How can you show that the Snowden disclosures are everybody's business?

What's to become of the Snowden files? Are these documents to be re-appropriated into the system they sought to expose – or can the leaks be elevated to the realm of the commons?

Alina Floroi
26 October 2017
SIG_exhibition view_Blace.jpg

Undressing for XKeyscore - norms/forms to fit in/out" by Zeljko Blace. Andi Weiland | CC-BY-NC. The Snowden disclosures have triggered debates about democracy, civil rights, the internet and intelligence agencies all around the world. These debates have led to a number of political changes, including negative ones, for instance, consolidating the delusion of cyber-security. Meanwhile, the documents that triggered the debates remain hard to penetrate for the general public, as well as for many experts. And it is not certain that the documents will be preserved for posterity or for those writing our history, since they are so spread out over the world corresponding to numerous sources.

The book and exhibition project SIGNALS takes this problem as its starting point and situates the historic leak in the context of civic appropriation. The artists participating in the exhibition test the files as material and, by creating works, transform them into commons.

A Field Guide to the Snowden Files - Media, Art, Archives 2013 – 2017. Krystian Woznicki | CC-BY-NC.For the first time documents of the greatest intelligence leak in history were presented in an exhibition in Berlin – the former 'capital of the spies' and the present retreat of many digital dissidents. Snowden’s well-known documents – published all over the world – represent only a small percentage of the files that he actually saved before disappearing from his work as an NSA subcontractor.

Snowden‘s documents cover various programs of the NSA (the US National Security Agency). One of these programs is called PRISM. It offered a backdoor to access private data from Google or Facebook, others refer to phone records, or digital spying over the European Union’s secrets or many other countries in the world or to the XKeyscore program that literally enables users from the intelligence community to see what any internet user does in digital networks.

Launched under the title SIGNALS – The Snowden Files in Art, Media and Archives, the exhibition shows that there is a great need for debate. The exhibition curators Magdalena Taube and Krystian Woznicki, who are also the co-founders of the Berliner Gazette, sum this up: "some heard of the Snowden Files for the first time, someone else had believed so far that Snowden was only a fiction, and for those who are already involved with the subject matter, it became clearer that many questions remain open: what do these documents actually look like? why is it attractive to use them artistically?"

The exhibition's unique undertaking and affiliated publishing project addressed this broad spectrum of questions and also managed to provide some answers. The curators were present at the show on a daily basis, providing tours and background information on the works exhibited. In addition to that, a number of events, including many of the involved artists, archivists and researchers were providing a platform for lively exchange and intense interaction. Magdalena Taube remarks: "there was quite a bit of astonishment, especially among those, who, for the first time took a look at the actual documents and their appearances in art, media and archives." 

The Berliner Gazette had worked on the Snowden disclosures from the very beginning. The nonprofit and nonpartisan team of journalists, researchers, artists and coders analyzes and tests emerging cultural as well as political practices in the digital realm and has done so for more than 18 years. The team has been publishing under a creative commons license, with more than 900 contributors from all over the world. The Berliner Gazette has manifested itself in the physical world, too, by organizing annual conferences and editing books.

After Snowden came out with his first big disclosures in the summer of 2013, the Berliner Gazette started to ask critical questions. No one was much surprised about the actual content of the leaks as the Berliner Gazette team was aware of the security industry's methods and logics – learning, for instance, from the New Zealand journalist Nicky Hager‘s detailed description of ECHELON in his 1996 book, Secret Power: New Zealand's Role in the International Spy Network. 

Taube and Woznicki soon realized that the documents themselves were the key materials to write history.

Intrigued about how the historic Snowden leak could actually help in the writing of history, Taube and Woznicki soon realized that the documents themselves were the key materials – to support any thesis and sustain any substantial narrative and subsequently to write history. So while taking the contents of the disclosures very seriously, the BG team turned their focus on the leaks as sources that needed to be preserved and accessed collectively and cooperatively on a long-term basis. Against this backdrop, they have launched several critical interventions under the motto 'Snowden Commons' which intended to explore and expand the democratic potential of the disclosures. The guiding question was: how could the Snowden files be turned into commons?

