‘I’ve hijacked your surveillance camera. How about a game of chess?” The words filled a closed-circuit television screen that only seconds before had shown commuters in London’s Charing Cross station. Whichever security guard read the message soon saw it replaced by a chessboard and the words: “You are white. I am black. Call me or text me to make your move. This is my phone number: 075 8246 0851.”
In the heart of the world’s most surveilled city, two artists were registering their polite protest with the help of a laptop and an interfering transmitter. Carmen Weisskopf and Domagoj Smoljo, a Swiss team known as !Mediengruppe Bitnik, have been co-opting the spy’s arsenal to practice their own, artistic style of counter-espionage.
Two years ago Bitnik installed a hidden camera in a cardboard box that broadcast live as it traveled from the artists’ studio in London through postal systems to its final destination: Julian Assange at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. Bitnik wanted a look at the watchers of the man who’d watched America watching everyone else. Over the 32 hours it took for the package to arrive, the photostream Bitnik sent via Twitter attracted a large, addicted following.
Weisskopf and Smoljo rank among the funniest of the mostly European digital artists in their 30s and 40s who are mining the territory where art, technology, and Big Brother meet. Over the past few years, they and others, such as Aram Bartholl, Oliver Laric, Eva and Franco Mattes, Brad Troemel, and Hito Steyerl, have mounted exhibitions in Berlin and New York that expose and tweak the modern world as wrought by the likes of Facebook and the NSA.
Bitnik have been influenced by Fluxus, conceptual art, interventionism, and early net art, but the artists told me that their work also belongs to the newish, still-controversial category of “post-Internet art”—that is, art less about the Internet age than of it.
Technology pervades everything, from the artists’ source of inspiration and choice of materials to their modes of distribution. It’s the basis for their collaboration, discussion, and debate. Whereas early net art tended to reside in a computer browser, post-Internet art is more likely to be exhibited within a gallery’s white cube. The art is defined more by its overall aesthetic than by its distribution system or subject matter.
Not that post-Internet is a homogenous category. Unlike many of their peers, the Bitnik duo have self-consciously steered clear of snark, world-weariness, and graphic imagery. Their work is political but in a nonpartisan way.
This promises to be a big year for Bitnik, who were among the ten winners of the 2014 Swiss Art Prize and since then have had new works commissioned by the Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, the House of Electronic Arts Basel, and others. Whether these institutions, with their corporate and governmental ties, can work with such unpredictable, subversive artists remains to be seen.
Artists and spies are loners, operating on the margins. They observe, gather intelligence, surgically intervene, and detect and disseminate artifice. They try to stay ahead of everyone else.
Weisskopf and Smoljo didn’t know much about fine or dark arts when they met in 2000 as freshmen at the University of Zurich. But in 2002 they decided to create their own website for artistic experiments. To that end they surreptitiously unscrewed a panel on the locked metal cage that held the university’s servers and inserted one of their own, connected it to the Internet, and named it Bitnik. By the time the university discovered its barnacle, Weisskopf and Smoljo were professors there themselves.
This was arguably Bitnik’s first work of art, and it set the tone: technologically liberating, unapologetically illegal, disarmingly simple, and indisputably provocative. In the networked age, isn’t a network of one’s own as basic a human right as the right to vote?
Weisskopf and Smoljo and their friends began playing with the server. (Various people joined them in the early years, but after 2006 only the duo remained.) In one “phone opera” they devised, the computer rang all the public phones on a particular city square. This got Bitnik thinking about the Zurich Opera, whose lavish 1980s taxpayer-funded restoration had triggered populist riots. The average Zuricher still felt unwelcome inside—Weisskopf and Smoljo included. Was there, they wondered, any way to bust it open?
“In a few seconds you will be connected live to the Opera House. You can lie back and listen to today’s performance of Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss from the comfort of your living room.” Weisskopf and Smoljo had sneaked away from a public tour of the opulent opera house and hidden dozens of bugs that, on performance nights, randomly dialed home phones, played an introductory message, and then live-streamed the entire performance. In the course of two months, 90 hours of opera were transmitted to 4,000 households.
The opera project ignited a fierce culture debate in Switzerland, but it was a little-known detail that led to their next work. Because the bugs had broadcast over an open phone line, Bitnik were able to eavesdrop on people as they reacted and went about their daily lives. It felt wrong—but it was irresistible. “People are critical of surveillance, but they love to watch people! There is this thin line, which is troubling,” Weisskopf said.
Bitnik started looking at the CCTV cameras watching them throughout Zurich and discovered that they all transmitted over the same four unencrypted radio channels. So the two purchased a receiver, attached a battery, and began walking around the city, channel-surfing. This became a kind of modern dérive, the aleatory urban walk invented by Parisian artists in the 1940s.
As Bitnik wandered the streets, they picked up signals mostly from inside buildings, giving glimpses of spaces too intriguing not to infiltrate. “You follow these strange signals. It’s beautiful. It leads you to places you’ve never been, you enter a courtyard, you go up a building inside to find the camera on the fourth floor,” Bitnik said.
In effect, cameras intended to secure privacy for property owners become windows. Bitnik call this phenomenon sousveillance. In 2009 the team installed two televisions in the former White Space project room and rigged them up to continually broadcast hijacked images of the exterior and interior of the local police station.
More recently, they turned their attention to San Francisco. “You immediately get a feeling for the city’s systems,” they noted. “The first three cameras we picked up were from a Scientology center, a Beat museum, and an illegal mahjong parlor,” Smoljo said. They also tackled São Paulo, although poorer cities tend to produce bleaker dérives. “In São Paulo, technology is expensive but labor is cheap, so buildings don’t have cameras, they have five guards standing around.”
