Ruben Pater is, imho, one of the 10 most interesting designers to follow at the moment. You might have encountered his name already. He's behind the Drone Survival Guide that enables anyone to spot and recognize the most commonly used drones. More interestingly, the guide also provides information on how to hack, hides from and dazzle the machines. The guide has been translated in dozens of languages and can be downloaded over here.
Pater has a mission to create visual narratives about complex political issues. He is not only interested in flying machines of death but also in disaster floods caused by global warming, Dutch sweets that evoke everyday racism, fishermen vs oil tankers, citizen journalism in countries with censorship, digital surveillance, etc. Any complex issue that grabs his attention is turned into an impeccably well-researched, elegantly designed and intelligently communicated work. His calls his projects 'untold stories' because of the way they weave new connections between journalism and design.
Pater studied graphic design in Breda, and later at the graphic design master programme of the Sandberg Institute in Amsterdam. He is exhibiting his work, lecturing internationally and is teaching at the communication department of the Design Academy in Eindhoven, at the Willem de Kooning Academy in Rotterdam and also at the Royal Academy of Art (KABK) in the Hague. I'm glad he has accepted to answer my questions:
Hi Ruben! You create visual narratives about complex political issues. Why do you think it is important that design approaches political topics? And why do you feel that design is an adequate medium for public discussion?
Discussing topics of political or public interest happens everywhere. Whether we categorize it as art, journalism, or film is not really relevant. The label of design works for me because designing visual communication means creating a dialogue beyond your immediate reach, and therefore a work can only achieve its goal when it reaches an wide audience. When addressing issues which are of public interest, this is for me an important aspect of a work. The nature of (graphic) design expects designers to be empathetic towards a diverse audience, because their clients are different all the time, and so is the receiver of the message. That skill gives designers the potency of have a more meaningful role in communicating the important issues of our time to a larger audience.
I was particularly fascinated by the project Behind the Blue Screen, an experiment in 'sneaker journalism' that you developed with the help of director Jaap van Heusden and the complicity of people living in Iran. What can we, as European, learn from the stories and tactics of the people who shared their stories for the project?
My ideas about Iran have definitely changed, not in the least because news coverage on Iran is so one-dimensional and hyperbolic. Through watching more than 100 video stories, my image of Iran has become much more nuanced.
It's funny that the more you learn about another culture, the more you learn about your own. For instance with media censorship, we tend to rate Western Europe as much more 'free' than a country like Iran. This is true in the sense of journalists being jailed and the internet being restricted. But in Western Europe we have a different kind of self-censorship which is equally invasive. Our dominant ideology of multinational capitalism with Christian values is hardly questioned. Although it is criticized in the margins, the media reaffirms this ideology and promotes it actively through its advertisements and reporting. We do not even regard it as propaganda anymore, but as a simple fact.
The question is if it is really that much different than the way the media is controlled in a country like Iran, where there are blogs and underground media that pose opposite and alternative views.
And more generally, do you feel that we might also want to watch our back and worry about surveillance?
Always watch your back, or in this case, your browser.
Your page about Double Standards of Somali Piracy is a fascinating and very informative read. Could you give us more details about the work you did with the flags? Explaining the choices you made when you transformed them?
If we send warships and soldiers to protect a national maritime fleet far away, that is an act of war by a sovereign state. When this merchant fleet has sold its nationality in favor of 'cheap' nationalities like Panama or the Bahamas to dodge taxes and underpay its workers, this stands in stark contrast to the military sent to protect them. This paradoxical reality of global capitalism is something that I felt was best visualized by buying all these flags and cutting them up by hand. By violating these national symbols, I felt like this was more appropriate representation then when I would create new flags, or new realities.
Double Standards of Somali Piracy was developed in 2012. Do you still follow the issue? Has the situation much evolved since you last worked on it?
Recently I worked with a filmmaker on a documentary about Double Standards. That was challenging because piracy around Somalia has basically disappeared almost completely since then, and when something is not in the news, people simply lose interest. Even though Somalia still has many problems, and the illegality and problems in the shipping industry remain. I think a follow-up on the project would focus more on life of crews that work in the maritime industry, who are basically doing slave labor for super-rich shipping tycoons.
And similarly, i was wondering whether you were 'haunted' by the projects once you've finished them? Do you keep on following closely the news or do you rather dive head down into the next project and try not to be too distracted?
A consequence of the way I work is that I have to keep track of the news happening on different topics. There are dozens of 'sleeping topics' that are not projects yet but are waiting for an opportunity. They could turn into a project, or not, so I need to keep collecting information on them.
You trained as a graphic designer but i noticed that you also write a lot. Each of your project is detailed in a long essay. So how do you keep the balance between text and graphic design? Do you feel that a project like Twenty-first Century Birdwatching, for example, can be fully understood without the text? Just by looking at the Guide with the bird silhouette?
18 months ago someone asked me to write an essay about the Drone Survival Guide, and I decided to do that with all my larger projects. It complements my work because it pushes me to reflect on the context beyond its immediate effect. I think during a design process many interesting things happen that are as interesting as the result, even if they are invisible in the end. I try to avoid using the essay to inflate my work, just to as an invitation to the reader in the way I work. That gives me parameters. When projects are too small for an essay format, they do not go on my website. Outside of the website, all of my works are meant to function without any additional text, especially in the case of the Drone Survival Guide. All my projects should work without explanation, although sometimes that turns out to be more difficult than others, for instance my Double Standards project which needs a bit more time from the viewer.
