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The idea that the reception of a work of art demands the participation of the beholder was not exclusive to the twentieth century, but was anticipated in the late nineteenth century by Mallarmé's notion of process-based art encompassing permutable, aleatoric elements that would, in the form of the «open artwork,» become programmatic for the avant-garde movement some fifty years later. Along similar lines, in 1957 Marcel Duchamp asserted that every aesthetic experience assigns a constitutive role to the spectator, who in the process of viewing «adds his contribution to the creative act.» On a different occasion, Duchamp even claimed that «a work is made entirely by those who look at it or read it and who make it survive by their accolades or even their condemnation.»
The notions and concepts of interaction, participation and communication are central to twentieth-century art, and in equal measure concernthe work, recipient and artist. Generally speaking, these terms involve a movement from the closed to the «open» work of art, from the static object to the dynamic process, from contemplative reception to active participation. It was a movement away from the concept of the «author» and leading, over the «author as producer» and the «death of the author,» towards «distributed » or collective authorship. As the twenty-first century approached, the nineteenthcentury artist-genius had evolved into an initiator of communicative, and often also social and political, (exchange) processes. In all these «opening-up movements,» the notion of interaction plays an important role.
However, the meaning of the term «interaction» underwent continuous transformation in the years between the participatory happening and Fluxus actions of the 1950s and early 1960s and the interactive media art of the 1980s and 1990s. On the one hand, the change of meaning came about because of the broad spectrum of interpretation the term admitted: Interaction encompasses both the theory of interrelated social action, as well as the primarily technological category of human-machine communication generally termed interactivity. From the 1960s to the 1990s, the social notion of interaction was replaced by a more technologically and media-based definition of interactivity (humanmachine interaction). Dieter Daniels compounds this paradigm shift with the following theory: While in the 1960s the media were still regarded as one of several means employable in order to achieve the socio-cultural utopia of a transformed society, an aboutturn took place in the 1990s, a decade in which media technology was often seen as «the leitmotif from which all social, cultural and economic transformations [would] emanate.» However, after the notion of social interaction had been superseded by that of a primarily technological interactivity in the early 1990s, by the middle of that decade the rise of the Internetwas restoring social significance to the paired notions of interaction/ interactivity, which now increasingly described media-assisted human interchange, and therefore linked up with the ideals of intermedia art in the 1960s as well as early telecommunications experiments in the 1970s and 1980s.
The following description concentrates less on media-oriented or technical conceptions of interactivity than on those projects conducted from the 1960s onward that highlighted the idea of social, gregarious interaction. After a brief outline of various models of interactivity in media art, therefore, my essay will focus on communication projects and processes in whose course specific forms of interaction and concepts of interactivity developed. All the projects involved media- or computer-mediated human-to-human interaction aiming at the interconnection and cooperation of participants separated by vast physical distances. Today, the presented forms of art and interaction–from the closed-circuit work to interactive media-art installations to open processes–exist as parallel possibilities.
The first steps towards active participation and interaction were taken by John Cage, Allan Kaprow, George Brecht and others connected with the Happening and Fluxus movements in the 1950s and 1960s. John Cage's famous compositions «4'33''» (1952) or «Imaginary Landscape No. 4» (1951) can be cited as exemplifying the «open work.» The piece «433» consists of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence, whose character is naturally dependent on the conditions of its public performance (noise made by the audience and performer, the surroundings, and so forth). In «Imaginary Landscape No. 4» twelve radios are employed as musical instruments, meaning that every performance is unrepeatable and unique due tothe fact that the choice of frequencies varies according to the time and place of execution. With his minimal predefinitions, Cage intended to «initiate an individual and social creative process which successively detaches itself from the intentions of its author.» While the silence in «4'33''» heightens the potential creativity of audience reception (but does not yet actively involve the listeners in the artistic process), «Imaginary Landscape No.4» emphasizes the non-defined role of the performers (who do, however, remain performers). From the late 1950s onward, the Happening art form established by Allan Kaprow went one step further by making the spectators themselves participants, executors and performers of the artistic process (see «18 Happenings in 6 Parts,» 1959). In the 1960s, this interaction among audience, work and artist became the major element of an aesthetic situated outside established genres, categories and institutions, and is generally described by the term «intermedia.» With the «Exposition of Music–Electronic Television» festival staged in the German city of Wuppertal in 1963, Nam June Paik drafted a first blueprint for viewer interaction with the electronic television picture. Using devices such as a microphone or magnet, the several versions of «Participation TV» (19631966), which was first presented at the festival, and of the later «Magnet TV» (1965) allow the viewer to produce oscillating patterns on an electronically modified TV screen. Typical of this early phase was the interactive «re-use,» the détournement, of broadcasting media like TV and radio. The implied demand for a change in the one-way structures of the (analog) mass media amounted to a massive critique of the passivity mass media consumption produced in viewers.
