Just chillin' with censorship

In October 2009, I accepted an invitation coming from Caitlin Denny and Parker Koo Ito to participate in JstChillin's Serial Chillers in Paradise, a year-long online curatorial marathon showing works that pertain to the interests of chillin'. As an artist and a curator, I wanted to take part in this project, because I consider the Internet as both a critical playground and a crucial scaffold, building sites for different kinds of social interaction through various channels of digital media.

Even though I am not an historian, I would like to start this proposal by sharing some key points in recent history. If you are not any younger than 30 years old, the odds are that you have personally experienced these events anyway. On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall came down, announcing the end of the Cold War and gradually, the equalization of the Eastern Bloc with the Western Europe. Six months later, on May 22, 1990, Microsoft Windows 3.0 came out, unleashing all the power of personal computers and progressively, providing everyone with a single view of the world seen through the standardized graphical user interface. A few years later, on August 9, 1995, a small start-up located in Mountain View, CA, called Netscape went public, aiming to democratize the web and to level the playing field by providing the same browsing experience across all operating systems. Finally, ten years later, on November 9, 2004, Firefox 1.0 got released, catalyzing collaboration and interoperability by implementing many standards in a free and open source software.

According to Thomas Friedman, these four events in addition to a few others flattened the world and allowed the development of "a global platform for multiple forms of sharing knowledge and work, irrespective of distance, geography, language or time". Today, there is probably no need to say that in the past couple of decades, the Internet has established itself as something similar to an independant country; in fact, this did not occur for political reasons nor for the sake of human rights, but for economics.

Some examples come to mind: with more than 90 million active users globally, $2000 worth of goods are sold each second on eBay; to serve and protect more than 400 million active users worldwide, Facebook's Privacy Policy (5,830 words) is longer than the United States Constitution (4,543 words); unlike Vatican among other countries, there is an Internet Pavilion at the Venice Biennial since 2009. Five-hundred years after the European colonization of the Americas, the world seems to be virtually flat once again and of course, it makes sense to pretend living a life without walls™ like never before.

On the other hand, many years after the fall of the Berlin wall, the Germans would argue that the legacy of cultural differences between the East and the West is still persisting. There is even a smart expression designating this phenomenon, which I find particularly revealing: "mauer im kopf", literally meaning "the wall in the head". Paradoxically, it looks like the destruction of concrete walls came along with the erecting of hollow walls as instruments of discipline, may it be cultural, political or social. In order to prevent the dissemination of information, these barriers serve to alter opinions and to bend perceptions.

The general trend aiming to regulate the Internet in a growing number of countries can be considered as one of these hollow walls. In a recent report, Reporters without Borders mention that "in 2009, some sixty countries experienced a form of Web censorship, which is twice as many as in 2008". The worst, most complex and widely covered example is China and the Golden Shield Project (often referred to as the "Great Firewall of China"), but there are at least another dozen of countries on the bill for applying heavy restrictions and violating freedom of expression on the Internet. As they adopt laws and decrees in the name of intellectual property, Western democracies are not safe from inspection and ACTA is a real matter of concern on a global scale. Positively, there are significant sociopolitical initiatives and open-source software available online trying to counter these measures. However, there is also an emerging freedom industry based on marketing services more or less accessible to the average netizen since the last few years.

As Elijah Saxon puts it, "the problem is not a collapse of privacy, but an explosion of surveillance". By keeping this final sentence in mind, I would like to initiate a collaborative work, an open-ended exchange on these matters in the extended framework of contemporary art for the forthcoming six months. Put another way, if we consider chillin' as a fundamental right for every netizen, then we might ask these questions: Is chillin' worldwide a utopia? Can you chill while being watched? How do you chill when it is forbidden? What is the price of chillin'? Until February, 2011, I will try to lead a blog entitled the wall in the head by inviting artists along with engineers and theoreticians to enter the conversation and to share a set of materials on these subjects.

Please join the discussion!

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