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.
Fire and Forget is military jargon for a type of missile guidance that can hit its target without the launcher being in line-of-sight. The expression is symptomatic of a new type of warfare in which the people firing, killing and destroying are emancipated from the fear for their own life and the direct physical -or sometimes even visual- contact with the victim(s) of their shooting.
The exhibition Fire and forget. On violence currently on view at KW in Berlin asks whether this loss of direct physical confrontation has led to a new definition, production and perception of violence.
The show follows four main threads: the first one explores how Borders are decided and enforced to contain political, economic, cultural, religious, or ethnic tensions. Affect explores the long-term impact that violence from a distance has on the human psyche. Memory/Remembrance investigates whether history and commemoration inhibits or heighten violence. The final section looks at how the Event of violence itself reflects how each new situation is once again a singular moment of release, and of a decision for violence.
Fire and Forget is a brilliant and timely exhibition. However, while walking from room to room, i kept wondering why most works were not accompanied by descriptions and commentaries. Some of the pieces on show as self-explanatory, others left me frustrated. I could guess they were interesting and coherent with the whole show but i missed the elements to fully understand why.
Fortunately, i am a blogger and had plenty of time to waste online looking for the missing pieces of information...
Many Europeans (and Americans) tend to associate the Middle East with violence and several pieces in the show brought some much needed nuance to our prejudices.
Sharif Waked's film, To Be Continued, follows the format of the "living martyr" videos made by a man or woman declaring in front of a camera their determination to carry out a suicide bombing mission.
In this video, however, the protagonist, played by Palestinian actor Saleh Bakri, doesn't read his last will. Instead, he reads a lengthy excerpt from One Thousand and One Nights. By mixing the familiar and feared figure of the suicide bomber with poetic texts, Sharif Waked confounds our expectations of masculinity in the Islamic world.
Hrair Sarkissian's series Execution Squares shows fourteen public squares in three Syrian cities (Aleppo, Lattakia and Damascus) at sun rise, the time when executions usually take place in the country. The condemned person is often brought to the square at 4.30am, and their body is left there until around 9am so that citizens can witness the scene on their way to school or work.
In the late 1990s and 2000, the practice became less frequent in Damascus because the capital had become more internationally visible, Sarkissian explained in an interview. But they kept doing it in other cities such as Aleppo, where at least one person was hanged every month.
The artist was as a schoolboy when he passed one of these squares and saw three bodies hanging in the street. The image has haunted him ever since. Sarkissian's images show empty streets, there is not hanging body to gape at, no trace of violence. Yet, once you know the story, the photos seem to be haunted by the brutality that took place on those squares.
Nowhere does daily border violence manifests itself so stringently as inside and around the ever expanding Israel land. Walls, watchtowers, constant controls and other obstacles regulate the movements of Palestinians.
A room in the show is almost entirely occupied by The Country Sand Printer, by Roy Brand, Ori Scialom, and Keren Yeala Golan. The machine traces the evolution of the Israeli state through its settlements, reprinting over and over the expansion of Israel into the sand. A mechanic metal needle lightly draws lines in the sand, ensuring that traces of previous plans remain visible while new lines demarcate new territory borders.
A nearby video by Armin Linke, Road Block at Gaza City, Netsarem Settlement Beach Road (sorry couldn't find any image of it online and i didn't take any of the work while i was visiting the show) seems to respond to the invasive printing machine. The film shows how an event as banal as a roadblock near Gaza City forces Palestinians to make long and uncomfortable detours by foot in order to get to their intended destination. Colonization isn't just a theft of land, it is also a theft of time.
Like Sarkissian , Henning Rogge documents in photos the scars left by violent events. This time however the traces are still visible. His series shows how nature has adapted to the craters left by the bombs launched during World War II in Germany. After the war, the craters have slowly become part of the landscape and ecology, offering new pond habitats for animals, including endangered species.
The ultra short video above reminded me how good Hirst can be. The artist takes a gun and explain very quietly the best way to shoot yourself.
Buck Fever explores the emotions that surround the violence perpetrated against animals. The film is a You Tube collage of hunter amateur recording the moments directly preceding and following the shooting an animal.
