Mad King Donald has everyone hot on the word dystopian these days. Jakob S. Boeskov was way ahead of the curve: the Danish conceptual artist thinks dystopian should’ve been our favorite word since the turn of the millennium. Jakob looks like an aging skater with hyper-intelligent blue eyes. He lives with a Churchillian bulldog named Doctor in a light-filled studio that manages to feel Scandinavian in the heart of Chinatown.
Jakob gives off warm and unassuming vibes, which makes his Jason Bourne-esque activities as a reality-trolling provocateur all the wilder. In the past decade and a half, Jakob snuck into a Beijing arms fair to hawk a fake sniper rifle, caught visits from unnamed Department of Homeland Security g-men, and ate buffet-style during prayer breakfasts at American security-tech conventions (see: sketchy mass surveillance hardware, militarized police weaponry, name-tagged buzzcuts wearing pleated khakis).
These events all relate to Jakob’s sprawling piece titled “The Pre-Crime Triptych.” The Triptych consists of 2002’s ID Sniper, 2015’s Face Jagger, and the in-progress third element, Bioweapon 23. Meant to “put a magnifying glass to the arms industry,” Jakob’s Triptych is the product of deep intellection, far out creativity, and subtle rebellion.
“Pre-Crime” is a purposefully counterintuitive term: coined by sci-fi author Philip K. Dick, “Pre-Crime” describes a law enforcement practice of identifying and targeting potential criminals before a crime is committed. Jakob cited Mayor Bloomberg’s stop and frisk policy as an example of pre-crime, where individuals who meet a certain profile are stopped before any crime’s been committed.
To interrogate the notion of pre-crime, Jakob developed the “Artefact Method:” an artistic framework where Jakob develops conceptually sound yet non-functional futuristic technology, then injects it into the present moment. This philosophy is at the core of the Pre-Crime Triptych. Jakob worked with a Danish aircraft designer on ID Sniper, a faux-weapon that would allow governments to shoot protestors with tiny microchips for tracking purposes. He then made five-hundred fake business and a tri-fold, registered as a vendor, and took his insidious weapon to an arms bazaar in 2002 Beijing. He had no audience and no idea what would happen; it was, as Jakob puts it “an expedition where you don’t know what kind of civilization you will find.”
A decade later, Jakob came up with the even more sinister and complex information weapons system titled Face Jagger. On the surface, Face Jagger is just a highly realistic face mask. However, it is (theoretically) intended for tandem deployment with facial recognition technology and body doubles. As in, a suspected terrorist’s face would be printed, the mask would be put on a body double, and then this fake individual would be surveilled in some orchestrated, incriminating situation. Jakob ran back his Beijing process and took Face Jagger to an American security and surveillance fair in 2015.
After elegantly trolling both bazaars, making contacts and convincing the various weapons dealers of his seriousness, Jakob left essentially without a trace. No actual sales of the weapons occur. The only tangible results of these excursions come in the form of his elaborate models, various pieces of souvenir paraphernalia (present, as if to prove the reality of the undertaking) and Jakob’s two slim, self-authored books about the project experience.
Jakob’s Pre-Crime Triptych is some heavyweight metamodern shit that required some mental gymnastics of your friends here at CONVICTS. It’s out on the bleeding edge of artistic expression, yet feels urgent and necessary for the times.
We recently met with Jakob at his apartment to discuss The Pre-Crime Triptych. Coffee, vape hits, and deep conversation ensued.
The interview has been edited for clarity.
Jakob, how’s it going? To start, can you tell us a bit about growing up in Denmark?
So I was born in 1973 in Denmark and moved to NY in 2005 or 6. I spent the major part of my life in Denmark. My art is really colored by that. I grew up in Helsingør close to this art museum called Louisiana which was one of the most radical art museums in Europe. They had self-destructive sculptures made out of fireworks. One of the professors of the art academy did a animal sacrifice as a as a piece of performance art. It was a very radical art museum. So this was a big inspiration for me.
What were you doing before the artefact project?
I was doing comics back then. I was basically a frustrated comic book artist.
How did you make the jump from comics to conceptual art?
My first comics were published by a so-called fine art gallery, so it’s not that cut and dry. When I went to do the ID Sniper in China, one of the initial ideas was actually to document it as some kind of political cartoon, but I came to the conclusion that this project was so far out that nobody would ever believe it if was done as a cartoon or graphic novel. So that’s basically what got me into combining writing and photos in a book.
I was living in London, about to give up doing comics and I read this amazing book by Bill Drummond called Bad Wisdom which was a very fascinating piece of literature, where he basically did this strange piece of performance art. He travelled to the North Pole to sacrifice a little statuette of Elvis Presley as his way out of the music business. It was very strange performance art with no audiences where he created a narrative around that. I was very influenced by that book.
