DOMENICO QUARANTA: Oh, When the Internet Breaks at Some Point


“Walked out this morning / Don’t believe what I saw / A hundred billion bottles / Washed up on the shore / Seems I’m not alone at being alone / A hundred billion castaways / Looking for a home” The Police, “Message in a Bottle”, 1979

Back in October 2010, German artist Aram Bartholl cemented 5 USB flash drives in various locations in New York, as part of an Eyebeam residency. [1] Referring to the way, in espionage, items are passed between two individuals using a secret location and without an actual meeting, he called the project Dead Drops. The first five dead drops were empty, except for a small readme file explaining the project. A dedicated website was set up, featuring a video tutorial and a simple “how to” and inviting people to participate in the project.

In interviews, Bartholl explained that at the beginning he was just fascinated by the power of an image: a small data container plugged in the wall, in public space, and a person trying to access it with her own device. He invited people to participate by dropping files in and taking files out, installing their own dead drop and sending the GPS coordinates to Bartholl. As in many collaborative projects, he wasn’t particularly confident about people’s participation, and he believed that the project was conceptually strong enough even in the shape of a small, five-nodes network. But people liked the idea, and as I’m typing on my keyboard today, the online database features almost 1500 registered dead drops for a total storage space of 9891 gigabytes. I installed my own a while ago and I’ve noticed some others along the years, and I’ve always been fascinated by the precariousness of these tiny, rusty artifacts. I’ve never seen anybody plugging in, and probably most of them are almost empty, or out of work. But they are, still, extremely powerful as an image.

Message in a Bottle

Dead Drop is a naked piece of passively powered Universal Serial Bus technology embedded into the city, the only true public space. In an era of growing clouds and fancy new devices without access to local files we need to rethink the freedom and distribution of data. The Dead Drops movement is on its way for change! Free your data to the public domain in cement! Make your own Dead Drop now! Un-cloud your files today!!!” Aram Bartholl, “The Dead Drops Manifesto”, 2010 [2]

The dead drops network emerged in an age that saw a major shift in the general perception of the internet as a public space. Widespread Wi-Fi access, the massive adoption of social networking sites, and the advent of smartphones made people start to think about the internet as a new public space, with no physical boundaries and infrastructure, where data can be shared and taken easily and seamlessly. The metaphor of the cloud, already used in the Nineties to describe the internet, became more and more popular in the late 2000s, when cloud computing emerged – further reinforcing the idea of an immaterial public space and eroding the difference between public and private, local and shared. As Annet Dekker wrote in 2008:

“From the time that buildings were first defined as private spaces, the space outside almost automatically served as a public space. Public space referred to the streets, squares and parks of a city. The term public space was a symbol for the spatial and cultural aspects of urban life […] Today the public space is most present on the internet. Through blogs, social networking sites and other online tools, people exchange ideas and public opinions are formulated. The contemporary city has moved into virtual space. A virtual public space that enables forms of sharing and exchange that was [sic!] previously unimaginable.” [3]

This “virtual public space”, however, was not just an opportunity. Since social networking sites belong to companies, they are more like a mall than a square – with the difference that in this virtual mall you are not invited to buy products, but you are the product. The kind of surveillance you experience there is not just meant to protect you (or society from you), but to turn your data (the images you share, the words you write, the things you do) into commodities to be sold to other companies. The impact of this on our concepts of privacy and property has been tremendous – and cloud computing made these concepts even more ambiguous and vague. With cloud computing, you get online storage space that can easily be accessed from any networked device you use. This storage space is protected by a username and a password, and is thus perceived as private, but it isn’t. Not just because this protection can be easily cracked by hackers; but because the server space doesn’t belong to you; its usage is regulated by terms and conditions that are often changed by the service provider; and its content (in the form of digital files), even if it was regularly bought and paid for, is not owned like material forms of private property, and regulated by third party agreements that may change any time.

