Hot on the heels of a Canada Council summit, aimed at supporting and promoting the art community’s use of ‘the digital,’ this, the final installation of TERMINAL takes a dystopian turn. Its focus is ostensibly social media, or perhaps better said, the move of sociability into deterministic online spaces for exchange. It is subtitled “Anti-Social Media,” which should give an immediate insight into my views on the world that our interfaces, here styled as data portals, have come to resemble.
The project, from its outset, has had at its core the notion of taking stock, or looking through various iterations of hardware and software that have been taken up by artists. Today’s computers, much as they bear the history of their development, now popularly function as a route for showing and sharing. Visual research is ongoing, where the surface and image are intermixed with other forms of content, both visible and hidden. The power to use both of these constructs of online interfaces to influence the format of our engagement with one another is one of the biggest problems we face today as citizens (and not, as some would term us users, ‘consumers’).
The very last text published as part of this project is the first one I commissioned; sparked by a spontaneous facebook comment by artist Jean-Paul Kelly that I have been drawn back to more than once. On March 25, 2016, he publicly considered the question:
“When is the turgid fetishization of the digital interface going to be curtailed by artists (or curators, or writers)? When is the interface going to be activated by meaningful inquiry that has individual, idiosyncratic nuance, rather than by the basest of gurgling questions of subjectivity and desire directed for or by a user and their safety and pleasure?...” (see his full quote below)
At my invitation, Kelly goes on to elaborate. He draws out the elements of a selection of practices, housed and consumed largely online, that to his careful eyes reproduce modernist formalism. He draws on the agenda of the interpreters of Op Art and then returns our attention to present moment, when the surface and ‘technology’ (or, its look) can characterize the underlying approach of the artist. Here, he inserts a critical formal dialogue, a labour that we must all undertake if we are to find an ethics to bring to bear on works we view online today. His measure and testing leads him to a central question: “what happens when what I make looks like the world it was made in?”
I also return to this question as I consider art on or about social media. It doesn’t take much to recognize that the Internet, built largely with public money, on the back of military technology, has been reclassified from a space of potential for ‘peers’ to the praying ground of the corporate individual. Yet, in pointing out this often-repeated ‘fact’, I also wish to attend to nuance. Some constitutive elements of the problem include the ‘real’ articulations of corporate mottos and ethical statements (Facebook: “Move Fast, Break Things”, Google: “Don’t Be Evil”, now Alphabet: “Do the right thing”) of those companies through whose online filters we consume each other’s data. This is the terrain in which we find Desearch Repartment, a duo of artists who have been attempting at great pains to build a social media platform called State of Exceptional Webnation, as part of a larger critique of image culture and media hyperbole that saturates online forms of communication.
Part satire, part game, part artwork, State of Exceptional Webnation is an attempt (in progress) to vaporize the pretense that online citizenship can escape the complex set of conundrums that we find around ourselves IRL. Not at all pleasant, this nation of hyperbolic gestures and social contortions is downright offensive, by design. Our online citizenship in SOE reminds us of the myriad offenses present in a Western dominant hyper-neoliberal global state (of being). Trudging out all and any of the ongoing worst offenders of rampant celebrity and political culture, the work is characterized by a mindless consumption of images and a greedy desire for entertainment at every turn. The duo saturate users to a critical tipping point of self-reflexive questioning, which, following Kelly, I would phrase as: “Is this any different from the world?”
The dystopian in me says no. The utopian in me says yes.
So, if what little spaces were carved out for sociability have become subject to a form of corporate colonization that we are all too familiar with, and the pervasion of the technocratic state and corporate culture is slowly pressing into the nooks and crannies of our digital lives, where can we take our next steps? Perhaps, we ought not to look in the same old places.
On a recent trip to the Philippines, I ordered up a data plan for one month of use, to better facilitate getting to and fro, and to stay connected, stay working, stay available to and with my friends, family and colleagues back home. Interestingly, Facebook was free as a feature of this plan (a corporate subsidy or agreement with the ISP, I will assume). This effectively made it possible to connect through it anywhere without the need to conserve content updates for lack of precious data resources. And yet, the speed at which things progressed made using it less desireable. The Internet as a whole oftern felt like a huge waste of time.
Aha! Introducing a slight friction to the otherwise well-oiled system made it easier to resist the siren call of connectivity. Behaviour by design.
Resistance, friction, both incidental and intentional has now become a necessity for democratic functionality, online and off. At the aforementioned Canada Council Digital Summit, Astra Taylor offered a call to action: how can we occupy the Internet? To which I might add: what is a form of dissent? And how is art involved in it? To what degree is art necessary to this question? To answer this, we must recognize the conditions under which we create, and address them. Instead of looking endlessly into the black mirror’s dystopian reflection of our future, time and again, artists can choose invade it. In ways big and small, we might start to supplant the pervasion of the technocratic state that threatens to mine all corners of our sociability for their gain.
