Category Archives: Ljubljana

Transnationalisms – Bodies, Borders, and Technology. Part 2. The conference

Second part of my review (part 1 focused on the exhibition) of Transnationalisms, a group show and symposium curated by James Bridle at Aksioma in Ljubljana.

The event attempted to re-frame the discussions around borders, looking at how borders are strengthened, shuffled and blurred by global phenomena such as climate disruptions, planetary-scale computation and international politics.

Transnationalisms adopted a broad view of what border can mean:

Not merely the border between physical zones and between nation states, with their differing legal jurisdictions and requirements for entry and residency, but also the border between the physical and digital, when we apparently – but perhaps misleadingly and certainly temporarily – cross over into a different zone of possibility and expression.

Transnationalisms was part of Tactics&Practice, a series of seminars organized by Aksioma to reflect on some of the issues explored by new media arts today. This was a particularly successful edition. Maybe that’s because we’re in Slovenia, a country whose size and history places it naturally at the crossroads of languages and cultures. Or maybe it’s because this particular issue of transnationalism is in everyone’s mind these days, maybe we’re all wondering how geography, nationhood and our own sense of belonging are being affected by sea rises and melting snow peaks. Maybe some of us are tempted to believe newspapers headlines that prognosticate the collapse of our civilization if Europe opens its borders to people who have been forced to leave their land because of war, disasters or again, the effects of climate change.

Each of the speaker brought his or her very own perspective on the connections between borders, bodies and technology. What they all seemed to agree on though is that there’s nothing rational, natural nor sacrosanct about nations and borders.

Aksioma uploaded most of the talks on its vimeo channel. I’ve summed up below each video the notes i took at the event. But please ignore my notes and just press play:

James Bridle at the Transnationalisms. Bodies, Borders, and Technology conference in Kino Šiška, Ljubljana. Photo: Miha Fras / Aksioma

James Bridle: The Real Name Game. Video: Aksioma

James Bridle, who curated Transnationalisms, explained what drove him to look into the issue. It all started with a document that came out as part of the Snowden leaks. This one: Procedures Used by the National Security Agency for Targeting Non-United States Persons Reasonably Believed to be Located Outside the United States to Acquire Foreign Intelligence Information Pursuant to Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, as Amended.

The document suggests that since the NSA is not supposed to spy on American citizens, they have to find a way to determine who the information they gathered from the internet belongs to: a U.S. or a non-U.S. citizen? Their strategy consists in observing the websites an individual visits, if at least 50% of the data browsed is American, they leave that person alone. If the percentage falls below 50, then it’s fair game to spy on that person. That’s what Bridle calls your Algorithmic Citizenship, a type of citizenship decided by the data that you leave behind.

The reason why knowing your algorithmic citizenship matters is that each of us has the fundamental right to privacy. That right not to be the object of surveillance depends on your citizenship. Only your own government will protect those rights. The leaked document, however, reveals that the rights to privacy can also be determined by a piece of software, not just by your passport.

James Bridle, Citizen Ex, 2015

In 2015, Bridle launched Citizen Ex, a software that tracks your browsing privately and shows where the websites you’re visiting actually are. Over time, the software build up your algorithmic citizenship. The other reason why you should check out Citizen Ex is that it makes visible the physical locations of data. Most of us have no idea where our data is going or where the websites we visit are located. If we don’t know that, we don’t know where nor how our identity is being constructed. The metaphor of ‘the cloud’ contributes to this ignorance by blurring any perception we might otherwise build of communication networks.

Bridle also looks at other cases in which digital technology has changed perceptions of citizenship, national politics and identities: Estonia backing up its own country (or at least its notoriously digitized governmental services and data) in an e-embassy, a small area of a data center in Luxembourg; a group of young people in Macedonia running a ‘fake news machine’ that might or might not have influenced the results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election; Tamil people making up fake names for themselves so that Facebook won’t reject them, etc.

His research into transnationalism shows how much technological systems can shape reality.

Eleanor Saitta at the Transnationalisms. Bodies, Borders, and Technology conference in Kino Šiška, Ljubljana. Photo: Miha Fras / Aksioma

Eleanor Saitta, Performing States. Video: Aksioma

Eleanor Saitta, a hacker (and thus expert in systems and security), designer, artist, and writer started with a very personal take on transnationalisms but quickly moved to questioning our construct of nation.

Her talk addressed the speed at which the meaning of border is changing. That meaning is evolving so rapidly that physical borders are becoming irrelevant and that the infrastructures that make nations are becoming useless. Technology is driving some of these changes of course but climate change is also increasingly challenging the way we relate and understand nations. She believes that if we want to survive climate change as a species, supply chain and infrastructures have to work for the planet and thus need to be conceived up in terms of global -not national- scope.

“Let’s think in deeper time,” Saitta concluded. “We live in a transient moment of total nations, this will pass. An important thing we should do now is figure out how to prehearse an understanding of what it means to exist beyond the total nation.”

She also mentioned a couple of books. One was The Art of Not Being Governed by political scientist and anthropologist James C.Scott. It sounded promising, i’ve just downloaded the first chapter.

Mojca Pajnik at the Transnationalisms. Bodies, Borders, and Technology conference in Kino Šiška, Ljubljana. Photo: Miha Fras / Aksioma

Mojca Pajnik, Reclaiming Humanity – The utopias of world citizenship. Video: Aksioma

Mojca Pajnik, a researcher, professor at the University of Ljubljana and an expert in issues of citizenship, migration regimes, racism, gender (in)equality and media looks at transnationalisms under a more political lens. Her talk analyzed the European discourse on immigration: the way it is presented (a sabotage of sovereignty!), handled (by externalizing borders, making sure that countries like Morocco, Libya or Turkey keep refugees in tents so they stay further away from Europe) and how these strategies dehumanize human beings looking for a better life.

Reclaiming humanity against “the globalization of indifference” requires a utopian invention of “worldliness of people” that stands for a political project of equality, rather than the moral project of the defence of traditions.

Jean Peters (The Peng! Collective) at the Transnationalisms. Bodies, Borders, and Technology conference in Kino Šiška, Ljubljana. Photo: Miha Fras / Aksioma

Jean Peters is researching new tactics and strategies for campaigning and political change. He’s part of The Peng! Collective, a group of culture jamming activists who are incredibly cunning, fun and efficient when it comes to launching campaigns that involve throwing pies at members of the German right-wing party, denouncing the global weapon industry, allowing citizens to call up agents of the secret services, helping refugees cross the EU borders safely, etc.

His talk was energizing. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been uploaded on vimeo but as soon as it’s there i’ll 1. update this post and 2. let you know about it on twitter.

Marco Ferrari at the Transnationalisms. Bodies, Borders, and Technology conference in Kino Šiška, Ljubljana. Photo: Miha Fras / Aksioma

Marco Ferrari (Studio Folder), Italian Limes: Mapping the Shifting Border across Alpine Glaciers. Video: Aksioma

Marco Ferrari from Studio Folder illustrated the research that preceded Italian Limes. The installation makes visible the effects that climate change is having on Alpine glaciers and, as a consequence, on the re-drawing of the national borders between Italy and its neighbouring countries.

His talk took us to the archives of the Military Geographic Institute (IGM) in Florence where Studio Folder explored how national borders have been understood, surveyed and measured throughout the history of Italy. From books containing seemingly endless lists of coordinates, to the use of late-19th century photogrammetry technology, to maps. But the most significant change is that the Apline glaciers, which constitute the ‘natural’ borders between Italy, France, Switzerland and Austria are melting. The natural frontier is literally evaporating and the old maps are not valid anymore. A few years ago, the Italian government decided to define its almost 2,000 km long border as a “shifting border”.

Italian Limes makes this problem visible thanks to the small units that the team have installed at the frontier with Austria. The devices are equipped with sensors that measure the temperature, pressure and other data that the installation then shares with the public.

Denis Maksimov at the Transnationalisms. Bodies, Borders, and Technology conference in Kino Šiška, Ljubljana. Photo: Miha Fras / Aksioma

Denis Maksimov, steɪt əv nəʊlænd [State of Noland]: on potent futures post- sovereignty, nationalism & imperialism. Video: Aksioma

Denis Maksimov, a theorist, independent curator and co-director of the Avenir Institute, took Leviathan, the book published by Thomas Hobbes in 1651, as the starting point of his reflection. He invited us to consider the nature, history and future of the nation state through a redrawing of the giant figure of the sovereign appearing on the frontispiece of Leviathan. He replaced one by one the constituents of the nation state with concepts that would enable the emergence of an alternative ideology for political self-organisation: steɪt əv nəʊlænd [State of Noland].

Transnationalisms. Bodies, Borders, and Technology conference in Kino Šiška, Ljubljana. Photo: Miha Fras / Aksioma

The exhibition Transnationalisms – Bodies, Borders, and Technology, curated by James Bridle, remains open at Aksioma Project Space in Ljubljana and at the Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova until 25 May 2018.

