Robert Adrian

From: "ROBERT ADRIAN X", Kunsthalle Wien/Forum Verlag, (Catalogue)

I grew up in a family of artists so, although I never attended an art academy, it is not entirely true that I am "self-taught". The house was full of art books and we made regular Sunday visits to the Ontario Art Gallery (there were almost no other galleries in Toronto in the 40's). Both my parents' brothers were also artists as were many of their friends so there were usually artists in the house. We also had a big old summer cottage on Georgian Bay, north of Toronto, which had been built by my grandfather in about 1900. The area is best known for the fishing but the visitors to our place usually took the opportunity to do some landscape sketching - which meant that the cottage was also full of paintings and drawings that had accumulated over the years. It was natural that I also began to try my hand at outdoor sketching.

Nobody expected to make a living from art in mid-western America in those days and my family lived from "commercial" art: illustrations, mural painting, portraits, interior design, architectural renderings ... anything that could be sold. One of the things they did was batik. Large-scale batiks on heraldic themes in vaguely art-deco style were very fashionable as wall hangings in wealthy homes in the 20s and 30s - especially in and around New York City. My family and their friends produced batiks, some up to 10 meters long, for this market. Although the batik craze was over by the end of the 30's, the old dyes, wax and scraps of silk and fine cotton were still in the cellar in the mid-40's - so my sister and I learned how to make batiks.

When the war broke out in '39 my father was working as a mural artist decorating large hotels. Of course the financing for hotel decoration dried up immediately the war started and, being too old for the army, he worked at various jobs during the war. One of the jobs was painting a sky for the Canadian Air Force - a huge panorama cloudscape around the room housing a Link Trainer (the first flight simulator).

The war years in Canada were relatively uneventful. As a child, I was 10 when the war ended, one mostly noticed the absence of new toys because many toys - especially metal toys - had been made in Germany before the war. There were also the food rationing, the absence of young men who were all away in the army and of course the John Wayne heroics of the Saturday matinee propaganda movies. I must have been about 7 or 8 when, in the absence of manufactured toys - and presumably inspired by the war hysteria - I started to make platoons of soldiers from plasticene and stage elaborate skirmishes in the bedclothes - which may be where the idea originated for the miniatures I began making from Fimo (a plasticene-like material that can be baked for permanence) in 1979.

When the war was over, postwar America celebrated in a frenzy of victorious euphoria and economic boom - the war had ended the hunger years of the depression and left America as the undisputed winner. When the dust cleared, we could see that the exciting things in art were happening at home in America - probably because so many important European artists had emigrated there during the war but also because Europe was in ruins.

The war was the great divide. When artists of my parents' generation talked about art and the art world they usually meant Paris and Europe - "before the war". But the art that excited me and my contemporaries in provincial America was happening in New York - "after the war". I don't know how it is for other people of my generation but for me "the war" divides time - "before the war" was another world. Five years had been torn from history while the world was occupied with slaughter. It was as though someone had turned off the lights in 1939 and turned them back on in 1945 - a sleeping beauty effect: going to sleep in one era and waking up in another.

I had studied commercial art at high school and worked for about a year or so as a commercial and display artist. In 1955, instead of going to art college, I used the money I had saved to rent a studio with a couple of other artists. It was the year that Charlie Parker died - a traumatic event that somehow signaled the end of another era. East coast bebop was fading and the new west coast cool was becoming hip at the same time that muscular abstraction was gradually giving way to the cooler, more contemplative work of artists like Barnet Newman and Clyfford Still.

I suppose I was always a bit confused about my place as an artist. On the one hand I had grown up in a family of artists who had a strong relationship to landscape painting - a very Canadian interest. On the other hand there was the magnetic attraction of hairy-chested expressionism emanating from New York. Although there wasn't much actual New York art to be seen in Toronto, "Art News", the art-bible of the era, provided plenty of material about goings on in the Big Apple for the hungry masses in the provinces.

