Conversation on Resistant Systems

For the exhibition Resistant Systems: Spring 2022 at the Center for Book Arts in April 2022, Kristine Khouri sat down with me for an afternoon to discuss this body of work. This was originally published in the exhibition brochure.

Kristine Khouri is a researcher whose interests span the history of art collecting, exhibiting, and infrastructure of the Middle East and North Africa as well as archival practices and related knowledge dissemination. Most recently she has been focused on critical engagement with (digital) archives, and issues that emerge from them including rights, access, and language.

Kristine Khouri: What does the name, Resistant Systems: Spring 2022, mean?

Tim Schwartz: Resistant Systems is the name of the fictitious company I created to contain all of this work, and Spring 2022 references this season’s collection. The brand Resistant Systems is supposed to evoke digital wellness. For me, digital wellness is focused on self-care and identity first — the care of your digital identity, drawing a connection between our physical selves and the digital versions of ourselves. Resistance does hearken to the lexicon of circuits. But resistant refers more to the resilience of an identity, and the control over your choices in the digital context. I think that’s what being resistant is, being able to manage and adapt to unknown actors on the other side of the internet — government programs that are surveilling you, or people that just want to, for example, open a credit card in your name. Overall, Resistant Systems is digital personal care of those digital identities and yourself.

Before we go further, I need to shout out to my collaborators in this project: John DeMerritt, who  designed and built all of the structures and bindings in the projects presented here and published the work under his imprint, DeMerritt – Pauwels Editions, and Margaret Schneider, who edits and collaborates on all the texts I produce. 

KK: I wanted to follow up on the idea of digital identities. Can you speak a little bit more about the constitution of one’s digital self and how it relates to the physical self? It can be very official, whether it’s through security, bank account numbers, etc. So I’m curious if you can speak about how you would qualify or think about one’s digital self both practically and metaphorically.

TS: I think there are two sides to it. There is the digital self you present on social media, or that you are presenting to the world — whether that is your true identity, or some other version of yourself that you want to portray. And on the other side are the identities that systems build of you. For example, it might be that I live in a household where someone speaks Spanish. I don’t speak Spanish, and yet, because of that, a system might think that I speak Spanish. As a result, part of my identity, in the view of a digital system on the other side of the internet (Google, YouTube, Instagram, Amazon, an advertising network, an insurance company, or some government agency) is that I speak Spanish. So I think there’s a multiplicity of identities. A big part of these projects connects with anonymity and pseudonymity — creating alternative identities for oneself to confuse the system and operate undetected.

KK: The idea of anonymity connects with that. Could you speak about the Digital Resistance Kit and anonymity and how and what it is meant to do? Also, can it actually do it? 

TS: Maybe I’ll start with the second half. All of the kits in this exhibition are all real; they all work and can be used as intended.

Digital Resistance Kit is basically a digital “go bag,” like a “drop off the face of the earth” kit. A simple example would be doing research online, because everything is literally tracked, whether it can be connected to your identity or not. The tablet inside of the Digital Resistance Kit was bought and set up totally anonymously. And if used on an anonymous Wi-Fi network, like a random Starbucks or McDonald’s, the research done on this tablet is anonymous — disconnected from the user’s true identity. If you are a person of privilege, particularly in the United States or Europe, this might not be a big deal, but consider researching where a protest in Russia might be or information about homosexuality in some countries in Africa, where just doing research can have real-life consequences for individuals.

KK: There is so much one has to know in order to comprehend the extent to which we are tracked, especially since so many ways of tracking seem harmless. We give up so much, knowingly and unknowingly, just by clicking a box or connecting accounts, subscribing to something, or having a cell phone. How can a layperson understand how much of our privacy and identity are breached and out there online?

TS: I think everybody should have a basic working knowledge of digital privacy and security — this is something that we should get taught in school, just like personal finance (which isn’t taught either). You can’t choose a level of privacy until you understand the levels of privacy. So until you understand some of this stuff, you’re effectively giving up your choice.

In the Digital Resistance Kit, it is the Manual of Digital Resistance, which is the first book you encounter, that gives the reader the context they need to use the kit. It’s a short guide on tracking, privacy, and mainly anonymity. The reason I like anonymity so much is that it simplifies the process of blocking those that are tracking you. Instead of identifying and trying to hide from each actor that wants your information, you simply start a new identity — one that isn’t connected to your own — and move forward from that new perspective. You are starting from a blank slate. 

KK: How does this piece connect to your other book? 

TS: So my other book is called A Public Service: Whistleblowing, Disclosure and Anonymity, published by OR Books in 2019. It’s a guide for how someone can disclose information anonymously, or go through a lawyer, or simply find safe channels to blow the whistle — whether it’s fraud, sexual harassment, or even government organizations overstepping their bounds. I used the creation of Digital Resistance Kit as a way to condense my thinking in A Public Service and process it through the act of making, not just reading and writing text.

KK: Can you tell me a bit about Password Cleanse, and how it relates to how information was secured in the pre-digital era? You are translating a contemporary digital process into a physical one.

TS: Password Cleanse is a kit made for generating strong random passwords, ones that you would use to unlock your computer or a password manager. The kit uses a technique called “Diceware,” which was invented in the mid-’90s by Arnold Reinhold. Using a word-list book of ordered numbers and words, you roll dice, and look up the word that corresponds with the number generated by the dice. For Password Cleanse, I merged this technique with letterlocking, the process of securing information in a folded, wax-sealed piece of paper. I had used letterlocking in the Digital Resistance Kit, but for Password Cleanse, I wanted to make a full act out of it. 

KK: A ritual or an act. Or a game?

