What the dark web might look like from the outside Photo by Kaique Rocha from Pexels

Launched in 2011, Silk Road was a dark web marketplace where unlawful goods and services, including illegal drugs and (allegedly) the services of professional hitmen, were bought and sold regularly by the site’s users. According to the FBI,

It was used by thousands of drug dealers and other unlawful vendors to distribute hundreds of kilograms of illegal drugs and other unlawful goods and services to well over 100,000 buyers, and to launder hundreds of millions of dollars deriving from these unlawful transactions.

This black market was closed in 2013 by the FBI and its founder sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole. Recently, the US government seized more than one billion dollars’ worth of bitcoins connected to Silk Road.

This is only one of the many stories that have contributed to the making of the dangerous, edgy image that the dark web has in the public perception. It seems there are no limits to the horrible acts taking place in the dark alley of the internet: terrorism, illegal pornography, and violence against animals are only few of the kinds of content that a novice dark web visitor might step upon when accessing it. One may wonder if the act of logging in doesn’t constitute an illegal act by itself. But what actually is this dark web?

Imagine having access to a telephone book containing the contact numbers of every single household and business in a city. You can reach shops, clubs, private houses, everything that is indexed by the phone company in their directory. This book gives you many contacts , but it doesn’t cover everyone. In fact, there is another platform using similar information to develop a web of contacts who don’t want to be indexed in the directory. The owners of this platform work independently from whoever owns the official telephone book. To get in contact with this alternative platform takes curiosity, a bit of technical skill, and maybe courage.

The dark web is something like this: not the dark, unknown territory within the ocean’s Mariana Trench, but more like radio waves that are constantly passing through your body whether or not you have the special instruments to make these waves intelligible to you. In the case of the dark web, one needs Tor, “an open-source software that enables anonymous communication by directing Internet traffic through an overlay network consisting of more than seven thousand relays in order to conceal a user’s location” as specified in the home page of the project’s website.

The users of the dark web are not tracked, meaning that any activities, legal and illegal, can potentially take place there. While the platforms commonly used on the World Wide Web don’t allow certain acts or are not designed to support open and anonymous discussion, a community can take advantage of the dark web’s concealing features to develop interactions otherwise impossible in online contexts. Of course, the freedom granted by the dark web has consequences. It may be used to develop a space for a sincere dialogue regarding social aspects that people are publicly ashamed of, or, with similar ease, act as a black market for illegal substances.

This sense of risk permeates mainstream stories about the dark web: If you search for “Tor” on Google, some of the most frequent searches are “is Tor illegal?” (answer: no); “do hackers use Tor?” (Yes); and “is Tor dangerous to use?” (generally, no). This unsafeness attracted the attention of those artists and creatives who critically focus on the study of digital tools. At a certain point, Facebook, Google, and the other big online platforms allowed less and less freedom to what creatives could do on them. An example of this occurred in 2007 when works uploaded by artist Petra Cortright on YouTube were deleted by the platform in 2010 because the key words she used didn’t follow the company’s guidelines and could lead viewers to content they weren’t looking for.

Petra Cortright, VVEBCAM (2007), screenshot of the YouTube page reconstructed by the artist (screenshot by the author)

The increasingly limiting “community standards” provided and imposed by social media even inspired the creation of a web space hosting artworks that were rejected by Facebook, Twitter and the other platforms. A project titled “Don’t Delete Art” is part of an international campaign “to have social media platforms adopt a set of principles that would allow art to circulate freely in the online environment.” Creatives who saw their works censored are invited to send them to the curators of the website to let them be enjoyed by the public. Not only are the works themselves on display, but also the reason why they were refused in the first place. In one case, a 1940 nude photography study was rejected by Facebook because it “violated community guidelines on photographic nudity;” in another, a drawing of a bearded man was removed from both Zuckerberg’s platform and Instagram because it featured “explicit sexual content” although nothing similar could be found in it by this author.

The process of protecting users’ feelings through censorship of content is at the center of “Dark Content” (2015) by artists Eva and Franco Mattes. They released a series of video episodes featuring stories told by anonymous social media content moderators on their site on the dark web, a project inspired by the removal from YouTube of another work created by the artists. Following the decision of unnamed moderators who deemed the content too sensitive, the clips have been displayed in traditional art galleries afterwards, making them available to the visitors who don’t usually access the dark web.

Eva & Franco Mattes, Dark Content (2015) as installed at Carroll/Fletcher Gallery, London (image courtesy the artists)

The context for the display of the work is central here as much as it is in exhibitions held in a physical space. The fact that visitors are requested to enter the dark web and put themselves at the potential peril of contacting illegal content and dangerous acts, is itself part of the work, no matter to what degree the danger is real or not. There is a thin line between a positive lack of corporate control and a negative laissez-faire approach that permits what is normally considered illegal,  and making and showing art on the dark web consist of both these approaches.

This interest in working in contexts that have not yet been permeated by the market-driven logic of corporations or by governmental control resembles certain aspects of the first phase of modern urban gentrification, namely artists seeking out the areas that allow them to work with more freedom and less financial cost than the busy, hyper-capitalized districts where most people live and socialize. It is exactly the importance of alternative means of production and display that led artists Dina Karadžić and Vedran Gligo in 2015 to open Pivilion, a gallery located in the dark web where visitors can find contemporary art works that would have otherwise been censored in other public exhibition spaces. Thanks to its decentralised structure, which has no central authority carrying out regulatory action, the dark web offers the artists a degree of freedom and anonymity that commercial galleries and traditional cultural venues simply can’t match. This is an untold contemporary art history that draws my attention because its developments are difficult to record given the platform where its key actions have taken place.

Dina Karadžić and Vedran Gligo, Pivilion (2015), custom interface for the exhibition ~ co-op ~ / Borders of Visibility at the Museum of Fine Arts, Osijek (image courtesy the artists)

The works by known artists displayed on the dark web offer the public the opportunity to access areas of the internet they may have never been visited before, like taking a bus to what is perceived as a lowlife area of a big city, knowing that the journey there will be a safe experience in a comforting space. The travel to and from the exhibition is an adventure and constitutes part of the experience. Other than offering a thrill that visits to traditional online galleries often can’t match, experiencing this work also helps the public get used to navigating unknown territories, where they can’t rely on Google or Facebook to search for information or easily contact other people. In this sense, the dark web resembles an idyllic memory of what the World Wide Web was in the 1990s, before the arrival of big corporations, when the first net.art projects came to be thanks to artists who were granted more freedom than exists in some of these digital spaces now.

By taking advantage of the unique features of the dark web, contemporary artists offer a service to the public who seek alternative, less known routes to navigate the internet. The public perception of the dark web, so potentially dangerous and borderline in the eyes of those respectable web citizens who never venture outside the spaces constituting their online routines, play an important role in the presentation and understanding of the works hosted on it. The dark web, like a urban district that becomes gentrified over time, may come to host new areas for exploration. Decentralised markets and discussion spaces where there is no censorship may rise along with a number of exhibitions by known artists. This development may cause a radical change in the public perception of what the dark web offers and potentially make it a more secure area to explore.

Filippo Lorenzin is an independent art writer, teacher, and curator. Originally from Italy, he worked for the Victoria and Albert Museum, Goethe Institut and Paris College of Art. He writes about media...