Category Archives: art in barcelona

Critical investigation into the politics of the interface. An interview with Joana Moll

Joana Moll, AZ: move and get shot, 2012-2014

Joana Moll is a young artist and researcher whose work critically explores the way post-capitalist narratives affect the alphabetization of machines, humans and ecosystems. Her main research topics include Internet materiality, surveillance, online tracking, critical interfaces and language.

I first encountered Joana’s work a couple of years ago when i read about her online works such as Texas Border, AZ: Move and Get Shot and Virtual Watchers which look into the crowdsourcing of the surveillance of the US/Mexico border by civilians.

Joana Moll, in collaboration with anthropologist Cédric Parizot, The Virtual Watchers

Joana Moll, AZ: move and get shot, 2012-2014

These projects expose two rising features of contemporary culture: the insidious militarization of civil society but also the dilution of individual responsibility enabled by technology. I would really recommend that you check out the talk Surveillance through social networks along the US-Mexico Border that she gave a couple of years ago at AntiAtlas of Borders conference because today’s interview is not going to focus specifically on these works.

The reason why i got in touch with Joana is that she is the co-founder of the Critical Interface Politics Research Group at HANGAR, a centre for arts production and research in Barcelona.

This ongoing research project investigates the complex physical structure of the Internet and in particular the many actors, (infra)structures, systems and materials that have a direct but often covert impact on every aspect of our daily lives: submarine and underground cables that perpetuate colonialist heritage, companies and countries that have access to our data, ecological costs of online habits, commodification of data, cultural biases within user interface design, etc.

Joana Moll not only probes into these questions in her own artistic works but she has also started to develop a series of workshops, strategies and tools that enable other people, no matter how tech savvy they are, to delve into these issues but also to subvert the material and computational architectures of the internet.

Poetic Destruction of the Interface, a workshop on Critical Interface Politics at HANGAR, Barcelona, 2016

Performing PageRank physically, from Poetic Destruction of the Interface, a workshop on Critical Interface Politics at HANGAR, Barcelona, 2016

Joana will be giving online classes about the power of interfaces and the way we can learn to democratize them in May with the School of Machines, Making & Make-Believe. In the meantime, i had a skype chat with Joana. Here’s what it sounded like:

Hi Joana! The Tracking Forensics workshops, which you organised together with Andrea Noni and Vladan Joler, looked at the material impact of the so-called digital immateriality on the ecosystems. The word ‘forensics’ suggests the collection of criminal evidences. Why did you chose this title for the workshops?

Maybe i should start with the background of the workshop?

You know what? That’s a good idea!

Hangar in Barcelona was at the origin of this workshop. They invited me over a year ago to lead an investigation for IMAGIT, a European project that deals with criticism of interfaces. They asked me to develop some actions that would flesh out some of the more abstract concepts that they explored in the Manifesto for a critical approach to the user interface.

I ended up developing 3 workshops that lasted each for 12 hours. Over the course of these workshops, we explored topics such as the materiality of the internet, code, cognition, power and then interface, intervention governance, bias in the interfaces, etc. We were trying to cover everything that goes beyond the interface.

And then while working with another colleague at Hangar, we started to talk a lot about forensics, tracking forensics, online tracking and surveillance, I have been exploring these topics for many years. So we came up with this idea of doing the same workshops that we had done already but the difference would be that we’d focus much more on tracking.

We invited Vladan to give a talk in the workshop because he was already at Hangar doing a residency i had curated on the topic of tracking forensics and ethical uses of collected data.

The term “forensics” refers to cyber forensics (or computer forensics), the official term used when you follow the path of crime where evidence is stored digitally. You thus approach the online traces as if you were in front of a crime scene.

As for “tracking”, it refers to the action of monitoring people’s activity on the internet. Basically the workshop was about showing how you can understand the dynamics, the mechanisms that corporations, agencies and governments use to collect your data. Share Lab in Serbia did a massive research on that topic.

Interface Hack, from Poetic Destruction of the Interface, a workshop on Critical Interface Politics at HANGAR, Barcelona, 2016

Poetic Destruction of the Interface, a workshop on Critical Interface Politics at HANGAR, Barcelona, 2016

Tracking Forensics Atlas. Map #2 Tracerouting Top 100 domains

How did you proceed to uncover the physical paths of information? What kind of methodology and strategies did you use?

