Editorial – Border Disruptions: Playbour & Transnationalisms

Our times are characterized by the accelerating collapse and redrawing of multiple borders: between nation states, personal identities, and the responsibilities we have for each other. Also between the old distinctions, work and pleasure.

Some leaders as part of the new world order, tell us through their political actions and their fashion accessories, that they “Just Don’t Care”. This “political art-form”1 of not caring permits an insidious spread of hatred online and on the ground. In recent times, the digital condition has lent it’s networks and platforms to this poisonous, rhetorical hyperbole, turning against immigrants, and others who do not fit into the framework of a western world, oligarch orientated vision. Mass extraction and manipulation of social data has facilitated the circulation of fake news and the production of fear, anxiety and uncertainty. Together these fuel the machine of structural violence adding to the already challenging conditions created by Austerity policies, growing debt and poverty.

In the face of these outlandish difficulties our digital tools and networks – taken up with a spirit of cultural comradeship. More inspiring narratives are emerging from across disciplines and backgrounds, to experiment with new solidarity-generating approaches that critique and build platforms, infrastructures and networks, offering new possibilities for reassessing and re-forming citizenship and rights.

The exhibition and labs for Playbour – Work, Pleasure, Survival, have created new contexts for collaboration. Artists (from the local area and internationally), game designers and architects, come together with researchers from psychology and neuroscience addressing the data driven gamification of life and everything.

“What a day planning games! Flesh and feelings, revenge engineering, ARG in trees, disability bots, and a “fake” toilet idea that’s hard to translate in a tweet! Head exploding. @furtherfield

 

In her interview, the curator Dani Admiss discusses how they reassess the power relationships of the gallery, park users and the local authorities, asking who owns the cultural infrastructure and public amenities – and so create a polemic to open up questions of public value. The exhibition is open every weekend through 14 July to 19 August 2018.

The artists featured in Transnationalisms exhibition curated by James Bridle address the effect on our bodies, our environment, and our political practices of unstable borders.

“They register shifts in geography as disturbances in the blood and the electromagnetic spectrum. They draw new maps and propose new hybrid forms of expression and identity.”2

We Help Each Other Grow, 2017 from They Are Here.

“Thiru Seelan, a Tamil refugee who arrived in the UK in 2010 following detention in Sri Lanka during which he was tortured for his political affiliations, dances on an East London rooftop. His movements are recorded by a heat sensitive camera more conventionally often used to monitor borders and crossing points, where bodies are identified through their thermal signature.”3

The show opens at Furtherfield from September 14th to October 26th 2018, touring as part of State Machines the EU cooperation which investigates the new relationships between states, citizens and the stateless made possible by emerging technologies.

We have another interview with artist and activist Cassie Thornton, where we discuss her current project Hologram, which examines health in the age of financialization, and works to reveal the connection between the body and capitalism. Her interview focuses on a series of experiments that actively counter the effects of indebtedness through somatic – or body – work including her focus on the way in which institutions produce or take away from the health of the artists and workers they “support”.

“In my work for the past decade, I have been developing practices that attempt to collectively discover what debt is and how it affects the imagination of all of us: the wealthy, the poor, the indebted, financial workers, babies, and anyone in-between.” Thornton

          Feminist Economics Yoga (FEY) (Cassie Thornton, The Feminist Economics Department (FED))

 

Finally I interview Tatiana Bazzichelli, artistic director and curator of the Disruption Network Lab, in Berlin, questions about art as Investigation of political misconducts and Wrongdoing. Since 2015, the Disruption Network Lab has cultivated a stage and a sanctuary for otherwise unheard and stigmatised voices to delve into and explore the urgent political realities of their existence at a time when the media establishment has no investment in truth telling for public interest.

“When the speakers are with us and open their minds to our topics, I feel that we are receiving a gift from them. I come from a tradition in which communities, networks and the sharing of experience were the most important values, the artwork by themselves.” Bazzichelli.

The programme creates a conceptual and practical space in which whistleblowers, human right advocates, artists, hackers, journalists, lawyers and activists are able to present their experience, their research and their actions – with the objective of strengthening human rights and freedom of speech, as well as exposing the misconduct and wrongdoing of the powerful.

To conclude, all one needs to say is…

“Whether in the variety of human, backgrounds and perspectives, biodiversity or diversity of technologies, coding languages, devices, or technological cultures. Diversity is Proof of Life.” Ruth Catlow, 2018.


Discussing ‘Playbour – Work, Pleasure, Survival’ with Dani Admiss

Way back in 1995, the artist collective Critical Art Ensemble (CAE), said “What your data body says about you is more real than what you say about yourself. The data body is the body by which you are judged in society, and the body which dictates your status in the world.” These words now haunt us, and take their place alongside numerous other ignored warnings about global threats to the wellbeing of our societies and the planet.

In this interview with curator Dani Admiss, we discuss how the data-driven gamification of life and everything has shaped the development of Playbour – Work, Pleasure, Survival at Furtherfield and why the Gallery is currently being transformed into a psychological environment.

Gallery visitors are presented with a series of game-like installations, which are the result of the shared and collective cognitive labour of artists, curators and gallery staff. First the artists, and then the public (as players) are invited to test the processes and experiences offered by new mechanisms of play and labour. Each ‘game’ simulates an experience of how some techniques and technologies of gamification, automation, and surveillance, are at work in our everyday lives, in order to capture all forms of existence.

Interview

Marc Garrett: Before the exhibition, you initiated an open call for a Lab. You invited participants to join a three-day art and research lab at Furtherfield Commons, Finsbury Park, London. Could you elaborate why you did this and how it informed the exhibition?

Dani Admiss: A couple of months before the exhibition, I ran a 3 day co-research lab that brought together artists, designers, activists, and researchers. I like to refer to it as a performative, temporary exhibition in the form of a lab. There were discussions, performances, interventions, games, and exercises. We had discussion with Jamie Woodcock on gaming and digital labour, he walked us through an interview session with gamers on the Twitch platform. Steven Levon Ounanian held a performative experiment where we thought about how we might render the suffering online in the real world, Itai Palti worked with us to think about design principles and neuroscience. FUN! The idea was that we would collectively explore, discuss and define key issues that we thought were important to then take forward to develop into games and experiences to share with the public. The aim was to play off each other in a live context to generate new perspectives and ideas.

Building on this, I decided to hold an open call for participants. In my most idealistic moment, I’d say I wanted to try and find ways to expand who gets to produce, stage and display, how we define what these issues actually are for wider audiences. Can this lead to new stories about art, tech, society? Like any project it is never exactly as you imagined it, but I think the majority of people got a lot out of working like this. I did. Working with people that aren’t always the people you expect to be attached to a project always throws up unexpected experiences. Everyone brought their best themselves with them. Open. Interested. Warm. Prepared. Ready to listen, and for fun!

I’d make the lab longer next time, so it wasn’t as intense, and I’d try to have more people join the open call.

MG: The open-curation process you have developed is core to the realisation of the Playbour lab and exhibition. It resonates strongly with Furtherfield’s DIWO ethos. It turns on its head, the traditional approach to curating thematic group shows. Please can you tell us about the process and say why this new approach is important at this time?

                                        Lunch time. 3 day co-research lab that brought together artists, designers, activists, and researchers.

 

DA: DIWO definitely informed Playbour! I think the spirit of co-creative discovery is a powerful tool that curators should use more. I refer to it as co-research, which is ultimately a way to research-with others. What separates it from more traditional approaches to curating is the unclear distinction between author/researcher and subject/participant. The aim is to achieve closer equality between the participant and subject area, in the form of valuing a person’s idea’s and lived-experience as much as other ‘expert’ forms of knowledge. Historically, it has roots in a highly specific context of the radical Left in post-war Italy with Operaismo. This is where the seeds of debate on post-immaterial labour emerged, arising from Hardt, Negri, Bifo, Terranova, etc, and why I originally was interested in working in this way because of the subject matter of the project, however, it became something so much more.

 

Photo of Steven Levon Ounanian’s workshop session “The Group Limb” as part of Playbour – Work, Pleasure, Survival Lab, May, 2018

 

For me, as a curator, creating projects about complex subject areas that bring together embodied and embedded social relations with technical worlds, is something that needs to be done with people rather than to them. I think the most interesting works of art being produced today are treated less like things and instead draw into the very making of the ways in which we get to know what we know. You can see this in works from Cassie Thornton’s project Collective Psychic Architecture (an exploration of “bad support” in Sick Times) 2018, where she extends the responsibilities of the gallery or institution through performative means, or in the high-profile modeling and mapping practices coming out of the Forensic Architecture network. How can curating exist in a wider space than before? I’m trying to work in much more extended and expanded ways with the primary intention to include more end users into the areas we are looking at.

Adopting a co-research model (in the lab, in the show, in the publication, in the micro-commissions) meant that the aim of the exhibition shifts, it becomes less about what the topic is and how it works and more about how it came to be. Brian Holmes once wrote that making an image remakes the world. Yes, but it also distances us from it. Playbour asks people to consider how the world organises us by facilitating moments where people can identify with particular phenomena. I feel this is more fitting and has more potential to create moments of personal learning and change than trying to represent it through curatorial practice. Why do we need this in an age of information? My thinking is that knowledge-projects are not simply objective processes but deeply subjective ones that are enacted through and with others. Finding ways for people to identify in more meaningful ways with the subject will hopefully lead to greater chance that people will gain greater perspective and agency over their own worlds.

Cassie Thornton’s “bloackaid” part of Collective Psychic Architecture (an exploration of “bad support” in Sick Times) 2018. Photo Credit Colin Conces.


MG:
The term Playbour brings attention to critiques of gamification and to the extraction of value via social media platforms. But your subtitle then opens up a whole other world of reflection. What are you discovering about the relationship between “work, pleasure and survival”?

DA: The project is exploring the role of the worker in the age of data technologies, but this looks less at the “future of work” and chooses instead to focus on the shifting roles and blurred boundaries of work, play and well-being – how do we place value on these areas, how do we work with and against them?

Quite often when we talk about opaque terms like immaterial labour and cognitive capitalism we fail to grasp the production processes of these phenomena. Immaterial labour depends on the self and our social relations. We are asked to ‘post’, ‘share’, ‘network’, ‘emote’, ‘communicate’, ‘know’. Not so much ‘understand’. These acts inform the control and creation of our subjectivity. At the same time, very little discussion is happening about the fact that so much exploitation -physical, ecological, economical- sits behind the new commons we are all talking about.

Opening the project out to think about work, pleasure, survival, is a provocation. On one level, it is a nod to the fact that this conversation is for a privileged few. Many choose what they do and this ‘choice’ is supposed to operate as an expression of one’s personality. On the other, it’s human nature to get swept up in what is considered the norm, so it’s also a challenge to think about what are your own limits, returning to the idea of inviting people to find moments of identification with these broader issues to their own lived experience.

MG: Why is it important that the work being prepared for Furtherfield gallery is conceived of more, as a series of game experiences, than a display of discrete art objects, or a didactic exhibition on the topic of Play and Labour? Has the gallery’s location in a public park influenced your thinking at all?

DA: Well, first off, it has been a collective process and so I wanted to show that process to people. Secondly, you have to invest part of yourself in play. The more I research the areas of digital and immaterial labour the more I’m keen to work with others to understand the not yet completed transformations of body, society, and world, into a global capitalist system. These are suffuse and pervasive and nudge our behaviours all of the time. Organising the exhibition as experiences is a way for us all to live-out (at least temporarily and in a safe, playful space) the tentacular effects of immaterial labour and economies of knowledge and information. This is not to say let’s walk away from a highly networked society, it’s an invitation back into perspectival agency.

