Exclusive Interview: In Conversation with ARK
In the past couple of months, ARK (Art Replacing Knowledge) has garnered a significant amount of public attention, both in its disavowal of reponsibility for the high-profile hack of the Republican Bank of Malaysia and, more recently, in relation to the group’s comments on GEAS’s decision to include said financial hack in the promotional material for the “Outlaw Planet” superthreat.
Having responded to the group’s appeal for an independent journalist, Superstruct volunteer jfpickard was lucky enough to be asking the questions in ARK’s first official interview.
ARK on ARK’s origins
jfpickard: I thought I’d start by asking about ARK’s origins. You’ve made it explicit that the group was founded in 2013, but – for the majority of us – you’ve only really been on the cultural radar for the last couple of years. I wondered whether you could tell us any more about the initial days, weeks, and months of ARK, not to mention the group’s founders. You now identify as a “global arts collective”, but was it always thus? Where does your story begin?
ARK: Artists are an interesting breed. Where not individually minded, they tend to operate in small circles. But, those circles always seem to overlap. You tell an artist that you’re going to Australia and they will tell you four or five artists you need to check for while you’re there. In the early days this is what ARK was – a word of mouth network of artists. It would be hard to say if there were any founders. There were likely discussions being held at various locations around the same time, which all foreshadowed what would become ARK. But it wasn’t until the Artists are an interesting breed. Where not individually minded, they tend to operate in small circles. But, those circles always seem to overlap. You tell an artist that you’re going to Australia and they will tell you four or five artists you need to check for while you’re there. In the early days this is what ARK was – a word of mouth network of artists. It would be hard to say if there were any founders. There were likely discussions being held at various locations around the same time, which all foreshadowed what would become ARK. But it wasn’t until the aftermath of the 2012 election cycle and the changes in Intellectual Property and Media Rights that followed that ARK really became a cohesive group (if you can even call it that).
By this time the global economy was shot. Finding work was becoming difficult, let alone work as an artist. You found many who were trying their hands at their fallback fields, only to find those careers were no longer secure, and rarely left time for them to do what they loved most – create art. It was around this time that No Starving Artist started spreading, and as it did the nature of that artist network started changing.
It grows exponentially because of the nature of those small circles. In each place, ARK would appear to be something else. It could have one member or one hundred members, all with one drive, which is to create art. It has been the means with which we have learned as artists to survive. And this before we had any concept of ‘superthreats’. The ‘superthreat’ to us was that we were living in a society that had marginalized art to the point that the artist was an endangered species. Where we could no longer count on that society to support us and our work, we took it upon ourselves to learn to support ourselves, and in doing so support the art.
ARK on organization
jfpickard: You’ve invoked Ursula Le Guin’s Odonians [see: The Dispossessed] when attempting to describe ARK’s system of organization, while also stressing the need to balance the creative impulse with the practicalities of existence. How would you describe your wider political leanings? What holds the collective together, and how are decisions made on a day-to-day basis?
ARK: Kudos to you for recognizing that reference. We say Odonian as an alternative for anarchist, because the media has the copyright on that word. Public perception of anarchists stems from late 90′s early 00 models which for the most part were immature understanding of what anarchy really represents. LeGuin’s Odonian’s faced similar challenges, but through a social struggle were allowed the space to define themselves, outside of the law, through something more of a natural organization as opposed to forced one. The majority of our legal systems are established to reinforce fears about human nature. You have to have laws to protect yourself from the socio-path. Yet it’s the laws themselves that create the pathology. The Odonian model chooses to trust not just ones fellow human being but also their ability to handle issues without the need for dogmatic law making. Instead develop relationships, work with in them and share the results.
On a day to day basis decisions are made by those who they affect, and are never written in stone as the way things HAVE to be done. One’s day to day activities aren’t ARK minded, meaning one isn’t trying to find the ultimate way to do something so that it can become an ARK standard. Instead they are working to find a solution to the issue at hand. They share that solution and where it is useful it may pop up in the work others are doing. There is no ARK activity in the day to day, the only ARK related activity is the final output. The artwork.
ARK on privacy, anonymity, and the public realm
jfpickard: ARK has gone on record as describing itself as “Banksyesque”. I wondered if you could say something about Banksy’s influence on your work and, indeed, your decision to remain anonymous. Also, I ‘d like to ask whether you’d cite any other groups or individuals whose work or actions have influenced ARK as a whole?
