Interview: Ruben Pater_Untold Stories/Surveilled Futures _ 2016

⎴●⦧ Untold Stories/_Surveilled Futures
​▐ ▭ H C-(M): Where the name Untold Stories came from?
What references you took to complete the concept of this hybrid project that shows interest between design and journalism?

​■▀ Ruben Pater: It is not so much a project as it is a moniker for my work. i do not feel comfortable about creating a brand out of my name. also if i do a collaboration or if people work with me, using a moniker feels more natural. so at the moment, all my work is done as ‘Untold Stories’.

The hybridity you refer to as an interest between journalism and design has always been there. i was always drawing, but i was also interested in becoming a journalist when i grew up. After i worked as a designer for some years i was naturally attracted to go back to this interest in journalism.

▐ ▭ H C-(M): A Study into 21st Century Drone Acoustics, a collaboration with composer Gonçalo F. Cardoso and part of the research project The Sounds of Violence, deals with the psychological and social consequences in the use of drones in conflict areas, a particular type of surveillance technologies.
In the last six years the popularization of the use of drones has been impressive, as a consequence of the easy access of these technologies, the plethora of purposes and targets (let’s think for example in Will Potter’s Drone in the Farm an Aerial Exposé, Addie Wagenknecht’s Permission to Fail, or the recent drone-massive-killing of 150 somali people by U.S.) that drones provide, arise new questions about the ethical and moral uses of a military born invention.

​What are your thoughts about the two usual opposite postures that claim that the use of (in this case drones) is just as simple as "bad or good"?

What motivated you to develop a research concerning drone sound effects in a somatic and historical perspective?

How the collaboration between you and Gonçalo began and grew?

■▀ RP: My motivations of starting a project about drones started prior to my graduation in 2012. I was struck by the many parallels of drone warfare and the use of consumer technologies, like Google maps, Dolby surround audio home systems, and RealHD flatscreens to immerse people in movies, and games, etc. At that time consumer drones were non-existant, or at least not available as they are now, so this was not a part of my project.
My graduation project was going to be about drones but at the time so little people had heard of drones in the Netherlands I did not think it would resonate with the public in order to have any effect. People did not know what the word ‘drone’ itself meant. After graduation I worked on it some more, and I published the Drone Survival Guide in 2013. When the obsession with drones hit in the beginning of 2014, my project was just there at the right time and place and that is why many people have heard about it.

For me, it is important to stress that this project is not about technology. It is about how asymmetric warfare is changing through media and technology, and how that hides the human suffering causes by warfare, from in the gaze of those in the Global North who are responsible for this. The discussion about military drones versus civilian drones, or drones for bad or good is therefore less relevant for this project.

I would describe the way consumer drones are marketed and used right now, as toys, by the most part. They crash all the time, they are unreliable, and the weight they can carry is limited. Once drones are becoming more durable, reliable, and cheaper, and we figure out a way it can legally be allowed in our streets in large numbers, which is a big if, then we will observe the real change that aerial robotics can bring to our own society, whether positive or negative.
We have to realize most drones are now military drones which are used in conflicht zones in the Global South, far away from those who operate them, control them, and discuss them.

My collaboration with Gonçalo started via internet and it grew out of our mutual fascination of the audio part of drone warfare. So much of the debate is about ‘eyes in the sky’ and the surveillance aspect, that it largely ignores the terrorizing effect of the sound of drones, which was pointed out by Nasser Husasain in the Boston review in 2013. The project ‘Sonic Warfare’ by Hyperdub and Kode9 was a historic reference since their publication really examines sonic violence throughout the twentieth and twenty-first century. What is similar to the Drone Survival Guide is that much of the work is crowdsourced and based on online footage. We only recorded one drone sound ourselves. The record is both informative and symbolic, rather than an ‘experience’. In some ways its prime function is a time document because it includes the sounds of 17 drones which are being used today.

▐ ▭ H C-(M): Is interesting how your research about drones is complete in a broader sense, while The Sounds of Violence focus in the audio spectrum of drone-infringement, Drone Survival Guide is almost a detailed taxonomic study that identifies the shape, structure, behavior and localization of the 27 best known military drones. Do you agree with this elucidation?

▀ RP: Although it was not intended initially, it was logically to do the project in two parts. I am not planning on doing more projects on drones, even though some people assume it is kind of a focus point for me, I am working on many other topics that interest me as well, e.g. climate change, cyberwar, and equality in design.

▐ ▭ T|G: Drone Survival Guide was one of the most viral projects in 2013 and 2014, it became relevant for media outlets internationally and a reference point to discuss the consequences of surveillance for artists, citizens, researchers and designers.
Looking back at those years, What was the feedback you received at the time?
Did you perceive government's attention on this project due to it’s intentions and ways of distribution?

​■▀ RP: Thanks for framing it as such, because the viral part does not say a lot about the quality of the work I think. It taught me that when a project becomes a meme it has more to do with the current media obsession than the quality of the project perse. Not that I do not like my own work but I think my other projects are not better or worse than this one.
However, the fact that so many see the project does something to it, and that has taught me a lot as well. For instance, I was surprised how uncritical most journalists are that have interviewed me on the project. I mean, I get it, they have so many stories to write and little time for research, but I was sometimes astounded on the kind of naivety of the questions.

