In the most banal of our everyday activities, we are being watched: while shopping for toilet paper, parallel parking, waiting to board a domestic flight. Cameras mounted on street corners record life from behind unblinking retinas. Police use social media to monitor our behavior, creating fake profiles to catfish potential criminals. Predictive policing analytical software allows law enforcement to gauge the emotional temperature of a neighborhood; if a population in a circumscribed territory posts upset feelings on social media, the software labels the neighborhood high-risk, sending police to patrol the problem area to prevent violence from erupting. Facebook is law enforcement’s most reliable informant.
Instances of using enhanced surveillance to stop crime before it happens, or to determine the length of time necessary for rehabilitating the pre-criminal, abound. The high-security Philippe-Pinel Institute, in Montreal, is the only psychiatric hospital using forensic psychiatry to treat mentally ill patients and criminals with violent behavior. Sex offenders—pedophiles, child molesters, and rapists—wearing virtual reality glasses participate in immersive tech, enclosed inside a vault where they must interact with a simulation of their preferred victim. With a penile plethysmograph strapped to the patient’s crotch and eye tracking technology engaged, machines measuring brain activity, heart rate, and sexual response record data used to create a portrait of sexual behavior, which then determines the length of their court-mandated sentence. The effect of a patient’s response to virtual stimuli and its very real repercussions is not dissimilar to someone’s heart rate increasing at the thought of stealing an ice cream bar and then going to jail.
In a society where everyone is already guilty but has not (yet) violated the law, legalized practices such as the notoriously discriminatory stop-and-frisk, the virtual stop-and-frisk of data-gathering by law enforcement on social media, and sting operations to entrap pedophiles and drug dealers relegate us to a condition much like Schrödinger’s cat: We exist in the temporal paradox of Precrime.
Precrime, a term conceived by science fiction writer Philip K. Dick in his short story “Minority Report,” is defined as “substantive coercive state interventions targeted at non-imminent crimes.” On the basis of presumptive guilt for crimes that have not yet occurred, China’s Communist Party collects Orwellian data on all of its citizens. The China Electronics Technology Group, one of the country’s largest state-run defense contractors, tracks the consumption habits, hobbies, employment, and behavior of ordinary people in the service of locating terrorists and predicting treachery to the state before it occurs.
In June 2002, the Danish-Icelandic artist Jakob S. Boeskov entered the first international weapons fair in Beijing with 3D drawings for a fictional weapon he had created specifically with post-Tiananmen Square, outward-facing China in mind, where mass protests can no longer be violently suppressed with the world’s cameras watching. The ID Sniper, a GPS microchip-based identification rifle designed by Boeskov and Danish architect and aerospace engineer Kristian von Bengtson, proposes a circumvention of this surveillance by locating and tracking potential criminals before they can betray the state. Similar to technology that is already in use, namely the implantation of GPS microchips inserted with a syringe beneath the skin of cats and dogs to track pets in real time, the ID Sniper is a high-powered rifle designed to simultaneously take a high-resolution photo and shoot a GPS microchip into the body of a protestor, who would feel no more than a sting equivalent to that of a mosquito bite. The state would then be able to tag and keep track of a suspicious person’s activities, and if necessary, take the subject out before any nefarious activity is conducted.
Under the aegis of Empire North—a fictional hi-tech company with a flair for Danish design and dedicated to developing new tools for logical solutions to the problems of the 21st century, specifically created for the weapons fair—Boeskov rented a booth among international arms dealers, companies peddling voice recognition software and robots mounted with cameras and hydraulic bomb-detonating arms, and prototypes of armored Honda police vehicles on display. With an actual prototype of the weapon still two years away from fabrication, posters of the ID Sniper detailed its technical specifications and features: 61-centimeter barrel, 8-round magazine capacity, 10.42 kilograms in weight, memory-card holder, silencer, scope and digital camera, clip with GPS-chip caliber, and adjustable ergonomic stock that can be easily lengthened or shortened to fit shooters of different sizes.
Of course, the ID Sniper was created by a conceptual artist, and the weapon is merely a fictional technology that does not and will never exist, at least not with Boeskov at the helm. The weapon is the inaugural chapter of the artist’s Precrime triptych, a series of fictional weapons presented in real-life situations rather than within the confines of an art gallery. In a world where investors can trade in catastrophic events, our reality is already a fiction of speculative futures. There exists no difference in the world of hyperreality between real life and fiction, or a speculative crime and a crime that has actually been committed. Boeskov’s triptych, then, is both a performance and an intervention that hacks into the Precrime-obsessed surveillance milieu.
The project places us in a position of discomfort; as with any good polemic, we are forced to shift from the default passivity of the consumer into a place where we must question what we are experiencing. According to Boeskov, after demurring an invitation from an Abu-Dhabi-based arms dealer to exhibit in a weapons fair in the United Arab Emirates, and three days of presenting the ID Sniper to diplomats from the French embassy and producers at a popular Chinese show that produces dramatized versions of police events, he received two proposals: The president of a company called Beijing Sen Qili Scientific Trade Centre, who had been in China’s police force for over twenty years, offered to invest in the development and production of his weapon; and a representative from Welser Itage, a Brazilian company specializing in pyrotechnics and gas masks, among other warfare apparatuses, who was on his way to meet the Swiss businessman Yeslam bin Laden, brother of Osama bin Laden, wanted to connect Boeskov with a Brazilian ammunition manufacturer. Boeskov prematurely packed his drawings of the ID Sniper and left a note for its fans telling them that urgent business had called him elsewhere before the fair’s end. The situation had gotten too real.