Guided missiles and drones are clear examples of Fire and Forget technology. James Bridle's silhouette of a drone painted on the street in front of KW reminds us that, in spite of being located far away from the battlefield, drone operators fire but do not forget. Studies have shown that the pilots can still develop mental health problems like depression, anxiety as well as other symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
More images from the show:
Fire and forget. On violence was curated by Ellen Blumenstein and Daniel Tyradellis. The show remains open until August 30, 2015 at KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin.
The Glomar response refers to the US government prerogative of power to "neither confirm nor deny" the existence of information. The expression was created by the CIA in 1975 in response to media inquiries about a covert program which involved the Glomar Explorer, a salvage vessel built to recover a sunken Soviet submarine. The form of non-denial denial is symptomatic of the times we are living. Nevertheless, the ever-increasing opacity of political and social processes accelerated by computer code and secret law is countered by the growing ability of individuals and activists to use those same networked technologies to investigate and act with ever greater agency.
The Glomar Response is also the title of James Bridle's solo show which will open tomorrow at NOME, a gallery in Berlin dedicated to the interweaving areas of art, science and political activism. Bridle's exhibition will present a series of works that use computer code, investigative journalism, and visualization to explore hidden spaces and classified information. Whether they investigate CIA torture, automated police surveillance, relics of British imperialism or immigration, the works on show demonstrate the impact that politics has on technology and architecture.
"Politics are encoded into the architecture and the technology," the artist told me during a skype discussion. "They betray the intent. But we still need some literacy in order to be able to decode the situation so my work aims to make these codes visible but it also calls for the need to raise this literacy.
There's also another aspect to these works and it's that i'm not entirely convinced by this process. I think that there are limits to what you can do. None of these works is going to lead to huge changes in the system. The pieces in the show also speak of that frustration."
Bridle will premiere the work Waterboarded Documents in Berlin. The installation is made of research documents surrounding the operation of websites and domains that end in .io. These web domains, popular with a number of trendy companies, are linked to the island of Diego Garcia and the other islands of the British Indian Ocean Territory. But most people who use these domains are unaware of the dark story of these islands.
The islands of the British Indian Ocean Territory form an archipelago that was forcibly depopulated in the 1970s by the United Kingdom, at the request of the United States which needed an unpopulated island to set up a military base. Ironically, the base is called Camp Justice. Because of its strategic position, the US used it as a base during the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as a CIA black site and transit point for the extraordinary rendition programme.
The British government has consistently denied any illegalities in the expulsion. Moreover, in 2010, the British Cabinet announced that most of the archipelago would be turned into the world's largest Marine Protected Area, a move that will prohibit commercial fishing as well as oil and gas exploration in the area. Leaked documents seem to confirm Chagossians' suspicion that this MPA was created to prevent the islanders from returning to the islands.
The case has not been heard by any international court of law as no appropriate venue has been found to accept the case.
The navigation charts, maps and other documents shown in the gallery have been submitted to waterboarding, just like some of the people 'interrogated' in the framework of the rendition program. The water damage also alludes to claims made by the British Government that files relating to the UK's role in the CIA's global rendition operations could not be released due to accidental water damage. Finally, these damaged documents illustrate the complicity between contemporary technological networks and older forms of entrenched and imperial power.
Developed in collaboration with digital imaging studio Picture Plane, Seamless Transitions puts into images three unphotographable sites of immigration judgment, detention and deportation in the UK: the Special Immigration Appeals Court, whose design is informed by the need to present secret evidence; Harmondsworth Detention Center, a privately run prison near London Heathrow Airport; and the Inflite Jet Center, a private terminal at Stansted Airport that the Home Office uses to deport rejected asylum-seekers.
Having no pictures available of a phenomenon has become a technique of not talking about it, he told ICON. Physical representations make more tangible the kind of things people find it difficult to talk about because they are non-physical, digital or complex.
The third piece exhibited at NOME is Fraunhofer Lines, a series of visualizations from a variety of sources, including the Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture and the UK Information Commissioner's reports on automated police surveillance. These documents, released following Freedom of Information requests, have been analyzed with computer vision to reveal the extent of redaction and the discrepancies between different documents. They are named and patterned after the gaps in the sun's spectra discovered in 1814 by physicist Joseph von Fraunhofer, which both revealed the absence of certain frequencies of light reaching the earth's surface and pointed toward new methods of analysis and understanding.
