Greetings from the Invisible Borderlands:
An Interview with Amy Suo Wu

Eye on Design Magazine, the Invisible Issue

There are several hidden messages in this article. Read on for the codes; the cleverest of you might just be able to uncover them.

It’s not often that issues of privacy and surveillance are thought of as design problems. For a long time now, securing and breaching has been the territory of cyber security engineers, data-savvy cryptologists, and anonymous hacktivists; secret messages written in invisible ink and coordinates snuck into crossword puzzles belong to the wrinkled pages of espionage novels. Some might even call these techniques obsolete, just as dusty and the stuff-of-stories as a magnifying-glass wielding detective in a trench coat. At least the CIA deems techniques like invisible ink obsolete, an organization one would presume is the authoritative voice on the matter: in 2013, it declassified WWI recipes for secret messaging deciding it had more complex, crypto-codes to crack.

This is when our story begins—in 2013, far away from impenetrable CIA headquarters in a small, open café in Rotterdam where graphic designer Amy Suo Wu sits and scrolls attentively through a Daily Mail article detailing those de-classified invisible ink recipes one morning. The designer, activist, and a visual communications teacher at the Willem de Kooning Academy is romantically commitment to stories of the overlooked and near forgotten. She sees potential in technologies deemed out-of-date, wresting them from the grave as resistance to the exponential rate of technological change and planned obsolescence demanded by the cycle of capitalist production, which always wants new throwaway things to replace old throwaway things. In 2006, the Netherlands’ rich history of graphic design drew her to the city of Rotterdam from Sydney, Australia, where she emigrated to from the small town of Shantou in China with her artist parents at the age of 6. Wu sits in the small neighborhood café with a pencil in her hand and takes notes on the obsolete form of communication.

Perhaps she writes, “Invisible ink from bodily fluids like blood, saliva, sweat, and urine are developed by heat. Prisoners of war used these organic inks to communicate, often writing about their conditions in captivity. Possession of ingredients is not proof of guilt”, and wonders if such an ink might be used productively today.

In a time when crypto-makers and crypto-breakers are playing an unending game of tag, finding DIY ways to circumvent the eye of a big brother that doesn’t want to watch you but instead wants to sell you is near impossible, unless you yourself have a cryptologist’s technical expertise. The fact that companies mine your social life for valuable information has become common-knowledge, and since most platforms are free, giving away personal information has felt like a small price to pay in return for communicating across the globe, and instantly too. The wool’s been pulled over our eyes though, as the daily activities of hundreds of millions of people has become a form of value production that’s not reciprocated into forms of wages. Disconnecting doesn’t feel like an option, as it means rejecting your networked community and the quickness we’ve become accustomed to. Yet partial disconnection could be a means to circumvent surveillance—at least for a moment. That’s what draws Wu to half-forgotten and analogue forms of communication like invisible ink; she sees in them an accessible way to resist always-on culture, while still keeping alive the conversations and community that we crave.

“Looking at the invisible ink recipes, I wondered whether resorting to paper and ink was a smart option,” says Wu as we speak over the distorted buzz of Google hangout, four years after her initial breakthrough reading the Daily Mail in that small Rotterdam café. Not only could notes written in invisible ink—dipped in nitrate, soda, and starch as soldiers’ handkerchiefs once were—communicate in a literally invisible way, but their very categorization as “obsolete” consigns them to the harmless. No one thinks to test for invisible ink any more—and we all know that the best hiding places are the least expected ones. “Could methods like these actually be the most secure form of communication in the age of digital surveillance?” asks Wu. Or are analogue forms like invisible ink a nostalgic kind of information obfuscation, especially when few letters are still written by hand and on paper?

These questions have led to years of research into the field of analogue steganography—the art of hiding messages within a seemingly ordinary one, and the extraction of its secrets—as a means to develop secure and accessible communication methods in a time of pervasive corporate and governmental spying.

