Skawennati & co.

January 19 —​ ​March 9, 2017


To interact with #westernFcurator, enter your nickname and join our irc channel using this window. This is an intermittently managed irc channel hosted on freenode.net.


Terra Nullius, Terra Incognito
by Jason E. Lewis

Indian Cowgirls; or, a Tale of Some “White Sioux Queens”
by Marilyn Burgess

 A Chatroom is Worth a Thousand Words
by Skawennati Tricia Fragnito

Not So Much A Land Claim
by Archer Pechawis, Co-Curator, CyberPowWow 2K

CyberPowWow 2

how I see knowledge
by Lee Crowchild

First Nation Territory in Cyber Space Declared : No Treaties Needed
by Jolene Rickard


Lola BigBear, Love and the Net
by Audra Simpson

FICTION: Rust Never Sleeps
By Paul Chaat Smith

ESSAY: This Knife of Sheffield Steel
By Paul Chaat Smith

The CyberPowWow FAQ, or Why I Love WWWriting
By Skawennati Fragnito


Trevor van Weeren
web-based project

Jason E. Lewis, re:map
web-based project

CyberPowWow 2
Sheryl Kootenyahoo, I See Things
(requires Quicktime v 7)

Melanie Printup Hope
shockwave animation

Bradlee Larocque
web-based images

Ryan Rice, We Come in Peace
screensaver image


Lori Blondeau
Marilyn Burgess
Paul Chaat Smith
Lee Crowchild
Rosalie Favell
Skawennati Tricia Fragnito
Greg A. Hill
Ryan Johnston
Sheryl Kootenhayoo
Bradlee LaRocque
Jason E. Lewis
Ahasiw Maskegon-Iskwew
Michelle Nahanee
Travis Neel
Archer Pechawis
Edward Poitras
Melanie Printup Hope
Ryan Rice
Jolene Rickard
Audra Simpson
Joseph Tekaroniake Lazare
Trevor Van Weeren
Sheila Urbanoski


Person-to-person connectivity through computers was a watershed moment, not only for artists, but for processes of globalization. The Internet brought peer-to-peer communication to a wide range of users, and the evolution of human relationships through it have had such life-altering implications, particularly in the West, that it has been easy to take for granted the idea that the long term effects of this connectivity have resolved into an arc of platform upgrades and data transfer improvements. TERMINAL 3.0 takes its terms of engagement in this social sphere, at an important moment of growth, when social practices evolved through machines that became portals.

Cyberspace, a term that first appeared in the pages of science fiction novel Neuromancer (by Vancouverite, William Gibson) is defined as, ‘the notional environment in which communication over a network occurs.’ The aspirations of the term have long held much loftier associations, including the early and perhaps naive promise of a wholly invented world; some new frontier in which politics might be reinvented. This place-naming impulse and spatiality became a central metaphor that was adopted to describe how users began to use computers to talk to one another, and send data back and forth.

Through the latter half of the 1990s users thoroughly explored the possibilities of peer-to-peer networks and common posting forums. This era of exploration welcomed the non-specialist, including young users, which is perhaps why TERMINAL 3.0 is particularly compelling to this curator—this was the moment at which my generation adopted the computer and the Internet. Vivid memories surface of first hits on sites like Rhizome.org, the contextual loops of webring communities, pre-Google (Alta Vista or Dog Pile) navigation, napster, online writing forums, and IRC chatrooms filled with regional Canadian teens cracking jokes. Artists meanwhile began adopting and inventing online platforms and spaces as natural extensions of their inquiries. A recently compiled overview of surf clubs and posting forums at Rhizome.org gives a sense of the invention going on in these groups (see: Nasty Nets, YTMND.com, computers club and others). A common foreground among them is a tendency to use open source programming languages to create user-defined shared online 'space.'

Formally awkward or clunky in execution, the limits of early data transmission through chat software often corralled big ambitions into small frames. A project that made the most of these frames, here in the ‘Canadian’ context, is CyberPowWow. An extensive ongoing project involving 24 contributors, CyberPowWow is emblematic of its time, but also sits outside what was a rapidly developing status quo. As a savvy and ambitious series of network-events , the project took place four times, using consciously invented online spaces to extend ongoing relationships and conversations, catalyze gatherings, conduction community education sessions, mentor or introduce artists and audiences to new media practices, and generally defy conventional wisdom about where art should reside.  It was created for and by Indigenous artists, inclusive and invitational to settler allies and community peers, and defiantly optimistic about the possibilities it could engender.

The CyberPowWow Palace chatroom archive is installed in-house at Western Front as a demonstration of the environments it erected.  In one conversation I errantly described it in its present state as a kind of ‘ghost town’, a problematic figuration for its allusions to frontier colonial mentalities that nevertheless references the resonant nature of the traces within. Artistic 'presences' take the form of messages scrawled on the walls of digital rooms.  They remained for review as part of a digital library. I invite you to better understand the project’s meanings to its participants and audience by reading the following essay by Mikhel Proulx, which reflects in-depth on the CyberPowWow and its context. Alongside this you’ll also find links and connections to the platforms of engagement (online files for download and html projects). In the above IRC window, you will also (intermittently) find me, lingering in the #westernfront chat room, ready to meet your digital gaze.

-- Allison Collins

CyberPowWow: Digital Natives and the Early Internet

by Mikhel Proulx

In the early-1990s three Montreal art students working under the moniker Nation to Nation mounted a series of renegade exhibitions.1 By 1997, with a handful of art shows, performances, and community projects under their belts, they would launch CyberPowWow (CPW), to date the most expansive platform for network-based art made by Indigenous artists. 

CPW was operational for eight years and is now largely offline, making it difficult to assess its impact. Twenty years on, it is now a remnant of a cyberutopian experiment in Indigenous sovereignty on the early Web. This essay attempts to track the networked conditions from which an experiment like CPW could surface, and also to recall its emergence from a political climate of Indigenous self-determination that came to the fore in the nation-state of Canada during the 1990s.

Materializing at this confluence of Indigenous cultural activism and early Web cultures, CPW offers a fascinating alternative to mainstream histories of network-based art. For its creators and participants, the project would house a novel kind of collective politics, a site for symbolic exchange, and a distinct aesthetics—but these have been largely neglected in dominant media art histories. Studies of early Web-based art recall how artistic use of innovative communications technologies led to a certain type of visuality, but such art historical ventures have tended to canonize a largely central-European group of men.2 Their practices have been billed as inherently critical, non-institutional, anti-capitalist, and global, though their transnational communication occurred predominantly across the post-communistic bloc, and among white North Americans and Western Europeans.

A study of CyberPowWow, conversely, provides a sense of how the artistic adoption of digital network media could be embedded in distinct cultures and local specificities, yielding varied, heterogeneous effects. Where the dominant discourse of Internet-based art has often pointed to the globalizing aesthetics of an ostensibly World-Wide Web, CPW may exemplify a counterforce to this narrative, and to the imperial structures of the Internet itself. Demonstrably, its artworks and critical texts challenged the prevailing sense of the Internet as a neutral and ‘free’ space, and have laid the groundwork for critical discussions of how power and control operate in the network age.

CPW is also remarkable as an early investigation—by peoples Indigenous or not—into the communicative affordances of the new networked commons. Along with a handful of other early Web platforms, these digital harbingers engaged the nascent cybercultures of chat rooms, message boards, mailing lists, webzines, and personal homepages. Amid better-known Web culture platforms such as The Thing, the WELL, Rhizome, and nettime, CPW counted itself as one of only a few emergent virtual spaces for Indigenous cybercultures.3 In concert with an increasingly politicized attitude within Canadian art, CPW addressed a lack of Aboriginal content in Canadian art exhibition. It answered a call, as curator Lee-Ann Martin had urged, for “new models for the presentation and documentation of Aboriginal art.”4 Moreover, for CPW’s participants, the Internet fostered not just a new mode of communication and interactivity, but a site for new forms of discourse, exchange, and community. This was an early, robust accomplishment that formalized a uniquely Aboriginal place online.

Git yer cowgirl avatar here!
Marilyn Burgess, CPW2K, 2001

Taglined ‘an Aboriginally determined territory in cyberspace,’ CyberPowWow was among the first Web-based art exhibitions, in step with the now-canonical European benchmark exhibitions, Club Berlin from the 46th Venice Biennale in 1995, and dX, curator Simon Lamunière’s virtual contribution to documenta X in 1997. CPW was initiated in 1996 by a trio of artists: Skawennati, Ryan Rice (both are Kahnawake Mohawk) and Eric Robertson (Métis/Gitksan), and soon after would be overseen by Skawennati alone. The formation of their collective Nation to Nation in 1994 was part of a larger watershed moment for Aboriginal media arts in Canada. The group formed within recent memory of the federal Task Force on Museums and First Peoples and the anti-racist artist-run caucus Minquon Panchayat;5 on the heels of Indigenous cultural media projects such as the Aboriginal Film and Video Art Alliance and the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network; and in tandem with increased institutional support for Aboriginal media arts at the Banff Centre, the Canada Council for the Arts, and within artist-run centres across the country, including the founding of Tribe in Saskatoon and Urban Shaman in Winnipeg. CPW was supported by and participated in this wave uniquely to publish early Internet-based art made by Indigenous people online.

CyberPowWow Gathering Site 
Galerie Oboro, Montreal, 1997

Throughout its eight-year run, CPW adhered to a biennial model, and each of its four iterations can be considered as self-determined online ‘territories’ on the early Web. The project served to house network-based art, written stories and critical texts in English and several Indigenous languages, and a real-time, graphical chat service that was live year-round. Additionally, the project held ‘gathering sites’—real-world events launched in over twenty artist-run centres across North America that allowed the interfacing of multiple publics. Among the 23 artists who participated in CPW, notable figures in contemporary art include Lori Blondeau, Rosalie Favell, Greg A. Hill, Ryan Johnston, Jason E. Lewis, Âhasiw Maskêgon-Iskwêw, Travis Neel, Archer Pechawis, Edward Poitras, and Paul Chaat Smith.

Today this bold undertaking survives only in fragmented form and is otherwise scattered on old machines in Jason E. Lewis’ and Skawennati’s obx Labs at Concordia University.

Visitors to the current live site will find a sparse archive of the project, housing the literature published for each biennial, write-ups on the project participants, and only a few of the original (typically smaller) artworks—those made with early versions of Flash and Quicktime.

For each other artwork, one is required to solicit a request for the original, now detached, files, and download the all-but defunct piece of server software—The Palace. Like a forebear of the popular virtual world Second Life, The Palace is a multiple-user chat environment (a MUD, or Multi-User Dungeon) that allows users to interact in a series of graphical ‘rooms’ using 2D avatars, where one may encounter other users concurrently logged into the system. This free software was a framework which Skawennati would eventually tweak for CPW's own needs.

Looking back from today's cleanly designed Web interfaces, CPW's graphics and navigation may seem somewhat glitchy and awkward, lacking clarity in its responsive capacities, its interactive features demonstrating a disorderly pacing. But it also reminds us of the inventiveness artists and techie amateurs brought to early digital technologies in the late-20th century to develop novel aesthetic forms. This was the imaginative, undetermined era of the so-called 1.0 stage of the Web, before the full-on corporatization of the Internet streamlined the protocols of engaging with digital networks. Here, artists and designers innovated new media forms on low-bandwidth, unsaturated networks. 

