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The Steganographic Image

February 15, 2017 Leave a comment

It’s the Conspiracy week at the Photographers’ Gallery in London and I was asked to write a short text on what lies inside the image (code). In other words, I wrote a short text on the Steganographic Image, and hiding messages in plain sight, although in this case, encoded “inside” a digital image. The image that tricks, the image that operates behind your back, or more likely, triggers processes front of your eyes, in plain sight, invisible. As I was reminded, this is also an idea that Akira Lippit has in a different context developed through Derrida. To quote Lippit (quoting at first Derrida): ‘”Visibility,” he says “is not visible.” Invisibility is folded into the condition of visibility from the beginning. There is no visibility that is not also invisible, no visibility that is not in some way always spectral.’One would be tempted to argue that this is where this consideration of the visual meets up with the history of cryptography, or ciphering and deciphering. Or as Francis Bacon put it in 1605 in ways part of the longer media archaeology of the steganographic image too: “The virtues of ciphers are three: that they be not laborious to write and read; that they be impossible to decipher; and, in some cases, that they be without suspicion.” It is especially this third virtue that remains of interest when looking at images without such suspicion: the most banal, tedius of pictures; a spectrality that conjurs up hidden passages, triggers and operations.

My short text can be found here online. It’s only scratching the steganographic surface.

A short preview of the text.

Hidden in Plain Sight: The Steganographic Image

Who knows what went into an image, what it includes and what it hides? This is not merely a question of the fine art historical importance of materials, nor even a media historical intrigue of chemistry, but one of steganography – hiding another meaningful pattern, perhaps a message, in data; inside text or an image. This image that is always more than. More than what? Isn’t it obvious from the amount of work gone into art-theoretical considerations of the inexhaustible meanings of the photographic image that it has always been a multiplicity: contexts, fluctuating meanings, readings and the insatiable desire to look at things in order to discover its depths.

As such, a steganographic inscription is neither a depth nor the plain surface but somewhere in between. In contemporary images made of data it refers to how the image can be coded as more than is seen, but also more than the image should do. The steganographic digital image can be executed; it includes instructions for the computer to perform. Photographs as part of a longer history of communication media are one particular way of saying more than meets the eye, but this image also connects to histories of secret communication from the early modern period, to more recent discussions in security culture, as well as fiction such as William Gibson’s novel Pattern Recognition (2003). Were J.G. Ballard’s 1950s billboard mysteries one sort of cryptographic puzzle that hid a message in plain visual sight?

Continue reading – link to full text

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And the Earth Screamed, Alive

October 17, 2016 Leave a comment

Emma Charles’ exhibition opens in London. It includes a multiscreen version of the White Mountain to which I wrote the text (and performed live at the Miracle Marathon just recently at the Serpentine in London). Please find more information below. The exhibition runs from 21 October to 12 November, with the PV on 20th of October.

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South Kiosk is pleased to present And the Earth Screamed, Alive*, a solo exhibition by Emma Charles, featuring a multi screen expanded installation of her 16mm film White Mountain. This fictional documentary focuses on the Pionen Data Center in Stockholm. In 2008, this former Cold War-era civil defense bunker was redesigned by architect Alber France-Lanord as a data center to house servers for clients, which at one point included Wikileaks and The Pirate Bay. By revealing these unseen spaces and people, Charles work explores an understanding of how contemporary life is structured, managed and secured.

Starting by surveying the rough topography of the surrounding Södermalm landscape, Charles gradually pushes beneath the surface, illuminating the ordinarily concealed network infrastructure. As the camera idles on the florescent-lit server stacks, issues of privacy, surveillance and digital sovereignty inevitably emanate. Located 30 meters under the granite rocks of Vita Bergen Park in Stockholm, the hydrogen bomb proof subterranean hub has been constructed with direct references to science fiction films such as Silent Running, and the classic Ken Adams designed Bond-villain lairs.

Playing on the science fiction aesthetic, White Mountain uncovers the varying forms of temporality brought about through an exploration of data space and geology. After a summer punctuated by a constant stream of high-profile hacks the impenetrable steel door and
fortified walls of Pionen now seem like outmoded, symbolic defenses, ineffective at curbing the allpervading data anxiety brought about by the relentless assault of cybercriminals, spammers and clandestine state-agents.

South Kiosk has invited Emma Charles for And the Earth Screamed, Alive to
transform its space and take the viewer on a journey through the concealed and protected architecture of the data center, through an immersive projection of White Mountain and the display of a further collection of her artwork, this solo presentation focuses on the handling of digital information, the aesthetic that arises from its protection and the engagement and critique that art can perpetuate of these architectures.

For images and further information please contact Toby Bilton info@southkiosk.com

*“And the Earth Screamed, Alive” Jussi Parikka, A Geology of Media, University of Minnesota Press (2015).

Digital Contagions,v.2

October 7, 2016 Leave a comment

Last year I was contacted by the publisher of Digital Contagions, which was my first book in English: the commissioning editor proposed to edit a new, upgraded version of the book. Yesterday, the final product arrived and I am happy to tell that with a new cover, with some new text and in general edited, pruned and much more smoothly flowing, it is out – again! And I very excited that it has Sean Cubitt’s new preface too.

