The original version of this essay was written for Embodied Utopias:
Gender, Social Change, and the Modern Metropolis, editors Amy
Bingaman, Lise Sanders, and Rebecca Zorach (London: Routledge, 2002).
Networked Interventions: Debugging the Electronic Frontier
- Christa Erickson
Art, Stony Brook University
During the closing
decade of the twentieth century, the Internet, popularly called
cyberspace and the information superhighway ,
became the utopian space. In the few short years from 1995
to early 1999, roughly the time period this essay examines, its
mythology bombarded American popular culture to such a degree that
non-techies became familiar with formerly obscure technical nomenclature
like www and dot-com. Promises touted by corporate advertisers,
politicians, and cyberfanatics alike were staggering: empowerment,
convenience, global democracy, wealth, communities unfettered by
geography, mutable identity, and even the erasure of gender and
race. Everything was new and better in the e-world and its gold-rush
The hyperbole that
has surrounded this global phenomenon had begun to ebb in the closing
moments of 2000, when I first completed a version of this essay.
Now in 2002, it has crashed along with the gold-rush dreams of the
stock market. Still, the Internet is now an ordinary part of life
for many in the U.S. and other developed nations. This assimilation
of virtual spaces into the everyday requires that we take seriously
the politics of the Internet as a ‘place’ with real stakes. To this
end, this paper looks at the metaphors and language that surrounded
the Internet’s formative years. It focuses specifically on the implications
of this space as the ‘electronic frontier’ of popular imagination,
and also considers the idea of a ‘network’ as both a political and
a technological structure.
In keeping with the
linked and associative structures of the Internet itself, this paper
connects a series of insights suggested by several artists’ Internet-related
projects that address abstract cyber-utopian claims. Many artists
treat the Internet as an electronic street corner and use their
work to critique public discourses around it. Many were also informed
by the critical public art produced in the 1980s and 1990s that
attempted to engage spatial politics .
Just as public artists work within and against the architectural
structures and materiality of the city, subverting the use of public
spaces, net artists work within and against the spaces and structures
established by the technological infrastructure of the virtual network.
In particular, they address the politics of use. Statistics suggest
a vast ‘digital divide’ (USNTIA, 1999) between those who can and
cannot participate; thus, class, race, gender, and the relationship
of actual and virtual bodies are all taken up by these artists’
It has not escaped these artists’
critical attention that corporate capital is a fundamental part
of this infrastructure. Some of the projects employ parody and humour
as tactical practices, spoofing the visual conventions of commercial
websites. Some projects take up the personal narratives suggested
by individual homepages. Some push the bounds of what is possible
with this still limited, but expanding technology. Others create
mysterious interfaces, which must be explored to be understood.
All of these projects exemplify a practice of writing and rewriting
a specific moment.
Just as these artists borrow
from urban spatial practice, I will borrow from analyses of the
modern city. I suggest the ‘cyberflâneuse’ as my paradigmatic Internet
subject and my approach as author. Although my cyberflâneuse resembles
the historical ‘flâneur’ from the late nineteenth century, the spaces
she wanders are different - as are her modes of inhabiting those
spaces. Similarly, the artists I discuss operate in Internet space
in a critical and subtly seditious manner, observing and reinventing
For Charles Baudelaire and, following
him, Walter Benjamin, the ‘flâneur’ was the archetypal modern subject,
strolling the streets of the city, surveying its contents with a
mobile view (Benjamin, 1968, p. 172-175). Contemporary scholars
of the modern city, like Janet Wolff (1991), note that the male
flâneur has no female equivalent (no ‘flâneuse’). In the nineteenth
century, women’s realm was the domestic, and a female ‘street walker’
meant something else entirely. Women on the street might become
the object of the flâneur’s gaze, but the commanding anonymity of
the flâneur was simply not available to them. When individuals like
the writer George Sand were able to access this privilege, it was
only by masquerading as men.
As with the flâneur’s city, the
virtual space of the Internet has its privileged travellers and
its excluded populations. The term ‘digital divide’ has been used
to describe the disparity between those who travel often and in
style on the Internet and those who lack the tools and access to
do so. ‘Virtual class’ (Kroker and Weinstein, 1994) is now in common
use for the privileged class of people who work online via various
communications technologies. Any trip through a major airport reveals
this mobile class wielding laptops, PDAs, and cellular phones. Several
Internet scholars refer to themselves as flâneurs of cyberspace
(Mitchell, 1995, p. 7); the anonymity and privilege of the flâneur
certainly translates to these wanderers of cyberspace. At least
at first, they were - like the flâneur - largely male.
