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<nettime> Last Night An Arphid Saved My Life
Drew Hemment on Thu, 22 Jun 2006 00:41:33 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Last Night An Arphid Saved My Life

Last Night An Arphid Saved My Life
Drew Hemment, 1st June 2006

View video interview with Conrad Chase
See images on Flickr

Last Night An Arphid Saved My Life

I recently had my eyes opened at a workshop on RFID in Dortmund,  
Germany. The Germans have been shown to be the most resistant to the  
introduction of the Devil's chip. In return for this petulance, the  
global arphid industry has decided that if they can make it in  
Germany, they can make it anywhere, and have begun the roll out. ITS  
STARTING TO HAPPEN PEOPLE. Its time to assemble our forces and wait  
for the end of the world.

In sleepy England I had no idea that a war was raging, one that has  
seen strange alliances between fundamentalist Christians and left  
leaning artist-activists, one where the German Financial Times has  
published a major expose, and the usually impenetrable Fraunhofer  
Institute is countenancing exploration of how social values can be  
embedded in protocols.

At the Dortmund workshop, organised by HMKV, I learnt from Bruce  
Sterling some of the latest stunts from oddball, publicity-craving  
RFID manufacturer VeriChip - offering to put implants into the arms  
of migrants, or chip the bloated bodies of the victims of Hurricane  
Katrina. I thought it time to tell my own tale, when I encountered  
Conrad Chase, instigator in one of the firm's earlier stunts,  
surrogate front man for VeriChip's human RFID implants.

19th June 2004, Saturday night

In summer 2004 I took a trip across Barcelona to visit unannounced  
the notorious Baja Beach Club and its proprietor Conrad Chase, who  
had been cooking up a storm with their 'VIP Chips'. Barcelona's Baja  
Beach Club is the first club in the world to use a digital implant in  
place of VIP cards, with a sister club in Rotterdam soon to follow.  
At the recent media launch of the scheme, people were invited to have  
the VIP VeriChip injected under their skin, enabling them to breeze  
by queues at the door and serving as a method of payment. It was with  
no discernable sense of irony that proprietor Conrad Chase was to  
later take a place on 'Gran Hermano', the Spanish version of the TV  
Show, 'Big Brother'.

Walking along in a crowd of a thousand brightly coloured slabs of  
flesh en route to the meat market, it was like a scene from the Night  
Of The Living Office Party. Spilling out of the metro station and  
into the otherwise deserted streets of the two towers commercial  
district, streams of young party goers converge, the temperature and  
volume rising as the neon glow of the nightclubs that line  
Barcelona's sea front come into view. Here the cosmopolitan cool of  
Gaudi and the city urbanites crossfades to a thriving world of theme  
bars and 80's style discos, each seeking to outdo the other in wacky  
cocktails and a novelty twist. I was surrounded on all sides by a  
throng of suburban alcoholics and interweaving hen parties, those  
strange gatherings I thought unique to the UK where marauding gangs  
of girls dress up in bunny ears and lycra skirts and get so drunk  
that they pass out in a pool of someone else's vomit. Joining the  
tribe I felt anonymous, I was also lost.

The nice people in the Sonar festival press office, unaware of Baja  
Beach Club's global fame, had seemed bemused when I asked for  
directions, reluctant to show me the way. When I finally arrived at  
the club I was still wearing my Access All Areas pass. On the door  
they didn't seem to care that the boundary of the Sonar festival was  
the other side of town, just pleased that I was there. I only had to  
wait a minute after walking to the front of the queue and asking to  
see Conrad Chase, before I was ushered past a sign introducing the  
unique VIP system, through the club and direct to the VIP area.

So I found myself in the lions' den. The VIP area was reputedly the  
area of the club reserved for those special souls who had been  
chipped, implanted with VeriChip's demoniacal design. But I was  
alone. No scanners. No one scanned.

Scan Me

Conrad Chase emerged amidst the lasers and golden scans with a  
brilliant smile that cut through the glare and smoke, the white of  
his buffed teeth matching a transparent-white nylon top with textured  
camouflage pattern and caveman-style lace up neck line, white tight- 
at-the-crotch trousers, and a string of pearls around his neck.  
Conrad was a Lothario in the mould of a 1980s John Travolta, master  
of ceremonies in the circus ring. "Hi. I'm Conrad Chase, owner and  
Director of the Baja Beach Club."

