"Art Crosses the Border" by Bruce Sterling
for XL magazine about Paolo Cirio. 2011.
He stole one million Facebook profiles because he's an artist.
A provocative story like that almost writes itself! He is a hacker-artist who robbed Facebook, and obviously, that must be news! But the story gets better. He also wrote clever software that automatically picked 25,000 of the prettiest faces on Facebook and transformed them into a dating site.
Maybe you think your data is "safe" on Facebook. Then you realize that face can be scraped off the Facebook "social network" and briskly re-used for anti-social purposes.
Of course, anybody who is a corporate client of Facebook does that work already. That's the whole point of Facebook being a "free service" -- so that you will work, for no money, to make your own data available to for-profit companies who will pay Facebook to know about you. Probably you don't consider these political implications of Facebook. Unless you're Egyptian, that is.
However, in order to help you contemplate these many dark and ill-considered issues, the ingenious hacker-artist has also turned his giant data-theft into a gallery installation called "Face to Facebook." Stolen portraits are neatly hung on the wall. It's handsomely designed. It's on full public display at the famous Transmediale event in Berlin, where the artist is also issuing press releases and doing international interviews. His collaborator on that project is Alessandro Ludovico, an Italian activist who publishes "Neural," probably the most famous electronic art magazine in Europe.
In fact this artist (who began his career as a radio pirate at age 16) has done so much similar work that he's about to have his first full career retrospective, at a gallery in Ljubljana. The art show will include "Face to Facebook" and his two other masterworks in the "Hacking Monopolist Trilogy." Those are called "Amazon Noir" and "Google Will Eat Itself."
In "Amazon Noir," a horde of anonymous fake users raided "Amazon," each asking for a free peek inside a book. Then they deftly assembled their bits of "free" books into entire stolen books. Which were, of course, printed out and exhibited to the public. Thanks for the piracy, Amazon!
In "Google Will Eat Itself," anonymous fake identities click on Google ads, earning money from "AdSense." Then the proceeds from this hacker fraud are used to buy Google stock! This implies that the company will soon be sucked down the drain of its own peculiar business model.
These comical attacks on Facebook, Amazon and Google are only part of the artist's tireless labors. He's also created a scheme to distribute free electronic money. Once he created a parody of airport security procedures.
Few artists have ever received such immediate and impassioned response from a global public. In a mere week or so, "Face to Facebook" brought the artist eleven threats of lawsuits and five personal death threats.
One may well wonder why this obviously accomplished artist is not in jail already. His entire art career has been a series of political and economic provocations. Basically, he is to the art world what Julian Assange is to journalism, or what Banksy is to mural painting. He's a hacker, and he's continually crossing the borders of legality, decency and propriety.
How does he get away with it?
It's a great idea to have no particular fixed address, yourself. Since you earn your living doing web design on the Internet, you can pick up your laptop and live in London, New York, Berlin, and other exciting global centers of electronic art activism. Keep crossing state borders, just like the multinational corporations that you despise! You won't lack for friends and sympathizers to find you a bed and a breakfast table. When Google's lawyers write you a stiff "cease and desist" letter, they won't even be able to find a postal address.
Third, when it comes to supposed crimes such as "stealing" entire Amazon books, use fake identities. Not one fake online identity, that might be traced back to you. Use thousands of them. Imagine the fun of trying to legally prosecute tens of thousands of imaginary people. No corporation would bother with that, because the hard work of doing it would cost more than the damage inflicted. Global corporations are in it for the money, not the principles or the sense of justice.
Fourth, whenever you do get a legal attack for your art activities, be sure to publicize that as widely as possible. Since you never get paid for your conceptual artworks, this is the only way that you can buy publicity. When your persecutors realize that they are widely promoting your illicit activities by making you famous, they'll back off in a hurry.
And, lastly, be Italian -- in fact, be a thirty-one year old Turinese guy named "Paolo Cirio." Since you've been doing transgressive electronic political art for 15 years, you will eventually become rather well-known. The fact that Google, Amazon and Facebook got famous during that time inherently makes you famous, too.
Eventually, normal people will be forced to realize that you are directly dealing with major contemporary cultural issues. Your once-obscure hacker art will no longer be obscure, because there is nothing obscure about Facebook. You'll be a rather famous modern artist named Paolo Cirio, and your enemies will leave you alone, because people respect famous artists. They'll probably beg for your autograph.
But, in conclusion, there's one other matter. Once art crosses certain limits, there are more limits revealed. You might want to search for Internet videos by a Russian art group named "Voina." These Russians are Banksy's favorite artists, because they like to make performance-art videos of themselves toppling Russian police cars. Two of them went to jail for that, and they also got walloped by some angry Russian cops -- but they found a global audience on the Internet, and they're getting more famous every day
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