Augmented Browsing: The post-digital aesthetics of data intervention

To hack is to refuse representation, to make matters express themselves otherwise. To hack is always to produce a difference, if only a minute difference, in the production of information.  - McKenzie Wark

Since the 90s with the introduction of the World Wide Web, hacking has been used as an artistic strategy for network artists to explore the potential and possibility of alternate art forms. Artists have abandoned the formal representation of their artworks to present something intentionally, often regarded as nonsense or chaos. Perhaps, Jodi’s famous works such as wwwwwwwww.jodi.org and %20Wrong, shown in Fig. 1 and Fig. 2, best illustrate the ideas of intentional chaos, and this is how White describes “the aesthetics of failure” (2002) in network art. However, White only discusses intentional or representational failure, as this article argues, unintentional failure should be taken into consideration as part of the aesthetics of failure.

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Figure 1. Screen capture of wwwwwwwww.jodi.org, by Jodi

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Figure 2. Screen capture of %20Wrong by Jodi

The notion of intentional failure can be traced in earlier forms of artistic practices including Dada and Surrealism (Ibid), in which the representation, particularly visual objects and composition, is distorted, disoriented and misplaced in an unusual manner, leading to a sense of nonsense, chaos and instability, see example in Fig 3, which challenges the way an audience approaches and understands an artwork.

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Figure 3#. Persistencia de la memoria (1931) by Salvador Dali

From the earlier browser art in the 1990s to recent browser add-on development in the late 2000s, network artist uses a browser and develop a customized-software to intervene the usual understanding of the underlying structure and the representational form of World Wide Web. With the proliferation of Internet technology, in particular the Web 2.0, participatory platforms, such as social media applications, are increasingly embedded in our practices of everyday life; artists tend to shift the focus from exploring the medium specificity to critiquing the network culture and outlying the politics of the platforms through the strategy of intervention, subverting the behaviors of how a website should function or be represented. What is important in a website is data in the forms of text, numbers, images and videos. The concern with data is noted by Jilian Stallabrass as the “most fundamental characteristic” of network art “and can be thought of as a variety of database forms” (Stallabrass, 2003, p.26). Data that exists in the participatory platforms is structured and organized through databases and computation. These data are economically valuable, publicly engaging and artistically playful, something the article describes as peculiar data. This article explores how peculiar data is being manipulated in network art with a particular focus on browser art. It also introduces a collaborative network art practice, The likes of Brother Cream Cat (Pritchard & Soon, 2013), a mediatized browser add-on which draws peculiar data from the Facebook’s metadata source, and generates an augmented browsing experience. The work highlights the notion of failure with a mix of intentional and unintentional motifs, the controllable and uncontrollable aspects of peculiar data, exploring the forces behind and beyond Facebook’s interface.

A browser is a piece of software that allows data to be presented in a readable format. Browsers designed to install and run on personal computers are able to display Internet data in multimedia forms (text, images and video); it becomes an interface that communicates between the user and the Web developer, translating computer-scripting languages into information as multimedia objects. It is an important milestone in human-computer history, as it allows data to be displayed in graphical and colorful forms, and is accessed by anyone with the Internet. This enhances readability and facilitates information sharing. It later becomes one of the pervasive and ubiquitous media that is included in operating systems, Windows, Mac and Linux platforms, as well as Android and Iphone OS, for example.  The first browser, Mosaic, was introduced in 1993, followed by Netscape Navigator (1994) and Internet Explorer (1995). Since then, other browsers have appeared in the market such as Chrome, Firefox and Opera etc. Conceivably, a browser becomes an important medium and interface, it has the capacity and power to allow data to be translated, transported and transformed from one location to another, and from one format to another.

According to Christiane Paul, browser art is about “the creation of alternative browsers to navigate and present Web data” (Paul, 2003) and “art that recognizes the authority of the Web browser” (Liu, 2004). Many network art projects fell into this group, notably alternative web browsers, including but not limited to Web Stalker (1994) produced by I/O/D and RIOT (2000) produced by Mark Napier (See Fig 4 and Fig 5). These artworks challenge the conventional role of a browser and subvert the notion of web content through an intentional play of failure. Failure in a way means a browser does not function as normal or expected behaviors, and left behind to the audiences and users are the chaotic interfaces with a malfunction browser. However, these browsers are not realistically retarded, rather the web content is intentionally deconstructed via artists’ custom-made software, and audiences are urged to look at the matter, the latent and connected structure, behind the representation of web data and hyperlink, as White suggests these disruptions “can encourage computer spectators to read Internet technologies differently” (2002, p.173).

