Ryan Aasen, NSA
“Aasen’s process entwines the brazen and clandestine in a bid to find the space for the personal and the political”
NSA is the National Security Agency, a United States governmental agency.
NSA may also refer to “no strings attached,” an expression for casual sex often used in personal ads.
Two years ago, when news organizations began disclosing unchecked and pervasive surveillance programs operated by the National Security Agency, the implications of our digital infrastructure were laid bare. Largely through documents provided by Edward Snowden, these disclosures detail the interception of Internet traffic, direct access to the servers of major tech companies, and the collection of metadata from millions of cellphones.
For this project, I am using burners to override the GPS location in Grindr to interact with men living close to the areas of the world where the United States is enacting unofficial and indirect war tactics such as cyberwarfare and predator drone strikes. Burners are often scrutinized because they can anonymously subvert surveillance, but for people living in these areas they are often the only means of accessing the Internet. By manipulating my GPS location I increase my chances of entanglement in domestic surveillance, because case law and surveillance defenders have repeatedly suggested that Fourth Amendment protections apply only when all involved parties are American citizens. Any implications, even incidental ones, are stored indefinitely in government data centers for possible future uses.
By creating and mining my own archive of communications, I have made a series of revolving works that map the intersecting politics of networking, surveillance, human rights, and global identity. Cues of surveillance culture infiltrate seemingly innocuous cues of local culture: black tinted glass and RF shielding mesh, used at the National Security Agency’s headquarters to protect its surveillance tactics, here shield mundane but intimate moments, and a landmark speech by the U.S. Secretary of State on human rights becomes the vocals of a local gay bar soundtrack.
Local and international, personal and political, private and professional worlds converge most blatantly online. As we move into an increasingly networked world, digital technology gives us unprecedented opportunities for connection, but also unprecedented opportunities to be surveyed. Our rights are still dependent on the physical boundaries that are constantly blurred by new technology, and, as billions are coming online for the first time, it will become harder to ignore such scrutiny of our digital activities and social circles. In the current digital landscape, where everything is considered fair game for exploitation, there are always strings attached.
Thanks: Additional support for this exhibition was provided by Peter Happel Christian, Matthew McWilliams, and Nathan Renquist. A limited number of CDs are available to take away from the gallery.
Methodologies on the Verge (excerpt)
Kirsten Valentine Cadieux
Ryan Aasen holds down the end of the show with his double play on “NSA” in the third gallery. Combining a fascination with complicating identities via the cultural and data practices of the National Security Agency and No Strings Attached hookups, Aasen’s exhibition NSA lays out most exaggeratedly the methodical triangulation used by this cohort of artists to explore their subjects and arrive at their exhibited work. Mapping a countertopography of human contact in a data-driven domain marked by secretive politics, Aasen’s process entwines the brazen and clandestine in a bid to find the space for the personal and the political in worlds largely identified with violent disjuncture. Organized around a simple but profound hack of locational data in the geospatial positioning of hookup software, the building blocks of this installation are wrapped in unsolicited photographs sent by those who responded to his hacked profile as it appeared near recent U.S. drone strikes.
Providing subtle roadmap clues in the repeated motif of the grid of electromagnetic field shielding fabric (constructing the tent shielding the wirelessly broadcast server of supportive documentation, in the interstices of the hookup dialogues, and in the reflective patterning of the gay bar dance floor), this piece, too, shows methodical response to the compulsion of connection and disconnection. An early experimental stage of this project demonstrated its exquisite balance between unintegrated emotion (disappointment with having missed iconic political eras, unease with cyberwarfare, fascination with the intensity of contact in surveilled and violated places) and the steadiness of practice and familiar ease with the underlying technologies. Lusting after the opportunity to have been part of something big, politically, Aasen used the image-wrapped bricks—with images blown up so large as to be unrecognizable, bits of data materialized around the building blocks of the Soap Factory—to throw through windows. But these windows were set up in his studio, a measured method for testing the intensity of experience, a constrained violence used to assimilate the discomfort of hacking hookups and geopolitics.
I am interested in the intersections of physical and digital spaces and the subtle implications that follow even the simplest interactions with digital technology. Although largely based on documentation, my work extends into interaction through readily available, over-the-counter technologies. Cheap phones, free software, and pirated files all serve as material to question positions of power and accentuate subversion and transgression within social and political systems.
b. 1989, Minnesota
Lives and works in Minneapolis
Mentor: Peter Happel Christian