The ‘Assembly’ art project, a choreographed ‘mass visitation’ to disable a website

by Daniel

Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks have recently become a mainstream term: A large number of computers overload a server with traffic in the attempt to disable it. A DDoS event can also be coordinated in the vein of Internet art. During the middle of October, jstchilln.org, for a project by Brad Troemel, proposed

“to drain the maximum amount of bandwidth or potentially freeze the website to a standstill [...] On November 1st we encourage you to open as many tabs of Jstchillin.org as possible and leave them open all day. In doing so, participants may group together to temporarily remove this website’s existence on the Internet, putting a halt to its undesired effects on our community and the world at large.

A vote was taken to decide what website to ‘visit.’ What happened?

I had been following thejogging after discovering ‘Perfo Rmanceart‘, a Facebook user who conducted interesting and obnoxious online experiments like spamming the Guggenheim Museum’s Facebook page with links. thejogging was a stream of interesting experiments so when I saw the above page I went into my RSS reader and recorded the site’s final moments:

[iframe http://player.vimeo.com/video/18349005?byline=0&portrait=0&color=ffffff 563 422]

This kind of experiment interests me because it pushes the boundaries of Internet freedom and Internet art in a very public and well-documented way. In light of the DDoS attacks between Tumblr & 4chan and the more politically-motivated attacks against Paypal & Mastercard in response to their stance towards Wikileaks, this project is extremely interesting. Below is a bit more about this work:

  1. The artist’s statement at the beginning of the project
  2. A chronology of events and an essay written post-project: ‘Notes on Assembly’
  3. Brief interview with the artist, Brad Troemel, 12/2010.

Statement

1. Assembly mobilizes the combined efforts of digital peers to critique an institution/individual/network’s website through the oppositional use of bandwidth squatting. For 13 days, participants vote to decide what institution/individual/network’s website will be the subject of this act. On the 14th day of Assembly– November 1st – Jstchillin.org will be replaced by a single page that features 25 iFrames constantly reloading the democratically decided website of political opposition. To drain the maximum amount of bandwidth or potentially freeze the website to a standstill, on November 1st we encourage you to open as many tabs of Jstchillin.org as possible and leave them open all day. In doing so, participants may group together to temporarily remove this website’s existence on the Internet, putting a halt to its undesired effects on our community and the world at large. Bandwidth squatting is a method of protest, a tool historically linked with the Civil Rights Movement’s sit ins of the 1960’s. Through their undesired mass presence, protesters are able to disrupt the informational function of the website they are intervening on– a detournement of digital visitation.

1. Assembly mobilizes the combined efforts of digital peers in tributary celebration of an institution/individual/network’s website through a symbolicly supportive digital mass pilgrimage. For 13 days, participants vote to decide what institution/individual/network’s website will be the subject of this act. On the 14th day of Assembly– November 1– Jstchillin.org will be replaced by a single page that features 25 iFrames constantly reloading the democratically decided website of tributary celebration. To maximize the symbolic support for the decided website, on November 1st we encourage you to open as many tabs of Jstchillin.org as possible and leave them open all day. In doing so, participants may group together to create an honorific swell of attention, a mass of support for the legacy of the website’s effects on our community and the world at large. Digital mass pilgrimage is a method of praise that makes use of the fact that there is no such thing as negative attention online. Through bringing the website to a halt, tributary participants pose the undesired possibility of a world without the website– an eye-opening and appreciation-building event not unlike guardian angel Clarence Odbody’s intervention into George Bailey’s state of affairs in the movie It’s a Wonderful Life.

TO SUGGEST A CANDIDATE, SEND AN ANONYMOUS E-MAIL TO CHILLASSEMBLY@GMAIL.COM USING THIS SERVICE.

ALL SUBMISSIONS WILL BE ACCEPTED.

YOUR SUBMISSION WILL BE INCLUDED ON THE POLL IN LESS THAN 12 HOURS AFTER IT’S RECEIVED.

