Chelsea Manning and the eBay meteorites

Yuri Pattison's latest project is a 3D rendering of a viral meteorite which tells the story of Chelsea Manning, internet optimism and Glasnost. Interested?

Arts+Culture Feature
Yuri Pattison: Reliable Communications
"RELiable COMmunications", (2013) Yuri Pattison

History, as we’re now seeing and experiencing, didn’t end in 1989 when the wall came down. Neither did the age of the ideology two years later when the Soviet Union collapsed; the battle between East and West merely continued on in different forms and contexts, all that changed was the position of the wall, and whom we see as the barbarians beyond it. London artist Yuri Pattison’s new project RelCom, traces a route through the histories that continued on in the post ‘91 world. It traces the subjective instability generated by first person narratives and the meshes that form when hundreds of those first person narratives intersect over networks, the long shadows cast by ideological ruins and utopian dreams.

Its starting point is the attempted coup by hardliners opposing Glastnost and Perestroika in the Soviet Union in ‘91, when a newly formed network between Moscow and the US, called Reliable Communications, was used to ferry information to the outside world, and thwart the takeover.  It then moves through chat logs between Chelsea (nee Bradley) Manning and Adrian Lamo, the man who turned him into the FBI and which formed part of the case against him; there are more logs and images from the first Gulf War, information taken from Swedish server Bahnhof who host Wikileaks, and relics of the Chelyabinsk Oblast meteor that landed in Russia last year.

“There were a number of concurrent strands I was looking at and I began to make subjective leaps and links between them – things began to fit together as part of a larger narrative” he explains, “one thing that sparked this was the meteorite crash at Chelyabinsk in February 2013 – along with all the viral dashboard cam videos there was also an immediate and rapid trade in meteorite fragments on eBay, which was the global face of a very local cottage industry. There was also reports, although most likely Russian tabloid fiction of a church worshipping the meteorite. I really felt this had some powerful symbolism to it – and drew a lot of parallels with science fiction I was reading at the time – in particular The Year 4338, an unfinished novel by Odoevsky.

I ended up saving hundred of images of these fragments from eBay and these in turn ended up reverse engineered into both digital and physical 3D models that feature in the work. I was also reading a lot of chat logs – in particular the Soviet Coup Archive (which I’ve now mirrored here), logs from the outbreak of the first Gulf War and the Manning-Lamo chat logs that eventually were used as evidence to convict Chelsea Manning for her role in leaking classified information to Wikileaks.”  In its presentation, it forms from these disparate pieces an impressionistic, rather than historiographical, work; a subtle evocation of the world of underground hackers and dreamers, on a journey from the optimism of stopping a coup to the dejection of the imprisonment of Chelsea Manning. 

There is a process of addition to the piece, as it goes on, but why not just present everything at once?

It’s designed to be an association engine of sorts, the texts are re-presented on their original time stamps while the images are randomised in their presentation. The image based side of the piece has been slowly expanding as I negotiate the texts and make new associations and will continue to grow as a subjective archive. This is mainly due to my attitude towards the digital space – it isn’t a fixed environment and there will always be new data. 

Is it meant to be read or explored? Does how people chose to read it make a difference to you? 

The texts are meant to be negotiated certainly but I wanted to keep the immediacy of their original creation and fragmented nature of their existence as archival .txt files. I wanted the texts to form a portrait of an intangible feeling – somewhere between anxiety and deja vu.

One thing I think the piece explores is the role of personal history and subjective viewpoint, which is encapsulated in the IRC logs, there’s an intense subjectivity through the relaying of experience, was this of interest to you? 

The earlier chatlogs in particular read like science fiction in some ways, they had a real disconnect with recorded and reported history, they sort of existed in the strange space of oral history, flattened and forgotten by the shifting space of the internet. Most importantly all they humanised these events.

The chatlogs speak as much about the present as they do the past and I felt they summed up a feeling of disconnect with the present voiced often online in popular blogs, io9 for example.

Is there an historical methodology to work? Would you describe it as impressionistic, or documentarian? 

Beyond my personal relationship to some of the material and some correspondences not featured within the work, I wouldn’t say the methodology was historical, more intuitive in it’s linking of these events. Impressionistic with the data is a close description.