Buffalo Wood
Âhasiw Maskêgon-Iskwêw, CyberPowWow 2, 1999

The sophisticated designs developed by Cree/French Métis artist Âhasiw Maskêgon-Iskwêw may feel counterintuitive to the sensibilities of today’s typical computer-user. To navigate Buffalo Wood, his contribution to 1999’s CyberPowWow 2, one must first place one’s avatar on top of, and then click on, any of several circles serving as navigation buttons to direct oneself through the multiple, non-linear pages. In other words, the interactive designs he invented represented an idiosyncratic mode of engaging with technology, and today appear novel and perhaps cumbersome. As in other Web-based works of Maskêgon-Iskwêw’s,6 this interface is an experiment in non-linear hypertext navigation, and it also deliberately references aspects of his heritage.

The website mimics the decentralized structure of a spider-web, allowing for multiple pathways within the network, and referring to the nine domains in the Salteaux cosmological cycle. This structure underlies layers of found archival imagery: navigating through the ‘rooms’ conjures overlaid pictures of Indigenous political uprisings, residential schools, illustrations of animal bones, and photos of buffalo, all visible behind a fiery target symbol. Some pages spout spoken phrases in Cree, displaying pixelated or heavily filtered photos taken by the artist himself. Adept in interactive design technologies, Maskêgon-Iskwêw created this imagery, utilizing JavaScript and iptScrae (a coding language specific to The Palace) to structure responsive, user-based actions in the multimedia chat environment. The results are a unique articulation of a specific cultural aesthetics in a media that has become streamlined and ostensibly ‘neutral.’

Integral to CyberPowWow’s aim of increasing public access to Indigenous media artists’ work was its Gathering Sites, coinciding with the four biennial launches held at twenty-one art spaces internationally. The first of these events took place in April of 1997 at both Circle Vision Arts Corporation in Saskatoon, and Galerie Oboro in Montreal. By the last CPW, in 2004, no less than a dozen organizations co-hosted the event.7 Each space supported simultaneous, two-day events—expanded ‘openings’—during which time visitors could eat and drink but, more importantly, were invited to become participants via engagement with CPW. Tech-savvy assistants would guide users through the projects on computer stations, as in the mid-nineties personal ownership of computers was not yet ubiquitous, especially among Indigenous populations.8 For many participants of the day, this engagement was a distinctly Aboriginal experience. As Tuscarora art historian Jolene Rickard wrote at the time: “somehow when you exit this site you definitely know you were in Indian territory.”9 

Kanata Boutique 
Greg A. Hill, CPW04, 2004

The Internet of twenty years ago was far less populous than the continuously jacked-into networks of today, but its participants shared an enthusiasm that was quite different from the pre-structured, corporate, social-media-driven Web 2.0 culture that is now dominant. Within Peer2Peer communities, virtual meeting spaces were established as inclusive and open publics, accessibly written in HTML as a kind of digital Esperanto. This once-widespread zeal for the liberatory possibilities of a new, networked society is apparent in CPW, while the project was also rooted in further aspirations toward Indigenous sovereignty and self-identification.

Thus, while the producers and artists of CPW partook whole-heartedly in this cyperutopian wave, they also enacted a critical alternative to its mainstream impulses. Many authors have demonstrated that the coming of a global ‘network age’ or ‘digital age’ implicitly promoted a set of values thoroughly tethered to the cultural ‘West.’10 The ostensibly ‘global’ distribution of Internet technologies has often led to a whitewashed and homogenized understanding of culture. As the anthropologist Faye Ginsburg has expressed, “the seeming ubiquity of the Internet appears a façade of First World illusions.”11 The notion of a singular ‘digital age’—with its rhetoric of ubiquity and inclusion—hides the unequal material conditions and distribution of resources that shape access to information and communications technologies. The reasons for this inequality span issues of social class, geographic conditions, political protocols, and issues of ability and literacy. In brief, the ‘global’ digital communications network has been structured favourably for those within the ‘developed’ world. The discrepant gap between these haves and have-nots is termed the “digital divide” (and this divide appears to be growing).12 Significantly, this gap is not structured along national borders, but on economic, cultural, and political biases. In fact, Indian reserves across North America have often been omitted from the global communications network. Reasons for this range from systemic inequalities at the level of governmental support for technological infrastructure, to geographical reasons: as reservations are often located on remote lands, they are often also far from fibre-optic cable networks.13

While early rhetoric surrounding the World Wide Web included an account of its global reach, it also promised an array of inclusive virtues corresponding to democracy and egalitarianism, liberation and freedom, and transparency and fluidity.14 As a transnational, anonymous force, the Web promised to liberate subjects from their geographical locales, and also from their bodies. And as network theorist Wendy Hui Kyong Chun discerns, “significantly, this rewriting of the Internet as emancipator, as ‘freeing’ oneself from one’s body, also naturalized racism.”15 For Chun, this is evidenced by the amplified bigotries found readily in chatrooms, online comments, and multiplayer games. By proposing a blind equivalence on this transnational stage, the Internet necessitated a defection from our bodies, and the places that they occupy. In ‘freeing’ us from our bodies and from our physical contexts, this technological utopianism expressed a distinctly ‘Western’ Judeo/Christian set of ideological desires to escape the material plane. As Cree/Métis filmmaker and theorist Loretta Todd expressed at the time of CPW, “a fear of the body, aversion to nature, a desire for salvation and transcendence of the earthly plane has created a need for cyberspace. The wealth of the land almost plundered, the air dense with waste, the water sick with poisons, there has to be somewhere else to go.”16

Whereas Marshal McLuhan's global village evoked a 'tribal,' inclusive global community,17 cultures on the ‘Net have in fact devolved into exclusive cliques reinforced by various digital divides, and the expansion of self-interested, insular discourses. As sociologist Todd Gitlin has said: “If there is a global village, it speaks American. It wears jeans, drinks Coke, eats at the golden arches, walks on swooshed shoes…recognizes Mickey Mouse…Bart Simpson, R2-D2, and Pamela Anderson.”18 Claims toward tolerance and global inclusivity are offset by the overwhelming presence of dominant settler-North American cultures and bigotry in all its forms. As media theorist Lisa Nakamura has said: “we should remember it was the villagers that chased Frankenstein out of the village. Villages have often been xenophobic places where there is a narrow range of identities that are tolerated.”19 Loretta Todd also gives insight into the so-called 'tribal' nature of networked media culture and suggests that if it actually resembled tribal societies it would directly “cause the breakdown of central authorities… renew communal values[, and exhibit] concern for the future generation.”20 Instead of these positive aspects of tribal society, it can be argued that the Web (in its current state) seems to breed closed spaces that constrict the development of cultural connectedness. Thus digital communications network technologies operate according to imperatives drawn from an imperialist heritage—in both their material, structural biases, and in the restrictive sets of protocols that shape online engagement. The development of these technologies, and of these forms of power, have been veiled by a myth of a connected, global space. It is this myth, I am proposing, that is directly countered by the efforts of CyberPowWow.

Trevor Van Weeren, CPW2K, 2001

Illustrating this flattening of cultural specificity is Portal, one of a series of rooms in Trevor Van Weeren’s contribution to the 2001 CPW2K. Of Dutch settler ancestry, Van Weeren here virtualizes the shortcomings of his own cultural understanding before his involved engagement with Aboriginal peoples as a researcher and educator in Australia’s Northern Territory. In Portal, we encounter an oblong corridor, its floor and ceiling overlaid with text evoking colonial and racist speech. The two walls are surfaced with imagery corresponding alternately to artefacts and clichéd Euro-settler ethnographic illustrations (the Aboriginals of the past), and to imagery of Australian settler nationalism: a flag, a street-sign, a game of cricket, and a pair of bright Caucasian children (the Australia of the future). At the far end is a colourful seascape—low-fi, but nonetheless inviting—luring us into the next ‘room.’ In coating the surface this Cartesian space with such culturally specific imagery, Van Weeren makes clear his own unsettled relation to colonial histories of Australia, and also colours the apparently inert spaces of cyberspace.

Cyberspace—this rather corny, nineties-flavoured catchword—was the first of a myriad of spatial conceptions of digital network technologies.21 As suggested above, these metaphors helped to naturalize some of the ideologies hidden within the architecture of these technologies. The image of a physically-inhabitable space made possible a sense of movement within an electronically-generated alternate reality. The Internet as “information superhighway,” and as the “electronic frontier,” and further in the use of architectural forms within the popular imaginary such as the “network,” the “gateway,” the “table,” and the “cloud,” and in applications like Explorer and Navigator, all imply movement and spatiality. This implication carried forward a thoroughly imperial flavour to digital technologies' colonial expansion across the planet. Hence, the mythologizing of network technologies as an “open space” has often served to naturalize its highly-structured organization. This recalls Manifest Destiny frontier attitudes in which a materialist conception of the empty land (terra nullius) led to its dismemberment and occupation. As Lewis and Skawennati made clear: “if Aboriginal peoples learned one thing from contact, it is the danger of seeing any place as terra nullius, even cyber space. Its foundations were designed with a specific logic, built on a specific form of technology, and first used for specific purposes.”22

Intent on occupying these virtual spaces in a self-determined way, Indigenous artists took to the open Web to thwart the reiteration of European conquest and the great land grab. They would also circumvent the repetition of an earlier chapter in colonial telecommunications, in which 1880s North American settler governments’ use of rapid telegraph exchange expedited the seizure of ‘wild’ lands. They listened to Otoe-Missouria writer Randy Ross’s now-famous proclamation to not become “road kill on the Information Superhighway.”23 Demonstrably, Indigenous artists on the early ‘Net favoured a particular flavour of cyberutopianism geared toward making a place within the Web’s open spaces, and to occupy a virtual commons outside the corridors of the nation-state. In his text published in one of CPW's later issues in 2001, Plains Cree artist Archer Pechawis claimed: “We saw the Internet not just as a new technology but a new territory, one that we could help shape from its inception.”24 Such self-sustaining (and self-actualizing) endeavours flew in the face of clichés that misconstrued Indigenous peoples as pre-technological. In going online—in staking a claim within cyberspace—self-determining Indigenous cultural actors on the early Web enacted a counterforce to this ideology within the networked media landscape.

This cultural agency persists today in the extensive use of the Web by Indigenous peoples, from the use of networked media on and off reservations, to Web activism in support of missing and murdered Indigenous women, to solidarity building for activist groups such as Idle No More. Acts of self-determination and independence of distribution have a legacy in Indigenous media usage, and for some, networked culture decidedly parallels traditional Indigenous and small-scale social worldviews, in which an intimacy with the growing, shifting world makes for a good sense of the interconnectivity of things, and leads to “a truly networked way of being,” as Maskêgon-Iskwêw once wrote.25 A further connection between Indigeneity and ‘the virtual’ has been suggested in relation to traditional prayer and song, storytelling, and relations to ancestors and to future generations, as in the claim of Ho-chunk scholar Renya Ramirez, with regards to sacred Sweat Lodge ceremonies.261 Regardless of any innate connections between Indigeneity and virtually networked modes of being, Web technologies have been utilized in remarkable ways within Indigenous cultural and political practice. The role of technology is notable in both the sharing of struggles, and in Indigenous cultural flourishing.

