Category Archives: sousveillance

CCTV cameras, robots and urban animals. An interview with Teresa Dillon

Putting Teresa Dillon inside a neatly labelled box is impossible. She is an artist, educator and researcher whose practice involves works as diverse as a performance inspired by women whose skin and hair turned yellow while working in WW1 ammunition factories, cardboard structures that explore the affects surveillance architectures have on non-human animals, collective bike rides for energy harvesting, talks & workshops that probe into the mechanisms governing urban life, etc. If that were not enough, she is also the principal investigator at Repair Acts (a multidisciplinary network of people concerned with the necessity to foster a repair, care and maintenance culture) and a Professor of City Futures at the School of Art and Design, University of West England (UWE) in Bristol.


Teresa Dillon, Are You Still Watching?, 2017. Image credit: Ministry of Transport, Sustainable Mobility and Transport Electrification of the Quebec Government

I’ve been meaning to interview her for ages and the upcoming Nø School summer school (where we’ll both be teaching and workshoping along with artists, academics, hackers and other amazing people) in Nevers, France, gave me an excuse to finally get in touch with her.


Teresa Dillon, AMHARC, 2018


Teresa Dillon, AMHARC, 2018

In this interview, we mostly talked about a performance that explores her relationship with machines, her involvement in repair culture and technology’s impact on other animal species.

Hi Teresa! I’m very moved by AMHARC, Are You Still Watching? and other works of yours that look at the impact that technologies and in particular surveillance technologies have on non-human animals. It’s an under-explored area of investigation. At least that’s my impression. What drove you to explore the effect that technology has on other species and in particular on urban wildlife?

Thanks Régine. I agree that dialogues relating to surveillance, technology and cities have largely been human-centered. My motivation to explore the area is rooted across multiple vectors. In my human-ness, I’ve always felt very animal and that our human-ness emerges from an entanglement with other species and our environs. So this base sits within my work and is expressed in different manners through performances, sound works, writing, research and installations, I’ve made in relation to survival and the techno-civic.

The specific turn towards the effect of technology on other species emerged from work during the mid-2000s projects like OFFLOAD, Systems for Survival (2007), Come Outside (2005), The Listening Chair all took urban space as the carrier so to speak, through which relationships between nature, ecology, systems thinking and cybernetics were explored. These projects were collaborative works, which I created under the name polarproduce and involved many others, such as the artist Kathy Hinde. Back then we were operating from a post-apocalyptic, post-tipping point feeling and so the work embodied these ideas, that is the earthly, physical, bodily and material relations of consumption and its effects on the environs.

For example for Come Outside we took 25 people on a 2km bike ride in the city. Each bike was augmented with a battery, when the ride was completed, we joined the batteries together and attempted to boil the water for one cup of tea, while delivering a performative lecture on energy transfer under a tree. The Listening Chair simply used a mic to pick up surrounding urban sound at the level of a bat for example, and then transduced this into a range that humans could ‘hear’ like a bat.

I’ve also been interested in the effect of what is defined as noise pollution on animal life and this got extended through research I was carrying out in Berlin between 2014-2016, on how artists (such as Mario De Vega, Martin Howse, Christina Kubisch) are making the human made electromagnetic spectrum (EM) in cities audible. This work led specifically to exploring the effect of EM increase on animal and wildlife.

While this research was developing, I was commissioned to make UNDER NEW MOONS, WE STAND STRONG (2016), which drew on the image of the snowy owl that went viral in 2016. Typically millions of pounds are spent trying to keep birds off such cameras. So there is a tension in this image, the symbol of the owl, celebrated versus the CCTV camera. The installation blows up the scale of the camera, accentuating the bird spikes as hostile architectures, which are designed to ward off birds, or anything that is disruptive to the commercial norm of the city. Low-profile solutions like ultraviolet gels are also used. Birds see in UV and so perceive the gel as a fire, which disrupts their flight patterns.

I’d argue such tactics are similar to what Rob Nixon refers to as forms of slow violence in that it’s not spectacular nor instantaneous but incremental, the effects of which are not necessarily immediate but take place over longer time frames.

Are You Still Watching (2016) extends UNDER NEW MOONS, WE STAND STRONG by contextualising the history of the CCTV camera, its a performative lecture/set design, which also pulls out some animal stories like the owl, or security person who did not want to take care of a dog, which lead to closed-circuits been used as an alternative.

AMHRAC (2018, pronounced arc, it’s the Irish for vision or sight) takes this notion of slow violence further, with the installation itself, taking the form of a totem pole and UV ‘screen’, as a way to imagine spaces of clearing, healing, protection and memory. This is currently developing long paths that look at the histories of animal rights and standing in the city.


Teresa Dillon with Kathy Hinde, The Listening Chair, 2007


Teresa Dillon with Kathy Hinde, The Listening Chair, 2007


Teresa Dillon, Come Outside, 2006


Teresa Dillon, Come Outside, 2006


Do you see any sign that technology and science are being used in a way that genuinely benefit other living species? On the one hand, it would look like a good idea because of the dramatic loss of biodiversity so we need to use any tool available to slow down this erosion of biodiversity. On the other, we might not want to trust the tendency to use technology to try and solve problems that have often been created by technology in the first place.

If we speak about technology broadly as a tool, then we could argue that one of its main uses has been to extract capital and this includes capital from non-human species. This is where the narrative has to change. Even when technology is used for the common good, which can encompass other species, the narrative tends to the anthropocentric. The origin of such thinking can be traced back to some of the first stories, we told ourselves like in the Bible where we proclaimed that ‘man’ has the ‘right’ to rule over “the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures” (Genesis 1:26). Contextualised in these anthropocentric ways, it becomes very difficult then to answer what is a ‘genuine’ benefit. Therefore there is a deprogramming and decolonisation of the mind and culture that has to happen, and is happening and many people are working on this, which includes bettering the conditions of species with and without tech intervention.


Teresa Dillon, MTCD – A Visual Anthology of My Machine Life, 2018


Your performance MTCD – A Visual Anthology of My Machine Life explores the machines that have shaped your “technological know-how and imagination.” Could you explain us what happens over the course of the performance?

Yeah sure, I trace my cyborg life – starting for example with when I was born and placed in an incubator. I spent the first six days of my life in this machine and this is where the story starts. The script which I wrote is approx., 45 mins long, I inhabit the space of the story teller and its intended to be entertaining and goes through for example – the first time I ‘saw’ and ‘used’ the Internet, ICQ, bought a mobile phone, put on a VR head set, shook hands with a robot. I also give some social context or name people who have been instrumental or key to the moment. So the narrative is tech driven but links to people and place. I have created a simple stage design, some noise feedback and worked with the visual artist Luke Bennett (transforma) on the current irritation of images, which are like a triptych that bounce between loops of visual feedback, to photos, comic cut outs, etc, which augment the script. This summer, I’m working to further developing set design, as I will be performing it in Aksioma – Institute for Contemporary Arts, Ljubljana, on 25th and 26th August.



I imagine that although MTCD talks about computers and other engineered devices, it must have a very intimate component. How much of your private life do you think you are revealing with that performance? And conversely, how much in the performance reflects the direct experiences of the public?

It’s revealing too a point about my personal life and perhaps one could infer many other things from it but in trying to keep faithful to a certain track, which describes the encounter with the tech – e.g., what it felt like to touch, what I sensually remembered, who was around when the encounter happened, where was it situated. This allows, I hope for some balance, without it falling down some nostalgic or narcissistic hole. In keeping to specific details, I would hope that some form of extrapolation can occur that allows the audience to locate themselves in the narrative – oh where was I then; or oh yeah, I remember that…. and to make connects.

Some of the public feedback to date has been interesting, people connecting to the story and resonating with parts of it. I am aware of my privilege but I was particularly moved when some young women spoke to me several months after seeing the performance at transmediale 2018 and shared not just how it made media archaeology feel alive for them. It opened up a conversation about our individual and collective ‘she-tories’ and women’s position and representation in media and tech. Basically, the 2017 story connects to how the first sex robot brothels were opened in Glasgow and Barcelona, with robot names like ‘Frigid Farrah’. Farrah is an Arabic name meaning ‘happy, joyful’, I trust, I don’t have to explain what is at play here with the selection of such a name, alongside the connotations of been frigid. Farrah is marketed as been shy and reserved with ‘personality settings’ so you can essentially tweak her level of submission. Between this and the release and pretty fast take down of Microsoft’s Tay, AI chatbot in 2016 and the Foundation for Responsible Robotics report on Our Sexual Future with Robots also released in 2017, which notes how sex robots are mainly gendered as female models with pornographic bodies. These ‘inventions’ and reports mean we are in the midst of a whole ‘new’ set of values, assumptions and possibilities, that will fundamentally shift how we sensually and sexually engage with each other, which opens up a whole other set of questions.

Sorry for a question that will probably make me look silly but what does MTCD stand for exactly?

MTCD is basically my full name in its initial form but I like the way, it also sounds like ‘empty CD’ and looks it might be an acronym.


Teresa Dillon, Under New Moons, We Stand Strong, 2016. Image credit: Fraser Denholm


Teresa Dillon, Under New Moons, We Stand Strong, 2016. Image credit: Yvi Philipp


I love that you sometimes use super low-tech or no-tech materials (like cardboard) to comment on technology. Is that a conscious strategy?

Yes completely. I ‘grew up’ somewhat in the tradition of performance and live art, where for some documenting work was not considered appropriate, as performance is live, it happens in the moment, creating an artefact therefore was not in keeping with the medium. Of course the latter leads to questions of intention and economies but this temporal constraint really appeals to me, as does the affect that post a performance not much is left, aside from these energetic scars in the atmospheres so to speak. So when I found myself working more with objects, it seemed natural when coming from this background that I worked with leftover, discarded material, stuff found on the street that could disappear easily and be turned into material for lighting a fire if needed.


You are the principal investigator at Repair Acts. It is easy imagine what a hacker, an environmentalist or an engineer might bring to the culture of caring, repairing and maintaining. How about the artist then? What can an artistic perspective bring when it comes to stimulating that same culture?

Is it easy to imagine (*/*) or is this the provocation? I mean hacking and engineering are often exploiting the weakness, which is already seeking out the vulnerability and this may not automatically lead to care, particularly if we think how ethics and responsibility have not necessarily been central to the education or training of these professional practices.

More specifically when speaking to artistic practices, I often reference Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Maintenance Art from 1969, which for me is a pivotal reference here, Laderman Ukeles, refers to two instincts the death and life instinct, she associates the death instinct to separation, individuality, ‘following one’s own path to death’; the life instinct is about unification, the eternal return, maintenance. Development and progression is linked to the death instinct the continual need for the new; maintenance, care and repair is linked to the life system, it’s the boring everyday stuff we need to do to keep the ‘things alive’. I’ve written a short piece for the Screen City Journal titled “Working the Break Point: Maintenance, Repair and Failure in Art” (2017) which goes some way to addressing your question, starting with Laderman Ukeles and linking her work to studies in repair from sociology, geography and other disciplines; and to the work of other artists working in the fields of glitch art, and on topics relating to planned obsoletism, systems esthetics and so forth. Artistic perspectives have lots then to bring to the table when it comes to repair cultures and their associated forms of attention, such as care, maintenance and recuperation. Repair Acts was a first step in bringing together different people, their skills and disciplinary knowledge’s together on the topic. The project is ongoing with collaborators and collaborations forming in various countries, so more will be happening in this space. The most recent of which has been the completion of a mapping exercise called “My Square Mile”, which explores changes in businesses registered as carrying out repairs between 1938-2018 in a square mile of around my neighbourhood in the UK, we will now be going forward with this in other cities. A square mile is a good lens through which to observe changes, the research also explores the visual identities associated with repair practices.


Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Washing/Tracks/Maintenance, 1973. Photo: Ronald Feldman Fine Arts (via)

There seems to be a growing interest in repairing and taking care of our objects, whether they are electronics or items of clothing. Do you see the industry pushing back against it or are they trying to adapt and accommodate our growing concerns about waste and consumerism?

Phew have you got some hours ☺ Major shifts are simultaneously occurring, on one hand we have the Ecodesign Directive, which recently pushed through legislation that will kick off in 2021 and require manufacturers of washing machines, dishwashers, televisions, lights and fridges to make their products easier to repair. You have organisations like Restart in London, who are championing policy change and repair parties; iFixit, in the US established in 2003, they have been publishing manuals on how to repair everyday consumer items and produced the Repair Manifesto; on a corporate level, Patagonia consider repair as central to the brand identity and declare repair as a radical act.

When taken seriously repair pushes the question of how we make things in the first instance further up the production chain and demands we make better quality, open products from the start, rather than waiting to recycle or deal with an objects end of life, when it is in a more wasted state.

Across the US, since 2013 The Repair Association has been working on state and federal legislation. So all this is happening but it will be interesting to see when and where this legislation actually hits practice. As you note there is lots of industry kick back, with Apple, John Deere the tractor manufacturer and others finding loops holes, resisting and going in the opposition direction. Essentially they know how necessary and economically viable repair is and yet they want to not just control this market by locking out third parties, but they also want to lock us down into product cycles by gluing, screwing, scaling down parts, bumping you off software, so that objects cannot be repaired or become redundant. If we are to hit UN sustainability goals relating to responsible consumption and production by 2030 then it’s difficult to see how without some serious enforcement, such changes in practices can happen. In response to this creative work arounds will and are always emerging, as will new black markets, growing pressures, green workers movements and changes in practices and politics. All these elements play into this and so when you speak about adapts and accommodations it’s a very complex, involving diverse global flows and relations that become sited in for example laws, standards, scrap yards and workbenches and the square mile around your home and studio.


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


Sure! Some immediate stuff happening over this summer, which relates to all the above includes: Formats of Care with my colleagues in Soft Agency at Floating University, Berlin, 13-16 June 2019; NØ SCHOOL, International Summer School, Nevers, France, 1-14 July 2019 and the MTCD performance at Aksioma – Institute for Contemporary Arts, Ljubljana, 29-30 Aug 2019. I’ve also got some stuff cooking with artists Joana Moll and Jana Barthel and there are some publications coming out (hopefully soon), including ‘Listening Around: Sonic Extractions of the Electromagnetic Spectrum’ in the Journal of Sonic Studies and with colleagues from the University of the West of England, a paper titled ‘Interspecies Urban Planning, Reimagining City Infrastructures with Slime Mould’, which will be in an edited collection of works by Andrew Adamatzky titled Slime Mould in Arts and Architecture (River Publishers.)

Thanks Teresa!

Cutting through the ‘smart’ walls and fences of Fortress Europe

Recent European immigration policies seem to be mostly dedicated to making external borders as impenetrable as possible, through the hardening of the conditions of entry and, most notably since the 2015 refugee panic, through naval operations in the Mediterranean and the erection of fences and walls. The numbers of migrants reaching European shores in search of asylum have dropped sharply over the past couple of years but the desire to deny them a chance to seek asylum is still fueling the xenophobic rants of far-right politicians like Viktor Orban and Matteo Salvini.

Dani Ploeger, SMART FENCE at Bruthaus Gallery, 2019


Dani Ploeger, Still from Border Operation, 2018-19, HD video, 3′. Documentation of action at Hungarian border fence

Artist Dani Ploeger has been looking at the fences recently built to toughen “Fortress Europe.” In particular the ones that use heat and movement sensors, sophisticated cameras and other so-called ‘smart’ technologies to shut off “illegal immigrants.” The hi-tech terminology used to describe theses fences obscure their inherent violence. Moreover, Ploeger writes, “their framing as supposedly clean and precise technologies is symptomatic of a broader cultural practice that uses narratives of technologization to justify means of violence” (think of the military drones and their supposedly surgical precision).

Last December, the artist traveled to the fortified border fence that Hungary had raised along its southern border with Serbia to keep out migrants and asylum seekers. The barbed-wire is capable of delivering electric shocks and is equipped with heat sensors, cameras and loudspeakers that shout inhospitable messages in several languages.

Once at the border fence, Ploeger cut off and ran away with a piece of razor wire from the border fence. This was a daring action: damaging the border fence is a criminal offence under Hungarian law.


Dani Ploeger, European Studies #1 (sensors). Exhibition view at Bruthaus Gallery


Dani Ploeger, European Studies #1 (sensors). Exhibition view at Bruthaus Gallery

Ploeger recently exhibited that piece of fence as well as a series of related works at Bruthaus Gallery in Belgium. His SMART FENCE project uses old and new media, from celluloid film to augmented reality, to explore the way we delegate our responsibility towards asylum-seekers to these tech-enhanced structures. Along the way, the artist also attempts to deconstruct the techno-ideologies that are often inscribed in these technologies of control and exclusion.


Dani Ploeger, SMART FENCE. Exhibition view at Bruthaus Gallery

The exhibition at Bruthaus Gallery is sadly over but i got in touch with the artist a couple of weeks ago to know more about SMART FENCE:

Hi Dani! I often have the feeling that we are a bit hypocritical in Europe, at least in the areas that are not in close proximity to these new borders. We point the finger at the US-Mexico wall and turn a bind eye at our own manifestations of intolerance and inhospitality. Do you have any idea about how much the European public is concerned by these European border fences?

I was struck by how many visitors of the exhibition seemed to know very little to nothing about the border fences that have been erected around the EU in recent years, especially considering how much attention the Hungarian border project has received in the media. I wonder whether this is because many just don’t engage much with international news reports or if they forget news events quickly due to the constant bombardment with spectacular and shocking information in networked culture (Paul Virilio discusses this latter phenomenon in his book The Administration of Fear, 2012). Either way, I didn’t get the impression that many people assess the current discussions around the US-Mexico wall in relation to recent border reinforcement projects in the EU. This impression is just based on anecdotal experiences in my direct surroundings though. I don’t really know about ‘the European public’ in general, if such thing exists.
Possibly more disturbing than the finger pointing towards the US, I find the recurring suggestion that the Hungarian border fence would merely be a manifestation of the backwards politics of Victor Orban’s nationalist-conservative government and hence in essence actually be a very ‘un-European’ project. This perspective ignores that Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, is also active at the Hungarian border fence and that Greece, Spain and Latvia, among others, have built or are building similar fences, although these have not received as much media attention. In the end, these fences are quite convenient to many governments across the EU that want to restrict immigration.


Dani Ploeger, Border Operation, 2018-19. Exhibition view at Bruthaus Gallery

What is amusing in the video Border Operation is that you’re stealing a piece of razor wire and you’re doing in broad day light and don’t seem to be in great hurry, even when the car with the security officers arrives. Did you know what you were risking? And do you think that it would have been ok because you’re an artist so you have some licence? 

Interesting you see it like that. What I found somewhat funny is the indecisive and confused behaviour of the border patrol officers after I have left and they are just standing around, unable to do anything substantial because they are stuck behind their own fence. While I was at the fence, I was actually scared shitless, especially when the alarm loudspeakers switched on and the patrol car arrived, all within one minute from when I first touched the fence. My glove was stuck in the bit of razor wire I was trying to cut off though, and I was really quite determined not to go home empty handed, so that kept me a few seconds longer after they arrived. One of the guards was only about a metre and a half away on the other side of the fence though, and yelling at me, so I was close to leaving my glove behind and running off.

I had deliberately approached the fence slowly and casually before starting to cut in order not to make my intentions obvious right away. I figured that if I would run towards the fence through the 300 meters of open field next to it the video surveillance observers would be alarmed right away. I had planned and timed the action carefully the day before, based on an examination of the area around the fence, the frequency of the patrols and a little practice with my bolt cutter. My camera was attached upside down in a tree and my packaging material for the wire, first aid kit and various other materials were hidden behind the ruin of a house across the field. I did my best to stay cool during the action and to cut slowly and precisely without panicking. Nevertheless, I was so excited that I messed up and cut through a wrong bit at first (cutting concertina razor wire somehow isn’t as simple as it appears), struggled to get through the steel wire with my tiny cutter, and then I was surprised by how quickly the guards arrived. They seemed to come from nowhere.

A tricky thing was that the fence stands a short distance inside Hungarian territory, which means that border patrol officers may use pepper spray or fire rubber bullets at people who are messing with the fence from the outside. They can also operate on the outside if they go out through a gate about 100 meters from where I was. Therefore, I went away from the fence as quickly as possible once I got my bit of wire, and ran back to Serbian soil. In Serbia, I still had to walk for about half an hour to reach the main road though, partly through open fields. I hadn’t been able to find out through my contacts at the Serbian Commissariat for Refugees and Migration if the Hungarian border force is in contact with Serbian police, so this walk wasn’t very relaxing either. I had identified a few hide-outs along the way in case police would show up.

Damaging the border fence has been criminalized in Hungary in 2015, so I guess that in Hungary I would now be a fugitive criminal. Getting caught would probably have gotten me into some serious trouble and I don’t think saying that I’m an artist would have convinced them to just let me go.

In the end, I don’t believe they would push for a serious prison sentence or something like that though, both because I can’t imagine they’d find a single person action relevant enough and because it would lead to tensions with other EU countries. So rather than me being an artist I think my EU passport would have given me some leeway.

I actually think I was mainly scared to get a serious beating, or just in general to get caught by an unknown authority for doing something illegal. This is also where one of the most relevant aspects of doing this action lies for me.

When I watched video reportages about migrants cutting holes in the fence and running across, sometimes with entire families including small children, it hadn’t looked that scary to me. Thinking about what extreme challenges and dangers these people would have encountered on their journeys towards this border, getting rid of a bit of barbed wire and running across a few meters of border strip, with apparently the only serious risk being sent back, somehow seemed to be among the lesser challenges.

Considering how scared I was myself while merely stealing a bit of wire from this fence – not even trying to cross – makes apparent the extreme contrast between the relatively fear- and threat-free life many (Western) Europeans like myself are used to in comparison with the environments many migrants navigate. In this context, the lighthearted way in which some people and media speak of the supposedly gratuitous motivations of migrants traveling to Europe appears ridiculous: this is not a journey one would choose to undertake if the living conditions in the home country would be bearable.


Dani Ploeger, Sensitive Barrier (razor wire from Hungarian border, movement detector, electro-motor), 2019


Dani Ploeger, Sensitive Barrier (razor wire from Hungarian border, movement detector, electro-motor), 2019


Dani Ploeger, Sensitive Barrier (razor wire from Hungarian border, movement detector, electro-motor), 2019

I was very interested in the extract in the press material that mentions the violence that is enacted on humans and non-human animals. Could you explain how non-human animals suffer from the erection of these ‘smart fences’? 

Many animals, such as red deer, bears and wolves, used to have their grazing, hunting and migration routes through parts of EU borders that have now become impenetrable. The issue is not only that animals are no longer able to cross, but also that razor wire, which is the main component of the border fences throughout, is designed to deter humans. It is explicitly not intended for use against animals, because, unlike traditional barbed wire, they easily get stuck in it and die.


Dani Ploeger, European Studies #2 (wire). Exhibition view at Bruthaus Gallery


Dani Ploeger, European Studies #2 (wire). Exhibition view at Bruthaus Gallery

The AR technology used in European Studies #2 (wire) “was developed in collaboration with the AURORA project at the University of Applied Sciences Berlin with support from the European Union.” Isn’t it a bit ironic that the EU would contribute to a project that openly questions the management of its borders? Was everyone comfortable with the idea that you used EU money to criticise border control? 

This irony is important to me. The EU has an extensive and complex bureaucracy that regulates and manages funding for research, arts and other things. I see this as an important reason why there usually isn’t too much worrying among researchers or art producers about policy-critical work as part of funded research or art projects, as long as the work adheres to the immediate rules and regulations for the management of the grant. I.e. if there isn’t a written rule that says ‘your research may not criticize EU policies’ all is fine, because grant holders will be monitored and assessed by peers and bureaucrats, rather than politicians or other people with significant policy making power. This leaves some space to use funding for things that might go against the immediate interests of the Union.

At the same time, we shouldn’t overstate this critical or subversive potential though. In the end, actions like mine are usually only possible a long way down in the ‘funding-hierarchy’. My AR app was a tiny sub-project in the context of a large EU-funded research project. This larger project, the design and management of which I am not involved in, was the outcome of a successful bid under the “Strengthening the innovation potential in culture” scheme of the European Fund for Regional Development. As the title of the scheme already suggests, research projects will only be funded if their design demonstrates detailed and far-going endorsement of the economic-growth-driven interests that form an important aspect of the European Union’s raison d’être.

So I’d actually say that, in the end, the true irony of the seemingly subversive use of EU funding for my project primarily concerns the way in which a lot of critical artwork, including my own, is intertwined with government support structures for research and art that are increasingly driven by clearly defined economic objectives. These objectives are also reflected in restrictive migration policies, which are oftentimes based on prioritizing cutting costs over humanitarian considerations.

To what extent does the ‘successful artist’ of a neo-liberal cultural landscape (i.e. the one who gets access to funding and is exposed at funded events and venues) become complicit in the economy-cultural complex that ultimately shares responsibility for the excesses of violence and neo-colonial policies on and beyond the borders of the EU or, more generally, the Global North?


Dani Ploeger, Sensitive Barrier, detail (razor wire from Hungarian border, movement detector, electro-motor), 2019

These ‘smart’ technologies of ‘defense’ and the way they function elude visual representation. They make migration almost abstract. Your works, on the other hand, make their violence almost palpable. Have you not been tempted at any point to make the connection between the human and non-human animals who suffer from the deployment of these technologies more obvious and maybe also more (easily) emotional by adding the presence of migrants trying to go through them?

Many journalists and artists have done work that focuses directly on the human suffering in the context of these structures (suffering of non-human animals not so much). This work is very important, among others to counter the tendency to imagine migration as some kind of abstract phenomenon as you point out. But I think there are also aspects of the current problematics around migration that cannot be addressed adequately by this work, and which require different approaches.

Firstly, when the attention is focused on representations of migrants trying to cross the fence, architectural and technological aspects tend to move to the background. This is understandable and desirable – thank god engagement with human experience prevails over barbed wire and motion detectors – but it also means that the significant role of narratives and applications of technology in the ‘management’ of migration and territorial control remain under-examined.

Secondly, as I already mentioned above, I often find that when watching video and photo representations of migrants trying to break through these border fences the places and situations paradoxically seem a lot less threatening and violent than they actually are experienced in a material encounter. The material presence and digital close-up views of razor wire and the quasi-nostalgic analogue photographs of sensor installations in my work do by no means give access to the experience of encountering the border fence as a migrant. But I do hope that they offer an additional way to engage with the violent implications of the desire for closed borders, an engagement that operates more through a sense of haptic visuality, rather than emotional narratives.

Any upcoming project or field of research you’d like to share with us?

I see the work I presented at Bruthaus Gallery as the beginning of a longer project that looks into borders, technologies and their narratives, so I will probably make more work around this theme over the next year or so. In addition to the video I exhibited now, I made a 3D video recording of the action at the Hungarian border from first-person perspective with two action cams that were attached to my forehead. I will use this footage to make a work for VR headset which will engage more with the experience of stress and fear that I mentioned in response to your earlier question. Another thing I am working on at the moment is an AR app for public space. When you point your device at a replica of a sign from the border fence that reads “CAUTION: Electric fence” the app will construct a life-size 3D model of the border fence around this, so you are standing right next to it.

Later in the year, I will make a new work for a group exhibition at Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien in Berlin, titled Weapons of Art. For this, I am planning to travel to another part of the EU to look for fencing, but I don’t want to say anything more about that yet.

Thanks Dani!

Previous works by Dani Ploeger: e-waste, porn, ecology & warfare. An interview with Dani Ploeger and Global control, macho technology and the Krampus. Notes from the RIXC Open Fields conference.
See also: The System of Systems: technology and bureaucracy in the asylum seeking process in Europe, Watching You Watching Me. A Photographic Response to Surveillance and Transnationalisms – Bodies, Borders, and Technology. Part 2. The conference.

Global Control And Censorship

After last week’s Notes from the RIXC Open Fields conference, it’s time to have a quick look at the accompanying exhibition of this year’s edition of the RIXC Art Science Festival.

The theme of the exhibition, curated by Lívia Nolasco-Rózsás and Bernhard Serexhe, is encapsulated in its title: Global Control And Censorship.


Ruben Pater, Drone Survival Guide, 2013. Photo: RIXC

The curators wrote in their introductory text to the exhibition:

Surveillance and censorship are mutually dependent; they cannot be viewed separately. It has always been well known that the surveillance of citizens, institutions, and companies, indeed, including the monitoring of democratically elected politicians and parliaments or of journalists and lawyers, is a secret task of government agencies. Recently, however, this tradition of government-legitimized spying on all citizens has expanded to include additional spying by powerful service providers and business enterprises. At the same time, courageous journalists, who disclose information that carries enormous importance to society such as illegal surveillance activities, censorship and torture by governmental institutions, are prosecuted and punished. Even in our day, journalists, artists and writers critical of the system and whistle-blowers are branded as traitors.

The exhibition is not ground-breaking* but it is solid, coherent and thought-provoking. I was particularly impressed by the way the curators take us from one location to another, showing how surveillance encroaches on freedom of movements, communication and actions no matter where we are on the planet. Sometimes the means of surveillance and their impact seem to be site-specific. Often though, they replay the same patterns of scrutiny and blackout that have been adopted everywhere else.

Here are some of the works i found most interesting:


Osman Bozkurt, Post Resistance, 2013


Osman Bozkurt, Post Resistance, 2013

Photographer Osman Bozkurt documented the remains of the slogans, drawings and other signs that were painted onto the surfaces of public spaces in Istanbul at the time of the Gezi Park demonstrations in Istanbul in 2013.

That Summer, thousands of citizens occupied the park to oppose its proposed demolition as part of an urban development plan. The police’s violent response to the unrest provoked strikes and further protests across the country, with citizens expressing their disapproval of large-scale urban and economic changes proposed by the government, attacks on freedom of the press and of expression, the encroachment on Turkey’s secularism and Erdogan’s authoritarian measures. The movement was eventually dispelled by the brutal governmental riposte, leaving many people injured or imprisoned.

Authorities made sure that the protests slogans and signs on the walls were swiftly painted over. Boskurt documented the grey patches that haunt the areas surrounding the unrest. They remain as ghosts of attempts to defend the rights to a fair society.


aaajiao, GFWlist, 2010. Photo: RIXC

The Great Wall of China, an over eight thousand kilometers-long series of fortification, was built to protect the Chinese states and empire against raids and incursions by nomadic peoples. Its information age equivalent, the Great Firewall of China, was engineered to regulate the Internet domestically and keep unwanted information, ideas and images out of the Chinese Internet. Both Chinese and foreign websites and news stories are censored by the GFW mechanisms.

GFWlist, by artist and activist Xu Wenkai aka aaajiao, is an installation that relentlessly prints the URLs of the websites that are banned on the Chinese Internet. A printer spits out the list on a long scroll of paper that falls down and forms a heap onto the floor. The printer is perched on a black monolith similar to the one that puzzles prehistoric humans in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 movie A Space Odyssey. The meaning of the monolith remains a mystery for most film critics. Some like to interpret the structure as a trigger of self-awareness in the early humans and thus the beginning of civilization.

Because China prohibits to even publish the list of the blocked web-addresses, aaajiao’s installation stands as a poetical but explicit message of civil disobedience.


Hamra Abbas, Text Edit, 2011

Hamra Abba’s video is simple and incredibly moving. The screen shows an email in the process of being written by a woman who is announcing her pregnancy to a friend. While composing her message, the writer keeps erasing and correcting her words, self-censoring for fear that her words might be monitored and misinterpreted. Her joke about how people “terrorized” her into having a child is being amended so that the word “terrorized” becomes “coaxed”. Similarly, words like ‘blast’ or ‘chaos’ suddenly take an ominous meaning and she quickly erases and replaces them.

Such is her fear of the possibility of being under surveillance, that the final version of her message is brief but bland and devoid of any of the joy you would expect in such circumstances.


Daniel G. Andújar, Let’s Democratise Democracy, 2011-ongoing


Daniel G. Andújar, Let’s Democratise Democracy, 2011-ongoing. Photo via think commons

During the celebration of Labor Day and then again the day before Spain’s general election in 2011, Daniel G. Andújar rented a small plane and flew a banner that said Democraticemos la democracia (Let’s Democratise Democracy) from Murcia to Alicante. His yellow banner reappeared several times in Spain that year. The slogan was translated and brandished in places as diverse as the Ministry of Defense in Belgrade, the nuclear shelter of Tito in Bosnia Herzegovina or a refugee camp in Western Sahara. Whether his slogan takes the form of stickers, posters, graffiti, flags or installations, it always adapts and takes a new meaning and target with each location. Depending on the context, the Let’s Democratise Democracy slogan is interpreted as a challenge to corruption, inflation, expulsions, surveillance, etc. The motto works no matter the type of attack on democracy.

Because the artist believes that public space belongs to everyone and that it must be continuously conquered from hegemonic attempts to control it, he encourages passersby who stumbles upon his project to document it with their phone and spread the message further.


Marc Lee, Security First, 2015. Photo: RIXC


Marc Lee, Security First, 2015. Photo: RIXC

Marc Lee, Security First, 2015

Marc Lee shows displays “the wonderful world of surveillance technology.” The array of surveillance cameras he lines up on shelves is completed by a monitor showing the website insecam.org. While the cctv apparatus is sold as the gateway to protection and peace of mind, the directory of online surveillance security cameras reminds us of the threat these cameras present for our privacy.

More works and images from the Global Control and Censorship exhibition:


Dan Perjovschi, Drawings, 1995–2015


Dan Perjovschi, Drawings, 1995–2015. Photo: RIXC


View of the exhibition space. Photo: RIXC


Erik Mátrai, Turul, 2012. Photo: RIXC


Ma Qiusha, Twilight Is the Ashes of Dusk, 2011


View of the exhibition space. Photo: RIXC

Also part of the exhibition: Peters Riekstins, Back to the Light.

The RIXC Open Fields conference, organized by RIXC the center for new media culture, is over but if you’re in Riga, don’t miss the accompanying exhibition: Global Control and Censorship. It’s at the National Libary of Latvia until 21 October 2018.

More images of the exhibition opening in RIXC’s flickr album.

* i think i will always miss the extraordinary bite and vision that Armin Medosch was bringing to the RIXC festival.

Faceless. Re-inventing Privacy Through Subversive Media Strategies

Faceless. Re-inventing Privacy Through Subversive Media Strategies, edited by artist and researcher Bogomir Doringer in collaboration with curator and cultural studies scholar Brigitte Felderer.

On amazon USA and UK.

Publisher De Gruyter writes: The contributions to this book explore a phenomenon that appears to be a contradiction in itself – we, the users of computers, can be tracked in digital space for all eternity. Although, on the one hand, one wants to be noticed and noticeable, on the other hand one does not necessarily want to be recognized at the first instance, being prey to an unfathomable public, or – even less so – to lose face.

The book documents artistic and other strategies that point out options for appearing in the infinite book of faces whilst nevertheless avoiding being included in any records. The desire not to become a mere object of facial sell-out does not just remain an aesthetic endeavor. The contributions also contain combative and sarcastic statements against a digital dynamic that has already penetrated our everyday lives.


REBEL YUTHS, Masks, 2011-2013


Teresa Dillon, Under New Moons We Stand Strong, 2016. Photo: Fraser Denholm and Yvi Philipp

I love exhibition catalogues. Most of them give you a colourful overview of a show you’ve had the bad idea to miss. Others, however, do far more than that. They take the print as an opportunity to bring different voices around the pages to dissect and discuss a particular field of research, expanding on the exhibition itself and becoming a work of reference in the process. Faceless. Re-inventing Privacy Through Subversive Media Strategies is of the latter breed.

Faceless started as a duo of exhibitions that opened at Q21_ in Vienna in 2013. The shows investigated the hiding, distorting and masking of the face in post-9/11 visual culture. The practice, set against the backdrop of a massive production of images and a political frenzy to supervise movements, responds to various motivations: a need to regain some control over an identity, to protest against control and surveillance, to challenge mainstream ideas of acceptable bodies, etc.

As the book demonstrates, the strategies adopted to morph and conceal a face are as diverse as they are creative. It’s quite interesting to contrast some of them with the now normalized practice of publishing selfies in which the face has gone through so much (physical) makeup and (digital) filters action that the individual is barely recognizable. Everyone knows you don’t look like that at all in real life but we’ve stopped batting an eyelid a long time ago.

The essays and artistic contributions featured in the book are consistently excellent. Thomas Macho, for example, charts the strategies of facelessness through art history. Matthias Tarasiewicz discusses the zero trust society and the necessity to literally play hide and seek with surveillance infrastructures in order to obtain personal privacy online. Hille Koskela explains how exhibitionism, aided by digital media, has become “the new normal”. Teresa Dillon comments on the violent and material role that CCTV cameras play in urban life. Adam Harvey presents an e-commerce platform entirely dedicated to accessories and tricks for countersurveillance. Rosa Menkman has an eye-opening look at the use and abuse of the faces of (Caucasian) women in the history of image processing.

The best surprise for me, little Margiela maniac, was to find excerpts from the interviews that mint film office had done with members of the Martin Margiela team for their WE MARGIELA documentary. Margiela was an iconic fashion designer famous for the way he shrouded himself in invisibility. He shunned public appearances, refused to release any official portrait and accepted only a few interviews but then they had to be carried out via faxes. He was also a genius at disrupting all the fashion codes.


KNOWBOTIC RESEARCH, The MacGhillie Saga

My recommendation to you would be to get this book if you’re interested in how questions of control&surveillance, identity&politics of the body are explored critically across a wide range of cultural manifestations. Not just in contemporary art but also in cinema, fashion, street culture, sexual fetishism, etc. Faceless manages to put a new, brave and thought-provoking spin on crucial topics that dominate our culture but still deserved to be discussed with intellectual rigour. And a bit of humour here and there.

Just a couple of the many creative works i discovered in the book:


Martin Backes, Pixelhead limited edition, 2010

Pixelhead is a full face mask acts as media camouflage, completely shielding the head to ensure that your face is not recognizable on photographs taken in public places, without securing permission. This piece is inspired by google street view and therefore bridges the gap between the real and virtual world. This simple piece of fabric masks individuals’ anonymity for the Internet age.


Sofie Groot Dengerink, © Google Privacy, 2011 © Google Maps and Sofie Groot Dengerink

Window curtains in The Netherlands are often either left wide open as a protestant statement that there is nothing to hide. Sofie Groot Dengerink‘s series of snapshots from Google Streetview lays bare the digital invasion of our (physical) privacy.


Jan Stradtmann, Garden of Eden, 2008

Shot furtively on Canary Wharf (London’s financial district) in September and October 2008, Jan Stradtmann’s photos reflect the tense atmosphere of the early days of the economic crisis. Everyday situations and gestures -cigarette breaks, phone calls or casual meetings between colleagues- get interpreted and framed as if they had a direct link to the crash.


Vermibus, In Absentia


Ben DeHaan, Uncured

Ben DeHaan’s melting portraits were created with a run-of-the-mill inkjet printers that use ultraviolet light to dry the ink printed on a page, which happens to be UV-sensitive. The ink dries — or cures — almost instantaneously. Unless you disable the UV light which is exactly what the artist did. He then photographed the prints as the ink was slowly dripping down the face of his subjects.


Simone C. Niquille, Here Be Faces, 2013

Pablo Garcia and Addie Wagenknecht, Webcam Venus, 2013


Caron Geary aka FERAL is KINKY, Frontal View No. 2 of White British Female, UK born-‘Feral’, London – Self Portrait, 2007

Watching You Watching Me. A Photographic Response to Surveillance

If you happen to be in Belgium this week, don’t miss Watching You Watching Me. A Photographic Response to Surveillance, a show at BOZAR which makes it clear that technology has left us with nowhere to hide. We knew that already of course. Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations have pulverized any dream of internet as a space for free and uninhibited exchanges.

Watching You Watching Me explores how artists are responding to the world’s transformation into a vast tech-mediated panopticon. Some of the artists reveal the efforts deployed by governments and corporations to monitor our online thoughts and ideas, with no concern for our privacy and freedom of expression. Others make visible the new forms digital self-surveillance and ‘virtual vigilantism’ facilitated by social media and access to webcams across the world.

I feel like i’ve blogged about surveillance/sousveillance hundreds of times already but i was impressed with this show, it is solid, enlightening and should appeal to the wise and the uninformed alike. It closes on Sunday so be quick and visit it if you’re in the area. Here’s a quick overview of the works on show (i only skipped the ones i wrote about in the past):


Julian Roeder, Thermal Imaging Camera, 2012. A portable, long-distance infrared thermal imaging surveillance system used by a Bulgarian Frontex unit


Julian Roeder, Monitoring Zeppelin, 2013. Near Toulon, southern France.
A Wescam MX 15 surveillance camera operator inside a monitoring zeppelin. This photograph was taken during an initial testing phase of a EUROSUR research project aimed to improve control of illegal immigration in the Mediterranean


Julian Roeder, Frequency-Modulated Continuous-Wave Radar and High-Performance Wescam MX 15, near Toulon, southern France. A frequency-modulated continuous-wave radar—used for the detection of small wooden boats—and a high-performance Wescam MX 15 surveillance camera are mounted on a dirigible


Julian Roeder, Polish Frontex Officer, 2012. A Polish Frontex border patrol officer stands with an ICS30 thermal imaging reconnaissance camera near the border between Greece and Turkey. Evros region, northern Greece


Julian Roeder, Border Situation, 2012. Border patrol police monitor the external border of Greece

Julian Roeder’s Mission and Task series exposes the high-tech surveillance apparatus deployed by Europe along its external borders. Thermo-cameras, surveillance drones, satellite technology, radar equipment for hunting down fleeing refugees and migrants add a digital and unforgiving layer to the old barbed wire, walls and fences.

These deterrents and the way they function elude visual representation.

“With my work, I intend to portray a border security system consisting of surveillance infrastructure that ensures the relative affluence of life in Europe,”
Roeder wrote. “I know of many works dedicated to representing the fate of migrants. I wanted, however, to create works that do not focus on “the other” itself, but on the systems and mechanisms used to construct and control “the other.”

In making these images, I was particularly dedicated to showing how technologization turns the handling of migrants into an abstraction. The focal point is a technology that records humans as data, currents, points of light, and as signals—not as individuals. Through an excessive enhancement of the photographic aesthetic, this technology can become a tool and symbol for alienation instead of a responsible means of dealing with people.”


Edu Bayer, Former Gadhafi Intelligence Facilities in Tripoli, Libya. Interior of the main center of Internet Surveillance and Internal Security of the former Gadaffi regime. Computers, files, and electronic devices abandoned in a 6 floor building. August, 2011


Edu Bayer, A room in Libya’s internet surveillance center, Tripoli, Libya, August 30, 2011

Edu Bayer‘s images depicts the physical remains of Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi’s surveillance apparatus.

The internet surveillance center in Tripoli was a six-story building where the government monitored citizens’ movements and correspondence. After the 2011 civil war, the repressive machine was left empty, documents were shredded and the internet traffic monitoring and filtering equipment was abandoned.


Simon Menner, From a Disguise Seminar


Simon Menner, From a Disguise Seminar


Simon Menner, Transmitting Secret Signs

Simon Menner spent two years exploring the archives of the Stasi (East Germany’s Ministry for State Security.) Almost 300,000 people worked for the secret police, per capita far more than were employed by the CIA or the KGB.

After the downfall of the GDR, the Stasi’s operations were laid open to the public and reviewed by the StaSi Records Agency, an office set up specially for this purpose.

The archive images that Menner selected are exhibited un-retouched. They often look funny to the modern eye but the reality they depict is dark: these are real photos of real people who were trained to systematically pry and report on their neighbors and family members. What makes these images unique is that, as Menner explained “the public has very limited access to pictures showing the act of surveillance from the perspective of the surveillant. We rarely get to see what Big Brother sees”.


Josh Begley, Information of Note (detail), 2014. Composite image and text-based installation featuring photographs and observational notes culled from New York City Police Department (NYPD) Demographics Unit documents

Josh Begley‘s Information of Note is another work that brings to light the Big Brother perspective. The installation consists of text and photographs that were extracted from New York City Police Department’s secret Demographics Unit (later the Zone Assessment Unit). The operation systematically spied on the daily lives of Muslims, mapping and monitoring the communities, where they go to pray, buy veggies or have a coffee.

The unit was disbanded in 2014 after public outcry. Or maybe because snooping on Muslim led to no leads.

By re-contextualizing this material in floor-to-ceiling collages, Begley paints a disturbing picture of the mundane nature of the “evidence” collected.


Mari Bastashevski, It’s Nothing Personal (detail), 2014. Hacking facility at “CyberGym”, an Israeli cyber defense role-playing training facility that provides IT security training to enterprises and government officials


Mock-up illustration of It’s Nothing Personal, 2014. Photographs: Mari Bastashevski. Design: LUST

One of the most interesting works in the show is It’s Nothing Personal, an installation that takes a close look at the booming industry that caters to governments’ demand for surveillance of mass communications. These electronic surveillance companies might operate in a covert world and design products that are meant to be undetectable, but that didn’t prevent them from developing a strong corporate image and language.

Working with the NGO Privacy International, Mari Bastashevski combines her own photographs with trade fair brochures and corporate documentation from the industry. Her installation brings side by side this sanitized corporate aesthetic with testimony from an Uzbek human rights advocate whose life has been affected by the kinds of scrutiny that private surveillance companies enable.

All advertising catalogues from It’s Nothing Personal project are also easy to find, using the instrument ‘search for text files’ on the servers of the companies. All of this information is in open access.


Andrew Hammerand, The New Town (detail), 2013


Andrew Hammerand, The New Town (detail), 2013

Andrew Hammerand’s series The New Town was shot via a web-controllable CCTV installed by the property developer of a community in the American Midwest to monitor and publicize construction progress. Hammerand managed to get online access to the device’s entire control panel, allowing him to remotely operate the camera and subvert its intended purpose in order to make photographs.

The pixelated, blurry photos immediately call out the visual language of surveillance footage and “evidentiary” images often used to stir suspicion. Are these people really honest citizens or are they criminals, missing persons and murder suspects?

The work points to the dangers that the increasing (and often careless) use of domestic surveillance pose to privacy and personal freedom.


Tomas van Houtryve, Baseball practice in Montgomery County, Maryland. According to records obtained from the FAA, which issued 1,428 domestic drone permits between 2007 and early 2013, the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the U.S. Navy have applied for drone authorization in Montgomery County


Tomas van Houtryve, Students are seen in a schoolyard in El Dorado County, California. In 2006, a drone strike on a religious school in the village of Chenegai reportedly killed up to 69 Pakistani children

In October 2012, a drone strike in Pakistan killed a 67-year-old woman picking okra in her garden. At a U.S. Congressional hearing held a year later in Washington, D.C., the woman’s 13-year-old grandson, Zubair Rehman, spoke to lawmakers. “I no longer love blue skies,” said Rehman. “In fact, I now prefer gray skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are gray.”

According to strike reports complied by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, Zubair Rehman’s grandmother is one of several thousand people killed by covert U.S. drone strikes since 2004. Although we live in the most media-connected age in history, the public has little visual record of the drone war and its casualties.

Tomas van Houtryve used a drone to shoot photos of weddings, afternoons in public parks, birthday parties and other relaxing moments across America. The photos mirror the ways US drones are being used for targeted killings at Yemeni, Afghan and Pakistani gatherings.

Watching You, Watching Me was curated by Stuart Alexander, Susan Meiselasz, Yukiko Yamagata. The show remains open until 18 February 2018 at BOZAR in Brussels.
Organized by: Open Society Foundations, in cooperation with BOZAR and Privacy Salon

Entrance is free.

Related stories: Exploitation Forensics. Interview with Vladan Joler, Black Diamond. The internet is full of loopholes and leaks, The System of Systems: technology and bureaucracy in the asylum seeking process in Europe, Book review: Top Secret. Images from the Stasi Archives, Big Eye Kabul. Surveillance blimps over Afghanistan, Identity squatting and spy training. A conversation with Simon Farid, The Influencers: Former MI5 spy Annie Machon on why we live in a dystopia that even Orwell couldn’t have envisioned, Politics and Practices of Secrecy (part 1) and (part 2), Confessions of a Data Broker and other tales of a quantified society, Unauthorized photos of U.S. intelligence officials stencilled on the walls of your city, etc.

Exploitation Forensics. Interview with Vladan Joler


Vladan Joler and Kate Crawford, Anatomy of an AI system (detail)

If you find yourself in Ljubljana this week, don’t miss SHARE Lab. Exploitation Forensics at Aksioma.

The exhibition presents maps and documents that SHARE Lab, a research and data investigation lab based in Serbia, has created over the last few years in order to prize open, analyze and make sense of the black boxes that hide behind our most used platforms and devices.

The research presented at Aksioma focuses on two technologies that modern life increasingly relies on: Facebook and Artificial Intelligence.

The map dissecting the most famous social media ‘service’ might be sober and elegant but the reality it uncovers is everything but pretty. A close look at the elaborate graph reveals exploitation of material and immaterial labour and generation of enormous amounts of wealth with not much redistribution in between (to say the least.) As for the map exploring the deep materiality of AI, it dissects the whole supply chain behind the technology deployed by Alexa and any other ‘smart’ device. From mining to transport and with more exploitation of data, labour, resources in the process.

Should you not find yourself in Ljubljana, then you can still discover the impulses, findings and challenges behind the maps in this video recording of the talk that the leader of the SHARE Lab, Prof. Vladan Joler, gave at Aksioma two weeks ago:

Talk by Vladan Joler at the Aksioma Project Space in Ljubljana on 29 November 2017

In the presentation, Joler talks superpowers of social media and AI invisible infrastructures but he also makes fascinating forays into the quantification of nature, the language of neural networks, accelerating inequality gaps, troll-hunting and issues of surveillance capitalism.

I also took the Aksioma exhibition as an excuse to ask Vladan Joler a few questions:


SHARE Lab (Vladan Joler and Andrej Petrovski), Facebook Algorithmic Factory (detail)

Hi Vladan! The Facebook maps and the information that accompanies them on the Share lab website are wonderful but also a bit overwhelming. Is there anything we can do to resist the way our data are used? Is there any way we can still use Facebook while maintaining a bit of privacy, and without being too exploited or targeted by potentially unethical methods? Would you advise us to just cancel our Facebook account? Or is there a kind of medium way?

I have my personal opinion on that, but the issue is that in order to make such a decision each user should be able to understand what happens to their private data, data generated by activity and behaviour and many other types of data that is being collected by such platforms. However, the main problem, and the core reasoning behind our investigations, is that what happens within Facebook for example, i.e. the way it works is something that we can call a black box. The darkness of said boxes is shaped by many different layers of in-transparency. From different forms of invisible infrastructures over the ecosystems of algorithms to many forms of hidden exploitation of human labour, all those dark places are not meant to be seen by us. The only thing that we are allowed to see are the minimalist interfaces and shiny offices where play and leisure meet work. Our investigations are exercises in testing our own capacities as independent researchers to sneak in and put some light on those hidden processes. So the idea is to try and give the users of those platforms more facts so that they are able decide if the price they are paying might be too high in the end. After all, this is a decision that each person should make individually.

Another issue is that, the deeper we were going into those black boxes, the more we became conscious of the fact that our capacities to understand and investigate those systems are extremely limited. Back to your question, personally I don’t believe that there is a middle way, but unfortunately I also don’t believe that there is a simple way out of this. Probably we should try to think about alternative business models and platforms that are not based on surveillance capitalism. We are repeating this mantra about open source, decentralised, community-run platforms, to no real effect.


SHARE Lab. Exploitation Forensics at Aksioma Project Space. Photo: Jure Goršič / Aksioma


SHARE Lab. Exploitation Forensics at Aksioma Project Space. Photo: Janez Janša

The other depressing thing is that for many people, Facebook IS the internet. They just don’t care about privacy, privacy belongs in the past and being targeted is great because it means that Facebook is extra fun and useful. Do you think that fighting for privacy is a futile battle? That we should just go with the flow and adapt to this ‘new normal’?

It is interesting to think that privacy already belongs to the past since historically speaking privacy as we understand it today is not an old concept. It is questionable whether we ever had a moment in time when we had properly defined our right to privacy and we were able to defend it. So, from my point of view, it is more of a process of exploration and an urge to define in each moment what privacy means in present time. We should accept the decentralised view on the term privacy and accept that for different cultures this word has a different meaning and not just imply, for example, European view on privacy. Currently, with such a fast development of technology, with the lack of transparency-related tools and methodologies, outdated laws and ineffective bureaucracies, we are left behind in understanding what is really going on behind the walls of leading corporations whose business models are based on surveillance capitalism. Without understanding what is going on behind the walls of the five biggest technology firms (Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft) we cannot rethink and define what privacy in fact is nowadays.

The dynamics of power on the Web have dramatically changed, and Google and Facebook now have a direct influence over 70% of internet traffic. Our previous investigations are saying that 90% of the websites we investigated have some of the Google cookies embedded. So, they are the Internet today and even more, their power is spilling out of the web into many other segments of our life, from our bedrooms, cars, cities to our bodies.


SHARE Lab. Exploitation Forensics at Aksioma Project Space. Photo: Janez Janša


SHARE Lab. Exploitation Forensics at Aksioma Project Space. Photo: Janez Janša

Could you explain us the title of the show “Exploitation Forensics”?

Oxford dictionary is giving us two main uses of the word exploitation : (1) the action or fact of treating someone unfairly in order to benefit from their work and (2) the action of making use of and benefiting from resources. Basically both versions are essentially related to two maps that are featured in the exhibition. We can read our maps as visualisations of exploitation process regardless whether we speak about exploitation of our immaterial labour (content production and user behaviour as labour) or we go deeper and say that we are not even a workers in that algorithmic factory, but pure, raw material, i.e. a resource (user behavioural data as a resource). Each day users of Facebook provide 300.000.000 hours of unpaid immaterial labour and this labour is transformed into the 18 billion US dollars of revenue each year. We can argue if that is something that we can call exploitation or not, for the simple reason that users use those platforms voluntarily, but for me the key question is do we really have an option to stay out of those systems anymore? For example, our Facebook accounts are checked during visa applications, and the fact that you maybe don’t have a profile can be treated as an anomaly, as a suspicious fact.

Not having profile will place you in a different basket and maybe different price model if you want to get life insurance and for sure, not having Linkedin account if you are applying for a job will lower your chances of getting the job you want. Our options of staying out are more and more limited each day and the social price we are paying to stay out of it is higher and higher.

If our Facebook map is somehow trying to visualise one form of exploitation, the other map that had the unofficial title “networks of metal, sweat and neurons” is visualising basically three crucial forms of exploitation during the birth, life and death of our networked devices. Here we are drawing shapes of exploitation related to different forms of human labour, exploitation of natural resources and exploitation of personal data quantified nature and human made products.

The word forensics is usually used for scientific tests or techniques used in connection with the detection of crime; and we used many different forensic methods in our investigations since my colleague Andrej Petrovski has a degree in cyber forensics. But in this case the use of this word can be treated also as a metaphor. I like to think of black boxes such as Facebook or complex supply chains and hidden exploitations as crime scenes. Crime scenes where different sort of crimes against personal privacy, nature exploitation or let’s say in some broad sense crime against humanity happens.


SHARE Lab. Exploitation Forensics at Aksioma Project Space. Photo: Jure Goršič / Aksioma


SHARE Lab. Exploitation Forensics at Aksioma Project Space. Photo: Jure Goršič / Aksioma

The maps are incredibly sophisticated and detailed. Surely you can’t have assimilated and processed all this data without the help of data crunching algorithms? Could you briefly describe your methodology? How you managed to absorb all this information and turn it into a visualisation that is both clear and visually-appealing?

In our previous investigations (eg. Metadata Investigation: Inside Hacking Team or Mapping and quantifying political information warfare) we relied mostly on process of data collection and data analysis, trying to apply different methods of metadata analysis similar to ones that organisations such as the NSA or Facebook probably use to analyse our personal data. For that we used different data collection methods and publicly available tools for data analysis (eg. Gephi, Tableau, Raw Graphs). However, the two maps featured in the exhibition are mostly product of long process of diving and digging into publicly available documentation such as 8000 publicly available patents registered by Facebook, their terms or services documentation and some available reports from regulatory bodies. At the beginning, we wanted to use some data analysis methods, but we very quickly realised that the complexity of data collection operations by Facebook and the number of data points they use is so big that any kind of quantitative analysis would be almost impossible. This tells a lot about our limited capacity to investigate such complex systems. By reading and watching hundreds of patents we were able to find some pieces of this vast mosaic of data exploitation map we were making.

So, those maps, even though they look in some way generative and made by algorithms, they are basically almost drawn by hand. Sometimes it takes months to draw such an complex map, but somehow I need to say that I really appreciate slowness of this process. Doing it manually gives you the time to think about each detail. Those are more cognitive maps based on collected information then data visualizations.


SHARE Lab. Exploitation Forensics at Aksioma Project Space. Photo: Jure Goršič / Aksioma

In a BBC article, you are quoted as saying “If Facebook were a country, it would be bigger than China.” Which reminded me of several news stories that claim that the way the Chinese use the internet is ‘a guide to the future’ (cf. How China is changing the internet) Would you agree with that? Do you think that Facebook might eventually eat up so many apps that we’ll find ourselves in a similar situation, with our lives almost entirely mediated by Facebook?

The unprecedented concentration of wealth within the top five technology companies allows them to treat the whole world of innovation as their outsourced research and development. Anarcho-Capitalist ecosystem of startups is based on a dream that in one moment one of those top five mega companies will acquire them for millions of dollars.

If you just take a look at one of the graphs from our research on “The human fabric of the Facebook Pyramid” mapping the connections within Facebook top management, you will probably realise that through their board of directors they have their feet in most important segments of technological development in combination with political power circles. This new hyper-aristocracy has a power to eat up any new innovation, any attempt that will potentially endanger their monopoly.

The other work in the Aksioma show is Anatomy of an AI system, a map that guides “visitors through the birth, life and death of one networked device, based on a centralized artificial intelligence system, Amazon Alexa, exposing its extended anatomy and various forms of exploitation.” Could you tell us a few words about this map? Does it continue the Facebook research or is it investigating different issues?

Barcelona-based artist Joana Moll infected me with this obsession about materiality of technology. For years we were investigating networks and data flows, trying to visualise and explore different processes within those invisible infrastructures. But then after working with Joana I realised that each of those individual devices we were investigating, has let’s say another dimension of existence, that is related to the process of their birth, life and death.

We started to investigate what Jussi Parikka described as geology of media. In parallel with that, our previous investigations had a lot to do with issues of digital labour, beautifully explained in works of Christian Fuchs and other authors, and this brought us to investigate the complex supply chains and labour exploitation in the proces.

Finally, together with Kate Crawford from AI Now Institute, we started to develop a map that is a combination of all those aspects in one story. The result is a map of the extended anatomy of one AI based device, in this case Amazon Echo. This anatomy goes really deep, from the process of exploitation of the metals embedded in those devices, over the different layers of production process, hidden labour, fractal supply chains, internet infrastructures, black boxes of neural networks, process of data exploitation to the death of those devices. This map basically combines and visualises three forms of exploitation: exploitation of human labour, exploitation of material resources and exploitation of quantified nature or we can say exploitation of data sets. This map is still in beta version and it is a first step towards something that we are calling in this moment – AI Atlas that should be developed together with AI Now institute during next year.

Do you plan to build up an atlas with more maps over time? By looking at other social media giants? Do you have new targets in view? Other tech companies you’d like to dissect in the way you did Facebook?

The idea of an Atlas as a form is there from the beginnings of our investigations when we explored different forms of networks and invisible infrastructures. The problem is that the deeper our investigations went, those maps became more and more complex and grew in size. For example, maps exhibited at Aksioma are 4×3 m in size and still there are parts of the maps that are on the edge of readability. Complexity, scale and materiality of those maps became somehow a burden itself. For the moment there are two main forms of materialisations of our research. First, the main form are stories on our website and recently those big printed maps are starting to have their life at different gallery spaces around. It is just recently that our work was exhibited in art context and I need to say that I kind of enjoy in that new turn.


SHARE Lab. Exploitation Forensics at Aksioma Project Space. Photo: Janez Janša


SHARE Lab. Exploitation Forensics at Aksioma Project Space. Photo: Janez Janša

How are you exhibiting the maps in the gallery? Do you accompany the prints with information texts or videos that contextualize the maps?

Yes. As You mentioned before, those maps are somewhat overwhelming, complex and not so easy to understand. On the website we have stories, narratives that guide the readers through the complexities of those black boxes. But at the exhibitions we need to use different methods to help viewers navigate and understand those complex issues. Katarzyna Szymielewicz from Panoptykon Foundation, created video narrative that is accompanying our Facebook map and we are usually exhibiting a pile of printed Facebook patents, so visitors can explore them by themselves.

Thanks Vladan!

SHARE Lab. Exploitation Forensics is at Aksioma | Project Space in Ljubljana until 15 December 2017.

Previously: Critical investigation into the politics of the interface. An interview with Joana Moll and Uberworked and Underpaid: How Workers Are Disrupting the Digital Economy.

Creditworthy. A History of Consumer Surveillance and Financial Identity in America

Creditworthy. A History of Consumer Surveillance and Financial Identity in America, by Josh Lauer.

On amazon USA and UK.

Publisher Columbia University Press writes: The first consumer credit bureaus appeared in the 1870s and quickly amassed huge archives of deeply personal information about millions of Americans. Today, the three leading credit bureaus are among the most powerful institutions in modern life–yet we know almost nothing about them. Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion are multi-billion-dollar corporations that track our movements, spending behavior, and financial status. This data is used to predict our riskiness as borrowers and to judge our trustworthiness and value in a broad array of contexts, from insurance and marketing to employment and housing.

In Creditworthy, the first comprehensive history of this crucial American institution, Josh Lauer explores the evolution of credit reporting from its nineteenth-century origins to the rise of the modern consumer data industry. By revealing the sophistication of early credit reporting networks, Creditworthy highlights the leading role that commercial surveillance has played—ahead of state surveillance systems—in monitoring the economic lives of Americans. Lauer charts how credit reporting grew from an industry that relied on personal knowledge of consumers to one that employs sophisticated algorithms to determine a person’s trustworthiness. Ultimately, Lauer argues that by converting individual reputations into brief written reports—and, later, credit ratings and credit scores—credit bureaus did something more profound: they invented the modern concept of financial identity. Creditworthy reminds us that creditworthiness is never just about economic “facts.” It is fundamentally concerned with—and determines—our social standing as an honest, reliable, profit-generating person.

Creditworthy opens up in 1913 when oil magnate John D. Rockefeller is denied access to credit in a Cleveland department store. The clerk, who didn’t trust the appearance of his customer, insisted on calling the credit department before authorizing Rockefeller’s purchases. The story shows that at the time already, even one of the richest men in the world, could not escape the gaze of a surveillance apparatus that will remain under-studied for decades to come.

The book ends 100 years later when his great-grandson Senator John (Jay) D. Rockefeller IV initiates a senate investigation into the business practices of the U.S.’ leading data brokers. The results were divulged a few months after Snowden’s NSA revelations. Talking about privacy, the senator said:

What has been missing from this conversation so far is the role that private companies play in collecting and analyzing our personal information. A group of companies known collectively as ‘data brokers’ are gathering massive amounts of data about our personal lives and selling this information to marketers. We don’t hear a lot about the private-sector data broker industry, but it is playing a large and growing role in our lives.

Let me provide a little perspective. In the year 2012, which you will recall was last year, the data broker industry generated $156 billion in revenues–that is more than twice the size of the entire intelligence budget of the United States Government–all generated by the effort to learn about and sell the details about our private lives. Whether we know it or like it or not, makes no difference.

In this book, professor of media studies Josh Lauer describes how U.S. citizens became objects of intensive surveillance. He investigates how financial identity became a key marker of our personal trustworthiness and how increasingly centralised and invasive systems for monitoring an individual’s behaviour and credits enabled the ascent of consumer capitalism in the U.S.


Photograph of the Vegas Credit Bureau parade entry, Las Vegas, circa late 1920s to early 1930s

Many of us think that modern surveillance appeared after 9/11 but its history actually started in the late 19th century when a disembodied doppelganger of the American consumer started materializing inside the files of retail credit departments and local credit bureaus.

The credit reporting industry was an omnivorous collector of personal data. It cultivated trusted informants, connected with hospital and utility companies, placed phone calls to employers, landlords and neighbours in order to amass as much information as possible about American individuals. Many credit departments and bureaus even maintained separate ‘watchdog’ cabinets where they stored all sorts of information that may affect an individual’s ability to pay: divorces, lawsuits, bankruptcies or accounts of immoral behaviour gleaned from papers court and newspapers clippings, etc. The data gathered was so extensive that in the early 1960s, FBI agents, treasury men and the NYPD visited their offices when they needed to fill in gaps in their dossier.

The credit surveillance industry not only quantified the value of citizens, it also functioned as a disciplinary machine, attempting to control their behaviour, shaming them into paying back what they owed and enforcing the doctrine that a person who abused his or her credit must should be shunned from business and society. To the point that, over time, an individual’s financial identity became an integral dimension of their personal identity.


The telautograph. Image: redorbit

Trustworthy explores a very American phenomenon. We do have credit surveillance systems in Europe too but they are probably not as sophisticated as the ones described in the book (note to self: please investigate the European situation.) I’d definitely recommend this book to U.S. readers. It is impeccably researched and makes for a compelling read. I particularly enjoyed the parts describing the array of human and mechanical techniques employed to extract and manage credit information. From the personal interviews that subjected consumers to intrusive scrutiny to the new technologies that enabled the collection and archiving of data. That’s where i learned about the existence of the telautograph, a precursor to the modern fax machine that was developed to transmit drawings to a stationary sheet of paper. It was used in credit bureau, banks and doctors for sending signatures over long distances.


The Rockdale Reporter and Messenger (Rockdale, Tex.), Vol. 82, No. 34, Ed. 1 Thursday, September 9, 1954 Page: 6 of 20

Credit surveillance systems placed individuals at the center of an invasive information and communication network. Its complexity, its reach and the impact it had on society was (and is still) alarming. Yet, most American consumers have long remained unaware of the private surveillance system that facilitated their credit purchases. This lack of knowledge and control is something that most of us -U.S. citizen or not- have often deplored since Edward Snowden revealed the extent of the NSA mass surveillance infrastructure.

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.


Joana Moll, DEFOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOREST


Joana Moll, DEFOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOREST

Your work DEFOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOREST explores the tangible and devastating impact of the most mundane habit: the use of google.com. 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.)

Rendezvous with the CCTV operator


Diego Trujillo Pisanty, Finding the Operator, 2016


Diego Trujillo Pisanty, Finding the Operator, 2016

Diego Trujillo Pisanty has recently been looking into our relationship with infrastructures, these inconspicuous ‘forces’ that sustain cities. His performance, Finding the Operator, zooms in on the urban surveillance system of Mexico CIty.

The work consisted in a series of attempts to find out who the operator(s) of a specific government-owned CCTV camera are. He first tried to reach out to them by filling in freedom of information requests. Having only received pointless information in return, Trujillo tried a more informal approach. He built an electronic device that broadcasts messages that can only be read by the people behind a CCTV camera, thus establishing an exclusive communication channel with the operator(s) gazing at the video feed. The message invited the operator to call Trujillo and meet him in a bar. No one called him nor turned up at the café appointment.

Trujillo also created a simulation of the camera’s field of view. This simulation was constructed by surveying the camera´s surroundings and from inferences made by analysing CCTV “success stories” published by Mexico City’s government on their YouTube channel.

Diego Trujillo Pisanty, Finding the Operator, 2016

Trujillo looked at works such as the Surveillance Camera Players, Jill Majid’s Evidence Locker, !Mediengruppe Bitnik’ Surveillance Chess, and many more before developing Finding the Operator. His work similarly attempts to acknowledge the existence of the morally accountable human beings that sit at the other side of this otherwise faceless infrastructure of control and surveillance. However, there is something poignant about his work. Maybe because you can’t help feeling as vulnerable as he was when he stood on that street corner sending messages that no one ever answered. And perhaps no one even saw them.

There is always a power asymmetry between a camera’s operator and the subject it photographs. In the case of surveillance cameras this asymmetry is emphasised by the fact that the subject observed has no information on the people operating the camera or whether they even exist.

I asked Diego Trujillo to tell us more about his work:

Hi Diego! You seem to have stood a long time on that street corner. I found it funny that no passersby seems to question what you were doing there holding a white box. It reminded me a bit of Francis Alys pushing a bloc of ice in the streets of Mexico City while everyone around just ignore him. Did no one really approach you? You must have looked odd?

Really, no one approached me, the guys who were filming got some attention at first whilst they were doing exposure tests, but once the action started no one cared about us. I guess we are in a city where people tend to mind their own business and a little strangeness is not unusual either. There is a sense of loneliness built into the project that partially comes from this though, it seems that my concerns about surveillance aren’t shared by the other people who live and work in the area and that both the camera and my actions just seemed mundane or irrelevant.


Diego Trujillo Pisanty, Finding the Operator, 2016


Diego Trujillo Pisanty, Finding the Operator, 2016

From the video it appears that no one cared about what you were doing on that street and either the operator(s) never got to see your message or they didn’t bother contacting you. Somehow i suspect that it only confirmed what you were expecting about the infrastructures that surround, govern and monitor us. So what do you think you’ve achieved and expressed with this work?

One interpretation of the work is that there is an impossibility of direct dialogue with government workers, even in democracies that boast on being transparent and inclusive it is still very difficult to achieve dialogue outside of the established channels and platforms which failed early on in the project when I submitted Freedom of Information requests. This raises some issues about government workers being accountable for their actions, especially in a country where trust in state institutions and the police is at its lowest point in history because of corruption and abuses of power. The video about the meeting is where this metaphor is more obvious, despite all my efforts to investigate and confront this infrastructure I am never able to have my questions answered, the only option left is the pathetic resignation and disappointment portrayed towards the end of the video.

There is another angle of this which I find interesting and that is the effort to exist for the camera and thus for the government. Unlike what happens with many projects focused on protecting your privacy from CCTV, I actively wanted to be seen and recognised, to the point where it becomes a form of vanity. There is a relationship between this and the broader cultural idea that we photograph ourselves to prove our existence, this has been said many times of social media, but I see some value in exploring this idea in the context of surveillance, a technology that was devised precisely to produce evidence on the existence of certain events. I think there is an interesting tension between my efforts to exist and the absolute lack of response from the surveillance system.

In terms of what I expected would happen this shifted constantly. There were days when I was certain no one even looked at the cameras and other days when I was convinced that someone would at least tell me to stop interfering. I had an interview prepared in case I did get contacted, the questions were orientated at dissecting the operator’s own account on how he relates to the people at the other side of the camera from a position of power.


Diego Trujillo Pisanty, Finding the Operator, 2016

The idea for this project came from a course about Occult Infrastructure you taught together with Mark McKeague and Tom Schofiled at the Architectural Association‘s summer school in 2015. What are these occult infrastructures? What makes them occult? And why should we care about them?

The brief at the AA suggested that infrastructure in general is something we believe in rather than experience. This system of beliefs can then be used to explain how a city works without fully understanding its underlying logic and often leads into conspiracy theories and modern forms of superstition and pseudo-science. The occult works in a similar way, there is a belief in hidden forces that can be used to decipher the workings of everyday life and alter its consequences by manipulating these forces. Some examples of the infrastructures that inspired these thought are the mysterious telephone boxes that occupy street pavements, communication antennas, speeding sensors and CCTV. We never get a full view of these systems but just by the glimpses we get we are invited to imagine how they are supporting and controlling our lives.

CCTV is a clear example, where seeing a camera invites the observer to believe that there is someone who has the power to deliver justice watching, and thus a sense of safety is meant to arises. This is supported by the existence of fake CCTV cameras, the mere fact of having an object that looks like a camera can be a deterrent for those who believe in the camera’s power, this turns the fake camera into a sort of protection charm. When doing the research for this course I found it interesting that photography was actually in the service of the occult through the work of mediums like William H. Mumler who claimed that the camera could capture events that are invisible to us, a similar claim is made by surveillance advocates.

I think it’s important to point out the similarities between the occult and certain forms of infrastructure because as much as it may seem that everything works by magic the functioning of a city requires real, tangible components that are complex and mostly hidden. Rather than believing in them and their efficiency I think it’s important to go out and question how much our of lives rely on infrastructure, to what extent its existence benefits us and what politics (if any) it embodies.

In the context of architectural education the brief intended to sensitise students towards the unseen aspects of architecture and how they are designed to deeply drive people’s lives without most of us realizing.


