Carmen Weisskopf and Domagoj Smoljo are contemporary artists that make up !Mediengruppe Bitnik, an artist collective based in Zürich, Switzerland.
Along with their accomplices, London filmmaker and researcher Adnan Hadzi and reporter Daniel Ryser, they often intentionally 'lose control' of their work in order to challenge established structures and mechanisms of power and privilege. They work mostly in the intersection of where the internet meets the non-digital while exposing vulnerabilities of common assumptions of where one ends and another begins.
Some of their key works to date include sending a parcel to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange while broadcasting its journey through the postal system, and programming a bot to go on an unusual shopping spree in the darknet to randomly buy items.
For Tactical Tech's Exposing the Invisible the work of !Mediengruppe Bitnik encapsulates the practice of seeing sideways through working through issues or environments that are by default hard to unpack, understand or contextualise. We also admire them for how they are able to play with the unpredictable and how skillful they are in using humour and controversy.
The video interview is divided into five separate video interviews:
The interview can either be read here below in its entirety or divided into smaller parts that follow each video.
Carmen: My name is Carmen Weisskopf. I'm part of the !Mediengruppe Bitnik which is an artists’ group from Zurich.
Doma: I'm Doma. I'm also part of the !Mediengruppe Bitnik, which is an artist collective. We started by doing very experimental stuff with our own computers, using the server. Basically, the group was formed at the art university in Zurich where we started to do wild experiments using a computer we called Bitnik which was a computer that was online 24/7.
We were just a bunch of people sharing a Linux computer. We learned about systems, we learned about servers and we loved the option of having something which is constantly online so we could always have a voice somewhere specific. That’s basically how Bitnik started.
Carmen and I are the only ones left from that group, but there are two other guys who we consider our accomplices. One is Adnan Hadzi from London. He's a documentary film-maker and researcher, and the other is Daniel Ryser, who is a writer, punk and poet. They are not part of day-to-day activities but they join us when we need them or when they have time.
They have no arts background which is good because we can just ping ideas at them and see if they work for someone outside of the art or tech business or tech world. So it is basically us four, with Carmen and me as the core team of Bitnik doing all the daily stuff.
Doma: We've worked with a lot of ‘bots’ over the last ten years. The last one is possibly the most popular, the Random Darknet Shopper bot. People also call him Randy. Normally, we try to give it a female name but this is what came out in this case.
It's basically a bot which goes into the so-called deep web or the darknet. It has a small budget of $100 US dollars converted into bitcoins and he randomly chooses, or it randomly chooses, a product being sold there. It orders it, buys it and addresses it directly to the gallery or exhibition space.
Random Darknet Shopper (2014), images from !Mediengruppe Bitnik. From left to right, the product purchased by the bot, the packaging and the gallery space with the other items bought.
We are trying to produce a piece of art which is out of our control, something which has a life of its own, something which possesses its own money. So the Random Darknet Shopper has its own money and the idea was to connect the art space with the deep web, and speak in the first instance about trust. How does trust work in a network where you don't know who you are speaking to? Because there is this encryption layer between me as a buyer and you as a seller. We really wanted to see how those things work within a network which gives you anonymity.
Random Darknet Shopper (2014), images from !Mediengruppe Bitnik, Kamagra pills as bought by Randy the bot.
Carmen: When you are working with digital systems, it's really interesting to think about the various entities able to responsibly take action within this realm. From early on, we have been really interested in autonomous systems. Not intelligent, but autonomous in the sense that you programme something. I guess you could say that all software, in a sense, is a bot. You programme something, and it goes off and does that activity on its own.
We also like to introduce an element of losing control. So with these bots we create, like the Random Darknet Shopper, there is a certain randomness, or autonomy, to them, so that they can be separate from us and they can take action separately from us.
Random Darknet Shopper (2014), images from !Mediengruppe Bitnik, items bought by Randy the bot displayed in a gallery setting.
I think our main question there is always, ‘How do you talk about the responsibility they have in a society, for example?’ The bots that we programme are very low tech. They don't use a lot of resources. But we actually live in a society where other bots do have resources and an impact on the systems within which they operate like trading bots, or self-driving cars.
I think our bots raise questions in a playful way that are then raised on a higher level by these cousin bots, which are not programmed by us, but who are out there. At Bitnik, we're not an open group, in that sense. But from the start, we did try to leave the identity a bit open and we also try to engage in an interesting way with the copyright systems. So we also like the way the bots are generating some noise within our own identity, or within Bitnik's identity.
Carmen: I think what's so interesting about digital systems is that bots, because they're also digital, and they're computers, are usually granted more access, whereas people are restricted to certain areas. So for example, you have something like a Google bot which randomly visits pages and indexes them so that Google can give you good search results.
You can set your browser to pretend to be a Google bot and then get access to say, archives of newspapers because newspapers want the Google bot to be able to read all the articles. They want them to index the articles and they want their articles to turn up on Google searches.
Whereas I, as a person, need to buy access. I do not have access to the archive but it's very easy to pose as a Google bot from my browser because what does my browser care? It's just one of the options you have. So I think that's really interesting, this question of visibility that you get to see out of this digital world posing as one or the other identity.