Operating under different orders, styles, forms and means, all of the artist in this series offer works that have propagated because technologies made them possible, but also because they could imagine their way through the technology into ideas, gestures, expressions, statements and formulations that are both ‘like the world,’ and a little more. The seductive surface of the screen may be today's interface, but technology remains a tool. It is made up of specific constitutive elements that can present as space, as gateway, as appendage, as outlet, or perhaps, one day, as a shield. It is only through our consciousness of context, and the critical labour that follows that we can avoid repeating predictable outcomes, instill frictions, question beliefs and assumptions, and offer new forms or terms of engagement.
In October 1964, Arts Magazine published a column of Donald Judd’s writing on Julian Stanczak’s Optical Paintings exhibition at Martha Jackson Gallery. Ending his review with language as smooth and abrupt as his own work, and the staccato of a Trumpian tweet, Judd disparages the work’s focus on retinal effect: “Optical effects are one thing, a narrow phenomenon, and color effects are another, a wide range. Op art. – D.J.”1 This short critique, which is widely acknowledged to mark the first printed use of the term ‘Op art,’ is a glance into a simmering ambivalence to perceptually driven painting and sculpture of the time and its nascent exploration of illusionism that many, including Judd, maintained. (See the casual deprecation of Bridget Riley made evident by the misspelling of her name as "Brigitte" by Arts Magazine copy editors, a coquettish diminution.) A passing vacillation that would emerge into a broader and more concerted set of assessments in response to the Museum of Modern Art’s notoriously popular exhibition, The Responsive Eye presenting work, described by its curator, William C. Seitz, as “generators of perceptual responses”2:
The responses are by no means merely retinal, and they vary widely from optical tensions and fusions of color or tone to sonorous interactions between hues of the spectrum, retroactive effects of flatness, advance and recession, and arrangements of shapes, lines and patterns that exert a control over perception capable of arousing delight, anxiety and even vertigo.
Two of the most layered and scathing contemporaneous criticisms of The Responsive Eye interrogate the gimmickry of illusionistic literalism in the exhibition through related, but divergent, routes: the artwork as facile, and the promotion of its shallow practices as careless. Rosalind Krauss’ “Afterthoughts on ‘Op’” in the June 1965 edition of Art International critiques the works included in The Responsive Eye as primarily characteristic of a “single vein” of trompe l’oeil that “has not really moved away from the idea of the picture as unified and organized by illusionistic projection.”4 While Barbara Rose, writing in Artforum earlier that year, levelled the majority of her harsh appraisal at the “irresponsible and dangerous” titillation and trend-spotting of the museum (and Seitz as its functionary), popularizing
though we will not have folk art in our mass society, we will surely have art low in content and high in technique, which appropriately enough to the terms of modern life deals with the sensation and not with feeling.5
Both writers delimit the failure of Op art as a failure of depth. For Krauss, what pulses and scintillates off of these works attests to a “monomaniacal concern” with artifice and deception; describing Op art as “textural” and “aimed at achieving the coherent illusion of a tactile object, or surface”.6 For Rose, Optical art is nothing more than conservatism that has “effects as the ends in themselves”.7 Countering Seitz’ initial press release, she laments that too much of The Responsive Eye was “empty and spiritless” science.8 Furthermore, both denigrate the broader superficiality and lack of analytic depth in The Responsive Eye by employing the same indignity, referring to the curation as “journalism as opposed to serious, far-reaching criticism” (Krauss), or “journalistic art history” (Rose).
Of course, much of the irritation that courses through the critiques of Judd, Krauss and Rose is a feature of the period, dealing with the historical weight of ocularcentrism, pitted against the manifest destiny of American Abstract Expressionism, and lurching toward transformational dematerialist conceptualism.9 However elemental the innovations of The Responsive Eye–however much it depended on optical “sensation” and not “feeling”–it did, at the very least, generate a public entry point to consider what representations mediated by mechanical interfaces or made by exploiting the effects of vision could do. While looking at work like Victor Vasarley’s
...these are the creations of artists, not the research of scientists or technicians. Certain of the painters and constructors to be shown proceed as coldly and programmatically as computors. Others are poetic, musical or mystical in spirit, and these two extremes sometimes exist together. Yet none of them follows systems or rules: rather, they discover inherent laws through creative experience.10
A superimposed grid of lines appears atop found images at various intervals in both Jon Rafman’s Erysichthon (8-min., 2015) and James Richards’ Radio at Night (8-min., 2015); and in both instances this device provides a planar surface through which to deconstruct our absorption of the underlying appropriated material.
