Interviewing writer, artist and technologist, James Bridle about his work.
James Bridle is a writer, artist and technologist from London currently living in Athens. We previously interviewed James for our film Unseen War a few years ago and spent a few hours with him recently to talk about his more recent work. The full interview is divided into seven parts that range from talking about his work more generally such as The Role of the Visual to more specific projects and his own investigations like Five Eyes or Citizen Ex.
The full interview, is divided into seven separate video interviews. Each video has the relevant part of the written interview attached to it which you can read below each video. For the interview in full, keep reading below.
- In_ Beyond the Binary _James talks about the internet as a unconsciously generated tool for unconscious generation and moving beyond the opacity-transparency binary.
- James discusses The Role of the Visual, specifically how he uses visuals to not only show something that hasn't been seen before, but to also question, in societies inundated with images, why particular images have never been seen before.
- Seamless Transitions is a portrait of the architecture underneath the UK immigration system and how James uses free online tools to help create imagery of these invisible spaces.
- In Abracadabra Algorithms James shows us behind the magicians curtain, taking the magic out of algorithms and revealing that software is not programming itself.
- In this interview Hidden in Plane Sight James discusses the various ways planes are used in and for his investigations and artwork.
- Through his project 'Citizen Ex' James questions the current notion of citizenship and instead proposes a new form of citizenship, _Algorithmic Citizenship,_one that can change each time you access a new website.
- 'Five Eyes' uses objects and archive files from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London to explore the nature of structural and institutional power and to tell stories of the history of intelligence.
The interview can be read here below in its entirety.
You coined the term 'New Aesthetic' which had a lot of impact, but your work is moving towards not necessarily 'New Aesthetic' but more towards 'New Politics'. Looking at what you're doing, one could say the “New Aesthetics of Politics”. If you were to describe "New Politics" what would you say?
The reason I've always been interested in technology and its various things and the internet being a very big part of that for the last 20 years and new technologies coming along, is because it's always interesting to see what the latest thing that's gonna kick up is. Because ultimately, it has to provide some kind of new experience or new opportunity simply because we haven't had these tools before. Whatever you want to do, whether you want revolutionary political change or you want to make more interesting better graphic video games or movies. The new tools that must, because they didn't exist before, allow you to do something in some sort of new way. It doesn't necessarily mean more successfully but there are new opportunities for exploring it. This project that I did for a long time, and am still doing some parts of, ‘The New Aesthetic’, was simply about pointing towards the things that I felt were genuinely new and exciting. That I didn't see being explored or brought together out in the world. These things that felt to me like a genuine kind of novelty, because it's amazing how bored we get quite quickly with new things as well. The things that I think are extraordinary like satellite imagery or 3D printing are terrible examples. But these new technologies which become normalised so quickly and are really quite exciting, I felt it necessary to bring those together and talk about them as a coherent thing. These products are something very interesting and very exciting and new in the world.
Screenshot from James Bridle's ongoing research project The New Aesthetic
As soon as you become familiar with that, as soon as you do that, you're not really interested in the surface appearance of those things anymore. You want to know how those things are generated. You want to know why some things occur and others don't. You can't be aware of the internet or computers in general without understanding the military technologies that went into forming it. You can't really think about the internet as an interesting place to be now without thinking about the commercial pressures that underlie some of the forms of surveillance, not just that it permits, that it actually requires in order to function. These things are always there. Now, they've always been there before in various forms in a way but my fascination with talking about this through the lens of technology is that, by its very nature, technology does make these things more accessible and potentially more visible and therefore more understandable and that gives us greater agency. Because previously, power was something perhaps that operated more remotely. That operated not even necessarily deliberately in secrecy but happened within smaller groups and was largely out of the public view.
Today, it's kind of incapable of doing that because it's embedded in these networks, and these networks both reproduce it and illustrate it. So technology becomes a way of making visible in itself the operations of politics in a number of ways, because it has to be written down. It has to be instantiated as a technology. It has to be written down in lines of code which can be analysed and explored if you have the tools to do so. So, the first stage towards a kind of political consciousness within that sphere is learning how this stuff works, essentially. Hence my interest in internet infrastructure, in the way in which networks function, because I believe if you understand those, you can understand other complex systems of politics. And the major problem with politics, whichever side or however you want to use that term, is simply that unequal relationships of people exist within it, that some people have far more agency than others. But on a kind of technological plain, we all have the ability to develop vastly increased agency. And if we're not, there's probably a political- or power-based reason that we're not.
You have always been fascinated by exposing and making images of the system. However you feel more and more disillusioned about whether pure exposure of the invisible can have any political impact. We have this growth of transparency, open data, open knowledge, whistle-blowers but you put this whole spectrum of a dream of 'opening it all' into perspective. Having it there doesn't necessarily create a change. Could you go into this in more detail?
