Flone is a drone (an unmanned aerial vehicle) which uses a smartphone as a flight controller and explores novel ways to "occupy" public space, in particular the air and claim the right to use it before legislation makes it illegal.

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Documentation of the production process of Flones. Photo LABoral


Flone. Maiden Flight

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Documentation of the production process of Flones. Photo LABoral

Created by artist and computer engineer Lot Amorós, technical engineer Cristina Navarro, and industrial engineer Alexandre Oliver, Flone turns the mobile phone into a stand-alone flying apparatus which can go up to a height of 20 metres from the ground, come down, rotate and do the usual smartphone tasks, such as taking photographs or video recordings. It can also be remotely controlled by another smartphone with a wifi or 3G connection.

Its objective is to make air space accessible to everyone as a research platform, providing a range of applications for them to operate with a smartphone alone. The combination of its different sensors and telematic connections transform Flone into a multimedia drone, a mobile communication unit that moves around in a new space: the public air.

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Documentation of the production process of Flones. Photo LABoral

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Documentation of the production process of Flones. Photo LABoral

I briefly interviewed the creators of Flone:

One of the objectives of Flone "is to make air space accessible to everyone as a research platform." So i was wondering if there's any particular legislation about air space (at least in Spain) and if anyone is free to have all kinds of devices fly anywhere into the air to record, photograph, sense, etc.

Flying 300 meters above the ground or close to airports generally requires a permission from the Spanish Aerial Authority (AENA). However, there are no national laws regarding the use of aerial space below 300 meters. In Spain, these laws depends on local governments and currently almost none of them has any law on that regard simply because no one before had ever used space to fly drones or anything of the kind.

We spent a long time asking lawyers and drone pilots about this legal gap but nobody has the right answers. There are many variables to take into consideration: whether you're flying over private or public land, taking images or not, for commercial purposes or not... Anyway, even if we do everything legally, we live in Españistán, a country where politicians and policemen don't respect the law in any sense and where they can punish people without any reason.

In the United States the airspace for private drones will be regulated in 2015. In Europe a common law is coming, but until this date the air is a no man's land.

One year ago, in the exhibition of GuerrillaDrone in the Netherlands I showed the stupid duty process for taking aerial images.

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Post Cold War permissions and correspondence with the Ministerie Van Defense of The Netherlands, at the Guerrila Drone Exhibition in MOBIBOM in Groningen, 2012

Right now the law is changing, but one year ago The Netherlands had a very restrictive law dating back to the Cold War, I still have a copy of the law that explicitly says that if anybody publishes an aerial image of The Netherlands without the explicit permission of the Ministry of Defense they will be punished with some months in jail.

How far are you in the development of Flone? Do you still have much to achieve?

Flone can have a lot of capabilities and flying modes. So far we have developed the physical platform, and right now we are developing the software interface, we are focused on the pilot experience, designing a more natural way to interact with a flying machine.

We have already developed a Android app for flying flone without the traditional RadioControl equipment.

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Image courtesy of the artists

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Documentation of the production process of Flones. Photo LABoral

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Documentation of the production process of Flones. Photo LABoral

What can Flone do so far?

Transform the airspace into an accessible public air.

How are you planning to use the flying smartphones personally? And did you meet with beta testers, members of the public who suggested surprising ways to use Flone?

Each new idea of using flone (or any other drone) is a surprising one, and is also probably totally unprecedented. Anyway we prefer the idea of flone as a shared vehicle instead of a personal one. Private cars have changed the way public space is designed and used. We prefer an ecopolítical idea of a public network of flying devices.

Until now we have already built some airframes for different people, a lot of people contact us asking for information but becoming a drone pilot and becoming beta tester taks time. Next month we will do a drone hackademy in Barcelona and we plan to build 20 flones. With the stable release of the app we expect that a lot of people will get involved.

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Lot Amorós demonstrating Flone at the Maker Faire in Bilbao. Photo: Cristina Navarro

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Demo of Flone at the BcnDevCon13, the third edition of the Barcelona Developers Conference,

Did you meet unexpected challenges during the development of the projects? Things that didn't go according to plan, that were more difficult to implement than you thought or that surprised you?

Dealing with time in the milliseconds scale. Motors update their velocity 400 times each second. Debugging this kind of fast robotics requires a lot of experience. It's not about finding the best solution, it's about finding the equilibrium between the fastest and the best.

I have a question just for Lot who worked on Guerrilla Drone: is Flone another form of GD? Maybe one that looks less threatening and that is lighter?

