We found Edward Snowden

Net art duo UBERMORGEN discovered the whistleblower at Vienna International Airport

Arts+Culture First Look
Edward-Snowden-pose

On July 2nd, net art pioneers lizvlx and Hans Bernhard, otherwise known as UBERMORGEN, received a call from a close friend who worked at the Vienna International Airport. According to their source, Bolivia's presidential aeroplane had landed in Schwechat – and that Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower, was on board as a guest of Bolivian president Evo Morales. 

Sensing an unprecedented opportunity for access, the pair grabbed their stuff and cabbed to the former main terminal, where their friend led them through airport security into a small, stuffy, neon-lit office. There, the Austrian authorities had deposited Edward Snowden "like a questionable parcel that nobody wanted to touch", as the artists describe. (The Austrian government still denies that Snowden was ever in the country.)

The ensuing conversation between UBERMORGEN and Edward Snowden has been turned into an essay for u s e r u n f r i e n d l y, the artists' new solo exhibition at Carroll/Fletcher, and forms the basis for their new work Do You Think That's Funny? - The Edward Snowden Files (2013). Here, Dazed runs an exclusive excerpt from the essay. The full version will be published on www.ubermorgen.com this Thursday. Snowden talks to UBERMORGEN about how system admins are the new gods, "that Rumsfeld freak", and the upcoming nerd revolution...

UBERMORGEN:

It is great for us to meet you, even if the circumstances are rather weird. How do you feel being parked in a shitty room here, coming straight from the lap of luxury and security in the presidential plane? 

Edward Snowden:

I am not really scared but I don’t feel OK. Nobody talked to me, you are actually the first people to direct a full sentence towards me since we touched down. I had a really interesting and revealing conversation with President Morales on the way here, he is a brilliant entertainer, a very intelligent man and he helped me contextualize certain political aspects of the ongoing situation so that has been very helpful. But I am angry about having to land here in Vienna. I hope we will soon be in the air again on our way to Latin America.

4798268-3x2-940x627
President Evo Morales speaks to journalists in Vienna, where the presidential plane was grounded Helmut Fohringer/Agence France-Presse – Getty Images

UBERMORGEN:

We hope so too! It would be only logical for us to press you for as much info as possible, but since we are no journalists and are more interested in other layers of reality we will leave this to others... We are interested in a conversation rather than an interview, we would love to talk to you about the bigger picture: global paranoia, surveillance happening on an industrial level... In exchange we promise to use it in an interesting way.

Edward Snowden:

(reply erased at the request of ES)

UBERMORGEN: 

You are obviously a nerd and The Revenge of the Nerds takes on an altogether new meaning with you. Usually nerds never out themselves individually [...] Anyway, the nerds in herds are very different from you, you have chosen the most extreme way of personal resistance and exposed yourself in a way that potentially endangers your life. We keep working with nerds on specific projects using coded networks, we did a lot of this in the 1990s, but since then we’ve become increasingly uncomfortable working with real geeks. Most nerds don’t understand the first thing about art and they don’t care and, conversely, we are not nerdy enough. 

The moment you know too much you cannot un-know it, so this leads you to this difficult situation where you have to decide: can I live with the consequences of not doing anything?

Edward Snowden:

We don’t HAVE to work together, you know. And I’m not sure that, coming from Europe as you do, you would understand the differences between nerds and geeks in American culture, but that isn’t important here. Sure, you can call me a nerd. I have never understood how artists tick or how the art system operates. I have never been remotely interested. My attention was targeted towards technology and the military, so my approach was always analytical. This, plus my patriotism, was it for me. Maybe my development is a bit of a paradox since I started off always doing what I was told. Actually, I even wanted people and later organisations to tell me what to do. It just felt normal, and that lasted for quite a long time. But the problem was that there came the time when I started seeing and reading things that I shouldn’t have seen, I definitely saw too much and that became a problem for me.

UBERMORGEN:

And for others now, right… What do you think are the psychological prerequisites that enable an individual to embrace their personal responsibility?

As that Rumsfeld freak reminded us: 'There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know that we don’t know'

Edward Snowden:

The moment you know too much you cannot un-know it, so this leads you to this difficult situation where you have to decide: can I live with the consequences of not doing anything, or can I live with the consequences of my actions if I do something? Since both are unknowns – and the buck doesn’t stop there, as that Rumsfeld freak reminded us: “There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know that we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know” – and your fate is like a chip in a poker game where anything could happen; it could be won or lost, dropped on the floor, stolen, eaten or destroyed. So in the end I had to open Schrödinger's box and go down one path. But if I think about it now, 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. 

UBERMORGEN:

Can you tell us what your experience with US officials and with the intelligence community in general has been like? We heard that there are more than 250,000 people with top security clearance within the Department of Homeland Security. We think you might just as well print out all the classified stuff and upload it on Pirate Bay. It’s funny that this is what you do; you distribute top secret documents to journalists and  the public. We think you are morally – or even legally – bound to do so if the documents contain proof of crimes against humanity...

rally-held-in-new-york-city-supporting-hero-nsa-wh
A rally held in New York supporting NSA whistleblowers

Edward Snowden:

I sometimes ask myself how many more potential whistleblowers this organisational cluster is home to.

UBERMORGEN:

That’s exactly what we wanna know. Our experience is that US officials and probably large parts of the intelligence community are rather stupid on an organisational level. The system administrators have risen to become the most powerful people in the world. They have access to deep layers within organisations and to secret information. A nerd revolution – an RL replay of Revenge of the Nerds, as it were – is just around the corner, that is for sure. 

Edward Snowden:

I agree, system administrators are the unrecognized geeky underworld ‘gods’ of all organisations, corporations and governments alike. If you look at the current status of the world a nerd revolution certainly has a lot going for it but there are also very powerful arguments against it. Look at the organisational structure, there is no union or other cohesion. Sure there are the Hacklabs and there is Anonymous, but both only account for a tiny percentage of the overall number of sysadmins active worldwide. And then a lot of them passively or actively support the current socio-political and economic systems. But in case they do get organized and create a sysadmin army, it would just require one embedded code-soldier per organisation and the world as we know it could swiftly and forcibly be taken off the grid. I mean, look at me. One person can do so much damage. But don’t get me wrong, it has never been my intention to harm people or organisations and contrary to what is being said, it’s never been my intention to harm my home country, not at all. I admire the people and for this reason I cannot accept a government that lies to the people and snoops on American citizens in the absence of the legal preconditions. This puts everything at risk, even the stability of the government itself.

snowden lifenews.ru
Snowden has most recently been photographed in Moscow Life News

UBERMORGEN:

Sometimes we wonder how Hollywood always succeeds in sussing out what the NSA is doing when politicians only seem to have a very limited knowledge of what’s going on. Or is this a naive view? Sure, highly opportunistic organisations might be able to suck profit from such a mess, but there is no such thing as a central command structure.

Edward Snowden:

Ahem… I have been doing quite a lot of thinking about these issues, and for me it all comes down to values and consequential decisions in the end. And this brought me here today…

We are suddenly made to feel uncomfortable by English speaking people entering the room. The group includes Austrian officials, uniformed Bundespolizei (Austrian Federal Police), the Bolivian ambassador, a Russian-speaking lady and what seems to be a team-leader of the Cobra taskforce. When we indicate that we would like to stay we are bluntly threatened with arrest. We try to take a couple of photos but our mobiles are immediately taken away (we received them six weeks later, minus the photos).

Edward Snowden:

I think I need to go. Good-bye! 

UBERMORGEN:

Thanks, Edward. Good luck!

More Arts+Culture