30 Seconds Closer to Midnight
Surviving Doomsday politics in the era of technology and Trump.
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“Imagine there’s a drastic political change in your country and you want to fight for your democratic rights. You are in possession of a volatile piece of information — the kind of information that could tear down governments, topple empires, bring civilization as we know it crashing down. What do you do? Do you release what you have? Who will believe you? Do you get more information? Who will help you? Do you go on the run? Do you even know how?
The question might be how to vanish from one moment to the other. You will need special advice and gear to survive. Get prepared.” — Nina E. Schoenefeld
If this scenario were a video game, your character would probably be a hacker. Which is very meta, because real-life hackers play video games…. although I suspect that video games actually play hackers. Regardless, you would have one of these three options: go public, go rogue, go underground. But how would they play out?
Let’s say you release the information, exposing corruption and crimes that cost lives. You become a hero of the people… but can you resist the temptation of fame? Can you continue to do the right thing even if everyone forgets your name? Or do you hole up in some embassy while Pamela Anderson brings you vegan cheeseburgers, make more and more ridiculous claims just to make sure you stay in the news and keep your famous friends, clinging tightly to your place in the very system you were trying to bring down? I mean… now that you belong?
Oh I’m sorry, that’s reality.
Just like Salman Rushdie wannabe, Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks and self-anointed political refugee, holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy hiding from an imagined United States extradition, even though the US government has never actually filed charges against him. (But you know, so much more interesting than the rape allegations he’s actually hiding from.) Assange seems to be bent on making that US fatwa happen though, since he couldn’t get the US to prosecute him after releasing Hillary Clinton’s emails, and influencing the presidential election.
Oh Julian Assange — don’t you understand America at all? I mean, we know you watch Baywatch. You’ll never be prosecuted for destroying a woman’s career!
Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, and a German hacker named Pengo are the hackers and activists Berlin-based artist Nina E Schoenefeld has based her Hacker on the Run series on. It’s a long term, multi-media project that is shown partly on Instagram, partly at art galleries like coGalleries in Mitte, and partly as performance both online and in real life.
Schoenefeld’s hacker on the run is not that kind of hacker — not tempted by fame or Pamela Anderson. She is, in fact, a girl hacker.
Who do exist in real life, by the way. But unlike so many of their male counterparts in real life, they stay anonymous. Like hackers are supposed to do. Of course, for women in the hacker world, which is close to the gamer world, which is part of the 4Chan world, being a woman — even online — is a dangerous thing. Maintaining anonymity is the best course for survival.
And Schoenefeld’s hacker is all about survival. Sometimes Schoenefeld’s alter ego, sometimes not, the hacker — or Hacker13, as she’s known, is on a mission… that turns into a journey… that turns into a quest, like all good adventure stories and video games do. She takes the “gathering more information” option, hacking into secret files and breaking into government secrets, amassing evidence to do nothing short of saving the world.
Considering the Doomsday Clock was moved to half a minute closer to midnight shortly after Trump’s inauguration, thank god someone’s doing it.
Walking into the space at coGalleries is a bit like walking into a video game. Ephemera and detritus of the hacker’s journey fill both rooms of the gallery, little islands of tools and electronics and necessities dot the room. In the middle of the first room is a stack of briefcases, the topmost one open to a camera oozing the mercury from it’s own film, a lighter, a… black rubber thing, that could be a massage roller, could be a dildo, hard to tell, but… this is Berlin so could be both. And a fetish, a doll constructed of found objects, animal fur, wood and electronics, like a post-modern voodoo doll. The entire piece here sits both like a shrine, as well as a place to recharge, take stock, up your power levels so you can continue on your way.
Hanging on the wall is a shiny gold prepper coat. It is constructed of a manmade viscose, but includes roller derby elbow pads, patches of fur, a flask, and a cutlass, one of those wooden guns used by pirates and stagecoach robbers. There’s something very 80s about the coat, like Mad Max meets the Pet Shop Boys. I like it.
Most of the items in the installation are found items, and mark points along the hacker’s journey: a vintage Truth phone, a half-hidden 35 millimeter camera perched in an arrangement of ferns and other leafy greens, known as the Plant of Justice. On the other side of the room, a Democracy Lamp — still shining, dimly.
And here in this room, along with the prepper coat, are more short video scenes from the hacker’s journey: to Shanghai, to London, in parking garages and ducking military helicopters. The hacker is being chased and has to make a decision: go out, or go underground. She opts for underground.
Whiskey: good for sterilizing wounds, numbing pain, and keeping spirits up.
In a display underneath the black vintage Telephone of Truth — the names of the individual pieces lend to the video game feel of the installation — a screen embedded in a small metal case plays a documentary about Preppers — people who have trained in survivalist techniques, preparing for the end of the world as we know it, whether by nuclear war, global financial collapse, or natural disaster.
