Networked_Performance

Call for Support: Pirates of the Amazon

Call for support: Pirates of the Amazon, taken down by Amazon.com (Felix Stadler, tobias c. van veen, Edward Shanken, Dan Calin, Jon Ippolito, Florian Cramer, Olia Lialina):

Many Nettimers might already have read about www.pirates-of-the-amazon.com. The website provided a Firefox add-on that changed the experience of browsing Amazon.com by putting a slick “Download 4 Free” button on top of every product – whether a CD, DVD or book – also listed as a bittorrent on The Pirate Bay. Clicking the button on the Amazon.com product page for, say, Madonna’s latest album would yield a background search on The Pirate Bay and start up a bittorrent client to download a corresponding torrent.

After being published this Monday, the project made headline news on digg.com and has been covered among others by CNET, the Washington Post and currently more than 1000 blog entries worldwide.

Via its provider, the project received a take down request by the lawyers of Amazon.com yesterday. In our point of view, the legal grounds for that are contestable since the add-on itself did not download anything. It only provided a user interface link between the web sites Amazon.com and thepiratebay.org. Nevertheless, the creators complied to the request, taking both the add-on and original web site offline.

What is perhaps more disturbing however, are the openly hostile and aggressive Internet user comments in blogs and on digg.com. Unlike in a comparable situation only a couple of years ago, the majority of commentators failed to see the highly parodistic and artistic nature of “Pirates of the Amazon”. The project was created by two students at the Media Design M.A. department of the Piet Zwart Institute Rotterdam, one of them being a student in the course, the other being an exchange student from the New Media programme of Merz Akademie Stuttgart. The work was part of a regular trimester project. We – jaromil, the project tutor, and Florian Cramer, the head of the course – were the academic supervisors of this work. We supported and encouraged it from its early beginnings. What’s more, we’re proud to have such students and such interesting work coming out of our teaching.

Apart from its humorous value and cleverness, the project is interesting on many levels and layers: For example, not just as a funny artistic hack of Amazon.com and The Pirate Bay, but also as a critique of mainstream media consumer culture creating the great “content” overlap between the two sites. We clearly see this project as a practical media experiment and artistic design investigation into the status of media creation, distribution and consumption on the Internet.

With the take down notice from Amazon.com, our students have been scared away from pursuing their art, research and learning in our institute. We do not want a culture in which students have to preemptively censor their study because their work confronts culture with controversial and challenging issues.

We would like to gather statements in support of the “Pirates of the Amazon”. The students are turning their web sites into a documentation of their project and the reactions it triggered. If you would like to support them and contribute a short statement, please get in touch with us.

Florian Cramer & jaromil

tobias c. van veen wrote:

What does it mean to connect two things together? Much of critical scholarly work relies upon the process of citation: taking a piece of X in order to link it to Y, and thereby revealing the ways in which X and Y relate to each other. Without the ability to cite things, to sample them and to link them together, the process of scholarly work, if not writing and creative action itself, is obliterated before it begins. What does citation mean on the internet? It means not only ‘sampling’ as we commonly grasp it, but the ability to hyperlink. What is critical scholarly work on the internet? Such work no longer only takes the shape of a discourse or commentary, an essay posted somewhere or a blog; such work is increasingly taking the shape — and has for some time — of a website or other piece of software that demonstrates the principles it wishes to investigate. Such is the software project [ pirates-of-the-amazon.com ]. By linking the BitTorrent search engine [piratebay.org] to [Amazon.com] in such a way to reveal the ‘links’ between paid and free content, a critical operation is opened between the two sites that, in its turn, opens a debate over the evolution of property in the 21st century. Such critical scholarly work in the shape of software, Firefox add-ons and other methods demonstrates its force precisely when it is able to carry out what it conceptualizes. Thus we must ask what is achieved when such work is not only attacked by the corporate entity in this discussion, Amazon.com, but when the service provider is pressured to in turn subject pressure on the scholarly researchers to censure, remove and shut down the project. This is nothing less than the censorship of a critical scholarly text — a kind of book-burning of the 21C. That it takes on a very different form today illustrates how censorship itself is no longer about *what* you write, or *where* you get it from, but how the nature of the citation itself — from written text to resampling code & providing links to controversial methods of property redistribution — has shifted with the digital era. While such censure demonstrates the value of critical online work such as [ pirates-of-the-amazon.com ], it is also all too frighteningly effective in silencing the possibility of debate over precisely these questions of property, citation, hyperlinking, and sampling.

— tobias c. van Veen

Edward Shanken wrote:

Two points:

1) You must realize that by getting coverage in digg, cnet, etc., and earning Amazon’s wrath the students won? It never ceases to amaze me that corporations continuously fail to realize that by attempting to censor creative work, they generate a groundswell of attention for precisely that which they want to squash? If your students are scared by this, then they should take advanced courses in “guts” and learn how to manipulate the media, or they should take up watercolors. They must have wanted to generate some kind of response but when the response was bigger than they anticipated, they cower? This is rather the time to strike!

2) Regarding “critical scholarly work on the internet,” Pirates of the Amazon seems a bit “lite” to warrant such a lofty moniker. It is a clever exercise/hack that demonstrates what anyone who is net-savvy already knows. Maybe I’m being too critical. Nonetheless, as a form of creative expression, I agree with Tobias’s point about the importance of it being protected from censorship. If there is a critical scholarly moment to be identified here, I believe it pertains to questions of the censorship of particular types of software. If they were my students, I would encourage then to take that as the starting point of their next project.

Eddie Shanken

Dan Calin wrote;

Dutch culture coined a very useful term for evaluating the position of an art discourse in relation with societal issues such as the ones questioned by the Pirates … ; it is called autonomy.

Autonomy entitles art to float freely in the interstices of the social fabric, to experiment and to steer in unexpected directions. When experiment and steering relate directly to the fabric itself, the art discourse looses autonomy and gains relational power (in the sense designed by Nic. Bourriaud). Relational art has an increased chance to acknowledgement, but also – naturally – to criticism, coming not only from the comfortable inner circles, but also from the structures to which the respective discourse >relates<. Needless to say that both concepts (autonomous, relational) have no axiological power; they are not about quality, they are about method.

The student work that generated this thread is obviously relational. So, it got its moment of attention, including censorship. All unfolded as planned, I suppose; if not, then there was something flawed in the initial planning and/or in the authors’ / tutors’ expectations.

One might say that the whole issue is about the unexpected reactions of the general users, who rejected the project. Well, this was after all (or wasn’t it?) an art project – so people are free to reject it as they please.

Another could argue that the whole fuss is about the IP playing the watch dog for Amazon. Well again, there is probably a learning curve in the way corporate environments deal with tactical art projects; something to think about, maybe.

What under-streams all aspects of the discussion till here is the old double standard mentality lurking in our (self)perception as artists and cultural workers: we would like to be autonomous (i.e. free of consequences for our decisions), but also relational (therefore socially efficient), and – of course – vastly accepted. Too bad, as in the end art is neither autonomous nor relational; it is just one of the multitude of human manifestations competing for attention in a surcharged environment.

Felix Stadler wrote:

On Saturday, 6. December 2008, Calin Dan wrote:

> Autonomy entitles art to float freely in the interstices of the social
> fabric, to experiment and to steer in unexpected directions. When
> experiment and steering relate directly to the fabric itself, the art
> discourse looses autonomy and gains relational power (in the sense
> designed by Nic. Bouriaud). Relational art has an increased chance to
> acknowledgement, but also – naturally – to criticism, coming not only
> from the comfortable inner circles, but also from the structures to
> which the respective discourse >relates<. Needless to say that both
> concepts (autonomous, relational) have no axiological power; they are
> not about quality, they are about method.

I agree. The concept of artistic freedom seems tied to the notion of art as an autonomous, i.e. distinct, sphere. At least, the two concepts appeared historically at the same moment. If you give up one (and there are good reasons to do that), then the other rings a bit hollow.

> The student work that generated this thread is obviously relational. So,
> it got its moment of attention, including censorship. All unfolded as
> planned, I suppose; if not, then there was something flawed in the
> initial planning and/or in the authors’ / tutors’ expectations.

Again, I cannot but agree, which makes me wonder why it was closed down so quickly (though, it’s always easy to criticize others for not taking the heat).

> One might say that the whole issue is about the unexpected reactions of
> the general users, who rejected the project. Well, this was after all
> (or wasn’t it?) an art project – so people are free to reject it as they
> please.

This for me — much more than the amazon’s reaction — is what makes this project really interesting. This is not only about people being free to reject an art project. I don’t think the relevant point is whether this is art or not (at least not for the people hating the project). Rather, it seems to reveal how much the “free culture movement” (if there ever was such a thing) has been reshaped as “web2.0” and how much it is now happy with this niche of “user generated content” or “amateur creativity”. This niche is promising respectability and, who knows, perhaps even a career or two, but for this to succeed it needs to be disassociated from the more radical approaches — e.g. file sharing — that cannot be assimilated so easily.

Projects like the “Pirates of the Amazon” blur this distinction and threaten to undo the last couple of years of work of building respectability for the CC and YouTube set. This, I think is why the reactions on digg.com and other web2.0 sites are so hostile.

Felix

Jon Ippolito wrote:

Felix Stalder on December 6, 2008 at 3:42 PM -0500 wrote:

>> One might say that the whole issue is about the unexpected reactions of
>> the general users, who rejected the project

>I don’t think the relevant point is whether this is
>art or not (at least not for the people hating the project). Rather, it
>seems to reveal how much the “free culture movement” (if there ever was
>such a thing) has been reshaped as “web2.0” and how much it is now happy
>with this niche of “user generated content” or “amateur creativity”. This
>niche is promising respectability and, who knows, perhaps even a career or
>two, but for this to succeed it needs to be disassociated from the more
>radical approaches — e.g. file sharing — that cannot be assimilated so
>easily.

>
>Projects like the “Pirates of the Amazon” blur this distinction and
>threaten to undo the last couple of years of work of building
>respectability for the CC and YouTube set. This, I think is why the
>reactions on digg.com and other web2.0 sites are so hostile.

I agree, and because the student project triggered this revelation, Eddie Shanken is right to call it successful.

That said, I think there is an ulterior, perhaps unconscious motive in Digg users condemning the project. Most of them pirate games and movies when they’re not at their respectable Web 2.0 jobs, but they don’t want artists calling attention to such “radical approaches” for fear that they’ll lose free and easy access to the entertainment that makes holding down a job more palatable in the first place.

Cheers,

jon

Florian Cramer wrote:

On Saturday, December 06 2008, 21:42 (+0100), Felix Stalder wrote:

> I agree. The concept of artistic freedom seems tied to the notion
> of art as an autonomous, i.e. distinct, sphere.

…which literally means its confinement to exhibition spaces and a predefined art context, a point also made by Arthur C. Danto in his book “The Transfiguration of the Commonplace”. While art movements from Futurism to Fluxus have attempted to break out of those spaces, these attempts mostly remained symbolic gestures, ultimately contained by remnant objects and documents [such as Johannes Baader’s Dada pamphlets or Fluxus event scores and photographs] that preserved the intervention and safely brought it back to art exhibition spaces.

The quality of interventions by ubermorgen, the YesMen and now the Pirates of the Amazon (although the students themselves never intended to act in such a position and legacy, being quite intimidated by the news media attention their project received) lies exactly in the fact that they are not confided to these safe spaces. To use Calin’s terminology, the “relational” aesthetics is not just aesthetic, often even hardly recognizable as aesthetic, but intervenes straight into the actual economic and political systems, thanks to the fact that social and economic structures have been coded into software and thus are also prone to be disrupted by software that finds a clever crack in the symbolic system. (The YesMen’s ReamWeaver and ubermorgen’s voteauction.com are more such examples.)

> Again, I cannot but agree, which makes me wonder why it was closed
> down so quickly (though, it’s always easy to criticize others for not
> taking the heat).

It was the learning experience for the students themselves that it takes so little to go from a more safeguarded space of artistic and school experimentation to headline news. I think it needs to be respected if they do not want to take the heat, and it’s my responsibility as their teacher and mentor to support them in this respect.

> Rather, it seems to reveal how much the “free
> culture movement” (if there ever was such a thing) has been reshaped
> as “web2.0” and how much it is now happy with this niche of “user
> generated content” or “amateur creativity”.

[…]

> Projects like the “Pirates of the Amazon” blur this distinction
> and threaten to undo the last couple of years of work of building
> respectability for the CC and YouTube set. This, I think is why the
> reactions on digg.com and other web2.0 sites are so hostile.

Yes, I couldn’t agree more, Felix! But it even goes further than that. The hostile reactions were not only to be found on the web2.0 sites, but also on sites like torrentfreak. What the “Pirates of the Amazon” revealed is that even the p2p file sharing community is happy with its niche, and eager to keep it like that. Amazon and The Pirate Bay are two parallel systems that don’t bother each other very much [although their media content is quite similar]. In interfacing the two sites, the plug-in violated a taboo for Amazon.com as much for the P2P “pirate” community which was afraid that, through the plug-in, their niche could be discovered by the mainstream and consequently shut down.

This why I think the students are absolutely right in characterizing their plug-in as parodist. Kristoffer’s hint to Bataille and Klossowski is helpful here indeed – I am also reminded of Kurt Kren’s 1967 experimental short film “20. September”, a montage that directly connects eating mouths to urinating penises and defecating anuses. The seemingly “perverse” link between Amazon and the Pirate Bay states a similarly simple truth that the cultural mainstream (whether Amazon customers, Web 2.0 amateurs or P2P downloaders) does not enjoy to be reminded of.

-F

Olia Lialina wrote:

> What is perhaps more disturbing however, are the openly hostile and
> aggressive Internet user comments in blogs and on digg.com. Unlike in a
> comparable situation only a couple of years ago, the majority of
> commentators failed to see the highly parodistic and artistic nature of
> “Pirates of the Amazon”.

Yes, exactly, users don’t want to be disturbed, and their reaction is more scary and frustrating than all the legal letters in the world.

Last summer another student of Dragan Espenschied’s web development course at Merz Akademie published a beautiful service — Web 1.0. It offered to the users of social network StudiVZ (German FaceBook) to see their own profiles and profiles of their friends in 90es aesthetics, with under construction signs and star backgrounds, as if they made them themselves as if being online was fun again.

Of course the school was contacted by StudiVZ’s system administrator with the request to shut down the project. But this was not the reason why the student gave up. All what is left is the documentation:

http://web.1punkt0.net/docu
login: olia
password: netart

It was the flood of hate messages he got from the users of that Social Network. They didn’t want to have fun and, what is more alarming, they were blaming Web1.0 project for violating their privacy. Clean layouts of StudiVZ, Facebook and others make users believe that their data is save there. That they are protected and professionally taken care of.

Both of these projects state a simple truth that almost everybody knows: filesharing is mainstream, what is on the web is public. Strangely these are still taboos. Users don’t want to be reminded of them.

forever yours,
olia

Jon Ippolito wrote:

‘Well, you may get an angry letter from your adopted organization, but you can just say you were playing a funny surrealist game.’ — The manual for Reamweaver, a software package for creating bogus versions of existing Web sites.

When people use generic terms like ‘hacking’ or ‘hacktivism’ to refer to all online subversion, they blur an important distinction between political design and executable art. Sure, artists have disrupted World Trade Organization conferences and uploaded biotech blueprints for home-grown tissue cultures. But while political designers and hacktivist artists may use similar tools and techniques, they have different long-term social functions.

Politics tries to change the world directly and with force; art seeks to question it, often with humor or irreverence. If politics seeks to destroy its enemies, art seeks to ridicule them. When Patrick Ball, an open-source programmer / human-rights activist, presented evidence at Milosevic’s war-crimes trial, his data had to be sound rather than surreal. On the other hand, when the Yes Men abused GATT invitations to proclaim that democracy was obsolete, their masquerade had to be extreme enough to make their listeners think twice.

That doesn’t mean the targets of hactivist art are always happy about the attention they get. If Reamweaver’s tactics are only part of a funny surrealist game, then why would the WTO try to shut it down? Joline Blais says the reason is that artistic power in the Internet age is executable; for its part, Pirates of the Amazon executes both computer and legal codes.

But was the effect of that execution to create and exploit a weakness of Amazon’s, or just to reveal one? Back when artist collectives like RTMark and the Yes Men scuttled the market value of eToys and Dow Chemical, some felt sorry for these company’s stockholders. I feel more sorry for stockholders now: after the subprime meltdown, the unsustainability of corporate practices is self evident, and we don’t need RTMark or the Yes Men to point it out to us. If those stockholders had thought a little more about easy it was to exploit weaknesses inherent in global finance–“Even artists can do it!”–we might not be in this mess.

To the extent that a work operates in the field of power, trying to destroy its enemy, it veers toward political design; to the extent that a work operates in the field of play, pointing at the emperor’s nakedness rather than plotting his assassination, it veers toward executable art. I think Pirates of the Amazon qualify as the latter; for more to bolster this claim, see the chapter “Designing Politics” in the book At the Edge of Art.

jon

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Dec 9, 18:50
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  1. Networked_Performance — On the Pirate Bay Conviction:

    […] nettime, jaromil wrote: … As some of you might already have heard, the second appeal to The Pirate Bay court case ended up with the conviction of four people behind the popular bittorrent tracker and […]


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