A year ago, we were invited by the Swiss Embassy in Berlin to present our art projects. We are used to invitations, but this invitation really thrilled us. The Swiss Embassy in Berlin is special. It is the only old building in the government district that was not destroyed during the Second World War, and it sits right next to the Federal Chancellery. No one is closer to Chancellor Merkel than the Swiss diplomats.
The government district in Berlin also contains the Reichstag — Germany’s parliament — and the Brandenburg Gate, and right next to the gate there are other embassies, in particular the US and the British Embassy.
Although Germany is an advanced democracy, citizens are limited in their constitutional rights in its government district. The right of assembly and the right to demonstrate are restricted there. And this is interesting from an artistic point of view. The opportunities to exercise participation and to express oneself are always bound to a certain order and always subject to a specific regulation. With an awareness of the dependencies of these regulations, we can gain a new perspective. The given terms and conditions shape our perception, our actions and our lives.
And this is crucial in another context. Over the last couple of years, we learned that from the roofs of the US and the British Embassy, the secret services have been listening to the entire district, including the mobile phone of Angela Merkel. The antennas of the British GCHQ are hidden in a white cylindrical radome, while the listening post of the American NSA is covered by radio transparent screens.
But how to address these hidden and disguised forces? With my colleague, Christoph Wachter, we accepted the invitation of the Swiss Embassy. And we used this opportunity to exploit the specific situation.
If people are spying on us, it stands to reason that they have to listen to what we are saying.
On the roof of the Swiss Embassy, we installed a series of antennas. They weren’t as sophisticated as those used by the Americans and the British.
They were makeshift can antennas, not camouflaged but totally obvious and visible. The Academy of Arts joined the project, and so we built another large antenna on their rooftop, exactly between the listening posts of the NSA and the GCHQ.
Never have we been observed in such detail while building an art installation. A helicopter circled over our heads with a camera registering each and every move we made, and on the roof of the US Embassy, security officers patrolled. Although the government district is governed by a strict police order, there are no specific laws relating to digital communication. Our installation was therefore perfectly legal, and the Swiss Ambassador informed Chancellor Merkel about it. We named the project “Can You Hear Me?”
The antennas created an open and free Wi-Fi communication network in which anyone who wanted to would be able to participate using any Wi-Fi-enabled device without any hindrance, and be able to send messages to those listening on the frequencies that were being intercepted. Text messages, voice chat, file sharing — anything could be sent anonymously. And people did communicate. Over 15,000 messages were sent. Here are some examples.
“Hello world, hello Berlin, hello NSA, hello GCHQ.”
“NSA Agents, Do the Right Thing! Blow the whistle!”
“This is the NSA. In God we trust. All others we track!!!!!”
“#@nonymous is watching #NSA #GCHQ – we are part of your organizations. #expectus. We will #shutdown”
“This is the NSA’s Achilles heel. Open Networks.”
“Agents, what twisted story of yourself will you tell your grandchildren?”
“@NSA My neighbors are noisy. Please send a drone strike.”
“Make Love, Not cyberwar.”
We invited the embassies and the government departments to participate in the open network, too, and to our surprise, they did. Files appeared on the network, including classified documents leaked from the parliamentary investigation commission, which highlights that the free exchange and discussion of vital information is starting to become difficult, even for members of a parliament. We also organized guided tours to experience and sound out the power constellations on-site. The tours visited the restricted zones around the embassies, and we discussed the potential and the highlights of communication.
If we become aware of the constellation, the terms and conditions of communication, it not only broadens our horizon, it allows us to look behind the regulations that limit our worldview, our specific social, political or aesthetic conventions.
Let’s look at an actual example. The fate of people living in the makeshift settlements on the outskirts of Paris is hidden and faded from view. It’s a vicious circle. It’s not poverty, not racism, not exclusion that are new. What is new is how these realities are hidden and how people are made invisible in an age of global and overwhelming communication and exchange. Such makeshift settlements are considered illegal, and therefore those living in them don’t have a chance of making their voices heard. On the contrary, every time they appear, every time they risk becoming visible, merely gives grounds for further persecution, expulsion and suppression. What interested us was how we could come to know this hidden side. We were searching for an interface and we found one. It’s not a digital interface, but a physical one: it’s a hotel.
