Dark Arts

Why !Mediengruppe Bitnik went on a darknet shopping spree

IMG_9941_CMYK.jpg

Eine Diesel Jeans, die auf Agora von dem Random Darknet Shopper gekauft wurde, 2014 (Alle Bilder: courtesy: !Mediengruppe Bitnik / Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen)

A pair of Diesel jeans bought on Agora by the Random Darknet Shopper, 2014, (All images: courtesy: !Mediengruppe Bitnik / Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen)

Last autumn, we worked with the curator of Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen, Giovanni Carmine, to create the exhibition The Darknet – From Memes to Onionland. An Exploration. It deals with the areas of the internet not seen by search engines like Google; those not part of the so-called ‘surface web’ that most of us use every day. We showed work by artists who address issues of copyright, privacy, illegality and resistance online, including Cory Arcangel, Simon Denny, Seth Price and Hito Steyerl. We also wanted a work that engaged directly with the encrypted networks, a link to connect the mystified world of the darknet with the physical show.

As artists, we have been moving within the Tor network for some time. We are interested in the way anonymous parallel communities are formed there and in the heightened emphasis on the materiality of the network (compared with the surface web where everyone goes about their everyday routine of news, Twitter, Facebook and email). On the darknet, everything is constantly changing, sites are being continually updated and reprogrammed, prompting questions like: what are these structures? Which factors determine their design? Moreover, the darknet poses new questions of trust: If you don’t know the identity of the people you communicate with, nor the location of their computers, how can you trust them? This question is especially relevant in marketplaces where goods and money are being transferred. The corporations that inspire confidence on the surface web (Visa, Paypal, etc.) do not exist on the darknet, there are only comments and ratings. People who have ordered drugs from a certain supplier, for example, might write: ‘It’s good stuff. It didn’t kill me.’ But you can also buy Facebook likes and Twitter followers, as well as pay for bots that automatically leave good ratings or half-plausible comments.

1_VISA_PLATINUM_TOP_CARD_D08RylaGXk_CMYK.jpg

Screenshot der gekauften Kreditkarte, 2014

Screenshot showing a credit card for sale on Agora, 2014

In discussion with Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen, we developed the idea for our work Random Darknet Shopper (2014). It is a piece of software that we programmed to self-initiate once a week for the duration of the show – from mid-October 2014 to mid-January 2015. Every Wednesday, it would use the Tor network to dial into Agora – a darknet marketplace roughly comparable with eBay. The software emulated everything required of a human user with a mouse and a keyboard: it entered a name and a password and solved a CAPTCHA. We gave the Random Darknet Shopper a weekly budget of US $100, converted into Bitcoins. Using this money, it searched through various product categories and then ordered an item at random. Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen was listed as the shipping address; none of the anonymous sellers refused to send orders to an art institution. In the first few weeks, the things that arrived included: a bunch of skeleton keys described as ‘useful for the tool box, for unlocking and gaining access to communal gates and storage areas’; a carton of Chesterfield Blue cigarettes from Ukraine; a Visa credit card; a pair of Nike Air Yeezy II from China, and ten ecstasy pills. We weren’t necessarily expecting it, but the sellers were very reliable. Only once, with a Louis Vuitton bag, the seller wrote to apologize: ‘Sorry, I can’t supply this, I no longer have the bag in stock. I’ll refund the money.’ The seller duly did.

KHStGallen_Darknet_2014-10_MG_3299_HighRes_CMYK.jpg

Ausstellungsansicht der vom Random Darknet Shopper gekauften Gegenstände in der Ausstellung The Darknet – From Memes to Onionland. An Exploration, Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen, 2014–15

Installation view of items bought by the Random Darknet Shopper in the exhibition The Darknet – From Memes to Onionland. An Exploration, Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen, 2014–15

For the exhibition, we presented the weekly deliveries in vitrine-like containers including the packaging in which they arrived. This raised the question of anonymity. Even when no sender is named on a parcel, the postmark gives a rough idea of where it was posted. One seller wrote: ‘Hey, you’re the random bot artists, I’ve read about you!’ And some other darknet users had become aware of the exhibition and discussed it in forums. The seller wrote that he would gladly be part of the show, but that he would only send us the requested ‘decoy letter’ (an empty letter that is sent to a particular address as a test to see whether it arrives unopened) if we would guarantee to make the postmark unreadable in any pictures of the package we published online. Of course we were happy to oblige.

