Aaram Bartholl wants to bring meaning back to the act of sharing in a digital world, and he wants you to help him. The artist, who has been living and working in Berlin since 1995, had made his career taking a conceptual Exacto knife to your computer habits and pasting them into the three-dimensional world.
Recently, he’s been constructing gigantic red location indicators à la Google Maps and leaving them in city centers. With this new Dead Drops project, he has slid our file-sharing practices under the proverbial microscope to critically re-examine our relationship to the act of exchanging information.
Earlier this year, during a residency at the Eyebeam Art and Technology center in Chelsea, he designed a project to emancipate file sharing from the Cloud. ‘Dead Drops’ takes its name from the olden days of analog espionage, when spies would leave secret documents for each other under rocks or in hollowed-out walls.
The updated version, according to Bartholl’s manifesto, is “a naked piece of passively-powered Universal Serial Bus technology embedded into the city, the only true public space.”
Basically, it’s a USB stick jammed into a crack in a wall and plastered over so only the very tip of it sticks out. The project went live in October, along with a website encouraging people to create their own. According to a user-submitted database, there are currently 437 Dead Drops worldwide with a grand total of 1302 GB of storage. This week, the project was selected to be included in the upcoming Design and Communication showcase at the MOMA, Talk to Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects.
A few days ago I decided to try and hit all the Dead Drops in New York, ignoring the popular warning that sticking random collections of data into your USB port is pretty much the worst kind of unsafe sex your computer can have.
11:45 AM, EAST WILLIAMSBURG: I set off for the Drop closest to my house, a spot on Scholes Street, smack in the middle of the East Williamsburg Industrial Park. I cruise up and down the block a few times, hoping I might be able to detect it from afar, but apparently whoever installed this one took the espionage thing seriously. It’s only once I get off my bike and begin snooping around up close that I notice a slight discoloration on one of the flat brick walls stretching down the street, a light spot smaller than my fist. I get a little closer and yup, there it is: the tiny metal nub of a USB stick.
On a Saturday morning the neighborhood is completely deserted: just me and the rusty dumpsters and broken glass in every direction. All of a sudden I realize I have an awfully nice computer. It’s not that the neighborhood is dangerous, but breaking out my shiny macbook and jamming it up against a brick wall feels wrong in more ways than one. I do it anyway, trying to balance the computer in one hand and use the keyboard with the other. I keep fucking it up, getting like ten “device incorrectly ejected” messages before I am finally given access to the folder.
But once I do, there are, in addition to Dead Drops manifestos in three languages, as well as almost 200 still .gif tiles from Sim City 2000 flashing in front of me: six pixilated lower class houses, four arrangements of rioting civilians, dozens of comically inaccurate futuristic robot-dwellings—so worth it. I remove my computer from the warehouse wall and get back on my bike without seeing a single person.
12:50 PM, DUMBO: The Drop in the waterfront park in DUMBO has been completely eroded by the elements, a bummer considering I have to look like a complete nut—running my fingers across the underside of a set of gigantic stone steps to find it. The picnicking family I ask to move away from the site isn’t too happy when, finding nothing on the drive, I immediately duck out and head east.
1:25 PM, BOERUM HILL: The third Brooklyn drop is on one of the more desolate stretches of 3rd Ave. I park and feel like a professional, whipping my laptop out of my bag and jamming it into the wall without hesitation. There is nothing on the Drop but a single English-language manifesto. I get a strange stare from the shopkeeper next door and flash back to the judgments I’ve made about laptop users on the subway.
2:10 PM, CHELSEA: I get a heads-up that the Drop in Union Square has been removed, so I make my way over to the West side of 23rd Street. As soon as I plug in, using my now-expert balancing technique, I know I’ve found the mothership. There’s a copy of Photoshop, a .pkg of hundreds of high-quality infographics, a photo booth image of a previous visitor giving a thumbs up, high quality scans of entire textbooks in Practical Astronomy, Chromodynamics, and Quantum Electrodynamics. There are mp3s of strangers’ voices giving shoutouts, snapshots of unidentified people, a remix from a DJ in Vienna, a whole “Teach Yourself Icelandic” audio series.
There is also a .txt document warning that the Bowery drop has been vandalized, signed “kupo and rage.” Luckily I already have enough to sift through already.
We’ve been hearing all of this noise about the taming of the Internet, the flattening force of all those user-friendly applications mediating our once very messy relationship with the web. Older, more tech-savvy friends of mine recall the rush of pre-broadband file sharing, of dialing directly into another computer and poking around its dark and mysterious digital corners. I found myself wondering, as I leaned my shoulder against a brick wall and eagerly waited for one or another Dead Drop to pop up on my finder, when I had last felt so engaged with or attentive to the artifacts passing through my browser in the digital world.
This excitement is a phenomenon related to the ease with which digital items can end up in circulation on the internet. It requires little to no effort to release an mp3 into the ether and let it travel through endless networks, and with so many exchanges going on at once, we so rarely feel the joy and excitement that can come from the act of sharing.
The pivotal difference between this type of exchange and the act of surfing one blogroll to another on a download spree, or torrenting the Criterion Collection through Pirate Bay, is the level of engagement with the experience; someone put this here on purpose, someone took the effort to walk here and make this information available to me.
Would I have cared about the photo I found of the clothed and drunken couple spooning if someone had hit “reblog” on Tumblr? Probably not. But someone went through the trouble of uploading it on a Dead Drop, and I’m riveted.
The lexicon of the Internet relies heavily on physical metaphors. We browse, we surf, we search, we find, we capture, often taking for granted that the feeling of travel we experience hopping from one web page to another is a necessary illusion. The bits are, in fact, being brought to us; there’s really no movement involved.
It’s a good system for amassing a pile of information, it’s fantastic for flipping through blogs and snatching up every download in sight, but it doesn’t facilitate that moment of unique wonder particularly well. In a world where the cultural and artistic significance of a given file is dragged down to nothing by the sheer volume and effortlessness of digital exchange, there’s something particularly satisfying about having a truly concrete local link to random digital information. It’s the only relationship that matters with a Dead Drop: knowing the people who uploaded this stuff stood exactly where I stood. I found a limited amount of information on the Dead Drops, information I would have never asked for, but the weight of its position in a fixed internal space made it compelling and bizarre.
There is no way to surf a Dead Drop; the form dictates that we take its disembodied files at face value as they come. Activity on the Internet, increasingly, is a process of monitoring and streaming rather than discovering; Bartholl’s project reminds us that our digital habits leave quite a bit of unexplored territory.