Yesterday, a package of 10 “beautiful yellow round pills with the Twitter logo” arrived safely at an art gallery in Switzerland. The pills were sent from somewhere in Germany—the actual origin is unknown—and were vacuum-sealed in aluminum foil and hidden inside a DVD case. The “snapback 120mg MDMA,” as the pills are formally known, was purchased by the “Random Darknet Shopper”, a bot created by the !Mediengruppe Bitnik art collective for “The Darknet – From Memes to Onionland. An Exploration” exhibition at Kunst Halle St. Gallen gallery in St. Gallen, Switzerland. The exhibit offers a fascinating glimpse of the World Wide Web’s underside.
“Random Darknet Shopper” is an automated bot, an electronic shopper that gets a weekly budget of $100 in bitcoin. Among its recent purchases (all of which are on display at the gallery): spy gear, a Lord of the Rings e-books box set, 10-packs of Chesterfield Blue cigarettes shipped from the Ukraine through Moldova to St. Gallen, a Platinum Visa card and a pair of Nike Air Yeezy2 sneakers. So far, !Mediengruppe Bitnik’s favorite item is the Firebrigade Master Key Set from the U.K. “It has this mystical quality as to what you can do with it,” say Domagoj Smoljo and Carmen Weisskopf of !Mediengruppe Bitnik. (Potentially, the master keys could open locked subway systems, allow access to firehouses, and even operate old-time elevators.)
Most of these items aren’t the kind of things you can pick up just anywhere online. Agora and other “deep web” markets can be accessed via Tor, technology meant to protect users’ anonymity, and cloak their activity from snooping government bodies. The artists describe Random Darknet Shopper as a live mail art piece, similar to their “delivery series” which began with Delivery For Mr. Assange when they shipped a parcel to the notorious WikiLeaks editor at the Ecuadorian embassy in London. That package had a tiny hole in it, through which a hidden camera documented its trip through the postal system. This current project has a safe and legal predecessor: Darius Kazemi’s Random Shopper bot, which randomly purchased an assortment of stuff from Amazon. But things get ethically and legally murkier—and quite a bit more interesting— when a crawler specifically devoted to Agora can trawl through its 16,000 items, many of which are as illicit as Ecstasy.
“We want to see what goods come out of the deep web,” say the artists, “where they are sent from, how (and whether) they arrive. We want to find out how the goods are packaged to be concealed from the postal services.”
The Random Darknet Shopper raises all kinds of conundrums. How can a society manage “dark” markets given the problems that arise when an international online marketplace runs into the different laws of different countries? Then there’s new relatively new phenomena of these “dark” markets adopting capitalist business practices, and having to rely on trust between sellers and buyers. “Although the hidden market is based on the anonymity of its participants, rating systems and anonymous message boards ensure a certain level of trust,” the artists explain. “The ability to rate your dealer is radically changing the way people are buying drugs and other controlled items. Buying contraband online means having access to a reliable rating system, while at the same time staying anonymous, all from the comforts of your home.”
With projects like this, it’s often difficult to ascertain the authenticity of the items and of their provenance. But the artists assure Fast Company that they’ve taken real precautions. “Together with an arts rights lawyer, we evaluated the work beforehand,” they say. “We made a promise to ourselves to show what we get. No censoring. But we do deal with ethical issues every week. Also, because the work involves the people working at the gallery. So we do discuss this issue a lot, but we are taking it one item at a time.”
The group show explores other recesses of the deep web. For example, Eva and Franco Mattes’s “Emily’s Video” is an edited video compilation of volunteer reactions to horrifying footage culled from the dark web. Robert Sakrowski has curated a YouTube history of Anonymous. Seth Price presents a guide to “disappearing” and “dropping out of mainstream society” in America, based on materials he collected from the Internet.
“By exploring the Darknet from an artistic viewpoint we hope to critically evaluate mass surveillance, and to study alternative structures and forms of communicating outside mass surveillance,” say the !Mediengruppe Bitnik artists. “How is identity formed in these networks? How is communication and exchange possible in anonymous networks? What forms of trust building arise? How do you trust each other if you don’t know to whom you are talking to? How can we as artists examine these questions in a meaningful way?” Their questions are meaningful to everyone, of course—even if not all of us will try to get answers via the purchase of some yellow happy pills.