The cyberflâneuse might be a
cyberspace wanderer with a purpose, adopting a set of ‘tactics’
for subverting cyberspace. In The Practice of Everyday Life,
Michel de Certeau (1984) theorizes ways to transform the planned
agenda of a place (lieu, a fixed and owned site of power),
or its ‘strategy’, into the embodied practice of space (espace,
space as produced by the practices of everyday life) through ‘tactics’.
His work focuses on the ways in which space is actually used, rather
than the ways in which places were planned; he is concerned with
the reader or pedestrian, rather than the writer or architect. Reading
and walking become potentially subversive tools of living and engaging
space: ‘Everyday life invents itself by poaching in countless ways
on the property of others’ (de Certeau, 1984, p. xii). The cyberflâneuse
explores the cracks in the virtual sidewalk and might plant a garden
in an abandoned virtual lot, haunting the space. She engages people
in virtual cafés, disrupting their virtual and bodily lives. Most
of all she remembers the complex problems of the material world,
rather than being seduced by the easy promise of utopian virtuality.
She might even be a he. Like the flâneur, s/he might wander through
spaces previously unavailable, fracturing meaning and materiality
with ‘her’ very presence.
Negotiating Electronic ‘Space’
Although there are many philosophical
and theoretical reasons why one might consider the Internet a ‘space’,
the most obvious one is simply that people treat it that way. Much
as William Gibson characterized cyberspace as a ‘consensual hallucination’
in his seminal novel Neuromancer (Gibson, 1984, p. 51), a
tacit consensus has emerged to describe the Internet as a space.
The language used to describe the Internet and people’s interactions
within it draws upon spatial metaphors: ‘information superhighway’,
‘surfing the web’, ‘web address’, or even ‘homepage’. The very word
cyberspace owes its name to the word cybernetics (and cybernaut),
coined by Norbert Weiner in 1947, its roots connected to a notion
of navigation from Greek origins meaning to pilot or steer. Early
writing on cyberspace imagined three-dimensional representational
technologies, often termed virtual reality technologies. Although
VRML has emerged as a three-dimensional web display technology,
most Internet navigation is still two-dimensional; this has not
impeded the conception of the Internet as a space.
The physical experience of navigating
the Internet through the graphical portion known as the web explains
some of the spatial invocations. Despite some similarities to ‘channel
surfing’, it differs from the way people relate to television. As
when driving on a highway, people see the web through a window -
a seemingly limited view. This view is, however, only a fragment
of a larger sense of space that unfolds over time. One navigates
the terrain via a set of abstracted instruments that rely upon simple,
easily learned bodily movements, or basic voice commands. The small-scale,
two-dimensional computer screen and its minute point-and-click gestures
imply sensations quite different from physical motion through a
space. Yet one retains a sense of control in the ability to direct
movement and extend one’s exploration through time. The interplay
between user and web interface bridges the spatial divide between
the virtual and physical worlds. Switching from one web page to
the next or one email window to the next might suggest spatial discontinuity;
after all, one might be moving from a page originating in Japan
to one from New York or Mexico. However, the virtual experience
is more like that of montage, cutting from one context to another.
The interface becomes a prosthesis, or phantom limb, and the subject
an information-space wanderer.
The experience of wandering in
virtual space while remaining stationary in physical space can create
boundary confusions. This is the subject of INVERTIGO (1997), a project that I developed
along with Sawad Brooks and Beth Stryker. It included a video installation
in a gallery driven by a swing ‘interface’ that could be manipulated
by users, and a corresponding website. The piece staged a literal
and metaphoric swing between the physical space of the art gallery
and the public space of the web to explore a confusion of presence/absence,
real/virtual, and near/far. The swing acted as a physical editing
device for a large video projection on suspended translucent scrims.
Cinematic cuts at each swing apex evoked a sense of movement and
boundary confusion that disrupted the ‘swinging’ participant’s sense
of seamless physical experience, as in the experience of wandering
by jump-cuts in information space. Suggestions of the presence of
someone in the other space (the physical or the virtual) passed
back and forth - their physical bodies never touched, but their
interactions left traces in the mechanism on ‘the other side’. From
the web, ‘presence’ in the gallery could be seen via spy-cameras
mounted atop and behind the swing. It was also suggested by a number
on a page, analogous to a web page counter, that increased by one
with each physical swing in the gallery. In the gallery, ‘web presence’
was indicated two ways: a rush of male and female bodies in the
video projection and the numbered IP addresses  of the website visitors on the monitor behind the swing. When many
people were ‘visiting’ the website, the visual accumulation of these
numbers gave an indication of the volume of web presence.
