Tecmerin. Journal of Audiovisual Essays



Nº 11 – 2023 (1)

Hacktivism as an artistic practice: visual evidence for social change

Carolina Fernández-Castrillo

Universidad Carlos III de Madrid


The intersection between activism and digital culture finds its most recent expression in hacktivism to give visibility and signal injustices in favour of social change. Non-violence and online transgression are some of the distinctive elements of hacktivist practices (Jericho, 2014; Samuelson, 2004; Denning, 2001) that, applied to the artistic field, result in projects in which “(…) the aesthetic and ethical use of information constitutes the main material and artistic medium” (Fernández-Castrillo, 2021). The figure of the activist hacker is especially attractive when placed in an undefined domain between the role of hero and villain, an uncomfortable agent due to his unorthodox methods in defense of fundamental rights.

For the last two decades, the Italian artist Paolo Cirio has been considered as the main international exponent of this new socio-cultural trend that gives continuity to Info Arts –in general– and to Investigatory Art –in particular–, placing himself at the forefront of Media Art. Following Art Intervention (Tate, n.d.) –present in video activism and contested performance art–, from his evidentiary realism, Cirio goes beyond data visualization (McKenna et al., 2017; Shanken, 2012; Wilson, 2022) by intervening as an agent involved in the social causes he defends (Fernández-Castrillo & Cirio 2022). His projects are placed between investigative journalism, contemporary digital art, and guerrilla social actions through a new dimension: the transreal condition (Fernández-Castrillo, 2021), in which Cirio’s role as hacker and activist allows him to carry out a direct intervention on the reality under study, thus updating the conception of art-action in the post-digital era. As we will see in the conversation with Cirio, his function as an artist and social agent is blurred through a constant provocation to the sociocultural limits and asymmetries of power.

In 2014 you received the Golden Nica in the category of interactive art at the Ars Electronica Festival for your work Loophole for All (2013), the greatest international recognition in the world of digital culture. Since then, your projects have been at the forefront of Media Art, making you a true pioneer of artistic hacktivism. How would you define this socio-cultural action line?

I applied this technique and practice of hacking in different contexts, so several projects are about surveillance and privacy, however, it is not always about private information of individuals. I applied it to expose anonymous financial entities with Loophole for All (2013). In Amazon Noir (2006) I used it for liberating copyrighted content. I made use of it also to expose material that even if it can be found in the public domain, it needed to be exposed in sort way that only hacking and coding could do with Sociality (2018).

Hacktivism is a practice that can be taken as art, as much as performance, video art or other disciplines. It merges art and activism, as much as socially engaged art. The hacking itself could be also considered a medium more than a technique or a practice. Hacktivist works of art often take the form of performances; they are literally live events that happen for an unpredictable amount of time or a planned set of time. However, hacktivism also produces material, that is the sensitive data that exposes. Such material can be used to make works of art in digital and physical forms. Even if we are talking about the digital medium and digital practice, that can be also translated into material that is printed as photography, text, or rendered in art installations, videos, and cultural productions. There are several reasons for hacking, in this case for art, or only for political reasons (activism), is mostly known for just technical reasons of solving network security for good, or for malicious reasons, and so to produce harm and damage. In this case, hacking is applied to art for social purposes.


Loophole4All.com introductory video – Became a pirate, hijack an offshore company!

Video 1. Loophole for All (2013).

When did you understand that hacker culture could help strengthen your contribution to social change as an artist and activist?

I had begun to hack anonymously twenty years ago to protest NATO’s wars. In all this variety of cases, I was moved by two motivations. The first is the activist side, so for each specific issue, be it financial secrecy, open access, privacy, or militarism, the purpose was to reveal this information that was not accessible or understood to my audience beyond the art and academic world. The second motivation is purely artistic, by which I am using this new material and practice to make works of art, exploring the aesthetics and language of them, the opportunities, and the possibilities, which is something that I discovered by working with it.

I think the modern role of the artist is scientific, journalistic, and even legislative. The complexity of the modern world reached a point that only artists might be able to represent it, showing its relevant signs, and having enough imagination to come up with solutions for it. For instance, when I talk about mugshots and the “right to be forgotten” in my work Obscurity (2016), it involves deciding if we should remove a picture or not from the Internet, if that is censorship or instead, it is a way to preserve the privacy and intimacy of someone. Beyond being an artist or a hacker, I took several roles in this project, as a promoter of a new privacy policy in the U.S. and almost as a social scientist in the understanding of a new form of freedom of speech.


Criminal Data

Video 2. Criminal data (2022).

In your projects, intermedia and multiplatform strategies stand out, as in the case of the controversial Capture (Cirio, 2020a-c), in which you denounced the use of technology that allows facial recognition without prior authorization. The initial project was censored by the French Ministry of the Interior for containing images of French police officers taken in public spaces that you processed with facial recognition software. In addition, you created a database in which users identified over 4,000 agents. You combined documentary audiovisual materials, interviews, manifestos, and even urban art actions in this case. What role does the video format usually play in your artistic works?

