sponsored links
TEDGlobal>London

Mathias Jud: Art that lets you talk back to NSA spies

September 29, 2015

In 2013, the world learned that the NSA and its UK equivalent, GCHQ, routinely spied on the German government. Amid the outrage, artists Mathias Jud and Christoph Wachter thought: Well, if they're listening ... let's talk to them. With antennas mounted on the roof of the Swiss Embassy in Berlin's government district, they set up an open network that let the world send messages to US and UK spies listening nearby. It's one of three bold, often funny, and frankly subversive works detailed in this talk, which highlights the world's growing discontent with surveillance and closed networks.

Mathias Jud - Artist
The work of artists Mathias Jud and Christoph Wachter questions the limits of our communication possibilities and, therefore, of our identity. Full bio

sponsored links
Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
A year ago, we were invited
by the Swiss Embassy in Berlin
00:12
to present our art projects.
00:16
We are used to invitations,
but this invitation really thrilled us.
00:18
The Swiss Embassy in Berlin is special.
00:23
It is the only old building
in the government district
00:26
that was not destroyed
during the Second World War,
00:29
and it sits right next
to the Federal Chancellery.
00:32
No one is closer to Chancellor Merkel
than the Swiss diplomats.
00:35
(Laughter)
00:39
The government district in Berlin
also contains the Reichstag --
00:42
Germany's parliament --
and the Brandenburg Gate,
00:46
and right next to the gate
there are other embassies,
00:49
in particular the US
and the British Embassy.
00:52
Although Germany is an advanced democracy,
00:56
citizens are limited
in their constitutional rights
00:59
in its government district.
01:02
The right of assembly and the right
to demonstrate are restricted there.
01:04
And this is interesting
from an artistic point of view.
01:09
The opportunities to exercise
participation and to express oneself
01:13
are always bound to a certain order
01:17
and always subject
to a specific regulation.
01:20
With an awareness of the dependencies
of these regulations,
01:23
we can gain a new perspective.
01:28
The given terms and conditions
shape our perception, our actions
01:31
and our lives.
01:35
And this is crucial in another context.
01:37
Over the last couple of years,
01:41
we learned that from the roofs
of the US and the British Embassy,
01:42
the secret services have been listening
to the entire district,
01:47
including the mobile phone
of Angela Merkel.
01:51
The antennas of the British GCHQ are
hidden in a white cylindrical radome,
01:55
while the listening post
of the American NSA
02:00
is covered by radio transparent screens.
02:03
But how to address these hidden
and disguised forces?
02:07
With my colleague, Christoph Wachter,
02:10
we accepted the invitation
of the Swiss Embassy.
02:13
And we used this opportunity
to exploit the specific situation.
02:16
If people are spying on us,
it stands to reason
02:22
that they have to listen
to what we are saying.
02:25
(Laughter)
02:28
On the roof of the Swiss Embassy,
we installed a series of antennas.
02:32
They weren't as sophisticated as those
used by the Americans and the British.
02:38
(Laughter)
02:42
They were makeshift can antennas,
02:44
not camouflaged but totally
obvious and visible.
02:45
The Academy of Arts joined the project,
02:50
and so we built another
large antenna on their rooftop,
02:52
exactly between the listening posts
of the NSA and the GCHQ.
02:56
(Laughter)
03:00
Never have we been observed in such detail
while building an art installation.
03:02
A helicopter circled over our heads
03:07
with a camera registering
each and every move we made,
03:09
and on the roof of the US Embassy,
security officers patrolled.
03:12
Although the government district
is governed by a strict police order,
03:17
there are no specific laws
relating to digital communication.
03:22
Our installation
was therefore perfectly legal,
03:27
and the Swiss Ambassador
informed Chancellor Merkel about it.
03:30
We named the project "Can You Hear Me?"
03:34
(Laughter)
03:37
The antennas created an open
and free Wi-Fi communication network
03:40
in which anyone who wanted to
would be able to participate
03:44
using any Wi-Fi-enabled device
without any hindrance,
03:48
and be able to send messages
03:51
to those listening on the frequencies
that were being intercepted.
03:53
Text messages, voice chat, file sharing --
03:58
anything could be sent anonymously.
04:00
And people did communicate.
04:04
Over 15,000 messages were sent.
04:07
Here are some examples.
04:10
"Hello world, hello Berlin,
hello NSA, hello GCHQ."
04:13
"NSA Agents, Do the Right Thing!
Blow the whistle!"
04:19
"This is the NSA. In God we trust.
All others we track!!!!!"
04:24
(Laughter)
04:28
"#@nonymous is watching #NSA #GCHQ -
