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Ubermorgen Are Our Favourite "Hackers"

by Juliane Liebert
24 March 2010, 5:14pm

"Media hacking" carries strong connotations of smug overcrammed collegiate bookshelves and dreadlocks where half are dyed green. Ditto "internet art." Double-ditto "digital actionism." I've never seen the hair nor shelves of the guys who run the digital actionist web-based media-hacking art site Ubermorgen.com, but I'd be willing to bet they're the exception that proves the rule. Or rather, I'd be willing to hope they're the exception. Because I like them.

In all seriousness, Ubermorgen have done some of the coolest and most subversive things with computers I've seen since Captain Crunch or whoever hacked the Jolly Roger back in the usenet days or whatever. They've turned Google's automated advertising system against itself, transformed Amazon's entire stock into a digital lending library, and freaked a bunch of squares in the mainstream media by setting up a commodities market for votes. We chatted to them while they were in Israel on some digital actionist business about some of the pieces that went into they're recently released monograph. In efforts to be completely thorough, there are two books--one titled UM.BOOK: MEDIA HACKING VS. CONCEPTUAL ART and the second simply UBERMORGEN.COM.

Oh yeah, and the two guys are named Hans Bernhard and "lizvlx." I know, again with the dreads.

Vice: The first thing of yours I saw was "Amazon Noir--the Big Book Crime," where you set up a program that downloaded the complete text from books and gave it away for free. Why'd you guys decide to take on Amazon?

lizvlx: We never actually do anything against something because it would put us in a weak and inferior position. What was interesting about Amazon was that we could do it. The question for us is not why you’re doing something, it’s why you’re not doing something.

So there are was a weakness that gave you no other choice?

Exactly, with “Amazon Noir” there was this horribly coded Software, which allowed anyone to “search inside the book.” Not necessarily to abuse it, but it had the potential to be generously expanded in order to download the entire the book.

How long was “Amazon Noir” online?

Oh Amazon-noir.com is still online. In terms of functionality,though, it was online for six months.

Was that how long it took Amazon to find out about it or how long it took them to figure out how to fix their software?

They found out about it much quicker than that. It excited the people and then the entire journalist community, who count Amazon as one of the so-called evil powers on the web, which is naturally ridiculous. Companies are not really bad or good. Anyways we ended the project by selling the software to Amazon.

Wow, so instead of ending up in jail for ripping them off, you got to rip them off a second time. Does that constitute "media hacking" for you?

Yes and no. Media hacking is, if anything, more like “NAZI~LINE“ or “[V]ote-Auction.“ The point is to reuse mass medial channels in order to plug in topics that are not naturally featured in these channels—and doing that as effectively as possible.

How did "[V]ote – Auction“ work?

“[V]ote-Auction“ is a relatively old project from 2000 just before the first election of President Bush--it was a platform for the buying and selling of individual votes in the American election. A user could go to the site and register his/her vote for sale, which was tagged to the user's respective state, and other people could buy votes from a particular state. That was the basic routine of the platform. And did it function?

Well, it functioned in the sense that it received very significant and widespread media attention. We had huge feature articles on the front pages of the biggest newspapers in the entire world. We had a nearly hourlong primetime special on CNN. Every day for three months, we were interviewed at least 20 times a day--from sources completely realistic to those totally absurd. Moreover it is one of the most important legal cases in the field of internet rights.

You guys also implemented “[V]ote-Auction” in Switzerland, right?

Yeah, that version was called “Wahlgeld.com” and it was connected to another fake website for a farm where dog meat was being produced for consumption. At the end we interchanged both projects--so the people who sold their votes on Wahlgeld, who were supposed to received money in return, instead got dog sausages. And the people who ordered dog sausage conversely received money. Nice.

Weirdly enough the people didn’t find it very funny. Also, just to point out, at the end of “[V]ote-Auction,” we didn’t sell any votes. Not because we didn’t want to, but because a massive real-life electoral fraud was conducted in Florida… Right. Did the legal consequences also play into your descision though?