Archaeology! We made a big archive at Hangar with a group called Critical Interface Politics Research Group. If you have a look on the website, you will find tools, encryption, visualisation, research, activism, etc. But there’s still so much more information we should add.

During the workshops, we used various software but the most important thing lays in the tangible approach to these digital infrastructures and issues because the way you acknowledge things is totally different whether you just work with screens or you experience them physically. For example, we used maps to draw out a forensic analysis of the paths of information.

Poetic Destruction of the Interface, a workshop on Critical Interface Politics at HANGAR, Barcelona, 2016

As an individual who didn’t get the chance to participate to the workshop, how can i become better informed about the infrastructures hidden behind our dependency on the digital?

Together with the Share Lab, we are doing some Do It Yourself Tracking Forensics that we hope to publish soon. It’s basically what his residency at Hangar was about. It’s a project that Andrea and I proposed to do and Hangar is helping us develop it with group of Cyber Forensic people. This DIY is going to be for everyone because it has been very important for me right from the start to engage in critical pedagogic strategy. I want to not only help people with no technical skills understand all these things that are actually responsible for sculpting our reality but also i want this DIY to help them intervene autonomously in these systems.

Aren’t there other groups working on the same issues and putting resources out there just like what you’re trying to do? Or do you have to do all that research from scratch?

There are other people working on similar issues but because we do things in a different way, we still have to do all the research. For example, the Share Lab in Serbia is looking at similar issues but they only cover a part of it. Also Tactical Tech Collective, with whom I’ve collaborated on two projects, developed many pedagogical manuals on the issue. And then of course there is Julian Oliver and Danja Vasiliev but they don’t cover the physical part as in depth as we do, they are mostly looking at the architecture of information and that’s something that we, on the other hand, only cover very briefly. Our focus is on internet infrastructure and tracking. The pedagogy aspect is also very important for us. I also discovered a group in Austria that did a massive research in tracking. The output was a great paper that’s almost a book actually. There are other people in Amsterdam also but again, it’s different.



Your work DEFOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOREST explores the tangible and devastating impact of the most mundane habit: the use of The project visualises the amount of trees needed to absorb the amount of CO2 generated by the global visits to the search engine every second. The website is very simple yet so powerful that it makes me very anxious. I close DEFOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOREST almost as soon as i’ve opened it. It makes me feel helpless. Once we are more aware of the consequences of our daily internet gestures, is there anything we can do apart from despair?

It’s an ongoing debate. Because of course it’s easy to put all the weight on the shoulders of the end user and make them feel guilty for everything. However, i think it’s very important that we visualize the physical and ecological impact of our online actions. It needs to be embedded in the social imagination because it is quite unbelievable. Data generates C02, it pollutes. There are a few things we can do to help with the problem but they are very minimal. If you are a web designer, for example, you can try and put less images or just work in a more efficient way. Companies bear an even larger share of responsibility.

And in this case, policies have to be enforced from above. Change has to come from a political level and we need to take responsibility collectively if we want things to change dramatically.

The Institute for the Advancement of Popular Automatisms, Embrace Stupidity

You are a co-founder of The Institute for the Advancement of Popular Automatisms. I read the about page, clicked around but i must confess that the more i thought i understood, the less i understood. So could you explain me in layman’s terms the activities of IAPA?

A lots of people tell me exactly that! They are not sure whether there are artists behind the project or if it’s just an algorithm doing all the work.

It’s actually very simple. I did this project together with Mexican artist Eugenio Tisselli. The Institute for the Advancement of Popular Automatisms is a platform that enables us to experiment in a very fast way with code, with language, with algorithms, to talk about poetry and the absurd and how machines communicate with humans. With this project we can do all that in a very unorthodox way, by using more the instinct and the irony. The projects that Eugenio and I do aside from this one are research-based and involve long processes. So IFAPA allows us to play a bit. It’s still serious but the approach is more laid-back, more simple. It allows us to play with our ideas and implement things that are important to our work. It’s kind of escape bubble too!

Any upcoming project, field of research or event you could share with us?