MG: You’ve chosen to put together three themes for the exhibition, ranging across work, pleasure, and survival. Why was it important to choose these three themes in particular?

DA: I’m fascinated by how we are involved in the making of worlds we are then conditioned by. From the learnings in the lab, my own research and collaborations leading up to Playbour, I think gamification, automation, and surveillance are three key areas that scaffold a lot of the debate on digital and immaterial labour.

1) SURVEILLANCE. How we are measured and how we measure ourselves? Traditionally, government control used to come from top-down surveillance techniques, such as the type Michael Straeubig’s Hostile Environment Facility Training (HEFT) is looking at. However, I think we should be talking about how forms of control are exercised through our own self-monitoring processes – self-improvement culture is a perfect example of this. Cassie Thornton’s Feminist Economics Yoga (FEY), is a wonderful remedy for this.

2) AUTOMATION. How technology is removing decision-making from us in the pursuit of a frictionless universe. In Harrison-Mann’s Public Toilet he is talking about how automation is used to address the need of social issues. The starting point is the lack of public services offered in Finsbury Park and how that is altering how we use and experience the public space of the park. He is interested in making a connection between this and how metrics can often end up being exercised in controversial and even arbitrary ways inhibiting people getting what they need, such as disability benefits in the UK.

3) GAMIFICATION. How are rewards and competition embedded into our online interactions and interfaces? Jamie Woodcock has this excellent term that describes gamification-from-above and gamification-from-below. Like the Situationist socialism-from-below. How we might use gamification for our own positive manipulations, diversions and distractions? I think a lot of media and new media practice has long been engaged in gamification-from-below. Marija Bozinovska Jones’ piece Treebour (201) plays on this, transferring manipulation of social relations levelled at online interactions to the “natural” networking of trees.

MG: After visitors have experienced the exhibition, what emotions, thoughts and understandings, would you like them to leave with?

I think you introduced the show in an interesting way in your opening text with the notion of the data body and the extension of our bodies into new spaces with unknown consequences. These happen inside the screen, at the edges of the world, in transit, at the end of the supply chains. At the same time, they also operate on semi-conscious refrains, in our behaviours, actions, thoughts and emotions about the world. Taking part, thinking-with, making-with, are strategies to find ways to open up discussions about how we are all involved in making and unmaking our worlds via different actions. Something like digital and immaterial labour is not a discrete issue reservable for experts who work in this area, the connections and consequences weave in and out of our lives and impact us all. We are constantly reacting to thing around us, taking in these cues and pushing them back out into the world.

In terms of emotions, I don’t want to spread fear and despair, I’m hoping that some visitors will identify with some of the ideas in the show and relate them to something in their life that perhaps they’d not thought of in that way before.

Notes: Main top image by Marija Bozinovska Jones, Treebour 2018.

DIWO – Do It With Others: Resource
archive.furtherfield.org/projects/diwo-do-it-others-resource


Review: Compiler – a new platform for new media art and dialogue

Compiler is an experimental platform organised by curator Alisa Blakeney, artist-curator Tanya Boyarkina, artist Oscar Cass-Darweish and choreographer Eleanor Chownsmith, all currently students of MA Digital Cultures, Goldsmiths. The platform is being built in order to “support collaborative, process-driven projects which connect artists and local communities in networks of knowledge-exchange”.

The organisers of Compiler describe it as a kind of ongoing prototype, a structure constantly negotiating the openness to maintain links to varied practices with the coherence of framing, containing, and describing some of the complicated products of digital-analogue interactions. Their focus is looking at what ‘digital culture’ means and having a productive conversation about it.

From 6-8 April, the first Compiler, Play Safe took place downstairs at OOTB in New Cross. The exhibition examined practices of surveillance inherent in “states, corporations, technological spaces and the idioms of digital art”. It questioned whether an increasing intensity of surveillance is linked to control, extraction and politics, or can be understood as a pleasurable phenomenon. People were invited to “Dance a website, see through the eyes of a computer, and have our cryptobartender mix you a cocktail to cure your NSA woes”. The work on show, made by students from MA Computational Arts and MA Digital Cultures (both Goldsmiths), included Eleanor Chownsmith’s software and performance which turned website HTML into dance routines, Michela Carmazzi’s photographic project documenting the reactions of Julian Assange and his supporters following the United Nations’ ruling about his case, and Saskia Freeke’s machine which repeatedly and intentionally failed to create a ticker-tape parade using sensors and fans.

Saskia Freeke, ‘Confetti Machine’, 2017, interactive installation. Photo credit: Howard Melnyczuk

An exhibition on the theme of surveillance creates a strange grey area for itself when shown in a building with nine screens of CCTV footage. Oscar Cass-Darweish’s project made a fairly direct link to the CCTV cameras which emphasised this greyness. The project produced a rendering of the exhibition space by using a function usually found in motion detection processes. This function calculates the difference in pixel colour values between frames at a set interval and averages them, creating a visual output of how machines calculate difference over time.

Another work which made links with the room upstairs was Fabio Natali’s Cryptobar, where following an interview with the ‘bartender’ about your data privacy needs you were recommended a cocktail of data-encryption software. Upstairs you could buy, and drink, a cocktail with the same name (the Cryptobar was part of the V&A Friday Late on Pocket Privacy on 28 April).

Between Frames, Oscar Cass Darweish at Compiler. Photo credit: Howard Melnyczuk

So far, Compiler has made a variety of spaces for conversation about digital culture through both its artworks and its organisation. Each artwork has a different ‘footprint’ of interactions, linking websites to rooms, success to failure, data privacy to financial transaction via consultation, and making interesting connections between CCTV and code, dance notation and HTML, activism and commerce.

An interesting way to read the Compiler platform is as a series of combinations of human-readable codes and machine-readable codes. The platform ‘compiles’ a different combination each time, and each time the output is different. Through this, the interaction of analogue and digital processes is demystified and muddled, in a distinct way. The platform is in its early days, but it seems likely that new connections and new grey areas will appear over the next few months, as Compiler has its second exhibition (again at OOTB) in May, takes part in the CCS conference at Goldsmiths in June and heads in other directions thereafter.

Michela Carmazzi, Assange, 2017, digital photographs. Photo credit: Howard Melnyczuk

The exhibition offered plenty to play with, while posing complicated problems in relation to openness and experimentation. When I spoke to Eleanor, Tanya and Alisa about Compiler and its aim to engage local communities in networks of knowledge-exchange , we talked about how it’s an impossible and strange aspiration to have a ‘neutral’ venue. While a cocktail can be delicious and engaging, it’s also expensive. While a cafe is, arguably, a less exclusive space than a gallery, OOTB itself is a cafe which targets a specific audience. Drink prices, decor and a host of other factors mean OOTB, like all spaces, is politicised in a particular way. Their venue choices so far will influence, in subtle and overt ways, their future attempts to engage diverse local communities. The organisers of Compiler acknowledge this; their response is that rather than trying to make an artificial neutrality they are keen to move as the platform develops to new spaces and new and different contexts.

A change of context, message, communication style is not easy; nor does it fit with to an easily recognisable politics or aesthetics. Moving into and out of contexts is something to be done carefully and thoughtfully. It seems to me that the Compiler team will have their work cut out, but if they can direct that work in such a way that the platform is able to communicate in multiple ways at once, ‘networks of knowledge-exchange’ could develop between, and in response to, the markers set by the organisers. The question is, how will they develop?


Backdoored: An interview with Nye Thompson

Nye Thompson is a London-based artist whose work explores the interface between physical and virtual domains. Her recent artwork Backdoored involves the collection and online archiving of images taken via unsecured surveillance cameras worldwide. Backdoored was featured at Internet Yami-Ichi at Tate Modern in May this year. Backdoored.io, curated by Kosha Hussain, followed as a solo show at Bank Gallery, London in August. Artist Millicent Hawk interviews Nye on the technology, aesthetics and universal conditions that make this work both compelling and uneasy at once.

Millicent Hawk: Backdoored is transparent in its approach – the website tagline reads, ‘Intrusion | Surveillance | Exposure’. And whilst there have been a few (mostly misinformed) concerns aired publicly about the invasive nature to the work since the first solo exhibition of it this year, you’re not actually a hacker and these images existed already before – can you explain how these images are taken and the issues they raise.

Nye Thompson: To me, Backdoored highlights the technological erosion of our privacy and through this work I’m exploring the factors that make us active contributors to this process. A ‘backdoor’ is slang for a feature or defect in a device that allows the bypassing of normal authentication. These images are generated by softbots belonging to specialist search engines which trawl connected devices (the Internet of Things) for security testing. The bots take pictures when they discover an unsecured camera and save them into their search results. In most cases the owner of the camera has no idea this is happening.

For some time now I’ve been interested in the Internet of Things and its potential impact on our personal privacy and liberties, but how do you create artistic discourse around something so abstractly technical? So when I first discovered these images they were revelatory for me because they provided me with a ready-made visual language to talk about these issues. There is also a performative thread running through the project: every day I get sent new images, and I attempt to unpick meaning from their apparent randomness by developing taxonomies and applying them to each one.

MH: So how does one avoid being, ahem, Backdoored ?

NT: If you have an IP surveillance camera in your home then you are basically broadcasting your domestic life onto the internet. This data needs to be protected by setting a unique, secure passcode on the camera. The images in Backdoored come from cameras that don’t have this. Part of the problem is a toxic combination of low public awareness of privacy risks combined with profit-hungry manufacturers and lack of regulation. But these Backdoored cameras are just harbingers of what is to come – a future surrounded by smart objects all collecting and sharing data about us.

84.0.151.238, 2016-08-05

MH: The word ‘Backdoored ’ implies something that’s both disturbing but potentially exciting too, although, with explicit reference to the screenshots of a child or an elderly person in bed, combined with geo-location details – it’s totally creepy. However, those particular images aside, there’s something fascinating with many of the vidcam shots. Bots are set off to capture the image at a single point of finding unsecured domains so people are captured in their domestic settings – at ease in their pants, for example. This serendipitous and incidental timing without a human-decisive moment or any playing to the camera makes these images – albeit voyeuristic – seemingly more representative of the real and something nearer to the truth. So the digital aspect to the dark world of unsecured vidcams brings me intrigue as well as valid concerns over individual rights to privacy.

NT: Yes, although images of people in their homes form only a part of the surveillance images I find; there are wastelands, machinery, bars, building sites, hidden cameras, zombie cameras – forgotten but still broadcasting. They form a kind of covert mapping of contemporary concerns and anxieties worldwide.

77.68.183.133, 2016-07-31

MH: Yes, this is different to public surveillance and government snooping which – for the most part – seems to have been accepted. Similarly to public surveillance though, home vidcams seem an unnecessary reaction to an underlying and excessive state of fear, and the voracity to control; anxieties in these images then are represented through the choice of self-prescribed surveillance.

NT: Yes, it seems like the scenes and objects in these pictures predominantly represent a kind of metaphysical anxiety, or a way to reassure ourselves of object permanence. These are things that we feel we need to monitor constantly in case something bad happens, although it’s not always clear how we would meaningfully intervene. It’s a classic case of a technology creating a need, and a new demand on our attention. Suddenly we have the ability to watch the people and things in our life 24/7, and so not watching can almost feel like a failure to care. Yet at the same time there is a distancing, as we engage with our babies, our elderly parents, our pets, our work colleagues, our possessions – as live video streams rather than through physical, embodied interaction.

178.209.6.29, 2016-06-20

MH: Thinking back to earlier this year, Backdoored was a new idea for you. And something that I – and presumably many people – weren’t even aware was happening. At the time, we discussed the premise for this work and shared our concerns of how ethics get outpaced by rapid technological development. How do you reconcile Backdoored seeing that these images bring greater intrusion to those whose privacy they reveal?