I'm from Belgium so i immediately connected with your work A Taste of Dutch Colonialism. Both our countries are quite fond of Zwarte Piet. I grew up with that figure and never thought much about it until i found myself in Eindhoven in early December and saw how shocked artists from other countries were when they met blond people dressed as Zwarte Piet in the streets. How did people reacted to your work about Dutch Sweets? Do you feel that our cultures are ready to leave behind all these traditions based on old (and embarrassing) racial stereotypes?
Currently the colonial heritage of 'Zwart Piet' is heavily debated in Holland. It is shameful to see that so many people, including the Dutch prime minister, do not understand even the most rudimentary concept of racism. In general, what we need is a better understanding of our colonial past in Western European countries, and we are still far away from that. Dutch Sweets, and the book I am writing now about design in different cultures, hopefully help this discussion forward. I am hopeful for the future because there are some very brave artists, activists, and writers out there who are at the forefront of this civil rights protest and their numbers are growing. Now they are threatened, arrested, and ridiculed, but I am certain they will eventually be recognized as heroes.
You are teaching at the Willem de Kooning Academy in Rotterdam and will also be lecturing at the Royal Academy of Art (KABK) in the Hague. What are you teaching there? Does it relate to your attempts to narrate geopolitical issues? What are you teaching there? Does it relate to your attempts to narrate geopolitical issues?
As a teacher I try to ask students to think about how their work relates to the political and social realities. It is not that they have to make work about political subjects, or become politically active, I want them to realize all the choices they make are political, whether they intended it or not. With the research of my new book that is coming out next year, I am getting more into postcolonialism and designing across cultures. This element of graphic design is often overlooked. I would like students to think about hidden cultural contexts of their work and how they can communicate to different audiences, not just their peers.
I think design has the tendency to become entertainment for the elite; expensive, exclusive, and abstract. Designers will be taken more seriously if they reach a wider audience, and become more inclusive.
What are the 'untold stories' that you think deserve to be told at the moment?
There are so many interesting and important topics, but unfortunately my time is limited. I soon hope to start working on a project about a more humanistic representation of cyberwar, which is still not available. Even though it is talked about a lot, it is always visualized in the same visual vocabulary security nerddom and military propaganda. Another topic is the role of raw materials in our economy as an literal and metaphoric underground foundation of our capitalist system. Thirdly Data discrimination. It is already being discussed quite widely, but nonetheless a very important topic, perhaps one of the most important topics of the coming years.
Next week, NOME, one of those too rare galleries exploring art, politics, and technology, is going to open Jacob Appelbaum's first solo show in Germany. Titled SAMIZDATA: Evidence of Conspiracy, the show was curated by Tatiana Bazzichelli and accompanies the symposium SAMIZDATA: Tactics and Strategies for Resistance which will explore alternatives into the development of shared forms of post-digital resistance.
Jacob Appelbaum is an independent journalist, a hacker and a Wikileaks collaborator who helped develop the anonymous web browser Tor. He is also a U.S. citizen who has been living in exile in Berlin, due to an ongoing investigation into his involvement with Wikileaks and to repeated harassment at immigration. His situation offers a striking contrast with Ai Weiwei's, a Chinese artist who has long been prevented from leaving his own country (although a few weeks ago, he was finally given his passport back and moved to Germany as well.)
Earlier this year, Weiwei and Appelbaum were invited to work together as part of Seven On Seven, Rhizome's series of artists-meets-technologists events. The two of them met at Ai Weiwei's house in Beijing and their collaboration was filmed by Laura Poitras, the director of the award winning documentary Citizenfour and another artist who has been living under the gaze of State surveillance.
The video that documents their collaboration shows the artists working inside Ai's studio, emptying the stuffing from toy pandas and replacing it with shredded N.S.A. documents released in 2013 by whistle-blower Edward Snowden. The work is called Panda to Panda, a reference to peer-to-peer communication but also an allusion to the Chinese secret police whose unofficial symbol is the panda. Sewn inside the stuffed toys are also micro SD memory cards that contain a digital archive of the intelligence documents.
The pandas were then sent to free-speech activists around the world and to museums, as a kind of distributed backup.
Appelbaum will also be premiering at NOME a series of six colored infrared photos shown as cibachrome prints. Each of them celebrates a political dissident whose brave work has made them the targets of oppressive governments.
The portraits show William Binney, a former high official with the NSA who resigned in 2001 and has since spoken out against the NSA's data collection policies. Glenn Greenwald, a journalist, constitutional lawyer, and author whose recent book, No Place to Hide, is about the U.S. surveillance state and his experiences reporting on the Snowden documents. Sarah Harrison, a British journalist, legal researcher, and WikiLeaks editor. She accompanied Edward Snowden on his flight from Hong Kong to Moscow while he was sought by the U.S. government. The other portraits show Laura Poitras, Ai Weiwei and Julian Assange.
The fantastic people at NOME (thanks Tabea!) put me in touch with Jacob Appelbaum and we discussed over the phone about the exhibition, his experience of surveillance and the world of secrecy. Unsurprisingly, the conversation took place under the shelter of an encrypted calling app:
Hi Jacob! You are a U.S. citizens in exile and you are now living in Berlin. Do you find that an individual's right to privacy is less under attack in Germany than it is in your own country? And do you think that this situation is likely to change and that Europe shows signs of becoming more and more open to surveillance and control of citizens?
