‘Autonomy Cube’ (2014) is a work by San Francisco and Berlin-based artist Trevor Paglen, made in collaboration with digital civil liberties activist, computer security researcher, and artist Jacob Appelbaum. Placed in art institutions, galleries, and other public spaces, the cube provides a secure Wi-Fi network to visitors. In this way, it is a sculpture which is both aesthetically and conceptually appreciated, as well as utilised.
‘Autonomy Cube’ consists of a Plexiglas cube containing four interconnected circuit boards, placed on a low pedestal. The sculpture functions by latching onto the host site’s Wi-Fi, rerouting the user’s traffic to Tor, a global network run by relay volunteers which, through their systems, successively bounce communications, making users’ precise information virtually untraceable. The Tor network is based on “onion routing”, which relies on several layers of encryption (Tor comes from The Onion Routing), thereby tricking “traffic analysis”. It is maintained by thousands of volunteer-run servers and is used by many people around the world to protect their privacy, from activists and journalists, to populations living under dictatorships or other repressive regimes. Because it is functioning as a covert space, it is also attracting people involved with criminal activity.
As a post-Minimalist sculpture, the work has direct reference to Hans Haacke’s classic sculpture ‘Condensation Cube’ (1963–65). ‘Condensation Cube’ is an acrylic cube filled with water which condensates and evaporates, functioning almost like an organism which reacts to its immediate surroundings, which in this case includes the presence of visitors. Paglen’s piece explores notions of autonomy in art history, proposing the need to keep art spaces as civic infrastructures autonomous of data surveillance. At the same time as ‘Autonomy Cube’ functions as a Wi-Fi hotspot, it is itself a Tor relay in the vast network which helps – albeit temporarily - keeping the art spaces in question free from scrutiny. While Haacke’s sculpture is an example of early institutional critique, ‘Autonomy Cube’ aims at enhancing the institution, belonging more to a recent wave of “constructive institutional critique”. It opens up a whole set of new and vast connections, challenging the traditional boundaries of an art institution.