Other concepts of interactivity came into their own concurrent with the transition from happenings to performance in the 1970s. Artists like Dan Graham, Peter Campus and Peter Weibel used closed-circuit installations to confront spectators with their ownmediated image, while in Bruce Nauman's «Live-taped Video Corridor» (1970) the viewers found themselves being radically conditioned. These interactive installations were the first to meet with success in the art world, and were the products of a fundamental distrust of the ideals of openness and participation aspired to in the 1960s: «I mistrust audience participation,» is a documented Nauman statement. The closed-circuit installations produced in the next decade therefore represented not so much participatory projects as «situations reflecting upon the relationship between viewer and medium.» Valie Export's noted «Tap and Touch Cinema» (1968), which made interactivity ‹graspable› as a direct, sensory and tactile experience, presented a stark contrast to this mediaaesthetic self-reflection. For her street action, Export strapped to her chest a box that was open at the front and back, thus allowing passers-by to put their hands through a curtain at the front and feel her breasts. This «mobile installation» conditioned the spectator even more drastically than Nauman's «Corridor,» and at the same time radically placed in question the border between public and private.
In the 1970s, an artist like Douglas Davis represented the converse of Nauman's explicit rejection of audience participation. Davis' art projects aimed to establish explicitly dialogical communication situations through new telecommunications media (see the section on «Satellite projects», below). With their goal of broad audience participation, however, Davis' projects were generally an exception to the rule: The major telecommunications projects of the 1970s and 1980s involved the participation of the artists who conducted them, but not of a wide audience. The situation only began to change in the 1990s, when more people gained access to the Internet.
Although the computer-based, digital multimedia technology developed and increasingly widely usedfrom the 1980s onward integrated the «interaction of user and apparatus Š in the medium itself,» this interaction was purely media-oriented and technical in scope. It is therefore possible to subscribe to Dieter Daniels' view of a shift in ideological paradigms away from the social-aesthetic unbordering ideas of the 1960s toward the technological interactivity concepts of the 1990s. Emancipationist approaches were scarcely to be found in the forms of human-machine interaction typical of that decade, and mediacritical approaches were even more rare. Several forms of media-assisted interaction can be distinguished in the 1980s and 1990s: interaction with a video story (interactive television and cinema), as in Lynn Hershman's «Deep Contact» (19891990); interaction between body and (static or dynamic) data realm, as in Jeffrey Shaw's «The Legible City» (1988), Peter Weibel's «Die Wand, der Vorhang (Grenze, die) fachsprachlich auch: Lascaux» (1993), Christa Sommerer & Laurent Mignonneau's «A-Volve» (19931994) or Ulrike Gabriel's «Breath» (19921993); interaction as a dialogue model, as in Paul Sermon's «Telematic Dreaming» (1992) or Agnes Hegedüs' «Between the Words» (1995). In these installations the viewer is no longer solely a recipient, but simultaneously an agent too. However, this «exemplary viewer» also tended to be solitary, since interactive installations could be used by no more than two people at once. Moreover, once inside the virtual realm the lone visitor seldom encountered other explorers–these environments were not designed for interpersonal communications. The collective and/or distributed authorship structures practiced on the Internet since the mid-1990s, in combination with that medium's form and lack of fixed physical location, have so far prevented any new «collectivity in media space» from establishing connective links with either the real world or the art context (and, ultimately, art history). The rise of the Internet in the 1990s restored topicality to the interactivity concepts of 1960s intermedia art.
The notions of telematics and telepresence began to gain importance for interactive media art in the late1980s. Telepresence allows the viewer parallel experiences in three different spaces at once: 1. in the «real» space in which the viewer's body is physically located; 2. per tele-perception in the «virtual, simulated visual space reproducing a fictional or real, remote visual sphere; and 3. per tele-action at the physical location of the «data work or even of a robot controllable over one's movements or equipped with a sensory apparatus over which one can find one's bearings.» To a certain extent, this concept–and primarily that of acting or influencing from a distance–is also reflected in interactive media art. Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz, who since 1977 have been working under the name Mobile Image, are indubitably pioneers in the field. Their groundbreaking «Hole in Space» project (1980) demonstrated almost all the attributes of telepresence, with one exception: The viewers/users were not represented in virtual reality. However, they do perceive the remote space (tele-perception) and also interact with it (tele-action) or, as the case may be, with the people at the other end of the «hole in space.» The installation served in a three-day-long experiment in November 1980 that used a satellite link to connect in real time one location in Los Angeles with another in New York. Chance passers-by could use the «Hole in Space» to establish visual and acoustic contact with people at the other end of the USA.