This idea of exposing the invisible or kind of making visible what is dark, or whatever, has a long long history that predates this kind of technical operation, predates journalism. This is inherent within art and within any number of other disciplines. And it has a very useful and very specific place. It's incredibly powerful journalistically and politically, this idea of shedding light upon the thing, bringing it into public consciousness and therefore enabling change in various forms. And that's not going to go away. That remains incredibly useful. But it shouldn't be our only technique. If we become obsessed with this idea of transparency, then that's really just the dark mirror, or the lighter mirror, of the kind of intelligence agency's desire for surveillance data. This idea that, if we could only capture more information, we'd build this kind of better model of the world.
It's useful for countering certain instances of state or corporate abuse, perhaps. Very useful in fact. But it doesn't necessarily move us forward, because it keeps us within that paradigm of this rule-based information-based structure that, for me, feels incredibly backward. That feels almost 19th century in its desire for rationality. This may be a wild artistic hope, but I think that it possibly exists beyond this opacity-transparency binary, something that is perhaps a little more interesting that, for me, the internet is trying to kind of show us by making this stuff visible but not necessarily capturable.
Your work can be categorised as becoming more and more political. It focuses on unpacking the designs of power structures and systems. On one hand you would categorise yourself as an activist, on the other hand you are moving more towards the art practice. How do these different worlds fit together for you?
It's very interesting to me that this work gets characterised as activist or as artist or as anything else. It tells you a lot about the state of the world rather than the state of the work when this characterisation takes place. It's incredibly self-serving to say that this is just what I'm doing, but it essentially is just what I'm doing. The labels always come from elsewhere and they're fine. You take them. On the one hand, it's strange to me that within the art world, if you mention effectively anything that's actually happening outside the art world, that's perceived as some form of activism. As though just even mentioning kind of contemporary events means that there must be some kind of political slant to them, which is good because there probably is some political slant to them. But any kind of focus on what is just happening in the world, is automatically assumed to be political, I mean that's how little it's discussed in place, in society, most of the time.
On the other hand, within activism, as soon as you take roles of making images and explaining them in a way that doesn't root so directly and obviously into concrete political action, it moves itself into the domain of art and is perhaps seen as, not necessarily less effective, but within a different kind of sphere. For me, they are all ways of coming to understand and explain these things, and also to move them forward. I don't know how to be in the world without addressing the political issues around it, because those are the things that affect me and everyone around me and everyone that I know, all of the time. So what else is there to talk about that seems to be necessarily important? Equally, I don't want to live in a world in which we don't generate new and interesting and perhaps even beautiful ways of talking about them, which is also the domain of art.
But for a long time, art's role has been to kind of complicate those narratives. To take these easy ideas of simple political discourse from either side of the debate and to complicate them and to resist this kind of easy categorisation, these simple stories, and to make them, to some extent, mysterious and difficult. I feel it's perfectly possible to be, on the one hand, a complete rationalist and literalist about the internet and talk about it in terms of infrastructure and cables and data centres and nation states and legal jurisdictions. And at the same time to hope that it does have some kind of mystic effect on the personality of humanity as well and say look, ‘we've existed for how many millions of years and this is the latest cultural tool that we've built to explain ourselves to ourselves’. It's this kind of unconsciously generated tool for unconscious generation. We don't know what it's for. We don't really know what anything is for when we invent it, and it changes us all the time radically. I think it's perfectly possible to occupy both positions. In fact, entirely necessary to do so.
How important is it for you to look at edges and borders where systems actually collide? What are you trying to get out of that?
Edges and borders are always where things become interesting, because they meet other kinds of systems of understanding or legal systems or whatever the nature of their border is, there’s some kind of transition. Therefore, something is enacted in that space which reveals something about the system itself. And that border can be at the border of technological systems, at the interface of things, it can be at the border of the nation states and it can also be in this continually contested thing, which is the border between us and our digital experiences.
You are enjoying the fact that you are an actor or a spectator sitting on the edge. You are not an expert in most issues you explore. You actually are as amateur as the rest of us, but you are able to turn this ‘disadvantage’ into a very powerful position that allows you to look from the edges into the centre much more clearly. How does this work for you?
One of the keys of the way that I work is that I don't come at these things necessarily as professional in any particular sphere. All the tools that I use, I've taught myself in various ways, and that does give me a certain way in. It can also simply be a form of dilettantism which is necessary to keep an eye out for and avoid as much as possible. But, sometimes it’s simply being interested in all of these things. The advantage of doing that for me is that it means that I have to keep myself honest in terms of the tools I use. If I want to use something, I end up having to understand it and having to build new systems for everything I want to investigate. Therefore, I learn new types of coding or whatever the kind of approach is that is going to be necessary at that point to explore the thing. It also means that you spend a lot of time making unexpected connections between things. If you operate purely, for example, as a computer programmer or something, you may not see the kind of inherent biases of that discipline or of the rest of the world, in terms of that discipline, which is a common problem for engineering and software development.
