This sketch of a robot dates back to 2011, a time when internet error pages were far more common, and it still exists on Google’s 404 pages despite the company’s recent rebrand.
Of all the corporate characters in existence, I find this seldom seen error mascot the most relatable. Whimsically forlorn, we are meant to forgive both the broken robot and, by association, the corporate giant employing it, for not serving us with the information we requested. This manipulative anthropomorphism is a welcome reminder that my relationship with companies such as Google feels a bit cracked and incomplete.
As the robot says: ‘That’s an error. That’s all we know.’
‘The Pale Blue Dot’
‘The Pale Blue Dot’ is a digital image that was taken at the request of astronomer Carl Sagan by Voyager 1 on 14 February 1990 as the spacecraft left our solar system. The image can be viewed as a sequel to the more famous ‘Blue Marble’ photograph that was taken in 1972, a more idealized rendering of the earth that, with the space race drawing to a close, had proved a powerful marketing tool for NASA.
In contrast to the clarity of Blue Marble, the earth of the Pale Blue Dot only occupies a fraction of one pixel and is obscured by one of three lens flare bands; its sheer lack of resolution renders it an abstract, celestial body.
In 2010, 20 years after the image was taken, Chelsea Manning linked to a URL of the image in order to explain her own justification for leaking classified US military documents to Wikileaks in an encrypted IRC conversation with hacker Adrian Lamo. She wrote: ‘http://www.kxol.com.au/images/pale_blue_dot.jpg <– sums it up for me’.
In a betrayal of Manning’s trust, Lamo turned the chat logs of their conversations over to the US Government, and they eventually became public record after they were used as evidence in the trial against her.
My own inversion of the Pale Blue Dot now resides on the exact URL that Manning linked to.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Alchemist, 1558
While working on a new piece with Eric Mu, an employee of a Chinese Bitcoin startup who had recently opened a new ‘mining’ facility in remote Kangding, Tibet, the topic of alchemy came up in our email correspondence. The deeper I fell into the topic the more I felt Bitcoin had become the latest technology mired by so-called experts and evangelists. Any ‘open’ or ‘democratic’ features the invention promised had become subsumed by greed and effectively blackboxed – there seemed no way in for the unassisted layman user.
The images and videos Eric was sending me of the Tibetan facility – a hastily constructed warehouse in a lush mountainous valley, housing a hyper-specialized data centre – told a different story. Within brick outbuildings the latest generation of Bitcoin computers were being serviced and hacked with improvised tools on tables that were decades old. They were then transported into the facility using a traditional wooden wheelbarrow. These images stood in stark contrast to the startup’s slick, ‘stock’ image heavy website, but at the same time it was a contradiction that the company seemed happy to publicly embrace.
At this time I had recently returned to Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Alchemist (1558), an image from a different time, a different world, but one that similarly seemed to reconcile this confluence of the past, the present and the promised future.
The sunset ritual known as MIThenge occurs twice a year at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in mid-November and late January. The event celebrates the moment at which the sun aligns with the university’s longest corridor – the ‘Infinite Corridor’ – a phenomenon first discovered in the 1970s by an architecture research student named Thomas K Norton.
This poster – which was designed by Norton in 1975 – draws parallels between the Infinite Corridor and other historic structures that, whether by design or chance, align with the Sun in a similar way. It also appears to use the silhouette of Stonehenge in rural Britain to emphasize the sense of occasion. It is this non-scientific mixing of facts that I love about this poster, and it led me to ask current MIT students to film the event on my behalf, which they did last January.
MIThenge still manages draws a pretty big crowd, with a mix of students and professors pressing up against the walls of the corridor in anticipation of the Sun's rays slowly tracing along the highly polished linoleum floors. (To avoid disappointment, please note: due to global warming, the November event is now usually blocked by leaves remaining on the tress outside the building.)
The Pirate Bay’s commemorative doodle, 2008
Similar in format to the better-known ‘Google Doodles’, this temporary logo was featured on the homepage of file sharing website The Pirate Bay in January of 2008, a year before the founders were found guilty of assisting in copyright infringement in Sweden. The doodle was anonymously created to celebrate: ‘10 million peers. 1 million torrents. 2.5 million registered users. 100 blog entries. Jubilee!’
The image is a tropical-themed rendering of what a physical Pirate Bay might look like, with cultural references and important events in the site’s history scrawled upon the island’s landscape. For instance: the Grave of the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America), the Fall of MediaDefender, Mount Sharemore and Sealand (a World War Two sea fort off the coast of Suffolk that Pirate Bay claimed to be purchasing in 2007).
This map concisely records Pirate Bay’s activities up until 2008, the lifestyle adopted by the site’s founders and users, and the front-line role that the website played in re-organizing how digital culture is produced and shared. Tiny but enigmatic, the image reminds me of a war tapestry, which is maybe why I’ve always kept a copy on my desktop.
The National Debt Clock, New York
The National Debt Clock sits roughly half a block from the advertising billboards and video displays of Times Square, New York. In 1989, the original model was gifted to the people of Manhattan by Seymour Durst (philanthropist, multi-millionaire property magnate and father of the infamous Robert) in an attempt to educate the voting public about the issue of rising national debt.
Since Durst’s death in 1995, his family has kept the clock running to an annoyingly meticulous degree, even turning it off between 2000 and 2002 to acknowledge the rare period of declining debt. In 2004, a new clock was installed. Within four years it reportedly ran out of digits as the country’s debt approached the USD$10 trillion mark.
Last summer I stood beneath the clock considering how, as a physical representation of the current economic climate, it is almost perfect: illuminated digits endlessly ticking skyward, depicting figures once thought of as astronomical. Out of all of my visits to America, it’s the only sign I’ve seen that’s not trying to sell something.
The Crypt of Civilization at Oglethorpe University, Atlanta
This is a quick iPhone photo I took outside the Crypt of Civilization at Oglethorpe University, Atlanta, Georgia. I made the pilgrimage to the Crypt this time last year with my partner Cécile and our friend Victoria, who had recently moved to the city.
The Crypt was initiated by Thornwall Jacobs and is acknowledged as the ‘first successful attempt to bury a record of this culture for any future inhabitants or visitors to the planet Earth’ by the Guinness Book of Records (1990). It is noted as popularizing the ‘time capsule’ phenomenon.
Jacobs, the president of Oglethorpe (1915–43), had previously worked in advertising and the time capsule was a marketing ploy to rejuvenate the University. Inspired by recent discoveries from ancient Egypt (including the tomb of King Tut), he set the suggested future unsealing date of the Crypt to 8113 CE – a date calculated using the Egyptian calendar – and canvassed the public for suggestions for its contents.
Today, just as when it was sealed in 1936, the Crypt sits in the basement corridor of the Gothic revival campus, which is now in use as extra classroom space. Stacks of spare chairs from the language department sit beside a handle-less art deco stainless steel door sealing the crypt. A plaque on the door, some casual signage and a few framed photographs are the only clues to the contents or purpose of the room.
One of these framed photos is an image I had encountered many times online while looking for information about the crypt. Much clearer in its original printed form, the image is the only known depiction of the room’s contents shortly before it was sealed. We had travelled pretty far but this is as close as we would get to seeing The Crypt of Civilization.
Yuri Pattison (born 1986, Dublin) lives and works in London. Recent solo exhibitions include 'Architectures of Credibility', Helga Maria Klosterfelde Editions, Berlin (2015) and 'Free Traveller', Cell Projects, London (2014). Group exhibitions include 'British Art Show 8', Leeds Art Gallery, touring UK venues (2015-17); 'The Weight of Data', Tate Britain, London, and 'Transparencies', Bielefelder Kunstverein; Kunstverein Nürnberg (all 2015). Pattison is the current recipient of the Chisenhale Gallery Create Residency, 2014–16 ,and will present a solo show at the London gallery in July. He has a solo show later in the year at Mother's Tankstation, Dublin.