What if we were all watchdogs for democracy? Artist duo Ubermorgen meet Edward Snowden in the Vienna airport to discuss the future of civil disobedience
The recent disclosures made by whistle-blower Edward J. Snowden characterize some of the most deleterious threats to democracy in the modern age. Back room alliances between government agencies and internet service providers have ruptured the public’s confidence in our national security apparatus and the civic institutions it is meant to protect.
As part of a larger planned exhibition, entitled userfriendly, artist duo Ubermorgen snagged a face-to-face interview with Edward Snowden in the Vienna international airport on his failed trip to Venezuela. Ubermorgen, whose artwork seeks to destabilize our understanding of the influence of technology, corporations and governments on our everyday lives, was a perfect candidate for the exchange. The interview not only contextualizes their work, it also reveals a deeper understanding of Snowden’s internal dialogue before and after the leak.
Their conversation opens with a fleeting comparison between Snowden and Revenge of the Nerds. By default, nerds are often stereotyped as the persona of the greater hacker community, many of whom shy away or even veil their true identities from the limelight. Think ‘Anonymous,’ or even Bradley Manning’s recent decision to undergo a sex-change operation. Ubermorgen argues that Snowden’s act redefines the very persona and art of whistle-blowing and exposes the inherent and newfound importance of the system administrator (or sysadmin) as watchdog for democracy.
Snowden agrees. However, he explains his leaks weren’t motivated by a desire for categorization. Rather, it was a simple analytic calculation between values and consequences. He knew how much damage he could do. But out of a deep respect for his fellow Americans, he couldn’t accept a government that lies and snoops on its citizens in the absence of legal preconditions. He felt it puts everything at risk, even the stability of the government itself. It is within this paradox he weighed his risks - live with the nation’s consequences if he didn’t do anything, or live with the personal consequences if he did something. Since both were unknowns, he chose the leap of faith.
Ubermorgen admired his courage and ability to handle the ensuing backlash from a place of professionalism rather than insecurity. He immediately brushes off the praise and says he simply did what he could within an inflexible system. He goes on to state, “I envy you artists in a way. Your job is more clearly defined and it includes options that people like me don’t have, because your duty is to publish without restrictions, to inform, to uncover and you have to be subversive, whether you like it or not.” In effect, he acknowledged the role of art in subverting the dominant networks of power that structure our world.
In the face of current whistle-blower-protection laws, which do not apply to people working in the public interest, Snowden is forbidden a public interest defense or a fair trial. Even if Snowden’s acts don’t affect changes at the NSA and in the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) courts, perhaps he will succeed in radically redesigning the legal structures surrounding whistleblower protection.
As he awaits his fate, Snowden can already claim victory. He has defined a new form of civil disobedience in the post-digital age and identified a powerful alliance between artists and sysadmins for safeguarding the public interest. By revealing alarming abuses of power, they can return to the American people their fundamental democratic right- the ability to meaningfully evaluate and determine the shape of their own government.
Ubermorgen’s exhibition, userunfriendly, was shown last fall at the Carroll Fletcher Gallery in London. Included in the exhibit was Do You Think That's Funny (2013), an installation built around encrypted data allegedly given to the pair by Edward Snowden during their interview. The Snowden interview was published in an accompanying exhibition catalog, which can be purchased in the online gallery shop or downloaded here.
Photo Credit: Carroll Fletcher Gallery: Wired Magazine