His dress sense is that of a body builder, and his outlook on the  
VeriChip is in the same mould. He makes an immediate equation between  
the body augmentation of chip implantation and "piercings, tattoos or  
silicone." In an interview with the Guardian, Ren? L?nngren from  
Barcelona e-magazine Le cool argues that Baja Beach Club is a place  
where this mindset might be expected. "It's very suitable for this  
kind of place, because it's so body-aware. In an atmosphere where it  
is all muscles/tits/bodies, people are attracted by the  
superficiality. And these kinds of people will be interested in  
having a chip inside them, paying special attention to their bodies."

Conrad had a background in electronics, but a career installing  
security alarms was short lived. "People don't expect someone good  
looking and trendy installing their alarms, they want a geek," was  
the reason he gave to me. His move into nightclubs came on Miami  
Beach, where he took up a position at the original Baja Beach Club.  
When franchises were opened in Rotterdam and Barcelona, Conrad moved  
to Europe and moved up through the ranks, becoming Director before  
buying out the franchise. Conrad was looking for a VIP system that  
would set Baja Beach Club apart from its competitors when he learned  
of the VeriChip. Keen that the club be at the cutting edge and set  
new trends, the saga of the VIP Chip was born.

The VIP Chip is the size and shape of a grain of rice, its  
miniaturised electronics encased in glass. It is injected under the  
skin by a qualified nurse in day-time clinics at the club. Since its  
launch at Baja Beach Club around 30 people have had the chip  
implanted. The chip is a radio frequency identification device (RFID)  
encoded with a unique verification number that can be read by an  
external scanner. It carries no power source and under normal  
circumstances lies dormant under the skin. But when a scanner is  
passed over it the chip is energised by radio frequency energy and it  
transmits the unique number in a low-range radio frequency signal.  
The number is an abstract digital marker, but by matching it against  
a database the identity of the chip (and so, by implication, the  
bearer) can be verified and information about the object (or person)  
in which it is embedded accessed. The benefits advertised by Baja  
Beach Club include no lengthy waits in queues, exclusive access to  
the VIP area, and a way to buy drinks without cards or change. But  
manufacturers of the VIP chip, VeriChip Corporation, a subsidiary of  
Applied Digital Solutions, Inc. - slogan Technology That Cares (TM) -  
envisage a wide range of security, financial, and other applications.

Conrad Chase assured me that at present Baja Beach Club does not  
retain personal information. Carrying the chip only gains access to a  
debit account that needs to be topped up in advance, rather than a  
credit account that would require verification of identity. As such  
no release forms are required, and its use is not governed by Spain's  
data protection legislation. Conrad's ambition has no bounds,  
however, and he dropped to me the name of a major credit card company  
with whom, I was informed, he is in negotiation. The aim is to offer  
a much more wide ranging service - and connect their users to the  
global flows of information.

The nightmare scenario envisaged by privacy campaigners is that every  
item of clothing we wear, and every object we carry, contains an RFID  
chip. We would leave a trail of information behind us that never  
disappears, is never forgotten. Even the most incongruous details  
become menacing if they fall into the wrong hands, or create a second  
life fingerprint against which we can be assessed, tried and hung.  
Baja Beach Club might be exceptional, but it could also be the sharp  
end of the wedge.

They Don't Feel Real To Me!

The scheme has received a hostile response from civil liberties  
groups, and has caught the attention of the website Millennia Fever,  
dedicated to chronicling the end of the world, in a piece titled  
_Mark of the Beast_. But what I found at Baja Beach Club was  
ridiculous rather than sinister. Aside from the sign at the entrance  
the scanners and VIPs were no where to be found. Conrad and other  
members of staff happily bared their arms for inspection with a  
portable scanner. But the much vaunted VIP area was deserted, and  
while Conrad was eager to grant my request to meet members of the  
public who had had the chip, none could be found. At one point I  
dropped the sample chip I had been shown. For 10 minutes all the  
members of staff in the vicinity crawled around on the floor before  
it was recovered, hardly a sign that the club buys in bulk. On asking  
for a demonstration of the scanning system I found that - on a busy  
Saturday night - it was not in use. Indeed, it was not clear if it  
had ever been fully operational. Thirty minutes of scrabbling around  
for power cord extensions of the right length, followed by continuous  
rebooting of an antiquated desktop PC long since augmented with the  
yellow stain of age, could not get the system up and running. A  
plasma screen was to be installed "next week" Steve van Soest the  
Public Relations Manager informed me. Or, as they say in Spain, manana.

