|Practical case|

NET.ART GENERATOR – CORNELIA SOLLFRANK

1997-2003 • INTERACTIVE NET-BASED INSTALLATION

The net.art generator is a computer program which collects and recombines material from the Internet to create a new website or a new image. The WWW-interface of the easy-to-use program requires the user to enter a title which then functions as the search term, and to enter a name as author. Since 1997 five different versions of the net.art generator have been realized in collaboration with seven programmers: nag_01 to nag_05. A predecessor of the net.art generator has been in use for the project Female Extension.

All the programmers so far have chosen PERL (a scripting language), quite popular within the hacker scene as it is free software and compatible with other free software. The PERL script itself is very stable and reliable, but its functionality highly depends on the connected search engines. In the course of its existence the different versions of the nag have used a number of available search engines via their APIs.

For that reason, the last remaining net.art generator, nag_05, has been out of order for many months: Google, the connected search engine, has changed their terms of use in 2015 and terminated the free access to their search results. Cornelia Sollfrank and the artist and programmer Winnie Soon from Aarhus University decided to restored nag_05 by using a free but limited offer by Google (100 requests).

The strategy was to let the net.art generator in its limited version and send the users a corresponding error message when the 100 queries are reached:

“Thanks for using nag_05! Unfortunately, it seems as if the limit of queries for today is already exceeded! Due to current Google policies, access to search results is very limited for non-paying

customers like this wonderful net.art project (100 requests per day)! We do our best to keep the _nag alive, but there is no funding to pay for Google, so please be patient and come back tomorrow.

If you would like to support the ongoing development and search requests of _nag, you can

Flattr us! In the long run, we are working on teaching Google about how they can support art on the Internet in a meaningful way, but there is still a long way to go ;-)"

This error message alerts users to the fact that there is an interface to Google and shows the problems associated with data polities and their hegemonies.

This problem of extremely limited access to search engine results affects not only Cornelia Sollfrank, but all artists working with APIs and related museums and institutions. Google will also terminate the special offer of unlimited queries for non-profit organization in April 2018. This problem will then affect the collections of museums and large institutions in the future. ZKM acquired NAG_5 in 2010 on a local server and is therefore affected by this change of Google’s terms of use. ZKM could have paid Google for a less limited version of the search API (“additional cost $5 per 1000 queries, up to 10K queries a day”), but as a museum recognized worldwide, ZKM wants to open the debate on such topics. Cornelia’s strategy of a limited version of NAG_ seems to be a good start to draw the attention of the public. But the ultimate goal would be to draw the attention of Google, because, obviously, Google do not yet understand their responsibility in the disappearance of a whole generation of artworks.

Prof. Winnie Soon (University of Aarhus, Denmark) developed, in collaboration with a Berlin based programmer Gerrit Bolez, a version of the NAG_ that works via a Google hack. This work-in-progress project called crowdapi is about crowdsourcing developer’s keys from the public. It undermines the limiting terms of use by automatically changing the ID key after the 100 queries are reached. This “social hacking solution” may help to think about power relations between corporations and users. By donating their APIs key to ZKM or to Cornelia Sollfrank, they will actively keep the artwork NAG alive.

This (illegal) solution has been already implemented in ZKM (off the record) with the complicity of museum’s technicians on another artwork using the Google speech to text API during the exhibition Open Codes. To our biggest surprise, Google noticed the proliferation of developer’s keys in a solo institution during a certain time frame and called one of ZKM technician. After explaining the whole situation with honesty and full transparency, Google never called again. As we do not jeopardize their business model, Google tolerates us as “harmless” hackers.

Morgane Stricot and Matthieu Vlaminck decided to organize a workshop and symposium around this case study with the background idea of provoking Google and confront them where it hurts: their image (that they are trying by the way to pollinate with Google Art & Culture). As we were publishing on twitter on our ongoing hack, knowing Google can’t afford a controverse on how they destroy art, we opened topics such as freedom of use, transparency of platforms, how Google can support artistic projects beyond their confined parameters.

The idea now would be to run this version for a limited period of time with public announcement at ZKM, until Google decides to extend their unlimited version of the API for the nonprofit or artistic organisations. We do not want to be tolerated anymore, we want public recognition from Google in the form of reviewing their policies.

The API changes are a challenge that affects every museum and major institutions in Europe and across the Atlantic. ZKM, Cornelia Sollfrank, Winnie Soon and other are committed to share the results of this experiment with other institutions. In front of such challenge, we have to think as distributed as the companies are centralized.

Access NAG

Hacking for the Sake of Digital Art Preservation, article presented at iPres2018

© 2020 par Morgane Stricot