With 'Secret.rar,' Artist Jan Huijben Goes to Absurd Lengths to Protect a Secret

Jan Huijben hid an encrypted flash drive in a series of closed containers.

Feb 24 2014, 9:15pm

Secret.rar is the project of German sculptor Jan Huijben. Starting with just basic knowledge of USB data storage and cryptography, Huijben encrypted a flash drive, then hid it in layer upon layer of various enclosed containers, or sculptures. Conceptually, Secret.rar is akin to a Russian nesting doll or the infinitudes suggested in Jorge Luis Borges' short fiction. 

Looking at Huijben's step-by-step photographic documentation of Secret.rar, the project seems to have an almost infinite potential for enclosure. First, Huijben cast the flash drive in resin, which he then placed consecutively in concrete, cast lead, a combination-lock suitcase, and finally in a crate labeled "Do Not Open." For added secrecy, Huijben created four more identical crates filled with junk. Though the project could be exhibited as-is, a message on his website reading "to be continued" suggests more layers could be added in the future.

And, if Huijben continues layering the "secret," the project's absurdity should only grow. "You can only do so much to keep your information safe while keeping it accessible at the same time," Huijben said of the idea behind Secret.rar, though he also wonders if a secret is still a secret if one can never find out what it is. 

Huijben began thinking about the project several years ago, around the time WikiLeaks was making headlines. But, Secret.rar took on greater meaning after Edward Snowden's NSA leaks, especially in its political implications. While the project is a conceptual dissection of secrecy, Huijben acknowledes that the erosion of individual privacy is a big concern in an "increasingly secretive state apparatus."

Over a series of email conversations, Huijben talked about Secret.rar, but also how his past work is inspired by street detritus and the Internet's rich tapestry of niche interests such as alchemy, conspiracy theories, and psychedelics. All of it a collective work of an inquisitive, satirical mind at play. 

MOTHERBOARD: Before getting into Secret.rar, can you talk a bit about some past projects?

Jan Huijben: I've always been interested in things that are hidden from plain sight, in the broadest sense. It can be as banal as an insight into the attic-based world of model train enthusiasts, to a black metal "hommage," to the evil characters that populated the news during the confusing post-9/11 times at the beginning of the millenium. For my graduation project in 2004, "Evil People," I designed black metal logos of the hardly legible kind for such people as Saddam Hussein, Tony Blair, Muammar Gadaffi, Ariel Sharon, etc., and silkscreened them onto t-shirts.

I try to look past the officially condoned narrative for inspiration, to see different perspectives on the world. The internet is a rich source with its countless niches of conspiracy theorists, pseudo-scientists, alchemists, UFO-believers and psychedelics enthusiasts, to name just a few. But I also find my inspiration on the streets, in the form of discarded African witch doctor's flyers, or just empty beer cans and other litter.

USB flash drive sealed in resin

I would design and assemble my own unique litter—milk and pizza boxes, chewing gum wrappings, etc.—and throw these drawings/sculptures out on the streets where they probably ended up unnoticed. More recently, I've been picking up empty medicine packagings, focusing on psychopharmacology—the benzodiazepines, methadone, methylphenidate, antidepressants, etc. When you start paying attention, you see them a lot. These kinds of easily overlooked things tell a story about the state of the world.

I've no destination yet for the medicine packagings, but I like to playfully investigate these kind of symbolically charged objects and try to extract their meaning, their essence, as it were. Secret.rar started more or less as a joke, but in the process more and more associations and meanings surface, and that for me is the essence of making art; it's a way of investigating and developing ideas through the use of my hands.

You said Secret.rar started out as something of a joke, but were you paying attention to encryption and surveillance after Edward Snowden's NSA leaks? And did this influence the project?

I think Mr. Snowden's revelations were very shocking but didn't necessarily come as a big suprise. They confirmed a lot of suspicions and rumours that had been going around for years. The first version of Secret.rar dates from a couple of years ago, and the WikiLeaks affair raised my interest in the politics of secrecy at the time.