Notes on Assembly‘ (PDF) contains a helpful chronology of events and an in-depth writeup of the projects intentions and inspiration:

1. October 19: ASSEMBLY is posted to JstChillin.org as part of the website’s ongoing artists’ projects series

2. October 21: Dreamhost deletes JstChillin for hosting ASSEMBLY 3. October 22: ASSEMBLY moves to Jogging

4. October 22: Tumblr officials give Jogging a 3-day ultimatum to delete the project or be removed from their service

5. October 22: Jogging holds a poll to decide what to do in response to Tumblr

6. October 25: The poll closes, voters choose to leave the project up and face the consequences

7. October 25: Jogging is deleted by Tumblr

8. October 28: ASSEMBLY is re-opened at http://assembly.typepad.com/, and NOTES ON ASSEMBLY is distributed

Interview with the artist, Brad Troemel:
I think public discipline is especially interesting now: there are so many opinions regarding “What should we let the public see and how can we limit what they see” since the release of the diplomatic cables. I was also really amazed how quickly the two sites were reported. Did you think that they would be shut down so quickly?

No, I didn’t have a clue that it would even be a source of contention. Along with the help of Artie Vierkant and Lauren Christiansen, I originally thought of Assembly as a project that made democracy an aesthetic subject. This notion is mentioned in the essay I sent along to you, Notes on Assembly– Benjamin Buchloh coined it as the ‘aesthetics of indifference'; the idea that a project acquires meaning based on forces and agencies external to the project’s original facilitator’s intention and that the artist preemptively seeks such influences. I interpreted Buchloh’s idea in a somewhat literal sense– to formalize these agencies into the most straightforward system of calculating external opinion possible through the use of an open ballot. I thought of this viewing-agency as being strictly limited to actors voting and nominating candidates for the final day, that the influence of others on the course of the project would be contained within the parameters of voting initially established. Instead, what I believe to be the most significant external intervention of the project was done not by the voters within the ballot system, but by the administrators governing the location of the project’s existence. I hadn’t made this meta-consideration, but was entirely willing to include it in the project as I believed this administrative discipline revealed something of equal merit to what the results of an anonymous election would did. What is most interesting about Assembly is that both JstChillin and Jogging’s deletions occurred without any action having been taken, without a single DDoS attack mounted. I think this discipline would be a fitting example to counter someone like Jaron Lanier’s criticism in his book You Are Not a Gadget, where he rails against those who believe digital information has agency sans a human’s participation in it. Lanier’s belief that technology is a tool wielded by humans in social and economic contexts and is incapable of ‘acting on behalf of itself’ is shown to be an inadequate description of our situation when it comes to Assembly, where the presumed existence of information necessary to mount a DDoS attack was enough to warrant the deletion and ban of two websites without any ‘real’ participation in attack necessary.

The same can be said of the informational blackmail Julian Assange is currently holding over world governments, that if he is wrongfully imprisoned he will release the encryption code for a widely circulated cache of documents about BP’s wrongdoing in the Gulf oil disaster. This unknown information’s existence is the driving force of his deal– and no one even knows if its real or not.

Do you think it’s more likely that Tumblr’s employees found it, or that someone who viewed the project reported it?

It’s far more likely someone reported it, but that’s water under the bridge now.

What do you think the Assembly project has to say about New and Old (or New Vs. Old) organizing technologies?

It’s interesting to consider the recent attacks on Mastercard, Visa, Paypal, Tumblr, Gawker (etc.) as forms of political protest in light of Malcolm Gladwell’s writing on this generation’s digitally ‘weak political ties‘. Gladwell eloquently makes a case that today’s youth are incapable of forming the strong ties necessary to withstand police violence and citizen hatred because the nature of their relations with each other online are emotionally weak and structurally decentralized. He describes the ‘successful’ radical movements of the 60’s and 70’s as having a centralized structure of command with clearly identified roles for each member. Using examples like the P.L.O. and Al Quaeda, Gladwell calls these decentralized political resistance groups scattered and prone to quarreling due to confusion over leadership roles. Gladwell believes social networks like Facebook encourage apathy among users and foster an unwillingness to make real life commitments on the level of a Civil Rights protester willing to potentially die for her peers and cause. Whether these more psychological claims are true is beyond me, but one could agree with Gladwell’s typification of apathy and still see the potential of the Internet’s young users to be a political force to be reckoned with. It is a quantity/quality distinction I’m making. We’re beginning to see how a perhaps-lesser degree of involvement from 100,000 averagely-politically-invested Internet users can create disruptions on scale with several hundred religiously dedicated protesters in real life. Just like recent developments in micro-economics and studies of ‘the long tail’, this exceedingly large pool of activists draws from the minor contributions of many instead of the fierce proclamations of few. I’m interested to see developments in the mobilization of this politically-dissatisfied group and the evolution of their methods for protest. If I’m not feeling too apathetic, I may just join them.

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I’ll definitely be following Brad’s work.

His coverage of internet culture is top notch: check out this essay on 4chan.