Yes. OGAs like the CIA, FBI, and NSA hacked our server and tapped our telephones. They would have never allowed it, because it jeopardized the public integrity of the election. However, because it ran on a data carrier it was theoretically unstoppable--no one could deactivate our provider since it only ran off one IP address. Eventually they physically disconnected it and we kind of realized we'd made a narrow escape without much damage.

OK, how about the “Schlingensief Project"? What was its deal?

Oh you mean “NAZI~LINE”? We made that right after "[V]ote-Auction"--we wanted to work on something that was a bit intellectual and not such a huge media spectacle, because that is honestly stressful. So we, as complete idiots, then decided to do a project with Christoph Schlingensief and Neo-Nazis, which was unbelievably relaxing, as you could imagine.

Good one.

But it was very funny. It was sponsored by the Center for Political Education. We constructed a homepage, where the goal was to provide a way out of the Neo-Nazi scene for kids who were sick of being Neo-Nazis. We decided to dress it up with things that would make Neo-Nazis feel most at home–-lots of black, red, and white; a bit of Leni Riefenstahl; the appropriate language, you know.

Then in Berlin we organized Neo-Nazi castings--Christoph had just finished doing Hamlet with a bunch of kids in Zürich--as a measure to create jobs. The whole point was that if someone stops being a Neo-Nazi, there is initially not much for them to do. They fall into this black hole where they've got to find work and rebuild their whole social support network. So we were creating an ex-Neo-Nazi group for them that was functionally pretty similar to their former Neo-Nazi groups.

So you guys helped out the Neo-Nazis and they helped you stay in the limelight?

Well, kind of. In Berlin people were freaked out about our community office, where ex-Neo-Nazis were running in and out all day. I didn’t understand that. If a Neo-Nazi is evil then an ex-Neo-Nazi should be good, right? Overall the project functioned well and got through to the people, it should get through to, but the Center for Political Education was then not so happy. They subsequently made a few strange proposals in an effort to collaborate. For example, they came up with an idea of how we could earn money by handing over a few Neo-Nazis to them. We weren’t interested, though to a lesser degree from moral reasons than for simple reasons of self-preservation.

Yeah, yikes. All right, on to "Google Will Eat Itself," what up with dat one?

That one's based on the idea that Google is an actual public corporation and on the other hand most of the money that Google earns is obtained via ad sales. Their method, the so-named “Google Ad Sells Program,” functions in such a way that on anyone’s website there are Google advertisements--not for Google, but via Google. For example, if I were an owner of a Kitten Website, I would earn money, when a visiting user clicks on a Google advertisement for canned cat food. Google would first pay me. Then the Cat Food Company in turn pays Google.

OK how did you guys' program work?

All we do is put ads like that on our websites. However, if a user clicks on one of our ads, instead of depositing Google's money into a regular checking account the money is automatically transferred to a Swiss bank account where the funds are used to purchase Google stock. We have therefore gotten the money from Google in order to buy Google.

Did it end similarly to the Amazon Noir project, with you guys selling the software to its victim?

No. What happened was the users clicked too many times on our Google Ads, and when Google Ads are clicked too many times by one user, the user is blocked, because otherwise site owners would just sit clicking their own ads and rake in the dough. Officially Google dubs that operating dishonestly.

Selling GWEI to Google is much more difficult than Amazon, just on the basis of how the company operates. If you try to call Amazon, you can get through to someone relatively easy. However, when one tries to call Google, you become desperate. We've received a few angry letters and threats, but we remain unfazed. Google is an extreme monopoly--it does what it wants. I'm not criticizing that, by the way; it's just how it works. They aren't interested in exchange with us. What's the gain for them? Why should they stand by for questions?

True, from their point of view it's pretty unnecessary.

For example, the public transportation function on Google Maps didn’t work for three weeks in Vienna, which is extremely problematic for people who live there. There was only one press release issued from Google, which explained that the problem was known and was being worked on. I mean what's everyone going to do? Switch to their competitor? There is no competitor.

