Robert Adrian

From "IM NETZ der SYSTEME", Kunstforum Nr.103, Köln, 1989.
In 1981 Ars Electronica asked the author of this article to propose a project for artists using telecommunications technology. The result was THE WORLD IN 24 HOURS, which took place frorn 12:00 on Sept. 27 to 12:00 Sept. 28, 1982, linking Linz in Austria with 12 other cities around the world.

Nowadays its getting harder and harder to tell art from everything else - in fact, now, if it looks like art it probably isn't. The one sure test is to check the art magazines to see if there's a full page advertisment showing it - because, as Jeff Koons, master of the "is-it-or-isn't-it" school has shown, art magazines are where the art is. But back in the early 80's the art was in the galleries. The "art product" was back in a big way and gallery people were jetting here and there, hustling each other over cocktails at this or that monumental exhibition or art fair. In that climate - of market strategies, career development and product identification - it was hardly surprising that some of us thought that galleries had become entirely about distribution and marketing. Some of us also thought that, in the age of speed-of-light-technology, electronic communications networks might provide a more direct, and less product-oriented, means of distribution for artworks.

This involved not only conceiving of a less product-oriented kind of artwork - but, more often than not, actually eliminating the object from the artwork altogether. Products or objects resulting from a telecommunications project are mere documentary relics of an activity that took place in the electronic space of a network. But these kinds of problems had already been confronted during the 70's by performance artists who found that their work had been reduced to scrapbook photos, card files and dinner party anecdotes.

The electronic space in which telecommunications artists - along with transnational corporations, stock markets and the military - operate is a complicated concept made possible by another phenomenon of art in the 1970's ... conceptual art. Conceptual art demands a conceptual space in which to exist and a culture that has grasped that elusive notion will have no trouble at all de-materialising its power structures into something as relatively concrete as the electronic space of international electronic communications networks. Our interest in this space should be no surprise: Art has always gone where the power is.

But, although Performance Art had shown how artworks could be related to duration (time-based) and Conceptual Art had shown how they could be located in conceptual space (dematerialised), most important in the development of an art using electronic communications technology were Mail-Art and E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology). In fact most of the early experimenters with communications technology in the arts were old Mail-Art freaks or E.A.T. veterans - or both. But it was Mail-Art with its concept of postal space - a blizzard of images circling the globe through the integrated postal services - that made it possible to conceive of artworks in the electronic space of the new telecommunications networks.
The World in 24 Hours was one of the first projects to try to explore that space.

Technically, The World in 24 Hours was planned to simultaneously exploit all easily accessible (low technology) telecommunications media suitable for network application via telephone. The criteria were only that the technology be relatively cheap and simple to use and that it be available in Linz in a form approved by the ÖPT - we were not concerned about the relatively low quality of the systems we were using and there was no attempt to define the content of the contributions by the participants. In those days just the novelty of exchanging images with distant places using exotic machines - even telefax was an exotic medium in 1982 - was considered sufficiently exciting. The project format was that each of 12 locations1 around the world would be called from Linz at 12 noon local time for a one hour exchange of material using any or all of the following media: Telefacsimile, Slow-Scan Television and amplified telephone (Telephone Music and Sound Works for Telephone). An international computer mailbox and conference facility, donated for the project by the I.P. Sharp Network, was available for artists projects during the full 24 hours as well as for pre-project organisation and coordination during the project.

The intention of The World in 24 Hours was to follow the midday sun around the planet - creating a kind of telematic world map. Of course the most noticeable thing about this map is that it includes only the capitalist industrial nations - 75% of the world is missing - which is a problem that will haunt all telecommunications programs for the foreseeable future. Other problems that cropped up during The World in 24 Hours - and have still not been resolved - were the high cost of telephone transmission, the neccessity to re-establish the network of artists for each project and the tendency toward institutionalisation of artists' access to telematic systems. All these problems are linked to the cost factor - which has become more rather than less critical through the development of more sophisticated technology.