As someone who spent her first years as a student in Rotterdam living in one of the city’s many squatting communities, Wu was exposed the importance of nurturing grassroots culture and community building in the face of gentrification early on. “Simultaneously, my graphic design teacher at the Willem de Kooning Academy at the time, Roger Teeuwen, instilled in me that design can be used as a lens/tool not only for social reflection, critique, and commentary but one of action, agency and activism,” she says. “Looking back at my projects over the years, I've been a cheerleader for the underdog, minorities, people on the fringes of society, forgotten and undervalued by the powerful mainstream. I'm just coming to terms with the fact that this is somehow connected to my own experience and identity.”

Wu is a problem-solver at heart, a caring and defiant designer and educator, mixing her DIY invisible ink recipes for local activists to inject into their HP printers; solving privacy issues for art groups in China that need to hide provocative material; raising awareness of not only why it’s important to sometimes be invisible, but also easy ways in which do be so.

Seeing What’s Been There All Along

Ovid’s advice to young women in 1st Century Rome watched closely by their parents: “A letter too is safe and escapes the eye, when written in new milk / Touch it with coal-dust, and you will read”. The classic poet recommends hiding these love notes between the sole of your foot and the heel of your shoe.

After the Pearl Habor attack during WWII, US intelligence formed a counter-steganography censorship organisation dedicated to destroying suspicious material. Suspect items banned or destroyed when in the hands of the postal service included: crossword puzzles, chess games, student grades, stamps with numbers on them, and children’s hand scrawled Christmas lists. The numbers might designate a key in a “nth letter code” (also known as skip cipher). For example, read the x,x,x,x,x letter of each word (now you try it).

“Authority cannot control what they cannot see,” writes Wu in her publication, The Tactics and Poetics of Invisibility: A Toolkit of Steganography; I’m reading a draft, as the book is due to be self-published in 2018. In it she details recipes and methodologies for circumventing digital surveillance, dreaming up ways to combine disregarded antiquated techniques with digital platforms to form useful, intuitive hybrids. After time in 2015 spent presenting at CrytptoParties in Rotterdam—a community event that teaches the basics of internet privacy to anyone interested—Wu is all too aware of how encryption software asks too much of people with average computer skills, which is why she’s so drawn her analogue and digital mixes. “I feel my role is to take specific knowledge (academic, technical, historical) and amplify it by making it accessible for a wider audience,” she says. “Accessibility and inclusivity are modes of action I try to practice, for example, connecting peripheries of various knowledge fields that may render certain subjects relatable and urgent.”

Her text, written just as much for the graphic designer as the every-person, follows in the footsteps of centuries of manuals, dictionaries, and cookbooks recounting homespun recipes for secret communication that anyone could follow. Wu herself sites 1558 guide Natural Magick by Italian scholar Giambattista della Porta as an important resource, a book that includes useful chapters such as “How you may write in an Egg,” and recipes so that “letters may appear upon crystal by stewing on fine dust.” There are also grisly steps informing one of how to “shut up letters in living creatures.”

Reading Wu’s findings, and discovering that I can mix invisible ink with items in my pantry, I stir lemon juice and water together in a bowl, and with the thin end of a Q-tip, write a note to my partner on a sticky-note and put it on the fridge. Only by holding it to a hot bulb will its message be developed and revealed: “Oh no, we’re out of lemons.”

The fundamental principle of steganography, explains Wu, is a combination of three moments: think of a door, a key, and the reveal when it opens. There’s what’s called the “cover object”, which is innocently out in the open for anyone to see, as well as the not-so-innocent key, or the code embedding a message into the cover object. It might be a password, or a place, or a series of numbers, or a piece of cardboard dotted with holes. To reveal the secret message, you’ll need the cover object and the all-important key: when combined, you can see what’s been there all along.

