For someone who does not exist -- at least the way you or I do -- Netochka Nezvanova has a fearsome reputation. She's a gifted computer programmer and polemicist, an artist and a pain-in-the-ass, a critic of capitalism and fascism, as well as a capitalist and a marketer.
Artists use her software, Nato.0+55, to manipulate video for live performance and installations. But some see Netochka herself as a work of art, an online spectacle many years running that's one of the Net's great performances.
Netochka is the human face of a software tool kit used to sample and morph digital video in real time. Netochka gives the interviews and makes the appearances at digital art and technology conferences to promote the software. Except that when she shows up in person, she's frequently embodied by different women.
Is one of them the real Netochka and the others a bunch of understudies? No one but Netochka knows, and she's not telling. She explains -- sort of -- via e-mail in her inimitable hackerese: "NN's reputation is based on mouth 2 mouth adverti.cement. When something is very well konstruckted and designed with a degree of integrity it stands on its own ... All the cool girls wear NN."
The name Netochka Nezvanova is a pseudonym borrowed from the main character of Fyodor Dostoevski's first novel; it translates loosely as "nameless nobody." Her fans, her critics, her customers and her victims alike refer to her as a "being" or an "entity." The rumors and speculation about her range all over the map. Is she one person with multiple identities? A female New Zealander artist, a male Icelander musician or an Eastern European collective conspiracy? The mystery only propagates her legend.
Whoever she is, one thing that we know for sure about Netochka is that she will not be denied.
According to artists and software programmers, she has threatened to sue Cycling '74, a San Francisco software company that produces Max, a graphical programming environment that is a prerequisite for using the Nato.0+55 software. When thrown off a mailing list, she once threatened to hold the price of her software hostage unless she was let back on. Her Web site even levies an arbitrary $9.55 tariff on all American customers, just for the heck of it.
Her antics go beyond threats. One programmer, who refuses to be named for fear of retribution, got so much Netochka spam when he angered her that he was forced to write a program to send it all back to her. She's revoked the software license of customers who publicly criticize her code on the Net. Practically, that means she's refused them routine updates to software they've already paid hundreds of dollars for.
"If you say the wrong thing in the wrong context, they have no problem yanking your license, which is what happened with me, and with a number of other people," says Jeremy Bernstein, an artist living in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Her code gives Netochka her power and makes her more than just a flamer or self-involved performance artist/Net prankster who could simply be enjoyed, deleted or ignored. She controls the software that the artists whom she amuses and hectors, taunts and plagues, use to do their work.
Netochka has something that they need.
To see why Netochka matters, venture out for a night of laptop music at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. Here, electronic music has evolved into a form that is literally performed on Macintosh laptops. It's sampling and editing taken to its logical extreme -- live sampling and editing!
Yes, in 2002, it has finally come to this: You will sit in front of a computer all day at work, and then when you go out at night to a club, you will watch an artist onstage sitting in front of a laptop bobbing his head up and down.
Electronic musicians themselves are all too aware of their showbiz problem. Their music may be transporting, but there's not a lot to look at onstage. The common joke, according to Joshua Kit Clayton, a San Francisco electronic musician, is that the musician is just up there checking e-mail or playing a video game.
Netochka's software gives the audience something to see while they listen. Behind the stage a montage of video samples mirrors and echoes the musical performance. And like the laptop music itself, the video is not just programmed in advance and then screened. It's edited live on laptops by video artists positioned in the balcony, lit by the blue glow of their monitors. At its best, the video and the music create a coordinated, improvisational whole.
Netochka makes the tool that artists use to turn video into a live performance. And for this contribution, she's celebrated. Last year, she was honored as one of the Top 25 Women on the Web by San Francisco Women on the Web.
No one came to accept the award. So make that 24 women and one something else. Beatrice Beaubien, a Toronto computer programmer who nominated Netochka for the award, defends her choice: "Even if she was a 53-year-old man who was pretending to be a 24-year-old girl, she still is a female entity that has had a huge impact on the Web and Net art."
But Netochka's greatest contribution to art may not be her software, but her posts.
Netochka's medium is the online mailing list. Posting as "antiorp" and, more recently, "integer," she capriciously takes over technical and artistic discussions in forums such as the European Net arts list Syndicate, says Steev Hise, a Bay Area electronic artist. "Nobody really knows how many real people are involved with this," he says.
