Knowbotic Research with Peter Sandbichler

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Minds of Concern::Breaking News, 2002

Technologies: Flash, NASL (Nessus Attack Scripting Language), MySQL, Pd (Pure Data), Python

Keywords: hacking, hacktivism, installation


In May 2002, the artist group Knowbotic Research (Yvonne Wilhelm, Christian Huebler, and Alexander Tuchacek), working with Peter Sandbichler, presented Minds of Concern::Breaking News as part of a group exhibition titled "Open_Source_Art_Hack" at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York.

Minds of Concern::Breaking News consisted of a Web site and a physical installation in the museum's media lounge. The Web site featured port scanning software that searched for security vulnerabilities on the Internet servers of selected non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and media activists. Visitors to the Minds of Concern Web site initiated port scans via a colorful slot machine interface called the "Public Domain Scanner" to determine the vulnerability of targeted servers to hacking attacks. Port scanning is legal in the United States, but it is often prohibited by Internet service providers because it can help hackers figure out how to gain unauthorized access to servers, much as driving down the street looking for open windows might be a thief's prelude to breaking into homes. In Minds of Concern, the results of the port scan were displayed anonymously in "newsticker style" on the Web site and in the gallery installation, which included flashing lights, data projections, and sculptural constructions made of plastic food boxes and trash cans.

While Knowbotic Research's focus on exposing the vulnerability of NGOs' Web sites might seem surprising -- most politically charged Net Art targets corporations or governmental institutions -- the project's goal, according to the artists, was to "pinpoint the dilemma of NGOs and media artists having to protect an independent and progressive political and social practice through security measures which are constantly being tried, tested and attacked with ever new invasive tools."

As if to illustrate the fragility of media activism in an age of increasingly Orwellian control of online spaces, Minds of Concern was taken offline by the Museum after its Internet Service Provider (ISP) threatened to shut down its Internet access. Although Knowbotic Research's project did no harm to the servers it accessed (the artists disabled particularly invasive features of the software prior to the exhibition), the art work did not comply with the ISP's acceptable use policy. Because the port-scanning program used in Minds of Concern was disabled, the accompanying display of lights and sounds no longer flashed within the installation. While no American Internet service providers immediately agreed to host Minds of Concern during the run of the "Open_Source_Art_Hack" exhibition, a German provider eventually agreed to host the art work after the New Museum exhibition had closed. Given that Knowbotic Research's intent was to stimulate debate about the conflict between security and the public domain, the action taken to defang Minds of Control offered a vivid example of life imitating art.

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