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  • Up close with… Jacob Appelbaum


Up close with… Jacob Appelbaum

From digital dissident to analogue art! Starting Sep 10, Appelbaum's infrared photos of his whistleblowing comrades and pandas that he and Ai Weiwei stuffed with Snowden docs are on show at NOME. Read our interview, then check out "Samizdata".

Image for Up close with... Jacob Appelbaum
Photo by Michel Andrysiak

Jacob Appelbaum’s show Samizdata: Evidence of Conspiracy, curated by Tatiana Bazzichelli, opens at NOME gallery on September 10. The next day, he and Laura Poitras will discuss document leaking, art and transparency as part of a Disruption Network Lab panel at Kunstquartier Bethanien.

Who are the people in the six portraits you’re showing at NOME gallery? We recognised a few of your comrades-in-exile in Berlin…

They are people who have worked to effect massive amounts of change and who, in different ways, have contributed to a very large dialogue that is taking place in society now. There’s Sarah [Harrison]; Glenn [Greenwald] and David [Miranda]; Laura [Poitras], but also the early ones – Julian [Assange] and Bill [Binney]. Then Ai Weiwei, who is on the other end of the spectrum with regards to Snowden or WikiLeaks, making cultural objects that link up to the information that’s been published.

Are these the heroes of our post-Snowden era?

They are famous for their acts of courage. But they are also regular people. None of these people are born revolutionaries. These are people who in the right circumstances took courageous actions, and they had a good intellectual basis for understanding why that courage was necessary. This is not about creating a culture of heroism, but rather recognising that any person can take heroic action.

You shot them with infrared film – like targets of surveillance.

This colour infrared film was agricultural surveillance film… It’s expired, it’s old and you can’t really get it anymore. It’s something quite special. The paper is Cibachrome. So it’s the rarest of films, and the rarest of printing methods. Using it to photograph people who are targets of surveillance is, for me, to recontextualise industrial-scale surveillance film. The film allows you to see things a little bit differently – grains, structures, things you normally couldn’t see – because it picks up ultraviolet and near and far infrared.

You’re showing a few of the toy pandas that you and Weiwei stuffed in Beijing back in April. How did those come about?

The idea behind the Rhizome project was for a technologist and an artist to come together. I arrived in Beijing with this original art idea: fill a panda with shredded NSA documents and have it be like a peerto- peer networking thing. Weiwei was immediately open to it. We had a little bit of technical difficulty, though, because Laura didn’t feel comfortable bringing real Snowden documents to Beijing. She was worried they would be reconstructed, even though I have a very good shredder. So I came to China empty-handed. We had to buy a shredder, download documents from the internet and shred them.

What did you learn from Weiwei as an artist?

I understand much more about working at scale. A lot of his work, his whole compound, is about scale. It’s really incredible to experience how he gets things done, even the division of labour in his workshop. Even the way he moves his hand is a very directed piece of art. Then he has a very firm idea of how to direct and document his work. Laura was there to document it, he also documented it on his iPhone. The workshop became another part of the art piece.

What about Weiwei’s selfies? You both took quite a few of them over there.

Weiwei takes more selfies than anyone else does any other task other than breathing. We went to the gym, for example, and he made a video of me doing pushups when I wasn’t looking! He also seems to have perfected selfies as a modern form of autograph. When we would go out for a walk in Beijing, people would stop and want to take a picture with him. In the past, with someone like Andy Warhol, people would ask him to sign something… Weiwei’s version of the autograph in the 21st century is the selfie.

You’re known as a security analyst and developer, hacker, activist and campaigner, journalist, now an artist… what’s next?

I had an artist residency in Vienna in 2006, so this is not new for me. I am actually starting a PhD in a maths department in post-quantum computer cryptography.

What would you have done if you had lived in the pre-digital age? Do you have any analogue hobbies?

Well, there’s my photography. All of this is 100 percent analogue. The printing is analogue, the film is analogue, the cameras are analogue. But I also like to go swing dancing!

Jacob Appelbaum – Samizdata: Evidence of Conspiracy, Sep 10-Oct 31 | NOME, Dolziger Str. 31, Friedrichshain, U-Bhf Samariterstr., Tue-Sat 15-19