Mute Magazine

Nest-
Deep corruption on the web-
MetaMute

by Peter Carty

Net artists are using
data corruption to create work from chaos. But is it really chaos, asks
Peter Carty

Noise – or random
data, or interference – has long been an obsession of digital artists.
That obsession reflects the Nietzschean idea of a creative tension between
the Apollonian and Dionysian. First outlined in The Birth of Tragedy,
the idea is that Dionysus represents fundamental primal energy, while
Apollo stands for rationality, logic and structure. Noise is unbounded
dissonance; it is Dionysian. Information which is structured and rendered
directly meaningful by IT protocols is Apollonian. But NEST, the new project
from C6, raises the question of whether noise can sometimes be a little
bit Apollonian too.

NEST has a certain
amount in common with the children's game of Chinese Whispers but it is
a fearsomely technical set up – so concentrate hard for the next
few paragraphs. Its basis is a group of participants passing an audio
file around a ring. They are connected by an unreliable link (UDP), so
that the messages become corrupted. (UDP is a connectionless protocol
that, like TCP, runs on top of IP networks. Unlike TCP/IP, very few error
recovery services are provided by UDP/IP so that data integrity is not
guaranteed.) NEST feeds off the kind of network fallibility and vulnerability
which is usually overcome through the systematic verification of integrity
to be found with secure protocols. 'NEST works against the conventional
belief that technology must be used for the improvement and streamlining
of communication', says C6. Unless, of course, NEST itself is seen as
an alternative kind of improved and streamlined communication, but more
of that later.

Simultaneously NEST
is also a collaborative work, relying on a wide network of participants.
It is a networked generative art application with strong Peer-to-Peer
components. P2P involves pooling resources to get faster results than
those delivered by centralised IT resources. Well known P2P-orientated
programs include Gnutella, Napster, and Kazaa, which make very little
use of central servers. NEST does run a central server, but also relies
on the processing power of its network of participants.

As well as exploiting
insecure protocols, the project turns the technological limitations of
low bandwidth to its advantage. Though users on all bandwidths can participate,
home users connecting via modems can make the biggest contribution. This
is a very democratic collaboration – assuming you have at least
a modem at your disposal.

Still with me? There's
a bit more techie stuff to come but you can relax after that, so stick
with it. NEST's software has two main elements. The first is a server
dedicated to users within the ring, the second a client program which
feeds the audio data through users' machines and updates the server with
the output.

The mutated data is
used to generate audio and visual content, which is transformed by each
corrupted data packet. The visuals are cartographic – the entire
network of users is captured on a world map which allows participants
to monitor the progress of their data around the globe. The server measures
connection strengths between users to map transfer speeds within the ring
and the continuous – and continuously warping – Mexican wave
can be intercepted and uploaded to the NEST site by the public. ’The
data is never re-sent,' says C6, 'it is a true stream: continually flowing
in a single direction and altered by the medium it travels through.'

NEST has several direct
inspirations. One of them is SETI@Home (the Search for Extraterrestrial
Intelligence at home), a scientific experiment that uses the collective
downtime of internet-connected computers. Participants run a free program
which downloads and analyses radio telescope data. SETI@Home is not an
artwork but it has become a seminal project for artists. It might or might
not come up with intelligent communication from elsewhere in the galaxy
but in the meantime it is both a beautiful looking site and an endless
exercise in distributed data crunching which almost any computer owner
can join in with – in other words, it's a nerd's wet dream.

Another inspiration
is 'Japanese Whispers' by Usman Haque; a performance/installation of 20
cell phones in a circle creating a feedback loop. A diverting mutation
of Zen rock gardens and wind chimes and perhaps a similar invitation to
commune with nothingness. There's a close tie in here between Buddhist
principles and the use of boredom as an aesthetic tool in avant garde
art. Buddhist meditation techniques direct attention inwards from the
outside world to emphasise subjective constructions of reality. Avant
garde art confronts viewers with an 'emptied out' and retinally unstimulating
work, placing the onus on them to create meaning for themselves.

And, of course, the
general ongoing post-modern practice of mapping is relevant. If in our
pomo times there are no grand narratives left for artists to insert themselves
into, is it any surprise that they resort to endless spatial metaphors
to orientate themselves in the sublime cultural fluxes that threaten to
swamp them? Perhaps that's why, nowadays, there is as much mapping as
crapping in the artistic community. Or maybe what all those mappers really
want, (in a big, fat, unconscious revolt against the disappearance of
the subject, against being a mere dot on a map), is to be the villain
in a James Bond film, stroking a cat in front of a big map of the world
full of lots of flashing lights. NEST's mapping visuals are pretty, it
has to be said, and worth a gander (you'll have to supply your own pussy,
though).

In a sense, projects
like NEST want to have it both ways. We might not find the traffic of
(ostensibly) meaningless data interesting; we might want to mine it out
and find our own meaning in it. OK, if not then we can admire the dramatic
visuals. And vice versa.

The fundamental danger
with NEST and its ilk is that both their undeniable technical ingenuity
and the undeniably interesting concepts they deal in overshadow the end
results, the works themselves. In simple terms, should nerd plus theory
equal net art?

But let's have a look
at that theory. NEST's manufactured entropy is intended to imply a re-evaluation
of the nature and function of data. 'NEST is a resistance to the control
that insists on purity and so negates the chance of random serendipitous
moments', says C6. Maybe.

But one net artist's
noise is another's carefully generated random data. It is this distinction
that raises the question of whether NEST is true anarchy or a carefully
replicated simulacrum of anarchy. NEST poses this diverting problem because
its entropy is manufactured – in inimitable anarchic fashion, C6
is dancing on the boundary between bounded and unbounded data, on the
boundary between the Apollonian and the Dionysian. 'In the virtual space
of strict rules of exchange,' says C6, 'the corruption of data can be
seen as a form of electronic terrorism.' Or is NEST itself a new and alternative
system of exchange? If you can't make up your mind you can always check
out those lovely maps at c6.org