Video is a very important medium for my actions. It is necessary to deliver the statements regarding the reasons for my hacking, to visualize the data and its processing in an appealing form, and to document the live online performances as well as in the public spaces. 

The video statements belong to the hacking genre, like the famous ones by the group Anonymous and other noticeable hackers, leaving a video statement before or after the hacking is part of the action. These statements are often to explain the reasons for such radical actions and exposure of data, justify and respond to the controversy. On the other hand, the visual representation of the hacking in the form of video helps to give the sense of the use of data and code in action and make it perceptible, which otherwise it wouldn’t be because of the very textual and fast form of the data and coding processing. 

These videos became viral and thus fundamental for the public engagement of the action, they circulate on social media and are used by the mainstream media reporting on the hacking. The online audience comment and share the videos, making the action even more viral and controversial. These are the reasons why for my hacking I often produce videos about how and why I make the action. I make the video very short, concise, and maybe didactic, but absolutely propagandistic and appealing, with popular aesthetics to reach an audience as wider as possible. 

Then, after the hacking, the video remains as documentation of an ephemeral performance acted on the Internet. Eventually, websites, code, and data became obsolete because of the nature of technology, and thus video documentation remains as the only artwork, similar to the art performances, interventions, and happenings in the sixties and seventies, and the ephemeral nature of live arts. In my hacking I often reach the physical space through intervention in the public space, materializing the data and recontextualizing it in urban environments. Also, in this case, I make videos to document the actions, where I play the main role, with my presence as an activist and artist in authoring the action also in the public space. By combining this video material, the result can be similar to the video essay genre, in which social commentary with text and documentation serves to articulate social issues through a particular aesthetic.


Capture –  Profiling Faces of French Police Officers – Paolo Cirio Action in Paris 2020

Video 3. Capture (2020).


In Bodily (2021) you delve into the ethical gaps related to body scanning technology. In this case, you explored real-time contact with the public through an interactive video installation. Is this an action line that you will continue exploring? Do you plan to investigate new applications of video in the field of artistic hacktivism?

Artificial intelligence (AI) is bringing the making of videos to new possibilities in society and, consequentially, in the arts. Bodily (2021) was the first work in which I investigated machine vision with a video feed. The use of video in technology for surveillance is already surpassing photography. The ability of processing live video feeds by AI and ubiquitous high-tech cameras is making video the principal media for surveillance both online and offline. And not only with new smart CCTV cameras, but also with this bodily video technology, drones, satellites, and including our personal videos on social media. Think about how platforms such as Instagram, TikTok, and the Metaverse are pushing us more to upload videos rather than photos.

More recently AI is able to create videos autonomously which will result in a huge number of deep-fake videos online. This deep-fake will be counterbalanced by any effort to detect them and mark them as fake, triggering a technological war between machines in a game of hide and seek. We won’t be able to see it, as machine vision is actually invisible, but the resulting video and their social implication will be very interesting, and thus I’m absolutely interested to work around this new frontier. I can imagine myself hacking video feeds processed and generated by AI to make visible the level of power and abuse they can generate in society.

Video 4. Bodily (2021).

Throughout your career, you proved how art can and should deal with the most delicate issues regarding access to information today. In your projects you promote citizen participation as well as media and digital literacy, breaking down the fourth wall between the artist and the public. Do you believe in the power of visual evidence to generate genuine social change?

The notion of “evidence” came along in my practice rather late, in 2017, for two reasons: first, I think I was not the only one having this urge to reconstruct a reality that at that point was so deconstructed by misinformation on social media, which was starting to show how we were losing our ability to understand an increasingly fragmented reality. It was a counter-reaction by artists mainly, and by journalists, and so the notion of evidence returned to be the only real truth. The evidence has or wants to have a particular quality, which is that it is so concrete that in any context you put it, from any angle you look at it, it should always point to one truth only, or at least try to concentrate truth around evidence that cannot be contested or is very hard to be contested. And that is a necessary move when you start to have fake news and technology fabricating realities all around you, but also images that have started to be created by algorithms, computers, and so on. This is also a necessary counter-reaction that is needed for the audience that inevitably became suspicious of artists trying to trick them with mockery of reality as a form of relevant aesthetics of our time.

What are freedom and privacy, and how do citizens identify or recognize it in society? These are fundamental values of society that are explored through the Internet, which allows people to publish, browse and use material of the greatest value to live in our society. That is what makes a difference to me, the relation between the Internet and society, and how society is completely basing itself on the Internet today, as much as in the past society would be based on religion, mass media, or other forms of social superstructures. The Internet today is the social structure. It is not even a technology anymore; technology is just the tool I use. What really interests me is understanding how society relates to that.