Online Indigenous activity since the early Internet is manifest in political activism networks, local heritage initiatives, language repositories, commercial enterprises, and artistic expression. Such self-actualizing initiatives of Indigenous peoples creating media content speaks to the endeavour to stake new claims on the territory of the Web, and to rectify a legacy of non-Native (mis)representations of Native content. Such practices accomplish what Coast Salish artist Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun has recognized as the Indigenous use of “employing technology that in the past has been used against native people.”27 For many, such intent to take up these globalizing digital tools allowed for a critical leveraging of their ideological functions. This was the critical query that Loretta Todd posed in 1996: “Will cyberspace enable people to communicate in ways that rupture the power relations of the colonizer and the colonized? Or is cyberspace a clever guise for neocolonialism, where tyranny will find further domain?”28

Michelle Nahanee, CPW2K, 2001

Like the historically cross-tribal pow-wow, CyberPowWow was designed toward inclusivity: people from different communities, cultures, and nations were invited to contribute. Pechawis, co-curating the 2001 iteration, described the project as, “a place where ‘Native meets non-Native’, be it technologically, socially, or culturally.”29 Utilizing new, interactive technologies, and developing a novel curatorial model in the form of Gathering Sites, CPW made possible, as Yuxwelupton recognized of his own technological use, a “cultural exchange… designed to make people share a spiritual world.”30 For both Native and non-Native participants of CPW, specific cultural experiences are relayed, coloured with traces of identifiable spiritualties, ontologies, and lived experiences. The artworks made for CPW position these self-determined cultural representations upon a transcultural, transnational stage, and allow for entry-points for those who do and do not have access to the experiences they arose from. Together, these artworks engender a concern for articulating and sharing lived experience: from traditional customs of longhouse ceremonies and storytelling rituals, to legacies of cultural genocide and systemic oppression, to depictions of daily lives specific to Indigenous urban Canadians in the 1990s. For the artists and curators of CPW, these representations were purposed in an imperative of intercultural sharing. The Hunkpapa Lakota artist Dana Claxton, writing in 2005 and stressing the pedagogical role of art, identified this capacity for aboriginal artists to “affect, inform, and shape non-aboriginal-aboriginal relationships.”31

Far from the imagined universal network of a unified and liberated commons, online cultures reveal themselves to be highly structured and culturally biased. CyberPowWow is remarkable as an early example of a conscious and robust experiment to preserve cultural integrity in a global and globalizing media. Lost in the cyberflow, CPW is no longer a beacon of cultural force and intercultural engagement. Yet in recalling its power, we may be motivated to recognize a mode of social engagement online that foregrounds cultural codes specific to Indigenous cultures. 

1 —  This essay appeared in the Journal of Canadian Art History/Annales d’histoire de l’art canadien Vol. XXXVI:1 (2016). I wish to express my gratitude to Martha Langford and Johanne Sloan for the support of this research. 

2 —  Such is the case in the benchmark studies: Rachel Greene, Internet Art (London & New York: Thames & Hudson, 2004) and Julian Stallabrass, The Aesthetics of Net.art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).

3 —  Others in the Canadian context include the bulletin-board systems Igloo Station (1991), based out of Montreal, and Native_Network (1993), based out of Hull/Ottawa; the educational project KIDS FROM KA-NA-TA (1992), created by John Ord, which also led to Buffy Saint-Marie’s Cradleboard Teaching Project (1997); and the Aboriginal media arts network Drumbeats to Drumbytes (1994), initiated by Âhasiw Maskêgon-Iskwêw at the Banff Centre.

4 —  Lee-Ann Martin, “Wordplay: Issues of Authority and Territory,” in Making a Noise: Aboriginal Perspectives on Art, Art History, Critical Writing and Community (Banff: The Banff International Curatorial Institute, 2004), 104.

5 —  The 1992 task force called for museums to mandate partnerships with First Peoples, which was paralleled by Minquon Panchayat, the anti-racist coalition which promoted the structural reformation of artist-run culture.

6 —  This can be seen in his 1996 website isi-pîkiskwêwin-ayapihkêsîsak (Speaking the Language of Spiders), created in collaboration with Lynn Acoose, Cheryl L’Hirondelle, Joseph Naytowhow, Greg Daniels, Elvina Piapot, Sheila Urbanoski, Sylvain Carette, Mark Schmidt and Russell Wallace, and viewable online: spiderlanguage.net.

7 —  These included: The Walter Phillips Gallery at The Banff Centre; EMMEDIA Gallery & Production Society in partnership with MayWorks Festival, Calgary; Tribe, A Centre for the Evolving Aboriginal Media, Visual and Performing Arts Inc., and PAVED Art + New Media, Saskatoon; Urban Shaman Gallery, Winnipeg; InterAccess, Toronto; Artengine and G-101, Ottawa; OBORO, Montréal; Eyelevel Gallery, Halifax; and Confederation Centre Art Gallery, Charlottetown.

8 —  The uneven distribution of computation technology is shown by, among others, Christian Sandvig in his essay “Connection at Ewiiaapaayp Mountain: Indigenous Internet Infrastructure,” in Race After the Internet. eds. L. Nakamura & P. Chow-White (New York: Routledge, 2012), 168-200.

9 —  Jolene Rickard, “First Nation Territory in Cyber Space Declared: No Treaties Needed,” CyberPowWow 2 (1999). Accessed 1 January 2010, http://www.cyberpowwow.net/nation2nation/jolenework.html.

10 —  This has been articulated in a legacy of scholarly writing, from Joseph Weizenbaum’s landmark analyses of the cultural biases of technologists and designers, to more recent theoretical discussions of the impacts of European and Settler American ideologies in digital networks, such as by Thomas Streeter and Marcus Breen. Joseph Weizenbaum, Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation (San Francisco: W.H. Freeman, 1976); Thomas Streeter, The Net Effect: Romanticism, Capitalism, and the Internet (New York: New York UP, 2011); Marcus Breen, Uprising: The Internet's Unintended Consequences (Champaign, IL: Common Ground Pub., 2011).

11 —  Faye Ginsburg, “Rethinking the Digital Age,” in Global Indigenous Media: Cultures, Poetics, and Politics, eds. Pamela Wilson and Michelle Stewart (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), 289.

12 —  Canada. Statistics Canada. Canadian Internet Use Survey (CIUS). Ottawa, 28 Oct. 2013. Accessed 1 January 2016, http://www23.statcan.gc.ca/imdb/p2SV.pl?Function=getSurvey&SDDS=4432&Item_Id=66020&lang=en

13 —  This point has been researched by Christian Sandvig: “almost all Indian reservations were chosen as prisons.” Sandvig, “Connection at Ewiiaapaayp,” 172.

14 —  See, as example: Mark Poster, The Second Media Age (Cambridge, UK: Polity), 1995; and Howard Rheingold, The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Pub 1993).

15 —   Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics (Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2006), 132.

16 —  Loretta Todd, “Aboriginal Narratives in Cyberspace,” in Transference, Tradition, Technology, eds. Melanie A. Townsend, Dana Claxton and Steven Loft (Banff, Alberta: Walter Phillips Gallery Editions, 2006), 155.

17 —  This is a central premise in his 1962 The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1962).

18 —  Todd Gitlin, qtd. in Henry Jenkins, Fans, Bloggers and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture (New York: New York University Press, 2006), 153.

19 —  Lisa Nakamura, “5 Types of Online Racism and Why You Should Care” (Paper presented at TedXUIllinois, University of Illinois, Illinois, September 15, 2011).

20 —  Todd, “Aboriginal Narratives in Cyberspace,” 159.

21 —  The term was popularized in early cyberpunk fiction—notably William Gibson's 1984 Neuromancer.

22 —  Jason E. Lewis, Jason and Skawennati Tricia Fragnito, “Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace,” Cultural Survival Quarterly 29 No. 2 (Summer 2005), 30.

23 —   Randy Ross, “Native American Culture and the Emerging Internet Technology,” First Nations Development Business Alert (September-October 1996), 1.

24 —  Archer Pechawis, “Not So Much a Land Claim,” CyberPowWow 2K, (2001), accessed 1 January 2010. cyberpowwow.net/archerweb/index.html.

25 —  Âhasiw Maskêgon-Iskwêw, “Drumbeats to Drumbytes: Globalizing Networked Aboriginal Art,” in Transference, Tradition, Technology, 191.

26 —  Renya K Ramirez, Native Hubs: Culture, Community, and Belonging in Silicon Valley and Beyond (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 69.

27 —  Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, “Inherent Rights, Vision Rights,” in Immersed in Technology: Art and Virtual Environments, ed. Mary Anne Moser (Cambridge: MIT Press: 1996), 316.

28 —  Todd, “Aboriginal Narratives in Cyberspace,” 180.

29 —  Pechawis, “Not So Much a Land Claim.” 

30 —  He said this regarding his 1991 work Inherent Rights, Vision Rights, the first virtual-reality artwork to be exhibited in Canada and in Europe. qtd. in Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, “FLOATING TROUT SPACE: Native Art in Cyberspace. Interview with Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun,” Telepolis, Heise Online (23 July 1996).  Accessed
1 January 2010, http://www.heise.de/tp/artikel/3/3029/1.html.

31 —  Dana Claxton, “Re:Wind” in Transference, Tradition, Technology, 16.


Breen, Marcus. Uprising: The Internet's Unintended Consequences. Champaign, IL: Common Ground Publishers., 2011.

Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong. Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006.

Claxton, Dana. “Re:Wind.” in Transference, Tradition, Technology: Native New Media Exploring Visual & Digital Culture, eds. Melanie A. Townsend, Dana Claxton, and Steve Loft, 14-41. Banff, Alta.: Walter Phillips Gallery Editions, 2005.

Ginsburg, Faye. “Rethinking the Digital Age.” in Global Indigenous Media: Cultures, Poetics, and Politics. eds. Pamela Wilson and Michelle Stewart, 287-306. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008.

Greene, Rachel. Internet Art. New York & London: Thames & Hudson, 2004.

Jenkins, Henry. Fans, Bloggers and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture. New York: New York University Press, 2006.

Lewis, Jason E. and Skawennati. “Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace.” Cultural Survival Quarterly 29, no. 2 (Summer 2005): 29-31.

Lozano-Hemmer, Rafael. “FLOATING TROUT SPACE: Native Art in Cyberspace. Interview with Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun.” Telepolis, Heise Online (23 Jul. 1996). Accessed January 1, 2010. heise.de/tp/artikel/3/3029/1.html

McLuhan, Marshall. The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962.

Martin, Lee-Ann. “Wordplay: Issues of Authority and Territory.” in Making a Noise: Aboriginal Perspectives on Art, Art History, Critical Writing and Community. ed. Lee-Ann Martin, 102-107. Banff, Alta.: The Banff International Curatorial Institute, 2004.

Maskêgon-Iskwêw, Âhasiw. “Drumbeats to Drumbytes: Globalizing Networked Aboriginal Art,” in Transference, Tradition, Technology: Native New Media Exploring Visual & Digital Culture, eds. Melanie A. Townsend, Dana Claxton, and Steve Loft. Banff, Alta.: Walter Phillips Gallery Editions, 2005: 188-218.

Nakamura, Lisa. “5 Types of Online Racism and Why You Should Care.” Paper presented at TedXUIllinois, University of Illinois, Illinois, September 15, 2011.

Pechawis, Archer. “Not So Much a Land Claim.” CyberPowWow 2K (2001). Accessed January 1, 2010. cyberpowwow.net/archerweb/index.html.

