Fabian Bechtle’s video “secret.service” focuses on a very specific form or physically-concrete transformation of data. The artist deals with the process and the final product of the physical destruction of so-called sensitive data. The destruction is at the end of a long confusing chain of (internal) data transmission. Bechtle documented this process at among others the company Reisswolf, one of Europe’s largest suppliers of office-waste solutions, file and data destruction. Under the slogan secret.service the “office waste” is collected in safety containers under the highest safety standards, and pressed to blocks from shredded files, weighing (several) tons. The “(data) dust” that occurs during this process is condensed by the company into objects that resemble in shape to drilling cores. The sculptural form and aesthetics of these data objects is that what is of interest to the artist. In his video, he is attempting to make them readable again.
FABIAN BECHTLE IN CONVERSATION WITH MARVIN JORDAN (DIS MAGAZINE, DATA ISSUE, FEBRUARY, 2015)
Marvin Jordan: What I found most interesting about secret.service is the way it explores contradictions surrounding utilitarian excess and the limits of profitability. If we were to think of waste being defined not by that which is unusable, but rather by a lack of imagination regarding use as such, then creativity takes center stage (and perhaps at the expense of short-term profit). So this doubled layer of creativity — redefining utility at the heart of waste itself — amounts to a powerful aesthetic nuance in your work.
FB: Taking into consideration that the company – from a market oriented point of view – is reversing the classical production chain, one could assume that Reisswolf is producing “nothing.” (Of course, even by this reversed process, Reisswolf is still following guidelines of economy and thus keeps it running.) In this case, “nothing” is the waste of the waste – a zero point and the end of transmitting information. The video’s approach, among others, is to counter this very fact. However, if you look at cubes of shredded paper and dust pallets, you can comprehend them as sculptural works displaying encoded sensitive information.
Following the thematic strand of the contradiction of excess and limits of profitability: indeed the video proposes to produce sculptural “non-objects” as an exit strategy to that discrepancy. I like the idea that “Reisswolf” is possibly working creatively and producing artwork – if I understand your observation right, that creativity at first takes place at the end of a long chain of utilizations. And this makes me interested in showing the potential of this specific waste by trying to re-read the shredded paper with a book scanner or remove small “letters” – let’s say “pixels” – from the huge paper blocks.
MJ: Given how indispensable a role that “trust” plays in the Reisswolf brand — and in data destruction generally speaking — I can’t help but bring up differing cultural and legal attitudes toward today’s political economy of data. Since the monumental decision by the European Court of Justice to rule against Google, in favor of “the right to be forgotten”, a major cultural cleavage has developed between Europe and the US around the question of personal data. If data destruction services become increasingly in demand in Europe — while a paradigm of permanent data storage prevails in the US — how do you think this may affect the way artists approach data as a medium with which to work?
FB: For me, the “right to be forgotten” has something ambivalent in itself. Because it is to some extent a testament to one’s existence. It’s not about finally disappearing, but about the possibility to control your own image and as such to define your contours. Maybe this remark is a bit simplified, because the image of ourselves doesn’t exclusively consist of algorithms. An algorithm cannot understand a metaphor, but has a referential system with a certain aim — like optimizing personalized advertisements. That’s why I take data mining nowadays in a rather relaxed manner. My guess is that the destruction of data is a way to get this mass of information under control, comparable to an editing process. We collect data as well as destroy data to get things under control. Maybe it’s the exact opposite that interested me in secret.service: an interaction with the “mystical material.” At some points, the video works like an archeological window, in which “data-image-metaphors” appear. I also find the shape and the consistency of the compressed “dust-cylinders” very interesting. They remind me of a drill core. I like the idea that a geologist could actually draw conclusions from this “data-drill-core” about the origin, surrounding, history and thereby the content of the material.
MJ: The operation of a high-security surveillance system at the heart of a data destruction facility presents an interesting paradox that I think complements your work. There seems to be something self-defeating — almost conspiratorial — about an insular and opaque facility that records an environment designed to destroy recordings. Meanwhile, your video documents the residue of this untraceable destruction by infiltrating this high-security environment. Has this relationship between surveillance, destruction, and the surveillance of destruction motivated your work in any particular ways? Taking a step further, do you think the destruction of surveillance can ever be attained?
FB: For now, that sounds a bit speculative, but I can imagine that Reisswolf is the exact equivalent for this “next step”. After visiting the Reisswolf facilities, I was wondering how they are dealing with there own obsolete documents after excessing a certain half-life. There is no doubt that they will make use of their own services and facilities. This, to me, is a beautiful closed circuit and indeed a process, that we could call conspiratorial. Though, I didn’t really infiltrate or disturbe this process, I created gestures that refer to a possible intervention.
MJ: As you point out, the classical production chain — a facility that produces a composite commodity from component parts — is reversed in the case of Reisswolf, underscoring the ability of capitalism to produce nothingness itself. Meanwhile, a fortuitous “ideology of data” still prevails where people imagine data to exist in a magical, immaterial “cloud” that is physically untouchable. I like your proposition of the sculptural “non-object” at the center of secret.service as a material antidote to this “immaterial” ideology of data. Did this aspect of demystification — emphasizing the physically perishable nature of data — motivate your work from the beginning, or did it happen incidentally?
FB: At the end of my video there is a sudden zoom into a big block of shredded documents. It gives the impression of a microscopic view, which is investigative and is at the same time a decay of rationality; what we see seems to be surreal and dreamlike. Here we have both mystification and demystification. At that point, we also realize that everything that happens at Reisswolf has something anachronistic. In the end, it is just a mechanical scrapping facility.