Elonka and John Wilson (scirealm) were able to view the tapes of both interviews during a visit to the Washington DC studio on October 30, 2005. They could not have a copy of the tapes, but were given the hardcopy transcript, and Elonka took handwritten notes while watching.
The following transcript was created by Elonka, re-typing the hardcopy that she received, and, where possible, adding some of her own notes and recollections to make the wording more accurate with what Sanborn actually said.
CNN: What were you trying to achieve with the sculpture?
JS: A long viewing existence. I mean, any artist wants to make a piece that endures. I made it out of copper and stone, basically. But what seems to have endured is the content and the code, and I mean, in that respect it's succeeded beyond my wildest dreams, because as the code is disclosed slowly -- which was a plan -- it seems to be staying in the spotlight, which is great.
CNN: It brings attention.
JS: It brings attention. It has a very wide audience. I wear several hats. I do museum and gallery installations, and I also do these public art projects. And so it's somewhat rare that things overlap, and this piece has gone into the public mind and become more of a public issue than perhaps a high art issue, and I think that increasing that audience is a good thing for art in general.
CNN: How did you get this assignment at CIA? Were you especially interested in code for some reason?
JS: No, but I had tremendous interests in making things which are invisible visible. All through the 1980s what I was working with at that time was things called lodestones, and the earth's magnetic field. So basically, the earth's magnetic field is an invisible natural force, and I chose to show it visually by setting up large arrays of hundreds and hundreds of compass needles that were all aligned north and south. Instead of a small little compass that gives you very small information, I tried to demonstrate the large power the earth's magnetic field has. So I was selected based on that work, of dealing with invisible forces. So, the invisible forces of nature was what I was dealing with, so there was a conceptual leap in that I could work equally well with the invisible forces of mankind.
CNN: But did you contact the CIA, or did they contact you?
JS: I had been applying for years for the General Services Administration's Art and Public Architecture Program's projects. Hadn't gotten one in maybe ten years of trying. And so when the panelists were asked to select a group of artists in the standard GSA fashion, my name came up. First of all I was a local guy, and also I had worked with this secret information kind of work. And so there was a convergence there of these kinds of things which helped.
CNN: Was the CIA willing to have you put this sculpture on their property without them knowing what it says on it, at all? With no one knowing?
JS: Not exactly. When I conceived of the idea to do an encoded piece for the CIA, I was determined to keep it absolutely secret from the Agency and everyone else. Then I thought about it, and I said well, you know, the Agency's going to want to know what I said for obvious reasons. You know, did I write something pornographic, did I write something that absolutely torpedoed the Agency? And so I offered it -- actually, the Agency suggested that I give it to the Department of Historical Intelligence. So I, with trepidation, said okay, how am I going to do this without giving them something tangible to remember? And so I went into the Office of Historical Intelligence, which at that time was comprised of three people in a fairly dark room. And I had three pieces of paper with me, and I asked, "Listen, who has the best memory? I really want to entrust this code with the person with the best memory." And two of the people pointed to one person and said, "She has an institutional memory. She remembers everything." And I asked her to leave the room. So then I had two pieces of paper with the same thing on it. Which basically had the code, the plaintext, but it was scrambled in such a way that you could read sentences, but you wouldn't get the whole picture. Sort of a need to know situation. So they, the two people, started reading it, and I realized quickly, and they realized quickly, the import of what they were doing. Because frankly, if I had deceived them in some way, and they had read this and said, "Oh this is fine," and then the sculpture had gone up and it wasn't fine, then it was their job on the line. It was a tremendous responsibility that they ended up not being able to accept. So at that time it was decided that I would give the code to William Webster at the dedication ceremony, which I did. In a sealed envelope, as carefully masked in such a way that you couldn't see inside as I could do at the time.
CNN: Does anyone at the CIA know what that unsolved clue says?
JS: I gave an envelope, a sealed envelope, to William Webster, with the intention that Webster would keep it personally. He winked at me when I gave it to him. He mentioned on "Face the Nation" a year later or two years later when he resigned, that the toughest secret to keep was the one for the Kryptos sculpture. Whether I gave him the whole code, that's open to conjecture.