Yes, but was not a direct transformation. The main element of Guerrilla Drone is their microprojector that has the same size of a smartphone. Flone is a kind of democratic version of Guerrilla Drone in the sense of making the technology accessible, but has a different concept.

What's next for Flone?

A webpage with real time flyings of users around the world, smartphone-based glasses for piloting flone by First Person View, autonomous flight plans, gimbal-mirror for video stabilization, improving the failsafe SMS-ing of the position if the flone gets lost, multiple connection with 3G & Wifi, an automatic path calculation for flying swarms... and a parachute.

This are some future developments, but right now, the next for us is: Use it!

We spent the last six months of our lives developing it, so right now the main motivation is exploring the airspace for ourselves.

Thanks Lot, Cristina and Alexandre!

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Image courtesy of the artists

Flone was the winning project of Next Things 2013 - Next Space, the Second Global Art and Technology Challenge, the joint call for ideas by Telefónica I+D, the research, development and innovation company of the Telefónica Group, and LABoral.

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Do you remember Technoviking? He was one of Youtube's sensations in 2007. Millions of people admired his dancing skills and undeniable male magnetism but to this day, his identity remains a mystery. The technoviking video has been blogged, commented, shared, emailed and sparked numerous parodies.

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Image credit: Wafaa Bilal

Wafaa Bilal has installed an inflatable Technoviking avatar at All Saints Park in Manchester for AND, the Festival of New Cinema, Digital Culture and Art (running this weekend and you should run there too if you can, it's that good). The gigantic head is linked a twitter account and in order to breathe life into it, people have to tweet about it otherwise Technoviking will go flat and dance right back to oblivion again. So go and tweet #technoviking to keep him alive!

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Image credit: Wafaa Bilal

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Image credit: Wafaa Bilal

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Image credit: Wafaa Bilal

Pop culture and astute social comments cohabit in this work like in other works by Bilal. Meme Junkyard is fun and a bit silly of course but it also invites us to reflect on the promises of constant connectivity, on the meaning of 'going viral,' of generating almost unlimited levels of attention before fading back into disinterest. What happens to the technoviking (as well as to the other meme that will soon lay to inflate and deflate in the meme junkyard) is similar to what awaits our ego when other web users stop re-tweeting our rants, linking to our blog posts (oh please let that never happen to me!), or thumbing up our status on facebook.


Wafaa Bilal talking about Meme Junkyard: Technoviking

And the one and only:

Wafaa Bilal is going to discuss his work this Sunday at Cornerhouse. The event is free.

AND, the Festival of New Cinema, Digital Culture and Art remains open all over Manchester until 2 September 2012.

Other works by Wafaa Bilal: Subversion in the Arab Art world, A few words with Wafaa Bilal, Book Review - Shoot An Iraqi, Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun, Positions in Flux - Panel 1: Art goes politics - Wafaa Bilal, ...and Counting.

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When i interviewed Tom Keene in the studios of Resonance FM a couple of months ago, he told me approximately 44 seconds before the end of the programme that he was working on a speech recognition algorithm that searches radio waves for conversations about money.

The work, called Uncertain Substance, investigates the Viterbi algorithm which was devised by Andrew Viterbi in 1966 as an error-correction scheme for noisy digital communication. Its use has since been extended to many digital technologies: speech recognition, satellite, DNA analysis, video encryption, deep space, wireless communications systems, etc. Physical manifestations of this algorithm exists as microchips installed in mobile devices, enabling communications networks to permeate every conceivable space, blurring distinction between home, work and social environments.

Tom's interest in the algorithm isn't purely motivated by a passion for programming, his project is also looking into the social effect of its application and implementation:

Used to identify patterns and trends of human behaviour, the Viterbi plays a role in automated systems that interpret, record and report on human activity. These systems increasingly make economic decisions, govern response to crime, disaster, health and manage the everyday flow of cities. The Viterbi operates at a deep social level as it constructs new sets of social relations and radically shapes the development of our cities.

Uncertain Substance: The Viterbi Algorithm was shown recently at Forking Bits, the graduation show of the MA Interactive Media: Critical Theory and Practice at Goldsmiths in London. I was out of town that week, so i decided to make yet another interview with Tom:

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Hi Tom! You developed speech recognition algorithm that searches radio waves for conversations about money. How does the research of the search manifest itself? What happens? Did you test the system? Where and what were the results?

