Hack Value
Hack Value

(This is a draft of Hack Value – it will be updated and extended with more text and edits very soon)

“We must allow all human creativity to be as free as free software”[i] (Steiner. 2008)


The term hacking has been around for a long time. I almost hesitate to use the word. But, until another word transcends it I will continue to use it. Nonetheless, as this text delves across and into different fields of creative thought and critical practices in art and hacking. I suspect we will get closer to fresh ways in thinking and enacting situations that will open up different beginnings of venturing beyond the word itself.

This study investigates contemporary art and cultural activism in terms of Hack Value. It explores artworks, innovative projects and hacking tendencies with and without technology. It argues that hacking has been with us a long time before our use of computers. A characteristic all hackers share whether it is legal or illegal is to break into or through machined and walled up systems. Indeed, it could be argued that resistances, rebellions, uprisings and revolutions share similarities to hacking. They are all social and cultural hacks against, closed, dominant and reigning systems. By examining social and cultural hacks, technical and non-technical, and observing the similarities shared to overturn existing concepts and established modes of representation.[i] We can ensemble a set of processes not specific to technology alone, but towards a creative and ecological context that informs a flexible, contemporary and trans-disciplinary art practice.

Hack Value can be a playful disruption. It is also maintenance for the imagination, a call for a sense of wonder beyond the tedium of living in a consumer, dominated culture. It examines crossovers between different fields and practices, in relation to their achievements and approaches in hacking rather than as specific genres. Like in other chapters some of the artworks and projects exist in their own right, and within and outside of a museum or gallery context. Other examples either play with or disrupt situations through cultural enactments of communication with others; these include publications, farming, food distribution and public heritage sites. All the projects and works studied are social. Some are political and some are participatory. This includes works that use digital networks and physical environments as well as printed matter. What binds these examples together is not only the adventures they initiate when experimenting with other ways of seeing, being and thinking. They also share common intentions to loosen the restrictions, distractions and interactions dominating the cultural interfaces, facades and structures in our everyday surroundings. This relates to our relationship with food, tourism, museums, galleries, our dealings with technology, belief systems and community ethics.

By looking at the social settings, connections, intentions and the spirit of these hacks, we will get closer to what we can call Hack Value. It examines different instances of hacking that contest the general assumption that hacking is about technology alone. It asks what it means to transfer hacking skills and its connected values of free and open culture into physical environments, and investigates what this looks like. How would it change our perceptions and understanding of art and does it effect the relationship with the public experiencing this kind of art? What impact would it have on society and the systems dominating contemporary art culture?

In The Curious world of Art and Hacktivism, I refer to Richard Stallman’s[ii] playful display of the term hacker at a lunch with GNU fans in Korea.[iii] Where instead of using two chopsticks he managed to use three in his right hand and successfully picked up a piece of food and placed it into in his mouth. This was demonstrated as Hack Value.[iv] Stallman’s hack with simple chopsticks illustrates to us that it is not always necessary to use technology to hack. At its core, it is about how we approach things.

This study comprises of technological and physical forms of hacking. It also includes aspects and actions of: agency, skill, craft, disruption, self-education, social change, activism, aesthetics, re-contextualising, claiming or reclaiming territories, independence, emancipation, relearning, rediscovering, play, joy, being imaginative, criticalness, challenging borders, breaking into and opening up closed systems, changing a context or situation, highlighting an issue, finding ways around problems, changing defaults, and restructuring things.

Art can produce, distribute and represent aspects of spirituality, aesthetics, and philosophy, social and political life that we cannot grasp in other ways. It can bring us to a point where human agency is its raw material. With this in mind how can we get close to reaching the challenge laid down by Guy Debord, where he proclaimed that art could “cease being a report about sensations and become a direct organization of more sensations. The point is to produce ourselves rather than things that enslave us.”[v] (Debord 1958-69) The struggles the Situationists engaged with in their time still matter now. Even though we are living in the 21st Century; like the Situationists we are experiencing critical questions on art, activism and politics, but under different conditions. The networked society we live in adds a complexity the Situationists did not have to contend with. An agenda worth reemphasizing at this juncture is the same question I asked in the introduction of An Imaginative Dissent: Art, Technology and Social Change:

How can artists and artists’ groups maintain control over their own imaginative ideas, and fulfil their individual and collective intentions, whilst maintaining critical positions; within the context of a globalised culture where prevailing attitudes fashioned on austerity measures and the economic crisis are now part of our everyday lives?