Baja Beach Club has been dubbed "more circus than nightclub" by the  
guidebooks. Inside I was hit by euro pop at full tilt and a vision of  
80s tacky excess updated with a healthy dose of silicone. The nubile  
bodies of the staff wandered through the crowd in a uniform of  
bikinis, sarongs, cycling shorts and body oils delivering drinks. A  
bikini clad beauty gazed at me through perma smile behind a kiosk  
adorned in gaudy surfer-style branding topped by a wide parasol. A  
group of clubettes sat at a table adorned with identikit neck halters  
and low strung black dresses, waving their hands in the air and  
singing along to the pop classics, orchestrated from a DJ booth set  
in a speed boat suspended before a heaving dance floor. A popular  
perk offered to the clientele was licking whipped cream off the  
staff's abdomens. Baja Beach Club fits within the niche chronicled by  
trash TV, where people doing wacky things with themselves and their  
bodies are offered up for the titillation and amusement of the late  
night masses.

The Art Of War

What can we learn from the fact that this experiment in introducing a  
controversial new technology took place in such an unlikely location?  
It is happening amongst people who have a proven appetite for playing  
with the limits of their natural bodies, but beneath the radar of the  
technology's natural critics, a world away from the cultural  
institutions that play host to the likes of Orlan and Stelarc.

Baja Beach Club is not a place where new cultural movements are born,  
not even the kind of dark crevice where things grow. This may be less  
to do with marketing the instruments of 'control' as fashion, more  
about sowing a seed with a wider market in mind. Once a technology is  
out there, a fact of every day life, it is near impossible to roll it  
back. In Baja's case it is more a case of perception than the facts  
on the ground. If there is a war going on, you will not find it in  
Barcelona. Instead it is being fought in the column inches of the  
international papers and blogs that gave the story oxygen.

More important than the fact that the whole scheme was so obviously a  
sham was the relative sophistication of Conrad Chase's defence of  
RFID, the fact that he came with responses pre-prepared. As we  
reclined in the faux splendour of the VIP area, extravagant cocktails  
in hand, Conrad displayed a familiarity with the debates at odds with  
the unworldliness of the surroundings. He dismissed the concerns of  
the "doom merchants", emphasising that the VIP chips can not be  
tracked by satellites and that no personal information is at risk. He  
pointed out that the sheer volume of information that is generated  
may be recordable but is simply too much to process. While it is in  
principle possible to monitor every transaction, it is a practical  
impossibility, advances in processing power having to keep pace with  
every greater quantities of data circulating in the networks. In a  
sense Conrad is correct that a new kind of anonymity and invisibility  
emerges as personal data is lost in the flood, the VeriChip  
implantation technology just one more needle in the proverbial  
haystack. We should embrace this technology, Conrad argues, as the  
potential benefits vastly outweigh the threat to personal freedom.  
The fact that Conrad had answers *that seemed* pre-prepared suggests  
a dialogue with the manufacturer's PR department, one that goes  
beyond the usual customer-supplier relationship. His eloquence the  
result of a perfect marriage of VeriChip's shock-PR and Baja Beach  
Club's schlock-entertainment.

It would be easy to mock Conrad. There was more than a hint of the  
ridiculous about the cheap tans and fake implants at Baja Beach Club.  
But I couldn't help liking him. It may have been for insidious self  
publicity and personal gain, but Conrad spoke with a disarming  
passion about arphids that nearly had me rolling up my own sleeve.  
(On Saturday night at Baja Beach Club I interviewed him using the  
video function on my cheap instant camera. Before I could return to  
do a more professional job he had booked his slot on Spanish 'Big  
Brother', and then the infectious naivety had gone.)

The effect of Baja Beach Club lasts long after the last cocktail has  
been drunk. By pushing the limit of the imaginable, such cases expand  
the horizon of the acceptable. The advocates of RFID can more easily  
evade ethical debates if more everyday applications such as placing  
chips in t-shirts and packs of razors already seem mundane,  
unnewsworthy. There really is no such thing as bad publicity. Last  
night an arphid saved my life, but not for the first time the romance  
did not last through the following day.

The implications of RFID will be explored at an international  
conference in Manchester UK on July 21-22 organised by Futuresonic in  
association with PLAN - The Pervasive and Locative Arts Network.

View this blog with images by Drew Hemment and a press shot supplied  
by Conrad Chase of a customer being chipped at

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