Whistleblowers & Vigilantes

Kunsthal Charlottenborg

Figures of the digital resistance

Heroes or enemies?
Who owns the right to define whether whistleblowers are heroes or enemies of society? This question was posed by the controversial exhibition Whistleblowers & Vigilantes, showcasing several main protagonists, positions and strategies of digital resistance past and present. Through artworks, TV-clips, surveillance footage, documentaries and historical documents, the exhibition Whistleblowers & Vigilantes presented the most important protagonists and various forms of resistance together with activist strategies and considerations of the legal implications that surround these. In this way, the exhibition provided a range of perspectives on the intense debate around whistleblowers and digital activism which has prevailed in recent years, specifically in connection with Edward Snowden, Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning’s disclosure of confidential material. These three whistleblowers were represented in the exhibition alongside Anonymous, DIS, Ted Kaczynski (UNA-bomber), Etoy, Omer Fast, Peng! Collective, Metahaven and others.The exhibition also examined what links whistleblowers, hackers, activists, artists and other exponents of the radical type of online activism known as ‘internet vigilantism’ or simply ‘digilantism’ which has flourished since 1996. At the same time, historical allusions are made to the resistance against state surveillance, as well as technological and economically motivated surveillance throughout the past 45 years.

Cabin (2003)
Lutz Dammbeck

Why does a mathematician become a terrorist? For more than twenty years, the FBI tried to catch the Unabomber (short for ‘Universities and Airline Bomber’) who shocked the USA with a series of letter-bomb attacks between 1978 and 1995. Ted Kaczynski, who had retired to a mountain cabin in Montana in 1970, was caught in 1995 after publishing his Unabomber Manifesto.

As part of the research for his film Das Netz (The Net) the painter, graphic designer and filmmaker Lutz Dammbeck collected interviews and documents, which he used to retrace the development of networked machine systems through the combined histories of science, technology and the military. In the exhibition he shows a reconstruction of Kaczynski’s cabin and a copy of his Unabomber Manifesto sent to the artist from the prison.

Industrial Society and Its Future (1995)
Ted Kaczynski

Between 1978 and 1995 the former mathematics professor Theodore Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber, carried out 16 letter-bomb attacks in the USA that killed three people and left 23 with partly severe injuries. The explosive devices were sent to people who were in some way or another connected to the realm of cybernetics, which Kaczynski holds responsible for the demise of mankind.

In June 1995 he mailed his manifesto, Industrial Society and Its Future, to the New York Times and the Washington Post, offering to stop the attacks if the newspapers agreed to publish it. In it, he denounces the Industrial Revolution and the ‘technologization’ of the world by cybernetics, pleading instead for a ‘revolution against technology’.

Pentagon Papers (1971)
Daniel Ellsberg

A longstanding employee of the Pentagon, Daniel Ellsberg was asked in 1967 to take part in a secret study on the history of the Vietnam War. This study, the so-called Pentagon Papers, which was meant only as a internal report to te Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, revealed that the US military had in fact been involved in Southeast Asia since 1946, long before the Gulf of Tonkin incident in August 1964.

For Ellsberg, this deliberate deception of the American public amounted to a breach of law. The USA had not only become a bully whose foreign policy violated. Due to this information Ellsberg decided to photocopy the Pentagon Papers and release them to the public.

NSA Programmes (2016)
Edward Snowden

When working for a subcontractor of the National Security Agency (NSA), Edward Snowden copied 1.7 million documents belonging to the NSA and the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). Published in 2013, these documents concern mostly classified, i.e. non-public programmes.

Snowden’s aim was not to leak information on concrete operations but to reveal the inner workings and strategies of the two spy agencies – for instance, the use of anti-constitutional programmes such as PRISM or XKeyscore to mass-spy on American citizens. By leaking the documents, Snowden intended to initiate a public debate.

The World Tomorrow: Slavoj Zizek & David Horowitz (2017)
Julian Assange

In 2006 the Australian hacker Julian Assange founded WikiLeaks, a whistleblower platform dedicated to the publication of documents that shed light on ‘unethical behaviour’. Among other things, Assange, who describes himself as an advocate of market liberalism, aims to create a level playing field in the global information market.

In 2012, after being threatened with extradition to Sweden, where he is accused of rape, he sought refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. He has vowed to fight his extradition and sees himself as the victim of a conspiracy by US secret services, who would like to bring him to justice in the United States over his WikiLeaks activities.

Black Transparency (2014)

In Black Transparency, the Dutch research and design studio Metahaven, which made a political statement by designing a collection in support of the WikiLeaks platform, explores the involuntary forms of transparency imposed on states and organisations by whistleblowers and hackers.

The collective conceived a series of design proposals to illustrate this phenomenon, including a print publication, printed wall cloths, utopian architecture models and an experimental video manifesto.

I did it for the lulz (2016)

Lulz, plural for the acronym lol, is an aggressive variation on meme culture, the viral dissemination of predominantly humorous ideas, images and videos. It developed in forums on the website 4chan.org and spread out from there. It is also a variety of trolling, as lulz are essentially transgressive, provocative, often racist or homophobic, and almost always in bad taste.

The catchphrase ‘I did it for the lulz’, meaning for sheer personal comic enjoyment, encapsulates the desire to attack people’s comfort zones.

5.000 Feet is the Best (2011)
Omer Fast

5,000 Feet Is the Best by the video artist Omer Fast is based on interviews with former drone pilots. In a hotel in Las Vegas, a man now working as a security guard in a casino recounts his experiences as a military drone pilot in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The loops and digressions in Fast’s intricate montage of original interview excerpts and reenactments reveal the technical, psychological and moral aspects of this incomplete report: the repetitions highlight the conflicts of drone warfare and the psychological impact on its operators.

Toywar (1999-2000)

Toywar was the name of a virtual war waged in the still fledgling but increasingly commercialised World Wide Web. When a legal battle opposed the Internet toy retailer eToys and the Swiss artist group etoy around the domain name etoy.com, hundreds of net activists, in a show of solidarity, joined forces to drive down the stock market value of the multinational company through coordinated technical, legal and political attacks designed to draw maximum public attention.

The damage caused by this action, estimated at $4.5 billion, makes Toywar the most expensive performance in art history, according to the campaigners.

Intelexit: Call-A-Spy (2015)
Peng! Collective

With Intelexit, the ‘world’s first exit programme for the intelligence community’, the Berlin-based Peng! Collective raised worldwide media awareness in autumn 2015. As part of their campaign, billboards in front of secret service headquarters in the USA, Germany and the UK (NSA, BND and GCHQ, respectively) encouraged their employees to resign, and leaflets advertising encrypted channels of communication and advice for potential dropouts were released by a drone over the German NSA branch in Darmstadt.

Credits: Story

The exhibition was curated by Inke Arns and Jens Kasich and organised in collaboration with Hartware MedienKunstVerein, Dortmund. Supported by the Danish Arts Foundation, The Obel Family Foundation and Goethe-Institut Dänemark.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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