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Whistleblowers & Vigilantes | Exhibition Review

06/07/2016
Josephine Bosma

Featured Image: Ubermorgen, “Vote-Auction”, 2000. Installation view from the exhibition “Whistleblower & Vigilantes”

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
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)
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).
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).
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.
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.
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
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.

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

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.

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.