This study examines different approaches around and through these dominant, neoliberal structures with an attention to networks, and examples of ‘being and doing’ with art and hacking, alongside critical ideas involving activism. All the projects, artworks and instances featured possess particular qualities that are disruptive and subversive. The models, instances and actions included in this text are not to be judged as stylistic or only as political, but as critically motivated expressions demanding something better and deeper, where a connection with our everyday life consists of a heightened sense of humaneness, possessing grounded, social and philosophical sensibilities. It leans towards a radical form of emancipation. One cannot fully cover the range of diverse contributions by groups and movements that enrich and inform this writing, such as DADA, the Situationists and Tactical Media. However, it is necessary to include their influences accordingly.

What separates DADA, the Situationists and Tactical Media from other art and their traditions is their common intent to transform and reclaim through art, cultural situations that challenge aspects of society. Societal context is an integral part of their art practice itself and linked directly with everyday life. The Dadaists deplored what they saw as the dehumanization of humanity through forms of industrial mass production and the rise of mass consumerism. And rejected notions of ‘art for arts sake’, and incorporated an, ‘anti-art’ position where they proclaimed art was inseparable from everyday life: “the implicit question the Dadaists posed for themselves was how to reimagine artistic practice in this age of media and technological warfare.”[vi] (Dickerman 2005)

The Situationists shared a “common commitment to devising innovative forms of art which couldn’t be recuperated by secret police agents, rich collectors, bourgeois critics or cultural bureaucrats.” In essence, Situationism and Tactical Media[vii] owe much to DADA, and Hack Value owes much to all of these critically engaged art practices. Tactical Media and Situationism both include critical theory and engage in strategic thinking. They cross over into academic fields to “expose the complacency and superficiality of much contemporary thought, jump through the same intellectual loop holes and stand up to academic scrutiny.”[viii] (Plant 1992)

Like Tactical Media, Hack Value has no central core or institution defining its purpose or role in culture. It exposes rather than is exposed. It preserves within its kernel the behaviour and strategy of experimentation with alternative technologies in line with nomadic, autonomous and rhizomatic tendencies, while investigating how to find routes into physical and digital spaces. Tactical Media and Hack Value both consist of artists, coders, activist and theorists who are exploring different aspects of hacking. Although, to explore Hack Value one does not need to be involved in Tactical Media practice or its culture. Hack Value argues that the noble hacker tradition that has given free reign to curiosity and digital freedoms can exist in everyday life situations. In the age of neoliberalism much of the debate around hacking in mainstream media and nation states falls into classing hackers as threats to national security, thus labelling them all in one easy term as terrorists. We now need to move beyond the digital to explore and build different networks of resistance, where the dialogues include non-hackers, the public and communities. And yes, it is necessary to continue the struggle against the oppressive digital networks growing that are designed to restrict political and creative freedoms. However, Alexander Galloway puts it well when he says, “The goal is not to destroy technology in some neo-luddite delusion, but to push it into a state of hypertrophy, further than it is meant to go.”[ix] (Galloway 2004)

This study also draws upon what Mary Flanagan terms as Critical Play. What Flanagan’s ideas bring to Hack Value, is an understanding of human experience in games culture, where social context is a crucial part of her academic research, alongside a 21st century, contemporary feminist critique as an artist, theorist and games practitioner. Her dedication for emancipatory situations to occur are prevalent in all her games, where their design from the beginning and their formation, with and without technology include processes and strategies where the participants themselves critique the status quo as part of the game play. Flanagan sees this as playing critically, rather than conforming to the traditional game tropes produced by the patriarchal and mainstream hegemonies dominating games culture. When playing these thought provoking games made by the group Tiltfactor founded by Flanagan; people are invited to ask questions that reflect on their own social conditions and personal experiences in everyday life. “Critical play means to create or occupy play environments and activities that represent one or more questions about aspects of human life.”[x] (Flanagan 2009) And, “Critical play is characterized by a careful examination of social, cultural, political, or even personal themes that function as alternatives to popular spaces.”[xi]

There is a presumption that everyone is connected to the Internet when in fact many are still not. This needs to be readdressed. Not by connecting even more people onto the Internet or kitting them out with new technologies. Sure, sharing technological resources to support indigenous and local infrastructure is a honourable ambition. However, teching up environments where it may not be necessary more reflects a western viewpoint. Where the binary of ‘having and not having’ is a prominent condition. Sharing tools with others who do not have them is potentially ethical, sensible and emancipatory. Yet, pushing our own technological templates onto indigenous people’s lives may not be in accordance to their own grounded social contexts, nuances, long histories, beliefs and local systems. In this sense, common people of the world share significant traits and dispositions where hegemony and imperial structures have positioned, top-down ideologies via bureaucratic and political economies, onto already richly formed communities. This commodification of life as Bookchin puts it, “is vitiated by the association of needs with consumption for the sake of consumption…”[xii] (Bookchin 1995) just because our societies value these technological breakthroughs does not mean it works for others.

