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While in Amsterdam last weekend, i went to see The Art of Hacking at the New Media Art Institute. The exhibition presents art projects that subvert, improve on or circumnavigate 'official' systems and practices and offer alternatives. I first thought of writing a report about the whole show but the work Identity Bureau ended up grabbing all my attention. That's what happens when Heath Bunting has a project in a collective exhibition.

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View of the exhibition space at the Nimk, Amsterdam

Identity Bureau builds upon The Status Project (2004-2008), an inquiry into the construction of our 'official identity', as a collection of data and how it influences the way we can move around in social space, the internet and private or governmental databases.

One day Heath Bunting realized that in the UK it is legal to have several identities, if they are not for criminal purposes.

He set up an 'Identity Bureau' to allow ordinary people to buy new, official and legal UK identities at reasonable cost (500 euros.) It might start with something as banal as a supermarket loyalty card and from there, a new identity builds up that gets more and more coherent. The identity is based both on intangible and tangible materials. Bunting hands the ready-to-use identity inside a suitcase where the buyer can find supermarket loyalty cards, transportation cards, a mobile phone number, letters sent by governmental departments to an address in the UK, etc. The identity also exists in a less tangible way as the new person is inserted inside a web of shopping, library or transportation cards, bills, government correspondence, and other "personal" data. The person also belongs to a network made of other people, organizations, and institutions. The new identity allows you to have a bank account, free health care and a social security number in the country.

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Photo: Stefanie Grätz

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Photo: Stefanie Grätz

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Photo: Stefanie Grätz

Identity Bureau challenges the idea of personhood by showing how materially produced an identity is.

See also the conversation between UK barrister Bob Colover and Heath Bunting.

The Art of Hacking is open at the New Media Art Institute in Amsterdam until November 26th, 2011.

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Last week, i was dragged out of bed at the most scandalously early hour to participate to the final jury of the projects presented by the students of the Master in Media Design at the Geneva University of Art and Design, aka the Head. The programme has been launched two year ago and a first class of students were finishing their cursus. We had seven projects to review and mark. The one that really stood out for me was Matthieu Cherubini's rep.licants.org web 'service.'

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rep.licants.org allows people to install a bot on their Facebook and/or Twitter account. The bot will combine the activity the user is already having on other channels such as youtube or flickr with a set of keywords selected by the user to attempt and simulate that person's activity, feeding their account with more frequent updates, engaging in discussions with other users and adding new people to their list of contacts.

The bot does not provide a fictitious identity, but will be added to the real identity of the user to modify it at his convenience. Thus, this bot can be seen as a virtual prosthesis added to an user's account. With the aim to help him to forge a digital identity of what he would really like to be and by trying to build a greater social reputation for the user. Moreover, this bot can be perceived as a threat by defrauding even more the reality of who is really who on social networks and by showing the poverty of our social interactions on these so-called social networks.

Here's a short video introducing you to the service:

But since, Cherubini already has a rather promising portfolio, i took the liberty of digressing a bit and asked the artist to talk to me about a couple of his other projects as well:

Hi Matthieu! This Summer, you are going to exhibit one of your previous projects at the FILE festival in Sao Paulo. The Afghan War Diary "connects to a Counter-Strike's server and retrieves in real-time frags (when a player kills another). These frags trigger a search by chronological order in the Wikileaks database: Afghan War Diary, which contains over 75,000 secret US military reports covering the war in Afghanistan. According to the retrieved data, the website shows the location of the attack on Google Earth."

Is this the database the project is using http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2010/07/wikileaks-afghan/? it can't seem to be possible to access it right now. Does it affect your piece?

Yes, my project uses this database. When Wikileaks published these stolen databases it was possible to download them in order to install them on your own web host. It is what I did and hopefully it doesn't affect my project.

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Afghan War Diary

What is fascinating with AWD is how you managed to put together 3 potentially subversive issues: online first-person shooter video games, war in Afghanistan and Wikileaks. What did you wish to say, highlight or denounce with this work?

When Wikileaks released their data set I was kind of surprised by the enthusiasm of people for these data because if you forget the "top-secret" part, they got absolutely nothing special nor divulge any over sensible information. Actually you can find a lot of similar database related to war in public data banks which were created way before the release of the Afghan War database.

