On November 30, the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (MAC) launched Terror Contagion, a thought-provoking immersive installation that pulls visitors into a graphic, three-dimensional representation of the sprawling connections, patterns and consequences of acts of digital violence documented through the painstaking investigations of the research collective Forensic Architecture (FA) and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras.
The data matrix is complemented by the personal stories of activists, dissidents and journalists targeted by the now infamous malware Pegasus. The exhibition, co-produced by the MAC, is based on a project undertaken with the support of the Toronto-based Citizen Lab and Amnesty International. Presented at Place Ville Marie (PVM) — the MAC’s newly minted, temporary location during the architectural transformation of the institution’s headquarters — the exhibition runs until April 18th, 2022.
In Terror Contagion, FA used the condition of global lockdown to turn its gaze to the digital violence of cyber-weapons. Contagion is the operative metaphor for this ongoing investigation of Israeli cyber-weapons manufacturer NSO Group, and the much-discussed abuses enabled by its malware Pegasus, sold to governments across the world. A powerful cyberespionage tool, Pegasus can be covertly installed on mobile phones and other devices, enabling operators of the tool to read text messages and emails, track calls and location, collect passwords as well as activate microphones and cameras. The 2021 Pegasus Project revelations rattled the world as a list containing thousands of potential “infections” of human rights defenders and high-profile individuals was leaked.
The investigation, Digital Violence: How the NSO Group Enables State Terror, led by Forensic Architecture director Eyal Weizman and researcher-in-charge Shourideh C. Molavi, along with team members Nathan Su, Lola Conte and Zac Ioannidis, examined dozens of targets of state surveillance — fellow investigators, journalists, opposition figures and activists, including the group’s friends — to map the terrain of a new digital battlefield in which the state wages war against its own people.
Hundreds of Pegasus infections and the corresponding physical violence are mapped in the installation presented at the MAC. Visitors are brought into the workings of an ever-expanding digital platform visualizing almost two thousand data points documenting digital infections and physical attacks, as well as other related incidents. A sense of pervasive menace is heightened by an accompanying data sonification, a collaboration with renowned musician and producer Brian Eno.
Collectively titled The Pegasus Stories, the video testimonials are narrated by famous NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, who exposed the largest US state surveillance project, anchoring the investigation in the lives of human rights defenders and their grounded struggles.
The exhibition also features a new short film by acclaimed documentary filmmaker and artist Laura Poitras, a long-time collaborator of FA, who accompanied the research agency throughout the investigative process. Poitras’s film is a visual study of the investigation by FA. Poitras has herself experienced invasive surveillance by different US agencies in response to her involvement in the Snowden leaks and, as recently revealed, high-level CIA officials had lobbied to designate Poitras as an “agent of a foreign power” to pave the way for her prosecution.
The exhibition includes two FA projects of cases in which their friends and partners were hacked by Pegasus. The first is The Enforced Disappearance of the Ayotzinapa Students, which investigated the orchestrated attack on a group of students from the Ayotzinapa Teacher’s College in Mexico, in which six died, dozens were injured and forty-three were forcibly disappeared. The investigation illustrated that, contrary to the state’s assertion that the attack was committed by organized crime, assailants included police, military and other branches of the Mexican security forces. In 2017 FA learnt that its local partners on this investigation—members of Centro Prodh—had been hacked by the Mexican government using Pegasus.
More recently, FA’s partners at the Palestinian human rights organization Al-Haq—with whom FA has just inaugurated a new investigative office in Ramallah—were also targeted by Israeli security forces using Pegasus. The Extrajudicial Execution of Ahmad Erekat, an investigation made in collaboration with Al-Haq, at the request of the Erekat family, and narrated by Angela Davis, examines the killing and degrading treatment of twenty-six-year-old Ahmad Erekat after his car crashed into a booth at a checkpoint in the Israeli occupied West Bank.
Here is what you need to know about Terror Contagion
Location: 1 Place Ville Marie, Montreal, Quebec H3B 3Y1
Dates: December 1, 2021 – April 18, 2022
Tuesday to Friday 11 AM – 7 PM,
Saturday and Sunday Noon – 5PM
Interactive Tours and Mediation:
Thursday: Mediation 4 PM to 7 PM | Visit 5:30 PM
Friday: Mediation 11:30 AM to 2:30 PM | Visit 12 PM
Saturday: Mediation 2 PM to 5 PM | Visit 3 PM
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