When you come at these things as an outsider to some extent, then you start to bring a different perspective to them. I've always been shocked to the extent that most of our discourses are divided into these discreet chunks, and that we have discussions about politics as though they're not co-produced with the technologies around us. We have discussions about art and literature without discussing the very concrete underpinnings of the structures of dissemination that those things now operate on. This divide between the arts and the sciences is essentially the same for me as these other kinds of divides between different subject areas, between everyday life and politics, or between the internet and what we perceive to be physical everyday life. Crossing those boundaries is incredibly important and in order to do so, you do need to be capable at some extent of moving between them and having, not necessarily an outsider's view but a kind of wonderer's view on them.
In most cases, whenever you try to tell a story or represent a narrative, it's based on reconstructions of an image or a situation or place that give the viewer a sense of what it is or what happened. Can you talk about what role images have in your work?
For me, it's always an imperative, where possible, to provide some kind of illustration of the story because a) we have quite simple animal brains and it’s easier for us to grasp these things when they're shown to us in that way. Simply, there's a need to kind of imagine it in a particular way and we can imagine it more clearly and therefore think more clearly about it if there's something that we can visualise it with. That seems kind of simple and necessary. With the Seamless Transitions or even with some earlier drone works, there's also an inherent kind of shock in seeing the image that you haven't seen before, that's dual. Because it's like, ‘All right, this thing is real and it exists’, and it brings it home to you in a way that a pure textual or verbal description doesn't quite do.
Image taken from Drone Shadow, By James Bridle.
But b) it’s also to ask you the question ‘Why haven't you seen this before?’ Essentially, ‘Why is this thing that's obviously under discussion – why has it remained invisible to me for such a long time?’ Because that immediately opens up, the politics, not just of the image-making, but of everything that's produced it. Because we live a society that's inundated with imagery. That everything is imaged and so much imagery is immediately accessible to us, if not forced upon us. So spotting where imagery has been removed, where there are gaps in that image-making, is a way of finding out what is being hidden, what's being avoided, or what's not being said. Because we live in a state where if something is not being visualised, there's usually a reason for that because everything is visualised almost by default now.
Your work doesn't focus on the symptom of the system but the system itself. For example, you are not focusing on the drone attack itself but through the images you are trying to show the system itself. It isn't easy to depict something that we don't often have a sense of or ability to comprehend, and viewers don't often have an apparatus for reading these images.
I think, for me, a lot of the images of the actual effects of these things are kind of known to us. We see images of terrible things happening all of the time. And a lot of those images have lost their power. Not necessarily because people don't have empathy towards them in some way, but because they're stressful and traumatic and it's difficult for people to continuously respond emotionally to things like that. When presented over and over again with the terrible consequences of such things, it's natural for us to have a reserve and protect ourselves by not fully engaging with them, and also to distance ourselves from them. To say, ‘Okay, that is happening, but it's happening far away, or it's happening to other people, or it's happening outside my control and there's nothing I can do about it, so why would I allow myself to be traumatised and involved with this thing?’
By talking about something in terms of the systems and networks that produce it, you bring it back home again and make it about something that people do connect with and are engaged with all of the time. So you can talk about immigration and migration as something that happens to other people, but everyone goes through airports. They understand that the airport system is something they do interact with and something they are connected with. Or you can talk about drone strikes and you talk about the distant villages in which they happen, and again it's important to do that, but it's also important to point out the areas in which we're complicit. So to use Instagram for my ‘Dronestagram’ project, a network that everyone does use every day, to point out the connections of that system to what's occurring as well, to allow people another space to think about it.
Dronestagram, Posting the landscapes of drone strikes to Instagram, by James Bridle
How important for you is presenting intangible things as objects in a public space and making them physical? You have been known for being convinced that we will give up on books and go completely electronic with ebooks. Yet when you learn that your Apple phone is spying on you, you produced a book, a big, physical object. There is something that you value about physical presentation. What is it and how does it work?
Projects have taken various forms in terms of making installations in very public space in the street, or producing physical books out of data. For a long time, a lot of my work was simply that. Printing out chunks of the internet in these physical forms. Each of those, essentially, they're not really about the internet or the technology, or the physical form. What they're interested in doing is using that transition as something useful, understanding how mediating between those forms will actually teach you something. So, taking the data and giving it a physical form activates a fairly solid bit of the human brain that's capable of measuring physical stuff. So, if you want to talk about the volume of something intangible, the easiest way to do that is to make it tangible and kind of addressable, because people understand that very simply. But at the same time, projects around these large installations in public space are seen by far more people online than in real life. I draw a 30 metre diagram on the ground with thick lines of white paint in order to photograph it digitally and put it online. The sense of the scale is still there, but the encounter with it can happen in any number of ways, and the dissemination of those works even with the books, far more people have seen them online than they ever have seen in the gallery. So really what's happening is this constant back and forth across the boundary of the digital and the physical, the visible and invisible, in order to illuminate both of them.