This program is realized in the framework of State Machines, a joint project by Aksioma (SI), Drugo more (HR), Furtherfield (UK), Institute of Network Cultures (NL) and NeMe (CY).

Previously: Transnationalisms – Bodies, Borders, and Technology. Part 1. The exhibition.
Image on the homepage: Italian Limes by Studio Folder.

Transnationalisms – Bodies, Borders, and Technology. Part 1. The exhibition

Jeremy Hutchison, Movables, 2017. Exhibition view of Transnationalisms – Bodies, Borders, and Technology at Aksioma Project Space. Photo: Miha Fras / Aksioma

National borders are being increasingly challenged under the pressure of mass movement of peoples, digital maneuvers and other technology-enabled disruptions, climate disorder, progressive policies or global economics. This new reality brings about tensions and anxieties but also new ways to consider questions of geography, politics and national identity.

Transnationalisms, an exhibition and symposium curated by James Bridle at Aksioma in Ljubljana, investigates the various conditions in which national frameworks are transcended and transgressed today.

While the nation state is not about to disappear, it is already pierced and entangled with other, radically different forms. Alternative models and protocols of citizenship, identity and nationhood are being prototyped and distributed online and through new technologies. Transnationalisms examines the ways in which these new forms are brought into the physical world and used to disrupt and enfold existing systems. It does not assume the passing of old regimes, but proclaims the inevitability of new ones, and strives to make them legible, comprehensible, and accessible.

Transnationalism is a poignant and challenging theme to explore in 21st century “Fortress Europe”. Yet, as the artists featured in the exhibition demonstrate, it is also a topic that calls for creative sabotage and digital trespassing.

Here’s a quick overview of the show:

Daniela Ortiz, Jus Sanguinis, 2016

Daniela Ortiz, Jus Sanguinis (Collage of Peruvian passport and medical book illustration), 2016

Jus soli, the “right of the soil, is the right of anyone born in the territory of a state to nationality or citizenship. Jus soli is the predominant rule in the Americas, but it is rare elsewhere. European countries, for example, do not grant citizenship based on unconditional jus soli. Instead, most of them grant citizenship at birth based upon the principle of Jus sanguinis, meaning ‘the right of the blood’. The main way children can thus acquire citizenship is thus through the blood of at least one of their parents and not by birthplace.

Daniela Ortiz is an artist of Peruvian descent. In 2016, she had been living in Spain for 9 years when she found herself pregnant. She knew her residency permit would expire before the birth and that her baby would inherit her nationality and legal status. During a performance that year, Ortiz received a blood transfusion from a Spanish citizen, directly challenging the nationalist regime of citizenship which would classify her child as an immigrant and automatically submit him or her to the violence of Immigration laws.

Raphael Fabre, CNI, 2017

Raphael Fabre, CNI, 2017

Last year, Raphael Fabre presented a request for a new French ID card. All of his papers were deemed to be legal and authentic. The ID card was issued. What makes his ID card uncommon is that the photo the artist had submitted to his local government was created on a computer, from a 3D model, using several pieces of software and special effects techniques developed for movies and video games. The official document is thus featuring a citizen which is practically virtual and fictional.

The work reflects the increased importance that digital technology takes in mediating our relationship with forms of authority.

CNI reminded me a bit of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s series Portraits for which he photographed Madame Tussaud’s wax replicas of iconic historical and political figures. Just like in the case of Fabre, the setting was meticulously staged and the result adhered strictly to the rules of the portrait genres. In both cases, however, the hyperrealistic images add an extra manufactured layer to the representation of an individual.

Julian Oliver, Border Bumping, 2012-2014

Julian Oliver, Border Bumping, 2012-2014. Exhibition view of Transnationalisms – Bodies, Borders, and Technology at Aksioma Project Space. Photo: Janez Janša / Aksioma

You might have noticed, when traveling in Europe, that your mobile phone operator sometimes notifies you that you’ve entered a new country minutes before or after you have actually crossed the national border. Your phone is in one place, your body in another. When active, Julian Oliver’s Border Bumping phone app collected mobile phone tower and location data to map the ways in which the electromagnetic spectrum defies the integrity of national borders.

Folder group, Italian Limes, 2016

Folder group, Italian Limes at the Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova in Ljubljana. Photo: Miha Fras / Aksioma

Folder group, Italian Limes at the Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova in Ljubljana. Photo: Janez Janša / Aksioma

Folder group, Italian Limes at the Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova in Ljubljana. Photo: Janez Janša / Aksioma

Folder group, Italian Limes at the Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova in Ljubljana. Photo: Janez Janša / Aksioma

Italy set its borders as we know them today in 1861 when the country became officially united. Global warming, however, have recently caused these borders to shift. The rise in the average temperature have resulted in the slow melting of the Alpine glaciers that marked out the frontier between Italy and its neighbours. Rather than deciding on a precise redrawing of its national frontiers, the Italian government made the interesting decision of defining its Alpine borders as ‘movable’. They can shift depending on the location of the watershed and how it is affected by ice melt.

The project Italian Limes (limes is the latin word for ‘border’ or ‘boundary’) monitors the fluctuations of a section of the Alpine border in real time. A couple of years ago, the team installed a series of solar-powered devices on the melting ice sheet at the foot of Mt. Similaun, on the Austrian-Italian border. The measurement units tracked the change in the tridimensional geometry of the glacier.

The GPS sensors are linked by satellite to the pantograph in the exhibition space. The instrument graphically reproduce, hour by hour, the shift in the border prompted by the glacier’s movement and shrinkage on a local map. The shift in natural border and by extension the reality of climate disruption become visible to all.

More works and images from the exhibition:

Jonas Staal, New Unions – Map, First draft, 2016. Exhibition view of Transnationalisms – Bodies, Borders, and Technology at Aksioma Project Space. Photo: Miha Fras / Aksioma

Jonas Staal, New Unions – Map, First draft, 2016. Exhibition view of Transnationalisms – Bodies, Borders, and Technology at Aksioma Project Space. Photo: Janez Janša / Aksioma

Jonas Staal’s New Unions maps the emergence of social movements and new political parties which are creating progressive models of political assembly and decision making in Europe while proposing new forms of transdemocratic practices. These political experiments transcend the boundaries of nation states, just like corporations do but with more ethical and humanistic values.

Jeremy Hutchison, Movables, 2017

Jeremy Hutchison’s work was triggered by a photo showing the inside of a car, the headrests torn open to reveal a person hiding inside each seat. The photo, taken by police at a border point somewhere in the Balkans, testifies to a reality where human bodies attempt to disguise themselves as inanimate objects, simply to acquire the same freedom of movement as consumer goods.

They Are Here, We Help Each Other Grow, 2017

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.

Exhibition view of Transnationalisms – Bodies, Borders, and Technology at Aksioma Project Space. Photo: Miha Fras / Aksioma

Exhibition view of Transnationalisms – Bodies, Borders, and Technology at Aksioma Project Space. Photo: Miha Fras / Aksioma

Transnationalisms – Bodies, Borders, and Technology, curated by James Bridle, remains open at Aksioma Project Space in Ljubljana and at the Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova until 25 May 2018.

This program is realized in the framework of State Machines, a joint project by Aksioma (SI), Drugo more (HR), Furtherfield (UK), Institute of Network Cultures (NL) and NeMe (CY).

Related story: The System of Systems: technology and bureaucracy in the asylum seeking process in Europe. What does it mean to own someone else’s DNA data?

Jeroen van Loon,, exhibition view at Aksioma Project Space. Photo: Janez Janša / Aksioma

Jeroen van Loon,, exhibition view at Aksioma Project Space. Photo: Janez Janša / Aksioma

At the end of 2015, artist Jeroen van Loon offered his entire DNA data – 380 GB of personal data – for auction. The starting price was an extravagant 0 euro. Anyone could place a bid through A year later, the auction closed and the artist’s full genome sold for 1100 euros to the Verbeke Foundation.

The highest bidder had just acquired an installation composed of the server cabinet where the data are stored, framed pictures documenting the DNA extracting and encoding processes, four letters written by experts as well something more difficult to fully grasp: an individual’s entire DNA self-portrait.

In their letters, experts from very different fields attempt to untangle the meaning and implications of Auction house Christie’s Amsterdam seeks to estimate the artistic value of the artist’s DNA; specialists at medical center ErasmusMC in Rotterdam looked at the ethical dimension of the artist’s work and what it means to own his genome which they compare to the digital version of an individual. KPMG, a company with expertise “in all things Big Data” investigated the potential fluctuations of value of the artist’s DNA through time. As for cybersecurity company Fox-It, they wrote perhaps the most dramatic note, they underline the fragility of this DNA which needs to be protected from the greed of ‘gold miners’ and other people or companies eager to speculate and profit from this new type of data.