We had hoped - and expected - in 1982 that new developments in technology and the rapid expansion of personal telecommunications use would bring costs down and make access easier. But in fact it as worked out in quite the opposite way. More sophisticated equipment and better image transmission has increased rather than decreased transmission times - and therefore transmission costs - for the private user.

This is because the improved graphic and sound digitising abilities of quite inexpensive computers has raised expectations about quality. But the transmission medium (the telephone network) cannot carry the large volume of data in a high resolution image or digitised sound sequence quickly or cheaply enough to make image/sound exchanges by artists attractive - except by institutions or in the context of well funded festivals or projects. This is in spite of a general reduction in long distance telephone charges and improvements in the quality of telephone transmission. The digital transmission systems (ISDN) now being installed in many places, which offer high-speed/high-quality exchange of data, are not planned for personal use - they will only be affordable by larger companies/institutions due to wiring and hardware costs.

In addition there is an unpleasant feeling that the institutions are beginning to focus their attention on access by non-institutional (private) users of computer netwolks. The recent conspicuous success of hackers in penetrating commercial and military research networks has been used to justify the concentration of development resources in the area of improving security and the restriction of access to computer networks generally. The campaign against the hackers, complete with dubious reports of espionage by some western intelligence agencies and prosecutions for electronic trespassing, can be seen as part of a strategy to marginalise private activity in the the electronic network environment similar to the way that amateur radio has been marginalised.

In 1985 the BLIX group in Vienna organised "Kunst-Funk", a one week project for the Wiener Festwochen using amateur radio. The attractions were clear: radio transmission is free, a world-wide network exists, all media available for telephone are used by radio amateurs, and, in principle, amateur radio is a model for the way modern communications technology can be used by private individuals and groups. In practice however it is also a model of the way a communications medium becomes industrialised. Information and entertainment monopolies very quickly took control, radio became a mass medium and the experimenters who had created radio as a 2-way interactive medium were squeezed into smaller and narrower channels and were increasingly restricted in the kind of material they could exchange. By the mid-1920's radio had become, along with film, the forerunner of what we now call the entertainment industry.

In a sense Kunst-Funk was a sentimental attempt to experience what radio might have been like if it had not become a centralised mass-medium. But the strict licensing regulations and restrictions on content (e.g. no meaningful information aside from name, adress, call-letters and discussion of equipment - and radio amateurs are regularly monitored and prosecutions for infringments can result in confiscation of equipment or worse) have resulted in a ghetto mentality by radio amateurs which makes them extremely suspicious of outsiders and frightened of coming into conflict with the authorities by trying anything new - such as working with artists. It is also likely that the regulations, which put emphasis on the purely might be interested in technical, discourage anyone who the less technical aspects of the medium - such as projects by artists.

It is not unreasonable to assume that a similar fate awaits the private mailboxes and bulletin boards operating in the telephone network. Recent discussion about legislation to control freely accessible private bulletin boards in Britain on moral grounds is a first step in a campaign to introduce some hind of licensing system - and, presumably, restrictions on content.

At first glance the new video-text systems that started coming on line a few years ago seemed to be the natural medium for artists who wanted to work in the new telematic space. When the Austrian Post Office (ÖPT) introduced the new CEPT2 norm video-text system (with vector graphics and 4096 colours) in 1984/85 it seemed that at last there was a public system capable of functioning as a full-time creative network. The announced intention was to provide a cheap home computer with on-line software and editing capability for text and images. In fact the ÖPT delivered the hardware and introduced the system but had no strategy for developing its creative potential. The Blix group in Vienna and Kultur-data in Graz tried to exploit the artistic and communicative aspects but found no support at the ÖPT and soon gave up. The ÖPT, following the German example, concentrated instead on developing video-text as a commercial system for advertising and information services - which can best be described as a disaster. Except for France, where Minitel, in spite of its abysmal technical quality and sleazy image, has just topped 4,000,000 users, video-text as been a complete failure. Minitel's success was due to the fact that the French PTT put the telephone directory on line and distributed terminals, instead of telephone books, at minimal cost - which meant that there were very soon a million users. The size of the user base attracted commercial enterprises with all kinds of services - from travel agents to soft-porn purveyers - and, of course, artists and writers. But the poor graphic quality of the system means that Mini tel is mainly language oriented and, naturally, in French so that it remains a purely French system.

The CEPT2 system with its better (and easier) graphic capabilities would have permitted image exchange of fairly high quality - making it more suitable for an Europe-wide network independent of language. But it is clear now that, because of the cultural bias toward centralised distribution rather than interactive commununication, no-one ever seriously considered the visual potential for creative use of the system. Video-Text, as a graphic communications medium, is as good as dead.

So, aside from the official/commercial telephone networks (including Datex-P etc.), with their distance-related costs and the commercial communications systems provided by timesharing companies and subscription networks - which are very expensive for the large-volume data transmission required for image or digital sound transmission - there remain only the free university research networks as a potential vehicle for global telecommunications work by artists.

Designed for scientific and academic exchange, the university networks (E.A.R.N., BitNet etc. - and the ubiquitous Internet) provide cost-free networking but are only accessible to members of university departments - including art departments. For this reason the most interesting artistic activity in telecommunications is now taking place within the institutional framework of art teaching programs. The problem with this is that access to the equipment and networking facilities is only available to staff and students of the teaching institution - when the students graduate they also lose access to the networks. This is a problem not unfamiliar to artists trained in video, computer graphics and other technical disciplines.

Now, in retrospect, the assumption upon which The World in 24 Hours was based - that widespread use of communications technology would result in more interactive communication among private users - has proven to have been naive. Much of the technology we used, such as telefax or computer networks have become standard office equipment and Slow-scan TV is now, experimentally at least, available in the form of the video-phone. But the revolution in personal communication, especially among artists, that we anticipated has not materialised. The high cost of hardware and communication charges is only a part of the problem - more important is the inertia of 200 years of industrial culture and its consumerist aftermath. Noone in our culture, including artists, is encouraged or trained in shared creatiive activity - the neccessary quality for the interactive use of communications technology. We are all accustomed to the producer/consumer relationship of manufacturing things for consumption by others - and, since electronic communication networks do not permit the manufacture of real products, artists have tended to produce telematic simulations of products. The result is that almost everything done by artists in these systems has amounted to little more than a telematic version of "I'll show .you mine if you show me yours" infantilism2.

The World in 24 Hours would be quite impossible to organise now. It is not only obsolete but historically obsolete because there is nothing to be learned from it. It would have been a useful lesson if the assumptions about the future it was based on had been confirmed by events - but the decisions about the future had already been taken in the board-rooms and laboratories of the electronics companies and their military, industrial and commercial customers long before 1982. These decisions did not include providing low-cost interactive networking for artists or any other non-institutional users and the electronic pollution resulting from them is something we are going to have to live with for a long time.


1 - The World in 24 Hours - Programme
    September 27
      12:00 Wien, Bath und Amsterdam
      13:00 Frankfurt/M
      18:00 Pittsburg
      19:00 Toronto
      21:00 Wellfleet
      22:00 San Francisco
      23:00 Vancouver
    September 28
      03:00 Sydney
      04:00 Tokyo
      05:00 Honolulu
      10:00 Florenz
      11:00 Istanbul

2 - Some notable exceptions were: Roy Ascott's "La Plissure du Texte" (1983) (a collective fairy tale), Norman White's "Hearsay" (1984) (both using the ARTEX mailbox), Norbert Hinterberger's "Ober- österreichische Bauernhaus" (1982) (a telefax sculpture for "The World in 24 Hours") and the classic "Hole in Space" (1980) by Mobile Image (Connecting public space in Los Angeles and New York via satellite).