ON (ANTI)DISAMBIGUATION: Dissent, Collaboration and Uncertainty in Networked Art Practise

Mikhel Proulx

1 — Plato’s Republic
2 — In so doing, of course, Socrates shows his impiety to the city (and ability to ‘currupt the youth’ [i.e. express dissent for the empire]) and is subsequently executed for it.
3 — “One should respect public opinion in so far as is necessary to avoid starvation and to keep out of prison, but anything that goes beyond this is voluntary submission to an unnecessary tyranny.” Bertrand Russell. The Conquest of Happiness. New York: H. Liveright, 1930. Print.
4 — as is the subtitle of his 1992 publication Voltaire’s Bastards. Toronto: Viking, 1992. Print.
5 — “to establish a single semantic or grammatical interpretation for another: clarification that follows from the removal of ambiguity”: "Disambiguate." Merriam Webster. 2011. Web. 20 Nov. 2011.
6 — I first saw a critical eye turned toward disambiguation by designer, educator and media activist Mushon Zer Aviv. "Lost in The Open? Navigating the Open Web and Free Culture." Transmediale. Berlin. 02 Feb. 2011.

In an old story1, Socrates and his students pace a road to the city Piraeus and discuss the nature of justice: they face an unjust city and create an alternative in discourse2.

Our city is an Alexandrian one – governed as it is by market-driven bureaucracy, professional specialization and an inflated confidence in reason. As such the necessary discourse of an alternative city is one focussed on doubt: on pluralism and indeterminacy – vagueness and hesitation – scepticism and distrust – multi-stability and paradox – on ambiguity.

That the near-global ‘Occupy’ movement expressed no singular reason for its being is testament to its counter-cultural contention, given its contextual culture that demands reason. Resistance, here, surfaces in the unlikely form of ambiguity. Artists, too, are performing, with instability and undirectedness, acts of critical virtuosity that no less constitute a form of dissent.

Such a discourse of an alternative city would be tolerant and indeed welcoming of uncertainty. It would foster pluralities of meaning, accede to incommensurable differences, and enact a certitude-shaking counterpoint to the predominance of reason. It would stand to oppose what Bertrand Russell identified as ‘the tyranny of common sense3’ or what more recently John Ralston Saul charged as “the Dictatorship of Reason in the West”4 . In this digital age, such a discourse would stand to oppose the force of disambiguation.

‘The removal of ambiguity’5 , disambiguation belongs, more precisely, to a tenet of computer programming that describes processes of determining a single interpretation for an expression6. The term is commonly encountered on Wikipedia in indexes where ambiguous terms with multiple encyclopaedic entries are categorized. For example, the word "mercury" can refer to multiple referents (a planet, an element, a god...), and thus in order to retrieve any single associated entry a search term must be first disambiguated.Disambiguating algorithms are further used rampantly in many digital technologies and play a role (surreptitiously) behind-the-screen: they hence uphold ideologies that have been formed alongside disambiguating principals inherent in programming architecture.

These contemporary instances of disambiguation in computer science are also paragons of larger cultural intolerances of ambiguity. Common sense, as an eighteenth-century invention related to the growth of scientific thought, maintains a privileged cultural positioning of the faculty of reason above other cognitive functions (above creativity, ethics, intuition...)

7 — The history of our cultural faith in reason is the thesis of John Ralston Saul’s 1993 Voltaire's Bastards.
and upholds a correlating general distrust of ambiguity7. There are many possible ancestors in the heritage of disambiguation – and many forces that prefigure network technologies. Preference for reason goes back to at least Plato, who would paint an image of the artist/poet as dangerous in their imagination. Most directly, from Enlightenment rationalism, and through Bacon and the Positivists, we have inherited customs claiming to propel social progress through the optimization of knowledge.

