The Critical Engineer considers Engineering to be the most transformative language of our time, shaping the way we move, communicate and think. It is the work of the Critical Engineer to study and exploit this language, exposing its influence.

– The Critical Engineering Manifesto, 2011-2014


The globe has begun a shift from an evolved habitat to an engineered one. A densely connected web of energy, material, and information built primarly for supporting human life, but whose design and administration shape the global ecosystem.

Julian Oliver is primarily concerned with ways in which our networked culture is vulnerable to exploit or inadvertent failure due to the systemic interdependence between people, technology, and environment. Oliver contends these vulnerabilities are compounded by a culture of technological opacity, i.e. ‘black boxes.’

An engineer and artist, Oliver drafted the Critical Engineering Manifesto with partners Gordan Savičić and Danja Vasiliev in 2011. The document serves as a framework for his practice, which aims to subvert communication networks and other technopolitical infrastructure in order to begin productive, critical conversations regarding their impact and governance.

Notably, his projects Transparency Grenade *Newstweek (co-authored by Vasiliev) are devices that ‘hack’ cellular networks by using a microwave receiver to intercept passing messages, parse them, and mimic carrier responses.

Border Bumping uses a similar technology to redefine geographies by their network service infrastructure.

Border Bumping commissioned by the Abandon Normal Devices Festival as part of their 2012 Mobile Republic program.

I asked Julian a few questions at a pub near his Berlin studio which are presented here, edited for publication.

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SH: Your works act as mechanisms for facilitating critical engagement with contemporary technoculture, yet you frequently present them in art spaces. Tell us a bit about why you believe these venues are best able to communicate your critique or assist in the type of engagement you’re looking for.

JO: It’s a question that I’m still coming to terms with. Art spaces have a number of affordances. For instance, doing this kind of work without that forum, without that digressive frame, I would either need to be in an engineering context at a university or I would have to be producing for the market. And if I were to sell these objects, I could by some definitions be considered in the arms business, which would certainly slow down my freedom of movement and my research. Alternatively, if I were at a university, some of the cultural and technopolitical conversations of real importance to me would be curtailed. So to some degree I am left with the art world. I would also argue, however: many of my projects, even though they’re shown in a gallery or at a museum, quite often have a much broader audience online. So a design blog could run a piece, or a website on critical infrastructure and speculation might take interest. My work also frequently turns up on technology sites like Hack A Day or Slashdot.

So whether my work is placed in a gallery and intended as art is of little interest to me, but what I’ve found is that it doesn’t matter whether I call it art. Others will do it for me, so I may as well take advantage of what those spaces have to offer. Perhaps the most crucial of those affordances is that a gallery or a museum can insulate me from misrepresentation and political recourse. I’m protected from conversations driven by cultural fear that could easily pollute what I’m really trying to communicate. The moment these objects are placed in an art context, it’s clear they are to be engaged with critically, instead of deployed.

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PCB from Incompatible Archive, a book doubling as Internet-independent wireless server. Project by Studio Weise7.

SH: Perhaps we can discuss audience a bit further. When installing these pieces in art spaces, you have a particular viewership. And though they may get disseminated more widely through blogs and other outlets online, it seems crucial with your work that you reach the right people so that they can have the opportunity to take action or have some influence as a result. How do you think about audience as a political medium within your work?

JO: While I frequently show in galleries, I think my projects also operate quite well in public contexts. For instance, the Transparency Grenade was shown at Corcoran Gallery, but it may have had more tangible effects while on display at the NEMO museum in downtown Amsterdam, where it was on public display and thousands of visitors could pass through. These are people there to touch a tesla coil or see an interactive display about the movement of celestial bodies, so to expose them to an exhibition about our implicit trust and dependence upon infrastructure is quite profound.

When a grandfather and his daughter and her daughter can stand around a smartphone with worried and amused expressions while considering their own problematic relationship with network technology, and to have this repeated a hundred times a day over the course of several weeks, then you’re starting to get somewhere.

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The Transparency Grenade [disassembled], a handheld network intervention device.

SH: If adjusting public perception and behavior is your primary concern, do you have stringent guidelines for how a successful artwork should act?

JO: One of the motivations for creating the Critical Engineering Manifesto was to address the relative opacity of technologies we depend upon. This can be approached from a conceptual or vocabularic standpoint, but it can also be accomplished by simply engaging tangible opacity. The world is full of objects we fear to open up because we might void a warranty or think that doing so would be futile given our inability to understand them. We must thoroughly extend our knowledge of automated systems and communication infrastructure and peer inside the black box. Otherwise, we are at a technopolitical disadvantage, and that ignorance can be leveraged to great political effect.

If you were to tell people in the local post office that the postal service had a special room where the mail people have been sending is opened up, letter taken out and carefully copied, the sender and recipient of that letter written down and put into a cabinet, and then the letter put back into its envelope and sent on its way, you’d have a lot of old people burning cars in the street. But the same thing is happening with data retention. In fact, the term data retention itself is so internally opaque that most people can’t even begin working with it critically.

If I were to ask those same people in the post office how the postcard they just received arrived in mailbox, they would be able to give me a relatively coherent description of that whole processes. But as to how an email found its way to their inbox? They would be at a complete loss.