And i'll end the story with video for anyone who doesn't get a chance to see the exhibition in Berlin this Summer:
Over the past few months, artist Paolo Cirio has been quietly collecting pictures of high-ranking U.S. intelligence officials on social media. He then blew the photos up using High Definition Stencils (an OS graffiti technique he invented), spray-painted the reproductions of the misappropriated photos and plastered the copies onto the streets of cities like New York, Paris or London.
The individuals targeted in the Overexposed series are some of the officials responsible for programs of mass surveillance or for misleading the public about them. Their names are: Keith Alexander (NSA), John Brennan (CIA), Michael Hayden (NSA), Michael Rogers (NSA), James Comey (FBI), James Clapper (NSA), David Petraeus (CIA), Caitlin Hayden (NSC), and Avril Haines (NSA).
Cirio tracked down these portraits through open-source intelligence (OSINT), an information-gathering method that uses the internet, including social media, as an investigative tool. OSINT is used by government agencies, law enforcement, corporations and people involved in marketing. But activists and journalists are also routinely relying on it for their research. The portraits brought to light by Cirio are photographs and selfies of government officials taken in informal situations by civilians or lower ranking officers.
By making private portraits of members of the CIA and NSA part of the public domain, both through his street interventions and the detailed documentation of the research he published on his website, the artist invaded the private life of these government officials (though not as much as they might invade ours) and literally gave a face to U.S. intelligence services. The work holds a satirizing mirror to the people participating to operations of mass surveillance, commenting on the need for public accountability and pushing to its most uncomfortable limits the trends for 'overly mediated political personas.'
Cirio's political satire reverses the contemporary means of propaganda, exposing the extent to which a public image can be captured on camera and exploited by the very same systems that intelligence officials seek to control. Overexposed derides the watchers with embarrassing pictures over which they have lost control, effectively turning the tables on them and their advocacy of mass surveillance and lax privacy practices.
An exhibition of Overexposed is opening tomorrow at the NOME gallery in Berlin (keep your eyes peeled for their programme in the future because they work with some of the most thought-provoking artists engaging with digital technologies) so i contacted the artist to get more details about the series:
Hi Paolo! To be honest, when i first read the description of the project, i was expecting some blurry portraits and no name at all. But in the series you go full on: the individuals are very recognizable and their identity is given. Do you expect to get into trouble with this work?
The legal question is not really about the officials because they are public figure, so the use of their photos fall under parody laws and free expression. The controversy is actually about the ownership of those photos and from where they were obtained, in most of the cases the selfies were taken by civilians, random people or acquaintances of the intelligence officials. On my website you can find the original photos where you have the individuals together with officials in the snapshot taken with smartphones and uploaded directly on the social media. I think so far they still don't know that their pictures ended up on public walls around the world. I don't know how they will react yet, the project was published just a few weeks ago.
And since you actually have a history of getting into trouble with your work, could you explain us which part these (mis)adventures, legal threats, cease & desist play into your work?
It's not just about getting in troubles, instead it's about generating legal reactions that reveal contradictions on the inadequacy or abuse of the laws that I want to criticize. In same cases, confronting the subjects of my performances on the legal terrain lets everyone understand which are the actual power structures that generate particular social conditions.
According to the press release, you used your HD Stencils graffiti technique and spray-painted hi-re reproductions of the photos onto public walls. How do you select the locations for these street interventions?
I paste these reproduction of photos mainly in popular street art locations, where people often take pictures that end up on the social media again. This exposes these officials even more through having their pictures in recirculation on the social network with the glamour of the street art.
And how do you go from street graffiti to art gallery? Do you feel that your work, and these stencils in particular, gets another meaning or has to be framed in another way when you change the exhibition context from public space to white wall space?
Beyond the public art interventions made for a wider public, I'm interested in formalizing the pieces as pop art and appropriation art, bringing them in the realm of the art world, which for me it is also a distribution system. Eventually they became historical portraits of figures that mark our time of expansion of cyber-warfare and astonishing programs of mass surveillance, which hopefully we will only remember as an awful war against civil society of the past. Also my technique HD Stencils offers very particular aesthetic qualities that can be fully appreciated with maximum perfection of the works made for the art gallery.
The exhibition Overexposed opens at the NOME gallery in Berlin on 22 May and remains on view until 20 July.
A detailed catalogue of the show is available for download (PDF.)
