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At a Distance: Precursors to Art and Activism on the Internet

At a Distance: Precursors to Art and Activism on the Internet, 2005
At a distance: precursors to art and activism on the Internet. — Edited by Annmarie Chandler and Norie Neumark. — Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005. — 486 p. — Includes an index. — Include a chronology of network art. — ISBN 0262033283.

In their anthology, Annmarie Chandler and Norie Neumark assemble essays by authors who examine the networked collaborations of the 1960s and 1970s (Fluxus, mail art, cable video) as well as those of the 1980s (telematic art). Chandler and Neumark classify these practices under the heading of “distance art” to underscore the fact that they were not dependent on technological communication modes. They did, however, share a vision to utilize the space (physical, geographic, cultural, etc.) between the information transmitter and receiver in a performative fashion. And with an emphasis on programs rather than form, they introduced network art, experiments in augmented space, and the of the decades that followed.

Norie Neumark’s essay — which also serves as introduction — presents an overall view of the appropriation of communication tools by artists during the 20th century. The author goes on to suggest that the notion of distance could signify any combination of physical discrepancy, the time span between two events, and the division of object and subject in scientific observation. Neumark pursues her commentary by citing that the postal system was the first communication mode to close geographic distances. Broadly speaking, this system survives today, says the author, through the more sophisticated modes of technological exchange that have since emerged (telematics, Internet).

The book’s first section, “Critical Perspectives on Distance Art/Activist Practices,” is a collection of contributions that seek to trace the theoretic premises of these practices as they developed concurrent to the global implementation of communication modes from the 1960s onwards. The contributors assess, among other aspects, how these practices have historically been categorized according to technological progress, while the cultural contexts of their emergence and the way that participants and spectators identify with them have been largely neglected. To this end, in “Interactive, Algorithmic, Networked: Aesthetics of New Media,” Johanna Drucker states that the precursors of network art reflected the technical aspects of their projects within a mainly conceptual and metaphorical perspective. By placing the accent on process rather than material repercussions or technological advances, these experimental practices allowed many artists to shed the formalist yoke of the previous decade. In “Immaterial Material: Physicality, Corporality, and Dematerialization in Telecommunication Artworks,” Tilman Baumgärtel discusses the impact of exhibitions such as “Les Immatériaux,” which was presented at the Centre George Pompidou (Paris, France) in 1985. According to Baumgärtel, through this multidimensional event that united theorists and artists, curator Jean-François Lyotard succeeded in defining the paradigm of an open and performative artwork. In his essay, Baumgärtel also highlights the innovative practices of the 1960s, such as the N.E. Thing Company, an entity both real and fictional created by Canadian artists Ian and Ingrid Baxter. The author states that this collective reflected the artist’s public identity by parodying the protocols surrounding the exchange of economic information between a company and the outside world.

Like Baumgärtel, Reinard Braun in “From Representation to Networks: Interplays of Visualities, Apparatuses, Discourses, Territories and Bodies” reiterates the notion of dematerialization used to qualify conceptual art practices. He adds, however, that the telematic art projects of the 1970s went beyond this concept by taking into account the impact that locations transmitting and receiving information had on the significance of artistic proposals. With “The Mail Art Exhibition: Personal Worlds to Cultural Strategies,” John Held Jr. addresses the problem of exhibiting mail art works. A number of representatives of the movement (including Ray Johnson) felt that these works should not become mere relics displayed in a gallery or museum. The author nevertheless makes an attempt to assemble a chronology of such exhibitions by describing the strategies used by the curators to present the works outside the network as still lively traces. In “Fluxus Praxis: An Exploration of Connections, Creativity and Connectivity,” Owen F. Smith describes the sites of communication created by the Fluxus events, where communicational transparency took a back seat to humour, parody and play.

The second section presents case studies of important “distance” art projects. The studies are written either by the artists themselves or by participants who were witness to these practices. Annmarie Chandler interviews Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz, artists who experimented with videoconferencing and satellites as early as 1970. They discuss the genesis of projects such as Satellite Art (1977), Hole in Space (1980) and Electronic Café (1984), ambitious planetary telecommunication undertakings presented to an audience that reached far beyond the perimeters of the art world. In “An Unsuspected Future in Broadcasting: Negativland,” Don Joyce discusses the importance of the Negativland audio art collective of the 1980s, whose primary creative medium was the radio. One of the features of their radio show saw Negativland members inviting the public to call in and even join the broadcast (radio jamming). In “Mini FM: Performing Microscopic Distance,” Annmarie Chandler and Norie Neumark interview Tetsuo Kogawa, a precursor of radio art in Japan. Kogawa describes the emergence in the 1980s of a community of young Japanese artists who used mini FM radios to communicate among one another, despite broadcasting regulations that normally filtered out this type of transmission. In “From the Gulf War to the Battle of Seattle: Building an International Alternative Media Network,” Jesse Dew reports on the “Gulf Crisis TV” project, produced by Deep Dish TV Network and Paper Tiger Television (New York, U.S.A.) between 1990 and 1991. A series of cable programs documenting protests by Americans opposed to the Gulf War, the project constitutes for the author a counter testimony to the images being broadcast at the time by the mass media.