The data in this book was retrieved from the consolidated.db file of James Bridle’s iPhone from June 2010 to April 2011. This information was recorded anonymously without the user’s knowledge, and represents the device’s own record of its location. Where the f**k was I? is made up of 202 maps based on James's movements over the past year. Read more about this project here and see more images of the book here.
'Algorithm' has become this magic word that can open closed doors, make sense of large amounts of data and decode hidden patterns. How would you define algorithms? What are they for you?
It is interesting how recently the term 'algorithm', this term from computer science and mathematics, has entered into much wider social discussions, which is great on its own terms because it means that we are starting to discuss the mechanisms which underlie the technologies. But it's also dangerous if it's treated as some kind of magical special thing that we can't really understand. It's just software, it's just the process of code operating. An algorithm is simply a step-by-step software process that does something. So it's not a mystery. The reason they often accrue this mystical intonation is that we're often not aware that software is making decisions. And that's the crucial thing about what an algorithm does. It essentially makes decisions of some kind. And those can be totally innocuous or they may be very serious. A piece of software running a large system may decide whether you get a mortgage for your house, or potentially at some point it may decide your citizenship. Decisions are being made by the software and therefore we need to question that software and understand its function.
The other critical thing of course about it is that so far, software is not programming itself. Embedded within software are huge numbers of explicit, and also implicit, decisions made by its maker. Some of those may be, ‘I want the software to do this’. But other ones may be far more subtle. They may have been encoded by the kind of underlying biases of the people who designed it so they encode potential gender roles, or racial roles or these kind of things within the software that makers may not have even been aware of. But through a kind of critical analysis of software, by not treating the algorithm as magic but really as something that should be challenged and understood, as we would challenge and understand the formation of new laws in society, we can actually start to challenge some of those underlying biases and perhaps change them.
Metadata is yet another fashionable term. What is metadata, how can you define it and is it becoming a dirty word?
I don't think metadata is becoming a dirty word any more than algorithm really. It's quite well-defined, what it is. It's data about data and that's a really important concept to get across. The question is, how do you choose to get this concept across? Do you do it by essentially repeating the kind of sins of the thing that you're arguing against? Or do you use the word to actually talk about other ways in which we can operate, deal with the world, make work that doesn't rely on that as a kind of basic thing. I don't have a problem with having a discussion around it. I just don't want it to necessarily be the motivating factor of the work itself.
You once said ‘that most of the tools we are using are built out of smaller devices that are just made from measurement tools’. You went onto say that most of the internet is designed as measurement tools and you are fed up with this and you expect that this environment should be built out of something else as well. What do you have in mind?
It does feel today like a lot of the things that we're building or that we're putting on the internet, they're very raw and obvious products of the society that's creating them. By which I don't mean that they merely reflect us but actually represent a kind of pre-internet idea of what may be possible. They're designed to measure and explain the world, to turn it into data and to model it and therefore capture it, for political purposes, for commercial purposes, for social purposes, for purposes innocuous or otherwise. But that is essentially the lesson that we appear to have learned or that we've told ourselves that we've learned, from how we deal with this onslaught of available data. Because people have always been doing stuff, right? We've always been trading, we've always been doing this. But suddenly that data is available to us in such a vast form. There's a kind of egomania of, ‘Oh if we can collect it all, we can somehow rule the world, in whatever particular sphere that is. That if we can only get a better picture, if we can get more data, if we can build a better model of the world, we would magically make it understood and rational’.
That's a very old impulse. It's also I think quite a dangerous one. If it’s has taught me anything, it’s that things are not easily explained. That human behaviour is not put into easily categorise-able boxes. And again, that's always been the case, but for me the internet makes it visible. It makes visible a kind of glorious irrationality in the world. It brings out all these kind of differences. The impulse of building software to capture that is to homogenise it or make it more simple and understandable. But that seems to be in complete opposition to what's actually made visible by the internet. The internet for me is a way of proving that that desire for rationality and systematisation, and ultimately for control is ridiculous and pointless. And a sign that we should probably be doing something about that, is this overwhelming discourse around data and control that emerges from it. That says that we're learning the wrong lesson from this but also perhaps that's deliberate. That forces of commercialism or of governments are trying to capture that in some way, and that should be resisted.
You recently created a system that was implemented in the exhibition at Victoria & Albert in London to explore and understand the system behind a large museum historical collection. Could you talk about your ‘Five Eyes’ project for someone who might not have had the chance to go to the London to see it?