TS: No, it’s a ritual. It’s not a game. I’ve done this as a performance where I guide people through the ritual. It actually only works when memorization is part of the process. If you’re really going to generate a 16-digit password, write it down, fold it in wax, seal it as a backup, and memorize it, you have to be fully engaged and focused on the memorization process. So I think elevating it from just creating a password to a ritual is important.

KK: What about the book of words and numbers that is a part of it — how was it made?

TS: That piece, the Word List, is originally from the Electronic Frontier Foundation. I took their list and then set it using the style of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as a jumping-off point. The pieces are located in a 200- to 400-year period; it doesn’t pinpoint a specific period in history, but I wanted it to feel “old English.” Depending on the piece, I’ve used various techniques. I’ve used polymer plates for letterpress, and in other cases I actually don’t care as much about my manual labor in it and use digital offset printing. On the other hand, there’s handmade paper by Heather Peters in that kit with a custom watermark of an open hand for “stop.” Each kit has a logo, which connects back with the idea of Resistant Systems being a brand.

KK: And the logo for Digital Resistance Kit?

TS: A handshake — you have to trust that the artist has sealed these pieces and generated and configured the devices correctly. For example, I bought the devices anonymously in cash with a hoodie on and connected to the internet anonymously when I created the email accounts included in the kit. So the handshake is really a handshake of trust between me and the person using it. In fact, there was only one signet ring created for this kit and I have it. The wax seals in the kit came from my hand.

KK: How would you maintain the integrity and trust of a project like this, that though fictitious, it is functional and not a setup? 

TS: In the Manual of Digital Resistance, I clearly state that this information is up-to-date, it’s produced by me, that this is my understanding of it, but you should always do your own research. By being transparent, I hope it helps the user know that this is a trusted source — but definitely, there’s a leap of faith.

KK: We already do that, trusting that what we buy is functional and works, but I guess with certain unregulated goods, that gets complicated. 

TS: Look at whatever powder or cream you’re buying from Goop or another brand. In this wellness culture, you’re buying many products without verification; you just have to trust the company.

KK: Let’s move on to Coin Collector. The logo is fingers that are crossed. Can you tell me about it? 

TS: Coin Collector is two pieces in a chemise and slipcase. One is the portfolio that is a reference to an old coin collection folio from the 1940s, and instead of being filled with physical coins, it’s filled with a USB device, codes, and passwords. The portfolio comes with about $1,000 of cryptocurrency in it, although that value changes over time. The other piece is a numismatic glossary that combines contemporary cryptocurrency terms with older coin-collecting terms, creating interesting juxtapositions like “bagholder” and “bag mark.”

For Resistant Systems, it couldn’t release a collection of kits without having one take on the topic of digital value. Crypto is just on the tip of everyone’s tongue, and I thought I needed to tackle the topic with my own perspective. There is genuinely something interesting in the fact that we have moved back to effectively bartering with collectibles. What I was attempting to do with this piece was recontextualize cryptocurrencies back in the physical history of money, trade, and collecting. I believe that by making born-digital items physical, we can interrogate them in a different way than if we simply stare at them on a computer. So this piece is a physicalization of all the digital problems and virtues of cryptocurrencies. 

KK: In thinking about digital wellness, Password Cleanse and Digital Resistance Kit share a similar sort of purpose in that way. Coin Collector goes into a different direction. So I’m curious how you think about these three together. Are they all working against traditional financial and security systems that are just accepted?

TS: Password Cleanse is really a ritual, but Digital Resistance Kit and the Coin Collector are both things that only the person that buys them really gets to enact and use. In that way, they really are just products, a product that you buy and then use. Coin Collector, for example, isn’t simply a collection of coins; it has the hardware and setup for the owner to continue to buy and sell more crypto coins. I joke that this book could be the most expensive or least expensive book in your collection, depending on how the market goes.

KK: Your work really is entrenched in different forms of data, whether we produce it ourselves, or it exists or is produced about us. Do you have any thoughts on how we can live in a world where there will just be more and more data about us? How can we be mindful of that? What I appreciate in your practice and in these works is that there is an attempt to direct people’s attention to that. There is so much to be overwhelmed by, so how can we be conscious and smart in this context? Some advice to someone who should change her passwords more often?

TS: It is the ultimate version of doing your laundry and cleaning your house. Have a recurring event on your calendar every quarter to work on your security and data integrity. Check your backups, update your passwords, make sure you’ve got a VPN installed, do your credit reports, and make sure that your data isn’t leaking too much on the web – to name a few things.

When giving someone a digital security makeover, I always like to start with password hygiene, because it gets them thinking about it. If you can get someone to use a password manager and have it on their phone and their computer, that’s a good first step. Then it hopefully becomes ingrained and it becomes a normal custom and the next steps just automatically follow, because that person has started to consider and think about their security for themselves.

KK: And to acknowledge that digital hygiene is a thing up there with our physical and mental hygiene — maybe to end on the idea of transforming or translating the digital to physical.

TS: That is a long-term thread through my practice: taking digital and making it physical. I think that act gives us the space to think about the digital world in a different way. It might be that it’s just how I can best get a handle on our digital culture.

KK: I think that is, in itself, resistant — and I’m not using that word in the correct way for that purpose. But at a time where everything is going from the physical to the digital, it’s a statement to move back into hand/analog and slow processes.

TS: Let me say, it’s not like it’s a Luddite move. It’s not like I’m anti-digital, that’s for sure.

KK: In a way, you have gone so deep into the digital that you’ve come back around.

TS: I guess this is what happens when you hang out on the dark web for long enough.