The techniques that Wu revives in her toolkit mostly stem from her own design-led experiments and media art projects; for example, she’s found ways to screen-print with invisible ink, an interesting attempt at entering steganographic inks into the realm of reproduction. She publishes her research so that others can grow upon and add to her ideas, finding new contexts and functions for recipes old and new. The toolkit is a manual: just as useful to the censored artist as it is to the community activist or a pair of star-crossed lovers whose parents have access to their social media accounts. For anyone—perhaps this star-crossed pair—needing to communicate a time and place in a way undetectable from prying eyes, Wu most highly recommends using a 21st Century version of the Cardan grille.

How exactly the Cardan grille works is best explained with an anecdote. One morning in 2016, all of Wu’s closest friends and collaborators woke up to find a strange email in their inbox: “Greetings from the invisible borderlands”, the subject heading enigmatically read. This particular email was the start of Wu’s exercise in reviving the Cardan grille for the age of digital surveillance, a 400-year-old method of communicating secrets using a framework made of cardboard with holes cut in it, first developed by the French polymath Girolamo Cardano. “You could use anything to create a grille,” says Wu during our Google hangout. “A piece of paper; a scrap of plastic; a cereal box; a sheet of uncooked lasagna that you later cook and eat.” Perhaps you could even use a page in a magazine…

Wu sent a postcard to each of the interested email recipients, a bright orange and blue greeting card that was in fact the grille, (aka. the key). Instructions were detailed in Wu’s email: “1. find and cut out 5 blue blocks. 2. resize your browser to the size of the postcard. 3. visit the url provided on the postcard. 4. place the postcard over the browser and the message should appear.” Those who managed to get there—finding themselves on Google Maps street view overlooking neon lights in a night time New York City—finished the sentence, and emailed its secret contents back to Wu. The bright colors of the postcard chimed with the sign’s own lights, a little hint that you were close to the reveal. Wu’s undetectable message once detected: “Undercover at…” She left it up to the recipient to send back the details of their own secret location.

“By using two separate communication channels, the postal service and the Internet, the work manoeuvres within the ‘invisible borderlands’, the uncharted cracks between online and offline communication infrastructures,” says Wu, describing a territory that most of what’s detailed in her toolkit likes to reside in. It’s here, in the cracks and crevices between the on and off, between the everywhere and the nowhere, that we can speak most freely and—for the first time in a long time—we can speak in silence.

Reading Between the Lines

Nü Shu translates to “woman’s writing” from Chinese. Nushu is a writing system created and used exclusively by women in a remote part of China. Traditional, patriarchal Chinese culture forbade girls formal education, so Nushu was developed in secrecy over hundreds of years in the Jiangyong county of Hunan province. Some of its characters are taken from Chinese, though most are invented, rendered in a more cursive, thinner form than the more square-shaped Chinese characters. Nushu is read right to left, not top to bottom.

During the summer of 2017, Wu was hanging blankets on washing lines in Beijing’s hutongs, residential alleyways lined with siheyuans, the traditional courtyard residences. “Maybe it’s because of my design education, but I always see blank areas in a city as a potential communication vehicles,” she says. “I’m always considering how I might use something as a placard, a poster, a billboard.”

She’d been invited to Beijing for an artist-in-resident programme at a gallery called I:projectspace, where she spent three months developing “The New Nushu.” This meant publishing zines explaining the history of Nushu and running collaborative workshops inventing new writing systems, as well as tracing the evolution of Chinese characters to its pictorial roots, sourcing a “historical understanding about the position of women, eg. the word for slave is made up of a woman and hand.” And Wu also hung washing during her time in Beijing. Lots and lots of it.

