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'.
Internet Yami-ichi (japanese for Black Market) is a flea market where people sell Internet-ish things face to face.
The last edition of the market took place in Amsterdam on 9 and 10 May. More precisely at the Flemish Arts Centre De Brakke Grond, a (vast) space dedicated to promoting and showcasing contemporary art productions from Flanders. Any kind of art and with an emphasis on innovation, cross-over, interdisciplinarity, and artistic guts. Some of their events are in dutch but a big part of their programme caters for the international audience. I've only been to De Brakke Grond twice but what i've seen so far was critical, witty and resolutely embedded into contemporary culture.
The goods on sale at Yami-ichi were both smart and silly. I bought a little mirror to stick on a phone and observe/photograph scenes and people i wouldn't normally dare to watch openly (i'm not one to take the metro and ignore fellow travelers), all sorts of things made or baked to the glory of internet memes and a fabric patch with a glue gun sewn on it. And some mystery eggs. One thrown in a plastic container by JODI, the other enclosing the url of a Fresh Unpopular Video. I was also made a member of the institutions of Resolution Disputes, participated in a 'hate mail writing' workshop and got myself (fake)photographed in the company of Stefan Simchowitz (whom ignorant me had never heard about before.)
Internet Yami-ichi / Black Market is not just a place to throw your wallet around. I quickly found out that it also offers a great opportunity to meet people who are interested in art&tech, hacking, and contemporary culture in general. Artists, designers, art students and hackers were selling objects, offering food and DIY workshop, participating to hilarious performances (singing a cappella the sound of dial-up internet, for example.) And pretty much anyone who's someone in art&tech (whatever that means) had made the trip from Eindhoven, Amsterdam, Brussels or Rotterdam to 'browse' around. It was internet but in the flesh. I didn't count the number of visitors but De Brakke Grond did. Apparently, over 1900 visitors turned up over the Yami-ichi weekend! 'Zeer succesvolle editie'!
All of the above would probably make more sense if i actually showed some images from the event and commented them briefly. There you are:
By the way, institutions of Resolution Disputes [iRD] was one of my favourite projects at the market. It's far brainier than the other pieces sold/exhibited and hopefully i'll find a moment to come back to it in a later post. But in the meantime (and if i don't come back to the work on the blog), do check out this interview that Daniel Rourke did with Rosa Menkman for Furtherfield.
Austin Houldsworth's PhD research at the Royal College of Art in London focuses on the development of a new design method called Counterfictional Design which embeds alternative socially dependent technologies into social science fiction novels. The 'technology', Austin is interested to explore in this context is Money.
Money, he says, 'is inherently conservative.' As currency expert Bernard Lietaer points out in his 2001 book The Future of Money, money functions through belief. You believe that everyone else believes that the money is valuable. What we are talking about here is belief about a belief. This collective belief contributes to economic stability, but it also fosters scepticism towards alternative monetary ideas. In his paper on the stone money of Yap (the inhabitants of this small island in Micronesia used huge stone wheels as a medium of exchange and as a store of wealth.) Milton Friedman suggests: 'Our own money, the money we have grown up with, the system under which it is controlled, these appear 'real' and 'rational' to us. The money of other countries often seen to us like paper or worthless metal.'
According to Houldsworth, the conservative nature of money explains why most market driven payments devices are focused on increasing efficiency of the current monetary system, rather than designing alternatives. His counterfictional design method acts thus as a tool to help shift the cultural design constraints surrounding money and imagine alternative systems, which would otherwise be impossible to envision.
Over a year ago, the designer illustrated the counterficitional design method with Walden Note money which explored the way money might function within a behaviorist society.
His latest project, Wealth Beyond Big Brother looks at what happens to trans-border exchanges when they take place inside highly unregulated states. The literary context this time is Orwell's book 1984. But instead of looking at the paternalistic control of Big Brother, the scenario takes place in the disputed territories that lie between the super states of Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia.
In practice no on power ever controls the whole of the disputed area. Portions of it are constantly changing hands, and it is the chance of seizing this or that fragment by sudden stroke of treachery that dictates the endless changes of alignment.
Because each new invasion of these areas brings a new ruler, no trusted financial institution ever has the chance to establish itself. People living within these areas have thus developed a completely decentralised payment system which serves as both personal protection and a medium of exchange.
All of the disputed territories contain valuable minerals, and some of them yield important vegetable products such as rubber.
Through continual war and invasion, the disputed territory regions have been depleted of most natural resources. Scarcity of even semi precious metals like copper has led to a high demand for such materials. Therefore, gold, silver and copper act as a standard 'store of value' and 'medium of exchange.'
