Profile - 19 Feb 2015
Why !Mediengruppe Bitnik went on a darknet shopping spree
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.
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.
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.
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
First published in Issue 18