User:Pedro Sá Couto/Graduate Research Seminar/Proposal Outline 04

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Project Proposal

What do you want to make?

Surveillance, privacy, and anonymous communication tools are not new topics, from movies like 007 where the 5 seconds self destructing tape is introduced, or Mission Impossible's self-destructing videotape, to new features, that big centralized companies like WhatsApp have been trying to introduce where messages self destruct, there is a fetichism in the strategy of self-destructive mediums. As a media researcher concerned with processes of documentation and archiving it just doesn't feel the right way to approach this problem.

I aim to create a set of experiments in which I am able to critically tackle the way imprints and their methods of implementation have changed. From the analog idea of libraries where the main intention was to attribute provenance to a medium until the contemporary overview as an imprint as a way to create liability on the users. It is relevant for me to also delve into what it takes to publish anonymously. To publish consciously in anonymity demands a place for others to access published material without borders and without identification needed.

As a publisher, I always had as my biggest concern how archives are documented and how provenance is displayed inside this process of shifting between invisibility and visibility of metadata. Transposing from physical or digital media is a process where information gets lost very often. Physical qualities are hard to translate when it comes to its transformation into a digital file and vice-versa.

From my research on how traces are left to create accountability on the downloader or in the one who shares files, I will tweak these features into an active part of the process of appending imprints to archives. Challenging centralized distribution channels and from my role as a researcher, I consider that the actual process of adding stains can be twisted and revived. Stains are what I will call user patches or marks that are difficult to remove and that do not play an active role in archives. I will explore the process of adding imprints for aesthetic enhancements, marks of quality, marks of provenance or donor documentation as they used to be seen in their historical comprehension. By researching what is done with stains I will also explore them in a process of reverse engineering. While understanding wherein the document they are appended, either visible or invisible, when in the process of download or print are they attached I will be taking advantage from what has been developed using this to actively question on circumstance (condition, size, who, where, why), date of acquisition, questioning on ownership acquisition.

During my project, I will explore both digital and chemical processes with a forensic approach with importance in their documentation. Digitally by providing tools/sketches that make you able to understand the potential of the real situations that may be left invisible while downloading a publication. Physically either by documenting stamps, their intentions, the processes of chemically creating watermarks and removing them. And also other types of technologies that may already exist that enable us to publish without users detectable traces, from projects like SecureDrop until Steganoghrapy.

Ultimately, I will host a wiki, or a similar platform, where I can dynamically share these experiments and their documentation. I will continue to develop these hackpacts and publish them by either posting code, recipes or/and photos.

How do you plan to make it?

It is relevant to point out that the fact of this being a practice-led research already led me to create a more detailed scope for my project. The main focus of my research shifted after developing the hackpacts with Andre and Michael. While developing these prototypes my interest focused more on surveillance in the realm of publishing. From an interest in the normalization of digital surveillance as a starting point, I developed 6 hackpacts that are python and bash code-based experiments on the topic. These were focused on processes such as make visible the processes to target individuals, either by their location, IP address, mac address or user name. I also prototyped a piece of code able to download papers from JSTOR bypassing the process of leaving imprints that are normally added by the publisher and I also explored the creation of my own watermarks and how to append them to pdfs.

I will start my research from traces that I can find within my own downloaded published material and physical books and later on, on news that I find published on the topic that comments on techniques that have been spotted and articles that address data hiding. My interest starts with understanding what kind of tracking techniques have already been used and spotted, test them, and document them.

What is your timetable?

September 2019 — July 2020: Testing and documenting the process.
September – October 2019: Framework outline + Research + Prototyping
November 2019: +++ Prototyping
14 November 2019: Deadline project proposal
December 2019: Conceptualize way to turn prototypes into the final project.
9 & 10 December 2019: Trim 4 Assessment
12 December 2019: Deadline thesis first chapter
March 2020: Fine-tune writing. Turn prototypes into the final project.
April – June 2020: Finish writing, fine-tune project.
June 2020: Finish the project, Prepare a final presentation.
July 2020: Graduation Show.

Why do you want to make it?

I find it important for my practice to not only engage with the political aspects behind a topic but how I am also personally connected to them. I have always studied in democratic countries, where I had access to news channels, either being TV channels, decentralized or centralized social media platforms. I had access to journals and centralized academic publishers, but I was not even aware of how privileged I am. This raised questions on the issue of censorship and elitism when it comes to free flow of knowledge and its importance relating to emergent countries.

We always demand more from the digital world and we compromise our identity because digital surveillance is normalized. We agree with all the protocols that can track us and monitor us, almost every day we use personal tracking devices like cellphones and smartwatches, we are so susceptible to accept new tech, either by convenience or peer pressure. We feel more and more the need to be connected, we don't carry an identity card anymore because it is stored on our smartphones, we must register to access libraries with personal cards, we need them to photocopy archived material. A chain of power is created where it is almost mandatory to get digital.

