The comics page is always a good place to look for the aftershocks of cultural tremors. So when Mike Doonesbury started sitting up all night cyberchatting on the Internet it was clear that something fairly high on the Richter scale had happened along the late-industrial fault line. Not that this is anything new for those of us whose lives have been corrupted by years of modulating and demodulating digital chit-chat over the phone lines but it still comes as a bit of shock because it means, of course, that the pioneer days are over.
The digital networks, once mainly populated (aside from the institutional/ corporate professionals) by hackers, techno-freaks, government snoopers and the occasional artist, are now wide open to anyone with a telephone, modem and cheap PC. This is not to say that the systems were physically closed - they were not - but that they were psychologically or culturally inaccessible, even for people who knew they were there. Just having the hardware - and a telephone budget - doesn't get you wired to the net. To get on line it is necessary to perceive the network as a place you want to be, as a meeting place, information source or, more likely, as a source of conversational material for those important social occasions around the coffee machine at work on the morning after.
In the flickering light of millions of monitors the new infonauts, inspired by William Gibson and Data-Superhighway hype, stare at images of text scrolling out of the telephone and over the screen. Roy Ascott, prophet of networking nirvana, once remarked to the effect that: When the participants in a networked conference are linked, fingers on the keyboard, the effect is similar to the linked hands at a seance - everyone is connected over the net and the text appears like magic, as with a Ouija board - the collective energy passing through the fingertips ... electronic ESP as it were. Ascott's remark was made in the early 80's (in connection with a network project using the I Ching) before computer networkers were bathed in the glow of monitor radiation. Output was then audible and tactile, the TI-745 terminal, guided by unseen hands, humming as it churned out its stream of thermal paper.
It is less than 20 years since the screen began to replace the printer as the interface to computers and since then we have seen a gradual change in the way that text is perceived. Unlike text written or printed on paper - horizontal, tactile - text viewed on a monitor is vertical and, being composed of light, fugitive and immaterial. Text on a monitor is a picture of text not text itself. In order for text to be experienced as text it usually has to be seen in printout - materialised on paper. Working on a monitor is a conversational relationship, a kind of dialogue - keyboard input > monitor output > feedback to keyboard - more like speaking and listening than writing and reading. Working in the network - accessing the host computer, answering prompts, pulling data out of data-banks, chatting on line - forces this conversational aspect of the human-computer relationship into the foreground.
It all started, of course, with electricity. The networking of electricity supply provides the fundamental network upon which the entire culture depends. Whether you like it or not - every time you switch on a light you are connected to the mega-net, the mother of all networks, the grid. Ascott's metaphor could be extended to apply to all the fingers - making toast, replacing a fuse, opening the refrigerator - which are in contact with the grid at any single moment. Everything we have come to loathe and love about late/post- industrial culture hangs on the grid. Electricity has become so much a part of our culture that we take it utterly for granted and the network of supply has become so transparent that it only achieves opacity, becomes visible, when it periodically fails. As Marshal McLuhan pointed out 30 years ago; "Electric light is pure information. It is a medium without a message ...". (Understanding Media, 1964)
It is impossible to imagine any activity, in an industrial society like ours, that is completely independent of electricity supply. Our entire culture is wired and we all hang on the grid. Art and artists are no exception. An artist - or anyone - who believes that they can escape from dependence on the social-cultural-political omnipotence of the grid will find that, within our culture, everything is produced, processed, manufactured, inventoried, distributed, transported, marketed, re-cycled and finally, dumped, by something connected - directly or indirectly - to the grid. There is no "outside" to our networked reality - global communications systems have seen to it that every habitable location on the planet is within range of the ubiquitous transmitters. Big Brother is not watching you - he is showing you. He is showing you the networked ideology of production and consumption ... but especially consumption. Even beyond the range of the electricity grid your interface to the hardwired transmitters is guaranteed by the momentum of world marketing strategies and "development aid" programs which supply, naturally, battery packs, electricity generators and dish antennas.
A globally networked environment is something new on our planet. It could even be seen as an evolutionary development - representing an intelligence of an entirely new order. But, whatever it is, it has almost nothing in common with the 19th century industrial traditions which we still cherish, or pretend to cherish. Artists have been experiencing this cultural schizophrenia especially severely and with mounting intensity since the early 60's and the dizzy swings of style - or absence of style - of recent years reflect an increasing desperation. But this desperation is even more apparent in the ranks of the art establishment - the museums, galleries, dealers - in their search for a definition and place for themselves in the new networked environment. Established and aspiring "artists" find themselves in collusion with the institutions to save what is still to be saved from the wreckage of 19th century art practice and values - and, most of all, the market. Notions like "context", "validation" and "intention", buzzwords of the first confrontation with the dissolving certainties about the nature of art in the 70's, are being dusted off and recycled - and again, as in the 70's, museums and galleries are recycling themselves as community-conscious places of information and education. But the fact of the matter is that museum art, gallery art, is boring and déjà vu. If its in a museum the context will make it "art" but it cannot make it relevant. The exciting things, call it art if you like, are happening in the street and in the network - if they also find a place in a museum so much the better but they will serve to redefine the museum and not vice versa.
There has been plenty of exciting work by artists in our century - from Marcel Duchamp to Jenny Holzer, from Hanna Höch to Antoni Muntadas - who have not been afraid to look the collapse of the art tradition boldly in the eye and have still found space in the museums. But the sad story of the graffiti artists, whose work was torn from its location in and under the street and reinvented as art in the East Village and SoHo schlock galleries, should remind us that some things are interesting, exciting and relevant exactly because they are not "validated" or "contextualised" as "art". Artists working inside the electronic networks are unlikely to be threatened by a similar fate as there is virtually no product to display, market or appropriate. Text and light, the "Transluscent Writings" in the title of this exhibition, are the prime elements in the visible surface of on-line activity by artists. This is what you usually see when you look at the screen. But looking through the screen - through the maze of wires and solder and silicon - a vast world becomes visible which consists entirely of connections. Turn off the machine and they are gone!
Vienna, October 1993.