Except for its mystique of improvisation I was never seriously interested in abstract expressionism and continued to work with landscape themes in large formats and smaller outdoor sketches. I thought of the larger paintings as "lyrical abstraction". I was also doing a lot of smaller drawings, monotypes and pastels which continued, more or less unrelated to the painting, up untill the early 70s. I think the last time I painted outdoors was in about 1962 or '63. The New York artists that I found most interesting at the time were Arshile Gorky and Robert Motherwell and their influence can be seen in some of the older paintings from the 50s. I was also influenced by the "Fauve" artists, especially the early work of Vlaminck and Derain.

Music played a big part in our lives - bebop and cool jazz mostly. There was a jazz club in Toronto called "House of Hambourg" where visiting musicians used to come to sit in with local groups after hours - Toronto was a regular stop for touring jazz bands and soloists in those days. A lot of artists used to hang out there and, for a few months in 1956, I ran a small art gallery above the club. Then, as now, the kind of music young people listen to tends to identify them tribally. Jazz was a tribal identifier for many young artists in the 50's because it was diametrically opposed to "pop" music - and to the Rock'n Rollers who were busily commercialising Rhythm & Blues.

The awesome banality of mid-50s pop music was matched only by the all-pervasive blandness of the Eisenhower years. The McCarthy witch-hunts in the U.S. were barely over and the clammy hand of social conformity was still in full control. It was the dissidents - Beat poets, political folk singers, jazz musicians - who offered a refuge from the repressive political and social mood of the era. The political situation in Canada was always more liberal and tolerant than south of the border - there is actually a social-democratic party (then the CCF, now the NDP) with seats in Parliament - but the U.S. determines the ideological atmosphere of North America.

The political climate in America was certainly one reason for leaving but there was also the need to escape from the family art tradition and the incestuous Toronto art scene. It was in the autumn of 1959 that I left Canada with my wife and 2 small children for London and, although I didn't know it - or intend it - at the time, it proved to be a permanent move and I have lived in Europe ever since.

The choice of England was an easy one: At that time a citizen of a British Commonwealth country was automatically also a citizen of the U.K. - so a Canadian could immediately, and without any formal procedure, enter Britain, get a job, benefit from the social services, vote in all elections and so forth.

I worked at all kinds of casual jobs (pubs, factories, display companies etc.) untill 1961 when I started working for the National Coal Board as an exhibitions officer - basically a design job. The work involved advising the regional management about exhibition strategies, designing and overseeing the construction/installation of exhibition stands and controlling the work of outside designers. It also involved a lot of travelling and I was mostly away from home, especially after we moved to Newhaven on the south coast, about an hour from London. By the time I quit the job in 1964 the marriage was as good as over and a year or so later my wife returned to Canada with the children.

Although it is hard to imagine how I found the time, I still managed to do a lot of painting and even took part in several large exhibitions while working at the Coal Board.

The "fabulous sixties" didn't actually start untill about 1963 or 64 when British "Beat" music began to get serious international attention - coinciding with the election of the first Labour Government of Harold Wilson. Suddenly the Tories were gone, the Beatles were "fab", the colours had changed - everything was now pink and yellow, British pop art stormed the art world, British pop music overran America, even Paris had to bow to London fashion. Britain was suddenly in style. It only lasted for 5 or 6 years but while it lasted it was incredible.

Like Carnaby Street, Portobello Road became a Mecca for 60's trend-seekers and I began doing odd jobs for the dealers - mostly restoring old furniture but also faking the kind of old paintings for which there was more demand than the available supply could provide. One of the desirable, but scarce, things was "English glass painting", a 17th Century technique for colouring mezzotints behind glass that died out in the mid-19th Century. At first we faked them - that is, they were sold as antique originals - but the demand was such that it became more profitable (and honest) to call them "reproductions". I developed a production technique that made it possible to produce several hundred glass paintings a week and, in 1966, founded a partnership called Fulham Artisans to manufacture and market them. We were amazingly successful and within a year our shabby loft above an old stable in Fulham had become a regular stop for buyers from most of the big American chain stores - Saks, Bloomingdales etc., as well as for dealers from all over Europe and Britain.