Poster, Mark. The Second Media Age. Cambridge, UK: Polity. 1995.

Ramirez, Renya K. Native Hubs: Culture, Community, and Belonging in Silicon Valley and Beyond. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007.

Rheingold, Howard. The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishers, 1993.

Rickard, Jolene. “First Nation Territory in Cyber Space Declared: No Treaties Needed.” CyberPowWow 2 (1999). Accessed January 1, 2010. http://www.cyberpowwow.net/nation2nation/jolenework.html.

Ross, Randy. “Native American Culture and the Emerging Internet Technology.” First Nations Development Business Alert September-October (1996).

Sandvig, Christian. “Connection at Ewiiaapaayp Mountain: Indigenous Internet Infrastructure” in Race After the Internet. eds. Nakamura & P. Chow-White, 168-200. New York: Routledge, 2012.

Stallabrass, Julian. The Aesthetics of Net.art. Berkeley, University of California Press, 2003.

Statistics Canada. 2012 Canadian Internet Use Survey (CIUS), Rep. Statistics Canada. Ottawa, 2013. Accessed January 1, 2010. www.23.statcan.gc.ca/imdb/p2SV.pl?Function=getSurvey&SDDS=4432&Item_Id=66020&lang=en. 

Streeter, Thomas. The Net Effect: Romanticism, Capitalism, and the Internet. New York: New York University Press, 2011.

Todd, Loretta. “Aboriginal Narratives in Cyberspace.” in Transference, Tradition, Technology. eds. Dana Claxton and Steven Loft, 152-163. Banff, Alberta: Walter Phillips Gallery Editions, 2006.

Weizenbaum, Joseph. Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman. 1976.

Yuxweluptun, Lawrence Paul. “Inherent Rights, Vision Rights.” in Immersed in Technology: Art and Virtual Environments. ed. Mary Anne Moser, 315-318. Cambridge: MIT Press: 1996.

Artboard 2 CopyArtboard 2 Copy


Graphical User Interface

Amy Lockhart, Barry Doupé, Marisa Olson, Mark Pellegrino

November 10 —​ ​January 7​

Barry Doupé
Vhery, 2013

15 sec, computer animation
Sound by Dennis Ha
Courtesy the artist

Amy Lockhart
Amiga Shorts, 2013

Sleeping Beauty
Blood Mouth
Red Fist
Man Run
Boob Milk
Stalking Water
Rudy Lady

Digital animation and sound created with Amiga Emulator.


Where command line interfaces end, graphical user interfaces begin: a virtual working space that opened up new possibilities for digital drawing and animation. TERMINAL 2.0 takes up this phase in computer progress through the Amiga, a family of personal computers sold by Commodore in the 1980s and 1990s. In this context, the Amiga stands in for many models of home computer that were avidly competing for the attention of users interested in graphics. The capabilities of an Amiga made it ideal for multitasking, and it was sold as a ‘multi-media’ machine. Early demonstrations foregrounded its potential as a creative tool, including an infamous 1985 launch event featuring Andy Warhol using the computer to ‘paint’ a digital portrait of Debbie Harry.

Mindful of such stories of pop-technology lore, this second installation in the TERMINAL series turns toward the problem of nostalgia, and hype. Technology and its uses are frequently found to be the subject of outlandish claims: be they ideals of a technological revolution or defining the use of one machine over another as ‘cool.’ Such projections have had a tendency to fetishize design over functionality, focusing on technology as an extension of style, as much or even more than as a tool to extend human behaviours.

Humble tools for creativity and expression, like the software Deluxe Paint, mark an early moment in an ensuing explosion of graphics capabilities. Today, the widespread manifestation of our ability to render digital images can appear as a practical collapse of virtual and physical visual cultures. It is almost quaint to remember a time when moving images on a computer screen were a novelty. This seemingly all-pervasive new standard of human-machine interaction (be it at a desk, in a car, at a bank machine or in our new extensions into the Internet of Things) can at times be alarming, sickening and disruptive.

This project asks for a return to early graphics-capable devices, to think both about technology and its uses but also to view its results. At the Western Front, inside a tiny room now hangs a single framed print of a digital painting,Three Cats in a Tree (2016) by Barry Doupé, Mark Pellegrino’s animation exploring early BBS culture, G.I.R.L.(2013) and Marisa Olson’s (Untitled)(2016) from the series Time Capsules, a golden Amiga 500 that has been gilded into irreversible obsolescence. Such items together in this space extol on technology’s appeals as features, virtues or a ruses, depending on how one looks.

Installed on this site are two digital animations - one by Doupé and a series of shorts by Amy Lockhart, whose sparse idiosyncratic styles thrive within this context. Taking up this online environment as a natural component of thinking about computers, TERMINAL aims to foreground such locations (both of works and of viewers) and the ways in which computers act as conduits for cultural consumption.

With this in mind, the online venue also hosts a newly commissioned essay by Clint Enns reflecting on the historical progression of graphical user interfaces. Nostalgia for the Digital Revolution: Interfacing with Obsolescence picks up on the themes introduced here, working through them and sheds more light on the entanglement of artists with computers as creative tools that shall continue to be the focus of this series.

With this I encourage you to linger here for the duration of the videos, and to consider the essay's explorations through some of the visual roots of our present day condition.



Clint Enns

Obsolescence never meant the end of anything – it's just the beginning.
— Marshall McLuhan

Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs) are the graphical displays through which users interact with electronic devices.  Most familiar among these are the modern computer desktop with graphical icons (such as file folders), menus and mouse cursor.  GUIs were developed as an attempt to make interactions with computers more 'accessible' and can be seen as a departure from command-line interfaces (CLIs) which involve operating a computer through typed commands. GUIs transformed the computer into a non-linear, point-and-click device that ultimately allows the user to explore the options presented to them on-screen.  In contrast, CLIs are linear and encourage users to understand the fundamentals of computer programming by learning basic computer commands (i.e. RUN, LIST, LOAD, PRINT, etc.).

Screenshot of Commodore 64's BASIC V2 Command Line Interface.

Despite making the computer more 'user-friendly,' GUIs transform the computer into a blackbox device in which the underlying processes (i.e. the operating system, software and code) are rendered invisible to most users.  As media theorist Wendy Chun observes,

Because of this, they render central processes for computation – processes not under the direct control of the user – daemonic: orphaned yet “supernatural” beings “between the gods and men...ghosts of deceased persons, esp. Deified heroes.” Indeed, the interface is “haunted” by processes hidden by our seemingly transparent GUIs that make us even more vulnerable online, form malicious “back doors” to mundane data gathering.1


Chun here articulates the esoteric nature of the computational processes hidden behind 'user-friendly' interfaces.  For instance, it is easy to forget that digital image manipulation requires complex algorithms and mathematics when a program like Photoshop allows you to manipulate the image in real-time. Given that the majority of our interactions with the computer are through a GUI it is not the goal of this essay to demonize them for their obfuscation or to celebrate them for making the computer more accessible.  Instead, following an argument that Chun further develops in Programmed Visions, this essay will attempt to further articulate our relationship to GUIs by exploring their various histories, examining some of the ideas surrounding them and analyzing artworks that engage with them.

From Sketchpad to Desktop: A Brief History of Graphical User Interfaces

Primitive GUIs were first developed as part of military projects such as Project Whirlwind and SAGE [Semi-Automatic Ground Enhancement].2  Whirlwind, conceived by MIT scientists, was the first digital computer able to operate in real-time and was intended to track military aircrafts. The Whirlwind's TX-series became the first computers to display data on a screen [modified from surplus radar systems], a departure from using ticker-tape or paper printouts, and also the first to use a light pen-stylus [a predecessor to the mouse or trackpad] making them the first known computers involving GUIs.

Computer pioneer Jay Forrester and staff working at Whirlwind.

Following its successful development, The Whirlwind was re-purposed to perform a variety of tasks including “census tabulation, large-scale payroll processing, creating artillery firing tables, air traffic control,” and even to calculate “the exact amount of vanilla icing to stuff into Oreo cookies.”3

Responding to the perceived threat of nuclear war by the Soviets, the U.S. Government desired a more significant computer system.  By 1956, SAGE was initiated by the U.S. Air Force as an early warning radar system that could track and detect Soviet nuclear bombers, in essence, rendering the Whirlwind Project project obsolete.4  Despite this, the useful life if the Whirlwind continued. Once the Whirlwind Project was shutdown by the U.S. Air Force, the TX-series became available to MIT researchers, a development we will return to later in this essay.

An upgrade from Whirlwind, the SAGE Project involved fifty-six IBM computers, each costing $30 million dollars, with system that “[took] up twenty thousand square feet of space and weighed 250 tons, all to produce one megabyte of information.”5  Although SAGE was initially tasked with monitoring nuclear threat by Soviet forces, the way the console was configured set the foundations for both home and corporate computing. For instance, the SAGE had a telephone modem, keyboard, light pen, digital real-time control, magnetic core-memory and a CRT graphical user display.  Reflecting the military and corporate environments of the time, the unit has an anachronistic 'charm' that we might today call Mad-Man-esque, complete with its own built-in cigarette lighter and ashtray.

A SAGE operator at the console, holding a light pen.

Don Draper and the IBM 360, introduced in Season 7 of Mad Men. The monolithic computer is used in the show as a metaphor for the changing times; its presence in the office triggers Michael Ginsberg [Ben Feldman] to cut off his own nipple.

The cathode-ray tube (CRT) display screen that has become ubiquitous for desktop computing can likewise be traced to an earlier analogue device that is linked to the military—namely, radar. The radar interface allowed the user, a trained military officer, to interact with the screen using a light pen. The pen allowed the user to select suspicious blinking lights in order to alert other military personnel of potential Soviet aircrafts carrying nuclear bombs. The further GUI developments of SAGE allowed the user to interact with the computer using physical, real-time contact through abstraction, a fundamental relationship between data and user that remains integral to our use of most computer systems today. For example, positional data of air traffic, represented by blinking lights on a screen, takes precedence over the underlying algorithms that support this process.  Through a technical process that is hidden from the user, the computer renders this data into visual information and likewise respondes to user inputs by converting them back into data in real time.  As Chun observes, the SAGE screen “was an input device for the user, not for the programmers/coders who produced taped programs that operators would load and run.”6 In other words, a new hierarchy is formed between the coders and the users: coders maintain and control the architecture of a system while users access its functionality and outcomes.

GUI developments, like many other forms of technological experimentation, often occur when hardware is rendered obsolete.  For example, when the Whirlwind project was declared out of date, the TX-series became available to MIT researchers such as Ivan Sutherland who began using the system for perviously unimagined purposes. Sutherland, often considered 'the father of computer graphics,' had unprecedented access to a TX-2 (“the Tixo”) at MIT's Lincoln Lab while he was completing his PhD dissertation, in 1962. He used it to create Sketchpad, a drawing program which he described as “a man-machine graphical communication system” and has been described as “one of the most influential programs ever made.”7 Animation scholar Tom Sito explains:

There was no need for any written language, no points to enter.  All you did was draw and articulate some buttons marked “erase” and “move.” He developed something called “rubber banding” where you created one point and by moving the pen you stretched a line to another part of the screen, anchoring it as your second point.  Also, you could turn objects and the entire wireframe, not just a particular line, and move as one unit.8

Sketchpad was the first interactive real-time graphic system which allowed the user to 'draw' on the computer without typing commands.