My favourite aspect was the contact with people who wanted to buy the Drone Survival Guide, and the social media traffic. It was an interesting group of people, although mostly men actually, who were drawn to my project. In one category there were of course the designers, or people who like it just for aesthetic reasons. The second group were activists, I was retweeted by Anonymous and some people wanted to buy the guide with bitcoin or untraceable currencies, and retweeted the project with additonal hacking suggestions and anti-drone measures. The third group were supporters of Islamic extremism who retweeted my guide like crazy, mostly from Saudi Arabia but that could have been VPNs of course. The last group were airplane enthousiast and military people, mostly U.S. actually, who really like it. A Dutch colonel who I met during a debate on drones was surprisingly admiring and I gave him a copy. That this project was being popularized by so opposite political factions made it more interesting for me.

▐ ▭ H C-(M): The project Borders of the World Notebooks, a companion of Patterns of Power, explores the aesthetics and the history of geopolitical divisions with it’s own restrictions and colonial strategies, the six notebooks that you produced (Syria – Israel, USA – Mexico, Spain – Morocco, India – Bangladesh, North Korea – South Korea, Greece – Turkey) include a relationship between a hierarch country and a restricted country. And even when there’s an awareness on the growing and strengthening of physical borders, there’s also an important way to understand the new divisions in an individual level, the rise of digital borders based in personal information, race and gender. ​

Why did you decide to make the output of this project as notebooks?
What do you think about the consequences that the growing of digital borders will bring?

■▀​​ RP: Many people think physical border fences and fortifications are something of the past, before the Berlin wall was torn down and the Schengen agreement set in. But since 2001 the building of border fences has grown exponentially. Under the pretense of the so-called ‘war on terror’, fences and walls are being built with renewed force, mostly to prevent people in the Global South to seek a better life away from poverty, war, and exploitation. The border wall is the most direct representation of the growing inequality in the world. Even architects are now looking at border fences as a new opportunity to show their talents, as the perverse design challenge Building The Border Wall? .

This is troublesome for many reasons, but especially since it suggests people are beginning to accept that walls are becoming a new reality, even in the Netherlands right-wing politicians are calling to close the borders now. My notebooks focuses on these renewed interest in the physical border walls, but the future of border control is of course, completely digital. The European Union is heavily investing in a digital militarized border architecture, consisting of drones, satellites, smart surveillance technologies, and biometric identification. The Border Notebooks are in that sense, already outdated, and I am very interested in exploring the possibilities of exposing the structures that underly digital militarized borders. Especially because they are invisible, they need to be represented using visual narratives.​

▐ ▭ T|G: Talking about visual narratives, the discourse that supports Behind the Blue Screen is a very unusual opportunity to analyze the difficulties of freedom of speech in countries like Iran, specially in the context of a region which constantly scrutinizes digital data flows.
Which risks Jaap van Heusden and you took to make this storytelling series possible?

■▀​​ RP: Before we started the project we spent a lot of time talking to journalists and activists who have experience working in countries with repressive regimes. Luckily a lot of these NGOs are based in the Netherlands, so there is a lot of knowledge we could tap into. That taught us a lot about how sensitive these issues are and how others approach them. Iran turned out to be difficult because the government is highly skilled in internet monitoring and digital censorship. Late 2014 we went to Iran ourselves for a short trip just for research. Because we are both Dutch citizens, the risk for us is not the same as citizens of Iran, as the arrest of U.S./Iranian journalist Jason Rezaian in 2014 has shown. In the end our project is not criticising the regime, and it does not have an explicit political agenda. Behind the Blue Screen is a project about everyday stories from Iran, told in ways that try to get as close to the voice of people as possible. Without the government interfering or a Western journalist shoving a microphone in your face. The stories we got were not about politics or the regime, they were anecdotes and personal stories about love, marriage, parties, and schools.

▐ ▭ H C-(M): The approach in the use of technologies for this project is also particular, in an interview with Karel Smouter, you declared that your first resource to collect the stories was the contact through encryption, but in order to protect the identities of the people that offered to tell their personal stories you decided to implement a face recognition app, ambulant hand-on-hand smartphones and Sneaker-journalism.
Could you develop a statement on the function and the importance of "sneaker-journalism" in citizen journalism?
Do you agree with the idea that invasive technologies (e.g. face recognition software) can be used as an antidote for their initial purposes?

​​​■▀ RP: The sneakernet is a method to transport digital information without a network, so just physically bringing it from one point to the other. Many citizen journalism projects use Tor to establish a secure internet connection, but in Iran this is not yet a secure method. Using Tor is better because you can react quicker, and especially when it is sensitive news the time factor can be very important. If you have a video that shows a crime by the government, you want to get it to the news within hours, not weeks. Sneakernets are slow but what I like about them is that it uses people that trust each other, in a way this is the oldest communication method. One person telling another that they trust, who tells another person they trust, and so forth. What I like in this project is that we use relatively new technology of face recognition in combination with the oldest communication network in the world.

