Cirio was able to acquire unauthorized snapshots of high-ranking US intelligence officials, then disseminate them as high-resolution graffiti stencils in major cities around the world.
FBI Director James Comey in NYC. Image: Bresadola+Freese/drama-berlin.de
Not to be too hyperbolic, but Italian conceptual artist Paolo Cirio is the internet user's artist. Others, like Clement Valla, Addie Wagenknecht, and Adam Harvey, also use the internet as a staring point in their work. But Cirio, on some fundamental level, seems pathologically obsessed with information and communication systems, and the issues that grow out of them.
Like a hacker, Cirio has stolen information, and done so a number of times. When he filched 60,000 pay-per-view articles for Daily Paywall, the Pearson publishing company shut the site down. After scooping up public data from one million Facebook profiles and republishing them on a dating sites for Face to Facebook, Cirio heard from the Silicon Valley giant's lawyers. And when Cirio revealed 200,000 Cayman Islands company tax shelters for Loophole for All, he was greeted with legal threats from several international firms, including BNY Mellon, Daelim Korea, and Chinese hedge funds and accounting firms.
This, as Cirio told Motherboard, has much to do with his background as a political activist, which he pursued while working in advertising and marketing.
For his latest project, Overexposed, which debuted May 22 at NOME gallery in Berlin, Cirio has again played the part of the information thief. By sifting through Facebook, Twitter, and Google, using creative hacks and some social engineering, Cirio was able to acquire unauthorized snapshots of high-ranking US intelligence officials, then disseminate them as high-resolution graffiti stencils in major cities around the world.
These art hacks are part of what Cirio calls a "public intervention." To do so, Cirio relied on a theme consistent to his work: bringing the internet to the street, such as with his past Street Ghosts project, in which he wheatpasted printed images of people from Google Street View at the IRL location they were photographed.
"With Overexposed and Street Ghosts, the interventions take the form of street art; however, for their conceptual qualities and political messages, they became provocations played beyond the genre and the aesthetic qualities the artworks have," Cirio told Motherboard. "I call them interventions because they are meant to trigger a reactions from the public, media and the specific targets I want to tackle with the artworks and performances I create."
With Overexposed, Cirio said that viewers might be tempted to see an influence in the leaked photo scandals of Hollywood stars. However, Cirio is quick to emphasize that he explored such possibilities before these leaks in both Face to Facebook and Street Ghosts . The latter, in particular, laid the groundwork for Overexposed.
For Overexposed, Cirio had to get a bit more creative with his unauthorized use of images. He primarily used Facebook plugins for Chrome browser, like Facebook hidden pics, Facebook Stalker, Photo Hack for Facebook, and so on. Cirio also used Facebook Graph Search.
"[With Graph Search] you can make queries like 'Photos of' + 'In the city' + 'at the College' and many others more specific," Cirio said. "Facebook recently limited Graph Search functionalities, but in 2014 it was very powerful."
Specific queries on Twitter or Google also came into play. But Cirio emphasized that these are "simple hacks"—anyone can do them. "That's the exactly point I'd make—everyone is a hacker today," he said. "And everyone is able to do espionage of a different nature with tools available to everyone."
Other images were acquired through some social engineering. Cirio would create a fake Facebook account using a picture of a "pretty model," then friend request colleagues of the targeted officials, or those who had met them. If necessary, he would also ask these users questions in order to gain access to their profile photos.
Cirio typically looked for images with funny expressions. For instance, he found a photo, taken by a Texas sheriff, of FBI Director James Comey looking rather melancholic in a backstage room. He also found a selfie taken by a woman that includes former NSA Director Keith Alexander, which Cirio found quite flirtatious.
"They became embarrassing when they appear on the [street] walls," Cirio said. "Imagine if a selfie with you and your mom taken by her appeared on the walls of your city, it might not be an embarrassing pictures per se; however, once that is overexposed it might become uncomfortable. The notion of intimacy is twisted by the context that we culturally and personally perceived as socially accepted."
To craft the street art stencils, Cirio adapted a script in the Processing language that was meant to pixelate videos, which now converts any image to files printable with laser cutters. The files generate grids made of geometric shapes—triangles for Overexposed—that never touch each other, which is as stencils need to be.
"By splitting the color channels of the original picture I create four stencils and then I spray in order with cyan, magenta, yellow and black paint," Cirio explained. "When you look at the final result from far away, it's basically the exact reproduction of the original photo made with paint, but if you look closer it's almost an hallucinatory optical artwork."
The technique is new, Cirio said, developed over the last few years. While he's happy with the process, he believes it can be refined and expanded for use by future street artists. The code is already open-source, and features instructions, so he hopes that other artists take up the technique and enhance it.
"It's really about intense use of spray cans as you have to cover all the surface of the stencil, and repeat it four times for each color," he said. "However, the bigger the surface the easier it is to spray. I'll soon make big murals on the walls of buildings."
As of now, the authors of the original photos are likely unaware of what he's done with the images. But Cirio admits that when he was 22 years old, he landed on intelligence agency radars after organizing a DDoS attack against the NATO website, which triggered an investigation by defense officials. He also said that his phone was hacked after concluding research for Overexposed.
Yet Cirio insists he is not paranoid, and seems none too concerned with how intelligence agencies will react to the exhibition. Then again, maybe the "simple hacks" and social engineering aren't worthy of the government spooks' time. Either way, Cirio will likely keep playing the information thief.
"Beyond the public art interventions made for a wider public, I'm interested in formalizing the pieces as pop art and appropriation art, bringing them in the realm of the art world, which for me is a distribution system and a medium that I use to overexpose these figures even more," Cirio said. "Eventually they became historical portraits of war criminals that mark our wild time of the beginning of the era of cyber wars."