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'Reliable Communications' turns Soviet message boards into online art

'Reliable Communications' turns Soviet message boards into online art

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In 1991, a group of Soviet officials attempted and failed to unseat then-president and party leader Mikhail Gorbachev in a last-ditch attempt to keep the Soviet Union together. This event forms the basis for Reliable Communications, an art project and website by Yuri Pattison. The site's name is taken from the Soviet Union's computer network (abbreviated as RELCOM), which became one of the only sources of information not jammed by the coup leaders. Here, logs from RELCOM are one element of a collage collecting pieces of online conversation from important moments in history, like IRC messages from the Gulf War.

The project was originally commissioned by arts network Legion TV in December, which is now co-presenting it with the New Museum as part of the First Look online art series. Its images and text have varied over time — the messages you'll see while scrolling down, for example, change depending on the time of day. Over the whole thing spins a model of the meteor that exploded over Russia in 2013. It's chaotic and often confusing, but that's by intent. "It's not important at all if people are familiar with the content or its background," says Pattison. "In fact it's almost better if people experience the site and then go digging for more information." It will continue to evolve through May 31st, 2014.

"It's almost better if people experience the site and then go digging for more information."

The archives that Reliable Communications draws from weren't meant to be read after the fact, and although Pattison has preserved it, he's done it in a way that's virtually ahistorical. Instant message conversations and photographs are combined with manifestos and quotes from early Russian science fiction. "While reading these chat logs, I felt they spoke of the present and the future as much as the past and I began to make connections with science fiction," he says. "I wanted to situate the chat logs in an ambiguous space and for it not to be didactic or archaeological."

The site itself is already decaying to some small extent. The FTP server that initially contained most of the RELCOM documents has gone dark, though it's mirrored elsewhere. But it highlights things that might never have been seen in another context. "When I first came across the chat logs, I found them fascinating records of these events; they existed to me as almost oral records," he says. "I wanted to translate them into a different visual context to make them accessible while also using them to animate my original engagement with this material."