Richard Kriesche's «telematic sculptures» are a good example of telematic projects. After examining the significance of background noise in technical or satellite communications in various performances such as «Radio Time» (1988) and «Artsat» (1991), Kriesche collaborated with Peter Gerwin Hoffmann to create «Telesculpture III» (1993). This sculpture consisted of a twenty-four-meter-long section of train track that was transported across the exhibition space by a twenty-meter-long conveyor belt. The track's slow but constant movement towards the wall was triggered by telephone calls received within the scope of a project by Fred Forest. The number and information content of the calls determined whether or not the track would be pushed up against the wall and smash the monitor strapped to its end in the process–the telephone calls therefore initiated a movement directed against another medium. This linkage with thetelephone network gave rise to complex interaction. As the first worldwide information and communications network, the international telephone system supplied «Telesculpture III» with controlling impulses, and overruled the sculpture's spatial boundaries. For the Austrian Pavilion at the 1995 Venice Biennial, Kriesche expanded his concept to produce «Telematic Sculpture 4» (T.S.4), in which a train track is continuously moved by the data streams on the Internet. Each time somebody logged into «T.S.4,» the sculpture was temporarily brought to a standstill. The entire volume of data streams, and with them the concrete movement of the sculpture through the pavilion, was displayed on a monitor as status information.
By contrast, the works of Paul Sermon clearly aim at interpersonal, often almost intimate, communication, and are conceptually linked with the «Hole in Space» project of Galloway and Rabinowitz. «Telematic Dreaming» (1992) was Sermon's first project in a series of telematic installations linking two remote locations over blue-box technology and ISDN video conferencing. The «Telematic Dreaming» interface consisted of a specially equipped double bed allowing its occupant(s) to communicate over gestures and movements with the occupant(s) of an identically equipped bed at the remote location. The use of blue box and ISDN video conferencing made it appear as if the actually far-apart participants were lying together in one virtual double bed. The bed metaphor in particular makes this installation the most intimate of Sermon's telematic works.
The artists who began intervening in networks in the late 1970s initially did so in defiance of the art industry. «In our view,» said Hank Bull and Patrick Ready, «it was about art that did not have to go through the art business, but reached the listeners directly from the artists, the producers.» Like the later Net artists of the 1990s, they wanted to occupy and exploit spaces outside institutionalized art discourse. As Roy Ascott wrote in 1984, it was a matter of creating a «planetary discursive community outside, or able to bypass, the institutionalized administration of discourse.» The artistic projects that came intobeing in telecommunications networks from the late 1970s onward eluded traditional object-oriented concepts, and adhered more to Joseph Beuys' notion of «social sculpture,» to the non-object nature of concept art, to the event-orientation of performance art, or to the Situationists' notion of the political. In regard to telecommunications projects from the late 1970s onward, Robert Adrian X allocates particular significance to E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology) and mail art: «It was mail art, with its notion of a postal space–a flurry of images encompassing, thanks to integrated postal services, the globe–that made it possible in the first place to develop the idea of works of art in the electronic realm.»
Immaterialization, process and participation were the three perhaps most important, and closely related, ideas in the context of electronic art. Robert Adrian X, referring to his telecommunication project «The World In 24 Hours» (1982), which was commissioned for the Ars Electronica festival, emphasized that the artistic dimension consisted precisely in not creating special objects but instead establishing «communicative» occurrences between the participants. In what is considered to be one of the electronic realm's first collaborative writing projects, artists in sixteen cities on three continents were interconnected for twenty-four hours. During this time, they drafted a kind of telematic world map, a «gesamt-datawork» created over the telephone as well as then exotic apparatuses like telefacsimile (telefax) and slow-scan television (a type of early «video telephone»). The project attempted to work outside the prevailing commercial usage of communications networks in order to «create individual access to telecommunications media and to develop strategies for their artistic deployment. The artistic dimension of the overall project consists precisely however not in creating special objects–‹artworks›–with means such as fax, but in establishing dialogical interchange relationships, that is to say: special relations among the participants who ‹produce› communicative occurrences.»