Netochka's messages, which appear sometimes by the dozens a day on a single list, range from the cryptic to the indecipherable to the inflammatory, much like her artistic statement. "Off-topic" does not begin to do them justice. Her messages come peppered with ASCII word art, fragments and aphorisms that make an ethereal kind of sense -- sometimes. Her postings can be so frequent, disruptive and abrasive that at one point, there was a mailing list for list administrators devoted solely to the discussion of how to deal with Netochka's postings.
An appearance by Netochka frequently derails a mailing list, devolving it into a flame war about free speech vs. the rights of the community. Soon mailing-list members will be choosing sides: the defenders of freedom of expression at all costs! The fed-up denizens who just want her off the list! And the few who believe they see the brilliance in her indirection, the beauty in her sly, circumspect ways. All talk of anything else is soon abandoned.
"As a community destroyer, she's fantastic," says Bernstein, the Brooklyn artist. "She's perhaps one of the Internet's first professional demolition experts. She's a real talent."
Bernstein says his own license for the NATO.0+55 software was revoked after he critiqued the software publicly in a paper published on his Web site. "Netochka, whoever she and they are, has done a brilliant marketing job by making the whole thing this exclusive little mysterious club."
It's a club where admission is $550, and your membership can be revoked at any time. "As a person who has sunk $1,000 into this software over a period of time, there's nothing more irritating than having that investment yanked at somebody's whim," Bernstein says. For about eight months, he didn't receive updates to the software.
Netochka goes way, way beyond your average flame war. Perhaps her most epic attack was on the Max mailing list, a forum populated by academics, electronic musicians and computer music geek types talking shop about the programming environment. Netochka, then using the handle "antiorp," transformed the list into a screaming match about who was an S.S. sympathizer and a Nazi. Soon, Christopher Murtagh, the list administrator, became the target: "There were Web pages all over the place with swastikas and my name on it," he says.
He was mail-bombed with hundreds of messages a day. Even after the other members of the list voted antiorp off, supporters continued forwarding the entity's mail to the list. Murtagh, who'd previously defended antiorp's right to keep posting to the list, found himself saying a few things he now regrets, especially since they're still posted on one of Netochka's favorite sites, m9ndfukc.com.
Still, "most of the swastika pages are gone, that's kind of nice," he says.
Even Murtagh, though, as a student of music, has a certain grudging respect for what Netochka achieves. He points out that in the early 1900s, when a new Stravinsky piece was performed, fistfights and even full-scale riots erupted over disagreements about the music. "The antiorp thing is the same thing. Instead of actually writing music, they get onto a mailing list where people are talking about writing music and start pushing buttons," he says.
"And it has pretty much the same effect: You get a group of people who think this is genius at work and other people who think this is barbarism."
Netochka's bad-girl pose is also seductive. Too far is not far enough for her.
"The legend is entirely negative, in a sense. But it turns out that people are really attracted to that," says David Zicarelli, the founder of Cycling '74, a small software company in San Francisco,
Zicarelli now runs the Max mailing list and is the current maintainer of Max, the graphical programming environment that the Nato software runs on. "You can't believe that someone would make such a spectacle of themselves," he says.
Zicarelli has personally been on the receiving end of Netochka's vitriol. He says he's been slandered, and that his company has been threatened with legal action. He's had his company's internal e-mail posted to the list. Netochka's response to being kicked off is still online.
His main offense? Refusing to bend to her will, says Zicarelli. Nato.0+55 requires Max to run, which makes Netochka dependent on Max, and ultimately on Zicarelli. For a radical arts collective in Europe, what could be worse than being vulnerable to the whims of an American company? Even more threatening, Zicarelli says Cycling '74 is now working on software that will compete with Nato.0+55.
Netochka threatens lawsuits, she revokes software licenses, she cries Nazi! So much as criticize her software publicly, and she might announce that you have been banned from using her software. It doesn't necessarily sound like the most prudent business strategy.
But Netochka's defenders see her whole online persona as her genius. The irritation and hand-wringing -- that's all part of the point. She speaks in tongues -- her own cryptic lexicon and syntax -- and then stands back to see just how disruptive this can be to an online community.
"Her contribution as a Net artist is in some ways more culturally significant than her work as a programmer," says Beatrice Beaubien.
Seen in this light, Netochka's highest art is the creation of her legend and the propagation of her own mythology. She doesn't care what you think of her, as long as you pay attention. Some of her victims asked me not to write about her at all, because I'd just be playing into her propaganda plan.
"The meme propagates itself by instigating some type of controversy so that it can make very loud cries of scandal and get people's attention. It's an effective way of self-marketing and self-replicating," says Joshua Kit Clayton, the electronic musician and computer programmer who's been a target of Netochka's ire.
