The Epic of Surveillance

Conversation: Paolo Cirio with Göksu Kunak

Secret agents with various ID cards and personas have been an attraction for me since I was a kid. Later in my teenager years, hackers who worked against the structures of power seemed to be cooler than Mr. CIA-Agent—it is unfortunately true that they are usually men. Yet, as a result of my lack of technology skills, I figured that such a career would be impossible. Eventually, the well-known festival Transmediale in Berlin introduced me to the one-step beyond: the artist-hacktivists, whose roots are related to (Gothic) Punk and Cyborgs. Isn’t the idea of a Goth-cyborg to scrutinize the every act of surveiller attractive? That’s exactly why I recalled my imaginative heroines/heros, when I saw the works of Paolo Cirio.

Yet, there is more in the story than my imagination of cool predatorsnot mentioning the old versions with Arnold Schwarzenegger, of course. “The most wanted man at the age of 29, ”according to Oliver Stone’s new film trailer, Edward Snowden was the first protagonist who revealed the bone-chilling records. Since 2013, after the release of “global surveillance disclosures”, we, as the public, have been alerted. Nevertheless, despite the fact that we are aware of the evil powers following our every click, inevitably, our world is still shaped through the screens. The conflicts that are aroused by the use of such media construct the core of Paolo Cirio’s works. The artist-activist has been using the possibilities of Internet to unveil the control over the flow of information and to investigate socio-economical structures. Furthermore, the digital world is not the only medium for Cirio. By using the techniques of stencils, he inhabits streets and white cubes.  After the opening of his last exhibition Overexposed, at NOME Gallery Berlin (May 22–July 20, 2015), with Paolo Cirio, we talked about surveillance and the real as well as virtual public-private spheres.
—Göksu Kunak

Paolo Cirio, Caitlin Hayden, 2015. Acrylic paint on canvas, 91x106 cm.
Paolo Cirio, Caitlin Hayden, 2015. Acrylic paint on canvas, 91×106 cm.

Göksu Kunak: Could you talk about how Overexposed started and your technique of surveiling the surveiller?

Paolo Cirio: It started with thinking about how we are all exposed and vulnerable on the Internet, especially during this era of mass surveillance by governmental agencies and Internet companies. It’s not only the exposure of social vulnerabilities of our intimate lives, but also of complex control systems of the information economies and societies. I point out the contradictions we face when a powerful instrument and environment such as the Internet is widely uncivilized and yet highly exploited for authoritarian and commercial interests.

Through looking at pictures of high-rank officials of NSA, CIA, and FBI on social media, I conducted a form of intelligence gathering—from what they would call open-source intelligence, meaning private information that is voluntarily or involuntarily published openly on Internet. I reversed the process in order to unveil who is in charge of the unconstrained surveillance programs that Edward Snowden revealed.

To display this concept, I used authorized photos of close-ups of the faces of intelligence officials that I found on social media as their selfies. I pasted them on public walls as a form of visual exposure of who runs secret surveillance programs. Those photos were reproduced with spray paint, stencils, and murals to satirize political leaders. These graffitis are made with a digital technology I created with coding and laser cutter machines, a technique that refers to the potentials of digital weapons developed for both official and guerrilla warfare.

Paolo Cirio, Street Ghosts, 214 Lafayette Street, New York, 2009. Inkjet prints on coated paper.
Paolo Cirio, Street Ghosts, 214 Lafayette Street, New York, 2009. Inkjet prints on coated paper.

GK: In an interview for AfterImage [1] magazine you said: “I predict that the national governments are going to be very different in a few decades,” how so?

PC: With a form of governance that is faster, more global and more efficient. The structures of nation state can’t work when cross-border flow of money, people, information, and goods accelerate. That’s why governments have a hard time tackling some pivotal issues of today. Think about climate change, finance, food productions as well as surveillance. These issues can’t be solved within individual jurisdictions. In my opinion, that’s why the U.S. is even more aggressive with their foreign economic and cyber war policies; they are aware of the opportunity to impose global control in times of destabilized sovereign nations. Ideally, we should start to investigate the idea of a global democracy, where all people who are affected by global issues can govern. It might take some centuries, but it’s surely the direction we are going towards. 

