What is a secret? Why do humans like to keep and reveal secrets and why are we attracted to cracking codes and solving puzzles? When are secrets a good thing and who has the right to keep them? If you have nothing to hide, are you not looking hard enough?
We often think of privacy in a passive sense — something that can be lost, taken away, intruded upon or diminished. By contrast, secrecy is more active, empowering, and occasionally even enjoyable. It’s something we can reveal to trusted friends, keep from foes, protect from prying governments or destroy through whistleblowing.
From government surveillance to Hollywood spoilers, everyone shares, keeps, or learns secrets every day. Rafael Lozano-Hemmer highlights the quotidian nature of secrecy with Please Empty Your Pockets, invading our personal secrecy by prompting us to reveal the ordinary items we carry, normally hidden from passers-by. Secrecy can even have its own visual vernacular; from the solid black bars of redacted text to the blurring of faces through pixelation, used on a grand scale in Aram Bartholl’s installation 0,16.
From gossip to encryption, PIN codes to patents, secrets pervade every layer of society. Knowledge may be power, but secrecy is the gatekeeper of knowledge. Who chooses what remains secret and what is revealed? Julian Oliver’s Transparency Grenade is simultaneously metaphorical and functional, weaponising secrecy and reminding us that revealing secrets can be a highly political, even dangerous act.
The abstract concept of cryptography — behind simple everyday acts like using a debit card — seems more tangible when visualised in Frederik de Wilde’s 3D sculptures of quantum numbers.
Scientists, hackers, spies, journalists, psychologists, criminals, companies and governments all approach this new world of secrets in different ways, but the omnipresence of secrecy is undeniable. From Easter eggs to cryptocurrencies, puzzles to politics, SECRET asks what is being hidden from us, what are we hiding, and why?
To you, what is a secret?
I would say a secret is a means to selectively reveal yourself to the world. It’s not necessarily something that is unilaterally constant, in the sense that ‘I have a secret and I keep that secret from absolutely everyone’. Some secrets are of this kind e.g. a slip-up that you've made that may damage your reputation, but more are variable, for instance there are those you'd keep from your friends but that you confide in your sister. And so we stage ourselves and our identities with secrets, I think; we build layered relationships with ourselves and others in ways that could be cynically defined as territories (or property), but are really more about asserting control over how we engage and how we are engaged with. Whether a truth held back, a strategy or a trade secret, secrets at both the institutional and individual levels ultimately implement a means to protect, define and control identity.
Are secrecies at a grand scale and secrecy at a personal scale utterly different?
Consider the state secret. This is something a government (for instance) may keep from reaching the public in an attempt to avoid compromising their publicly held identity, therefore making a strategic (and arguably competitive) relationship with their electorate. They may also hold a secret that if compromised may render the state vulnerable to other states and interests, a strategic claim as often abused as it is cited. Either way, I would say secrets at the scale of the state are intrinsically similar to those we covet as individuals, with the political distinction that the identity of a supposedly democratic state is defined by its electorate rather than a single individual (totalitarianism or the self-determined individual).
The assertion that a democratic government must necessarily be transparent to its electorate while the public must be allowed the right to 'opacity' is important, yet often confuses debates at this scale as it presents the illusion of a double-standard. This is something that Snowden has helped clarify and popularise, despite a long legacy of efforts to this end, not least the Cypherpunk movement of the early to mid-nineties. The politics of secrecy change as they scale but the right (within the determination of an individual or a people) to hold a secret do not.
You said that the scenario has changed, from scale, power, and who is trying to eliminate or preserve secrets, how do you see the issue of secrets and society changing in the foreseeable future?
With the ever-penetrating reach of computer networking and the infrastructure that we build within it, we are getting into the habit of giving a lot away to people we've never met. By that I mean the owners of the property on which so much of our data actually resides. For instance, you can never ‘visit’ your Facebook profile as it’s surrounded by barbed wire, guns, tax and a lot of lawyers (not to mention a vast air-conditioning infrastructure). Yet all the while we carry this metaphor of the 'cloud', interacting with ‘our data’ under the sign of this deterritorialised and substance-less thing that belongs to no particular country or person. A cloud is the antithesis of private property and yet private property is precisely where our social media resides.
We’ve also got used to not knowing quite who has what on us, as you’ve seen with the Ashley Madison hack, affecting 37 million people who signed up to cheat on their partners. The massive identity breach has been said to have devastated many families, a vast social impact. While we can immediately take a moral position that ‘they deserved it’, it all became a bit more interesting with the discovery that Ashley Madison's $19 ‘delete my profile’ button (for people who changed their mind and wanted to stop using the service) proved to be a lie, despite earning the company $1.7 million dollars in 2014.