The letters highlight how a project that can be summed up in a couple of words (Artists Sells Own DNA for 1100 Euros!!!) hides various levels of complexity, meanings, ramifications and uncomfortable questions regarding ownership, privacy, the place of DNA in big data and digital culture in general, bioethics, etc.

Jeroen van Loon, – selling human DNA data

What are the consequences of owning someone else’s DNA data? How does this influence the spatial privacy of the biological owner and his family members?

The installation is currently on view at Aksioma Project Space in Ljubljana, Slovenia. I took the exhibition as an excuse to contact Jeroen van Loon and ask him the questions above. And more:

Photo by Erik Borst: In front of the HiSeq DNA sequencer, which takes 2 weeks to sequence a full genome

Hi Jeroen! The idea of selling your full genome might sound a bit abstract and too conceptual to most people. DNA is a very very long sequence of ACTGs (3 billion lines!) Could you briefly tell us about some of the ethical and cultural questions raised by the auction of your DNA data?

The main difference when thinking about selling DNA data (and I mean DNA data, not biological DNA) compared to other types of data – let’s say credit card or social media data – is that DNA data is not constrained to one single person. DNA data is about me, but also about my sister, parents, grandparents and also my son. So when I decide to sell my DNA data, the first question one could ask is if it’s even my data to sell. Who is the owner of my DNA data? Do I have any authorship or copyright concerning my DNA data? Should I inform my family members and ask for consent when doing something with my DNA data? Scientists call this characteristic of DNA data spatial privacy. Further more, if I find your DNA on a soda can and I sequence it, is it then my DNA data?

Apart from the selling questions, one of the main questions revolves around the monetary value of human DNA data. Because, how do you come up with a certain price tag for my DNA data when we discard the production price for the creation of that DNA data? What makes my DNA data any different – and more of less worthy – than yours? To make it more difficult, what we know today about human DNA data isn’t the same as what we might know in let’s say 15 years. The information value of human DNA data changes because of new scientific research. So linking the price tag to the current information level could also be problematic.

Jeroen van Loon,, artist presentation at Aksioma Project Space. Photo: Janez Janša / Aksioma

Jeroen van Loon,, exhibition view at Aksioma Project Space. Photo: Janez Janša / Aksioma

Jeroen van Loon,, exhibition view at Aksioma Project Space. Photo: Janez Janša / Aksioma

The most distressing aspect of the work for me is that it projects you into a very uncertain future. Right now it’s probably not very easy, practical nor affordable to faithfully transcribe someone else’s genome and draw profit from it. But one day it might. And since you share the DNA material with your existing and future family, it means that your work might be of concern to them. Did you justify your work to them? How did they react to your project?

Yes, I explained my intentions and what I would do with my DNA data. Everybody found it interesting, some found it a little scary, including myself, and others, like my son, was, and is, too young to think anything about it. I did not ask anybody for consent, either in a formal or informal manner. You could call this egoistic, which it probably is.

The main reason for doing it this way is that you might otherwise not have asked this particular question. The artwork is not a metaphor, narrative or visualisation, it is a documentation of a real life action. And it is this action that creates the questions concerning this future digital culture I wanted to show. If it was not a real life action and thus without consequences, it would not have been able to ask these questions.

This is not to say that this does not scare me sometimes, but right now this discussion is in an ‘ignorance is bliss’ place in my mind.

Photo by Erik Borst: Isolating DNA from blood sample

You asked specialists from various fields to ponder upon the significance of the work. One of them was cybersecurity company Fox-It. In their letter, they insist on the need to protect this type data, because DNA is “the new gold” and “access to the goldmine” should be controlled. Yet, the description of the work states that “The artist decided not to stipulate a contract with the eventual buyer” What motivated this decision? I’m particularly curious about the absence of contract since it is so important to protect your data and encrypt it carefully, especially when the data is so personal.

I came up with the idea to add a contract, which would state what the buyer could and couldn’t do with the DNA data, during the final production stages of the artwork. I think I got cold feet. It was the same reason why I wanted to begin the auction price at the production price of the artwork. Both ideas were abandoned after conversations with fellow artists when I realised they would greatly damage the core idea behind the work. It would create a watered-down version of the artwork.

When content becomes binary code we see the same questions pop up regarding copyright, authorship, piracy, privacy, original/copy, remix and so on. This happened to music, cinema, news, and will happen to our DNA data as well. When DNA sequence technology becomes easier, cheaper and more widely available, more companies/organisations will offer ways of e.g. sequencing, storing, sharing, owning, buying or selling DNA data.

As with all other types of digital content, DNA data will also be (il)legally recorded, shared, hacked, leaked, mixed and so on. My point was to show what kind of new questions could arise when human DNA data was sold, not to find the most secure way of transferring it. The actual selling asks not only these questions but also shows possible implications.

What happened since you sold your DNA data? You just sent the whole installation to the Verbeke Foundation and then it disappeared from your preoccupations?

My focus as an artist is on visualising, documenting and revealing digital culture, not on DNA and its discourse. DNA was only my focus because it became data. So to be very honest; when the work was sold my preoccupation with my DNA data was finished.

I try to keep up a little with news about DNA sequence possibilities. I recently saw a Dutch TV commercial in which they offered to sequence parts of your DNA for your, a sort of The fact that this is now on Dutch TV means that we will have to deal more and more with the questions surrounding data and DNA and therefor I feel happy to already have finished the work since I tried to reveal digital culture with this work.

I did write a small text about my final reflections on the selling of my DNA data for Digimag Journal | Issue 75 | Digital Identities, Self Narratives. The interesting part was that a lot of people around me were encouraging me to place fake bids to get higher bids. Even journalists told me they would write about the work if the price would be higher. This really frustrated me, as if a work is only interesting if it’s worth as much as possible. The strange thing was that during the last month of the auction I got the same feeling, ‘the work is useless and failed if it’s being sold for 500 euro…’ Which of course doesn’t matter, it was only my own insecurities. The only thing that matter was that my DNA data was sold. For how much or little didn’t matter, the selling itself was important, not the price. But it did get me thinking about what would change the price. I don’t think there’s any difference in the order in which the 3 billion ACTG’s are positioned, rather I think it could be a difference in context. Who sells it, when, where, how and why, meaning the value of DNA data resides in context rather than in production as perhaps is the case with all art.

Have you never been worried by the fact that the work could have been bought by some private company that speculates on data? By Amazon or Google for example?

I did, this was precisely the worry that made me think of the contract and start looking at the production price. The thing that scared me the most was that someone would buy it, analyse the sequenced data so they knew e.g. what my chances are on getting alzheimer’s disease and publishing all this information so my family members could read about their own chances of getting it without having the chance to say ‘no, I do not want to know this right now.’.

During the last 30 minutes of the year-long auction there where four different potential buyers of which one had a relation with the medical industry. What could have happened if Verbeke haden’t bought it, I don’t know, perhaps it wouldn’t be an artwork anymore, it would just be data.

Photo by Erik Borst: In ErasmusMC’s data center: the hardware responsible for storing and analysing DNA

Photo by Erik Borst: Transferring 380gb of DNA data from ErasmusMC’s data center to the artist’s hard drive

Do you think it could turn out that yours was actually a very wise move? That the Verbeke Foundation might do more to protect your DNA data than you (or anyone else) could do? That it now feels some kind of responsibility towards it?

I never thought about it that way. Could be I guess. Since there is no contract they can do whatever they want with the work, sell it, show it, dismantle it, put it in a depot. I don’t have any say in it, so when Aksioma asked me if it would be possible to show, I first had to ask if I could loan the artwork. It would be interesting to document the opinion of Geert Verbeke, owner of the Verbeke Foundation, about his responsibility towards the artwork and the data.

Photo by Erik Borst: First step: generating blood samples

Photo by Erik Borst: 3 vials of blood

Was the ‘blood-to-data’ process a long and difficult one? What was it like and who did you work with?

The team of André Uitterlinden (Professor of Complex Genetics at Erasmus Medical Center, Rotterdam, The Netherlands) helped me with understanding the procedure of sequencing my DNA and the actual sequencing. Through this understanding I could decide how many photos I needed to show the blood-to-data process. All photos were taken by Erik Borst, with which I discussed how the images should look.

After generating a few blood samples the biological DNA was extracted from my blood. The sequencing itself took two full weeks, this was due the fact that my DNA data was sequenced in a 30-fold depth, meaning it was of laboratory quality. When the sequence was finished the data was checked by bioinformaticians, with which I discussed before hand what kind of output I needed for the artwork. The staff was extremely helpful and interested as they saw this work as an opportunity to communicate about their work and DNA in general.

Jeroen van Loon,, exhibition view at Aksioma Project Space. Photo: Janez Janša / Aksioma

I’m also curious about the aesthetics of the piece. The final installation looks like a normal server cabinet, it could host any type of data. What guided your artistic decision to showcase and communicate the process this way? Was it just the most practical option?

One of the most difficult tasks during the production of the work was to think of the medium in which I wanted to show the DNA data. I found it very difficult to create a visual link between the auction and the actual data. In my mind, the medium in which I wanted to show the work didn’t need to be an artistic representation or imagination. The work is not a visualisation, it is a documentation. I struggled with this because I was mainly thinking about how it was going to look inside a gallery. I thought of tripods, pedestals, mounted screens, framed harddisks, printed DNA code and so on, all terrible.

The night before I had to finished my proposal, I got the idea of using a server cabinet (don’t remember how I got the idea), I found it the most honest way of documenting the auction and the data since I could use a screen for each. Showing the actual raw data file on one screen and the realtime auction results through the website on another, all inside the same object. The tall blackish server cabinet itself is beautiful; it’s nearly the same size as me, the glass door reflects you when your looking at the data, it’s an object that people know, they relate it to data, datacenters, google, facebook and so on. It’s a closed cabinet with the data inside as if it’s an box waiting to be opened. It was the perfect medium to communicate my thoughts, and indeed a very practical one.

What are you showing at Aksioma exactly? The full installation? Other materials?

I’m showing, with the help of the Verbeke Foundation, the full installation.
The presentation consists of the server cabinet, the blood-to-data photo series and the four texts written by Christie’s, ErasmusMC, KPMG and Fox-IT – which have an English translation that the audience can take home.

Thanks Jeroen!, Jeroen van Loon’s solo show is at Aksioma in Ljubljana from 21 March until 20 April 2018. The opening and artist talk titled “The selling of human DNA data” take place this Wednesday 21 March at 7 pm.

Other works by Jeroen van Loon: An Internet featured in How artists and designers are “materialising the Internet.”

Forensic Fantasies, online scams and the fragilities of IoT. An interview with KairUs

Many of you have probably heard of Agbogbloshie, the biggest and most infamous e-waste dump in the world. That’s where most of the “Western” world’s electronics is (illegally) sent to rest and be dismantled by young people who ruin their health breathing toxic fumes and trying to salvage the precious metals our trash contains.

But our old bits and pieces of hardware don’t just contain copper and gold, they also hold personal, corporate and military information that can be retrieved and used by cyber criminals.

KairUs art collective Linda Kronman and Andreas Zingerle

The duo KairUs (artists/researchers Linda Kronman and Andreas Zingerle) traveled to Agbogbloshie in Ghana to investigate the issue of data breaches of private information.

The result of their research is Forensic Fantasies, a trilogy of artworks that use data recovered from hard-drives dumped in Agbogbloshie to answer the question: What happens to our data when we send a computer, an hard disk or any kind of other storage device to the garbage?

Forensic Fantasies trilogy: #2 Identity Theft, exhibited at Aksioma – Institute for Contemporary Art, Ljubljana, 2018. Photo: Janez Janša / Aksioma

The first chapter in the series, Not a Blackmail examines the possibility to identify the prior owner of a hard-drive and extort money from them (with emphasis on the word “possibility” they didn’t actually try and ransom the owner!) The second work, Identity Theft, focuses on the fraudulent online profiles created for romance scams. Finally, Found Footage Stalkers uses images retrieved from one of the hard-drives to create photo albums, as a direct reference to the traditional practice of using found footage to create new artworks.

There’s something very disturbing in Forensic Fantasies. The trilogy not only connects us with the after-life of our electronics but it also makes palpable a series of dangers that would otherwise appears far-fetched and abstract to most of us.

KairUs‘s work focuses on human computer and computer-mediated human-human interaction. Since 2010 they have investigated the issue of Internet fraud and online scams. Both of them are currently holding an Assistant Professor position at Woosong University in South Korea where they are also doing research on the vulnerabilities of Internet of Things and Smart Cities.

KairUs have an exhibition right now at Aksioma, everyone’s favourite cultural venue in Ljubljana, Slovenia. The show focuses on the Forensic Fantasies Trilogy but i’d recommend you check out the fascinating talk the duo gave at Aksioma a couple of weeks ago because it not only sums up and comment on the trilogy but also presents the artists’ ongoing research into the weaknesses and pitfalls of the much-hype Internet of Things.

Behind the Smart World: Artist talk by KairUs (Linda Kronman and Andreas Zingerle) at the Aksioma Project Space in Ljubljana on 14 February 2018

Hi Andreas and Linda! Your work Forensic Fantasies – #1: Not a Blackmail examines the possibility to blackmail the prior owner of a hard-drive. Why did you not send the hard drive back to its owner? What does the letter to the owner say?

A primary motivation to visit Agbogbloshie in the first place was to answer the questions; if it is possible to use or abuse the data on a hard-drive recovered from an e-waste dump. As we had read cases about US senators being blackmailed, company secrets exposed and recovered hard-drives from US military contractors found amongst e-waste in West Africa, we were curious if our e-waste is really such a data breach as these reports were conveying. For us, the artwork ‘Not a Blackmail’ from the ‘Forensic Fantasies’ trilogy is a proof of concept that it is possible to recover data from a hard-drive and with the help of social media profiles track current contact information of the former owner, so that this person can be contacted and then potentially blackmailed. Of course our intention was not to blackmail this person, which is made clear in the title of the artwork (‘Not a Blackmail’).

The whole Forensic Fantasies series is also about the idea of finding something sensitive or valuable on the hard-drives, and until one recovers the data there is always a chance, a fantasy of recollecting something important or of value, even scandalous. Much of the data we recovered and processed would be more or less boring for most of us in an other context, on the other hand the content of a hard-drive might still feel very personal and exposing for its former owner, so how important is it to expose this person? The name of the former owner is exposed through the artwork, but it is still common enough, avoiding a direct link to an individual. Keeping this in mind we have been thinking of ways to deliver the data back to the former owner in a way or another. Just sending the package might evoke a reaction to ignore us, so we are still waiting for opportunities to do it in a more personal way. As the artwork is still exhibited in this speculative format, we also have to think how it will be affected, how the art work changes if we actually manage to deliver the data to the owner.

The letter to the owner basically covers the story how we got our hands on his data, that we found personal and sensitive data on it that a criminal might use against him and that we decided to return the hard-drive to him.

Forensic Fantasies trilogy: #1 ‘Not a blackmail, exhibited at Aksioma – Institute for Contemporary Art, Ljubljana, 2018. Photo: Janez Janša / Aksioma

Forensic Fantasies trilogy: #1 ‘Not a blackmail, exhibited at Aksioma – Institute for Contemporary Art, Ljubljana, 2018. Photo: Janez Janša / Aksioma

Forensic Fantasies trilogy: #1 ‘Not a blackmail, exhibited at Aksioma – Institute for Contemporary Art, Ljubljana, 2018. Photo: Jure Goršič / Aksioma

One of the issues the trilogy revealed is the peril of not cleaning up or destroying hard drive before getting rid of it. How easy or difficult is it to do so exactly?

To physically destroy a hard-drive is the most secure way of getting rid of the data. There are hard-drive shredders or just drilling holes in the hard-drive is a common practice of companies, that are more aware of leaking data and want to prevent data breaches. One can also open the hard-drive and scratch the disc that contains data.

Of course if you ever saved anything in the cloud your data will be saved on hard-drives somewhere else, often copied on several locations. You will never have access to destroy these hard-drives, so we can only trust that companies have proper workflows of re-using and destroying hard-drives (this aspect also made us more aware of the materiality of the cloud).

Deleting data and emptying the virtual trash bin still allows data recovery. As long as data has not been overwritten by new data at least one time it is quite easy to recover, though recovered data is not organized which makes it more difficult to process. If a hard-drive is meant for re-use experts recommend to overwrite the data several times.

Data forensics have been able to recover data or parts of data in cases that seemed impossible such as broken hard-drives or discs destroyed by water. Yet this type of data rescue is time-consuming, needs special equipment and is expensive, whereas we were more interested in how easy it is to recover data and if data mining with very simple tools is possible at an e-waste dump.

Acquiring hard drives on the e-waste dump. Photo:

Could you tell us about people you met in Ghana who are also very concerned about the topics you are investigating?

What took us to Ghana in the first place is that we have been investigating internet fraud for a longer time in several of our artworks. West Africa is known for certain types of scams, but internet fraud, internet crime and scams in general are a global phenomena. People in Ghana are in general worried how trustworthy they are perceived online. Due to this bad reputation of a few scammers, service providers use the easiest way of dealing with this issue, blocking the IP-range of a whole country to access their webpage. Hence the general population is punished with quite insufficient means because with a bit of advanced knowledge this will not stop a scammer. We talked about this with several people we meet and also internet scam issues are discussed through popular culture, mainly so-called Nollywood films, that are mostly Nigerian and Ghanaian low budget films.

This perspective we try to bring forth in the second part of the trilogy ‘ID theft’ by compiling a found footage film from several Nollywood films dealing with this issue. These films are distributed as DVD’s everywhere in Ghana and are considered a very important channel for West Africans to reflect upon their own culture. Through the films it was also easier for us to discuss these issues with people we met, though in Ghana the scams were often blamed to be done by Nigerians living in Ghana. At the e-waste dump no questions were asked what we want to do with the hard-drives. As far as we talked with the workers there, they salvage and sort valuable metals such as copper cables or computer parts with gold and other metals, processors, hard-drives, etc. These parts are then sold in bulk. Hard-drives are most probably bought in bulk by data rescue companies for their spare parts. In general, mining data from the e-waste dump is probably very marginal and unknown by the general public in Ghana. A bigger concern is the illegal trade of e-waste from the US and Europe that ends up in West Africa.

Map: Global illegal waste traffic

The work involved discussions with other artists about the ethics of using this type of ‘stolen’ material. On the one hand, people have thrown it away so it’s fair game. On the other, personal data is very sensitive. So i’m wondering what these conversations concluded about the ethic of using this data in art works? Is it just a big no no or are there conditions that make it acceptable?

Gathering and bringing back the hard-drives from Ghana was one thing, but what do you do with it and how to share it with other artists? Together with the Linz-based net culture hub we organized an artlab where we invited individuals from a trusted network of EU-based artists to participate in the project. We met in Linz for the “Behind the smart world” research lab, spending together several days to have a look at the data and give time to people to discuss and find ways to work with it.

A central issue was the privacy of the former owners of the hard-drives. Together we found different aspects on the hard-drives interesting and also developed strategies to abstract the data through artistic processes. Experiments were done to sonify folder structures, record booting attempts of the disks themselves, collages of browser cache or ascii renderings of videos and images. There was also participants attending the artlab that decided not to work with the material feeling that they had to compromise their working ethics or concerned that their reputation in handling sensitive material trusted to them would be compromised in the future. We highly respected these individual decisions.

Working with this material the longest we decided to take a more provocative approach in our third artwork Found footage stalkers we unveil the photos from one of the hard-drives, giving very personal insights into the life and habits of its former owners. Flipping trough the photos from parties with friends, trips to amusement parks and Christmas celebrations with the family evoke a similar feeling to stalking someone unknown on social media. Despite the rather uninteresting photo material, one starts to create a story and attach a personality to these fragmented digital representations. By presenting the photos in albums we approach the material as ‘found footage’, the practice of gathering material from thrift shops, yard sales and flea markets for remixing and creating new artworks, something artist have done for generations. Hence the artwork confronts earlier practices of using ‘found footage’ with now digital materials found amongst our trash. In the end, everyone has to decide for themselves how to deal with the data and what do with it. Artworks using the data from the Agbogbloshie hard-drives were shown for the first time in the ‘Behind the Smart World’ exhibition at the Art meets radical openness (AMRO) festival.

Artlab at in Linz, Austria. Photo:

Artlab at in Linz, Austria. Photo:

Forensic Fantasies trilogy: #3 Found footage stalker, exhibited at Aksioma Project Space. Photo: Janez Janša / Aksioma

Your ongoing research in South Korea, titled The Internet of Other People’s Things is, i think, a very relevant and important one because it lays bare the pitfalls of the internet of things, especially when deployed on the scale of a whole city like Songdo. How much awareness is there of that problem in Europe, among city developers, members of the public, tech companies, etc?

South Korea is one of the rapidly developing, tech-driven Asian states, with the second fastest and most connected society in the world, when you look at average internet connection speed and active social media penetration. At the same time, it’s a very young democracy, everything is driven by the government and market with a top-down approach, not focussing on the people who shall live in smart cities or use IoT devices on a daily basis. Cities like Songdo are built from scratch, supported by big tech companies amongst others IBM, CISCO and LG. This hyper-connected urban environments path the way to technocratic governance and city development, corporatization of city governance, technological lock-ins and hackable ‘pan-optic’ cities.

In Europe on the other hand, we see a much more inclusive development where citizens and communities become a vital part of city developments. Citizens are the ultimate actuators of a city. How are citizens involved in co-design collaborations with private corporations and the public sector to build better cities? Around this topics we are working on a publication where we seek submissions from researchers, artists, hackers, makers, activists, developers, and designers that explore vulnerabilities in IoT devices and other embedded systems e.g. in smart cities. We aim to bring artworks, projects, and essays together to create new critical perspectives on ubiquitous technologies. The full open call can be found on our website.

A view over the ‘central park’ of Songdo. Photo:

Not functioning automated vacuum waste collection system in Songdo. Photo:

Could you give a few example of the dangers you see in this massive investment in building ‘smart’ cities out of scratch and implementing IoT in our cities and homes? Do you think it is doomed to fail and be hacked or are there better ways to implement IoT?

Well, there is a couple of thing we were able to observe.

One is what we call the ‘Ruins of a smart city’. With this we imply designs, scenarios and technology that is hyped when a smart city is planned, yet already obsolete or even dysfunctional in the process of building the city. For example in Songdo City there is a central pneumatic waste disposal system. Citizens can activate a smart trash bin with their ID cards and are then able to deposit their garbage in the bins. The trash gets transported at high speed through underground pneumatic tubes to a collection station where it is separated and recycled. The city wants to eliminate the need for garbage pick-up. During a field research together with activists from Seoul-based Unmakelab, we were able to observe that the trash system is not working and piles of trash become part of the urban landscape. On the other hand, residents living in the buildings, that have invested in this infrastructure, now pay for a dysfunctional system.

Due to examples like this, Songdo has been criticized to be a prototype city or a test bed of technologies. For us, this shows that from a citizen perspective important questions to ask are actually maintenance, openness and sustainability of the technology one is intended to live with. The technological development progresses so rapidly and specially from a city planning perspective where 5-10 years later, many ideas they had envisioned for Songdo are unpractical or not used by the citizens.

A system that is praised in the advertisement material of Songdo is that each home is equipped with multiple screens that allows telepresence with other homes or institutions such as hospitals or schools. This is an idea developed before the times of mobile internet usage, which city really needs a stationary video telepresence infrastructure now? Other observations were non-functioning sensors paved into the streets and lamp posts. We documented this failed implementations also to point out the materiality of the “smart technologies” in a city.

Another thing we have became aware of is that through these massive smart city projects the city is increasingly being corporatized. Songdo is owned by three companies Gale International, Posco and Morgan Stanley. Further on cities naturally make contracts with technology companies who also end up owning wast amounts of citizen data.

We want to understand what kind challenges emerges when technotopian cities are not populated with their imagined tech-savvy international citizens. Who is included, who is excluded when we talk about smart cities? On the other hand, how do actual residents reshape, redesign, misuse or opt out from technological lock-ins?

Until now we have been mostly concentrating on Songdo which is categorized as a first generation smart city, followed by several generations that gradually starts to consider the citizen also in planning. Also the term ‘smart city’ has been widely contested while it represents diverse values, solutions and implementations depending on context.

Further on when we investigate ‘smart cities’ we are looking at those current and future scenarios in which our things are wirelessly connected, so Internet of Things. We do not think that IoT is doomed, but we see that designs are far from being sustainable, privacy respecting and somewhat secure. We are not against the development of IoT per se, though we are also not convinced that the proposed technologies that are branded ‘smart’ are best practices of solving the problems they intend to tackle.

Panopticity: ‘Seoul’ video screenshot. Photo:

How an attacker runs DDoS attacks on a victim’s IP camera

Could you explain the first work you did in that research, the city portrait of Seoul through insecure public CCTV and private IP cameras?

Cities, companies and private persons use networked security cameras often including tracking software for their surveillance. Various brands offer products with integrated web-server allowing remote processing and streaming of the video footage, adding these devises to the growing amount of connected devices. These web-servers are often ‘insecure by design’, meaning they are not protected by a password or have hard-coded login credentials saved as plain text. By default, the servers stream unencrypted and on publicly-accessible network ports, providing potential risks of being intercepted and allowing unknown third parties unintended access to the set up function of the cameras. Some manufacturers use the same vulnerable settings across their entire camera lineup.

“By default, the Network Camera is not password-protected”, or “the default user name is admin” and “the password is 12345” can be read in the camera manuals. We recorded video footage from these web streams and assembled it into a city portrait through the lenses of unsecured video cameras. The experimental video is currently touring film festivals and we are finishing a video installation that portrays mega-cities around the world through their unsecured video cameras. Paradoxically the security camera becomes a security risk. We are also fascinated to see what is surveilled around the world in the name of security.

KairUs, Forensic Fantasies. Artists talk at Aksioma – Institute for Contemporary Art, Ljubljana, 2018. Photo: Jure Goršič / Aksioma

This is probably a stupid question but i have to ask it: why are you called KairUs?

Back in 2010 when we started our artistic collaboration we were clear that we want to work with time-based interactive installation art. We adapted the ancient greek word ‘Kairos’ (καιρός) meaning the right, critical, or opportune moment. Whereas the western definition of time ‘chronos’ is purely quantitative, kairos has a qualitative, permanent nature. As artists we look for these opportune moments for our artistic expression, it encourages creativity, to adapt to unforeseen obstacles and opinions that can alter opportune or appropriate moments to produce art.

Thanks Linda and Andreas!

KairUs (Linda Kronman and Andreas Zingerle)’s solo exhibition Forensic Fantasies is at Aksioma | Project Space in Ljubljana until 16 March 2018.

And should you be a researcher, artist, hacker, maker, activist, developers or designer whose work and/or writing explores the vulnerabilities in IoT devices and other embedded systems, then have a look at this open call for submissions (deadline is 30 April 2018.)

Related stories: Permanent Error, e-waste, porn, ecology & warfare. An interview with Dani Ploeger, When erased data come back to haunt you and Harvesting the Rare Earth.

Proper and Improper Names: Identity in the Information Society

Janez Jansa, director of Aksioma introducing Proper and Improper Names. Identity in the Information Society. Photo: Miha Fras / Aksioma

Marco Deseriis at Proper and Improper Names. Identity in the Information Society. Photo: Miha Fras / Aksioma

I was wondering when i’d find a moment to type the notes i scribbled during the symposium Proper and Improper Names: Identity in the Information Society but since Aksioma obligingly published the videos of the talks, i’m going to take the easy road and copy/paste/link everything below.

Proper and Improper Names, a conference on identity and authorship in the age of networks, was framed by Marco Deseriis‘ 2015 book Improper Names. Collective Pseudonyms from the Luddites to Anonymous. The publication analyzed how shared pseudonyms are deployed as a collective strategy to build symbolic power that challenges traditional forms of political and aesthetic representation.

The seminar raised questions such as: What lies between the “I” and the “We”? How can a distributed/multiple entity manifest itself in the political, cultural and biological spheres? How can identity experiments characterized by constant flux and mutations be understood? How do they play around and disrupt capitalistic structures that enclose the subject inside a one-dimensional unit?

The five guests of the conference were theorists, artists, writers, and performers who have forged concepts, aesthetic codes and strategies that attempt to escape measurement and attribution:

Marco Deseriis is an Assistant Professor of Media and Screen Studies at Northeastern University. In his introductory talk, the researcher gave us a crash course in “improper names”, defining its mechanisms and listing some of the key figures of the phenomenon.

The journey into pseudonyms shared by collectives, affinity groups, and individual authors kicked off with the iconic I’m Spartacus moment and then looked at the cases of Ned Ludd, Alan Smithee (an official pseudonym used by Hollywood film directors who wish to distance themselves from a movie), Monty Cantsin used by mail artists, the very Italian phenomenon of Luther Blisset and of course 4chan and Anonymous. I’d really recommend you sit down and listen to the amazing stories that emerge from the use and abuse of shared pseudonyms.

Marco Deseriis: Improper Names, Con-Dividual Subjectivities at Proper and Improper Names. Identity in the Information Society

Philosopher Gerald Raunig has recently published Dividuum. Machinic Capitalism and Molecular Revolution, a book exploring the genealogy of the term “dividual,” i.e. that which is divisible and combinable according to the principle of similarity. According to him, dividuality plays a massive role in the intensified exploitation taking place under contemporary machinic capitalism. On the other hand, this same terrain of dividuality provides a fertile ground for a new kind of resistance, one that can be realized in the form of con/division. There’s no video of his presentation. Judging from his interventions and remarks during the discussions with the audience, i would argue that his talk was absolutely fascinating. No one in the audience was given the opportunity to follow it though. Raunig spoke in english over a very loud robotic voice that read, in german, extracts of his latest book. Utterly bonkers! Weirdly enough, i’m now eager to read the Dividuum book.

In 2007, performance artist Kristin Sue Lucas succeeded in legally changing her name from Kristin Sue Lucas to Kristin Sue Lucas in a Superior Court of California courtroom. On the name change petition that she submitted, she wrote ‘Refresh’ as the reason for the change.” The legal procedure enabled her to reload her identity as one would a webpage.

For the symposium, she enrolled accomplices to help her re-enact the court hearing and discussion she had with the judge.

Kristin Sue Lucas: Refresh at Proper and Improper Names. Identity in the Information Society

Performance by Kristin Sue Lucas at Proper and Improper Names. Identity in the Information Society. Photo: Miha Fras / Aksioma

Media artist Natalie Bookchin explores collective identity as performed on social network sites through video installations and online artworks.

She took us through 3 art pieces she made by collaging YouTube videos that had been watched by only a handful of viewers. Her aim was to weave connections and associations that no algorithm would ever make. The result is incredibly moving. Each of the video collage demonstrates how much of their intimacy and vulnerability people are willing to reveal on social media. The films show a middle class America that feels increasingly marginalized and that uses online platforms in lieu of a physical public space that has disappeared.

The three works she briefly commented on are: Mass Ornament which combines hundreds of excerpts of YouTube dance videos; one episode of the Testament series that takes us through the various states of mind of a worker who’s just been Laid Off; Now he’s out in public and everyone can see which compiles excerpts from hundreds of video comments about media scandals surrounding African American public figures. Although Now he’s out in public and everyone can see was first shown in 2012, it has grown in bitterness and strength in the months following the latest Presidential election in the USA.

Natalie Bookchin: Prospective Collectives: Animating the Shared Self at Proper and Improper Names. Identity in the Information Society

Natalie Bookchin at Proper and Improper Names. Identity in the Information Society. Photo: Miha Fras / Aksioma

I’m going to close with the video of an invisible but nevertheless spectacular member of Wu Ming, a collective which have authored a body of literary works, critical texts, screenplays and maps, collaborating under a pseudonymous identity. Wu Ming = My new hero(es). This one is the most exciting talk i’ve seen in 2017. I’ll come back to to their work later on with a proper post. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t enjoy this gem of a crazy, smart, invigorating talk right now:

Wu Ming 1: We Want the Asteroid! — Psychic Warfare and the Wu Ming Foundation at Proper and Improper Names. Identity in the Information Society

Wu Ming at Proper and Improper Names. Identity in the Information Society. Photo: Nejc Ketiš / Kino Šiška

Here’s the full transcript of the presentation as well as the slides.

Audience at Proper and Improper Names. Identity in the Information Society. Photo: Aleš Rosa / Kino Šiška

The conference closed with opening of Janez Janša®, curated by Domenico Quaranta. The exhibition is at +MSUM – Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova in Ljubljana until 18 February 2018.

Proper and Improper Names. Identity in the Information Society marks the 5th edition of the Tactics and Practices seminar series. The conference was curated by Marco Deseriis and realized in the framework of State Machines, a joint project by Aksioma (SI), Drugo more (HR), Furtherfield (UK), the Institute of Network Cultures (NL) and NeMe (CY).

Janez Janša, Janez Janša and Janez Janša explore the “collateral effects” and damages of name change

Janez Janša® at +MSUM. Photo: Dejan Habicht / Moderna galerija

In 2007, three artists officially changed their names and adopted the one of Janez Janša, a very powerful, right-wing and generally unpleasant political figure regularly embroiled in accusations of corruption and authoritarianism.

The administrative procedure not only turned their lives into a perpetual performance but it also altered their private, civil and artistic lives in ways they had not always foreseen. Ten years later, an anthological exhibition titled
Janez Janša® at the +MSUM – Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova in Ljubljana explores some of the most meaningful “collateral effects” of the move.

What’s in a name? How does it relate to ownership, legal status, self-perception and self-representation, profiling, surveillance, copyright and commodification of language, and related topics that define the contemporary condition? What’s an artwork and what are the boundaries that define it in relation to life, institutions and companies?

The trio has always affirmed that the name change was only a matter of personal choice but this didn’t prevent their gesture to be interpreted and misread in many ways. Especially among political commentators who saw it as either a brazen act of political affiliation or protest. And as the soberly-titled article “Culture according to leftists: provocateurs abuse Janez Janša’s name, and political godfathers finance it all with taxpayers’ money” suggests, a full decade may have passed but the controversy surrounding the work of the three Janez Janša hasn’t abated (the other thing to note from the article is that artists receive “millions” of euros for setting up a show in Slovenia. If i were an artist i’d be looking into moving there myself.)

However, the very long-term impact of the name change indicates that its significance extends far beyond any direct reference to the Slovene politician. It not only brings about a shift of perspective on the mechanisms of power but it also demonstrates how a name can be used as an interface that unlocks a series of questions related to the conventions and ambiguities associated with identity, the limits (or lack thereof) of the fictionalization of life, the confluence of mass-consumption and customization, etc.