I’m working on another project that talks about how different agents that exploit data. I call that ‘data slavery’, there is a lot of dating sites that sell profiles to each other in a crazy way. You can by thousand or even one million profiles for a hundred dollars….

You mean real profiles?

Some of them are real, some are fake. But that doesn’t even matter because the pictures they use are pictures of real people.

I’m about to buy massive amounts of profiles and then try and understand where else these profile, these pictures, these names, or emails can be found. And from there, i want to explore the data of these slavery markets. In a previous research I did on the topic I’ve seen that one single profile was being exploited by more than 50 online services.

Together with Vladan we are writing a text that explores and exposes the ecological footprint of surveillance capitalism and we hope to release these before the summer.

Besides, and that’s very recent news, the next phase of the Critical Interface Politics Research Group will focus on deeply analizying the environmental impacts of internet infrastructures, data flows and interfaces through different interdisciplinary initatives. The plan is to gather a transdisicplinary resesarch team and design serveral interventions that will be able to both, expose the termendous material impact of communication technologies, create mechanisms and tools to reduce such footprint and make them available to the general public. We are in the process of writing the project and looking for partners right now.

Thanks Joana!

Joana Moll will be running a Tracking Forensics workshop at the Resonate Festival in Belgrade on 21 and 22 April. And if you can’t make it to Serbia, Joana will be giving online classes about the power of interfaces and the way we can learn to democratize them. The online program is organized by the School of Machines, Making & Make-Believe in May. I’ll also be giving online classes but on the topic of socially engaged creative practices, same month, only that Joana gets the Tuesdays and i get Mondays.)

The Influencers. Internet doesn’t exist

The Influencers 2015 (teaser)

Final post and attempt to wrap up The Influencers, an art & activism festival curated by researcher and producer Bani Brusadin and by artists Eva & Franco Mattes a.k.a. 0100101110101101.ORG.

The 11th edition of this festival of unconventional and radical art was anchored into the most banal manifestations of our networked society, one that is made of surveillance, social bullying, communication guerrilla and disintegration of the space of free speech and ideas that internet was meant to be.

As i mentioned the other day, the videos of the talks are on vimeo but i thought i should whip up a post that would present the festival a bit more thoroughly.

Poster by Fabio Paris from LINK Center for The Influencers 2015

First, the poster! The Influencers are good at posters. The one for this edition of the festival has an interesting story. It was made by Fabio Paris from LINK Center for the Arts of the Information Age who used a font that produces images unreadable by machines. Called ZXX, the font was created by designer and former South Korean secret service employee Sang Mun. You can download the font over here.

Now off to some random notes taken during the festival conference:

Excellences & Perfections: Amalia Ulman at The Influencers 2015


Amalia Ulman gave a BRILLIANT performative lecture. I wasn’t prepared to like it as much as i did. Somehow, her work Excellences & Perfections seemed a bit like ‘enfoncer des portes ouvertes’ (a French expression to means ‘stating the obvious’) to me. But the conclusions she drew from it are very smart and entertaining. Excellences & Perfections played with the idea of online deception and was entirely performed on instagram. Ulman played the role of a girl who’s cute like Korean girls are when they do kawaii overload, all pink ribbons, soft light and innocence. Next, the girl’s quest for perfection goes out of control. She gets fillers, a nose job, breast implants – all documented in selfies and rigorously fake. Then, in August 2014, she has a meltdown, goes to rehab, apologizes to her followers.

Piling on the clichés, the latte, the namasté and the fake surgery bandage, Ulman showed how easy it is to manipulate an audience.

The second part of the artist’s presentation was about ‘The Future Ahead’, a video – essay about Justin Bieber’s growth from cherubic prepubescent boy to hetero-normative white male (the text and videos are online.)

Dragan Espenschied at The Influencers 2015

Dragan Espenschied gets the award for funniest talk and best evar tshirt. Espenschied is a media artist, home computer folk musician and digital culture researcher and conservator who heads of the Digital Art Conservation Program at Rhizome. His talk looked at the species that disappear from our online life. Like scroll bars (a loss he deplores) and surfing the web! We don’t do that anymore. We use google, facebook and other systems that track our online moves and monetize them.

If you need proof of that, try and participate to one of the Trail Blazers sessions Espenschied hosts together with Olia Lialina and Theo Seemann.

