Currently, he is not using museums to just observe and study surveillance, but enlisting them for fighting it.
From 2014 onwards, he has been exhibiting a sculpture, which has been named by him and Jacob Appelbaum, his collaborator, as “Autonomy Cube.”
The minimalist sculpture block, approximately 1.25 feet tall, is made of invisibly translucent acrylic which is 1.5 inches thick.
A custom-made Wi-Fi router is housed within the block.
When a visitor to the gallery connects to this router, his/her data are encrypted and redirected over the Tor network.
The router also doubles up as a Tor relay (one among the thousands of volunteer computers used for bouncing Tor users’ traffic through many encrypted proxy layers for anonymizing purposes.
In 2015, Paglen installed four of his Autonomy Cubes at several museums around the world from New York to Frankfurt to London.
He kept each one for a few months in each museum and then moved it to the next. In the museums, it was displayed as an artifact in a white room, hiding all the network and power cables.
In May this year, the device is scheduled to be installed in three new places. Additionally, Paglen is planning to install new Autonomy Cubes on a permanent basis in museums that are ready to pay for the device.
His goal is to convert museums into Tor network hosts with the help of their high-bandwidth internet connection and strengthen online anonymity provided by Tor.
Meanwhile, he would push museums to take a stance as regards online privacy as well as surveillance.
According to Paglen, museums are eager to contribute their bandwidth for the purpose of strengthening online anonymity in the same way as libraries that have started hosting parts of the Tor relay.
Each of Paglen’s installations in museums, more powerful than an average Tor relay, enablesTor users to simultaneously direct their traffic through one router.
Routers in museums offer speeds of nearly 100 Mbps compared to single-digit Mbps speed offered by volunteer machines on Tor network.
The Autonomy Cube consists of a minimum of two numbers of open-source Novena motherboards developed by a hacker by name Andrew “Bunnie” Huang.
They are designed in such a way that they reboot each other, if one of them happens to crash. This way the router is always online.
Further, they are easy to configure. Therefore, museums are not required to have tech support for maintenance purposes.
Marcel Schwierin, co-director of the public gallery Edith-Russ-Haus in Oldenburg, Germany, which used the Autonomy Cube to set up an “exit node” (third as well as the final hop prior to destination in the path of Tor traffic) in Tor network, said that the biggest issues in the recent times are algorithms and surveillance.
He added that these are completely invisible, but the Autonomy Cube makes it more visible.
Autonomy Cube Design
Paglen worked with Jacob Appelbaum, a technologist and an activist who contributes to the non-profit Tor Project, to develop the Autonomy Cube.
The Tor Project whole-heartedly supports Paglen’s drive to bring in museums into the Tor network.
According to Paglen, a 1962 sculpture by name the Condensation Cube (created by Hanse Haacke) partly inspired him to develop the Autonomy Cube.
The Condensation Cube consisted of a cube made of plexiglass with a little bit of water which would keep evaporating and condensing.
Apart from its physical design, Paglen’s dream to create impossible objects (things that look as though they are from another world) helped him to develop the Autonomy Cube. Paglen wonders as to how would the internet infrastructure look like if mass surveillance was not a part of its business model.
He says that it is not only his job, as an artist, to learn to visualize as to what the world would look like at this historical moment, but also to try and make things that help others see how different the world could be.
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