Wikipedia’s antecedent, Diderot’s Encyclopédie, saw the systematic formalization of reason-based methodologies. Its taxonomy was formed through organizing and compartmentalizing all information and ‘knowledge’ deemed legitimate: its system was one of disambiguation. Importantly, the encyclopaedists were anti-hierarchical, and saw their endeavour as one of dismantling authorities and privileges claimed by the church and crown. They paved the way for an egalitarian measure of intelligence in Western culture with the notion that all men were equal in their sensations: as sense (in place of divine right) gives way to knowledge, intelligence was thus revealed as a faculty available to any- and everyone. “The encyclopedians”, cultural historian Clorinda Donato writes, “successfully argued and marketed their belief in the potential of reason and unified knowledge to empower human will and thus helped to shape the social issues that the French Revolution would address”8.

8 — Clorinda Donato and Robert M. Maniquis. The Encyclopédie and the Age of Revolution. Boston, MA: G.K. Hall, 1992. Print.
It is this unified knowledge, though, that has gradually been left behind, and replaced with a fragmentary branching of codified and compartmentalized disciplines of information.

Long since cemented as dogma, the privileging of isolated ‘truths’ has been assumed by legacies of influential luminaries labelled by John Ralston Saul as Voltaire’s Bastards: termed so as they have bastardized Voltaire’s anti-authoritarian vision of a rational society. Its basis is a gamut of disambiguated accounts of truth, which, at best, foster exercises in rhetorical language and banks of fragmentary knowledge. Consequential is the pervasive distrust of ambiguity upheld by a blind certainty in the value of reason, as short-sighted and self-serving as it may be.

Ambiguity is one of the things that allow a counteraction to the stronghold of such rationalized worldviews. It permits an entry for creativity and imagination to offset domineering ideologies. In short, ambiguation inserts uncertainty into a system that asserts certainty categorically.

Digital technologies —borne of this nucleus of efficiency, bureaucracy and instrumentalized rationality— fall in line with this disambiguating heritage. A hotbed for porn and gossip, the internet presents a much more sinister, subtler undercurrent. In brief, as a proponent of the history of instrumental reason the digital revolution does not tolerate ambiguity. In fact, the very term digital revolution is itself oxymoronic: the binary computational system of the microprocessor was constructed as a backup-able, fail-safe structure to prevent collapse and major alterations: it is precisely the tool to predict and quash a revolution., Manuel Herein lies the disambiguating precept of digital technologies: that they don’t easily allow for multiplicities of meaning and that despite a propensity for decentralized structures they have become a home for top-down, command-and-control management systems9.

9 — As Marina Gržinić has said, “The cyberworld was born with the idea of total liberty and exchange of communication, but it also quickly turned into a tool of economic interest and censorship”. Marina Gržinić. “Situated Contemporary Art Practices”. Art, Theory and Activism from (the East of) Europe, ZRC SAZU, Ljubljana and Revolver, Frankfurt am Main, 2004. p.10.
10 — See Castells
11 — As Peter Carty has said: “noise is unbounded dissonance; it is Dionysian”. Peter Carty. “Deep Corruption on the Web”. Mute Magazine, Tuesday, 13 July, 2004 - 23:00, Web. http://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/deep-corruption-web
12 — See Hopkins, Candice
Just as the Surrealists reacted against modern pop-psychology, the dada against progress, and the Situationists against totalitarianism, we may see the efforts of many so-called new-media, web and net.artists as reactions against the disambiguous media (and correlated culture) within which they live and work. Their efforts, antidisambiguous, may be analogous to the hacktivists’ who dismantle (or switch10) the technical apparatuses of the internet, though their dismantling instead targets the apparatuses of ideological power. Early new-media art practices that are just now entering the art-history textbooks were a means of retaliation against – and an injection of ambiguity into the stronghold rationalism of digital media. net.art originally stood at an oppositional distance to corporate identity, ironically assuming the role of an art movement. Glitches, randomness, interference, pixel jamming, data corruption and mutation were exploited by algorithmic artists and noise musicians11. Theirs were tactics that manifested discord within a system that commands cohesion and totality.

