Norman White Interview 2013

Photo Credit: Dr. Timothy Jackson

"OUTER SPACE: The Past, Present and Future of Telematic Art - 04"
BY JEREMY TURNER (Conducted by e-mail, December, 2003). 
JT: I was wondering if you could recollect details of your collaborations with Robert Adrian in Vienna and Bill Bartlett in Victoria? If a new project were to come up similar in spirit to Interplay and ARTEX, would you be interested in working with Bill Bartlett and Robert Adrian again? And if yes, in what capacity?
NW: My story must begin with Bob Bernecky. I met Bernecky in the early 70's. Not only was he one of the most technically brilliant people I'd ever met, but he also dabbled in the arts, photographically documenting many of the Queen Street art performances which occurred in that period. His "day job" (I put that in quotes, because he really worked at night, after the suits had left) was writing software for the computer timesharing company that supported the Toronto Stock Exchange, namely "I.P.Sharp Associates", or "IPSA" as it was commonly called. Bernecky saw that I was working with digital electronics, and thought that I should become familiar with the very powerful computer language, "APL", upon which all of IPSA's commercial applications depended. He got me a free account, with the blessing of IPSA president Ian Sharp. But as I started logging onto the system, it wasn't so much APL which caught my eye, but rather the electronic mailing system used by the globally scattered IPSA technicians to communicate with each other.
Note that this was very much a closed in-house system, nothing like the Internet of today. You could send only text messages, and if you wanted to transmit images, you had to arrange your ASCII characters on the page in a fairly crude fashion.
About that same time there was a major conference in Toronto which focused on Art and Technology. I seem to remember that it took place at the Four Seasons Hotel, but I could be wrong on this. One thing that I know for sure was that Bill Bartlett was there, talking about a network of art-oriented individuals based around the Pacific Rim, including himself, who were communicating by Slo-Scan TV. At one point, the conference broke up into special interest groups, and I followed Bill Bartlett and maybe twenty other people to a small room to talk about electronic networking. There I sang the praises of the IPSA electronic mailing system and encouraged people to get an account, if only to keep in touch. Bill and I found we were on the same artistic wavelength, both being fascinated by open-ended interactions whereby artists who were scattered far and wide, often far from urban centres, could collaborate on projects whose outcome was unpredictable and synergistic. Bill soon got an IPSA account and we started communicating regularly by email (although I don't think it was called that yet.)
Robert Adrian might have been at that conference as well, or he may have come across IPSA on his own, through his connections in Vienna. All I can say is, one person led us to another, and s/he to yet another, and next thing we knew there were ten or twenty IPSA dedicated users passing messages back and forth.
Of course, as I've mentioned, Bill had already assembled a robust SLOSCAN network in the Pacific region, including Hawaii, Japan, and Australia... so we had a LOT to build on.
The problem next facing us was how to take this very dry and brittle text-based medium and do something juicily interactive with it. Unfortunately, Bartlett ran up a huge debt to I.P. Sharp (his was not a free account) before we got our act together. Last I saw him (1986?) he had sworn off electronic communications altogether, and become an innovative Postmaster on Pender Island. Eventually Robert Adrian convinced Gottfried Bach (a Viennese I.P.Sharp programmer) to concoct a much more stripped-down (and economical) version of the email system we were using -- thus ARTEX was born. It was ARTEX we used for "Plissure du Texte" (conceived in 1983 by Roy Ascott), and "Hearsay" (conceived in 1985 by myself and O.C.A. students, Laura Kikauka and Carl Hamfelt).
As to the second part of your question, I would jump at the opportunity to work with Bill and Robert again. But given the dominating presence of today's Internet, and the fact that we see ourselves as innovators, it would probably proceed along very different lines than what you might expect.
JT: I am astounded by the many number of Canadians who get credited with being innovators with New Media: Marshall McLuhan, David Cronenberg, William Gibson, Arthur & Marilouise Kroker, Diana Burgoyne, Michael Snow, Barry Truax, Bill Bartlett, Robert Adrian (now in Vienna) and yourself to name a few. Is there something unique about Canada that allows our thinkers, writers and artists to embrace and assume a leadership role in this Telematic age?
NW: I'd have to give Marshall McLuhan credit for getting the ball rolling. For instance, it was he who mentored Toronto ad-man Richard Hill, who then met Ontario College of Art president Roy Ascott at a cocktail party and convinced him to initiate the "Photo-Electric Arts Department", with himself as Chair. By 1978, when Richard Hill hired me to teach electronics at O.C.A., he foresaw the impending digital confluence of computer, telephone, and television technologies, and the impact that would have on culture. Unfortunately, Richard's messianic tone did not go over well with his fellow department heads (although this had its fortunate side, for the Luddite-like resistance coming from much of the rest of the College caused us our tiny department to bond together as a family. Twice a year, to this day, we still celebrate that family.)
The great thing about Canada in the 70's was that it had very few artistic traditions to maintain. You could say it was inertia-less, ready to experiment with anything. In Ontario, for instance the London Group (Favro, Curnoe, the two Rabinovicz brothers, etc.) engaged in that no-holds barred experimentation, as did Michael Snow and Michael Hayden. It was news of the latter's environmental extravaganzas, well funded by industry, which attracted me to Toronto in the first place.
And, speaking of funding, we must never forget the crucial role played by the Canada Council of the Arts which, with its recognition of technical process- rather than product-oriented work, made in-depth experimentation possible.

