Transparency Grendade (pre-assembly), 2012 by Julian Oliver
You've been participating in the tech and art community for over a decade now. You're work spans everything from establishing an artistic game-development collective to pushing the boundaries of privacy on public wireless networks with custom hardware. Just this past year you published the Critical Engineering Manifesto with Gordan Savičić and Danja Vasiliev. Was there a specific event or moment that inspired its creation and were their any earlier iterations of the ten statements that didn't make the final cut?
Danja, Gordan and I felt a long standing need to frame our respective practices a little more acutely, foregrounding the languages and cultures of Engineering, rather than Art, in the creative and critical process. We'd each found ourselves frustrated under the vague, ballooning term of Media Artist - like trying to swim in a bathrobe. This came up in conversation enough times to explore alternatives. Afterall, it didn't seem to matter whether we called what we made 'art', even ourselves 'artists', people were quick to do it for us anyway.
One thing that regularly came up in conversation between us is that Engineering, not Art, is the most transformative language of our time - informing the way we communicate, move, trade and even think. The reach of Engineering is so deep that it's hard to disagree it has become part of our environment, with vast impacts on human culture, the Earth and how we understand it. So it follows that to ignore the languages, logics and ideas that make up this thing we call Engineering is to assume a critically vulnerable position - we become unable to describe our environment.
As thinkers with technical abilities in several areas, we want to take on our built and increasingly automated environment by the terms in which it's given, opening it up for post-utilitarian conversation, for play and interrogation. If there's ever a time to be doing that, it's now, especially with opaque and hidden infrastructure in the telecommunications space deeply impacting diplomatic relations and civil liberties world wide.
The Critical Engineering Manifesto grew directly from conversations along these lines and was generally very well received, soon translated into 14 languages. A couple of people wrote in that they wondered why we didn't include or reference 'hacking' as a critical practice to draw upon. Admittedly none of us had an instinct to include it, as it is also a term that has an increasingly vague meaning. I think Danja and Gordan would agree that those that hack in a way we appreciate are already Critical Engineers!
The Transparency Grenade and Newstweek are projects that are designed to disrupt traditional systems of information distribution in news organizations, companies, and governments. Do they achieve your desired affects on the systems they are designed to criticize? Have you been satisfied with the results of the two projects?
It's true that both projects are real implementations with tangible and disruptive effects. That said Danja and I developed Newstweek primarily to spur critical attention to the vulnerabilities of our increasingly 'browser-defined reality', to return an eye to the network infrastructure that plays an integral role in the distribution of fact. If you can control the infrastructure, you can control what's understood to be fact. Newstweek has certainly achieved what we'd hoped in this regard, inciting plenty of productive, healthy paranoia - helped along by us releasing a full HOWTO so that others can build their own Newstweek devices.
The second dimension to the project surrounds an intervention on the top->down news distribution model. We know that our news is being 'tweeked' anyway - an endemic symptom of the (rather bizarre) fact we traditionally depend on privately owned news corporations to inform our summarial view of the world. Newstweek seeks to intervene on this model, an on the ground solution for civilians to have their chance to propagandise or simply 'fix the facts' they know to be untrue.
The Transparency Grenade has been a tricky project as all of sudden some people think I'm in the cyber-weapons business, which I'm not. Like Newstweek, it's first and foremost a conversation starter. It seeks to directly manifest the fears we have, whether state, corporation or individual, around the increased political volatility of data. Indeed it is an implementation that can be used but I'm not selling grenades to be used as weapons. In fact they're limited edition finely crafted objects that look enough like a grenade for you to /not/ want to take with you into a corporate meeting. The Android application I'm still developing will mimic much of the functionality of the grenade and is better suited for such purposes, though I certainly will never suggest it be used and nor will I use it myself. That would put me in a very different legal position.
Many of your works challenge the implicit trust people have in the wireless networks they use - from cell phones to public wifi. In that same way your pieces often blur the boundaries between gallery space and the public sphere. Why is revealing and breaking these boundaries of trust and perception important to you and your work?
Again it comes back to infrastructure and how our inability to describe and understand reduces our critical reach, leaving us both disempowered and, quite often, vulnerable.
Opacity is an important word here too, as is the term 'black box'. Most of our engineered communications infrastructure is not just extraordinarily abstract for people to come to grips with but is actively kept hidden. There are some valid reasons, of course, for keeping infrastructure hidden but the fact is it out of sight is being increasingly exploited in and out of supposedly democratic contexts, largely by surveillance initiatives we were never told about.
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