Robert Adrian Interview 2003

"OUTER SPACE: The Past, Present and Future of Telematic Art - 02"
BY JEREMY TURNER (Conducted by e-mail, December, 2003).
JT: I was wondering if you could recollect details of your collaborations with Bill Bartlett in Vienna? If a new project were to come up similar in spirit to Interplay and ARTEX, would you be interested in working with Bill Bartlett again? And if yes, in what capacity?
RA: 25 years ago, when Bill and I started working together, the world looked very different than it does now. For one thing there was no affordable intercontinental communications technology available to normal people: Telephone was too expensive for casual use, Telex was a purely business tool, personal computers were little more than a vague prediction and the nascent Internet was an exclusively academic network mostly linking Pentagon-funded institutions and programs. So in 1979, when Bill Bartlett proposed "Interplay", a real-time computer communication event using the private I.P. Sharp timesharing network, it was an amazing opportunity to gain access to the exclusive telecommunications environment already available to military, commercial and financial institutions. It was also an opportunity to get to play with (then still exotic) computers.
ARTEX (officially ARTBOX until 1982/83) grew out of the experience of both "Interplay" and the second, much larger, "Artists' Use of Telecommunications Conference" project organised by Bill Bartlett and Carl Loeffler the following year (1980). ARTBOX was an attempt to create a permanent low-cost email program on IPSA (Mailbox was very expensive) in order to make project development and coordination quicker and easier and to provide a medium for text-based communications projects. I have described this in more detail at <>.
So, to answer your 2nd question: Since both ARTEX and "Interplay" were in direct response to the non-availability of global connectivity, the "spirit" of these projects can never be recovered unless one could conceive of a situation in which one had to invent an alternative to a suddenly inaccessible Internet. I very much doubt if Bill or I would be up to the task of doing it all again but it might be fun to go through the motions in some project or other for old-times-sake.
For the record: Bill and I worked together for the last time in the fall of 1983 when Hank Bull and I organised "Wiencouver IV", a slow-scan and telephone music project between Vancouver and Vienna. Bill came over from Victoria to the Western Front to operate the Robot 530 slow-scan transceiver. As far as I know it was Bill's last appearance in a telecommunications project. See: <>
JT: I was wondering what was the incentive or catalyst to live in Vienna? Was your decision to live in Vienna directly based on artistic inspiration from what was happening in that area?
RA: No. The reasons for moving to Vienna were much more simple and had nothing directly to do with art. My wife is Austrian but we met in London where she was working for the BBC. She was offered a job as culture reporter/editor in the Kulturredaktion at the ORF (Austrian Broadcasting Corp.) in Vienna and moved back to Austria in 1969. After commuting back and forth for a couple of years, I sold off everything in London and moved permanently to Vienna in 1972.
JT: Living in Vienna, I guess it must be a given that such a city already has a reputation for innovative cultural practices and so the collaborative projects from your end would not seem too strange for the general cultural evolution there to do a telematic project. I was wondering in your opinion, how were Victoria and Vancouver able to also become major centers for telematic art and share an equal bill with Vienna and other World Centers? Other than the fact that you mentioned Victoria was "quite a long way from anywhere" in your interview with Tilman - is there something unique about Victoria and Vancouver that the global art-scene is becoming increasingly aware of?
RA: Far from having a reputation for "innovative cultural practices" Vienna is notorious for its cultural conservatism, comforting itself on the glories of its illustrious past. Vienna is not only a city of museums but is itself a museum. It lives from the tourists who come to see the exhibits -- the State Opera, the Burgtheater, the Art History Museum, the tarted-up "altstadt", the Vienna Woods wine houses, the grandiose imperial architecture of the gone-but-not-forgotten monarchy and the few remaining traditional cafés. But, having said that, it must also be said that it is exactly that conservatism which has provoked some quite astonishing artistic reaction, the activities of the Vienna Aktionists at the end of the '60s being the most conspicuous. So if there were any influences that made it possible for me to grasp the potential of the emerging telecomm revolution, they came not from Vienna but from Graz (a smallish city about 250 km southeast of Vienna) where artists (Richard Kriesche and others) were already deeply involved in the exploration of the new media technologies and their social-cultural-political ramifications. (In fact Richard Kriesche came to Vienna to participate in "Interplay".)
