How can art be used as a practical response and political statement from the exile? Artist Miyö Van Stenis investigates this question with her project »Vigipirate Quadcopter Drone« created for the Solitude & ZKM web residencies on the topic »Violent Consumer Media« curated by Dani Ploeger. Her project consists of several levels in which she takes the symbol of the Vigipirate as a starting point to question information manipulation and control. In the interview, we talked with the artist about her project for the Web Residency.
Schlosspost: Your work takes the French national security system Vigipirate as its starting point. Can you tell us more about your research into this topic and why you proposed a work about it?
Miyö Van Stenis: In 2012, Hugo Chavez passed a law that any person against the government is a »terrorist« against the homeland; for 2013, Nicolas Maduro extended this law to the cultural sector. This means, artists can be judged also as terrorists. So in this order, in 2014 I was targeted as a »terrorist«/»traitor« for my work, and I spent at least two or three years under threats.
»The terrorist attacks that have taken place in France since I have been here has been a new thing for me; it opened my eyes to see the European crystal cage and how they perceive the world outside their borders.«
After being in France, I met a new concept of terrorism. The Vigipirate alarm shocked me. The government of Venezuela publicly supported some organizations and governments that Europe targets as »terrorists,« so in this dystopian scenario I seized a symbol of the state that protects me, to denounce the state that oppresses me. My research was about becoming a political refugee. I needed it to learn a new country scheme, a new political framework, a new military system, and so on. I learned the laws that can protect me and those that can get me into trouble: for example, you need a permit to fly a drone with the features that this project holds, but doesn’t penalize you if the drone has an emergency pilot in command protocol to fly itself. This long process and overwhelming experience led me to this project; it just clicked.
Aesthetically I find the symbol of Vigipirate incredibly strong, it was something I saw everywhere and that French TV talked about for months so I was fascinated by and honestly afraid of the possibility of war between Europe and the Middle East. The terrorist attacks that have taken place in France since I have been here has been a new thing for me; it opened my eyes to see the European crystal cage and how they perceive the world outside their borders. I learned the hard way that I come from a narco-terrorist state that used violence and fear as a control mechanism; terror and killing are most likely to come from the government to the population but I didn’t know another type of system. After all this as an artist: will you go back to doing fun gif files, and cute net.art pieces?
SP: From this research you developed the concept »Vigipirate Quadcopter Drone,« which questions the link between the act of creation and the act of resistance. Can you tell us more about the concept and how it is being build?
MvS: Conceptually I approach it from the irony of how far the definitions can be adapted and transformed from the power’s pedestal and with the principle that it was an act of war between art and the hegemony. VQD uses art as a practical response and political statement from the exile. VQD is the artist’s black box containing a period of time of a particular country. In this project the drone is the exhaust vehicle, but it doesn’t take away the quality of being a weapon: a drone with a camera and GPS can follow, track, and record from the distance, and there you have a tool to blackmail someone.
I collect data and information because I need to keep a track of what I can’t control or be part of, in a society where you’re used to it to be censure or follow, where information is manipulated from both sides, or where there are spontaneous blackouts from the government so the national media can’t show the protests and military suppression. The truth must be excavated from the web as a silent guardian.
Following the same structure of Vigipirate, it allowed me to develop the project by levels, to create something that is still evolving and isolating what represents the content, the hardware, and the takeoff. It has been built with open-source protocols and public information so it keeps me in a circle to constantly find the material to perfect the project’s flaws. I see it as a magnificent copy and paste situation. The technology was online; I just need to find it to copy or hacked; for example the last version of the hardware was updated in 2018 after a bug in an android app for controlling a specific drone brand allowed me to recover their code and adapted into my own app.
This is not only an act of resistance, but this project is also an act of survival and dedication. Since 2014 I have questioned myself: what will happen to my work if I get deported or disappear? If I continue to publicly denounce the post-Chavez government and push their limits, to what extent would France see me as a problem? This was for years and still a possibility as Venezuela is not recognized as a dictatorship and you only need to bother one loyal member of a political party to be the subject of conversations that you don’t want to be part of.
SP: Can you tell us more about what each level involves and how the levels function?
MvS: Le Plan Vigipirate originally measured the level of danger and also which establishments are protected. If someone attacked a school, for example, this could be a sign of an impending war. In this project, the different levels explain the development status of the data, their importance, and also the drone as the final piece: from creation to survival.
Level I: Drone Prototype. Keeping my data safe
Creation of the prototype using a mini Drone Cheerson CX-10 is intervened and inside contains an encrypted SD card memory with a collection of works, information, images, and passwords … and data that I’ve collected between 2012 and 2014, working for the Ministry of Information and Communication in Caracas.
Level II: Search && Crawler. Following the government
Working since 2014, this algorithm is designed to recollect images and videos related to the Venezuelan political situation in real time from the Web. Powered with Python Google search script, it’s fed by different search engines and Deep Web forum portals. This database holds the information timeline based on selected sources, metadata, and hashtags published on the mainstream media. This script seeks reliable information on the major crisis tearing this country apart; I confide that numerous fake news items would be regularly broadcast and collected on the archive, so I manually need to delete duplicate images or content that the crawler keeps but are irrelevant. A bug to fix.