People living within the disputed territories mostly trade with people they know and therefore these small groups operate through a type of gift economy. However, when a resource is needed from another area, trade with strangers is inevitable. Historically these trades have often ended in blood shed. Given the impossibility of establishing a state-controlled culture of trans-border commerce, the factions have decided to take matter into their own hand and cast their currency into the form of bullets, creating a payment system which acts as security and therefore helps contextualize the meaning of value. Both sides are forced to be civil to one another, with the potential for loss of life or livelihood playing a key role in maintaining harmony between people who have little reason to trust each other.
Individuals craft their own payment devices from reappropiated weapons left behind during the ongoing conflicts between the super states. As most of the components of these weapons were made under the guidance of big brother Ministry of Plenty, the gun parts are made from very cheap plastics, electroplated to look like gunmetal. They have little metal content and are in fact worthless compared with the small metal bullets used as a medium of exchange. The payment device has a groove cut out of the revolver section, without the need for the buyer to remove it from the breach.
During transactions, the buyer holds the device towards the seller, with all the bullets required during the transaction, loaded into the breach. When the buyer and seller have agreed on the price of the item being traded, the buyer takes the required amount of gold, silver or copper bullets from the guns breach and hands the unfired bullets to the seller in exchange for the goods.
Very rarely is the payment device used as a weapon. But occasionally transactions have been known to turn hostile and pressing the release catch to fire the gun becomes necessary. The bullets themselves have an electronic ignition, and are activated when the electrical contacts from the bolt touch the contacts at the back of the bullet.
I did have one last question for Austin:
That institutional control isn't always a bad thing. And a completely decentralised payment system can also produce nightmarish scenarios.
In light of the banking sector scandals. Decentralised systems like Bitcoin suddenly appear rather alluring. Yet financial institutions, I believe, can both represent individual interests and collective interests for the benefit of society. A financial institution like a bank or building society can set precedents on idealised behaviour both for the institution and individuals within a given context. Money by itself, doesn't often offer any ideological framework.
Therefore, perhaps remembering both nightmare visions within 'Nighteen Eighty Four,' the extreme control of 'big brother' and the dog eat dog environment of the 'disputed territories'.
Nearest Costco, Monument or Satellite does exactly what its title suggests. Its 14 colourful arrows point you with impeccable accuracy into the direction of the nearest Costco (a warehouse club chain popular in the U.S.), monument or orbiting GPS satellite.
Drawing from ideas in psychogeography, locative technologies and the human sense of location, the work consists of networked electronic pointing devices built into individual flight cases. Each case contains the electronics required to control a pointer arrow held above the case by a telescoping antenna. At its literal base, the cases contain and represent the rational, networked, technologized information available on place and direction. From this base, the antennas extend this information up into a swaying field of poetic movements, governed by materiality more than information.
The absurd piece turns the human sense of direction into a mechanical performance and critically comments on the way our daily perception of the environment is mediated by technology. Nearest Costco, Monument or Satellite will be part of the upcoming edition of the Sight & Sound, a festival that brings together digital artworks under a common theme. This year the festival explores the idea of being 'hyperlocal' and Daniel Jolliffe's piece responds well to S+S's exploration of the horizontality of networked art production and its contextualization within an ultra-localized setting.
Since i suspected that Nearest Costco, Monument or Satellite was more than the sum of its very humourous parts, i contacted Daniel Jolliffe to know more about his work:
Hi Daniel! One of the striking characteristics of the work is how cheerful and colorful it is. What made you decide to make the installation so visually appealing?
For a long time I have been making works that use sculpture as a kind of camouflage for the electronic systems that give rise to a piece. Partly, this is because I think the idea that plain, or exposed electronics in a work puts ideas about technology in the viewer's head that come mostly from movie clichés about futurist robots and the like. Most people, when presented with an electronic system that is all diodes and motors and integrated circuits have a hard time knowing what is really going on. This means in turn that the possibility of being critical about the ideas in the work gets eaten up by the complex cliché of the technical system. As an artist I would prefer to avoid the discussion of how something works on a technical level, and encourage instead the discussion of what issues the work explores. So, I almost always put the electronic systems I use into sculptural forms that act as a kind of camouflage for the technical system of the work. For "Nearest Costco, Monument or Satellite" (NCMS) I went to a lot of trouble to find certain colours for the sculptures and the cables in order to generate the visual feeling you are talking about-- the zone of technological encounter that is playful, non-threatening and hopefully beautiful. I think it also never hurts to employ some classic visual art strategies like colour to engage the viewer on a purely visual level to start off.
