Hundreds of Artists Decry Digital Art Show in Germany Funded by Controversial Data Firm

Walter Smerling, a German curator who previously faced controversy last year for the exhibition “Diversity United,” is under fire once again, this time because a digital art show that he organized in Leipzig received was sponsored by Palantir, a data analytics company that has controversially aided in governmental surveillance.

The show, titled “Dimensions — Digital Art since 1859,” is currently on view at the Pittlerwerke Leipzig. Its initial announcement did not disclose the Palantir funding. Süddeutsche Zeitung reported news of the sponsorship in March.

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08 June 2021, Berlin: Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and his wife Elke B'denbender stand next to Armin Laschet (l, CDU), Minister President of North Rhine-Westphalia, and sponsor Lars Windhorst (2nd from left) at the opening of the

Some 600 artists, art workers, and intellectuals signed an open letter condemning the show. They demanded, among other things, “the development of ethical guidelines for the financing and promotion of art exhibitions,” along with more art funding from the city of Leipzig, which would lessen dependence on “toxic sponsorship.”

The letter writers point out that Leipzig spent 185,576 euros on art funding in 2021. The artists claim that Palantir’s contribution for the “Dimensions” show could be more than double that.

The open letter was instigated by artists Charlotte Eifler, Su Yu Hsin, Francis Hunger, Gabriel S. Moses, and Alexa Steinbrück. Signatories include artists Hito Steyerl, Candice Breitz, Olia Lialina, Nancy Baker Cahill, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Peggy Ahwesh, Lawrence Lek, and !Mediengruppe Bitnik, as well as the curator Anselm Franke.

Neither Palantir nor Sperling responded to requests for comment.

Palantir, founded by Peter Thiel, has recently faced legal trouble in Germany. The country’s high courts have issued new guidelines that roll back how police forces can use Palantir technology to surveil citizens.

The open letter suggests that Palantir used their sponsorship of “Dimensions” to “artwash” the company’s reputation in Germany, noting that Palantir was given “a substantive podium” during a symposium related to the show.

“If, like Palantir, your hands appear dirty or at least your image seems tarnished, one redeeming way to attract public attention would be to sponsor an art exhibition,” the letter reads. “The principle, epitomized by the gas company Gazprom or the pharmaceutical company Sackler, is also known as ‘Art Washing’.”

Palantir is notorious in the United States for acting as a major partner in the NSA’s spying activities, as shown by the 2013 Edward Snowden leak, as well as for powering ICE’s search for undocumented individuals and the LAPD’s predictive policing. Currently, the company is trying to grow its influence in Europe. A new contract was recently inked the United Kingdom’s NHS, and ties between Germany’s police forces and Palantir have also deepened.

The signatories of the open letter were disturbed not just by Palantir’s funding of “Dimensions” but also the content of the show itself, which they said failed to account for critiques of the digital, insofar as emerging technologies are tied to surveillance, warfare, and underpaid labor in the Global South.

Smerling faced criticism last year for his show “Diversity United,” which received support from German right-wing politicians and from the Russian state. Even as tensions between Ukraine and Russia heightened, Smerling defended his choice to work with Russia.

The curator was also decried when the city of Berlin gave him free access to a new art space in the once abandoned Tempelhof airport, giving his team 1 million euros in subsidies while allegedly refusing to compensate artists. Amid controversy over this and the “Diversity United” show’s funding, some artists in the exhibited dropped out.

According to the letter about “Dimensions,” these scandals prevented Smerling from organizing new exhibitions in Berlin, hence his decision to curate a show in Leipzig.

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