Surveillance is a French word so it's not as if surveillance came from the United States to Europe. Surveillance has been here for a long time. The first big data project of Europe was the holocaust, as documented in the book IBM and the Holocaust by Edwin Black. I think that it looks like at the moment there is a scary and worrying trend in Europe of moving towards the right wing with Le Pen and other groups across Europe and with that often comes a consolidation of State power and surveillance. It is very scary because if groups like the Golden Dawn, Le Pen, people who are in charge in Hungary at the moment and extreme right groups here in Germany, have control over these surveillance apparatuses, it will be very bad. I think it's very bad already but it will just get worse. In particular with the Golden Dawn.
The political and cultural situation in Europe is not like the weather. It's not just something that you observe. It's not just something that happens. Rather it is something that we let happen and that we create by taking an active role in. I think that we are in fact changing this dialogue a great deal. It's not just me and Laura and Glenn. It's hundreds of thousands of people across Europe who really care about improving the LIBE committee in the European Parliament, the European Court of Human Rights, the Court of Luxembourg, etc. You can see that there are a lot of people who remember how surveillance has been used for in the 20th century and who understand that surveillance is not always used to prevent crime but in some cases is used to commit crimes. This is something that people in Europe understand and i think that the situation is changing precisely because this understanding is working its way into the common understanding and into the cultural discussion. But it's not like the weather, it's not changing on its own.
I'd be interested to know about your choice of making portraits in cibachrome prints. Why did you use this photographic process?
I've been living under surveillance in some way or another for about 13 years. Maybe more. And in different capacities. In the last 5 years it has become very intense. The reason i mention this is because when you shoot with a digital camera and you plug in to a computer that's on the internet, when you share photos on the internet, that's it! They are no longer your photos. I'm sure that all the photos that i ever posted on the internet, on flickr for example, are sitting in an FBI database and i'm sure that they've been used to harm people and to harass my friends and people i work with. So i don't really post photos on the internet anymore and as a result i started to work with slide film very heavily. I also started to keep my files offline and if i scan them, i keep them scanned on machines that are not connected to the internet and only for archival purposes. I felt that it made a lot of sense not to go to a professional printing studio and print digital photos of these slides but to actually do the entire process offline as much as possible. Cibachrome is the most analog process and it allows me to go low tech and that was very important for me. Cibachrome felt like the natural thing because it fits with the whole reason i was shooting slide films in the first place which was to regain my autonomy from surveillance.
The people your work portrays are involved in uncovering surveillance. I read some of the names in the list of captions for the photos of the show: Sarah Harrison, Laura Poitras, and William Binney. Who are the others and can you briefly tell you why you chose them?
The other people are Ai Weiwei who needs no introduction. David Miranda is in the photograph with Glenn Greenwald. He is the partner of Glenn Greenwald but also works with him around the Snowden affair. There's Sarah Harrison, the woman who helped Snowden to seek and receive asylum, basically to escape from Hong Kong. Then there is Julian Assange, William Binney and then Laura Poitras.
Apologies for the silly question but why did you decide to shred the information rather than stuff the pandas of the work Panda 2 Panda with whole pages randomly distributed?
Two reasons. The main reason is that i felt that it represented the way that people actually see the information anyway. Ideological information, economic information or the information that spies craft doesn't make sense to a lot of people. It's a specialized language. These shredded documents are the support structure of the actual body itself. But we also added a very small micro SD card inside the pandas. It actually contains the documents and then some. Which means that every single panda is the medium and the message in itself and it can be transported. We smuggled 20 of these pandas out of China and took them all over the world. That means that even if you took the whole internet down, even if you got rid of every website and of every member of the press, you'd have to actually also go and track down these 20 pandas. In addition to a lot of other things. The goal was then to have a piece of art in a museum that is full of this kind data and to make it so that the secret services wanting to erase it would have to go into the museum and destroy the pandas. Which places them very firmly in the aesthetic camp of being on the wrong side of history. In a sense, it's like asking them "Come on! Get us! We dare you!"
How will Panda 2 Panda be exhibited exactly at NOME? With some of the pandas, the Poitras video and some information? What will the installation of the piece look like?
There won't be any video. But instead we will have these 6 very large prints, nicely framed, mounted on aluminum and shadow boxes. We will also have the panda and the bag that it came in which is a beautiful Ai Weiwei bag which says ''Cǎonímǎ'' which is this Grass Mud Horse (the word for internet censorship in China.) Weiwei and i signed this bag and it's the transport for the panda. The panda is filled with documents that have been made public in the press.
But I decided that it wasn't good enough. I wanted to create a final piece for the show that takes this project beyond what is public. For many years i've worked as a journalist shredding documents, either because we take journalistic notes about a source or we print out a document that we believe we wouldn't legally be able to release without the risk of being arrested or something like this because it contains agent names, for example. And i have garbage bags full of these shredded documents. I just can't throw them out. So i decided that that was going to be like the paint of a new picture. I collaborated with 3 other artists to make a hundred little necklaces. These necklaces are vials, like little test tubes, and inside of it are shredded unreleased documents. So a hundred people will be able to carry around the equivalent of the panda, except that it's documents that have never been released. It reaches a totally different audience of people and in some ways it feels more risky but also less risky because it's shredded documents. The piece is called Schuld, Scham und Angst which means Guilt, Shame and Fear in english. The reason behind that name is that i and all of the journalists who shredded documents and didn't release every single one of them, we became in a sense collaborators with the secret state. And i'm distressed with myself for having to do that. The only time that it is ever appropriate to do that is for source protection reason.
Do you find that you and Ai Weiwei have a different approach to issues such as surveillance, secrecy and censorship? And how you express your opposition to them?
Yes, i do think that we are very different. We have complementary approaches. One is a coping mechanism. The other is a resistance strategy.