CNN: You're not saying.
JS: I'm not really saying. I've said before at numerous times in various ways, but, I'm not convinced I gave him the whole code.
CNN: References to this sculpture appear on the cover of The Da Vinci Code, probably the most popular book in sales in our time. What's been the impact of The Da Vinci Code coming out on the interest level in these sculptures?"
JS: There's a woman called Elonka Dunin who has a website on the Kryptos sculpture. And before Da Vinci Code, she was getting like 50 hits a day on the website. And now she's getting thousands, basically. I know that the Agency was getting just a few hits a day on the Kryptos sculpture; they're now getting thousands of hits a day on the Kryptos sculpture. So it's a pretty stunning change.
CNN: How has The Da Vinci Code affected all of this for you?
JS: I'll start by saying that I'm basically a science pragmatist, you know. I'm science-oriented. Granted, what I do is fiction, I mean, in some ways I'm a fiction writer, but in some ways I'm a fiction artist and in some ways I'm a non-fiction artist. Recent work has been about the nuclear program in the United States, and it's very much non-fiction. In some ways I think I have felt recently - and I really only found out about that connection maybe 3 weeks ago with an article that was published -- and I felt then a little bit like perhaps Jim and Kryptos feel like Dorothy and Toto being swept into a tornado of fantasy. You know, just being sucked into something. Which wasn't my intention, you know, to go there. But as far as I'm concerned, the expanded audience is great. I mean, it's fine, but I was very stunned to know that there was writing or things that I had composed connected with the book.
CNN: Have you been in touch with Dan Brown about that at all?
JS: No, haven't been in contact at all.
CNN: Do they owe you any money for this or something? They're using your idea, right? Is that an issue that's in the air at all?
JS: When I first discovered that it had been used the way it had, and I mean, there was a contest sponsored actually, showing on "Good Morning America," that they sponsored a contest to try and find my material on the cover of the book. I was very surprised and somewhat hurt that I'd never been called. That was hard.
CNN: That's as far as it goes?
JS: That's as far as it goes.
CNN: When you developed this work of art, did you ever imagine it would become the kind of obsession it has become for some people today?
JS: Well it was an obsession of mine, and when I designed the piece, I said to myself, you know, when an artist does a public artwork, which is -- this is sort of the quintessential public artwork because it's in the public eye in a large way -- you want to do artwork which will retain interest. I did know there was something special, certainly, about the site. You don't do something for the CIA and expect it just to go away, and nobody ever hears about it again, because it's for the CIA. So I took out all the stops. I mean, I gave the Agency as much as I possibly could, physically, and as the number of objects I put there. And I made nothing from the project. So I put all my eggs in that basket, assuming that it would work for me in tangible ways later. And it has. I mean, the commissioned work and the success I've had in doing large-scale artworks outdoors, or public artwork, has been significant. And so a lot of artists do artwork just for the resume, and just to have photographs of it and say they did it. This is one of those pieces where I made very little monetary -- I made nothing monetarily from it, but I knew that the PR would certainly help future work.
CNN: That's putting it mildly, it seems.
JS: Yeah. Not that I have a tremendous monetary gain from this Kryptos piece anyway, but . . . the publicity is great, but it doesn't pay you really.
CNN: Sorry, we don't pay for interviews.
JS: That's all right.
CN:: There's one piece of the code that has not yet been cracked, right?
JS: That's right.
CNN: Does anybody know, besides you, what that says?
JS: Not really.
JS: I don't think so. You know, I've done my best to distance myself, actually, from what I wrote. And when the passages that were deciphered already were cracked, I had to go back to my notes to figure out what I'd written. And it's the same with this most recent code as well. When it's cracked, if it's cracked, in my lifetime, I'm certainly going to have to refresh my memory as far as what I wrote. Which is my own way of keeping a secret, frankly. I'm not good at it.
CNN: You don't think that Dan Brown has solved the code, do you?
JS: Hasn't told me he has.
CNN: Cracking this last code has become a little bit of an obsession with certain people. Do they call you much? Contact you?