‘Five Eyes’ is an installation in the Victoria and Albert Museum that came out of about six months of spending time at the museum, talking to people who work there, understanding its structure and its archives. Particularly the archives because I wanted to make visible the underlying information that brought the collection together. Also particularly, how stuff gets into a collection like that. It's a museum that is almost 150 years old. It’s got millions of objects in it and those objects are made special by being part of the collection. But they are also an incredible body of data. It's increasingly difficult to make art or have conversations about data that isn't about people's personal data, and so being able to use a collection of objects as that data is kind of a useful test base. But what I did was perform essentially a kind of surveillance on the objects in the collection. I looked at all the information about them and I correlated it and I analysed it through the same kind of techniques that the intelligence services use. By the end I had a network of connections, essentially the metadata of the objects, and I could ask it to explore. The software that I wrote for it explored the collection based on various stories. I used those stories to build a series of narratives through the objects about the history of intelligence.
The ‘Five Eyes’ of the title refers to the five English-speaking intelligence agencies who share information in the UK, the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. I told a little story about each of those. In terms of the Australian case, because each one was its own case within the museum full of objects, I was interested in contemporary Australian issues around immigration and intelligence's role in that. So I looked at the history of migration through the V&A's objects and what I found was, for example, a pair of incredibly ornate and beautiful boomerangs, which everyone associates as being an Australian object. But these in fact came from India, where the boomerang originates. Or a pair of nutcrackers - because this is a design museum so it's full of these kind of objects - that were used on steam ships that used to take European immigrants to Australia. All of this was done by the software that I wrote. It went and found these connections based on texts that I gave it. But I could also work with it as well.
So in part, the project is about how data defines the set of objects, but behind that there were always choices that I made as well. Some of those choices produced kind of difficult objects, and there came the question of who has the agency within this system. Is it the software acting autonomously or is there always in fact a human intelligence, however obscured, behind it?
Image of James Bridle's Five Eyes exhibition. The closest cabinet contains the _boomerang_s James describes earlier.
The V&A has its own database interface however you only often get a very limited description of the object. There is not even a photograph. You have created a system for exploration of these somehow explorable corners of one of the vastest collections of objects. How important was it for you to expose this hidden world of classification, documentation and cataloging?
So there are two parts to the installation. There's Five Eyes, which is the installation in the gallery itself, and then there's the Hyper-Stack system which built it, which anyone can explore online, which is built on top of the Victoria and Albert's own open data systems. But for the installation, I wanted to do something that really visualised the amount of information that underlies every single object. So every object is presented with its own data cloud effectively, alongside the metadata of other objects, in the form of the archived files. So every object in the museum has a corresponding file. And so, if you want to present a hundred objects together, you can present them represented by these files to show the networks. For me, that makes visible the stacks of information underlying every single one of these objects and choices that are being made that aren't always visible when you just go and see particular objects.
A screenshot taken by James Bridle of the Hyper-Stacks website.
On one hand, you are trying to show the back-end of the institution, which is often what you do with your other works, showing the mechanisms behind the surface. On the other hand, with this project the output you have created is reversing the system. How much of it is showing the system behind the institution and how much of it is showing what you are trying to say about the system?
The Hyper-Stack system is both a kind of ‘outside-in’ position on the museum and also something that's kind of produced by the way it creates things as well. What I like about it is that it does always cut both ways. The objects in the institution are incredibly fascinating and valuable and do always come with stories attached to them. The converse is that you can tell those stories in many, many different ways, and really the agency is within the storytelling rather than within the objects themselves. You can also use either side to kind of explain the other one. So you can use the structures of the museum to explain something apparently vaster and more complex like the intelligence networks, but you can also use how people are starting to understand intelligent networks and computer systems to explain the politics of the museum, which is an important step in understanding the politics of any kind of state institution.
Why did you choose to call the system that is driving the narrative behind the objects Hyper-Stacks?
The term Hyper-Stacks really originally comes from the term hyper-object, which is used in a number of ways. Timothy Morton, who was one of the people who coined it, used it to describe concepts that are essentially too large for individuals to deal with on their own. So it was used as a term to talk about climate change, for example. Something that's so vast and so complex, it's incredibly difficult for single humans as individuals not just to deal with it, but in fact to really grasp its implications as a whole. I think it's a useful phrase, because it implies the vastness and complexity that we can understand exists, but actually struggle individually to comprehend. We're building systems that attempt to model that in some way. But most of our systems are incomplete, because they attempt to capture such systems, and explain them fully, rather than simply giving us the terms and critical possibilities of engaging with it, that allow us to deal with such subjects without getting completely overwhelmed by them.
You made ‘Citizen Ex’, a project that was part of The Web We Want Foundation. It’s a browser plug-in that allows you to see which servers you are connecting to in which countries and on the basis of this, it assigns you citizenship. Why did you want to explore the idea of digital citizenship based on internet usage?