In the case of Rafman’s work, the grid is inserted against photographs of struggling or dying animals or animal corpses that have circulated online: a toad devouring a mouse, a bloody battle between sea lions, the frozen carcass of an elk, a baboon drowning, amongst others. Later in Erysichthon, this visual aid accompanies more abstract, yet equally as looming, pics: an infra-red photograph of the sky dotted with birds in flight, an image of melted Sony electronics, a sinkhole in water. The first array of animal images is presented along with a generic sounding augmented voice, filtered to mimic computer-generation, that guides us through the images, affirming the function of the grid:
If you look at these images enough you begin feeling like you composed them; that you took the photo. You remember the dream in which you had glimpsed the germ of the idea. These images, posted at random and forgotten, have ways of permeating their surroundings; of affecting you, even if you are barely conscious of perceiving them.
This voice–one of two augmented voices that resound throughout the video–acts, as it does in far too many artists videos, as a pithy strategy to critique ‘direct address’. This synthesis of electronic speech delivered in voice-over with our contemporary (digital) world-wary skepticism of received-knowledge is such an overdetermined aesthetic tactic that it has become rote. Rafman weilds it as vernacular; endemic of his broader practice, his use of voice as a form probes at the intersections of technological distance and the turbulence of techno-democratic potential11. Through the darkness of Rafman’s pseudo-philosophical contemplations, his ‘direct voice’ alludes to the ‘marginal,’ libertarian online spaces that he culls for material. Given the circulation of bigotry and ‘alternative facts’ in discussion communities like Reddit, this field of inquiry is imperative, if not now a well trodden path. Rafman’s take is cold, and this severity is demonstrable of the automation in the underlying material. What raises my ire when watching Erysichthon is that these essential technological allegories are made unstratified and laid bare. Through its form it proposes a neutrality that is simultaneously an adherence to a techno-capitalist fetish for the utopian potential of electronic dispersion and a stoic, disillusioned lamentation of its actual use. The work’s final voiced passage attests to a cliché of Millennial disenchantment, “What can you do with the void except fall into it.” Erysichthon strikes me as conservative at best, moralistic at worst.
Erysichthon is part of a growing lineage of recent video works that, to wildly varying degrees of intensity and success, employ the computer interface as a formal foil to significant inquiries into what it means to make images today. Not disconnected from the reflexive roots of early processed video art, artists like Richards, Ed Atkins
Like his use of a structuralist grid, Rafman’s voice application rarely, if ever, extends beyond the surface; that is, beyond a very immediate manifestation of the screen interface–that interface between the human and the computer, with its shared boundaries mediated by hardware displaying virtual desktops and application viewer windows, indicating sounds and allowing for touch navigation. Although this (the surface itself) may be the work’s formal subject, Erysichthon is, in effect, nothing more than a presentation of material. Its title refers to the myth of a Greek King cursed with an insatiable hunger that eventually turns inward; among it various images are video clips of a snake eating its tail (an ouroboros) and navigation of a computer-generated and seemingly endless server room. Rafman and his vocal surrogates act as chaperons through the material of ‘underground’ chatrooms and social-image aggregation sites, and in doing so, ironically, duplicate the ‘direct address’ familiar to a didactic documentary form. Through the ‘direct voice’ of Rafman’s ersatz Foucauldian archeology there is a kind of Marxist rationality–a blatant dialectic materialism–at work. While perhaps prognostic, this does nothing to illuminate anything that we could not otherwise come to through directing our own screens and devices. In Rafman’s pseudo-institutional analysis of the Internet–or the particular portion of it that hovers at the surface as an image-based culture of consumption–the subject comes back so slightly abstracted that we are never offered a position from which to look anew.
Erysichthon is primarily a short-length video essay that weaves discordant parts into a whole from which, to a greater or lesser extent, a range of contiguous meanings emerge. And like those artists who have excelled at the form–Chris Marker, Harun Farocki, John Akomfrah, Steve Reinke, Hito Steyerl–Rafman employs editing techniques that vary in their application. Like the essay films/videos by these artists, in Erysichthon interpretation of the work as a whole, as well as its individual internal sequences, must be built sequentially and retrospectively through the artist’s approach to composition and ordering. Where the formal strategies used in Erysichthon depart and disappoint is at the crucial intersection of form and content: the superficiality and didacticism of Rafman’s video, though a conceptual gambit, appear at the cost of texture and nuance in terms of both the resolution of subjectivity through the image and the image itself. When artists such as Farocki or Steyerl have created self-reflexive works that prod at perception and technology–for instance, Images of the World and the Inscription of War
The toad and mouse, the sea lions, the elk, and all the other battered and eviscerated animals beneath Rafman’s visual grid remain, incongruously, whole. In Erysichthon these photos are never decomparmentalized; we remain at the surface of the screen, in a kind of clinical disassociation from their transgressive potential. And again, though this may be the conceptual success of the work, it does not compel me. Unlike in other essay films, collagist videos or net-based works, I am not induced by any intellectual, abstract play of figure-ground; where assembled parts appear both portional and whole, where our shared boundary with technology is directionally confused. Here, the optical device has lost its allegorical function, as one text–the image–is not “read through” another–the grid–and vice versa; as Craig Owens, alluding to Northrop Frye, once meticulously analyzed12. Unlike the furtive gestalt receptions of Op art that call us to dissect the illusions of figure-ground relationships, in Erysichthon we remain looking at two materially distinct sources–lines crossing at right-angles to form a grid atop–and separate from–a pic of graffiti on the corpse of a deer. The components of Rafman’s assemblage retain their “science”, to recall Rose’s critique of The Responsive Eye; never ruminatively moving from pure “sensation” toward emotional or intellectual “feeling”. Such is the case in an artworld where once important (Marxist) materialism has given way to treasonous didacticism; where the transcendental is opined as always retaining the dangers of humanist universalism and rarely admitted its productive transgression of boundaries. It’s all fairly galling: works like Bridget Riley’s or Julian Stanczak’s that ignite through sensation, opening a defamiliarized perceptual space, are still often maligned; whereas, the gratuitous envogue of videos, like Erysichthon, that celebrate an orthodox objectivity guised as ‘vision,’ belies the reality that such work is a callous end-game that forecloses any way out.
