"Is that what will make them come for us?"

An interview with Jacob Appelbaum

Portrait of Jacob Appelbaum 

Photo: Kate Young

If the art world has the image of a non-transparent, nepotistic closed circle, what happens when hackers claim their place in it? And more importantly why go into art when you could hack the system?

Jacob Appelbaum, internet activist and journalist, played an important role in the publication of the Snowden documents and the revelation of the spied-on mobile phone of Chancellor Angela Merkel. The 33-years-old hacker talks with us about his first solo art exhibition in Berlin and why this city is a magnet for freedom fighters.

You define yourself as a “post-national independent computer security researcher.” What does someone like you do? And secondly how does this translate into an art gallery in Berlin?

That depends on who asks me that question. I am an artist. But I also work as a journalist, and as a researcher. To each different world I do different stuff. The terms “post-national” and “independent” I take very seriously. I don’t define myself based on the boundaries in which I was accidentally born. Obviously I have lots of cultural baggage, but my values, especially what’s reflected in the show, move away from national borders and really into a more universal approach. Because of their actions, most people I photographed for this show live now in different countries than where I took their pictures. There is Glenn Greenwald from the US, but photographed in Brasil; Laura Poitras, also from the US, in Berlin; Julian Assange, the Australian, near London. But I am not showing my whole archive. This is a selection of a few photographs that I thought were fitting.

You present a series of six colored infrared photos. What is the special technique behind this?  

It’s a color infrared film, which was used for aerial surveillance, since it detects more information than the human eye can see. What you see in this show are Cibachrome prints of these pictures, a fully analogue positive slide printing technique. 

Why didn’t you take a photo of Edward Snowden?

This is not a show about Edward Snowden. It is important to honor the fact that he didn’t want to be the centre of attention. We should generally have more portraits of Snowden, because regardless of what he likes or not, he is for many people a historical figure. But I wanted to show a network of resistance that is transcending the so-called Snowden-Affair. Showing Laura Poitras not behind the camera, as a documentary filmmaker, but as a person working on exposing these issues. Creating heroes out of people is not the goal. It is to show that every person, when put in extraordinary circumstances, can make a choice to make the world a significantly better place.

_______INSERT_______

Why did you choose the field of art to work in now? Do you really believe that it helps anyone?

Yes, I am convinced that art in general of course helps. I hope that other people will bring their children, and they will see these people, and they will have in some ways an idea that you can resist and even survive. It is important to inspire people to recognize that. Art does inspire and art does change. I wanted to show some historical documents that in some way can help to have a discussion.

What does the title of the exhibition "SAMIZDATA" mean to you?

Samizdat is a Russian concept that represents information that is illegal and not possible for someone to easily acquire. So samzizdata is a link towards this concept, which is well known to people who grew up, for example, in the GDR. It is meant as a homage and as a warning. 

In the show are also two panda-sculptures, the P2P-Project. 

The idea of samizdata is exactly what the panda sculpture, which I created together with Ai Weiwei, directly represents. The stuffed panda bear toys contain shredded Snowden materials. These pandas were smuggled out of Beijing and they traveled around the world. Sharing this illegal information, for which someone could be potentially sentenced with life in prison or receive the death penalty: could that be anything other than a kind of samizdat? And to share it on a USB or a SD card, or over the internet, that is samizdata. 
It is clear that if we lose privacy, we lose agency. For instance, Sarah Harrison, an investigative journalist whose portrait is in the show, made the choice to help Snowden seek asylum in Moscow. This choice means she cannot return to Great Britain. 

_______INSERT_______

Sarah Harrison, Laura Poitras, Ai Weiwei and yourself all live in Berlin. Why here? 

It’s a really good question, which I could not answer for a good reason. I can’t tell you why I am here, but I can tell you what is so inspiring about this city: Berlin is a very special place with a very strong spirit of resistance. The history is ever-present as is the sense of responsibility. We are able to work much more freely here and we need a base of operations to work on, without fear of undercover police raids.  
Here in Berlin, the conversation doesn’t start with convincing someone to care; the conversation usually starts with collaborating on actions. That’s a huge difference. It is without a doubt unique in the world in my experience, and also in the experience of most other people that I have worked with.

Is the whistleblower a new figure that has arisen due to our contemporary society?

Throughout history we see one very important detail, which is often left out in revolutionary writings. Everyone used to romanticize the Che Guevaras and the Fidel Castros – great military heros. But it’s actually people who worked for an oppressor, defecting to humanity, that have often tilted the battle in favor of the rest of the people. It’s the people who decide to switch sides that make the difference. What they are doing is saying, “Fuck this, I have had enough, I am with the rest of humanity.” And that is something that the whistleblower embodies right now.

It’s a very complex figure. The conservative critique would say that he is a coward.

That’s hilarious. These are the Mitläufers [followers] of our generation. Fuck them. They are pigs. If anyone is the coward it is them.

_______INSERT_______

Your third work in this show, the necklaces with the title Schuld, Scham & Angst, reminded me of something to put drugs in. I was wondering if you could also get addicted to leaking.

No, I don't think so. The whole point of that necklace is about the fact that we are intimidated, despite everything that has occurred. They also contain shredded documents, but these documents actually no one is ever supposed to see. It’s about fear, guilt and shame, it represents both the triumph and the failure. It is about the shame that whistleblowers feel when we become collaborators because we destroy documents, for source protection or not to be arrested. So the panda represents a way of moving, sharing, smuggling information,samizdata. The necklaces are the opposite. It’s information that should be published, but probably never will be. It’s information that wasn’t from public documents; it’s from the trash bags of my journalistic notes that no one will ever see. And the main reason is fear, self-preservation and pressure. The fear is overpowering, even amongst some of the people pictured here.

_______INSERT_______

Have you ever not leaked something because of fear?

Of course, every time we published something, the first question is: if we publish this, is it what will make them come for us?

You once said that you admire surrealistic art, which has a lot of complexity and weirdness in it. And as a hacker and political journalist you come from a world of disruption. But your art seems a bit pleasing – beautiful pictures, without a disruption.

For the photos it’s true, they are very classical portraits of individuals. And it would also be the case if you didn’t know about how they were made, about the color infrared-technique, and that the whole process is an analogue process in a digital world. But it disrupts the anonymity of people. The pictures were meant as a gift.

Most of the people you portray are people that one connects to technology. So what’s with all the trees and nature in the pictures?

The trees in the background express a commonality between all of the pictures. That is, trees as a reference to network. There is a complexity that goes outside the boundaries of the frame that you can’t really understand or make sense out of. These people exist in an ecosystem, and you see them in this system. People imagine Julian Assange as just being in an embassy, or worse, they imagine him as just being in the Internet. And yet here he is as a human being standing tall in front of a tree. That is, in a sense, completely bizarre.

_______INSERT_______

"SAMIZDATA: Evidence of Conspiracy" is on view from September 11 – October 31, 2015 at NOME, Berlin. 

Xaver von Cranach is a writer and online-assistent at Spike. He lives in Berlin.

Timo Feldhaus is a writer and an editor at Spike. He lives in Berlin.