During the recent election in New Zealand, the campaign was marred by several high profile controversies surrounding the hacking of emails and the possible collusion of the governing National Party in mass surveillance of New Zealand citizens as part of the Five Eyes intelligence arrangement. In August of this year, a month out from the election, investigative journalist Nicky Hagar published Dirty Politics, in which he alleged people within the government had worked in secret with a right-wing attack blog called ‘Whale Oil’ to attack and discredit opponents. The source of the emails used as evidence was revealed as a hacker known only as ‘Rawshark,’ who proceeded to leak documents over Twitter supporting the book’s claims shortly after its release.
As this was happening, German entrepreneur Kim Dotcom, currently residing in New Zealand but wanted for extradition to the United States on charges of copyright infringement organised an event called the ‘Moment of Truth,’ where he promised to show evidence that the Prime Minister John Key has worked in tandem with Warner Bro’s executives to grant Dotcom residency in New Zealand as part of a wider plan to then facilitate his extradition to the US. Instead of addressing this at his planned event, Dotcom organised a meeting with US journalist Glenn Greenwald, alongside Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and NSA Whistleblower Edward Snowden who were both beamed in via satellite, where the Government was accused of allowing mass surveillance of New Zealand citizens, alongside revelations that the NSA had two bases in New Zealand.
On election night, the Governing National Party won a large majority, a success which exceeded even their own confident predictions, while the left-wing, including the Internet-Mana party, an alliance of ‘Mana’ and Kim Dotcom’s own ‘Internet Party,’ collapsed spectacularly. (A more nuanced analysis of this can be found in Joe Nunweek’s fantastic ‘Thwarted Futurism, Internet parties and the Wake,’ published on the Pantograph Punch blog: http://pantograph-punch.com/thwarted-futurism-internet-parties-and-the-wake/) In the face of the evidence (which even many on the left argue was short of conclusive), New Zealanders seemed to vote for the status quo. This was a vote in many ways for a notion of stability which some might question in an age where allegations of spying, email and photo hacking, surveillance and privacy all seem to appear with increasing frequency in the news media (a forum which ironically was one of the first major examples of phone hacking when Rupert Murdoch’s ‘News of the World’ was scuppered in 2011).
It was with much of this baggage in mind that I approached Yuri Pattison’s incredibly sharp and timely exhibition Free Traveller at Cell Project Space in London. The installation takes its inspiration in part from Adolfo Bioy Cesares’ The Invention of Morel alongside the anonymously authored ‘Visit Port Watson!’ which is accredited to a 1985 Ohio zine called ‘Libertarian Horizons: A Journal for the Free Traveller.’ These somewhat disparate and murkily attributable sources form the perfect basis for Pattison’s exploration of the internet as phenomenon, and the space between idealism and reality which it frequently seems to occupy in the minds of those who experience it.
The installation in the larger part of the gallery consists of seven sets of Ikea Vittsjö shelving, which hold equipment and storage devices, alongside moving image, text and other objects like bubble wrap and cables. The work presents a sort of disorganised, jumbled bureaucracy (enhanced in part by the ubiquitous Ikea shelving with its connotations of grim and efficient office functionality), while the ephemera touches on some of the cornerstones of the idealism associated with the internet with its notions of alternative economies, file sharing and piracy as well as the consumption of big-C Culture and travel. The detail within the installation is minute: a crumbled ball of 3D printer silver here, a collection of counterfeit coins there.
In the smaller part of the gallery, Pattison is showing a new video work, ‘Free Traveller: ‘feel like you are actually there,’’ which is a picture in picture collage of footage, both shot by the artist and sourced from the web. The video is watched by Aibo, a robot dog produced by Sony which the artist has programmed, which among other functions also serves as a sharp observation about us as viewers, manipulated by others into playing the role of the consumer under the guise of independent agency. In the accompanying press release, the notion of ‘Free Traveller,’ both in terms of the video work and the exhibition as a whole is described as “modern networked nomads, free to travel but always tethered to the network.” It is this idea of the illusion of the liberty of the internet as a space, which simultaneously functions as an ever present filter and influence that makes Pattison’s work feel so pointed.
Parallel to the exhibition at Cell, Pattison has also created a website (http://188.8.131.52) which is hosted by a repurposed Google Mini Server which sits on one of the shelving units in the gallery. The original function of the server was to host Google’s search algorithm which was then sold to companies as a file indexing “solution,” however Pattison has adapted it to function as a sort of scrap yard, collecting results which speak to the themes of the exhibition. The result is a strange, often semi or mistranslated collage of information, advertisements and news snippets, which again addresses the duality of liberty and influence which comes through so strongly in the rest of the work.
Looking at Pattison’s work, it was difficult not to revisit the controversies in New Zealand, as well as other recent controversies in the United Kingdom to do with some of the same issues. In many ways, what Free Traveller really seems to speak to is people’s willingness to embrace a digital medium and space which in reality it does not fully understand or appreciate. In New Zealand, what arguably could have been massively game changing revelations were in some ways not only ignored by the voting public, but galvanised them to vote against those who broke the news. The presence of high profile whistleblowers like Assange and Snowden failed to provoke the kind of popular movement that the organisers hoped would topple the incumbent Centre Right government. In the UK, there has been a similarly muted response to allegations of surveillance by government intelligence agencies. The most often touted response seems to follow the line ‘if you aren’t doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about.’
It may simply be that the internet and the growing technological interdependence we are increasingly embracing as time progresses (summed up beautifully in Pattison’s notion of being perpetually “tethered to the network”) is simply not given the same weight of importance as the cornerstones of western “democratic” politics, such as health, education, defence, et al.. Pattison’s work has playful moments, but there is a suggestion of the underappreciated implications of being so inextricably intertwined and traceable through our various digital networks and fingerprints that may yet prove to be so crucial in the years to come. It begs the question will those who voted for the status quo today, rue their decision tomorrow?
By Will Gresson