What the heck? – hacking HEK
Garrett Lynch (IRL)
Since its inception in 2009, the House of Electronic Art Basel (HeK) has supported “digital culture and the new art forms of the information age.” It is interested in where visual arts, music, theater, dance, performance, and design converge, launching awards with the Swiss art magazine Kunstbulletin for net-based artworks in 2016.
For the net-based award a jury selects nominees and an overall winner, however, the public is also invited to select a nominated artwork for an audience award. Users vote via Pinpoll, an online polling system that can be easily hacked. In 2017, first- and second-place winners of the audience award each received 1,400 more votes than other nominated artworks, which combined represented about 90% of all votes cast.
As a consequence, by 2018 the award had lost its credibility among artists. In fact, less attention was given to which artwork would win the most votes than which hacker or bot would be able to cast the most votes.
Garrett Lynch (IRL)’s What the heck? – hacking HEK is a hack of the audience award as performance. A clicking bot cast votes through TorBrowser and arbitrarily selected one nominated artwork to win by an excessive number of votes. Its intention was to undermine the audience award by calling attention to the use of the flawed online polling system employed in its selection.
As the artist makes clear, What the heck? engages in much wider debates on transparency in polls, elections, and other systems that facilitate collective decision-making yet are increasingly vulnerable to “disruptions” by outside agents. In an era of social media, voters are often flooded with disinformation in their newsfeeds that is spread by bots posing as fellow citizens. What the heck? also focuses attention on a culture of villainizing whistle-blowers, such as Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, who risk their lives to make information available to citizens so that they can hold their political leaders accountable. Social justice movements have long histories of being undermined with accusations of “incivility,” something that now enters into arts and higher education institutions in an era of neoliberalism.
What the heck? is also reminiscent of the cyberfeminist artist Cornelia Sollfrank’s Female Extension (1997). Suspecting that the Hamburger Kunsthalle’s Extension, a juried competition for net art, would likely reward only men, Sollfrank flooded the competition with more than 300 projects by women. The projects themselves were “data trash,” that is, a remixing of content on existing websites. By disrupting the competition, Sollfrank drew attention to sexism in net art, thereby demonstrating that contrary to its profiling as an alternative to traditional art venues, it mirrored the male-dominated focus of such cultural spaces.
Launched on 19 May 2018, What the heck? – hacking HEK operated until the closure of the poll on the 26 May 2018. On 30 May 2018, HeK announced that its polling system had been hacked, prompting it to disperse the prize money equally amongst all nominees. Consequently, What the heck? – hacking HEK successfully exposed the vulnerability of online polling systems, normally assumed to be a seamless way to enable democratic participation, showing how they can be manipulated in undemocratic ways.
Garrett’s collaboration with Frédérique Santune, Best of Luck with the Wall (variant), was featured in FLEFF 2017.