The Research Center for Proxy Politics aims to explore and reflect upon the nature of medial networks and their actors, that is, machines and things as well as humans. The proxy, a decoy or surrogate, is today often used to designate a computer server acting as an intermediary for requests from clients. Originating in the Latin procurator, an agent representing others in a court of law, proxies are now emblematic of a post-representational political age, one increasingly populated by bot militias, puppet states, ghostwriters, and communication relays. During the period of the project (September 2014 to August 2017) the center will host a series of workshops at the Universität der Künste, Berlin, revolving around a wide range of relevant topics including the politics of digital networks, the political economy of crypto-currencies, the genealogy of networked thought, the mediality of physical landscapes and strategies of opacity. The center will also conduct material, experimental, investigations into the conception and construction of alternative networks, or alternets.

(TEXT) 12/03 2015

The Research Center for Proxy Politics


Several years ago, media scholar Lambert Wiesing made a bizarre analogy: that without media, people would have a jellyfish-like indifference to the outside world (quoted in Jan-H. Möller: “Mediale Reflexivität. Beiträge zu einer negativen Medientheorie”). Rather recently, climate change researchers predicted that one day not only the Great Barrier Reef will disintegrate and dissolve into jelly, all oceans might suffer from jellification due to climate change.

Rather than the bright neon lit halls of social media, the Research Center for Proxy Politics is dedicated to the exploration of the gelatinous zones of networks, its mush, sleaze and cum.

1. Network Closures

Our object of research is the network. The network has become a default aesthetic, technical trope and organizational structure. To paraphrase Tiziana Terranova, following Foucault, networks are also technologies of power. What needs to be done is to reconsider structures that have been taken for granted by users or that have been (rhetorically) obfuscated by its operators. Many critical voices address contradictions between corporate projections and technical realities. “Cloud computing is the opposite of transparency, a ‘smokescreen’ which means that actually our hardware and software ultimately are black boxes and we do not know what they are doing.” [Paul Feigelfeld] Alex Galloway takes it further and speaks of the “black boxing of the self (…), a call center employee, a card reader at a security check-point, a piece of software, a genetic sequence, a hospital patient. The black box is no longer a cypher waiting to be unveiled and decoded, it is a function defined exclusively through its inputs and outputs.” (Alexander Galloway)

For others, the emergence of a new digital class society is threatening. “If everything has to become immediately visible, differences are hardly possible. Transparency dictates conformity which eliminates the other, the stranger, the deviant. Especially Big Data visualizes collective behavior patterns.” [Byung-Chul Han] But Dasein is certainly more ambivalent and profound than the so called “normal distribution” – as extrapolated from masses of data.

Media scholars criticize “free labor” (Tiziana Terranova), “The Soul at Work” (Franco Bifo Berardi), the “filter bubble” (Eli Pariser) and the “solutionism” of Silicon Valley as well as “algorithmic regulation” of governments (Evgeny Morozov).

How can people resist the datafication of their lives? How not to become a walking sensor platform generating indices of data? Which forms of resistance could apply to these technological upgrades? How could “perfect” generic images or processes be hacked? Would bootlegged versions of ourselves give us back the control over images and networks?

Artists counter-act with offensively brutal affirmation (for example, Jennifer Lyn Morone’s corporate art piece Jennifer Lyn Morone™Inc) or shield themselves in “opacity” (as Zach Blas suggests with his Facial Weaponization Suite) and therewith confront or resist corporate social media monoculture and biometrics.

During the course of a three years research period, scientists, activists and artists will reflect upon their use of so called smart objects and the network. We aim to question, and redefine the term smart – what is a smart way of surfing in the future? According to Deleuze, every art object ideally serves as a medium of reflexivity.

2. Proxy Politics

In spite of discussions that evolve around transparency and bodies and minds becoming transparent (see Big Data and neuroscience data debates), power remains obscure and power structures become even less intelligible. Ongoing processes of standardization introduce ever more normative, readable, templates making clear that complacency and speed of data communication go together with the perfection of control.

When observing the world of digital networks one is faced by two kinds of realities: a material world of hardware – servers, tubes, devices and light – and a virtual world of distribution, communication and imagination. The latter addresses users and begs for constant visualizations of their everyday life. And yet, digital networks remain a complex ecology – despite desperate attempts by American corporations to keep them clean and tidy wherever they can – containing a myriad of shadow counterparts to the user friendly world wide web, such as the so called “Darknet” and “Deep Web”.

The lesser visualized material world (besides a handful of carefully curated stock footage) has a rough side – from slave-like labor conditions in Asia to conflict funding mines in the heart of Africa. At the very end of the consumption chain, (smart) things scrape a shadow living in dumb sites. “Modest and even abject objects became hieroglyphs in whose dark prism the social relations lay congealed and in fragments.” Digital archeologists might find interest in electronic waste, because “a thing is never just something, but a fossil in which a constellation of forces is petrified.” (Hito Steyerl) While these time capsules remain rather silent in the realm of visible invisibility, smart technology is sneaking playfully into our daily lives – for example face recognition apps turned make-up adviser and shopping assistant launched by a big beauty products company from Paris (see Makeup Genius by L’Oréal,

This underlying ambivalence between worker exploitation and consumer seduction as well as a lack of information must be addressed without dooming (digital) technologies as such. Instead, one might want to ask, how to work with both accelerated innovation and a mode of informed visibility? What could an alternative set of working methodologies look like, and could one develop a radical set of practices? How should one speculate about an ambiguous network?

Proxy Politics describe modes of withdrawal, subterfuge or retreat in a literally technical, but also in a metaphorical sense – its utensil could be a VPN, a scan, P2P technology, a body double, a stock image) and ideally helps people handle the terror of total Dasein [Hito Steyerl].

Psychopolitics (Byung-Chul Han) and its sublime control mechanisms have yet to become a reality, even though many prominent voices call for a totalitarian society of neuro enhancement and quantified selves. Instead, Chaos Computer Club speaks of “smart stupidity”, there is no good use for all the data. Instead, “the Internet of things will force us into separate tribes (i-tribe, Android-tribe, Facebook tribe…) and isolate data; this dark side of the moon-effects will grow ever more as long as politics don’t intervene.” [Frank Rieger] Bandwidth throttling already divides users into fast and slow surfing tribes.

3. People, media, artifacts

Constellations are shifting: formerly disparate discourses seem to overlap. Besides clouds, networks and big data being the focus of digital media discussions, a materialistic point of view adds to this new ambiguous discourse. Non-human agents like devices and infrastructure enter the focus of attention. Rosie Braidotti speaks of “unfamiliarity” and “dis-identification” as methods to reconsider everyday objects (who or what is this machine that I’m working with day by day and with whom else is this machine communicating, one might ask). Alexander Galloway speaks of the interface effect. Interesting consequences of these reconsiderations would be – following a 20th century of technological superiority over nature – if the climate change discourse would open new perspectives on technology. How do Google and Silicon Valley Startups incorporate environmental awareness into their business plans and politics? How does it work exactly? How can we as smart users make it work in our interests? How can we build up technological sovereignty?

Therefore, instead of a macro perspective, micro perspectives seem to better serve the course of interest. As Joseph Vogl suggests: “media are specific, systemizable objects of study for the following reason: everything they store and mediate is stored and mediated under conditions that are created by the media themselves and that ultimately comprise those media (…) we should set aside any general concept of media in favor of examining historically singular constellations in which we can identify the metamorphosis into media of things, symbolic systems, or technologies.”