After Edward Snowden's NSA leaks, artists really commenced thinking about and making sense of internet data mining, state surveillance, and privacy, such as Creator, Trevor Paglen. This was a big theme at the 2014 “Afterglow” edition of Transmediale in Berlin, where artists tackled these issues head-on. Elsewhere, hacker artist Evan Roth even created a physical representation of what four months of internet cache (that which is data mine in transit) looks like. Now, Austrian artist Stefan Tiefengraber, an interactive media artist, is entering the fray.
In his latest exhibition, TIME OUT O.1, currently exhibiting at the Ars Electronica Center in Linz, Austria, Tiefengraber wades into this digital zeitgeist with three pieces—User Generated Server Destruction, You Uneraseble Text, and The Drawing Machine. In the process, he plays with the techno-realities of corporate and state surveillance, big data, ephemeral messaging, and whether or not our stored data can ever actually be controlled, let alone destroyed.
In the exhibition, a machine equipped with hammers (controlled by users) destroys a server, taking a little bit of the internet with it; text messages inked to paper are promptly shredded; and a “drawing machine” distorts data through electromagnetism. It's all good, internet-inspired savagery. And though Tiefengraber wants people to think about these issues while interacting with his art, if they happen to just have a good time instead, that's fine, too..
The Creators Project: Where did the idea for TIME OUT 0.1 come from? Were you paying attention to current events such as state surveillance, privacy, big data, ephemeral messaging, etc?
Stefan Tiefengraber: The works which were selected by the AEC also fit together with their running exhibitions, one of which is at the moment "Out of Control.” So, the TIME OUT 0.1, with my three installations, works very well alongside this exhibition and offers another view on that topic. A lot of my work covers the topics you mentioned with a critical eye because we are confronted with them all the time, and it's a very thin line between using these systems and getting used by them.
The title of the exhibition comes from the cooperation of my university the Kunstuniversität Linz with the Ars Electronica Center, and is the start of a series. A TIME OUT 0.2 will follow soon.
You wanted the exhibition's visitors to have fun destroying a server or text message, but also know that there is something behind it. Can you elaborate on that?
For me, it's important that visitors of the exhibition can very easily get into touch with the works and use them. Having fun makes it very easy to get their attention. From there my intention is to get them to start thinking about or get interested in what is behind all of this. For example, I want to make them realize that a server and all the data stored on it has to exist somewhere physically, and that it's possible to destroy them. But, if they just have fun, then that's also okay with me, too. There are far too many serious things out there.
How do people physically "beat" a server in the piece “User Generated Server Destruction”?
They can visit the website http://www.ugsd.net that is hosted on the server located in the exhibition. At this website they can operate hammers that fall onto the server if the user wants them to. The size and weight of the hammers is what I use to hammer the server. In the case of the installation, the machine is doing the hammering and the user has control of the machine.
The idea of making the internet a bit smaller for a short amount of time is very interesting. It really makes you understand that its tentacles are constantly growing and enwrapping the planet.
Yes, that's what I like a lot about this installation as well—this short, little moment that is there and gone so quickly. The server that got destroyed by one user was the end of one of those tentacles simply because he pushed a button.
In “Your Un-erasable Text," people can destroy the visual text message, but not the text's digital file or ghost. Did this resonate with people, especially with those who might not understand how internet and mobile data is stored, archived, sold, and siphoned off by governments?
Some do, but a lot are just using it and having fun, which is okay with me. Sometimes I read the messages that the installation is collecting and storing—the date, time, and phone number of the sender. The description next to installation says this, but sometimes I feel that people totally don't think about what they are doing and how they deal with their data and privacy, especially young people.
But, I hope that there are at least some who do. When I get the chance to talk with people in the exhibition, it really works quite well as far as getting them thinking more about these issues.
How is all of the data you collected used in “The Drawing Machine”? Also, how does it work? “The Drawing Machine” is basically a data visualization machine; but, in this case, the machine is distorting the data while it's drawing. The machine acts as an analogue visual effects machine that can be compared to the changing of a waveform in music or of analogue video signals. The machine is reverse drawing on white paper that I color with black pastel before, scratching off the color again with its wheels that move on the paper. The machine has two directions that it can move, horizontally or vertically, and this is used by the machine to translate the data into a visual graphic.
Where were the data sources used in “The Drawing Machine”?
Thedata the machine draws comes from an electromagnetic sniffing device called "Limen" that I got from two artists, [Mario de Vega and Victor Mazón Gardoqui](http:// http://www.r-aw.cc). It's basically a receiver that works in the range between 0.1 GHz to 2.5 GHz (mobile phones, wifi, bluetooth, etc.). That device has an audio output and a data output showing the intensity of the electronic smog. I've combined this device with an Arduino and a Raspberry and made it mobile, programming it to make ten minute recordings of audio and the intensity of the electronic smog.
I'm doing different places in Linz around the Ars Electronica Center but also inside. The audio recordings are audible in the exhibition. It takes the machine about three to four days to finish a drawing based on the data I feed it. The finished drawings are portraits of these different places, showing what we normally can't hear or see, while creating a transformation of data we can't see into something we can see.
See more of Tiefengraber's work on his site, here.