[rohrpost] Plug Pulled
Tue, 14 May 2002 12:29:59 +0200
Museum's Cyberpeeping Artwork Has Its Plug Pulled
By MATTHEW MIRAPAUL
n Internet-based artwork in an exhibition at the New Museum of Contemporary
Art was taken offline on Friday because the work was conducting
surveillance of outside computers. It is not clear yet who is responsible
for the blacking out =97 the artists, the museum or its Internet service
provider =97 but the action illuminates the work's central theme: the tensio=
between public and private control of the Internet. The shutdown also shows
how cyberspace's gray areas can enshroud museums as they embrace the
The work in question is "Minds of Concern: Breaking News," created by
Knowbotic Research, a group of digital artists in Switzerland. The piece is
part of "Open Source Art Hack," an exhibition at the New Museum that runs
through June 30. The work can be viewed as an installation in the museum's
SoHo galleries or online at newmuseum.org. Although the installation is
still in place, and the work's Web site remains live, the port-scanning
software that is its central feature was disabled Friday evening and was
inactive yesterday afternoon.
Port scanning sounds like a cruise-ship captain's task. The term actually
refers to a technique for surveying how other computers are connected to
the Internet. The software essentially strolls through the neighborhood in
search of windows that have been left open. Merely noticing where they are
is no crime. Things get dicier, though, if what is seen is conveyed to a
ne'er-do-well relative, who then breaks in somewhere, rearranges the
furniture and makes off with a gem-encrusted putter.
One court has ruled that port scanning is legal so long as it does not
intrude upon or damage the computers that are being scanned. Internet
service providers, however, generally prohibit the practice, which can
cause online traffic jams. That prohibition appears to be what led to the
After the Knowbotic work started its peeping, the Internet service provider
for one of the targets of the scan complained to the museum's Internet
service provider, Logicworks. In turn, Logicworks notified the museum that
port scanning violated its policies. On Friday, Lauren Tehan, a museum
spokeswoman, said the museum was seeking a creative technical solution to
keep the work online.
That effort did not succeed. Ms. Tehan said the museum, at Logicworks'
request, shut down the work after the museum closed on Friday evening. On
Saturday morning, Christian H=FCbler of Knowbotic Research said the group
realized the port-scanning software had been disabled and decided to move
the work's Web site to an Internet service provider in Germany. Ms. Tehan
said that the museum suggested a way to put the work back online but that
Knowbotic rejected the proposal.
The dispute calls attention to one of the very points the piece is intended
to make. Because the lines between public and private control of the
Internet are not yet clearly defined, what artists want to do may be
perfectly legal, but that does not mean they will be allowed do it.
Before the New Museum exhibition opened on May 3, Knowbotic Research had
already decided to remove the most troublesome features of the port-
scanning software. Mr. H=FCbler said the group changed the work after
consulting with a lawyer who specializes in Internet law. "I wanted to know
the situation I'm in," Mr. H=FCbler said, "because when I work with the
border as an artist, I want to know at least what the border might be."
When it is functioning, "Minds of Concern" resembles a slot machine.
Viewers are prompted to scan the computer ports of organizations that
protested in February against the World Economic Forum. While colored
lights flash, a list of the vulnerable ports and the methods that might be
employed to "crack," or penetrate, them to gain access to private
information scrolls across the bottom of the screen. No internal
information is exposed, but the threat is suggested.
European digital artists are more politicized than their American
counterparts, and "Minds" is designed to advance a social agenda. By
choosing to explore the computers of anti-globalization groups instead of
Nike or Coca-Cola, Knowbotic is warning those groups that they are at risk
of losing sensitive data.
But to present the work at the New Museum, Knowbotic had to defang it. At
first, the group reviewed the 800 tools in the port-scanning program and
removed 200 it deemed intrusive or malicious. After consulting with a
lawyer, the group then encrypted the name of the organization being scanned
because it was unsure if publishing the information was illegal. In place
of the name on the screen, one saw the phrase "artistic self-censorship."
The group's disappointment in having to scale back the work was obvious in
a message to an electronic mailing list: "Due to the ubiquitous paranoia
and threat of getting sued, the museum and the curators made it very clear
to us that we as artists are 100 percent alone and private in any legal
There is a sense of a missed opportunity here. The dozen works in "Open
Source Art Hack" are intended to prompt discussion about the public versus
the private in cyberspace while demonstrating how artists "hack," or misuse
technology, to creative effect. Port-scanning software, for instance, is
meant to be used for reconnaissance, yet Knowbotic has made it a political
But "Minds of Concern" is also the only online work in the exhibition to
operate in a legal gray area. In its fully functional state, it had the
potential to cause a ruckus that might have yielded some black-and-white
rulings. But instead, the exhibition commits no real transgressions.
Steve Dietz, the new-media curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis,
was one of the exhibition's curators. Its goal, he said, "was more nuanced
than bringing cracking to the dull havens of a museum."
"Being bad and doing something illegal hold very little interest for me,"
he said, "but being tactical and creative hold a great deal.`
Artists like to be bad, and although museums are sometimes their targets,
they can also serve as shields when artists become controversial. A recent
example was the exhibition "Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art," for
which the Jewish Museum, not the participating artists, took most of the=
As museums embrace cyberspace, its fuzzy rules are posing unfamiliar
problems, and "Minds of Concern: Breaking News" is a case in point. As for
how well those issues can be raised within a museum's walls, Lisa Phillips,
director of the New Museum, said: "That really is the dilemma. We can only
go so far."
Web Site: wwww.newmuseum.org