So what I want to do with my work — and I know this is the same for my colleagues Gordan and Danja in the studio — is to come up with un-black-boxing strategies. To look for perforations and seams and enhance the possibility for edge detection, because it’s only when we see edges that we know where we are. The ideology of seamlessness associated with ‘cloud’ technologies, these children’s book metaphors (I would argue patronizing metaphors), are intrinsically disempowering and are designed as such. So if you can actually produce the seams that tie these technologies together, then you are being culturally, socially, and critically productive.

Realizing that your smartphone is not having an intimate conversation with Facebook end-to-end, that the radio device on their phone is sending radio signals in a sphere and some of it could easily be intercepted or copied en route, is a point of awareness that needs to be reached through demonstration, which was my aim with the Transparency Grenade. You transcend the terminological and the abstract when someone sees their friend from Facebook appearing as a huge projection moments after checking their phone. In fact it’s so effective that I’ve tried to give a talk about the broader problems surrounding our lack of opacity, but the conversation inevitably gets derailed to a conversation about how the device works.

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Newstweek is a device for manipulating news read by other people on wireless hotspots.

SH: You bring up an excellent point: Transparency is one thing, but digital networks — and communications systems in particular — can have such an extreme level of complexity that transparency may not be enough to achieve conscious engagement. It seems an awareness of system mechanics needs to be addressed in parallel. It’s taken an immense effort for you to engage with these technologies on a technical level, so it’s not unreasonable to expect laymen to lack the kind of knowledge they would need to make informed decisions, ultimately leading them to act complicity.

JO: Absolutely, especially considering the current shared market capital of ignorance. There’s an incredible tension there, and this becomes particularly troublesome when scaling that up to the political level, where people are asking for reform and when lobbyists work around the clock to push through ridiculous — and ultimately destructive — agendas. SOPA / PIPA, the recent attempt to effectively hijack DNS is a great example: A politician would need to be relatively schooled in how the internet operates, including devices, links, and network transmission, before they could make an informed decision.

We can only meet that challenge given a little homeschooling. I don’t need to be a thermodynamic engineer to understand where clouds come from. I can, with a little research, find that when the water vapor in the air cools, it condenses to a liquid that is visible as a cloud. And we need to have that same basic level of understanding to be able to engage our increasingly engineered, increasingly fragile environment.

We’re on life support, which is why one of the critical engineering tenants is: any technology depended upon is seen to be both a challenge and a threat. You might argue that’s an exaggerated position to take but our dependency on opaque systems is undeniable, which opens us up to the possibility for exploit and implies deep societal vulnerabilities. Bruno Latour of course talks about this a lot.

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SH: So do you think artists in particular have a responsibility to interface with other technical disciplines and bring vulnerabilities to light? How do you believe those exchanges should work?

JO: Many of my opinions on this are actually informed by teaching art students. I see a lot of fine artists very frustrated, who express quite plainly to me that they feel they are stuck in representation, that they can only deal with the worlds of surfaces and effects with regards to our contemporary technoculture. They’re the detective that turns up late to the crime.

To not engage engineering on its own terms, or even have a basic vocabularic interface with it, is to be condemned or to limit your ability to become an actor and have a transformative effect.

So much of our environment is engineered: How we eat, how we move, how we remember, how we communicate are all tangibly and deeply affected (at least in the west), by engineered infrastructure, engineered principles, concepts, and ideas. So it follows, to not engage engineering on its own terms, or even have a basic vocabularic interface with it, is to be condemned or to limit your ability to become an actor and have a transformative effect.

So I think that artists do need to be taught how to help themselves, to self-learn and have the courage to use the same tactics and the same perverse instincts. We should celebrate the kind of naughtiness and disobedience it takes to open up a device or intervene in a productive fashion. And I insist that an artist with no programming, or electrical engineering, or chemistry background can still meaningfully pervert the engineered environment, and appropriate it in a way that will reveal a lot about our expectations and what behaviours technology demands of us.

A great example of this is Dennis de Bels who just showed at Art Hack Day. He took an iphone, opened it up and repurposed its electronics to turn it into a functional teletype machine. This is rigorous, it’s archeological, it’s technopolitical revisionism, and artists shouldn’t be frightened of strategies repurposed from those the fine arts has always known.

I think it’s a question of courage to a certain degree; again, in art schools there is a lot of fear. To step into that world is to lose objectivity with regards to a broader self-fulfilling prophecy of contemporary art. Artists are afraid they will become irrelevant or get into a field in which they cannot compete.

SH: There is certainly no shortage of issues coming from the other side as well — mostly having to do with shortsightedness and self-imposed detachment from context.

JO: Engineering needs to break up with its own narrative that it exists only in service to science and industry. Engineering has a utility addiction and there needs to be at least some measure of a dialogic, critically productive relationship with the practice. It’s a dangerous world if engineering is not allowed to become a critical practice — a discursive practice that can own its cultural heritage and impact.

4 February 2014

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Cover image and Incompatible Archive imagery courtesy Julian Oliver & Studio Weise7

All other images courtesy of Julian Oliver.