I Sent a Camera to Julian Assange's Embassy Hideout
Do you keep yourself up at night – sweat pooling around you, your eyeballs pulsating – wondering what it would feel like to be packed up into a cardboard box and mailed to Julian Assange? Well, !Mediengruppe Bitnik – a group of Swiss artists – have kindly done everything they can to cure your insomnia by sending a parcel from Hackney to the Ecuadorian embassy (where Assange has been holed up for the past seven months), fitted with a camera that took a photo every ten seconds and automatically uploaded it to their Twitter feed.
Besides being a goldmine of images for anyone who's ever wanted to track a Royal Mail delivery every step of the way, the "Delivery for Mr Assange" project also gave us a glimpse into how the Carey Mulligan doppelganger of the whistle-blower world has been living during his time as a house-guest of the Ecuadorians. He doesn't do many interviews – probably something to do with the fact that he'll be arrested and extradited to Sweden as soon as he steps out of the door – so going through the keyhole into his beige world of WikiLeaks hoodies and posters of large wild cats was kind of exciting.
Following the live feed, however, was not. There was a lot of waiting, a lot of black, a leg or two and all the other tedious stuff you might expect from studying two days worth of photos from the inside of a box. Then, finally, a picture of Julian's smiling face appeared – something I didn't imagine I'd ever be so ecstatic to see. I spoke to Carmen Weisskopf, one of the founders of !Mediengruppe Bitnik, to find out why they sent their package to Julian Assange.
VICE: Hi Carmen. What made you mail this package to Assange?
Carmen Weisskopf: When Assange went into the Ecuadorian embassy, there were always police and activists standing outside, which was all very intense. Then someone on 4chan came up with the idea of sending pizza to the embassy, which was a nice way to introduce some normality to the situation. Then he was granted asylum and people started sending taxis to take him to the airport. That got us thinking of how we could intervene in the situation and introduce some normality, which we also hoped would get people to think about the systems they're engaging in.
What was in the box you posted to him?
We had a load of the foam you put in pillows, and we cut bits up and put different stuff inside – a Samsung phone that took a photo every ten seconds and uploaded it to our website, a battery pack to give the phone 40 hours charge rather than four and a box containing a Swiss to English converter and a charger.
You didn't want to put anything else in the box?
No. We also didn't know whether the parcel would be taken out of the system and looked at, so we didn't want to put in anything other than what we needed. The one thing we didn't want to happen was for the embassy security to be afraid of the parcel.
An X-ray of the "Delivery for Mr Assange" parcel.
Did you give Julian a heads up?
Yes, we emailed him.
Did you think it was going to make it?
No, not really. We made three because we worried it wouldn't work. The plan was to send the first parcel and, if it was taken out, send the second one through a different channel. We didn't expect it to just go through. I've looked over all the photos and could see nobody really looked at the address. We thought there would be alarms going off – not only for Julian Assange, but also for all parcels going to embassies. I thought they would handle it differently, but it was just handled like regular post.
There were a lot of black images. Were you expecting that or did you think the phone was broken?
It's always boggy technology when you work with cell phones and we were nervous quite often. We were expecting a lot of black, but we could also see its location. We knew we had movement, so that helped a bit.
And what about when you saw a picture of Julian Assange?
We were absolutely out of our minds. We were in Zurich and London, connected by Skype, and everyone was so happy. It's really what we hoped would happen. Everyone was so happy because it was such an intense two days.
He's a pretty controversial figure.
Yeah, his allegations are severe. I think that he's on the forefront of debate between open and closed systems, and it's important not to forget that he stands for something important. People might not like him on a personal level, but it's unfair for them to discredit his fights.
Did you expect him to write about Bradley Manning, Aaron Swartz and all the other stuff he put on the cards?
No, we were really surprised. We just asked him to show us a view from the embassy, which he might not have got permission for. We felt really honoured that he apparently took time to think about what he'd do with the camera when it arrived. And he obviously found a way to perform in front of the camera in a way that suited him. We expected him to use the stage for political messages because he's an activist, but I feel like he did it in a very personal way, especially with the wild cats.
Yeah, what were the cats about?
We couldn't really tell, but it made me happy to see them.
The whole thing got a lot of attention.
We never expected that, either. We were really happy because it became quite clear that people wanted to follow this thing, thinking, 'I've been staring at this live image for 12 hours and I don't know why.' There was something really fascinating and enticing, but they couldn't define what it was exactly.
Are you hackers?
No, not at all. We've tried to take hacking out of the computer and into culture. I don't think Anonymous would be interested in talking to us in that sense. But we try to take the same thinking and apply it to other systems on a conceptual level.
WikiLeaks tweeted you when the parcel was being delivered. Were they supportive?
We didn't really talk to each other beforehand. They did warn Assange that there was a package and they wanted him to be able to follow it. We hoped they'd be able to understand the work, but we're not sure they did beforehand.
That's a shame. What does the "bitnik" in your group's name mean?
We like the "nick" on the end because it's sort of futuristic but from the 70s – the future that's somehow in the past. The "bit" comes from one of the smallest entities in a computer – the bits and bytes. A lot of people think it comes from the beatniks – that group of writers in the 50s – but no, we don't take that many drugs.
What's the reasoning behind the project?
It's questioning how much transparency we have in a working democratic society, who controls which information, who has access to which information. We'd love to understand what's going on in this world.
Follow Helena on Twitter: @helena_williams