Artistic work with computers and electronic networks takes to a technological extreme that «de-materialization of the object» Lucy Lippard emphasized in regard to the earlier concept art. Ultimately, allprocesses transacted in the electronic realm are based on immaterial information. These «immaterials» are process-based in nature and, in similar fashion to performances, leave behind neither traces nor auratic objects (let alone unique artifacts): «Products or objects originating in telecommunications projects are merely documentary relicts of an activity that took place in the electronic realm.» Moreover, according to Ascott the people participating in, and sharing, electronic space could no longer be clearly divided into «artists» and «viewers,» into «producers» and «consumers»: «One can no longer stand at a window and view the scene composed by somebody else; rather, one is invited to pass through the door to a world in which interaction is all.» Yet, due to the low penetration levels of new technologies, the notion of participation must be qualified in regard to these early telecommunications projects insofar as participation was confined to a small number of fellow artists. The role of the general public was mainly restricted to reading and watching–without the option of active intervention.
Awareness of the potential offered by real-time worldwide communications and the various communication technologies (telephone, telex, fax, computer networks, teleconferencing systems, satellite technology) was a many-sided source of inspiration to artists. As early as 19611962, Nam June Paik devised a piano concert for simultaneous performance in San Francisco and Shanghai, with the left-hand part being played in the USA and the right-hand part in China. His idea may have been somewhat premature in regard to feasibility, but it shows how well informed he was. The first telecast between America and Europe took place over Telstar 2 in July 1962. However, fifteen years would pass before artists set up the first two-way satellite communications link: «Two Way-Demo» was the title of a live two-way broadcast between New York and San Francisco on September 1011, 1977. Liza Bear, Keith Sonnier and Willoughby Sharp–the initiators of this first transcontinental satellite TV conference–were allowedto use the NASA satellite CTS, which had gone into orbit in 1976. Other participating artists included Andy Horowitz (alongside the organizers on the East Coast), and Carl Loeffler and Terry Fox on the West Coast. The broadcast consisted of discussion and debate, readings, and prerecorded video footage. Nineteen seventyseven was also the year in which Joseph Beuys, Douglas Davis, Charlotte Moorman and Nam June Paik contributed performances to the live satellite telecast celebrating the opening of the media-oriented documenta 6 in Kassel. During the festival, artist's videotapes were shown on television and three performances (by, respectively, Beuys, Paik and Moorman, and Davis) were broadcast live over satellite (albeit without a feedback channel that would have allowed the possibility of viewer interaction). The telecast ended with the performance «The Last Nine Minutes,» in which Douglas Davis attempted to symbolically break through the TV screen and establish direct communication with his audience. Since the telecast was relayed live to more than thirty other countries, it reached probably the largest audience ever to have ‹taken part› in an art event.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Douglas Davis was one of the first artists to exploit new telecommunications technologies in order to establish dialogue communication situations. In «Talk Out!» (1972), which was broadcast live by WCNY-TV, he entered into conversation with his audience via a telephone and a printer. In the work produced since then, Davis has repeatedly tried to «de-mass» mass media such as television by re-purposing them in order to enable private, intimate dialogue with his audience. As early as in 1976, Davis realized the world's first satellite project, «Seven Thoughts,» in the Houston Astrodome, at that time the world's largest roofed stadium. In the course of a ten-minute broadcast potentially able to be picked up by any Comsat-receiving television or radio station in the world, Davis delivered over microphone seven very personal thoughts to the completely deserted stadium. He emphasizes the importance of the «privacy of this broadcast» and his wish to enter into personal contact with hisaudience. This central concern is equally obvious in Davis «Austrian Tapes» (1974). With «Good Morning, Mr. Orwell,» on January 1 of the Orwellian 1984 Nam June Paik produced his first satellite performance with a feedback channel in the form of a television broadcast that could be received worldwide.
Although the telecommunication and satellite projects of the 1970s were geared towards openness and participation, active participation was restricted to a small group of artists. Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz therefore missed the presence of a social, emancipatory element offering a potential alternative to mass media usage of the broadcasting media. Neither artist was interested in telecommunication projects as elite «art events,» but emphasized the socio-political commitment behind their work: «We see communication and information systems as environments people live in,» said Rabinowitz. «So we look at the aesthetics of that environment, the shaping of the space. The way you shape a space determines what can happen to the information in it.» More than twenty years later, this statement has lost nothing of its currentness. On the contrary: The more people shift activities to the realm of data (for instance, to the Internet), the more important an awareness of the empowering or, as applicable, obstructing attributes of the code on which these virtual realms are based becomes.