Excerpt of a 1964 episode of Science Reporter with Ivan Sutherland demonstrating Sketchpad.

In the same period that Sutherland was developing Sketchpad, Ken Knowlton and Michael Noll were working at Bell Labs [Bell Telephone Laboratories] developing similar software with the goal of making computer graphics accessible to artists and filmmakers. In 1963, Knowlton developed BEFLIX [Bell Flicks], a computer program that loaded onto the IBM 7094 through a stack of punch cards, allowing artists to directly manipulate images on a CRT with a light pen.

A Computer Technique for the Production of Animated Movies (1963)

In 1966, Bell Labs paired Knowlton with experimental filmmakers Lillian Schwartz, Stan VanDerBeek and Frank Sinden, producing some of the earliest computer animations like Mutations (1973) and the Poem Field series (1964-1967).

Excerpt of Ken Knowlton and Stan VanDerBeek's Poem Field series (1964-1967)

John K. Ball's The Artist and the Computer (1976), an early documentary about Lillian Schwartz and her work.

Knowton explains:

Bell Telephone Laboratories, as my colleagues and I experienced it during the 1960s and 1970s, was a beehive of scientific and technological scurrying.  Practitioners within, tethered on long leashes if at all, were earnestly seeking enigmatic solutions to arcane puzzles.  What happened there would have baffled millions of telephone subscribers who, knowing or not, supported the quiet circus. 9

A hub for artistic production in the 60s and 70s, it is worth noting that in the 50s Bell Labs had previously sponsored visual music pioneer Mary Ellen Bute's experiments with moving image production involving an oscilloscope, an early GUI that allowed an electric signal to be measured by analyzing the waveform generated against a graph built into the screen of the instrument.10

Mary Ellen Bute with cathode-ray oscilloscope.

Still from Abstronic (1952) made by Mary Ellen Bute and Ted Nemeth (an engineer and Bute's eventual husband.)

December 9, 1968 marked a major turning point in the popular understanding of GUIs. At the Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco, Dr. Douglas Engelbart and the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) presented the 'The Mother of All Demos' to over a thousand computer enthusiasts.11  Part performance video and part computer demonstration, the demo was transmitted into the auditorium using a Eidophor video projector onto a 22' x 18' screen that used picture-in-picture and superimposition to simultaneously display a screen capture of the computer's output and live video feeds of Engelbart and his research team, some of whom where at the Stanford lab thirty miles away. Computer engineer Bill English (who helped invent the mouse) used a video switcher to control what was presented on the screen while Stewart Brand, editor of the Whole Earth Catalog, ran the camera.12 In this demo, many elements that were to become fundamental to contemporary home computers were introduced to the general public for the first time including: windows, hypertext, graphics, video conferencing, word processing, dynamic file linking, revision control and navigation using a wooden mouse and keyboard. Suddenly, computer files could be managed and manipulated using a cursor and mouse instead of typing code.  The demo was extremely well received, prompting a standing ovation from the crowd.  Moreover, the demo was the inspiration for the WYSIWYG [What You See Is What You Get] methodology inherent in most contemporary GUIs. The foundations of the Digital Revolution were being set.13

Basement Revolutionaries: The Rise of Home Computing

In July 1945, The Atlantic magazine published visionary computer engineer Vannevar Bush's “As We May Think” in which, “he predicted a future home workstation he called a Memex, with electronic screens that would store a complete library as well as recordings and communications.”14

Vannevar Bush's 1945 Memex as realized by father/daughter team Trevor F. Smith and Sparks Webb in 2014.

In April 1973, Bush's prophecy was realized when Xerox PARC booted-up the first desktop computer, the Alto. The Alto originally sold for $23,000, “with the mouse alone costing $300,” but the cost was eventually reduced to $16,500.15 Even after this reduction, the computer proved to be too expensive to appeal to the general public and only two thousand were ever sold.16

The Digital Revolution that began in the late 60s with 'The Mother of All Demos,' gained significant momentum in the late 70s and early 80s with personal computers entering millions of homes worldwide. In 1977, the 'holy trinity' of affordable personal home computers were released and included Tandy RadioShack's TRS-80 ($600 with monitor), the Apple II ($1,298 computer only) and Commodore's PET [Personal Electronic Transactor, the first all-in-on computer integrating keyboard, monitor and cassette recorder] ($795).17  Early uses of these home computers included playing games and office applications such as word processors, spreadsheets, and database programs; however, many enthusiasts began to develop their own software and a wide variety of development tools and programming resources were available to the public.

In an attempt to produce affordable home computers, all of these computers had CLIs and operated without the GUIs that been developed at the forefront of military technology decades prior. GUIs didn't enter the realm of home computing until a few years later with Apple Lisa (released in 1983 for $9,995), Apple Macintosh (released in 1984 for $2,495) and Magic Desk for the Commodore 64 (released in 1982 for $595).18

Screen capture of Magic Desk

The revolutionary potential of the computer was said to be embodied in such early home computers.  For instance, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak explains, “our first computers were born not out of greed or ego, but in the revolutionary spirit of helping the common people rise above the most powerful institutions.”19

Ridley Scott's commercial 1984 (1984) for the Apple's Macintosh personal computer.

Commodore founder Jack Tramiel's envisioned building computers for “the masses, not the classes.”20  The development of GUIs further established the home computer as a comprehensible 'user-friendly' device, by making the computer 'people literate' as opposed to making people 'computer literate.'  However, in making the computer more accessible to the masses, a compromise of control was necessary. Scholar and programmer, Roberto Dillon explains the importance of CLIs to many early programmers:

Having experienced those constraints [of working with BASIC 2.0 on the Commodore 64] and being forced to work at a lower level, instructing the machine step-by-step even for tasks as simple as deleting a file, may have actually helped aspiring developers in the long run.  Having gained a better understanding of computer operations by surviving a rough start, could have in fact eased the passage to more advanced programming later on, establishing the right mindset for writing complex applications and arcade quality games via an assembler, for example.21

In other words, using CLIs enable some users to become more comfortable with computer programming.  With a new focus on widespread 'user-friendly' functionality, a re-orientation of the computer's purpose was defined.  User control was comprised by the development of interfaces for users who were unconcerned with being able to program.  Moreover, being able to write computer programs does not guarantee that user has the ability to use computer programs designed by others, suggesting that these are two distinct knowledge streams.     

Given the 'user-friendly' functionality of the GUI, many artists began to use home computers to use consumer grade produce artworks. In contrast to the artists working at Bell Labs who collaborated with technicians on specialized computers that were not accessible to general public, the home computer allowed artists to create in the comfort of their own home using 'user-friendly' programs such as GraphiCraft and Deluxe Paint. Most famously, Andy Warhol demonstrated the ease-of-use of the Commodore Amiga at the 1985 launch of the Amiga 1000 by 'painting' a scanned image of celebrity chanteuse Debbie Harry.

Launch of the Amiga 1000 in 1985 at New York’s Lincoln Centre with Andy Warhol and Debbie Harry.

Notably in 2013, Cory Arcangel, in collaboration with the Carnegie Mellon University [CMU] Computer Club and the Andy Warhol Museum, helped to re-discover many of Warhol's digital works which had until then languished in obscurity due to the obsolescence of the Amiga.

Andy Warhol's Andy 2 (1985).

The Virginity Complex: Emulating Authenticity

As software and hardware have evolved into new forms, original versions have been rendered obsolete and are increasingly difficult to access.  Emulators are software or hardware that allow users to execute programs and digital environments on platforms for which they were not originally designed. In recent years, it has been possible to simulate other operating systems on a personal computer using an emulator as a secondary platform. For instance, consider Parallels Desktop for Mac, a program that allows contemporary Mac computers to run Windows, or Amiga Forever, an emulator program that simulates the Commodore Amiga on variety of contemporary platforms.22

There is one important observable difference between the original and its emulation, namely, the hardware through which we interact with the software.  Interacting with software on different platforms produces different phenomenological experiences, perhaps suggesting that only the original platform can produce an 'authentic' experience.  Beyond such distinctions, using an emulator allows an obsolete platform to take on a new life, allowing users to experience an obsolete system without finding volatile, hard to service, obsolete hardware. Running software on any platform using an emulator ideally will approximate the original experience and extends the experience beyond its original context. At the very least, a decent emulator is functionally equivalent to the original platform.  In fact, most GUI developers  understand that platforms have a particular 'feel' or 'style' and attempt to replicate it when designing emulators.

In the present context, an exhibition of works produced by artists using a Commodore Amiga, the distinction becomes important, since all of the works in the exhibition are produced by using hybrid techniques that allow for new tools and technologies to be used in conjunction with an old platform.  For instance, Mark Pellegrino's G.I.R.L. (2012), was made by combining modern computer software with the medium specific 'limitations' of the Amiga, utilizing innovative techniques that drastically simplify the animation process.  For instance, Pellegrino first created many of the layers used in his animation in Photoshop which he later transcoded into images the Amiga could use (obtaining the Amiga 'look') while most of the 'animation' was done using a screen capture program and exploiting the fact that in Deluxe Paint, the 'brush' could be transformed into an image.23

Excerpt from Mark Pellegrino's G.I.R.L. (2012).

Finally, Marissa Olsen's gold painted Commodore Amiga, made as part of her Time Capsule series, complicates ideas around emulation through re-claiming the Amiga's value (by painting it gold) while at, at the same time, rendering the device unusable.  The gold painted Commodore Amiga, like a bronze cast of a babies' shoe, transforms it from functional device into a preserved relic designating a significant milestone. Given the Amiga's rarity, removing one from circulation further contributes to the devices perceived  obsolescence suggesting that the only to make use of the device might be through emulation.24 Moreover, the playful nature of the work and its 'garbage pile' presentation allows the work to disavow any accusations of technological fetishization.      

Dead Media: Emulating Nostalgia 

Artists using obsolete equipment and emulators often obtain a 'look' or 'style' specific to that platform. Emulators provide the ability to engage with the specific aesthetics of software from a previous era without obtaining vintage equipment.  Moreover, using a specific platform provides medium specific limitations that ultimately impact the artworks produced.  For instance, artist and Amiga enthusiast Daniel Barrow explains, “I still think it’s [the Commodore Amiga is] one of the most fun platforms, but I’ve always preferred to work within a set of prescribed limitations.”  He continues, “there are still many things I would do on Deluxe Paint IV that I can’t imagine how to do in Photoshop.”25 Recently, Barrow has been experimenting with Amiga emulation, including his performance The Mystery of the Haunted Mansion (A Plea) (2016), a live computer animation and performance that uses Amiga Forever run on a modern Mac. In the work, he does does not attempt to hide the emulated, Amiga GUI interface and loads files throughout the performance.  Like many of Barrow's works, the piece invokes a strong sense of nostalgia by using his signature storytelling style.

