Interview with Wolfgang Kalek

Wolfgang Kalek is a German lawyer and the General Secretary of the Berlin-based ECCHR, the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights. He was invited to host a tour of Nervous Systems on Sunday, 24 April, and we interviewed him afterwards.

What kinds of overlaps do you see between the work of ECCHR and Nervous Systems? ECCHR is involved in a number of issues and some of these I see included in the exhibition. One of these is our litigation against the German government with regard to their role in the American-led drone war. The other, in the White Room, is about private companies and their sale of surveillance technologies to authoritarian regimes. This includes an exhibit researched by Privacy International UK with whom we filed a case in Germany and the UK on behalf of Bahraini opposition groups who are surveilled with the help of German-British technology. This surveillance puts them in danger of being arrested and thrown into prison for their democratic opposition. So it is a very interesting field for us.

What other pieces in the exhibition did you find interesting? This exhibition has an aspect that is not explicitly spelled out: the shrinking spaces for social movements. If this kind of data mining or surveillance is applied by authoritarian regimes, it makes it easier for them to know about movements of oppositional groups, and to use this information to manage them. We are not only, however, talking about the aggregation of data by authoritarian regimes, but also by those governments or states that would define themselves as democratic. So not only about Bahrain or Russia, but also about Turkey, India, Colombia, where the shrinking spaces for civil society are a very important category if you look at current technological developments. These technologies are not just being applied against individuals, but against social groups and resistance groups.

Is there anything in the exhibition that surprised you? What I found most surprising, perhaps more so in the catalogue than in the works, is the historical dimension. The reference to the social question is a very strong reference to Friedrich Engels' work on the working class in England in the 19th century. So this allows you not to fall into the trap or to make the error to assume that you need more data about a society in order to know it and to control it or to make it better. It is about a system, and to analyse that system and understand that the system is still in place. The other aspect is that in some of the exhibits, such as the two IBM pieces, you see a connection back to the early 20th century. Most people seem to think that these things have all come from the NSA. It is important for a younger generation, the digital natives, to understand this historical dimension of the quantification of human life and of surveillance.

If you wanted to tell someone who was not here about the show and recommend one or two pieces that really stood out for you, what would they be? I like the Dirk Schmidt piece on IBM because it deals with the historical formation of surveillance that took place in Germany, and the hugest repression - the holocaust - here. It is important to show that not only the US – as the technologically most developed country – but also other historical formations did this. I also liked the Pattern of Life by Julien Priveux because it gives you a visual feeling and representation of how human life and movement is captured through data.