James Richards' exploration of the grid and other “shallow ‘surfaces’” does something substantially different than Rafman’s, exploiting sensation as a means to engage with a subjectivity felt through contemporary technological mediation. As writer Chris McCormack has incisively articulated:
By weaving sensual, haptic sways of material together, Richards reveals how ‘ourselves’–the appearances of humanity–seem to have been rendered in the past tense, as series of images to be objectively studies and reviewed. Vagaries and fog-like encounters between individuality and the ‘civic’ world–increasingly enmeshed, shaped and informed by technological spheres, from touch-screen interfaces, multi-user or post-generated attachments or re-attachments and endless social media expressions–rise up over these spaces with a haunting sense of melancholy. Subjectivity has lost even ‘intuition’s assurances’, as Lauren Berlant has observed. However, there ‘losses’ are not so much reconfigured in a positivized sense as felt or glimpsed at.13
The ‘surface’ in Radio at Night is introduced by the appearance of a grid subjacent to a quickly looping tracking shot of a marshy forest and centered as a square against a black background in wide-screen aspect ratio. Technically, this is a way for Richards to present compressed source material from older media standards in a high-definition space, but in this context, the grid and underlying recording also read as one object suspended in the space of the screen. Gradually, a buzzing audio tone amplifies in seeming correspondence with the rhythm of the camera track and its loop, out of which a single voice emerges, and begins a round followed by layered chorus of the same round at different pitches: “Bare down. Bare down; breathe.” Later in a similarly structured sequence in Richards’ abstract essayist form, the grid reappears without the forrest and now integrated with the recording of an optician’s exam; the eye under evaluation slightly rotating in a stunted loop, its movements merged to the colloquial clicking sound of scrolling with a digital app’s cursor. Even later, the grid is paired with a loop of two figures who grope each other beneath a shared bed sheet illuminated from within. These combinatorial ‘objects’–grid and image–engage our perceptions much like time spent decoding the experience of a Riley or Stanczak. Such objects are simultaneously unabridged, containing a confusion of possible perceptual directions, while still pronouncing their material attributes: “My working process has always begun with the idea of collage; of bringing disparate things together in such a way as to make something new, but also to keep hold of the sense of those fragments being very different—or from very different sources—each with a life of its own.”14
Both Radio at Night and Erysichthon are investigations into sight and perception and both Richards and Rafman mine personally amassed and cultivated archives of found images to facilitate their studies. Aside from the grid, both works feature found recordings of retinal exams or scans as a primary visual trope. Of course, there are important differences in the sources used by the artists. Rafman’s primary references are delimited to still and moving images found in online recesses, as well as self-recorded and programmed materials that explore our quotidian technological interactions along with the use of more emergent digital tools, such as VR. Richards’ excavations of online sources are also accompanied by obtuse videos and audio created himself with inexpensive, widely accessible recording devices, but his practice is also mediated by the use of found tapes, DVDs and Blu-rays from institutional archives, charity shops, personal consumption and circulated through friends. Furthermore, Richards increasingly concentrates on building installations out of layered audio alone. With these distinctions in mind, the images used in Erysichthon do so closely resemble many of visual materials employed by Richards over the past 10-years that one could easily image the artists accessing a shared collection; that is, such an assumption could be made if it were not for the considerable disparity in the breadth with which Richards facilitates his work. Where Erysichthon is unfeeling and moderate, Radio at Night, through its textural invigoration and complex secretive seductions, requests feeling and invites a floaty insobriety. The work transgresses boundaries, both material and social, in the ways that Rafman’s should.