(Nearest) Costco, monument or orbiting GPS satellite(s). Why did you pick up the location of those three? Why not nail salons or art museum, for example? The answer to this threads into your first question, as the colour has a lot to do with humour. Lately I have been very interested in having some humour in my work. My performance/sculpture/web work One Free Minute had moments of humour, and I realized with that piece with how powerful it is to make make the viewer laugh. You can make them laugh, and then make them think. In NCMS, the whole premise of the piece is humorous: it's a kind of ridiculous system that actually works! It points to the nearest Costco (from the current show in Wroclaw, it is pointing to the nearest Costco in the UK), the nearest well-known monument (the Aleksander Fredro Statue in Wroclaw) and it goes into a third mode to track the orbiting GPS Satellites. You can, of course, find all these things in a few minutes on your cell phone. Even the current positions of GPS satellites are easily found online. On a more serious level, the three things NCMS points to are loose placeholders for the way we conceptualize places and location in the contemporary mind. Most people can conceptualize in their mind the route from their house to the nearest Costco, IKEA or major chain store. This is one way of thinking about location in the contemporary mind. Another is when you are talking to a friend on the phone or texting to arrange a meeting place: we could meet here, in front of this statue or there, in front of that yellow building. This is a kind of call to the collective memory of place. The third function-- pointing to GPS satellites-- tries to talk about how irrelevant that information is, and in turn about how abstracted and distanced we are from the machines that generate ideas of location in our minds. So the piece is kind of elaborate joke, but it's a serious one. I say this because I think that within the quick and efficient access to location data that we have on our cell phones, there is something lost in the human experience. This is really what this piece is about. It slows down the process of locating things, putting it into a ridiculous visual component form that hopefully makes you think about the the faster systems that we all actually use to find things in real life.
(Nearest) Costco, monument or orbiting GPS satellite(s). Why did you pick up the location of those three? Why not nail salons or art museum, for example?
The answer to this threads into your first question, as the colour has a lot to do with humour. Lately I have been very interested in having some humour in my work. My performance/sculpture/web work One Free Minute had moments of humour, and I realized with that piece with how powerful it is to make make the viewer laugh. You can make them laugh, and then make them think. In NCMS, the whole premise of the piece is humorous: it's a kind of ridiculous system that actually works! It points to the nearest Costco (from the current show in Wroclaw, it is pointing to the nearest Costco in the UK), the nearest well-known monument (the Aleksander Fredro Statue in Wroclaw) and it goes into a third mode to track the orbiting GPS Satellites. You can, of course, find all these things in a few minutes on your cell phone. Even the current positions of GPS satellites are easily found online.
On a more serious level, the three things NCMS points to are loose placeholders for the way we conceptualize places and location in the contemporary mind. Most people can conceptualize in their mind the route from their house to the nearest Costco, IKEA or major chain store. This is one way of thinking about location in the contemporary mind. Another is when you are talking to a friend on the phone or texting to arrange a meeting place: we could meet here, in front of this statue or there, in front of that yellow building. This is a kind of call to the collective memory of place.
The third function-- pointing to GPS satellites-- tries to talk about how irrelevant that information is, and in turn about how abstracted and distanced we are from the machines that generate ideas of location in our minds.
So the piece is kind of elaborate joke, but it's a serious one. I say this because I think that within the quick and efficient access to location data that we have on our cell phones, there is something lost in the human experience. This is really what this piece is about. It slows down the process of locating things, putting it into a ridiculous visual component form that hopefully makes you think about the the faster systems that we all actually use to find things in real life.
I had a look at the video of the work of course and believe it or not, i was actually amazed to see that all the arrows ended up pointing to the exact same direction. does it always work so flawlessly? Apologies for the dumb question but what happens when the nearest monument is actually 2 monuments located at the same distance from your piece?
I've just set it up at the WRO media art Biennale in Wroclaw, and watching it, I'm amazed too that it does indeed flawlessly point out the actual locations. The way it is programmed, it sometimes takes one or two of the arrow pointers a while to catch up. It's like the person in a group of people who finally agrees with the others about the right way to get to the restaurant. This makes me laugh almost every time.
There is no confusion about pointing to the nearest monument, and it does this spot-on every time. The way I get this information very low-tech. First I ask a number of local people where the most significant and well- known local monuments and meeting places are. Once i decide which one the piece will point to, I ask two or three local people to do that in real life. After that I turn the way they pointed with their arms (the angle, basically) into code for the piece. This way the arrows are just reproducing what a local person would do if you asked them.
Was there any challenge you encountered while developing the work?
About a hundred, but happily they are all behind me now! It took a long time to figure out how to get the arrows into the air and have them reliably point. I also did three different sculptural prototypes of the work before I came up with this one.
What's next for you? Any upcoming event, field of research or project you'd like to share with us?
I am working on some more work to do with humour. This piece is travelling a few places this year, to Montreal, then to the Museum of Nantes in France and finally to ISEA in Vancouver.
Check out Daniel Jolliffe's Nearest Costco, Monument or Satellite at the Sight & Sound festival in Montreal next week from 20 May until 24 May 2015. The programme is pretty good this year, Nicolas Maigret will launch another of his drone performances and Martin Howse will be doing a Earth Coding workshop.
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.