The idea of ‘connecting’ with
others in different geographical locations is part of the allure
of the Internet. Portions of the Internet have social aspects that
are part of the ways in which it is conceptualized as a space. The
suggestion of ‘place’, where one might ‘go’ to meet others, came
early on in the form of mediated areas like chat rooms, MUDs, and
MOOs. With the proliferation of Instant Messenger services one is
informed if a contact on one’s predefined list of people is also
‘there’ - and communication can take place in ‘real time’. Through
the ability to design a ‘profile’, post an image, or create a ‘homepage’,
people have mechanisms for presenting themselves (or the selves
they choose) to others. These gathering spaces provide for both
social interactions and forms of manipulation. Sandy Stone has documented
some fascinating stories of such spaces with telling social implications
(Stone, 1995, p. 65-81). For some people, these interactions are
an extension of the real, and the attributes of their lives appear
as present as they might be in any social setting. Others use the
seeming anonymity of meeting online to create a persona to act out
alternate identities. Other users move between the virtual and the
physical, meeting people within the ostensible safety and anonymity
of online interaction but eventually deciding to take the relationship
offline. It is significant to note that although corporations build
some of these gathering spaces, many originate independently from
within existing communities of people.
Even though we may travel ‘there’
every day, the virtual space of the Internet is not a place as we
typically understand the word. Yet the city is still a productive
spatial metaphor for the electronic network. William Mitchell, for
instance, titles his book on the subject the City of Bits: Space,
Place, and the Infobahn (Mitchell, 1995). Certainly in both
the physical city and on the Internet, people meet, carry out work,
gather information, shop, and sightsee, or as the case may be, site-see.
Marshall McLuhan suggested that every new medium is a rearview mirror
to its recent historical past (McLuhan, 1964, p. ix); and, indeed,
patterns of cities are enacted online. Many sites are slick and
glossy flat facades with flashing banner advertisements, functioning
like a mall or the Los Vegas strip. The Internet’s notorious ‘red-light’
zones might be thought of as corresponding city districts, but they
are more closely associated to each other by numerous ‘links’
than they are to any other ‘neighbourhoods’. While structures and
materials are different - bits and files versus bricks and mortar;
coded information versus buildings; and links and search engines
versus streets and subways - the two worlds remain linked. Industries
familiar from the ‘real world’ are visible to the web wanderer,
though their web architectures may differ dramatically from the
corresponding physical space.
It is also useful to consider
a few differences between the Internet and the city based on construction
and time. Basic websites can be made by anyone with computer access
and a few simple skills. Although this does not equate to ‘democracy’,
as is sometimes claimed, it does mean that one need not have corporate
backing to create one’s own web-space or critique another’s. In
fact, I teach students to make their first websites in only a couple
of hours by stealing other sites and modifying them. This time scale
is vastly different from the years it may take an architect to see
a design built. The compressed sense of Internet time is often likened
to ‘dog years’ - an apt metaphor given its rate of change. 1993-94
saw the birth of the first popular browser, Mosaic, and the mark-up
language that produces web pages. By 1996 Mosaic had died out, replaced
first by Netscape and then, increasingly, by Explorer. Through these
stages, the web has undergone a visual transformation from grey
pages with crude imagery to sophisticated layouts and animation,
including the more recent streaming of audio and video.
Colonization of the Electronic Frontier
Since its beginnings in the late
1960s, the Internet has been referred to as a frontier. The first
network was developed in a decentralized way as a result of cold
war paranoia, so that if one computer were attacked the others would
not be disrupted .
With its origins in the American southwestern desert, its militaristic
past, and this lack of central authority, the frontier metaphor
and attendant Wild West gunfight and computer cowboy imagery is
not surprising. Its legacy includes notions of an untamed space
that has only recently undergone 'civilizing' by U.S. governmental
regulatory efforts, like the Communications Decency Act of 1996,
to make it 'safe' for women and children .
U.S. Commercials for the search engine about.com (1999) play on
this imagery: a vast imaginary desert territory that their service
helps you navigate without peril. The frontier metaphor suggests
a number of problematic associations and several potentially productive
ones. The dominant association is that of colonization, with virtual
space providing expansion for multinational corporations, American
culture and products, and the English language. However, the sense
of newness and lack of structure provide space for imagining other
Diane Bertolo's piece Frontier Town 2000, or FT2K (1997), is an
intelligent and visually lovely explication of Internet gathering
spaces which juxtaposes the Internet to the city. The setting, an
electronic frontier town, alludes to the desert of the southwest,
where the Internet began, and to popular western mythology, in its
reference to computer hacker cowboys and gold-rush dot-com opportunities.
In Bertolo’s critique of the rhetoric around global villages and
online ‘community’, we are told that these spaces are really ‘ghost
towns’, ‘memory palaces’, or tourist ‘theme parks’ for the disembodied.
