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“Anyone can write this software”

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It unmasks who crosses the street at a red light, who politicians often scroll through on their cellphones, and how the “perfect” Instagram photos are created. But don’t call media artist Dries Depoorter (31) an activist.

Tomorrow looks like an amazing day to go viral’, tweets Dries Depoorter this Sunday, September 11. When we meet five days later, it turns out there was no bragging. His work is picked up and praised far beyond the country’s borders, but he is particularly fast on the Internet. “Yesterday someone posted a video about my new project on TikTok and this morning it has already had 3.3 million views.”

This new project is called The Follower. Depoorter shows how seemingly spontaneous Instagram photos came to be. Depoorter can demonstrate that these shots were sometimes preceded by very long posing sessions with camera images made of them. To do this, he draws from the images of countless cameras in the public space. He then triggered the artificial intelligence. “A lot of people now send me their photos asking if I can send them the making of footage,” says Depoorter, “but just to be clear, I don’t have access to all the cameras. I work with open data Live streams and photos on Instagram can be viewed by anyone with an internet connection.

We meet in Maaket, a co-creation space north of Ghent “with a shared printer and coffee machine, a series of shared machines”, according to the website. “My studio is upstairs, as well as my sisters.” Griet designs poetic knitwear under the name Wolvis, while Bieke works as a photographer for the Magnum agency. However, they do not come from an artistic nest. Our parents were entrepreneurs. My father has a company that installs electricity in new homes. With a view to succession, I studied electricity in high school.

DIY store

Depoorter’s workshop is reminiscent of a DIY store. “Is that how you’re going to describe it in the article?” He smiled, a little worried. A long worktable full of technical equipment is placed against a wall, with an array of tools hanging above it. Translucent boxes filled with neatly coiled cables, wooden blocks and packing materials don’t reach the ceiling. At the window are two desks with computers facing each other. “I do the maximum myself,” says Depoorter. “I make the hardware for my projects on the workbench and write the software on my desk.”

The children’s surprise

Reactions are pouring in on social media The follower inside, ranging from “genius” and “funny” to “dystopian” and “dangerous”. “What is particularly sad about this,” writes privacy lawyer Matthias Dobbelaere-Welvaert on Twitter, “is the number of comments that find this an invasion incredible of our private life”. Not that they are wrong, but it is literally the surprise of the children of the software that has been circulating and being sold to (local) governments for years. It refers to the smart cameras which are used in cities like Kortrijk and Mechelen and which can trace people in the street scene based on filters such as “blue sweater”, “red backpack” and “black shoes”. . “A justified remark,” says Depoorter. “Someone wondered what governments are capable of when you see what I do myself with only open data. Governments have access to a lot more camera footage and have better technology.

Still, Depoorter does not get involved in online discussions. It is not my intention to send a message to the world. I prefer to keep it open, although it can generally be said that through my work I show the dangers of new technologies. I see myself as someone who raises questions rather than someone who answers questions. I am above all a maker, but that does not detract from the fact that I like to follow the debate.

Privacy

Surveillance and privacy are regularly addressed in Depoorter’s work. Also for Jaywalking frames, a collection of unique images of people going through a red light, Depoorter used unsecured cameras. “The software I wrote for this project registers a red light and then detects people crossing in a certain area. I frame the pictures and sell them on my online store for the price of fine in this country. That way the money doesn’t go to the police, but to me. (Laughs)

While studying media arts at KASK in Ghent, Depoorter was already trying to figure out what the price of his private life was. ‘For the project 24h sound wave I recorded an audio file of my life with a professional sound recorder for 24 hours. Conversations with teachers, family and friends could be heard there. The parts that I personally found, I cut them out and put them up for sale. The price varied between 5 and 550 euros and each fragment was sold only once. I then had to think carefully about the value of a personal story. But, he admits, “apart from that, I don’t care about my private life”.

Those who seemed to lose sleep over their privacy were our Flemish politicians after the launch of The Flemish Thieves in the summer of 2021. Using artificial intelligence and facial recognition, software on the Flemish Parliament’s live streams detects which politicians are distracted by their phones. “I expected the politicians to react,” says Depoorter, “but I was shocked that they immediately started defending themselves. Some claimed they were using their phones for work, others even asked for the videos to be taken offline. During this time, the software prepares Flemish rolls a distinction between typing and scrolling on a phone. “Many projects require constant maintenance,” he says. “My work never stops and it only gets better. ‘

Hazards

Depoorter is regularly asked to make the software it writes accessible to all. After the launch of The Flemish Thieves 90% of the emails I received talked about this. People from abroad also wanted to apply the software to their government. But sometimes it goes further than that. “I received an email from a company in Europe asking if I wanted to sell the software to them so they could use it to monitor their employees’ cell phone usage. I would never do that. This person had misunderstood the project.

Depoorter emphasizes the possibilities of existing technology. “I didn’t invent the tools I use, like artificial intelligence that recognizes faces or phones. For The Flemish Thieves I brought those two things together in a creative way, that’s all. Anyone who knows how to program something can write this software.

Find out more at driesdepoorter.be

Dries Depoorter

– 1991: born in Kortrijk

– Studied Media Arts at KASK in Ghent

– 2018-2022: launches Jaywalking Frames, The Flemish Scrollers and The Follower, among others

– Work exhibited at Barbican, Bozar, FOMU, Ars Electronica and Athens Digital Arts Festival, among others

– Has been invited to TEDxBrussels, Mutek Montreal, Internet Week Denmark, Digital Media Days Stockholm and Us by Night, among others

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