Fulham Artisans was conceived as a kind of collective or industrial commune. In the 60's there was lots of talk about alternative culture, of going back to the land and so forth, but that seemed a bit absurd for city people. On the other hand, the swinging-London boom presented an opportunity for experimentation with alternative forms of business and Fulham Artisans was not the only artist-run enterprise to sprout at the time.

I had a couple of one-man shows of painting in the mid-sixties and took part in a few group exhibitions but with the founding of Fulham Artisans I had less and less time for painting. The truth is that business is much more exciting - and often more creative - than art, and all my energy was going into "creating" Fulham Artisans as a project.

When my father had a stroke in November 1969 I went to see him and stayed in Toronto over Christmas. When I returned to London in January 1970 I ended my relationship with Fulham Artisans - I was already spending a lot of time in Vienna and was living permanently there by 1972. The 60's were over and with them the euphoria that had gripped London. Most of my friends had already left by 1970 - some to California, Spain or France, many to different parts of Britain. The neighbourhood in Notting Hill where we had lived was being pulled down for redevelopment. The colours had changed again - back to London drab: the Tories were back in power and the scene was set for Thatcher's coup de grâce.

I had met my present wife in London in 1969 but she was already preparing to return to Austria to take up a new job and eventually I followed her to Vienna - which was even greyer than London at the beginning of the 70's. It seemed as though Vienna had missed the 60's altogether - or slept right through them - but that was one of its attractions. Nothing much was happening in the arts in Vienna at the time - the actionists were in hiding or in exile and the local scene was dominated by the pseudo-surrealism of the so-called Wiener Schule - so it was a kind of tabula rasa that allowed space to think and experiment.

Suddenly, after the hectic and hustle of London, I had time on my hands and began to pay serious attention to the post-pop ambience of late 60's art - reading art magazines and theoretical texts and experimenting with formal problems of painting. Some of the results of these reflections were shown at the Galerie Schottenring in 1974. It was my first large one-man show and represented a final break with "painterly" painting. The work was all concerned with problems related to the painted surface but they were still all paintings-on-canvas. This was OK but I wanted to push it farther and had already begun to develop a technique for making surfaces without support - just the surface itself - which resulted in the Black Silk and Gray pieces in 1975/76.

The technique was simple once the experiments with different media had been completed: A thick (0.5mm) polyethylene sheet was stretched over a frame and the transparent medium (usually PVA) was sprayed or brushed onto the surface. When it was dry the grid drawing was applied - either thread or pen lines - and sealed with another coat of medium. Sometimes paint or pastel was applied on top of the drawing. The final coat of medium was then sprayed - very thick - onto the surface and the silk, cotton or other material was laid into the wet medium. When fully dry the finished piece was stripped from the plastic sheet (nothing sticks to polyethylene). The main problems were 1) getting the consistency and quantity of the medium right and 2) applying the cloth without allowing any air bubbles to be trapped underneath.

The formal attraction of this technique was that it reversed the normal order of both the execution of the painting and its viewing, that is: the top surface is applied first and each layer is then seen in the order of its application - nothing is concealed and the whole process is visible and transparent.

Problems are exciting but solutions are boring - or at least uninteresting - so, after trying a few variations (folded paintings, net pieces etc.), I began to work with tissue paper collages using the same stretched plastic sheets. The tissue paper provided both the colour and the support. These pieces were usually installed as an array - as wall installations. Later the same technique was used in the rice paper collages that continued untill about 1983.

It seemed that art - or at least painting - was fragmenting, splitting into its components all through the 70's: the act of painting was being played out as performance; video was dealing with narrative; photography with illusion; the painted object was turned into its own subject matter while subject matter de-materialised into conceptual texts or manifestos. Minimal art, conceptual art, mail art, performance art, media art, analytical art jostled and overlapped in a kaleidoscopic array of conflicting histories and possible futures. Viewing all these different fragments as the basic elements of painting made it easy to abandon the formal preoccupation with the physical object and try to recover some of the aspects that I had been so rigorously omitting.