NT: This is an important question. These images are already out there for anyone to find, and more significantly millions of these cameras are insecure and vulnerable, yet, as you said, many people are not aware of these facts. Of course I am conscious that by bringing people’s attention to them I am also amplifying the images, so there are ethical and curatorial challenges here. But these images do already exist and I’m using them in a very direct way – drawing attention to privacy and surveillance issues. There’s immediacy to imagery that resonates when a full-length article might not. I think public reports on privacy issues, by organisations like Privacy International & Big Brother Watch (to name just two), are massively important but they are endlessly firefighting this international problem. Who’s to say art can’t have an effect on these issues too?

MH: Raising awareness helps – last week I made a studio visit to an artist who had a Backdoored postcard on his desk, the tape over his webcam was a recent addition since seeing your work at Tate Modern. But, further to public awareness, lawmakers, regulators, manufacturers and commercial watchdogs need to work together to ensure privacy matters. That said, state surveillance is at a insanely invasive level – I’m thinking of GCHQ’s Smurf Suite and the Investigatory Powers Bill (which targets journalists’ privacy on whistleblowers) – vidcam backdoors perhaps seem trivial for a government to attempt to regulate and, perhaps, are even a welcomed accessory to state surveillance. On the issue of state surveillance, you were faced with some rather heavy legal threats – explain.

NT: Ah yes. Backdoored.io at Bank Gallery this year triggered an official complaint from the Hong Kong Commissioner. One of the works featured domestic scenes from Hong Kong – they seem to use a disproportionately high volume of unsecured surveillance cameras in their homes. First I received legal threats from a Chinese newspaper, then Channel 4 news weighed in with a recorded complaint from the Commissioner and demanded that I give them a (pre-recorded) interview in response. They then broadcast a sensationalised news piece, using a heavily cut version of my interview. The news article attacked me for my use of these images, while at the same time deliberately obfuscating the privacy and technology issues and how the images came to exist in the first place. Ironically, a few weeks later, the media was full of reports that the FBI was advising people to put tape over their webcams to protect their privacy!

91.56.85.2, 2016-08-01

MH: Ha, fifteen years too late. In terms of the complaint from the Chinese Commissioner for Hong Kong, it seems rather duplicitous that a country with the most pervasive internet censorship to maintain control over it’s public (I understand ProtonMail has a large Chinese user base) would be interested in threatening a UK artist here – what’s the percentage of webcams that are manufactured in China?

NT: No comment 😉

MH: So what’s next for Backdoored and how do you see the future for privacy?

NT: Backdoored highlights this very real and disturbing fact – these images already exist. What does this imply for us now and what does it imply for the future? Backdoored foregrounds privacy and surveillance, although, as an artist, I’m also interested in these images as material: the social and cultural messages encoded within them; their robotic origin; and the complex responses they evoke in the viewer. These images are signifiers for some of the epic power struggles* currently taking place at the cutting edge of technological development. This surrendering of our privacy seems like a one-way ticket; once we’ve lost that could we ever get it back? What we want for our futures must be dealt with now.

 

* In recent weeks we have seen just how easily these unsecured cameras can be ‘weaponised’ by hackers. For example, millions of these cameras have now been infected with the Mirai and other viruses. This allows them to be conscripted into giant ‘botnet’ armies which can be used to attack or censor other parts of the Internet.

 

Nye Thompson’s Backdoored will be in TERMINAL, a group exhibition opening at Avalanche in December. For 2017 she is planning a UK touring show, and also a panel discussion on issues raised by the project. Event details can be found on the Backdoored website.

Contact:
@nyethompson
www.Backdoored.io


The War On Cash

Several months ago I stayed in an offbeat Amsterdam hotel that brewed its own beer but refused to accept cash for it. Instead, they forced me to use the Visa payment card network to get my UK bank to transfer €4 to their Dutch bank via the elaborate international correspondent banking system.

I was there with civil liberties campaigner Ben Hayes. We were irritated by the anti-cash policy, something the hotel staff took for annoyance at the international payments charges we’d face. That wasn’t it though. Our concern was an intuitive one about a potential future world in which we’d have to report our every economic move to a bank, and the effect this could have on marginalised people.

‘Cashless society’ is a euphemism for the “ask-your-banks-for-permission-to-pay society”. Rather than an exchange occurring directly between the hotel and me, it takes the form of a “have your people talk to my people” affair. Various intermediaries message one another to arrange an exchange between our respective banks. That may be a convenient option, but in a cashless society it would no longer be an option at all. You’d have no choice but to conform to the intermediaries’ automated bureaucracy, giving them a lot of power, and a lot of data about the microtexture of your economic life.

Fintech, money, financePhoto coutesy of Tech in Asia https://www.techinasia.com

Our concerns are unfashionable. Without any explicit declaration, the War on Cash has begun. Proponents of digital payment systems are riding upon technology-friendly times to proclaim the imminent Death of Cash. Sweden leads in the drive to reach this state, but the UK is edging that way too. London buses stopped accepting cash in 2014, but do accept MasterCard and Visa contactless payment cards.

Every cash transaction you make is one that a payments intermediary like Visa takes no fee from, so it has an interest in making cash appear redundant, deviant and criminal. That’s why, in 2016, Visa Europe launched its “Cashfree and Proud” campaign, to inform cardholders that “they can make a Visa contactless payment with confidence and feel liberated from the need to carry cash.”

2015_08_210001 - payment cashless and heartlessPhoto courtesy of Gwydion M Williams https://flic.kr/p/xtvKjW

The company’s press release declared the campaign “the latest step of Visa UK’s long term strategy to make cash ‘peculiar’ by 2020.”

There you have it. An orchestrated strategy to make us feel weird about cash. Propaganda is a key weapon of war, and all sides present themselves as liberators. Visa comes across like a paternalistic commander when assuring us that we – like a baby taking first steps – will feel a sense of achievement at liberating ourselves from the burden of cash dependence. Visa’s technology offers freedom without dependence or dangers.

Visa is joined by other propagandists. In 2014 Penny for London arrived, an apparently altruistic group set up by the Mayor’s Fund for London and Barclaycard, using charity as a hook to switch people to contactless cards on the London Underground. PayPal plastered cities with billboards claiming that “new money doesn’t need a wallet”, along with a video proclaiming: “New money isn’t paper, it’s progress”. Astroturfing campaigns like No Cash Day are backed by American Express, highlighting such anti-cash themes as the environmental impact of banknotes. Other tactics include pointing out that criminals use cash, that it fuels the shadow economy, that it’s unsafe, and that it facilitates tax evasion.

The Death of Cash means the Rise of Something Else

These arguments have notable shortcomings. Criminals use many things that we keep – like cars – and fighting crime doesn’t take priority over maintaining other social goods like civil liberties. The ‘shadow economy’ is a derogatory term used by elites to describe the economic activities of people they neither understand nor care about. As for safety, having your wallet cash stolen pales in comparison to having your savings obliterated in a digital account hack. And if you care about tax justice, start with the mass corporate tax avoidance facilitated by the formal banking sector.

The peculiar feature about this war, however, is that only one side is fighting. Very few media champions defend cash. It is like a taken-for-granted public utility, whereas digital payments platforms are run by private companies with an incentive to flood the media with their key messages. When they fight this war, their target is our cultural belief in cash, and the belief that its provision should be a public right.

 

week 7 - whats in your pocket / bag / gloveboxPhoto courtesy of Mark Tighe https://flic.kr/p/k2cCbv

The UK government does not plan to maintain that right, and is siding with the payments industry. Their position is summed up by economist Kenneth Rogoff in his new book The Curse of Cash. He argues that, apart from facilitating crime and tax evasion, cash hampers central banks from setting negative interest rates. In the absence of cash, everyone must keep their money in the form of digital bank deposits. During recessions central banks could then use the banking system to deliberately corrode people’s deposits via negative charges, ‘inspiring’ them to spend rather than hoard.

The emergent consensus among economic and political elites is that this is the direction to go in, but to manufacture consent for this requires a drip-drip erosion of public resistance. Hearts and minds must be shown that the change represents inevitable and desirable progress.

Anyone defending cash in this context will be labelled as an anti-progress, reactionary, and nostalgic Luddite. That’s why we must not defend cash. Rather, we should focus on pointing out that the Death of Cash means the Rise of Something Else. We are fighting a broader battle to maintain alternatives to the growing digital panopticon that is emerging all around us.

To understand this conflict, we must step back. A monetary transaction involves specific goods or services being exchanged for tokens giving access to general goods and services from others. The pub landlord hands me beer at night if I transfer tokens that allow him to get cigarettes from a shopkeeper in the morning.

There are two ways to implement this though.

The first is to give the tokens a physical form. In this scenario, ‘getting rich’ means accumulating those physical things and ‘making a payment’ means handing them over to someone else. They are bearer instruments, which means nobody keeps a record of who owns them. Rather, whoever holds them owns them. This is your wallet with notes in it. This is cash.

Chocolate CoinsPhoto courtesy of William Warby https://flic.kr/p/iSUjRa

Alternatively, you can use a ledger. Someone sets up a database with spaces allotted to different people. This is then used to keep a record of who has tokens. These tokens have no physical form, but are written into existence. They are ‘data objects’, and they are ‘moved around’ by editing the record. The keeper of the ledger thus maintains an account of what money is attributable to you, ‘keeping score’ of it for you. In this system, ‘getting rich’ means accumulating a high score on your account. ‘Making a payment’ involves identifying yourself to the keeper of the ledger via a communications system, and requesting that they edit your account, and the account of whoever you are paying.

Does this sounds familiar? It is your bank account.

Old banks used actual books to maintain these account ledgers, but modern banks use digital databases housed in huge datacentres. You then interact with them via your internet banking portal, your phone app, or by going into a branch. This is not a minor part of the monetary system. Over 90 per cent of the UK’s money supply exists nowhere but on bank databases.

It is upon this underlying infrastructure that payment card companies like Visa build their operations. They deal with situations in which someone with one bank account finds themselves in a shop owned by someone else with another bank account. Rather than the pub landlord giving me his bank details for a manual transfer, my card sends messages through Visa’s network to automatically arrange the editing of our respective accounts.

Many fintech – financial technology – startups specialise in finding ways to augment, gamify or streamline elements of this underlying infrastructure. Thus, I might use a mobile phone fingerprint reader to authorise changes to the bank databases. – ‘disruption’ merely involves putting slicker clothes on the same old emperor.

The use of high-speed communications systems to rearrange binary code information about who has what money might be new, but ledger money is as old as any bearer form. The Rai stones of the island of Yap were huge and largely unmovable stones that, while seeming like physical tokens, were a form of ledger money. Rather than being physically moved – like cash would – a record of who owned the stones was kept in people’s heads, stored in their communal memory. If the owners wished to ‘transfer’ a stone to another, they ‘edited the ledger’ of who possessed the tokens by merely informing the community. Why physically roll the stone if you can just get everyone to remember that it has ‘moved’ to somebody else? The main reason that we struggle to recognise this as a form of cashlessness is that the ledger is invisible and informal.

Rai stone / 石貨Photo courtesy of Yusuke Kawasaki https://flic.kr/p/6khVb4

Much fintech ‘disruption’ merely involves putting slicker clothes on the same old emperor

Cashless society, though, is presented as futuristic progress rather than past history, a fashionable motif of futurists, entrepreneurs and innovation gurus. Nevertheless, while there are real trends in behaviour and tastes to be spotted in society, there are also trends in behaviour and taste among trend-spotters. They are paid to fixate upon change and so have an incentive to hype minor shifts into ‘end of history’ deaths, births and revolutions. Innovation communities are always at risk of losing touch within an echo chamber of buzzwords, amplifying one another’s speculations into concrete future certainties. These prediction factories always produce the same two unprovable sentences: “In the future we will… ” and “In the future we will no longer… “. Thus, in the future we will all use digital payments. In the future we will no longer use cash.