Dead Drops was one of the first artist projects pointing to these issues, as the manifesto makes clear when it talks about the city as “the only true public space” and invites people to “un-cloud” their files. It didn’t stress these topics just by means of criticism, although the criticism was very clear. No surprise that, along the last five years, the project experienced various waves of interest, both in terms of media attention and in terms of public usage. From the debate around the Pirate Bay and Megaupload, to the protests against ACTA, from Wikileaks to the Snowden revelations, from the theft and circulation of personal data of celebrities stored in their cloud accounts to some Anonymous stunts, to name just a few stories that hit the headlines, the issues of property and privacy in the “virtual public space” have become major topics of public debate.

Dead Drops didn’t provide a viable, realistic alternative to online file sharing and to cloud computing either. Every “port” is also a dead end, and can only be accessed on site. The storage space is limited (most often, to 4 or 8 GB). Every single user has complete control over the content of the dead drop at hand: she can delete all the files, add useless or meaningless stuff, install viruses, damage the device, remove it. The device itself is subject to physical deterioration and weather conditions.

7,000 Oaks

What Dead Drops really offered, and what made (and still makes) it successful, was the possibility to deliver a signal and to make a small, yet effective, intervention, by means of a powerful image and a very simple process. When you encounter the project, by word of mouth, on the internet, or just wandering through the city, it’s pretty easy to get some of its cultural implications. If you agree with these implications, you don’t even need Bartholl’s invitation to install your own dead drop in order to do it: this invitation is somehow embedded in the intervention itself. When you see it, and agree with what it says, there is only one way to amplify its message: install your own dead drop. It’s simple, cheap, playful; it allows you to publicly express your ideas – just like wearing a pin or raising a banner – and it gives you the additional pleasure of any small illegal act – just like placing a sticker or replicating a piece of graffiti. But installing a dead drop is not just a symbolic gesture. By doing it, you donate some small digital storage space you own to the public realm. It may be useless and ineffective, it may go unnoticed, it may be stolen or get broken. But it’s there. You did it. Somebody, for any purpose, may actually use it. Hundreds and thousands of dead drops do not just work on a symbolic level: they generate an amount of offline, anonymous, public storage space. They create an infrastructure. It may take time to realize how to use it, but it’s there, and it’s a resource.

A comparison with another public social sculpture – and a seminal project in the genre – may be useful at this point. In 1982, on the occasion of Documenta 7, German artist Joseph Beuys had 7,000 basalt stones brought from a quarry outside Kassel to the lawn in front of the Fridericianum, Documenta’s principal exhibition building. According to his plan, the stones would have been completely removed from the site only when 7,000 oaks had been planted around the city – “each paired with a columnar basalt marker measuring approximately four feet above ground”. [4] According to Lynn Cooke’s account,

“The action continued over the next five years under the aegis of the Free International University, the diminishing pile of stones in front of the Fridericianum indicating the progress of the project. Planting in public spaces in the inner city was carried out on the basis of site proposals submitted by residents, neighborhood councils, schools, kindergartens, local associations, and others. […] At the opening of Documenta 8 in June 1987, some eighteen months after his father’s death, Beuys’s son Wenzel planted the last tree.” [5]

In various statements released about the project, Beuys explained:

“I believe that planting these oaks is necessary not only in biospheric terms, that is to say, in the context of matter and ecology, but in that it will raise ecological consciousness – raise it increasingly, in the course of the years to come, because we shall never stop planting. […] The planting of seven thousand oak trees is thus only a symbolic beginning. And such a symbolic beginning requires a marker, in this instance a basalt column. The intention of such a tree-planting event is to point up the transformation of all of life, of society, and of the whole ecological system…” [6]

On a symbolic level, the project wanted to raise ecological awareness to a level that would bring people to keep planting trees not as a way to participate in Beuys’ social sculpture, but as a consequence of their own beliefs. On a functional level, the project wanted, locally, to have an impact on the presence of green areas in city planning; and globally, it sought to have an environmental impact, that would be minimal at the beginning but consistent for the world that future generations would be living in.

While 7,000 Oaks wanted to change our future eco system, Dead Drops has the ambition to change our future informational environment, both symbolically and functionally, by raising a new informational awareness and providing an infrastructure based on a vision that is different from the one shared by the companies and institutions that are currently shaping the internet.

But what is the internet? And does it even exist?

