How I learned to love RFID

Report by Oliver Leistert

How I learned to love RFID was a three-day workshop organized by Hartware MedienKunst Verein Dortmund, from 20 – 22. 5. 2006 at Phoenix-Halle Dortmund.

Introduction: Dortmund
Dortmund, a city with roughly 600.000 inhabitants, is located right in the heart of the Industrial Age Dwelling Conglomerate „Ruhrgebiet“. Since most of coal and steel production has terminated here, vast areas of industrial ruins are left over. Some have been dismantled, some were declared memorials of a gone age and some have been remodeled for new usage. This is the case with the Phoenixhalle, which was part of the huge Phoenix areal, a furnace site, with an impressive rusty industrial monster of double soccer field size.

So space is not scarce in Dortmund, neither inside nor outside of the Phoenixhalle. The Hartware MedienKunst Verein (HMKV) has full access to the massive hall and any exhibitions there will definitely not lack space. But maybe this place could be promoted better. When I arrived with my colleague at Dortmund Hauptbahnhof, the taxi drivers either wanted to bring us to some other hall or had to admit not having a clue about the Phoenix Hall and its location. This seems to be a symptom that art and culture in the Ruhrgebiet suffer from: interest by locals is small. Why? One hypothesis traces that unemployment and populist media have changed the traditional red, left-wing area of the Ruhrgebiet into a region with more and more rightwing and explicit Nazi activities, letting the pop-cultural mainstream shift to the right as well. Last year, Nazis murdered a punk right in the center of Dortmund. Any art institution in Dortmund is confronted with such phenomena and has to react. Maybe this is why HMKV organized a big exhibition about globalized football. In the midst of the World Cup frenzy they present uncommon views on the multi-billion dollar business of football.

The 1st day

The public day -Saturday- offered a dense set of lectures. After curator Inke Arns’ and Francis Hunger’s introductions, the well-known science fiction author Bruce Sterling, now more and more into teaching, gave his keynote. He started with a high-speed travel through contemporary ambient/ubiquitous computing/web2.0/networked objects, referring to his latest book “Shaping things”. Proposing „thinglinks“ as a proper term, he recalled the main issues of upcoming techno-objects: chips with IDs, GPS/locative media, search engines, recyclables, and virtual models of objects. As a guiding principle, he proposed to think of material instantiations of immaterial objects that will surround us soon. Bruce announced with a slightly cynical touch a „seven year window of opportunities for artists“. To differentiate one from cooperate sites, he proposed to write „Arphid“ in html-meta tags, to identify interesting RFID-sites and projects much easier. His tour de force through contemporary discussions around networked objects set high expectations for the rest of the programme.

After this most entertaining presentation, Foebud e.V. ,Rena Tangens and padeluun, started their show. Foebud’s main focus on RFID concerns privacy issues. They presented some of their successful interventions, such as against Metro’s RFID containing Consumer Card. The limits of Foebud’s political discourse are to have an isolated view on privacy and data protection by recalling idealistic democratic narratives. To isolate questions of information protection from wider discourses such as why the cooperations are the players and who takes the benefit from such a technology like RFID make Foebud’s political claims blind against the trajectories it may lead to: initiatives like Foebud help to make surveillance/identification technologies compatible to western democratic regime standards. Foebud is not radical in any sense. Their primary concern is: citizens should decide what electronic information about them is held by whom and should have the right to access this data and delete it. So, for instance, if consumer tag RFID once will be designed in a privacy compliant way, Foebud’s aims are reached. In this sense, they offer consulting services for free to the industry and governments. That these players don’t want to accept Foebud as a partner doesn’t mean Foebud’s work isn’t of any use for them. Historically, these Bürgerinitiativen-like associations of concerned citizens have played and will now and then play an important role as a catalyst during the implementation of new technologies into society.
The second critical point I want to sketch concerning Foebud is that their political model depends solely on representation: they act as a citizen’s lobby. But what if citizens don’t care and are happy to use messy customer cards? This leads to one of the most problematic field of political action itself, that of representation, where you have to ask yourself whose voice you are raising and what you do with that. In the ICT for Development discussions, these questions are debated fiercely. Sadly, this discussion has not yet reached the Foebud people. Foebud has to ask itself: what concepts of society are used and what are fictitious parts in that image of society. And that’s for sure: if one has to refer to the Shoah when talking about the RFID World Cup Tickets, something is terribly wrong!

