Vol. 27, No. 1
"Digital Crustaceans v.0.2: Homesteading on the Web"
Gallery Articule, Main Gallery, Montréal, Québec, April 4 - May 4 2003.
Ingrid Bachmann can't sit still. Toiling for hours at keyboard and monitor is not her idea of a good time. Throughout her long-standing interest in Internet technology, she has sought ways to bridge the physical / digital divide. To this end Bachmann has enlisted the aid of collaborator, Pookie the Hermit crab. In the v.0.1 of The Digital Crustaceans project, Pookie - a biological, digital, quasi-fictional manifestation - explores a fascinating corner of the web at www.digitalhermit.ca, a site first created for "Science Fair," curated and organized by Lorraine Oades at StudioXX, Montréal, Québec (2002).
In the installation, "Digital Crustaceans v.0.2: Homesteading on the Web," presented at Gallery Articule, Main Gallery, April 4 - May 4 2003, Bachmann breaks the shackles of the monitor, employing multiple modes of representation to draw a relationship between the nomadic nature of the hermit crab and the cultural exercise of navigating on the web. Bachmann states: "This project views the Web as more than an address in cyberspace for the exchange of information of promotion; it views the Web as a form of organic architecture to be worked in and on and across."
We usually think of a hermit as one who stays at home. Since the hermit crab carries its home on its back, home may be anywhere - why not on the internet? Indeed, Pookie leads a double life. Ensconced in a swank steel and glass tank, the real live Pookie's every move is charted by a ceiling mounted motion detector. Bachmann collaborated with ArtEngine, an Ottawa based technology art collective; programmers Alexandre Castonguay and Mathieu Bouchard wrote the custom software that translates the motion capture of Pookie's wanderings to an ancient-sounding Hp 7475A Plotter. The record of this digital hermit's adventures, printed out over the course of the day, indicate that he does not travel far. He moves slowly, not having evolved much these past millions of years. Nonetheless, as a biological entity he directs technological impulses as deftly as a hand on a mouse; with the smallest organic movements, Pookie sets a global infrastructure into motion along the way.
In two large drawings on the gallery wall, the once mythic architecture of cyberspace is represented in a most tangible form: five feet tall and painted in orange and lime green, "Router level Interconnectivity of the Internet" looks like a giant, blood-shot eyeball. Larger still, a map of the world in heavy, painted lines: "Optical Fibre Submarine Systems Across the Globe," represents the subterranean cables which constitute part of the Internet's material base in rough, colored string. The antiquated backbone of the internet depicted evokes the fragility of infrastructure; a weakness we are kept blissfully unaware of in the high speed, eye-candy strip mall that is now the internet's public face. The instability of the internet remains a point of hope for Bachmann: only because it is such a porous and unstable medium will the internet continue to provide an alternative site for different points of view, continued easy access, and hacker and shareware freedoms.
Drawing on her long history of drawing, Bachmann presents a series of watercolors with fanciful titles depicting the life and times of Pookie. An archetypal figure for the twenty first century, Pookie is the real star of the show. The titles of the drawings form a narrative of concern: "Pookie has an existential moment," "Pookie worries about the world," and "Pookie ponders the great religions of the world and finds them wanting." The state of the web is a vast subject; our task as humans is a difficult one - to grasp, ensure and maintain our place in this global technology. A wild depiction of "the hermit crab's cosmology" reminds us: all systems are precarious. In "Pookie in an unnatural habitat," Pookie the web crawler appears most uncomfortable lodged in a painting of vivid flowers. Perhaps, we are all becoming more at ease homesteading anonymously on the web. On the Internet no one knows you're a hermit crab.
Bachmann's exploration of the "earthly realities of digital technologies" also includes a hilarious series of Photoshoped images of Pookie in outer space. In one image the intrepid Pookie, just visible through the glass visor of a space suit's helmet, is "The first hermit crab on the moon." In a collection of snapshots, "Pookie explores the telecommunication satellites that constitute the wireless network infrastructures of the internet". Through Pookie, Bachmann performs "the sleight-of-hand replacement of the concrete, objective world of life as it is lived with the subtle and ephemeral world of fiction" with a quixotic humor and charm rare to the internet these days.
The arcane and mysterious language of biology used in Bachmann's watercolor titles define the common hermit crab: Phylum: Arthopoda; Sub-Phylum: Crustacea; Order: Decapdoa; and so on. These distinguishing characteristics contrast nicely with the oblique language of Internet Technology we are so readily versant in today. The minutia / human interest story of Pookie the natural history specimen or Pookie the space-crab may or may not be more real to us, more easily grasped than the still murky backbone of the internet. Does the average human know what a router is or are they more likely to know what hermit crabs eat?
Bachmann first became involved with the internet at the Banff Centre in the early 90's. She went there as an artist in residence and stayed for two years as a facilitator in the artist in residency program. "There was a lot of interest in technology, internet, vr, everything. There was also an incredible spirit of openness and experimentation". Bachmann's earlier Internet related projects include, "Nomad Web: Sleeping Beauty Awakes," an network project exploring women's relationship to technology at the Walter Phillips Gallery in Banff, Alberta (1993-1994); and "Fault Lines/ Lignes de Faille: Measurement, Distance and Place, Mesure, distance et lieu," in collaboration with Barbara Layne, at La Centrale, Montréal, Québec and Side Street Projects, Santa Monica, California (1995).
As the version release numbers indicate, Digital Crustaceans v.0.2 is by no means finished. A forward-looking project, it ponders big questions: if the web is democracy - what kind of democracy will it become? It poses digital questions in biological terms. As the motion detector and I stare the slow-moving, unflappable Pookie down, I think about how quick humans are to evolve. Whether it's good for us or not we tend to run wildly off into all aspects of readily accessible, but, at times, barely assessable culture. The principles of homesteading are slower, more deliberate. The hermit crab is our emissary as he ventures out gamely - an innocent, a scavenger, a real-estate guru on the wild frontier of the web.
J. R. Carpenter, 2004.