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Surveillance Art Takes Action in a Post-Snowden World

Addie Wagenknecht is a tech artist and art hacker who wants you to change your online habits.

by Beckett Mufson
27 May 2016, 6:15pm

Martin Zangerl, Stefan Hechenberger, Addie Wagenknecht, 'Liberator Vases,' 60cm x 30cm, 2016. Courtesy of bitforms gallery, New York

Watch our full VICE on HBO episode with Edward Snowden for free below and read more of our privacy and security coverage here. 

Since Edward Snowden blew the lid on the National Security Agency's near omniscience when it comes to data that American citizens thought was private, the conversation around privacy and security has been incessant. Studies show that this new knowledge of our vulnerability has produced a chilling effect on online expression and commerce. Yet, Americans still aren't taking the action necessary to secure their online information. The knowledge that Big Brother is watching is perhaps a source of anxiety in the background, but not of primary importance. If information can't get people to confront the massive mechanisms designed to observe, and even influence them, what can?

For Austria-based artist Addie Wagenknecht, art could be the answer. Her current show at MU, an art and technology-centric museum in the Netherlands, is called Liminal Laws. It tackles the borders—both political and digital—that define our lives. For example, there are hanging panes of bulletproof glass, spattered with icons of feminity, ineffectual attempts to shatter the glass ceiling—an injustice more evident on the web. MU and Hek Basel and specifically commissioned the centerpieces of Liminal Laws, a 1:1 replica of a drone and a series of three vases, 3D-printed in the style of the ancient Greeks. The vases formed from dozens of models of the Liberator handgun, a working weapon that anyone can easily download. (Watch Motherboard's documentary Click. Print. Gun. to learn more about the implication of 3D-printed firearms). The drone, entitled, While You Were Sleeping, is likely the only context in which the average civilian will come in contact with a war machine that makes life hell for those in conflict zones every day. 

Addie Wagenknecht, While You Were Sleeping, fiberglass, automotive paint, fiber optic cables, steel, D-rings 6.6 x 4.6 x 29.5 ft / 2 x 15 x 9 m, 2016

Liminal Laws examines the borders that ostensibly separate us in a post-internet, post-Snowden world. But rather than identifying and bemoaning them, Wagenknecht's philosophy encourages action. If she can do the research necessary to build a replica drone, we can research how to discourage their use. Much of Wagenknecht's repertoire deals with these issues of privacy, notably a chandelier made from CCTV cameras.

Along with creating visually powerful works she pushes the envelope in her daily life. She worked with MU and HeK Basel to publish a book alongside the exhibition, containing images and essays from Domenico Quaranta, Gabriella Coleman, and Motherboard editor Claire Evans. In 2014, Wagenknecht founded an all-female art and tech collective called Deep Lab that researches "privacy, surveillance, code, art, social hacking, race, capitalism, anonymity, the infrastructures of the 21st century and useful skills in tangible situations." That last part is paramount to the issue of privacy today. What else do we have in the face of the information-industrial complex?

We chatted with Wagenknecht about Liminal Laws, making art post-Snowden, and how someone with her expertise keeps her data secure.

Addie Wagenknecht, Glass Ceiling, 2014

Addie Wagenknecht Glass Ceiling: Kiss Me, plexiglas, lipstick 31.5 x 19.7 x .6 in / 80 x 50.8 x 1.5 cm, 
2014

The Creators Project: How has making artwork about the dangers of surveillance, government, and technology changed the way you think about your information?

I realized how deeply biased technology is, or should I say, not without bias. Surveillances has the flaw that it has a huge failure rate of its algorithms. Who it determines to be a terrorist threat would be one example. I also have seen a shift of quantifying humans to data. So technology proposes and positions itself as the architect of our intimacies and the outcome is our networked life allows us to hide from each other even as we are tethered to each other. 

How has the conversation around your work changed since the Snowden leaks brought surveillance into the collective consciousness?