“Within the hutongs, blankets can be read as a transgressional object migrating between the public and private sphere,” writes Wu in one of the many zines published during her stay—all scanned, hyperlinked, and now available online. “They’re also a mundane household item that moves inside and outside of the confines of the house without raising any alarm bells. In this way, the blanket is a perfect cover, literally speaking but also as an unsuspecting agent that can smuggle and ‘air out’ private information into the public.” Inspired by stories of the “slave quilt code”, with which African American slaves may have navigated the Underground Railroad, Wu saw potential to interpret the tactic as a covert publishing platform, designing and printing blankets detailing her own research at I:projectspace, and stringing them invisibly across neighbourhood lines. And as washing and quilting is traditionally women’s work, Wu imagines a scenario where a decorative, unsuspecting quilt blowing in the wind and “airing out the dirt” might be used by women talk to one another in the community—invisibly yes, but for everyone to see.

“The fact that they are mundane common sight would mean that the content embedded into the blankets would be hidden in plain sight, an act of steganography, to not only evade surveillance and censorship but also to protect the identity of those who might be involved in the project,” Wu continues.

This idea is one that Wu strung out throughout her time as resident in Beijing, most provocatively and effectively perhaps in a self-described “walking zine” called Thunderclap. This stegnographic design instrumentalizes unsuspicious fashion accessories to distribute the anarchist writings of a largely forgotten Chinese feminist to passer-byers on busy streets. He-Yin Zhen was deemed radical and dangerous when she published during the early 1900s—the last decade of the Qing dynasty—and her texts were gradually eroded from historical records. Often considered a founder of Chinese feminism, she would sign her writings with He Zhen (or He “Thunderclap”). By printing slogans from Zhen’s forgotten texts in their English translation onto fashion accessories, like funky patches you’d find in a dollar bin and billowing black and white ribbons, Wu created yet another Trojan Horse, another migrating, unsuspicious decoration deemed just as frivolous and harmless as the patterns on a humble quilt.

“A lot of people visiting Beijing notice that high-street clothing is riddled with English text, often in bold Helvetica or Ariel reminiscent to a brand like Supreme,” says Wu. “For an English speaker, sometimes it’s hilarious, sometimes it’s ridiculous and nonsensical, at other times poetic and interesting.” English text like this has become so ubiquitous on the high street that it doesn’t matter what it represents. “The current Chinese fashion trend is to use English text on clothes as a value signifier.”

With this in mind, Wu designed her fashionable patches and ribbons: underneath English translations of Zhen essay titles she then included a QR code that would take a passer-byer to the entire Chinese version of the text—uploaded to a private, European server developed by her former professor at the Willem de Kooning Academy to negate Chinese censors. The English text camouflages with other Helvetica tees when worn out in the city, and Wu explains that the QR code is also extremely ubiquitous in China, unlike in the West. “Homeless people don’t write on signs, but instead hold up QR codes so that you can pay straight into their bank accounts,” she explains. According to Wu, the QR code “has become a ‘habitualised’ mode of information access and as a result its pervasive visual presence inadvertently provides an inconspicuous cover.”

Thunderclap is a recipe—like so many of the others Wu collects—a model that artists and activists could follow to distribute their work in China so that it’s hidden from the eyes of government censors. That’s why I describe Wu as a problem-solver ultimately; she finds solutions, inventing ways to communicate in the same way that any traditional graphic designer would, but for political and social purposes. She’s not invested in communicating to everyone, but to communicating to the few who cannot speak freely: its visual communication for the underdog. Wu tells me one last story from during her time in China, explaining how a queer, feminist arts collective called Qspace wanted to run a lesbian sex-position life drawing event, but no gallery would host the exhibition out of fear of the censors.

“I came up with a solution. Artists would use invisible ink to create the images, and then we’d give all the gallery-goers the key to viewing them. The drawings wouldn’t even need to stay in the gallery that way: we could hang them everywhere, even on the streets.”

A Message from Tomorrow

Militant jihadists have been reported to run pornographic websites as a cover for hidden communication, with secret messages woven into porn images, almost like Morse code.

Rumour has it that during WWII, the artist Wassily Kandinsky was recruited by British Intelligence Services to smuggle secret communication—in the same manner as flag signs—by encoding them into his abstract, symbolic artworks.