I've been really interested in citizenship for a while. I've been particularly investigating the UK laws around when one can have their citizenship revoked. For millions of people who've chosen or been forced to become migrants or who are stateless, citizenship has always been something that's very unstable and uncertain. But for most of us, our citizenship is something that we essentially take for granted, and we take a lot of the protections that come with it for granted as well. But in fact, there are various laws, in particular in the UK, which mean that citizenship can be revoked. And when you realise that, you start to think about everything that flows from it, all the protections that we get because of our citizenship. I was looking for ways of representing this, but for a long time, I've also been interested in how you can use the physical structure of the internet, how you can look at where it appears, its architecture and infrastructure, to talk about the underlying politics of it. And to get more of a grasp on the kind of mistakes and the national and corporate interests that are also involved in it.
These two come together in ‘Citizen Ex’, which is a series of browser plug-ins for Chrome, Safari and Firefox. As you're browsing the web, you can pull up a map showing you where the website you're visiting is located, reasonably accurately. It's based on the registered location of these places, but it's pretty accurate. You start to see into the infrastructure of the web itself, you start to understand it as something that has a geography. Once you start to get those locations, then you can say ‘well, here are the countries in which these are hosted’. And those countries have different laws around data protection, and so on and so forth. So you start to build what I was calling an, ‘algorithmic citizenship’, where your citizenship is a percentage based on the different places you visit, so you may be 60% US, 20% British and 20% German.
An example of the Citizen Ex application's calculation of someone's Algorithmic Citizenship based on where they go online.
This feels a bit like a science fiction thing that, 'oh, in the future, we'll all be on the network like this, and this will be how we think about things’. Except this is also something that's happening right now. It's something that we do ourselves, effectively, every time we use something like a VPN, to change our apparent location, so we can appear to be American so we can watch a YouTube video that's only located there for example. But it's also the way that surveillance is done. Among the NSA documents released by Edward Snowden, there's a description of how the NSA, and subsequently, other security agencies, including GCHQ, the British one, assign citizenship to people they're surveilling. That's actually all of us, because they're tapping all data, in order to decide who they surveil and which nation is responsible for their surveillance. They look at browsing data and that kind of information to assign people a citizenship. That means that fundamental rights around the right to privacy and the right to freedom of expression are being created by this algorithmic citizenship right now. So my representation of it, through ‘Citizen Ex’ is a fairly simple, kind of explanatory one. But it's also related to something very real that's happening right now. And also potentially, to something that we might want to either disrupt or to encourage. There are other potential uses for this idea of different forms of citizenship that may be useful to us, and therefore we need to start having a conversation about them.
How does gaining citizenship usually work? Why and how are surveillance agencies trying to assess the citizenship of people they are trying to surveil and in terms of new forms of citizenship, what does the project bring to the conversation in regards to power and digital behaviour?
There are two main ways in which most people gain citizenship at birth, if they do, and they are, ‘jus soli’," and ‘jus sanguinis’. ‘Jus soli’ is the right to the soil. It means that wherever you're born, that's the citizenship that you get. That's actually what's current in most of the Americas, in North and South America. If you're born on that soil, you're a citizen of that place. ‘Jus sanguinis’, which holds sway in most of the rest of the world, is the right of blood. It's based on who your parents are, whether they hold the citizenship, or some kind of relationship to your family. These are the two main modes. The other ways you can acquire it are through various legal mechanisms depending on which country you're from. But ultimately it's a thing that, once you gain it, is supposed to be stable. Once you have it, it's based on where you are. And it's based on this chain of inference about location and family.
Algorithmic citizenship is different in a number of ways, because it can be split into various parts, so, you could hold multiple citizenships, but incrementally with different rights in different places. It can also be reassigned at any time, so it's not something that's in any way stable. As you behave differently, the levels of your citizenship could change. Those are the kinds of things that digitisation and computerisation can apply to values, essentially. They can keep them in constant motion which makes them incredibly unstable.
Now, that instability could be a useful thing; it could be a thing that you want to happen. It could also be a complete tool of oppression if it's something the parameters of which are not decided by us and not decided democratically but decided in secret, as they are decided today in effect by intelligence agencies. That's not a useful, open, democratic way of applying this. But increasingly, also, as people become more connected to places outside their nation state, they build these kind of affinity groups that may spread around the world. Many of us feel that we are citizens of something wider than our own nation state, that we are connected more closely to people with common interests or economic values wherever they may be in other parts of the world, and that some form of community should emerge from that which should perhaps be recognised.