In 1977 (the year of the documenta 6), Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz produced the «Satellite Arts Project» in which two groups of dancers interacted at two different locations. The images were put together on screen in such a way that people three thousand kilometers apart looked like they were dancing together. Galloway and Rabinowitz' satellite project «Hole in Space» followed in 1980. Based on a more open–and participatory–concept than «Satellite Arts Project,» it would point the way for a number of later projects. In the «Electronic Café» devised for the 1984Olympic Games in Los Angeles, Galloway and Rabinowitz produced a prototype for the Internet cafes that would flourish a decade later. Running for seven weeks, their cafe was a multimedia computer and video network that connected in real time five Los Angeles districts populated by different ethnic groups. The aim was to enable communication, and the clearly socially oriented network prototype of the «Electronic Café» has remained highly current: «Every user has unrestricted access to the databasess Š and whenever they feel like it can send messages, create files, read other bulletins and submit comments and suggestions over public terminals in libraries, food stores, cafés and community centers. Š An instrument for collective thinking, planning, organizing, deciding.» In that sense, the «Electronic Café» was a direct forerunner of the Art Com Electronic Network (ACEN) founded in 1986, as well as of 1990s context-based systems like The Thing (New York and other locations), De Digitale Stad (Amsterdam) and International City Federation (Berlin).
The Art Com Electronic Network (ACEN), set up by Carl Loeffler and Fred Truck in 1986, was a mailbox within the framework of «Whole Earth Lectronic Link» (WELL), the legendary bulletin-board system founded by Steward Brand in San Francisco in 1985. ACEN was an «electronic exhibition space» devoted to contemporary art based on new communications technologies. At the same time, ACEN offered its users access to electronic publications, a mail system and–ten (!) years before e-commerce arrived on the web–an «electronic (virtual) shopping mall with art-related ‹shops›.»
The Thing was the next project with a conceptually oriented art background to appear in the new communication, distribution and production space offered by the data networks. Initiated by the German-American artist Wolfgang Staehle, The Thing was launched as a mailbox system accessible over the telephone network in New York in 1991. A second node, The Thing Cologne, was added in 1992, followed by The Thing Vienna in November of the next year.Nodes in Berlin and elsewhere were soon to follow. The most (inter)active, and therefore most important, area of The Thing consisted of various message boards offering forums for art theory debate, news and gossip, ongoing dialogue and an open-access flow of information, as well as several online versions of art journals. Alongside discussion forums, The Thing offered artworks in the form of graphics downloadable to the home PC for example by Peter Halley. Staehle saw the theoretical roots of The Thing explicitly in the 1960s, and cited Joseph Beuys: «Beuys was concerned with the social sculpture, with the art product made together by a group or community. The Thing is a sculpture of that type: It implements the Beuysian idea of direct democracy, of the political community as a social structure. At the same time, it represents an extension of the notion of art.» Since taking to the World Wide Web with a new user interface in 1995, The Thing has continued to function as a production and presentation platform for art and art-related discourse.
In 1994 and 1995, virtual ‹city-like› communities mushroomed on the young World Wide Web (WWW). In view of the high cost of using the Internet and its resources in the first half of the 1990s, the demand for reasonably priced ‹access for all› was common to all these projects. The perhaps best known virtual city was De Digitale Stad (DDS) in Amsterdam, which went online in January 1994. DDS fast became Europe's largest public «freenet.» In late 1994, the International City Federation (ICF, 19941997) was founded in Berlin on the model of DDS. Probably the most prominent Net project in Germany in the period 19951996, its aim as an independent Internet provider was to make it easier for cultural projects to build up an Internet presence. The IS offered its up to three hundred ‹inhabitants› low-priced Internet access and server capacity for experimentation–a service not to be underestimated at a time when private Internet access was beyond most people's means. Public Netbase, an institute for new cultural technologies founded in Vienna in March 1995, initially pursued similar objectives to the IS. After branching off in a direction different from that of either DDS or IS, Public Netbase increasingly became a content developer, and has most recently been organizing the «world-information.org» project running since 2000 in Brussels, Vienna, Amsterdam, Belgrade and Novi Sad.
Even before the 1990s Internet boom, artists were experimenting with complex communication structures and networked, collaborative authoring processes in text-based systems. With historical origins stretching back to the Surrealists and their «cadavre exquis» experiments, collective writing projects radically place in question the authorreader relationship and correspond with deconstructivist notions of the text as fabric (Jacques Derrida), theories of intertextuality (Julia Kristeva), and the postmodern «death of the author» (Roland Barthes).
