[-empyre-] Tactical Obfuscation: remembering net.art

Timothy Conway Murray tcm1 at cornell.edu
Thu Feb 4 13:38:17 AEDT 2021

Thanks so much for your fascinating posts, Ben, and Geert for your post in-between (it's been such a very long time).  I'm fascinated by Ben's strategy of "tactical obfuscation."  I'm in the midst of putting last touches on a book for Minnesota, "Technics Improvised: Activating Touch in Global Media Art," which touches on a lot of first generation tactical net.art, especially as Arthur and Marilouise Kroker and I curated it for CTHEORY Multimedia at the turn of the millennium. Ironically, this was still a rather celebratory period during which we imagined that we might alter, even a little bit, the digital-military-corporate complex by bombarding it with provocative but obscure art and theoretically provocative curatorial writing.  The imaginary wasn't that the browsers themselves would be disrupted but rather they we could complexify digital discourse through multimedia assemblages that combined emergent form with compelling political content and theoretical manifestos (we published issues on the promise and perils of the human genome project, digital terror & ethnic paranoia post 9/11, and NetNoise: http://ctheorymultimedia.cornell.edu).  

The politically oriented issues we put together contained some 12-14 nert.art pieces per volume for which "tactical obfuscation" might have been partially the point as they solicited users to experiment with unfamiliar interfaces, rollovers, and densely organized data. I remember fondly the arguments I had with the original designer we hired in the Cornell Library for the project.  Coming from the corporate environment of digital designwith packaged softwares (à la Adobe)  for clear organization and obvious presentation, he resisted our wish to design the journal's platform as an artwork itself that would situate the net.art pieces and curatorial statements around enigmatic interfaces, bleeding sounds, confounding rollovers, and quirky graphics.  He insisted quite emphatically that this would lead to the obfuscation of his design, the journal, and the Cornell Library's brand in the expanding blending worlds of university and corporation.  

We won, we obfuscated, and we provided our artist's a creative platform compatible with the form and aim of the work. Most all, we joined our artists in thinking that interactivity itself could be thoughtful, creative, compelling, and often open-ended.   Our collaborative artistic and curatorial obfuscation was tactical.   As I recently read over our co-authored curatorial statements, I still like to believe that we were onto something as we celebrated potential just as we critiqued the corporate expansion of biotech, virtual life, and the digital divide. For us, something like conceptual obfuscation opened doors to thought, critique, and critical imagination.

Of course, the corporate world won out.  The growing search engines pretty much left us and our artists out, still living but at the bottom of the search engine hierarchy. And, most recently, just a month ago, Adobe abandoned Flash now almost completely obfuscating CTHEORY Multimedia.  I suppose that one response would be to enact Geert's "culture of refusal," perhaps walk away from Adobe. and the often dumbly standardized platforms it celebrates.  But another option is to ban creatively together with colleagues, such as those at Rhizome and ELO, to create open source alternatives that might reenliven these early works, as many of us also have done to reactivate artistic CD-Roms that were stranded by Apple's move to Intel in 2005 [and now Apple's going to move to its own chip again endangering 15 more years of digital art created on that system].   Could it be at all possible that we could be at another pivotal moment of DYI creativity and responsiveness, thus enacting another breakout of "tactical obfuscation," in which hackers and programmers, artists and theoreticians, could again come together to think inside the box, but differently, always with Ben's sharp tactical edge? Hopeful, I know, but there's still tactical noise on the edge.

Thanks, Ben and Geert. You got me thinking and times past and future.



Timothy Murray
Director, Cornell Council for the Arts and Curator, Cornell Biennial
Curator, Rose Goldsen Archive of New Media Art 
http://goldsen.library.cornell.edu <http://goldsen.library.cornell.edu/>
Professor of Comparative Literature and English
B-1 West Sibley Hall
Cornell University
Ithaca, New York 14853

On 2/1/21, 6:41 PM, "empyre-bounces at lists.artdesign.unsw.edu.au on behalf of Ben Grosser" <empyre-bounces at lists.artdesign.unsw.edu.au on behalf of grosser at bengrosser.com> wrote:

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