we are part of your organizations.
04:32
# expect us. We will #shutdown"
04:36
"This is the NSA's Achilles heel.
Open Networks."
04:39
"Agents, what twisted story of yourself
will you tell your grandchildren?"
04:42
"@NSA My neighbors are noisy.
Please send a drone strike."
04:48
(Laughter)
04:52
"Make Love, Not cyberwar."
04:56
We invited the embassies
and the government departments
04:59
to participate in the open network, too,
05:02
and to our surprise, they did.
05:04
Files appeared on the network,
including classified documents
05:06
leaked from the parliamentary
investigation commission,
05:09
which highlights that the free exchange
and discussion of vital information
05:12
is starting to become difficult,
even for members of a parliament.
05:16
We also organized guided tours
to experience and sound out
05:21
the power constellations on-site.
05:24
The tours visited the restricted zones
around the embassies,
05:26
and we discussed the potential
and the highlights of communication.
05:30
If we become aware of the constellation,
05:36
the terms and conditions of communication,
05:40
it not only broadens our horizon,
05:43
it allows us to look behind
the regulations that limit our worldview,
05:45
our specific social, political
or aesthetic conventions.
05:49
Let's look at an actual example.
05:54
The fate of people living
in the makeshift settlements
05:57
on the outskirts of Paris
06:00
is hidden and faded from view.
06:02
It's a vicious circle.
06:05
It's not poverty, not racism,
not exclusion that are new.
06:07
What is new is how
these realities are hidden
06:10
and how people are made invisible
06:13
in an age of global and overwhelming
communication and exchange.
06:15
Such makeshift settlements
are considered illegal,
06:20
and therefore those living in them
don't have a chance
06:23
of making their voices heard.
06:26
On the contrary, every time they appear,
every time they risk becoming visible,
06:28
merely gives grounds
for further persecution,
06:33
expulsion and suppression.
06:36
What interested us was how we could
come to know this hidden side.
06:38
We were searching for an interface
and we found one.
06:43
It's not a digital interface,
but a physical one: it's a hotel.
06:47
We named the project "Hotel Gelem."
06:51
Together with Roma families,
we created several Hotel Gelems in Europe,
06:54
for example, in Freiburg in Germany,
in Montreuil near Paris,
06:58
and also in the Balkans.
07:01
These are real hotels.
07:03
People can stay there.
07:04
But they aren't a commercial enterprise.
07:06
They are a symbol.
07:08
You can go online and ask
for a personal invitation
07:10
to come and live for a few days
in the Hotel Gelem, in their homes,
07:14
eating, working and living
with the Roma families.
07:18
Here, the Roma families
are not the travelers;
07:22
the visitors are.
07:25
Here, the Roma families
are not a minority;
07:27
the visitors are.
07:30
The point is not to make judgments,
07:33
but rather to find out
about the context that determines
07:37
these disparate and seemingly
insurmountable contradictions.
07:40
In the world of globalization,
07:44
the continents are drifting
closer to each other.
07:46
Cultures, goods and people
are in permanent exchange,
07:49
but at the same time, the gap
between the world of the privileged
07:51
and the world of the excluded is growing.
07:54
We were recently in Australia.
07:59
For us, it was no problem
to enter the country.
08:01
We have European passports,
visas and air tickets.
08:03
But asylum seekers who arrive
by boat in Australia
08:06
are deported or taken to prison.
08:10
The interception of the boats
08:13
and the disappearance of the people
into the detention system
08:14
are veiled by the Australian authorities.
08:17
These procedures are declared
to be secret military operations.
08:20
After dramatic escapes
from crisis zones and war zones,
08:25
men, women and children
are detained by Australia without trial,
08:28
sometimes for years.
08:32
During our stay, however,
08:36
we managed to reach out and work
with asylum seekers who were imprisoned,
08:38
despite strict screening and isolation.
08:43
From these contexts was born
an installation in the art space
08:45
of the Queensland University
of Technology in Brisbane.
08:50
On the face of it,
it was a very simple installation.
08:54
On the floor, a stylized compass
gave the direction
08:58
to each immigration detention center,
09:01
accompanied by the distance
and the name of the immigration facility.
09:03
But the exhibition step
came in the form of connectivity.
09:08
Above every floor marking,
there was a headset.
09:12
Visitors were offered the opportunity
to talk directly to a refugee
09:16
who was or had been imprisoned
09:20
in a specific detention facility
09:23
and engage in a personal conversation.
09:25
In the protected context
of the art exhibition,
09:28