However, except some information designers, statisticians or journalists who needed specific information for an article, nobody ever cared about this kind of information.
And suddenly Wikileaks arrives with its leaked databases and everybody is interested in it, probably just because they are labeled as "top-secret". It somehow reminded me of reality television, we enjoy to watch misfits doing casual things just because we are in a voyeurism situation. And in my opinion, Wikileaks could be just that: voyeurism. In an age where almost every individual is paranoiac about their own private data why do we demand governments to be transparent ?

Wikileaks supporters claim "Information wants to be free" however most of them are the first to hide behind a mask of anonymity.

All of this gave me the idea to do a project that is a sort of reality television based on Wikileaks data where actors are unconscious virtual soldiers and spectators passive towards this kind of events.

Because we are terribly passive towards this kind of events -and that includes me, having an interest for Wikileaks data is not an act of interest towards war atrocities but an act of interest for what the government hides from us. 

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Conversation with ClairNotClaire. Bot: jimmyl0izeau. Conversation start: 24-06-2011. Conversation end: 25-06-2011

Now let's discuss rep.licants.org. This is a "web service allowing users to install an artificial intelligence (bot) on their Facebook and/or Twitter account. From keywords, content analysis and activity analysis, the bot attempts to simulate the activity of the user, to improve it by feeding his account and to create new contacts with other users." One of the objectives of the projects is to improve the social reputation of the user. Is it that clear-cut? Can a bot really make you a more interesting person in the eye of twitter or facebook users?  

In someway yes. Social networks are the first medium to display our social status to everybody with a simple statistical number (number of friends on Facebook and number of followers on Twitter). Those numbers are a kind of digital validation about what we are really worth, for example a user with a low number of followers will be regarded as not interesting. On Twitter getting a higher number of followers isn't that difficult, you have to post aggressively, follow a lot of users, retweet, get retweeted, etc. All those actions can be done by a bot. If suddenly the bot finds and posts an interesting content, it can become "viral" and you will get more followers. Of course we can argue that those kind of things can be done by the user and that's true. However a lot of user are digitally shy, introvert, etc. The bot has been programmed to be extrovert so it doesn't worry about posting ridiculous or interesting contents, contacting users that it doesn't know or contacting users that you wouldn't dare to contact. All those things put together will help the user keep an activity on social networks which make them visible to the others. That is why i like to compare the bot as a virtual prosthesis for introvert users.

But it is disturbing that a bot can be more sociable than yourself on social networks. So all those social interactions we virtually have, and that a bot can do better than some of us, are they really sociable ? Or is the word "social" in "social-networks" just a way for the designers to pull the wool over our eyes?

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Conversation with majosemf. Bot: elburdino. Conversation start: 25-06-2011. Conversation end: 25-06-2011

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Conversation with tom_watson, Bot: SingleEndedLoop. Conversation start: 19-06-2011. Conversation end: 21-06-2011

What is the feedback from the people who tested the 'service' so far?

I'm happy with the feedback of the users, some really interesting things happened which i couldn't have imagined. For example, one of the users couldn't recall if it was him or the bot who was posting messages; another began to interact with his own bot. There is a case where the bot contacted a random friend of an user on Facebook and it was actually an old friend of him whom the user never thought about contacting. The fact that the bot started to discuss with that old friend allowed the two users to have a real discussion together.

There is also, sometimes, interesting conversations between the bot and a user who doesn't know that he is speaking with a bot. Some excerpts of those communications can be seen on the bot's diary.

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The Pursuit of Happiness

Looking at your portfolio, it seems that rep.licants builds on previous projects which also investigated social networks. The Pursuit of Happiness for example. With the project you hacked into some Facebook accounts in order to steal users' private messages. This was a bold move. Were the people whose fb account was hacked aware of what you were doing? And more importantly, what did you try to achieve with this project?

No, they weren't aware of that but as i have deliberately put their contact (email and/or phone number), it happened once that a girl contacted me and asked me to remove all the information related to her. Someone warned and contacted her but i do not know whom!

My first aim with that project was pretty similar to rep.licants.org: i was fascinated by the relation in between Facebook's users and the kind of communication they have. I was motivated to find why so many people use for so many hours per day social networks while they are whole day already constantly surrounded by real social interactions. Having a look at the users private messages was a way for me to have a look at the real use of Facebook because the public part is not relevant. For example, no one is going to say that he uses Facebook as a way to flirt (flirting is almost never mentioned on the Facebook's users studies) however i was impressed by the number of users who where using Facebook as a flirting tool. Unfortunately I don't really feel I could achieve those initial aims because most of those private messages were extremely poor. I then made the decision to centre my project on the poverty of dialogues between the users, who mostly used Facebook several hours by days.

But now, after all that Wikileaks buzz, I think this project could open some discussions because it is basically a Wikileaks of the individuals instead of the governments.

Are you planning to improve rep.licants.org? offering new services, features, etc.

Yes because the bot is actually using very basic rules and features and it doesn't pass the Turing test with some "experienced" users. There is still a lot of research to do for trying to close the gap in between a bot and a human on social networks.

Merci Matthieu!

While regine is away, I'm posting pieces about notable and award-winning works at Japan Media Art Festival. Some will be exhibited at Tokyo Metoropolitan Museum of Photography from February 24 till March 5.

Khan Artist, by Osman Khan (see also: "What's your net worth?" and "Sur la table"), looks just like a credit processing machine in front of the Artist. The Artist actually is registered as a validated merchant with the machine, and the Artist (or through a sales rep proxy) asks the visitor to make a purchase. When a purchase is made, no product or service is returned in kind at the time of transaction. The Artist's name will show up on the itemized list of the visitor's monthly statement.

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[Khan artist.]

This work is partly inspired by what happened after the tragedy of 9/11.

For the macro well being of a capitalist system, what is actually bought or sold becomes secondary to the actual act of consumer transactions transpiring. We saw this occur, as the government urged people to begin spending and purchasing in an effort to revive the American economy after the tragedy of 9/11. It was not important what was bought or sold, as long financial transactions kept flowing through the economic machine, the path to recovery would be under way. Perhaps it can be seen that a consumer society is actually more dependent on the acts of purchasing then the exchange of goods or services.

Simple as it looks, this work asks several provocative questions about art and consumption.

Khan Artist was selected as Jury Recommended Works out of the finalists of the 2005 Japan Media Arts Festival.

Related projects by the same artist: net worth, data dump, and art dispensing machine (ADM).

This one has just been added to my I want one list.

For the INCITE/RCA collaboration, Jon Arden and Katrina Jungnickel have worked on the Pocket Conductor, an interesting mobile application idea for people travelling on bus.

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As you enter the bus your mobile would alert you to the available service (which you can ignore or engage with, much as you would a conductor on a bus). Linked to the existing bus stop countdown system it would feature
several services that could reconciliate me with the bus: journey mapping (follow the route), stop alerts (beep in your pocket one stop before you get off), other routes (all transport connections), timetables (alert you when you are in the pub about the last bus approaching), local info (about a particular area). It would also allow you to add a story, picture or sound or read others (like an urban mobile flickr), add some digitial graffiti or see who else is accessing the system or recently uploaded something or maybe graffiti from passing buses.

Via 73.

Tomorrow will be launched the bluepulse location-based service which enables people within a Sydney shopping centre get on their phones the information they want about their surroundings.

Based on a shopper's "profile" which is developed over time, the system is always looking for things of relevance.

The launch version provides shoppers with:
* directions to locate a particular shop, an ATM or toilet with step-by-step directions,
* an events calendar including show synopses, video movie trailers and the possibility to buy movie tickets with the phone,
* a buddy system and the ability to geographically locate other members who are friends, within the shopping centre,
* a constantly updated list of special offers,
* offer coupons to redeem discounts by presenting the phone at the participating outlet.
* your own shopping list appearing from your home computer.

Lucky centre staff wear a Bluetooth badge so that the management can better monitor them and call whoever is near to, say, a milkshake spill in a busy thoroughfare. There's also has an emergency button so management is instantly aware of all situations.

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The concept can be applied elsewhere: at the sports stadium to get an action replay, or at a festival to view the schedule or find friends in the crowd.

Via Gizmo and Textually.

When a major disaster takes down the phone system, who ya gonna call? An emergency communications system developed by Maryland start-up TeleContinuity might provide a solution.

The "survivable" emergency telephone system back-up network would keep people, companies and government agencies in touch during disasters by seamlessly merging conventional phone lines and the Internet with a technique called "shoelacing."

The initial version of the software would reroute a users phone service within minutes by delivering the call to a remote phone, mobile or even a computer or PDA.

By the end of the project in the Spring of 2005, the company plans to develop an enhanced version of the software that allows administrators and users to monitor and control networks in an emergency with advanced Web-based controls.

From Innovations Report.

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