There is lots of talk about Google being the newest and biggest evil or the newest and biggest good, or even both simultaneously and ultimately humanity becoming stupid.

You said earlier that you don't see companies as resolutely good or bad entities--how do you feel about all the "Google is evil" stuff showing up in the press lately?

I don't personally see it that way. I feel like I learn through Google Maps, for example, how to become better acquainted with the road. On the other hand, if someone always relies on them or some navigation system for travel, then I'm sure at some point they'll have no real idea where they're going.

Many people think that it's training them to depend on it.

Well, that’s also what the new university structure in Austria does, where all that matters is physically attending a school and being useful for the corporate world afterward. Of course using Google contains some risk, but when you’re so crackbrained that you do everything with Google, then you are, in any case, beyond help.

What are you guys working on right now?

We have a project that is taking relatively long, called “Super Enhanced.” The core pieces to the project include a software engine, a generator, and an interrogation software system. So if I were to be the interrogator, I would no longer have to conduct the interrogation. Instead the computer does it all and I would only be its the handyman--just another part of the system, in the same way the respondent is also just a part of the system. For this project we conducted tons of research and spoke to lots of people who were incarcerated in prisons in Kandeha or Bakham.

One guy, Chris, was a custodian at Guantánamo. He lived with us for two months. On the one hand he was pretty open about what, according to him, occurred there. And on the other hand, you really had to dig deep in order to get out certain things, that are really ugly--unbelievably ugly. It’s the standard performance in which the perpetrator is staged as the victim. A 17-year-old registers for the army and then at 19 comes to Guantánamo as a custodian--it is difficult to address the accountability of his actions. However he is not the victim. The victims are the victims.

Nervous to ask this, but what were some of the “really ugly” things you mentioned?

Chris told us that at Guantánamo, there is an emergency response team who take over when prisoners don’t abide by the rules. “Not abiding by the rules” can mean anything from hitting a guard to leaning against the jail bars to not sleeping on your back. Once a rule has been violated, the emergency response team comes in, pepper sprays the cell, then yanks the prisoner out and administers a beating.

Ugh. What role did Chris play in this process?

Chris video documented everything. That was his job and that is why he felt particularly psycho. According to him participating is less difficult than filming the whole episode.

I can see that, the slight distance you're at from the action allows you to see what's happening in a more detached manner.

Well, the distance is there too for the people directly involved, it's just more of a pure mental thing. , also when one is directly involved. You also have to remember a lot of the guys in the emergency response teams are people who genuinely enjoy doing what they do. They want to show the terrorists who’s the boss.

But what makes the whole thing even worse are the small transgressions that turn the situation from a bunch of hotheaded 20-year-olds letting off steam into a calculated, systematic operation. For example, the way in which the doctors there collaborate. Their job is to make sure the pulse of the detainee is high enough for them to continue to be tortured. The doctor isn't there to look after the well being of the detainee, but rather to ensure that he is unwell enough.

Again, ugh. What else have they done?

One of the things they have built, is an “oxygen deficient cell.” They put you in and once inside you slowly run out of air to breathe. Then you lie on the floor like a gasping fish and a doctor comes in every now and then to check how you're doing. That way you get a bit of air again and you can live a while longer. But according to Chris, they don’t do this procedure for a couple hours or days, but for weeks on end… Well, it’s up to you to decide what you think of that.

Yeah. But Guantánamo is not an isolated case.

Guantánamo itself didn’t interest us that much because it's, if anything, a pop item. One can take photos there and the press is naturally there, but Guantánamo is a small fish. Many of the supermax prisons in America are already working with similar methods.

Are there any other projects that you have already planned?

We're currently doing a project that deals with medicine and prescription drugs. We're looking to fabricate a few new diseases (UGI – User Generated Illnesses). Furthermore we must eventually redesign our website. It is in someway absurd that a troupe of internet artists have not finished their website. The problem is web design is always so boring.

INTERVIEW BY JULIANE LIEBERT

PORTRAIT BY DANIEL GEBHART DE KOEKKOEK

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