Doma: It's also a question of, ‘How do you create an identity online?’ What does that mean? You see that sometimes it's a small set of text which defines who you are because it says you are a browser, you are Firefox, but if you change that line of code or that line of information which you provide to somebody to say, ‘I'm a Google bot’, then you will see that the worlds you are in totally change because those two environments react to each other.
We like to play with those things. We like to change things which are there, things which you might think are fixed and unchangeable but which actually aren’t. You can turn things around, you can manipulate things, you can view certain things from a different angle, if you change yourself and say you are a Google bot.This action produces something like a grey zone where things which are not normally visible become accessible to you.
Carmen: I think it probably is a contradiction in a certain sense. But we really like that contradiction in the sense that this loss of control, this inserting of errors, or creating situations and then just seeing where they go, that is actually the moment when our works become interesting in the aesthetic, or artistic sense because that gives you access as a person watching.
So for example with ‘Delivery for Mr. Assange’, which was a work we did in 2013, we basically wanted to send a piece of mail to Julian Assange to see if we could overcome the police barrier around the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. We ended up sending a parcel because we wanted the feedback. We wanted to know what happened to the piece of mail we sent, so we placed a camera inside the parcel which took pictures of its surroundings. So you got a live feed of images from this parcel.
An x-ray of the parcel showing the camera and battery (left), the parcel containing the camera (right). Delivery for Mr. Assange (2013) by !Mediengruppe Bitnik
The images were uploaded live to the internet and you could watch this parcel make its way through the postal system towards the Ecuadorian Embassy. You could of course do the same thing and not put the images online. As an artist, putting the images online live means taking a lot of risks because if it doesn't work, what are you going to do? But we believe that taking that risk also makes it a lot more worthwhile to watch, in an artistic sense. So you need the liveness. That liveness is also an element we like to introduce, we like to work with live media.
And this randomness or this potential for failure, these errors that come into it all mean that the whole system needs to react to this piece of work. It's live and it's on its own. So the Post Office has to react to this piece of mail, the Embassy has to react to this piece of mail and they have to do it in real time.
Image taken from the camera while at the Post Office, Delivery for Mr. Assange (2013) by !Mediengruppe Bitnik
We think that produces situations which talk a lot about our times, and also about the opposite of a controlled society or this society of control, of surveillance, that we live in. They sort of give that a certain twist which we think is very healthy.
Doma: There is this very specific moment when you put that parcel into the postal system, and you go back and watch it from home and then you are getting the same information as everybody else. This forms a kind of feeling of community. Everybody watching had the same feeling, the same amount of know-how. We needed to introduce a performance just a little bit. Performance in this instance refers to the amount of time [battery life] that the parcel camera had to run. But it's also about access. We want people to have easy access to our works.
This is what this live medium can bring and what the loss of control can bring - you can create a space where things are possible. And particularly with this work, we created a space which was really interesting even though most of the images were black. You had this black rectangle of an image, saying LIVE on it, and we had hundreds, sometimes a thousand people watching this black window for hours. Because it was attached to a political system, and this is what makes our work, in that specific moment, really interesting.
The black live image being watched by hundreds of people, Delivery for Mr. Assange (2013) by !Mediengruppe Bitnik
Doma: With ‘Delivery for Mr. Assange’, we communicated with Julian about whether he would receive that parcel and could possibly send it to somebody else who is in a similar situation to him. So as soon Julian received that parcel at the embassy, he started to speak with the audience via the camera, which was inside and which broadcasted a live feed every 15 seconds.
He basically expressed solidarity with people who are in similar situations. Jeremy Hammond, another Anonymous guy, Nabeel Rajab, Chelsea Manning, Rudolf Elmer; a whistle-blower from Switzerland, Aaron Swartz, and some others.
He asked for justice for Aaron Swartz because Aaron Swartz just killed himself two weeks prior to that performance and so, we suggested to him that he could do two things: one option was to show us his world, how he lived in the embassy from the inside. He could just put that parcel to the window so that we see what kind of view he had; and the second option was to send it to somebody. We started to have meetings at the Ecuadorian Embassy to discuss that possibility and it was kind of clear in that discussion that it should go to one of the people who were mentioned.
First, we tried to send the parcel to Chelsea Manning. She was in prison at that time, but it was just about time for her trial and the idea was to send it directly to the court over there, via her lawyer. So it might have been possible for her to receive that parcel from Assange, but we missed that opportunity because of other things. Snowden happened and WikiLeaks had to deal with other things, so there was no time to do it. In the meantime, the window which was open for us to maybe speak or communicate with Chelsea closed because the trial ended and she was put into jail for 35 years.
We discussed other options afterwards. The case of Nabeel Rajab is really interesting because he uses Twitter like we do. He also rants on Twitter and criticises, but he went to jail for that - for libel, I think, because he might have spoken badly about the cousin of the King. The idea was to send a parcel from the Ecuadorian Embassy directly to Nabeel Rajab in Bahrain. So, we reconditioned the parcel because it needed a new battery. But we came up with a system which was much more sophisticated than the first version where the camera could perform for almost 30 days.