Trail Blazers is a ‘live web surfing event’, where you have to go from one webpage to another (such as from the twitter account of Snowden to the NSA homepage) by clicking from link to link and without ever using the keyboard. Easier said than done. They had a session in Barcelona as part of The Influencers programme. Photos:




Metahaven, from the video Home they made for Holly Herndon

Daniel van der Velden, one of the founders of Metahaven, gave an outstanding presentation as well (hopefully the video of his talk will soon materialize on vimeo.) Packed with witty observations and food for thought. He talked about planes that disappear in an age of ubiquitous surveillance, the geopolitical game of Russia regarding transparency (surely it’s not a coincidence if they are protecting Edward Snowden and broadcasted Julian Assange TV show), and how everyone has the power to turn pieces of visual culture into a political weapon.

Metahaven is a Dutch design studio with an impressive portfolio. I’m not going to list all their exploits. I’ll just quickly point you to a couple of them: in 2010, they researched and designed a new image for WikiLeaks, while investigating the politics and aesthetics of transparency. One of the outcome of their researches is Black Transparency. The Right to Know in the Age of Mass Surveillance, a book that examines transparency’s intersections with design, architecture, and pop culture, as well as its ability to unravel the circuitry of modern power.

Metahaven was also behind Holly Herndon’s music video HOME, the one in which she speaks to the NSA agent watching her while branding logos of the surveillance agency rain over her.

Franco Bifo Berardi on “futurability” at The Influencers 2015. Part 1, part 2 is over here

The absolute, most amazing talk of the festival was Franco “Bifo” Berardi‘s. The cultural agitator, media activist and philosopher talked about the concept of futurability, the multiplicity of futures, breaking the wall of power and changing the course of history, power as a structure imposed on the present and limiting the possibilities of the future, our impotence (and the one of Obama), our reduction of time to work, enslavement of the human mind, robotization, etc. It’s a hell of a ride but do me a favour and check out the 2 videos of his talk.

The Influencers also screened documentaries. Citizenfour which doesn’t need any introduction. And The Yes Men Are Revolting. That one probably doesn’t need any intro either but whether or not you have seen their last documentary, you could watch the video of Andy Bichlbaum’s talk. It’s a good one, perfect as a consolation prize for anyone who couldn’t make it to Barcelona in October and attend The Influencers.

The Yes Men at The Influencers 2015 (part 1. Part 2 is here)

The Influencers is part of Masters and Servers, a European adventure focused on a new generation of digital interventionism that is behind some of the most interesting publications, festivals and exhibitions of the moment. Think Aksioma, AND festival, Link Art Center, The Pirate Book, Networked Disruption, etc.

Previously: The Influencers: Former MI5 spy Annie Machon on why we live in a dystopia that even Orwell couldn’t have envisioned and !Mediengruppe Bitnik’s talk at The Influencers festival.

!Mediengruppe Bitnik’s talk at The Influencers festival

Oh great! A mere 30 seconds after i had finished painfully and belatedly writing down my notes from the presentation that !Mediengruppe Bitnik gave at The Influencers festival in Barcelona in October, i found out that the video of their talk is ready for you to enjoy ‘from the comfort of your own home’ on vimeo. There:

!Mediengruppe Bitnik at The Influencers 2015 (part 1 of 2)

!Mediengruppe Bitnik at The Influencers 2015 (part 2 of 2)

!Mediengruppe Bitnik speaking at The Influencers festival

So yes, !Mediengruppe Bitnik! Love these guys. I didn’t realize how much at first. I knew several of their works. The parcel for Assange, the architectural bug at HeK in Basel, the bot that shops on the darknet. I just didn’t realize these works were from the same 2 people. Oh the shame!

And although i thought i knew these works, it was good to hear the artists talk about them, giving some insights about their motivations, the little stories behind the controversies, the lessons they’ve learnt in the process, etc.

!Mediengruppe Bitnik are Carmen Weisskopf and Domagoj Smoljo, a duo of contemporary artists who work with public spaces, especially the online one and the way it affects the physical world.