“My son, every time you walk by take my blessing with you. But take your rubbish too”

That course took place in London. Have you found that these occult infrastructures function and manifest themselves differently in Mexico City where you are working now? Or are they roughly responding to the same dynamics and logic wherever we are in the world?

Yes, I see two main differences. The first one is that Mexican culture is far more superstitious and religious so there are real examples of this being used as a form of infrastructure. A personal favourite is that people will paint a Madonna on their house walls to keep others from dumping rubbish, these paintings inspire so much respect that they become clean and safe islands within the city.

I also feel that in Mexico people have less faith in government owned infrastructure, this dissolves the similarities with the occult a little bit as people will question the efficacy of anything the government does much more seriously. I think that Mexico City’s youtube channel is an effort in evangelising people in the power of surveillance infrastructure to try and construct this sort of faith.


Irena Stoeva and Richard Abbot


Irena Stoeva and Richard Abbot

Could you tell us about some of the concepts and artefacts that the students in the course created to articulate their understanding of infrastructure and the paranormal?

One of the projects that came out (made by Irena Stoeva and Richard Abbot) was the design for an illusion that made the Themes Barrier disappear. The students felt that the barrier protected London from a real danger in a way that is completely invisible to most Londoners. The aim of their project was to create both the spectacle of disappearing a large object and to inspire a panicked reaction when a substantial part of the city’s safety simply disappears leaving London exposed to rising water levles.


Christopher Taylor and Vincent Phoen

Another interesting idea (by Christopher Taylor and Vincent Phoen) looked at time as a form of infrastructure that is also built on collective belief and agreement. They argued that if we don’t all believe in the current time (e.g. 3pm) then standardised time collapses. Their outcome was to create a pendulum clock whose definition of a second depended on the amount of people around it at a given moment, creating a form of relativity that relied on human routine and the liveliness of a location. On a busy street time would pass much faster than in service streets or closed gardens. This relativity caused the clock to either speed up ahead or slow down so that it never matched standardised time, the clock never showed the”right” time and thus trust in its readings began to fade reinforcing the idea that time is a matter of belief.

Thanks Diego!

Other works by Diego Trujillo: Self-combusting communication for the Wikileaks era and The 300 Year Time Bomb.

Rendezvous with the CCTV operator


Diego Trujillo Pisanty, Finding the Operator, 2016


Diego Trujillo Pisanty, Finding the Operator, 2016

Diego Trujillo Pisanty has recently been looking into our relationship with infrastructures, these inconspicuous ‘forces’ that sustain cities. His performance, Finding the Operator, zooms in on the urban surveillance system of Mexico CIty.

The work consisted in a series of attempts to find out who the operator(s) of a specific government-owned CCTV camera are. He first tried to reach out to them by filling in freedom of information requests. Having only received pointless information in return, Trujillo tried a more informal approach. He built an electronic device that broadcasts messages that can only be read by the people behind a CCTV camera, thus establishing an exclusive communication channel with the operator(s) gazing at the video feed. The message invited the operator to call Trujillo and meet him in a bar. No one called him nor turned up at the café appointment.

Trujillo also created a simulation of the camera’s field of view. This simulation was constructed by surveying the camera´s surroundings and from inferences made by analysing CCTV “success stories” published by Mexico City’s government on their YouTube channel.

Diego Trujillo Pisanty, Finding the Operator, 2016

Trujillo looked at works such as the Surveillance Camera Players, Jill Majid’s Evidence Locker, !Mediengruppe Bitnik’ Surveillance Chess, and many more before developing Finding the Operator. His work similarly attempts to acknowledge the existence of the morally accountable human beings that sit at the other side of this otherwise faceless infrastructure of control and surveillance. However, there is something poignant about his work. Maybe because you can’t help feeling as vulnerable as he was when he stood on that street corner sending messages that no one ever answered. And perhaps no one even saw them.

There is always a power asymmetry between a camera’s operator and the subject it photographs. In the case of surveillance cameras this asymmetry is emphasised by the fact that the subject observed has no information on the people operating the camera or whether they even exist.

I asked Diego Trujillo to tell us more about his work:

Hi Diego! You seem to have stood a long time on that street corner. I found it funny that no passersby seems to question what you were doing there holding a white box. It reminded me a bit of Francis Alys pushing a bloc of ice in the streets of Mexico City while everyone around just ignore him. Did no one really approach you? You must have looked odd?

Really, no one approached me, the guys who were filming got some attention at first whilst they were doing exposure tests, but once the action started no one cared about us. I guess we are in a city where people tend to mind their own business and a little strangeness is not unusual either. There is a sense of loneliness built into the project that partially comes from this though, it seems that my concerns about surveillance aren’t shared by the other people who live and work in the area and that both the camera and my actions just seemed mundane or irrelevant.


Diego Trujillo Pisanty, Finding the Operator, 2016


Diego Trujillo Pisanty, Finding the Operator, 2016

From the video it appears that no one cared about what you were doing on that street and either the operator(s) never got to see your message or they didn’t bother contacting you. Somehow i suspect that it only confirmed what you were expecting about the infrastructures that surround, govern and monitor us. So what do you think you’ve achieved and expressed with this work?

One interpretation of the work is that there is an impossibility of direct dialogue with government workers, even in democracies that boast on being transparent and inclusive it is still very difficult to achieve dialogue outside of the established channels and platforms which failed early on in the project when I submitted Freedom of Information requests. This raises some issues about government workers being accountable for their actions, especially in a country where trust in state institutions and the police is at its lowest point in history because of corruption and abuses of power. The video about the meeting is where this metaphor is more obvious, despite all my efforts to investigate and confront this infrastructure I am never able to have my questions answered, the only option left is the pathetic resignation and disappointment portrayed towards the end of the video.

There is another angle of this which I find interesting and that is the effort to exist for the camera and thus for the government. Unlike what happens with many projects focused on protecting your privacy from CCTV, I actively wanted to be seen and recognised, to the point where it becomes a form of vanity. There is a relationship between this and the broader cultural idea that we photograph ourselves to prove our existence, this has been said many times of social media, but I see some value in exploring this idea in the context of surveillance, a technology that was devised precisely to produce evidence on the existence of certain events. I think there is an interesting tension between my efforts to exist and the absolute lack of response from the surveillance system.

In terms of what I expected would happen this shifted constantly. There were days when I was certain no one even looked at the cameras and other days when I was convinced that someone would at least tell me to stop interfering. I had an interview prepared in case I did get contacted, the questions were orientated at dissecting the operator’s own account on how he relates to the people at the other side of the camera from a position of power.


Diego Trujillo Pisanty, Finding the Operator, 2016

The idea for this project came from a course about Occult Infrastructure you taught together with Mark McKeague and Tom Schofiled at the Architectural Association‘s summer school in 2015. What are these occult infrastructures? What makes them occult? And why should we care about them?

The brief at the AA suggested that infrastructure in general is something we believe in rather than experience. This system of beliefs can then be used to explain how a city works without fully understanding its underlying logic and often leads into conspiracy theories and modern forms of superstition and pseudo-science. The occult works in a similar way, there is a belief in hidden forces that can be used to decipher the workings of everyday life and alter its consequences by manipulating these forces. Some examples of the infrastructures that inspired these thought are the mysterious telephone boxes that occupy street pavements, communication antennas, speeding sensors and CCTV. We never get a full view of these systems but just by the glimpses we get we are invited to imagine how they are supporting and controlling our lives.

CCTV is a clear example, where seeing a camera invites the observer to believe that there is someone who has the power to deliver justice watching, and thus a sense of safety is meant to arises. This is supported by the existence of fake CCTV cameras, the mere fact of having an object that looks like a camera can be a deterrent for those who believe in the camera’s power, this turns the fake camera into a sort of protection charm. When doing the research for this course I found it interesting that photography was actually in the service of the occult through the work of mediums like William H. Mumler who claimed that the camera could capture events that are invisible to us, a similar claim is made by surveillance advocates.

I think it’s important to point out the similarities between the occult and certain forms of infrastructure because as much as it may seem that everything works by magic the functioning of a city requires real, tangible components that are complex and mostly hidden. Rather than believing in them and their efficiency I think it’s important to go out and question how much our of lives rely on infrastructure, to what extent its existence benefits us and what politics (if any) it embodies.

In the context of architectural education the brief intended to sensitise students towards the unseen aspects of architecture and how they are designed to deeply drive people’s lives without most of us realizing.


“My son, every time you walk by take my blessing with you. But take your rubbish too”

That course took place in London. Have you found that these occult infrastructures function and manifest themselves differently in Mexico City where you are working now? Or are they roughly responding to the same dynamics and logic wherever we are in the world?

Yes, I see two main differences. The first one is that Mexican culture is far more superstitious and religious so there are real examples of this being used as a form of infrastructure. A personal favourite is that people will paint a Madonna on their house walls to keep others from dumping rubbish, these paintings inspire so much respect that they become clean and safe islands within the city.

I also feel that in Mexico people have less faith in government owned infrastructure, this dissolves the similarities with the occult a little bit as people will question the efficacy of anything the government does much more seriously. I think that Mexico City’s youtube channel is an effort in evangelising people in the power of surveillance infrastructure to try and construct this sort of faith.


Irena Stoeva and Richard Abbot


Irena Stoeva and Richard Abbot

Could you tell us about some of the concepts and artefacts that the students in the course created to articulate their understanding of infrastructure and the paranormal?

One of the projects that came out (made by Irena Stoeva and Richard Abbot) was the design for an illusion that made the Themes Barrier disappear. The students felt that the barrier protected London from a real danger in a way that is completely invisible to most Londoners. The aim of their project was to create both the spectacle of disappearing a large object and to inspire a panicked reaction when a substantial part of the city’s safety simply disappears leaving London exposed to rising water levles.


Christopher Taylor and Vincent Phoen

Another interesting idea (by Christopher Taylor and Vincent Phoen) looked at time as a form of infrastructure that is also built on collective belief and agreement. They argued that if we don’t all believe in the current time (e.g. 3pm) then standardised time collapses. Their outcome was to create a pendulum clock whose definition of a second depended on the amount of people around it at a given moment, creating a form of relativity that relied on human routine and the liveliness of a location. On a busy street time would pass much faster than in service streets or closed gardens. This relativity caused the clock to either speed up ahead or slow down so that it never matched standardised time, the clock never showed the”right” time and thus trust in its readings began to fade reinforcing the idea that time is a matter of belief.

Thanks Diego!

Other works by Diego Trujillo: Self-combusting communication for the Wikileaks era and The 300 Year Time Bomb.