Dead Drop Hunting: searching for Paris’s hidden flash drives
Dead drops. You have probably never seen one, but the chances are you have walked past one embedded in a wall.
In 2010, while in residence at EYEBEAM Art and Technology Center in New York, German artist Aram Bartholl had the idea of creating “an anonymous, offline, peer to peer file-sharing network in public space”. His idea met with such enthusiasm that he soon launched a dedicated website.
He invited all and sundry to plant their own dead drops, or USB flash drives, and share their location. The initiative resonated throughout the world. Over 1500 flash drives were hidden, though many of them have since been stolen or broken, or have simply died.
In France, the trend continues. A new drive was installed in a wood between Guéret and Montluçon on May 20 this year, and another at 33 rue Noire, Nantes, on May 18. All this information can be found on an interactive cooperative map on the site.
29 flash drives were hidden in Paris, most of them in 2010/2011. Apparently, only 9 working drives remain, the status of two of which is uncertain. Keen to see if they were still there, and to find out what they contained, I set out in search of each and every one of them…
#1&2 – Passage des Taillandiers/Passage St. Antoine: 10/09/2011
These two flash drives were installed by a guy who obviously fancies himself as a bit of a spy, operating under the evocative name 007N. He is also convinced that he is being spied on, claiming to be fighting against “Hadopi”, France’s internet copyright law. It seems laughable today, knowing as we do that in the four years since the law was introduced, only one person has been prosecuted – for downloading two tracks, one by Le Collectif Métissé and the other by Rohff… In the interests of secrecy, he doesn’t post any photos of where his USB sticks are hidden. I’m going to have to go over every inch of these alleys with a fine-toothed comb. We start with the one on Passage des Taillandiers.
After an hour spent meticulously inspecting every nook and cranny, there is still not a flash drive in sight. I try to glean some information from the Harmonic dance studio.
A young woman at reception knows about the project: “Yes, that rings a bell! But I’ve never seen any. Sorry…” What an emotional rollercoaster! When I turn to her older colleague, all I get is: “Oh, I don’t look at the walls!”, together with an amused laugh. In the pottery workshop a little further along, I can see the concern on the manager’s face when I mention “dead drops”, and decide not to press any further. So, my first search draws a blank. I do, however, find a hole surrounded by traces of mortar a different colour from the rest of the wall, which seems likely to have been the last home of the drive on Passage des Taillandiers. Today, it is occupied by a syringe.
Passage Saint-Antoine: Nothing to report.
#3&4 – INSEEC: 14/12/2012 & 23/01/2014
INSEEC Business School’s Rue Alibert campus is said to be home to two drives: one placed there by a student and the other by someone hiding behind the name of the school. The first-year Master’s student describes the content of his drive as follows: “You want funk in your life? Come and get funky in our school and see what we have to offer you. Don’t dare? Your loss.” I dare, alright. Enticed by the prospect of getting some funk in my life, I head for the main campus on Avenue Claude Vellefaux to find out if anyone has heard about the USB sticks.
(For the sake of total immersion in the investigation.)
At the entrance, I happen upon perhaps the most welcoming receptionist of all time. She laughs as I explain my mission: “Death drops? Oooh! Wait till I tell my husband about this!” She has never heard of them, but, gesticulating wildly, she beckons over a passing member of the student union. Unfortunately, despite hearing the odd rumour here and there, he can’t enlighten me. Yet the obliging receptionist is not to be discouraged, this time calling upon a passing second-year Master’s student, who says he might know someone who might know something! My intrepid ally quickly contacts that person, but judging from her pouting expression and the laughter coming out of the receiver, I feel that my fantasy is receding. So I go directly to Rue Alibert, where I meet Yanis, a computer scientist. Yanis agrees to help me with my quest. Armed with photos, we go to the two computer rooms where the dead drops might be hidden. Soon enough, it becomes obvious that the drives are no longer there. Yanis finally puts paid to my hopes by telling me that the rooms have changed considerably since the renovations.
#5 – Pompidou Centre: 19/02/2011
Originally nicknamed “The Pipe”, the flash drive at the Pompidou Centre was put there by a fan of Japanese electro, and contained a “casual summer mix” of the music of Shinichi Osawa. The dropper goes by the name “Cyancat”.
I picture a rather camp individual with a sickly-sweet voice as I read his instructions: “The DD is ground-fixed. So its immediate environment is a bit dirty (with rain, dogs and bums passing by). Maybe you oughta wear gloves or have a handkerchief in your pocket.”
With only this to go on, I arrive at the designated location expecting to find some really strange stuff. I cover every inch of the pavement and, while I can certainly detect a pungent odour of urine, I am unable to sniff out a single dead drop. With my photos in hand, I decide to go and ask for information at the centre’s reception desk. They think I’m either crazy or up to no good. In any case, I’m a nuisance to them.
“Go and ask the security guards. They walk up and down Rue du Renard every day…”.
One of them initially takes me for a complete idiot, telling me that the pipes that come out of the ground are behind the building…
“I’ve been working here 20 years,” says the other, but they don’t know anything else, except that there were some pipes that were taken away after some renovation work. The bent pipe I’m searching for is nowhere to be seen. Cyancat is clearly a bit of a smartass – he had to hide his drop on the only pipe that wasn’t part of the Pompidou centre.