350 Janez Janša Bottles, 2017. Janez Janša® exhibition at +MSUM. Photo: Dejan Habicht / Moderna galerija

Installation view of Janez Janša® exhibition at +MSUM. Photo: Dejan Habicht / Moderna galerija

My name is Janez Jansa (trailer)

The last time i laughed so much while visiting an exhibition was… never, i think. I always knew i’d enjoy the show but i wasn’t expecting the exhibition to hit me so deeply and keep me pondering on identity, politics and the mechanisms of art institutions weeks after i’d visited the museum.

There are dozens of works in the show. Each of them explores a different status of names in the cultural, political and social spheres. I’m going to briefly introduce some of my favourite works below (you can find others in stories i’ve written in the past: My Name Is Janez Janša and Self-portraits for bank cards investigate money circulation, art ownership and identity.)

Let’s start with a bit of romance, shall we?

Janez Janša, Janez Janša, Janez Janša, Wedding, Ljubljana, 11 August 2007. From left: Janez Janša, best man, Marcela Okretič, bride, Janez Janša, bridegroom, Janez Janša, best man and Branko Franc Grošl, Marriage Registrar, Municipality of Ljubljana. Photo: Nada Žgank/Memento

Janez Janša®, Marcela in Janez: Poroka, 2017. Installation view at +MSUM. Photo: Dejan Habicht / Moderna galerija

Janez Janša, Janez Janša, Janez Janša, Wedding, Ljubljana, 11 August 2007

On August 11, 2007, Janez Janša and Marcela Okretič got married. Janez Janša was the best man of the bride and Janez Janša the best man of the groom. The guests, unaware of the artists’ name change, learned of it during the ceremony directly from the marriage registrar at the municipality of Ljubljana.

Janez Janša®, I Love Germany, at +MSUM. Photo: Miha Fras / Aksioma

Most of Janez Janša’s works make me grin then mull over. Especially I Love Germany.

“I Love” t-shirts are the most mainstream items of clothing anyone could wear… Unless it says “I Love Germany”. The word Germany is a loaded one. The county being, rightly or not, associated with European leadership, influence and prosperity.

I Love Germany, shows how even abused significants such as the “I Love” trend may take an unsuspected, powerful meaning when juxtaposed and remixed with other significants, and how a similarly abused gesture (the tourist portrait) can become a strong political gesture.

An I Love Germany t-shirt becomes a powerful medium for political commentary when worn in front the Greek parliament in Athens. Or while posing next to a Royal Guard in London for a GIF titled “Brexit”.

Janez Janša® at +MSUM. Photo: Dejan Habicht / Moderna galerija

An important aspect of the work investigates the documents that emanate from identity: signatures, passports, ID cards, credit and debit cards, etc. The 2008 Name Readymade exhibition showcased the artists identity cards, passports, bank cards and other documents that bear their names. These artifacts operate both as valid legal documents and works of art, rising the question of what comes first in terms of value and significance: the cultural object or the administrative document? These objects belong to the state, not the artists. On the one hand, they are passports which can’t be sold on the art market as long as they are valid legal documents. And once they have expired, the same documents must be destroyed or returned.

Janez Janša® at +MSUM. Photo: Dejan Habicht / Moderna galerija

The perceptual power of a name runs far deeper than i had expected (although given the name of my blog i should have seen it coming!) A name is such a vital part of the way you are perceived that it can determine the success of your job application or whether potential dates will swipe left or right on Tinder. I recently read that white people named Washington complained about the discrimination they face on the phone because other U.S. citizens immediately assume they are black (sorry i can’t find the link to the article anymore!)

One of the videos in the show explore the emotions that the artists’ parents went through upon hearing that their son had changed their names. One dad seemed to wave it away as yet another shenanigan from his mischievous arty child. Another understood it as a public gesture of rejection. That’s when i realized the toll that a simple administrative procedure like this can take on friends and families. Maybe that’s why the parents selected the most embarrassing photos of their kids to illustrate the video?

Life Span, 2017. Janez Janša® at +MSUM. Photo: Dejan Habicht / Moderna galerija

Life Span, 2017. Janez Janša® at +MSUM. Photo: Dejan Habicht / Moderna galerija

Life Span, 2017. Janez Janša® at +MSUM. Photo: Dejan Habicht / Moderna galerija

A troublesome byproduct of Janez Janša, Janez Janša and Janez Janša’s name changes is how they will be remembered. Which name will be inscribed on their tombstones? Does their artistic career start when they graduated from art school or when they adopted the new name? Are Emil Hrvatin, Davide Grassi, Žiga Kariž legally and artistically dead?

Three tombstones, placed on the lawn in front of the museum, look at how online database of Slovene art Pojmovnik slovenske umetnosti has processed their existence. When referring to their original name, the website indicates that each of the artists died in 2007. But there is only one entry for Janez Janša and it is devoid of date of birth or death, making them ageless and eternal.

Janez Janša®, 2017. Graphic designer: Luka Umek

The exhibition premieres the latest episode in the Janez Janša, Janez Janša, Janez Janša adventures: the registration of the Janez Janša name as a trademark for the next ten years. With this trademark, the artists “promote the commodification of their own names and their value by colonizing the area of trade, and name it as a property that you can legally protect.”

Janez Janša® at +MSUM. Photo: Miha Fras / Aksioma

All of the above is tinged with a certain irony when you learn that the legal name of Janez Janša (the politician) is actually Ivan Janša. Apparently, Janez is seen as ‘more’ Slovenian than Ivan in the country. As one of the 3 Janez Janša artists explained in an interview with Marc James Léger: In his case, he appears with different names in two institutional situations. In political life he always appears with the name Janez Janša, but in legal affairs, and he goes very often to the courts, for various reasons, now because of corruption charges, and appears with his legal name, Ivan Janša.

More images from the show:

Janez Janša® at +MSUM. Photo: Dejan Habicht / Moderna galerija

Janez Janša® at +MSUM. Photo: Dejan Habicht / Moderna galerija

Janez Janša® at +MSUM. Photo: Dejan Habicht / Moderna galerija

Janez Janša® at +MSUM. Photo: Dejan Habicht / Moderna galerija

Janez Janša® at +MSUM. Photo: Dejan Habicht / Moderna galerija

Janez Janša® at +MSUM. Photo: Dejan Habicht / Moderna galerija

Janez Janša® at +MSUM. Photo: Dejan Habicht / Moderna galerija

Janez Janša® was co-produced by Moderna galerija (MG+MSUM) and Aksioma – Institute for Contemporary Art and curated by art critic and independent curator Domenico Quaranta. The exhibition is at +MSUM – Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova in Ljubljana until 18 February 2018.

Janez Janša® is part of State Machines – Art, Work, and Identity in an Age of Planetary-Scale Computation, a project that investigates the new relationships between states, citizens and the stateless made possible by emerging technologies, focussing on how such technologies impact identity and citizenship, digital labour and finance.

Previously: My Name Is Janez Janša and Self-portraits for bank cards investigate money circulation, art ownership and identity.

Self portraits for bank cards investigate money circulation, art ownership and identity

Janez Janša, Janez Janša and Janez Janša, All About You (detail), 2016. Photo: Katra Petriček

Janez Janša, Janez Janša and Janez Janša, All About You (stop motion video), 2016

Since 2012, the three Slovenian artists Janez Janša, Janez Janša and Janez Janša have been exploring concepts related art, identity and finance and how these 3 spheres can connect -quite intimately and literally- on a very mundane piece of plastic most of us carry in our pocket: the credit card. At the time, their ideas might have looked quite far-fetched and speculative. Printing their artworks on credit cards, for example. Or signing with their names the credit cards of other people. In 2013 however, scenarios that the artists were foreseeing seemed to materialize when the United Bank for Africa launched the “All About U” Debit MasterCard, a personalized debit card which can be customized to their customers’ whim. Mastercard and the Nigerian government pushed the experiment even further by introducing the MasterCard-branded National Identity Smart Card, an ID card that comes with electronic payment capability, demographic data as well as biometric data.

anez Janša, Janez Janša, Janez Janša, Troika (installation detail), 2013

Janez Janša, Janez Janša and Janez Janša, Signatures on Maestro / Triptych / part of CREDITS series

Last year, the Janez Janša collective decided to take advantage of the personalized card service offered by their own bank in Slovenia. Each of the artist magnified the image of his ID card, and divided it into a hundred parts of equal sizes. After that, they individually applied for a new personalized Visa®, Maestro® and MasterCard® every week in the hope that each of them would gradually be able to compose a self portrait made of one hundred customized bank cards.

The result is a triptych of puzzles. Two of them incomplete, the blanks corresponding to decisions by bank employees to reject the design for a particular card that one of the artist had sent. Each request for a new bank card was indeed subjected to the approval of bank employees who could accept or deny the image on the basis of the bank’s image guidelines: no word in foreign language, no state symbol, no olympic sign, etc. Each time an image was rejected, the artist attempted to establish a dialogue with the bank, asking the employees to reconsider their decision. Sometimes the artists managed to make them changed their mind. Sometimes they didn’t.

