"Can you hear me?"
An antithesis to surveillance and espionage in Berlin's government district
It all started when the Swiss embassy in Berlin asked Wachter & Jud to present their work. This was not only an honor, it also gave them access to a unique location. The Swiss Embassy in Berlin is located in the government district, next to the German Federal Chancellery. In its neighborhood are Germany’s Parliament and other embassies, such as the US and the British Embassy.
According to the revelations of Edward Snowden, this area has become the focal point for surveillance and spying on the population. It was discovered that the US and British secret services were listening in on the entire district, including the Chancellor's mobile phone. Ominous roof structures on the embassy buildings were attracting a global interest. The listening post of the American NSA appeared as a structure with grey, radar-transparent facade elements. Behind it are hidden antennas and listening devices. The British GCHQ also installed eavesdropping antennas behind a white, cylindrical structure, a radome. Although everyone was talking about the listening devices, this mass surveillance is a situation that leaves us speechless. In this situation, opposition and objection fails, as it is itself always subjected to the criticized surveillance.
But how to address these hidden and disguised forces? Wachter & Jud sought to find out whether other signals could be sent from the roof of an embassy. On the top of the Swiss Embassy, they installed a series of antennas. Their antennas weren't as sophisticated as those used by the Americans and the British, they were makeshift can-antennas, not camouflaged but totally obvious and visible.
The Academy of Arts joined the project, and Wachter & Jud built another large antenna on their rooftop, exactly between the listening posts of the NSA and the GCHQ. Seldom have artists been observed in such detail while building an art installation. A helicopter circled over their heads with a camera registering each and every move they made. And on the roof of the US Embassy, security officers patrolled. The antennas have become the starting point of an open communication network. Everyone could participate in the network using their Wi-Fi-enabled devices. Chats, text messages, file sharing, and voice chats were possible without Internet connections or wireless service providers. A collective conversation space in which every participant has equal rights has been taking the space of secret wiretapping. Messages could be sent on the frequencies that are intercepted by the NSA and GCHQ.
A different regime of conversation unfolded: If people are spying on us, it stands to reason that they have to listen to what we are saying. At the same time, the participants in the communication network were largely anonymous. It was an inversion. The independent mesh network in Berlin’s Government District recaptured the communication space also on an urban scale. The options for publicly talking and freely assembling are limited in the government district, as it is a non-protest-zone. But there are no special regulations regarding digital communication. This installation was therefore perfectly legal. The Swiss ambassador even informed Chancellor Merkel about it. Within this network, the voices of the people found their way into the closed-off refuges of power as a legal and legitimate response to the constraints, and to a hidden, absolute surveillance by the secret services.
For 33 days this independent and anonymous network was used by thousands of people, and they sent more than 15,000 messages to the NSA and the GCHQ. The personal statements ranged from activist and political contributions to ironic disclosures of embarrassing intimacy to calls for resistance. Some appeals were aimed directly at the surveillants, calling on them to switch sides and become whistle-blowers.
The officeholders in the embassies and government centers were invited to join and equally participate in this open network, too. And in fact, they took advantage of this opportunity. Even confidential information from the parliamentary investigation commission about the spying revelations appeared. What started as a playful counter-manifestation with an independent network has become the proof that a free flow of information is vital for a vivid democracyespecially in the digital age.
Christoph Wachter (CH) and Mathias Jud (CH) were both born in Zurich. They live and work in Berlin. They have participated in numerous international art exhibitions and been awarded many international prizes (Prix Ars Electronica, Swiss Art Award, EMARE, CECEL European Council, Edith Russ Haus, Förderpreis der Kunstministerin des Freistaats Sachsen etc.). In particular, the projects Picidae (since 2007), New Nations (since 2009) and qaul.net (since 2012) have gained worldwide interest. As open-source projects these works uncover forms of censorship of the Internet, undermine the concentration of political power and even resolve the dependency on infrastructure. The tools, provided by the artists, are used by communities in the USA, Europe, Australia, and in countries like Syria, Tunisia, Egypt, Iran, India, China, and Thailand. Even in North Korea activists participate. But not everyone is fond of these projects. In 2012 the project HOTEL GELEM they created with Roma families all over Europe received a Council of Europe award. On this occasion Manuel Valls (now Prime Minister of France) organized a counter-manifestation against the art project. The People’s Republic of China has denied Wachter and Jud a visa to enter the country since 2013.
Supported by Swiss Embassy, Berlin; Academy of the Arts, Berlin; Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia