there was a notable influx of environmentalist utopianism in the ‘60s and ‘70s that blossomed through sci-fi narratives. The public discovery of industry-induced climate change triggered socialist abstractions in creative literature about villainous multinational companies, alternative natures, and extrospective views of our planet from space travel. The Gaia hypothesis, developed by Lynn Margulis and James Lovelock in the 1970s, advocates a self-regulating environmental symbiosis between all living things, forming “one world-encompassing, sentient superorganism” (Ursula K. Heise), and influenced many sci-fi writers at the time such as Ursula K. Le Guin (Vaster Than Empires and More Slow, 1971), Richard McKenna (Hunter, Come Home, 1963), and Piers Anthony (Chthon, 1967). The discourse around these ecological and political fictitious futures can be identified in the hopeful and left-wing posthuman contemplation of the ‘90s about cyber-utopias and human interconnectedness.
With the invention of web hosting services like GeoCities, users could make their own browser-based “homes” and “neighbourhoods”, and online senses of place and community were generated through chat rooms and bulletin boards. Role-playing games such as Second Life underpinned theories that virtual multiplayer worlds could have a part in the explorations of identity politics. Cyberfeminists carried on envisioning the Internet to be a space liberating us from the historical weights subscribed to our physical bodies. It offered an alternative to the hegemonic structures of the physical world, emancipating those who received abuse and maltreatment at the cause of their anatomy.
Unfortunately, the monopolisation of businesses and political actors on the Internet flooded online zones with targeting strategies and business operations, aggressive social media user activity pushing out those identifying as femme and/or from a BAME background. Haraway’s cyborg, which was designed to expropriate modern technology from being “positioned as instrumentalist” (Eva Giraud), is used in capitalist transhumanist thought to justify the merging of technology and the organism to enhance existing capabilities (Cyborg Geographies). “The Internet has actually worked to regressively reinvigorate damaging conceptions of gender and promote hateful divisions” (Susan Cox) and contributed to a number of social issues such as the widespread invasions of privacy and the the homogenisation of identities and desires through the capitalist rhetoric around self-improvement and optimisation that is deeply impacting all of us at a scale that no other form of marketing ever has.
The Internet is not non-physical, and flesh and materiality is still important in today’s society. Hito Steyerl goes further to explain how the Internet has also moved offline as “data, sounds, and images [...] incarnate as riots and products, as lens flares, high-rises, [...] military invasion, and botched plastic surgery”. Her disillusionment continues to grow as she describes a familiar world.
“The internet persists offline as a mode of life, surveillance, production, and organization—a form of intense voyeurism coupled with maximum nontransparency. Imagine an internet of things all senselessly “liking” each other, reinforcing the rule of a few quasi-monopolies. A world of privatized knowledge patrolled and defended by rating agencies. Of maximum control coupled with intense conformism, where intelligent cars do grocery shopping until a Hellfire missile comes crashing down. Police come knocking on your door for a download—to arrest you after “identifying” you on YouTube or CCTV. They threaten to jail you for spreading publicly funded knowledge? Or maybe beg you to knock down Twitter to stop an insurgency? Shake their hands and invite them in. They are today’s internet in 4D.”
The fine line between our on and offline worlds, which already participate in a constant feedback loop, start to blur. The dystopian view of this phenomenon is followed by reactionary and emotionally negative experiences on the web. Social media’s neoliberal frameworks create a sterile activity (Mark Fisher), currently experiencing a backlash of activism and social dialogue (Siana Bangura), and encourages disposability and quick, careless thought (Ada Cable). In reference to the environmentalist science fiction in the ‘60s discussed earlier, Frederick Buell argues that anticipating ecological risk scenarios has today been replaced with learning to live with them, and romantic visions of new worlds and millennial hopes has significantly weakened (Ursula K Heise).
External Pages is a response to these historical climates of the Internet. It claims as much space back from the virtual saturation of corporate activity to artists, writers and designers who examine what it is to curate and create with the Internet in mind, and who dismiss the unaffordable ‘necessity’ of having a physical space to produce work. As Stephanie Bailey states in her essay OurSpace: Take the Net in Your Hands, the Internet is now “managed, contested and contracted”; the mediation of public and private space is constantly negotiated while all of it is financially controlled, through which we can assert its legitimacy as well as declare new communal room.
While cyberfeminist net-art can only flourish in contexts of the formal cyberspace, External Pages looks to hold new narratives relevant to post-internet art (or post-net-art?) that are relative to today’s political domain rather than project a nostalgia of precedent utopic records, and does not have to necessarily compare itself to physical galleries. In the face of online experiences substantially consisting of reproductive and productive labour, External Pages finds artists who investigate questions like what role does the combination of art and the Internet play in care, self-expression or affirmation, and identity machination? What discourse does it open up around art’s immersion and authenticity? Can the immateriality of our art de-value it economically? If so, what will the impacts be?
Encouraging these discussions and broadening critical horizons about the future of art, this online exhibition centre also aims to convert the Internet into more of a cautious and habitable environment by encouraging and supporting independent technological and conceptual experimentation and play through online art. The internet is a programmed space and it’s sterility generates depressive exhaustion but “from a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again” (Mark Fisher). Although it is inherently flawed, our approach is to enable ourselves to rewrite structures on the internet and see it as an opportunity, rather than a problem.
Every other month, we ask for an artist or a collective to put on an exhibition on the website. Institutional obstacles posed by the common practices of conventional art spaces can restrict an artist’s ability to engage in their practice, but health and safety requirements, capacity of space, access to resources do not exist at External Pages. Downloadable art, forums, mail lists, and open-source code is here used to diminish cultural hierarchies and pecking orders in the art industry. Curators, artists, directors, website developers, designers, etc play a role in making decisions in the construction of the exhibition webpage and sometimes code together and generate displays that continue to advance accessibility, influenced by the bottom-up philosophies of early cyberspace theorists. Visitors can come any day, any time and can access us from any location - given that access to the internet is provided.
Prior to the art show’s archivation, the page that holds the current exhibition is altered, malformed, and tweaked within the process of building the exhibit. This method not only aesthetically tailors every area to the artist’s exact needs but also suggests that the language which is abstracted into code can itself be used as a form of articulation and a way of expressing ourselves.
In this way, External Pages is a DIY space existing on the margins of cyberspace, an attempt to reject a dependency on where art is usually publicised, and situates a decentralised place of critical thought around contemporary digital culture.
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