Paolo Cirio disrupts hidden surveillance systems
August 3, 2015

Invisible data structures are turned inside out by the artist as he takes to the streets and online to seek new means of transparency

Delving into the unseen structures of information systems, Paolo Cirio translates the backdrop of digital data into visual representations boldly perceptible to the public. His aesthetic strategies unveil concerns that are central to contemporary artistic production: copyright, dissemination and, as he puts it, “the ethics of information.” He produces and publishes work for street interventions, online platforms, and IRL display, without any hierarchy between spaces, objects, or media.

For Overexposed, a recent project at NOME gallery for art and technology in Berlin, Cirio hacked the social media profiles of US intelligence officials in an inversion of the NSA's tactics, making their unassuming faces into Pop Art-referencing images through a specially developed high-definition stencil technique. Also sprayed onto the walls of buildings across international cities, Cirio dubbed the intervention “open-source intelligence”, with the aim of turning monopolies of surveillance inside-out.

POSTmatter: If your works have their seeds in online spaces and media, they usually take on later forms in physical objects, or actions in public space. Why is it important to you to bring the work or its documentation to “real space”?

Paolo Cirio: For me there isn’t much difference between making artworks for the streets or online – both environments are ephemeral and policed, and are where the public I want to reach conduct their lives. Most of my artworks start online, through diving into information of all kinds – observing, researching, interacting with people and platforms. I then find points of vulnerability to short-circuit concepts in the systems I study. The installations crystallise the concepts and issues that were present during the performance or action, whether conducted online or in the streets.


There isn’t much difference between making artworks for the streets or online – both environments are ephemeral and policed.


PM: You’ve spoken of “materialising pure information” – does this also have to do with fixing the fluidity of data flows into a more lasting record?

PC: I talk about the materialisation of pure information to present a perceived paradox: with the digitisation of everything, information seems to be a flow of data on screens, but digital networks and information really rely on material origins, and affect our physical reality. With P2P Gift Credit Cards, I question whether the idea of money is more real as sixteen digit numbers in an email or embossed on a piece of plastic. Or with Loophole for All [an exposure of offshore finance], a paper certificate is still what enables the majority of global financial flow, including high frequency trading.

Conceptual artists in the 1960s already faced similar concerns of how to represent pure information, concepts and happenings in secondary environments. I don’t like, or even believe in, digital interfaces or platforms trying to keep the artwork in its original state. The point is to keep accurate documentation of the reactions to it, and the social context in which the work was created. I believe that the power of pure information can drive concrete changes in the lives and spaces of humans, and I want to make that subtle power visible through my art.

PM: How did you come up with the HD stencils technique for Overexposed?

PC: I’ve always been interested in street art as a democratic medium for bringing art to the masses while maintaining the beauty of form and content. I have developed this technique for four years; working on the code was relatively easy compared to finding and using the laser cutting machines, which are expensive, unstable, and slow for what I was trying to do. I hope making the code and technique open source will help to spread its use and development, as a way to make graffiti, for example.


I believe that the power of pure information can drive concrete changes in the lives and spaces of humans, and I want to make that subtle power visible through my art.


PM: What kind of feedback did you receive from the public with the Street Ghosts project?

PC: This was probably the most popular conceptual short circuit I could create: for most people it was just a fun association of ideas, spaces and visuals, but many were also compelled by the underlying discourse... The idea of the afterlife of the internet cloud and how we could all become ghosts trapped in a digital hell engineered by the corporate demons of social media usually turns people's smiles into a more troubled expression.

PM: How does the idea of transparency (in-)form your work?

PC: Transparency is a physical quality of digital networks that I consider to be the substance that I use and mould for my artworks. Think about digital information as a transparent fluid that, like water, needs to be contained and channeled to be used wisely and well, to keep it clean and safe.

Transparency has to do with the notion of the ethics of information, which currently affects politics, culture and the economy – how crucial privileged access, control and accumulation of information by authorities and industries are today. In my work I often juxtapose the potentials, limits and dangers of transparency through provocations about privacy, analyses of social science and disruptions of economic structures.

PM: Have you considered encrypting digital artworks to give them a proof-mark, to make them digital one-offs?

PC: Yes, I have conceptualised an economic model for the sale of digital art objects certified through cryptography. I proposed a new model to support artists through selling large series of unique digital artworks at low prices. On you can find the beta version of this economic model, the trade protocol and the technology. With this project, I’m proposing a new market based on abundance and not on scarcity, one driven by transparency and reliant on a mass of collectors, rather than a select few. Ultimately I want the project to democratise art and support artists that can’t fit into the restrictive art market of today.


Think about digital information as a transparent fluid that, like water, needs to be contained and channeled to be used wisely and well, to keep it clean and safe.



PM: How do you balance aesthetics and politics?

PC: For me the main aesthetic quality of networks, algorithms and data is how they affect the formation of society – social forms are beautiful structures that I’m interested in working with.

I treat elements of the complex social, political and economic orders as raw materials for assembling new forms for the perception of social issues. There is inevitably something political in this process of art making, but my practice is meant to show how information itself is political.

For more information on Paolo Cirio's work, click here

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