!Mediengruppe Bitnik, Delivery for Mr. Rajab (2013)
Carmen: The first parcel - the parcel to Julian Assange - had the battery life of about 40 hours. The second parcel had battery life of about 30 days, we estimated. It's always hard to test these things because it's different in the real world. So we sent this second parcel together with Julian from the Ecuadorian Embassy and it was shifted around for, if I remember correctly, about four days in London.
We had booked an overnight express delivery to Bahrain. It should've arrived within 48 hours. After four days, the parcel was still in London, and it was actually being handed back and forth between postal entities, so between the Royal Mail and FedEx. It was a hot potato. Nobody wanted to touch it.
It went to Stansted Airport twice and then on the fourth day, it went back to Stansted airport from the city centre. It was taken back to the centre, back to Stansted airport and put on a plane to Paris and it went offline of course, and reappeared in Paris. We monitored all the flights going out of Stansted trying to guess what flight it was on.
It reappeared in Paris for a few hours, and then was put on a flight to Dubai. Then it resurfaced in Dubai and stayed at a postal terminal at the airport for another 24 hours approximately, and then it just went offline.
We tried to investigate. We tried to find out what had happened to it. We filed a claim form, the usual procedure for lost parcels, and after a while we got the information back that it was seized by customs and probably destroyed. They couldn't do anything about it because this was Dubai customs and thus out of their hands and they were no longer responsible. Then we decided to fly to Dubai, thinking that by physically taking the parcel to Dubai ourselves we would circumvent the border or the customs and send it from Dubai to Bahrain.
Doma: We tried to continue the journey and just as in the first ‘performance’, we had several back-up parcels ready. It wasn't the first parcel that made it to Assange. We had another two versions ready so we could use maybe another postal company or another way to try to send it. So with Nabeel, we had another one ready.
Carmen: So we posted it in Dubai. It went around town for a few hours and then disappeared at the airport again. At the same place. For us that talked about how this parcel, that was pushed around London for four days, that didn't get processed through the system as it normally should. But because it was a public art piece, postal systems were probably reluctant to just take it out of the system and destroy it, whereas in Dubai that was not such a problem. For us it also talked about how these various systems work and how they are connected, and how Dubai also forms, in a certain sense, a firewall for the rest of the Arab states.
Carmen: I guess for us there are probably two answers to your question. The first is to do with these closed systems, they form a lot of our reality. Large portions of where we live are actually closed circuit systems, elite systems, surveillance systems. From an artistic point of view, if you want to work with what's around you, you are bound to work within these types of systems.
So for us, the question becomes ‘Where can we find potential for interesting narratives within these systems even though they're closed, or, how can we misuse them?’ If you think of technology, a lot of technological systems you buy in shops are also very closed. You don't have access to them. You can use them in a certain way. You buy a television, you can watch TV if you plug it in the right way, full stop. But there's not a lot else you're allowed to do with the thing.
That's probably where our curiosity starts, with the question: ‘Can't I do something else with this? Why can't I use surveillance cameras to talk to the people who run these cameras?’ There's no way of reaching them. I don't know where they are. They may be in some remote place. But if I take over their video feed and they cannot do what they're meant to do, which is surveil a certain space, they will probably come and complain.
It's this type of misusing very deterministic systems and making them into communication systems and sort of using or abusing them for that. For us, I think the aesthetic lies in finding ways to use systems in ways they were not meant for but doing that in a very precise way. I think there's a certain narrative that you can then uncover within these systems, and I think that's what we try to do.
Doma: We started off with the idea of asking ourselves, is it possible to take up this approach of hacking things, altering things, changing things? Not just in technical systems. Like what happens if you apply the same rules or how would we hack stuff to maybe more social environments. Is it possible, or is there any way to do that?
We determined that there are three steps for us to do this. This was something we determined about ten years ago for our works but it still applies. One step was to say, ‘Okay, we have to understand that a social system has an input and output feed too’. If you want to play with that, one obvious question is, ‘Is there a way to manipulate that feed, to take that feed and put it somewhere else?’ Then maybe this could be a space which creates something beautiful.
So we started this project in 2007 called 'Opera Calling' where we hijacked the live feed to the opera in Zürich. We placed bugs inside the Opera House and connected the Opera House with the gallery space. In the gallery space we had a telephone broadcasting machine, from which we could just call people at home, randomly from the telephone book.
Hidden bugs in the Opera House retransmit live opera performances, Opera Calling, (2007), !Mediengruppe Bitnik
So we would call them and say, "Hey, do you want to have a live connection to this opera? You don't have to go there. And we know tickets are expensive. So here's your feed, just stay on your phone." Then there came a beep, and after the beep there was this live feed. It was something which was beautiful because it brought to life that internet logic of sharing, of cultural access to a building made out of stone.
First bug found by Zürich Opera
This is a building which has been there for 200 years, and doesn't really want to change. It doesn't really want to adopt new forms. But in itself it's beautiful because there are beautiful productions inside but there's no access to it for people, so we play with those things. We also like to think about working with surveillance cameras, or in that field where Assange is living.
The topics are super heavy but one question is, ‘What happens if you apply a little bit of humour to those topics? Is there a way for us as artists to deal with those high-level problems by taking them personally? I have this computer, can I do something with it?’ In all our works, we like to introduce this aspect of naivety to things. But that's what makes it kind of accessible also.
Television broadcast on the project, SRF - Swiss Television - News Broadcast 10vor10, 14.03.2007
Carmen: I think this manipulating of systems has to do with very low level understanding of all systems as well as with the fact that our social systems are programmed. They are not the way they are because they have to be that way, but because they developed in a certain way.
That usually implies that political decisions went into their development. This is something that I think art is really good at, and I'm pretty sure it's the only system that's really good at it. It is good at thinking of alternatives, not in the sense of them being implemented, but in the sense of visualising them.
Installation of Telephone Machine at Cabaret Voltaire, Zürich, !Mediengruppe Bitnik (2007)
Look at the work we have here in the exhibition by Suzanne Treister, for example. Her paintings or drawings are visions of how our world developed, of how the world of computers developed. It’s her vision and it's something different to what you get to read in history books. I think it's really important to have a polyphonic view of the world and I think we're really losing that. And I really feel that's something that we as artists can try to keep developing.
Talking about how things could've also been or the things that got dropped. The things that did not make it into history books. The people that did not make it into history books. The things that got overlooked. For us that's really important, and we think that digital gives us a means to do that. There's probably a 1,000 other ways, this is just the way we think. That's where our play starts.
Carmen: Well, I guess for us it's not about labelling, but more about stressing the importance of having a field like the arts that can reflect on what's going on. For example, we don't exclusively work in the art space, or what you might call an art space - a white cube. We also work in public spaces. We have performative formats. We like to work in online spaces which are not dedicated spaces for the arts, but nevertheless we think that this aesthetic approach can bring something important to the table. That’s probably why we stress it. I didn’t realise that we stressed it that much.
Doma: We consider ourselves as conceptual artists also. Even though we do things, we think it's the story we tell which is the interesting thing. The theory behind it. Or the setting which it plays out in. And the outcome can be whatever. The project can fail. That is something we need to deal with too. At least in the area in which we work, we have the most freedom to do that. Because we are able to fail. It's okay to fail. Our field gives us options we wouldn’t get in other fields. By labelling our work as art, the people who access it are people we mightn’t otherwise reach. Because we have different audiences. The audience at our live performances are totally different to our other audiences. We consider the art space as being a space which is a reflective space, which brings another quality with it. We like to position our works there because the story can then travel on without us. It doesn't need us anymore. It becomes something which is perhaps objectified, put into something which can travel. Into a form. This is just the realm of which we are working.
Carmen: The arts are really beautiful in the way they allow you to ask questions without knowing the solutions. Whereas when we talk to activists, they are often under pressure to know the solutions. They need to think of solutions. We don't. We're not under pressure in that way. We can just ask the questions.
Doma: And we can inspire people to think about possibilities for solving those problems.
Carmen: That's also the limitations of the arts. They can't really do more than reflect and ask questions - hopefully interesting questions. But they cannot find solutions.
Doma: We learned really early on that we are not good at building systems which are reliable or sustainable, systems that can survive! Like producing software for example. We had a lot of good ideas for software but we were never able to play with the length of time necessary to develop something that can exist without you. There was a term called ‘social software’ before there was social media. We also tried to play with that and tried to bring code to people and give them tools to express themselves. We realised that we totally failed! We are better at telling narratives, telling stories and producing a kind of freedom in that way, but something that is really temporary. These works create certain moments where things can light up. And then they go away. If you consume our work, you might see that something has changed because you had access to that work. So we are really trying to work out those moments, where things just seem different but maybe stay a while and then, they go away.
Doma: We try to become experts in certain fields so research is really important for us. We do research in a really broad way, without knowing where it's heading. We try to be open. We try to understand how things work. With the Assange piece for example, we just knew about this space that he's living in, where he's trapped at the moment, the Ecuadorian Embassy, and the fact that the police are around it, and that in itself is an important manifestation for our times.
Julian Assange delivering a message to the camera, Delivery for Mr. Assange (2013) by !Mediengruppe Bitnik
We can't really say exactly what that manifestation is, but it produces pictures which you can see and realise that there's a fight happening at the moment. And that fight is important and there are people trapped inside embassies. It deals with the internet and it deals with transparency and it deals with openness. And they are all big topics. But we got really interested in that specific physical space, the physical manifestation of that. Because it's in London and in the heart of Europe.
So we spent a really long time trying to understand how things worked, how things flow, what kind of civility still exists. And this takes time. We just start reading newspapers. We try to really understand what kind of political field we are entering. And hopefully after a while, we know whether there is a trigger or not for us there, or if the possibility exists for us to play with those systems.
