Cornelia Sollfrank on Wed, 23 Sep 1998 02:29:50 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> FemExt.1

"Hackers are Artists -- and Some Artists are Hackers"

Tilla Telemann speaks with Cornelia Sollfrank.

Tilla Telemann: "Female Extension," your intervention of the Net art
competition, "Extension," held by the Hamburg Galerie der Gegenwart
(Gallery of the Present) aroused quite a bit of attention. What was the
initial idea behind "Female Extension"?

Cornelia Sollfrank: Actually, I wanted to crash the competition. I wanted
to disturb it in such a way that it would be impossible to carry it out as

TT: Why?

CS: Because I thought it was silly that a museum would stage a Net art
competition. For me, Net art has nothing to do with museums and galleries
and their operations, their juries and prizes, because it goes against the
nature of Net art. Net art is simply on the Net; so there's no reason for a
museum or for a jury that decides what the best Net art is.

TT: Do you still think that way?

CS: Basically, yes. But I'm afraid this development can't be stopped. Net
art is on the verge of changing completely. It still happens on the Net,
but this need for completed, whole works which can be sold, which have a
certain definable value, which can be attributed to an identifiable artist,
and the establishment of authorities who do the evaluating and who deal in
Net art -- we won't be able to ignore these developments. Net art will
evolve in this direction, and away from what it was in the beginning.

TT: Where did the aggressive impulse to crash the competition come from?

CS: I simply am that destructive. I had the feeling that they didn't know
what they were doing. They just wanted to profit from the hype surrounding
Net art without truly investing in it. That's what I wanted to shake up,
and with this disturbance, call attention to the fact that it's not as
simple as that. Net art is not just about cleanly polished Web sites; it
might very well have something to do with mean, system-threatening actions
of disturbance, too.

TT: The action was seen by many as a "hack"; "Die Woche" (a German
newsweekly) even named you "Hacker of the Week". Do you see yourself as a

CS: No, I'm an artist. But if you take a closer look at the term "hack,"
you very quickly discover that hacking is an artistic way of dealing with a
computer. So, actually, hackers are artists -- and some artists also happen
to be hackers.

TT: What does the term "hacking" mean for you?

CS: There's something called the "Hacker Jargon Dictionary" (see sidebar)
which is an attempt to define that term, among others. For me, an important
parallel between hacking and art is that both are playful, purpose-free
ways of dealing with a particular thing. It's not a matter of purposefully
approaching something, but rather, of trying things out and playing with
them without a useful result necessarily coming of it.

TT: Many spectacular hacks result in the destruction of computers, or at
least, a crash. With this in mind, do you see a parallel between your
destructive impulse and hacking?

CS: Hacking does not mean first and foremost destroying. Today computer hackers
place the greatest value on the fact that they're well-behaved boys who
simply like to play around and discover the weakest points of systems
without really wanting to break anything. At the same time, hackers can
induce unimaginable damages. But at the moment, it's really about the
playful desire to prove to the big software companies just how bad their
programs actually are. At least they're trying to push their image more in
this direction.

Regarding my own action, it does have more to do with disturbance than
destruction. I couldn't actually destroy "Extension" any more than I could
inflict any serious damages to the Galerie der Gegenwart, but I was
nevertheless able to toss a bit of sand into the works. Everything did not
actually fall apart, but a few people did have to spend a considerable
amount of time looking at a lot of trash/garbage... etc. This did disturb
the trouble-free
course of the competition.

TT: Another aspect of hacking is that it does seem to attract people who
enjoy the intellectual challenge of creatively working around limits.

CS: Yes, hacking does have to do with limitations, but even more with
norms. That's another parallel with art. The material that art works with are
the things that constantly surround us. The only thing art actually does is
break the patterns and habits of perception. Art should break open the
categories and systems we use in order to get through life along as
straight a line as possible. Everyone has these patterns and systems in his
or her head. Then along comes art: What we're used to is disturbed, and
we're taken by surprise. New and unusual patterns of perception offer up
the same things in a completely new context. In this way, thought systems
are called into question. And only the people looking for this are the ones
who are interested in art at all.

TT: Would you say that there are as many well-defined conventions involved
in an art competition as there are in computer programs and that you have
subverted these conventions with your action?

CS: Yes, that, too. The material I'm working with in regard to "Female
Extension" is, on the one hand, the Internet, but also the traditional
means of art distribution: the museum, the competition, the jury, the prize.

TT: If you wanted to disturb the competition, why didn't you hack the
server the art projects were stored on and erase everything? Or disturb the
awards ceremony, for example?

CS: That's "electronic civil disobedience." In a way, I did my
demonstrating on the Net because it had a greater effect. My action wasn't
truly destructive. I didn't break anything; on the contrary, I was actually
very productive. Instead of destroying data and information, I used
automatic production to see to it that there was more data so that the
works sent in would be harder to find.

TT: Isn't it something of an affirmation of a system when someone tries to
get into the system, whether it be a computer system in the case of the
hacker or a competition in the case of an artist? Wouldn't it be more
consistent to do the disturbing from the outside?

CS: No, you can disturb far more effectively from the inside than from the
outside. Producing a flow of data has a considerably greater effect than
standing out in front of the museum with a sign reading, "Down with

TT: One thing hackers emphasize again and again is that besides influencing
social developments which only an elite group can follow anyway, access to
sensitive information is really at the core of what they're up to. Is that
also somewhat related to what you're doing?

