On 16 April Swiss authorities released an algorithm from custody. The bot was arrested in January after it bought 10 ecstasy tablets online, and had been held for over the past three months while a judge determined whether or not a string of code programmed by two artists to hop about the internet buying all sorts of illegal stuff should be prosecuted.
Created by the Swiss art collective !Mediengruppe Bitnik, <<Random Darknet Shopper>> was designed to trawl through the dark net, fueled by $100 worth of Bitcoins a week, buying whatever it saw fit. The result ended in a haul of suspect packages delivered to the artists, including a baseball cap with a hidden camera, a low-res jpeg of a Hungarian passport, some knock-off Yeezy trainers, five packets of Chesterfield cigarettes, a working VISA credit card number and the ecstasy tablets. The loot was then framed, hung and displayed as part of the exhibition The Darknet – From Memes to Onionland: An Exploration in Switzerland
Writing on their blog, the artists described the decision to release their bot from the hands of the authorities as “A great day for the bot, for us and for freedom of art!”
Consisting of Domagoj Smoljo and Carmen Weisskopf, who met whilst studying at Zurich University of the Arts, !Mediengruppe Bitnik describe themselves as slow producers, in that they take the time to really understand the materials they work with. They began their hacks in 2004 after Domagoj and Carmen created a basic web page server for their work. The prospect of easily producing art in a democratic way ignited a fascination with manipulating technology and new media that’s led to a chorus of public telephone boxes simultaneously ringing out over a city, inviting members of the public to play chess with CCTV cameras in London and turning the opera house in Zurich into a giant pirate radio broadcast operation.
From their base in Switzerland, Carmen explained what happened when the authorities took possession of their latest work:
“The day after the exhibition closed, the state attorney and a police officer walked into the exhibition place and ceased the work, but they were unprepared so it was clear that it hadn’t been planned. They didn’t have a search warrant and it was totally chaotic,” she told Little Atoms.
After erratically deciding that the matter was a legal one, the police chose to seize the evidence and the artwork was sealed, meaning the state authorities could not touch the evidence until the case has been heard in front of a judge, where the owning party of the work can then dispute the terms of the seizure.
The artists feared that without this process the work would have been destroyed, damaged or lost.
Alongside the artwork, the police also confiscated the artist’s computer that housed the algorithm. Despite not having access to the bot while the computer was in custody, as with all software and virtual-based things, building an identical copy wouldn’t have been too difficult.
As the legal process gathered momentum, it became clear that prosecutors were not interested in any of the others parts of the work apart from the ecstasy tablets, which were tested by the authorities and found to contain MDMA.
Now that the authorities have returned the work, but not the ecstasy which has presumably been destroyed, they’ve open a door for a softer legal touch when using artistic expression as a defence. Carmen and Domagoj explained what this precedent means for future works:
“In the order for withdrawal of prosecution the public prosecutor states that the possession of ecstasy was indeed a reasonable means for the purpose of sparking public debate about questions related to the exhibition. The public prosecution also asserts that the overriding interest in the questions raised by the artwork Random Darknet Shopper justifies the exhibition of the drugs as artefacts, even if the exhibition does hold a small risk of endangerment of third parties through the drugs exhibited.”
The collective’s penchant for harnessing technology in order to raise awareness around digital rights, authorship and responsibility started out in the form of simple hacks using basic servers but has since evolved into using sophisticated algorithms and detailed networks.
“I guess in the first instance it was about experimenting with art online via networked digital media, but the practice became more and more focused” explained Carmen.
All their work has one common theme; the use of everyday objects as a springboard for bigger ideas, so Zurich, the birthplace of Dadaism, is a natural home for the artists. Domagoj described their work as playing with formal aesthetics, in that they harness the bizarre in the everyday by using concepts as their primary material. “We’re conceptual artists that like to put our concepts into practice, but we still regard the concept as our main starting point and the main bit of our pieces.”
In 2007, they hijacked Zürich Opera House by placing boxes inside the theatre which broadcasted the performance to listeners via a telephone connection. The idea was to make the experience more democratic by taking a form of exclusive high art and making it accessible. The gallery, where the performance was housed, then functioned as call centre, with the artists phoning up random telephone numbers asking if they wanted to be connected to the performance. Carmen described the technique as a “liberté canal”; an open channel where anyone can log in and access the stream.
“The opera had to react, the gallery had to react, the audience is kind of involved even though they didn’t ask for it. It produces a friction where nobody knows where it’s heading.”
Since Opera Calling, members of the public have been requesting that the artists hack their cities. One anonymous fan even asked !Mediengruppe Bitnik if they could hack their local government office, by placing a liberté canal in the toilets in order to broadcast the real negotiations that happen behind closed cubicle doors.
But despite the strong relationship between hacking and activism, the artists are keen to keep out of politics by making sure the work doesn’t express any set objectives or messages. Instead they’re keen to ask questions rather than answer them.
Their approach to hacking comes from open-source ideology; creating quick and dirty solutions to problems by taking bits of open source code and adapting it accordingly. But they don’t use hacks to solve problems; instead they use them to understand cultural systems.
“Like a computer system where you can see, OK these are the players; this is input this is output, what happens at this point if we interfere here or start to manipulate this point, what does that do the output?”
“Today you can hack everything, you can even hack your food.”
Despite their arty-artificial intelligence emerging unscathed from a close shave with the law, it hasn’t stopped Carmen and Domagoj from creating new annoyances for the authorities. At the moment, if you visit the Cabaret Voltaire gallery’s website you will be greeted with a series of random images, totally unrelated to rest of the site’s content, generated using their signature bots.
Entitled Same Same, the duo’s new program systematically replaces the galleries current images with algorithmically similar ones. Using Google Images’ search criteria and metadata to source images that share similar qualities with the pictures on the gallery’s site, the results can be quite hit or miss.
But the point of the piece isn’t to highlight issues of ham-handed aesthetics and the internet. Carmen and Domagoj want to discuss intellectual copyright and who owns what in the age of online.
“The algorithm doesn’t care about intellectual copyright. They just go and collect. They don’t ask who owns them or not – they just do it. Google does it. NSA does it. GCHQ does it.”
As the bot trawls through our personal uploads, extracting whatever pictures it feels fits the brief, Carmen and Domagoj’s latest creation asks why big companies are allowed to coldly rummage through our personal data just because they have the capacity to do so. !Mediengruppe Bitnik’s work sits within the parameters of the law, skirting between playful creations and caustic technology.
Their constructions will continue to use art as a vehicle for sparking debate, with the occasional political high jinks thrown in for good measure.