The Internet Does Not Exist

“The internet does not exist. Maybe it did exist only a short time ago, but now it only remains as a blur, a cloud, a friend, a deadline, a redirect, or a 404. If it ever existed, we couldn’t see it. Because it has no shape. It has no face, just this name that describes everything and nothing at the same time. Yet we are still trying to climb onboard, to get inside, to be part of the network, to get in on the language game, to show up on searches, to appear to exist. But we will never get inside of something that isn’t there. All this time we’ve been bemoaning the death of any critical outside position, we should have taken a good look at information networks. Just try to get in. You can’t. Networks are all edges, as Bruno Latour points out. We thought there were windows but actually it’s made of mirrors.” [7]

The editors of the e-flux journal are not the first to make this point. In The Net Delusion, [8] Russian writer and researcher Evgenij Morozov insists that we should stop speaking about “the Internet” as a subject with its own intentionality and personality, because such a subject doesn’t exist. The internet is just a technical infrastructure, constructed and perused by different people with different ideas and intentions, and with features that are neither good nor bad, but that can be used either for good or for bad. But the point that e-flux’s editorial board make is actually stronger: what they put into question is the very existence, or, better, the possibility to define, this infrastructure. It may, they argue, have existed in the past: but the way it evolved over the decades, and especially in the late nineties, when commercial interests came in, makes it impossible to find a definition for what the internet is at the present time. And yet, at the end of their introduction, they present a more positive perspective:

[…] contradictions don’t resolve, rather you surf across them using empathy and solidarity, emotional blackmail, jokes, pranks, and vanguardism as norm. Our ability to traverse these contradictions may very well become the backbone of the global telecommunications network we used to think was an internet. [9]

At the rise of social networking, a number of critical projects were developed by artists and activists, commenting on, questioning and often interfering with the way they were overtaking the internet. To categorize these projects and contextualize the way in which resistance should be structured against the way social networks are redefining our approach to sociality, media theorist Geoff Cox coined the term “antisocial notworking”. Cox explains:

“The plurality of nodes in networks does not guarantee a more inherent democratic order; indeed it arguably serves to obscure its totalitarian substructure. This is the trick of social networking in offering the promise of democracy but though centralized ownership and control where the web platform itself mediates relations (unlike peer to peer file sharing for instance) [sic!].” [10]

And, quoting Maurizio Lazzarato:

“If production today is directly the production of a social relation, then the ‘raw material’ of immaterial labor is subjectivity and the ‘ideological’ environment in which this subjectivity lives and reproduces. The production of subjectivity ceases to be only an instrument of social control (for the reproduction of mercantile relationships) and becomes directly productive, because the goal of our postindustrial society is to construct the consumer/communicator – and to construct it as ‘active’. […] The fact that immaterial labor produces subjectivity and economic value at the same time demonstrates how capital has broken down all the oppositions among economy, power, and knowledge.” [11]

This is one of the many underlying forces that turned “the internet” into that blurry, amorphous non-entity we experience today. While along the years many artists addressed these topics adopting affirmative or over-affirmative [12] strategies – from Petra Cortright turning herself into a YouTube star, to Eva and Franco Mattes exploiting crowd workers and using more or less obscure video sharing platforms to distribute the content produced in their recent project BEFNOED (2014) [13] – “antisocial notworking” mostly identifies projects that adopt a critical, more straightly subversive approach, and that often offer an alternative that may be either imaginative or useful. A good example is provided by two classics in the genre: GWEI (Google Will Eat Itself, 2005) and Amazon Noir (2006), developed by the Austrian couple UBERMORGEN in collaboration with Alessandro Ludovico and Paolo Cirio. [14] GWEI portrays the impossible, titanic effort, performed by a smaller, fictional company called GWEI, to turn Google into a publicly owned company by buying Google shares with the income provided by Google Ads, and donating them to another, publicly owned company called GTTP (Google To The People). The project produces a rift in “Google’s porcelain interface” by portraying the absurdity of a huge private company ruling and controlling access to the internet, mostly perceived as a public space; and offers a solution that, although impossible in the short term, is technically viable. In the narrative of the second project, Amazon Noir is a parasitic company that steals books from Amazon and releases them on peer-to-peer networks, exploiting a bug in Amazon’s “Search Inside the Book” function. This time, the story told is that of copyright and commercial interests versus free circulation of knowledge. The theft was stopped when Amazon noticed the activity of the software the group used to grab content from the books pdfs; [15] but again, the attempt was not to offer an effective alternative, but to make clear that such an alternative is at least conceivable; that the internet is something we build, and that it can be very different from whatever it has become today.

