An interview with the media actionist Hans Bernhard aka ubermorgen.com|
Nitewalkz: Can you please introduce yourself and your project voteauction.com?
Hans Bernhard: My name is Hans Bernhard, i'm a part of the group ubermorgen and co-founder of etoy.com. I've been doing media hacking or better media actionism for about 10 years now. Voteauction started in the year 2000 and was in initiated by an american student called James Baumgartner, as a part of his thesis. He created an internet platform on which american electors were able to sell their votes online. On the day of the election Bush vs. Gore - november 7th 2000 - these votes were planned to be sold in an auction. This idea became very popular and James was contacted by the New York Election Comitee. At this time RTMark mediated James to us and ubermorgen.com took over the website and we hosted it on our server. With nothing special in mind. But then the project began to grow bigger and bigger.
Wired reported about voteaution, the FBI started investigations and there was court complaint in Chicago. The pressure on James grew and he was forced to stop his actions. And we perverted europeans took over the project and pushed it far beyond the borders of the tolerable. This wouldn't be possible in the US, but there are no international laws about that case and it is not illegal for europeans to buy and sell american votes online. Wir received legal injunctions from four states, the FBI investigated, NSA investigated, the CIA was involved, Janet Reno was involved and an international press hype started. During the whole action we counted about 2.500 news features all over the world. A global phenomenon.
Nitewalkz: How is it possible for US citizens to sell their vote online?
Hans Bernhard: We offered a webmask to the citizens in which they could fill in their personal data and offer their vote for sale. But due to the pressure on us and the fact that it is highly illegal for american citizens to offer their vote in any way, we had to protect those people. So the data that was filled in our formular was erased immediately. It moved into digital nirvana: Vaporized!
The whole game was at least a ridiculous game with some pixel we arranged on the computer screen. If somebody would have spent a few minutes on our script and compared it to other online auctions e.g. eBay, he would have noticed that voteauction.com is a fake. But the authorities invested millions of dollars in judicial investigations and mailed us documents via UPS and DHL on a daily basis. Thousand of hours were spent by attorneys because they didn't know who was behind voteauction. But we didn't know our enemies neither. If you are in a struggle with the FBI, the NSA or the CIA, you don't know your enemy. They thought that voteauction.com was a perverted game by eastern european businessmen whom are earning money by using the US election market. Our claim was: Bringing Capitalism And Democracy Closer Together!
Nitewalkz: Is that meant to be subversive affirmation? Your claim is implicating an involvement of money and politics. Is democracy not working like it is meant to work?
Hans Bernhard: That is not important for us. Maybe James Baumgartner was motivated by political reasons. For lizvlx (co-author) and me it is important to say that we have no political or ideological motivations in our work. Our projects are more like scientific researches or field experiments. Political intentions would destroy the setup and we'd have a problem. I do not care about democracy. I'm interested in the things that happen when you are mixing capitalism with democracy. The american election process is one of the craziest i've ever seen and it is interesting to jump into it and to have a closer look. The most extreme thing considering voteauction was to give 30 interviews a day during 3 1/2 months and to be in a state of total communication in which information is flowing constantly through your mind. We were like spin doctors. We were constantly manipulating, transcoding and morphing information. The process accelerated more and more and the authorities became more radical. They shut down our websites and we started new ones. Researches in the living organism of global communication.
The highlight of voteauction was a half-hour CNN-Feature "Burden Of Proof" with seven attorneys, two technicians via video-stream, me on the telephone and some politicans and journalists in the studio. The premium product of voteauction. Most exhibitions about voteauction in galleries and museum are based on this feature.
Nitewalkz: What was it that the US authorities wanted to protect? What was at stake?
Hans Bernhard: Democracy and the integrity of the american election system were at stake.
Due to the fact that the authorities didn't know who was behind voteauction, they didn't know how far we would influence the election process: How large was the amount of bought and sold votes? 10.000 or 100.000? 100.000 irregular votes and the process of election is contestable or invalid. Months later i realised that the american society is very unstable without a president, which means that there has to be an election and the election has to have a result. The authorities got panicked because they feared the election beeing contestable.