Wu kneels on a checkerboard floor, wearing a brightly colored, tailored jacket of yellow, orange, and blue—almost like a human rubik cube. She wields a hairdryer in one hand, and has a bottle of some kind of liquid in the other. It’s 2017 and we’re at the Institute for Contemporary Art in Ljubljana, Slovenia at Wu’s first solo exhibition, though the sign on the wall says its 2018 and that this is an show put on by the world famous Kandinsky Collective—though I, and no one in the room, has ever heard of them.

We end here because this is where it all culminates. The Kandinsky Collective is a piece of speculative fiction written and designed by Wu; it draws together all the threads of her research into analogue steganography, privacy, surveillance, and the instrumentalization of art and graphic design in activism. Set in the near future when privacy has become a crime, Wu’s story has it that this exhibition it is in fact a staged one: activists posing as a contemporary art collective are smuggling their secret messages into works and circulating them using the art market. What’s displayed on the wall is actually an underground communication channel, hidden in plain site, and the audience has got to decode it.

Camouflaged against the checkerboard floor—what appeared to be a series of sculptures a moment ago—the audience discovers grilles, hairdryers, and chemicals to activate invisible inks, along with other instructions. Spraying at the show’s introduction text, its true message appears in browning hand-scrawled letters, informing all that a widespread resistance has arisen and this is a part of it. As audience members warm up artwork tags, codes appear, explaining that the abstract symbols hanging on a mobile actually designate letters, and that work repeating the word “miracle” across it actually says something else completely. One secret word is encoded into each of the six “artworks” on the wall. Read together, they spell out one important sentence.

“It was wild,” Wu recalls. “When the real purpose was revealed, the atmosphere completely changed.” And what did the final message say? There’s only one way to find out, and that’s to follow the instructions on the following page.

Wu is not the detective in the trench code, nor the cryptologist running in an endless hamster wheel trying to keep up with new software and technologies produced at greater rates in the name of innovation. She’s a different kind of hybrid; a patchwork of artist, media researcher, activist, and classic graphic designer, an assortment of skills reflected by her colorful coat. The current era demands constant vigilance and participation—there is a need to be present, vocal, and accounted for, up to date, attuned to the up-and-coming—and the idea of turning off, even briefly, can feel shameful even dangerous for those invested in culture and its making. How can I give, and produce, for the times, if I’m not switched on and contributing to them, permanently taking part? It’s a period of time that pulls one in opposite directions: some keep up and keep making images and statements at the rate demanded of them—better in than out—but then there are others who take cosy shelter in yesterday, drifting into cushioned memories of vinyl and letterpress. Wu’s recipes and design tactics slip between the cracks of this conflict, both adapting to and reacting to what’s going on while simultaneously turning to history in a championing the obsolete.

Perhaps what is most interesting and pertinent about Wu though, is how she turns the themes of privacy away from the knotty, difficult, and alienating, into something strangely enjoyable and for all—like a puzzle, a game of escape the room. As new media theorist Florian Cramer notes in an essay on The Kandinsky Collective: “Fun with steganography bears genuine political potential because it could be a working counter-narrative to the way corporate apps and hardware gadgets—from Facebook’s social networks to Google’s GMail and the Android smartphone operating system—make their users trade in privacy for enjoyable user experiences.” Wu is appreciating the importance, politically and personally, of working things out, and passing on secrets, so that some things can be kept a mystery.

For the printed article, I worked with Amy Suo Wu to create a cardan grille that sat alongside the written piece. If the reader of the magazine cuts out the black holes in the illustration and places it over my text, a secret message is revealed in the holes.

Recipe for invisible ink by Amy Suo Wu.

Cardan grille by Amy Suo Wu.

Thunderclap blanket by Amy Suo Wu.

Recipe for invisible ink by Amy Suo Wu.