Level III: Hardware Drone Modification. Define drone protocols
The red level corresponds to the Quadcopter Drone F14892-B in which all information gleaned is archived in a dependable wireless storage protected in the drone. This also represents the process of buying and assembling the right hardware, components, batteries, APM, GPS, servo receivers, CPU, virtual FS-i6 transmitter with LCD iA6 receptor and so on. To be capable to define the take-off and land protocol helped by CASCADE drone project as a reference; the exhaust vehicle.
Level IV: SECURITY ALARM. Fly! & save yourself
The last and most intense red level turns out to be an order designed to PIC (pilot in command) the drone via SMS, if the artist feels in danger, will order the drones to take off. The drone is equipped with a virtual FS-i6 transmitter and a GPS APM 2.8 and receives waypoints via SMS text message, compiles the »mission« without any user intervention. Mission waypoints are defined by the drone, which processes data during flight and communicates to an app (Android) on the phone that uses it as »ground station« (powered by ADRpy – Aircraft Design Recipes in Python, CASCADE project public code) to send the final location coordinates.
SP: Your work plays with the notion of information data, and the role this data plays in society. What is your view on the influence of technology on real-life experiences?
MvS: Today data is a powerful thing, more valuable than money. It has become a form of power, control, and segregation. We are monitored, measured, and guided by algorithms based on our commercial and social behavior. I saw my own government manipulating data and information to control society and win elections to remain considered a democratic state. Smartmatic the company that provided the technology and electoral scrutiny for Venezuela, denounced the manipulation of data in Nicolas Maduro’s election. The influence and political intervention of China, Russia, and Cuba has been denounced many times in Venezuela so when supposedly there was a Russian intervention within the elections in the United States I wasn’t surprised. I saw that for years in Venezuela. Maybe this example doesn’t completely illustrate the influence of technology on real life but it does address the way technology is used within power.
Nowadays my generation must fight for the liberation of the algorithm and information from the hands of power – and with this I not only speak of political power, but the entire elite that controls the course of our society as a global entity. Facebook opened a dangerous door and 1984 became a reality, they romantically kill the rhizomatic structure of the Web to reinforce the idea that we are no more than what we like and click.
SP: What is your opinion on the role that new media technologies can play in acts of resistance? Do you think this is important, and if so, why?
MvS: A simple response could be: The revolution was spoken, then photographed and printed to be broadcasted on the radio. For a long time it was televised, yesterday it was tweeted, and now it is live streamed. Any media or technology that make the masses heard, resisted and conquered will be important. The “why” really doesn’t matter, because it always depends on who is used.
»I’m an artist, and the best I can do is use my work in a way that I can confront people, educate them on how easy conflicts like Venezuela’s can be repeated in other countries and go unnoticed.«
SP: In your practice you actively engage with the sociopolitical crisis in Venezuela. In what ways do you relate to this topic and how do you talk about it in your work?
MvS: I always try to approach the subject in the most objective way possible, even when I have a clear and open posture in this crisis. I engage with this topic because I think it’s a responsibility, my entire family is still in Venezuela; so their crisis, pain, and sadness are mine, too. When you’re forced to live in exile, there’s no way you can detach from that reality. You have a continuous feeling of grief. Of course people can choose to move on of and continue their lives but I’m an artist, and the best I can do is use my work in a way that I can confront people, educate them on how easy conflicts like Venezuela’s can be repeated in other countries and go unnoticed. At other times I make the spectator uncomfortable and show cruelty in the real world, so I can pop some bubbles.
SP: There is a certain aesthetics to be found in your overall work. What visual language brings your work together and how important are the aesthetics of these works?
MvS: I like to think of my aesthetic as a semiotic reconstruction that depends on a specific topic, as the selection of images even the color palette will never be random or meaningless. Everything is there for a reason and has a lecture. You can see my net.art pieces as a block. There’s a conscious repetition of colors, icons, and technique because I was trying to create a »family resemblance« between them so it could be easier for the public to connect the pieces with the artist without even inquire the concept behind or reading the name. However for my VR and AR pieces I like to use a lot of elements from gamers’ culture or outdated products, especially from the 1990s an 2000s, because they are ingrained in our mind’s dictionary and it’s has the undertone that in some point that technology will also be obsolete. For the political work I used a lot of archetypes as metaphors, but it will be most likely that I will copy the visual language that the government already has, or a shell-type aesthetic as I’m gathering or manipulating data.
SP: Looking back at the web residency period, what is your overall experience, and do you think there will be a continuation of your project?
MvS: This residency allowed me to present Level II of the project in a different way and rethink how the public will approach it. I transformed the script into software to display the data crawler within an interface. This project in particular is always evolving to keep up with technology, specially the Level II and III, which correspond to the search engine and drone protocol. There’s always a new and more interesting way to rethink the same process, and each month I need to update and redefine the metadata depending on what is happening in the country. That’s the main reason why I separated by the levels so maybe the next time you see the project, it could be displayed in a totally different way. I’ll continue until I go missing in action or no longer have any reason to track down a government.
The interview was conducted by Sarie Nijboer.