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Art hacker Nina Schonefeld interview

#hackerontherun: Interview With Artist Nina E. Schönefeld

Berlin interdisciplinary artist Nina E. Schönefeld discusses her new project #hackerontherun and how the digital world is changing and affecting our current sociopolitical climate.

One thing is certain: contemporary artists are here to push boundaries and to unveil the truths about our current climate in an innovative way. Nina Schönefeld, Berlin-based political artist, epitomises the scrupulous research and investigative work behind the current batch of contemporary political artists. In an age where politics are constantly undermined by hacking and corruption, Nina deconstructs the digital age and scrutinises current hacker affairs. As the free press is sabotaged and ignored, her latest project #hackerontherun exposes the poetry between art and hacking in the digital age.

coGalleries caught up with Nina to find out more about her research, her new project and the lengths she goes to uncover the truths behind contemporary politics.

You’re working on a project called #hackerontherun – can you tell us a little bit about it?

Since I was a little kid I was never interested in pure decorative aesthetics. I always loved people/artists adding something new to the (art) world. I always admired revolutionaries, people trying to tear down boundaries without any fear. Interdisciplinary artists with a focus on their time…

Because of this inherent background, my artistic focus lies on political, social and digital changes in society; the phenomena of abrupt shift. Hackers are people who are radically different and a lot of them are fighting for a free press trying to publish classified information that is not meant to go public.

One hacker personality I am particularly interested in is Julian Assange. He founded Wikileaks to publish classified documents to make sure that there’s a counterbalance between state (secret service) and press. I’m also interested in his private life. For four and a half years now he has been living in the embassy of Ecuador in London. This could happen to every person fighting for democratic rights and a free press.

Assange was one of my main sources to develop a story about a hacker on the run. Obviously I’m also interested in Edward Snowden’s escape and a German hacker called Pengo who hacked the CIA during the Eighties.

For my instagram stories I step into the shoes of a political female hacker. I’d like to point out that there are not so many female hackers who have public attention, so that notion is also relevant for my profile as an artist. I have lots of technical stuff in my studio and I work with computers every day. I connect vintage laptops, old mobile phones, light detectors, tape recorders, weird old machines to build new sculptures out of them.

My female hacker is travelling around the world so the story never ends (#girlsneedmodems). She is on the run trying to get classified information from different secret services & companies so she has to change planes, cars, hotels and locations constantly.

You’re raising awareness with this project but can you tell us if there was a specific moment or experience that has taken you on this track?

There was a big change in my life when my father Rolf Ebbighausen died. He used to be a professor for political sociology and economics. He wrote many books. We had a lot of political discussions about global changes and about art, politics & science being connected when he was still alive. He was specialized in political scandals, changes in society and economic crisis. So when he died I lost an important source of knowledge and vivid discussion. I started researching myself and I had to go public as a political artist to strengthen our family tradition of enlightenment and political thinking.

We’re living in really wild times with governmental elections being hacked and intervened by social bots. what is the future of this do you feel?

Lots of journalists all over the world lead a life threatened by persecution and even death. Secret services have hardly any boundaries anymore and anyone found to be disobeying and publishing material with a contrary opinion or revolting can be traced in a very short time.

The idea of the #hacker-stories is connected with that thought. Imagine there would be a drastic political change in our country and you want to fight for your democratic rights you will need special advice and gear to survive. You can learn from political activists (#hackersociety) and from people who are preparing themselves for war or natural disasters (#preppercult). The question is how to vanish from one moment to the other. Get prepared (#prepper) to become the next Julian Assange (#hacker).

The #hacker#prepper-project is a Triology: The #preppervan was presented at ‘car park’, an exhibition series in Berlin which took place outside the gallery. #preppervan was an interactive installation/sculpture with a van which could be used for escape. The visitors were allowed to sit in the back of the van to watch the videos ‘Anonymous’, ‘Black Hacker’ & ‘Black Prepper’ whilst there was a talk with the artist.

The second work #preppercoat was presented during Manifestina (initiated by Maurizio Cattelan) & Manifesta (Christian Jankowski) in Zurich. #preppercoat was presented during the performance series ’Some Demonstrations’ by Charlie Stein. ‘How to vanish from one moment to the other in a golden coat…’ Charlie vanished in the Swiss Alpes and was never found since then.

The third work is #hackerontherun which is an ongoing instagram performance project as I pointed out before.

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Meet Nina in person and take a tour of her Berlin studio

You’ve done a lot of research, holding a PHD and an M.A. in arts, so how do you relate to research based arts?

I do research work all the time these days. Studying fine arts and art history/theory at the same time made me somehow different to other students. Still my main focus will always be on visual art. I will always create something with my hands. Pure conceptual art without any visual impact is not my cup of tea. I research in all kinds of fields: sometimes I watch entertaining series like Mr. Robot every evening and read books like L’Art de la Revolte by Geoffroy de la Gasnerie in the morning before I create a sculpture in my studio.

If I decide to do a project about political hackers I try to work myself through literature, movies, series, documentaries, Youtube videos, online articles etc. I work in different fields without fear. The good thing about being an artist is that I can combine scientific research with historical knowledge, good imagery and trashy entertainment stuff. I am my own master and I love being a multidisciplinary artist who doesn’t care about boundaries!

What is the scariest socio-political conflict of our generation?

In many countries we are observing huge political changes. Upcoming elections in France, The Netherlands and Germany, including recent changes in the US government, unsolvable conflicts in the Middle East, North Korea and US/Russian conflict. There are many unpredictable leaders with authoritarian structures as decision makers.

Next to Germany lies Poland. I’m half Polish but cannot speak the language anymore and just recently a lot lot of Polish people working for cultural institutions (museums/media/tv/press) lost their jobs to be replaced by supporters of the new government. The same happened in Turkey and I feel that is the first step to end democracy and start dictatorship.

I think that is very scary!

Your studio is filled with ominous objects and deconstructed technology, but what are the 3 weirdest objects in your studio?

  1. A small one-armed bandit sculpture which is still working. People can play with it in my studio and just in case you plan to visit my studio I would advise staying away from it. There’s a high risk of addiction.
  2. An old-school laptop sculpture with a lump of fool’s gold. The gold looks like real gold so I had to buy a special lock for my door.
  3. A whiskey bubble machine sculpture. I have to refill the object with real whiskey on a regular basis because of evaporation, or because visitors help themselves…

If you could hack anything in the world, what would you hack and whom would you work with? 

Google / NSA: Edward Snowdon / Julian Assange / Charlie Stein (multidisciplinary artist) / Coco Sollfrank (artist and researcher) & Carmin Karasic (artist and hacker / Karasic helped to write FloodNet, the tool used by ECD to bombard its opponents with access requests in a symbolic, harmless version of the denial-of-service attacks that took down CNN and Yahoo. “We do it to make a political gesture. We’re not cyberterrorists…but it showed that it’s possible to mobilize mass numbers of people around a particular cause virtually instantly,” Karasic said.)

You’ve spent many years in London, a very different city from Berlin. What’s your take on this?

I love London, It feels like my second home. People have an amazing energy over there, they’re more open to new ideas. I go at least twice a year to London to do research work and see new art shows.

What is your favourite local spot in Berlin when you take a break from the studio?

I was born in Berlin so there’re really too many options. Here are two good spots anyway: Flying Steps Academy in Kreuzberg (dance school) & Botanical Gardens in Steglitz.

And finally, my studio is my… what?

My secret hiding place.