ARK: One of the major themes in ARK is our recognition of the social aspect. Art doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It is an on-going conversation between the muse and society where the artist is the mediator. When the social fabric begins deteriorating, the art should reflect that. When the social fabric has been weaved to protect private corporate interests, the art tends to reflect that as well, but with the legal structures established as they have been, such art is marginalized if not criminalized. Artists are required by law to follow the company lines to protect their livelihood. What ARK has done is put the livelihood of the artist in their own hands so that they can be freed from the tethers of private interests.
One of the things about this is that public opinion is still controlled by those private interests. As such there remains a hurdle of sharing that work with the society. Without the normal access to channels to expose the public to work, other ones must be created. In this way ARK is Banksyesque. We put the art unabridged for you to see. In the early years a lot of ARK members were doing public art, often considered outside the law. Private interests condemned it, but those who were able to actually digest the art, saw it as an honest reflection of their society. The media tends to focus on the legality of the work and as such our reputation as an outlaw group. But what exactly is illegal art? That’s a question which artists have been challenged with for generations. Unfortunately its one which the artists themselves cannot define, but lays solely in the hands of the public. Where the public allows private interests to define that for them, that’s how you arrive at a collective of illegal artists.
ARK on hackers & hacking
jfpickard: Moving on to the whole Malaysia Financial Hack … were you surprised that the primary suspect was willing to invoke their membership of ARK? Obviously, precise details are still a little, well, vague, but I wondered if you could further clarify on your claim that ARK’s membership are not hackers, but artists – and only artists. From ARK’s perspective, can you say that art and hacking share nothing in common?
ARK: It was the first time a claim like this was made. Previously it was always the media claiming ARK involvement, never the accused, so yes it was a bit surprising. Mostly because anyone that is an ARK member would recognize that claiming ARK in such a context makes absolutely no sense. What does art have to do with the Malaysia financial system? So we’re sceptical. It would seem this is the latest attempt by the media to reinforce its definition of us, possibly because of our announcement about going public.
Specifically on the notion of hackers, if you were to parallel the work ARK does with that of hackers, the similarity would be both are focused on reflecting the modern social organism. An artist uses a corporate logo in a piece to expose that corporations connection to crimes against humanity. A hacker breaks into a corporate server to expose the fallacy of their claims of security. That’s two votes for putting the corporation under investigation. Instead the hacker and the artist are targeted. ARK neither condones or condemns the work of hackers in the same way we neither condone or condemn the work of our artists, but do not let that lead you to believe that there is some sort of ARK conspiracy which includes hacking the system.
ARK on Outlaw Planet
jfpickard: Which brings us to the whole GEAS issue. Your official reaction to the report placed the bulk of the blame on the global markets. As a Superstruct volunteer, my feeling is that we need to recognize that Outlaw Planet isn’t simply a matter of weak technology, black hats and bad guys. How is ARK approaching the Outlaw Planet superthreat?
ARK: Well let’s begin with the word ‘outlaw’. A compound word – out law, or outside the law. To be an outlaw is to live one’s life outside the law. It comes from the English common law system which sentenced convicts to the status of outlawry stripping them of legal protections, or alternately giving the people living in the law the legal right to do as they pleased with the outlaw, usually involving a decent sized ‘legal’ mob.
Its important to understand this in a localized context. “The Law” protects those within the physical bounds of its jurisdiction. Outside the walls of town, where the laws held no merit, the outlaw could shoot you. Inside the walls, you could shoot the outlaw. And so the outlaws lived outside the boundaries. Extend that to become a culture of people, no longer socially deemed outlaws, but self defined as such. People who choose to live outside the law. Why would they choose this? Not because they are criminal necessarily, but because they don’t agree with the laws. These outlaw societies have existed for as long as societies themselves, be they forced, voluntary or indigenous in nature. There have always been people who lived outside the law. Unfortunately, the rise of our homogeneous society has sought to fix the whole globe under the law, and thus deem outlaws punishable within a global jurisdiction. So the question rises, why in this context would one choose to be an outlaw.
There are any number of reasons to choose to live outside of the law. For over a decade the altruism of legal authority has been consistently tarnished by criminal politicians, profit minded legislation and the precedence private interests take over those for whom the legal system was supposedly created – the public. Keying in on that last bit, living one’s life inside the law today means abiding by rules in which a citizen is a serf to private corporate interests. In many jurisdictions a corporate entity has more legal rights than a human being. As such the laws are built not to protect the human being, but the interests of the corporation. And to be clear a corporation has only one interest – profit.