Contemporary networked-art perhaps engages in this heritage as much as it does in traditions of verbal histories of storytelling. In various contemporary indigenous and ancient scribal cultures alike artists pass around their poems and narratives in collaborative, flexible and emergent practices12. Stories are told and retold in ever-growing and mutated forms – a production of meaning presently at vast odds with both the conventional reliance on the fixity of print and the cult of celebrity pervading ‘High’ cultural practices.

Online artistic discourse may offer up alternative practices in the public sphere of the internet. The most potent of online ‘public spaces’ are congregations of overlapping fields of geekery: artists, hackers, designers, programmers and surfers contribute to reflections on –and curation of – the information overload of the net. Data finds a kind of cultural worth in these discursive spaces, which may or may not resemble the established public sphere and traditional forms of discussion. Their formats promote spontaneity, induce creativity and invite any and everybody with a web connection and enough primary skill to manipulate the media. Here, strategies of antidisambiguation permit critical and collaborative artistic engagements in spite of the disambiguous architecture of the web. Up for question is whether or not online public spaces resemble Habermas’ coffeehouses and salons as sites of critical public discourse, or just zones of cultural industry leisure. Probably, it resembles both.

The public sphere has always been a discursive zone counterbalancing the top-down force of state control. If the internet is a public space, it is metonymic for larger shifts in publicness: no distinct counterpoint to ‘official discourse’ is mandated here, but instead limitless splinters of clustered subcultures are formed by individuals in front of screens. Surfing of the web itself becomes a creative and public act. As cities offer abundant choices to the wandering flâneur, so too does the internet foster a type of cyberflâneurism of perusing –surfing– posting boards, vlogs, hypertexts and webcam diaries. This new practice leads to a collapse of the line between viewing and making. Institutions [websites] have cropped up in abundance to facilitate this: collaborative blogging and remixing sites such as BoingBoing, Flickr, Your Daily Awesome, eBaum's World, Reddit and the largest English imageboard on the web 4chan.

Amongst these more famed products of digital culture, artists are aggregating the ‘time-wasting’ of slacker web-surfing into cooperative worth. They are able to produce self-expression, to organize politically and to develop new methods of communication. Artistic platforms like Dump.fm –a real-time, collaborative, image-based chat room– constitutes a new modality of public discourse. It is ostensibly something more akin to a Parisian cafe than the porn-and-gore clad image blogs which constitute the majority.

Notably, artistic forms of participatory culture have developed online that are collaborative, generative and unrehearsed. Here, no punch-line artistic statements are possible, nor are they desired. Instead, the digital sphere invites a fluid discourse of media production and collaboration. Intermedia practices of creatively re-using found material brought about organically from networked-interconnectedness sanction the borrowing, copying and stealing of others’ creations. The digital age has borne a culture of sharing and of continual re-signification: Remix culture invites plagiarism, appropriation and collaboration. It permits piracy and theft and fosters derivative, recombinatory and altered reiterations of found images and ideas. It incites variations (of perhaps often extreme banality) but promises to put creative power in the countless hands of those with access and means to the cut-and-paste sensibilities of everyday technologies. Sampling and remixing have become the most basic of artistic operations in cultural production: as Kazys Varnelis relates: “... such artists don’t so much create as reorganize13”.

13 — Kazys Varnelis. The Immediated Now: Network Culture and the Poetics of Reality Web... Web.http://varnelis.networkedbook.org/the-immediated-now-network-culture-and-the-poetics-of-reality/#e43
14 — Kelley, Kevin. "Better Thank Owning." kk.org. 21 Jan. 2009. Web. http://www.kk.org/thetechnium/archives/2009/01/better_than_own.php

In this realm of viral videos, meme imagery and editable media, questions of authenticity and ownership become truly worthless. Kevin Kelly charts our changing sense of ownership and possession after the internet, and notices that “as creations become digital they tend to become shared, ownerless goods”14. We are emerging into an intangible economy of sharing, led by artists who invite intervention, work in interconnected information environments and facilitate flexible interactions between people, objects and institutions. That myriad artists today relinquishment authorial status is indicative of shifting imperatives of authorship in visual art, in which conventionally an emphasis on original creations (single authored works by an artist/genius) are greatly more privileged than the multi-authored work (as is more common, for example, in the sciences). The reasons for this are many, not the least of which involves institutional complexities like traditional economics of artwork distribution. Indubitably, ‘Art’ educes such an emphasis on novel originality that artists are less likely to acknowledge their influences and predecessors, and more likely to build an Oedipal scenario wherein the work of previous generations is overturned with manifesto-like patricide. In contrast, many network-based practices fundamentally differ from typical art discourses. Here is a lack of that one-upmanship that has maintained the illusion of the artist-as-solitary-genius.

