'Art for Spooks' Makes Paranoid Augmented Realities for NSA Spies

When people share their images on social media from the augmented reality “Art for Spooks” app and book, NSA spies will be able to see the metadata. Art for spooks indeed.

DJ Pangburn

DJ Pangburn

​Images courtesy Nicholas Knouf

We know the NSA ​scanning and collecting data about our electronic communications in bulk. So, what if we all embedded a little artistic "fuck you" into our metadata, not only as a form of protest but just for some kicks?

This is what artists Nicholas Knouf and Claudia Pedersen do with Art for Spooks, an augmented reality book and app built around text and imagery from the NSA's internal advice columnist, "Ask Zelda," as well as other images and documents from Edward Snowden's leaked NSA/GCHQ documents.

As Knouf told Motherboard, Art for Spooks—in both its hand-bound and e-book incarnations—allows users to explore how NSA employees see the world if "all that we have to go by are the released slides and text fragments." Using an iPad, users can examine the book's images, seeing "alternative cultural imaginaries" (how cultures see themselves) inspired by the NSA/GCHQ images.

It's a bit like flipping the tables on the NSA, an agency that seeks to know more about how many of the world's inhabitants communicate. The work is currently on view at Davis Museum at Wellesley College until December 21st.

When an image from the book is shared through social media, the metadata is "mangled" to add hidden information pulled from a variety of sources, including scholarly texts on surveillance (Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze, for example), coordinates of drones strikes, and recombined versions of NSA/GCHQ texts.

"The spread of these images is designed to add to the images and metadata collected by these surveillance agencies, thus providing "art for spooks,'" said Knouf. In other words, the goal is that by sharing the imagery on social channels, it will be hoovered up and analyzed by the very spy agencies it's meant to critique. Included in the images are the famous rabbit-duck illusion and Heironymous Bosch's "The Conjurer," each marked "Secret."

"When a gallery visitor takes the iPad and holds it over the image in the book, they see something else going on," said Knouf. "Perhaps a video that relates to the image (for example, an image showing protesters in Egypt is paired with a clip from Bassem Youssef's comedy show), or an animation (the rabbit-duck illusion is paired with a collage of work by Jeff Koons and Roy Lichtenstein)."

While the work has a clear target, Knouf and Pederson's motivations weren't exactly identical. For Pedersen, whose family were political exiles from fascist Portugal, the Art for Spooks work has a quite personal dimension. Vivid childhood memories of surveillance abound, as she was asked as a very young child to sit atop stairs and look out for spies while her grandfather listened to "forbidden radio broadcasts" in another room, or looked at printed newspapers and flyers on a mimeograph machine hidden in their basement.

"This is all to say that control is deeply damaging on a collective and personal level (my mother has what I would call post-traumatic stress)," she said. "I think the NSA revelations will have beyond the impact on individuals and communities (think of the surveillance of Muslim communities in the US), it will equally have grave consequences for the United States as an idea."

Knouf, on the other hand, moved along a path through engineering and applied science, to a stint in cognitive neuroscience, a master's in media arts and sciences, and a PhD in information science. This, combined with his sister's Rett syndrome—a rare neurological condition that amongst other things prevented her from speaking—pushed him to seek out other means of communication; namely, codes and other systems that break away from semiotic communication, which uses symbols, metaphor, and so on.

Knouf has explored these concepts with other projects, but it was a photograph found in the NSA leaks—an ad for buffalo meat at Whole Foods—that convinced him to undertake Art for Spooks. Other NSA images that appealed to Knouf and Pedersen were those that suggesting a need for "cyber magicians" or that made references to art history. The duo thus wanted to take people inside these black boxes, where they could witness just how the NSA and GCHQ perceive the world. Knouf said this concept was also a counterpoint to reporting on the NSA, which focuses on the nature of the surveillance programs.

"We believe that these agencies operate first on a rational model of collecting all information available in order to create a 'complete' picture of the world," Knouf said. "Secondly, they operate in a paranoiac fashion, working to create links between elements that are otherwise unrelated. Our projects builds upon this paranoiac mode, while extending it into the poetic... All of the augmentations are paired with the images in specific, precise ways based on Salvador Dali's paranoiac critical method."

In Dali's method, paranoia is a means of creating links between things that don't actually exist, used to create ambiguous artistic imagery—occasionally in the form of optical illusions—that provoked multiple interpretations. By its nature, augmented reality is an optical illusion because it's not actually there—and with the NSA, Knouf and Pederson had all the paranoia they needed.

"Artists like Ricardo Dominguez and EDT (Electronic Disturbance theater) call this 'non-functional' use of media (including the computer) 'poetic gestures,'" said Knouf. "Their understanding of code as poetry chalked on the sidewalks for the 'floodnet' project—in solidarity with the Zapatistas at the end of the 1990s—and more recently the incorporation of poetry in the [Transborder Immigrant Tool app] are at the background of Art for Spooks."

The two were also inspired by non-linear approaches to imagery and poetry, including Stéphane Mallarmé's typographic poems and the work of futurist-infused artistic groups like the Estredentistadas (radical Mexican avant-garde artists), Dadaists, and Surrealists. Knouf and Pedersen's task, however, was much different than their influences: they had to bring Snowden's digital documents and the practices of digital surveillance out of the "immaterial realm" and into the physical world.

"We wanted people to take their time with the text and images, to flip through it in a leisurely yet sustained fashion," Knouf said. "We wanted to ensure that there was a physical record of these images. We wanted the book to be able to stand on its own as a document of this moment in time."

"But just as importantly, we wanted to use a tablet to provide a 'lens' onto another way of engaging with the images," he added. "The augmentations provide a poetic-serious-comical-ironic take on the Snowden releases. The sharing feature allows screenshots to be uploaded with mangled metadata, providing the 'Art for Spooks' and thus also implicating the viewer through their capture."

Knouf and Pedersen are currently working on a print-on-demand version of Art for Spooks, and will release the iOS app after the exhibition closes December 21st.