The Seascape piece was a new beginning: I began to make model ships from styrofoam scraps that were lying around the studio and sailing them in the Karlsplatz pond untill the pond was drained for the winter. It did not begin as an artwork but to entertain myself while my 4 year old son played in the park. I worked on them over the winter - there were 18 ships in all - and sailed them in the pond on the first Sunday in May (1979) for Karl Kowanz to make the Regatta film. During the same time the Available Light photo series was made followed by the photo series of the model ships in the bath. The ships were really a turning point because they were not artworks themselves but the subject of artworks - existing along that fuzzy line that separates art from everything else. They were therefore never exhibited but formed the basis of photos and films and eventually some large rice paper collages. In the end they were let loose in Venice and sailed away forever in the choppy water of the Bacino San Marco in 1980.

I had been connected with the Grita Insam Galerie (then called Modern Art Galerie) since 1975 and we agreed to do a big exhibition in her new gallery (about 800 sq. meters) with new work in January 1980. In fact everything in the show was made in 1979 and included the miniatures "24 Jobs" and "Dictionnaire par Images", the 2 photo series, the Regatta film and "Modern Art I", a large irony-laden installation made of coloured tissue paper stapled to the wall. The exhibition also included a mail-art element as part of the ongoing "Wiencouver" project and the Vienna participation in the SF MoMA "Artists' Use of Telecommunications Conference" that I organised together with Grita Insam (some galleries were still interested in fugitive and uncommercial art practices in 1980).

The work with telecommunications technology has a rather long and complicated history. In 1956, when I was hanging out in the jazz club in Toronto, a couple of the regulars had day jobs in the car accounting office at the CPR (Canadian Pacific Railways) and they said that their boss was looking for people to work in the new computer installation, one of the first in the world. The computer was housed in its own building in Montréal and was linked by teletype to offices right across Canada. Its task was to register the movement of all the CPR railway cars under way in North America on a daily basis. Our job was to act as interface between the teletype machines and the computer terminals connected to the Montréal computer - converting punched tape to IBM cards, collating and sorting the cards and sending them via transceiver to Montréal. It involved communication with the various workers in the regional offices and we often got into long on-line chats and sent ASCII-art gags to each other over the teletype network. We were a random group of students, artists, musicians and writers hired because they wanted people who were able to improvise and our real task was to develop methods for dealing with this new technology. Within six months we had patched together a system and gradually all of us quit because it had become so boring - then the office workers took over.

My next encounter with telecommunications technology happened by chance while visiting my family in Toronto in 1978. There was a conference called "The Fifth Network" taking place in the city involving artist-run spaces, native peoples groups, ecology groups etc., with an agenda of developing strategies to gain access to the communication networks and media. I discovered the conference because, to my amazement, it was being broadcast live on cable TV and I watched it from my parents' living room and then went downtown to take a closer look. That was where I met Bill Bartlett who told me about the experiments they had been doing with slow-scan TV out on the west coast and we agreed that he would inform me about future projects and the possibilities for participation. About 6 months later he invited me to participate in "Interplay", an on-line computer event that was part of the Computer Culture conference in Toronto. I.P.Sharp Associates was making their world-wide timesharing network available for the event and, following Bill's instructions, I made contact with the Vienna IPSA office and on the 1st of April 1979 chatted with locations in North America, Australia and Japan for a couple of hours. That was all - but at the time it was absolutely mind-blowing and I was instantly addicted.

The two basic principles for working as an artist with communications technology are first, that it is necessarily a collaborative activity and second, that the space between the participants is the location of the work. Both these principles run counter to normal art practice, at least in the usual western notion of art. This means that it is difficult, but absolutely crucial, to find local collaborators and to develop a network of remote partners. After collaborating with Grita Insam on the "Artists' Use of Telecommunications Conference" I began to work with Helmut Mark and Zelko Wiener and in 1983 we formed the group Blix to develop and carry out projects. In pursuit of remote networking partners I was in collaboration with Bill Bartlett and Gottfried Bach (IPSA Vienna) in the development of ARTEX, an email program for artists in the I.P.Sharp timesharing network. On only one occasion did I ever actually make anything like a normal artwork in a telecommunications project (in 1983, during Wiencouver IV) because I was entirely occupied - even obsessed - with the development of networks and collaborative infrastructures.