To say today that you're a citizen of the internet is dangerous. It harks back to a utopianism about the internet which I shared. But to say it today basically means you're a citizen of Facebook or Google, or it’s a kind of corporate form of citizenship. But you can see how the idea of algorithmic citizenship that emerges from the digital could apply in useful ways. Take the debate over Europe and the formation of the EU today. In the UK, where I'm from, we're currently having a major debate about whether to leave the EU. One of the debates around that is who gets to vote on that decision? Is it only UK citizens, or is it perhaps EU citizens who've lived in the country for a long time? Algorithmic citizenship may potentially be a way of extending suffrage to people with interest in particular areas in interesting ways. It may enable new forms of participatory democracy and proportional representation and other democratic systems like that, which are not always necessarily implemented as effectively as they could be. So, there's these potential benefits of different forms of citizenship and different ways of calculating it, but there'll only be benefits if we have the tools to discuss them and then the open debate that follows from that.
The investigation that you've recently finished on the detention system in the UK put you in the position of documentarist and even a witness at the airport. The investigation is also about the notion of citizenship and migration. How did you move onto this work? It’s slightly different than your previous work for two reasons. Firstly you are on the ground, taking on an investigation which is more common for investigative journalists or activists and secondly, you took the entire analysis from the ground and brought it into the digital and presented the entire portfolio. Those working in these issues in the field were surprised that you were able to do that. How did this happen?
The project that culminated in the work called Seamless Transitions, and a body of research that emerged around it, started very simply with me reading a newspaper report. A lot of my work has been about what tools we now have access to, crucially tools that we all have access to, things that are open on the internet, that were once really the preserve of very dedicated investigative journalists or were just simply not accessible at all before. One of which, my favourite one, is the ability to track aeroplanes in real time. I was reading a report in the newspaper about a deportation, about someone in the UK who'd overstayed their visa and was deported, and there were these strange details of the story that caught my eye. It turns out that the story, in fact, if you start reading stories about immigration, is not that unusual. But it was someone who'd overstayed their visa and they were being deported, and in order to get them out of the country because they were proving to be a political nuisance, they were actually placed aboard a private jet, the kind of thing that usually flies celebrities and footballers around, and rushed out of the country.
It only became news because the flight was refused entry to Nigerian airspace, where it was headed and went on this kind of insane 24-hour journey around Europe. But the reports I was reading about it seemed very slim and I realised that all the tools that I use every day could tell me more about this story. So I started digging into it and I looked through these flight records, which are very easily accessible on the internet. I looked at the websites of plane spotters. These things which aren't traditionally the tools of investigative journalism but are now really just there on peoples webpages, for anyone to look at. Putting those together, I built a kind of history of this flight and I published that information because it was interesting to me and potentially to others.
It was particularly interesting to activists on the ground who'd been looking at this system but weren't necessarily familiar with the tools that I was using to investigate it. In particular, their interest in which companies were providing the airplanes for this system to be in place. The UK government switched to using private charter planes rather than public planes because of the adverse publicity of at least one death and a number of other unpleasant incidents on normal transport airlines. They started doing it in the middle of the night on charter airlines. In order to get information to put pressure on companies to stop providing that service, activist companies were gathering details of the planes. One of them got in touch with me and was like, ‘Well, thank you for that. This one’s happening again, next week. In fact, the same guy is being deported with a number of others this time and it's happening next Wednesday. Can you tell us what the airline was?’ And I was like, ‘Well, no I can't’. Because I can't see into the future in that sense. I can only watch as these things happen. Except I realise that actually I'd gathered enough information at this point to know where this flight was going to leave from.
So I went to the airport at 11 o'clock on a Tuesday night, and waited around and sure enough, bus-loads of people started turning up. It was a deeply strange and very unpleasant experience but, I'm sure, far more for them than for me. Watching people being bussed to an airport in the middle of the night, under heavy police guard through a private terminal in this totally closed-off area of the airport. It struck me then and it's stayed with me ever since that whatever anyone's position on immigration or migration is or their political position, watching that occur, watching people being loaded off buses and onto planes in the middle of the night, under the cover of darkness, there's something fundamentally wrong with this system. There's something amiss in our handling of it. If this is the way in which it’s done, it points to deeper problems within this system.
But because I was there, again I could take the tail number of the aircraft that I saw them getting onto, find another company that was involved in the system and feed that information back to the activists and also share the methods with them, so that they could see it. But it was also part of the wider project. One of the things that I've noticed and that a lot of my work turns up is making the invisible visible. It could happen in a number of ways and one of the simplest ways is simply providing images where they didn't exist before. This is a thing that's going on but you don't see pictures of it in the newspapers because it happens within this kind of protected sphere. It happens within private space. One of the prime things they do is that they privatise things so it's not the government’s responsibility to tell you about it and they don't have to provide images of it. I wanted to fill in the gaps in that imagery and effectively use the same way of thinking about technology as I'd used in the investigation to do image-making. So I worked with people who tend to do architectural visualisation, who worked with architects, who produce plans for buildings and nice luxury apartments, who are very adept at rendering and making images of initially, imaginary un-built spaces.
