Talking to the Creator of a Printer That Makes Self-Destructing Documents

A new project paid for by a grant from the Mexican government is getting people talking about privacy, secrets, and what we need to know.

Photos by Diego Trujillo Pisanty

Between Edward Snowden, the Fappening, and the recent Snapchat leaks, it seems clear that it can be extremely difficult to keep information out of determined hands in the information age. Computers are still an easily undermined medium on which to transmit secrets, so in response, artist Diego Trujillo Pisanty has taken an old-school approach to keeping confidential documents safe. On a grant from the Mexican Fund for Culture and Arts, Diego built a printer that prints self-destructing documents. The paper exiting the printer catches fire via a chemical reaction almost immediately, reminiscent of every 70s-era spy movie ever made. The project, called This Tape Will Self Destruct, was debuted outside of Mexico City in late September. I interviewed the device’s creator over Skype at his home in Newcastle, England, to learn more.

VICE: So how does your device work?
Diego Trujillo Pisanty:
Well, the document gets printed by a normal thermal printer on receipt paper. Then there’s a series of mechanisms that apply two chemicals, mainly. One of them is a potassium salt, and the other is glycerol, or glycerin—it’s the same thing. When those two come together at the end of the process, they catch fire. The control mechanism is an Arduino connected to a Raspberry Pi computer, and the Raspberry Pi controls the thermal printer and tells the Arduino when to activate specific mechanisms.

How long did it take you to build this?
About a year.

A year?
Yeah. It was funded by the Mexican government as a program to support young artists and to give them money for a year, and then after that they have to present a finished piece, so it was scheduled to take a year.

Did you have to pitch the idea, or was it an open grant?
No, it’s actually quite competitive, and you have to pitch the whole idea. I had to tell them I was going to be burning things in my house with their money. I had to present the political context of the piece, and originally it was going to be a different chemical reaction, but that turned out to be a bit too unstable, and I had to go for something simpler.

Has anything gone wrong?
I had to run it at the exhibition opening; that was part of this program. We did about six demonstrations in about two hours, and on one of the runs the papers didn’t catch fire, so sometimes it fails. Occasionally you need to readjust the mechanism, some things go out of sync, and it’ll start printing gibberish like any normal printer. But with a bit of patience you could get it to run forever, but I think it would be dangerous to run it continuously.

So it’s reloadable.
Oh, yeah. So actually between prints I always reload it to make sure the next print will come out OK. You can change the paper, add more chemicals, and the spray can is actually just a glue to glue the potassium salt in place, so I double-check all that, just like you’d make sure you had ink in your inkjet printer. So the spy equivalent of that.

Could a person at home build one of these?
I only had to get one part manufactured. Everything else I laser cut. I have a laser cutter at work, so that was handy. And the electronics are easy, so yes, you could manufacture one at home. But the actually difficult part was engineering plastics that don’t corrode, because one of the chemicals is slightly aggressive to plastic. If you’ve got the money you could make one at home. I did.

So what inspired the piece?
Well, I’ve been quite interested in the whole NSA scandal, and before that the WikiLeaks thing I was quite curious about, because it just shows that we haven’t understood digital material and its ability to be copied and distributed. I had those things in mind and I read a news article saying that, you know, the Russians were really worried about digital material leaking out so they were going to replace their computers with typewriters. And that, to me, is like we’re going back to the 1960s. Like, having spy offices with typewriters. About four months later was when the Guardian newspaper released a video where they’re destroying their hard drives and putting angle grinders through their computer equipment. And I thought that this wasn’t that different, the notions of secrecy haven’t changed that much in the last 40 years. It seems that governments still have top secret programs that civilians find out about. So I was thinking this was a way to revalidate that and bring that commentary across, and self-destructing documents are very iconic of that era.

Reminds me of Inspector Gadget always rushing to get rid of his self-destructing missives.
In Cold War fiction it’s always—actually in the first James Bond movie, they don’t show it, but it’s mentioned, like, “We’ll send you your mission through a self-destructing document.” It’s a standard thing, so I thought that to build the machine for real would be a good way to revalidate the idea that we’re still living in an era where the notions of secrecy are the same as they were for James Bond or Mission: Impossible. Or even things as horrible as MacGyver have references to it too, and I did end up watching a lot of bad television from the 70s. Really, that was the hard part of the project.

What sorts of images were you printing and destroying?
The images and quotes are from a variety of sources. The ones extracted from Cold War media include things like I was saying, from the early 007 movies, the Mission: Impossible series, MacGyver, and some other films of the time. The other portion of the images comes from real leaked secret documents obtained mainly from the Electronic Frontier Foundation and The Intercept.

There’s something really depressing about destroying communications instead of preserving them.
Well, actually, I think that’s what the project is trying to get at. I agree with you: Communication, especially when it comes to politics, should be preserved. Taxpayers in democracies need to reevaluate why things are kept hidden from us, or why they’re being destroyed. With the Guardian hard drives in particular, you’re essentially destroying evidence for things that could eventually become declassified and historically important. So, that’s what I’m actually trying to get at. Yeah, it’s quite spectacular to see a bit of fire, but deeper down it’s a concern that we are essentially still in a Cold War state of mind: that things need to be kept secret from the population because they can’t be trusted with it.

Your style of art is pretty unique. I was looking over your 300 Year Time Bomb and the Generated Manhow would you describe what you’re trying to do now?
Yeah, that’s a good question, always a hard one to answer. I think that like most people in my generation, we grew up in a time when science was the best thing around, we were taught that science was everything. So part of my artwork deals with science as a conceptual space, and not so much as a space for knowledge, but more thinking about the human element of science and technology and their development. At the same time I think I’m very poetic about it so I try to find interesting stuff with the media itself that I produce. I’ll try to represent my ideas with the best materials, I use a diversity of formats, but I was originally trained as a photographer, and I still do a lot of photography, around other things. It’s very hard for me to say that this is my style. I’m interested in technology in a conceptual space. That’s probably the best way of generalizing all of my work. And in technical terms it’s just very diverse, there’s programming, electronics, object manufacturing, and photography.

Do you have any plans for your next project?
Yeah, there’s a couple of ideas but they’re not really matured yet. Right now I’m still recovering from this one.

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