JS: The CIA from time to time sends me pieces that have been cracked, from 15-page documents relating to the war of 1812, to my vanquishing Satan, to very simple sentences. So I get some of these from the CIA directly, I get some emails, I get some through Elonka Dunin's website about the piece, and there has become a certain fanbase which is, you know, connected via the internet to me, and can ask me if they've solved part of it.
CNN: Is that fun for you, or are you a little annoyed by it?
JS: At this point in time, the volume that I'm getting, at this point in time, it's fine. I can handle it. If the volume increases drastically, it's going to be a little bit more difficult, and it's going to take more of my time. You have to understand that I began this project 18 years ago. And then forgot about it and went other places and started doing other kinds of work, and completely different kinds of work, and then it just keeps coming up. I don't know. It does serve to refresh my memory about these things, and it's a pleasant refreshment. I mean, it's good.
CNN: Is this sort of double- and triple-coded, this thing? In other words, you break through one layer and then you have to get to the next?
JS: It is, and then it comes back. You do decipher it as in removing layers of an onion, and it does get more difficult the further you get into it. And it also actually, when you decipher one part, it might hark back to the first part. And perhaps when the fourth part is deciphered -- what they call K4 -- is deciphered, it will come back to the first part, you know, in some way, and there will be a relationship between all parts when the fourth part is deciphered. I spent hours conceiving of this when driving back from Arizona, bringing a petrified tree that's out at CIA. So I had a lot of time to think about this.
CNN: But you're a novice cryptographer, right?
CNN: How did you, a novice, come up with a code that nobody's been able to break today?
JS: Well the reality is that I'm in a unique position. I'm an artist, okay? I'm not a mathematician, but I do have other skills, more visual skills, that were brought to bear in designing the code. Ed Scheidt, the cryptographer who I worked with, who's retired from the Agency, gave me an overview of encoding systems, and worked with me. We met in secret locations at the time. It seems ridiculous, but we felt it necessary to develop something. Then he gave me the systems, I was able to modify them to my own ends, and then produce something that was... Listen. I'll tell you, codes, I mean, we all have codes. What's your ATM PIN number?
CNN: I'm not going to tell you.
JS: Thank you. And so, you know, we all have our codes. This was just one that I did, and I don't think it's unusual to design a code that's difficult to crack. I don't think it's hard, either, really.
CNN: What can you tell me about what the last bit says? The part that we don't know about. What can you say about that?
JS: Let's just think of the last passage of Kryptos as being like sand in an hourglass. At this point in time, every little grain of sand that leaves that hourglass is a clue, right? And so, the further along we go, and the more the layers of the onion are unraveled, and the closer we get to cracking the Kryptos sculpture, the tinier the grain is that would be responsible for cracking that code. So I've had to be very careful about the wording, what I say at any given time over all the years. I was very glib in 1990, '94, when these stories first broke about the Kryptos sculpture. I am far less glib now. Loose lips, you know? I don't want to fall into that whole thing, you know?
CNN: Is the last clue an important message in some way, or is it just for the fun of it that you devised it?
JS: None of the passages, except perhaps that one that is Howard Carter's description of the opening of King Tut's tomb. . . All of the passages are fiction writings of mine. Whether they're related, the public won't know that until the fourth passage is deciphered. But it isn't going to make everything clear.
CNN: It's not going to solve the meaning of life?
JS: Well now I can't assume to have that importance. Although the way things are going, you never know! I'm humble enough to think that I'm not going to solve the mysteries of life, but it's not going to solve the puzzle, so to speak, of the Kryptos sculpture. It's going to lead to other things, I think, much like Mr. Brown's book is leading to his next books, and things like this. We're both artists in that respect. We're into the control, I think, of our readers.
CNN: Tell us about a passage that's been deciphered.
JS: This is basically a quote from the journals of Howard Carter, when he discovered King Tut's tomb. And he was clearing the debris away from the entrance, and made a tiny little hole, and put a light in, and it was this first view of this 5000-year-old tomb. Which was remarkable. My original training was in archaeology, so for me it was one of those amazing moments where the magic of finding something that had been secret for thousands of years was really you know, hit Howard Carter very hard. And I don't presume to think that the Kryptos sculpture has the import that finding Tutankhamen's tomb would have, but it's that same magic of finding something, finding a fossil or finding an Indian arrowhead or something like that. It's magical, because it's something that was made in the past. So I wanted to somehow demonstrate that magic for everyone, once it was cracked. And so, that's why it leads off that way, more or less.