Can you talk a bit more about the inception of ID Sniper?
First of all, I was co-editing this magazine together and the other editor’s idea was that I should bring a piece of Danish design, a Danish designed weapon to a weapons fair in Beijing. We were in Copenhagen at this point and designed an ergonomically correct police club that the police could hit demonstrators with, without hurting their hands.
That was the initial idea, but then 9/11 happened and I wanted to make something that was more serious and dark. Basically the most horrible horrific weapon you could imagine. I was struggling with how to make this horrible weapon come true and I met an industrial designer who’s now involved in launching rockets-a real science guy-and got together with him and told him “You know I want to create this post 9/11 weapon for Beijing. I want to create this post Tiananmen Square weapon where they can keep demonstrators in control. We came up with the ID Sniper which was a GPS based weapon, a pre-crime weapon, where you could mark the demonstrators so that you would know where they are located before they committed a crime.
What changed around 9/11 for you?
Well, we were making fun of Scandinavia with the billy club. I love to make fun of Scandinavia that’s one of my favorite things, but suddenly there were larger issues at stake. I wanted to create a weapon that was more high tech and that dealt with how authorities would use new technologies to to control the population because, well, I think that was clear to many people after 9/11 that that was what was going to happen.
Tell us about going to the arms fair in Beijing?
Sure, I mean how much time you got? It’s fairly easy first of all to apply and go there. They didn’t really have heavy security checks just send a thousand dollars and a fax and you’re in. I fly to Beijing and there are large corporations, huge state-owned Russian defense contractors. BMW was there to sell police cars and motor bikes. The biggest weapons manufacturers in the world were there – basically I’m walking around with just a printed out poster of the weapon and five-hundred fake business cards. I felt like they were never gonna believe this far out weapon.
But you did make it through. Does that have any functionality or is it purely a model?
This is just a model, yeah.
What was your main worry at the Beijing convention?
I must say, I wasn’t nervous about getting found out by the Chinese Police. The whole thing was a huge shit show, there was thousands of people, a lot of the Chinese organizers arrived in Beijing a week before. It was just chaotic. Money everywhere, people everywhere, weapons everywhere. They were not going to find me out, there was too much going on.
My main concern was that basically the other weapons dealers would say, “This is completely ludicrous, what is this? What will happen when you shoot a GPS chip into a person? That person’s going to die.” I’m not a real weapons dealer… so other weapons dealers would say “well what’s going on, this guy’s completely fake”, and I didn’t quite know what would happen if that happened, so that was a concern. The concern was that nobody would believe it.
What were your expectations going into the convention?
There weren’t really any hopes, it was just like going into unknown territory. It’s more like going on an expedition where you don’t know what kind of civilization you will find.
Can you briefly talk about the overarching philosophy behind the Pre-Crime Triptych?
The Artefact method is kind of the philosophy behind this. These projects are very dense to explain but the Artefact method is kind of like the theoretical glue that keeps these projects together. It’s about testing out future technology in a real environment and seeing how people react to it.
How did the nature of the project change between ID Sniper and Face Jagger?
Now, a lot of things have changed since 2002, which is when I did the ID Sniper, until 2015 when I did Face Jagger. Mass surveillance is more omnipresent and everybody is conscious of it, the omni-presence of cell phones has changed. For me, most crucially, is the fact that terrorists have smartphones now. I am very fascinated by the way Al-Qaeda used media. They used basically all video, grainy video: there were shots of them standing in front of a cage with camouflage gear. Basically the classic guerrilla aesthetics. Until ISIS in 2012 and 2013 started to have these elaborate video productions and high definition videos. That for me is one of the big changes, the ability to create slick propaganda video is no longer in the realm of the state powers. Everybody can use the internet, even terrorists, and that’s basically what Face Jagger was born out of.
Can you talk about the notion of pre-crime a little bit?
Pre-crime is a concept that is lifted from science fiction writer Philip K Dick. I feel that that term is a very Scandinavian thing. In Denmark where I grew up, we had this thing called SP. It was a collaboration between social workers, schools and police, and the whole idea was to locate criminals before they became criminals, basically. It’s a very Northern European wealthy estate way of thinking. A kind of prophylactic approach to crime if you will. And that for me is pre-crime. Bloomberg’s stop and frisk is one example of it where basically people who just fit a certain description are approached before they have committed any crime, and I think we will see more and more of this way of thinking, and police techniques. Because of computers, basically.
How does the concept of ‘simulacra,’ that key point of postmodernism, factor into this?
I’m not that deep into it. It was Jean Baudrillard who started using that term. I remember when I read some of this in the 80’s and really didn’t understand what they were talking about. Back then, you have to understand that the internet was just an idea. I am old enough to remember when we knew the internet was coming. Cyberpunk was a big thing in the late 80’s, early 90’s and we didn’t know what the fuck they were talking about, like ‘What is this cyber?’ We didn’t know.