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The new cover is from Eva and Franco Mattes’ installation Perpetual Self Dis/Infecting Machine (2001-04): a Custom made computer infected with the virus Biennale.py.

Here’s the back cover with a summary and some nice endorsements from Tiziana Terranova, Charlie Gere, Alex Galloway and Sean Cubitt!

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You can find the book on Peter Lang website and on Amazon and hopefully other online bookshops. Please contact me if you require a review copy.

And as a blast from the past, here’s an interview Matthew Fuller did with me around the publication of the first edition.

A Museum of Viruses

February 23, 2016 Leave a comment

I just submitted to the publisher the new, 2nd and revised edition of Digital Contagions: A Media Archaeology of Computer Viruses, a book that came out for the first time with Peter Lang in 2007. Around the time of submission, the new Archive.org online museum of computer viruses was launched and made rounds in the popular press too.

Already in 2002, Museum for Applied Art in Frankfurt am Main, Germany engaged in exhibiting viral art its I Love You-Exhibition. Curator Franziska Nori expressed the importance of this topic: museums and cultural centres need to engage with this new form of cultural activity that tells the story of hackers and programming skills. The museum was to become also a laboratory where new cultural phenomena of digital culture are given a voice.

I wrote a general audience piece about the new Malware museum for The Conversation. For those of you who read German, Die Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote a piece “Unterhaltsame Viren“. The new edition of Digital Contagions should be out by late 2016, or early 2017, just suitably to celebrate its 10th year!

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Pour une archéologie des virus – an interview

Here’s an interview with me by Camille Paloque-Bergès published in French in Tracés (N° 21, 2011/2). It’s on the archaeology of (digital) viruses in contexts of security, biopolitics and media theory. It’s not exactly recent but I don’t think I have posted or even seen it online before.

Plant on Tulipmania

March 24, 2014 Leave a comment

Sadie Plant is such an iconic figure in the study of digital culture and media theory. Here’s her short text on tulips, viruses, spam and modern economy. She wrote this as the Foreword to our Spam Book and here you can access it as a teaser-trailer to the book itself! It speaks of digital anomalies but through the colourful words of tulips and the tulipmania:

“Tulipmania was certainly a great irregularity, a malfunctioning of seventeenth century financial markets causing the first such large-scale economic crash.  It was a kind of fever: the craze was as infectious as the virus itself, a runaway sequence of events triggered by the smallest of anomalies – which was, as it happens, effectively repressed as soon as its nature was known: once it was discovered, after nearly three centuries, that a disease was the agent of tulip variegation, the virus was eliminated by the tulip industry. Modern striped, multicoloured, and frilled tulips are the flowers of healthy bulbs, bred to emulate those of their virally infected predecessors: the effects remain, but the virus has gone. Order has been restored. ”

(As an addition, here’s our Introduction to the same volume, written together with Tony D. Sampson: “On Anomalous Objects of Digital Culture“).

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Google DNS Freedom Fight: 8.8.8.8

March 21, 2014 Leave a comment

In the midst of the past (less than) 24 hours of Turkey’s Twitter-blockade, we have seen a flood of tweets, comments, analysis and information – a lot of them, paradoxically, from Turkey. Some operators might not have yet been quick enough to shut down access, and at the same time people have found access via alternative means. The situation has again meant an increase in people’s understanding of the internet and looking into how DNS works as well as VPN’s. Indeed, tips were spread online to assist Turkish people – such as the three simple methods. And information was passed offline too – demonstration of a yet another connection of the streets and the online.

BjPcj1DIQAAZKGMThat people are able to bypass the DNS-based censorship is one thing to ponder about – especially because the new internet law in Turkey  would allow other measures too. But what Geraldine Juárez pointed out on Twitter was of course this: 8.8.8.8. points to Google Public DNS. Corporate freedom services, the rhetorics of net freedom, etc. play as part of this wider scenario where alternatives to authoritarian nationalist politics seem to be the Corporate system. And that it’s pretty odd/scary/eerie that this gets rather automatically picked up as the political alternative, even to the extent of Google becoming infrastructurally used as the politically “open alternative” – or just more bluntly, as “Freedom”:

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In such situations, one does need quick and dirty solutions – infrastructural affordances, whether corporate or not, need to be taken into use for short-term goals; but in terms of the wider political situation of networks – networkpolitics on the level where infrastructure meets the political imaginary – this leads into rather an odd choice between “closed” and “open” that does not imply as clear of a choice as one would assume based on the older political vocabularies. This is indeed not to downplay the significance of this sort of activism – distributing DNS information on streets, as in the image below. It is just to ask the fundamental questions regarding political choice, alternatives and how much the lack of alternatives is increasingly attempted to be hardwired into a material actualisation of the lack of political imaginary: “no choice but”.

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Update [March 22, 2014]: Turkish government has now blocked access to Google Public DNS too.

– related reading includes (of course)

Evgeni Morozov’s analysis of network politics and its relation to Silicon Valley but also Benjamin Bratton’s work on “the stack” and the changing political nomos in the age of planetary computation.