Weiwei is trying to document his whole life, to make himself as public as possible which in a sense raises his profile. Everyone talking about surveillance either vanishes or adopts this approach. Both Weiwei and i are both taking this approach to a degree.
I am also trying to raise the consciousness about this issue, to make sure that no one is victimized like this ever again. It's not just about me. I think Weiwei also wants that to happen but it not clear to me --even with a work like Panda 2 Panda-- that we change the fundamental structure of that kind of oppressive surveillance. But Weiwei is under much more oppressive surveillance than i am these days.
The work that i've done under the last 10 years is to make it hard for the people to monitor anyone who would be targeted for surveillance, whether they are legitimate so-called 'targets' or otherwise. But i also want to raise the consciousness about it and to raise the culture of discussion so that people start to ask 'wait a minute! what does it mean to be a legitimate target?" I want to actually try and empower every person, not just special people, to free them from that kind of oppressive dynamic which in itself is a punishment and is often done in total secrecy. It happens in such a way that it corrodes life itself for people. So i want to fuck that up as much as possible.
Do you think we should all assume that we are under surveillance?
No, i think we should all live with the assumption that we have the right to resist. It is our duty, in fact. We don't have to live with the assumption that we are under surveillance. And in fact, when we do it then that tells us that we should take action.
Jacob Appelbaum -- SAMIZDATA: Evidence of Conspiracy, an exhibition curated by Tatiana Bazzichelli, opens on 10th September, 6pm and closes on 31th October 2015 at the NOME Gallery in Berlin. The event is organized in parallel with SAMIZDATA: Tactics and Strategies for Resistance which gathers hackers, artists and critical thinkers exploring possible alternatives into the development of shared forms of post-digital resistance. will take place on 11 and 12 September at Kunstquartier Bethanien in Berlin.
THE FUNAMBULIST is a bimestrial printed and digital magazine complemented with a blog and a podcast (Archipelago) edited by Léopold Lambert. Its subtitle, "Politics of Space and Bodies," expresses it ambition to bridge the world of design (architecture, urbanism, industrial and fashion design) with the world of the humanities (philosophy, anthropology, history, geography, etc.) through critical articles written by long-time collaborators as well as new ones.
Over the past few years, i've been following Lambert's investigation into how the built environment is used as a political weapon. Much of the content the architect produces is free. But because Lambert's work is of high quality and pretty unique for the grounds it covers and the rigorous way it approaches it, it felt natural to me to just click on 'buy' as soon as i found out he was publishing a magazine.
The Funambulist magazine is bilingual french and english. This first issue looks at the violence of military organization in the city and postulates that the violence is not necessarily something that come from the outside. In many cases, the architecture of the city contains this very violence within itself.
The first part of the books analyzes in depth 5 specific case studies: Beirut, Lahore, Jerusalem, Cairo, and Oakland.
Since 2009, Mona Fawaz, Mona Harb & Ahmad Gharbieh have been mapping security in Beirut. The temporary checkpoints, security cameras, screening measures in large department stores, barbed wires, speed bumps, sand bags, tanks, and other physical elements of the security apparatus not only condition the way inhabitants navigate the streets everyday, they also install a segregation that shelters politicians and "high income city dwellers" inside their own bubble. More importantly, these security measures create a visible architecture of fear that affects every citizen's experience of the city.
In her research covering bomb blasts in Lahore, Sadia Shirazi calls this Pakistani city one of the greatest unacknowledged casualties of the United States' "war on terror." She demonstrates convincingly how security apparatuses delineate boundaries, reduces public space and restrict movements and experiences of the city. The result is a city that looks more threatening than secure.
Mohamed Elshahed focuses on the multiple forms that the militarization of Cairo has been taking since 2011.
The Demilit group (Javier Arbona, Bryan Finoki & Nick Sowers) takes a bunkered telecom hotel tower as a symbol of how the city of Oakland is being vacuumed by a consortium of public and private security agencies.
Finally Nora Akawi uses the poster designed for Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design's 2015 graduate exhibition as a starting point to explores Jerusalem and the Zionist's fantasy of an empty land, open to be inhabited and built upon. While denying Palestinians the possibility to plan for the future
The rest of the publication is equally engrossing. It features an interview with Philippe Theophanidis about the legal and logistic processes that govern a 'state of exception' such as the one that characterized the manhunt of Boston in April 2013 when 2,500 police officers were deployed in the city to arrest Dzhokhar Tsarnaev for his participation in the Boston Marathon bombings 4 years earlier
Next comes an astonishing photo series showing Jerusalem from above. The most striking feature of the photos is the wall. Not the ones that attract tourists from all over the world but the 500 km wall started in 2002 by Ariel Sharon.
The magazine closes on a series of projects by students in architecture that further speculate and investigate these Politics of Space and Bodies.
I highly recommend that you either download or get the paper version The Funambulist. The pages make for an interesting and informative read that stay with you long after you've closed the magazine. The essays, photos and discussions invite readers to look at their own city in a more critical and inquisitive way, making it hard not to question every barrier, new 'security' measure, parking interdiction, private security booth and other, more subtle way to control the flow of citizens.
You can still get plenty of free content on The Funambulist blog and on the Archipelago podcasts but this first issue of the printed/digital magazine is so good that Lambert's work is definitely worth a very affordable subscription.
I've been dreaming of interviewing The Center for Tactical Magic ever since i read about the existence of this activist art collective in one of my favourite art catalogues ever: The Interventionists. Users' Manual for the Creative Disruption of Everyday Life.