This is the utopia presented by the growing digital payments industry, which wishes to turn the perpetual mirage of cashless society into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Indeed, a key trick to promoting your interests is to speak of them as obvious inevitabilities that are already under way. It makes others feel silly for not recognising the apparently obvious change.

To create a trend you should also present it as something that other people demand. A sentence like “All over the world, people are switching to digital payments” is not there to describe what other people want. It’s there to tell you what you should want by making you feel out of sync with them. Here’s fintech investor Rich Ricci invoking the spectre of millennials, with their strange moral power to define the future. They are repulsed by the revolting physicality of cash, and feel all warm towards fintech gadgets. But these are not, on the whole, real people. They are a weapon in the arsenal of marketing departments used to make older people feel prehistoric. We’re not pushing this. We’re just responding to what the new generation demands.

And so we get Visa’s Cashfree and Proud campaign. If people really were ashamed of cash, they wouldn’t need ads to tell them. Visa must engineer that shame to teach you that what you want is the same as what they want. And if you don’t want it, just remember that cashless society is inevitable. Don’t get left behind.

But this system will leave many behind. It is hardwired to include only those with access to a bank account; and bank accounts are hosted by profit-seeking corporations that operate at scale. They have no time for your individual idiosyncrasies. They cannot make profit off anyone who cannot easily be categorised and modelled on a spreadsheet.

So, good luck to you if you find yourself with only sporadic appearances in the official books of state, if you are a rural migrant without a recorded birthdate, identifiable parents, or an ID number. Sorry if you lack markers of stability, if you are a rogue traveller without permanent address, phone number or email. Apologies if you have no symbols of status, if you’re an informal economy hustler with no assets and low, inconsistent income. Condolences if you have no official stamps of approval from gatekeeper bodies, like university certificates or records of employment at a formal company. Goodbye if you have a poor record of engagements with recognised institutions, like a criminal record or a record of missed payments.

This is no small problem. The World Bank estimates that there are two billion adults without bank accounts, and even those who do have them still often rely upon the informal flexibility of cash for everyday transactions. These are people bearing indelible markers of being incompatible with formal institutional space. They are often too unprofitable for banks to justify the expense of setting them up with accounts. This is the shadow economy, invisible to our systems.

The shadow economy is not just ‘poor’ people. It’s potentially anybody who hasn’t internalised the correct state-corporate narrative of normality, and anyone seeking a lifestyle outside of the mainstream. The future presented by self-styled innovation gurus has no scope for flexible, unpredictable or invisible people. They represent analogue backwardness. The future is a world of endless consumer choice built upon an inescapable digital uniformity of automated rules, a matrix outside which you can neither exist nor think.

Finish Pirate PartyPhoto courtesy of Andrés Gómez García https://flic.kr/p/dkuDCC

Back in Amsterdam I hang out with Ancilla van de Leest of the Netherlands Pirate Party. She only visits establishments that accept cash, true to her political belief in individual privacy from prying eyes.

It would be wrong to assume, however, that Ancilla’s primary concern involves surveillance by a Big Brother-style bogeyman. It’s true that your spending patterns reveal much about how you actually live, and the privacy implications of having these recorded in searchable database format are only starting to be uncovered. We know that targeted individual surveillance of payments occurs by the likes of the FBI and NSA, but routinised mass surveillance could become a norm. Imagine automatic flagging systems triggered by anyone engaging in a combination of transactions deemed subversive. Tax authorities are bound to be building systems to flag discrepancies between your spending patterns and your declared profits.

It’s also true that at London fintech gatherings the excited visions of cashless society now occasionally come with a disclaimer that we should think about the power granted to those who control the system. Not only can payments intermediaries see every time you buy access to a porn site, but they have the ability to censor your transactions, like Visa, PayPal and MasterCard attempting to choke WikiLeaksby refusing to process people’s donations. We could imagine some harsh sci-fi scenario in which a theocratic regime issues decrees to payments processors to block anyone buying books deemed sexually deviant. Such decrees could be automatically enforced via code, with subroutines remotely triggering smart locks to place the offending miscreant under house arrest while automatically deducting a fine from their account.

The proclaimed Death of Cash is thus an episode in the broader drama that is the Death of Privacy, and the death of informal, unaccounted-for behaviour

Such automated dystopias should ideally be avoided, so a dose of paranoia about digital payments systems is a healthy impulse, even if it might be unwarranted.

But that isn’t really the point. What’s more important to Ancilla and me is the looming sense of an external watcher that ‘assists’, ‘guides’ or ‘helps’ you in your life, tracking and logging your moves in order to influence you. The watcher is not a single entity. It’s a collective array being incrementally built in stages by startups and companies around the world as we speak. We feel it seeping deeper into our lives, a mesh of connected devices, cookies and sensors. Whether we visualise it as the benevolent eyes of a parent, or the menacing eyes of a tyrant doesn’t matter. The point is that the eyes have the potential to monitor you, all the time.

The proclaimed Death of Cash is thus an episode in the broader drama that is the Death of Privacy, the death of breathing room, and the death of informal, non-measured, unaccounted-for behaviour. Every action you take must forever be attached to your digital persona, dragging with it a data trail extending back to the day you were born. We face creating an entire generation of people who do not know what it feels like to not be monitored.

Big Brother is watching youPhoto courtesy of slsch1 https://flic.kr/p/7xztT3

For many economists, the War on Cash will be resolved by their favourite mystical demigod, the market. This guiding force prevails when utility-maximising producers and consumers go around making rational choices with perfect information about their options, and with total freedom to choose whether or not to exercise those options. If digital payment transaction costs are lower, then cash will rightly die.

The pristine realm of market theory is unfit to assess the dynamics of this situation. Our sense of what constitutes a legitimate choice does not form in a vacuum. We are born into social power structures that tell us what normality is, and that shame us for not choosing ‘correctly’. You might be a rebel who challenges prevailing cultural norms, but those norms are conditioned by those with the greatest financial and media clout. At this moment the blaring of propaganda extolling the short-term conveniences of digital payment is dulling our critical impulses to rearrange our cultural DNA. Who is thinking about the longer-term implications of building our lives around these systems, and thereby locking ourselves into dependence upon them?

Unlike a battle fought using violence, hegemony is the assertion of power by getting people to believe in it, to see it as inevitable, unassailable and normal. Visa’s four-year plan is one such exercise, and once we’ve internalised it, we’ll choose to build their power. We’ll feel strangely comforted by the MasterCard billboard endorsed by the Mayor of London. We’ll find ourselves downloading ApplePay like a dazed child accepting a gift.

So, let’s prepare for the War on Cash. Remember, this is not about romanticising the £10 notes with the Queen on them. This is about maintaining alternatives to the stifling hygiene of the digital panopticon being constructed to serve the needs of profit-maximising, cost-minimising, customer-monitoring, control-seeking, behaviour-predicting commercial bureaucrats. And fear not, the Germans are onside, along with the criminals, the homeless, the street-side buskers and an army of people whose lives will never get a five-star rating on a mainstream reputation scoring system. We will forge alliances with purveyors of non-bank alternative currency systems; and yes, we will maintain the option to use our payment cards. Because what we fight for is precisely that. The option.

Article originally published on TheLong+Short (Nesta)
http://thelongandshort.org/society/war-on-cash


Whistleblowers & Vigilantes | Exhibition Review

It has been a long time since an exhibition shocked and confused me. In fact, I cannot even remember when it last happened. Yet the exhibition Whistleblowers & Vigilanters has managed to do just that. Curators Inke Arns and Jens Kabisch of the Dortmund art institution Hartware Medienkunst Verein (HMKV) have put up a show in which complete nut cases are presented side by side with political activists, artists and whistleblowers a la Edward Snowden. This makes the exhibition ask for quite some flexibility from the audience. Visitors have to work hard in order to understand the connection made here between, for example, racist conspiracy theories expressed through YouTube videos and the ordeal of a whistleblower like Chelsea Manning.


Lutz Dammbeck, Letter to Me (Unabomber manifesto, handcorrected) 2003 and Go to Trial (video about Unabomber) 2016

The very short introduction text to the exhibition guide is part of the puzzle we are presented with. The basic premises of the exhibition are explained in what I think is not the best possible manner, because it leaves out any mentioning or analysis of the huge political differences among the people and works presented. At the same time the use of words like higher law and self-legitimization easily creates a feeling of unease about each practitioner or type of activism in the show:

“The exhibition asks what links hacktivists, whistleblowers and (Internet) vigilantes. What is the legal understanding of these different actors? Do they share certain conceptions? Who speaks and acts for whom and in the capacity of which (higher) law? Among other issues the exhibition will examine the differing legal conceptions and strategies of self-legitimisation put forth by activists, whistleblowers, hackers, online activists and artists to justify their actions.”

By placing the revelations of Edward Snowden next to the complete print out of the manifesto of the Unabomber or (more harmless but still of a different level of impact) the battle over a hostile domain name takeover in Toywar the first impression is a levelling of the practices and people involved. To make some sort of distinction between the various represented rebellious or activist positions in the exhibition guide the whole is divided into sections. The sections however do not indicate socio-political position or relevance, but rather imply the ways people legitimize their actions (1).

Inke Arns giving a tour of the exhibition. Anonymous (left), Metahaven (far left), Wikileaks’ Collateral Murder (middle),  Lulz (right)

The spatial design and mapping of the exhibition seem to give some indication of political direction, but it is accidental. To the far right of the entry we find all installations labeled ‘Vigilantes’: a website collecting images of online fraudsters (419eater.com), two videos about Anders Breivik and Dominic Gagnon’s collection of mostly right-wing extremist YouTube videos. Slightly controversial is how the Vigilantes section puts together these quite obvious nut cases and criminals with Anonymous and what the curators call ‘Lulz’, the near troll-like jokesters who ridicule anything they don’t like with razor sharp memes. I am not sure whether these two products of the online forum 4chan deserve this simple pairing to YouTube hate preachers. A finer distinction between the various Internet underbelly representatives might have been better here. That this could have been done is shown by Lutz Dammbeck’s archive on the Unabomber’s placement in the Vigilante section, which has two labels. It is the sole representative of the Critique of Technology section as well. Another strange pairing happens in the Antinomism section, where an installation around a video with Julian Assange and a rightwing terrorist bomb disguised as soda machine are the only examples.

Ubermorgen’s Vote Auction installation (center). Crypto-anarchist content & John Perry Barlow talking about the Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace (background) Wikileaks’ Collateral Murder (far right).

The middle ground of the exhibition shows a mix of artist activism and hacker culture. Mediengruppe Bitnik are here with a video of their Delivery for Mr. Assange. Black Transparency by Metahaven is represented through one utopian architecture model and printed wall cloths. The Peng! Collective’s Intelexit: Call-A-Spy has a telephone stand in the exhibition. The provocative sale of US votes in Vote-Auction by Ubermorgen is here as docu-installation. Etoy’s legendary Toywar is represented as well, with -in my opinion- too small a stand. Traces of many other art works and activist projects are presented in display cases, which give some more background or context to the theme. These were one of my favorite parts of the exhibition, next to the amazingly diligent and meticulous hand-drawn documentation of the Manning trial by Clark Stoeckley.

Display cases showing Luther Blissett and Anonymous (front), and  Netzpolitik (back).

