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We have maintained a silence closely resembling stupidity

Kyla McFarlane, 2013

The Wanganui Computer, or The National Law Enforcement System, came online in 1976. Resident in the multi-storeyed Wairere House on the bank of the Whanganui River, it employed up to 150 staff at the height of its operations. A computer big enough for its own building was, in those days, awesome and unfathomable – and entirely expected. Awesome and unfathomable, because of its Big Brother implications, its sci-fi feel. Entirely expected, because in those days computers were often large, represented by photographs of large grey boxes the size of a room, big discs spinning, light panels flashing. The ubiquitous home computer with gigabytes to spare was the realm of a relatively distant future.

I was six years old when the Computer came into use. Ann Shelton would have been nine. Even as children, I think it’s fair to say that The Wanganui Computer loomed large in our collective imaginations. Indeed, growing up in Auckland, I think the Computer was all I really knew about Whanganui in those childhood years, which only enhanced its mystique.

The fact that The Wanganui Computer housed criminal records allowed it a place in our young imaginations. Never mind that it also held details of drivers’ licences, or the fact that criminal records would of course have been kept prior to its advent. There was just something about the mysterious ‘computer-ness’ of those records that instilled a frisson of fear and excitement in young minds. The notion that, once your details were stored there, it was game over. In our own juvenile way, we tapped into this in the schoolyard, equating disobedience with data entry. The logic went that if you did something bad, it wasn’t out of the question that you’d end up on the System.

And what then?

In 1982, by the time I was twelve, The Wanganui Computer was associated with older siblings’ driving misdemeanours as much as murderous crime, of which we also knew little about. Your brother could be caught speeding down Queen Street and his name would be held in the same place as a full-on criminal, or so we imagined. Data from the Police and Justice Departments was joined by that held in the Ministry of Transport, a bureaucratic nirvana for the government at the time. This ability to align relative banality with serious criminality (and therefore a strange kind of associational fear) is the particular privilege of such a wide-reaching law-based data repository.

All of this was overshadowed on November 18 that year. For young anarchist Neil Roberts, The Wanganui Computer must have inspired different, more sinister feelings. It seems to me that you need to possess a particular kind of rare, clear-eyed rage in order to walk to a building with a gelignite bomb in a carry bag, with the intention of blowing it up. Which is what he did at 12.33am that day, costing him his own life. News reports at the time stated that when his friends dropped him off at the Stratford bus station where he caught a bus to Whanganui he said ‘I’m going to Wanganui to do something frightful. If I should blow up the Wanganui computer, the cops will be around.’1 Roberts’ act followed a wave of protests by libertarians concerned at the threat to privacy the System signified for New Zealand’s citizens, but its tragic extremism sets it apart.


Roberts grafittied this sentence on a toilet wall in Moutoa Gardens near Wairere House where the computer was situated, prior to the last act of his life. He followed this with the anarchy sign, that circle with the letter A slashed across it that was on every young punk’s patch at the time, and the words ‘Anarchy Peace Thinking’. In the late 1970s and early 80s, punks were familiar; they came to school with black painted fingernails, mohawks and an attitude. Anarchy signs adorned many toilet walls, a diluted form of dissonance that became pretty meaningless in its proliferation, but also somehow inevitable under the long years of interventionist economics of the Muldoon government. But Roberts didn’t just write the graffiti, or wear the clothes. He committed a truly nihilistic act. Further, Roberts’ articulation in his graffiti-ed manifesto that we as a nation possessed a collective, silent lethargy towards authority that bordered on stupidity, mocked our casually-held fears and a lazy acceptance of the status quo.

For Anniversary, “We have maintained a silence closely resembling stupidity” Neil Roberts 1982, Ann Shelton visited a park close to the building where the now-decommissioned Wanganui Computer was housed. It was the 30th anniversary of Roberts’ act and Shelton was on an artist’s residency at the Sarjeant Gallery. Here, Shelton transcribed Roberts’ statement into the dark night, using sparklers. Each word hangs separately in the frame of a single photograph, which is then hung in a grid. Together, Shelton’s action and her photographs perform a delicate kind of memorial to a person and an event. The glow of sparklers is fleeting, and usually joyful. Yet here, they mark brevity in a sombre way, a reflection on both the violence of the act and a life cut short.

The history of terrorism in New Zealand is mercifully brief. In this context, Roberts’ act looms large, like the 1985 bombing of the Rainbow Warrior in Auckland by French foreign intelligence. Roberts was no foreign agent, but neither did he seem to be without politics. In her research, Shelton discovered that the young anarchist was a serious protestor, attending Springbok Tour and Waitangi marches in his short life. His slogan is not his own. Rather, it is gleaned from a Revolutionary Proclamation of the Junta Tuitiva, La Paz (now Bolivia) on July 16, 1809, in a revolt that gained them independence from Spanish authority. Did Roberts know about this distant battle? We don’t know, but he was identified in the press by friends as highly intelligent, an anarchist philosopher. He had read 19th century Russian revolutionary anarchist Mikhail Bakunin.2 He was ‘no idiot. He read extensively and studied. He would argue lucidly and very technically.’3

In the photographs, Shelton does not make mention of the tattoo Roberts had on his chest: ‘This punk won’t see 23. No future.’ It was reported that he had told friends he thought he wouldn’t be alive within a year. Seven years after the bombing, a friend of Roberts’ said his action ‘was not an act of cowardice … it was making a statement with his life.’4 Inside Wairere House, work continued and the system was uninterrupted.

Whether he meant to destroy the computer, or whether he intended his suicide bombing to be purely symbolic, Roberts’ anti-authoritarian act might take a very different form today. Like a modern-day Guy Fawkes, Roberts targeted a built monolith, as easily identifiable and symbolic as the Beehive. Over three decades later, we live in the era of ‘big data’, where the velocity, volume and variety of this data has grown so large and unwieldy that storage systems are challenged and data processing made difficult.5 In this swirling, ever-increasing, constantly-connected data universe of phone calls, photo uploads, emails, Facebook interactions, Google maps direction requests and auto-fill online forms, it is possible to imagine that governments are watching our every-connected move in more penetrating ways. The very recent case of US intelligence whistle-blower Edward Snowden has shown us that this possibility has become reality, as governments access the servers of large Internet companies such as Google and Facebook in order to monitor global activity by foreign users, on the pretext of maintaining national security.

As Snowden has proved, this may be usurped from within. This 29-year-old technical contractor to the National Security Agency in the USA revealed the depth and breadth of his government’s Internet surveillance operations in order to throw light on its breathtaking scale and invasiveness. Snowden has said that ‘I understand that I will be made to suffer for my actions,’ but ‘I will be satisfied if the federation of secret law, unequal pardon and irresistible executive powers that rule the world that I love are revealed even for an instant.’ He was happy to sacrifice his very comfortable life ‘because I can’t in good conscience allow the US government to destroy privacy, Internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building.’6

As I write, Edward Snowden is en route by air to an unnamed country via Hong Kong and Moscow with the assistance of Wikileaks and foreign diplomats. And Wairere House is home to a more benevolent archive, the Wanganui Service Centre of the National Library.

In the 1970s and 80s, who knew what The Wanganui Computer actually looked like? What seemed important was its expansiveness, its potential hold upon our lives, its vague, distant, unquantifiable threat. It was also compelling, as it is now – nearly a decade after the computer’s 2005 decommissioning after its move to Auckland in the 1990s – to ponder its shape, its form, its data. In the 1970s and 80s, data was a green glow on a black screen. A trail of numbers and letters scrolling up, endlessly… This was data in the public realm, the data of bureaucracy, the output of networks and off-site terminals. (The apparent beauty of The Wanganui Computer for the government was its connection to a nationwide network, its feeding out of data to police stations and government terminals around the country.)

In her investigations into this large government holding-bay of information, Shelton hints at what data might have looked like inside Wairere House. She presents us with photographic images that we might call Wanganui Computer relics. We see floppy discs, coding cards, little piles of platinum and palladium metal and a strange-looking object that might be a vacuum or pump. Given the expansiveness of The Wanganui Computer in our imaginations – the potentially endless breadth and depth of the data it could gather and maintain and the national scope of the network across which this data might be kept and made accessible – the containment of the Computer into these small objects remains quite discombobulating and, at first glance, something of a tease. Benign curiosities.

The computer discs from the decommissioned computer float in wide-open white space. Shelton adorns them with light-hearted titles – Big Brother and Little Brother – that deactivate any real sense of Orwellian conspiracy theory. Shelton records the discs as if cataloguing an object in a museum. We see the front and the back of the discs, which are floppy discs familiar to anyone who used a computer in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They are black and blue, with labels that don’t tell us much at all. They are scanned at one to one scale.

Shelton also leaves the discs to float in a large, open, white field, giving them a sense of aura and gravitas that operates in opposition to her playful titles. We know that inside these small objects is a field of data many times larger than the object itself. Given the redundant nature of the technology and its further entrapment as photographic image, such revelations remain inaccessible. And what might be revealed should we access this data now? A stream of bureaucracy writ large – a time capsule of unfamiliar names, dates and mostly petty deeds? Like a Wikileaks data-dump, it would take many investigative eyes to sift through the data-dirt encased in these discs for hidden, shiny pearls.