Buildings are all single-image flat facades attached to wire-frame
models. During our tour we encounter ‘realistic re-enactment’ games,
arcades for ‘authentic experiences’, corporate trademarks, shoot-outs,
and profiles of inhabitants that mimic personal homepages. We are
shown fictions of presence and place - no one really ‘lives’ here,
after all. Yet traces of the past and of known spaces abound .
Visitors can send postcards to friends as souvenirs of their visit;
personae such as ghostBorgGirl haunt this place, suggesting the
presence of the ‘cyborg’ - a hybrid subjectivity, human-machine,
proposed by Donna Haraway, who calls on feminists to get into the
‘belly of the monster’ (Haraway, 1991, p. 9).
The historical connotations of the word ‘frontier’ have not escaped
artists Guillermo Gomez-Pena, Roberto Sifuentes, and James Luna.
As demonstrated in their 1995 collaboration Shame-Man and El Mexican't Meet the Cyber-Vato performance,
in the American west, the dream of the white European frontier town
meant genocide for the indigenous people who were perceived to interfere
with the settlement of the supposed ‘untamed’ and ‘empty’ spaces.
Their performance work inverts and enacts stereotypes of race and
gender along what Gomez-Pena calls the ‘new world border’ of cultural
misunderstanding (1996). Many of this group’s recent performance
works have been generated from, among other sources, a web-based Temple of Confessions
(Gomez-Pena and Sifuentes 1996) in which visitors are asked to confess
race-based fears and dreams. The venomous tone of these online confessions
has shocked even the artists. They attribute the tenor of hatred
to the seemingly anonymous quality of posting on the Internet: social
niceties drop away as unfettered racial animosity displaces the
utopian fantasy of a bias-free space (Gomez-Pena, 1998). Their work
also makes the point that the information superhighway bypasses
the barrio and the ghetto, further keeping the frontier safe for
a largely white virtual class .
The new media artist Antonio
Muntadas explores another form of colonization on the electronic
frontier, the colonization of world languages by English, with his
site On Translation. The bulk of early Internet communication,
over 80 percent, is in English (Tehan, 2000). Thus, it is not surprising
that a Cisco Systems’ 1998-99 U.S. advertising campaign featured
children from around the globe, all of them speaking English, and
declaring the promise of the Internet: ‘Are you ready?’ English
is undeniably part of the reality of global modernization. At the
same time, many of the world's languages cannot even be represented
as text on the Internet due to the technical limitations of the
communications software architecture based on ASCII, the American
Standard character set .
Muntadas’s On Translation visually reveals the diversity
of 45 different languages. Seeking to overcome and simultaneously
draw attention to the Internet’s inherent language biases, many
of the languages in the piece are actually rendered as images instead
of text. The site is based on the initial phrase: ‘Communications
systems provide the possibility of developing better understanding
between people: in which language?’ The process of creating the
visual translations was modelled on the children's game ‘telephone’.
In Muntadas’s version, the phrase is translated into another language
before it is passed on. The resulting process reveals difficulties
of translation in the quest for meaningful exchange: language is
presented as a never-ending spiral of differences which viewers
scan to see the different languages/translations.
Cyberfeminism and Grrl
Differences in language usage
and communication styles have long been areas for feminist research.
In an essay by Critical Art Ensemble, media theorist Kathy Rae Huffman
is cited for her joke about one of the possible benefits of Internet
communication for women: ‘In cyberspace men can't interrupt you’
(Wilding and CAE, 1998). The asynchronous nature of early networked
conversation may have allowed a woman to complete her thought; yet
on a larger scale, women's participation lagged behind men’s in
the mid- to late-1990s. The Guerilla Girls, an activist collective known for
their critical parody of art world hegemonies, produced a 1995 poster
stating that: ‘The Internet was 84.5% male and 82.3% white until
now’. This statistical illustration explains in large part why the
presence of women's voices was and still remains somewhat limited
(Bennett and Palmer, 1997).
The last fragment of the Guerrilla
Girls' poster, ‘until now’, along with their tongue-in-cheek activism,
suggests the character of many cyberfeminist voices. A visible minority
claim to be geekgirls with an attitude. The frontier metaphor suggests
some of the more potent imaginary subject positions for this breed
of grrl: pioneer and outlaw. The pioneer occupies a space considered
new or unknown. She is a homesteader, a squatter, occupying a space
and making it her own. The outlaw plays by rules of her own choosing,
armed with knowledge, challenging conventional norms.
In response to the male-centered
culture of the Internet, a visible ‘cyberfeminism’ emerged in the
1990s, particularly within the arts and culture sectors. It is based
in part on Haraway’s dense cautionary writings from the late 1980s,
including the particularly influential ‘Cyborg Manifesto’ (1991).
She writes, ‘Cyborg writing is about the power to survive not on
the basis of innocence, but on the basis of seizing the tools to
mark the world that marked them as other’ (Haraway, 1991, p. 175).
Her notion of a critical feminist engagement with technoculture
caught many women activists’ imaginations. The writings of Sadie
Plant in the UK, particularly her Zeros and Ones (1997) and
some early interviews at the popular ezine  ‘geekgirl’ from Australia, also provoked women to engage. Plant
plays with cyberspace as feminist utopia, recuperating and celebrating
the history of women's pioneering past with technology, including
the story of the first programmer, Ada Lovelace, and another significant
programmer, Grace Hopper. Plant seeks to counteract the truism that
technology is a male prerogative. In fact, Plant suggests that ‘masculine
identity has everything to lose from this new technics. The sperm
count falls as the replicants stir and the meat learns how to learn
for itself. Cybernetics is feminization’ (Plant, 1996, p. 132).
This tactic provided inspiration to visual artists who embraced
the digital arts over art practices like painting that have a long
and very male history. Some draw correlations between the collage
or bricolage of cyberfeminist works and other more traditional practices
such as weaving. Bricolage, the appropriation and stitching together
of whatever is at hand, can be compared to the practices of the
cyberflâneuse or the cyborg.
One of the first, most visible,
and most vocal groups of these geekgirls was the Australian VNS Matrix (1991-7).
This fragment of their manifesto suggests their mission:
we are the virus of the new world disorder
rupturing the symbolic from within
saboteurs of big daddy mainframe
Like an electronic Calamity Jane,
they went into conferences about the electronic frontier and played
at being one of the boys, disrupting the conversation in brash and
unladylike ways. They digitally resurrected the cunt imagery of
the early 1970s and brought bodily flesh, fluids, and uncompromising
queer sexuality to the clean chrome and circuits of the machine.
They relished their outlaw status, inverted cultural stereotypes,
and played with the language of sexual domination and control that
is embedded in much technical jargon.
Despite the efforts of these
trouble-making women, the fantasy of a global technotopia for women
has little material likelihood, particularly given the economic
inequality that segregates the vast majority of the world’s women
from the basic technological and educational infrastructure required
to make web access a reality. Zillah Eisenstein’s Global Obscenities:
Patriarchy, Capitalism, and the Lure of Cyberfantasy (1998)
reveals disparities made ever greater by multi-national capital.
50 per cent of the world’s population had never made a telephone
call as of the 1998 publishing date of her book (Eisenstein, 1998,
p. 98). Literacy rates and proper healthcare for women world-wide
are equally low. Large numbers of third world women of color work
under oppressive conditions to produce electronic and other goods
for the mostly white and mostly male virtual class.
It is virtually impossible to
escape the signs of the corporate occupation of the web — almost
every commodity and its advertisement lists a web address. In the
period between 1996 and 1998, the web became something of a cross
between a mall and the yellow pages. Flashing banner ads crept into
most sites with any significant readership. ‘Free’ email and web
services abound, but they increasingly came with a commercial element
attached. Citizens of developed nations have become accustomed to
spending money online. Once again, artists are and were aware of
this dot-com world and have parodied and even exploited it, purposefully
employing the slick visuals or structural tropes of corporate websites
to their own ends.
Bodies Incorporated (1996) is one such site. Artist Victoria Vesna spoofs the promise
that online we can all chose the body we want. In order to begin
your fantasy, you first have to accept the lengthy legal terms of
your purchase. Once you have made your choices, your body/avatar
can wander through various spaces like the ‘gated community’ called
‘home’. You can even kill off your body and leave it cast aside
in the necropolis in favour of another. The project’s visual icon
is a spinning 3D head with a copyright symbol resembling a corporate
logo on its forehead. This is a particularly suggestive image for
several reasons. The head with an extra eye reminds one of the heralded
abandonment of the body in favour of the rational, disembodied Cartesian
eye/mind. The logo/copyright calls attention to our cultural obsessions
with property and their attendant legalisms, even within this immaterial
realm. The third eye also hints at the watchful strategies of many
dot-com advertisers and their information collection mechanisms
for target marketing.
