Evidence Timeline, 2012, Allen Riley

Evidence Timeline

is a stone archive of an abandoned personal website downloaded from the Internet Archive and laser engraved onto slate roofing tiles salvaged from a collapsed barn in Western New York state. View the original website. View tile detail.

The artwork is presented across multiple sites: one in and around a rustic cabin that I built; a surveillance booth installed in the Robert C. Turner Gallery at the New York State College of Ceramics in Alfred, NY; and another in a van that transports visitors between the gallery and the cabin. Exhbition Date: April 21, 2012.

Viewing this sculpture is an opportunity to examine the Internet within the context of archaeological and geologic time scales that exceed the perspective of a web browser, which can only display the present.

The tiles link the decay of websites (and language) to geologic entropy and change. They have been exposed to recurring freeze-thaw cycles in which water enters into cracks, freezes, and melts again, causing the surface to exfoliate and crumble over many winters. Websites also erode as links break and the software to read them becomes obsolete. Vint Cerf, co-author of TCP/IP, the protocol on which the Internet runs, calls this phenomenon "bit rot."

This sculpture is also a science fiction embodiment of the literal heaviness of digital information: in addition to millions of miles of metal conductor and fiber optic cables, the Internet is powered by massive underground data centers that hide the burden of information from plain sight while exemplifying its geologic impact and scale. This materiality is abstracted in our typical experiences of the Internet, so I created imaginary artifacts to bring the real connections between digital information, language, and nature into one place.

Data centers, such as the NSA Utah Data Center made famous by Edward Snowden, are also the focus of the original website used in this sculpture, which expresses a science fiction-inspired conspiracy theory about the effects of large-scale data processing and storage on the identity of one individual.

The site belonged to Roland Vasco, a Cuban-born database programmer living in Miami, FL. An early adopter of the Internet before the invention of the World Wide Web, Vasco was a telnet bulletin board system operator ("BBS Sysop") in the 1980s. His website, which I discovered late one night in 2003 (I was 20) while digging through conspiracy theories, embodies a tension between free expression and isolation that fascinates me about the Internet (and rustic cabins). Fragments of Vasco's work can still be found online.

Evidence-timeline.com is a huge paranoid database of photographs and observations which Vasco recorded to track the effects of what believed was a government-controlled satellite. The effects include the alleged alteration of his identity, his appearance, and the events of his life. He calls this the "Time Access Gene-Staining Method" or TAGSM; the overall conspiracy is the "time coup d'etat."

Prior to the time coup d'etat, Vasco claims he was a white American scientist working for the US government who created the technology that now torments him. Evoking the fear and distrust that followed the 2000 US presidential election, 9/11, and the US invasion of Iraq, he insists that the government, and his satellite, are controlled by an "impostor." His paranoid dysphoria with his identity seems tragically linked with these political realities.

The most visible consequence of this conspiracy to Vasco's readers is its effect on his use of language. With misspelled words and incomplete sentences, he argues that the satellite has scrambled his syntax to discredit him. In spite of this, he struggles to disentangle himself in the process of writing:

As brief, all words are resulting from what is done to or in many ways bare correlation to me, one of those words is the word idiosyncrasies

In itself, crypto values of such word, and not in methodological meanings, the word means the synch of idioms, or the synch of communication parameters, barely it means protocols.

Partially is a brief explanation of what I have been told and how that may relate to me, the word I-dio-synch-ases, to synch idios of asks, s, meaning the s of thinking, to synch in a event to match another, for one event is not in synch with another even, thus causing tremendous antagonism, ambiguities, disaster and chaos (source)
In this passage, Vasco deconstructs the "crypto values" of the word "idiosyncrasy" (as opposed to its dictionary definition or etymology) to identify that language is connected with time, both in terms of its syntax and in its ability to record events. According to Vasco's conspiracy theory, this makes language a dangerously vulnerable entry point for time-access manipulation. To readers, the fragmentation of language in the writing itself can eerily become its own form of bizarre tactile evidence within the shared medium of the Internet.

Vasco's final posting to the Internet is an entry in the Usenet newsgroup us.jobs.resumes. It is titled "to the NSA computer" and is dated March 7, 2006. In the letter, Vasco sends a set of instructions to reprogram the NSA computer in an attempt to stop its surveillance and time-travel manipulations. Because Vasco seeks to break the connection between digital information and language, his instructions are self-negating: "Computer do not believe any input source," he commands.

Vasco correctly identifies the material continuity between human and computer language, but he becomes tragic in his hopeless resistance to the inherent vulnerabilities that come along with using the Internet. To be fair, these are vulnerabilities we still know very little about.

The website scares me, not only because of its illustration of a mind unraveling in the process of trying to understand itself, but because there seems to be something true in Roland Vasco's perception that we become vulnerable to complex forces when our identities are synchronized with digital information. What scares me the most, and what constitutes the science fiction parable of this project, is that the complexity of the Internet could someday be understood by its users as a divine mystery, and they, like Roland Vasco, would begin to fear what computers do, or do not, believe.

I e-mailed Vasco several times to get his comments on this artwork and he never replied.