Alt Internetz

“Web-based service providers such as Facebook and Google are not the Internet, but rather are web-based platforms built on the Internet. The superior user-experience of such services accrues a dedicated user base for basic communication functionalities. The design idiosyncrasies of these platforms define popular culture. However just because certain service providers have become dominant does not mean that the techniques or strategies they employ are fundamentally superior. These have become dominant because they have evolved a business model which ensures a generous ROI. Without exception, the leading platforms ensure value for their investors by trading in user data.” [16]

These words, written by Baruch Gottlieb and published on the Telekommunisten website, open up new perspectives on the future of the internet. What, at first glance, may look like a permanent involution of the social platform once provided by the internet, is instead the temporary state of a complex ecosystem shaped by humans. Alternative internets are possible, even if at the moment they can only be imagined, or take the shape of a small art project. Gottlieb goes on:

“There are myriad ways to use the Internet, there are myriad different paradigms for Internet-enabled communication, collaboration and other social activities which can and are being explored. Whether or not they can ‘compete’ with the Googles and Facebooks, depends today entirely on whether they can produce sufficient ‘surplus value’ to satisfy investors, thereby to attract sufficient funding to produce superior user experience. In all the world wide web there is not a model for this which is not centered on the harvesting and analysis of user data.” [17]

Even if, in this paragraph, the optimism of the first lines is undermined by the belief that only investors can turn a good idea into a new working model, what’s interesting for us in this context are these “myriad different paradigms for Internet-enabled communication, collaboration and other social activities”. In their own work, Telekommunisten have worked on the concept of “miscommunication technologies”. As they explained in a lecture:

“Communications technologies embody and perpetuate the social relations of their mode of production. The Miscommunication Technologies series of artworks by Telekommunisten explore these social relations by creating technologies that don’t work as expected, or work in unexpected ways. The artworks in the series allow the embedded social relations to be critically experienced and confronted. The series employs parody, juxtaposition, exaggeration and reductio ad absurdum to bring aspects of these relations which are normally hidden from view, into the foreground.” [18]

A good example of such a miscommunication technology is OCTO P7C-1 (2013), a pervasive pneumatic tube network set up by OCTO, a fictional venture capitalist-sponsored start-up that promises to build the next dimension of the internet. Conceived as an installation for large exhibition spaces, OCTO P7C-1 is fully functional although allowing, of course, only in-site communication exchange between people. Sending a message is purposefully complicated, and the management of information is fully exposed, in a sharp contrast with what happens on the internet whose materiality is usually hidden, and where physical labor is invisible and the flow of information fast and seamless. Thimbl (2010), on the other side, is a fully functional, distributed, peer-to-peer alternative to microblogging platforms such as Twitter, presented as an online service built upon an open protocol developed in the 1970s and called “Finger”. But instead of providing a utopian, community-based alternative to commercial platforms, Thimbl translates into a piece of software the cynical belief of Telekommunisten that

For Thimbl, or any other platform with a similar vision, to become a real alternative to the capitalist financed platforms like Facebook and Twitter, we need more than running code, even more than a small, perhaps dedicated, user base. To get beyond this and actually break the monopolizing grip of centralized social media we need to match their productive capacities. We need financing on a similar scale. [S]o that the development, marketing, and operations budgets are comparable and sufficient to compete. […] [F]or economic fiction like Thimbl to become reality society will need to transcend the political and economic limitations that we currently face. We can write code, we can write texts, we can create artworks, but as a small network of artists and hackers, we can’t change the economic conditions we work in by ourselves.” [19]

