Ahead of Sunday's elections in Venezuela, an app "reveals" hidden messages in campaign ads to highlight political propaganda.
Image: Dismantling the Simulation
When Venezuelans go to the polls this Sunday to elect all 167 members of the National Assembly, they will be deciding whether to continue the 17-year legislative majority of President Nicolas Maduro's socialist party. Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela, or PSUV (United Socialist Party of Venezuela), created by the late president Hugo Chavez in 2006 to absorb various similarly-minded parties under one umbrella, has been accused of intimidating its opponents and exploiting government propaganda. President Maduro has declared the government will do "whatever it takes" to win this election.
Enter augmented reality. Hack De Patria (HDP), a project developed by a Venezuelan experimental activist group and Berlin-based media artists Refrakt, attempts to reveal the "truth" in the campaign ads for Maduro's Chavismo government and its allies. Point the phone's camera at a particular campaign logo, and the app reveals more sinister meanings: one logo suddenly reads "Obey" and another "Fraud."
When HDP is pointed at any of the logos featuring Chavez's eyes, the word "Obedéceme," appears on the screen.
The idea is to provoke citizens to think more about the political imagery that surrounds them, said Gina Monc, a founder of Dismantling the Simulation, the group behind the app. "We are trying to bring attention to something that is probably more obvious to you—or anyone not being affected by the government hegemonic model—something that's even been taken for granted," she said. "And it is the fact that there are more ways to see things—that you are being indoctrinated, and resistance is not only possible, it is your right."
During this election cycle, PSUV has been accused of intimidating opponents, including through violence. Opposition politician Luis Diaz was killed in a drive-by shooting at a November 5th election rally. Meanwhile, the National Election Board—which PSUV essentially controls—have allowed one opposition group, MIN Unity, to remain on the ballot even though its party logo and slogan are nearly identical to the opposition coalition, Democratic Unity (also known as MUD Unity). Critics have also accused Venezuelan president Maduro and PSUV of trying to confuse voters at the ballot box: MIN Unity's candidate, a 28-year old parking attendant with no political experience, shares the same name as Democratic Unity's candidate, Ismael Garcia.
Election-monitoring organizations like the Organization of American States and the Carter Center have been barred from observing Sunday's vote, and the OAS has expressed concerns that the playing field between the opposition and the government has been unequal during the campaign. Still, if the elections proceed without interference, there are strong indications that mounting frustration with the Maduro government could lead to victory for the opposition parties.
The app's first intervention centers on the image of Hugo Chavez's eyes, a symbol used by the Maduro government after his death in 2013. The image can be found across the country on giant billboards, the facade of public building facades, graffiti murals, t-shirts, hats, jewelry and even school books. When a mobile device equipped with HDP is pointed at any surface with the logo featuring Chavez's eyes, the word "Obedéceme," or "Obey," appears on the screen.
The second augmented reality intervention uses the controversial MIN Unity party logo. The party's slogan is, "We are the opposition." But, again, the party is suspected of being Chavistas (its most recognizable candidate is William Ojeda, a Socialist Party legislator). When a device running HDP is pointed at the MIN Unity logo, the word "Unidad" is changed to "Fraude," or "fraud."
"The pieces work in many different ways, from interaction in space and morphing images, to editing the original image itself," Dismantling the Simulation's Helena Acosta told Motherboard.
Hack de Patria—named after the paternalistic approach of Chavez propaganda—was built on top of the augmented reality app Refrakt, created by the artists Carla Streckwall and Alexander Govoni. The idea grew out of a chance meeting between Acosta, Streckwall and Govoni at the B3 Biennale of Moving Image held in Frankfurt. Acosta was giving a talk on art and activism, which led the three artists to talk about "hacking" political propaganda in Venezuela along with Dismantling the Simulation's other founding members Monc, Violette Bule, and Miyö Van Stenis. (Refrakt debuted in a "guerilla exhibition" titled "Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear," currently on display at Berlin's Gemäldegalerie.)
Acosta cited groups Voina and Pussy Riot, the Facebook group We Are All Khalid Said, and Paul Virilio as influences on projects like HDP. They are also interested in embracing the internet itself for their visual art activism. Dismantling the Simulation came into being as a Facebook group days after an array of human rights violations occurred at the student protests against Maduro in February of 2014. Acosta, Bule, Monc and Van Stenis "appropriated" the social media platform and attempted to deconstruct the overwhelming reality in the country by "assuming a critical posture towards institutionalized media content," modeling its non-hierarchical structure after the rhizome.
Not surprisingly, in creating HDP the groups were also influenced by the subliminal message-destroying glasses worn in John Carpenter's 1988 science-fiction satire They Live. The glasses allowed John Nada, the main character, to see the truth behind seemingly innocuous advertising, revealing an alien conspiracy to control the masses through capitalism.
"John Nada and his adventures discovering the messages behind commercial propaganda on the streets were definitely an inspiration in finding a way to communicate the message in a simple but strong way," Acosta said. "At some point, after more than a decade of living in this politically policed environment in Venezuela, you end up wishing there was such a device that could 'clean' the totality of our political reality."
"Unfortunately, we can't," she added, "but we hope that more people gain awareness of our predicament."
On television, opposition candidates for the National Assembly are rarely mentioned—unless they are being denounced—while the regime's candidates are widely lauded, according to a recent study by Javier Corrales and Franz Von Bergen. The few media companies that are still independent are severely constricted in terms of what they can broadcast or publish.
One revealing indicator, writes Moses Naim at The Atlantic, "is the fact that there has been no mention on national television of the arrest in Haiti of two of the first lady's nephews, who are accused of trafficking 800 kilos of cocaine and are currently being processed in a Manhattan court. (High-ranking Venezuelan officials have increasingly been seeking asylum in the United States and making serious allegations about the criminal behavior of their former bosses and colleagues in government.)"
Acosta said that even after the election the group intends to keep distributing the app via their social networks. "This is something that is still legal since the National Electoral Council (CNE) doesn't regulate the internet—yet," Monc said. "The Chavez's portion of the the app has a more atemporal character, since we know that the government will keep pushing its agenda even after the elections. In fact, Maduro has promised to radicalize the revolution 'by any means' independently of losing or winning the elections."
As HDP proves, the use of augmented reality for political and electoral ends is still in its infancy, but has some interesting potential to convey messages and influence voters. Apart from HDP, augmented reality has been used in Lee Leffingwell's campaign for mayor of Austin and in Pilnu Bildi, or "The Whole Picture," an app developed by Latvian magazine ir and startup Overly, which allows anyone to hack political ads with more information on politicians. The iOS app, ir said, reached the third spot on Latvian App Store charts.
The simplicity of HDP, Acosta hoped, will eventually extend far outside the borders of Venezuela, to allow artists to respond to political advertising globally. For this to happen, activists and political operators will have to make the augmented reality experience easy to use, even for non-tech savvy folks—and not dorky. Let the political augmented reality games begin.