asylum seekers felt free
to talk about themselves,
09:31
their story and their situation,
without fear of consequences.
09:34
Visitors immersed themselves
in long conversations
09:38
about families torn apart,
about dramatic escapes from war zones,
09:41
about suicide attempts,
09:45
about the fate of children in detention.
09:46
Emotions ran deep. Many wept.
09:50
Several revisited the exhibition.
09:52
It was a powerful experience.
09:54
Europe is now facing a stream of migrants.
09:58
The situation for the asylum seekers
is made worse by contradictory policies
10:03
and the temptation
of militarized responses.
10:07
We have also established
communication systems
10:11
in remote refugee centers
in Switzerland and Greece.
10:13
They are all about providing
basic information -- medical costs,
10:17
legal information, guidance.
10:20
But they are significant.
10:22
Information on the Internet
10:25
that could ensure survival
along dangerous routes
10:26
is being censored,
10:29
and the provision of such information
is becoming increasingly criminalized.
10:30
This brings us back to our network
and to the antennas
10:36
on the roof of the Swiss Embassy in Berlin
10:39
and the "Can You Hear Me?" project.
10:41
We should not take it for granted
to be boundlessly connected.
10:44
We should start making
our own connections,
10:47
fighting for this idea of an equal
and globally interconnected world.
10:49
This is essential to overcome
our speechlessness
10:54
and the separation provoked
by rival political forces.
10:57
It is only in truly exposing ourselves
11:00
to the transformative power
of this experience
11:03
that we can overcome
prejudice and exclusion.
11:06
Thank you.
11:10
(Applause)
11:11
Bruno Giussani: Thank you, Mathias.
11:16
The other half of your
artistic duo is also here.
11:18
Christoph Wachter, come onstage.
11:20
(Applause)
11:22
First, tell me just a detail:
11:27
the name of the hotel
is not a random name.
11:29
Gelem means something specific
in the Roma language.
11:31
Mathias Jud: Yes, "Gelem, Gelem"
is the title of the Romani hymn,
11:34
the official, and it means
"I went a long way."
11:39
BG: That's just to add
the detail to your talk.
11:42
But you two traveled
to the island of Lesbos
11:45
very recently, you're just back
a couple of days ago,
11:47
in Greece, where thousands
of refugees are arriving
11:50
and have been arriving
over the last few months.
11:52
What did you see there
and what did you do there?
11:55
Christoph Wachter: Well, Lesbos is one
of the Greek islands close to Turkey,
11:57
and during our stay,
12:01
many asylum seekers arrived by boat
on overcrowded dinghies,
12:02
and after landing, they were left
completely on their own.
12:08
They are denied many services.
12:12
For example, they are not allowed
to buy a bus ticket
12:15
or to rent a hotel room,
12:18
so many families literally
sleep in the streets.
12:19
And we installed networks there
to allow basic communication,
12:24
because I think, I believe,
12:29
it's not only that we have to speak
about the refugees,
12:31
I think we need to start talking to them.
12:36
And by doing so, we can realize
that it is about human beings,
12:40
about their lives
and their struggle to survive.
12:44
BG: And allow them to talk as well.
12:46
Christoph, thank you for coming to TED.
12:48
Mathias, thank you for coming to TED
and sharing your story.
12:50
(Applause)
12:53

sponsored links

Mathias Jud - Artist
The work of artists Mathias Jud and Christoph Wachter questions the limits of our communication possibilities and, therefore, of our identity.

Why you should listen

Mathias Jud and Christoph Wachter combine the power of online collaboration with activism to produce their artistic vision.

In Berlin (where they live), they created an open mesh network in the government district, allowing citizens to send messages to the NSA and GCHQ, whose known listening posts are there. With their "Hotel Gelem" project, the duo commented on racism and exclusion by inviting visitors to stay in the homes of Roma families -- a culture familiar with the idea of displacement. And in Australia at the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, the two created an installation which allowed visitors to interract with refugees detained in the country.

"We should start making our own connections, fighting for this idea of an equal and globally interconnected world," Jud says. "This is essential to overcome our speechlessness and the separation provoked by rival political forces."

The original video is available on TED.com
sponsored links

If you need translations, you can install "Google Translate" extension into your Chrome Browser.
Furthermore, you can change playback rate by installing "Video Speed Controller" extension.

Data provided by TED.

This website is owned and operated by Tokyo English Network.
The developer's blog is here.