And yet, every message in a bottle is also a proof that there is room left for hope. In 2014, American artist Trevor Paglen developed, in collaboration with computer security researcher and hacker Jacob Appelbaum, Autonomy Cube, a sculpture designed to be housed in art museums, galleries, and civic spaces, creating an open Wi-Fi hotspot called “Autonomy Cube” wherever it is installed. But instead of providing a normal internet connection, the sculpture routes all of the Wi-Fi traffic over the Tor network, a global network of thousands of volunteer-run servers, relays, and services designed to help anonymize data. In addition, the sculpture is itself a Tor relay, and can be used by others around the world to anonymize their internet use. Usually perceived as the infamous access door to the Darknet, Tor is here presented and used for what it is in the first place: a huge community effort interested in preserving the privacy of its users, instead of capitalizing on it.

In 2012, Rui Guerra and David Jonas developed Uncloud, a small gesture of software resistance against the cloud:

unCloud is an application that enables anyone with a laptop to create an open wireless network and distribute their own information. Once it is launched, a passerby using a mobile internet device can connect to this open wireless network. The person running the application can decide what information is shown in any web address. Users can access information wirelessly while at the same time remain disconnected from the internet. unCloud does not depend on a remote datacenter, instead it can be run from a laptop, making it an ideal application to run in a train or at a café.” [20]

UnCloud does not offer what the cloud offers in terms of external storage space and accessibility from wherever in the world and from any device; but it allows you to protect your data while simultaneously sharing them with a small, localized community. It invites us to think about the pros and cons of having every content we produce available on the internet, and to consider the option of “unclouding” them when the reason why we are putting them online can be better served by other, offline services.

Keep Alive

Aram Bartholl’s Keep Alive (2015) is a land art project commissioned by the Leuphana Arts Program and located in the outdoor premises of Kunstverein Springhornhof in Neuenkirchen, Germany. The piece offers access to a big digital library containing a collection of survival guides of any kind – from classical survival guides to Photoshop tutorials – through a local wi-fi access point activated by fire. The library can be accessed via a wi-fi router that is located in a big boulder and powered by a TEG (thermo electric generator). When you make a fire next to the boulder, the heat activates the TEG generator, which then turns on the wi-fi. The network is on only as long as the metal plate of the TEG is heated up.

The title, Keep Alive, refers to the keepalive signal, a message – often sent at predetermined intervals – that is used on networks to check the link between two devices, to make a diagnosis or to indicate to the internet infrastructure that the connection should be preserved. In the economy of the work, it also points to the fact that the fire has to be kept alive in order to keep the network running.

The piece generates a fiction that ironically locates it in a post-apocalyptic, cyberpunk scenario where humanity has been “kept alive”, the internet is over and power is provided by fire, but also where technologies and pieces of information have survived as digital junk. Presented as an artwork and preserved as such, it may once turn useful and even essential for a wandering Mad Max to survive, as the only remaining access point to basic information. As such, the project shares a lot with the rusty dead drops network: what is now mostly a mind meme and a social game may, in a dystopic scenario, turn into a fundamental infrastructure for data exchange. At the same time, however, as every archive or library that survived from a long-lost past, Keep Alive is also a time capsule preserving a knowledge responding to needs that may not be there in the future. Maybe, in this scenario, knowing how to photoshop an image would still be a matter of survival; but what about the usefulness of the fashion survival guide, the teaching my first class survival guide or the post-internet survival guide, for the matter?

Like Dead Drops, and many other works presented here, Keep Alive is an attempt to visualize the physicality of a network infrastructure, and to translate the immateriality of information transfer and online sociality into physical visual metaphors that can be presented in the so-called “real world”: a concern that has accompanied Aram Bartholl through all his career, from workshop-based projects like WoW (2006 – 2009) to new exhibition formats like Speed Show (2010 – ongoing) and Offline Art (2013), from monumental public installations like Map(2006 – 2013) to his recent gallery work.

