The KUMU contemporary art museum in Tallinn, Estonia, is one of those iconic buildings you don’t forget:  clean lines, generous spaces, windows that catch as much light as possible.  No wonder Finnish architect Pekka Vapaavuori’s design won the prestigious European Museum of the Year Award in 2008.  So whenever I visit Tallinn, I always make a point of visiting the KUMU.

As part of this year’s European Capital of Culture program, I was especially intrigued with the “Gateways – Art & Network Culture” exhibit (until September 15, 2011, with the support of the Goethe-Institut).  But I had no idea I would be frightened by some of the exhibits I saw:  Not frightened in the sense of fear of my life, but in the sense of being met face to face with digital realities of today.  Of course I use the internet, can’t think of life without it.

Of course I am “careful” and think that I adhere to safety and privacy rules, but after seeing these exhibits, I realized that privacy as we knew it back in the 70s or even 80s is long gone.  Big Brother is here to stay. Let me explain by describing the one “artwork” that really did it for me, and I quote its creator and artist, the Estonian Timo Toots:

Memopol-II (click on the link for a virtual tour) is a social machine that maps the visitor’s information field. By inserting an identification document such as a national ID card or EU passport into the machine, it starts collecting information about the visitor from (inter)national databases and the Internet. The data is then visualized on a large‐scale custom display. The collection panel also shows the portraits of the visitors from their ID card.”

The Cyrillic spelling of the installation’s name refers to George Orwell’s concept of Big Brother from his 1949 dystopian novel 1984. Over the past decades, technological means have transformed the surveillance of society. When surfing on the Internet, paying with an ATM card, or using an ID card, people leave their digital traces everywhere. Internet and social networks gather and provide a great deal of personal information, and a person’s profile is no longer constituted by his or her physical being alone, but also by the person’s digital information, over which he or she sometimes has little control. Background checks through Internet search engines and social network sites have become routine when we meet somebody new or apply for a job. Memopol-II enables us to make a thorough background check of ourselves, mirroring back to us all the data about us that is accessible via the Internet.

Estonia is well ahead of other countries in governmental data collecting, storing citizen information online and making it accessible to different degrees to an individual person and to government agencies. It is a convenient means for electronic identification and for making various transactions by inserting it in to the different ID‐card readers. The harmless looking electronic card readers seldom bring to mind thoughts about malevolent third parties who might have unauthorized access to the protected information. By means of Memopol-II, Timo Toots tests either our trust or paranoia toward the machines that read the information.”  A German friend of mine introduced his German driver’s licence into the Memopol.  While not all the fields came up with information, it was astonishing that his Facebook connections and University records came up, along with basic information such as age, address, etc.  Most surprising and disturbing:  his projected date of death (using statistical averages for males of his age and country of origin).  He was not pleased – he had 23 years to beat the odds.

Moving right along, there was the lovely digital Miss Maya Brush, a “homo virtualis”, a digital sculpture, right down to her virtual DNA, born February 4, 2011, the product of German artist Kirsten Geisler.  Her pose and features are reminiscent of Botticelli’s Venus. Maya has a Facebook page and, to date, almost 900 fans:  a fictional character who has stepped out of her digital world to interact with the media.

The artists Spanish Clara Boj and Diego Diaz have created the installation “Observatorio”, which visualizes the increasing density of wireless networks in urban spaces. In this case, wireless networks are registered within a ten-kilometer radius around the Kumu Art Museum and will be realized as a real-time projection in the museum. The otherwise invisible stream of communication is made visible.  And it turns out to be very dense.  Just because we don’t see something, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

On the lighter side, there is “Real Snail Mail”, where real snails are outfitted with an RFID chip containing a message.  Should the snail come close to an RFID reader, the message is sent.  It is up to chance and to the appetite of the snail if it wants to eat the salad leaf on the reader and thus have the mail sent.  A subtle bit of whimsy by the British group boredomresearch.

A visit to KUMU is always worth it, you never know what you may find.  And if for no other reason, a visit to the room with the “chatting heads” is always fun!

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1 Comment

  1. I am also frightened by these things but it seems we are too far gone to change them now, with such a large percentage of the world population having much of their personal information stored in Facebook. I’m surprised Europeans aren’t more wary given the history on the continent (I’m thinking World War II when people were persecuted for being Jewish, gay, of an alternative political persuasion, etc.) I think about this stuff all the time but most people I know seem to feel they are just one in a number and don’t really get to concerned.

    Missed this museum in Tallinn but will have to check it out next time! So much to see in pretty Estonia.

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