GK: Considering the springs, riots, and demonstrations, what kind of an act would work against neoliberal politics of/and surveillance?

PC: I’d image a post-ideological political culture, yet with a universal point of reference in social values and human rights. Real transparency in governance can make a huge difference, because it enables participation in the organization of society, and it’d mitigate corruption caused by concentration of power over time. However, transparency is not only about making the data accessible, instead it’s necessary to engage the public with information to let them understand the key value in it. That process has to do with the cultural productions, hence art and media, which in my opinion should be the main focus of activists.

Paolo Cirio, Persecuting US, 2012. Mixed media and audio installation, 2000 hour-long track.
Paolo Cirio, Persecuting US, 2012. Mixed media and audio installation, 2000 hour-long track.

GK: In the critical text by Bruce Sterling[2] on Overexposed, the writer points out to the fact that you move out of cyberspace into the streets. First, it was Street Ghosts (2012)[3] and now with Overexposed (2015), you are using the streets as a new space. What was the reason that you decided to go out and change your medium?

PC: I consider the Internet as a new kind of public space, where we need to learn how to behave civilly and always fight to keep it public and safe. Through bringing personal digital information in the physical space, I play with the perception of these spaces and the notions of public and private information. This recontextualization of the readymade visual information produces unsettling instinctive reactions from those who encounter these works, as they aren’t cognitively used to see these dimensions overlap. We still perceive what we see and put it on the Internet as something private. We assume it belongs only to an environment that looks ephemeral, temporary, and irrelevant. Actually, Internet is very public and produces physical, permanent, and very grave consequences.

For me, the Internet and the streets are media just like any others. I don’t feel attached to any medium in particular. It’s important to play with the perception of social norms that forms social and power structures.

I see contemporary social reality formed by an interconnected system of economy, law, media, and technology. For me, those are the elements I compose for making my artwork. Afterwards, I focus on the social dynamics that flows through them, which are channeled through the structures I create. Reminiscent of a painter mixing the colors, I mix economy, law and information for having the best reactions from my audience and the ones who are intended to be criticized.

Paolo Cirio, Daily Paywall, 2014. Mixed media.
Paolo Cirio, Daily Paywall, 2014. Mixed media.

GK: What would be the legal consequences of your acts?

PC: There can be many. In my work, I usually create some sort of legal checkmates, which would drive lawyers nuts, and so the legal consequences are quite limited to threats. I see law as the material of my work: the legal reactions I produce are meant to reveal social orders and economic contradictions, and so inadequate laws in place.

This idea is fully expressed with the work Loophole for All (2013). While, in the case of Street Ghosts (2012), for instance, I’ve never received legal complaints. Google captured the individuals in the photos first and I kept the copyright watermarks on the pictures I pasted on the streets, so it would be hard to claim ownership or misuse of those pictures against me by both parties involved. In the case of Overexposed, in most of the cases those pictures belong to random civilians who encountered the intelligence officials and took a photo with them. In one case, Caitlin Hayden[4], the photo I used to create the piece is directly from her Facebook profile. However, the reproduction of these photos in a new unique artistic form, with HD Stencils, should shield me from any legal consequences over copyright claims. So far I also got away with photos of over 3 millions people I stole from the server of Facebook and Twitter for the artworks Face to Facebook (2011) and Persecuting US (2000) and 60 thousands financial news for the project Daily Paywall (2013)−not even speaking about Amazon’s books[5].

GK: Lately, a pastor in Michigan who has anti-gay declarations was found out to be having a Grindr profile for gay dates[6]. Why do you think those public people can be so careless?

PC: We are all vulnerable. Internet plays with very deep human desires of connecting and appearing in public. Also Internet is a medium of personal expression so it unleashes the unconscious self. Learning how to use the Internet as a private instrument and how it’s used against us – say, as an instrument of propaganda − is a process that might take centuries. Now, we are still all just so clumsy with it.

For instance, somehow we still consider what we publish on the social media as something private, while it’s actually much more public than the physical public space. This is very a cultural and cognitive issue. For Overexposed, it was very hard to find intelligence officials from the UK (GCHQ). They try to remove any unauthorized photos from the Internet, because they find it dangerous. Especially, after several scandals of relatives of MI6 officials posting private pictures on social media.

