The USB Manicure Puts Data at Your Fingertips

Post-Snowden-Nails-Aram-Bartholl-13-small.jpgThe Post-Snowden Nails in all their data-rich glory. Images courtesy of Nadja Buttendorf, unless otherwise noted

If you’ve ever wanted to know how it feels to be a real-life cyber cowboy, then it might be time to give yourself a new manicure. A recent collaboration between artists Aram Bartholl and Nadja Buttendorf turns fingers into flash drives in a tutorial project called Post-Snowden Nails. As Bartholl tells The Creators Project: “It feels very powerful to have all this data at your fingertips. I did different experiments with cables, you sort of feel the cable and data pulling on your fingernail, it’s a beautiful way of experiencing data on a body level.”

The project is part of Buttendorf’s ongoing Nail Art Residency, in which she invites artist to manifest new work in the form of a manicure. “Nail Art is a cultural mass phenomenon, so i started to invite other artists to work on conceptual nail art and to use the fingernail as a space to deal with speculative prosthetics, experimental enhancement and social exploration,” says Buttendorf.

Post-Snowden-Nails-Aram-Bartholl-6-small.jpgThe SD cards are applied to the nails with super glue

The title of the project points to the relevance of experimenting with alternative methods of storing digital information. “The term 'Post-Snowden' refers to a general, bigger awareness and concern in society towards the question of digital privacy today,” explains Bartholl. The process of making your own memory card nails might seem fairly straightforward, because all you need are some microSD cards and super glue. Once the SD cards are adhered to the nails, they can simply be plugged into USB adapters to upload and download data, but deciding what to store on the SD drives is where the process can get tricky. “To glue a SD card on a nail is quite simple, but to collect and choose the right data content to put on the nails was part of a longer preparation,” explains Buttendorf. In Bartholl’s case, he chose a specific set of data for each finger. For instance, the nail on his middle finger held seven gigabytes of viruses, while his pinky held the entire Wikipedia in English at 62 gigabytes.

Post-Snowden-Nails-Aram-Bartholl-20-small.jpgWith the help of a USB adapter, Post-Snowden Nails can be plugged into a computer.

Before Post-Snowden Nails, Bartholl explored the idea of sharing information offline with Dead Drops, an offline network consisting of flash drives that are physically embedded into public spaces so anyone can plug their computer into them and share digital information anonymously. 

usb_slide_original.jpgOne of Bartholl’s Dead Drops installed in a brick wall. Image courtesy of Aram Bartholl

Despite the whimsical nature Post-Snowden Nails project, there are some very serious ideas behind it. In the description of the project, Bartholl references a video by media and communications professor Henry Warwick called The Radical Tactics of The Offline Library. In the video, Warwick describes how the structure of the internet has changed in ways that have made it more unstable: “Many people in the 1990s saw the rhizomatic as the model for understanding the internet, where every obstacle is worked around, and where any particular node of the system is destroyed, the rhizomatic system compensated and grows around it. In the past several years, we’ve seen the actual reversal of this. The internet is no longer a rhizomatic structure, but arboretic. Something that can be cut down and hacked to bits and killed.” Warwick explains how various legal and political actions have made it impossible for the internet to function as a rhizomatic system, and as a result, it can be taken away from us or destroyed all together. “The point is, the online is now precarious; the offline is resilient,” says Warwick.

Post-Snowden-Nails-Aram-Bartholl-26-small.jpg

By creating offline information sharing networks, Bartholl is actually trying to preserve the rhizomatic concept of the internet, albeit in a seemingly lighthearted way. But, it just might be silliness that makes Bartholl’s work so successful—it keeps what he’s doing from being taken seriously enough for anyone to try and stop him, or anyone else, from doing it. What Bartholl and Buttendorf’s project demonstrates is that there are myriad methods by which we can overcome the laws and politics that stifle information sharing, and all the tools we need could literally be at our fingertips.

“I did different experiments with cables, you sort of feel the cable and data pulling on your fingernail, it’s a beautiful way of experiencing data on a body level,” says Bartholl. 

See more work from Nadja Buttendorf’s Nail Art Residency at the project website and keep up with Aram Bartholl’s work with his blog.

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