The blue glow and strange beauty of Punch Cards, computer coding cards from the decommissioned Wanganui Computer remind me of American photographer Taryn Simon’s Nuclear Waste Encapsulation and Storage Facility, Cherenkov Radiation, Hanford Site, U.S. Department of Energy, Southeastern Washington, 2005/2007. In Simon’s photograph, a highly radioactive material held in capsules in water becomes a floating array of black circles defined by a pale-blue glow, settled in a geometric grid. The formal beauty of this image along with its highly toxic subject matter gives it a compelling intrigue, an effect similar to that of Shelton’s coding cards. Set in a grid, the rows of numbers 0-9 typed onto the cards become a linear sea; the little holes punched into the left-hand side of the cards have the beauty and flow of a digital waterfall falling down through the arrangement of cards. Like Simon, Shelton imbues these objects, replete with the symbolism of government secrecy, with visual poetry. Punch Cards also encapsulates, but does not explain, the secret language of computer coding, the embedding of digital information into a piece of card through strategically punched holes.

Even more esoteric is the object in Blue Boy, computer part from the Wanganui Computer. This photograph documents a strange, metal, pump-like object with two plastic tubes emerging from a cylinder painted pale blue. There are electrical wires, red, yellow and greenish-blue. The plastic tubes are mysterious and unexpected. The object does not really fit with commonplace ideas of what a computer part from the 1970s might look like. Is it a cleaning device, or some kind of chemical pump? In a strange way, this game of association, along with its anthropomorphic title, gives Blue Boy an air of harmless authenticity, as if it were a device you might find on the set of Doctor Who, or on sale amid other obscure parts at an outer-suburban garage sale, priced as ‘make an offer’.

And what can we make of these small piles of shiny metal objects depicted in Heavy Metal, Platinum, and Heavy Metal, Palladium? Shelton has gathered these shiny metal ‘pearls’ together, photographing them against a black background. They look like mysterious, alchemic currency, their shape appears to be realised from a mould or machine. They sit comfortably as a group, four little piles; and in the comparisons we consequently seek between then, their differences are slight. They are in fact, as Shelton’s titles indicate, recovered scrap metal from the remains of the decommissioned Wanganui Computer. Electronic scrap – tiny amounts of these precious metals served as conductors between the computer’s components. If you search on Google for these metals you’ll find several YouTube tutorials on how to extract them from computer hard drives, or investor advice on their price on the global market. Platinum is rare, palladium even rarer, so the little lustrous beads in Shelton’s photographs are precious waste indeed. Removed from their conductive context, the metals are precious remainders with a life of their own; a new life spawned from the fast-moving trajectory of technological obsolescence.

Together this suite of photographs performs an interesting balancing act. They pluck physical objects from the abstraction of networked data. Revelatory and fascinating, they also preserve the Wanganui Computer’s mysterious, private realm, conveying something of its withholding of information even as it offers it up. Perhaps this is all that Shelton could gather during her residency. Perhaps she has selected them from a larger repository of relics, holding more ‘evidence’ from our gaze. Or perhaps these objects are simply part of an elaborate fiction she has constructed. That we are not entirely sure of the origins or veracity of the represented objects allows us to reflect upon the nature of truth, its preservation and dissemination. Shelton engages with this through the photographic medium, using its connection to resemblance to prompt such reflections. She also alerts us to the nature of the archive, to history and the nature of its telling, its inclusions and exclusions and its power relations. Researching The Wanganui Computer through its residue and relics, as well as the man in whom it incited a deep rage, Shelton asks us to follow her on a path less-travelled, which leads back to an intimately connected present.

Shelton has titled her exhibition The City of Gold and Lead, the title of a 1967 volume in The Tripods trilogy by science fiction novelist John Christopher. In the novel, Tripod City is on earth but under the control of the alien tripods, covered by a large dome and circled by a band of gold. For humans, who are held in the city as slaves, its contained atmosphere is toxic, an environment where gravity’s force is doubled and bodies made leaden. This elemental tale gives us an elegant, fearful metaphor for the history of government-held data that Shelton engages with. Existing in a golden world driven by data, its edges defined by its dissemination and disclosure, we might give pause to breathe in and reflect upon this atmosphere. Do we feel a lightness and freedom in our step, or do our bodies and minds drag heavily, our actions determined by a cruel other? In whose reality do we reside?

  1. ‘Bomb Conspiracy Idea Rejected’, New Zealand Herald, November 19, 1992, p1. 

  2. Richard Mason, quoted in David Lomas, ‘Friends Talk of Dead Bomber’, Dominion Post, November 20, 1982, p1. 

  3. Douglas Small quoted in Pekka Paavonpera, ‘Bomber “a Master Tactician”’, The NZ Times, November, 1982, p3. 

  4. Bronwyn Dutton, quoted in Edward Rooney, ‘We Remember Neil Roberts’, NZ Truth, 21 November 1989. http://cw178.tripod.com/neil1.htm Accessed 23 June 2013. 

  5. Mario Bojilov, ‘Big Data Defined’, http://www.isaca.org/Knowledge-Center/Blog/Lists/Posts/Post.aspx?ID=299. Accessed June 18 2013. 

  6. Edward Snowden, quoted in Glenn Greenwald, ‘Edward Snowden: the whistleblower behind the NSA surveillance revelations’, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jun/09/edward-snowden-nsa-whistleblower-surveillance. Accessed 23 June 2013.