HIGH TECH, HIGH ART by Dean Olscher
(This interview by Dean Olscher was first aired at the New York Public Radio Station, WNYC, in March 20th 2004.)
Dean Olscher: Here's what Jakob S. Boeskov did two years ago. Boeskov, who lives in Copenhagen, tried an experiment, and it was a piece of what he calls sci-fi conceptual art. The idea was to imagine something from the future and then to present that invention now in a real environment, as if it existed, and then see if people accepted it as reality. But the thing is, the stakes in this game were somewhat raised because what they invented happened to be a hi-tech weapon. They tried to create the worst possible weapon imaginable, or at least the concept of such a weapon, with detailed drawings and plans and explanations. They called it the ID Sniper rifle. Can youtell us what the ID Sniper is?
Jakob S.Boeskov: The ID Sniper is a weapon that can shoot GPS, that's global positioning system, chips into the bodies of innocent demonstrators.
Dean: I have to say that to my mind, that doesn't seem like the worst possible weapon imaginable. Given that we have nuclear bombs.
Jakob: Well, I mean that's true, but then again, a nuclear bomb is kind of old-school. This is new technology. It's a pre-crime technology where we prevent the crime before it happens.
Dean: If Jakob S. Boeskov seems awfully comfortable advertising the merits of the ID Sniper rifle, it's because he's had lots of practice before a rather intimidating audience. Armed with only a poster and 400 fake business cards, naming him CEO of a fake company called Empire North, Boeskov headed off to an international weapons fair in Beijing. It was called China Police 2002. He kept a journal documenting what turned out to be a harrowing experience for him.
Jakob: Oh, it was very stressful. It was the worst four days of my life. It was really horrible.
Dean: Why was it horrible?
Jakob: Well basically it was not so nice to lie to people for three days, and to live in constant fear of being revealed. You must remember that China is a totalitarian state and to be in this kind of environment surrounded by ruthless, cynical weapons dealers from around the globe was really not your idea of a nice relaxing holiday. It was very stressful.
Dean: You show up on your first day with your poster and your image of this rifle, and I want to get more of a sense of your surroundings.
Jakob: Basically I'm walking around these huge, huge exhibition stands from huge corporations like BMW, Buick, huge Russian companies that sell helicopters and anti-aircraft missiles. I'm walking around with my little tiny poster that was printed in Copenhagen, and I feel like I'm not at all prepared for this.
Dean: What did you do? Did you have to compensate with a particularly good sales approach?
Jakob: I should say that some people seemed a little suspicious, but generally I got a really good reception for my appearance and for my fake product also.
Dean:: When you said you had a very good response the first day, what exactly does that mean?
Jakob: I guess the first one I really introduced the weapon to was a Brazilian weapons dealer from a company calledWelser Itage. I told them that we had a technology that can shoot off GPS chips into the bodies of demonstrators, and he was going like, "That's really great. In Brazil we have so many prisoners and we have them in jungle prisons, but they escape all the time. With your technology we can keep track of them." He was basically into the concept of doing this horrible thing.
Dean: Was there any point where you thought maybe someone was going to discover that you were a fraud?
Jakob: I talked to this French diplomat from the French Embassy, he was really starting to ask some really serious questions, like first of all he was asking a very basic question which I really didn't have an answer to. He asked, "What will happen when you shoot this GPS chip into the bodies of demonstrators, what will happen to the organs? What will happen to the intestines of the demonstrators? This chip will go in and it will hurt." In our promotion material we wrote that this operation would only feel like a sting of a mosquito, which was very unrealistic. He asked this question and I didn't really know what to say so I was just giving him a standard answer like, "I'm glad you asked this question because that's one of our biggest challenges right now to solve this question, and we're determined to solve it and da da da. We're looking for new technologies to do this blah blah blah." That was probably the point where I felt closest to being revealed as a fraud. But basically it takes a lot to tell somebody, I don't believe you are real. When you go to the bank and meet your bank clerk or when you go down on the street to buy a newspaper from the newspaper man, you assume that this guy is a newspaper man or a bank clerk. If you are at a weapons fair and you have a suit and a tie on, people will assume that you're a weapons dealer.
Dean:: Yeah. You realized that you had created for yourself a situation where you had to lie. How much was your performance made possible by narcotics and alcohol and cigarettes?
Jakob: Oh, that helped. Otherwise I wouldn't have made it I think.