Now we know what it means when people only have friends on the internet and not real friends. Now we know what it means when people have no erotic life and only erotic stimulation via pictures on the internet. This is the simulacra. The simulacra also has a financial element in the financialisation of Western economies. Most of the wealth in America and also in Europe is accumulated in financial speculation. It’s not real. The simulacra is basically the climax of this postmodern capitalism, and it’s something we are living with right now.
Do you see the current political moment as some kind of tipping point for reality?
It had to come sooner or later. In a way, I feel we are living in very happy times. At least now, we have this grotesque puppet of a president, we have these grotesque almost cartoony figures. It doesn’t only apply to the American presidency: also ISIS is cartoonish, you know? You could say that the new American president and ISIS, to put it in a colorful way, are demons born on the internet. Neither of them could have worked without the internet.
How do we deal with this? Would you say that a counter-narrative composed of equally powerful simulacra is needed?
I agree with what you are saying: we need some counter-narrative or counter-myth. I think the whole discussion about what is fake and what is real is boring and counterproductive. We are not going to get anywhere with that kind of dialect. So yes, we need to create counter-myths. That doesn’t mean we need to lie like Donald Trump does-but what is the nature of art and what is the nature of fiction? Art comes from the word artificial and fiction is storytelling right? We need to embrace that.
You’ve described the Pre-Crime Triptych as satire. Now that central, defining narratives are more elusive, what place do you see satire occupying in world of increasingly destabilized narratives?
I know what you’re saying and it’s tricky. I just read this thing in the newspaper the other day in The Onion – the satirical newspaper – and they agree themselves. They can’t make funny Trump jokes. It’s not possible because reality is funnier than fiction. I don’t know quite how to answer that question, but it’s a huge challenge.
What we are seeing now is: everything is wrong. There is a full spectrum crisis from Hollywood to the liberal media to literature to the art world to pop music. Where are our Bob Dylans? They are not around. We have been going through a time that has been just as dramatic and traumatic as the 60’s with civil rights and the war in Vietnam. We have had fifteen years of war now. The war in Afghanistan is still going, and there hasn’t been a single song about it. There hasn’t been a single watchable movie about it. It’s a full spectrum crisis, but it’s also a crisis of comedy.
The artefact triptych is three pieces, it’s ID Sniper, Face Jagger and what’s the third?
The pre-crime triptych is the ID Sniper, Face Jagger and the final not yet completed piece is called Bioweapon 23, which is going to be about fascism and genetics. This is the deal, ID Sniper took place in the Chinese empire, Face Jagger took place in the American Empire, and I want the third and final installment to take place in the European empire, if you can define Europe as an empire. I wanted that to be about Europe’s obsession with blood and genes and so on. I want it to be a satirical project about fascism. But these projects are very hard to finance-I’m worried about how I am going to finance getting to Europe to do this project. But then fascism came to America and it’s going to be cheaper for me to do it here, so I might just do it here.
What is your day to day when you are working on these projects? Are you sketching models or researching and thinking about it? Or does it come all at once?
It comes in a big spurt. It’s kind of like making an underground film in that there are a lot of variables. You have to secure some money, you have to figure out the location and then you have to figure out the concept. For me both of these projects have worked this way, that once the location was locked down – the weapons fair in Beijing or the security and surveillance convention in California – then I have an actual deadline and then the challenge is to create the market material to make this weapon look convincing, which is actually a lot harder than you would expect, and that becomes the crux of the project.
How did the conference in Beijing and the conference in California compare? What were the differences and similarities?
They felt very different and I think it tells a lot about the American Empire. It’s a very discreet empire. Which is funny because Americans are perhaps not known to be discreet. The weapons thing in China was very crass: Russian weapons dealers, Turkish weapons dealers, Israeli weapons dealers. The American fair was more-well firstly it was also not strictly an arms fair, it was more like surveillance and security equipment – but it was more discreet, more relaxed, more American, less chaotic.
In one of your previous interviews you said that you are still hopeful for the future, does that still stand?
Yeah. To be a pessimist is the easy way out.
How do you get over the pessimism?
In the long run it doesn’t really matter. Even if the middle ages happened, there was lot’s of really beautiful things about the middle ages. Beautiful art, they built some beautiful cathedrals. Even if humankind dies out, the earth will still survive. It’s a beautiful Earth that we live on and I’m sure it will survive.
Tell us a bit about New York, where you live, what you love about the city?
So my name is Jakob S. Boeskov, I am originally from Denmark, I live in Chinatown in New York and well love New York because you can be anonymous here. And I love the people of New York. There is too little space, it’s too expensive, too many rats and pigeons – but I love the people of New York.
Words and interview by Cam Higgins