After the desperately needed lunch break (yummy!) agency agent Rob van Kranenburg presented a „weird“ (Bruce Sterling) presentation of a different kind. Rob concentrated on a European perspective of information spaces. While nation states increasingly lose their sovereignty to the European Union, the E.U. itself urgently needs an information space for its citizens (is what I understood as one of Rob’s claims). RFID plays a role here, as it is amongst those technologies that constitute and operate in information spaces. To design these spaces according to the needs of E.U. citizens is one of the tasks Rob informed us about. He claimed a „design for emergence“ as default in systems. Meaning that design of technology should right from scratch be an interdisciplinary task, not solely one of engineers and economists. Otherwise RFID would rest in the deadlock of hostile digital environments vs. consumer/citizen needs.
I find it confusing to demand such implementations within the EU, as it is an antidemocratic monster, leading in a constitution proposal that wants to implement free trade and other market ideologies as default, on a constitutional level. I have to admit that I haven’t got the slightest idea of how someone should even approach the EU bureaucracy. Do they organize hearings for concerned citizens or do they have letterboxes where one can submit their wishes to the Commission?

Following Rob, Wolfgang Lammers of the Frauenhofer Institute in Dortmund, gave his speech, with another totally different approach. Wolfgang presented actual and future targets of RFID in logistics and the related problems. He thoroughly explained technical matters and systemic explorations. There are advantages with RFID against the Barcode or the 2D-System (a printed code, containing more information than the barcode, being much cheaper and more easily to deploy than RFID). But the main problems with RFID still seem to be costs and technical defects, as faulty readings would cause dramatic follow-up costs in any warehouse.

Rasa Smite and Honor Harger then reminded us that Radio doesn’t necessarily has to be small, but can be very big. The Riga Center for New Media Culture (RIXC) has hands on an ex-soviet radar system, that once spied over Europe and was abandoned when the Soviets left the Baltic countries. Together with local astronomers the artists took over the system and are now listening to the radio waves of the sun and other astral objects.

This was then experienced later on in the evening, when a live broadcast from the sun was transmitted, and interpreted by sound artists that were present in Dortmund. In a way, this raw and fuzzy end of the day was a good closing. It symbolized that talking about RFID needs to be focused and centered on case implementations of technology into society.

The 2nd day

Sunday, the „hands on workshop“ started in the morning. The Foebud people had brought material and tools to build some RFID gadgets. So, the whole bunch of artists, writers and how we call ourselves, tried to build an RFID-Chip detector (a project originating from German computer magazine c’t) and an much easier to build RFID-Reader detector. Unfortunately, some parts to build the chip detector were missing. So we succeeded only partially. But everyone seemed happy to do something hands-on, smelling the solder and touching electronic devices.

In an afternoon discussion, all participants complained about the sad and not very impressing artistic use of emerging technologies such as RFID. Besides beta-testing, we could not state many ideas pushing technologies somewhere else. The „we make money not art“ site seems to be paradigmatic.

The 3rd day

The next day, we met at the Frauenhofer Institute for Logistics and Materialfluss, located near Dortmund’s university, a classic Standortfaktor. The staff gave us a long guided tour. In their warehouse-simulation-like lab, we learned that RFID is efficient and makes everything even more efficient. One highlight I remember: Everyone is a logisticist!


After these three days, it came to my mind that I recommend to strengthen focus when discussing RFID. As a technology, it is easy to understand. But as a part of society, its manifestations are manifold, depending on what purposes it is being used for. On a general level, one has to remember that RFID is basically just one more brick in the wall of quantification. With RFID, counting and sorting are default. So, anywhere it will be deployed, economists are capable of calculating. For an artist, who refers by her name to a poetic world, this might at least provoke a reaction. Digital surroundings have systemic limits. By setting these surroundings as default for society, non-intelligible, non-countable and non-economized fields are losing even more weight than they already have in a functionalist capitalist surrounding. RFID in this sense is a hegemonial technology.
As the Frauenhofer staff told us: it is all about efficiency. This is the imperative of capitalist ideology. If you are not efficient, you die. Let us think in this direction and forget about RFID-toys. Or, as the Critical Art Ensemble proposes in their latest book „Marching Plague“, to spot uselessness as a ghost haunting the functional world:
„We find uselessness even in the most functional of items, such as simple and complex technologies. Technology is generally considered a practical, material formation. Sometimes its tendency is utopian, sometimes apocalyptic, but it is always assumed to be functioning instrumentally. In truth, instrumentality’s opposition very often creeps into the techno-object. From low-end instruments like cell phones jammed with useless features […], to the many overly specialized pieces of low-end technology that clutter the closets of the middle class, to the highest-end germ and nuclear warfare technologies, uselessness is an integral part of each. When has the intercontinental ballistic missile ever been used?“

(Critical Art Ensemble: the Marching Plague. Germ Warfare and Global Public Health. Autonomedia 2006, p. 86)


Pictures of the workshop on Flickr, tagged ‘howilearnedtoloverfid.’
Workshop report by Timo Arnall