The similarity between Vienna, Victoria, Sydney, Bristol, Tokyo and San Francisco is merely isolation -- either real or perceived. This has nothing to do with size or even geography - it is related entirely to the centralised art world: Boston often feels itself as marginalised as Denver in spite of the fact that you can drive from Boston to NYC and back in a day. In the great art centres of London, New York, Paris or Cologne, there was no serious need for complicated communication technology to meet friends and colleagues with similar interests, you just went around to the local bar for a chat. In Vancouver or Vienna there was no local community worth mentioning so the motivation to engage in the costly and time-consuming effort of developing telecommunication projects and networks was very high. Also, the fact that there were (still are?) few, if any, artistic career opportunities in working with immaterial, transient forms like telecommunications tended to discourage artists who had already migrated to the high-risk/high-cost major art centres and had little time for "play".
In a global communications environment geographical location is not as important as easy access to the network. This means that the hierarchies have changed when we are talking about art in the communication space (or whatever you want to call it) and that the most interesting things happening on line are usually coming from some place outside the major art centres. This is for a number of reasons but the main one is that network access (and living) is generally cheaper and easier there and people working with on-line-art tend to remain in -- or migrate to -- places on the well-connected margins rather than to the market-oriented centres. Why move to expensive, crowded London when you have as good -- or better -- connectivity and living conditions at home in Amsterdam or Zagreb?
The relatively high profile of Vancouver and Victoria in early telecomm projects was really due to the commitment and organising abilities of a few individuals combined with the infrastructural support of well-equipped local artist-run centres. When Bill Bartlett dropped out in 1980-81, Victoria more or less vanished from the art/telecomm radar while in Vancouver, Hank Bull and the Western Front remained major players.

JT: What surprised me was that the origins of Email-Art happened with ARTEX at this time. Can you tell me more about your impressions of E-mail art over the years? How has email based art changed (if at all) since you were first experiencing it?
RA: I do not understand the question, if you can explain exactly what you mean by "Email-Art" or "email based art" I will try to answer.
JT: ... there have been some recent art shows where people have emailed their piece (within the body of the email) directly to exhibitions as print-outs. I was wondering if such a current practice reflects what you were doing with ARTEX in the past or if such an idea is something much different?
RA: If you mean an electronic version of Mail-Art the answer is that it only happened when IPSA provided free accounts for a project -- as they did with "The World in 24 Hours", "La Plissure du Texte" or "Planetary Network". ARTEX was just too expensive to play any ASCII-Art sort of games -- and sending image files was not possible on IPSA anyway.
But there were other electronic mail systems running in the late 70s early 80s like EIES (Electronic Information Exchange System) and the nascent private subscriber systems like The Source, Compuserve etc. There was also Arpanet (and its various forms - Bitnet, Earn, Internet, etc.) which could, theoretically, be accessed world-wide if you had a user account and a dial-up connection to a university -- but in reality this was impossible for non-academics until the early 90s. In any case, there was certainly at least some art and literature activity in these other networks, even if it was restricted to continental regions (e.g.: N.America or Europe) and not linked world-wide. Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs) were also firmly established by the mid-80s --Tom Jennings claims that by the late 80s there were 35,000 servers operating world-wide with his FIDOnet protocol alone and, although the BBS community was not very friendly to artists, I have been told that there were many projects by writers and also artists. I also know of several music projects that operated by sending midi code via BBS (or by modem over the telephone) to be played on synthesizers.
However if you are looking for the roots of the creative use of electronic mail, you will have to start with the telegraph and there are plenty of examples of communication between artists and writers using the telegram as a form. The teletype machine also belongs to this history and in 1956, when working at the CPR in Toronto, I found a huge roll of old punched tape in a cupboard. When we ran it through the tape-reader it produced an 8 to 10 page image of Santa Claus, complete with sleigh and reindeer -- it was obviously one of the things that the old operators had made to send to each other along the line at Christmas. Antique ASCII-art.
JT: What is your opinion on the current state of telematic art? Do you feel that Fax art is still relevant for artistic practice today or is there a reasonable facsimile (pardon the pun) out there that is a contemporary equivalent for Fax based art?
RA: Can we agree that telematic art is art (or artworks) that exist(s), at least partly, in more than one place at the same time and/or within the space of a communications network? If so then I believe that many of the more interesting things happening in art today include some telematic element. This is because it has become increasingly easy to integrate sound, image, robotics and communication devices in assemblages, installations or environments -- and recent developments in wireless networking are accelerating the process. Also, the omnipresence of radio-telephony (more apparent in 110% saturated Europe than in N. America) means that most people are "networked" all the time -- so a "telematic" environment is the normal condition and there is no longer anything special or magical about works of art that include communication technology of one kind or another.
As far as I know, fax is now almost exclusively used by businesses (including many museums and galleries) that have not yet up-graded to integrated computer-based practices. For personal communication it has been largely supplanted by computer-based media -- email and WWW. My fax machine died a couple of years ago and I have never felt the need to replace it. But when the WorldPool group (Norman White, Judith Doyle, Willoughby Sharp, et al) began experimenting with fax exchanges between Toronto and NYC in 1977 it was a truly exotic and magical medium. Even in 1981, when Tom Klinkowstein and I produced the first European fax project using group II machines (2 minutes or more for an A4 page) between Vienna and Amsterdam, people fell about in amazement as the blurry sheets of paper slowly emerged from the machine.
By the mid-80s all that had changed ... fax machines had become faster, cheaper and ubiquitous -- every office had one -- so the excitement of novelty was missing and the medium was not really capable of generating interesting content aside from the aspect of "telepresence": Of sharing a communication space. Fax had come to be viewed as simply another telephone peripheral and had become, like the telephone itself, invisible. Fax projects continued sporadically into the 90s but they were more or less exercises in nostalgia.
JT: What kind of future do you envision for Telematic Art?
RA: That is a big question and to answer it would require the ability to predict the future of communication technology itself. Anybody who could do that these days (with any degree of credibility) would be as rich and famous as Paul McCartney.
JT: Do you have any involvement with the more recent practice of software-emulation and video-game culture as an art form?
RA: No
JT: Have you experimented with virtual environments, bots or avatars?
RA: No
JT: In your opinion, what is the contemporary equivalent of I.P. Sharp Associates that might be available as a liaison between the technology and the artists that might use it for the first time?
RA: There is no "equivalent". Our access to IPSA was entirely due to a chance encounter between an interested mathematician/programmer and an artist in Toronto in the mid-70s. Bob Bernecky, chief programmer for IPSA, had seen and admired Norman White's work with robots and offered him a free IPSA account to see what an artist might do with access to a world-wide timesharing network. Norman was later involved with the "Computer Culture" event in Toronto, and offered his contacts to IPSA for a computer conference as part of the event. "Interplay" was the result and the rest is, as they say, history.
But chance encounters are always possible -- and, by definition, unpredictable -- so any number of situations similar to the Bernecky-White relationship may happen any time ... or not.
JT: Are there any words of wisdom or advice regarding any fundamentals about producing interesting telematic art that you would like to pass to future generations? I ask this because as you have had many years of experience experimenting with communications media in general, you have come up with some golden rules to ensure what is interesting and what isn't.
RA: Three things are very important to remember -- and are usually forgotten --when working with networks:
1) The fact that nothing is permanent in network art. The moment of connection, where the work really happens, is dependent on the machines being turned on. When the machines are off the work is gone -- and even worse: The machines and software upon which the work depends will probably no longer exist within 5 years of the creation of the work.
2) The work exists at the point of connection -- with the receiver. It is always very hard to remember that not only can you not control the way your work is received but it is actually undesirable to want to exert control. This demands a completely different attitude than we know from industrial art practice. Perhaps it can best be described as "flow" rather than "process" -- the creation of the space where things or objects may exist or happen rather than the making of things or objects themselves.
3) Like Mail-Art, the only really interesting thing about Network Art is that everybody is an author or potential author. There is no obligation to reply but the question is open and the means are available. The art industry is trying very hard to establish "artistic criteria" in order to exclude the riff-raff but so far without much success ... luckily.
Robert Adrian is an Canadian artist based in Vienna, Austria, who has worked, off and on, for about 25 years with low-tech communications technology.
For an overview of activities since around 1980 see: <>
Jeremy Turner is the current Digital Archivist working on contract at Open Space. 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.