When it comes to emerging technologies, I have my preferences. As I said drones are not something I am that enthousiastic about yet. Their airspace is controlled and organised by authorities, and does not (yet) give citizens much agency. Although they have been used at demonstrations to monitor police tactics which is very interesting, and could possible be used to government wrongdoings, illegal pollution, etc. However using drones in public space is still mostly illegal. Face recognition is easier to appopriate because it is software based and cameras are very small and omnipresent. Anyway who knows a bit of coding can use it. I see many possibilities to use face recognition for citizen tactics of countersurveillance, art, fashion, etc.

▐ ▭ H C-(M): The Spy Puzzles Series took as main reference a key moment in history, the information that Edward Snowden revealed in 2013 confirming the existence of global surveillance infrastructures created to spy, filter and collect every single movement made on internet. For this project commissioned in 2014 by NRC Next, you made a thought-provoking tactic, designing a puzzle per week that needed to be completed with details from the Snowden leaks.

Is important to underline that the puzzles were published in an analog format (a newspaper).

How did you plan these conditions designed to expand a didactic cycle?

What was the reaction to the puzzles?

■▀ RP: My initial idea was to make a puzzle book, sort of like an NSA puzzle book. A friend suggested I should try to contact a newspaper, because they have puzzles every day and people do them on the train, or on their lunchbreak. What I liked about the idea that everyone loves puzzles, no matter what the topic or style is. A newspaper was a great way to invite all sorts of people to learn about digital espionage, by making puzzles. I still want to publish the puzzle book, but just the book would have probably attracted more people that are already interested in the subject. I proposed it to a newspaper, and to my surprise they liked the idea.

I have not gotten that much feedback, I think when people do puzzles they do not immediately contact the person who made the puzzle. The feedback I did get was great, a friend saw an old lady doing my puzzle on the train, that is awesome to hear. Some people tweeted their answers, and I encouraged that by introducing a hashtag when I exhibit the project.

You are referring to the didactic element. My idea was to exhibit the work in combination with organisations that educate people about privacy and encryption. So maybe people come in and do some puzzles, a little puzzle contest maybe, and in the afternoon they get a course on how to encrypt their e-mail. This is important because people are scared by the NSA leaks, but at the same time they find it difficult what they can do themselves. Tools like the Tor browser and PGP encrypted e-mail should become the rule instead of the exception, unfortunately we are not there yet.​

▭ H C-(M): As your previous answers showed before, your projects explore different subjects in constant dialogue and continuity, if we map every one of them, we can find complex interconnections in their own chronological configurations. This is the case of Patterns of Power, Delta Deluge and Protection Against Flooding where subjects like global warming, political interests and food crisis collide.

In the last part of Patterns of Power you make clear that “Global inequality and climate change will increase the migration between the global South and the global North.”, in a parallel encounter Delta Deluge explains that the multiple risks that the rise of sea level will put Netherlands in an inevitable crisis, simultaneously the First Dutch Flood manual operates as an attempt to confront and anticipate a future ignored by government structures. It seems like these three projects complete a circular flux.

Back in 2010, what were the reasons to start a research about the effects of climate change and the political double moral affecting Netherlands?

▐ ▭ H C-(M): In Are you Prepared for Flooding? you used survival as an important element to redirect climate change as a socio-economic problem.
Could you explain why you decided to put emphasis in survival as narrative?

​​■▀ RP: If you have understood it as a survival narrative, than this is unintentional. The flood manual is a comment on the Dutch climate-denying government and its inability to inform citizens of a collective risk, presented in the form of an instruction manual. These flood manuals already exist in the U.K., Japan, and the U.S. and many other countries, and it is outrageous it does not exist in the Netherlands. We should avoid the survival narrative in dealing with the important issues of our time, which are inequality and climate change. I realise this comes back in several ways in my work, like the Drone Survival Guide, but this is meant as a criticism of the survival narrative itself. Because the survival narrative is the neoliberal solution to these collective issues.
The government abandons its responsibilities towards the safety and well-being of citizen, who are left to survive any way they can, which is basically social darwinism. This is a very important issue, but it is also complex. You could also argue that any designer or artist who tries to make work to inform, help, or assist citizens with these issues, is helping the neoliberal narrative, but this is for me yet too pessimistic of a view on design. I choose to work on this fine line between commenting on this narrative and at the same time also informing citizens.​

​​■▀ RP: I answered this partly in the previous answers, but what I will add is that the Netherlands is one of the richest countries in the world, and therefore we have the resources to prepare for climate change better than other countries. The flood risk in the Netherlands should not be ignored, but I also want to use this topic to address the global responsibilities we have as a rich country to help poorer countries. Right now we accept that climate change is a threat to the well being of all countries on earth, but we do not translate this in richer countries provinding funding for the poorer countries to built flood barriers, prevent draughts, preserve drinking water, etc. It is shameful how the Global North is not assuming its responsibilities in the way the world is addressing climate change. Sharing resources is not just a matter of empathy, but it is a matter of survival for all.

_ 2016