The display cases are dedicated to freedom of speech, tools of online resistance, the Netzpolitik case, anonymity and collective identities and cypherpunk and crypto-anarchism. They provide an important insight into the context within which the other practices in the exhibition exist.
Here we find Luther Blissett, the Italian born collective online identity, with a name borrowed from a former football player. The Blissett identity is related to pre-Internet art practices, in particular Neoism, and has been used for various art pranks and activist projects, particularly in Southern Europe.
Other art projects include the influential book Electronic Civil Disobedience by Critical Art Ensemble, the German hacker art collective Foebud’s battle for free speech and privacy (presented with one of Addie Wagenknecht’s anonymity glasses), and the Electronic Disturbance Theater’s Floodnet. The latter is a DDoS attack software that was used in actions for the Mexican freedom fighters the Zapatistas, by the Yes Men and for Etoy’s Toywar project.

There is also a print out of the Cypherpunk mailinglist. The cypherpunk crypto-anarchist community is responsible for some of the most influential elements of the free Internet. They produced the PGP encryption technology, cryptocurrency such as Bitcoin, TOR, the idea of WIKI and torrent platforms and marketplaces like the Silk Road. Julian Assange was one of its members.

Last but not least the presentation of the Netzpolitik.org case, which covers a German censorship scandal from last year, had to be part of this exhibition. Journalists from the online magazine Netzpolitik were arrested for treason after they had published about classified Internet surveillance plans of the German secret service. A copy of the accusation letter from the state prosecutor is oddly signed with ‘Mit freundlichen Grüßen’ (‘With kind regards’).

Display case showing crypto anarchy, cypherpunk mailinglist, early PGP software on floppy discs and bitcoin/cryptocurrency.

All in all the display cases made me happy to see some of the events and works that have been so hugely influential to the development of the Internet (and thus to the development of our current culture and politics) represented in a physical cultural space. They show a side of Internet culture that is heavily underrepresented in the general discourse around new media technologies in both mainstream media and art. During a private tour of Whistleblowers & Vigilantes for visitors of the simultaneously running Hito Steyerl exhibition Inke Arns explained how for her this exhibition is long overdue as well. According to Arns the threat to our freedom through abuse of new technologies should receive as much attention in art as the anthropocene. HMKV sees it as its responsibility to do something about it.

Hito Steyerl’s Factory of the Sun. On the screen the old NSA listening post in former West-Berlin. The video is presented in a faux holodeck.

Whistleblowers & Vigilantes however does not make a straightforward statement. Its structure, both physically and content-wise, is too complex for that. This does not mean it is a bad exhibition. The bringing together of the ‘Lulz’, Anonymous, the Unabomber, net art, hacktivism, hackers and Manning, Snowden, Assange and even Breivik in one space definitely creates a lively exhibition, which cannot leave a visitor unaffected. This strange assembly then needs to be unraveled and this is where the curators take quite some risk. The addition of Hito Steyerl’s installation Factory of the Sun, an exhibition that runs simultaneously on a different floor, could help to bring the serious, crazy and light elements of the show together for that part of the audience that loses its way. In her smart playful manner Steyerl blends science fiction, humor and critique of the surveillance society in a faux holodeck cinema experience. The exhibition also includes a few live events that steer the whole into safe waters. Netzpolitik journalist Markus Beckedahl has given a presentation and so has Jens Kabisch. Kabisch wrote a text about whistleblowers that is available on the website, but this text is unfortunately only available in German. My advice to the non-German audience is to download the press kit in order to get more background information.

            Clark Stoeckley, The United States vs Pvt. Chelsea Manning © State of the Arts NJ

Whistleblowers & Vigilantes is a challenge to the audience. It asks for more reflection and time to take in than most exhibitions. After getting some more grip on it the complexity and scope of the exhibition, however, is impressive. It not only brings together many important, interesting and sometimes scary examples of contemporary forms of resistance and rebellion. What is also represented is the space of resistance and play that escapes attempts at systematic control, even in a full-on surveillance state. Once recovered from my initial shock this is what stayed with me the most. The wide-ranging documents, objects and installations reveal the system’s shadow spaces and vulnerabilities. Whistleblowers & Vigilanters differs from the flood of other art exhibitions themed around surveillance and control by reflecting on the legitimacy of online autonomous political action in general. Indirectly this means it also reflects upon the space of life that exists beyond all control. Rather than create another horror show around the future of privacy and freedom, with Whistleblower & Vigilanten we are presented with the persistence of fringe cultures and of free thinkers. For me this makes this an exhibition of hope.

Endnote
(1). The six sections are called Natural Law, Contractualism, Antinomism, Transparency, Critique of Technology and Vigilantism. Roughly these point to people who believe in a ‘higher’ (‘natural’) law which each juridical law can be compared to, people who step around an elected (contracted) authority when it breaks an agreement, those who do not believe in the validity of any law (antinomism), those who think practically rather than ideologically that transparency is simply a matter of optimizing societal processes, Luddites who want to destroy technology and last but not least the vigilantes who believe their subjective views are simply a legitimate base for rebellion and radical action.

 

Exhibition Info:
Whistleblowers & Vigilantes. Figures of Digital Resistance
HMKV, Dortmund
9/4/16-14/8/16
https://www.hmkv.de/_en/programm/programmpunkte/2016/Ausstellungen/2016_VIGI_Vigilanten.php

Download exhibition catalogue:
https://www.hmkv.de/_pdf/Ausstellungsfuehrer/2016_VIGI_Kurzfuehrer_Web.pdf

 


Choose Your Muse Interview: Stanza

Introduction.

Stanza is an internationally recognised artist who has been exhibiting worldwide since 1984. He has won so many prizes you’d have trouble fitting them all on one mantlepiece. He has exhibited over fifty exhibitions globally and is an expert in arts technology, CCTV, online networks, touch screens, environmental sensors, and interaction. His artworks examine artistic and technical perspectives, within the contexts of architecture, data spaces and online environments.

Recurring themes throughout his career include the urban landscape, surveillance culture, privacy and alienation in the city. Stanza is interested in the patterns we leave behind, and real time networked events, that are usually re-imagined and sourced for information. He uses multiple new technologies so to create distances between real time, multi point perspectives that emphasis a new visual space. The purpose of this is to communicate feelings and emotions that we encounter daily which impact on our lives and which are outside our control.

  Stanza: Sensity on a round globe display tested at County Hall London (Live data on globe 2006).

Much of his work has centered on the idea of the city as a display system and various projects have been made using live data, the use of live data in architectural space, and how it can be made into meaningful representations. See Publicity, Robotica, Sensity, as well as a whole series of work manipulating real time CCTV data to making artworks with them: See, Velocity, Authenticity, Urban Generation. These works reform the data, work with the idea of bringing data from outside into the inside, and then present it back out again in open ended systems where the public is often engaged in or directly embedded in the artwork. Interactive and visually appealing, his style also maintains the substantive power through multi-facetted content.

         Stanza: Robotica – IV: Control Inside The Panopticon. Exhibition By Stanza 2006 – 2008.

Marc Garrett: Could you tell us who has inspired you the most in your work and why?

Stanza: I don’t really get inspiration from the “who” question, I prefer the “what” and “why” questions. As a professional artist I look at loads of art so to understand what art is and can be, and it’s always an ever changing and fluid response. I also spend a lot of time ignoring stuff and material; (focused ignoring) because it has become harder and harder to see though the fog; the noise of it all. Maybe it’s better to think of a working model for inspiration, Andy Warhol had one. Just make the work. That’s what I do. I am not a part time artist in academia or an artist with another job, I’ve done this for the last thirty years, inspired by and in response to the world around me.

This dogmatic commitment to  my work comes from my believes that the system you have to trust and invest in yourself. Inspiration, quite literally is everything all around you all at once, all at the same time, moment by moment. This is what inspires my work and it influences the creation of real time information flows, and works in parallel realities. It allows me to stand back at a distance and work with complex data sets while at the same time making meaning from them. Forming data into a shape, because this confluence might inspire a repositioning of thought and values while at the same time unlocking a hidden meaning to enable the viewer to feel and experience something new or to do something creative with the results.

MG: How have they influenced your own practice and could you share with us some examples?

S: There’s a saying be careful what you wish for. If one reverses this then it could be wish for what you want and need. Influence is problematic because it’s both negative and positive. The idea of influence seems causal, but my own practise isn’t based on influence but in research into certain themes. This enables me to get into both sides of particular questions or debate, so to frame the work I make. Works like these have been inspired by this focus…

The Singing Trees, focus in the invisible things and the environment http://stanza.co.uk/tree/index.html


Urban Generation, Focus on the city urbanism and network cultures http://stanza.co.uk/urban_tapestry/index.html


Data Data Data, focus’s on ownership of public space and privacy http://stanza.co.uk/data/index.html


MG: How different is your work from your influences and what are the reasons for this?

S: I  have been researching smart cites, urbanisn, and have collected ‘big data’ since 2004. I have been building my own wireless sensor network. This eventually manifested itself in an artwork called Capacities in 2010 which then influenced all the others in the series until it now has this form.

Capacities: Life In The Emergent City, captures the changes over time in the environment (city) and represents the changing life and complexity of space as an emergent artwork
http://stanza.co.uk/capacities/index.html



Which led to…

The Nemesis Machine- From Metropolis to Megalopolis to Ecumenopolis.

The Nemesis Machine is a large installation. At the heart of this work lies an interest in the urban environment, the networks of cameras and sensors to be found there, and the associated issue of privacy and alienation. http://stanza.co.uk/nemesis-machineweb/index.html

“A Mini, Mechanical Metropolis Runs On Real-Time Urban Data. The artwork captures the changes over time in the environment (city) and represents the changing life and complexity of space as an emergent artwork. The artwork explores new ways of thinking about life, emergence and interaction within public space. The project uses environmental monitoring technologies and security based technologies, to question audiences’ experiences of real time events and create visualizations of life as it unfolds. The installation goes beyond simple single user interaction to monitor and survey in real time the whole city and entirely represent the complexities of the real time city as a shifting morphing complex system.

The data and their interactions – that is, the events occurring in the environment that surrounds and envelops the installation – are translated into the force that brings the electronic city to life by causing movement and change – that is, new events and actions – to occur. In this way the city performs itself in real time through its physical avatar or electronic double: The city performs itself through an-other city. Cause and effect become apparent in a discreet, intuitive manner, when certain events that occur in the real city cause certain other events to occur in its completely different, but seamlessly incorporated, double. The avatar city is not only controlled by the real city in terms of its function and operation, but also utterly dependent upon it for its existence.”

MG: Is there something you’d like to change in the art world, or in fields of art, technology and social change; if so, what would it be?

S:  It’s the museum I would like to change or engage with. It seems that anything and everything will end up in the museum. We have become the museum. We are the sum of our collections catalogs and archives. Since the current trend is for public engagement we will see a mix of these new technologies aiding and abetting this and various dialogues.

Therefore these questions need to be raised more vocally. How do visitors interact with each other and artworks? How do visitors behave in public space and what patterns or communities do they form. Can these outputs reshape our experience of public space and the art?

So, new immersive technologies could be used to investigate how visitors interact with art works, with each other and what impact their experiences have in forming new user interactions within public space. This space could be made more social and  lead to new real time artworks based on visitor interaction and new visualizations of the gallery space based on gathered data.

Artists used to occupy  specific issues but now there aren’t many topics artists haven’t engaged in or reached out to. The issues that will resonate will be the ones closest to the issue of the day…. and, they will be economics, the environment and migration. Because of this I would like to less focus on public engagement spectacle or entertainment and more on the quality and public engagement rooted in intellectual rigour.