So if you prefer to read a text than watch the videos above or if would like to have the links to their works on hand, then my notes might be handy after all:

!Mediengruppe Bitnik, Opera Calling, 2007

Opera Calling, Hidden Bugs in the Opera House broadcast live Opera Performances

a href=””>Opera Calling, First bug found by Zurich Opera

Installation of Telephone Machine at Cabaret Voltaire, Zürich

In 2007, the duo placed audiobugs in secret locations inside the auditorium of the Zurich Opera. During several weeks, the audio bugs transmitted live the performances to randomly selected phone land-lines in Zurich. As soon as the listener would hang up, the telephone machine automatically called another random number.

The opera is a very old art form. It is one that is often regarded as being a bit elitist too. The artists were looking for a way to open this closed system to more people without them having to go to the opera themselves.

The intervention is an echo of early forms of radio broadcasts. On January 13, 1910, the first public radio broadcast was an experimental transmission of a live Metropolitan Opera House performance. And even earlier than that, Europe had the Théâtrophone (“the theatre phone”), a telephonic distribution system that allowed subscribers to listen to opera and theatre performances over the telephone lines.

!Mediengruppe Bitnik wanted to bring back this very early form of radio but this time as a home-delivery service that no one had asked for.

In total over 90 hours of opera performances were retransmitted to 4363 households.

The Zurich Opera wasn’t too happy with the initiative and didn’t know how to deal with it. First, they accused the artists of copy right infringement and asked them to pay a broadcasting fee. Next, they wanted to sue for libel because the singers complained that the quality of the sound over the phone made them sound bad. The opera house even threatened to call the military if the opera house wasn’t debugged within 48 hours.

The opera house is an extremely well funded institution in the canton of Zurich where 85% of the art funding is dedicated to the opera house. Bitnik’s intervention might, at first sight, look like little more than a bit of artistic fun and wit but it led to some interesting local conversations:

There followed a debate in the media over cultural ownership and cultural subsidies. Eventually the Zurich Opera decided to tolerate «Opera Calling» as a temporary enhancement of their performance repertoire.

Scan image of the parcel

16.01.2013 12:38, At the post office. queuing up

16.01.2013 20:45, Another person. Parcel is still at ‘Mount Pleasant’ Post Office.

17.01.2013 16:39, battery time: over 30hours – battery status: critical – hopefully 6 hours left

17.01.2013 18:44, Free Nabeel Rajab

17.01.2013 18:56, Justice For Aaron Swartz

Bitnik also discussed their brilliant 32-hour ‘live mail art piece’ Delivery for Mr. Assange.

Julian Assange has been living at the Ecuadorian embassy in London since June 2012. Although he was granted political asylum by Ecuador to avoid extradition to Sweden, the WikiLeaks founder cannot leave the premises for fear of being arrested by UK authorities.

The Ecuadorian Embassy is thus at the core of a diplomatic crisis. Interestingly, the embassy is located in one of the most photographed and touristic areas of London: it’s in Knightsbridge, just behind Harrod’s. Yet, there is very little visual documentation showing the kind of ‘war zone’ in the immediate vicinity of the Embassy. The artists wondered how they could engage with this situation. They realized that the one thing that was going through this kind war zone on a daily basis was the postal system and they thought they’d use it to send a parcel to Assange and thus enter the embassy. Royal Mail was to be their Trojan Horse! However, they were unsure of the success of their idea:

Will the parcel be opened on the way? And by whom? Which route will it take? And of course, will it reach its recipient?

!Mediengruppe Bitnik posted the parcel addressed to Julian Assange at the Ecuadorian embassy on the 16th of January 2013. The box had a hole through which a camera was documenting its journey through the postal system at the rate of one photo every 15 seconds. The images captured were transferred to Bitnik website and their Twitter account. Anyone could follow the parcel status online in real time. Over the 32 hours it took for the package to go from postal office to warehouses, to vans, to parcels to Assange, the Twitter feed detailing its every moves attracted thousands of followers.

The duo commented that they liked this moment when they lost all control over their piece. There was however a stressful detail: the battery life. The artists had no idea how long the parcel would take to reach its destination but fingers crossed, the battery would last long enough.

The parcel eventually made it to the Embassy. But it stayed unopened on a table for a few hours. People there were aware of its origin and history but were not sure how to deal with it.

