Artist Reflection: Returning Networks to their Roots

Eyebeam Impact Residents Sarah Grant and Amelia Marzec took a moment to reflect on the origins of Radical Networks, a conference about “DIY networking in the context of art, activism, and social good” that they organize with Eyebeam’s former Director of Community Engagement, Erica Kermani.


Sarah: Radical Networks is in its second year now—for those of you who don’t know, it’s a conference with a focus on DIY networking in the context of art, activism, and social good.

For me, it was born out of being dismayed by the fact that the internet was kind of being used for the purpose of advertising. Full disclosure: I have spent 15 years in advertising and I think I’m just kind of [laughs] “venting” by creating this conference.

Joly MacFie of the Internet Society talking about the first remote link into ARPANet and the relationship of punk to network culture.

Joly MacFie of the Internet Society reflects on the relationship of punk to network culture. The first time that a remote host linked into ARPANet was in a biker bar.

Amelia: I think the Radical Networks conference is important because there’s a need for people to understand how networks “work”.

We’re in a time where networks are being compromised by the government, where they’re being over-commercialized. That, or people are trying to make so much money off of it that the rest of us aren’t even going to be able to afford to communicate at some point.

Sarah: As someone who remembered using the internet in the mid-90’s, it was like the Wild West, almost—this free space of all sorts of interesting characters just doing their thing with no real agendas. There wasn’t Uber to be tracked. We weren’t having advertising shoved in our faces every step of the way. It wasn’t all about apps—apps didn’t even exist. It was just kind of a place people came and met over shared interests and sharing information.

And I recognized some of that purpose in some of the smaller DIY networking, or mesh networking projects, or even the grassroots work that the Internet Society is doing. I wanted to create a space where all these people could come together to share and inspire. Just to let the general public know, “Hey, you can use this technology for more than buying shoes online, or checking in to your favorite restaurant.”

Amelia: One of the things we want to do is remove the mystique around networks. I mean we have this with a lot of different technologies, where people don’t know how they work, don’t want to learn how they work, don’t want to engage with that. This is a wider thing in our culture. We need to break it down and start to figure out how to learn about technology, because we’re so dependent on it.

Everyone knows how to post things on Instagram but no one knows how to make Instagram. That’s a really simple example. We’re doing crazier stuff over here, everything from games to electromagnetic spectrum-based architecture, but, I guess, that’s one of the concerns.

Peach Puff texts from the network reading by Jeff Thompson

Jeff Thompson reads a poem based on HTML color codes at Radical Networks.

Sarah: One thing we did this year that we didn’t do last year is actually having some performances at night which I’m excited about. It was actually something I didn’t even plan, like the Protective Rituals for Post-Humans performance or the Texts from the Network poetry reading! We just got proposals from people who wanted to do performance art about networking technology, people from all over. 

Amelia: Networks!

Sarah: Sometimes when you have these events the focus is just on social application or hardcore engineering. But I wanted to create a program where you get a taste of all this stuff. And also, some people who are coming from different points of view. The different perspectives are able to sort of, you know, share their ideas and inspire each other. Because oftentimes, when you are at these conferences where it’s straight-up engineering, the people there, that’s where their heads are. They’re not actually thinking about how their technology can be implemented.

Ingrid Burrington and Surya Mattu in Digital Literacy is a Trap for Radical Networks

Ingrid Burrington and Surya Mattu lead a workshop provocatively titled, “Digital Literacy is a Trap.”

Amelia: The conference brings together artists, educators, technologists, and a lot of people just talking about their projects which are, you know, creative uses of networks. Alternative networks – things that are local, things that are community-driven, activist projects.

So, that’s it. We just get all those people in a room and see what happens.

Radical Networks was November 4-6, 2016 at Chemistry Creative, 315 Ten Eyck St., Brooklyn, NY. You can see the whole livestream archived by the Internet Society here! Learn more about Sarah Grant, Amelia Marzec, and Erica Kermani.


Above: the Chaos Computer Coven (Sarah Friend and Rachel Boyce) presents a consecration ritual for the mesh network at Radical Networks 2016. Transcription and editing by Alex Wagner, Eyebeam Media Intern.