Nitewalkz: Your latest project is called "Google Will Eat Itself". What's the idea behind it?
Hans Bernhard: GWEI is a co-production of ubermorgen.com and neural.it, hence me and Alessandro Ludovico. GWEI is based on a simple strategy: We've got a showcase-website called gwei.org and we've got some hidden websites running Google text advertisements - little google-ads you can earn money with. Each time somebody - or our engine - clicks our ads, we earn money. This money is transferred to a swiss bank account and we buy google shares. So at the end the circle is closed: Google Will Eat Itself!
The funny thing about it: Sooner or later google will belong to the community, because we also run a program named GTTP: Google To The People. GTTP is a shareholder company everyone may apply to and so the shares will be spread to the whole community.
Nitewalkz: Superficially Google seems to be a very nice and hippiesque company. How would you characterize it?
Hans Bernhard: Google itself is characterized by a super-affirmative and nice service philosophy. Google is buying everything it likes with a smile on its face, integrates it in the company and even develops it to a better state. And everybody is happy. That's one side of the medal. The other side is that Google is doing 3-4 mrd. dollars a year and a profit of 500 millions with google ads and sponsored links. Google is way more worthy than all swiss credit institutes or Time Warner or even General Motors. And its is still growing: the shares raised from 80 auf 350 US$ gestiegen and it looks like it will raise on and on...
Nitewalkz: Does Google know about your action?
Hans Bernhard: Yep! They've already shut down the ads on our showcase-website. The showcase-website is a complete fake of a web-advertisment-mag. Some stupid e-marketing-news. You need a site like that to join Google's advertisement program. We built up a self-referential site about google hacks and search-engine-strategies and such stuff. Underneath the main sites there are thousands of hidden websites no one could notice. If anyone visits our website he starts a hidden engine which generates clicks. The problem was at that time that a big blog called guerilla-innovation.com reported about GWEI. And than the news were spread in about 200 blogs and the traffic on our showcase-website raised. But there's a realistic amount of clicks on google-ads which is related to site visits. If everybody who visits a site clicks on an ad, Google assumes fraud. That was the reason why Google stopped the ads on our main site. But Google is very nice: They'll shut you down with a smile on their faces.
Nitewalkz: What is your work meant to be?
Hans Bernhard: I hate the term „culture jamming“, 'cause it could be anything. I hate the term "activism" 'cause it is way to politicla and i really hate the term "hacktivism". For me the term "actionism" is the best. It is related to art history especially in vienna and perfectly describes the intentions of my work. Actionism also has a political meaning but the people who did it were more influenced by by LSD and american drugs… Like us... The most street artists are too serious and are representing a rough and boring kind of activism.
Nitewalkz: Is your kind of art really meant to be exhibited in galleries and museums??
Hans Bernhard: Yes, of course. The actionism always took place in the public or in the mass
media: nikeground of 01.org and naziline with Christoph Schlingensief. After that we want to transform these actions into a “white cube” like the Lentos Kunstmuseum in Linz. I’m interested in the process of transformation: how may I consolidate, scramble, formalize or aesthetically change my work and bring it into a “white cube”? The work has to be compared with e.g. Duchamp and Rehberger - all that fine art - in the future. And last but not least I earn my money throughout museums…
Nitewalkz: Is an exhibition about “culture jamming” betraying the movement?
Hans Bernhard: No! There is no betrayal… Most people are deaf, dumb and blind and thinking about 3 minutes in the past and future.. And the people who are not blind already know “culture jamming” ‘cause they’ve got an intiution for such things. For me there is an even bigger problem: You’re used as a justification for the system and at the same time your optimizing it. With voteauction.org we improved the american election system, you can’t do anything about it. But I have to accept it, because the consequences are to stop my work. And I won’t do it!