Technology affords new ways of working with audiences and curators as participants in artworks. The concept of the exhibition as an active site for experimentation and collaboration between curators, artists and audiences prefigures a general cultural movement towards the centrality of experience and away from the reification of the object.

However, how audience activities and movements can be used as the subject of new artwork as well as modify engagement with existing collections is a cultural and technological challenge.

See

Public Domain: You Are My Property, My Data, My Art, My Love.


The Public Domain Series involves using live CCTV systems that are already installed then using these cameras to enhance gallery space and the audiences experience of the gallery. http://stanza.co.uk/public_domain_outside/index.html


Visitors to a Gallery – referential self, embedded. Stanza uses a live CCTV system inside an art gallery to create a responsive mediated architecture. Anyone in any of the galleries and all spaces in the building can appear inside the artwork at any time.
http://stanza.co.uk/cctv_web/index.html

The social challenge within urban space is one I like to play with. In The Binary Graffiti Club, is a project I set up to try and work in this area. The Binary Graffiti Club are invited members of the public at each location for each event; they are given the hoodie to keep as thanks for their participation and contribution. The Binary Graffiti Club set off across the city and create artworks.
http://stanza.co.uk/binary_club/index.html

“Youths dressed in black hoodies swarmed the historic city streets of Lincoln during Frequency Festival 2013, their backs emblazoned with bold white digits, the zeros and ones.   Their ominous presence was marked with a series of binary code graff-tags on official buildings throughout the city; messages of insurrection for a digital cult now active among us or analogue reminders of the digital soup of signals we wade through on a daily basis?  There’s an engaging playfulness and an aesthetic pleasure to Stanza’s work that pays rewards on deeper investigation.  His urban interventions remind us of the invisible occupation of the cyberspace around us and encourages us to ask whose hand manipulates these systems of control.” Barry Hale, Festival Co-Director of Frequency Festival 2013: Stanza: Timescapes/Binary Graffiti Club.

MG: Describe a real-life situation that inspired you and then describe a current idea or art work that has inspired you?

The invention of the toothpaste tube caused a revolution in painting.
The greatest discovery of the age was that the world is full of atoms.
Doing many small things instead one on big thing.

We seam to victimise out children we give them ASBO’S and anti social behaviour orders. For a while I wanted one. They actually give you a certificate like rockers, mods punks etc. The hoodie is a symbol of youth culture as well as being anti social. My new artwork the Reader and the idea of reading books and being anti-social led to this project.


The Reader is a large six foot sculpture of the artist Stanza wearing a hoodie reading a book. The artwork is a metaphor for the engagement of reading in the digital age. The sculpture acts as a focal point for community and public engagement and has taken over one year to make and design; it has been commissioned to act as a focal point for the identity of the library. The reader reads all the books published since 1953 inside a data body sculpture. http://stanza.co.uk/TheReader_web/

MG: What’s the best piece of advice you can give to anyone thinking of starting up in the fields of art, technology and or social change?

S: Make work, make more work, and remember nothing lasts forever except true love.

Re: Art, Study it
Re: Technology. Learn it
Re: Social change . Be part of it.

MG: Finally, could you recommend any reading materials or exhibitions past or present that you think would be great for the readers to view, and if so why?

Yes the Books…

The Bible The Quran And The Torah.

Because…they are the most influential books ever written and have guided the lives of billions so it’s a good idea to have had a read… at least “view” them.

See…
Lost in Translation. This custom made robot responds to a series of texts and makes drawings unique to each reader. The work questions not only the meaning and interpretation of text but just who controls our understanding of the outputs and indeed what is Lost In Translation. This is a very playful user friendly work and actively engages the audience not only to think about the text but the meaning of how automation and networked technology is changing the control of understanding. http://stanza.co.uk/lost_in_translation/

Thank you…


The Space of Art: An Interview with Tobias Rosenberger

Eva Kekou met Tobias Rosenberger at the international e-MobiLArt workshop which took place in Athens, Vienna and Rovaniemi, in turn these led to a number of exhibitions and successful collaborations between artists and theorists. She now invites him to discuss his work, issues of surveillance and how a young European artist views the situation in China and what he expects from his interaction with the Chinese art scene.

Tobias Rosenberger (b. 1980) is a German media artist who works at the crossroads of media art, visual arts, and performance. He has produced art works in Yemen, Spain, Mexico, India, and Ukraine etc. Since 2011 he has been based in China, where he teaches at the College of New Media Art, Shanghai Institute of Visual Art.

“Nowadays, anyone who wants to combat lies and ignorance and to write the truth must overcome at least five difficulties. He must have the courage to write the truth when it is suppressed everywhere; the wisdom to recognize it, although it is concealed everywhere; the skill to use it as a weapon; the judgment to choose those in whose hands it will be effective; and the cunning to spread the truth among such people.” (Bertolt Brecht)

Malte Scholz in “The Secret Race” (Camera: Csongor Dobrotka)
Malte Scholz in “The Secret Race” (Camera: Csongor Dobrotka)

Eva Kekou: I would like to start this interview with this quote which seems to be significant for your work and in particular the recent one – the secret race film and discussion at Goethe Institut Washington. As you well state in your event invite: “It was pure coincidence that for a few days in the summer of 2013, two unrelated events simultaneously dominated the major headlines in the German press: the monitoring and spying scandal of 2013, triggered by Edward Snowden’s leaks of National Security Agency top-secret classified documents, and the official acknowledgement of the prevalence of doping in competitive sports, best symbolized by Lance Armstrong’s televised confession.” What is the significance of surveillance in a globalized social and political context and where is the place of art within it? There are obvious reasons you decided to launch this in Washington through Goethe but I would like you to comment on this.

Tobias Rosenberger: Surveillance and espionage are as old as civilization. Power was always constructed, maintained, and expanded through the monitoring, categorization, repression and exclusion of people. We all know that the digital apparatus opens a new world of possibilities to organize, quantify and control life and society in a before unknown scale, speed and efficiency. While I agree that we need early warning models to anticipate and fight cruelty and injustice whenever possible, I don’t believe that we can draw a sharp border between an evil surveillance that fuels unfair and inhuman systems and a necessary one that pretends to save dignity and a lawful order. The challenges of our time can no longer be met by elitism and secretiveness, but require the joint efforts from the middle of society. An independent art that rejects the simple desire for (self-)confirmation does not only open a non-biased discursive space for critical reflection, but it also has the potential to demask and break the mechanisms of power, as long as it takes its audience seriously. But to be able to do so, art also has to find its audience.

The Secret Race, on Vimeo

EK: It occurs to me that place and space play a very important role in your work and inspiration. How do these relate with each other with pieces of your work in a globalized and mobile network underlined by politics?

TR: I have a very pragmatic approach to what I am trying to do: Not following a specific agenda and always staying as curious and open as possible. This requires both a certain naivety and an observing attitude. I never start an artistic process with a specific idea or question, but i get attracted by places and spaces that i try to discover without too much of my personal baggage. But since space and place are never abstract but segmented by politics both on macro and micro layers, the resulting works often deal with political questions.

EK: How did you become interested in China and what do you find fascinating or difficult working there? Is it interesting for you as a European?


Dialogues on Stage (Chongqing 2012)

TR: I have a very special relationship to China. With my Chinese wife I decided three years ago to move there and to found a family. I was always fascinated by China as a cultural space, with a tradition of art and philosophy at least as long as in Europe. I also really like the food and the people there. As a foreigner I experience it as very fruitful to see things from a specific distance, both if I try to understand the culture, but also especially if I look back from there to where I come from. It is very interesting to observe the relation between art and politics, how the government here really appreciates art and how it is also afraid of it.


Dialogues on Stage (Chongqing 2012)

How artists, critics and curators fight for free space, a career, or both. In Shanghai you have both the global economy and the local life at your house-door. The country faces a lot of problems, and very often one can get the impression that things are not happening at all just because there is a small possibility that something unexpected could happen. So many people behave very pro-actively in a way that they won’t run into any problems themselves. But this maxim “to have everything running smooth” you certainly don’t only encounter in China.


Dialogues on Stage (Chongqing 2012)

EK: Referring to some of your recent works (installation and performance): Choose any you like… How do you reach out to audiences and what is the main aim in your own work?


“The First Twenty Years”, Ya Gallery Kiev (2012)

TR: “The First Twenty Years” is an installation that was shown in two different versions at the end of 2012 in Kiev and Dnipropetrovsk. I developed the basic idea for that work in 2011, when I was invited to spend some time in a small Ukrainian village near Kiev at a private artist residency programme. During that time the nation celebrated the 20th anniversary of its independence. There was a strange, partly paralyzed mood. But I also witnessed very controversial discussions with artists, curators and critics, and a new generation that seemed not anymore willing to accept living in a nation that was more and more perceived as a prison. So when I was approached during that time to do a work based on my experiences in the Ukraine, I decided to base it on Xavier de Maistres “Journey around my room” and Schuberts Music, which was inspired by a poem by Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart.


“The First Twenty Years”, Ya Gallery Kiev (2012)

I didn’t intent to comment directly on the situation there, but rather was trying to understand for myself what was happening. For me, art is not about expression but about the creation of a space where everybody is invited to take a bit of distance so to be able discover something from different perspectives and to think in his/her own way.

Surveillance Cameras dancing to Schubert, on Vimeo

EK: Can you give us a bit more information about a project that you have described alsewhere in the following way: “Right now working on a light sculpture for permanent setup in a former WWII Top secret military site, where some crazy NS-Germany scientist wanted to invent an x-ray wonder-weapon to shoot planes and soldiers, this involves an always transforming multichannel-sound installation, motorized miniatures (arduino-controlled), 2 projectors and led-objects. I will make an extra independent video of this work, filmed with multiple moving surveillance cams.”?

TR: I was approached by a cultural initiative that runs today a small history museum in a former research bunker, which was secretly constructed in 1942 / 1943 underneath a camouflage building. I came across a letter in which a certain Professor, Dr. Ernst Schiebold, proposed “An additional weapon to fight and eliminate the crews of hostile airplanes and ground troops in the defensive via x-ray and electron radiation”.

A weird ten pages male war fantasy about a new kind of tubular x-ray canon, written in a crude mixture of physical pseudo-science, soft patriotic enthusiasm and German pedantism. Schiebold really got his bunker built to start with his research. Everything was kept top secret, but stopped 18 months later without results. I decided to bring Schiebold’s proposal back into the space which only existed because of it: As a pure proposal, enhanced and communicated with new media technology.


Studio Tobias Rosenberger (2014)

A lot of the tools that we are using as new media artists exist mainly through military development. So my intention was also to give something back. The audience will listen to single sentences that are randomly taken out of Schiebold’s letter and re-arranged into a constantly transforming synthetic sound atmosphere, which is synchronized with light beams crossing a motorized miniature military model. The toy miniatures cast shadows of moving soldiers and airplanes onto the walls. LED lights are flashing out of a tubular manhole, which was originally constructed to be used with a Betatron. All the technology that I use is quite low-budget and geeky. Last week I started to install the parts on site, and I have to admit that it is also a very weird experience for me to spend nights working alone in a former military research bunker, climbing down in a manhole and setting up the mockup of a “super-weapon” people researched in the darkest years of German history. Sure I will also try to document it properly.


Somewhere in Germany (2014)

EK: Do you think art can be global and political, if not, what are the main restrictions we are all subjected to? How can art and artists make a difference in this respect?