I tested two versions of the system, one as an installation in an old porters office in Goldsmiths University, the other as a mobile version built into a shopping trolley which I tested at Moving Forrest at Chelsea College of Art. The porters office version displayed two very dull looking computers one of which was a speech recognition server (SRS) built around the open source project CMUsphinx, and the other was a software defined radio server (SDRS) which was built around a hacked £10 USB TV tuner. The SRS listened to the audio output of the SDRS and if it detected speech then it would stay on that radio station in the hope that it would find a keyword from a list (Money, Credit, Debt, Thousand, Billion, Trillion etc), if it didn't find any words within 20 seconds, then it would trigger the SDRS to find another station where it would begin the process again.

The porters office added its own narrative which I discovered while cleaning it out and getting rid of years of grime and dumped objects - it recorded a pretty depressing history - there were old letters of redundancy, a broken pair of spectacles, betting slips, a small screen marked "payroll". I incorporated these elements in the space as a subtle way of illustrating the entanglement of algorithms into everyday lives and other media systems, where algorithmic reporting and profiling informs and influences our decision making processes, event though these outputs haven't necessarily been planned or programmed, the technology is then exerting its own power and its that mechanism that I want to understand.

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Can the person monitoring the algorithm actually understand the conversation?

If by that you mean, did the system do a good job of translation? No - it's terrible at translating radio! Speech recognition is a very tricky thing to do well and this sort of system is much better suited to recognising a few keywords spoken by a voice it has been specifically trained to listen to. Though in this instance I wasn't particularly fussed about the quality of the speech recognition, I really enjoyed (along with the audience) watching the weird sentences that were being produced as the result of a mathematical model.

What I really wanted to achieve was for the audience to engage with the operations of the algorithm, the decisions it made and how it entangles itself with other media and social systems. To achieve this I attempted to display its inner workings as much as possible.

The SDRS displayed the radio frequency it was tuning into and you could hear the audio as it shifted between pure noise, music or speech. On a second screen the SRS displayed a rolling log of; transcribed audio, found keywords, how long it had been listening for and feedback that indicated if it was bored or couldn't understand the conversation. A point of sale receipt printer generated a physical paper trail as it printed any texts about money as and when they were found. I also managed to rig up a CCTV screen that displayed the current radio frequency/time, which also broadcast (through an on-board speaker) "found money" which it spoke in a digital voice whenever a money conversation had been found. So this relatively simple set-up incorporated multiple media systems of: Radio, Paper, CCTV, Work life, Finance, Computer networks - each touched by the Viterbi algorithm in some way.

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Wasn't the public upset by the idea that an algorithm was looking for their financial conversations?

Not at all! More amusement than anything else. The most common question was - is it going to make you rich? Which gave me an opportunity to talk about the wider issues of the project and the fact that it can be very difficult to understand the the effects of the Viterbi algorithm as it cannot be separated from complex layers of social (human and technical) layers in which it is embedded. This project has been been about building a series of contraptions as a means to reveal the effect and influence of the Viterbi, the speech recognition project has been just one of those exercises, others have included its use in Mobile technologies, and its path finding capabilities.

If i understood correctly the description of your project, many crucial governmental and economic decisions depends on the algorithm's interpretation of human activity. One would expect an algorithm to be reliable and rational so surely, we should be reassured that our fate is in such capable 'hands', right?

Just to be clear, I'm not saying that the Viterbi is used by Government and that's a worrying thing - I'm not attempting to make a value judgement here - there are many examples of algorithms being used for governmental and non governmental decision making process which have both positive and negative effect. I am just attempting to illustrate the social effect of an algorithm used in a mutlitude of systems, where the power of those systems is not held by any single political party or economic system, but is dissipated and exerted by the system itself. That power exerted by these systems have the potential to influence city planning decisions, or discipline people's behaviours at a micro level in their day to day lives, where social effect doesn't occur because it has been programmed that way, or that government investment has created an infrastructure that facilitates greater control of he population, but rather new social phenomena is produced in a messy, unstructured chaotic way outside of human control. In terms of these algorithms being rational, then at the level of mathematics and science they are, but at the level of their actual real world social effect, then they are most certainly not.

Thank you Tom!

Sunday at Conflux, the art and technology festival for the creative exploration of urban public space, was hot in every sense including (unfortunately for Summer-phobics like me) in the meteorological one.

Given both the temperature and his own intrepidness, all my admiration went to Lucas Murgida. Last year, the artist was teaching Conflux participants the handy and delicate art of lock-picking. For this edition of the festival, he built a beautiful wooden cabinet, left it on a sidewalk and hid inside it. Mugida stayed in this torridness, for hours and with just a bottle of water, not revealing himself until a passerby would bring the cabinet to their home.