Nowhere is the disproportionate richness of these texts so evident as in the transcendent middle passage of Radio at Night; a collage of still and moving images, seen in strips and treated in tonal black and white, that–to borrow a word from Richards–'smear' through a continuous pan. This succession of images of processed flesh–suspended animal carcasses, close ups of hair follicles rooted into skin, a wound or an anus, an operating theatre–appear crisp, moving left to right, altering between positive and negative transparency modes. Calling to mind the experience of scrolling through a horizontal Tumblr page, Richards’ editorial hand is opaque, offering a layered progression that operates with a logic of its own; humming and hovering smoothly, propelled by a guttering soundtrack incantation of glottal-stop-like aspirations. It is dense and unremitting in its attraction–and through its abstraction, creates a threshold as a substantial vantage point at which to consider one’s own knotty subjectivity and desire.
Though mediated by similar screens, the granularity of Richards’ images and sounds stand in sharp contrast to the superficiality of Rafman’s evocation of the interface. Ultimately, this is an achievement of editing. While Erysichthon’s transitions and transparency-layer maskings are placed with expectation, a lack of sophistication and inelegant conspicuousness–appearing with unarticulated “transitional grammar,” as simulations of motion tracking controls, or as weak, meme-like composites into tired stock imagery of users holding mobiles devices–Radio at Night develops through, and is constituted by, an understanding of found images steeped in the patient subjectivity of looking and the change that looking erupts. Dan Fox has quoted Richards likening his process of image selection and use as akin to electronic music audio sampling, “the sensation of ‘listening to someone listening’”15. Elsewhere, Richards has spoken of this intensive absorption into material use–both one’s own and another’s–as a means to filter and articulate an abstract experience:
I think a lot of the work in editing or composing a piece is in feeling out the internal rhythms of the footage that I'm using, and letting that guide the sound of a particular section and how I work it into the next. One of the things I try to do in my work is rein in or curb randomness to just the right degree; to produce something that is perfectly illogical or somehow off. So it's a matter of finding the right balance to this, the right disruption. A few years back I was introduced to a wonderful and succinct term at a talk by Cerith Wyn Evans and John Stezaker. Cerith said that John, who taught him at Central Saint Martins in the late 1970s, described "spot off-ness" rather than the spot-on. This term captures the perfectly jarring cut or shift that makes an artwork linger in the mind of the viewer.16
Though Richards invokes Stezaker and Evans here to speak of an abstract strategy across disciplines, the ability to modulate between what is ‘on’ or ‘off’ takes a certain level of speciality. Radio at Night reads as a collection of materials organized to tease out our senses through the discipline of video; unlike Erysichthon, it is not content to be an addendum to the postinternet.
In a 1996 essay, “Looking through Video: The Psychology of Video and Film,” John Belton outlines an epistemology of video and the roots of its ontological difference from film through its connections to the development of audio transmission technologies:
Television, like radio, is largely a medium of transmission. Indeed, the technology of transmission emerged independently of concerns for the content of what was transmitted. As Raymond Williams notes, “Unlike all previous communications technologies, radio and television were systems primarily devised for transmission and reception as abstract processes, with little or no definition of preceding content.”… Television technology takes preconstructed material and relays it to a receiver somewhere else. The form and content of this material preexists its transmission and is not significantly altered in its transmission… To some extent, the material that is transmitted is determined and given shape by the techniques and technology of television-televisual recording and editing practices influence the way(s) in which the medium uses TV cameras, lighting, editing, and sound. But the technology of television remains a transmission technology.17
In a changed media landscape in which television or radio programming are vestiges of “determined” and “shaped” reception, the form of transmission that Belton describes is a sort of contagion in a sterile environment; carriers of privilege, institutional bigotry and immobility that are substantially remitted by socially-networked technologies. Given that the translation of dispersed and reused material into video–in cinema screening, installation or returned online–is dependent upon this technology of “transmission and reception as abstract processes,” it is imperative that abstraction, that intentional limitation of representation, must be a constituent part of the work and its reception.
It strikes me as strange that other works like Erysichthon that, in part, ‘work-through’ networked image streams (perhaps most directly, Evans’ Hyperlinks or It Didn’t Happen
Earlier, I borrowed the phrase “transitional grammar” from Tom Sherman
...the most important thing is to identify the rules the artist is applying to the task at hand and to see if he or she is being consistent in applying these rules. Each artifact or object of thought can be seen as a kind of spaceship, a craft that travels through space and time. If this spaceship is poorly constructed, it will fly apart or get spread thin over time, until it disintegrates or simply disappears. The internal logic of a work is the structure that holds the ship together. Content, form, proportion, intent and context are all important, but it is the care and consistency of concentrated intelligence, the record of decisions in the act of making and displaying, that defines the work of art and determines aesthetic integrity.18
The combination of “aesthetic strategies”–decisions that knit together what is seen–not only define the material but also mark that material with the subjectivities of its use. There may not be so indirect a connection between the “care” that Sherman writes of when describing effective edits and the Lacanian axiom, by way of Žižek, to “Love your symptom as yourself!”.19 Of course, a careful awareness of how to weld an edit is not the same as reproducing a symptom. As Richards’ and Ed Atkins have themselves warned:
EA: There is a perversity in trying to make symptomatic artwork. In fact, it’s absurd to make one, because a symptom should be a symptom.
