Sunday, 3 May 2009

Public Art and the CIA = site specific secret squirrel excellence


Kryptos is a public artwork by artist James Sanborn situated on the grounds of America's Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Langley, Virginia.

The artwork cost $250,000 and was dedicated on 3rd November, 1990. It is positioned between two buildings and is made of red and green slate, white quartz, petrified wood, lodestone and copper. The most dominant feature of the work is the S-shaped copper screen, that resembles a vertical scroll, with characters punched out of the copper. The characters apparently make up a four-part message, each apparently in code encrypted by a different cipher.

Apparently CIA and other code crackers have only been able to solve three of the four messages and one part remains unbroken code. There is even an on-line group, Kryptos Group, dedicated to cracking the code of the artwork.

The title of the work "Kryptos", which means hidden in Greek, and the work is described as a "a meditation on the nature of secrecy and the elusiveness of truth".

The CIA's purpose is well known as being to collect information and keep secrets, as so many Hollywood movies and crime novels portray for us constantly. So in a strange inversion the CIA maintains a constant public awareness of its secrecy through external perceptions and portrayals.

I think the very public exploration of the artwork to "crack" the code of its embedded secret message is particularly apt and successful as a site specific work located in the CIA's grounds. The work takes site specificity to another level where it not only reflects its surrounding environment's purpose but engages with popular perceptions and engagements with that purpose. The work is located on an area that is perceived as secret and yet is well known. The work is well known but its message secret. Both the CIA and the work have captured the public's imagination regarding concepts of secrecy and learning the truth.

In many ways I hope the final part of the code isn't ever cracked so that the work maintains its fascination and continues to reflect the surroundning areas' purpose and public/secret perception so perfectly.







Reference: Levy, S. (May 2009). Mission Impossible: The Code Even the CIA Can't Crack, Wired Magazine 17.05

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