In The Glitch Moment(um), Rosa Menkman suggests a close link between built-in obsolescence and nostalgic revival. She argues:

While the obsolescence and nostalgic revival of imperfect media used to be closely connected to the factor of (linear) time, this factor is now more disorganized, transforming the uncanny anachronism or avant-garde tendencies of post-procedural glitch into a fetish: something that is (‘now’) understood as a sign of (any ‘cool’) time. The apparent coming together of the hype cycle (the arrival, adoption and social distribution of specific technologies) with new technologies’ designed-for obsolescence, results in glitch itself being increasingly understood as retro-nostalgic artifacts.26

To Menkman, what was once a medium specific error has now transformed into fetish with each new technology generating its own nostalgia inducing artifacts.  In essence, we are not only being sold new technologies with a limited lifespan, but apps that replicate the 'look' of obsolete technologies from the past. Built-in obsolescence guarantees that these artifacts come with their own time-stamps and encourages future nostalgia. Barrows confirms the nostalgic nature of his images:

I am a nostalgic person, and I am drawn to nostalgic images, and my imagination stems from childhood, certainly. But I’m less interested in the nostalgic qualities that they have, and more interested in simple technologies.[27

In essence, he is re-enforcing the appeal of 'user-friendly' technology to artists, that is, technologies that allow the artist to easily realize their visions, despite his desire to capture the Amiga's “antiquated look.”28

By deny that he is not using the Amiga for its 'nostalgic qualities,' Barrows is, in essence, denying a form of nostalgic technological fetishization, namely, the position that older technologies are better. Moreover, the use of emulators further challenges technological fetishization by focusing on the original device's functional value instead of on the device themselves.  On the opposite end of the spectrum, using obsolete equipment and championing retro-aesthetics challenges both planned obsolescence and the consumer myth that newer technologies are better.  Moreover, the forms of nostalgia generated by retro-aesthetics provides us an opportunity to re-engage with that era through a contemporary lens, offering insights and critical reflections. In particular, it is easy to sympathize with the forms of nostalgia generated by early computer aesthetics given the radical potential that early home computing seemingly offered. The graphical limitations, reflected in their GUIs, demonstrated their technological limitations but also displays their unrestrained technological innovation and ingenuity.

1 — Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Programmed Visions: Software and Memory (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2011), 60.

2 — Animation scholar Tom Sito outlines a history of computer graphics and GUIs in his comprehensive history of computer, Moving Innovation: A History of Computer Animation (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2013).

3 — Tom Sito, Moving Innovation: A History of Computer Animation (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2013), 39. 

4 — The Whirlwind Project was shutdown by the U.S. Defence Department on June 12, 1959. 

5 — Tom Sito, Moving Innovation: A History of Computer Animation (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2013), 40.

6 — Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Programmed Visions: Software and Memory (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2011), 60.

7 — Description from Sutherland's 1988 Turing Award nomination.
See: Margaret A. Boden, Mind as Machine: A History of Cognitive Science, vol. 2 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006), 1075.     

8 — Tom Sito, Moving Innovation: A History of Computer Animation (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2013), 42.   

9 — Ken Knowlton, “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Scientist.” Digital Art Guild (2004).     

10 — Although, it is possible to view the oscilloscope as an early GUI, many mechanical examples exist.  For instance, consider the Arithmométre, a mass-produced mechanical calculator based on Leibniz's work patented by Charles Xavier Thomas de Colmar and manufactured from 1851 until 1915.  

11 — 'The Mother of All Demos' was presented under the official title “A research centre for augmenting human intellect.”  In recent years, computer demos have been defined as programs “whose purpose is to present the technical and artistic skills of its makers and produce audiovisual pleasure to the viewer.” Demos also “usually includes various kinds of real-time computer produced graphics effects.” The demoscene distinguishes between computer demos and demonstrations of commercial products.  Given this distinction, Engelbart's presentation can be seen as an early demo despite the fact that many of his innovations became incorporated in commercial products. 
See: Petri Kuittinen, “Computer Demos - The Story So Far,” http://mlab.uiah.fi/~eye/demos/#begin     

12 — It is also worth noting Stewart Brand also helped to design the demo's presentation. Brand is a counter-culture legend who edited Whole Earth Catalog, an early example of desktop publishing, putout between 1969 and 1972, that promoted both hippie ideologies and the idea that computers were for everyone.  The Whole Earth Catalog was extremely influential among early computer programmers. As observed by Sito, “dog-eared copies of the Whole Earth Catalog sat on workstation shelves from Hewlett-Packard (HP) to Xerox PARC.”  See: Tom Sito, Moving Innovation: A History of Computer Animation (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2013), 93.       

13 — The Digital Revolution, similar to the Agricultural Revolution or the Industrial Revolution, refers to the monumental changes brought about by digital computing and communication technology.     

14 — Tom Sito, Moving Innovation: A History of Computer Animation (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2013), 54.     

15 — Tom Sito, Moving Innovation: A History of Computer Animation (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2013), 88.     

16 — Most of the Altos sold where to larger universities, however, Jimmy Carter also had one installed in the White House.  
See: Tom Sito, Moving Innovation: A History of Computer Animation (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2013), 87 and 300.     

17 — Roberto Dillon, Ready: A Commodore 64 Retrospective (Singapore: Springer, 2015), 5.     

18 — Roberto Dillon, Ready: A Commodore 64 Retrospective (Singapore: Springer, 2015), 9 and 105.     

19 — Steve Wozniak quoted in David A. Price, The Pixar Touch: The Making of a Company (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008), 83.       

20 — Roberto Dillon, Ready: A Commodore 64 Retrospective (Singapore: Springer, 2015), 5.     

21 — Roberto Dillon, Ready: A Commodore 64 Retrospective (Singapore: Springer, 2015), 19.     

22 — The Church-Turing thesis implies that it is theoretically possible to emulate any operating environment within any other environment given enough memory.  In a 1988 letter to Compute!, Mike Warick asks, “can a Commodore 64 emulate MS-DOS?”  Compute! responded, “yes, it's possible for a Commodore 64 to emulate an IBM PC, in the same way it is possible to bail out Lake Michigan with a teaspoon.” They continue, “emulation is a complex business, but here's one rule of thumb: the only way to successfully emulate a machine is with a much more powerful machine.” At this point in time, given the power of modern processors, it is possible to obtain an emulator for most of the popular platforms, however, emulators are usually not as stable as the original and the emulator usually does not emulate the idiosyncratic behaviour of the original hardware configuration. 
See: Mike Warick, letter to the editor, “MS-DOS Emulation For The 64,” Compute! (April 1988), 43.     

23 — Artist Q&A at the World of Commodore 2012 put on by the Toronto PET Users Group.       

24 — It is worth noting that there are still many Commodore users with niche groups like the Toronto PET Users Group, one of the oldest user groups (established in 1979), and supports nearly all Commodore computers, including the PET, VIC-20, C64, C128, Plus/4, C16, C65, and Amiga, including the COMAL, CP/M and GEOS environments.

See: http://www.tpug.ca    

25 — Daniel Barrow quoted in Andy James Paterson “Hello Amiga, Goodbye and then Hello Again,” Hello Amiga Exhibition Essay, http://helloamiga.ca/?page_id=372#_ftn7     

26 — Rosa Menkman, The Glitch Moment(um) (Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2011), 57.     

27 — Daniel Barrow quoted in Sky Goodden, “Daniel Barrow on the Glenfiddich Prize, Nostalgia, and Working Three Years Late,” BLOUIN ARTINFO (March 21, 2013), http://ca.blouinartinfo.com/news/story/882204/daniel-barrow-on-the-glenfiddich-prize-nostalgia-and-working

28 — Daniel Barrow quoted in Sky Goodden, “Daniel Barrow on the Glenfiddich Prize, Nostalgia, and Working Three Years Late,” BLOUIN ARTINFO (March 21, 2013), http://ca.blouinartinfo.com/news/story/882204/daniel-barrow-on-the-glenfiddich-prize-nostalgia-and-working

Artboard 2 CopyArtboard 2 Copy


Programmed Poetry
Brion Gysin, Tiziana La Melia, bpNichol
September 8 —​ ​October 29​

Brion Gysin
Permutation Poems, 1960

No Poet’s Don't Own Words
I Am That I Am
Junk Is No Good Baby
I Don't Work You Dig
Kick That Habit Man
Come To Free The Words
Rub Out The Word
Calling All Reactive Agents

This embedded "version" of Permutation Poems is adaptation of the program developed by Ian Sommerville and Brion Gysin in 1960. The original program ran on a Honeywell Series 200 computer. This version was written by Justin Filip as a further adaptation of software created in Python by Joseph Moore for the New Museum exhibition Brion Gysin: Dreamachine, and shared under a GNU General Public License. This version has also been released under the ISC License and is freely viewable and available for download and further adaption through github.



TERMINAL is a four-part installation project that examines single-user interfaces and the influence of technology on the adaptation of artistic forms.  The project addresses itself to an idea of what different hardware units, operating systems, and user environments have offered to artists and to the viewers, readers or users of their work.  Each iteration of the project considers a different computer interface and related work (text-based programming of poetry, graphical user interfaces and early digital animation, online and peer sharing as virtual social practice and, finally, a parody of social media and its daily saturation of life).

Conceived as an installation in four parts, the project utilizes a single-user space at Western Front—our former ticket booth/reading room—to offer an intimate viewing experience that works away from the traditional spatial paradigm of a white cube. Launching September 8th, 2016, the first installation looks at media poetry specifically programmed for computers, and features an installation of bpNichol's First Screening (1984), a digital publication written in Apple BASIC for home use on an Apple IIe.  

TERMINAL expands beyond the gallery space to include this website. It is embedded with a variant of the code for a series of Permutation Poems written by Brion Gysin that first appeared in 1960.  Rooted in the expansive and playful legacies of Nichol and Gysin, TERMINAL 1.0 also features work and a reading event by artist and poet Tiziana La Melia, whose recent installation The Eyelash and the Monochrome has grown from her own computer use, and specifically her acknowledgment of Microsoft Word as a context and catalyst for the piece.

While starting from the specificity of a single-user environment as both a creative and exhibition space, TERMINAL also asks what we choose to use computers for, how this is limited or shaped by the interfaces we access, and how making projects under different technological structures can be figured amidst a wider set of material concerns. The investigation supposes that different hardware, software, operating systems and user environments have offered specific opportunities and limits for expression; artists in turn have created works that respond in unique ways. The ongoing erasure of user control in favour of the ease and simplicity of seamless design has been taken up by many, including artist Olia Lialina, is my impetus for engaging in better understandings of web- and screen-based work.¹ It is hoped that these practices might foreground how a conscious adoption of technology and knowledge of its limitations can alter the possibilities for creation. Perhaps these lesser-known historical works will also offer suggestions of how creative practices might wrest control toward fruitful artistic ends and offer viewers, readers or users an opportunity to contemplate and question the nature of these interfaces, and the role they play in our daily lives.


Allison Collins

TERMINAL took shape around a need to be specific and the idea that, at times, computers create the conditions for viewing artworks that are made with them. This inquiry into viewing conditions and specific sites of artistic production is further rooted in a desire to address Vancouver (aka Terminal City). I am compelled to consider how the influence of computers can manifest here, at Western Front, and in particular how we might begin to see works by artists in our community as contributing within a larger framework of understanding screen-based or computer-driven work.¹  Mixed into this inquiry is the desire to learn from the conditions required to create work, such as access to a computer or the requisite knowledge of programming necessary to make a work function.  