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The name of the performance is 9/10 because Murgida wanted to check what would become of the often-quoted phrase, 'Possession is 9/10 of the law' when private property is placed in a public space. As he wrote: A person is not sure how to look at the object at first, but will usually fall back on the golden rule of U.S. culture (finders keepers, losers weepers) and claim it to be theirs. I am hoping to subvert the "finder's" personal space by claiming it to be my own public space.

Saturday wasn't much of an adventure. The cabinet was left in the street, people appeared to be tempted but they left it where it was. Now Sunday was more eventful, the artist and the cabinet got rolled into the storage room of a restaurant. As he had drilled a hole in the cabinet, Lucas was able to take pictures and get an idea of what was going on. The plan was to slip out unnoticed and leave the cabinet to its new owner.

Get the details.

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Jenny Chowdhury was braving the mellowing heat in her 802.11 Apparel - Wifi Jacket. Part of a line of clothing that reflects wifi strength detected in the wearer's immediate environment, the jacket literally "bring to light" a portion of the invisible radio waves by illuminating five stripes in accordance with the wifi signal strength.

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The basic stripes of LEDs are integrated into a flower motif. This design choice associate our natural environment (the flower pattern) with the synthetic one (technology.)

More wearable devices were displayed all along the festival: CO2RSET which monitors air quality and tightens or loosens on the body in response to the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere; the Back-to-Back Massager vest which rows of electric massagers are pointed outward in order to massage others; Compli-mum, a kind of armor for women that plays movies and changes its own shape by separating or gathering parts of its construction through the use of microcontroller and a motorized skeleton structure and a very fetching Helmet Piece which i'm inconsolable to have missed.

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Another work i missed because i was so busy passing the microphone to the public for a Q&A of the panel i curated for Conflux (more about that soon-ish), is The Light Mobs which showed participants how to use a simple little mirror (the pocket Lightcoder) and sunlight to transmit information.

But lucky me! i met Geraldine Juarez the day after and she gave me one of the Lightcoders to morse around and lucky us! she documented the action online.

The project had a very praiseworthy goal: to bring attention to our blind faith in digital technology as a medium of communication, using a simple analog "device": the pocket Lightcoder.

I finally did a Botanicalls tour in which plants guide you by telephone in the area surrounding Conflux HQ. Each tree or plant, speaks in their own "Botanicalls" voice, based on their botanical habits and characteristics. It all started with the arrogant Rose and her ridiculous French accent (i'm allowed to write that cuz i gave her my voice) and ended with heart-breaking cries for help coming from the kitchen of a vegetarian restaurant.

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Just back from Manifesta. The seventh edition of this touring art biennale is held in Trentino-South Tyrol, in N-E Italy. The food over there is definitely Italian but with a crispy teutonic twist, so are the people and atmosphere. To make things even quirkier for visitors, the exhibition is split over several locations, most of them in derelict ex-industrial buildings (how fashionable!) at the outskirts of the small towns that host the event.

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Inside the ex-Alumix factory. Photo credit: Andrea Pozza

Anyway, i'll be back in full Manifesta force later on this week but i'll kick off my reports with a project i saw at the Bolzano branch of the Biennale, more precisely in the dramatic ex-Alumix factory which used to produced aluminum.

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Tantalum Memorial - Residue, by England-based Graham Harwood, Richard Wright, and Matsuko Yokokoji, is a telephony-based memorial to the people who have died as a result of the coltan wars in the Congo.

Coltan is the colloquial African name for columbite-tantalite, a metallic ore which is mined for the metal tantalum - an essential component of consumer electronics products such as mobile phones and computers. The demand for tantalum makes it highly valuable. Analysts say that the international demand for coltan is one of the driving forces behind the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the presence of rival militias in the country and, indirectly, the disappearance of gorillas from the area.

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This installation is constructed out of an old electro-mechanical 1938 Strowger telephone exchange, discovered amongst the remains of the Alumix factory. Seen from afar it looked like it does belong to the ex-factory. An old telephone switch forgotten for decades. The switches are reanimated by tracking the phone calls from Telephone Trottoire - a social telephony network designed by the artists in collaboration with the Congolese radio program Nostalgie Ya Mboka in London. The TT network calls Congolese listeners, plays them a phone message and invites them to record a comment and pass it on to a friend by entering their phone number. This builds on the traditional Congolese practice of "radio trottoire" or "pavement radio", the passing around of news and gossip on street corners in order to avoid state censorship.