JT: What was the general reaction in Toronto at the time to your ARTEX collaboration? Did ARTEX directly inspire any Toronto-based artists that you can think of? Also, does the name "Toronto the Good" still apply?
NW: The ARTEX collaboration made few if any waves in Toronto. Only a handful of students and the Worldpool members even knew of it. (We weren't interested in getting famous... we just wanted to play.) Nor can I think of anyone who was inspired by ARTEX in particular. The digital electronics and computer programming courses at OCA (later OCAD) were far more influential.
Toronto still has reasonable claims to goodness, perhaps even more than when its spin-doctors first came up with that phrase, thanks to the fact that 44% of its citizens were born outside of Canada. And it does have two or three excellent centrally located surplus electronics stores.
JT: In my interview with Robert Adrian he mentions how your WorldPool Collaboration in 1977 was at a time when experiencing the fax medium back then was equivalent to experiencing "magic". I think it was Arthur C. Clarke who felt that any good science was "indistinguishable from magic". Was the WorldPool '77 experience also "magical" for you? Do you feel that there is still "Magic" left in some of the newer technological experiences out there?
NW: The magic is still there, maybe more than ever, although one of the worst things that has happened to computers is that they've become household appliances. It's got to the point where checking my email is a chore. Instead, the magic is to be found in various tiny cheap components that bend ever more easily to perverse artistic vision... PIC chips, Basic Stamps, and the like.
JT: How exactly did you acquire the ROBOT VideoPhone for Bill Bartlett? How hard would it be for a Canadian Artist Run Centre to acquire the most cutting edge technology today for artistic use? What is your secret?
NW: I never owned a ROBOT VideoPhone, nor do I remember getting one for Bill. Slow Scan TV was never really my thing, although I can remember witnessing some brilliant uses of the medium while attending Worldpool events, where they used a borrowed VideoPhone (someone simply called up the distributor).
Incidentally, the event I remember best put the slowness of the technology ( it took a number of seconds to build the image from top to bottom) to conceptual use: Sequential pictures of an apple being sliced, face-on, caused the lower edge of each new scan to mimic the edge of the slicing knife. I can't remember the artist, but it could well have been Bill Bartlett.
The problem with today's technology is that it runs too fast... and because most artists are brainwashed into thinking faster is better, "broadband" has infected the world's art fantasies. I've always said that if a telecommunication concept isn't eloquent at 1200 baud, it's probably not worth doing.
JT: What surprised me was that you also had a direct involvement in the origins of Email-Art with ARTEX. Can you tell me more about ARTEX? How has email based art changed (if at all) since you were first experimenting with it alongside Bill Bartlett, Robert Adrian and Gottfried Bach?
NW: I think I've already answered much of this in my response to your first question. Again, I believe that the problem with today's technologies is that they're not limiting enough! In other words, artists don't have to improvise to get around the limitations of the technologies.
McLuhan used to say, "Cool evolves. Hot does not." Today, transmitted images are almost always hot (resource-gobbling high spatial/colour definition). It was far more conceptually challenging (and therefore more compelling whenever successful) when artists were forced to use cool, low-definition imagery.
JT: What is your opinion on the current state of telematic art and/or emailed art?
NW: For many years, I've turned my back on screen-based work, looking instead to digital techniques which express themselves viscerally or at least kinesthetically. A good early example of this was the Telephonic Arm Wrestling Project which Doug Back and I built. So again... you're asking the wrong person.
JT: What kind of future do you envision for telematic art and/or emailed art?
NW: Telematic art will come of age when we figure out how to transmit more than two senses (right now everything is visual or aural), and when people figure out that the way things behave is more important than the way they look, and that this is a proper concern for artists.
JT: Are you interested in the increasing trajectory towards video-game environments and software emulation as an art form?
NW: Emulation of what? If you mean of organic behavior... an emphatic YES!
JT: Do you have any advice for online artists of today's generation?
NW: I would restate my four central art beliefs:
1. Art should concern itself as much with behavior as it does with appearance.
2. Some of the best art happens when behavior and appearance are completely at odds with each other.
3. Economy of means is a critical part of aesthetics.
4. Art functions best, and is most needed, outside of galleries and museums.
Since 1967, Norman White has created logic-based "machines" which express complex behaviors through light, sound and motion. Many of these artworks have found their way into public collections, including the National Gallery of Canada (3 works), Art Bank (8 works), the Vancouver Art Gallery, the Art Gallery of Ontario, and the Agnes Etherington Art Centre.
He has exhibited in shows throughout Europe and North America, the most recent of these being a 2004 one-man show entitled "Norm's Robots" at the Koffler Art Centre in Toronto.
From 1978 to 2003, White taught at the Ontario College of Art & Design. He helped to initiate a program dedicated to teaching electronics, mechanics, and computer programming to artists.
Jeremy Turner is the current digital archivist working on contract at Open Space in Victoria, Canada. He is also an interdisciplinary artist, writer, composer and curator. He is a co-founder of the 536 Media Collective in Vancouver. In addition, he is a co-producer of the very first Machinima Documentary, "AVATARA". To date, he has conducted interviews and written articles about innovations in New Media for: C-Theory, Shift, Intelligent Agent, Extropy, Rhizome, Offbeat and Front Magazine. He is on the Board of Editors for the Digital Salvage Online Journal hosted by Trace Reddel at the University of Denver, Colorado.