JR: It’s a fetishisation. An artwork as an expression of blankness.20
Richards allusive editing suggests an abstract subjectivity behind the formal strategy, one that we can project onto but never know completely–this is the marvel of his work. In Erysichthon, Rafman’s objective editorial process constitutes these formal markers as known and immobile.
Such editorial signs can be read semiotically, as both denotative indicator and connotative inference. Further still, to continue a Lacanian deconstruction (via Roman Jakobson), all signification–and the knowledge of one’s desire–rests on such points: the ‘pointe de capiton’ or ‘quilting points’ that firm up our comprehension of the world through language, vertically rooting down metaphoric comparisons while simultaneously, horizontally deferring–or ‘smearing’ to invoke Richards–the stability of finite meaning through metonymic contiguity.21 For those experienced with Non-Linear video editing timelines–or with Linear editing or flatbed editing, for that matter–the value of this larger metaphor may be profound.22 After all, our digital interfaces are designed with these allegories in mind: the horizontal time line structure of Final Cut or Premiere; the vertical compositing layers of After Effects; the rhizomatic node-based workflow of more specialized compositing and programming software; or the combination of these spatial allusions in many 3D animation and audio applications. By this line of thinking, the ubiquity of artist’s videos that visually manifest digital image workflow through allusions to the interface is not so dissimilar to various historical preoccupations with form as content, or to reassert Rose’s critique, “effects as the ends in themselves”; no one said that ‘zombie-formalism’ had to be about painting alone.
Of course, as Sherman states in his generous text, “Machine Aesthetics Are Always Modern,”: “Literacy plays a factor in how an effect or distortion is read. Those who implement, program or cause effects have a different reading of these effects than those who experience them without knowledge of how they were caused.”23 Consequently, given the important and ongoing shift in the use and reuse of network-accessed imagery by artists and non-artists alike, our collective literacy has changed. The difference between a meme and an artwork is often one of position; and to substantiate that the former has as much radical potential as the latter all any gallery survey or undergraduate course on media art in the past twenty years has had to do is reference the clairvoyance of Lev Manovich, Seth Price or Hito Steyerl. What is troubling here, is that works like Erysichthon continue to emerge; works that are irrespective of audiences’ highly articulate knowledge and use of the same material interface. Given our shared breadth of knowledge into the use and reuse of networked images–something that cannot be said of painting or sculpture–it seems illogical not to respond critically to that impressive understanding with modalities that respect or challenge it.
Networked access has engendered a crucial rupture to hierarchical streams of production; whether it be programming a VR sculpture or the activation of the “poor image”24 in a single-channel work, video’s contact with networked image practices has enabled marginalized subjectivities to represent and be represented through complex processes for decolonizing space–both online and offline. By welding the same tools and systems that have established and reinforced the divisions between bodies in those spaces, image users have variously called upon the interface for its emancipatory potential. Directness and clarity are often a necessary stalwarts of effective change; but not always. As Sondra Perry has said:
…abstraction then gives me a type of freedom of expression, an expanding of the visual language. But the issue I have with abstraction is that in art it is perceived as a neutral act. Abstraction isn’t neutral. Abstraction allows you to turn an entire group of people into a monolith. And when political abstractions happen over marginalized bodies, that’s a huge issue. But at the same time, there’s a tremendous amount of power you can give or gain through this, the use of this concept. That idea is core to my work, the questions of: What does abstraction do, and how can I use it responsibly?”25
Perry’s mesmerizing Double Quadruple Etcetera Etcetera I
Sherman’s text is featured in the imperative The Emergence of Video Processing Tools: Television Becoming Unglued
The morphology of the signal, analogous to the plastic form of abstract painting, becomes the content of the work. This echoes the Greenbergian story of art, where form is the content of the work. Clement Greenberg’s theoretical tenets capped 90 years of modernism, from Impressionism to modernism’s apocalyptic demise as Pop Art emerged in 1962. The implosion of modernism as advertising swamped art and eroded the control structure that kept feminism; gender issues; sexual politics; environmental movements; aboriginal, racial, cultural differences; all that is postmodern at bay throughout the nearly century-long modern period… Abstraction was not central to the multiple political revolutions of postmodernity. The chaotic pluralism of the postmodern period was not about to be dominated by the rigid exclusivity of machine aesthetics. Modernism’s best chance for a twenty-first-century rebound lies in analytics: the formal, mathematical analysis of image and sound stemming from AI research. Whether analytics are used for security, as in applications of face-recognition systems, or in design as attempts to scientifically construct beautiful images, analytics will likely form the spine of the new modernism: an all-encompassing, universal credo that operates counter to the unmanageable sprawl of postmodern plurality.29
Such essentialism would fly in the face of what Halter envisions from “materialist film”:
…the quality encounter between the viewer and that object. It describes an experience of tension between perceiving the form and the content, the graphic and the photographic–between looking at the projected image, like the flatness of an Abstract Expressionist painting, or looking through it, as if it were a window, towards a ‘supposed reality’. In cognitive psychology, such vacillation is known as multistable perception. Ludwig Wittgenstein described a similar mental flip-flopping as ‘aspect seeing’…30
Halter’s ‘anti-solipsism’ and Sherman’s ‘inventory’ of strategies provide necessary rigor to defining that formal space of technologically mediated artwork but, in the end, both veer away from espousing the value of transcendence, also traditionally associated with modernist abstraction. Sherman’s generously impartial text is too principled to assert it, and Halter’s rebukes it as “counter-” to materialism, but it is difficult to deny the transcendental force of works like Richards’ or Perry’s, a force that works through the formalization of subjectivity.