#6 – XPO Gallery: 15/05/2013
The only remaining memory stick hidden by Aram Bartholl in Paris.
I have faith in the man who started it all. He won’t have taken it lightly. Surely, his stick will still be there… And what do you know? It IS!
… but it is unbelievably rusty. My faith is shaken, but I try my luck nonetheless. It turns out luck has deserted me; the drive does not work. Dammit! The gallery owner, who I press for more details, hadn’t even noticed the drop was there… Without looking back, I head straight for the Pont des Arts. I won’t admit defeat so easily.
#7 – Pont des Arts: 20/11/2010
This is one of the drops I most wanted to find, though I knew that it was probably the one I was least likely to find, as it had been affixed to a padlock over four years ago. The bastard who put it there in 2010 saw fit to include this witticism in his description: “Why hide a needle in a haystack when you can hide it in a needle box?”
With entire sections of fencing having been removed by City Hall and the fanatics of the Fuck Love movement having cut off over 200kg of padlocks, would it still be there? If so, I would still have to locate it behind the charming safety barriers erected for the recent works and among the billions of other padlocks that fleeting “best friends/lovers forever” have placed there every day for the last 1644 days.
I have this picture to help me:
But I don’t lose heart and, with frenzied enthusiasm, armed with the power of love and the strength of the righteous, I Iean over the balustrades and lift up each cluster of locks. After an hour, I’m really starting to get sick of all the soppiness. Cupid, come to my aid! With the energy of the desperate, I frantically pull the locks apart, push them away, turn them around. Out of breath and bleeding from the fingers (seriously), I finally spot it, still covered with its adhesive putty.
YES! Here it is! I could almost cry.
A massive big-up to J+C (let’s call them Jemima and Cornelius) for helping me to get my hands on the prize. I hope you are still blissfully in love. Alas, my state of mind is somewhat less blissful. I am crying like a baby. You guessed it: the drop is no longer there. Alright… there’s no need to rub salt in the wound.
#8 – Port de Suffren: 04/02/2011
Another bridge, another story? I sincerely hope so as I park up in front of the Pont d’Iéna. This drop was left by VEhF, a “sound artist and electronic musician” to share his music. The instructions are clear: “Facing the Pont d’Iena, go down the stairs which are on your left. Turn right, sit on the first step, relax & download.”
Well, I sat down, I relaxed, but I couldn’t download. No siree. I’m not even surprised any more. Resigned to another failure, I make my way to the last spot, a bar (quite convenient, that, as a drink wouldn’t go amiss at this point), “Le Dernier Bar avant la Fin du Monde“. Translation: “The Last Bar Before the End of the World”.
#9 – Le Dernier Bar avant la Fin du Monde: 28/08/2013
Originally installed for a treasure hunt organised by MediaEntity, the USB stick is located in the rather chilly basement, two floors below ground level… Come on, give me something, anything at all – manga porn, IT tutorials, bootleg 8-bit video games – I’m not fussy. I bound down the stairs four at a time. The atmosphere is oppressive, strains of heavy-metal rise up from the dark depths of the lair… Only joking, it’s all very friendly. It was used for a treasure hunt, after all. Finally, I arrive at the bottom…
GOD BLESS THE GEEKS! The stick is still there, attached to a grating. I hurriedly take out my computer and plug it in. I am overcome by euphoria. At last, an external drive is displayed on my desktop. HALLELUJAH! Dead drop, I salute you!
OK, so it might not be the find of the century, but there’s quite a range of stuff on the stick. The first issue of Hara-Kiri, a comic based on the video game Injustice – Gods Among Us, a cartoon in English called Adventure Time, made by guys on LSD for kids who might want to take some, and the MediaEntity rulebook. There is also a readme explaining the principle of dead drops, as requested by Aram Bartholl.
“This party is so crazy!” said the… the thing with the marshmallow arm
I left behind a little souvenir, because poetry is life and, as Jean-Pierre Rosnay said: we must make poetry contagious and inevitable. And because I’m super corporate, I also leave an innuendo-laden note with a link to Clique, just to get us a few clicks from the dirty-minded.
Now, those of you who have read this far (thanks!), it’s up to you to breathe new life into this admirable concept, in Paris and beyond. Let’s hope this isn’t the last dead drop before the end of the world!
#10 – Bonus • Toxic is (drop) Dead: 09/05/2011
In 2011, the artist The Toxic Avenger took part in the project by placing a flash drive in front of the Gaîté Lyrique theatre. It contained his first album, before its official release. People were also invited to photograph themselves with the USB stick in the most creative and eccentric way possible to win signed CDs and backstage passes.
I asked him to explain to me why he did it:
“I remember being quite excited by the thought of leaving something lying around in the centre of Paris that wasn’t supposed to be there. If some guy had found it and put it on the Internet, it would have ruined my record’s career! There was also a “message in a bottle” element, which is always exciting.
At the time it was a really marginal project. ”
The description on the dead drops site begins as follows:
“Let’s find a new way to share, spread and exchange our music for free. It’s called “peer to peer” and it’s time to take advantage of it!” ”