Previous mentions of Paolo Cirio's work on the blog: Unstable Territory. Borders and identity in contemporary art, Cultural Hijack, Notes from WJ-Spots Brussels, History and future of artistic creation on the Internet and The Digital Now - 'Drones / Birds: Princes of Ubiquity'.
Compared to my previous post (Eyes from a distance. Personal encounters with military drones), the talks from the panel Tracking Drones, Reporting Lives zoomed out from the personal perspective and brought together a data journalist, a documentary director and an artist whose work examines the drone issue:
Data journalist Jack Serle, who works at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London, as part of the Covert Drone War research team, is involved in the Naming the Dead project which attempts to reveal the names of the civilians and militants killed by the drones in Pakistan since 2004. Film director Tonje Hessen Schei is currently showing in theaters across the world DRONE, a documentary that focuses on the CIA drone war. Artist, musician and researcher Dave Young presented The Reposition Matrix, a workshop series that investigated the military-industrial production and use of military drones through collaborative open-source intelligence and cartographic processes.
The panel was moderated by Marc Garrett, director and founder (together with Ruth Catlow) of the community and art space Furtherfield. In his intro to the panel, Garrett reminded the audience of the role that artists have played in exploring the dark sides of drones, sometimes even anticipating their power as the video BIT Plane demonstrates. In this work (shown at the Furtherfield exhibition Movable Borders: Here Come the Drones! two years ago), Natalie Jeremijenko and Kate Rich from the Bureau of Inverse Technology operate a radio-controlled model airplane over the Silicon Valley. By filming the aerial views, the BIT Plane can be seen as a precursor to the emerging DIY surveillance video enabled by the new availability of drones.
The talk of the first panelist, Jack Serle, focused on the BIJ's Covert Drone War, a research aimed at providing a full dataset of all known US drone attacks in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.
When the investigation started, there was online one version of drone attacks and it was coming from Washington. Their official line was that drones were surgically precise and that they were so efficient that no civilians were killed in the strikes:
It's this surgical precision, the ability, with laser-like focus, to eliminate the cancerous tumor called an al-Qaida terrorist while limiting damage to the tissue around it, that makes this counterterrorism tool so essential.
But the data coming from Pakistan quickly demonstrated that the reality was otherwise.
BIJ's work is based on open source data such as media reports, NGO reports, court documents, information leaked by governmental sources, accounts from eyewitnesses, etc. The observation of this data enables also the BIJ to pick out patterns revealing some uncomfortable facts about the war on terror.
For example the BIJ noticed that sometimes a strike would hit a building in Pakistan and that another strike would be launched on the same building 20 to 40 minutes later. The same pattern was observed elsewhere. It reveals that when the CIA was hitting a building, they were in fact waiting for the rescue team (made of both civilians and militants) to come and pick up people who had been injured in the strike. This is obviously a very bloody tactic.
Another pattern observed involved strikes hitting funerals. The CIA exploit a local custom: local commanders often attend a man's funeral. But of course the people who take part in the funeral and were injured or killed by the drones are not necessarily militants. Many of them are civilians.
There's more details about these two practices in Chris Woods and Christina Lamb's article CIA tactics in Pakistan include targeting rescuers and funerals.
By gathering numbers, names and other evidences, the Naming the Dead project counters secrecy and anonymity. Concealing as much as possible is a key element of the drone program, it enables it to continue its activities unquestioned.
Serle explained that with the Drone War Project, the BIJ doesn't want to morally judge the technology per se. Instead the work of the team aims to bring transparency and enable people to make changes.
Next in the panel was Tonje Hessen Schei, the director of DRONE which was screened later in the evening (and which i'd recommend you see.)
The film looks at drone under different angles: the families of Pakistani victims of drones, the human rights advocates and activists, the drone pilots (namely Brandon Bryan) and the vast and incredibly lucrative industry which interests lay in keeping this war going on forever and ever.
The director talked about the relationships between the entertainment industry and the military, her disappointment at Obama who had promised to close Guantanamo Bay and who's now sending drones to kill people, etc.
One of her main concerns regards Europe which knows what is happening and remains silent. The United States is setting a worrying new standard of warfare with the drone program and it's only a question of time before we see Russia, Iran, China and other countries use drones to go after anyone they regard as a threat to their country. When that time has come, how will we be able to counter it? How are we going to say that the practice is illegal when we've done nothing to stop the United States?
