Spectrum Analysis #11 from Numbers in the Dark
The forces that shape our lives today are frequently invisible, or at least attempt to be. Intelligence gathering is one example of this, and an area of these activities forms the subject of my new project Numbers in the Dark. During the early years of the Cold War, shortwave radio enthusiasts began to notice unidentified broadcasts, transmitting strings of numbers read by synthesised voices. These enigmatic broadcasts, which responded to no requests for identification, have come to be known as ‘numbers stations’.
Numbers broadcasts continue to this day and while very few have ever been clearly connected to a specific government or organisation, all the evidence suggests that they are used by intelligence agencies to transmit coded instructions to their operatives in the field. While it might seem archaic, transmitting secret messages by short-wave radio confers numerous advantages even in the digital age. The system requires little specialist equipment, is virtually untraceable, and by virtue of the type of cryptography used it is also extremely secure.
While the instructions contained in numbers broadcasts might be profoundly secret, the radio broadcasts themselves are more or less public and can be easily heard by anyone with a short-wave radio. As a result dedicated groups of enthusiasts have emerged who commit countless hours to monitoring the peculiarities of each numbers station, naming them, noting schedules and recording any changes in their behaviour. These enthusiasts also sometimes employ tecniques like High Frequency Direction Finding to locate the approximate area of origin for these signals.
Numbers in the Dark employs research undertaken by these enthusiasts, in conjunction with an array of other sources including declassified documents, in an attempt to locate the global broadcast sites of twenty-two numbers stations, past and present. The results of this search are as perplexing as they are enlightening, revealing radio transmitters isolated deep in forests and on remote military bases, but also showing others that lie at the heart of affluent, well developed cities, alongside major highways and at the edges of popular beaches.
Once located, each transmitter site is mapped in high resolution using publicly available satellite mapping programs. It is well known that this technology is a descendent from the optical surveillance satellites developed by spy agencies following the Second World War, but more directly the satellites used today for commercial mapping are also often directly used by intelligence agencies. The Geoeye 2 satellite, which collects much of the imagery for Google Maps, also collects imagery for intelligence organisations like the American National Geospatial Intelligence Agency. Numbers in the Dark is therefore in a very literal sense about turning the tools of the spies back against their users.
Alongside these maps, spectrum analyses are made of transmissions both from numbers stations and legitimate broadcasts. A spectrograph is a method of turning a radio transmission into a visible image. It is a technique which is useful for a variety of reasons, but which in the context of this project is also a pertinent reminder that radio waves lie along the same spectrum as visible light, and that what is normally invisible can be rendered visible under other circumstances. The last element of the project is an audio soundscape contained on a memory card, which takes listeners into the strange aural world of short-wave radio transmissions.
These media, alongside a series of texts, combine in a book where competing and conflicting narratives sit side by side. Narratives of certainty and objectivity, of rigorous research and hours spent pouring over maps, frequencies, schedules, and declassified documents. Narratives of doubt and subjectivity, of time spent reading the many conspiracy theories which revolve around these stations, and pondering the sometimes incomprehensible devotion of the people who monitor them. But above all the narrative of a world where unaccountable state power and wild conspiracy collide head on with the mundane and every day. Where intensely secret messages drift through the ether, broadcast from antennae in business parks and suburban neighbourhoods.
Numbers in the Dark has been shortlisted for the Luma Les Rencontres d’Arles dummy book award and you can see it at COSMOS until September. I will be in Arles from 5 – 11th July with an updated copy of the book, so get in touch if you’d like to meet up and view it.