But we did investigative work to get the floor plans and the planning documents and the eye-witness accounts and what few photographs there were of these places from various times, in order to build full 3D models of them, so that we could then essentially do tours of them. And we did that, not just for the airport terminal that I visited, this private terminal at Stansted airport, but also for the detention centre, where many of those people were held, which is again kind of privately-run space. And also for a particular court room in the centre of London, which is used for particularly sensitive immigration trials that involve secret evidence, which is a new law. A recently passed law in the UK allows the security services to present information that's not shown to the defendant. Which is a complete and utter violation of the right to a fair trial. But what was interesting about it is, within this courtroom - which you can visit when they're not doing the secret bit and you can sketch but obviously not take photographs - you can see this kind of appearing in the architecture. You can see the curtained-off witness box and screened-off areas where the spooks sit and so on. So, you have this architecture that repeats itself and reveals the laws that have created it and that's what that wider project Seamless Transitions was about. It’s not essentially a portrait of the experiences of the immigrants, the people within the system themselves, as important and necessary as those stories are to tell. It's a portrait of the architecture that shows what's produced by these kind of legal and social pressures underneath it.
Could you talk about the ways that planes appear in your work?
Planes seemed to have featured in various ways in a number of my works because they're one of these interesting infrastructures that increasingly we can see and track in various ways. The ‘Rainbow Plane’ project, which is another ongoing investigation, started with simply spending a lot of time on Google Maps and noticing these strange apparitions which appear to be planes kind of cut up into rainbows, in various colours. I was collecting them for a while as an example of where technology had unintentionally produced something that was beautiful to the human eye. No one went out and said, ‘Make me beautiful rainbow planes’. Somehow in the way that we constructed technology, these images were produced that were to me incredibly beautiful.
Satellite imagery of a 'Rainbow Plane'. See more about the project here.
But after a while, I realised that actually through some of my other work and working directly with satellite imagery, I suddenly realised I understood how these images were produced, and I understood that it was done through the architecture of the sensors on satellites. And what I was looking at was this kind of very specific artefact of the technology, and it was an example of one of these -an example of a glitch, right? But it's not a mistake, really. A mistake is the wrong way to characterise it. It's the result of a moment in which you see through into the underlying framework of the way things work. And you can take examples of that in all kinds of networks. It's the same with the plane-spotting, with the Seamless Transitions project.
If you spend long enough kind of looking at these networks, you can understand something about how other things work as well, right? They don't merely refer to themselves. They refer to other power networks or relationships between countries or companies as well, all these kind of things. That's just the thing for me about looking at networks and relationships. It's a sensibility that's produced by spending time on the internet. It's a sensibility that's being produced by trying to understand complex systems. But it's also an incredibly transferable literacy, because everything is complex systems now. Again, everything has always been complex systems, but those complex systems are more visible to us now. So you can take almost any of them and you can take the lessons from it and start to use it as a model for other things as well.
Can you introduce the installation you made of the 'Rainbow Plane' in Kiev?
This is the installation of the ‘Rainbow Plane’ in Kiev. We drew a full-sized private jet. It's a Gulf Stream Five, which is one of the most popular flights, both for the kind of oligarch class locally and business people worldwide, and also of the CIA for their rendition torture flights. So, there are these vast networks of power that converge on this particular air frame.
The new version of the Rainbow Plane, that James installed in Kiev, Ukraine. This is a 1:1 outline of an aircraft, as seen by a satellite.
And it is planes like this that I often track with tools like Flightradar24, which allows you to see all of the planes in flight, and to some extent look back at the history or to track them in various ways. It is a fascinating way of learning who has the power to fly around these places. It was these tools I used to track the deportation flights from that particular project, because you can kind of learn a huge amount by digging into this kind of stuff. You can find particular private planes. You can see one here that's just coming from Zürich into Farnborough. You can quickly have a look at the registration on that plane, discover all kinds of information about it, discover the fact that it's a private airline based out of Saudi Arabia, so if that was the thing that you were interested in, then it's the kind of starting point to huge amounts of further investigation.
Can you explain your ‘Right to Flight’ project?
The ‘Right to Flight’ was a four-month long installation in London last summer, at the top of a multi-storey car park. It's an amazing commanding space in South London. I did a few things around it. The title, ‘The Right to Flight’, comes from Nadar, the Parisian photographer and balloonist from the 19th century. He's a figure I've been fascinated with for some time. He wrote this book, The Right to Flight, which connects the dawn of the age of flight of balloons, and then of planes, to human emancipation. He said that, "We will also take to the skies and this will be the end to nation states and to armies," and all of those kind of things -I've always really loved that notion.
But it's also a difficult one, because of course the first thing we do when we get up into the skies is place guns, and then bombs and then cameras on planes, and it becomes another player in this spatial power relationship. It almost instantly becomes militarised, as in fact Nadar did when he formed the first French balloon co
First published on June 25, 2020
Last updated on July 21, 2020