Surveillance is a function of power, and that power affects us differently as women, as it does people of color, religious minorities, and so forth. In the past two years since the Snowden disclosures, it has felt—in the United States—as if surveillance is something that Americans have just discovered, something that affects us all equally and that's not true" was a point that Deep Lab member Jillian York brought up in a prior interview. This dis-balance of power structures draws on this notion of who is watched, why and what the implications are. Perhaps a good example of the affect of leakers directly on my work would be the xxxx.xxx series . The entire series manifested itself as I was extensively researching Chelsea Manning, her decisions, her case, and lack of support to this day, she has received for her massive contributions to freedom. When you compare Manning, for example to Snowden. She has been silenced for six years, while he has been giving keynotes. I respect them both deeply and yet this highlights the systematic bias towards people who ID as women, and especially women who speak up. So I made a whole series of works which looked at my frustration of her treatment. 

MU / photography by Hanneke Wetzer

What are your own precautions against everyday online surveillance? What advice do you have for other artists looking to protect their information?

I run an encrypted Linux operating system, and use Signal, PGP, and XMPP or Jabber whenever possible but what I think you are asking is how do you maintain the power of what is given to the corporations?  We take as natural the notion that our internal lives and the public record of our lives should have a one-to-one relationship, there is an assumption that what we are online is what we are offline and that we should move through this existence always documenting, but that's not power. It feels like power because it helps us to remember the past, but it only serves the agents of the technological economy sell our own lives back to us. Power is deciding what you keep away from the machine.

Tell me a little bit about your conversation with MU in conceiving of Liminal Laws. What did they want to say with the show, and how did that become the Liberator Gun commission?

I was approached by MU and HeK Basel in 2015 to do a solo exhibition. With the liberator gun vases, we (myself, Martin Zangerl and Stefan Hechenberger) were interested in the materiality of the open source liberator gun and the notion that anything could be a weapon. We wanted to mimic and play off the same form factors that are familiar, similar to the CCTV chandelier Assymteric Love. So vases felt like a logical and recognizable place to start as an object. The forms were then parametircally generated as 3D models and 3D printed so that the materiality was true to the original object.  

MU / photography by Hanneke Wetzer

Liminal Laws recontextualizes a lot of the symbols of surveillance and other scary aspects of technology. Is the show intended to scare people? 

No. Scaring people just immobilizes them. Speaking of the ‘digital landscape' is such a compartmentalized view of humanity. I wanted the entire exhibition to lack any presence of humans, ultimately then it becomes about humans. Once we realize the digital landscape is a bunch of people hoisting their creativity, emotions, fears, and what gets them off onto the servers a few superpowers like Apple, Google, and Microsoft we see this crisis of intimacy. Our phones know more about our secrets, jokes, fears and joys than anything else or anyone else in our lives. That's a huge shift from even a decade ago.

If the trailers for films like Zero Days are to be believed, we should be afraid, right? 

Before the word was used to designate a piece of hardware, a lot of people were computers—it was a job description, not an object. As in, someone who computes, who makes computations for a living. Humans crunched astronomical data, performed ballistics calculations for the US government, assisted on the brunt mathematical work on the Manhattan Project. Theirs was really the mental labor of big science for a long time; by and large, human computers were women. What I am trying to get at is, Western culture has started to fear and degrade the notion of human intelligence. We celebrate stupidity as a society. If we passively consume culture, nothing happens. Facebook wins. Nothing is challenged. We have failed to realize that visiblity does not equal power. The only thing we should 'be afraid' of is our own stupidity. The most dangerous thing we can do is understand the mechanisms behind our useage of these systems, ask questions, and search for answers, so we can destroy them and find better questions.

MU / photography by Hanneke Wetzer

Can you tell me one thing more people should be afraid of, but aren't?

Donald Trump.

And one that's amazing and we don't need to be afraid about?

Quantum cryptography and computing.

What's next for you as an artist? 

I have been researching the last three months neural nets and the implications of machine learning on gender bias within the canon of contemporary culture and contemporary art. 

Liminal Laws will be at MU through June 19, and will will also be on view at HeK in Basel between September and November. Learn more about Addie Wagenknecht here, Deep Lab here, and buy the Liminal Laws book here.

Check out Vice.com's interview with Edward Snowden below:

Related:

The Golden CCTV Cameras & WIFI Sculptures of Addie Wagenknecht

3D-Printed 'Liberator' Guns Become a Chandelier Sculpture

Revealing The Illusion Of Perfect Beauty With Art Series 'Law Of Averages'