Tactics & Practice #4:
The Black Chamber
Surveillance, Paranoia, Invisibility and the Internet
Talks | Exhibition | Action in public space | Publication
9 March–1 April 2016
Kino Šiška, Ljubljana
ŠKUC Gallery, Ljubljana
Eva & Franco Mattes, Bani Brusadin
How did the internet go from the utopian free-for-all, open source heaven, libertarian last frontier to the current state of permanent surveillance, exhibitionism and paranoia?
This duplicity is the underlying thread that links the artists, activists, and researchers who will participate in The Black Chamber , an exhibition, a symposium, and an urban intervention curated by The Influencers (ES), produced by Aksioma (SI) in partnership with Drugo More (HR) and hosted, respectively, by ŠKUC Gallery and Kino Šiška in Ljubljana.
Developed through ongoing research on these subjects by internationally renown artist duo Eva & Franco Mattes and researcher and curator Bani Brusadin, The Black Chamber aims at discussing the delicate and often awkward role of art and imagination in the age of mass surveillance, stressing the multiple connections between post-studio art and independent research, grassroots reverse engineering, and new forms of political activism in the age of networks.
 For centuries, nations around the world have operated Black Chambers, secret rooms where they tried to decode the messages being sent by their rivals: these were the precursors of the modern Intelligence Agencies. This project is an attempt to peek into the Black Chamber.
Session 1: Independent militias in and out of surveilled networks
With lectures by Marko Peljhan, Simona Levi, and Evan Roth
What WikiLeaks, Edward Snowden and several other initiatives around the world brought about was essentially twofold: on the one hand, the awareness of governments’ secret management of massive loads of public or classified information; on the other hand, the existence of effective counter-power methods, together with huge personal threats to anyone trying to expose the opaque practice of intercepting data from the public sphere. Among other things, a clandestine surveillance program called PRISM was revealed, under which the United States National Security Agency (NSA) collects internet communications from the major US internet companies. The awareness of the range, depth, and pervasiveness of information control over private citizens and companies, besides foreign governments, was appalling, questioning the very nature of the modern state.
But the ideas of society and the public sphere are at stake too. The practice of whistleblowing came into the spotlight, as well as other forms of people’s agency on the whole spectrum of networked infrastructure, including the use of cryptography, the exploration of the darknet, and new and more sophisticated forms of reverse engineering and tactical media. Non-standard communications protocols and unconventional use of existing channels became a viable, though sometimes dystopian, alternative to the open (and surveilled) internet.
Session 2: Voluntary prisoners of the cloud
With lectures by Émilie Brout & Maxime Marion and Zach Blas and final conclusions drawn by all guests, moderated by conference curator Bani Brusadin.
For many internet users, empowerment is an illusion. They may think they enjoy free access to cool services, but in reality, they are paying for that access with their privacy. Much of our information-sharing seems trivial – should we really care that some company knows what music we like? If they can find out about what you listen to, they can find out what you read, what you buy, how you relate to whom. From there, it’s not so hard to predict your political preferences, and manipulate you. As researcher and journalist Evgenj Morozov says, “We are careening towards a future where privacy becomes a very expensive commodity.”
The nature of the old information highways or virtual communities is obviously at stake in the post-Snowden age. We are mentioning these obsolete terms on purpose in order to arouse suspicion over more recent ones such as “Web 2.0” or “social sedia” that were used to highlight the apparently “social,” empowering nature of the internet as we thought we knew it.
10 March–1 April 2016
ŠKUC Gallery, Ljubljana
Artists: Jacob Appelbaum & Ai Weiwei, Zach Blas, James Bridle, Émilie Brout & Maxime Marion, Simon Denny, Jill Magid, !Mediengruppe Bitnik, Metahaven, Laura Poitras, Evan Roth
The Black Chamber exhibition is a selection of some of the most significant works by a generation of artists and activists who devise both technological and social tactics to peek into contemporary phenomena of surveillance and paranoia, including the ambiguity of massive voyeurism and actual systems of corporate or state control over citizens.
Operating occasionally at the center, though more often at the periphery, of this huge, mysterious, always slippery, and constantly changing patchwork of forces, we find the post-studio artist as well as the political dissident, the unruly technologist or the unconventional journalist. This passionate tangle of people sets out to suggest alternative and always ephemeral ways of disseminating information and countering automatic processes of control over bodies and collective fantasies. They know that no existing map can be fully trusted.
What is actually at stake is both technology’s role in shaping global culture and people’s opportunity for technological, social, and even aesthetical empowerment. Adding the precision of investigative journalists or hackers to the passion of explorers or superusers, the artists and activists invited to The Black Chamber translate problematic histories associated with the governance of the infrastructure and the control over people’s imagination into subtle visual forms.
In 2005 Jill Magid was commissioned by the Dutch secret service (AIVD) to make a work for its new headquarters to help improve its public persona by providing “the AIVD with a human face.” So for the next three years Magid met with willing employees in non-descript public places and, since she had been restricted from using any recording equipment, collected secret service workers’ personal data in handwritten notes. Those notes later informed the project Article 12, part of which, in spite of being previously reviewed, was immediately censored, its content redacted, and its visibility restricted by the secret service itself.
James Bridle’s Citizen Ex flag series are full scale flags based on data from the Citizen Ex project. “Every time you connect to the internet, you pass through time, space, and law,” says Bridle: this information is stored and tracked in multiple locations, and used to make decisions about you, and determine your rights. These decisions are made by people, companies, countries, and machines, in many countries and legal jurisdictions. Citizen Ex shows you where those places are, defining a tentatively new form of “algorithmic citizenship.” A form of citizenship that is formed at the speed of light and which is nomadic by nature, yet revealing the nature of an underlying structure of data, protocols, and rules.