The «Artists' use of telecommunications» conference held at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1980 brought together a number of artists who would take part in important artistic telecommunications projects in the years that followed. Artists outside the USA were linked up to the conference over satellite and a computer system made by I. P. Sharp (IPSN). The organizer, Bill Bartlett, was joined by guests including Gene Youngblood, Hank Bull (Vancouver), Douglas Davis and Willoughby Sharp (New York), Norman White (Toronto) and Robert Adrian X (Vienna). The resultant series of collaborative authoring projects was conducted during the next few years over the time-sharing network of I. P. Sharp Associates. Inspired and supported by Robert Adrian X, in 1980 the Vienna office of I. P. Sharp developed a simple «intercontinental, interactive, electronic art-exchange program designed for artists and anybody else interested in alternative possibilities of using new technologies.» ARTEX (Artist's Electronic Exchange Network), as the software was called, was «deliberately kept simple so that even inexperienced and non-specialized participants could work with it and costs were minimized.» The electronic mailbox network ARTEX existed from 1980 to 1991, and was used by some thirty-five artists worldwide. In that period, the Internet itself (as well as, respectively, the Arpanet and the Usenet) was still almost exclusively the preserve of academics. Local BBS mailbox systems into which users could dial at local call rates first began to proliferate in the early 1980s. The ARTEX network therefore amounted to a veritable revolution, and international telecommunications events organizedin the course of the 1980s by «ARTEX Community» members seemed to foreshadow developments in the next decade.
Alongside Robert Adrian X' «The World in 24 Hours» (1982), the first art-related networked authoring processes were attempted in Roy Ascott's «La plissure du texte» (1983), Norman White's «Hearsay» (1984), the collaborative Minitel writing project staged for the exhibition «Les Immatériaux» (1985), John Cage's «The First Meeting of the Satie Society» (1986), the «Planetary Network» devised by Roy Ascott and shown at the Venice Biennial (1986), or the hypertext project «PooL Processing» (from 1988 onward) of Heiko Idensen and Matthias Krohn in Germany. Roy Ascott carried out his collaborative writing project «La plissure du texte» in 1983 on the occasion of the «Electra 1983» exhibition at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville Paris. Organized by Frank Popper, the show was a survey of the usage of electricity in art. For «La plissure du texte,» artists in eleven cities in Australia, North America and Europe jointly wrote a fairytale on different narrative planes. The title was an allusion to Roland Barthes' book «Le Plaisir du Texte.» From December 1123, 1983 the project was online twenty-four hours daily. Another computer-assisted collaborative writing project took place for the «Les Immatériaux» show curated by Jean-François Lyotard at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris in 1985. Jacques Derrida, Michel Butor, Daniel Buren and some twenty other French intellectuals were each furnished with a private Minitel line (Minitel was the very successful French version of the German Btx system). Visitors to the exhibition were able to follow in real time the ensuing online discussion of specific terms. Due above all to the increased usage of mailing lists and text-based MOOs and MUDs as the Internet became more accessible, the 1990s saw the beginning of an entirely new phase of collective networked «authoring projects.»
According to Robert Adrian X, the «Planetary Network» designed by Roy Ascott for the 1986 Venice Biennial brought to a close the first phase of artistictelecommunication projects. The years up to the mid-1990s and the advent of wide Internet access were an intermediary phase marked by opposing currents. A snapshot-like view of the different positions is offered by volume 103 of the journal Kunstforum International, which marked the 1989 Ars Electronica festival with an issue dedicated to the theme «In the Network of Systems.» While Peter Weibel's article emphasized the notion of «interactive art,» the artist's contributions can be divided up into works operating with the (old) medium of radio, and ones «already hinting at a new artistic identity in line with telematic technologies.» The articles by Roy Ascott, Robert Adrian X and Carl Loeffler fell into the second category. While Ascott stood for an almost uninterrupted «metaphysics of the data and interfaces» (Ries), and to this extent was congruent with the above-mentioned (pseudo-)metaphysical ambitions in the work of Douglas Davis, a disillusioned article by Adrian X about his earlier «The World in 24 Hours» (1982) declared the project to be «historically obsolete.» He stated as reasons the lack not only of a technical revolution (he was writing some five years before the Internet became widely accessible), but also–and primarily–of a revolution in interpersonal communications: «The high costs for hardware are only a part of the problem–much more decisive are the sluggishness and persistence of two hundred years of industrial culture and its consumerist aftermath. Nobody in our culture, artists included, is educated or encouraged to let others have a share in their creative activity. However, this capability for shared creative activity is a prerequisite of the interactive usage of communications technology.» A wholly different tone was struck by Carl Loeffler, co-founder (with Fred Truck) of the Art Com Electronic Network (ACEN) mailbox in 1986, whose contribution presented a dispositive that «took up all the utopias of the early network projects and at the same time intermeshed the borders between art and other social (above all, economic) zones.» With that, ACEN conceptually prefigured the 1990s Internet projects and their «small» digital media.