"Between subtle shading and the absence of light, lies the nuance of iqlusion." Now, you know, it could be illusion, with a "Q", but it's a very telling phrase as far as an artist's ability to make a code. It's a clue, it is what it is.
CNN: Would knowing what the first sections say somehow help someone crack the last one?
CNN: You're not telling.
JS: I can't tell. That's another one of those grains of Kryptos sand.
CNN: I gather there are other parts of the sculpture that are elsewhere on the CIA grounds besides the central one.
JS: That's right.
CNN: Are there any clues that are central to solving this last part that are on a different part of the sculpture?
JS: Possibly. But I can't go any further than that.
JS: Well, you know, the latitude and longitude coordinates that I used in this piece, that has been deciphered, those coordinates refer to a location. Potentially at the Agency, potentially juxtaposed to the site where some of these elements are. I don't have any photographs of the sculpture that's in front of the Agency, the element that's in front of the Agency. I only have images of what's inside the Agency. So very little has been done visually with some sections of this piece.
CNN: How many pieces are there?
JS: There are three main sections to it. The first section, you pass through it as you enter the new Headquarters building. That has a very simple encoding: Morse code system. You go into the inner courtyard, then you have the Kryptos screen. You go further into the courtyard, and there's sort of a contemplative pool of water with stratas of stone. So there are three basic elements to the piece. I wanted the piece to fit into the Agency, and appear in some ways as if it's been there eternally, and the Agency was built around it. You have to understand, at the time when I did the piece, out at the Agency, it was a massive construction site. It was a very complex endeavor, building the New Headquarters Building. So I was in that whole construction milieu, and things were dug in the ground, things were built. It was an intense construction thing. Everybody working, including myself, was tethered to an escort. But you never know.
CNN: You've been quoted as saying there's a clue somewhere in plain sight that nobody's seen yet. Is that right?
JS: Sure. Yeah, there definitely is. And whether it's just the sculpture, whether it's just the existence of the sculpture, that remains a moot point until it's cracked. But as far as I'm concerned, having the letters sitting there in plain sight is a pretty big clue.
CNN: Is that what you're referring to?
JS: I won't say . . . . As an artist I work with light and shadow, and all of these kinds of things, smoke and mirrors, and all that stuff. All is fair in love and making public art.
CNN: I see. Why did you put deliberate misspellings in some of the clues?
JS: That's an ancient tool for making codes more difficult to crack. Saying I was sloppy is a good way of saying it. I didn't take tremendous care in what's been deciphered already, because it was -- if you want to say it's intentional, it's intentional. Because it makes it harder. It's unpredictable. Unpredictability is one of the strengths of difficult code, and I wanted to be as unpredictable as possible.
CNN: How many letters are there in the section that's yet to be solved?
JS: Well, you know, I have said on the one hand that there are 97 characters. I have said that, I've referred to the last passage in several interviews over the years. Whether it's 97, whether it's 100, I seem to like to manipulate the information coming out, in a sort of disinformation fashion. Which seems appropriate for the project. And so, a lot of the clues that I might give work in a sort of disinformational way, and that's a good thing. I mean, that's clandestine ethos.
CNN: So you might even be giving me some disinformation right now.
JS: It's possible, yes.
CNN: That worries me.
JS: That's a good thing. A little worry is a good thing. Terror is not, but a little worry is a good thing. You know what? Frankly, I mean, encoding systems are so sophisticated now that frankly, in some ways, if the Kryptos sculpture is deciphered easily, then I think all of us should be a bit worried about the security of our personal information, the information that our federal government holds, that the Agency holds. So some codes are really meant not to be broken.
CNN: Do you hope that this last clue is not broken in your lifetime?
JS: Sure. You know, I have been trusting it to an institution in order to get it off-site from where I am, and so that in the event of my demise, it will leave somebody there who can say, "Yes, this is the code, you got it," or whatever. But that's not easy to do. It's not easy to find an institution like that.
CNN: Quite complicated.