Furthermore, and similarly to Paglen and Appelbaum’s Autonomy CubeKeep Alive can be seen as an attempt to “promote” – quotation marks are obviously required here – within the framework of the art world (and so, in a cultural context that is very different from the one that generated it), a powerful alternative to mainstream technology, and to show its potential for setting up alternative communication systems. The wi-fi router used for Keep Alive is the PirateBox, a DIY anonymous offline file-sharing and communications system built with free software and inexpensive off-the-shelf hardware. The PirateBoxcreates offline wireless networks designed for anonymous file sharing, chatting, message boarding, and media streaming. In other words, it’s a kind of “portable offline Internet in a box”. It has been conceived by artist, coder and designer David Darts, and it’s not for sale, but is a DIY project that can be built by the user following simple instructions. Significantly, Darts declared that the project was inspired, among other things, by the Dead Drops. [21]

But first and foremost, Keep Alive is – like all the works discussed here – a work of art and a tool for social change: a piece of matter that works mostly on a symbolic level, but that’s also potentially useful. Like an oak planted close to a basalt stone. Or a message in a bottle, dropped into the sea and waiting to get into the hands of the unknown somebody who knows what to do with its content.

Domenico Quaranta


[1] Eyebeam is a leading not-for-profit art and technology center in the United States. Founded in 1997 in New York, Eyebeam hosts, among other things, a 5 months residency conceived as “a period of concentration and immersion in artistic investigation, daring research or production of visionary, experimental applications and projects.” Cf.

[2] Aram Bartholl, “The Dead Drops Manifesto”, 2010. Online at

[3] Annet Dekker, “PPS: PublicPrivateSpace. Where the public space turns into private space and the private space opens up to the public”, 2008, in VVAA, Proceedings of ISEA2008. The 14th International Symposium on Electronic Art, 25 July – 3 August 2008, Singapore. 

[4] Cf. Lynn Cooke, “7,000 Oaks”, Dia Art Foundation 1995 – 2004. Online at

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Julieta Aranda, Brian Kuan Wood, Anton Vidokle (Eds), The Internet Does Not Exist, Sternberg Press, April 2015. The editorial introduction is also available online at

[8] Evgenij Morozov, The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, Public Affairs 2012.

[9] Julieta Aranda, Brian Kuan Wood, Anton Vidokle (Eds), The Internet Does Not Exist, cit.

[10] Geoff Cox, “Antisocial Applications: Notes in Support of Antisocial Notworking”, in Vague Terrain, Issue 11, September 2008, online at

[11] Ibid.

[12] Cf. Inke Arns, Sylvia Sasse, “Subversive Affirmation. On Mimesis as a Strategy of Resistance”, in IRWIN (Ed), East Art Map. Contemporary Art and Eastern Europe, Cambridge: MIT Press / London: Afterall, 2006, pp. 444-455: “Subversive affirmation and over-identification — as ‘tactics of explicit consent’ — are forms of critique that through techniques of affirmation, involvement and identification put the viewer/listener precisely in such a state or situation which she or he would or will criticise later. What the various tactics and parasitical practices have in common is that they employ the classical aesthetical methods of: imitation, simulation, mimicry and camouflage in the sense of ‘becoming invisible’ by disappearing into the background.”

[13] The artists sent to anonymous people working for crowdsourcing platforms simple instructions to make a webcam performance, often inspired to the absurd, minimal gestures that sometimes generate internet memes; the same set of instructions was sent to different people, and various performances have been implemented. By distributing them – without an art label on them – on sharing platforms and social networks mostly used in third world countries, the Mattes explore their effects on unaware audiences. The title is an acronym for “By Everyone For No One Every Day”. Cf.

[14] Cf.

[15] The “Search inside the book” function allows the Amazon customer to see small samples of a book that is available online in its entirety, but hidden under a mask that the software built by the group was able to circumvent, grabbing page after page and collecting them in a single text file. For more info, see

[16] Baruch Gottlieb, “The Internet is not a Surveillance State…”, March 27, 2013, online at

[17] Ibid.

[18] Dmytri Kleiner, Baruch Gottlieb, “Miscommunication Technologies. Telekommunisten Artworks 2009-2013”, August 21, 2014, online at

[19] Ibid.

[20] Cf.

[21] For more information, cf.

Text commissioned by the Center for Digital Cultures, Leuphana University Lüneburg, for the launch of Aram Bartholl’s public project Keep Alive in May 2015




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: