on Monday May 13, @04:44PM
"Museum's Cyberpeeping Artwork Has Its Plug Pulled"
May 13, 2002
By MATTHEW MIRAPAUL
An Internet-based artwork in an exhibition at the New
Museum of Contemporary Art was taken offline on Friday
because the work was conducting surveillance of outside
computers. It is not clear yet who is responsible for the
blacking out - the artists, the museum or its Internet
service provider - but the action illuminates the work's
central theme: the tension between public and private
control of the Internet. The shutdown also shows how
cyberspace's gray areas can enshroud museums as they
embrace the evolving medium.
The work in question is "Minds of Concern: Breaking News,"
created by Knowbotic Research, a group of digital artists
in Switzerland. The piece is part of "Open Source Art
Hack," an exhibition at the New Museum that runs through
June 30. The work can be viewed as an installation in the
museum's SoHo galleries or online at newmuseum.org.
Although the installation is still in place, and the work's
Web site remains live, the port-scanning software that is
its central feature was disabled Friday evening and was
inactive yesterday afternoon.
Port scanning sounds like a cruise-ship captain's task. The
term actually refers to a technique for surveying how other
computers are connected to the Internet. The software
essentially strolls through the neighborhood in search of
windows that have been left open. Merely noticing where
they are is no crime. Things get dicier, though, if what is
seen is conveyed to a ne'er-do-well relative, who then
breaks in somewhere, rearranges the furniture and makes off
with a gem-encrusted putter.
One court has ruled that port scanning is legal so long as
it does not intrude upon or damage the computers that are
being scanned. Internet service providers, however,
generally prohibit the practice, which can cause online
traffic jams. That prohibition appears to be what led to
After the Knowbotic work started its peeping, the Internet
service provider for one of the targets of the scan
complained to the museum's Internet service provider,
Logicworks. In turn, Logicworks notified the museum that
port scanning violated its policies. On Friday, Lauren
Tehan, a museum spokeswoman, said the museum was seeking a
creative technical solution to keep the work online.
That effort did not succeed. Ms. Tehan said the museum, at
Logicworks' request, shut down the work after the museum
closed on Friday evening. On Saturday morning, Christian
Hübler of Knowbotic Research said the group realized the
port-scanning software had been disabled and decided to
move the work's Web site to an Internet service provider in
Germany. Ms. Tehan said that the museum suggested a way to
put the work back online but that Knowbotic rejected the
The dispute calls attention to one of the very points the
piece is intended to make. Because the lines between public
and private control of the Internet are not yet clearly
defined, what artists want to do may be perfectly legal,
but that does not mean they will be allowed do it.
Before the New Museum exhibition opened on May 3, Knowbotic
Research had already decided to remove the most troublesome
features of the port-scanning software. Mr. Hübler said the
group changed the work after consulting with a lawyer who
specializes in Internet law. "I wanted to know the
situation I'm in," Mr. Hübler said, "because when I work
with the border as an artist, I want to know at least what
the border might be."
When it is functioning, "Minds of Concern" resembles a slot
machine. Viewers are prompted to scan the computer ports of
organizations that protested in February against the World
Economic Forum. While colored lights flash, a list of the
vulnerable ports and the methods that might be employed to
"crack," or penetrate, them to gain access to private
information scrolls across the bottom of the screen. No
internal information is exposed, but the threat is
European digital artists are more politicized than their
American counterparts, and "Minds" is designed to advance a
social agenda. By choosing to explore the computers of
anti-globalization groups instead of Nike or Coca-Cola,
Knowbotic is warning those groups that they are at risk of
losing sensitive data.
But to present the work at the New Museum, Knowbotic had to
defang it. At first, the group reviewed the 800 tools in
the port-scanning program and removed 200 it deemed
intrusive or malicious. After consulting with a lawyer, the
group then encrypted the name of the organization being
scanned because it was unsure if publishing the information
was illegal. In place of the name on the screen, one saw
the phrase "artistic self-censorship."
The group's disappointment in having to scale back the work
was obvious in a message to an electronic mailing list:
"Due to the ubiquitous paranoia and threat of getting sued,
the museum and the curators made it very clear to us that
we as artists are 100 percent alone and private in any
There is a sense of a missed opportunity here. The dozen
works in "Open Source Art Hack" are intended to prompt
discussion about the public versus the private in
cyberspace while demonstrating how artists "hack," or
misuse technology, to creative effect. Port-scanning
software, for instance, is meant to be used for
reconnaissance, yet Knowbotic has made it a political tool.
But "Minds of Concern" is also the only online work in the
exhibition to operate in a legal gray area. In its fully
functional state, it had the potential to cause a ruckus
that might have yielded some black-and-white rulings. But
instead, the exhibition commits no real transgressions.
Steve Dietz, the new-media curator at the Walker Art Center
in Minneapolis, was one of the exhibition's curators. Its
goal, he said, "was more nuanced than bringing cracking to
the dull havens of a museum."
"Being bad and doing something illegal hold very little
interest for me," he said, "but being tactical and creative
hold a great deal.`
Artists like to be bad, and although museums are sometimes
their targets, they can also serve as shields when artists
become controversial. A recent example was the exhibition
"Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art," for which the
Jewish Museum, not the participating artists, took most of
As museums embrace cyberspace, its fuzzy rules are posing
unfamiliar problems, and "Minds of Concern: Breaking News"
is a case in point. As for how well those issues can be
raised within a museum's walls, Lisa Phillips, director of
the New Museum, said: "That really is the dilemma. We can
only go so far."
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