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Figure 4. WebStalker (1994) by I/O/D, image source: http://www.meetopia.net/

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Figure 5. Screen capture of RIOT (2000) by Mark Napier

Working with web data has been a keen interest of network artists. With the advancement of technology, a more open architecture of a browser like Firefox and Google Chrome, browser add-on has gained currency in recent years. It is a small application that runs on top of a browser, providing additional features to the browsers mainly for data manipulation, such as auto online form filling and the disabling of web advertisement images. It changes the way a web page is displayed and usually encompasses little varieties of functions to keep it as a small application. Browser add-on is also seen as a tactical media art form that runs interventions in the media landscape. Facebook Demetricator (See Fig 6) is a browser add-on that hides all the numbers on the Facebook interface. Benjamin Grosser, the artist, critiques the social value of numbers, measures or metrics, for instance the number of likes, friends and comments, in Facebook, which is affecting users’ emotions. These numbers are not simply data, they are regarded as peculiar data that contain economical value towards advertiser and Facebook,  collecting a better profiling[1] and offering a more targeted advertising. In addition, these numbers are publicly engaging and might lead to a rippling effect which is affecting users’ judgment on the content (DeVries and Soltani, 2012) and “may have consequences on how [they] act within the system” (Benjamin, 2012). The feature of intentional hiding of data is built into the browser add-on, causing the failure of the metrics display, but this project informs the more political, social and cultural aspects of aesthetics where White draws on feminist aesthetics and Foster’s anti-aesthetics (White, 2002, p.174) to explain the notion of failure.

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Figure 6. Facebook Demetricator (2012) by Benjamin Grosser, image source: http://bengrosser.com/projects/facebook-demetricator/

To extend these political, social and cultural aspects of aesthetics, this article introduces a network art project. The likes of Brother Cream Cat (2013), also an add-on that functions on Facebook, is the latest collaborative project of Helen Pritchard and Winnie Soon. The artwork takes a popular Facebook cat “Brother Cream” (a cat that lives in a 24-hour convenience store with the shop owner in Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong) as an analogy to explore the politics of failure through continuously scraping and distorting Facebook data. In 2011 “Brother Cream Cat” walked out of his shop and went missing; his fans created a Facebook account to find him, and on his return he became ‘Facebook Famous’ through his ‘lots of likes’. Since then he commands over 1000 visitors per day at his shop in Tsim Sha Tsui and with more than 145,000[2] fans on Facebook. The likes in his Facebook fan page become an instrument to keep his life active by having more visitors (both online and offline), more merchandised products, more cat food and more job opportunities for this animal celebrity, Brother Cream.

Once the add-on is installed and activated, all the Facebook’s peculiar data (including images in posts, profile picture, timeline image) will be replaced with the latest Brother Cream trace, see Fig. 7, and special effects (both audio and visual effect through interactive play), see Fig. 8, have been intentionally implemented on the particular Brother Cream’s Facebook fan page. As such, the add-on intervenes the usual behavior of browsing and using Facebook through a customized program, offering an augmented browsing experience on the fly. The image data on Facebook page is constantly mutating and Brother Cream Cat’s trace is participating actively in users’ social communication.

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Figure 8. The Likes of Brother Cream Cat (2013), the effect on Facebook
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Figure 9. The Likes of Brother Cream Cat (2013), the effect on Brother Cream Cat fans page.

Starting from the landing page, see Fig. 10, to the Facebook page, the interfaces depict a sense of chaos and messiness through intentional representation. The project uses a web scraping technique as opposed to Graph API[3] (a standard specification offers by Facebook to developers), which adds another level of unpredictability or an uncontrollable outcome. Web scraping, in this project, is a technique to extract data from a webpage directly without the need to go through registration or authentication through a program that communicates with Facebook, as well as not following the official guidelines that are provided by Facebook. In computer science terms, client-side programming is used instead of server-side programming, and this means the source code of Facebook is examined. Studying Facebook’s HTML source code is one of the approaches in this project, through “view source” option available in the browser menu, in order to identify appropriate data (for example friend’s image versus group’s image in Facebook). This is not a standard way and one of the major drawbacks of the code is highly unstable. It is just like finding a folder in a specific drawer, and if Facebook changes the drawer’s location or swaps the folder’s position, the program will be unable to extract the right information, causing the whole add-on to malfunction.

