Museums

Drones, Data, and Deletion

by Stephen Truax on April 21, 2014

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Nik Nowak, ‘Echo’ at Berlinische Galerie, installation view (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

BERLIN — Two autonomous drones shaped like miniature tanks a little bigger than a kid’s Fisher-Price Power Wheels truck roam the cavernous white hall of the Berlinische Galerie. They have been programmed to sense and approach visitors. Attached to their antennae-like “cannons” are sensitive microphones which record virtually any noise made by this audience. The captured sound is transmitted back after a short delay to two walls of loudspeakers at either end of the gallery which broadcast these incidental noises throughout the space, creating a digital simulation of an echo. It is precisely this phenomenon from which Berlin-based German artist Nik Nowak takes the exhibition’s title: Echo, 2014.

The vehicles are approximate copies (scale 1:6) of the M10 tank deployed by US armed forces in World War II, sometimes outfitted with loudspeakers for the purposes of psychological warfare. They are also a clear nod, however, at contemporary drone warfare perpetrated, of course, by the United States.

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Nik Nowak, ‘Echo’ at Berlinische Galerie, installation view

What at the outset appeared to be merely another lamentation on the terrifying, unstoppable military power and audacity of the US (or another digital media show of kinetic sculpture saying nothing more than “Look what I can make!”) turned out to be a nuanced and prescient look at our relationship with technology. In particular focus: the permanent historical imprint we make on it while we’re alive. And, crucially, what implications, legally, socially, culturally, does our own death have on our digital identity?

During the opening, Nowak told me that despite the limited scope of the roaming area that he designed and programmed the drones to occupy — unfortunately, one did escape into the main exhibition space. They weren’t supposed to be there, and really, shouldn’t be able to get in there. He insisted that despite our ability to “teach” technology, in this case, using the complex systems he had to invent in order to make the robots do what they do, something unexpected almost always happens.

“For the next show, I’ll just stick to paintings,” he joked. The single painting in the exhibition is a copy of a digital reproduction of Alexandre Cabanel’s “Echo” (1874), a portrait of a nymph by the same name, which the artist had produced in China: a painting he ordered over the Internet.

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Nik Nowak, “Delethe” (2014)

Can you delete yourself from the digital environment after death? After much research, Nowak concluded that you can’t. Not so surprising. But, refreshingly, more than only offering a complaint, Nowak provides at least one solution to the problem. “Delethe” (2014) — ‘Delete‘ and Lethe, the river of forgetfulness in Greek mythology, combined — is a mausoleum-like partial enclosure at the back of his monumental structure of sound equipment and speakers encased entirely with white soundproofing foam and a marble plaque engraved with the piece’s title. In here, secluded from the cacophony, is the key to the show.

Data is treated as though we have ownership over it. But after death, no one owns it. Apparently, it doesn’t necessarily even pass to your next of kin automatically, the way a debt, wealth, or property can. We can only control what happens to the data if we write a testament about it specifically, in order to not delete (impossible) but merely to modify how the data is treated in death. Delethe.com offers visitors the option of contacting a lawyer to draw up just such a testimony.

Nik Nowak’s Echo is on view at the Berlinische Galerie (Alte Jakobstraße 124, 10969 Berlin-Kreuzberg) through June 30.

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