Lucky me, last week, i finally got to talk over Skype with Aaron Gach, the founder of the Center for Tactical Magic and a professor at the California College of the Arts. Gach is an artist with the most unusual background. As part of his artistic training, he decided to study with 3 people who have their own understanding of power: a magician, a ninja, and a private investigator and there is a bit of the strategies deployed by each of these figures in the work of the CTM. The work of the group is further enriched by the expertise brought about by the individuals and communities CTM collaborates with: hypnotists, biologists, engineers, nurses, military intelligence officers, radical ecologists, former bank robbers, security experts, etc.
The Center for Tactical Magic uses any craft and scheme available, from the most magical to the most pragmatic, to address issues of power relations and self-empowerment. At the CTM we are committed to achieving the Great Work of Tactical Magic through community-based projects, daily interdiction, and the activation of latent energies toward positive social transformation.
CTM's work combines appealing aesthetics, humour and language with actions that invite people to think, question and reclaim their civil rights. Their most famous project is the Tactical Ice Cream Unit, a truck distributing free ice cream along with propaganda developed by local progressive groups. Another of their initiative saw them launch a bank heist contest. And a year before that, they responded to New York's stop-and-frisk policy by screening Linking & Unlinking on a digital billboard in Manhattan. The billboard showed amateur footage demonstrating how to pick a pair of handcuffs, magicians performing a classic magic trick called "linking rings", while a text from the American Civil Liberties Union was scrolling down and explaining passersby what their rights were if they were stopped by the police. In 2013, they set up big Witches' Cradles that evoke the Inquisition and enveloped people into an altered state (of consciousness, or an altered political state). Most recently, Gach directed and performed a radical magic show which drew parallels between magic acts and contemporary issues such as economic manipulation, political deception, vanishing resources, and social transformation.
Hi Aaron! The Tactical Ice Cream Unit is probably one of my favorite works ever. I first heard about it almost 10 years ago. The vehicle combines 'a number of successful activist strategies (Food-Not-Bombs, Copwatch, Indymedia, infoshops, etc) into one mega-mobile", and comes with high-tech surveillance devices. Are you still using it?
Yes, still using it! Not as much as when it was launched but it does still make it out occasionally. So it's definitely not an everyday operation, it's kind of a labour of love.
When do you use it? When there's something happening and you feel it would be right to intervene? Or more when you're invited by a museum or festival for example?
All of the above. Sometimes it's an invitation to do something with it. Sometimes there's an event happening or an issue where it seems like it would make sense to bring it out.
Recently, and for the first time, there was a protest event where i actually felt like it was inappropriate to bring it out. We've been having a lot of racial tensions in the U.S. and there were a number of protests in Oakland around police brutality. We've done police accountability protests with the Tactical Ice Cream Unit in the past. The TICU always brings with it a sort of levity or lightheartedness or a little bit of the carnival along with the serious critique. But because of how grave and serious these racial issues are, there was a sense that bringing the ice cream unit out to those protests could potentially give the wrong impression.
Have you found that you had to update or modify in any way your tools and strategies over the 10 years you've had the van?
Of course a lot has changed since we've launched it. At the end of 2004, there were not many mobile food trucks, it was not really a phenomenon at the time. The TICU turned heads a lot more than it does now in terms of its general appearance. But at the same time it also functions now as some kind of camouflage that didn't exist then. So in terms of masking ourselves, in some ways it got easier since it makes less of a visual impact.
As for the technology, when we first launched it we were using a mobile wifi transmitter and making it a mobile wifi hotspot. At the time, it wasn't that common at all. It was also expensive to do and it worked most of the time but the speeds for access were really slow. Most people now have access to the internet on their smartphone. The surveillance on the vehicle is still functional and the amount that we can record has increased. In the beginning, our whole hard drive system was something like 200 gigabytes and that has certainly grown. Even then, the way that we had the system up made it possible to record quite a lot. We had to do a tremendous amount of research to set up the power system. The vehicle was running on a gasoline combustion engine. We also had a generator, a battery bank that was being charged by solar panels and at the same time we were running something called phantom power which is a way of silently powering the electronics. This was essential because we wanted to make sure that the surveillance could be running even when the vehicle was turned off. This was more done as a theoretical design process, we wanted to see whether we could accomplish that goal. And there had been rumours floating around the internet of primarily military technologies that were able to do this and sure enough we were able to work with an engineer and designer whose main clients were the military and oil companies. Oil companies would run phantom power at remote sites where they didn't have power lines but they wanted to monitor oil fields. So we designed a system able to do that too for the vehicle. What is interesting is that, when we were in Indiana, the police illegally searched the TIU without our knowledge and they were caught on camera doing that. They didn't know it because the vehicle was turned off and there was no indication that there was power running.
Did you do something about it?
At the time we contacted lawyers and asked what we could do about it but they informed us that there wasn't much that we could do. We thought about publicizing the video footage. But at the time the TICU wasn't heavily used and we thought that making that footage available would potentially prevent that capability being used in the future. We didn't do much with it, it's in the archive. Maybe at some point, we'll break it out.
The ice cream truck driver hands out 'food for thoughts' leaflets along with the ice creams. What kind of 'propaganda flavors' can customers chose from? What's the content of the leaflets? Is it always the same or does it adapt to the events?