Drones have changed warfare and its future. They've become the new normal even though there has never been any proper debate about the ethical, moral and legal challenges they present.
A survey found that 66% of the U.S. people is in favor of drone strikes. Perhaps the percentage would me much lower if people were actually presented with all the facts. There has been a wide media coverage of the DRONE documentary in both the UK and Norway but the film is still very much under the radar in the U.S.
The trailer of the documentary is very catchy and spectacular. It's part of the strategy of the film director who wanted to relate to mass culture and appeal to the broadest audience possible.
The last speaker in the panel was artist Dave Young who made a series of valid points:
- The war on terror operate often in deserts. This is what Deleuze calls a 'smooth space', a surface that can be interrupted, moved and reconfigured without leaving any trace.
- Young also talked about The Reposition Matrix, a series of workshops dedicated the use of cybernetic military systems such as drones and the Disposition Matrix, a dynamic database of intelligence that produces kill-lists for the US Department of Defense. Working together, workshop participants developed a 'cartography of control': a map of the organisations, locations, and trading networks that play a role in the production of military drone technologies. The artist explained how some of the information used in the workshop came from unexpected sources: such as google satellite maps where sometimes the shadow of a drone would appear on a view or facebook where many soldiers post photos of their life. So in the background of selfies or group portraits, one can glimpse the base where they are working.
- During World War II, Norman Wiener worked on a research project at MIT on the automatic aiming and firing of anti-aircraft guns and guided missile technology. He studied how a missile changed its flight path through the use of advanced electronics. What intrigued him was the principle of feedback that was used, i.e. the missile gave feedback regarding its position and flight path towards its target. It then received instructions for small adjustments to its flight path in order to further stabilize it and to arrive at its target, etc. (via) His research was abandoned after the war but the concept of continuous feedback between the missile system and its environment can actually be extended to other systems and this eventually led him to formulate cybernetics.
- Young's account of the tactics deployed by the U.S. army during the Vietnam war was equally fascinating. Some of the technology does indeed foreshadow the use of drones. One was a 'people sniffer', a detector that could 'smell' human urine and sweat and thus detect enemy soldiers in hidden positions. This Operation Snoopy (because that was its name) and other tactics are presented in the 1969 video Bugging the Battlefield
- another important point Dave Young made is that the military is always trying to remove the agency of the soldier. A soldier can be disobedient, he or she can question an order or strategy.
Previous posts about the Drones event: Eyes from a distance. Personal encounters with military drones and The Grey Zone. On the (il)legitimacy of targeted killing by drones.
More notes from the Drone event organized by the Disruption Lab Network in Berlin a couple of weeks ago (the first post, The Grey Zone. On the (il)legitimacy of targeted killing by drones, is over here.) Eyes from a distance. On Drone-systems and their strategies brought together a former drone operator, investigative journalists, criminal law researchers, artists and critical thinkers to reflect on the following issues:
What is the politics and the regime of power beyond drone-systems? Which are the consequences both on militant networks and civil society of an increasing automatism of conflicts? Can we track down the hidden strategies that move target-killings? Can we understand better drone technology?
The symposium was brilliant. For many reasons: the impeccable choice of speakers, the variety of perspectives, the stimulating Q&A with the audience. But i think i should salute the fact that many women participated to the conference, both as speakers and as members of the public. This will hopefully be a inspiration to conference organizers who believe that technology is a 'man thing.'
But let's get to the talks of the first evening. Two of them were given by people who have or used to have a direct, daily experience of drones.
i was incredibly moved by Asma al-Ghul's video contribution. She is a journalist and author from Gaza who writes about human rights, social issues and is never afraid to openly criticize Palestinian ruling authorities. She has won numerous awards for her work, including the international award for courage in journalism. On August 3, 2014, at least nine members of her family were killed in an Israeli airstrike. She was not allowed to get out of Gaza (more about that below) and sent a video to tell us about everyday life under drone surveillance and sometimes attacks.
The other speaker was Brandon Bryant, a former U.S. Air Force pilot who joined the Predator drone Program in 2006 and left in 2011 when he started questioning the ethics of the program and his own role as a soldier. He has since shared with the world his battle with PTSD, his guilt over killing people and his concerns about the U.S. drone operations.