TR: I think that art is per se political, since it deals with and also influences our perception of reality. And while all our lives are clearly connected in a global economy of good and information-exchange, art does also always operate on a global scale. As an artist I believe that it is worth to be curious and to investigate the (media) apparatuses and dispositifs that surround us, to take them apart and re-design them. What are they good for, what effects do they cause? While the world is getting closer, the world is never the same – people have different histories, problems, possibilities and hopes. As Europeans we take many things for granted, that other people see differently – or vice versa. I think artists can always make a difference, as long as they stay independent and continue to tackle serious questions, but don’t take themselves too seriously while doing so. We should laugh more together.

EK: What are your future aims and plans?

TR: I am looking forward to the new semester in Shanghai, where I will mentor the graduate works of eight students. I will also collaborate with Chinese artist Mujin (Lixin Bao) – a fellow teacher at the Shanghai Institute of Visual Art – on a series of works exploring the notion of the “Chinese Dream” and its perception both nationally and globally. I guess this dialogue will become quite interesting.


First Sketch for “The Fu Manchu Project”, Mujin + Tobias Rosenberger (China 2014)


Liquid Surveillance, the soft power of UBERMORGEN

Rachel Falconer’s article is written in response to an interview conducted with lizvlx and Hans Bernhard from Ubermorgen. ‘userunfriendly’ is their first solo exhibition in London and presents a performative study of creeping paranoia. It is on show at Caroll/Fletcher Gallery through October until 16th November 2013.

“You one of those right wing nut outfits?” inquired the diplomatic Metzger.

Fallopian twinkled. “They accuse us of being paranoids.”

“They?” inquired Metzger, twinkling also.

“Us?” asked Oedipa.

The Crying of Lot 49 [1]

The Edward Snowden soap opera is far from over as the media and social commentators continue to perform a one-way polylogue with the absconded, muted Snowden. The furore and essentialist reactions directed towards Snowden, the latest in a burgeoning breed of leaky information gatekeepers, has resulted in a pervading sense of neuroses creeping across the digital commons. One of the many media stunts to emerge from this backdrop of encroaching paranoia was Kevin Poulsen’s encrypted open letter to Snowden on the Wired website [2] . With the theatrical opening gambit of: “Don’t read this if you aren’t him”, this mimetic conceptual poke served only to simulate a tunnel vision debate about the authenticity of the encryption, and several bravado attempts to crack the PGP key.

Stop Watching Us logo for the Stop Watching Us rally held on the 26 October 2013  in Washington. CC Image courtesy of Stop Watching Us, https://rally.stopwatching.us/

The Snowden case is symptomatic of our current condition of post-panoptic surveillance, whereby practices of data and behavior tracking have led to an extension of Foucault’s panoptic theories beyond the notion of hierarchical surveillance. Recent debates about post-panoptic practices indicate a shift from direct, embodied surveillance, to distributed, mobile surveillance manifested in the likes of PRISM, XKeystore and Tempra. The normalization of the “need to watch and be watched” generated by our information society is ruptured in this instance by Snowden.

The combination of public outcry – exemplified by the recent anti-surveillance march in Washington – and the intensified interest in the phenomenon of mass surveillance on the hype cycle, has resulted in a number of workshops and art exhibitions dedicated to “giving the power back to the people”. Eyebeam recently hosted PRISM Breakup [3], a three-day event programme of workshops and talks which sought to offset the publically perceived imbalance in our mutual surveillance society by making the tools of the anti-surveillance trade accessible to everyone. This strategy of using the ecology of the art institution as an alternative site of knowledge production, and a locus of retreat and pedagogical resistance, is well rehearsed in the history of contemporary art. However, by concentrating on providing the tools of counteraction against the omnipresent, invisible, panoptic enemy of surveillance, perhaps the bigger picture of the phenomena of neurotic binarisms and shifting psychological territories are in danger of being overlooked.

In contrast to these oppositional tactics, the artists and digital actionists, UBERMORGEN, approach phenomena such as Snowden, and other symptoms of perceived hyper-capitalism from a fuzzier, more ambiguous subjectivity. In their quest for knowledge production and social dialogue, the artists present and re-present the conditions of our global socio-political situation as physical and ephemeral catalysts of open-ended investigation. Through their encounter with the digital, they craft physical manifestations of data, acting as a mobile research unit producing knowledge about real life conditions that spike their interest. Their widely questioned claim to neutrality is defended in their Manifesto; they are very specific about their position as actionists as opposed to activists, and place the physicality of the human body and neurological system at the core of their practice: “we are not activists. we are actionists in the communicative and experimental tradition of viennese actionism – performing in the global media, communication and technological networks, our body is the ultimate sensor and the immediate medium”.[4]

UBERMORGEN, Vladimir (2013) . Image courtesy of Caroll Fletcher gallery.

This position of political evasion hinges on a willful abstraction, and distancing from, their chosen subject matter. They activate this abstraction through their instinctive aesthetic strategy, creating a distance from the negative connotations popularly attributed to their subject matter by the media. The work Vladimir (2013) is a clear example of this obfuscating, poetic tactic the duo employ.  Here, a CCTV monitor is split into four separate screens and located on the first floor of the gallery space. One screen shows the actual painting of Putin, (located in the lower gallery space). This takes the form of a pixelated painted canvas of Putin onto which an animated GIF is projected. Another screen from the CCTV plays footage of Putin at a press conference. On the remaining screens, there are images displaying alternative subjectivities of how Putin sees himself: heroic of the leader with a naked torso whilst partaking in the popular macho pursuits of fishing and shooting. These images are set up to relate to the animated canvas located and distanced in the lower gallery space. The relational dynamics between the works create a fragmented picture of the subject’s identity, and, as lizvlx suggests, this sense of abstraction and distancing through the aesthetics employed, neutralizes any characteristic of evil popularly associated with the subject himself. The viewer is left to come to an independent conclusion.


UBERMORGEN, Vladimir (2013) . Image courtesy of Caroll Fletcher gallery.

In fact, the entire show is a tightly choreographed relational synthesis. As I experience Hans and lizvlx’s all-encompassing Gesamtkunstwerk , I get the distinct, and unnerving impression that I am being watched. Call me paranoid if you will, but as I navigate through the show, I can’t help but notice that the familiar white cube space is punctuated and peppered by an abundance of CCTV cameras, staged situations of observation, identity –skewing overblown pixels, Crime Watch images and performative interrogation environments, placing the user cum visitor in an uncanny feedback loop of reactionary surveillance.

UBERMORGEN, Net.Art(2013). Image Courtesy of Caroll/Fletcher gallery.

UBERMORGEN’s collaboration with Aram Bartholl, Net.Art (2013), is the first work I encounter as I enter the gallery. Bartholl’s OFFLINE ART [5] curatorial strategy takes the form of five wall mounted routers locally broadcasting a selection of UBERMORGEN’s net.art pieces disconnected from the Internet. These hermetically-sealed works make the visitor aware that they are being choreographed and controlled from the off – initiating the uninitiated and reminding those familiar with their work that it is never a comfortable ride. Bartholl’s new model of exhibition format is a subtle method of instilling a sense of self-awareness in the viewer. Throughout the show, UBERMORGEN continue to stimulate a gradual awareness, and partially expose, the systems of coercion, control mechanisms and surveillance techniques employed by institutions of public authority. As the tectonically-shifting position between fact and fiction continues to play out throughout the show, UBERMORGEN’s empirical probing of corporate and governmental control mechanisms becomes increasingly apparent.

(V)ote-Auction(2000)UBERMORGEN,(V)ote-Auction, (2000). Image courtesy of Caroll/Fletcher gallery.

The historic work [V]ote-Auction(2000)- whose virtual subversion resulted in RL FBI intervention- is presented here as an impotent, dormant archive, its stacks of legal documents masquerading as a minimalist sculpture. However, the two new works CCTV(A parallel universe)(2013) and Do You Think That’s Funny? – The Snowden Files (2013) directly implicate the viewer in the act of surveillance. Both pieces are staged situations of observation and temptation. Do You Think That’s Funny is accompanied by a piece of pseudo fan fiction cum interview between UBERMORGEN and Edward Snowden available in the gallery catalogue. The installation itself is a contemplative, yet menacing frieze of control. According to the artists, they are in receipt of an encrypted data package from Snowden. The staged scenario tantalises the viewer/user by offering up Snowden’s dark data on wall-mounted Ethernet cables. A bench is provided for the viewer directly in front of the cables to contemplate the magnitude of their content. This meditative state is rudely interrupted by a looming white CCTV camera fixed to the parallel wall, levelled at the spectator. I am already aware of the presence of this electronic eye having encountered CCTV (A Parallel Universe) (2013), in the previous room. In this piece, the glaringly crisp images on the TV monitor clearly depict the panoptic gaze of the CCTV cameras installed in every part of the gallery, creating an infinite visual feedback loop.

Snowden FilesUBERMORGEN, Do You Think That’s Funny? – The Snowden Files (2013).
Image courtesy of Caroll/Fletcher gallery.

Call me paranoid, but as I navigate the exhibition, I become increasingly self-conscious. White cube galleries usually have the feel of surveyed environments, with their incumbent aura of silent contemplation, lurking invigilators and clearly posed CCTV cameras, but this is a different kind of watching. The fact that the work itself is not the main focus of the all-seeing eye of protection slowly dawns on me, and I feel that I am in fact the star of the show. As I crawl along the tunnel to reach the work Superenhanced (2013), I am aware of the fact that I am enacting a part, and white mice, hamster wheels and men in white coats come to my mind as I glimpse the two chairs and the hand cuffs ahead of me. As I look up and see that my confession can be clearly observed by visitors above me through the upper gallery stairwell, the picture is completed and I take my position in this physical simulation of a video game environment.

UBERMORGEN, Superenhanced (A Parallel Universe), (2013).
Image courtesy of Caroll/Fletcher gallery.

 

UBERMORGEN’s work implicitly involves and implicates both the visitor and themselves in a complex, and increasingly distorted feedback loop of knowledge production and surveillance. It is not, however, the surveillance of the Weiwei-esque, ever-present CCTV camera that starts to destabilise me, but the internal, cognitive surveillance prompted by the ambiguous narrative of the works. As the camera becomes assimilated and internalised, I am compelled to survey myself.

 

References.

1 Pynchon, Thomas R. The Crying of Lot 49 (J. B. Lippincott, 1965)

2 Kevin Poulsen, “Our Top-Secret Message to NSA Whistleblower Edward Snowden”, Wired, 14 June, 2013. http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2013/06/signed-bda0df3c/

3 PRISM Breakup: http://www.eyebeam.org/events/prism-break-up

4 UBERMORGEN manifesto: http://www.ubermorgen.com/manifesto/

5 OFFLINE ART format: http://datenform.de/offline-art-new2.html


Heath Bunting, The Status Project & The Netopticon

Introduction.

Whether Bunting is climbing trees, skateboarding, canoeing or working with technology he approaches it all with the same critical attention. He hacks around systems, physical or digital. Right from when he built his first computer at the age of 14, his life has been an experimental research project. His practice consists of a dry sense of humour and an edgy, minimal-raw aesthetic, mixed with a hyper-awareness of his own artistic persona and agency in the world, whilst engaging with complex political systems, institutions and social contexts.

Even though the subjects he explores are likely to be the most topical or important issues of the day, it always includes playfulness and an element of the prankster in his work. His work regularly highlights issues around infringements on privacy or restriction of individual freedom, as well as contexts concerning the mutation of identity; our values and corporate ownership of our cultural/national ‘ID’s’, as well as our DNA and investigations into Bio-technologies. In an age where we are submersed in frameworks and protocols, designed by a neo-liberal elite for a  generic consumer class, Bunting’s work is well placed as observation and practical research into the ‘depths’ of legal and illegal territories in our contemporary, networked cultures.


North Herts Gazette Series Thursday, November 13, 1980.

The Status Project.