Carmen: I think the research is really, really important. What maybe frustrated us in the beginning sometimes is that, as you said, most of that research does not show up in our work. But to be precise with an intervention, you need to know a lot and you need to try out different things. And then suddenly you know what you have to do. With the Assange piece, what happened was we got up in the morning and said, ‘Hey, this is what we have to do’. But to get to that point takes months of research. But it's ongoing research, of course.
It's also maybe a discourse we're interested in, we're involved in, where we then intensify our research into a certain area. I guess you need a certain broader understanding of all that's going on. It's not a burden. For us, the hard part is coming up with a very precise concept, the creation of a very precise situation, which involves all the questions we're interested in, without us having to specify them.
‘Delivery for Mr. Assange’ is about the whole situation he's in and why he's in it, the question of the times we live in where people can get trapped at embassies. Where it is not transparent and there are investigations going on, but you can't look into them because they're secret. That's the backdrop. The thing you follow is a parcel, but all these other questions are also somehow there. I think that these topics need the lightness of what we do.
Sometimes I feel these are topics which, when you get into them, they're a bit like hitting somebody on the head with a bat. They just make you go, ‘Oh my God, I don't want to think about this’. It's just too much, too heavy, and what we do is really try to make it fun, somehow, in a sort of a strange way.
It has a lot to do with what we call personal geo-politics. We try to get ourselves involved in what's going on, by saying, ‘Politics is complicated and usually gives you the feeling that it is all sewn up, that you can't say anything about this. Just go about your life and don't think about it’. But we think it's important to involve ourselves in these discussions, in some way, and try to force the systems to react to the small type of rippling of the surface which we try to cause.
Doma: We always try to find objects which can carry the stories. Like the parcel to Assange is not the same as sending an email because there is postal secrecy for the parcel, but there is no postal secrecy for our emails. So, it plays us with that, it plays with history.
Carmen: Yes and it's something which might cause people to then go, ‘Yeah, why don't we have postal secrecy for our emails?’
Doma: Yes, why? Everybody can read it and you know, if you're sitting in Zurich and you want to address an email to Julian Assange, it will be read by every country. Everybody will make a copy. You have no rights. You have no say in that. But with this postal mail, it becomes visible. You can really easily speak about that and it's all there, even though we don't say it explicitly. But it produces what we call in German 'Schwingungen'. It produces vibrations and all those topics are inside there. I think our work is to find the right object, the right setting, to tell the story.
Doma: The Assange Room is the room we built for an exhibition at the museum in Zürich. It was basically a solo exhibition and we thought we're still really fascinated by the physical space where Assange is living. The first performance, it was more about the outside, you know? The smallest part of the thing was happening inside. While visiting Assange, we were not really interested in the clash of cultures inside an embassy.
There is all this embassy furniture, but then there are all these computers and a kind of hacker aesthetic around. It’s just like two worlds colliding in a really small space. He cannot really move so he's kind of trapped there, but WikiLeaks is still operational simply because they have an internet connection. They have access to maybe an encryption system or I don't know how they communicate, but they still communicate with the outside world very effectively and very well. And we're interested in showing that scale somehow and in speaking about scales.
The Assange Room, at Helmhaus Zürich in 2014, photo by Mancia/Bodmer, FBMstudio
Carmen: I don't think we mix them, I think they are mixed! What we encounter is this very messy mix of all the systems mingling with each other. Actually, I feel what we do is to try to single out two systems and make them mix so you can watch the results, but usually it's all a tangle. It sometimes feels more like untangling something than really mixing something.
I guess we started out in a world where there was something called interactive art which often enabled people to do something in the art space. You would have something and it would be interactive. You could do something and something would happen. But it would always go along the lines of what the artist wanted to happen. And that, to us, seemed a bit boring and not very much like how the world works.
It's not what happens out there and so we thought it would actually be much more interesting to make things interactive but sort of force interaction on the various players within a system without them actually wanting to interact. To force them to interact and do it in a setting that's live so it becomes unpredictable. It's not what we think the outcome will be. Of course, when we create these situations we do talk about what it's like.
Though usually we talk about the worst case scenario. What's the worse outcome? We try to prepare for that somehow. But it usually turns out worse case in a totally different way. In a way we didn't think about or didn't predict in a certain sense.Doma: We like to play with those trust systems. We also heard that it might be possible for us to call the police to show up with the
We've learned a lot from 4chan, from systems like 4chan because we studied their environment. We love the environment because it produces a setting where the story which you produce on that forum becomes really relevant and your identity is not relevant anymore. Because there is no archive and it deletes itself. This is an environment where you have to be precise to be seen. You are only there if you are seen and if not, then your posts get deleted. So, it forces you to be really precise in a really specific moment. And I love that because it's live.
We learn from that and we try to use those tactics and understand those tactics and apply them elsewhere. More within an art context, or within a cultural context which is maybe more mainstream or not so radical, but which can speak about political topics. So, we like to mix different things. I think you are right when you say that you see that connection because I think it's there.
Carmen: But it is of course a culture we grew up in too. It's this copy and paste culture, you can't get away from that. Also, for us as art students. The original, this talk of the original didn't make a lot of sense because it wasn't part of our experience. So, I guess, it sort of goes both ways. These online cultures are very formative for a lot of people. And they form our culture, I think, a lot more than people would like to admit.