Equally typical of this intermediate phase were art projects that used ‹large› analog media like radio and TV and often took the form of elaborately organized travel projects. Viewed with the benefit of hindsight,groups or projects like Minus Delta t, Radio Subcom, Ponton/Van Gogh TV and the art-space ship MS Stubnitz almost seem to have been trying to make up for the lack of digital networks by packing their well-equipped media laboratories into buses, containers, trucks and ships. However, behind their physical mobility lay primarily the idea of communicative, interpersonal networking. The Ponton/Van Gogh TV group typifies the bridging of the gap between intermedia concepts and the electronic media. Several important members including Karel Dudesek, Benjamin Heidersberger, Gerard Couty and Mike Hentz are rooted in the group Minus Delta t, which was founded in 1978 and achieved prominence with the «Bangkok Project.» Launched in 1980, this project was based on the concept of transporting a six-ton block of granite by truck from Europe to Asia, and in the process staging an all-embracing art happening with events and performances in the cities that lay en route. An essential part of the whole was the deployment of all available media to document the events. With the presentation of a container city entitled «Ponton Project» at the 1986 Ars Electronica festival, electronic media moved into the foreground of the group's work. No longer were the media a means to an end, but increasingly the carrier of the actual message. Via several intermediary stages, this development culminated in the «Piazza Virtuale» created for the documenta 9 (1992) by the now re-named group Van Gogh TV. For one hundred days, the potential of television as an interactive mass medium was tried out for the first time, with viewers being able to interfere over the telephone in a TV program that had been transformed into a multimedia screen.
In 1992,Van Gogh TV put in place an open broadcasting concept with the extraordinary effort then still required for an undertaking soon to be vastly facilitated by the Internet and new digital technologies. The opening up of the Internet in the mid-1990s meant that potentially every user–even when traveling–could become a broadcaster without the need for hi-tech equipment (albeit without reaching the mass audiences of television).
One of the first German communication projects involving the (pre-WWW) Internet was the group Handshake founded by Barbara Aselmeier, JoachimBlank, Armin Haase and Karl Heinz Jeron in 1993. Later Handshake spin-offs would include the International City Federation. Implemented as an interactive installation, Handshake acted as an interface between the electronic network and living world. Prepared communication and perception experiments (such as the Rorschach Test) on the basis of text, visuals and sound pointed to cultural peculiarities and common ground of the participants. The networking and participatory potential offered by the Internet were of particular importance, also in the «Net art» that came into being as graphical web interfaces were enhanced from the mid-1990s onward. Gerhard Rühm wrote in 1975: «Throw a bright tone out the window and send it around the world. wait until it returns through the door backwards–enriched by all the tones it has encountered on its path. then let this tone knock you off your feet.» His words read like a poetic description of cooperative sound experiments on the Internet, such as those conducted by the «Xchange» network initiated in late 1997 by the Riga-based E-Lab (now Re-Lab). The participating groups in London, Ljubljana, Sydney, Berlin and many other cities use the network to globally distribute their sound material from various servers over live audio streams and to mix various streaming sources live. Xchange investigates the Net as a soundscape that possesses «specific qualities in regard to data transfer, delay, feedback and open, distributed cooperation models.» This leads to a cooperative, globally distributed «placeless» work of sound art that can be heard only on the Internet.
It is only consistent that Douglas Davis, the pioneer of interactive television and initiator of early telematic projects, launched one of the first Net-art projects on the still young WWW in the early 1990s. «The World's First Collaborative Sentence» (1994) is a single, endless sentence whose readers have been able to add to since 1994. Davis sees his web project as a continuation of his attempts, from the 1970s onward, to «break out of the rigid transmitter-receiver paradigms of mass-media media circuitry.» For Davis, the Internet is therefore the ideal medium, allowing asit does active participation.