But back to the amazingly beautiful installation. As the catalog states: The movements and sounds of the switches create a concrete presence for this otherwise intangible network of circulating conversations, weaving together the ambiguities of globalization, transnational migration and the impact of our addiction to constant communication.

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View of the facade of the ex-Alumix factory. Photo credit: Andrea Pozza

More images of the installation. Photo on the homepage: Graham Harwood, Richard Wright and Matsuko Yokokoji @ Manifesta 7, The Rest of Now, Bolzano/Bozen, Italy, 2008.

Manifesta 7 - the European Biennial of Contemporary Art runs until November 2, 2008 in Trento, Fortezza, Rovereto and Bolzano.

The Helga de Alvear gallery in Madrid is currently running a (very timely) exhibition on the controversial topic of Extraordinary Rendition. The expression was coined by the Bush administration to define new legal measures designed to sidestep the existing Human Rights system and deprive some individuals from its protection in the name of the fight against terrorism.

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Detainees at Camp X-Ray, at Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba

The Patriot Act, for example, expands the authority of US law enforcement agencies for "terrorism investigation." It limits -when it does not completely abolish it- citizens' right to privacy or freedom of expression, allows for kidnapping and confinement of persons without charges, without trial or a detention period as has been happening in Guantanamo since 2002.

The gallery invited four renowned artists to reflect on the issue.

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Elmgreen and Dragset, Phone Home, 2008

Phone Home (2003), by Elmgreen & Dragset, is the only work on exhibit that has not been created specifically for the show. The installation looks at the loss of the right to privacy in communications. Five telephone cabins are lined up in the gallery. A note informs visitors that they can call anyone they want in the world for free. Of course there's a trick: the conversation you are planning to have will be broadcast in the gallery, recorded and a table with audio players and headphones will enable future visitors to listen to what you said.

Under the new rules of extraordinary rendition, physical and psychological torture is justified. Spanish Inquisition-like methods of torture get toned down but that's because some of them are given new names, like waterboarding, in an attempt to disguise their true meaning.

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Santiago Sierra, Público iluminado con generador de gasolina, 2008

True to his wam bam approach, Santiago Sierra chose to address torture and one of its most commonly applied methods: the sleep deprivation of detainees for days and months. A huge spotlight operated by a generator are the only elements in Público iluminado con generador de gasolina [Public illuminated by oil generator]. Unfortunately the gallery had run out of oil (another very timely issue) when i went there and the installation was turned off.

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Alicia Framis, Welcome to Guantanamo, 2008. Image courtesy of Galería Helga de Alvear, Madrid

Alicia Framis is presenting the first part of a wider project called Welcome to Guantánamo Museum. The installation documents the key elements that would form this hypothetical museum on the US detention centre in Cuba. Scale models, drawings, prototypes, floor plans and structures are exhibited together with an audio piece created with Enrique Vila Matas and Blixa Bargeld. The project echoes our society's need to museify everything, think of Auschwitz and Alcatraz. Should we recoil at the idea of turning horror into a tourist attraction or should we decide that such museums are not a necessary evil, a way of ensuring that atrocities are not forgotten?

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Alicia Framis, Welcome to Guantanamo, 2008. Image courtesy of Galería Helga de Alvear, Madrid

The proposal for a Guantanamo Museum will include a selection of exhibition objects and merchandising that reflect the museum's theme and motto -- Things to forget. There will be a Le Corbusier chaise longue turned into an electric chair, a non-existent mailbox, shoes which contain inside their heels a system to allow prisoners to commit suicide, a series of orange clothing and objects designed by Framis together with students during workshops, furniture for the museum will be designed and built using the material of inmates' cells, etc. At the same time a sound room will recall the names of all the caged prisoners in Guantanamo.

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James Casebere, Flooded cell #2, 2008

James Casebere made photos of what he calls Flooded Cells. These images conjure up allusions to prisons, claustrophobic and oppressive spaces somehow reminiscent of Piranesi's fictitious and distressing prisons (carceri) yet also referencing the method of torture by simulated drowning.

Extraordinary is part of the Off programme of PhotoEspana. You can see the show until July 19 at the Helga de Alvear gallery in Madrid. My images.

Related stories: Trevor Paglen's talk at Transmediale, Interview with the Institute for Applied Autonomy, They make art not bioterrorism, Tracking the Torture Taxis.

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