It changes all the time. At this point, we've distributed 200 to 250 different pieces of information. Some of it we select or curate. And some of it is selected by the organizations that contact us and send us material to distribute. The idea with leaflets was, on the one hand, to look at models of distribution that exist in community activism, models of distribution where people come together and act on campaigns that they might otherwise not hear or read about. On the other hand, we were looking at the structure of distribution. People are often reluctant to take a leaflet from an activist who is standing in front of them but there are different ways to get people to accept the information. For example, if you go to a restaurant, and you get handed a menu, you don't resent the waiter for asking you to make a selection. You tend not to select in the menu an item that you are put off by. You look at the options and decide on something that is appealing to you. So we were thinking of the menu as a structure for distribution as well. Our 'propaganda' menu exists side by side with different flavours of ice cream and people can pick and choose. There is no direct correlation between a chocolate ice cream and anarchism, for example. People can mix and match what flavours they want. The actual topics of information found on the leaflets go from alternative energy to guerrilla gardening to social justice, to gender justice, to war, war on poverty, class issues, feminism, post-feminism, etc. We also have a few historical items such as the Black Panthers Ten Point Plan. And we have information that is specifically created for children about Greenpeace, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, civil liberties, surveillance, etc. It's a huge range of information.
Of course, i have to ask you about magic. I always dismissed the magic dimension of your work simply because i don't take magic seriously at all. But i realize that you do take magic seriously. Reading your interviews, i found that you are not only well versed in magic but you are also very specific about it. You said in an interview with the Center for Artistic Activism: "I'm definitely situated within the spectrum of stage magic and theatrical performance on one end, and occult and metaphysics, kind of ritual magic, supernatural phenomena on the other end." That surprised me because words like 'occult', 'ritual' and 'supernatural' are a bit dark, aren't they? How does occultism for example apply to your artistic practice? And can i engage with your work while keeping on ignoring any reference to magic?
I hope so. I think one of the strategies and challenges when building this kind of work is to always incorporate multiple points of access. Within the work, there has to be different moments that appeal to different people. We're trying to develop projects that are multilayered so magic itself itself exists at multiple levels. What i mean by that is that everyone understands that word 'magic' but they imagine completely different things when they hear the word 'magic.' We use the same language and assume an understanding but this understanding is vastly different on a subjective level and you can even add on a collective subjective level. When we use the term 'magic' both in the name and the realization of a project, there is a realization that there is going to be an explosion of meanings and at the same time a sort of dismissal. This dismissal is historically a way in which magic sometimes alienates itself, sometimes protects itself, sometimes separates itself and that can be as a survival strategy, as an escapist notion, etc. But i think that's where the power of that idea of magic exists.
In the Center for Tactical Magic, there is usually a concerted effort to try and balance out or explore the range of possibilities which typically get book ended between tricks on the one hand and some degree of spirituality on the other hand. When i began this investigation, my thinking was that magic existed only as tricks as a stage magician. The magician i worked with felt very differently. He thought that his understanding of illusionist magic would help in differentiating between the spookier sides of magic. And that opened up a lot of different interpretations and possibilities for me. Since then that exploration has become pivotal within the development for the Center for Tactical Magic.
How was it pivotal?
What i mean by that is that it seems like a fixed position from which you can rotate in any direction. From a position of acting, it means that you have multiple options and directions that you can move from. It's a formal strategy, it's a discursive strategy, it's also a performative strategy for acting in the world. And some of that is informed by studying within martial arts where i learnt that you don't ever want to be stuck in a place where your options are very limited. For me it's not about being ambiguous or evasive just for the sake of being ambiguous or evasive. But you open up options, different ways of addressing an issue, a topic, an event or a situation as it is unfolding.
I'd like to go back to the darker side of magic. In the interview mentioned above you talk about occultism. Does it apply to your practice?
The word 'occult' literally means 'hidden.' When we think about what is hidden then all of a sudden what we might consider occult enters into that same conversation. So we look at things like military black budgets, or laws that are not transparent in terms of how they affect people's life. Or even the degree to which we understand technologies or how technologies operate or function, both in a physical sense -what is exactly happening inside the phone mechanically or electronically- but also in the sense of how does the functioning of a technology impacts us in ways that we don't see. And this can include things like the fact that it relies on invisible signals, it relies on the electromagnetic spectrum which our eyes cannot detect without other devices. But it also determines our social relations or economic relations because it impacts the way we communicate. Once we are open to those associations, we start to backtrack and look at how the history of occultism is very directly tied to our present condition. What i mean by that is the history of occultism is not simply people behaving in 'dark ways'. You need to banish this false dichotomy of light and dark, good and evil. There are certainly colonial overtones to that association of dark as evil and making those connections simplifies what it is that we are talking about. Most of the claims historically of occultism in a huge varieties of areas is -to one degree or another- about empowerment and i think in 'darker' instances, empowerment means power over others but in the more positive instances, it also means communal power or coming to power together, or avoiding situations where abuse of power by others is taking place.
How can we bring more magic to our life? And should we?
I would go back one moment and say: i think you should take magic seriously but also not too seriously. I would say the same thing about government business. I think you should take government and business seriously but also not too seriously?
Why not too seriously?
I think because you have to approach it critically. You have to approach it rigorously. You have to be engaged.
There is also power in play. There is magic that happens when you approach something with a degree of levity, with this idea that there are rules to any game. And once you understand the game, there are ways to bend those rules or figure out how to interact in ways that might be unexpected. So it's not that we dismiss corporations or governments or that we disregard their power in the world but at the same time, if we take them too seriously and only too seriously we miss out on opportunities to subvert or circumvent what it is that they are doing in the world.
Maybe the shorter version would be to say that i think government and corporations are invested in shaping reality and shaping reality is an inherently creative process and playing is also a way to engaging creative process to shape alternative realities.
