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An Interview between Philip Howe and Yuri Pattison

Reliable Communications

My first IRL encounter with Yuri Pattison’s work was in the exhibition The Future of Memory at Kunsthalle Wien in the spring of 2015. Sited inconspicuously at the rear corner of the space was a desktop computer, replete with a spinning office chair and a large and seemingly abstract print above—I would later discover that this was an inversion of the “Pale Blue Dot” photograph taken by the Voyager space probe as it lost communication with earth.

The artwork in question was Pattison’s RELiable COMmunications, an online-based work in which disparate fragments of networked communications emerged and sank away as I surfed over the work. Ever present was a spinning digital maquette of a chunk of the Chelyabinsk meteor. Other images and textual references would flow by in a way reminiscent of the earliest manifestations of the Internet, presented here in an almost painterly assemblage of surreal animation. RELiable COMmunications tells two stories of major political events happening in a networked environment—the farce of the 1991 Soviet coup and the tragedy of Chelsea Manning’s communications with hacker-turned-informant Adrian Lamo, who following the conversation would reveal her plans to the FBI, leading to her brutal incarceration at the hands of the US government.

I would follow Pattison’s practice closely up to and beyond a studio visit in 2016. It was in this visit that I could first figure the myriad contexts this work invoked and wove together, the rigorous research and critical engagement behind his effortlessly presented physical and ethereal works. This interview was conducted some time after in 2017, notably before the winter that Bitcoin smashed into the popular consciousness.*

Philip Howe: I want to start by discussing the piece RELiable COMmunications and explore the significance of juxtaposing two seemingly disparate, but undeniably significant events. They both share real and tangible consequences, but the actual substance of them was played on the virtual plane. In what sense do you feel that this piece is extrapolating forms of para-community that have developed in online contexts?

Yuri Pattison: RELiable COMmunications was very much about indirectly reanimating an archive of chat logs I found relating to the failed Soviet coup of 1991 (that source material is here); when effectively reposting this material back online, I wanted to draw upon the subjective connections made when I was dealing with this content and present those connections as layers and hyperlinks.

I wanted the work, and this material, to exist in its new form within the present; thus, the events surrounding the, at the time, recent Chelyabinsk meteor incident seemed to fit. In particular, the work drew from the online cottage industry of meteorite collectors using the same network infrastructure as the coup chat log participants to sell apparent fragments from the event on eBay. Reconstructing and extracting the 3D form of those meteorite fragments from the eBay images posted by those sellers became a tangential activity analogous to reconstructing the live flow of information from the coup.

When collecting these images, the authenticity of these many fragments often seemed doubtful, and again I viewed them as analogous to fragments of information gleaned when events of great social upheaval are still in play.

I made the work with the backdrop of the Arab Spring in the news, a series of events touted by the media as being the first major instances of the political influence of networked technology, and I wanted to perhaps point to the seeds of something before and beyond this as a way to understand the underlying human potential in these networks.

The work also makes slight references to its own context—for instance, I chose to host it with Bahnhof in Sweden, a company that has hosted data for political provocateurs such as Wikileaks and the Pirate Bay, and this laid the path to the video work colocation, time displacement being made at their central Stockholm facility. Other elements of the work have continued to shift and change, such as external website elements which were embedded using iframes—so as those websites are updated, the work shifts and changes outside of my control; this is an approach I have brought forward into works displayed in physical exhibitions.

PH: What has struck me about your object-making, in the physical and virtual sense, is this kind of invisibleness and immateriality employed to realise them. I feel they could be described as non-objects, as paraphysical, they seem to bleed two ways between worlds—this was strongly manifest in your residency and exhibition with the Chisenhale Gallery, user, space. What are you aiming to address and share with the audience in these pieces?

YP: My original focus during the Chisenhale Gallery Create Residency was to explore the rather abstract idea of “London Tech City,” a UK government scheme to stimulate technology investment in East London after the 2012 Olympics. This seemed like a logical gateway to deal with the wider ecology relating to networked technology and wider societal changes in how people live and work.

During the residency, I relocated my practice to a series of related new workspaces, from grassroots peer-to-peer hackerspaces to corporate spaces all the way up to exclusive membership based co-working environments more akin to members’ clubs.

How I related to these spaces differed; with the institutional weight of the gallery behind the project, we contacted number of ‘case study’ locations and invited them to participate in the residency by hosting an artwork made for the space and also often a related event. These works were a series of networked sculptures, most in the form of lobby artworks, and their creation and maintenance allowed me ongoing and honest access and engagement with the spaces and the people working there.

