CASE STUDIES: TACTICAL MEDIA – Dead Drop (2010-2012)

Aram Bartholl – Dead Drop (2010-2012)

Dead Drop - Image credit:
Dead Drop – Image credit:

This case study engages a qualitative analysis of Aram Bartholl’s “Dead Drop” project, using an art historical textual analysis that draws on popular technological culture, “hacktivism” and tactical media. It uses online documentation of the project to posit an analysis of how the dead drops operate culturally, and the societal issues and implications that are raised by their existence. My personal analysis is supplemented by texts written by Aram Bartholl, interviews with the artist and other online writing about the project. The hope is that through these source, I may be able to access a range of perspectives on the experience of the project, from critical to casual.

Dead Drops - Image credit:
Dead Drops – Image credit:

Aram Bartholl’s “Dead Drop” project began in 2010 at an EYEBEAM Residency in New York City (Bartholl), and consisted of five initial drops throughout the city of New York. Wikipedia notes the origins of a “dead drop” as rooted in espionage, where a select location is used to exchange secret messages between two individuals without requiring that they meet in person (“Dead Drop”). It acts as a mailbox for delivery and retrieval, and is often used in popular culture espionage and ransom narratives in books and movies, where characters will use public spaces like storage lockers or garbage cans to exchange information, money or other valuables. Here, instead of a locker, the dead drops consist of a simple USB key, stripped down and embedded in urban architecture like walls. Similarly, the USB dead drop is a container for the valued material, in this case digital information, and exists in a fully public location. The project has since expanded from the initial five locations to a worldwide network, implemented by both Bartholl and participation from the general public. Bartholl continues to encourage anyone to create their own Dead Drops, with an online video tutorial and textual instructions – With the instructions, he asks anyone interested in creating their own drop to read his manifesto:

The Dead Drops Manifesto
Dead Drops is an anonymous, offline, peer to peer file-sharing network in public space. Anyone can access a Dead Drop and everyone may install a Dead Drop in their neighborhood/city. A Dead Drop must be public accessible. A Dead Drop inside closed buildings or private places with limited or temporary access is not a Dead Drop. A real Dead Drop mounts as read and writeable mass storage drive without any custom software. Dead Drops don’t need to be synced or connected to each other. Each Dead Drop is singular in its existence. A very beautiful Dead Drop shows only the metal sheath enclosed type-A USB plug and is cemented into walls.You would hardly notice it. Dead Drops don’t need any cables or wireless technology. Your knees on the ground or a dirty jacket on the wall is what it takes share files offline. A Dead Drop is a naked piece of passively powered Universal Serial Bus technology embedded into the city, the only true public space. In an era of growing clouds and fancy new devices without access to local files we need to rethink the freedom and distribution of data. The Dead Drops movement is on its way for change! Free your data to the public domain in cement! Make your own Dead Drop now! Un-cloud your files today!!! Aram Bartholl 2010

Dead Drop locations map - Screenshot:
Dead Drop locations map – Screenshot:

Although it may not be immediately obvious as a piece of tactical media in line with that of the Yes Men or, it becomes clearer as such when one considers Bartholl’s intervention and subversion of the Dead Drop as a conceptual idea rooted in military and political espionage. It is a means that has been used by authorities rather than the general populace, and utilizes a simple physical drop for the purpose of a complicated concealment, as opposed to a complicated private technological drop which may be purposely hacked and tracked simply because it looks like it might hide important information. Here, the drop is completely public, and there is no security to prevent anyone who wants to from accessing the information on the key. It is the least private form of information distribution possible, however, in an age of constant online data tracking, the US Prism spying program and Wikileaks, it is in some ways more guaranteed security to operate in non-digital networks. Whether the information that resides on the keys is inherently valuable or not, the it is automatically politicized. It references underground systems like peer-to-peer pirating networks like IsoHunt, Napster, The Silk Road and other subversive networks that have been disrupted and destroyed because of political, economic or national security reasoning. These networks often justify their existence under the banner of open-source and freedom of information (Piratebay Blog), and this often conflicts with commercial copyright interests and political secrecy, both of which profit from tightly controlled information. In this environment, the Dead Drops act as a type of technological utopianism, where information is freely and anonymously distributed (“USB Dead Drop”). App developer Bruce Sterling likens the Dead Drops to a “message in a bottle”, an image which conjures up romantic ideas of early exploration and communication, a certain magical uncertainty whether your message will be received at all, and where in the world it will appear. This type of serendipity is rarely associated with technology today, since all messages are directed at a specific virtual location and recipient.