This turned the production into a time-based relational performance where the relation between the artist and the producer coincided with the relation between the bank’s customer and his bank.

The triptych All About You raises issues related to art: new forms of ready-made in the age of mass customization, delegation of the manufacturing of art to others (while Koons, Hirst and Murakami have a team of artists/artisans to paint and sculpt for them, Janez Janša used their bank as some kind of printing facility), etc. The work also deals with money circulation, ownership, identification and citizenship, data collection by private entities, etc. In fact, there is so much to say about the work that i thought it would be better to let the artists say it themselves. So i interviewed them:

Janez Janša, Janez Janša and Janez Janša, All About You, 2016. Photo: Katra Petriček/Aksioma

Janez Janša, Janez Janša and Janez Janša, All About You, 2016

Hi Janez Janša, Janez Janša and Janez Janša! The three of you applied for a new personalized Visa®, Maestro® and MasterCard® every week. How did you convince the bank to print a new card for you each time? Did you say it was an art work? Pretend you had lost the previous one and they had to send a new card again? Didn’t that annoy them?

JJ: There was no need to convince them to produce new cards for us over and over again since the personalized card service is an option offered by our bank. And we are bank’s customers… Nevertheless every single request was subjected to the scrutiny of bank’s employees who could decide to accept or deny the submitted image in accordance with the service’s guidelines.

JJ: We have never staged the loss of a bank card to obtain another. We used their online platform to submit the new image and then waited for their approval. Upon receiving a positive answer we proceeded with the order of another card and then comfortably waited at home for the delivery. Easy.

JJ: In fact banks often promote this service with slogan like “Find an artist in yourself and create unique card from your couch”. And that’s exactly what we did.

JJ: But we never told them it was about an artwork. You don’t necessarily need to tell your printing service about the nature of your print.

JJ: Afterwards all the pieces of the mosaic are also valid Bank Cards and that’s exactly how they understood them: in the way they are used to see them and to deal with them.

Janez Janša, Janez Janša and Janez Janša, All About You, making of, 2016

Janez Janša, Janez Janša and Janez Janša, All About You (detail), 2016. Photo: Katra Petriček/Aksioma

But maybe the bank saw your work as a great opportunity to advertise their services? Because it gives them visibility and because they play such a direct and material part of the performance. Was it ever a concern for you that your gesture would somehow be used by the bank to their own advantage?

JJ: I doubt the bank saw in our work an opportunity to advertise their services as this would imply they understood it was an artistic time-based relational performance. There should have been someone at their end capable of having a comprehensive supervision over the whole process, throughout 16 months, the time we spent on it. Instead, as we know, there were several bank’s employees scrutinizing our requests over time and I don’t believe they ever met all together around a table to compare and share all the “mosaic tiles” collected by each one of them to ultimately compose the puzzle and understand what was going on. And if they did, that might have been an excellent diversion to ease the boredom and predictability of a desk job.

JJ: By the way, if they saw that opportunity then they never really took advantage of it. It reminds me of the situation with Janez Janša, the controversial politician we took the name of back in 2007. He could have easily turned our gesture at his advantage but he never did it. If someone embarrasses you by being too supportive, too affirmative, a possible way to deal with it is to love that person back as vehemently as possible and see what happens. Instead the politician decided to go confrontational and play the “character assassination” card.

JJ: The risk of your work being used by corporations, politicians, etc. is something you have to be ready to take if you operate beyond the safe area of the cultural context.

JJ: Our work, especially the name change, has been often criticized in terms of making promotion both for politician Janša and for ourselves. But in fact the more we gained visibility, and supposedly promoted the politician, the less welcomed we were by him, his party and his people. Of course, MasterCard® is not Janez Janša but the risk is there and we consciously embrace it.

Janez Janša, Janez Janša and Janez Janša, All About You. Signing

Did each of you go through the same, individual and repeated process of asking for a card over and over again? Did your experiences and personal relationships with the bank employees differ?

JJ: Many people see us as a “collective” but mostly of the time, in the work we do together, we are “forced” to operate individually due to the nature of the work itself. For All About You each of us acted independently. After all we did the same for our “common” name change, for the affiliations to the conservative party SDS lead by Janez Janša, and for many other things we did in the past. It wasn’t possible to do otherwise. One cannot apply for a collective name change; neither can he order a personalized bank card on behalf of others.

JJ: We had personal email exchange with several bank employees, especially when a submitted image was rejected. We always asked what the reason for their negative answer was. Most of the time they referred to the bank’s image guidelines published online saying that the submitted image didn’t comply with it.

JJ: We always asked them to point out exactly what article of that document our image didn’t comply with and most of the time we got a precise answer. In their image guidelines, it is stated that the design chosen to create a personalized card must not contain (or refer to):
• Insulting and provocative images, graphics and other materials with religious, racist, hateful, violent or political messages in all forms;
Here our name appearing on the ID card has been understood as a “political” content. We then asked them where they see the difference between the name of the account holder and the very same name printed on the card as personalized design. They never answered that question.
• Photos, images or graphics, state or national symbols;
Our ID cards obviously contain state and national symbols. The graphic in itself is the graphic of a state document.
• Texts in a foreign language or foreign characters;
A Slovenian ID card is bilingual therefore English words (including the word “SEX” used there instead of “gender”) appear on it.

Sometimes at the end of the mail exchange bank’s employees changed their mind and granted us the permission to use the image previously rejected. But that didn’t happen very often. A more effective strategy proved to be applying again and again with the rejected image hoping the request will be received and processed by another, less loyal, or simply more inattentive, employee.

Janez Janša, Janez Janša and Janez Janša, Trust

cards www_FINAL
Janez Janša, Janez Janša and Janez Janša, Mt Triglav on Mt Triglav

Another of your work, Trust, similarly deals with credit cards. These two projects unashamedly blur art with money with identity…

JJ: What All About You and Trust have in common is the medium (personalized bank cards) and the “producer” of the artifact (our bank). But they are essentially two very different projects.

In Trust we invited people to approach their banks and to request a personalized card using the image of our action Mt Triglav on Mt Triglav. Then all three of us signed their cards in the signature strip in the reverse side of the card with a permanent black marker providing each “partner in crime” with the Certificate of Authenticity for that newly generated pocket-size artwork by Janez Janša, Janez Janša and Janez Janša.

JJ: To twist the situation a bit more we subsequently paired participants two by two in random fashion and then asked them to perform an ultimate gesture of trust: to switch cards among themselves and live that way for at least a week. To our big surprise all of them accepted the challenge. Some of them even felt the need to provide the other with his/her card’s PIN code.

Nigerian National Identity Smart Card. Photo: MasterCard

Nigerian National Identity Smart Card. Photo: MasterCard

Why do you feel that this is an issue worth exploring at the moment?

JJ: We have always been interested in identity-related issues, in the relation subject-state, subject-corporation and corporation-state. All About You covers all of these relations commenting on how identity is constructued nowadays. The spark went off in May 2013 while reading the news about the Nigerian National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) announcing the rollout of the National Identity Smart Card, a new multipurpose MasterCard-branded identification document that includes, among many other features, MasterCard’s prepaid payment technology. The enrollment process involved the recording of an individual’s demographic data and biometric data, which would provide the basis for a “National Identity Database.”

JJ: It’s very important to question techniques and technologies for gathering data, to understand the way they are used and by whom. What’s actually happening in many African countries is that private banks and corporations are offering governments to cover costs for the realization of centralized biometric population registers. To see that happening soon in Europe or at the global level it doesn’t seem to me a farfetched scenario.

JJ: BTW, have you noticed the form, the size and the material of ID cards nowadays are often identical to those of bank cards? States are adapting to formats introduced by corporations…

Janez Janša, Janez Janša and Janez Janša, All About You, 2016

How are you going to exhibit All About You? Is this going to be only a display of the cards or is there also some documentation of the whole process with videos, photos, etc?

JJ: All About You will be displayed as a framed triptych without any additional explanation of sort. We have documented and archived the whole production process including all the emails we exchanged with bank’s employees especially regarding images that have been rejected by them. We don’t think this kind of material can really add something relevant to the project. On the contrary, the risk would be to make it too didactic.

JJ: While explaining the piece to friends and fellow artists we often noticed they couldn’t really get that we got hundreds of personalized cards from our Bank over several months and that we used them to compose the blow-up image of our 3 ID cards. That’s why we decided to produce a short stop-motion video clip. But this video is not the piece in itself. It’s only a dissemination tool and as such it won’t be displayed in the exhibition.

Will you be inviting employees from the Nova Ljubljanska Banka to the opening of the show?

JJ: Yes, we will invite them. Without them All About You would never be done…

Thank you Janez Janša, Janez Janša and Janez Janša!

Janez Janša, Janez Janša, Janez Janša: All About You is exhibited until 8 July at the Kulturni center Tobačna 001 in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

Previously: My Name Is Janez Janša.
Related story: Biometric Capitalism.