The second installment of Boeskov’s Precrime triptych was presented at ASIS 2015 (American Society for Industrial Security), an international security and surveillance fair in Anaheim, California, whose name bears an unfortunate resemblance to Isis. Thirteen years after the ID Sniper debuted at the weapons fair in Beijing, the project reprised in the form of an anti-terrorist cyberweapon: Face Jagger, a biometric identity simulator created by Syntax Corporation, a Danish software startup using new technology to tackle Precrime.
The four battlefields of war—land, air, space, and sea—have expanded into the unfathomable wilderness of the internet, and Boeskov knew that his next weapon would have to address this fifth zone of combat. In 2013, Mike Rogers, then-chairman of the US House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, declared that most Americans do not realize that we are in the midst of a cyberwar. Despite incidents that have emerged into the public’s consciousness (Stuxnet, the cyberweapon responsible for damaging one-fifth of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges that has been attributed to a joint effort by American and Israeli governments; Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks revealing the infiltration of China’s largest telecommunications company’s servers to conduct surveillance and offensive cyberoperations on its allies and enemies; Russia’s hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s emails), the territory of cyberwarfare is largely invisible. As with any frontier ripe not only for marauding but also ally-building, the internet rewards those with the ability to best plunder its resources. Members of ISIS tweet, post selfies with vintage filters, tag AK-47 cat photos with the hashtag #mewjahid, a pun on mujahideen—guerrilla fighters allied with the Islamic state—and have appropriated lolspeak to promote its own agenda: I Can Haz Islamic State Plz @ISILCats. Entertainment and massacre conflate into a homologous cinematic spectacle.
How do we defeat ISIS at its own game, in the dead zone of the egalitarian internet where power is synonymous with followers and page views? Enter Face Jagger, an offensive cyberweapon designed specifically for the CIA that hacks the faces of terrorists and uses their own technology (which has itself been coopted from Hollywood) against them. The biometric identity simulator takes a photo, sourced online or from the CIA’s files, of a terrorist, renders it into a digital model, and then 3D prints a mask of the subject’s face. A body double wears the face while being filmed on a set by the industry’s top directors, who will make incriminating videos of the terrorist in compromising situations and/or colluding with western intelligence officials. While the films will be edited and distributed online to reach the public, its intended audience will be the terrorist’s fellow jihadists, who, after witnessing the treachery captured on film, will proceed to terminate the subject. Face Jagger allows for the elimination of the problem without the state having to dirty its hands, thereby turning mujahideen against each other through a highly-produced media campaign waged by what Boeskov deems “an untapped and potent force: the terrorists themselves.”
The scene described by Boeskov at ASIS is not unlike an art fair where objects are displayed and marketed to buyers eager for the newest in innovation. The surveillance fair in California is as hospitable to Face Jagger as the weapons fair in China was to ID Sniper. Three masks—a young woman, an ethnically ambiguous man, and the artist’s own face—hang from inside a Plexiglas box, reminiscent of John Woo’s Face/Off, in which Nicholas Cage and John Travolta swap faces, stealing the other’s identity. ThatsMyFace, a company in Oregon, produced the masks from stock images Boeskov sourced online and from a photo he provided of himself. As members of the CIA, FBI, NSA, state officials, and multinational surveillance corporations peruse the biometric masks, Boeskov repeats the catchphrase for his cyberweapon: If Hollywood can do it, so can we! This is the irresistibility of techno-optimism, the belief that against the scrim of a staged fiction with high production values, the impossible is possible and the absurd is logical. Faced with the unknown, we can control the future by collecting more data—a new natural resource, limited only by the population of the earth.
The culmination of the surveillance fair occurs when ASIS’s star speaker takes the stage before a dramatic curtain of red satin. General James “Mad Dog” Mattis—now secretary of defense—bellows forth the usual al Qaeda/ISIS fear-mongering in the name of state and civilian security, but his final and most lurid belch proves the most revealing. After an audience member begs inquiry into the new wars that the invasion of Iraq has created, Mattis responds, “Look, let me put it this way. We will probably look back on the invasion of Iraq as a strategic mistake.” In light of Boeskov’s work, this parapraxis of speech revealing the establishment’s regrets over the Iraq invasion—the most elaborate and enormous Precrime military operation in recent history—becomes clear. The third and last chapter of the Precrime triptych will take place in Europe, completing the project’s reach across the dominant empires of Earth.
Ten years after ID Sniper launched, two federal agents, feasibly from the US Department of Homeland Security, visited Boeskov at his apartment in New York’s Chinatown. “I can’t tell you where we’re from, but I guess you know,” one agent with a military haircut and wearing chinos declared. “We don’t want to tell you what we can do, but we can do a lot.” The two agents left after essentially reading Boeskov his CV for two hours. Is it true you had a show at Greene Naftali in 2008? Is it true you showed work at the Frankfurter Kunstverein in 2005? The message, though diffused through the abstraction of unspoken threats and invisible future action, is clear: We know who you are. We are watching you, and we will strike before you do.