These works, their documentation in the spaces, my experiences, and the outcome of the events formed the basis for my position of the show. The works were brought back to the gallery and reformatted and reframed in a speculative space imagining the gallery as a co-working space in a form of unclear transition (either about to open, or shutting down). The materials, references, and display strategies used were all informed by extrapolating design strategies I had encountered in the real spaces.

The show took on more abstract concepts, such as the influence of computer network architecture and user hierarchy permissions within physical spaces and organisation of communities, and attempts to codify and represent these nuanced ideas though other forms of invisible control—elements like the automated lighting and access to daylight, sound being conditioned with white and grey noise, and elements like caffeine being vaporised into the exhibition atmosphere. These rather unseen elements were designed as a support structure for the more visible austere sculptural and architectural structures within the space.

PH: Co-working and delocalised collaboration play a crucial role in your practice, for example, in the piece 1014, in which you present a sort of video tour of the Hong Kong hotel room where Edward Snowden sought refuge during the release of his NSA leaks. What was the process in realising this particular piece? How does this dislocated production enhance or alter the output?

YP: 1014 was produced without me ever setting foot in that hotel room, or even travelling to Hong Kong.

When the Snowden event originally occurred, I found and noted a discussion on a hotelier forum where a number of concierges were speculating on the hotel and then the room number he might be staying in; one participant in the discussion posted that they had contacted the hotel in question, The Mira, and confirmed the room number with a staff member through simple social engineering by claiming to be a representative of The Guardian who wanted to extend Snowden’s stay. Once Snowden had fled Hong Kong, they followed up and posted the room number. This fact, and how it was extracted through the most traditional form of hacking, stuck with me.

I ended up sitting on this information until the resources to shape it into something emerged—eventually this ended up being a small Arts Council-funded grant meant for the production of a modest “online” work—and not a video work involving a location-based shoot. Finding someone local to shoot the video for me, rather than wasting funds on airfare, was in part a practical consideration, but it also seemed to fit the wider thematics perfectly.

Through social media, I found a professional videographer (unnamed, as he wished to remain uncredited), actually through many degrees of separation, residing in Hong Kong who was willing to take on the job. The proposal seemed to resonate with him, and the shoot was enthusiastically planned from a shot list I drew together plus references such as my previous video works, equipment, and lenses.

We set a rough time slot for the shoot, and I attempted to book the room, 1014, in which Snowden had resided. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this specific booking request was met with a lot of suspicion by hotel staff—in the end, I had to resort to using a new identity to book the room, and by claiming the number 1014 held an importance to me due to numerical superstitious beliefs, I was successful in securing the location.

The actual shoot was directed via Telegram, an encrypted messaging app actually recommended by Snowden, as suggested by my Hong Kong contact (he requested to be paid in Bitcoin)—so the content for the work was made within and via these various networks. This strategy was a further development of similar techniques I had used up to that point in smaller ways within the production of works, mostly exploring and expanding the idea of working closely with others through networked communication—and it embraces a loss of control over the aesthetics to allow for an unparalleled level of immediacy and the direct access these techniques provide.

This work was produced after Laura Poitras’ Oscar win for Citizenfour and the news of Oliver Stone beginning production on the Snowden story, and I was very much considering the mediatisation of this historic event, very much still in play, without any sight of meaningful change. So, I was also aware that the techniques being utilised were also akin to how a remote “second unit” would work in film production.

PH: A piece that has fascinated me is The Ideal. It’s an awry look into the bloated and obscure industrial practice of Bitcoin mining in China and in a canny way brings forth a lot of dynamics at play in late-capitalist Sino-Western social, economic, and political relations. What attracted you to this context?* This appears to be the most challenging work you have realised in this co-work schema, but also it required a great deal of trust between you and your contact. How much of this was reflected in your experience of making the work?

YP: Actually, this piece also originated from postings on a bulletin board forum, however much more directly. I had been monitoring this board for a number of years due the many fringe theories and discussions often given credence by the community (for example, a theory that Bitcoin could be vulnerable to hacking by someone with telepathy), but for a long time Bitcoin seemed like too abstract and inhuman a topic to successfully explore through a work.

That all changed when I came across a thread posted by someone identifying as Eric Mu, Chief Marketing Officer of the small Beijing-based Bitcoin startup HaoBTC. Eric was posting long-form diary entries about his relocation to a remote region of China just outside the city of Kangding to build a new Bitcoin mining operation, effectively a hyper-specialised data centre taking advantage of the almost free hydroelectric power from the neighbouring dam.