First they observed media outlet such as the Guardian, The New York Times, Der Spiegel and The Intercept re-appropriating the leaked data as some sort of private property; then they witnessed various international archive initiatives struggling to cope with the quantity and precarity of the material and then, eventually, they discovered the actual documents surfacing in some art works like in a wonderful piece by Trevor Paglen, NSA-Tapped Fiber Optic Cable Landing Site, Mastic Beach, NYC, that presents a photograph of a beautiful beach and a geographic map of the era with Snowden documents interspersed – literally disclosing what's beneath the beach: a large scale data collecting operation by the NSA. 

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"NSA-Tapped Fiber Optic Cable Landing Site, Mastic Beach, NYC" by Trevor Paglen. This is the story of the Snowden documents so far – and how they surfaced in various contexts: media, archives and artistic spaces. What will happen next? As nobody knows, it is time to tackle and actually collectively shape this moment of transformation of raw leaks into the material of artistic archives – a task that the Berliner Gazette project follows, documents and scrutinizes: how have the raw leaks been appropriated? Are they transformed into the proprietary objects of the system they sought to expose? Or can the leaks be elevated to the realm of the commons?

Now, that there is a critical mass of artists working with the Snowden Files, it is possible to take this as a starting point to reflect on these questions in a new way. The exhibition gathers a very wide range of contributors including Zeljko Blace, Andrew Clement, Colnate Group, Naomi Colvin, Simon Denny, Corinna Haas, Christoph Hochhäusler, Evan Light, Geert Lovink, M.C. McGrath, Henrik Moltke, Deborah Natsios, Julian Oliver, Trevor Paglen, Laura Poitras, Norman Posselt, SAZAE bot, Stefan Tiron, University of the Phoenix, Andi Weiland, Maria Xynou and John Young. And their works present a "user-friendly" way to approach these complex issues as well as the questions of property pertaining to them.

Raising these issues, SIGNALS is different from international exhibition projects such as "Under the Clouds", "Nervous Systems", "Art as Evidence" or "Watched" that have touched upon surveillance issues without material reference to the Snowden Leaks. 

In this case, it is "for the first time that our project presents the actual Snowden files on display across a spectrum of media, archives and arts" as Krystian Woznicki points out. "We started with a critique of the media and then moved on to an exploration of archives with respect to their treatment of the files, and are now looking at the files in art. The files in media, archives and art – not 'the Snowden files in relation to these fields in general'. After all, a relation can be vague, indirect and open. In our case, however, it is not – at least not in the first place – about the relation of the files to the respective fields, but about the files themselves surfacing as concrete documents in these fields and their respective formats.

In a sense we ask the commons questions on a very materialistic level, which, we believe is very necessary, because from beginning to end (of all social processes) it is about the documents as materials, that you either have access to or not, can use and transform or not; moreover, materials, that will be preserved as common goods or not. It is important to be very precise about this, because neither the media nor the art field are constructed as fields to 'accommodate' such issues – on the contrary! Their logics of access are very propietary."

Can the leaks be elevated to the realm of the commons?

The exhibition not only follows the transformation of the leaks into the material of media, archives and arts, but also re-appropriates them from these contexts back into a common document collection: in the form of the book. Here, each document, in whatever form, is presented as a two-dimensional page that can be read, turned and filed. The exhibition presents these two-dimensional pages in various ways: blown up to wall sized banners, beautifully framed, or pinned onto the wall. In some instances, the printing sheets of the book are displayed – disclosing the book's production process, it's "madness", so to speak, as well as its construction principles. 

How is it made? How could it be done? These are some of the questions that the exhibition prompts and it also suggests that what has been presented here could be done by others as well. The exhibition curators recall an encounter with a visitor: "from the exhibition I get the impression that I could make such an exhibition myself: I could get the book and use its pages for a show of the Snowden files“.

If you look at the project again, you gather that between the lines SIGNALS invites people to come and actually use themselves the book pages as a preservation and exhibition tool. And isn‘t this how eventually everybody could participate in turning the Snowden files into commons? 

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"Ghost Machine" by University of the Phoenix.A FIELD GUIDE TO THE SNOWDEN FILES is the first book to critically engage with artists responding to the NSA-files leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden. The book has been conceived in the context of SIGNALS, a project by Berliner Gazette e. V. which was funded by the Capital Cultural Fund. The book is published in conjunction with SIGNALS. AN EXHIBITION OF THE SNOWDEN FILES IN ART, MEDIA AND ARCHIVES, September 12-26, 2017, at DIAMONDPAPER Studio, curated by Magdalena Taube and Krystian Woznicki. More info:

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