In 2010 Bitnik did dérives in London and Zurich, following bankers around financial districts and recording their movements. They called the activity “a form of appropriation of the inaccessible and closed financial spaces.”
This gave rise to Surveillance Chess (2012), an “art performance for a single recipient: the CCTV operator in his control room.” They conducted the project in London and Zurich. Bitnik hijacked guards’ feeds, but the invitation to play chess made it clear that this was a friendly takeover, an attempt at conversation. It was mostly futile. One shop owner threatened to call the police. “In a state of near panic, he also removed his own surveillance camera from his shop ‘for security reasons.’ He had apparently lost faith in his surveillance system,” according to Bitnik. This reminded me of the 1983 film WarGames. After the computer analyzes the many possible outcomes of global thermonuclear war, it says, “A strange game. The only winning move is not to play. How about a nice game of chess?”
In 2012 Bitnik abandoned full-time university teaching. They had become parents. They resolved to support themselves with their art, which would require them to get commissions from galleries, museums, and other institutions. Of course, they feared having to compromise.
In the fall of 2014 they put the Swiss art gallery Kunst Halle Sankt to the test. A piece of software they wrote for a bot they called Random Darknet Shopper bought products randomly from the online, illicit-goods emporium Agora. As items arrived at the gallery, staff mounted them on the wall.
Sellers mostly sent the items they’d advertised (one was out of stock), and not a single package was intercepted by police. In all, 12 items arrived: a picture of a Hungarian passport, a pair of Diesel jeans, a Sprite can with a hidden compartment, a “decoy letter,” a cap with a hidden camera, Nike Air Yeezy 2 sneakers, ten doses of Ecstasy, a Visa card, a Lord of the Rings e-book, a Louis Vuitton Trevi PM handbag, a carton of Chesterfield Blue cigarettes, and a set of fire-department master keys.
Some items were surely counterfeit, but the possibility that the Ecstasy was real led Swiss authorities to seize all the exhibition’s contents when it closed. Bitnik and the gallery worried about prosecution, but in the end, police tested the drugs, found them to be real, destroyed them, returned everything else, and dropped all charges.
Future experiments may not end as well. But as Guardian writer Mike Power wrote, “Can a robot, or a piece of software, be jailed if it commits a crime?” Legal scholars are debating this point, thanks to Bitnik, who maintained that this wasn’t intentional. “Discourse is not the main goal; we weren’t really thinking about those topics when we started the work,” Weisskopf said.
For Bitnik, the point of Random Darknet Shopper was to illuminate “the dark web.” Most of us know little about it, yet can suffer its effects when, say, local drug dealers use it to stay below law-enforcement radar. What fascinated Bitnik most about Agora was the way that shady, anonymous buyers and sellers around the world had figured out how to trust one another in the same way that the eBay and Amazon communities do.
Random Darknet Shopper represented a major departure for Bitnik in that it had no obvious connection to surveillance. (Ironically, Agora recently announced it would shut down temporarily, suspecting it was being spied upon.) Surveillance has become so pervasive as to be nearly invisible. “Because it’s less visible, it’s less topical and less interesting to address directly,” Smoljo said. Bitnik maintain that it remains the backdrop to their work, but they now want to focus on other technological systems.
This year Bitnik executed a commission for Zurich’s Cabaret Voltaire, the birthplace of Dada. It’s a kind of online performance piece. For a period of four months, every image on the Cabaret’s website was replaced by one deemed, by Google’s image-processing algorithm, to be very similar. Such software plays an increasingly important role, deciding, for example, who gets tagged in Facebook posts and who gets detained at the airport. Some substitutions were banal, others amusing and provocative—a photograph of an American college football scrimmage replaced an image of a simulated orgy by the Russian art collective Voina.
Bitnik thought that the Cabaret would balk at their project, but Weisskopf said, “They were rather fond of the idea of losing control over their website.” Some of the other artists whose work was featured on the Cabaret’s website were taken aback. The Cabaret put them in touch with Bitnik and once they understood what was happening, they all accepted it.
On the other hand, a similar commission for the Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, a larger institution, fell through recently; it seems the center was concerned that copyright holders might sue or that website visitors might consider themselves deceived. Equally troubling, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, often called the Swiss New York Times, canceled a very different sort of commission after the paper got a sense of what Bitnik had in mind. Having two such failures in one year was sobering, and unusual, but Weisskopf and Smoljo said they were determined not to change what they do.
A short while ago the pair e-mailed me an image from a commission they’d just completed for the House of Electronic Arts Basel. It looked as if they’d photographed a building, then altered the image to make it look as if my computer had frozen trying to display it. What I didn’t realize until I spoke with them later that day was that they had actually created this glitched building—they’d had contractors cut and move columns and pipes and all the rest. The piece dramatizes the potential pitfalls of letting computers wield ever more power over the physical world.
“We’ve always wanted to experiment with errors,” Weisskopf said. “If you can find or introduce glitches into systems, you can try to manipulate them.” Find a flaw in the opera’s security, and you can plant bugs. Glitches also reveal underlying realities. “They help you to understand the algorithms, the rules that are invisible. Until the stock market had a particular flash crash recently, most people had no idea that one guy in his basement could manipulate the entire market.”
Despite how much Weisskopf and Smoljo have been able to accomplish from their studio in Zurich, they are contemplating a move. “For its size, this town has a lot,” Smoljo says. “There are now lots of galleries with Zurich outposts. But for our part of the art world, there’s not a lot going on. In Europe, Berlin is the place for us to be.”
Some say that since World War II Berlin has been home to more spies than any other city on Earth. Soon it may add two more.
Jon Lackman, Ph.D., is a journalist and art historian writing a book on the 1920s artist’s model Maria Lani.
A version of this story originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 78 under the title “Spy vs. Spy.”