Yuri Pattison, RELiable COMmunication, 2014 (screencaps). Courtesy the artist
Commissioned by Legion TV and copresented as part of the New Museum’s First Look series, artist Yuri Pattison’s newest work RELiable COMmunications dramatizes the experience of consuming and cohering the layers upon layers of information we are presented with online. It does so by compiling fragmented digital trails left by two historic incidents into a web-based collage. The first event is the 1991 attempted Soviet Coup, where a group attempted to take down Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev and install a communist government. The second is Chelsea Manning’s declassification of US military documents in 2010.
While emerging from vastly different circumstances, both evince the ways in which networked technology has the ability to alter history as well as how the internet has changed dramatically in recent decades, as have perceptions around it. The Soviet Coup took place before the birth of the World Wide Web; however, the political action unfolded within the privacy of jabber chats, some made available here. Manning’s leak was also, of course, enabled by online distribution; and her emotional and civic conflict was later made public by the exposure of online conversations between her and Adrian Lamo, a friend who eventually turned her in. Below is an excerpt from this now famous conversation, where Manning (bradass87) describes her feelings of strife as summed up by the “Pale Blue Dot.”
(03:13:31 PM) bradass87: it was unreal… i mean, i’ve identified bodies before… its rare to do so, but usually its just some nobody
(03:13:48 PM) bradass87: it humanized the whole thing… re-sensitized me
(03:15:38 PM) bradass87: i dont know… im just, weird i guess
(03:15:49 PM) bradass87: i cant separate myself from others
(03:16:12 PM) bradass87: i feel connected to everybody… like they were distant family
(03:16:24 PM) bradass87: i… care?
(03:17:27 PM) bradass87: http://www.kxol.com.au/images/pale_blue_dot.jpg <– sums it up for me
(03:18:17 PM) bradass87: i probably shouldn’t have read sagan, feynman, and so many intellectual authors last summer…
(03:21:11 PM) bradass87: >sigh<
(03:22:14 PM) firstname.lastname@example.org: i get that
(03:22:45 PM) bradass87: get what… that connection?
(03:23:38 PM) email@example.com: yeah.
(03:24:08 PM) firstname.lastname@example.org: which is why i’m sad for the people i sometimes have to hurt.
(03:24:10 PM) bradass87: we’re human… and we’re killing ourselves… and no-one seems to see that… and it bothers me
(03:24:26 PM) bradass87: apathy
(03:25:28 PM) bradass87: apathy is far worse than the active participation
(03:26:23 PM) bradass87: >hug<
Idiosyncratic and elusive, RELiable COMmunications could be likened to a rendering of Pattison’s own “Pale Blue Dot,” depicting his captivation with the ways political strategies are incubated and distributed online, and his concerns for how the internet has become more corporatized, surveilled, and divided. (The fact that RELiable COMmunications is hosted on Bahnhof, a Swedish internet service provider famous for hosting Wikileaks and the Pirate Bay, points to where the artist’s sympathies lie.) The work is a schizophrenic stream of information that shifts erratically between backgrounds and visual environments, as it presents materials from various databases, including the Soviet Coup archive and the Gulf War parent directory, where IRC chat logs relating to the unofficial beginnings of this latter conflict are stored. Here, viewers see the timestamps, email addresses, and fragmented plans of little-known witnesses or participants in major world events. By resurfacing this information, RELiable COMmunications shows how much personal information is invested and made transparent in metadata—the allegedly harmless classification data that captures our behaviors online—and harvested by the US government. In Manning’s chat above, for example, the timestamps of her comments—their urgency and repetition—make her deep distress plain.
Online, different time zones and historic periods flatten out into one variegated informatic space, and here too, in RELiable COMmunications, personal and cultural histories are flattened and collapsed, pointing viewers toward an endless number of paths that offer new information but synthesize none. Speaking about the piece, Pattison writes that the form reflects his research process: “The layering was in part representative of how I originally engaged with and researched the content. Clicking between multiple tabs, scrolling, clicking, etc., finding parallels within the different digital strata.” Furthermore, it has a eulogistic aspect, given the way so much internet use now takes place within “walled gardens,” i.e., Facebook. He writes, “I feel that ‘surfing’ the web isn’t as possible as it used to be due to changes in how we use the web, which is also why I wanted to contain it within a work.” Surfing, as well as the openness and intimacy that accompanies a sense of privacy, are also gone from contemporary communication today, where events like these, and others like Snowden’s debacle with the NSA, have made clear how monitored every personal and political online pathway is.