Workshop at KABK


Where: Project week at The Royal Academy of Art (KABK), The Hague, the Netherlands
Total duration: 4 days

The workshop was an introduction to steganography, the art and science of hiding in plain sight. I covered the cultural politics and basic theories, history and techniques of steganography. In the first part of this workshop, students learned how to make, apply and activate various kinds of invisible inks such as milk, lemon juice, starch, baking soda and saliva. Invisible inks are one of the oldest forms of steganography. In the second part, they experimented with linguistic forms of steganography such as cardan grille, null cipher and coded slang. 

Exercise 1: Vulnerable groups.
After material experimentations with various invisible inks in the morning, I introduced this exercise in the afternoon: some groups are more likely to be placed under surveillance than others. Pick one vulnerable group and research why it is so. Using invisible ink, create portraits in the broadest sense of the meaning (icons, drawings, lists of actions, etc.) that represent your chosen group/community. Use the properties of the various invisible inks to help tell your story. Work in pairs.

Exercise 2: Forbidden words.
In 2017 under the Trump administration, the Department of Health banned particular words from appearing in budget proposals from the leading national public health institution, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among those words were ‘vulnerable’, ‘entitlement’, ‘diversity’, ‘transgender’, ‘fetus’, ‘evidence-based’ and ‘science-based’. The ban brought to mind George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 and the concept of ‘Newspeak’. According to Wikipedia, ‘Newspeak is a controlled language, of restricted grammar and limited vocabulary, meant to limit the freedom of thought — personal identity, self-expression, free will — that ideologically threatens the régime of Big Brother and the Party.’ 

The aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of critical reflection and action. Such language prohibition promotes the use of doublespeak, which is euphemistic language obscuring and distorting meanings. According to Macquarie Dictionary, doublespeak is ‘convoluted speech which attempts to alter the usual connotations of the words being used, often under a mask of technical jargon.’ In pairs, pick one word from Trump’s list. Develop a substitute work in doublespeak and a short written definition about what it means or how it can be used. Embed doublespeak words and meanings within the physical space of the school environment or online sphere. Use transferable steganographic methods such as the Cardan grille or null cipher and design the key for another group to unlock. Short presentations at the end of the day.