Don’t censor me! – Internet Censorship and Other Hassles

“Zone*Interdite” (i.e. prohibited area) Christoph Wachter & Mathias Jud, Exhibition view, Wilhelm Hack Museum, Ludwigshafen 2009 | © Christoph Wachter & Mathias Jud
“Zone*Interdite” (i.e. prohibited area) Christoph Wachter & Mathias Jud, Exhibition view, Wilhelm Hack Museum, Ludwigshafen 2009 | © Christoph Wachter & Mathias Jud

Aside from the copyright problem, we also have the issue of free access to information. Put simply: who can see what in the Internet? The Web is by no means as consistent as one might think..

One man’s pain is another man’s pleasure. Websites like exploit the charm of the forbidden and collect videos onto its own servers that have been deleted from the video platform YouTube. And Google Earth provides an up-to-date and accurate reproduction of Planet Earth just about as seldom as YouTube lets uncensored videos stay online. Someone with the rare opportunity of travelling to places like Bucca in Iraq will be surprised to find a US military camp instead of empty desert as presented by Google Earth.

The artists Christoph Wachter and Mathias Jud address phenomena of perception such as these and others in their Internet project, which they began in 1999. They have put together a map of all military restricted areas around the world, and have made places like the military prison of Guantanamo on Cuba virtually enterable as a detailed, accurate 3D simulation. With they created the opportunity to circumvent Internet censorship by allowing websites on their portal to be converted into images. Filtering and censoring images is far more costly and difficult than ordinary text. The project New Nations by Wachter/Jud in turn creates top-level domains for nations not recognised by the international community. Thus, Tibet has been given .ti and Kurdistan .ku. And in their installation Die Untoten (i.e. the undead), the two artists show various cuts from George A. Romero’s zombie classics, and in doing so present a little panorama of heterogeneous national notions of censorship.

In 2010 and the Deutsche Kinemathek jointly organised the symposium “Verbotene Filme” (i.e. forbidden films), which thematised the various aspects of censorship up to and including self-censorship between cinema and web culture.

Re:publica: on data storage, neutral nets and Federal trojans

Once a year, the conference re:publica, which has been taking place in Berlin since 2007, brings together Internet experts activists, artists and politicians to discuss the political sphere of the Internet. Whether issues involving legal regulation of storage of our Internet data and data privacy, attempts by the state to monitor its own citizens’ PCs of by means of trojans, or the issue of how long so called net neutrality will still be guaranteed. In other words, how long we can still use the Internet freely, without having to pay extra for special service such as accelerated data traffic or multiple receiving addresses abroad. Or topics like the controversies surrounding WikiLeaks, humorous and political actions (demonstrations, hacking attacks) on the part of persons and groups operating under the cover name Anonymous, and the Arab Spring revolution, which spread via the Internet.

404 File not Found: preserving our digital heritage

While unhindered access to information (Open Access) has become one of the new hot-button issues, at the same time the preservation and archiving of media art works has developed into a contemporary challenge. Although it may sound absurd, each new medium accelerates the expiration time of the information stored on it. While film rolls can be kept for several decades or even over a century if stored properly, the expiration time of a video cassette is much less, lying between 10 and 30 years, depending on the type of ribbon. A large part of early video art is thus doomed to disappear if it is not transferred to digital carriers and restored in time. But even digital carriers provide no guarantee for the preservation of our cultural heritage. As happened in the case of the Internationale Stadt, art projects disappear from the Web each year, and are not archived.

Tool tip: “Handshake” artists initiated the project Internationale Stadt in Berlin, a virtual community modelled on “De digitale Stadt” in Amsterdam. From 1994 to 1998, it reconstructed urban and social meeting spaces in the World Wide Web, until it had to be closed down due to lack of support.

And the life span of carrier media such as CD-ROMs and DVDs is itself unpredictable - all the more so since in 10 or 20 years there may well be no more media players on the market capable of playing them. Museums and collections have in part already recognised this problem and started various projects that among other things were presented at the conference Konferenz 404 - File not found 2003 in Dortmund. Rudolf Frieling thematised the problem in his article Digitales Erbe in the publication

In late 2011, the ZKM in Karlsruhe even devoted an entire exhibition to this theme: Digital Art Works –The Challenges of Conservation. And together with the Kassel Documentary Film and Video Festival, the Documenta Archive and the European Media Art Festival in Osnabrück, the ZKM started the Media Art Base Datenbank as an open digitalisation and presentation project of media art.

Alternative culture providers and their struggles

Unfortunately, it is often the small, virulent initiatives, associations and institutions that that make up the creative drive behind media art and provide the new digital culture and its activists with platforms and free spaces, including those that are existentially endangered.

In 2007, both the association c-base as well as Tesla – Labor für mediale Künste (directed by Carsten Seiffarth, Detlev Schneider and Andreas Broeckmann), both located in Berlin, were facing financial disaster. Tesla and c-base are important scene meeting points with international reputations that also organise events. While Tesla is dedicated to investigating the relationship between art and science, old and new, analogue and digital media, the purpose of the association c-base is to increase knowledge about software, hardware and networks. C-base’s fictive foundational myth is based on the ruins of a spaceship underneath Berlin’s city centre, of which only an antenna – the Berlin Television Tower - sticks up out of the ground. “People doing strange things with electricity” is the slogan of the dorkbots, who are likewise organised in c-base. While c-base is still in existence, Tesla and bootlab are now things of the past.

If we wish to continue enjoying the freedom to do strange, unconventional and nonconformist things, we should stand up for it before it’s too late.

Peter Zorn
is a film-maker and media art curator, co-founder and chairman of the Werkleitz company, Saxony-Anhalt’s centre for artistic image media, as well as being a member of the management committee of the Werkleitz Biennale

Translation: Ani Jinpa Lhamo
Copyright: Goethe-Institut, Internet-Redaktion
February 2008, updated in February 2012

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