JS: Very complex.
CNN: You've made your life complicated by doing this piece.
JS: I have. But when I first started the project I said to myself: In order for me to do the right job, for this site and for this institution, I had to assume the same kind of role that they assume. I mean, the CIA employees keep secrets until they die, routinely. Deep Throat not withstanding, these kinds of things can haunt you for your entire life. And I'm sure this could, but on the other hand, somebody might hit it. And that would be great, but sort of game over.
CNN: The work of art here at the Hirshhorn: How does it differ from the one at the CIA? Is the clue the same, the one that hasn't been solved?
JS: Here you go, just trying to eke that minuscule bit of information out of me.
CNN: That's what I do.
JS: Yeah, exactly. You still haven't given me that ATM code yet. The thing is, about the piece that's here: it does give you the chart for encoding and decoding that's at the Agency. It isn't absolutely complete, but this piece does give you pretty much everything that's on the CIA sculpture. It does give you the part that hasn't been deciphered yet. And it gives you the part that has been deciphered. The order is shifted a little bit, because I didn't want to make an exact duplicate, but I did want the content to be there. And so the content is there.
CNN: Could somebody decipher this last clue from the sculpture at the Hirshhorn, or would they need to know things that are only on the CIA piece of work?
JS: That's a tough nu... It's another one of those tricky questions. Um... I think the Agency piece could assist you in some way, in cracking the code. Having access to the real, genuine article is always better than a surrogate piece. But you know, again, all the letters are here, at the Hirshhorn. It's possible that you could crack the whole thing from here, but it's also possible you couldn't. That's a typical oblique statement, isn't it?
CNN: Boy, this is really a CIA interview, you know that?
JS: I know, yeah, you got it.
CNN: Where on "Antipodes" is the part that nobody seems to be able to crack yet?
JS: Those last characters begin right here with this question mark, go with these three characters . . .
CNN: O B K
JS: That's right. This line, and then this line, and then ends with C A R right here.
CNN: Okay. So how many characters is that?
JS: Well, there are about 97 characters, more or less. I mean, if you include the question mark, there's actually more. So there is a big dispute right now about exactly how many characters are in the last part.
CNN: Well is the question mark a question mark, or is it a piece of code?
JS: It's a question mark.
JS: Also on this piece, in this paragraph, at CIA 'quarters the section of the code starts with this, and then has this top below it. So things are reversed. This isn't an exact duplicate of CIA, but it does have the content that's at CIA. It has the parts that have been decoded, and it also has the parts that have not been decoded.
CNN: So this piece of art has the same code in it as the CIA?
JS: Yeah, same code. Basically. It's a little different structurally. I didn't want to make an exact duplicate. So basically the encoding chart, the Kryptos and alphabet chart that's at CIA is on the top part of this piece, and then down here is the first half. So these two are switched in this piece. But the content is there. All the letters are there.
CNN: So how would you describe this part up here? What is this top part?
JS: This is actually an encoding/decoding part that was developed by Vigenere in about the 15th, 16th century. It works like a mileage chart. You go across to a city at the top, and across to a city here, and that leads you to a letter over here. And so it's a method of encoding things that was designed a long time ago. It's familiar to all cryptographers, and so it follows with my whole transition from the easiest codes to the most difficult codes. So you use this chart to decipher basically these paragraphs which are on the other side of the CIA sculpture. And then the last section is after those which are deciphered by this, possibly. But that's the way this is structured. But all the letters in the CIA sculpture are basically here.
CNN: What is this section for here? I notice the letters are repeating themselves, GHIJLMNQUV. And then it's the same thing but a little further over, one step over, and this row of G's diagonally. What's going on here?