We named the project “Hotel Gelem.” Together with Roma families, we created several Hotel Gelems in Europe, for example, in Freiburg in Germany, in Montreuil near Paris, and also in the Balkans. These are real hotels. People can stay there. But they aren’t a commercial enterprise. They are a symbol. You can go online and ask for a personal invitation to come and live for a few days in the Hotel Gelem, in their homes, eating, working and living with the Roma families. Here, the Roma families are not the travelers;the visitors are. Here, the Roma families are not a minority; the visitors are.
The point is not to make judgments, but rather to find out about the context that determines these disparate and seemingly insurmountable contradictions. In the world of globalization, the continents are drifting closer to each other. Cultures, goods and people are in permanent exchange, but at the same time, the gap between the world of the privileged and the world of the excluded is growing.
We were recently in Australia. For us, it was no problem to enter the country. We have European passports, visas and air tickets. But asylum seekers who arrive by boat in Australia are deported or taken to prison. The interception of the boats and the disappearance of the people into the detention system are veiled by the Australian authorities. These procedures are declared to be secret military operations. After dramatic escapes from crisis zones and war zones, men, women and children are detained by Australia without trial, sometimes for years.
During our stay, however, we managed to reach out and work with asylum seekers who were imprisoned, despite strict screening and isolation. From these contexts was born an installation in the art space of the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane.
On the face of it, it was a very simple installation. On the floor, a stylized compass gave the direction to each immigration detention center, accompanied by the distance and the name of the immigration facility. But the exhibition step came in the form of connectivity. Above every floor marking, there was a headset. Visitors were offered the opportunity to talk directly to a refugee who was or had been imprisoned in a specific detention facility and engage in a personal conversation. In the protected context of the art exhibition, asylum seekers felt free to talk about themselves, their story and their situation, without fear of consequences. Visitors immersed themselves in long conversations about families torn apart, about dramatic escapes from war zones, about suicide attempts, about the fate of children in detention. Emotions ran deep. Many wept. Several revisited the exhibition. It was a powerful experience.
Europe is now facing a stream of migrants. The situation for the asylum seekers is made worse by contradictory policies and the temptation of militarized responses. We have also established communication systems in remote refugee centers in Switzerland and Greece. They are all about providing basic information — medical costs, legal information, guidance. But they are significant.Information on the Internet that could ensure survival along dangerous routes is being censored, and the provision of such information is becoming increasingly criminalized.
This brings us back to our network and to the antennas on the roof of the Swiss Embassy in Berlin and the “Can You Hear Me?” project. We should not take it for granted to be boundlessly connected. We should start making our own connections, fighting for this idea of an equal and globally interconnected world. This is essential to overcome our speechlessness and the separation provoked by rival political forces. It is only in truly exposing ourselves to the transformative power of this experience that we can overcome prejudice and exclusion.
Bruno Giussani: Thank you, Mathias. The other half of your artistic duo is also here. Christoph Wachter, come onstage.
First, tell me just a detail: the name of the hotel is not a random name. Gelem means something specific in the Roma language.
Mathias Jud: Yes, “Gelem, Gelem” is the title of the Romani hymn, the official, and it means “I went a long way.”
BG: That’s just to add the detail to your talk. But you two traveled to the island of Lesbos very recently, you’re just back a couple of days ago, in Greece, where thousands of refugees are arriving and have been arriving over the last few months. What did you see there and what did you do there?
Christoph Wachter: Well, Lesbos is one of the Greek islands close to Turkey, and during our stay, many asylum seekers arrived by boat on overcrowded dinghies, and after landing, they were left completely on their own. They are denied many services. For example, they are not allowed to buy a bus ticket or to rent a hotel room, so many families literally sleep in the streets. And we installed networks there to allow basic communication, because I think, I believe, it’s not only that we have to speak about the refugees, I think we need to start talking to them. And by doing so, we can realize that it is about human beings,about their lives and their struggle to survive.