Combining these, an outlaw in today’s society is someone who does not want to live under the rule and thumb of corporate interests. The interesting thing about modern times is that the world exists not just within physical jurisdictions, but virtual ones as well. Where the two meet is perhaps the front-line of today’s struggle between the law and the outlaw. In today’s society, one’s virtual presence is as much an extension of their rights as their physical presence. In that context one must secure and protect their virtual presence just as they may protect their physical presence. The major question is from what.
Private corporate interests want you to believe they have the means of protecting you, when in fact they are really protecting their right to profit off of you. They claim by going through them you are protected from the outlaws out to steal your identity, this despite the fact that the majority of identity theft crimes are inside jobs. Despite the fact that ninety-eight of the top one hundred large scale hacks resulted in no loss of wealth to individuals. They will tell you they were attacks on their customers but in fact they were hacks on the institutions. Another interesting statistic is that seventy-five percent of the hackers who have ever been caught, turned themselves in. A common theme amongst them all is they were “pulling the pants down” on the corporation’s sense of security for their customers to see. This reinforced by the fact that the hacker was able to protect their own identity.
jfpickard: And if the danger of Outlaw Planet is targeted at those who are undermining the privacy of the individual, how would ARK suggest that we think about tackling this superthreat?
ARK: Well it begins with taking personal responsibility for oneself. We could ask that of the corporations but they are legally allowed to do anything in their power to avoid responsibility if it threatens profit. So one must take ownership of the issue personally. And its not just around issues of privacy, its really about control. Who controls your identity and for what purpose? In the nineties they called this the information age. People thought it was because of their broadened access to information, but in fact it was the broadened access to information about you the consumer for which the title was coined. Like the industrial age, it is defined by the manner technology has affected business, only the technology is focused on gathering information about you. The successor to the information age is the age of control, because who controls the information controls, and the public has been scared into giving away that control.
So if we are to solve the threat of losing control of ourselves, then we must make reclaiming ourselves a priority. There are many options to the traditional channels of access provided by the profiteers. It does take effort, but as you learn about them, you also learn how you are protected by them. You’ll realize how they are more secure than those traditional channels, and you have access to even more information. The more people that do this, the less of a demand for their services. The less demand they have, the less profit, and that is all that they care about. They’ll spin it, with talk about hackers and pirates ruining their business, but the truth of the matter is they lose customers because people don’t want to be controlled.
ARK on knowledge
jfpickard: Next, I’d like to focus in on the name of your group. Does your decision to use the title “Art Replacing Knowledge” imply that you approach knowledge as something harmful – something that we, as a species, should strive to replace or overcome?
ARK: The replacing of knowledge is more around the value base it holds in society. Right now empirical knowledge is held up as the foundation of our society. And yet how often is the truth as derived from empirical knowledge wrong? The reification of empirical knowledge feeds a psychosomatic need to know, even when knowledge is not possible. Art isn’t so black and white. Rather it says lets reflect upon what we’ve observed and see how that can guide us in our behaviour moving forward. We are in a society that has weaved itself into a multitude of knowledge traps – if what we know is true than we are obliged to act as such. If/when what we know ends up not being true, everything we’ve built upon it breaks down. And so rather than risk the complete collapse truth itself is compromised. As the saying goes, “oh what a tangled web we weave.” The modern weavers of course being privatized corporate interests.
As artists we hold ‘art’ pretty high up. Art is like the ether. Its all around us if we choose to perceive it. It doesn’t take fancy formulas, or legal precedents, just the perception of it. There is an art to walking in the city. There is an art to walking in the forest. There is an art to youth. There is an art to growing old. There is an art to sleeping. There is an art to dreaming. There is an art to falling in love. There is an art to raising a family. There is an art to being a neighbour. There is an art to being a friend. There is an art to planting a seed. There is an art to harvesting a crop. There is an art to preparing a meal. There is an art to life. That’s what ARK is about. Capturing and living through art. If you’re looking for what that is in opposition to, read all of those phrases replacing the word ‘art’ with ‘way’ or ‘law’ and think about all of the ways the media supports that point of view.
jfpickard: And is there anything else that you’d like to say? Any final thoughts, or messages you want to get out?
ARK: We’re working on the establishment of a public NSA (No Starving Artist) network aimed at reseeding in a sustainable manner. Amongst our members we’ve got an amazing selection of heirloom seeds and where there’s a member, localized starter kits, which provide the seeds and information about the growing cycles for your area. NSA is but one way to take that first step to taking back control of yourself. Even if you’re not an artist (which is impossible because we are all artists), you can join the NSA program in your area or start one. Stay tuned to the ARK blog for more details coming in the near future.
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Superstruct volunteer jfpickard lifestreams at http://rhizomorphic.tumblr.com.