!Mediengruppe Bitnik, Losing Control: Delivery for Mr. Assange
Carmen and Doma discuss why losing control is an important aspect of their work through their 2013 project Delivery for Mr. Assange. Read the interview relating to this video below.
You’ve talked about randomness, chance, mistakes and glitches. How do you merge these two approaches, when on one hand your work very rationally and even categorically, and on the other hand, you just let things go? Why is that an important part of your practice?
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
How intense is the investigation phase of your projects? What kind of investigation you do? The output might fail, but your investigation phase seems extremely thorough and important.
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.
With ‘Delivery for Mr. Assange’, this was not the end of the story as this was not the only parcel you sent?
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.