Artist Adam Harvey has been working with the idea of anti-surveillance for years, creating, for instance, a handbag that thwarts paparazzi with a flash of its own, a series of portraits that fool face-recognition technologies with blocks of makeup and obtrusive hairstyles, and a line of “stealth wear” designed to camouflage its wearers from drones.
But only recently did his projects begin to seem as marketable as they are provocative.
His latest invention, a collaboration with performance wear designer Johanna Bloomfield called “OFF pocket,” is an envelope for cell phones that supposedly blocks all cellular, Wi-Fi, and GPS signals. More than 650 Kickstarter backers have contributed $56,447 to see it be manufactured en mass.
The project may not have generated as much interest before the NSA’s mass electronic surveillance program was revealed to the public earlier this year. “In the first few years after 9-11, talking about privacy was nearly taboo,” Harvey says. “Its relevancy was buried in jingoism. Now, privacy is the topic du jour at cafés. Having double identities brings you cache. And a modest amount of paranoia is considered healthy.”
In the wake of OFF Pocket’s success, Harvey is planning to launch an online store called PRCVM (short for “privacy mode”) on December 1. The store will sell the OFF Pocket and other items created for a collaboration with the New Museum store called “the Privacy gift shop.” Some other products from that collection include an “I Love New York” T-shirt that can’t be read by machines ($40), a copper wallet insert that blocks credit cards from RFID scanners ($25), and an anti-Drone scarf ($450).
Many of these projects started without commercial intentions. Before developing the OFF Pocket, for instance, Harvey modified a pair of his own pants with a signalproof pocket and wore them around. The interest those privacy pants generated led him to look at the idea from a product design perspective. Other products, like the anti-drone scarf, remain more art than product. "Conceptually, these garments align themselves with the rationale behind the traditional hijab and burqa: to act as 'the veil which separates man or the world from God,' replacing God with drone," that project's website explains. The point of selling the scarf, Harvey says, is partly to raise awareness about privacy issues so that other designers, artists and thinkers can approach them another way.
One already has—but with a very different philosophy. Called HyperStealth Biotechnology Corp, the company makes a fabric it claims can make soldiers completely invisible. It is careful to not sell its full-fledged stealth wear to civilians. "The only people who really don't need to be seen," its designer told The Guardian, "are the ones who are doing something wrong out there."
Harvey, on the other hand, sees his product as a way to explore offsetting military technologies like drones as they inevitably enter everyday life. “I see it more as a tuxedo—which I don’t wear either, very often—but it’s a piece that could be worn if you ever needed to wear it,” he says. “And it’s available.”
[Images courtesy of Adam Harvey]