JS: Right. Well, again, this is the same way that a mileage chart works, that you determine a mileage from one city to another. And so, basically, these diagonal rows are formed by just taking the alphabet and shifting them one character, okay? And that's the way the chart was designed. You use this mileage chart, choosing this location, that location, to determine which one of these letters could be used down here. You can see that there is a keyword, which is Kryptos, then its alphabet, right? English alphabet. Basically it's shifted one letter. So what happens is you end up with rows of letters going diagonally across the screen. That was one of the systems. I used several systems to encode this piece. Then you use this chart to decipher the other code, the secret side down here. But that might be deciphered using this after I've already ... this using a matrix or some other encoding system. So I use a combination of systems. The matrix possibly, and then this, in combination with one another, that makes it more complicated. The people who decipher these have already determined that I used matrix codes. Okay? Now matrix codes are a very specific type of encoding system, in which you basically take a piece of paper, and you write a line of plain text out, right, in successive rows. And then basically you write it going from top to bottom instead of left to right. So then you write the letters, a row of letters... you take the letters from here, and you put them this way. So basically, I used a matrix code, and then we can possibly use this code to decipher with. So it was a variety of systems. And sometimes I used double matrixes and triple matrixes in order to develop a complicated system, and then went back to this table (pointing at Vigenere) to do the ultimate.
CNN: I want to ask you about this side here. This is Cyrillic. This is Russian alphabet, Cyrillic alphabet. What's it doing on here?
JS: Basically, this piece is called "Antipodes". This panel on this side is about the CIA. This panel on this side is basically the KGB equivalent of this. The petrified tree that's in the center, before it was petrified, it was burned in a fire, and I found this, I believe, in Arizona. I figured it was a good metaphor that it was sort of a test by fire that separated the two agencies from one another. And basically we have the same decoding / encoding chart, but it uses Cyrillic. And then the texts from there down are encoded texts that deal with the KGB equivalent of the CIA piece.
CNN: Has this one been broken entirely?
JS: I'm not sure. It's possible that this code was used on a piece of mine which was called "The Encoded Cylinder", which has been cracked. But to tell you the truth, in my trying to distance myself from what all the encoded texts mean, and the fact that I conceived of the codes perhaps 18 years ago, I really couldn't tell you what this side says, at this point in time, unless I went back to my records and dug it up and found what it says.
CNN: You have it somewhere?
JS: I have it somewhere. It isn't necessarily in my studio anymore, because pretty much all of the encoding material, I've had to remove from my house and studio for security reasons.
CNN: Do you have security issues? Are people coming snooping round your house trying to find this?
JS: I think anytime an artwork or anytime a person is placed under such massive scrutiny, I think you have to be concerned about that. So yes, basically I tried to remove everything. It also distances me from it, and it limits my access to it, which makes it easier to keep . . . it's easy to keep something secret you don't know the answer to, so, ignorance is bliss.
CNN: Have you gotten any of the sort of reaction from any Russians with this code?
JS: No, I haven't equivalent interest although . . .
CNN: Do you get any emails from Russia about this side?
JS: I don't know. You'd have to ask the website designer on the Kryptos website, because I think in fact there are chat rooms, and there are chat rooms in many languages now, and Kryptos apparently has done very well in Asia. And there's just a tremendously diverse group of people that are working with Kryptos now. Apparently there are some mentally-disabled people who are using Kryptos in order to reconnect pathways that were damaged in an accident. Things like this, which I think is wonderful. I mean, it's become something of a healing process for some people, which is very unexpected.
CNN: What have you done here? What have you created? Is it a monster?
JS: Hahaha, I hope not. I hope it's not a monster.
CNN: What do you feel you created? I mean, you created something much bigger than you ever imagined, right?
JS: That's true. But I've created a puzzle. I like to be enigmatic, and I love metaphor, and I don't think I want to be deciphered any more than Kryptos is deciphered. And so retaining an aura of mystery is, I think, good for any art. It basically leaves it completely open to conjecture, by a widely diverse audience, and I think that's the best thing I can do. That's why I designed it the way I did. I didn't realize it would be as popular as it is, but so be it.
CNN: It hasn't hurt you.
JS: It hasn't hurt.
CNN: Although it's shaped you, hasn't it? The art has come back and shaped you.
JS: Well there's no doubt about it, and when I'm designing projects now and working with artworks that I'm doing presently, although they may not be directly about cryptography, have cryptography issues, I definitely consider more closely what the long term ramifications might be of what I've made. But at this point in time I think there probably are very few artworks which have had as large a resonance, other than perhaps movie, you know the creative aspect of movie making and things. There are a lot of things that have long reach.
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