The Ashley Madison hack tells us a tremendous amount about trust in the age of the WWW. Why do we expect a company, often in a jurisdiction outside of our own, to keep our secrets and their promises? Aside from the fact that so many social networking services clearly consider user profiles their property, it's actually more (energy/cost) expensive to delete data on a hard-disk than it is to keep it (storage is cheap). The implicit trust we have for online services, that they will do what they say they will do, is very troubling I think. We wouldn't walk up to a stranger on the street and ask them to take care of a love letter for us, to be picked up later, yet with Gmail, dating sites, social networking etc. we routinely hand over extremely sensitive information, trusting it to be kept safe by unseen hands while they make money off it.
Social networking sites like Facebook understand one thing very well: that at our core most of us are afraid of being socially irrelevant, of not being important to 'the group'. This anxiety is ancient; anthropology has shown that without the safety afforded by being accepted and valued by the group, we were quick to die. Facebook and comparable enterprises have mined this root anxiety, knowing we will forgo common-sense (like parents posting pictures of their infants all over social-media) in favour of gardening their social value (‘look how beautiful my child is’, ‘how wonderful I am as a parent’).
And so it goes that with all the joy, social warmth and information the WWW has brought us, it's also made a habit — an addiction even — of 'sharing' that puts us at risk of losing a critically vital and socially productive relationship with secrecy and secrets — as things that are ours and held close.
Is there anything in particular you hope visitors take away from SECRET?
I would like to see a general re-evaluation of what has become an unfortunately common saying lately, that of ‘having nothing to hide’. I would like the idea of having something to hide as being 'negative' or expressing a lack of social confidence (or otherwise just being prudish) to be challenged. I'd hope that secrecy can be re-cast in a positive, socially nourishing light.
At the other end, I would also like to see the show engender a 'healthy paranoia' among audiences, at least regarding some of the more pervasive surveillance technologies used routinely by state agencies, breaching the basic rights of anonymity, privacy and freedom of association. I would like to see a mix of excitement and fear on the audience members’ faces as they engage with a work that presents them with such an implementation (‘...they can do that?’). I have seen this to be a highly productive encounter, the world over, proving that fear need not be a wholly negative and destructive force.
This has certainly been part of both the strategy and motivation for creating a lot of the work I and my studio partners have completed over the years, work we refer to as Critical Engineering.
The digital technologies that we have all embraced and included into our lives over the last decades have another side — a dark side. These technologies are monitoring our every move, communication and even emotion. The mobile technology that we carry with us at all times is used not only for us to stay in touch and communicate with our friends and loved ones — it is also providing information to our state agencies and others.
Can we have secrets anymore? We certainly cannot keep anything private if we send an email, engage in social media and even use a mobile phone. Our movements, our conversations, our personal data is all being collected, aggregated, indexed and processed. We are freely providing this information for public use without even realising it, or maybe we have a misguided trust in the ethics of collecting this data. How do we know how this data will be used? We constantly make a trade-off between convenience and security. Every device that has Wi-Fi has a unique address and this is constantly being broadcast as you move around and pass by computers that collect traffic data. If you supply your email address in order to use free Wi-Fi, then you are freely relating your device to your email and this will allow access to your personal data.
Several recent crimes have been solved by the use of technology. A man who killed his wife and thought he was undetected carried a mobile phone with him as he moved about, so his presence at the scene of the crime was substantiated by phone records. A more recent high profile case was also solved by tracing the records on a mobile phone which had been discarded and thrown into a reservoir. Neither of these crimes could have been solved without technology — mobile phone technology. Similarly, military drones are employed every day by powerful countries to monitor the movements of individuals and environments anywhere in the world in order to protect their territorial interests.
Our relationship to technology has many dimensions and some are wonderful and effect our lives in positive ways. There is no doubt that the use of different technologies has enhanced our lives and made many tasks and chores easier or redundant. The use of digital technologies has also radically changed how artists create and publish work and will consequentially change the future of scholarship and research.
If the scribes who wrote The Book of Kells housed at Trinity College Dublin, used the technologies available today, we would know everything about the creation of this incredible artefact. Who created it? How many scribes contributed to the illumination? Where did they live and work? How many hours a day did they work? What tools did they use? The only actual known fact about this 9th century artefact is where it was found. Perhaps the allure of this magnificent manuscript is that we know very little about its creation. Is it the secrets of its provenance that make it so intriguing? We are losing a lot by knowing everything.
We need to keep our secrets.