Arts / Internet

Subnodes: a non-internet internet served in Raspberry Pi

A Brooklyn artist is making it easier for makers to set up networks as works of art.

From a Subnodes installation at Eyebeam in 2012: a WiFi chat room called Hot Probs. (Photo courtesy of Eyebeam)

Networking doesn’t have to take place on the open internet. Obviously, for most uses, it makes a lot of sense to put it online, but there’s reasons not to use the world wide web.
One of them being the fact that sometimes access to the internet gets compromised. When it goes down, you can’t reach others. Another is security: no one can hack you from Dublin if no aspect of your network reaches Dublin.

A digital artwork that showcases the medium itself.

An artist in Brooklyn, Sarah Grant, however, thinks there are lots of reasons to build very small, very local networks. She doesn’t think the idea has been explored well enough yet, but she’s working to make it easier to do so with a project she started two years ago at nonprofit art/tech center Eyebeam, called Subnodes. She told us via email:

For me, Subnodes is a way to experiment on different scales of social interaction. On a more conceptual tip, I am also interested in exploring the expressive qualities of computer networks. In other words, in what kinds of ways can a computer network evoke a feeling or communicate an idea? It sounds pretty abstract, and for now it is, but I think there is something to be found there and Subnodes is a platform I built to aid me in these explorations.

Operationally, Subnodes is an open-source Raspberry Pi-based system for setting up a server and network much more easily, without needing the internet to connect computers.
It’s been used to set up small-scale art installations and demo projects. The photo up top is from a network Grant once set up to run a chat room, called “Hot Probs,” inspired by a radio talk show in the movie Heathers. On the show and in the chat room, people could share their life problems and get advice, if they wanted it.
In other words, this is a digital artwork where what the artist has made is the medium itself.
It’s as if she’s invented a new canvas and she’s asking painters to try it, and there’s useful applications for digital artists. Subnodes could be a way for artists to exhibit digital works without making it nearly so easy for them to be propagated endlessly across the internet.
She explained:

Subnodes is a collection of scripts that will configure your Raspberry Pi (or any Debian Linux based device) as a web server, wireless access point and BATMAN mesh node.
The basic idea of Subnodes is three fold:

    • Make it easier for people who aren’t very technical to create their own offline web server + mesh node.
    • Allow someone to host a website that runs without needing to be connected to the internet. This means they can install a wireless network that serves web content of any sort, including images and video, in places where the internet usually won’t reach, i.e. subway stations, parks, anywhere, really.
    • Provide a platform that takes care of the tedious configuration details so people can focus on content rather than basic network interface + web server details.

As Grant tells it, Subnodes is pretty easy for someone to set up right now, but not quite as easy as she’d like. She’s collaborating now to get it to nearly plug-and-play level.
Grant has been on sabbatical in Berlin where she worked on Subnodes. She will also present on the project at an upcoming conference there called Transmediale. Grant is a technical lead at The Barbarian Group and graduate of NYU ITP.

  • We would dig covering some Brooklyn-specific Subnodes projects. Someone set some up. Tell us. We’ll come have a look and cover it. Promise.
Companies: Eyebeam
Series: Brooklyn

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