His posts seemed to be an opaque mixture of posting from personal determination and the very current online economy of using emotive personal experiences as a marketing tool to legitimise a company, product, or service (his job was to market HaoBTC). What stuck out for me was his often candid and critical discussion of the Chinese government’s presence in the contested region, which underscored to me a possible wider alternative political outlook in those attracted to technologies like Bitcoin—and this peaked my interest in making a work in this space.

I contacted Eric via email and explained my interest in starting a conversation with a view to somehow making a work with his help. He explained his attraction to Bitcoin was because it was the forefront of radical technological change, and his writing output was influenced by his American English teacher at university who had introduced him to embedded writing techniques. He agreed to help me make the work under the guise of it being an extension of this vague ‘organic’ style of marketing he was producing for the company.

Around the same time, a number of threads on the same Bitcoin forum began appearing, questioning the reality of the HaoBTC operation and building complex conspiracy theories that Eric Mu was an invented identity.

Eric had agreed to help me film; it emerged he had a fairly high specification camera and stabiliser gimbal with him, and after I sent him links to previous video works (1014 and colocation, time displacement) we agreed it would make sense for me to send him Bitcoin for the purchase of a wide-angle lens and a drone to augment this kit (this was in addition to a fee agreed to cover his time). I used the majority of the funds given to me for the production of a work for the British Art Show and transferred these to Eric’s Bitcoin wallet—and then waited.

Over a number of weeks, Eric began sending me first-person POV explorations of the facility, living quarters, and the day-to-day physical work in constructing this digital currency production centre. We traded observations, questions, and ideas around the representation of the facility but also ideas around currency and its longer history—and some of these experiences and references were codified into the physical sculptural elements I used to house the video works.

The preview clips Eric was sending me were of lower resolution, and on his return to Beijing he physically sent me SD cards of the raw full-resolution footage—this needed to be mailed due to the “Great Chinese Firewall” preventing us from exchanging large files. I requested Eric mail me stones he had collected from the riverbed below the dam as a way to make visible this physical exchange within the sculptural works.

The final video work is a combination of footage Eric Mu shot for me and my own footage exploring microscopic views of Bitcoin mining computer circuit boards, and presents this in a sculptural form incorporating an active water-cooled Bitcoin mining rig—producing currency on the same network as referenced in the video.

Ultimately, although this work is about the apparently invisible and intangible Bitcoin technology, it more closely looks at a wider story of the accelerated complex physical developments, often not for the best, happening though advancements in networked technology and the very human stories that happen within this.

Philip Howe is a London-based artworker, curator, producer, and writer whose research and practice focus on the intersections of contemporary art and radical politics. Having graduated with an MA in Art & Politics at Goldsmiths College in 2013, with a particular focus on anarchism, conflict, and emerging technologies, Philip now produces expansive projects and exhibitions with a/political, a non-profit organisation dedicated to collaborations with socio-political artists that tour institutions globally.

Yuri Pattison is a tireless, natural thinker at the forefront of a group of emerging artists/intellectuals whose practices, in an inherently 21st-century manner, are informed by a seamless merger of hard and soft realities. He works in sculpture and digital media, exploring the visual culture of digital economies and the natures of online/offline skill sharing. Typical, recent examples of his artworks thoughtfully list medium and/or displayed interior contents, as if listed by border security agents: “custom made perspex 1U format box, server PSU & switch, server case fans, AI: The Tumultuous History of the Search for Artificial Intelligence, by Daniel Crevier (book), PDLC switchable privacy film, cables, generic unpainted architectural 1:100 scale model figures, dust, sebum [an oily secretion of the sebaceous glands], digital timers, travel power adapter…”

In October 2017, mother’s tankstation opened its London gallery with context, collapse, a second solo exhibition by Yuri Pattison. The artist’s first solo exhibition with mother’s tankstation, sunset provision, opened in November 2016. Pattison’s recent solo exhibitions include Trusted Traveller, Kunsthalle Sankt Gallen, Switzerland, and citizens of nowhere, Kevin Space, Vienna, Austria (both 2017). He was one of four artists commissioned to make new work for the inaugural exhibition at ICA Miami, in December 2017. Earlier in 2017, an indicative installation was acquired by the Irish Museum of Modern Art. Yuri Pattison also holds considerable UK curatorial updraft, with a major work, the ideal (v. 0.1), presented as part of British Art Show 8, 2015-2017, and he was the recipient of the 2016 Frieze Artist Award, culminating in a major new commission, Insights (crisis trolley). The Tate Britain exhibition, The Weight of Data, curated by Lizzie Carey Thomas in 2015, also included a breakthrough video sculpture, colocation, time displacement. His practice was the focus of the prestigious two-year CREATE residency at Chisenhale Gallery, London, which concluded with a major solo show, user, space, curated by Polly Staple in 2016.

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