Carmen: I think we included two pieces. There would have been more but we had to choose so we chose those two pieces. We regard them as art. I think that they are art. Maybe the people who created them don't regard themselves as artists and maybe they would not exhibit them, necessarily, but they are just as much an art practice as anything else. Because they are very precise; they intervene in a certain situation and they say a lot about what's going on. I don't think we wanted to include art pieces by Anonymous necessarily, but we wanted to include art pieces and these were by Anonymous. So, we tried to find a way of contacting the creators and asking for their permission.
The first one was called ‘I'll be there in 30 minutes’. It's an art piece by Anonymous which intervenes in a specific live webcam on Times Square. The camera disappeared about two years ago but the project was running for at least three years. It was a webcam and you could see the entrance of a typical souvenir shop and a card stand standing outside the souvenir shop with postcards of New York. You could see people passing by on a very busy Times Square and people going in and out of that shop.
This anonymous person or group found this camera very interesting and started thinking about what would happen if they pulled down this card stand. You would see it live in the internet, it would make a big mess. So they went onto 4chan and posted, "I'll be there in 30 minutes. And I'll pull down this card stand", which made everyone on 4chan watch that camera. Then the guy never showed up or the girl never showed up to pull down the card stand. So this ‘I'll be there in 30 minutes’ becomes this wait forever and then people start complaining on 4chan saying, ‘I've been watching New Yorkers go by that stupid shop for hours and nobody turned up to pull down this card stand’.
YouTube video entitled Earthcam Trolling - First Cardstand, posted in 2011
Doma: But there's somebody performing the story, telling them, ‘I'm just there and hey, it looks like that, or, ‘The police are around. I can't do it now but I'll do it in 10 minutes’, so you spend another 10 minutes watching and still nothing happens.
Carmen: So people from 4chan kept turning up going, ‘I'll be there in 30 minutes’. Sometimes, the card stand got pulled down, sometimes it didn't. We decided to recreate that situation in the gallery as a way of talking about this very precise intervention into a certain cityscape mediated by a camera. We have the camera filming a card stand with postcards of New York, within the gallery space and it got pulled down by kids twice during the exhibition which we thought was really nice.
Doma: Funny. Yeah, because they felt like they're part of that culture, they knew the codes we were providing them with.
Anonymous, I'll be there in 30 Minutes, 2011; Photo: Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen, Gunnar Meier
Carmen: The other piece is called 'Artwork by Anonymous' and it was a performance, a site-specific performance for eBay. On eBay somebody put up a screenshot, a framed screenshot of 4chan reading 'This post is art'. So he claimed it was an artwork. But it was a screenshot from 4chan, framed, and they put this up on eBay for, I think starting from $1 saying, "Original artwork by Anonymous”.
Doma: It sold for 90,000 US dollars. Everybody freaked out and the art blogs in New York freaked out and everybody was like, ‘Wow, how did that happen? Is that normal?’
Carmen: You don't know, did people sort of push up the price? Was that part of the performance? Did somebody really buy that piece for 90,000 dollars?
The framed screenshot of the Anonymous artwork, displayed at The Darknet - From Memes to Onionland (2014-2015)
Doma: I don’t think they did, but the story was out already. So they really played with expectations and they chose the precise moment to also produce that media mess. We really liked it because it plays with fiction and reality and maybe it was all planned or maybe it wasn’t. Online systems, offline systems within the art world.
We had the original screenshot there framed but the interesting thing was that we needed to talk somebody. How do you approach Anonymous? How would it work? But somehow we figured out how to get to the right guy who produced that piece. For him, it was really difficult to decide whether he still should use the identity of 'Anonymous' or whether the moment had come for him to say, ‘It's me’, because that brings fame. Because it's in a museum environment and it could be good for him.
So you have all those questions about identity, collective identity which was really interesting. In the end, we convinced him to leave it as an art piece by Anonymous because it was stronger like that.
Carmen: It's a way of life!
Doma: We use Open Source a lot. We are very bad at contributing to Open Source development, but we are really good at misusing all the software written! Basically, it started with the first computers we had which were able to get online. Our first server was a UNIX system, so we learned all those tools. We became really good at piping things into each other.So, every time we produce new work, whether it be
We can say, ‘Okay, this does that, and this and there's a programme which is doing that. Is there a way to connect them?’ And Open Source software, or Linux systems, UNIX systems, they make it really easy for you to do that. So, we use it a lot, we love it. Linux is the main operating system we work with.
Carmen: I think it goes further than that. From the beginning, we published everything we did that helped us online. Back then we used to hear, ‘But I can't buy that particular installation, because it's already online’. Whereas, today, the art world is starting to understand that visibility's good. Ten years ago, you weren't allowed to take pictures in a museum. Can you imagine? Today, it's 'pics, or it didn't happen’.