As a sufferer of acephalgic or ‘silent’ migraines I know very well the process of diagnosing an inventory of triggers and symptoms to define something that seems illusive. Even the name of the condition is multivalent: ‘migraine aura without headache,’ ‘isolated visual migraine,’ ‘optical migraine’. Like many, I work around the disorder; their frequency often means making work–art or writing–through them. The most common feature of the neurological syndrome is the appearance of visual distortions, especially scintillating scotoma, spots of flickering and expanding light forming patterns in the center of my field of vision. Oliver Sacks wrote a book on the condition with exhaustive descriptions of the ocular symptoms accompanied by fascinating research into the history of their visual representation.31 The best way I can describe these symptoms is by invoking the persistent afterimages or optical responses one has when looking intently at Op art, especially in work by Riley or Stanczak. But these materialist accounts provide only a partial analysis. Twinned with the migraines are phenomena of ‘consciousness’ more imprecisely associated with ideas of one’s mental or emotional subjectivity: alterations of mood, depression or manic euphoria, a certain feeling of ‘off-centeredness’. However separate or erroneous the philosophy is to the science, my self-identity has been remarkably shaped by these forces. Sometimes specific sounds, smells, tastes, light and images can trigger these effects. I get them from looking at the computer screen for too long. I have experienced migraines from Vasarley’s paintings. So, I have to counter Barbara Rose’s statement that Op art is “expressively neutral, having to do with sensation alone.”32 To group the work of Riley, Stanczak, Vasarley, and others associated with Op art, solely through an analysis of formal depth limits the capacity of exchange between subject and subjectivities: after all, “abstraction isn’t neutral”. To do so corrupts the radical emotional, social and political potential of the surface and our interface with it. In works like Erysichthon such neutrality is a modernism past.
1 — Judd, Donald. “Julian Stanczak,” Arts Magazine, Vol. 38, No. 2, October 1964. pp 67-68.
2 — The Museum of Modern Art, “The Responsive Eye: Press Release,” 25 February 1965.
3 — The Museum of Modern Art. Ibid.
4 — Krauss, Rosalind. “Afterthoughts on ‘Op’,” Art International Vol. 9, No. 5, June 1965. pp. 75-76.
5 — Rose, Barbara. “Beyond Veritgo: Optical Art at the Modern,” ArtForum Vol. 3, No. 7, April 1965. pp. 30-33.
6 — Krauss, Ibid.
7 — Rose, Ibid.
8 — Rose, Ibid. Though she praised the “art of the highest order” of Josef Albers, Ad Reinhardt, and Ellsworth Kelly amongst others, Rose abhorred the inclusion of “purely ‘optical’ art, based on textbooks and labratory experiments, theory, equation, and proofs”.
9 — Ann Reynolds detailed discussion of Seitz’s rejection of Robert Smithson’s work for The Responsive Eye provides necessary insight into the shift toward conceptualism. Reynolds, Ann. “The Lessons of Optical Art,” Robert Smithson: Learning from New Jersey and Elsewhere. MIT: Cambridge, 2003. pp. 45-59.
10 — The Museum of Modern Art. Ibid.
11 — For some generous reflections on Rafman’s larger body of work, as profiled in a 2015 solo exhibition at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, including a reading of Erysichthon counter to my own, please see: Twerdy, Saelan. “This Is Where It Ends: The Denouement of Post-Internet Art in Jon Rafman’s Deep Web,” momus.ca, 9 July 2015.
12 — Owens, Craig. "The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism," Beyond Recognition –Representation. Power, and Culture. Scott Bryson, Barbara Kruger, Lynne Tillman, Jane Weinstrock (Eds.), Los Angeles: University California Press, 1994.
