Line Drawing: Information Intersections and Cyber Cultures
Published in SCAN+, Special Supplement Issue, Vol. 4, edited by John Conomos, 1993 (in Artlink Vol. 13, No 1).
© 1993 Artlink
To experience cyberspace is to engage fully in a computer mediated mental territory. It is at once disembodied, distributed, intimate and public.
I'm speaking here of the electronic territories constructed by networks of computer communication systems. Computers connected by communication links, regular old phone lines, and sometimes packet radio from homes to universities to government agencies to businesses across the world, more or less.
The territories are not physical.
Their roots are technological; the space they unfold is entirely formed
of human thought, some previously recorded, but much of it live, recorded
as it happens, in such vast quantities and so chaotically that it would
seem impossible to control.
Thought is predicated on its physically cultural and biological source; its collective potential for reality generation in non-physical territory is as yet undetermined. In cyberspace, art is the continuous sculpting of communication -- the result of interactions and participation. It is increasingly informed by economics, politics, technology, and cross-cultural communications, as each of these impact the representation of the human data stream.
The Birth of Cyberspace
The computer systems from which cyberspace sprang became operative in 1968-69 in the United Kingdom's academic community and in United States Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA); and a few years later with non-commercial research systems in Germany and France. They were installed to perform network research and to share data resources among scientific and technical research communities. For ARPA, networks were a Cold War project, and the structure of the Internet today derives from a war mentality that is curiously grassroots in its inception, if not its intent -- to decentralize communications to survive attack.
Public communications cyberspace developed top down and bottom up. Businesses began with time-sharing precious computing resources which necessitated networking users from remote locations, and laid the foundation for public data networks. Hackers, activists and hobbyists who wanted "to bring the power of computers to assist the efforts of community-building..."(1), have over the years built low-cost or free communication systems to connect local communities and the Third World.
Weaving Data Flows
Robert Adrian X started the first international artists' computer communications system in 1980, initially called ARTBOX, and later ARTEX. ARTEX used I.P. Sharp Associates distributed time-sharing system for the exchange of electronic mail between artists located in Austria, Australia, Canada, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. On ARTEX, artists experimented with collaboratively generated literary forms; they also explored the aesthetics of connection across time, cultures, and socio-political realities. Works in this second category include: a multi-lingual version of "telephone," based on the game in which a phrase is whispered from one participant to another -- in networked form, the game involved translation among languages, ending in the language it started, but with different words; Planetary Network, a project conceived by Roy Ascott for the 1986 Venice Biennale, for which artists around the world gathered or created news and transmitted it to each other, and to a public display screen in Venice via ARTEX. Due to the expense of accessing the system, these art telecommunications were project-based.
More permanent alterations to the fabric of cyberspace became possible with different technological capabilities, economics, users, and with artist programmers. In 1986 the San Francisco-based artists' organization Art Com launched an internationally accessible perpetual art communications system called the Art Com Electronic Network (ACEN). ACEN was developed with the idea of being a utility (Carl Loeffler), through which contemporary art information and activity could interact with the world electronically. It is housed on the Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link (WELL), an inexpensive conferencing system designed to facilitate asynchronous group discussions. At the time the WELL was accessible in approximately 40 countries through public data networks and PTTs (government agencies for postal, telephone and telegraph communications); its users were predominantly located in the San Francisco Bay Area, and included computer nerds and professionals, Grateful Deadheads, writers, futurists, and other unusual thinkers. Some of the first works installed on ACEN, in particular John Cage's First Meeting of the Satie Society and Stephen Moore's Slash emphasized the act of creation as being realized by a user's choice at a prompt. Participatory works such as Judy Malloy's Bad Information Base, Loeffler and Truck's Das Casino, and ACEN's contribution to Ascott's Planetary Network began to establish ongoing communication links between groups that would have never interacted in the contemporary offline world -- and directly involved the non-artist WELL public in the creation of art.(2)
ACEN quickly realized that while international computer networking over commercial systems was technically possible, in practice government regulation and cost hampered international art telecommunications. In 1990, ACEN learned about USENET from Jeff Mann, who ran the Matrix Artists Network, a bulletin board system in Toronto. USENET, a decentralized communications system that sends "newsgroups" (participatory discussions on a vast variety of subjects) across multiple networks, allowed for "free" local access to global (in network geography) dialogue. ACEN and Matrix subsequently established the USENET newsgroups alt.artcom and rec.arts.fine, respectively, to create a regular communications link between artists on their systems, and on ArtsNet in Australia, as well as to other (as yet unknown) artists and art-based systems around the world.
Cyber geography has evolved
along lines of technological understanding and access, impacted by national
sovereignties and international politics. The early research networks
linked to each other and spread to other science and technology researchers,
predominantly in the First World. In the U.S. it's been typical to find
art departments without any online access in universities whose computer
science departments run international network nodes. Until recent years
the "global" network of networks now known as the Internet was
supported by university and government funding; the public, virtually
everywhere, lacked access to it.
Today cyberspace is exploding. The Internet extends to 40 countries at least. FidoNet connects local bulletin boards on all continents -- in some countries provides their only online connections -- and crosses into the Internet. The Association for Progressive Communications links peace, environmental and labor activists, the United Nations, and economic development agencies among others, in Africa, Australia, Eastern and Western Europe, North and South America. Its nodes are linked to the Internet in varying degrees. Some commercial systems like the WELL have established full Internet connections. In the U.S. it is reportedly even possible for individuals to gain full access to the Internet for as low as US$10 per month in some cities -- this is not a global occurrence. And multi-national corporations run their own international systems, which have one-way connections to the Internet.