Now everyone can go on the Internet and make their own hyper reality. Hence the importance of evidence, it becomes the only pivotal direct referent to a sense of social reality. That is why artists no longer try to create a fictional reality, also because it is too easy, there are too many people making fictional realities already. They are much more interested in finding what is the most concrete evident reality that no one sees anymore. It is a completely renewed attitude if we compare it to even just ten years ago. Artists like Martha Rosler were trying to deconstruct what the first prototype of a fake reality could be and how it could be portrayed. As such, they were very critical of the idea of evidence, and they were right to do so. But today, fifty years later, we are in a very different situation; as artists, we do not need to show to our audience how easy it is to fake reality. Now we feel that we need to show how reality is obscured today, because it is so fragmented, and everyone is fragmenting it. 

Then, beyond the evidence, we are facing ethical questions and dilemmas that didn’t exist at the time of postmodernism, which even reduced science and human rights to philosophical arguments. Now the urgency and gravity of the social crisis is too concrete. Just look at how political activism is integrated in so many artists’ practices these days, that is not postmodernity, which after all, today as a term is used only to justify abstract commercial art.

Video 5. Workshop ARTE e ATTIVISMO – Transmedia Art: etica proattiva ed investigazione di tecnologie emergenti – Istituto Italiano di Cultura-Madrid and artivist performance by Paolo Cirio & Carolina Fernández-Castrillo (2022). Video: Andrea Gómez & Fernando Rey.


Cirio, P. (2020a). Capture. Paolo Cirio’s official website. Retrieved from: https://www.paolocirio.net/work/capture/  

Cirio, P. (2020b). Text campaign and research Ban Facial Recognition Europe. Paolo Cirio’s official website. Retrieved from: https://www.paolocirio.net/press/texts/text_capture_ban-facial-recognition.php  

Cirio, P. (2020c). Text Project and artist’s statements project Capture. Paolo Cirio’s official website. Retrieved from:                         https://www.paolocirio.net/press/texts/text_capture.php

Denning, D. E. (2001). Activism, Hacktivism, and Cyberterrorism: the Internet As a Tool for Influencing Foreign Policy. In Arquilla, J. & Ronfeldt, D. (eds.), Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime, and Militancy. Santa Monica, California: Rand. 239-287. Retrieved from: https://www.rand.org/pubs/monograph_reports/MR1382.html

Fernández-Castrillo, C. & Cirio, P. (2022). Beyond the Code: Hacktivism and Expanded Information. International Conference on Transmedia Activism: Creativity and Expanded Information. Universidad Carlos III de Madrid & Ca’ Foscari Università di Venezia. UC3M MEDIA. Recuperado de: https://media.uc3m.es/video/621cda458f4208882d8b456d

Fernández-Castrillo, C. (2021). La condición transreal: información expandida y hacktivismo en el Media Art. Artnodes. Revista de Arte, Ciencia y Tecnología, 28: 1-10. https://doi.org/10.7238/a.v0i28.377879

Jericho (2014). On the origins of the term ‘Hacktivism’. Rants of a deranged squirrel, 17 febrero 2014. Retrieved from: https://jerichoattrition.wordpress.com/tag/jason-sack/

McKenna, S.; Nathalie H. R., Bongshin Lee, J. B. & Meyer, M. (2017). Visual narrative flow: Exploring factors shaping data visualization story reading experiences. Eurographics conference on visualization, 36(3): 377-387. https://doi.org/10.1111/cgf.13195  

Samuelson, A. (2004). Hacktivism and the Future of Political Participation. Doctoral thesis. Harvard University. Retrieved from: http://alexandrasamuel.com/dissertation/pdfs/index.html  

Shanken, E. A. (2012). Investigatory Art: Real-time systems and network culture. European Journal of Media Studies, 2: 77–89. https://doi.org/10.5117/NECSUS2012.2.SHAN

Tate. (n.d.). Art Intervention. Retrieved from: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/a/art-intervention

Wilson, S. (2002). Information Arts. Intersections of Arts, Science, and Technology. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. https://doi.org/10.7551/mitpress/3765.001.0001



The research is part of the competitive project «Digital Media Culture: Intercreativity and Public Engagement» (PI: Carolina Fernández-Castrillo, PhD –Venice Centre for Digital and Public Humanities, Ca’ Foscari  Università di Venezia–), funded by the Ministero dell’Università e della Ricerca, Progetto MIUR Dipartimenti di Eccellenza (2019-2023, Italy). The results of the work are also integrated in the «Archaeology of digital media: intermediality, transmedia narratives and UGC» research line launched by Fernández-Castrillo from the group TECMERIN (Television-Cinema: memory, representation and industry) of the Communication and Media Studies Department at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid. 

Videos and images courtesy of Paolo Cirio.

Tecmerin. Journal of Audiovisual Essays
ISSN: 2659-4269
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Universidad Carlos III de Madrid