Resin-coated flash drive sealed in concrete

Secret.rar wasn't initially about encryption, but about the question of whether it's still a secret if you can never find out what it is. I like the political connotation that comes with it, though. It's an important issue in a time when individual privacy is being eroded by an increasingly secretive state apparatus.

How did you encrypt the flash drive?

I was (and still am) pretty much a layman when it comes to computer security, but I was aware of basic encryption techniques. So, with my modest understanding and skills, I wanted to take the process to the extreme. I typed 64 random characters into Notepad (on a computer that wasn't connected to the internet), and with that password created an encrypted file container on the flash drive using TrueCrypt.

I used a different 64 random character string to encrypt the .rar file with Winrar's built-in encryption, and that file—'secret.rar'—went into the encrypted container on the USB. Then I wiped the computer I used to do all this and formatted the hard drive. Of course, I should've destroyed i. It's probably a bit crude, but for the time being it'll have to do.

Flash drive now sealed in cast lead

Do you believe that nothing is ever really secure and private when it comes to the internet and computing?

One thing that crossed my mind when I was making this was an old story that I once read as a child. It was about a man who told his friend his greatest secret, and the friend couldn't tell anyone. But he was only human and he had to share it with someone. So, one night he went to the beach, dug a hole, told the secret to the hole and filled it up again, relieved. But after a while the sea washed away the sand and the secret got out into the world. I guess the moral is that nothing is ever secure if it's shared. So, by definition, the internet cannot be secure.

It's almost delusional that we have this expectation that secrecy exists once we've shared it with even just one person.  

In this work I liked the idea that no one can ever know if the physical flash drive is even still there and if so, if the file is really on it in the first place. Is there really a secret? And why would you bother to find out if the secret is so well hidden that it's impossible to circumvent the security measures? So, the information that is the secret changes to the point of meaninglesness. Literally, in the case of encryption, I imagine a bunch of random ones and zeros.

And, in the event of my demise, all knowledge of the contents of the file would disappear. So, without any "keys" left there is no way of decoding the secret, and a secret that exists I think by the possibility of its disclosure. Of course, I presume my measures of protection to be unbreakable for the sake of argument.

Flash drive, sealed in resin, concrete, and cast lead, now inside a combination-lock suitcase

That is an interesting point as well, especially when it comes to communication, whether that's via text or various types of mobile apps.

You can only do so much to keep your information safe while keeping it accessible at the same time. But, then you're still dependent upon other people and their common sense. Plus there's the possibilities of backdoors and other dirty tricks from whatever third party.

It's interesting how WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden needed secrecy to expose the state's secretive behaviour. You see alternative media on the internet shining light on stories that would've been buried before we had internet reporters, and you see governments hacking into those journalists' devices. The internet is all about sharing so keeping things for yourself, as it is with Secret.rar, is not an option.

Can you describe the process of creating bigger and bigger containers to hide the secret? It's like a potentially infinite Russian nesting doll in a way, or like a Jorge Luis Borges story come to life. 

I'm first and foremost a sculptor, so I like to make ideas tangible, and I like to fiddle around with concrete, lead, wood, and all kinds of stuff. So, the containers are a nice excuse to make ever new sculptures. It could indeed go on forever. I like to keep that possibility open. There's something frantic (if that's the word) to the process, and also I'm not sure if they're there to distract from the "secret" or if they draw attention to it.

The combination-lock suitcase about to be sealed in a wooden crate

I just checked the Russian dolls on my desk; it's a shame that the last one, the smallest doll isn't hollow itself or the analogy would be complete. But I like the nesting principle. The containers are layer over layer of protection, growing around an empty core, as it were.

How much further might you take Secret.rar? The only limitation would seem to be the size of each new container. 

I left the option open to continue adding more steps, to the point of absurdity. My first idea was to end up with a number of sea containers, or something in that order of magnitude. But, I think that it's already been implied that the number of encapsulations could be infinite so that point has been made. I'm not sure if it's necessary to actually, physically add more steps. 

But then, I like to leave projects for years if it must be and then pick them up again when I feel the need. I guess if I learn about new ways of hiding stuff it would make sense to continue. So, for the moment I'm undecided.

Images courtesy of the Jan Huijben.