In a Keynote panel on January 30th, 2014, which I organised at transmediale festival “afterglow”, film director Laura Poitras, independent security analyst Jacob Appelbaum and artist and geographer Trevor Paglen reflected on upcoming frontiers of action and awareness for hackers, activists and artists in the present context of geopolitical surveillance and control.
The conversation aimed to trace a possible path towards investigating the deconstruction of power structures through experiencing them from within, critically reflecting on the role of art and activism today in the context of the post-9/11 politics and society. Crossing various practices and disciplines, from film documentary, computer security, hacking, experimental geography, photography, this talk revealed the role of art as evidence, as a practice of making people regain and reclaim their autonomy, have agency and live consciously in a networked world. Reconnecting with the courageous practice of whistleblowing and ethical resistance, Appelbaum, Paglen and Poitras highlighted contradictions between public visibility and individual privacy, information disclosure and data protection in the digital and physical info-sphere.
Below is my introduction text for the panel, and the videos of the speakers’ contributions.
Panel Introduction by Tatiana Bazzichelli
“First of all I would like to thank Laura Poitras, Jacob Appelbaum and Trevor Paglen to be with us today, an extraordinary combination of courageous and brave people. It is a great gift what we are receiving this evening with their presence.
I would start with introducing the conference stream Hashes to Ashes in general, and this event, named “Art as Evidence”, in particular.
In the past six months, since the release of NSA material by Edward Snowden, it has become clear that critical practices from artists, hackers and activists must be rethought. As many people have already reported, we are facing an increasing geopolitical control, which is invading many aspects of our daily life.
But as we will see tonight and in the next days, attempts to undermine freedom of speech, privacy, accessibility of information, made by various sources of power. have been happening already many times in the past.
The history of whistleblowing, which could be tracked back to the Eighteen century, when the first whistleblower protection law in the United States was enacted, demonstrated the needs of exposing and bringing attention to abuses of Government or misconducts of large corporations. Later in time, the courageous act of Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Paper to the New York Times during the Vietnam War in 1971, was an example of it.
Attempts to prosecute hacker activities are also intrinsically embedded in the development of digital culture, and I am referring for example to the Operation Sundevil, a wide United State Secret Service hacker crackdown in the early 1990s. Bruce Sterling wrote a book about it published in 1992.
In this festival we are claiming that the “revolution is over” and we welcome the audience to the afterglow of digital culture. But what we should mostly advocate during these days and beyond them, it is to discover together what burns underneath the ashes of digital rights.
How can we produce self-awareness in the digital and physical info-sphere? What can we learn from artists, hackers, whistleblowers, activists and theoreticians that advocate a different scenario from the one of increasing surveillance?
Let’s concentrate now on the topic of this keynote: “Art as Evidence”. This title was suggested by Laura Poitras to me during one conversation we had some time ago. The main point was (I quote her) to reflect on: “how we can use art to translate evidence or information beyond revealing the facts, so that people experience that information differently, not just intellectually, but emotionally.”
In this case, art becomes a mean for experiencing the systems of surveillance and control from within. The challenge is to understand how these systems work, not merely opposing them, but learning from them, tracking them down as they track us, stretching their limits, and consequentially proposing alternative models to them.
We need to be pervasive without replicating logic of power and politics of fears.
We need to see what we want to fight with different eyes, understanding the infrastructure and logics of power from their insight, demystifying them. A big power has always a vulnerable spot, and it is possible to discover it, and to expose it.
This is a great lesson that we learned from whistle-blowers, and from people like William Binney, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden that put their life at risk to disclose information. They have shown that even if the power of control looks so gigantic the action of a single individual can seriously undermine it. You do not need to be a superhero to do it. You can be a normal person that decides to take action.
The people here on stage, the ones that will be with us in the next days, and many people in the audience that are here this night, will be glad to share with you what they know about this. And from some of them you can learn how to do it.
The work of Laura Poitras, Jacob Appelbaum and Trevor Paglen demonstrates that people can still fight back, generating conscious forms of interventions and political awareness, translating information that we are confronted with, and sharing it with us by using different means.
Laura Poitras has been doing this with her documentaries about America post-9/11 and as a journalist bringing to light Edward Snowden’s disclosures and the documents of the NSA affair, along with Glenn Greenwald.
Jake Appelbaum has been doing this by developing the Tor Project and enabling people to have agency, informing and writing about surveillance, privacy and anonymity.
Trevor Paglen, has been doing it with his artistic work on secret geographies, by revealing contradictions, infrastructures and bugs of power systems.
And, to conclude, what I find the greatest lesson to learn from them, is that they have been doing it with positivity, without victimizing themselves but believing in the power of people.
We know that they have been often harassed by their own Country because of what they do, but they keep going on with an incredible energy to make people better understand how power works and what we are facing today – and we are probably going to face tomorrow.
So I leave the stage to them, and thank you once again for being with us.”
Tatiana Bazzichelli, January 30th, 2014