The experiment ended up well, with Assange using little messages on cardboard to thank Ecuador and to express on camera his support to other people imprisoned because they had acted in defence of transparency and freedom of speech.


Exhibition view «Delivery for Mr. Assange» at Helmhaus Zurich. Photo: Mancia/Bodmer, FBMstudio. Exhibition: Feb 14 – Apr 06 2014, Helmhaus Zurich

Bitnik later exhibited the work in a Zurich gallery. Faced with the challenge of transforming an online performance into a white wall show, they decided to rebuild the Assange’s work space at the embassy. It’s fairly small. 20 square meter with heavy and fairly impractical embassy furniture and also many books and objects related to hacker culture. Which makes for an interesting mix.

Hungarian High Quality Passport Scan. Ordered by Random Darknet Shopper (10 Dec 14) for 0.07124536 Bitcoins. The Hungarian Passport scan arrived as digital image. A scan (photography) of a passport in low quality

From the description: «All passport is real, valid, colored, scanned passports for online verification…»


Sprite Stash Can. Ordered by Random Darknet Shopper (26 Nov 14) for 0.05930238 Bitcoins

NIKE Air Yeezy 2. Ordered by Random Darknet Shopper (5 Nov 14) for 0.22061418 Bitcoins

Next, Bitnik talked about their most famous live Mail Art piece: The Random Darknet Shopper, an online bot with a budget of $100 in Bitcoins per week. Each time, the work is exhibited, the bot uses its budget to randomly purchase one item in the deep web. Next, the order is mailed directly to the exhibition space where it is unpacked, displayed and part of a landscape of traded goods from the Darknet.

Once again, Bitnik enjoyed losing control over the performance. The Random Darknet Shopper is a piece of automated work that comes with its own questions about anonymity, trust and responsibility. Who is answerable for what the bot is buying? Is it the gallery that receives the goods? The artists who programmed the bot? Or is it just the bot? The financial system now relies on algorithms to do the trading and in that case, the question of the responsibility becomes an even more tangible one.


!Mediengruppe Bitnik, Chelsea’s Wall

On the opening night of The Influencers festival, Bitnik also premiered their work Chelsea’s Wall in which they toured the streets of Barcelona to project onto the walls of the city the tweets that Chelsea Manning is dictating over the phone from prison.

!Mediengruppe Bitnik didn’t talk about H3333333K but since it’s one of my favourite works from them, i’m going to add a couple of photos of that one. The work translates a glitch onto the façade of the House of Electronic Arts Basel:

H3333333K at House of Electronic Arts in Basel

H3333333K at House of Electronic Arts in Basel

H3333333K at House of Electronic Arts in Basel

Previously: The Influencers: Former MI5 spy Annie Machon on why we live in a dystopia that even Orwell couldn’t have envisioned.

Mexican Lucha Libre Wrestling: Family Portraits

Lourdes Grobet, Vilano dentist

I was going to post this story next month but i just realized that the show closes this weekend already. If you are in Barcelona at the moment, DON’T MISS IT!

So, yes, the show! It’s called Mexican Lucha Libre Wrestling: Family Portraits and it’s at CCCB (the Barcelona Contemporary Culture Centre) until 1 November 2015.

The photos are as stunning as the individuals they portray. They are by Lourdes Grobet, an artist who has spent the past 30 years exploring the world of Mexican lucha libre. She followed the luchadores on the ring and, as they got to know each other better, she also portrayed them at home, with their family.

The exhibition features a previously unpublished series of over forty large-format photographs complemented by the screening of material from the artist’s extensive photographic collection on the theme. There are also daily screenings of films from the 1960s and 1970s featuring El Santo.