Software is our artistic tool and with the Random Darknet Shopper we wanted to render visible the reality of the darknet, something many people either misunderstand or know nothing about. We were also interested in not knowing exactly what would happen, and in enduring this lack of control. The software could order all kinds of things. Media reports about the darknet often claim it is even possible to hire a contract killer. We weren’t necessarily afraid of that for the project because, apart from the fact that we’ve never come across such an offer during our own searches of Agora and that US$ 100 would hardly have been enough money, the software would also have had to supply the identity of the person to be killed – which it wasn’t programmed to do. Nonetheless, we were keen to resolve any legal issues before we started: what happens if art goes too far? We asked the lawyer Dr. Bruno Glaus – the Swiss authority on legal aspects of art – for advice. In his opinion, even if there was a breach of the law, as long as it was temporary, and as long as it was part of the work and would serve a higher purpose, then it would be justified. In other words a breach of law must be in the public interest.

exhbition_nike_sneakers_CMYK.jpg

Ausstellungsansicht The Darknet – From Memes to Onionland. An Exploration, Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen, 2014–15

Installation view of items bought by the Random Darknet Shopper in the exhibition The Darknet – From Memes to Onionland. An Exploration, Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen, 2014–15

In the traditional sense, the items ordered could probably be understood as objets trouvés, just as the Random Darknet Shopper project as a whole could be seen as part of the tradition of Mail art.

Fortunately, customs didn’t give us any trouble. Switzerland is not part of the Schengen area and Swiss customs cultivates the image that it carefully screens every packet coming into the country. But all of the items ordered by the Random Darknet Shopper came through without any problems, even the baseball cap with an integrated spy camera from Singapore. The Sankt Gallen Police, which has its headquarters right next door to the Kunsthalle, didn’t bother us either. At least while the exhibition was running. On the morning of 12 January, the day after the exhibition closed, however, the public prosecutor’s office of St. Gallen seized all our work in the exhibition. It seems they especially objected to the ecstasy pills which they told us they planned to destroy. We believe that the confiscation is an unjustified intervention into artistic freedom.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell

!Mediengruppe Bitnik is an artist group who use hacking as an artistic strategy. Founded by Carmen Weisskopf and Domagoj Smoljo, they live and work in Zurich and London.

Issue 18

First published in Issue 18

Mar - Apr 2015

Most Read

In further news: white supremacist vandals attack Rothko Chapel; Israeli minister bans art produced in solidarity with...
To experience the music of the composer, who passed away last week at the age of 69, was to hear something tense,...
In a year charged with politicized tensions, mastery of craft trumps truth-to-power commentary
The US writer, who died last week, brought a quality of inestimable importance to the modern novel: a mind that was...
The $21M painting was the highest price ever paid for a work by a living African American artist at auction
Royal bodies, the ‘incel’ mindset and those Childish Gambino hot-takes: what to read this weekend
In further news: women wearing rainbow badges beaten in Beijing’s 798; gallerists Georg Kargl and Richard Gray have...
‘Coping as a woman in France is a daily battle: the aggression can be subtle, and you always have to push harder to...
The rapper and artist have thoughts about originality in art; Melania Trump tries graphic design – all the latest...
The dilapidated Nissen hut from which Rachel Whiteread will take a cast
Yorkshire residents complain that the concrete sculpture of a ‘Nissen hut’ will attract excrement, vandalism and litter
Poul Erik Tøjner pays tribute to Denmark’s most important artist since Asger Jorn
Toyin Ojih Odutola’s portraits of a fictional aristocratic Nigerian family push toward an expanded definition...
Photographer Dragana Jurisic says her account was deactivated after she uploaded an artwork depicting a partially naked...
In further news: open letter protests all-male shortlist for BelgianArtPrize; Arts Council of Ireland issues...
From Sol Calero’s playful clichés of Latin America to an homage to British modernist architect Alison Smithson
Everybody’s favourite underpaid, over-educated, raven-haired art critic, Rhonda Lieberman, is as relevant as ever
‘Prize & Prejudice’ at London's UCL Art Museum is a bittersweet celebration of female talent
The curators want to rectify the biennale’s ‘failure to question the hetero-normative production of space’; ‘poppers...
A fragment of the brutalist Robin Hood Gardens will go on show at the Venice Architecture Biennale
‘Women's role in shaping the history of contemporary art is being reappraised’
Three shows in Ireland celebrate the legendary polymath, artist and author of Inside the White Cube
The legendary performance artists will partner up again to detail their tumultuous relationship in a new book
An open letter signed by over 100 leading artists including 15 Turner prize-winners says that new UK education policy...
Naturists triumph at art gallery; soothing students with colouring books; Kanye’s architectural firm: your dose of art...
Avengers: Infinity War confirms the domination of mass culture by the franchise: what ever happened to narrative...
The agency’s founder talks about warfare in the age of post truth, deconstructing images and holding states and...
From hobnobbing with Oprah to championing new art centres, millennial crown prince Mohammed bin Salman is following a...
A juror for the award last year, Dan Fox on why the Turner Prize is and always will be political (whatever that means)
The argument that ancestral connection offers a natural grasp of the complex histories and aesthetics of African art is...
One of most iconic and controversial writers of the past 40 years, Tom Wolfe discusses writing, art and intellectual...

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

March 2018

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018