In exploring this, I take up how specific types of interfaces can make certain characteristics of media artwork possible. This notion is exemplified in bpNichol’s First Screening, a work that is rooted in the command-line interface of the Apple IIe, taking advantage of coding and self-publishing to generate a set of quirky communicative poems that bring the viewer into a relationship with the machine they are facing. Tiziana La Melia, working almost 30 years later, takes up the software interface of Microsoft Word as an imaginative catalyst, yet ultimately frees the words from their home on the screen to use them for and within paintings, print objects and eventually a publication. The Eyelash and the Monochrome, drawn from the artist’s strained relationship to her own portable writing machine (i.e. her laptop), takes up the space and condition of writing anywhere, but always with the same screen. The work traces a familiar contemporary pattern: beginning with an act of composing text on a computer, adapting and reinterpreting language and thought and finally transmitting the whole into various relevant material experiments. She also achieves the important reminder that just as computers have predominantly transitioned from a conditioned and specific user/creator space to a well-designed but less individually adaptable tool, so too has the way artists use it to make work. Despite having become ingrained into our everyday structure, carried around as little portable studios or ubiquitous machines for social connection, computers retain an important site specificity. You can take them into and out of new contexts, and like a franchise food chain they will deliver the same virtual ingredients wherever you go.

Honeywell 200 console

Before we dig deeply into these shifts, I’d like to address a project that sets a staging ground for poets using computers. Created in 1960 with programming collaborator Ian Sommerville and ‘installed’ above, Brion Gysin’s Permutation Poems used a very early computer console: the Honeywell 200. As early as 1959, artists took to computers to explore the possibilities of programming or digital composition, and many of these early instances necessarily took shape on business-oriented machines. The capabilities of computers during this era was practical, seen as technical, and focused on calculation and data manipulation. It was the era of McLuhan, and these complex machines became a viable medium with which to make new experiments with language.²  Gysin’s Permutation Poems play a part in this lineage, fitting into both a timeline of computer use for creative means as well as his lifelong commitment to multidisciplinary experimental practice.

No Poets Don’t Own Words

Gysin was a painter, performer, poet, writer and mystic.³  Born in the UK to Canadian parents, he spent much of his adult life in transit, with formative time in Tangier, Paris (at the Beat Hotel), and in New York. He is credited with introducing the ‘cut-up’ method of writing to William Burroughs, in which words and phrases are literally cut into pieces and rearranged to disassociate them from received meanings and reveal new ones. A collaborator of many throughout his life, Gysin is often referred to as a close friend of Burroughs, who revered him, and who often developed the ideas Gysin shared, to great acclaim. Gysin’s experimentation and desire to innovate ultimately led him to invent the "Dreamachine" with Ian Sommerville, a flickering apparatus that was meant to induce waking dream states. His forays in painting and poetry paralleled his efforts with technology, and he spent much time transforming gestures and words through systems of his own devising.

And so the whole point of it...is that idea that you just put the material into a certain risk situation and give it a creative push. The thing makes itself. That’s always been my principle.

The Permutation Poems are an early example of the extension of his larger aims, wherein he used a computer to generate a type of cut-up poetry. The poems are formed by a program that takes a given data set, consisting of a line of words or a phrase that is transformed mathematically. The end result for each line of language inputted into the program, is a poem comprised of all possible reorderings of words present in the given line, until each possible iteration has appeared. Thus, line by line, a poem is written by the computer:






Brion Gysin, “I am that I am”, 1960

The possibilities of mathematical computation created the output, demonstrating the meaning that can emerge independent of the will of the author; Gysin’s use of the computer was a means to this end. The computer, a source for completing the composition under the terms of data manipulation, was an expedient tool that could displace intention from poet to machine.  The resulting poems reflect Gysin’s ethical position when it came to language. In his own words:

Writing is fifty years behind painting. I propose to apply the painters' techniques to writing; things as simple and immediate as collage or montage. Cut right through the pages of any book or newsprint... lengthwise, for example, and shuffle the columns of text. Put them together at hazard and read the newly constituted message. Do it for yourself. Use any system which suggests itself to you. Take your own words or the words said to be "the very own words" of anyone else living or dead. You'll soon see that words don't belong to anyone. Words have a vitality of their own and you or anybody else can make them gush into action.

The permutated poems set the words spinning off on their own; echoing out as the words of a potent phrase are permutated into an expanding ripple of meanings which they did not seem to be capable of when they were struck into that phrase.

The poets are supposed to liberate the words - not chain them in phrases. Who told poets they were supposed to think? Poets are meant to sing and to make words sing. Poets have no words "of their own." Writers don't own their words. Since when do words belong to anybody.

"Your very own words," Indeed! And who are you?'

Gysin rejected outright notions of authorial control, claiming the right of anyone to transform any word through whatever process or structure is desired.

At the end of the computation, the Permutation Poems become a set of propositions, a new raw material from which Gysin could draw. He shared the work as a series of sound poems on BBC radio, later publishing the works as text pieces. That the poems were specifically generated using a Honeywell series 200 computer appears to be of little imaginative interest to Gysin It is rather the sound poetry experiments that resulted which ultimately demonstrate his desire to break down language through repetition and variation.  It is clear in the listening that these performances complicates the rote nature of a computer-generated poem, with inflections and rhythms that emphasize variants of meaning, playing up the resulting interpretations of the individual lines rather than their formal nature or relation to sets of data.

Kick That Habit Man

Gysin’s emphasis moved steadily toward sound and performance. He eventually choose to publish the permutations in print, leaving the computer behind for the tape recorder and other more readily accessible materials. Any particularities that have evolved in the way the software for the Permutation Poems has been reproduced reinforce this emphasis, where the original program is simply a means to output the words. Adapted and rewritten by Joseph Moore for the New Museum (on the occasion of the exhibition Brion Gysin: Dream Machine, and further adapted for accessible viewing on this website, the decision to include the project as it seen here is founded on these factors. As seen here/online, the moving poems are a variant of the outcome of the original computation. They follow Moore’s pursuit to make Gysin’s work and processes better known.⁶  Further, and more importantly, the Permutation Poems have been preserved and shared in a manner that adheres to Gysin’s own ethic: a playful desire to pull apart language at its core, shedding notions of individual ownership. His standpoint anticipates the open source movement by what feels like eons more than decades.

Gysin as a figure has a particularly local relevance in sensibility more than literal presence. While his works have been collected and examined in Vancouver, and his innovations, like the Dreammachine, inspire a certain amount of contemporary experimentation, he remains a lesser-known figure to his counterpart, Burroughs. His work is cited among the influences for local artists associated with counter-cultural practices of the 1960s, such as Tripps Festival organizer Sam Perry.⁷  As part of the wider lineage of Beat poets that made an impact here, he has been particularly noted as an influence on writers interested in concrete poetry.⁸  This community would have included bpNichol, whose contribution to the field has been remarkably influential across the country and around the globe.


bpNichol is a fascinating figure in Canadian poetry. Like Gysin, he was a writer whose work could not be contained in disciplinary boundaries. He first became well-known as a concrete poet, a term he eschewed for the more open-ended descriptive term ‘borderblur.’  His extensive output during his short career (he died quite young, just shy of his 44th birthday) ranged from a sensitive production of clever visual poetry, to an ambitious multi-volume lyric poetry project called The Martyrology (which is still being analyzed by his peers) and to such charming landing points as contributing writing for the popular children’s television program Fraggle Rock. Nichol’s curious spirit, dedication to writing and his innate sense of playfulness is evident in his practice and well-documented by the scores of scholars and writers who have taken time to elaborate on his practice. The document of his visit the Western Front in 1977 for a reading with the Four Horsemen (Rafael Barreto-Rivera, Paul Dutton, Steve McCaffery and Nichol), for example, demonstrates the sensuous regard he had for sound as it sheds itself from literal meaning. Forming almost trancelike sound shapes with accompany gestures, and at-times comical body movements, his engagements with language were a total immersion in form. Having taken on genre, compositional strategy, language, the visual and sound performance all, he quite deftly moved his curious mind into the kinetic possibilities of the computer.

Included in TERMINAL, First Screening is a series of twelve kinetic poems, written by Nichol in 1983-84, that take the Apple BASIC programming language as a site for animation and communication. The project was published by Nichol’s imprint, Underwhich Editions, in an edition of 100, and distributed as a 5.25” floppy disk. To view the work, a user had to run the program on an Apple IIe computer. Early machines like the Apple IIe were relatively accessible on the consumer scale, and ideal for writers, as they had a recent and important update to include lowercase letters. They cost about $1400(USD) for a unit in the 1980s, and were therefore primarily in the reach of the upper middle class. They have been cited as the most affordable and appealing option for a multi-tasking writer.⁹ The Apple IIe supported active gameplay (Nichol was a bit of a gamer), had an accessible coding platform in Applesoft’s version of BASIC (Beginner's All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code), and was an adequate word processor.

First Screening is a program on a floppy disk that, once inserted, mounts to the hard drive of the Apple IIe and runs automatically through ten poems that appear in sequence as text-based digital animations. The project takes the visual layout of concrete poetry into kinetic space, primarily through the movement of words across the visual field of the screen. For example, in the piece “CONSTRUCTION 1”, the word TOWER scrolls up the screen with increasing speed until hitting a crescendo of movement, and emitting an alarming sound followed with flashing inversions of the word “BABEL.” The timing and constraint of each piece is determined by the code, which also specifies the location and duration and how everything appears to the user.

Ten evident works use the computer as a space of composition and animation, however, they are conceptually much more than simply moving image versions of words. Two works in the project enact a more complex relationship with the viewer: “Off-Screen Romance” a hidden kinetic poem, can only be activated with the input of the BASIC command (RUN 1748-), which a curious reader will discover only if they read through the clues left in the final remarks of the program code. Active investigation of the code also reveals one further work, appearing as part of the code, that uses puns and language tricks that play on the commands of the program. This aspect is viewable only upon activation of the LIST command.


These small acts by Nichol underscore his interest in the computer and it’s potential to transform language. They are an extension of his earlier concrete experiments with a typewriter. For example, clear links can be made with poems gathered for publication in Konfessions of an Elizabethan Fan Dancer (1967/1973), most notably “The Evening’s Ritual”, which uses the words “sat down to write you this pome”, anticipating the later animated poem “Letter”. The clever “Computer Riddle Poem” suggests that Nichol (like Gysin) was considering the potential of mathematical permutations and how small variants might texture our understanding of language.  Published more than a decade later, First Screening reframes this commitment to experiment with visual formal characteristics of language, taking up the possibilities offered by code as a space to create.

Code is language. It seems only natural that code should be, or would become, poetry.¹⁰  

Nichol’s commitment to treating code as a space to invite user interaction is an innovation most celebrated. This aspect of the project has been thoroughly examined by Lori Emerson in her book Reading Writing Interfaces, where she notes,

In First Screening it appears as though Nichol—writing at the very beginning of the era of the personal computer— understands the ease with which the digital computer has an entirely different effect on the body than that of a reading/writing machine such as the typewriter.¹¹ 

Not only does he charm the viewer/reader/user with his moving (sometimes dancing) lines of text, but he encourages active thought and participation in the BASIC programming language - something which was genuinely novel for the time.

Like Gysin, Nichol’s coded poetry has had to be retrieved from an earlier period, as the Apple IIe inevitably fell out of use. The project has been preserved and made available through adaptations and the development of new versions by a dedicated group of his fellow writers and coders. In fact, their efforts made the mission to view bpNichol’s idiosyncratic First Screening quite simple.¹² Both the the original BASIC program and the Hypercard re-issue have been made more accessible. Platforms for it now include: the original BASIC code (for use in an online BASIC emulator), a Hypercard version, a Javascript version, and a video capture of the poems, as well as the user interaction which prompts the “Off-Screen Romance”. The code is both easily adaptable and forever preserved as the master reference document.  


