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Former NSA illustrator finds his work the focus of a major international art show

Freelance designer David Darchicourt usually produces whimsical illustrations for clients he finds over the Internet.

Now, he's also the unwitting star of an exhibit at the Venice Biennale, a major international art show that opens this weekend.

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The Westminster illustrator's backdoor route to the international art scene started when someone approached him over Elance, a site that connects freelancers with potential customers, and asked him to do a job.

Darchicourt wasn't always a freelancer, until 2012 he was an artist for the National Security Agency, and unknown to him the pieces he produced would end up featured in a show examing the way the Fort Meade spy agency uses images in its mission.

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The exhibit is called "Secret Power" and forms part of the New Zealand pavilion at the biennial art festival. Berlin-based artist Simon Denny said it looks at his home country's role in the English-speaking spy alliance known as the Five Eyes.

Darchicourt said he had no idea about the exhibition until he was contacted by a reporter from Britain's the Guardian newspaper, which has published numerous stories based on a cache of documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

"It was quite a shock when I found out yesterday," Darchicourt said in an interview.

Many of the Snowden documents contained illustrations of the nonsense codewords that the NSA uses to name its surveillance tools. Darchicourt said from what he's seen of the exhibit online none of the images were classified, with the possible exception of one: a peanut with a skull and crossbones on it meant to encapsulate an NSA tool named POISONNUT.

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Most of the images appear to have been gleaned from bits of Darchicourt's work scattered across the Internet, he said. The most jarring to see was a caricature of himself sitting at a computer screen blown up to life size proportions.

Darchicourt's work is displayed on racks, which would more typically hold computer servers, the backbone of the NSA's and other high tech spying organizations' operations. The racks are arranged in a room in Venice's Marciana Library that is home to maps based on medieval and renaissance intelligence gatherers including the traveler Marco Polo.

Denny said in a statement that he wanted to compare those historic images with Darchicourt's work.

"While today intelligence gathering relies largely on the collection of abstracted data from digital networked communications, contemporary state powers continue to task skilled artists and designers with making data accessible and actionable," he said.

Darchicourt said he has spoken to Denny, who told him that he didn't want to ask permission before using the images in case Darchicourt wouldn't give it.

Denny told the Guardian that working without Darchicourt's permission was crucial to the project. The NSA images that Snowden leaked, he told the paper, "have become retroactively some of the most important artistic images created today."

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