On the contrary, using the Graph API from Facebook will ensure any changes of the drawer would not cause any impact, or at least to minimize the impact, to the developer’s program. The API approach is also been observed as a common way that many Internet platform providers (such as LiveJournal as one of the earliest providers) have offered this service to developers publicly since the early 2000s (O’Reilly, 2005). This method allows a proper control from providers of how the platform’s data is being used and what kinds of data is being used. Therefore, the artists put their program at their own risk if they still use a scraping technique, which is also regarded as an earlier method of web data extraction (Ibid). One of the attempts of The likes of Brother Cream Cat is to escape from formalism, not only on a representation level, but also on how the work is constructed in order to explore this parasitical relationship between the artists’ program and Facebook, to document the different versioning of the add-on in order to reveal the uncontrollable peculiar data and interfaces of Facebook. Potentially, the failure of the add-on signifies the change of Facebook’s interface as they might change the data format, location and name for example, such that the artist’s program will no longer point to or extract from the right path or a right object. The Likes of Brother Cream Cat, as an add-on, has to be functioned with the existing representational data. In other words, the aesthetics of failure in this project lies between a coupling of intentional and unintentional motifs that is embedded in the add-on, and who has actually gotten the control of the add-on becomes blurred. Paradoxically, the artists intentionally intervene the Facebook data, however, Facebook itself has a strong opposing force that might cause the add-on to malfunction unintentionally, turning back to a ‘normal’ state of the Facebook.

This has reminded people to think about the frequent and seamless Facebook interface changes and their motifs of such newly added features (for example, timeline, the likes history log and comment editing), cultivating a more publicly engaging environment and enhancing the precision of data analysis, as such, it becomes more economically valuable. Therefore, the versioning of a software is not only providing enhanced features like an update or a fix of an application, but also documents the changes of technical media environment. There is a hidden, yet a strong force that might cause subsequent changes of the add-on.

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Figure 10. The landing page of The Likes of Brother Cream Cat (2013).

In conclusion, network art always encapsulates the notion of anti-institutionalization and anti-commercilization. The artworks that have been discussed, from early browser art to recent browser add-on, have used the strategy of artistic intervention to explore the matters of the Internet. This article suggests that the aesthetics of network art, in particular what White has described as intentional failure, not only lies in the representational failure of running the software, but should also look at a more hidden process and politics of network culture in order to understand the underlying motifs of unintentional failure. The relations of cultural and social processes are regarded as forces, which have the capacity to keep the artwork as well functioned and live, but also can lead to malfunction and to death.


# This artwork image may be protected by copyright. It is posted on the site in accordance with fair use principles.

[1] Profiling allows data, in particular user’s life style, behaviors, patterns and habits to be captured through an online platform.

[2] The figure is a snapshot as of 24 September, 2013 and see his fans page here: https://www.facebook.com/pages/%E5%B0%96%E6%9D%B1%E5%BF%8C%E5%BB%89%E5%93%A5/117969648299869

[3] See the Facebook development page here, https://developers.facebook.com/docs/reference/api/

References:

Grosser, B., 2013. Facebook Demetricator. [Online] Available at: <http://bengrosser.com/projects/facebook-demetricator/> [Accessed September 20, 2013].

Liu, A., 2004. The Laws of Cool: Knowledge work and the culture of information, Chicago, London: The University of Chicago Press.

O’Reilly, T., 2005. What Is Web 2.0: Design Patterns and Business Models for the Next Generation of Software. [Online] Available at: <http://oreilly.com/pub/a/web2/archive/what-is-web-20.html?page=4> [Accessed October 20, 2012].

Paul, C., 2003. Digital Art. Thames and Hudson.

Stallabrass, J., 2003. Internet Art: The Online Clash of Culture and Commerce. London: Tate Publishing.

Valentino-DeVries, J and Soltani, A., 2012.  How Private Are Your Private Facebook Messages. Digits: Tech News & Analysis From the WSJ.[Online] Available at: <http://blogs.wsj.com/digits/2012/10/03/how-private-are-your-private-messages/> [Accessed September 20, 2013].

Wark, M., 2004. A Hacker Manifesto. Harvard University Press.

White, M., 2002. The Aesthetic of Failure: Net Art Gone Wrong, Angelaki, 7:1, pp.173-194.

 

7 thoughts on “Augmented Browsing: The post-digital aesthetics of data intervention

  1. Hi Winnie – finally got a chance to give your paper some thought. Net Art is an interesting area to be working in. I must admit I was a bit unsure at the start exactly what your critical position was. But this became clearer at the end. Maybe it would be good to state that up front – a little boring I know but certainly helps an outside reading. As a result some of the questions I have at the start about representation, counter and refute of representation are clearer once I get to the end. But on first reading it feels as if you make quite a few unsubstantiated statements or claims that are contestable. For example you seem to suggest that hacking developed with the web but intervention or happening might also be said to trace back to Duchamp etc. Like wise I’m not sure if I agree that nonsense or chaos are counter representational by default. Small points but given that they are the entry point to the paper it throws up questions for me that linger through the paper.

    The idea of deliberate failure as a strategy is interesting and certainly something worth exploring in regards to the web. It might also be interesting in methodological terms to think about unintentional failure. Perhaps even thinking about the roles of outsider art that is like failure co-opted into the system. Obviously there are interesting political issues around that.

    When you start to discuss data bases I think it is important to distinguish between the data, the data base and the display of the data. I would see the display( browser) as the active agent rather than the data.

    Around Failure you have you looked at Aden Evens notion of the fold – he uses the example of Ctrl – Alt –Delete, as the interrupt in the exchange between human and non-human? With a little creative positioning your deliberate failing could be see in this way. Let me know if your interested I can send you a PDF.

    Really like the idea of peculiar data but am unsure about why you see this as more applicable to scraping techniques than API. Is it because the API afford to much control and so the reciprocal embedded failure by the code being scraped reasserting its agency to disrupt the representation is shown? I very much like this idea of engaging counter failure strategies and wonder if this is actually quite central to your argument?

    1. Hi James,

      Thanks for your comment and feedback. It is always good to have outsider to look at it as something I thought it was clear but it wasn’t.

      The notion of failure to me, yes is somehow political. As Galloway highlights in his book earlier: “the technical is always political, that network architecture is politics”(Galloway, 2004, p.254). From early browser art to recent add-on, network art is always attached to different kinds of technical object e.g architecture or what I have mentioned facebook in my article.

      Browser has a very close relation with data, as it is doing a translation job as well as representation. So what you have mentioned as ‘active agent’, yes – agree. However, agent could be more than 1 in an artwork.

      Peculiar data to me is detached from whatever method that the artists have used. It is more a term to describe the speciality of data nowadays. Therefore to me, no matter API or scraping method, it is still a way to access the peculiar data. However, what I want to highlight of using scarping, is to make apparent of unintentional failure that is caused by a wider cultural/social-technical processes. Or, how might we think of ‘failure’ differently, and towards how artists present the idea of ‘failure’.

      I am very interested in the article of Aden Evens, yes please send to me? (siusoon@gmail.com). Thanks.

  2. hi there,

    Let me start with a little teasing: I am glad you think “it is an important milestone in human-computer history [that the Web] allows data to be displayed in graphical and colorful forms.” I am a fan of the color neon pink myself, and am glad the Web allowed me to see it ‘on’ the Internet. So thank you for that screen shot of the Jodi site.

    What I miss in your text is what exactly it was about the Internet these alternative browsers revealed. Maybe you could add a paragraph about how the Web and the Internet are not one and the same thing, and how the Web works. Could be done with a few sentences and references.

    Best wishes,

    J
    *

    1. hi J,

      Thanks for your comment! Do agree on the confusing term – browser/web/internet and will modify it.

      I am very delighted to know you will join the conference/workshop! The term network art is based on your book “art that is based in/on the internet” + Corby’s idea in critiquing network technologies. Your book inspires me a lot in thinking through net art! Thanks!

  3. I think you situate your project really well here in terms of some precedents of browser art – but are the artistic interventions necessarily about failure or disruption – seems a bit of a generalisation? I think the examples would be best placed if they allow you to draw out the key aspects of your project: how the cat occupies both physical and technological networks – what you refer to as ‘catness’ – the more-than human aspect. Also maybe the Wark quote could be returned to: that if (data) representation is avoided, what is being hacked? I’d also like to hear more on the significance of the artwork’s end (death as opposed to the sense of liveness you evoke).

  4. Hi Winnie

    Is it important to you to define what ‘network art’ really is? I ask because you refer to Christiane Paul’s definition of browser art as if this is an essential truth and because your own statement at the end seems a little too general to me – ‘network art always encapsulates the notion of anti-institutionalization and anti-commercilization’.
    I am sorry that I reply to your article so late, otherwise I am sure that I would be able to give several examples of so-called networked art that are neither of these things (just like there are works of art that both, but which we wouldn’t think of at networked art).
    Finally: You write that ‘This has reminded people to think about the frequent and seamless Facebook interface changes…’ Be careful not to assume that your intentions as an artist are automatically fulfilled in the audience. I really like the fact that you write from the point of view of the artist, so take care not to accidentally mix your reflections on the work with others, since it may weaken yours.

    Best,
    Lotte

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