Newstweek: Network Permeability and Headline Hacking

“So the whole question comes down to this: Can the human mind master what the human mind has made?” - Paul Valery

Newstweek, the newest project from Julian Oliver and Danja Vasiliev, is one of the most elegantly conceived and executed network art projects in the past few years, if not in the brief history of computational art. It exists as a simple box, plugged into the wall in any public space that has a wifi access point, that executes what is called a man-in-the-middle attack, essentially, an undetected interception, injecting data into the communication between the wireless router and a client. A user accesses their favorite news site in a web browser and everything appears normal, logo and banners in the correct place, URL the same as always, but the headlines are outrageous, bizarre, and comical. A small hidden device that can be remotely accessed rewrites any selected text en route from the wireless router to your computer. The question quickly becomes: how much do we trust our news sources? When the BBC or the New York Times spouts drivel, how do we treat that drivel? What are the boundaries of this trust and how do you evaluate them in the face of absurdity?

In the networked age connectivity is infrastructure, a fundamental element in the structuring of space for both working and for relaxation, as key as seating, walls, and roofs. So ubiquitous are wireless networks and so automatic is our use of them to read and communicate that the mechanics disappear, leaving the illusion of an un-interrupted and un-moderated stream of information flowing to us through our laptop. The coffee-shop laptop has taken the ritualistic position of the morning newspaper, increasingly where we contact the organizations that inform our view of the world. So it presents the perfect opportunity for a functional intervention, in the situationist vein, to create an opportunity to see anew that which has become invisible through familiarity. It’s what great art is supposed to do. So many agencies, governments, and corporations already inject alterations that into the news that we read, the cynic asks: why not allow another? One wonders which is more dangerous: the illusion of the sacrosanct news source or the illusion of the impermeable network. As the Oliver and Vasiliev address and investigate both: “a strictly media informed reality is a vulnerable reality” and “part of our project is to signal an educational alert to this extent. A wireless card on a phone or computer is actually technically referred to as a 'radio device' for a reason. All one needs to know is how to 'tune in'.” Indeed, the elements, site and network, become nakedly visible only when tweaked.

newstweak diagram

The device itself as well is nearly invisible when put in use. They explain: “This particular device was conceptualized during the Chaos Computer Club's 27th congress, last year in Berlin. We installed an 'invisible' wall plug in the building, emitting a vast amount of wireless beacons, and found that it went physically unnoticed for days. We realized we were onto something, that an innocuous plug like this, with a tiny enough computer, could appear as part of the infrastructure, part of the building, commanding to be treated as such.” As the device itself vanishes into the infrastructure, it exposes the infrastructures upon which it acts. Most technology is visible and legible in the same measure as a iceberg: only the top floats above the water, visible. The rest is hidden to us, but just as real and relevant. Critical computational artworks derive their power and beauty from aestheticizing and making visible and comprehensible those invisible or unknown elements of the role that technology plays in our lives. In that it creates a fascinating relationship between art and infrastructure, Newstweek does this beautifully: pranking, questioning, and revealing. As a device, both a physical object and a node on a network, can be seen as a mediating object between art practice and engineering practice, just as a mediating object between client and network. The critical practice that Oliver and Vasiliev are engaged in, much like that of Jonah Brucker-Cohen and Heath Bunting, is equally an investigation into the psychological reality of networked culture and an eloquent art practice.