CS: It has less to do with the information itself and much more to do with
just how open systems are. The information itself is constantly changing.
There's always new information. Much more important are the hierarchies of
systems, what's accessible to whom. Hierarchies are established with
passwords and codes and so on. These have to be broken by hackers again and
again. Because of this, hierarchies have to be restructured over and over,
and vertically structured systems are rebuilt horizontally. This is also
the decisive difference between the distribution of art and Net art. Art
distribution is a hierarchical system, so it's vertically structured. I
can't just hang my art work in a museum. But I can go to the Net and "hang
up" my Web site, for example.

TT: Of course, that's precisely what so many artists found so interesting
about the Internet in the beginning. But in the meantime, it's even the
people who deal with it professionally can't keep an overview of everything
that's going on in the field of Net art because there's so much of it. A
paradoxical situation has developed: Precisely because "everyone is an
artist" on the Internet, it's especially
important that Net artists establish some sort of relationship with art
institutions in order to gather some sort of recognition...

CS: The only function of an art museum I can accept on the Net is that of
establishing a
context. Which means that I don't just put my Web site out there where no
one can find it, but rather, I place it within a certain context, for
example, an art server. Presuming that it's a Web site at all, because
besides the World Wide Web, there are many other services and levels on the
Net where art can take place. But the art server shouldn't be an art
institution with a curator.

TT: In a way, an art server is the Internet's equivalent for producer's
gallery. That is, there are artists who run a server themselves and fill it
up with their own ouvre. This is fine for the artist, but it may well not
be of any general interest to anyone else. And that's what curators are
for: To be a "gatekeeper" that only allows Net art through which will have
a certain value for the general public and not just for the artist who made
it. In my opinion, this filter function is extremely important for the art

CS: Of course there are people who need this filter function because they
don't have the time or the desire to look around for themselves. But with
regard to "Extension," for example, there was nothing there that interested
me. One should always be aware of just how elitist and questionable the
choices made by a museum actually are.

TT: There is the historical example of video, where the processes of
canonization and the induction into museums took place, processes which are
probably on the verge of occurring with Net art. What's actually so bad
about the fact that museums are dealing with Net art and trying to evaluate
the various works? After all, that's the job of an art museum, to
contribute toward the creation of context and the formulation of a canon.

CS: The motto for the museum is: Collect, protect, research. A museum that
seeks to deal seriously with Net art would have to collect Net art and
seriously consider all the consequences of just how this art form is to be
preserved and researched.

TT: Aren't you contradicting yourself? On the one hand, you're saying that
Net art only takes place on the Net and that's where it should stay and the
museums should leave it well enough alone, and yet, on the other hand,
you're saying that museums should be collecting Net art...

CS: If a museum were to seriously take on the challenge of collecting Net
art, I could accept that. But I doubt that that's what they actually have
in mind. And what happened at the Galerie der Gegenwart is a prime example.
They simply wanted to quickly swim alongside the hype, to sample a
bit of the cream topping on all things cyber and Net. But they've shown
that they had absolutely no idea what that would actually mean in that ever
since the competition, there have been no more efforts in this direction
whatsoever. Since the awards ceremony in September 1997, the Web site
hasn't been updated.

But if competent people were to work with a significant museum on the idea
of seriously collecting Net art, I'd approve. It'd be an incredible
challenge, because not only would the collection of works and the
formulation of theory be involved, but also a tremendous amount of hardware
and software would be necessary in order to be able to read the data
according to technical standards which go out of date within the shortest
periods of time. So technical specialists who could handle the inevitable
repairs and maintenance would also be necessary. But the museums are
hesitant when faced with such a huge task. Such a collection would have to
have a very broad range and gather as much material as possible, which
would also necessarily mean that a certain evaluation and hierarchy of the
individual tasks would have to be created.

TT: What you accomplished with your action is that the Galerie der
Gegenwart won't be dealing with Net art at all anymore. Would you consider
this a success?

CS: The idea of starting a collection of Net art with "Extension" was put
into cold storage, in a way. Now they've offered Stelarc a residency. This
compromise, that is, working with a single artist whose work is quickly
comprehensible, is much more consistent, I think. With Stelarc, in terms of
content, they are venturing out onto a new terrain, but it's still
nevertheless compatible with a museum.

TT: Your "Female Extension" reminds me of the contextual art or the
institutional critique of the early nineties. In the art world at the time,
there was also
this idea of focusing on and calling into question the conventions, the
mechanisms of the creation of norms and canons. These were questions which
only interested those who had anything to do with art. Could it be said
that your work was essentially aimed strictly at the jury?

CS: The jury was, of course, most immediately effected, although the
members didn't realize at all that "Female Extension" had anything to do
with art -- all the better. As for how much other people, for example, the
artists participating in "Extension," were effected by my action, I don't
know. But I got a lot of feedback from people who weren't directly involved
and for whom I drew attention to an important problem, namely, the attempt
to make Net art museum-ready. Many Net artists don't know themselves just
how they should react to this and careen back and forth between the
underground and the professional world. I don't have this problem because
my work was the attack on the structure of the museum itself.

**** Sidebar ****

"1. A person who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems
and how to stretch their capabilities, as opposed to most users, who prefer
to learn only the minimum necessary.
2. One who programs enthusiastically (even obsessively) or who enjoys
programming rather than just theorizing about programming.
3. A person capable of appreciating hack value.
4. A person who is good at programming quickly.
5. An expert at a particular program, or one who frequently does work
using it or on it; as in `a Unix hacker'. (Definitions 1 through 5 are
correlated, and people who fit them congregate.)
6. An expert or enthusiast of any kind. One might be an astronomy hacker,
for example. 7. One who enjoys the intellectual challenge of creatively
overcoming or circumventing limitations.
8. [deprecated] A malicious meddler who tries to discover sensitive
information by poking around. Hence `password hacker', `network hacker'.
The correct term for this sense is cracker."

Hacker Jargon Dictionary
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