Interview with Julian Oliver

Oliver gave a workshop called, "Working the Transparency Grendade" on Sunday, 20 March.

Julian Oliver is a Critical Engineer and artist from New Zealand, based in Berlin. His project Newstweek, created in collaboration with Danja Vasiliev in 2011, is on display in the White Room.

As part of the Nervous Systems exhibition programme, Julian Oliver gave a full-day workshop titled The Transparency Grenade. We talked to him afterwards.

Could you tell us about the workshop you just gave? Well, it was grouped around a project that I made back in 2012, called "The Transparency Grenade," a relatively complex work of its own.

In its own objecthood, it was quite difficult for people to understand. One of the purposes of this workshop was to use the Transparency Grenade as a basis or substrate for exploring some of the techno-political themes, and also technical constraints, of that actual object, and unpack it to a room in a way that people could then work with the tools and technologies the project employs.

Could you tell us what the Grenade does? The newest edition of the Grenade, when the pin is pulled, captures all of the traffic available to it in the 2.4 to 2.5 gigahertz block, and also the 5 gigahertz part of the spectrum, WiFi, in a mode called, "Monitor Mode" - which is a very open "ear", if you like, of wireless traffic in the vicinity of the grenade.

And it then takes that data, tunnels it over an encrypted channel all the way to my server, where a script extracts data from the payload, and then presents it on a map relative to the location that the data detonation occurs.

The project was made in a time where there was a lot of frustration about the lack of government and corporate transparency. And so the project serves two purposes - both to explore that a leak might be as simple as pulling a pin – sure, a relatively violent image of a grenade - but simultaneously to show just how much of our traffic, how much of our data, how much about ourselves that could be used to compromise us, is unintentionally emitted from the very devices that we carry with us and surround ourselves with.

So in this, what did people learn? We focused on understanding, initially - if only diagrammatically - how wireless networking actually works, where it comes from and why it is the way it is today.

There are two dimensions to wireless networking - there is the radio part that associates an access point antennae with, say, the device that you have in your pocket, to the networking layer above it that is used to convey data.

And when we start to see a router, for instance, as an object that used to be distributed across many other objects - it used to be much more diagrammatic in its own expression (it used to be a modem, it used to be a network switch, a router and a dialing PC) - but now it's all combined in this relatively forgettable object that slips under the magazines on the desk. And in that kind of ever-decreasing scale, there's an opacity that lowers our techno-political understanding as to how these things work.

Once we could answer "what is a wireless router?", we then learned how to capture and extract the JPEGs, PNGs, GIFs, HTML fragments and emails that are in fact in the air around us much of the time, data destined for other devices our hardware is not tuned to see.

We also looked into 'fingerprinting' and tracking in the physical world – how to fingerprint a device like a phone, and attach that to a person, and then mine that device in relation to that person, and to be able to extract other fingerprinting information, like the language that they use, the browser that they're using, the version of operating system.

We ended the workshop by looking at images in real-time in the air around us, so we could actually view, if you like, as though one would watch a television, a live extraction of images as people are browsing on their devices.

In the exhibition there's another piece that consists of two elements, called "Newstweek" - what is this work about? This piece, "Newstweek," by Danja Vasiliev and myself in 2011, explored another aspect of the vulnerability as a result of our implicit trust placed in technology we don't understand, and that also of wireless networking. It doubles as an on-the-ground propaganda platform for manipulating news back to fact, news that we otherwise know to be patently false.

It comes in the form of a small, innocuous plug: you stick it in the wall, and it attacks the local wireless network and its context, and allows the owner of that plug to travel to Kuala Lumpur, Toronto, Auckland, New Zealand, and from the comfort of their home or hotel or whatever, manipulate the news read on that wireless network. All of the traffic is routed through the plug completely invisibly to the users of that network.

And this exploits a very basic vulnerability in wireless networking that we leverage as a political tool, for making what is otherwise a top-down distribution of news content, malleable again, and also playful.

A lot of the time you see people just simply changing the news here on the laptop in the exhibition with comments that they otherwise couldn't make within the formal constraints of the BBC, the CNN, The Guardian - they can manipulate those headlines to make a personal comment to share with friends here in the exhibition.

Some take screenshots about politicians and news events, and things like this that are meaningful to them, that upset them, that they feel they need to engage with. So in that way, there's kind of a cultural commentary built into the very active usage of Newstweek.

How would you bridge these two works in the context of your critical engineering manifesto? Both works seek to create a kind of a critical break within the user in the engagement of the given piece, such that... I like to see for instance, Transparency Grenade, which I've seen in a great many exhibitions now, produce a healthy mix of paranoia and excitement.

The paranoia part, I think, is a positive outcome that leads to a transformative re-evaluation of the relationship with the technology itself, the implicit trust placed in technology that's not understood.

This technology that doesn't come with a user guide that says, "Your phone will be talking about you behind your back; that someone can learn a lot about you just by sitting in the same room as you, as a result of what your phone is inadvertently expressing."

And from a critical engineering perspective, that's really about opening up the possibility for people to have a diagrammatic and techno-political conversation about technology that they can then use to self-educate, without needing to become an qualified engineer themselves.

Secondarily, with Newstweek, it would be about shifting a relationship with technology from being a read-only experience with network-conveyed digital content to a writeable one, a surface. So this read-write ability sort of balances the technological power game that we're so often inadvertently cast into when we are positioned solely as consumers, when we're just fed digital content or technology - we buy it off the shelf, less and less are we allowed to write to it, to alter, modify, manipulate.

You are present and your work is featured at almost all of the exhibitions that are about data, technology, software code and of course privacy; how would you explain this exhibition in particular to a potential visitor? Well, you know I'm a fan of the show anyway. And I'm not normally quite so generous. But I would say that there has been a lack of courage in the curatorial agenda of far too many exhibitions that supposedly deal with this topic - in fact most just dance around it.

It's important for the work that I make, and that my colleagues in the studio make, that it finds itself in good company; but that it is not placed in such a way as to be politically neutralized, too negotiable.

In fact, much of the work we make is very pointed, and we need it to be in a context such that that sharpness is conveyed. And media art too often ends up within the world of the spectacle, that we see going right back to the magic lantern - I mean we see the media artist as a trickster, or as a showman or -woman.

It's important for us that tech-art pushes harder; that it matures beyond a fascination with itself, 'innovation' rhetoric and technics, and grows into a critically discursive, volatile and rigorous domain for exploring the very real compressed techno-political and cultural challenges of our time. And so a show like this is exactly the kind of place that we want to see our work in.

About the artist https://julianoliver.com/ Newstweek http://newstweek.com The Critical Engineering Manifesto https://criticalengineering.org/