Living in Messy Times

In this video Carmen and Doma talk about the environment in which they are operating in and how with their work they have moved away fromvisual surveillance, such as jamming and hacking into CCTV cameras, into telling a different narrative about the system itself and how weinteract with it.

In this video Carmen and Doma talk about the environment in which they are operating in and how with their work they have moved away from visual surveillance, such as jamming and hacking into CCTV cameras, into telling a different narrative about the system itself and how we interact with it. They propose questions around what kind of information do we want to have public, what data should be collected or which data should be protected and starting to build systems with no data collection, and by this they mean no data collection. 

Initially you invested enormous effort and time breaking and unpacking surveillance, mostly working with CCTV cameras. With your recent works you're trying to tell a different narrative that is about the internet itself, not only the browsable internet. Why are you putting more emphasis on the digital black boxes and invisibility of the systems so integral to its infrastructure?

Doma: Maybe it has to do with surveillance being the backdrop or a backdrop system. As well as moving away from visual surveillance into something which is there and is always here. Moving away from the video camera which was something singular, which wasn't connected, but which today is connected.

Carmen: Looking at surveillance and digital systems, I think they've both completely changed. When we started out with the surveillance works, we wanted to talk about surveillance as a topic too. But over the last three or four years at least, surveillance has really become the backdrop to our lives.

So, the camera systems are probably the least problematic of all surveillance systems and the digital systems have become mass surveillance systems which are all connected and at the same time are completely invisible. So you can't target them like you can surveillance cameras in cityscapes. You can't avoid that type of surveillance. It's completely different, but it also has to do with digital systems becoming all-encompassing.

So it's not two worlds, like with the internet, when people started using the internet there was this feeling of having two identities. I have an online identity and offline, I'm a different person. It also let people experiment with that, so you would have people that would be a woman offline but pose as a man online and things like that. But those times have gone; now it's just totally intertwined. I don't think it makes sense to talk about surveillance anymore. It has become a back drop for all our works. Because it's the society we live in.

Doma: We are still trying to find the right images for it. With the security cameras, it was really accessible for us, because it would produce video, and that is something you can work with, something everybody understands. It’s kind of hard now to produce video of the same consumable thing, if you want to talk about digital surveillance or mass surveillance in your work. We take that as a given at the moment and try to work within the field and produce works which play with it without really addressing it.

Carmen: I think with the surveillance camera works it was also really interesting to provide access to these images because people who walked through these cities only saw the cameras. They seldom saw themselves on surveillance camera images. You got to see surveillance camera images when something really bad happened and it was released on the news.

But to sort of see the footage of yourself walking through the city gave access or still gives access. We still sometimes do those types of walks. It gives you access to a very different experience because it's also interesting to watch surveillance camera images. A lot of people have participated in these walks and they have told us that, for them, the most horrifying thing about the walks was that they began to enjoy looking at these cameras, looking at other people.

I think that's a fundamental experience people who surveil other people have. It's very enjoyable to partake in other people's lives. It's probably why people like famous people and like to know about their lives. It has to do with that same sentiment probably. But it's far harder to do that with data surveillance. It's really hard to give people the view of their own surveilled self. It's not as easy to do that. So yeah, I think that's something we've kept thinking about too.

Your own visibility has changed over the last few years. What are your experience with online trolling and other forms of being attacked? How has that environment changed for you and what are the consequences for you privately?

Carmen: I have to distinguish between trolling which we actually think is something quite nice, usually. We've had attacks on our servers, but I would never take that personally. You attack servers because they think they will get some type of visibility. It's kids attacking you because they want that visibility. They want to take over your website, for example, to put something up themselves. That always happened and I think it will always happen and it's just part of the system.

What does maybe worry me at times is this way of people seeing the net as a sort of place to rant about whatever they want without any consequences, anonymously, and of course, it's not an anonymous space. It's a sort of a space that is privately given to you by newspapers and then people comment on newspaper articles. At the moment, there's a discussion going on online about how to deal with that.

You have to, especially with the refugee crisis at the moment. How do you deal with people who are right-wing and attack these refugees and have very radical opinions about how to deal with refugees? But that's a question of accountability and I think society still needs to sort of find a way to deal with that. We've had a lot of articles about our work, like in online newspapers, are accompanied by people saying, ‘Well, anyone can do that’. And, ‘Why did these artists do whatever they do?’ But I don't think you can take that personally.

Doma: I think it would be interesting to speak a little bit more broadly, just because it's a messy time. I feel that we are losing control over things and maybe we could express that with a bot, that there is something going on which is out of our control. With all the data being gathered, with all of the surveillance being carried out on it, there is a lot to lose. Nobody is safe there, not even the NSA is safe from having one guy take everything and walk out.

So, I ask myself, what does that mean for me, for the environment that I'm living in? Anyone could come and just expose everything. This is something which is threatening to me so it means that we have to change how we behave ourselves. What kind of information do we want to have public and what data should be collected, or which data should be protected? It's kind of hard to work there but at the moment I think things are kind of breaking apart and it also gives you certain, how shall I put it? Certain insights. In Snowden, we had somebody to teach us about the kind of reality we are living in.

What is your perception of the new generation of people who started their online experience through social media? What impact does it have on your work and the politics of the digital environment? 

Carmen: I would actually say that with any data collected these days, it's not important what organisation collects it, because there is no entity which can collect data and also guarantee the safety of that data. So, it's actually bullshit, this promise of ‘Oh but your data is safe with Google’, because anyone at any time with access and clearance can walk out of Google with a hard drive full of data and sell it to anyone, or put it online.

I guess that soon enough that discussion will shift. I think we will have to begin building systems where there is no data collection. Like no data collection. That means totally different hierarchies for certain systems too.

That will mean there will be stuff you can't do with those systems. But I guess it's the only way. Because if the NSA is not capable of keeping their data safe, that means that nobody is. I think what people don't understand about data collecting is that it's not a real-time process. It's something that will come back to bite us in the future and that is something that we often find is not really talked about.

It might well be that today, I don't know, I travel to places today, say for example, I travel to Italy to talk about something. But in 20 years’ time people who travelled to Italy around the year 2015 tend to also do something else, and it then becomes illegal to have travelled to Italy 2015. You know, in the mid-'80s nobody could prove that I had travelled to Italy in '85 whereas today everything is recorded and you just don't know how our then past will be looked at in the future. What types of actions will not be allowed?

Take smoking for example. In a few years’ time, will people who have smoked at some point in their lives be treated differently from people who have never smoked in their lives? Twenty years ago you just couldn't prove it to somebody. Today you can. That's just the difference. Twenty years ago, the only data that was recorded was what you could prove on somebody's body. Of course, there's stuff that sort of sticks to your physical self. Whereas today you're also dealing with the digital self. That is a very rich body of information that also talks about you.

I think people are often not aware that this identity is actually a very full and rich identity, one which they contribute to every day, in real time. But it's also recorded for the future, forever. And that's really worrying but at the same time, it's our reality. It's also the reason we started to look at the Deep Webs and the TOR networks because architecturally, you have an internet there that is encrypted, and it's encrypted by default, not by decision, which makes it a very interesting concept, to me, for the future of the internet.

Of course it's frustrating to see people use social media and not understand that everything they do, everything they say, is public there. But I think the problem is a lot larger and it really involves everything, all these systems that we use. I remember this work by an artist, or maybe it was just something he said in an interview, I can't even remember who it was, but it sort of stuck with me.

He said, ‘I don't use Gmail because I think it's not good to use Gmail, but then when I look at my emails, 60% of my communication is with people who do use Gmail, so that means I can have my own server, use my own email address, but 60% of my communications are still stored in Google systems’. Even if I don't like it. And you can't stop communicating with people. I mean it's just too messy as Doma said, ‘It's just really messy’. And it's probably just a reality.

First published on November 22, 2015