Book review: A potent internet pre-history

Esther Milne

Annmarie Chandler & Norie Neumark eds
At a Distance: Precursors to Art and Activism on the Internet
Cambridge, Mass: MIT/Leonardo Books, 2005, ISBN: 0262033283

As editors, Annemarie Chandler and Norie Neumark accomplish such an elegant thematic and formal structuring of their richly diverse material that, as reviewer, one feels a challenge has been issued. At once intimate and transnational in its articulations, the conceptual and material achievements of this book are difficult to convey.

Despite the ubiquity of that evocative prefix across contemporary networked and distributed media platforms, the affect and activism of art ‘at a distance’ has not been adequately historicised. In response, Chandler and Neumark locate a poetics of distance within the histories and technologies of activist arts practice, focusing particularly on the 1970s and 1980s. For the editors, distance functions as both organising principle and central problematic. The 3 sections of this beautifully designed book are structured by the socio-aesthetic relations of distance, as Neumark explains:

Part I is written at the greatest distance from the projects themselves [where] the aim is to raise and explore issues, concepts, and arguments, rather than detail specific projects…The chapters in Part II approach their subjects more intimately, written…by or with people who were involved in the projects discussed…[and] Part III returns to the voice of cultural criticism with a rethinking of networks, a key figure that appears throughout the book …

Consisting of 20 chapters from writers, artists, curators, academics and activists, this anthology critiques the figure of the network through its enabling conditions of geographic dispersal, collaborative political action, technical modes of distribution and tensions of affect. And it is mail-art, in particular, which provides the aesthetic framework for many of these contributors. John Held, for example, presents a detailed historical analysis of mail-art by exploring the artistic methodologies of foundational figures such as Ray Johnson (‘the father of mail art’), Fluxus artist Robert Filliou, Mark Bloch and Marcia Tucker. Held scrutinises the categorical debates that have shaped the genre arguing that ‘the Mail Art community…was fixated not on the postal exchange, but rather on the aesthetics and distribution of communication.’ Demonstrating crucial links between networked art activism and postal circuits of communication is Simone Osthoff’s insightful chapter on Brazilian artists Paulo Bruscky and Eduardo Kac. Both curator and mail-art practitioner, Bruscky’s transgressive deployment of the institutional frameworks of postal technology resulted in his arrest on a number of occasions. He staged, with Ypirana Filho, Brazil’s First International Mail Art Exhibit in 1975 which was shut down by police within minutes of opening since many of the Latin American participants had included “messages denouncing state violence and censorship.”

Continuing to explore the convergence of network and mail-work is Craig Saper’s dialogue with Anna Freud Banana who, he argues, introduces a “new psychoanalysis” that “mobilises parody as an analytic tool.” Central to this parody is Banana’s name which she adopted after it was coined by her students. As Banana explains, her aesthetic performances allow her “to go Bananas by parodying the bureaucratic codes of the networks our lives exist within: stamps, popular magazines, organisations, governments, corporations.” Also noteworthy for its contribution to political and technological formations of mail-art is Melody Sumner Carnahan’s fascinating project, produced with partner Michael Sumner, titled The Form 1970-1979. This work involved soliciting one line ‘reactions’ to each of the years of the 1970s and predictions for 1979. Correspondents included John Cage, Dick Higgins and Andy Warhol as well as friends and relatives. Although not overtly defined as mail-art, the artist’s book in John Kelly’s recent show at Niagra exhibiting his polemical correspondence with The Australia Council, demonstrates the centrality of the postal within contemporary aesthetico-activist practices.

In addition to the postal system, ‘distance art’ is also networked by such socio-technological forms as ‘telematic art’, telerobotics, video activism and sonic art practice. Exploring the historical and political impact of many of these is Andrew Garton’s contribution about “the theatre of activism”, and the emergence of Australia’s “vintage networks.” Garton has long been involved in using digital media as an agent for social change and he details various collaborative projects which helped to establish “a community of network activists extending the capabilities of computers and modems and their use in the developing world.” Further explorations of “telematic simultaneity” include Heidi Grundmann discussing her curatorial work for the REALTIME and CHIP-RADIO projects of the early 1990s, which raised “serious problems of documentation and interpretation common to all fugitive, process or time based art projects”; a “journey through the archives” with Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz, and Don Joyce on the “sonic spontaneity” of Negativland.

‘New media theory’ is continually seduced by network promises: open, decentralised, egalitarian and emergent. Yet as a number of these contributors note, networks are inflected by regimes of power, economies of desire and the restless rhythms of global capital. As Jesse Dean explains in his discussion of the video network, Gulf Crisis TV:

…not all networks are created equal. The notion of net seems to signify a democratic sharing, an equal distribution of nodes, all connecting to other points, without hierarchy. Few networks are like that…networks, like other technological creations are…not simply discovered or invented, but are engineered into existence and put into place by institutions of power.

Similarly, Ken Friedman argues cogently for “art networks” to recognise the fundamental issues of governmentality with which they must grapple in order to achieve “sustainability and resilience.” And Sean Cubitt’s eloquent, if elegiac, critique of “destructive consumerism” reminds us of the socio-political urgency of networked relations: “the miseries of the last factory workers and raw-materials producers are removed geographically from the sites of retail and consumption, the specificity of their work bathed in the indifference of logo-branded goods and services.”

It is idiomatic that Australia occupies a poignant relation with distance. In these xenophobic times, however, how heartening to discover works such as this (also relevant here is Darren Tofts’ recent monograph on Australian media arts) which explore the specificity of location without eliding the impact of transnational flows. Chandler and Neumark’s book should appeal to artists, academics and activists for whom distance must always remain poignant.

See also Darren Tofts: interzone: Media arts in Australia, Thames & Hudson, 2005 (reviewed in RT 71).

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 36

© Esther Milne; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2005