“When one of the Buddha’s disciples came to tell him, after a long voyage in the West, that miraculous things, instruments, medications, methods of thinking, and institutions had transformed people’s lives since the time the master had retreated into the Mountains, the Buddha stopped him after a few words. Have they wiped out sadness, sickness, old age and death? he asked. No, replied the disciple. Then they might as well have kept still, thought the Master. And he plunged back into contemplation, without bothering to show his disciple that he was no longer listening.”[xiii] (Castoriadis1964-65)

This study also draws upon earlier struggles going back to the 1700s in England when everyday people such as Gerrard Winstanley and others forged a movement known as the Diggers also known as the True Levellers, to reclaim and claim common land from the gentry for communities. All examples and contributions will be argued in the context of hacking, whether from the 1700s, recent history and the present day. If this were a larger study it would include the influential Florentine of the 1600s Niccolo Machiavelli. He believed humans were essentially selfish and his own political tactics and writings have influenced many politicians and even hackers, especially his theory of statecraft. However, this investigation is about the inclusion of those not heralded as officially accepted within a political, cultural hegemony and traditional, mainstream art canons. Some of the individuals and groups referenced may now be well known. But their ideas, work and activities speak in terms that relate beyond supporting hermetically sealed and dominating power systems.

The aim is to introduce a discourse that pulls together innovative tactics and ideas where social and technical forms of disruption are not caught within oppositional conditions, and or situations of violence. On one hand this study considers the reasons for revolutionary actions, desires and related tendencies, on the other it advocates non-violent processes and outcomes by studying alternative possibilities as intuitive, technical and physical forms of contextual and cultural hacking.

[i] Christopher Kelty. Two bits: The cultural significance of free software. Durham: Duke University Press. (2008) P. 94. (Referred to by Johan Söderberg. Free Software to Open Hardware: Critical Theory on the Frontiers of Hacking.

Department of Sociology University of Gothenburg. Geson Hylte Tryckt, Göteborg 2011.)

[ii] Richard Stallman. In September 1983, launched the GNU Project to create a free Unix-like operating system, and has been the project’s lead architect and organizer. With the launch of the GNU Project he initiated the free software movement. In October 1985 he founded the Free Software Foundation. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Stallman

[iii] GNU Operating System. http://www.gnu.org/

[v] Guy Debord. Theses on Cultural Revolution. (1958-69) Situationist International Anthology. Revised and Expanded Edition. Edited and translated by Kenn Knabb. 2006. P.53.

[vi] Leah A. Lievrouw. Alternative and Activist New Media. Digital Media and Society Series. Polity Press. 2011. P. 32.

[vii] “Tactical Media are what happens when the cheap ‘do it yourself’ media, made possible by the revolution in consumer electronics and expanded forms of distribution (from public access cable to internet) are exploited by groups and individuals who feel aggrieved by or excluded from the wider culture.” David Garcia and Geert Lovink. From Alex Galloway’s book, Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization. From a chapter called Tactical Media. The MIT Press. 2004. P.175.

[viii] Sadie Plant. The Most Radical gesture. The Situationist International in a Postmodern Age. Routledge. 1992. Preface Page 1.

[ix] Alexander R. Galloway. Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization. The MIT Press. 2004. P.206.

[x] Mary Flanagan. Critical Play: Radical game design. The MIT Press. 2009. Chapter 1. P.6.

[xi] (Ibid) P.6.

[xii] Murray Bookchin. The Ecology of Freedom: The emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy. Black Rose Books. Reprinted 1995. P. 69.

[xiii] The Castoriadis Reader. Chapter: Marxism and Revolutionary Theory (1964-65*): Excerpts. Marxism:A Provisional Assessment. The Historical Situation of Marxism and the Notion of Orthodoxy. Edited by David Ames Curtis. Blackwell Publishers Ltd 1997. P.169-70.