The creation of strategies to comment, tackle and reuse of technologies of suppression when it comes to publishing is motivating. Trying to not only talk about these methods of surveillance from a personal point of view it is important to acknowledge what methods are we addressing in a very objective way. Comparing the physical aspect of leaving imprints linked to the adoption in the introduction of digital traces.

It is also relevant to understand how important print is used outside the context of book publishers that are mainly focused on bestsellers. There is a need to point out how small-circulation self-published works like zines can address specific communities allowing them to connect, spread their message and objects to gather around. Print gives us an idea of safe and fast distribution and easily targetting our public. From the beginning of research on the topic, I find it important that these groups become aware that they can be targeted. I want to research these technics developed that can specifically target individuals or groups in publishing. Are we losing agency over who gets to published, spread knowledge/information and produce it?

Who can help you and how?

Prototyping tutors in developing fully working devices to test.
Michael Murtaugh more in specific with is previous research in surveillance, more related to computer vision. XPUB squad.
Amy Suo Wu relating surveillance in publishing with her previous work in Steganography. In her book, ‘A Cookbook of Invisible Writing’ she addresses introduces techniques to analog steganography. It has a close relation to surveillance in the realm of publishing, where she publishes her research on secret writing that is hidden in plain sight.
Femke Snelting with her relationships within the PZI curriculum. Femke was our guest tutor during the SI9 and is also a member of Constant, a non-profit organization based in Brussels active in the fields of art, media, and technology.
Bodó Balázs is an economist, piracy researcher at the Institute for Information Law (IViR) at the University of Amsterdam, he was invited during our special issue 9 to give a workshop on Shadow Libraries. He is interested in copyrights, piracy and peer-to-peer communities in which I think could give me insight on investigation methods on these topics.
Alessandro Ludovico is a researcher, artist and chief editor of Neural magazine. He is also working with the Neural Archive with more than 1500 publications that have been published by During the last year and a half I have been working closely with him in the graphic design of Neural and in this last issue releasing in the end of October he is addressing the topic of Surveillance.

Relation to previous practice

Personal interest upon online communities and during the SI8 previous work on data gathered and explored as an artistic practice. The interest in digital culture formed during my first year in the Piet Zwart.

During my bachelor I was able to experience in first hand what is limited access to contemporary books, academic journals and digital publications. The interest cultivated in the Piet Zwart in the free-flow of information and knowledge makes me more critique about how I used to lead my research and gives me an insight to different examples in "free countries".

During the special issue 09, I started my research in the identification of traces that are left in digital books within Shadow libraries Interested in researching the security levels for digital files (watermarkings, user traces, DRMs,...): where, how, on what level are they implemented. I started looking at different shadow libraries and research on how much did they care for visibility, anonymity, exposure? This had to be put on the side once we were divided into groups and I was responsible on a workshop called "Blurry boundaries" that was able to created the experience of being a librarian converting books into machine readable files, a process involving tools, time and choices. Reflection also on what libraries become possible when you transform physical books into digital files, and vice versa?

I had also researched on the topic of Surveillance and how can narratives be formed around this. In the past, the experiments that I had developed were more related to face detection but I would like to explore this with a different approach.

Relation to a larger context

The Archiv der Avantgarden ( ) is taking up the collection’s international and interdisciplinary approach, the AdA in Dresden functions as an open archive: transparent and accessible, it serves as a forum for dialogue and discussion. (“Archiv der Avantgarden: About us,” n.d.) Dusan Barok worked on this archive being responsible to archive the collection and digitize it. It is interesting how they deal with problems in digital archives such as the fact of them disabling some things like: TIME — Through visiting this library the public has no idea of the timeframe, ofuscating the history or memory of the archive and the entity behind it. We do not realise on the efforts to response of criticism to things that are not respresented. It is important to keep the memory when it comes to digital implimentation. And SPACE — The representation is not implemented digitally. You cannot see what are these publications a part of.

Defective by Design is an anti-DRM initiative by the Free Software Foundation. This initiative claims DRM posts a threat to innovation in media, the privacy of readers, and freedom for computer users. DRM, watermarking, and other strategies that are able to track users also post a big threat to ownership issues.


McGrath, J.E., 2004. Loving big brother: performance, privacy and surveillance space. Routledge, London.
Velden, D. van der., Metahaven., Kruk, Vinca., 2015. Black transparency the right to know in the age of mass surveillance. Sternberg Press, Berlin. Baraniuk, C., n.d. Why printers add secret tracking dots [WWW Document]. URL (accessed 10.15.19).
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Bodó, B., 2019b. The science of piracy, the piracy of science. Who are the science pirates and where do they come from: Part 2 [WWW Document]. Kluwer Copyright Blog. URL (accessed 10.13.19).
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Archiv der Avantgarden: About us [WWW Document], n.d. URL (accessed 10.25.19).