“our identity is constructed as human beings that can possess one or more natural persons and control one or more artificial persons. The higher up in the class system the better the access to status variety.”(Bunting)

The Status Project, is a study of the construction of our ‘official identities’ and creates what Bunting describes as “…an expert system for identity mutation”. His research explores how information supplied by the public in their interaction with organisations and institutions is logged. The project draws on his direct encounters with specific database collection processes and the information he was obliged to supply in his life as a public citizen in order to access specific services; this includes data collected from the Internet and information found on governmental databases. This data is then used to map and illustrate how we behave, relate, choose things, travel and move around in social spaces. The project surveys individuals on a local, national and international level producing maps of “influence and personal portraits for both comprehension and social mobility”.

The use of data in contemporary life has made individuals an accessible resource to commercial and political interests. We are a rich source of data-mining material. Data-mining is a process that potentially commodifies our interactions. It’s historical roots lie with the development of artificial intelligence (AI) and 20th Century statistical analysis. These two methods of formulating data have grown ever closer together backed by corporations and government initiated military funding. Social networks such as platforms like Facebook and Internet networked institutions such as Google, and the US military are all obsessed with our behaviours online. A good example of this, is NSA’s recent rebirth in turning most of its surveillance apparatus to spy on the US and its citizens. They have built a super computer tracing through billions of people’s emails, phone calls, online activities, but also in other countries outside of the US. The UK government is currently going through the political process of trying to implement similar spying protocols and systems to watch what UK citizens are up to also.[2]

“Google suffers from data obesity and is indifferent to calls for careful preservation. It would be naive to demand cultural awareness. The prime objective of this cynical enterprise is to monitor user behaviour in order to sell traffic data and profiles to interested third parties.” [3] (Lovink)

Bunting is a Hacktivist Artist, acting (playing) out the role of a spy collecting and observing data content. Hacktivist Artists work with technology to explore how to develop their critical and imaginative practice in ways that exist beyond the frameworks of art establishment and its traditions. The established art arena is gradually catching up with this kind of artwork, although one could be forgiven for thinking that many of the art critics and galleries out there are still caught in the 20th Century.

Two other artists also working on people’s data are Julian Oliver and Danja Vasiliev. They have collaborated on exploring alternative identities as the mysterious group, Men in Grey.[4] They detect online users vulnerabilities by tapping into and intervening into wireless network traffic – observing, tracing and copying user online activities. It is then redisplayed either online on their web site for others to view, or transfered onto a visual screen on the side of a briefcase as an intervention in cybercafes, for all to view. Although, no one actually knows other than themselves if the data is really hacked and then redisplayed on these briefcases, as proposed in their video featuring one of their interventions. One thing is for sure – they have touched upon issues concerning our fears about personal data being seen by other people who we’d prefer were not viewiing it.

The Status Project also taps into questions concerning technology, hierarchy and power. We are entwined in a complex game where the sacrifice of our information is part of the deal of being connected with others across digital networks. This opens up the issue of our ‘human’ status being aligned ‘to and as’ objects, of measurement. Through travel ports, our vehicles, passports, ID cards, library cards, mobile phones, alongside information about our health. We have mutated into networked (information carrying) beings. Bunting’s own position on this matter is that “Technology is becoming more advanced and the administration of this technology is becoming more sophisticated and soon, every car in the street will be considered and treated as persons, with human rights. This is not a conspiracy to enslave human beings, it is a result of having to develop usable administration systems for complex relationships. Slaves were not liberated because their owners felt sorry for them, slaves were given more rights as a way to manage them more productively in a more technologically advanced society.”[5]


Identity orienteering competition, Piccadilly Circus, Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), London, United Kingdom (UK), 2008.

In the UK, in 2006 a research document called ‘A Report on the Surveillance Society For the Information Commissioner’ was published. Produced by a group of academics called the Surveillance Studies Network. This report was presented to the 28th International Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners’ Conference in London, hosted by the Information Commissioner’s Office. The publication begins by saying “Conventionally, to speak of surveillance society is to invoke something sinister, smacking of dictators and totalitarianism […] the surveillance society is better thought of as the outcome of modern organizational practices, businesses, government and the military than as a covert conspiracy. Surveillance may be viewed as progress towards efficient administration, in Max Weber’s view, a benefit for the development of Western capitalism and the modern nation-state.”[6]

We are not only under surveillance by entities we do not trust, we are also tracing each other online. Recently, in a show called ‘Being Social'[7] at Furtherfield’s new gallery, artist Liz Sterry showed her installation piece, ‘Kay’s Blog’. Sterry had “collated not only one form of online social engagements but all she could find about a Canadian blogger called Kay. Using everything from photographs to things Kay has mentioned in videos, blogs and posts on social networks, Sterry has recreated Kay’s bedroom in the gallery.”[8] (Scott)


Installation shots. Kay’s Blog. Liz Sterry. Being Social exhibition at Furtherfield Gallery,
Finsbury Park – 25 February – 28 April 2012. Images by Pau Ros.

“”There were times when I felt quite creepy,” says Liz, 28, as she shows me lists of Kay’s Facebook friends and a Google Streetview of her apartment block while a playlist of her favourite songs plays in the background.”[9]

Yet, as this ever-creeping surveillance culture grows and attaches its all seeing eyes onto us all. Whether we are referring to domestic interactions, organizational or deliberate, this is not the main issue. Neo-liberalism has developed so much now, we are all part of the Netopticon. English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the late Eighteenth Century designed the Panopticon. It allowed officers in institutions, particularly in prisons, to observe (-opticon) all (pan-) inmates without them knowing whether or not they are being watched. In the end it was not built, but the French philosopher Michel Foucault in his publication Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison,[10] in 1975 said that we are not only monitored in prisons, but in all hierarchical structures like the army, schools, hospitals and factories. This process has evolved through history to resemble Bentham’s Panopticon. The up-dated version of Panopticon, can now be thought of as the Netopticon – where individuals are complicit in feeding their own forms of collective co-surveillance, as well as being traced by corporations, governments and spammers.

“What your data body says about you is more real than what you say about yourself. The data body is the body by which you are judged in society, and the body which dictates your status in the world. What we are witnessing at this point in time is the triumph of representation over being. The electronic file has conquered self-aware consciousness.” [11] (Critical Art Ensemble)

So far, for the project he has created a functioning, sketch database of the UK system with over 10,000 entries – made over 50 maps of sub-sections of the system to aid sense of place and potential for social mobility. Bunting says he is also researching how to convert his identity generating software into a bot recognised under UK law as a person “covered by the human rights act i.e. right to life and liberty; freedom of expression; peaceful enjoyment of property. I am very close to achieving this.”

This bring us to another part of the project what I call ‘Identity Kits’, and Bunting calls ‘Synthetic off-the-shelf (OTS) British natural person’.[12] These kits consist of various items, personal business cards, library cards, a national railcard, t-mobile top-up card, national lottery card and much more. They take a few months to compile each of them because they are actual items that everybody uses in their everyday lives, involving evidence of identity. There is also a charge for the package of 500.00 GBP, which is cheap for a new identity.

Bunting stresses that these UK identities are lawful and that there is no need for any official consulting or permission from an authority to use or make them. Through this he intends to illustrate a precise codification of class in the UK system. Currently, he defines three classes of identitiy: human being, person and corporate. What class of individual you are places you into categories of evaluation, this process allows others to judge your status, worth and value, within a hierarchy, which is clearly represented in the status maps.

This work touches on issues around our everyday status as a critique, but also as an investigative hack, and plays around with the quagmire of inequality currently in the UK. Inequality is built, constructed into the fabric our societies as an accepted default, through tradition, social or mechanistic, holding in place societal divisions. If there was a status project made in other countries reflecting their own status, worth and value of citizens there would be clear links defining where the connections and divisions lie, between each culture. In fact, another project worth mentioning here is ‘The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better’. [13] The authors Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett have done their own ‘extensive’, detailed research in highlighting through many different graphs, mapping out inequality around ther globe.

“We know there is something wrong, and this book goes a long way towards explaining what and why.” [14] (Hanley)

Bunting’s work expresses a discipline conscious of agency, autonomy and enactments for self and collective empowerment. Hacking different routes around what at first is seen as too big to deal with, lessens its power and awe. Like Burbank in the ‘The Truman Show’, what we have been told is not real. Bunting knows this instinctively, and is on a quest to upturn each stone to see what lies beneath. But at the same time these facilities created to crack the social, and data orientated codes, are shared. He then leaves the paths he has discovered wide open for others pass through, as we all struggle to survive the ever creeping strangle-hold, of the Netopticon.

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This article was written for and will be published as part of Heath Bunting’s presentation in Athens ‘Workshop How to Build a New Legal Identity’, May 5th 2012.

During the workshop, Heath Bunting will introduce us to techniques and strategies on how to form new identities. The distribution of the workshop How to Build a New Legal Identity across Europe aims at exploring the characteristics of identity in each country.

Artist’s Talk: May 4, 2012 @ 19.00

Workshop How to Build a New Legal Identity: May 5, 2012 @ 12.00

Frown Tails, 6 Paramythias str, Keramikos, Athens
Organised by: Katerina Gkoutziouli and Frown Tails

http://www.frowntails.com/heathbunting.html

References:

[1] The NSA Is Building the Country’s Biggest Spy Center (Watch What You Say). By James Bamford
– http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2012/03/ff_nsadatacenter/all/1#

[2] Internet activity ‘to be monitored’ under new laws
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/news/9179087/Internet-activity-to-be-monitored-under-new-laws.html

[3] Lifetracing 2. The Advent of the Engines. 2.2 Indexing and Privacy Issues. Anne Helmond.
http://helmond.networkedbook.org/lifetracing-2-the-advent-of-the-engines/

[4] Revisiting the Curious World of Art & Hacktivism. By Marc Garrett – 02/03/2012
https://www.furtherfield.org/features/articles/revisiting-curious-world-art-hacktivism

[5] The Status Project: Data-Mining Our Identities. An interview with Heath Bunting by Marc Garrett – 20/07/2010
https://www.furtherfield.org/interviews/status-project-data-mining-our-identities

[6] A Report on the Surveillance Society. For the Information Commissioner by the Surveillance Studies Network Sept 2006
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/shared/bsp/hi/pdfs/02_11_06_surveillance.pdf

[7] Being Social. Since the mid-90s computers have changed our way of being together. First the Internet then mobile networks have grown as cultural spaces for interaction – wild and banal, bureaucratic and controlling – producing new ways of ‘being social’. Visitors are invited to view art installations, software art, networked performances and to get involved with creative activities to explore how our lives – personal and political – are being shaped by digital technologies.
https://www.furtherfield.org/programmes/exhibition/being-social

[8] Furtherfield Gallery opens with exhibition questioning online society. wired.co.uk. By Katie Scott March 2012.
http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2012-03/12/being-social-at-furtherfield-gallery

[9] The Furtherfield Gallery’s debut show in its new Finsbury Park home will make you question what you put online. 7th March 2012. By George Nott. Enfield Independent http://tinyurl.com/c3o7bo9

[10] Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (Penguin Social Sciences). Michel Foucault (Author), Alan Sheridan (Translator). Penguin; New Ed edition (25 April 1991).

[11] The Mythology of Terrorism on the Net. Critical Art Ensemble. Summer 95.
http://www.t0.or.at/cae/mnterror.htm

[12] Synthetic off-the-shelf (OTS) British natural person.
http://status.irational.org/identity_for_sale/#

[13] The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better’. by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. http://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/resource/the-spirit-level

[14] The way we live now: A hard-hitting study of the social effects of inequality has profound implications, says Lynsey Hanley. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/mar/13/the-spirit-level