On the Internet, however, in the second half of the 1990s wholly different forms of participation and cooperation developed that were largely the product of the free-exchange and gift economy principles whose roots lay in Net principles but now, thanks to Open Source, Open Theory or Open Law, took on a dynamic all of their own. These new forms were collaborative annotation and editing systems, often implemented as «weblogs,» which enable the collaborative authoring–often over very large distances–of projects (software, encyclopedias, laws). Building on the debating, conversation and cooperation cultures of discussion forums, newsgroups, MUDs and mailing lists, the new hypertextual networking possibilities offered by the WWW are now also becoming production paradigms for artistic Net texts. This development is illustrated by the «Association Blaster» (1999 onward) created by Alvar C.H. Freude and Dragan Espenschied, who describe their project as an «interactive text network. Anyone, including you, is allowed to contribute to the text database. And all the texts inside this database are connected automatically in real time.» Reader-authors therefore work on a vast web of text in which the individual words are automatically linked with already existent keywords, resulting in a textual fabric which is, as the initiators write, «what many people thought the WWW already was.» The entries in the web cannot be read in «linear» sequence; instead, users jump from one text to the next on the basis of their interconnections. Due to the infinite chain of associations that results, the «Association Blaster» is related to another project that encourages its users to daydream: Daniela Alina Plewe's «Musers' Service» (1994), which started out as an interactive offline installation before subsequently going online. The «Opus» project (2001 onward) of the New Delhi-based Raqs Media Collective offers visitors an Internet platform on which they can view, swap, download, manipulate and re-upload digital objects (video footage, images, sound, text) and thus place them in the public domain. The objective is to create «digital» or «creative commons» in compliance with the «Copyleft» rules for a collaborative software culture. In that way, «Opus» makes explicit the principle of authorship as a principally collective or common authorship.
The Net art produced in the 1990s is often said to have carried on where the first telecommunications projects of the two preceding decades left off. Although the usage of telecommunications media initially makes this assumption seem apt, striking differences exist, particularly with regard to the notion of participation. Participation in early telecommunication projects was confined to a small group of users; the audience remained in its traditionally passive role (of watching or reading). With the advent of wide Internet access in the 1990s, by contrast, Allan Kaprow's demand for the abolition of spectators could be met, in some degree, for the first time. On the Internet, the possibilities of participation are far greater than in the time in which the early telecommunications projects took place. In the 1990s, the open structure of the Net as well as the increasing affordability of Internet access and above all of computers and other ‹small media› made participation possible on an unprecedented scale. That is not to say that all Net art projects were happenings–on the contrary, there was a wide range of different formats and of forms of interaction–but explains why so many participatory Net processes and platforms (such as «International City Federation,» «Association Blaster» or «Opus») were at most initiated by artists but are not explicitly seen as art projects.
In regard to new forms of interaction, two models seem to be interesting and futureoriented from a general viewpoint (and not just from the Net perspective). One model is proving to be the logical continuation of Eco's concept of the «open work,» namely evolutionary systems genuinely capable of learning and therefore of progress each time they are used. Peter Dittmer presented such a system in his installation «The Nurse» (1992 onward). His «Nurse» is made up of a computer complete with monitor and keyboard over which one can communicate with a seemingly self-ironic computer program. The installation further includes a table with a glass of milk on it; if the computer program happens to lose its temper during the highly entertaining dialogue with human counterparts, a mechanical contraption enables it to knock over the glass of milk.
The second interaction model consists in the intertwining of virtual, distributed (Net) space with real urban space. «Vectorial Elevation» (2000) by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer and «Blinkenlights» (2001-2002) and «Arcade» (2002) by the Chaos Computer Club are hybrid projects that connect virtual space back to real urban locations by means of custom-made interfaces. All three projects enabled users on the Internet to interfere with or, as applicable, control and contribute to, an installation in a fixed physical location. «Vectorial Elevation» was made up of a dozen strong searchlights that, pointing into the heavens, were installed on the main square of Mexico City. Internet users could make them create specific patterns. «Blinkenlights» consisted of one vast facade of a building on Alexanderplatz in Berlin, which was converted into a «screen» with the simplest of means. Each one of the one-hundred forty-four windows (the building possessed eight rows of eighteen windows) looking onto the square had been allocated the status of a pixel, and each «pixel» was separately controllable («Light ON/OFF»). Over a dedicated telephone number, passers-by or the spectators who came to the square were able to play Pong on this rudimentary «media facade» or, via a specially engineered web interface, program short animated sequences that were then shown on the building. The project was concluded with an international competition in 2002.
While contemporary architects are meanwhile likewise experimenting with media facades (see for instance the VEAG building in Berlin or Renzo Piano's building for the Dutch telecommunications company in Rotterdam), «Blinkenlights» is not concerned with the aspect of dynamic architecture as media-supported ornamentation, but precisely with the maximum possible visibility of a participatory impetus in an urban space. It is concerned, in other words, with an emphatic notion of what is public.
Translation by Tom Morrison
© Media Art Net 2004