Paolo Cirio, Face to Facebook, 2011. Mixed media, installation view.
Paolo Cirio, Face to Facebook, 2011. Mixed media, installation view.

GK: Actually, you mentioned that you consider some of your art works as art performances. Which ones do you see as such and why?

PC: I consider most of them as performances. They often take form of temporary interactions with the audience and the targets of the interventions; those produce unique reactions and revelations. My artistic background comes from the Electronic Disturbance Theatre and the Recombinant Theater of the Critical Art Ensemble, and the Yes Man[7]. However, in my case, I focus and refine the enactment of conflicts over the control of information, its economy and perception; the interactions and the embodiment of the performance on the core values that information flow can drive. I’m quite interested to explore these particular qualities of the information society through my media performances, while integrating real actions, facts and sensitive information, for reminding us how true and empowering Internet can be.

Paolo Cirio, Loophole for All, 2013. Mixed media, installation view.
Paolo Cirio, Loophole for All, 2013. Mixed media, installation view.

Edited by Özge Ersoy

Paolo Cirio (b. 1979, Turin) lives in New York. His works have been presented and exhibited at Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, 2015; Cenart, Mexico, 2015; Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2014; TENT, Rotterdam, 2014; Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2013; ZKM, Karlsruhe, 2013; CCCB Barcelona, 2013; MAK, Vienna, 2014; Vancouver Art Gallery, 2015, among many others. He is the recipient of Golden Nica at Ars Electronica, Transmediale, and the Eyebeam fellowship.

Göksu Kunak (b. 1985, Ankara) is a writer based in Berlin. S/he received her/his MA in Art History from Hacettepe University, Ankara. S/he has contributed to frieze d/e, Ibraaz, Paper Journal, Freunde von Freunden, Berlin Art Link, sleek, e-skop, crap=good, Istanbul’74, and is in the editorial team of quarterly interview magazine mono.kultur. Between 2012–2014, s/he has worked as a writer and project developer as a part of Apartment Project, Berlin. S/he has an artist’s book titled AbandonedXmasTrees, and a blog on sex, life, and queer theory at Göksu’s short stories and poems can be read at


[1] Flyntz, L. (2015). Conversation with Paolo Cirio. Afterimage, 42, 5. Retrieved from

[2] Please see the exhibition catalogue, online at

[3] As aforementioned in the question Street Ghosts is the first project that the artist decided to use streets as his new medium. While surveilling the streets, Google captures the bodies of anonymous beings without asking for a permission. In the artist statement Cirio explains his act: “As the publicly accessible pictures are of individuals taken without their permission, I reversed the act: I took the pictures of individuals without Google’s permission and posted them on public walls.” By using the techniques of street art the artist follows the virtual traces of the bodies on the streets. Besides that, Cirio uses his both bodies: virtual and real – reminding the fact that the notion of geography has definitely shifted. For more information please check the website:

[4] Spokeswoman of NSC, who was one of the protagonists of Cirio’s work at Overexposed as well.

[5] Please check the links below for more information on the mentioned projects:

Loophole for All,

Face to Facebook,

Persecuting US,

Daily Paywall,

[6] Bleier, E. (20 May 2015). Anti-gay pastor and married father-of-five who compared homosexuality to alcoholism resigns after his profile is uncovered on gay hook-up site Grindr. Mail Online Official Website, Retrieved from

[7] Starting from late 80s and early 90s, afore-mentioned collectives are the first examples of artist-hackers. Exploring the possibilities of art, technology, radical political activism and critical theory the hacker-performers use tactical media. In Wikipedia, the rise of tactical media is related with the fall of Berlin wall. Furthermore, there is a strong link with (Gothic) Punk Scene, Zapatistas, Cyborgs and the text The Practice of Everyday Life by Michel de Certeau. Digital resistance, ‘virtual sit-in’ s, creating hacking programs functioning against immigration policies, military structure and surveillance are the characteristics of these performance groups. The interest and tactics of Paolo Cirio, for sure, is directly related with such a tradition.

For more information on hacktivism as an art form the writings of Tatiana Bazzichelli would be helpful: