Drug-buying bot vindicated, criminal case dropped. Image 1.

Marina Galperina


"It was an art piece. You should be able to do things within the field of art that you can't elsewhere," Domagoj Smoljo of the art collective !Mediengruppe Bitnik told Hopes&Fears, just minutes ago over Skype. We'd just learned that Bitnik's MDMA-purchasing bot had been vindicated. "This is a great day for the bot, for us and for freedom of art!" they wrote on their site.

Flashback to November of last year, when !Mediengruppe Bitnik (Carmen Weisskopf, Domagoj Smoljo) created an automated "bot" designed to randomly purchase goods on a "deep web" marketplace. With a weekly budget of $100 (in bitcoin), the "Random Darknet Shopper" crawled through 16,000 items on Agora and indiscriminately purchased goods of various degrees of illicitness -- 10-packs of Chesterfield Blue cigarettes from Moldavia, a Sprite stash can, a Hungarian passport scan, a spy-gear baseball cap, "Nike air yeezy II" via China and, most problematically, a "snapback 120mg MDMA" (10 "beautiful yellow round pills with the Twitter logo"), vacuum sealed and tucked inside a DVD case.

!Mediengruppe Bitnik

Art collective


Carmen Weisskopf and Domagoj Smoljo are !Mediengruppe Bitnik (read - the not mediengruppe bitnik). They live and work in Zurich/London. They are contemporary artists working on and with the Internet. Their practice expands from the digital to affect physical spaces, often intentionally applying loss of control to challenge established structures and mechanisms. !Mediengruppe Bitniks works formulate fundamental questions concerning contemporary issues.

Drug-buying bot vindicated, criminal case dropped. Image 2.

All this loot was shipped to the Kunst Halle St. Gallen Gallery in St. Gallen, Switzerland for "The Darknet – From Memes to Onionland. An Exploration" as part of a group show exploring the outer fringes of the internet. The software's story went world wide, with some utterly panicking about the ethical implications of this "robot" that had seemed to commit a crime and apparently could not be punished. And then, the bot was arrested. Or rather, the Swiss authorities waited until the day after the exhibition closed, when prosecutors arrived to the gallery and seized the hardware running the bot, as well as all the artifacts it had collected and subpoenaed the artists.

The MDMA pills were, in fact, real, according to the forensic report by the Swiss authorities. Three months after being confiscated, all items in the art installation were returned to the artists, except for the MDMA, which was removed from its packaging and destroyed. The criminal investigation for the possession of MDMA was dropped, and the artists received an order for withdrawal of prosecution, along with their returned bot, who still had some bitcoins left to spend.

↑ "Ectasy 10x yellow Twitter 120mg mdma" as it arrived to the gallery via Agora

Image courtesy !Mediengruppe Bitnik

Drug-buying bot vindicated, criminal case dropped. Image 3.

“The prosecutor didn’t want to play the card of art being involved," Domagoj Smoljo explained. In the end, legally, it was more important that this project wasn't harming anyone. If charged and found guilty, the possession of such small quantity of MDMA would not lead to a jail sentence in Switzerland, but there would still be a fine.

The danger, as the scolding prosecutor explained, was whether the drugs were accessible to others, particularly children. But the artists managed to convince the court that the illicit substance was securely entombed in plexiglass, drilled into the wall and only someone with decided "criminal energy" would be able to get at them through an act of "art robbery." Their installation wasn't harming anyone.

↑ Random Darknet Shopper installation view on the last day of "The Darknet – From Memes to Onionland. An Exploration" 

Image courtesy !Mediengruppe Bitnik


Drug-buying bot vindicated, criminal case dropped. Image 4.

The motive of the purchase played a key conceptual and legal role in the case. The MDMA wasn't purchased for the sake of purchasing MDMA, but for the sake of artistic inquiry (similar to appropriation of corporate logos for art, instead of infringement or false advertising). And it all happened in an experiment set up to observe a semi-autonomous creation going rogue inside a pre-existing, mysterious field of cyberspace. "We were using the function of having something random to get a true picture of reality, which is more accurate if we [consciously] decided to buy something," Smoljo explained. "We create a situation. We don’t want to control it. We left that to a bot."

In the end, the prosecutor “was happy to be part of it," Smoljo told us. "It's conceptual art which is process-based. Reality is part of it."

↑ "Random Darknet Shopper" hardware, installation and artifacts, as returned to the artists by the Swiss authorities (minus the MDMA which was destroyed)

Image courtesy !Mediengruppe Bitnik


It's conceptual art which is process-based. Reality is part of it.

In what appears to be a landmark decision, the public prosecutor decided "that the possession of Ecstasy was indeed a reasonable means for the purpose of sparking public debate about questions related to the exhibition," according to the artists' website. "The public prosecution also asserts that the over-weighing interest in the questions raised by the art work «Random Darknet Shopper» justify the exhibition of the drugs as artefacts, even if the exhibition does hold a small risk of endangerment of third parties through the drugs exhibited."

When asked if this would have played out differently in other countries, Smoljo explained that the group put a lot of effort into legal research before launching the exhibit and would have done the same, had it taken place in the UK, US, or elsewhere. In fact, !Mediengruppe Bitnik is in discussions to bring a version of the Random Darknet Shopper installation to a major museum in the UK.