Going deeper into the hacker 13’s universe, she has gone full rogue. She’s wearing animal fur to keep warm, using a jerry-rigged hodgepodge of old walkie talkies, telephones and laptops to continue her quest. In the second room of the gallery, entered through a silvery curtain that acts as a divider between the hackers earlier self and the person she becomes as she fully inhabits her quest, the hashtags accompanying the pieces morph from “#hackerontherun” to “#youaredestinedtodogreatthings”. The “Black Wolf” persona is fully adopted now, and our hacker — deep in the mutually suspicious world of preppers, is equipped with the bare necessities and a few outdated pieces of information storage: CD ROMs, binoculars, a bottle of whiskey.
Whiskey, of course, good for sterilizing wounds, numbing pain, and keeping spirits up.
Occupying the middle of this room is another type of shrine, only this only fully dedicated to another fetish. Schoenefeld’s fetishes remind me very much of the crystal and rag Pascale Poupees of Cameroonian artist Pascale Marthine Tayou. Schoenefeld’s are cobbled together mostly from found objects, mostly rusted electronics elements, but they are as fascinating and charming and fitting as Tayou’s. The fetish is a recurring theme in Schoenefeld’s hacker on the run world and they’re my favorite aspect of the themes she’s exploring: these small religious tokens serve the same purpose as a St Anthony’s amulet, for example, and so many video games are based on biblical story structure and religious quests — Age of Empires, Mass Effect 2, Assassin’s Creed — Schoenefeld’s fetishes look exactly like the type of thing a 4Chan kid would cobble together if they manage to survive the apocalypse and are out on their own.
The rest of the pieces award a certain amount of athleticism and capability to Schoenefeld’s hacker that I’m not sure would translate into the real world. Serious preppers are also all-rounders: they study some kind of self defense system — Krav Magra or Jujitsu; they are adept at both firearms and manual weapons like the cross-bow; they keep their bug-out bags in check with water purification pills, MRE’s (which, can I just say: if they’re meals ready to eat, why do they have an expiration date?), and if they’re planning on heading into the woods or mountains, a stash of raw gold.
They’re also the kind of people who tend to see conspiracies everywhere: the Illuminati, the one-worlders, the Masons, always a small handful of people controlling the world and all the people in it. They refuse to be slaves, and are suspicious of computers and smart phones and anything that can potentially track them. They are dedicated analog in an increasingly digital world, and being a prepper is a great way to buck the technology trend…
Not unlike their predecessors the mountain men, those grizzly souls who shunned city living and the Industrial Revolution to live rugged off the land in the American West.
There is an overall feeling of the 80s in this installation, from the shiny fabrics to the heavy gold chains, to the CD ROMs the hacker is transporting data on. For me, this is totally relate-able — both Schoenefeld and I grew up in the 80s with the threat of nuclear apocalypse a part of our everyday lives. But I wonder how relate-able it is to Millennials and Generation Z, for whom most of the elements in this work are pure vintage and puzzling — we did such a good job shielding our children from growing up with the background terror of nuclear war, they don’t even know it existed. I wonder if, to younger generations, this work is a merely a curiosity. On the other hand, I wonder if hipsters would survive in a post-apocalyptic world...
In a way, Schoenefeld’s installation at coGalleries reminds me of those team-building escape rooms, except here you can escape. In fact, it’s all about escape… and survival. And not at all about team-building.
In the world of preppers and conspiracy theorists: it’s every man for himself. In fact, in prepper lingo, they often call the expected masses who haven’t prepared for catastrophe or apocalypse “zombies” — the folks like, well me I guess, who will show up at your fallout shelter looking for handouts.
Of course, zombie movies and prepper cults go hand in hand. There’s a reason The Walking Dead is one of the most popular television series in America. Small pockets of survivalist communities are formed, but you can’t trust each other. You can’t really rely on each other. You stay exactly where you are, in a dystopian hell, on high alert, suspicious of everything, trusting no one but your own beliefs, your own fetish, ready to turn on each other any moment. Just like the hackers, the gamers, the 4Chan folks: anonymous, fending for themselves, trusting no one, not even each other. Just waiting for the world to end.
I wonder if hipsters would survive in a post-apocalyptic world.
What’s disturbing is, their conspiracy theories don’t seem so far-fetched anymore. The world is on the brink of war, and edging closer every day. Real life hacktivists like Assange and Snowden and even the group Anonymous are making sure of that, while the politicians and world leaders are doing their part too. The most disturbing thing of all, though, between the preppers, the hacktivists, the conspiracy theorists, even the politicians and the gamers, none of them are actually doing anything to stop it. But as George Romero pointed out in Night of the Living Dead: we may not enjoy living together, but dying together isn’t going to solve anything.
Hacker13 — now The Black Wolf — is still connected, she’s still got a job to do, a destiny to fulfill. The last we get to see of her in this installation is in Canada, dressed in furs, staring out over the vast white wilderness, letting the pure snow fall from her hand. She just has to keep moving, keep hoping, keep going. She just has to survive. She’s out to the save world. She has the key.
So: what would you do?
Nina E Schoenefeld’s Hacker on the Run: Rise of the Black Wolf is on view until March 16th at coGalleries, located at Torstrasse 170 in Berlin. You can follow #hackerontherun on Instagram at hashtag hackerontherun — all one word — or by following Nina E Schoenefeld at instagram.com/ninaeschoenefeld .
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