The thread that runs through the piece is one of the use of networks and the internet in subversive action, the ability of the network to expose hypocrisies within power structures; could this piece be disentangled then, from the internet, the website it’s presented on; could it have functioned in any way as physical art object? 

Fragments of the work have appeared outside of the internet, in real space. The meteorites became physical objects again through 3D printing and the data has been presented in various printed forms in exhibitions – but these pieces are obviously linked back to the source material online. 

The piece itself is a very large universe of data and I see it as an anchor for a series – so for instance some of the information contained will be published as a physical book by Arcadia Missa later this year, and new sculptural and video works have already been made some of which I’ll be showing at Minibar Artist Space in May. 

For the work to be effective it’s important for me to remember the effect the internet has on real space and vice versa so I feel that it very much exists in both spaces. It’s wise to remember that as the internet gets ever more restricted.

I liked this quote from Larry Press on the attempted ‘91 Coup in the Soviet Union; “Networks like RELCOM, probably using satellite technology, may change the face of the earth in peacetime as well as helping to keep the peace”– do you think this position has been vindicated? 

It contains both the beginnings and end points of an era, and we’re living through an end point. Larry Press’ statement was incredibly optimistic at the birth of an unregulated network with amazing possibilities but post 9/11, WIkileaks and Edward Snowden we have a very different situation and things aren’t as transparent anymore.

Strangely I don’t feel the work is political, although making work about such a politicised space, it’s unavoidable. It’s about the end of optimism and hope the web consistently promised during it’s earlier decades and the wider effects of that shift. 

Larry actually runs two great blogs, one about Cuba and one more personal that are worth checking out.

How does this work relate to some of your previous work; I’m thinking in relation to work that has used the internet archive as a form of art object; this is maybe the least image relient, or image concerned work you’ve done, would you agree? 

My approach to the archive material was in part always from an aesthetic or image based point of view, I found this unavoidable as understanding the monospaced environment the texts were presented within was important. So although not immediately obvious I feel there are colorations between the Arcadia Missa work, for example, and this – especially in the details such as presenting works via Kindle e-reader screens and the concern with the holding and loss of data within these and it touched upon the power of who controls the network (in this case Amazon). While in other works representing data within the network/the internet as archive, they are usually more personal, has also always been a concern, such as at focal-plane at Son Gallery

Your aesthetics are very different in relation to people operating in a similar formal context of post-internet; I’m thinking of your uses of the utilitarian, the recurrence of Soviet iconography and the iconography of the internet. 

In terms of aesthetics I’m interested in the personal and human elements (notnecessarily mine, but sometimes) within digital space so I feel my focus is less on brands and branding – although those creep in as that’s unavoidable – which is probably a big difference as how people use these spaces, and this data, has a very different aesthetic to those spaces.

I also wanted to discuss the art object and the ready made, in relation to the internet. Your practice has often utilised these; what is your opinion on the art object as webpage? How does the physical objects of the comet you’ve produced relate to this? 

I’ve come around to thinking of everything in terms of data, and the data objects contain. So this piece is made up of many pieces of ready made datasets and their subjective arrangement forms a new whole. The web page is the aesthetic surface but my use of ready made webpages, for instance Bahnhof.net, exists within the piece in the same way as the text pieces or single images. 

Appropriating their website also appropriates their brand and the statements and attitudes contained within as a material within the work – however this is likely to change and shift. In that same way the found eBay images of meteorites contained enough data and angles to recreate a 3D model of a large portion of the original, from which they became physical objects again.

And related to that, what about the archive in art and the archive as art object - as a site of both remembering and recontextualising the history in the work, from what now seems like the distant past of ‘91 to immediate past of Chelsea Manning. 

History, especially digital history, isn’t a fixed thing and that’s one element I wanted to emphasise – for instance one element or minor detail of the work is now hosted on an image URL Chelsea Manning mentions in the chat logs with Adrian Lamo. That link was dead for many years but now it hosts an altered version of the image Chelsea Manning originally mentioned. 

The archive as art object doesn’t have the constraints of the formal archive as a useful research tool – it makes subjective leaps but it’s also not a slave to it’s format so it’s elements can update themselves and it’s context can shift, much like the internet. 

View Yuri's work here: reliablecommunications.net

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