In the age of massive and ubiquitous connection, intimacy, as well as the possibility of real political agency, are paradoxically mediated by “personal” technologies. That is why Edward Snowden’s revelations made apparent government betrayal, but also fundamentally altered our relationship with the network, its devices, and its imagery. Developed in collaboration between singer and artist Holly Herndon and Metahaven, Home heavily relies on a “data veil” made of logos and symbols from Snowden’s leaked documents. As Metahaven said, “WikiLeaks and Snowden used ‘information’ as the raw material for political change, leaving the ball in the court of ‘imagination’ to make the next move.”
Satoshi Nakamoto is the creator of Bitcoin, a revolutionary and unfalsifiable payment system for performing online transactions anonymously. This virtual currency is widely used on darknets, networks guaranteeing anonymity which have a bad reputation, especially because of the cybercriminal activities they facilitate (drug trade, counterfeiting, etc.). From his first public message until his disappearance on December 12, 2010, Nakamoto made every effort to preserve his identity. Émilie Brout & Maxime Marion decided to produce the evidence of the existence of Satoshi Nakamoto using the technology he created.
Simon Denny’s The Personal Effects of Kim Dotcom is a collection of copies, rip-offs, and limitations of the “real” contraband. This forms a tangible focus point for what could be seen as one of the most important legal discussions of the moment, entangled as it is with borders, law, entertainment, and what it means to steal, be supervised, and who owns what.
The neon pink Fag Face Mask is one of five masks in Zach Blas’ collection, Facial Weaponization Suite. By aggregating biometric facial scans from a multitude of queer men, Blas created a single facial composite, which he manipulated to create something excessive and shapeless. If gaining visibility in network society means contributing to opaque and private database intelligence, or just being subjected to state surveillance, then Fag Face Mask is an example of what Blas calls “queer technologies,” an experimental form of public, grassroots reverse engineering that challenges the notion of technology as objective, especially when it is used as an instrument of automatic control over the people.
A joint project by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei and hacktivist and political dissident Jacob Appelbaum, Panda-to-Panda is not about surveillance, but about secrecy. Absolute transparency should be for everyone exercising public power; privacy is for everyone else. Unfortunately, the reality of governments and network corporations reveals that the contrary is true. Panda-to-Panda appears as nothing but a sweet-looking stuffed panda bear toy, when in fact it is a condensed version of collective resistance strategies adopted by millions of people in China (“panda” as some popular code word to talk about censorship and bypass it) or anywhere (such as cryptography or decentralized peer-to-peer technologies). The Oscar-awarded filmmaker Laura Poitras caught the making of Panda-to-Panda on film in The Art of Dissent, a short film that shows the personal and political empathy and commitment of three persons who had to flee their countries and were or still are targets of indiscriminate and opaque surveillance because of their activities.
Recently commissioned by Masters & Servers, Evan Roth’s new work Internet Landscapes: Sweden is a series of web based artworks that will allow one to experience the internet’s physical, digital and cultural infrastructure as a landscape depicted by an unusual set-up of infra-red photos, radio frequencies scan, and packet data. Visiting the internet physically is an attempt to repair a relationship that has changed dramatically as the internet has become more centralized and monetized, as well as a mechanism for global government spying.
ACTION IN PUBLIC SPACE
10 March 2016
Gathering point: ŠKUC Gallery, Ljubljana
Chelsea Manning is an IT specialist and former member of the US army. In 2013 she was sentenced to 35 years in prison by a military court for the disclosure of secret military documents to WikiLeaks. In April 2015, Chelsea Manning published her first tweet out of the military prison in Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, where she is currently imprisoned, and even though she has been denied access to the Internet, she has been able to regularly tweet through her lawyer. Chelsea’s Wall picks out and amplifies Manning’s voice, a Twitter streams that talks about whistleblowing and its direct personal consequences, prison life and her physical transition to becoming a woman. The projection onto facades gives the bodyless tweets a physical presence, localizing them and giving them a place outside the virtual. The exhausting pace of social media is suddenly stopped, distorted and literally magnified, so that Chelsea’s twits turn into an ephemeral giant made of light invading the streets of your city. Out of the tumultuous, never-stopping flow of information on the Internet, her twits may be finally read as what they really are: a political thought, a burst of emotions, a call to action and an invitation to never surrender.
The Black Chamber
surveillance, paranoia, invisibility & the internet
EXHIBITION / SEMINAR
Eva & Franco Mattes, Bani Brusadin
Aksioma – Institute for Contemporary Art, Ljubljana; Drugo more, Rijeka, 2016
d-i-n-a/The Influencers, Spain; ŠKUC Gallery, Ljubljana; Kino Šiška, Ljubljana
Link Art Center, Italy
The Black Chamber is realized in the framework of Masters & Servers, a joint project by Aksioma (SI), Drugo more (HR), AND (UK), Link Art Center (IT) and d-i-n-a / The Influencers (ES).
SUPPORTED BY: the Creative Europe programme of the European Union, the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Slovenia, the Municipality of Ljubljana, Istituto Italiano di Cultura in Slovenia.
This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This communication reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.
Media sponsors: Mladina, Radio Študent
Special thanks: Tatiana Bazzichelli, NOME, Berlin; Galerie Buchholz, Cologne/Berlin/New York; RaebervonStenglin, Zürich; GALERIE 22,48 m2, Paris.