CCCB made a video interview with the artist where she explains that Mexican lucha libre isn’t about violence. It’s about the choreography of two bodies that collide. She also looked into the history of lucha libre. While other forms of wrestling around the world are descendants of Greco-Roman wrestling, Mexican lucha libre has its roots in pre-Columbian civilizations:

CCCB interviews Lourdes Grobet for the exhibition ‘Lucha libre: Family portraits. Photographs by Lourdes Grobet’

Lourdes Grobet, Blue Demon

021 001
Lourdes Grobet, Astro Boy

This one isn’t part of the show at CCCB but i liked it so much…
La Briosa and her son, 1984

011 002
Lourdes Grobet, Vilano

009 002
Dr X and his daughter

Lourdes Grobet, Untitled, ca. 1982

Lourdes Grobet, Canek y el Solar, Arena México (Canek and el Solar, Arena México), ca. 1983

Lourdes Grobet, Solar parado

Lourdes Grobet, Fray Tormenta

Views from the exhibition space:



I leave you with a thrilling scene from Santo el enmascarado de plata y Blue Demon contra los monstruos:

The Influencers: Former MI5 spy Annie Machon on why we live in a dystopia that even Orwell couldn’t have envisioned

I’d always wanted to go to the The Influencers festival. So i went. Last week. No, i’ve no idea what took me so long. Based in Barcelona, the event looks at some of the most radical, provocative and socially-engaged forms of media art through documentary screenings, workshops, performances and talks. I’ll come back with more details about the programme but today i just want to share the notes i took during Annie Machon’s keynote presentation on the evening of Thursday the 22nd of October.

Photo by The Influencers

There were LOTS of people in the audience

Annie Machon is an intelligence expert and author who worked for 6 years as an intel­li­gence officer for MI5, the UK domestic counter-intelligence and security agency. Together with her ex-partner, David Shayler, she resigned in the late 1990s to blow the whistle on the spies’ incom­pet­ence and crimes.

book_c000overIn 2005, Machon published her first book, Spies, Lies and Whistleblowers: MI5, MI6 and the Shayler Affair in which she offers criticism of the intelligence agencies based on her observations of the two whilst in the employment of MI5.

Machon started off by saying that she had never been interested in becoming a spy. She applied to work for the Foreign Office but got a letter from the Ministry of Defense suggesting she might be interested in working with them. She went through 10 months of recruitment. They were looking for a new generation of counter-terrorism officers

One of Machon’s first work at MI5 consisted in investigating fellow citizens who might be involved in ‘subversion’. Spying on political activism had massively increased and reached ridiculous proportions. Machon gave the example of a schoolboy doing some homework about the communist party. He wrote a letter to the party asking for more information about their activities and his letter was intercepted. That’s how a schoolboy got a file at MI5.

Civil liberties activists, journalists, musicians, etc. had a file at MI5. So did many prominent politicians. When Labour won the elections in 1997, almost all senior members of the party -and that includes Tony Blair, Home Secretary Jack Straw- had a file because some of those ministers had been involved in left-wing politics in their youth.

Which means that the spies have secret information on people who are supposed to be their political bosses, and that makes for a preoccupying ‘tail wagging the dog’ situation.

But what Machon found most upsetting while she was working at MI5 was the discovery that the spies had lied to the government on several occasions about mistakes they had made. She said that many IRA bombing could have been avoided had MI5 agents been more competent. There were also some illegal phone taps against journalists and people wrongly sentenced to prison even though MI5 or MI6 had evidence that would have shown they were innocent.

She gave the example of two students wrongly accused of attacking the Israeli embassy in Lon­don in 1994. MI5 had documents to innocent them. But the agency refused to disclose the evidence because, under the secrecy laws, they didn’t have to. They said nothing and the young people were both sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Shayler also found evidence that MI6 had funded attempts by Islamic extremist terrorists to assassinate Gaddafi in 1996. The plot failed and Gaddafi survived.

This plot amounted to state-sponsored terrorism. The spying agencies broke the law and there was no way they could justify their scheme by claiming it was ‘public defense’.

Libyans step on a carpet featuring Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. Photograph: John Moore/Getty Images

David Shayler and her tried raising their concerns from the inside but no one would listen. So they both resigned and set to tell what they knew to the media in the hope that the scandal would lead to reforms and greater accountability of the spying agencies.

However, upon entering MI5, both had signed Official Secrets Act which makes it illegal to say anything about their job. In brief, it’s a crime to report a crime and Shayler faced 6 years in prison for revealing the crimes of the agency.

The story about the spies’ crimes broke in 1997 and the couple had to flee the country, they wanted to stay free to have a chance to argue their case.

Annie with David Shayler outside the Old Bailey in 2002, at the start of his trial for breach of the Official Secrets Act. Photo: The Mirror

After a couple of years hiding and living in Europe, Shayler decided to go back to the UK. He wanted a day in court to explain why they had resigned and to talk about the crimes of the agencies. In the end, he was never allowed to say anything. But at the trial, the judge concluded that what Shayler had done was not motivated by greed and that no life had been put into danger following their revelations. Journalists were present in the room. Yet, the day after, all of them wrote the exact opposite of the judge’s conclusions.

There has never been any enquiry from the government into Shayler’s allegations.

Shayler and Machin separated but both found the post-whistleblowing life hard: your reputation is destroyed, you find it difficult to earn money, your social life is affected, etc. But her experience taught her 2 valuable lessons:

1. How easily the media can be controlled, especially in the UK. After Shayler’s conviction, they reported the exact opposite of what the judge had said.

There are two ways to manipulate a journalist.

First, there is the soft method. They invite the journalists in the ‘secret circle’, give them scoops that will give a boost to their career. In exchange, the journalists are invited to report back to MI5 or MI6 if ever they hear of anything that might embarrass the spy agencies.

Then, there is the hard way. MI5 has at its disposal a battery of laws that enable them to attack any uncooperative journalist.

For example, terrorism laws can be used against reporters to force them to expose their sources or to gag reports. There are also label laws to sue journalists. As a result, self-censorship mechanisms have taken place. Machon explained that senior journalists end up collaborating with senior military officials and spies to decide whether a piece of news can or cannot be made public. There is a term for that: the D-notice system. The Official Secrets Act can also be used to gag the media.

MI6 even has an “Information Operation” section to plant fake stories and control the way media break news.

2. The second important lesson was the importance of privacy. Shayler and Machon always assumed that their whole life was listened to. Which made it difficult to carry on a relationship. In the ’90s, surveillance was resource-intensive for spies. Now, post-Snowden, it’s not about targeting someone anymore, all of us should be living with a sense of being under surveillance. She noticed that there was a great deal of outrage about the NSA revelations in countries such as Germany or Brazil. But not so much in the UK. Machon even talked about UK spy agency GCHQ pros­tituting itself to NSA. An example of that is the Tempora operation which involves GCHQ tapping fibre-optic cables to collect global email messages, Facebook posts, internet histories and calls, and shares them with the NSA.

But what if you don’t do anything wrong?

Well, what you do online might still be watched without your consent or knowledge. She gave the example of how the Optic Nerve program collected Yahoo webcam images in bulk. 10% of the conversation taking place on these webcams were sexually very explicit. If you were one of the people who did sexy things in front of your webcam with your partner who lives in another country, you had done nothing wrong. Yet, you were still running the risk of being spied on.

And if you feel you are being watched you start to self-censor, you pay attention to the kind of culture you can access, your rein in your freedom of speech. It’s similar to what happened when people distrusted their own flat, even their family members because they were afraid of the STASI.

For Machon, if we don’t have privacy, we can’t have a functional democracy. In 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stated that we have the right to privacy (see article 12.)

However, there are ways to fight back!

1. There is the democratic approach: concerned citizens should ask their representatives to act on their behalf, have laws put in place that would further protect privacy and achieve greater transparency and accountability from the spying agencies.

2. The guerrilla warfare way: wikileaks that protects their sources and keep the information online, encryption tools, Tor anonymity network, etc. Machon recommends going to a CryptoParty where you’ll be shown the basics of cryptography such as Tor, disk encryption and virtual private networks.

We are living a dystopia that even Orwell couldn’t have envisioned.

Image from the film Nineteen Eighty-Four, directed by Michael Radford and based on George Orwell’s novel of the same name. Seen here, members at the Two Minutes Hate, and a large screen featuring the face of Big Brother. Image via

3. The third way we can fight back is by looking into Code Red, an advocacy group on digital rights that Machon recently launched together with privacy activist Simon Davies. The advisory group of the project includes Jacob Appelbaum, crypto pioneer Whitfield Diffie, security guru Bruce Schneier and computer scientist and former NSA employee turned whistleblower William Binney, among many others.

Code Red aims to building bridges between communities of lawyers, whistleblowers, journalists, activists, etc. It will also create a clearing house for information in the anti-surveillance movement and will support whistleblowers and sources.