But let's get back to your earlier question which was about making the world more magical. I understand that when we develop projects that are magic related, people might be dismissive towards either that name 'magic' or the idea of magic. It is sometimes a barrier to entry but the hope is also that once people realize that their assumptions were false or misguided or oversimplified, there is an opening up in terms of what the possibilities are. Magic is all about constantly redirecting people's assumptions or perceptions about the world. So one thing you can do to have a magical outlook is to always question things like use value, status quo, associations for either materials or relationships and realize they are not fixed. Once you understand the ability to morph those relationships or associations, all of a sudden everything starts to become more magical.
The Center for Tactical Magic seems to be quite successful at engaging the audience, at making them part of the experiences. Including people who might otherwise not be particularly responsive to the kind of social, political or economical issues your projects raise. How do you manage that? Are there some rules? Special tricks?
We use a pop aesthetic at times and we try and draw from cultural themes and expressions that people can relate to but there is this uncanny element to all the projects: people will see something that they are familiar with but presented in an unfamiliar way. In that moment, a recalibration takes place, people start to consider their understanding of the familiar part with respect to the unfamiliar part. When it's done really well, it forces new cognitive categories to form. All of a sudden people have to create a new category and if that new category is potent enough it will also infect all future associations.
To go back to the Ice Cream Unit for example, people understand ice cream truck and they understand propaganda but when they have the two things together, it changes their associations with both and in the future there is a moment where they encounter another ice cream truck or another model of distribution and it will connect back to the experience that they had with the TICU and potentially it informs their future relations to other things that are connected. Maybe that is expecting too much from a project but that's the hope in the way these projects are constructed.
Most of the work of the Center is quite political. Have you ever faced any legal retaliation? or problems with the police? for the Linking & Unlinking - Know Your Rights screening, for example? Or for any other work?
It happens on a semi regular basis. There haven't been huge entanglement. Knock on wood! Most of the time, it's some sort of confrontation and it usually more or less resolves itself quietly. There was a standoff with the police with the TICU in Vancouver, Canada, that lasted quite a long time. With the Cricket-Activated Defense System, there were some interesting correspondence, communications and interviews that seemed to come from law enforcement. Strangely enough, the police tried to prevent the kite project (that we did at Huntington Beach in California) from happening and when it did happen they flew a helicopter over the event to monitor it.
It happens from time to time but we do consult with lawyers around our projects, we are generally pretty good at making sure that the conversation with law enforcement doesn't get us into hotter water than need be. I'm trying to be very careful with my language there. There have been some tough times. There's been some times when we have attracted attention that was problematic.
So you're not actively encouraging confrontation or censorship as a part of your artistic strategy? As a way to generate more attention about a given issue?
No. Projects that court confrontation often strengthen polemic and thinking in those binary systems. Even in projects where we are addressing things like police and protester dynamics, we are not trying to diffuse those situations, we are trying to figure out the approach or the position from which you can have the most productive outcome. A confrontation where you are doing something potentially illegal and then you get a police response does not produce a ripple through a greater discourse. What might become a productive moment is when someone is actually practicing their civil or legal rights within a certain context and that person makes visible the power dynamics that might suppress those rights.
I'm curious about The Light & Dark Arts: A Radical Magic Show that ended a few weeks ago at UC Davis' Main Theater. What was the show like?
It was the first time that i had ever worked into a theatre context. I was writing and directing. Two weeks before the first show, the lead actor broke his hand. He happened to be a student that i was training as a magician. I ended up having to step in as the lead, as the magician. I ended up writing, directing and acting for this first theatre production. So it was unexpected and a bit wild but the audience response was fantastic. People seemed to love it.
Any other upcoming works, research, events you'd like to share with us?
There's two shows coming up. One is an art show in New Mexico that is specifically oriented around the police state and surveillance. And then there's an event in Atlanta, Georgia. A public arts festival with tens of thousands of people that come out for a single night event. We have a new project in the works for that event but it's still very much in development.
Publisher OR Books writes: On Saadiyat Island, just off the coast of Abu Dhabi, branches of iconic cultural institutions, including the Louvre, the Guggenheim, the British Museum and New York University, are taking shape to the designs of starchitects such as Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, Zaha Hadid, and Norman Foster. In this way, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) seeks to burnish its reputation as a sophisticated destination for wealthy visitors and residents.
Beneath the glossy veneer of the Saadiyat real estate plan, however, lies a tawdry reality. Those laboring on the construction sites are migrant workers who arrive from poor countries heavily indebted as a result of recruitment and transit fees. Once in the UAE the sponsoring employer takes their passports, houses them in sub-standard labor camps, pays much less than they were promised, and enforces a punishing work regimen. If they protest publicly, they risk arrest, beatings, and deportation.
For five years, the Gulf Labor Coalition, a cosmopolitan group of artists and writers, has been pressuring Saadiyat's Western cultural brands to ensure worker protections. Gulf Labor has coordinated a boycott of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and pioneered innovative direct action that has involved several spectacular museum occupations. As part of a year-long initiative, an array of artists, writers, and activists submitted a work, a text, or an action.
Some 15 million migrant workers, mostly from South Asia, form the vast majority of the labor force in most Gulf states. In the UAE and Qatar, 90 percent of the work force and the population are migrant workers (both white collar and blue collar.) No matter how many years they have lived and worked there, or even if they were born there, these people have no voting, representation, or association rights. Thousands of them are currently working on construction sites to create Saadiyat Island ("Island of Happiness"), a £17bn cultural hub in Abu Dhabi that will soon host the new premises of international cultural institutions such as New York University, the Louvre and the Guggenheim.