It’s more than a mere coincidence that so much effort was made to preserve Nichol’s work. His project may have focused on technology and been something of a unique or novel inquiry for the time, but the poems deny any robotic essentialization. They feel remarkably human, as if a little of Nichol (his voice, and wit) has been captured and preserved in the code.  First Screening, as it is seen in TERMINAL, is literally a welcoming project—a reminder of the intimacy of the user and his or her computer.

… … … … …

It is not lost on me that choosing Nichol’s Apple IIe and Gysin’s use of the Honeywell series 200 as our starting point is both a limit and feature of this project. Resurrecting this early lineage of computer work has also unearthed the unsurprising fact that this terrain of work that is primarily comprised of white male artists, writers and thinkers—those who had the most access and freedom to experiment with technology. Today’s inheritors of this history have a much more diverse constitution, and make cogent rebuttals and new configurations within the wider visual and virtual space that has developed along with devices and politics of practice.

Out of a happenstance, First Screening was recently on view at Oakville Galleries, in the exhibition Down to Write You This Poem Sat. Taking as its title a line from Nichol’s poetry, the exhibition looked at the blending of text and screen through works by the likes of Martine Syms, Maryse Larivière, Raymond Boisjoly, Tiziana La Melia or Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries. These contemporary iterations of digital poetics reframe and complicate the terrain. Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries, for example, have made scores of freely available flash animations that speak directly from a subject experience that underlies a resistance to ‘invisible’ interfaces, and foreground the virtual space of speech, enabled through flash animation.¹³ See: Ah for a recent example of their work, viewable on their website and described as a ‘public service announcement.’ Other artists in the show are equally notable for thee ways they challenge the boundaries and interrelations of poetry, politics and the practice of visual art.

It is a happy coincidence to see differing approaches to the same work, which underscores the specific goal of TERMINAL: to attempt to understand how we have absorbed such technologies into our consider how offering up specific uses of the computer might be a physical reminder to helps us to understand that condition.

Looking to the wider terrain of media poetry and its influence on visual artists opens a path for speaking of the way that computers have altered language and the way we use it. Early command-line driven programs have transformed under the conditions of a contemporary graphical interface. A more complex, layered and nuanced language of computer use has evolved as text becomes immersed in the intonation of typeface specificity, clipart, the shape of the page, and possibilities of different software to act simultaneously within user view. What can be said to remain constant is the sensibility to enter the language offered through the screen with the desire to pull it apart and expose its guts and capabilities.

Tiziana La Melia, The Eyelash and the Monochrome

(Spread 1), 2014, Dye sublimation print, silky faille, sieve graphic by Sylvain Sailly
(Spread 2), 2014, Dye sublimation print, silky faille
(Spread 4), 2014, Dye sublimation print, silky faille, eyelash pattern by Sylvain Sailly

Tiziana La Melia is an artist and poet whose regard for the computer remains one element of her much larger body of work. A productive painter who often crosses disciplinary boundaries, La Melia’s recent work, The Eyelash and the Monochrome, lives both inside and outside the confines of a computer’s influence. Beginning as a piece of writing, the project has evolved to contain a series of adjacent visual poem paintings, digital prints, drawings and other installation elements. Informed by both visual art and poetry, her project seizes on the constraints of Microsoft Word and Photoshop as a generative starting place for her inquiry. It takes to Word’s virtual ‘page’ with blinking cursor, making new metaphors from these two elements:  a post-modern monochrome and the winking eyelash of the poet who stares into the void of a new blank document.

Exfoliate. Tighten. Whiten. Pores less zen.

In the interval between speech and recognition, in that quiet valley of a blank in which the eyelash spoke to me. That moment felt like the edge, like performing a full split, like having the perfect arc in my foot. Awakened from that sluicy haze and taken to the margin’s chasm I let out a giant sigh of relief; to be emptied of an identity allowed me to enjoy the lack around me, it felt like wearing lace.

The Eyelash dramatizes the blankness before me. It personifies time, it is a comfort stuck in time. It turned the blank, from a curvy void into a rectangle. It’s edges block, a cliché of prison doodles, trapped in a cube, timid to door knobs, fretting grey, smug relaxed or hanging from a peg. To smear, to towel, to door, to floor, to wax. The edges are the limits whose pores for sure are blurred.

Is the Eyelash all I need to draw to make a perversity? I took a picture of the one I saw on my cheek this morning. I found it more difficult to capture than my pores. Eyelash extension, classic brush stroke on the corners of two young oranges, tendril over eye, cartooning the difference. Baby doll lower ones. Load the brush and dab gently and shiver slightly for cute, fit effect.

A cute curse.

Please elaborate, but cute.

The comic invented Nermel to place his bitterness towards acuteness.

The Eyelash is thin and even when I first saw it as the cat’s smile, as the vertical length of the default cursor out of which words flowed, slowly medicated your mind or you slowly meditated on it’s regular pulse you would see the end points of the pole curve as though you had fallen into a lull.

It started like

I stared at the chaste white monochrome for three days. A black line the width and length of a single eyelash, blinked. Occasionally it moved across the blank. This eyelash ... it pressed against, it pushed the Letter within a preset margin invisible to the naked eye. Empty until the symbols articulating space began to fill it.” 
¹ ⁴

The environment of the screen, including words and the image-plane context they drift into, is lifted by La Melia as an object-image. She speaks of and through the experience of writing, and (with a tendency that can be likened to Gysin or Nichol) redirects the context, processes and tools of the computer. All aspects have been ingested into the form of the work. The known constraints of the screen are abused through wordplay and spun into collage forms, allowing The Eyelash and the Monochrome to speak to what metaphorical spaces have come lately from our interactions with computers. Her project commits to a continuation of undoing the computer interface as a straightforward tool, returning to play and pun but expanding the cut-up idea beyond text on page to enclose the entire experience of the screen.

In the introduction to this text I spoke to the notable erasure of user control in favour of the delivery of content through digital tools.  Here, the tendency of the artists brought together is to draw upon such problems and instead make spirited situations for language; taking apart assumptions about what a phrase, a sheet of paper, a screen, or a terminal should do.  Computers have become so ubiquitous and simultaneously increasingly impenetrable, unknowable. But in this space they return to thought, and can be taken apart again - dissected in their experience instead of their form.

By carving out a small space here I wish to challenge the obstinate state of the rigidly designed contemporary computer. In exposing what artists think computers should do, can be, these projects can help us. What they recognize is where you might start: by seeing that what faces you right now is a context, a language. Built and described by others, to compute is to engage in a form of communication, one that can be re-configured according to our desire and ability.

This visual language we are confronted with is merely one translation, and there is much more to read underneath.



1 — See: Olia Lialina, Not Art&Tech http://contemporary-home-computing.org/art-and-tech/not/ and Lori Emerson,  Reading Writing Interfaces, (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2014).  These texts provided key influences on the present exhibition.

Media Poetics: the Cut, the Context and the Cute

1 — An important historical account of the various methods and adoptions of media literature has been undertaken by C.T. Funkhouser in Prehistoric Digital Poetry. Rather than reiterate such a historical survey by looking for similar unique projects (like Allison Knowles and James Tenney’s wonderful A House of Dust http://zachwhalen.net/pg/dust/ which is ‘simulated’ online), in conceiving of locally resonant works to bring to TERMINAL, I have chosen a particular affirmation of playfully-spirited cross disciplinary practices that extend to the present.

2 — Punning aside, Vancouver does have a local undercurrent of electronic music, and media-based visual practices steeped in technology, which has contributed to a particular local awareness of media art. At times the creedence afforded to these practices seems to remain with hindsight, as a celebration of our mythical art heroes in Intermedia (who experimented across technical platforms, brought video cameras into the mix with film, etc.), for example, or early mutli-media spectacles like the Tripps Festival. This city also has a well-documented history of video production and new media experimentation at artist-run centres like VIVO Media Arts Centre and the Western Front, and yet the level of contemporary awareness in Vancouver of media-based work rests on a subcultural level.  It is possible that everyone was literally outside having a hike in the hills throughout the 90s, rather than playing video games in their parents’ basement, making BBS bulletin boards or joining surf clubs. TERMINAL will attempt to root its analyses and observations in an awareness of relevant media that has been made or has circulated on this coast.

3 — For an excellent overview on the highlights of Gysin’s biography and career view Marina Cashdan’s interview with Laura Hoptman, curator of the New Museum exhibition Brion Gysin: Dreamachine, for The White Review, viewable online: http://www.thewhitereview.org/art/the-idea-machine-brion-gysin/.

4 — Brion Gysin quoted in Jason Weiss, Writing At Risk: Interviews in Paris with Uncommon Writers, (Iowa, University of Iowa Press, 1991, pp 71.

5 — Gysin, Brion. “Cut-Ups Self-Explained”, in Back in No Time: The Brion Gysin Reader. Jason Weiss ed. (Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 2001), pp. 132.

6 — Other citations of Gysin’s poems and the poet’s writing about the cut up method similarly point to the idea that it was an emancipation from authorial control that he sought. A simple online tool replicates his ‘cut-up’ process for users who wish make their own versions. See http://permutations.pleintekst.nl/gysin/cut-up.cgi

7 — See. Scott Watson, “Urban Renewl, Ghost Traps, Collage, Condos, and Squats,” Vancouver Art in the 60’s, http://vancouverartinthesixties.com/essays/urban-renewal.  

8 — Gysin spent a small amount of time in Vancouver during his service in the military, as outlined in the biography Nothing Is True-Everything is Permitted: The Life of Brion Gysin, but his influence on the art scene has mainly been noted in terms of his contribution to concrete poetry through selected acquisitions and exhibitions.  See http://belkin.ubc.ca/past/RecentAcquisitionstotheCollection and http://belkin.ubc.ca/past/breathless-days-1959-1960

9 — Emerson, 71.

10 — Kerry Doran “Speaking in Code” Rhizome, March 5, 2015. http://rhizome.org/editorial/2015/mar/05/speaking-code/ Accessed on August 26, 2016.

11 — Emerson, 67. Emerson’s close readings of several poems in the project is included as a resource in the TERMINAL installation space.  Nichol’s project (and Emerson’s deft analysis) has been similarly acknowledged by Kerry Doran in a recent article for the popular online art journal Rhizome. See: Kerry Doran “Speaking in Code” Rhizome, March 5, 2015. http://rhizome.org/editorial/2015/mar/05/speaking-code/ Accessed on August 26, 2016.  Alongside my earlier mention of seeing this work on view in Oakville just one month before the launch of this project, every indication is that First Screening has reached a stage of particular relevance, perhaps partly due to the increasing interest in media archeology as both a study and a practice.

12 — Following my initial discovery of the Hypercard iteration of the poems, an online search turned up the exhaustive work to preserve the piece that is now housed on vispo.com. The technical details outlined by Jim Andrews made clear that the Hypercard format was already an upgraded re-issue of the original 5.25 floppy work, first published by in 1984.

13 — Thanks to curator Frances Loeffler for the tour and discussion of the works at Down to Write You This Poem Sat, on view at Oakville Galleries throughout summer 2016. The exhibition website is here:  http://www.oakvillegalleries.com/exhibitions/details/123/Down-To-Write-You-This-Poem-Sat with further details about artists presented.

14 — Tiziana La Melia, The Eyelash and the Monochrome Transcript from Photoshop & Draft # 4, unpublished, 2016.