!Mediengruppe Bitnik (read: the not Mediengruppe Bitnik) is an art collective based in Zurich and London led by Carmen Weisskopf and Domagoj Smoljo. With the help of London filmmaker and researcher Adnan Hadzi and reporter Daniel Ryser, this group of contemporary artists plays with the Internet as their primary medium. Among their numerous works is what they described as a SYSTEM_TEST, a “32-hour live mail art piece” entitled Delivery for Mr. Assange. Six months after Julian Assange was granted political asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, the artists decided to infiltrate the warzone with a parcel. It contained nothing but a camera that took pictures through a small hole and uploaded the photos online as its journey progressed. The final frames were of Assange himself, holding up messages he wrote on notecards for the world to see.
Their most famous project, however, is the Random Darknet Shopper, a software bot they unleashed on a deep web marketplace near the end of last year. For three months, it randomly chose one item to purchase within its weekly budget of one hundred dollars in Bitcoins; the artists were never sure what to expect. Their final collection included jeans, a scanned Hungarian passport, a baseball cap with a hidden camera, and ten pills of ecstasy, which were seized and destroyed by the police.
How did !Mediengruppe Bitnik begin? What’s the story behind your name?
We met at [an] art university and started experimenting with the possibilities that the Internet brings to the arts. The Internet was just starting to become big; it was fascinating to have a[n] easily accessible, affordable medium within our reach, which allowed us to publish, to connect and to share.
Bitnik was actually the name of our first server. We secretly introduced this machine into the art school's computer network. Suddenly the machine – bitnik – was visible 24/7 worldwide, something that was still kind of rare in those days. That was exhilarating!
The name Bitnik is derived from Bit, the smallest digital unit and -nik as in Sputnik
Why did you choose to work on or with the Internet in particular?
For us as young artists, the Internet made it incredibly easy to become part of a network, to publish, to have a voice. It was easy to communicate, to share with others, to get involved. From very early on, we were fascinated with the online subculture, permanently evolving and which over time also started massively influencing offline culture.
From early on we focussed our interests in the spaces formed by the intersection of offline and online. We were fascinated by the immaterial and the questions it raises within the arts. At the same time we also aimed at materializing our concepts and at introducing some of the online humour into the arts.
Why does the URL to your website begin with 22 Ws?
This is a small irritation, a breach of conventions, a little craziness introduced to keep the Internet from becoming boring.
What was the inspiration for the Random Darknet Shopper?
The Random Darknet Shopper was part of an exhibition we co-organized called «The Darknet – From Memes to Onionland. An Exploration».
The idea behind the exhibition was to explore the Darknet from an artistic viewpoint, also hoping to critically evaluate mass surveillance and to study alternative structures and forms of communicating outside mass surveillance. How is identity formed within these networks? How is communication and exchange possible in anonymous networks? What forms of trust building arise? How do you trust each other if you don't know to whom you are talking to [sic]? How can we as artists examine these questions in a meaningful way?
For the exhibition we realized the Random Darknet Shopper, a shopping bot which randomly bought things in the deep web and had it delivered directly to the exhibition space.
What was your reaction upon discovering that the bot had purchased ecstasy?
Together with a lawyer specialising in Art Law, we had already evaluated the work beforehand. We knew that there could be some purchases made by the bot that would be questionable from a legal point of view. But our lawyer encouraged us to go through with the work, because he believes that we are raising important questions and that the possible breach of law is a necessary means for raising these questions.
We handled the ecstasy like all the other items: We unpacked it and hung it into its display box. To receive a new item from the Darknet every week was really exciting, but also nerve-wracking, because we were never quite sure what we were handling.
How did you implement the bot? That is, what approach did you take to coding it?
Technically the thing is not so challenging - imagine a simple crawler written specifically for the Agora marketplace, automating Firefox browser interaction with the site.
Why did you claim responsibility for an illegal purchase which was made by a bot that was behaving randomly?
After the work was seized by local police, it was mandatory to claim ownership of the work and thus responsibility in order to be able to act on the seizure. Being an art piece, authorship of the work and the bot was clear from the start, so it would have made no sense to hide behind the bot's randomness. Although autonomy of digital systems does raise interesting questions around responsibility and accountability.
At what point do you think the creator of an artificial intelligence stops being accountable for the actions of the creation?
This will be one of the interesting questions that we will have to deal with in the near future. With an artistic work like the Random Darknet Shopper, the question of responsibility may still be fairly easy to answer. But how about trading bots? Do you make every company, every programmer involved responsible? Are they also responsible for future developments they may not have foreseen? Or self-driving cars: what if the software fails? Who is responsible for unforeseeable security flaws stemming from [the] fact that these systems are getting more and more complex?
What challenges exist when the Internet is a part of the medium? How did you overcome them for this project?
What makes the Internet such an interesting media for us as artists is also that it is not static – it is constantly evolving. The Internet is shaped by the societies using it, regulating it. This can be challenging. In many of our works, we consciously work with an element of randomness, of loss of control. This is interesting but also challenging.
Many of your projects, including this one, have a live aspect to them where an audience can watch the whole thing come together. Why is that?
The live media and performative elements in our works let us create situations where interesting processes are set in motion. In this sense you could say that all our work is time-based. Time is always an important factor. It is important to us that these processes be open-ended and non-deterministic. That way, the workings of the systems used become visible. Also, it is the liveness of the media, the development of the performance in real-time, which unfolds an inclusive power. Look at the work Delivery for Mr. Assange for example: The images from the parcel were uploaded directly to a public website in real time. So everyone else following the parcel's journey actually had the same information of what was happening as we did. This led to people narrating their own stories, taking the piece and expanding on it. This opens up a space for reflection and for action which is very valuable to us. The usually controlled situation becomes out of control; it is not easily foreseeable. For us, this is also a way of countering a prevalent belief in the rhetoric of security and a predominantly deterministic worldview. We call this approach RRRRRRRRRRadical Realtime.
What did you hope people would take away from your exhibition?
The 12 works by various artists we showed in the exhibition «The Darknet – From Memes to Onionland. An Exploration» all approached the topics involved from different angles. We hope the artistic view on questions of visibility, anonymity, privacy, intimacy and security offered people a more sensual approach to these topics. The overwhelming public interest shows that there is little out there that allows a different – more humorous – approach.