A rich area of recent-art-history yet to be properly documented involves artists’ use of email lists, forums, Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs), group-blogs, Multi-User Dimensions (MUDs) and Surfing Clubs. The latter of these has been a topic of considerable discussion over the last couple of years, and serves in this essay as exemplary of antidisambiguous public spaces. Internet Surfing Clubs usually involve(d) a small group of invited artists in a public exchange of found and remixed still and moving images, audio and text-based discussions. They foster a kind of multi-media conversation through public, chronological postings. They mirror or mimic the media landscape of the information culture, and offer up instances of artistic recycling. These are back-and-forth, chat-style networks of image transmission–a kind of party-line of multimedia expression taking place on a public stage. Though this ‘publicness’ may more closely resemble a gated community than a public square, its emphasis on collaborative exchange and discourse approximates (and indeed inflates) the heterogeneous modes by which individuals engage in ‘non-virtual’ public discourse. 544 x 378 (Web TV) is a candidate for the first Surfing Club, though the term would be invented three years after its commencement on the club site Nasty Nets, “pissing off”, as Tom Moody has written, “a generation of academic net artists”15.

15 — Tom Moody "Surf Art Continuity." Web log post. http://www.tommoody.us. 09 May 2010. Web. http://www.tommoody.us/archives/2010/05/09/surf-art-continuity/.
16 — Steyerl, Hito. In Defense of the Poor Image. e-flux Journal #10 Nov 2011. Web. http://www.e-flux.com/journal/view/94
Other notable Surf Clubs include SuperCentral, Computers Club, Loshadka and Double Happiness. In these platforms the artistic-hand of any image’s creation goes unseen in favour of contributing an act of media-manipulation. These images are deliberately classless and valueless. They are thus instances of what Hito Steyerl terms the ‘poor image’. She defines: “The poor image is an illicit fifth-generation bastard of an original image. Its genealogy is dubious. Its filenames are deliberately misspelled. It often defies patrimony, national culture, or indeed copyright... It mocks the promises of digital technology”16. This ‘mocking’ may be characterized as antidisambiguous behaviour, and further makes possible new forms of engagement in disambiguous spaces. Surfing clubs, through facilitating distributive authorship and communal creative practices, constitute a public sphere in contradistinction from state governance, market commerce and control mechanisms on the internet. These online spaces approximate the public sphere, notwithstanding the disambiguous tendencies indwelling internet spaces. In recreating an unruly and ambiguous arena for cultural exchange, they engage a strategy of antidisambiguation; they produce a heterogeneous social space rich with discourse and conflicting ideas.

Ambiguity, long since a tactic in the artist’s toolbox, has grown wings with the internet, and has found a critical role in facing the threat of disambiguation. This force –itself prefigured by scientific and philosophic precedents– maintains invisible influences through digital technologies.

Antidisambiguation, then, is a critical strategy that may permit any number of disruptive artistic practices opposing these ideologies. Ambiguity implemented in the service of rectifying overly-rationalized spaces helps circumvent fixities and definites, and forestalls knee-jerking into a homogonous, consensus reality wherein differences, disagreements and contradictions are systemically eradicated. Artists working in networked practices tend toward these antidisambiguous strategies, and permit critical, cultural arenas on the public sphere of the internet. Though their discussions may be fantastic, bizarre and ambiguous, they face our shared city and create an alternative in discourse.

Mikhel Proulx, 2012
Taken from Doubting No.4, purchase here.


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