Bryant also recently set up Project Red Hand to expose mechanisms of corruption, manipulations and wrong doings.
You can watch Bryant's presentation on YouTube but here's a small summary.
Brandon Bryant. Photo Ethan Levitas for GQ
When the GQ article came out in 2013, it was titled Confessions of a Drone Warrior. The word 'warrior' offended him. Drone technology made him feel like a coward, not a warrior. He could kill a human being at the other end of the world at the click of a button. 'What's more cowardly than that?'
And since the technology is used by the U.S.A., a country supposed to be the most powerful in the world, then he believes that the U.S. is the worst type of coward. Instead of leading by example, the U.S. is acting like the bully in the playground.
When you're a drone operator, you're a low class sniper. No one respects you in the military. You don't have to do the hard stuff. Yet, you are given the responsibility to take someone else's life without really being given the information necessary to understand what's going on and who exactly you've just murdered. You are told to look for people doing 'nefarious things', but we have no understanding of these people's culture. The first time Bryant had to shoot, he was told to fire at 3 individuals simply for the fact that they were carrying weapons.
Bryant also believes that as citizens we have responsibilities as well. Our duty is to raise our voice whenever there is a concern about the involvement of our government in the drone program. And if you're not American and think this doesn't really concern you, do check out his video, towards the end he describes the role of Europe and in particular Germany in making the drone operations possible.
Bryant's talk was very moving, especially when he revealed that 'back home' people don't want to hear his story. His brave decision to speak out and denounce the lack of ethics of the drone program was not seen with a kind eye, he even received threats from friends and colleagues who said he deserved to be shot for raising his voice.
Israel is the world's number one drone exporter. It has been experimenting the technology with deadly consequences on Palestinians for years so it wasn't surprising that the DNL had invited two writers from Gaza to Berlin to share their experience with us. Unfortunately, it was also no surprise to learn that neither Ebaa Rezeq nor Asma al-Ghul had been allowed to get out of Gaza.
However, Asma al-Ghul sent a video to tell us about life under drones in Gaza. Alghoul couldn't come to Berlin because of the closure of the borders. She is blacklisted for some unknown reason (like half the population of Gaza, she explained) and wasn't allowed to go beyond the Erez checkpoint controlled by Israel.
Gazans are very familiar with drones. They have lived through 3 wars in 8 years and even a child is able to recognize the arrival of a drone. They are so much part of everyday life that people in Gaza are giving the drones nicknames such as as 'Buzzer' or 'Zanana', onomatopoeia that come from the ugly sounds they make in the sky. In fact, drones have taken such a part of people's culture that they started calling 'zananas', the intelligence men who follow people or simply nosy people.
Drones cause serious stress and anxiety among the population. A drone evokes war and death. Once you hear it coming, you brace yourself for a bombardment and the death of people. On a side note, it's impossible to ignore their presence if you are watching TV because they ruin the transmission. "Every Israeli aircraft is dreadful,' she explained. "Apaches, F-16s and drones. Especially the F-16, when they break the sonic barrier and make severe explosions in the sky. "
Some Israeli drones are used for reconnaissance purposes, others fire missiles. Some do both.
"It's been six months since the war ended,' she says and war is still inside of us. People keep asking us whether there's a war coming. Since the end of the war, 40 people who live by the border-line areas have been killed by drones. One of them was a resistance fighter. Over 60 boats have been destroyed. 66 civilians including fishermen were detained by the Israeli forces in the post-war six-month period.
These statistics show there's no peace, there's no real truce and people feel they are threatened all the time."
A study recently released by Aid agencies in Gaza shows that over 100,000 Palestinians are still displaced. The situation is catastrophic. Gazans live in complete depression, in addition to unemployment and poverty.
Young people still dream of change, of reconciliation, of a new life to be born.
In addition to the domestic obstacles which cripple the population, Gaza is also facing political arrests and lack of speech freedom for journalists. The West Bank is not any better than in Gaza. Any journalist who criticizes president Mahmoud Abbas on Facebook can get into trouble, for example. Even the political reconciliation is far away now. It's the first anniversary of the Beach Camp accord this month and nothing has been applied.
The next event of the Disruption Network Lab will take place on May 29-30 in Berlin.
Previously: The Grey Zone. On the (il)legitimacy of targeted killing by drones.