Entering “Terror Contagion,” which runs at the Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art until April 18, is a bit like stepping into the headspace of an evil mastermind. In the all-black exhibition gallery, you’re shadowed by a constant, foreboding whir. Voices speak up in certain spots, revealing that someone knows your exact location. If this makes you uncomfortable, the show is hitting the right nerve.
The installation marks the public debut of a new digital platform designed by London-based research collective Forensic Architecture to visualize how governments and corporations track and harass citizens using the spyware Pegasus. Projected grids of lines and dots depict reported cyberattacks on people who have spoken up against state-sanctioned abuse and corruption. These colourful data points form a space-time continuum of digital violence intended, as MAC director and chief curator John Zeppetelli puts it, “to neutralize or even extinguish voices of dissent.”
Pegasus, created by the private Israeli tech firm NSO Group and sold to governments the world over, has been implicated in the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Members of Centro Prodh, the Mexican human rights group mapping the forced disappearance of 43 students in 2014, have also been reportedly hacked using the spyware, which takes over your camera, social media, messaging and more.
Using architectural frameworks, Forensic Architecture set out to make these transgressions concrete. “We see architecture as a set of relations — people in a space-time matrix. The space of the temporal is architecture,” says Eyal Weizman, the firm’s founding director. Weizman trained as an architect but also describes himself as a writer and teacher — and his studio as “a field, not a practice.”
Forensic Architecture designed its visualization tool using the open-source software TimeMap. While it connects the dots, it doesn’t show what happens to people after they’ve been hacked. To add this human element, a series of videos features people describing their experiences. (A documentary by American filmmaker and journalist Laura Poitras and video reenactments of two physical altercations add additional context.) “The exhibition senses where you are and the audio for the videos starts automatically, so the show is a physical experience of what digital violence is like,” explains Weizman.
In an age when we are all embedded in a complex network of relations, we are all potential targets. “Even if we are not involved in human rights work, people we’re connected to might be and are being spied on,” he says. “To understand this is an important social contract, because we don’t want to be portals to murderous states.”
An exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art visualizes suspected human rights violations taking place in cyberspace.