Dean: Right. Can I get you to read from your journal? You described that quite graphically.
Jakob: Sure. "I walk around like a zombie surrounded by pump guns, gas masks, clubs, handcuffs, knives, flashlights, sirens, stun guns, pump guns, handguns, pepper sprays, rocket launchers, machine guns, DNA samplers, police helmets, sniper scopes, surveillance cameras and bullet-proof vests. I look at myself in the shining surface of a police helmet. I'm smiling for the first time, looking really relaxed. I thank whoever invented Valium, its effects wraps around me like a blanket of normality."
Dean: Jakob, as I understand it, on day three something changed for you. What was that?
Jakob: What happened on day three was really that I got some offers from a Chinese agency.
Dean: They wanted to buy your rifle?
Jakob: Yes, they wanted to hear about the technology and the future prospects for my fake company. Then they asked this question, if my weapon would violate human rights. I told them, "we are a patient company and it's not possible to carry out this project right now, but if things move in the right direction, and it looks like it will, then we will have a perfectly healthy-market situation in a couple of years. Then this Chinese agent told me that another possibility would be to move production of the weapon to China.
Dean: The idea being that China doesn't have the same burden of worrying about people's human rights as the rest of the world?
Jakob: Yes, that's pretty obvious for anyone who's been there.
Dean: At that point, did you feel like you were just in over your head?
Jakob: You can say that. The whole project is sort of like in a moral gray zone. To bring new weapon technology to a place like this is in the moral gray zone. But then again, I mean reality is always stranger than fiction, and somebody somewhere is doing this kind of research.
Dean: You mean you think that there is an ID Sniper rifle somewhere out there?
Jakob: Well, I hope not. If I see the ID Sniper in a year or two and I'm responsible for it, my solution for that will be I will do my best to be the first person to be shot by it. But if I don't see it right away, I'm sure that similar research is taking place.
Dean: What was the lesson of this exercise for you?
Jakob: I really believe that the weapon industry really is a place where everything goes. As long as you can make a product and you can find a market for it and you can make a profit, everything goes. That's the bottom line of it. I couldn't believe it, when i was in China. This is basically a weapon that violates all basic human rights. We're talking about hurting people, harming people who have not done a crime yet and people just look at me and talk to me like if I was selling a refrigerator.
Dean: Now since you're an artist, I have to say that I expect artists to create things using their imagination, and yet it seems that what you're doing here is an act of reporting. If I were to walk in an art gallery in Chelsea and I saw this stuff, I might be inclined to say, "Oh what an imaginative artist", rather than, "Oh, this really happened."
Jakob: That's why I'm at the The Thing (an exhibition space where the ID Sniper project was shown in 2004 red.) show all the business cards and all the confirmation faxes and all the ID credentials and so on. It's quite important for me to prove that this really happened because I was met with a lot to skepticism. A lot of people didn't believe it took place at all. This thing with hacking reality, maybe people are not used to this stuff belonging in an art gallery, but I prefer to work with reality as a material just as clay or paint. It's interesting.
Dean:: Yes. I don't have a problems with that. Here's the other question about credibility. Yes, we expect artists to have some leeway, but you did actually lie to the people in China for the purpose of collecting your material and so there is sort of a credibility question there. Because if you lie to them, how do we know you're not going to lie to us?
Jakob: Like, If you lied one time, you would lie always?
Jakob: Oh, that's sounds very biblical. I don't ... I don't think ... I mean you probably also lied at a certain point in your life but then I believe what you're saying now?
Dean: No, I mean that ... I think that's how we establish credibility.
Jakob: It's true. But it's true. I mean I basically I agree with you. I think ... I mean I think this is a very personal thing. Everybody should do their best to ... to tell the truth at all times. But when you are working with art, you can lie to tell the truth. That's ... that's one of the privileges of being an artist. You can take the right to lie, to tell the truth.
Dean: Jakob Boeskov left the weapons fair early. He took down his poster and left a note that read, "Dear fellow exhibitors and potential business associates, My warm thanks to all of you for your heartfelt interest in our new product range showcased here at China Police 2002, which Denmark is proud to attend. Unfortunately, I had to leave prematurely as urgent business calls me elsewhere. Till we meet again, let's keep on fighting the war for freedom and against terrorists, and let's continue working for security in the civilized world. All the best, from Jakob S. Boeskov, CEO, Empire North."