‘My boyfriend came back from the war. After dinner they left us alone.’ These are the first lines of Olia Lialina’s 1996 web-based narrative, My Boyfriend Came Back from the War. After Dinner They Left Us Alone, one of the best-known pieces of 1990s net art. The work is an onscreen story that unfolds as the user clicks on sparse lines of text and pixelated images, which appear in frames on a black background. The fragments tell the story of a fractured relationship – of a woman who’s been unfaithful while her partner was at war.
The story intertwines geopolitical conflict and intimate betrayal, large-scale catastrophe and everyday loss. In today’s context, I can’t help but read it as a parable for the way the internet has developed since the work was made: the lack of trust in networked infrastructures; the outsourcing and dispersion of memory; the trauma of witnessing violent imagery from afar; and the collapsing of private and public worlds.
I first encountered Lialina’s piece in college and, as the years go by, I continue to return to and obsess over it. Why is it so evocative in its sparse simplicity? How does it encapsulate a historical moment so succinctly and yet still feel so urgent? Last year, I showed it to my own undergraduate students, wondering whether they would respond with the same emotion I feel. They did.
First published in Issue 200