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Aram Bartholl: Dead Drops

If you ever see a USB drive cemented into a building, chances are you're looking at the Berlin-based artist’s latest project, playing with the relationship between the online and offline worlds

With a background in architecture and an avid interest in street art, web development and DIY culture, Berlin-based artist Aram Bartholl explores the relationship between the online and offline worlds, continually questioning the impact on our lives of the digital age. Since 1995, Bartholl has exhibited extensively in festivals and exhibitions worldwide, including Space Invaders at FACT Liverpool (2009/10), Transmediale (2007, 2008 and 2010) and Ars Electronica (2006, 2007 and 2010). Currently in residence at New York’s Eyebeam Art and Technology Center, his most recent excursion into public space is the Dead Drop project, a set of USB drives cemented into the physical fabric of the city.

Dazed Digital: So your residency started in September. What have you been working on?
Aram Bartholl:
My ongoing Speed Show series, and the Dead Drops. For a Speed Show, I organise a one-night group show in an internet cafe, showing web art on all the posts. Both projects transpose the idea of digital connectivity into a reduced, analogue space. The Dead Drops make the audience physically connect to the city – I like this image of data literally being inserted into walls, and of people bending over to connect their 3,000 € laptop to the curb to maybe find some files. It inverts the idea of the portable memory stick. The city itself becomes an immobile USB drive that you have to go to it to plug in.

DD: What has been interesting about people’s response to the project for you?
Aram Bartholl:
In the US there is this culture of seeing sexual undertones in all kinds of things, and people have been quick to point them out here too. There are viruses out there, on the web, that attack all kinds of machines. We know this, but we feel safe sitting at home with our computers and warm mugs of coffee. Moving this activity to the street makes the danger more obvious. If you want to plug into one of the Dead Drops, you need to protect your machine.

DD: How did you choose locations for the first Drops?
Aram Bartholl:
It was a mixture of places which were important to me and landmarks: the New Museum and Eyebeam, both in art areas of the city; Makerbot Industries in Brooklyn – a prominent New York hacker spot; Union Square subway station for sheer volume of traffic and convenience; and the Manhattan bridge because I wanted to connect these tiny data spots to the iconic skyline.

DD: Those locations allow you to connect to or highlight other layers of networks in the city.
Aram Bartholl:
Yeah, the art network, the hacker network, the urban transport network. This has also tapped into the basic underlying fear in the US, which 9/11 only served to heighten, that something could happen – some people react instantly saying, “This is so dangerous”…

DD: I thought that was kind of an odd fear to have in this context because these are dead ends, so much less efficient and more limited a network than the internet is.
Aram Bartholl:
That idea is present in the title – a dead drop is the classic term for spots used by spies in spy movies. It is true that the cloud and new data centres will take more and more control of what we have on our hard drives. iPads don’t have USB connections anymore, and we are increasingly going in this direction.

DD: How do you see the project evolving?
Aram Bartholl:
I want to build a platform for people to take part. I get a lot of emails from people who want to put out their own Dead Drops in the world, and that’s exactly the idea. That kind of crowd-sourcing extension is part of my work.

For more information on the Dead Drops project, go to Check or Bartholl’s website,, for upcoming events and projects.