Dead Drops - Image Credit:
Dead Drops – Image Credit:–Projects–Gear.html

The Dead Drops successfully use their design and self-referentiality to draw attention to their situation in our surroundings. They are primarily located in outdoor, public spaces, which are venues where one rarely comes across public computer technology, especially of the sort that offers the possibility of unprescribed utility. By allowing ownership of public space, the Dead Drops shifts the relationship that the user has with their surroundings. One is suddenly aware of the unusual nature of the USB key embedded into a wall that would normally be passed without a second glance. It re-engages the user both with urban architecture, walls, buildings and other urban objects that usually only have a single obvious purpose (ie. the wall of the building encloses a private space, a telephone booth is a public phone, a bench is for resting). In addition, this unusual interaction also re-engages the user with the virtual world. It moves our digital interaction from the comfort of our private homes and devices to a public node. Suddenly, the normal action of plugging a USB key into one’s computer is no longer safe. The key could contain anything, from nothing to innocuous files to a virus. Even without the literal threat of a virus that may disrupt your own technology, the mysterious contents of the USB key, dropped their by a series of anonymous users, could range from nothing, to innocuous files to disturbing or illegal content. One drop in Berlin promises “confidential cold war material” (Bartholl “Drop at Teufelsberg”). In many ways, this reversal of the digital peer-to-peer network blurs the boundaries between the virtual and real. Suddenly what is virtual now exists in a real space and unexpected context. In an interview with Dale Berning, Bartholl notes that the project transposes “the idea of digital connectivity into a reduced, analogue space. The Dead Drops make the audience physically connect to the city – I like this image of data literally being inserted into walls, and of people bending over to connect their 3,000 € laptop to the curb to maybe find some files. It inverts the idea of the portable memory stick. The city itself becomes an immobile USB drive that you have to go to it to plug in”. It is in this idea that the tactics of Bartholl’s work take on the form of the city itself. It turns architecture and public spaces into literal peer-to-peer networks, where information is exchanged freely and with endless possibility. It takes the open-source sensibilities and the technological utopias that have long existed in the virtual form of the internet, and grounded them in an unlikely form. This draws attention to the way that both the real and the virtual act and interact, and it does so without taking judgemental value positions, but existing on a boundary that engages multiplicitous dialogue. From this emerges all possibilities simultaneously, much like the internet itself. One could even draw a comparison between the forms of the city and that of the internet, in which both house multiple pathways to a series of inter-connected routes and destinations. Each destination has its own history, definition and usage, and it connects to all the spaces around it as well. Like the peer-to-peer network, we build social communities out of these connections, and share information – sometimes freely and sometimes secretively.

Dead Drop - Image Credit:
Dead Drop – Image Credit:

 Works Cited

Bartholl, Aram. Dead Drops. Aram Bartholl. N.d., N.p. Web. 2 December 2013. <;.
—. “Drop at Teufelsberg”. Dead Drops Blog. 21 September 2011. Web. 2 December 2013. <;.
—. Interview with Dale Berning. “Aram Bartholl: Dead Drops”. Dazed Digital. 2010. Web. 2 December 2013. < bartholl-dead-drops>
“Dead Drop”. Wikipedia The Free Encylopedia. Wikimedia Foundation. 16 September 2013. Web. 2 December 2013. <;.
Piratebay Blog. The Pirate Bay. N.d., N.p. Web. 2 December 2013. <;.
Sterling, Bruce. “Deaddrops”. LayAr. N.d., N.p. Web. 2 December 2013. <;.
“USB Dead Drop”. Wikipedia The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation. 19 November 2013. Web. 2 December 2013. <;.


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