By 1986 we had explored all the different telecommunications media that could be connected to the telephone network: slow-scan TV, telefax, email, computer conference, videotext - in every combination we could imagine. We even did a project using amateur radio. My last project in the 80's was the organisation of the slow-scan TV and computer network for "Planetary Network", a part of Laboratorio Ubiqua at the 1986 Venice Biennale. The Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) - networked personal computers - were spreading fast and with them came a new kind of creative communicator - the hacker. It was a technology that was difficult for artists to access and the BBS community was not amenable to outsiders - like artists. It had another disadvantage: it was almost impossible to link networks across the oceans due to the slow modem speeds and high phone costs - the Internet was still another 8 to 10 years away for the normal user.

Of all the projects in which I was involved in the 80's the one that was most satisfying was ARTEX because it is the only time I succeeded in persuading a company (I.P.Sharp Associates) to actually assist in the development of something that was useful to artists but had no direct commercial or publicity value to themselves.

At the same time as the telecommunications projects I was also making a lot of other work including large sculptural installations, the airplane pieces, and a series of works in different media related to my father who had died in 1980. I was also exhibiting fairly widely with large one-man shows in Paris (Centre Culturel Canadien '83), Graz (Neue Galerie '84), New York (49th Parallel Gallery '85) and as well as private galIeries in Italy, Switzerland, Germany and Canada. Although I saw no conflict between operating in the immaterial world of telecommunication systems and making physical artworks, it slowly became clear that the two activities were perceived as unrelated and contradictory by both the art institutions (galleries, museums, etc.) and most of my network partners. It became a slightly schizophrenic situation in which I could not mention my activities in one area while talking with people in the other without encountering stony silence. This is probably because many of the pioneers of the kind of low-tech telecomm with which I was involved had been active in the 70's with performance, video etc. but after 1980, when the galleries and museums suddenly re-embraced the painted object and the market boomed, the people with no product to sell were pushed off to the margins. On the other hand I was financing my telecomm activities mostly from the sale of work - and several Canada Council grants.

The stock market crash of 1988 ended the 80s art boom and by the early 90's most of the thousands of galleries that had sprung up like mushrooms all over the world had gone. The ones that survived did so in very reduced terms and I was not the only artist who began to have storage problems as the unsold works came back home. My problem was that I had been successful with large sculptural installations, usually made for specific exhibitions, and it was impossible to do new work untill the old work was installed somewhere else. So I stopped making objects and began working with computers, first with the Amiga and then did a hypercard work (Kunst&Politik, 1990) on a Macintosh for the Steirische Kulturiniative in collaboration with Reinhard Braun. It involved almost a year of research, design and programming and was briefly installed in the original storage rooms built to protect Hitler's art collection in the salt mines at Alt Aussee. A second and much larger version for the Internet was commissioned in 1995 by the Offene Kulturhaus in Linz and went on line for the Ars Electronica in 1996. <>

In 1992 I drifted back into telecommunications when Gerfried Stocker and I started a 2 year project for the Steirische Kulturinitiatve called "ZERO - the art of being everywhere". It was conceived as a series of events, exhibitions and workshops on the theme of networking and included the symposium/ publication "On Line". We also set up a BBS for artists called ZEROnet with intention of building a gateway to the still-restricted Internet but events were moving faster than anyone could imagine and the Internet was an open system by mid-1994. In April of 1995 I put up my first web pages - "Kunstradio On Line" for the radio-art program Kunstradio in Vienna and spent much of the next five years developing and managing the site.

The problem of working with computers is that you never seem to have any tangible result - nothing in your hands. I miss the satisfaction of having a real, finished object at the end of the day that does not depend on the whims of the electronics industry or the reliability of the power supply to guarantee its presence.

Robert Adrian
Vienna, September 2001.