American hacker and privacy advocate Jacob Appelbaum is primarily known as a former WikiLeaks spokesperson and persistent thorn in the side of governments worldwide. But he also has an artistic streak.
In 2014, he and artist Trevor Paglen created the Autonomy Cube, a sculpture designed for museums, galleries and civic spaces, equipped with an open wifi connection that routes all traffic onto the Tor network. The title of his first solo show, SAMIZDATA: Evidence of Conspiracy, which opens at Berlin's NOME Gallery this week, riffs on the samizdat underground publishing network that spread dissident writing in the shadows of the Soviet Union by hand. The emphasis isn't on gadgets but on the human element in modern dissident networks, featuring portraits of individuals engaged in a modern day "network of resistance."
His art itself began in private, with portrait photography of his friends. "The purpose of my art is as a gift to the subject," says Appelbaum. "And that's a matter of trust—single edition portraits, in particular." For the show, Appelbaum has assembled six of those portraits, all of friends and colleagues: Snowden reporters Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald and Greenwald's partner David Miranda; WikiLeaks editor Sarah Harrison, and its founder Julian Assange; NSA whistleblower William Binney; and Ai Weiwei, the Beijing-based artist and political activist who, like Appelbaum, has become a nuisance to his government.
Each portrait is shot in infrared, and rendered in vibrant cibachrome prints, allowing him to reveal more information than standard film. Appelbaum used the now discontinued Polaroid stock Kodak Color Infrared (EIR) as a nod to its original use: in the detection of camouflaged targets, agricultural surveillance and forensics investigations.
In Appelbaum's photograph of Weiwei, the artist stands in a field of flowers and trees, looking up into the sky. The infrared colors pop in surreal fashion, almost like Federico Fellini's Juliet of the Spirits. In the William Binney portrait, the old NSA whistleblower, who lost both of his legs to diabetes, stands in front of a tree while his wheelchair sits several feet behind him out of focus.
The piece is a sly critique of secret police, and the idea that truth must sometimes travel through side channels, through sneakernets
Also notable: the character in Appelbaum's ongoing saga of surveillance who is not present. "These are pre-Snowden, and he's not even featured—it's about networks of resistance that go beyond a set of documents or affair," said Appelbaum, who emphasized the totality of his subject's lives and careers, rather than focusing on more recent events. "Laura's work on the film The Oath is just as important as her work on Citizenfour. Julian Assange and Sarah Harrison at Wikileaks play a role in the 'Snowden Affair', if you want to call it that, but that's not why they're at the show."
"It's also true for people like Bill Binney and Ai Weiwei," he added. "If it weren't for Binney, there wouldn't be a Snowden. When put together, they're more than the sum of their parts."
With his focus trained on the individuals who are resisting global networks of surveillance in SAMIZDATA, Appelbaum draws a line between the ramshackle, secretive network of publishers and readers that defined the Soviet underground and the modern-day dissidents who use Tor and other peer-to-peer networks.
He acknowledged it's a loose parallel. Communication over the internet is so much easier, allowing transmission and reproduction on a previously unthinkable scale. And the "underground" web enabled by software like Tor includes a fraught mix of hidden data, from credit card numbers to pirated movies to the vital communications of dissidents in authoritarian countries. That in turn has encouraged new legal regimes and techniques that lump together piracy and activism as forms of cybercrime. "We're seeing people getting in trouble not just for sharing movies," said Appelbaum, "but for hosting mirrors for the distribution of Wikileaks data."
Another piece in the show, P2P (Panda 2 Panda), is a collaboration with Ai that grew out of a series of conversations with Poitras. "I came up with the idea of shredding NSA documents and stuffing them in [toy] pandas, and then we would think about how we should distribute them around the world."
Appelbaum first met and collaborated with Ai for three days in Beijing in April. Ai, he explains, "shaped P2P in a very smart way as far as art direction, [telling] me about the fact that China's secret police are called pandas, and if people do share things [online] it's pop culture, so this warped the whole concept."
Initially, "I was going to bring original documents that I had basically made from a historic, if you will, journalistic work project I had to destroy, like notes and classified documents, that couldn't be released." But Chinese acquaintances kept telling Appelbaum, "No, you can't do that — [the government] will reconstruct them."
Though Appelbaum tried to assure them that this would be impossible, he said their paranoia was powerful. Appelbaum and Weiwei ended up using documents that weren't one of a kind—"public documents," he said—and then shredded them. Appelbaum and Ai bought 20 panda bears, removed their stuffing, and restuffed them with the shredded documents as well as a micro SD card containing unknown data. (Poitras made a short film about the collaboration, "Surveillance Machine.")
Appelbaum said that he and Ai were worried that the Chinese government might try to intercept the pandas as they were distributed, by hand and person-to-person, around the world. Then again, they were also worried the US government might do the same given the people involved in the project. In that sense, the piece is a sly critique of secret police, and the idea that truth must sometimes travel through side channels, through sneakernets or peer-to-peer networks, be they in Beijing, Berlin, or New York.
"It's a critique against everyone, and it's about stripping away national issues," Appelbaum said. "It wasn't possible for Weiwei to pass a bear along to Snowden, and I don't have a Russian visa, and I can't get it to Assange either, so we had to rely on intermediaries to help; like samizdat really, and that was the idea."
"We smuggled them all around the planet through a network of people, so they're in Russia, and they're in China, Canada, the US, Germany, and UK," Appelbaum explained. For the show, Appelbaum hoped to display only a single panda. "I'm a big fan of the lone panda, which by itself suggests that one person helped it get there."
During Appelbaum's trip to China—his first—he told Fusion's Kashmir Hill that criticism of China and its own surveillance tends to be overblown: "The perceptions of China don't meet the reality… It doesn't feel like an oppressive surveillance state. China has been demonized by the West."
Appelbaum wasn't sympathizing with Beijing, he said. He was commenting on the fact that it wasn't nearly as creepy in person as it was portrayed in the media.
"My point was that people demonize China without looking at the facts. They talk about the Chinese being super hackers, when it takes Snowden to reveal the real hackers."
"There are a lot of things to take issue with the Chinese government," he added. "It doesn't have the hallmarks of a democracy, but it's also bad when western governments mirror them."
Everywhere, he said, "surveillance is meant to make you feel nothing, so you won't feel the oppression." Appelbaum himself has felt it acutely: he has been stopped and searched multiple times by the US government, and now lives in exile in Berlin. "In the West, people think that if you don't know that it's happening, then it's not a problem. But that idea is ridiculous."
Having spent much of his career steeped in the technical details of surveillance and transparency, Appelbaum is now more eager to present ideas in a way that's easy for anyone to understand and discuss—or even wear. He is also exhibiting Guilt, Shame and Fear, a set of necklaces that look like test tubes, each stuffed with shredded secret documents that were never released to the public.
"I have a garbage bag full of these documents, but I couldn't bring them to China with me or release them," said Appelbaum. "So I wanted these necklaces to be shared amongst people." An edition of 100 necklaces will be sold at the gallery, with the proceeds donated to Edward Snowden's defense fund.
"It's very important to have a lot of these discussions in public, and use it to discuss issues of basic liberties," he said. "The art world is a great way to reach a lot of people who otherwise wouldn't be reached."