After flirting with hiring him to do some work for Nato, she publicly accused him of thievery of intellectual property, says Clayton, and threatened to sue him and his employer, Cycling '74. Now, Clayton is working on his own video software.
Netochka lives for attention. And if I were to portray her as a cruel character assassin who slanders anyone who disagrees with her publicly -- the great terror of the Net! -- so much the better. Her critics so fear her retribution that most refuse to be quoted by name about her. Like a liberal ideologue who preaches tolerance as long as you always agree with him, Netochka squelches dissent.
Ask Netochka a question about herself, and the answers appear illusory, like water running through your fingers. "Is Netochka a figment of the Net's collective imagination?" meets with this enigmatic reply: "A ty budesh chitat? There is only 01 of me."
To the more straightforward question "Are you suing Cycling '74?" she responds: "My entire life I have wanted to be like the others. The world, however, in its loveliness, refused to listen to my plea and wanted to be like me." And this is when she isn't even pissed off at you. Yet.
If you e-mail Netochka privately, she has a habit of responding publicly on various mailing lists, like the 55 list, which is where she posted her answers to all of my interview questions. This is one of the pieces of evidence that fuels the speculation that she's more than one person -- everyone involved has to be kept abreast of what she's saying, so they won't contradict each other and expose the ruse.
Netochka refuses to be pinned down. As she puts it, in e-mail: "Being ambiguous, we are deemed confused, rather than praised for the complexity of the order in our minds."
It's an attitude that her admirers echo. "On the Internet, you're required to have a false identity to a certain extent and with her she takes the constructed and contrived identity to another level," says Miya Masaoka, a musician who has met one of the women who calls herself Netochka Nezvanova. "You start with a nickname and you can go anywhere."
"You only find out how attached you are to identity being locked down and battened down and unchanging when you bump into an entity like her. She is the acid test of whether people can deal with ambiguity," says Beaubien.
Only Netochka could transform the impulse to confine her to a single identity, to unmask the true, the real, the one and only Netochka, into a symptom of shallowness. Why do you feel that you have to know? Don't you get it?
But who is Netochka, really? No one knows for sure, but here are the leading theories:
There's the Icelandic connection. At one point, Andrew McKenzie of the Hafler trio, gothic ambient noise artists who live in Iceland, was listed in an Internet registry as responsible for some of Netochka's favorite online domains.
And then there's the Eastern European hypothesis. "One of them is from Eastern Europe," says Hise; Netochka's syntax and themes are the tipoff. "They thrive on persecution. They get all political and accuse people of excluding them from festivals and art shows on the grounds of various made-up positions that they're discriminating against Eastern Europeans."
Or the New Zealand theory. A New Zealander named Rebecca Wilson has held appointment as the "director of leaves and petals" at the experimental Dutch arts foundation Studio for Electro-instrumental Music. She often appears as Netochka, and you'll find the leaves and petals moniker in Netochka's online signature file appended to her e-mails.
But e-mail from Netochka's various aliases has also been sent from ISPs in Chicago, New Zealand, Australia and Amsterdam. Go figure.
All these shenanigans would be just so much idle Net-prankstering if money wasn't at stake. "The Nato people are always ranting about corporations and capitalism, but they are acting like the worst corporations with their monopolistic tactics and their unfair fees," says Hise.
Netochka, for all her antics, has to be tolerated, if you want to use her software. This is her trump card. She has something that a small group of artists want, and they need her for technical support and upgrades.
And even if you aren't wedded to her software, the anonymity of the Net makes Netochka impossible to take on. Even suing her for slander -- not that some haven't considered it -- wouldn't be worth the expense, because of the legal cost of finding out who you'd have to go after.
She's a capitalist who screams anti-capitalism, an artist who infuriates artists, a Net phenomenon who terrorizes her medium. She is a foil, an acid test, a filter that shows us how we respond to her. And, as she herself says, it's how we deal with the likes of her, not the code, that's the hard part of technology.
"Technical skills are less important than creative thinking," lectures Netochka in an e-mail. "The epoch of the generalist has arrived -- again. Any fool can program and most do. Software engineers are emotionally inept. In today's unstable + dynamic environment they do not stand a chance."
Editor's Note: After the publication of this story, Salon received a lengthy e-mail from someone presenting herself as Netochka Nezvanova, challenging much of the article. Readers interested in seeing the full text of the e-mail can find it here. We have corrected several facts that we were able to corroborate (see our correction notice here). But as proved true during the original reporting of the story, and as we tried to communicate in the article itself, there's a level of obscurity in the communications of Ms. Nezvanova that makes ascertaining the truth a challenge.