Along with the growth in cyber population and interconnections have arrived questions about governance, civil liberties, intellectual property, economics, and culture -- and the relations between cyberspace and the offline territories. Documents and public communications once released to the Net can exist on thousands of computers around the world within minutes, an effective and beautifully populist situation that wreaks havoc with the variances in national and international laws concerning expression and property. The hacker ethic that information cannot be owned butts up against the fact that subsidies aren't enough and time is money and who has access.
Cultural questions arise about language and perception -- cyberspace is mostly a land where text in the form of "white man's ASCII" is the common denominator. Current network protocols cannot accommodate Kanji for example. Other non-European languages are even more complicated. Images can be transmitted, but they aren't standardized across systems for online viewing. English is the language of cyberspace now, and in cyberspace words are power. Human interactions and communications, which are culturally structured to begin with do not hold up equitably online. You exist in cyberspace if you speak; cultures that depend on silence as a meaningful element of speech, or personal rather than public channels of communication can appear not to exist. At the same time, network values also challenge mass media culture -- being interactive, cyberspace calls on individuals to add to the cumulative data flow of human knowledge and experience, rather than watching through the narrow gaze of television eyes.
Underlying critical questions concerning equitable access and presence in cyberspace, is an even more critical fact. Allucquere Roseanne Stone, a cyborg anthropology specialist, points out that cultures that currently maintain a strong sense of community and face to face interaction are indifferent to interactive technologies. They don't need them.
As cyberspace opens its electronic gateways, new artistic uses of computer networks focus on the development of cultural and social systems, addressing concerns of cultural representation and access. Some current projects are:
American Indian Telecommunications/Dakota
The telephone system in the
U.S. is developed by private corporations. On Native American reservations
and in rural communities where population levels don't spell significant
profits, phone systems are often minimal and access to public data networks
is non-local -- making computer networking more expensive for economically
deprived populations. While the Internet is becoming accessible to more
individuals, this is currently an urban phenomenon.
AIT is working with tribal leaders to understand and prepare for appropriate Native use of computer networking technology. George Baldwin, a sociologist on AIT's board, has received a grant from the National Science Foundation to research the impact of network technology on Native American cultures. Members of AIT are working with state and federal government bodies to develop a rural communications system that allows connection with the Internet.
AIT actively utilizes FidoNet
as a means of disseminating information around the world, to and from
Native American and rural people. The Dakota BBS, a FidoNet bulletin board
operated by Anne Fallis, one of AIT's staff, provides Native American
and rural people local access to information on Lakota and Dakota issues,
legislation, jobs, health, education. The Dakota BBS, along with the Russell
Country BBS (a BBS to support rural people, run by Cynthia Denton in Hobson,
Montana) have also developed network projects to simultaneously assist
both cultural survival and economic development. By employing an online
graphics standard called NAPLPS, Native American artists are creating
graphical share art that users all over the world can dial up, purchase,
and download. They are also using NAPLPS to send Lakota text online. Their
most recent project, NAPLOG, uses NAPLPS as the basis for an online catalog
of Native and rural products. Since NAPLOG can be installed on other systems,
it functions as a portable store.
ArtsNet developers, suephil (Sue Harris and Phillip Bannigan) have designed a public installation telecommunications project for the Multi Function Polis, a technopolis development project. The MFP is intended to incorporate technological, environmental, and human concerns. The installation, called 1 MFP Street, entails the retrofitting of a house with environmentally sustainable information technologies to serve as a base for the artists and their collaborators "to explore the interface between physical and virtual space." 1 MFP Street is to be developed in collaboration with its local Aboriginal communities -- its intent is to involve their experience and needs in a process "of production, expression and exploration of the transition from industrial to post industrial paradigms." 1 MFP is to utilize Artsnet's asynchronous telecommunications system and ISDN (Integrated Systems Digital Network), which will allow for live video conferencing and the exchange of high resolution images and sound.
The project has intentionally
developed in collaboration with a number of artists, arts activists and
arts organizations, representing different disciplines and cultural perspectives;
its users also include arts agencies and foundations. It serves as a multi-faceted
forum for news, information, and discussion. Current resources include
an arts "wire" service, which provides news summaries gathered
from the field and contributed by its users, as well as other sources;
a searchable database of opportunities for artists and arts organizations;
as well as several discussion conferences.
Arts Wire is currently housed
on a conferencing system called The Meta Network, and is working to develop
both FidoNet and Internet connections. Its structure reflects a philosophic
concern with community building -- all users enter Arts Wire through a
central discussion conference called the Hub, from which they can go to
organizationally, mediumistically, or culturally specific conferences
and information resources.
Arts Wire increasingly finds
itself concerned with government information policy issues, since these
affect costs and access.
Information Intersections & Cyber Cultures
Born from a decentralized communications construct of war strategies, intellectual collaboration and resource sharing, cyberspace has a technical structure that allows for participatory mass media on a global scale. It has been both elite and non-hierarchical. It is expanding its borders and interconnecting diverse communities; as it does so, its territory is being re-drawn.
Anglo-European artists came
to computer networks in the 1980s to explore the realm of electronically
distributed collective imagination. Their legacy is an aesthetic of linkages,
collaboration, and art as a political act. Network artists today practice
connectivity, the linking of cultures and systems, with a focus on governmental
information policy, technical network protocols, and cultural impact.
Their work has meaning, not in its essence, but in its results.
1. Lee Felsenstein,
developer of the Berkeley Community Memory Project, a computer system
with access terminals placed in public places -- libraries, senior centers,
ed. Heidi Grundmann (1984, Western Front/ Blix, ISBN: 0-920974-082).