Julian Oliver’s “Transparency Grenade” uses a small computer, wireless antenna and microphone — inside a translucent, grenade-shaped case — to capture (theoretically) anything that is floating around on wireless signals (and ambient noise) wherever it is “detonated.” The data are then to be uploaded to a server where they “can be mined for information,” according to a Corcoran description of the object. The implications for privacy are obvious, and for legal reasons, the “grenade” has only “detonated” once, in Berlin, and then only provisionally so as not to gather information that could be legally problematic, according to Hale.
By packaging what is essentially a small cluster of computer pieces into something that looks like a hand grenade, Oliver is flirting with the incendiary playfulness that makes art either exciting and edgy or, all too often, cheap adolescent provocation. But the cleverness of Oliver’s piece and the questions it asks tip decisively in favor of the grenade having real substance. Again, it is the work’s tension between the better and worse angels of our collective nature that raises it above a knowing jape.
The “transparency” in “Transparency Grenade” is both an unwanted peeping into private communication and a powerful tool for accountability, and in many ways it raises issues similar to the debates about WikiLeaks, a grand online document dump that exposes the inner workings of powerful organizations while making it potentially impossible for those communities to function effectively, for good or ill. A grenade is not a surgical tool; it is a blunt, powerful and indiscriminately effective weapon, best thrown only in desperation. And yet, like the atom bomb, there is something curiously ennobling about not using it.
But what if such things fell into the hands of bad people? The answer to that is addressed in fascinating, elliptical ways by the most conceptually complicated project on display, “FireSale©TM,” by Colin Beatty and Craig Smith, who operate as the collective SmithBeatty. The project involves purchasing a gun, disassembling it and mailing its pieces to “33 stakeholders, including museum directors, art curators, artists, university professors, lawyers and a weapons manufacturer president.” The pieces are defined as shares in a corporation and beautifully packaged into sturdy cases. Recipients aren’t asked whether they want to participate, and when the collective issues a call on the shares — the gun pieces — the participants can ignore the whole thing or return the gun parts as asked, which are then reassembled.
The inevitable “missing” pieces are manufactured using a 3-D printer, a powerful technology that may at some point allow almost anything to be reproduced at home using digital design files readily found on the Internet. In the case of “FireSale©TM” — which includes extensive and beautifully rendered documentation of the project, a blog on which participants record their reactions, and the gun pieces (or their 3-D printer substitutes) — the missing gun elements, made from a fragile white plastic compound, are not functional.