Photography is now a constant in the art world. Everything goes on Instagram. You need to show your openings, your images, but that wasn't the deal ten years ago. We really tried to put everything online, and we still do. All our work is online. You can watch it all. We think that's really important. We think it's this remix culture or this copy and paste culture. It brings a lot of value to our culture, this sharing not only of code, but of images, for example making memes out of stuff.
A lot of our works have been taken, changed and put back up on YouTube. For example, there's a piece by somebody using the ‘Delivery for Mr. Assange’ images and their own soundtrack. He’s this person -I think it's a guy- who tells his own story of that work, and that's great. It's something we always try to encourage. I think it's probably necessary to have a new generation of kids to come up, kids who have really grown up within that culture, who will start remixing stuff.
Carmen: I think that's immensely important for us. Talking about the environment beyond our art's practice, it's the only way to go for digital systems. We need to be able to read the codes, we need to know about the back doors that somebody's built in. We need to know what a code does, and who wrote it.
Doma: Who has access to it? Where is our data flowing?
Carmen: Who changed it? What data does it store? We feel totally uncomfortable with proprietary systems, in that sense.
Doma: Some years ago, we really felt like we were being really old school. We always wanted to own our own hardware. We have a physical server and we know the core is secure. I know where the mail is stored and everything. But it felt wrong, because it was a lot of work, and it's actually really bad.
Carmen: People said, ‘Why don't you just upload it to the cloud?
Doma: ‘It's so accessible, and so easy.’ But now, with the NSA thing, after Snowden, I'm really happy to not have given that up. It's still ours, even though I can't control everything. If I write an email, I can't control who will read it. I can't control the connection. But, still, I'm kind of convinced that it's safe on our server.
Carmen: Actually I don't think that what we do needs encryption. I think we encrypt our stuff because we think it's important as a principle and we think that there are enough people in the world who are in situations where they have to rely on encryption to save their lives, to store their data. Luckily, we're not in that situation but by encrypting our stuff, we make it harder to decrypt their stuff so it's harder to know what the important stuff is. I guess we would say, ‘Encrypt everything’. It's what we tell our students. Start encrypting your emails. It's not because you have something you don't want to be read but because there are people who do have stuff that should not be read. We think encryption is really, really important as a principle.
Doma: But we always understand the internet as a public space. Everything you say is public. For a long time there wasn't really much about us personally online because it was all under the Bitnik label which was just floating around. This has changed over the last two, three, four years because it's always the same people doing the Bitnik thing, so it was kind of hard to hide ourselves. The internet is a public thing and you need to be aware that everything you put out there can harm you in ten or 15 years’ time.
Carmen: Yeah -in that sense, of course it eases the mind to know that everything's encrypted and cannot be easily read. For us it's more a conscious decision than fear of whoever reading whatever we write. But it's a principle.
Doma: I like the tactic of applying noise. Noise which is really harmless but still provides cover for somebody who needs the protection.
Carmen: We incorporate the type of failure that can help us with the narrative and the type of failure that stops the work, or where it means that we can't follow the work through or we have to give up on the research. That type of failure happens a lot. I think it’s also very normal in art.
It's very common for us to publish certain things and to not publish other things - that happens to us as well. I guess the type of failure that happens to us more often than to other artists is where we work with institutions and have works called off at the last minute because they're not willing to publish them.
That's probably the most frustrating type, because we've learned to deal with giving up on research. It usually just means it's not the right moment. But you don't totally give up on a topic. You carry it around with you for a while and maybe at some point, suddenly the time's right. You can go through with an idea or with a work or it's a slightly different slant on it. When we put in a lot of work and then have the institution call off the work, that's pretty frustrating because that's something we do try to address when working with institutions.
We know we're difficult to work with, we try to be as honest as possible and we try to prepare them for all the problems they may run into. We try to get lawyers to explain the field they're entering. Because of course, from a legal point of view, it's something entirely different when we do something as artists and when an institution does something. Totally different systems are affected, it can have totally different consequences.
So we try to think things through for the two of us [!Mediengruppe Bitnik and the institution]. When we fail there, it means we've lost a lot of time and energy. And money. So that's really frustrating. And it does happen once in a while. We had an idea to use this. We've had this idea for ages, and we've actually started talking to other artists about it. Because we know other artists as friends and they have been in the same situations.
We think it would be very interesting to put together a show of failed art, but institutionally failed art, the stuff that got censored, or didn't get produced, or the funding didn't come through or the institution stepped away. We could never put together that kind of exhibition. We would need an art historian or a curator to do that for us, but we think it would talk a lot about impossibility and possibility within the art system.
It would be really interesting to know what the failed projects of the Dadaists and the surrealists were. What did Deschamps fail to show in his time? Works that are possibly museum-owned today, and a very common sort of part of the canon, of artistic history. Art history - now.
Doma: Copyright is the thing which produces the most problems for us. Because we like to use cut-up techniques, or the cut-up culture, the copy and paste culture. We like to use that in our work. But that also means that things get messed up, ownership gets messed up.
For certain things, it's totally okay that it happens in an exhibition space. Because it's the space where you have the most freedom to do things. But as soon as you leave that space, and you say I want to work with your website, it's not possible any more. Even though you, as an artist, also consider that as a space where you should be able to do art. Four out of the five times we fail have had to do with copyright. I think this is something we should also look into. It can be also used as a tool of censorship.
Carmen: I'm not sure whether we aim for controversy. I think that we may have a slightly radical use of software and systems, and digital and non-digital environments. It leads you to the edges, it leads you to where failure begins.
Failing systems also talk a lot about normality. There’s this relationship, what's normal, what's sort of slightly off? We think it’s really interesting to look at the whole bandwidth or the whole breadth of a system. We like to push it to the edges, but there's a very aesthetical impetus to that also. I don't think that we are very theoretical artists. We don't think about things. I mean, we do think about things! I think failure for us is not an abstract category, it's just a part of our surrounding. I think it's always there.
I guess that there'll always be people who, I don't know, use a system like Facebook and they use it to connect with other people. Whereas we just belong to the type of people who will go to Facebook and try to find out how to break it. Where does it stop doing what was intended? So it's a curiosity to understand how systems work.
I think the easiest way to understand how a system works is to push its boundaries, to use it in a very radical way, try to make it do stuff that it might not usually do. I don't think we go about it theoretically. It's probably more just the way we do things. The controversy always arises at those edges.
Somebody said to us recently that our art informs law teaching, because at universities, our works can be used to think about laws. Do they make sense in this way? Should they be changed? What does this mean? Is this legal or not legal? Because it's not that clear. Of course, we don't make art for lawyers. I'm not interested in that system as a system; it just sort of happens. But it happens because you go to the edges. Sometimes, it's really strange.
Take our work where we played surveillance chess with CCTV cameras in London. We were just trying to use the system in a way it wasn't intended to be used in and doing that in a way that would take the hierarchy out of the system. So that would sort of position us, as the surveilled, as the people standing in the space that is being surveilled, at eye-level with the person watching us, by enforcing a game.
Surveillance Chess (2012) Hijacking CCTV Cameras in London, image by !Mediengruppe Bitnik.
Doma: We hijacked their monitors and applied our own thing to their monitors. We thought that by playing a game, we would create something new. It's not me being observed anymore. It's something different and maybe it can change something, but more in the sense of the experience. Maybe it would be a new experience for us too.
We realised that by publishing this work, lawyers told us, that publishing this might be difficult for us because we don't have the rights to those images because it's not our camera. Even though I'm being filmed there in public space, I have no right to see that image and the images are being broadcasted. For me, that seemed kind of wrong.
But in this case, art helped us to find a way to express ourselves without having to deal with, in this specific case, copyright and say, ‘No, we are taking the risk, we want to do it. We are stealing their pictures, but just because we're the ones being filmed all the time and we should be able to work with that material because it's ours. It's basically also mine’.
Carmen: The TV hacking in Jamaica was actually really an accident, because we didn't realise that there was a relay antennae near the place where we were testing our broadcast. Together with a project called the Container Project, which is run, or was run, for kids by a Jamaican-British artist, we were invited to build a TV station.
We had been doing TV hacking for a long time at that stage, and with broadcasting media it is usually the case that you can use the receiving end and turn it into a sender. It usually goes both ways, and that's what we used to do. It's just common, store-bought stuff and we just put it together in a different way to set up a TV broadcasting system. TV broadcasting is regulated so it would became a pirate TV station.
We used it a lot because we found TV very inaccessible. We found it interesting to gain access, and we built very local pirate TV stations that you could control through a web interface as a community and broadcast your own TV programs. But, you know, very small, low range. The idea was always to create very confined spaces of reception for these TV stations, and to have a live feed that would be fed back live into a certain setting.
We used that a lot for performative actions too and when we went to Jamaica, the idea was to actually do the same thing. The only thing was that we had the relay station near us and when we started testing the TV station we had built up, people were beat-boxing, kids were just doing funny stuff all day.
We were trying to find out how far we were broadcasting. We were in a very rural setting in Jamaica so it wasn't that easy. In cityscapes you just go to the next building and that usually sort of also gives you a certain range, because those buildings reflect. But there we just didn't know, so we started, or they started calling neighbours, asking ‘Can you turn on your TV and see whether you are receiving our signal?’
The channel we were actually broadcasting on was empty, but they said, ‘Oh, but there's something funny going on on this other channel’. We realised there was a lag of about 20 seconds, and the lag of course also explains, or was explained, by the fact that the signal was picked up by a relay antennae and broadcast back to the whole island.
Doma: We were broadcasting on one of the two channels in operation then! We were afraid, but it was also fun because it was something that was out of our control. It was bigger than we were at that moment. There was a guy running around saying, ‘You're writing media history here. Nobody has done that before’. We were like, ‘Media history, oh’. Like it was the best thing that ever happened in Jamaican TV history!
The funny thing was that people really liked it because it felt natural somehow. We got a really nice response from people telling us it was interesting because it was something different. Maybe it's just small things which are enough to produce an environment where things are beautiful.
Wiping Out National TV Station, Jamaica (2008), photo by !Mediengruppe Bitnik
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.
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.
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.