The men constructing the architectural 'icons' designed by the likes of Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, Zaha Hadid (aka the It's not my duty as an architect to look at it lady) and Tadao Ando, are trapped there since their passports have been confiscated, they receive lower than expected wages, are confined to substandard housing, are submitted to 10pm curfew, poor food as well as segregation in the official labour camp, etc.
Because of the notoriously low wages they receive, migrant labourers often have to work for years before they manage to pay off the debt they contracted to cover the recruitment and travel fees to the UAE. This recruitment debt is central to the system. No one would labor under such conditions unless they had to pay it off.
If they protest against the poor living/working conditions or unpaid wages, the workers get punished or deported.
And anyone who speaks in their favour isn't welcome in the country...
The editor of the book, Andrew Ross, is a professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University, and a social activist. Earlier this year, he wanted to do some research on labor issues at Abu Dhabi, where a campus of his university is located but he was informed at JFK Airport that he could not enter the country. Similar rebukes awaited other members of the Gulf Labor Coalition. Artist Ashok Sukumaran was denied a visa to travel to the UAE. Walid Raad was turned back at the Dubai airport.
The artist group Gulf Labor Coalition has spent the past few years investigating and denouncing migrant worker abuse. But while the UAE and other Gulf governments can largely ignore the group's calls, the European and American cultural institutions who will be present on Saadiyat Island need to protect their 'brand' and the values they stand for. As Paula Chakravartty and Nitasha Dhillon write in their essay for the book: it remains urgent to continue to use our leverage as artists and scholars to hold US and European museums and universities accountable in their home countries for the abuses against human dignity of workers thousands of miles away.
The Gulf. High Culture/Hard Labor charters Gulf Labor's fight in a series of texts written by members of the coalition.
Some of the authors explore Western institutions complicity in migrant worker abuse on Saadiyat, other analyse the place of construction workers in the building process, report on visits and interviews with deported workers, look at the artists who have engaged in direct political action, draw lessons from examples of art and activism in the global stage, document performances organised inside the Guggenheim Museum in New York by G.U.L.F. (Global Ultra Luxury Faction, a 'Gulf Labor spinoff devoted to direct action' Global Ultra Luxury Faction, etc.
The Gulf. High Culture/Hard Labor is lively, opinionated and eye-opening book. It is an important publication because of the realities it reveals and investigates. But it does more than that. The essays it contains can be read as a series of lessons for anyone, journalists, artists or activists, who want to take a stand, protest and challenge every complicit element leading to a situation of abuse and injustice.
Because things might be slow to change but that doesn't mean protesting is useless. As Sarah Leah Whitson notes in the foreword:
The efforts of Gulf Labor have prevented these world-class institutions from sweeping their complicity in the exploitation of migrant workers under Abu Dhabi's desert sands.
Most significantly, these efforts have produced concrete results, with the private institutions and businesses involved in Saadiyat Island agreeing to a minimum set of commitments to protect worker rights, including the right to change jobs, an end to passport confiscation, and the refunding of recruiting fees.
And the campaign has even led the UAE grudgingly to adopt some legislative reforms, including electronic payment of wages, changes to the sponsorship system that allow workers to switch jobs under limited circumstances, and greater supervision of work conditions by a vastly expanded pool of government inspectors.
By the way, Hyperallergic is doing a great job at keeping up with Gulf Labor latest actions.
Sudden Justice: America's Secret Drone Wars, by investigative journalist Chris Woods.
Publisher Oxford University Press writes: In Sudden Justice, award-winning investigative journalist Chris Woods explores the secretive history of the United States' use of armed drones and their key role not only on today's battlefields, but also in a covert targeted killing project that has led to the deaths of thousands. The CIA nurtured and developed drones before the War on Terror ever began, seeking a platform from which it could monitor its targets and act lethally and instantly on the intelligence it gathered. Since then, remotely piloted aircraft have played a critical role in America's global counter-terrorism operations and have been deployed to devastating effect in conventional wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. Drone crews, analysts, intelligence officials and military commanders all speak frankly to the author about how armed drones revolutionized warfare--and the unexpected costs to some of those involved.
Sudden Justice is probably the most talked about drone book of the year. It is also the most detailed, the most thorough study of the evolution of weaponised drone warfare you can find. The author, Chris Woods, is an investigative journalist who specializes in conflict and national security issues. He was awarded the Martha Gellhorn Journalism Prize for his investigations into covert U.S. drone strikes with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. He also contributes to The Guardian.
In preparation to this book and as part of his work as a journalist, Woods has interviewed former drone operators and mission controllers, retired intelligence commanders, senior Air Force officials and psychologists, US Navy veterans, diplomats, parents of young people killed during the strikes, survivors of attacks, etc. In short, anyone who had any (voluntary or not) role to play in this new form of asymmetrical warfare is bringing their own view about the issue.
The use of weaponized drones outside of the battlefields is one of the most worrying characteristics of our times. At the time Woods was writing the book, drones had already killed 3000 people. Some of them civilians, not militants. The author reminds us, for example, that when Obama's presidency was just 72h old, he had already authorized a secret action that accidentally killed 14 civilians.
By acting as judge, jury and executioner, the U.S. is not only setting a worrying template for the future of warfare, its is also antagonizing the populations targeted (drone strikes have apparently become a recruiting tool and a motivator for jihadists), creating a new generation of operators so stressed that psychologists still have to invent a word that would describe their condition, and alienating allied countries that believe (rightly) that the targeted killing practice is illegal.
There's no sign of a slowdown. Since 2010, the US Air Force has been training more drone pilots than fighter and bomber pilots combined. And the Obama administration intends to keep on eschewing any request for transparency and accountability.