A tale of two wor(l)ds: anonymity and hyperconnectivity

Enter the museum.
Look around.
How many people there do you know?
Look around again.
How many of these people are part of your social graph?
Do you have your smartphone with you?
Do you have Google Maps, Tinder or Facebook geolocation services turned on?
Look around once again.
Do they know that you’re there?

One of the biggest challenges in the era of hyperconnectivity is that of anonymity. There was a time when anonymity was traditionally accepted as something natural: when you went to vote, when you browsed the Internet, even when you went to protest in the street. But those times seem to not exist anymore. Data trading has become one of the main businesses around the globe; and the depoliticization of human rights related with IMSI (International Mobile Subscriber Identity) catchers, intrusion software, Internet monitoring solutions, etc., make “anonymity” and “privacy” seem like words belonging to and old lexicon. Often, we don’t even notice that every time we open our Internet browsers we become “captives of the Cloud”, as Metahaven poses it.

This tale of two words—at the same time, a tale of two worlds—is commonly expressed in the incontestable language of binaries, of this against that. But can anonymity be reconciled with hyperconnectivity Interspersed between the public and the private, there exists a whole world of complex dynamics, a form of lawlessness that empowers and weakens the user at the same time, where the surveillant and the surveilled become intertwined. Accordingly the Internet seems to be a stateless state—or a series of infinite and fluid stateless states—where possibilities are endless and the gaps in current legislations create spaces where the legal and the legitimate are confronted; by some means recalling Giorgio Agamben when he states “that the state of exception appears as the legal form of what cannot have legal form.”

Trevor Paglen and Jacob Appelbaum, Autonomy Cube, 2015. Photo: Trevor Paglen.

Already in 2002 the alpha version of a free software which enabled anonymous communications —Tor— was launched, intending to conceal the user’s location and usage from anyone conducting network surveillance, and thus enabling its users to surf the Internet, chat and send instant messages anonymously. The flagship project of Tor is the Tor browser, which upon termination of a session deletes privacy-sensitive data and the browsing history. The Tor browser is at the heart of a unique experiment called the Autonomy Cube, which intends to reconcile these two opposite wor(l)ds by the use of a minimalist block—almost translucent, nearly ethereal—that houses a custom-made Wi-Fi router. Tor encrypts the data, and the Anonymous Cube makes a strong, visible statement out of it, where the translucent and the ethereal become something tangible, somehow creating a space of exception wherever it is exhibited.

‘Scenographies of Power: From the state of exception to the space of exception.’ Photo©​​ Maria E. Serrano

‘Scenographies of Power: From the state of exception to the space of exception.’ Photo©​​ Maria E. Serrano

The Autonomy Cube has been described as a project “to be exhibited and used”, but we can add that it is a project “to be exhibited, used, appropriated and expanded”. If any cultural institution, be it a private gallery or a public museum, installs the piece, then the Autonomy Cube—and also Tor—become part of the institution. The political gesture is served.

Imagine that you are visiting a gallery or a museum and you connect your phone to that router. Immediately it redirects its data over the Tor network, but it also simultaneously serves as a Tor relay—suddenly your device is one of the thousands of volunteer computers that bounce the traffic of Tor users, increasing the software’s anonymizing properties. Unexpectedly, you become part of the exhibited piece, the unseen becomes visible and anonymity and hyperconnectivity start working together.

Two wor(l)ds forming one single universe.


This text was written for the publication Scenographies of power: from the state of exception to the spaces of exception, catalogue of the exhibition with the same name curated by Maite Borjabad López-Pastor for Inéditos 2017, at La Casa Encendida.
With artworks by: !Mediengruppe Bitnik, Gulnara Kasmalieva and Muratbek Djumaliev, Trevor Paglen, Susan Schuppli, Taryn Simon, Arkadi Zaides.

The Autonomy Cube is a project by Trevor Paglen and Jacob Appelbaum, 2014.


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