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Edward Snowden's Smashed Laptop Belongs to Everyone

The London museum's 'All of This Belongs to You' explores privacy in the digital age and the place of museums in a contemporary city.

In time for the buildup to UK general elections in May, London's Victoria and Albert Museum has launched a new exhibition that looks at civic life and the museum's role as a public space. Called All of This Belongs to You (no relation to "All your base are belong to us," by the way—I asked), it's a sprawling collection of newly acquired objects, designs, and four new commissions scattered spacially and temporally throughout the museum's labyrinthine galleries. 

In one cabinet is perhaps the most famous smashed hard drive in the world: that of Edward Snowden. On loan to the V&A by The Guardian, the damaged hardware is a potent symbol of the current battle being waged for the digital realm, one in which the intelligence agencies, and some companies, seem to want all privacy eradicated. The damaged nature of the piece also has a lineage with other destroyed objects in the museum's collection, like Reformation documents drawn up in the 1500s.

Tying in with this is a selection of objects that look at privacy in the digital age. These are housed in the museum's Rapid Response Collecting display and include two cryptographic phones—the Blackphone which lets you regulate how your data is stored and the Cryptophone 500, which is a military grade phone (there's only about 100,000 of them in use in the world) which has the accolade of being the most secure phone on the planet.

MacBook Air casing and components from a computer used by journalists to write editorial about the data leaked to The Guardian newspaper by Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor. It was destroyed by staff at the newspaper to avoid handing over the NSA files to the UK government. © The Guardian/ Victoria & Albert Museum, London 2015

In this sense, it's not like a traditional exhibition where all of the objects all together in one place. Instead, they're planted among other exhibits and settings. Nestled in a cabinet with luxury silverware and pocket objects from European history, for example, is Fairphone, an open-sourced smartphone made from conflict-free materials and one of 25 Civic Objects diffused throughout the grand Victorian building. Other objects include anti-homeless spikes, usually found outside apartments or private buildings to deter transients from sleeping there, a mosiac floor made by female convicts from Woking Prison, and a Shenzhen school uniform from 2013, which is basically just sweatpants.


The Ethics of Dust: Trajan’s Column, an installation by Jorge Oteros-Pailos, installed next to the Museum’s largest object, the 18th-century cast of Trajan’s Column. Part of All of This Belongs to You. © Peter Kelleher/Victoria & Albert Museum, London 2015 

One of the commissioned pieces is Jorge Otero-PailosThe Ethics of Dust: Trajan's Column, which has seen the artist take on the V&A's largest object, a plaster cast made in the 19th century of Rome's ancient Trajan's Column. Otero-Pailos has created his own cast of the inside of the column and the accumulated dust and muck that has collected there. It's a piece that showcases the care that goes into maintaining the collections.

London-based muf architecture/art have meditated on the rules of public spaces in a museum setting by placing furniture and cushions in the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries so people can lounge closer to, say, a Renaissance Venetian fountain. in the process exploring more relaxed ways to participate in these earnest settings.

Fairphone in 4 parts, 2014


Part of a Western Digital hard drive that held data leaked to The Guardian newspaper by Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor. It was destroyed by staff at the newspaper to avoid handing over the NSA files to the UK government. © The Guardian/ Victoria & Albert Museum, London 2015

New York-based artist Natalie Jeremijenko has built a phenological clock and planted grow-bags outside the V&A which displays when local organisms—based on observations taken in West London where the museum is located—bud, blossom and bloom throughout the year. The piece raises questions including, how can we integrate ecosystems into our built environment?

James Bridle has a piece in the Tapestry galleries called Five Eyes, named after the global alliance of intelligence agencies incorporating Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Bridle used a software program, what he calls "a collaboration with technology," to delve into the digital archive of the V&A's 1.4 million recorded objects. In partnership with the algorithm, he selected pieces to form a network of connected objects which tell the history of each intelligence agency, along with contemporary stories of what they're up to. Each country has its own cabinet reflecting current issues, like immigration in Australia for example represented by boomerangs which were made in and imported from another country.

James Bridle’s commission ‘Five Eyes’ in the V&A’s Tapestry gallery. Part of All of This Belongs to You (1st April – 19th July). © Peter Kelleher/Victoria & Albert Museum, London 2015


Spike studs by Kent Stainless Ltd that are intended to discourage people from sitting or sleeping in various spaces in the city. Temporarily installed in the V&A’s entrance as part of All of This Belongs to You (1st April – 19th July). © Peter Kelleher/Victoria & Albert Museum, London 2015

The rambling, almost hidden nature of the exhibits, along with their contemporary leanings, results in an unusually subversive approach to exhibiting art, especially for a museum of such heritage. It's a kind of like a giant middle finger to traditional formats and expectations. And although All of This Belongs to You can be at times bewildering and nomadic, it kind of feels like that's kind of the point. Staging an exhibition like this forces you to engage with and treat the objects, and the museum, in a much more encompassing way. In essence, it's an institution at its most democratic.

Visit All of This Belongs to You through July 19, 2015, at Victoria and Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7 2RL.

Related:

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