My own neighborhood
WATCH (1999) makes reference to such corporate surveillance
of consumer behaviour in the electronic neighborhood, as well as
contemporary culture’s more general obsession with watching. It
reveals ‘rear window’ web views of three randomly selected web cams
from around the globe, as well as the network hostname or IP address
of the visitor, on its opening page. The three disparate views exemplify
a possible non-contiguous, non-geographic form of space as described
earlier. Visitors fill out a form, much as they might on many sites,
which asks them about their own watching habits and fears of being
watched. The piece stores these in its ‘vicarious database’ and
exposes random fragments from it on another page. The data collection/distribution
suggests that the seeming anonymity of online identity is not always
so anonymous and that submitted data is not so private.
Vesna’s title, Bodies Inc.,
hints at another aspect of the collision of capital, Internet space,
and language: the name of something is both its identity and also
its spatial address. For most corporations, the desired name would
be the corporate name. Language itself has become a commodity on
the Internet. A very simple art piece by Heath Bunting, README: Own, Be Owned or Remain Invisible (1997),
makes this point quite effectively. The piece consists of a page
of text, ostensibly a newspaper article describing the exploits
of the artist. Each word on the page is a link to the website which
has co-opted that word as www.thatword.com. So if you follow a word,
you might be horrified to discover that someone owns www.be.com
or www.where.com. Some words that were not owned when I discovered
the site a couple years ago are now functioning websites. Thus,
README traces the commodification of language over time.
Internet ‘squatting’ has been
going on, too. Some people have purchased the rights to a domain
name for the purpose of selling it to a company or other interest
that might want it. This is rather like real-estate speculation.
Registering a name with an agency that handles these was not a costly
proposition, about $70 during this time period. Sales of already
registered names can be high, though, when the buyer is determined
to get the name they want and the seller recognizes the value of
it. For instance, Steve Forbes bought www.forbes2000.com in 1999
for $6,500 (Ladd, 1999).
Another site, rtmark.com (1997-),
also plays with ‘domain name’ issues. RTMark realized that in the
global economy, corporations have most of the legal rights of individuals,
but none of the responsibilities. So it became a legal corporation
whose business is perpetrating playful, well thought-out corporate
sabotage. It has undertaken numerous large and small-scale projects,
including the now infamous Barbie Liberation Organization's Operation
It uses the trading-post model of exchange to create a web-based
mutual fund mechanism for activism. This allows individuals to invest
in specific sabotage projects they want to support, or to lend a
hand in carrying one out. It supports other activist-minded projects,
too, and is establishing its own art action network.
RTMark has numerous franchise
sites, all parodies of corporations and political figures like McDonalds,
Shell Oil, and then-candidate George W. Bush. At first glance one
might not recognize these sites as parody, due to their seamless
design; a little investigation reveals an ironic, pointed, and informative
difference. The ultimate example was a collaboration between RTMark
and Zack Exley at the parody site gwbush.com. The candidate’s lawyers
issued them a cease-and-desist letter for using the name. However,
because you cannot trademark a personal name, there was no real
case. Then Bush filed a complaint with the Federal Elections Commission,
asserting that Exley had violated election laws by not registering
as a political committee. In the meantime, Bush himself purchased,
or ‘warehoused’, numbers of such domain names, like bushbites.com
and bushblows.com, in an effort to prevent further political parodies.
Bush was so incensed by gwbush.com that he publicly called Exley
a ‘garbage man’ and said, ‘there should be limits to freedom’. The
fact that Bush recognizes the important role that the Internet has
begun to play in American politics is clear. However, Bush missed
the big picture and caused himself a public relations backlash:
through the media attention on his actions, he turned a small site
that cost a total of $210 for its first two months of existence
into an international profile site with over six million visits
during May of 1999 (Ladd, 1999). Bush’s official site only had about
thirty thousand visits a month at the time. This incident suggests
how the Internet might function as a site of intervention on a global
Tactics in the Network
The networked structure of the
Internet might increase the scope of tactics and practices that
have long been employed by activist organizations. Traditional forms
of collaboration and the spread of critical information through
grassroots phone trees and pamphlets have expanded easily onto the
Internet, as demonstrated by the Zapatista FloodNet and others.
Traditional culture-jamming tools have expanded to include sophisticated
programming borrowed from hacking. However, Ricardo Dominguez, from
Electronic Disturbance Theatre, draws distinctions between such
activism and hacking, saying, ‘we call for disturbances, and distribution,
not destruction’ (Krempl and Dominguez, 2000).
Networking is a traditional feminist
tactic that has gone online in a fairly straightforward fashion.
Given the shoot-’em-up, boys-with-big-toys character of the frontier,
the necessity of these networks is obvious. There are a number of
employment-related sites like webgrrls.com that help women train
for the tech world. There are also websites which function like
artists’ networks; for instance, old boys network (OBN) (1997), queerarts
(1997), and Face Settings. Face Settings (1997) blended
Internet resource sharing, an international event calendar, and
traditional physical meetings and dinners. The twenty-something
ezine network called chickclick (1997) originally boasted ‘girl sites
that don't fake it’. Because several of the linked ezine sites had
loyal readership and the umbrella site had such a clever tag line
and hip graphics, all were able to garner large ‘hit counts’, or
numbers of visits, and help route readers to each other's sites;
they also won the attention of advertisers in search of new markets.
Within a year, some of the sites even received significant income
from banner ads, allowing their creators to focus on producing the
ezine rather than their ‘day jobs’ .
Artists are using the medium
of the web to think about ‘networks’ within individual art pieces
as well. The database or information archive is a structure intrinsic
to websites. Such mechanisms particularly foreground the fluid possibilities
of Internet space. Muntadas made one of the first such works, Fileroom, in 1994. It began as a collection
of instances of censorship, inviting visitors to add to this history
and creating a partial, fragmentary, and ever-changing global record
of censorship and its effects.
Another archival work is dissemiNET (1998), a project by Sawad Brooks
and Beth Stryker. The site establishes the electronic network as
a diasporic memory repository, poetically floating images and texts
across the screen. The artists began the piece with stories of disappearance
and displacement during the civil war in El Salvador, placing a
local political situation in a global context to preserve memories
of the event. Now ideas and examples of witness and testimony of
many kinds can be submitted to the site’s repository and later searched
as a form of recall.
Shu Lea Cheang creates an archive
and expands on traditional forms of networking in the piece Brandon (1998-99), a one-year multi-media
hypertext event. The project is organized around the true story
of Brandon Teena, whose life is also recounted in the critically
acclaimed film Boys Don’t Cry. The website uses his story
as a vehicle to explore the broader issues of gender identity; it
interrogates discourses around the intersections of bodies and identities,
both offline and online. The fantasy of gender swapping on the Internet
is problematized in its juxtaposition with the story of Brandon’s
struggle as a female-to-male transsexual who attempted to pass as
male in a small town in rural Nebraska, and was consequently raped
and murdered. Shu Lea Cheang’s website functions as a network, an
organizing mechanism for fragments of text, history, and debate;
its production has brought together numerous artists, writers, scholars,
institutions and even legal analysts into a visual hypertext. As
such, the site evokes discussions about the Internet as a global
community. Some of the resulting discussions ended up on the website,
while some conversation occurred in performance debates. These debates
included one titled ‘The Body Under the Knife of Medical Technology'
that linked the Guggenheim Museum in NY through the web to the Theatre
Anatomicum in Amsterdam. Another debate connected the Harvard Law
School to global ‘netizens’ who acted as jurors for the cases argued,
on such topics as online harassment and virtual rape (Dibbell 1993).
By dissecting the phantom nature of gender, Cheang relentlessly
interrogates the anonymity of the Internet, demythologizing it as
The utopian rhetoric of the electronic
frontier has been shed in the short time since I originally wrote
this text, in part because so many people have become familiar with
it. The frontier has largely been ‘settled’. Computers are now reported
to be in 60 per cent of U.S. households. As of July/August of 2000
in the U.S., women are reported to be using the web with as much
frequency as men (Austen, 2000). Although it had a limited presence
for some time, Internet art has become normalized within art world
institutions with the inclusion of websites in the 2000 Biennial
at the Whitney Museum of American Art .
As with any new cultural phenomena, the fantasies of the Internet
as a hitherto unknown space have passed into the everyday.
Corporations initially rushed
at the Internet opportunities for global expansion and their mall-ification
of the Internet grew at a dramatic rate. However, the euphoric glow
of the gold rush has now faded; tech stocks have plummeted and dot-com
roadkills are innumerable. Although e-commerce has finally become
a reality, grossing almost seven billion dollars in the U.S. during
the third quarter of 2000 alone (USDC, 2000), it is still a small
percentage of estimated consumer retail sales. It is significant
that the growth of e-commerce and the mass entry of women onto the
Internet coincide. This pattern was seen in urban spaces at the
end of the last century and is described by Anne Friedberg in her
book Window Shopping (Friedberg, 1993, p. 36-7). She notes
that women’s entry into public life came through consumer activities
allowed by changes in the urban spatial configurations that created
Not surprisingly, the online
world reflects the offline one. On a global scale, the material
effect of the Internet has largely been to create a greater disparity
between information ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. For a while, domain
name real-estate stakes were high, with sales of names going into
the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Big corporations use their
financial weight to sue smaller owners of names related to their
interests. One of the most infamous examples sparked what is now
called the ToyWar. eToys, the online toy e-tailer demanded that
the artist’s group etoy give up its domain name. RTMark and other
activists staged protests of this bully-like gesture and later claimed
responsibility for the public outcry and the plunge in stock prices
of the toy company that for a while was close to going out of business.
Although heralded as a victory for Internet democracy, without solid
legal protections corporate bullying continues and many smaller
interests are forced out of existence (RTMark, 2000). As corporate
occupation has transformed the web and the corporate website has
become the undisputed dominant settler on the frontier, the overzealous
democratic rhetoric of only a few years ago begins to take on a
different tone. Although they still seem naďve, these utopian democratic
fantasies are now necessary to envision the Internet as a space
where ‘choice’ and ‘debate’ mean more than just what product or
stock to buy. Activists, artists, writers, and other cultural workers
are a part of such a project.
Nancy Paterson's Stock Market Skirt (1998) is a humorous but
pointed examination of virtual space’s effects on even seemingly
unrelated parts of our lives. Enacting the old adage about skirt
hemlines following economic trends, Paterson’s piece maps the ebb
and flow of the stock market onto a fancy taffeta skirt. Translated
by a computer and mechanical mechanism, online stock trends raise
and lower the hemline of the skirt as a real time feedback of the
activities of the system. But here there is no subject, just an
old-fashioned dress-dummy, wearing this disembodied dress, no visible
agency involved. It is at the mercy of the market, much as people
in the volatile 2002 market have painfully felt. On the other hand,
Regina Frank's performance Hermes Mistress
(1994-96) depicts an active subject who stitches together fragments
of the texts she finds through her laptop, transcribing them into
the pattern of her oversized red dress one bead at a time. This
subject integrates elements of the electronic space into the fabric
of her life, blending age-old technologies with the new and actively
editing in the process. The task ahead of her, like the scale of
the dress, is immense. It will take time and perseverance and can
only be achieved through small, sustained gestures.
In both instances these works
suggest the inevitable presence of technology in people’s lives,
particularly women’s lives. Paterson’s piece suggests the fickle
nature of public investment in the no longer golden stock market.
Frank’s piece is a poignant image of Haraway’s cyborg and the cyberflâneuse
I have suggested. She might also be considered an icon for the only
possible embodiment in the virtual space of the Internet. Frank’s
task mirrors our own attempt to disrupt dominant paradigms and make
spaces for ourselves, whether they are physical spaces, virtual
spaces, or some combination of both. Only numerous small gestures
over time can add up to political change.
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 Precise definitions of these terms are not exactly
the Internet, but popular use elides them. Cyberspace suggests a
larger space mediated by a range of technologies. The information
superhighway was originally applied to a specific larger bandwidth
media stream proposed by the government.
 Such artists include Alfredo Jarr, Hans Haacke, Barbara
Kruger, Antonio Muntadas, Krzysztof Wodiczko, Repo History, and
others. Such art movements as dada, the Situationists, Fluxus, and
conceptual art influenced them.
 An IP address is the unique set of numbers that identifies
a computer in the network.
 Ironically, this decentralized structure and its geographical
dispersal make regulation of this space more difficult than a medium
like television, although not impossible since it also provides
a sophisticated array of mechanisms for surveillance in a technical
 See the Time magazine issue on cyberporn from 3 July
1995. The illustrations alone are telling.
 Elizabeth Grosz (2002) reminds us in her arguments
in “The Time of Architecture” from the book Embodied Utopias: Gender,
Social Change, and the Urban Metropolis, for which a version of
this essay was originally written, that utopian projects represent
the past and the present as if they were the future.
 A survey from 1998 revealed Internet inhabitants in
the U.S. to be 87 per cent white (GUV 1999).
 An interesting discussion of the technical difficulties
of representing languages is addressed in the New York Times' CyberTimes
essay ‘Language: Final Frontier for the True Global Network’. It
should also be noted that in picture form, the Internet could also
be used to preserve languages that are quickly becoming extinct.
 The term zine was coined to describe an independently
produced magazine. Such independent publications proliferated on
the web and came to be called ezines.
 Don't miss the videotape that documents the 1993
media event where the voice boxes on 300 talking Barbies and talking
GI Joes were switched and the altered dolls were reverse shoplifted
into stores just before Christmas. It has been broadcast on PBS
and seen at many festivals.
 By the end of 2000, the site was run by a corporation
full of men rather than the original women (Heidi Swanson and her
sister for the first year) and had lost its racier content and catchy
tag line. By 2002 the site closed, listing “the turn in the economy”
as the cause. I believe it closed in part due to loss of purpose
and its original readership.
 So, of course, RTMark proceeded to sell its tickets
to the exclusive artists and bigwigs reception on ebay.