With “The Form: 1970-1979 and Other Extemporaneous Anomalous Assemblings,” Melody Summer Carnahan summarizes her mail art work that began at the end of the 1970s and was derived from an alternative use of administrative procedures.

In “Networked Psychoanalysis: A Dialogue with Anna Freud Banana,” Craig Saper interviews the artist known as Anna Banana, whose work drew on the paradigm of network psychoanalysis (using mail art), where participants could alternately play the role of analyst and analyzed. In “From Mail Art to Telepresence: Communication at a Distance in the Works of Paulo Bruscky and Eduardo Kac,” Simone Osthoff offers a detailed analysis of the work of these Brazilian artists in the 1980s, when they primarily exhibited in South America. Osthoff studies Bruscky’s fax and network art experiments and the early holography and telematic performance efforts by Kac.

“Distance Makes the Art Grow Further: Distributed Authorship and Telematic Textuality in La Plissure du Texte” by Roy Ascott recounts the collective writing experiment of 1983, which used the ARTEXT electronic textual network to capture the imagination of participants in cities around the world. In “From BBS to Wireless: A Story of Art in Chips,” Andrew Garton discusses his involvement in various network projects, interweaving an autobiographical account into a history of communication technologies that he would use successively throughout his career. With “REALTIME-Radio Art, Telematic Art, and Telerobotics: Two Examples,” Heidi Grundmann comments on a series of radio programs that she has curated and produced for Kunstradio in Austria since the 1970s. She also discusses the origins of the CHIP-RADIO (1992) and REALTIME (1993) projects, telerobotic musical performances that saw musicians play using motion sensors to remotely activate their instruments.

The third section focuses on the impact of the network on the art in the decades examined earlier in the publication. Contributions to the section study the emergence of artistic communities created through communication technologies. In “Estri-Dentistas: Taking the Teeth Out of Futurism,” Maria Fernandez applies the notion of network as defined by theorist Armand Mattelart to examine the literary projects of the Mexican group Estridentistas, who produced works in their own country between 1920 and 1930. Among the group’s influences were the Italian futurists. The author explains that the technological tools of the era were not directly accessible to the members of Estridentistas. However, they experimented with writing techniques inspired by their observations of communication and transport modes (telegraph and railway), which at the time constituted networks that bridged the physical distance between two points.

With “Computer Network Music Band: A History of the League of Automatic Music Composers and The Hub,” Chris Brown and John Bischoff write about their use of telematics in musical improvisation and composition. The “League of Automatic Composers,” which they created at Mills College, Oakland (California, U.S.A.) in the 1970s, was a precursor to today’s widespread networking of computers by musicians and composers. In “Assembling Magazines and Alternative Artists’ Networks,” Stephen Perkins analyzes the phenomenon of magazines created by artists in the U.S. and South America in the early 1970s. Perkins emphasizes that by availing themselves of underground distribution methods, the artists succeeded in circulating subversive content outside of the mainstream media and in doing so escaped the grip of the authorities (particularly in countries under the stranglehold of a dictatorial regime).

In “The Wealth and Poverty of Networks,” Ken Friedman, following the example of John Held Jr.’s text, returns to Fluxus and its derivatives, this time to analyze the concept of intermedia described by Dick Higgins in the 1960s. The author adds that the creators of these networks focused on relational aspects at the expense of the networks’ sustainability. As a result, very little is left today with which to chronicle their historical path.

“From Internationalism to Transnations: Networked Art and Activism,” by Sean Cubitt, underscores the extent to which the highly diverse political and social contexts of the collaborative projects impact their significance. Within a broader perspective, Cubitt maintains that the globalization of capital has the paradoxical effect of producing marginal networks that reinforce cultural particularities (demonstrated, says the author, by the artistic practices emerging from these networks).

Finally, the anthology includes a conclusion by Annmarie Chandler and Norie Neumark as well as a chronology of the role played by the network in art between 1921 and 2001, which encompasses all of the projects studied by the book’s contributing authors.

Vincent Bonin © 2005 FDL