13 — McCormack, Chris. “Moments Not Remembered,” ars viva 2014/15. Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz, 2014. pp 124-177. Reprinted in Moving Images/Whitechapel: documents of contemporary art, Omar Kholeif, ed. Whitechapel: London, 2015. For an extension of McCormack’s text see: “The Good Thing About These Moments Is That You Never Remember Them,” in Requests and Antisongs: James Richards, Mason Leaver-Yap and James Richards, eds. Sternberg: Berlin, 2016.
14 — Richards, James and Kari Rittenbach. “More Than A Feeling: An Interview with James Richards,” rhizome.org, 24 September 2013.
15 — Fox, Dan. “Breathing, All Creatures Are,” Requests and Antisongs: James Richards, Mason Leaver-Yap and James Richards, eds. Sternberg: Berlin, 2016.
16 — Richards, James and Kari Rittenbach. “More Than A Feeling: An Interview with James Richards,” rhizome.org, 24 September 2013.
17 — Belton, John. “Looking through Video: The Psychology of Video and Film,” Resolutions: Contemporary Video Practices, Michael Renov and Erika Suderburg, eds. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996. pp. 61-73.
18 — Sherman, Tom. “Machine Aesthetics Are Always Modern,” The Emergence of Video Processing Tools: Television Becoming Unglued, Vol 1. Kathy High, Sherry Miller Hocking, and Mona Jimenez, Eds. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014.
19 — Žižek, Slavoj. Enjoy Your Symptom!: Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out. New York: Routledge, 1992.
20 — Atkins, Ed, Oliver Basciano and James Richards. “Ed Atkins and James Richards,” ArtReview, Issue 64, December 2012.
21 — Evans, Dylan. “Metaphor” and “Metonymy” in An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis. New York: Routledge, 1996.
22 — “This projection of structure as sequence recalls the fact that, in rhetoric, allegory is traditionally defined as a single metaphor introduced in continuous series. If this definition is recast in structuralist terms, then allegory is revealed to be the projection of the metaphoric axis of language onto its metonymic dimension. Roman Jakobson defined this projection of metaphor onto metonymy as the "poetic function," and he went on to associate metaphor with poetry and romanticism, and metonymy with prose and realism.” Owens, Craig. Ibid.
23 — Sherman, Tom. Ibid.
24 — Steyerl, Hito. "In Defense of the Poor Image," E-flux Journal. No. 10, November 2009. <http://www.eflux.com/journal/in-defense-of-the-poor-image/> "The poor image is a copy in motion. Its quality if bad, its resolution substandard. As it accelerates, it deteriorates. It is a ghost of an image, a preview of an image, a preview, a thumbnail, an errant idea, an itinerant imaged distributed for free, squeezed through slow digital connections, compressed, reproduced, ripped, remixed, as well as copied and pasted into other channels of distribution..."
25 — Coon, Ellen. “‘Abstraction isn’t neutral’: Sondra Perry on the NCAA, subjecthood, and her upcoming projects,” ARTnews, 15 March 2016. < http://www.artnews.com/2016/03/15/abstraction-isnt-neutral-sondra-perry-on-the-ncaa-subjecthood-and-her-upcoming-projects/>
26 — Working collaboratively, Steve Reinke and James Richards took part in the ETC artist residency program in 2010 before it was tragically ended a year later.
27 — For further rigorous definition, see: Miller Hocking, Sherry. “The Grammar of Electronic Image Processing,” The Emergence of Video Processing Tools: Television Becoming Unglued, Vol 2. Kathy High, Sherry Miller Hocking, and Mona Jimenez, Eds. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014.
28 — Halter, Ed. extract from “The Matter of Electronics,” Moving Images/Whitechapel: documents of contemporary art, Omar Kholeif, ed. Whitechapel: London, 2015. Originally published in full for the catalog essay for "Playlist: Playing Games, Music Art" at Laboral, Gijon, Spain, 18 December 2009 - 17 May 2010
29 — Sherman, Tom. Ibid.
30 — Halter, Ed. Ibid.
31 — Sasks, Oliver. Migraine. New York: Knopf Doublebday, 1999.
32 — Rose, Barbara. Ibid.
ONLINE WRITING INDEX
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
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
ONLINE WORKS INDEX
Sheryl Kootenyahoo, I See Things
(requires Quicktime v 7)
Melanie Printup Hope
LIST OF CONTRIBUTORS
Paul Chaat Smith
Skawennati Tricia Fragnito
Greg A. Hill
Jason E. Lewis
Melanie Printup Hope
Joseph Tekaroniake Lazare
Trevor Van Weeren
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
NOSTALGIC FOR THE DIGITAL REVOLUTION: INTERFACING WITH OBSOLESCENCE
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.).
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
ENTER FULL SCREEN
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.
MEDIA POETICS: THE CUT, THE CONTEXT AND THE CUTE
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.