At a Distance: Precursors to Art and Activism on the Internet
Editor: Annmarie Chandler, Norie Neumark
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005
Review Published: September 2008
It's heartening that, after three years in print, the Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies has selected At a Distance for its September 08 book of the month. The book is intended to act as an ongoing resource for students and scholars across the media arts fields, and I'm therefore very grateful to the reviewer, Jennifer Way, for her appraisal of its distinguishing features. I want to make just a brief response to a couple of the topics covered in the review.
Firstly, the questions surrounding activism the reviewer raises are ones I want to address through a personal reflection. In the 1970s, I was working and teaching in film and television. By chance I worked for a time in what was then known as the "video access" movement and it was there I made friendships and involvements with Australians working with distance art and activist projects. These projects occurred locally or were networked international partnerships with many of the artists we cover in the book. While concepts of intermediality were gaining strength, the question on many lips in the Fine Arts was "is this art?" and the political campaigns were centered around their inclusion or exclusion from gallery environments, particularly for those projects that involved interactions with the public. Roy Ascott and other authors in the book discuss how long it took their groundbreaking work to be recognised by the art world. At the same time, conventional media environments were both challenged by, and questioning of the communication and social aspects of the works, preferring mass mediated news or documentary forms. It was during our research of the book, some twenty or so years later, that concepts such as "relational art," "participatory media," and "convergence culture" began to gain prominence, the last two predominantly associated with Internet studies. At a Distance thus reveals these ideas are part of a much longer and broader cultural experiment with different communication technologies, accompanied by dynamic and diverse social interventions in their received contexts. And the questions "is it art?" or "is it activism?" resonate today in critiquing the creative and political practices of the Internet. The different ways in which the projects we studied create a tension and reciprocation between art, culture, and politics are extensively examined in the book through critiques and accounts of realising work. I'm tempted to discuss some here but that is really why we wrote the book and they are better explored there.
Secondly, it's interesting to me that this is one review that mentions the 24-page Timeline. Including or not including a Timeline was an issue we faced at the book's conception, particularly as many readers are used to seeing them as somewhat definitive representations of "when things happened" and "who did what." We were aware, therefore, that some readers might see it as an encompassing historical model for the 1970s and 80s. However, as the introduction acknowledges, we couldn't possibly include all the work produced in the period covered by the book. Rather, the Timeline is intended to cross reference the work to the authors who write about it, as some projects are discussed in more than one chapter. It also enables readers to see at a glance the diverse creative practice occurring as distance art and activism during the period under consideration. In addition, it allows us to provide a chronological context for some projects that have received little scholarly attention, thereby acknowledging where this work is located in relation to work that's received more extensive coverage. In this sense, I think it does act as an historical framework but one that is specific to the work being explored.
More recently, rethinking Timelines has become a fruitful exploration in digital research and development. If we had the opportunity now of creating this feature it may be a challenge to address it, and the contributors' archival resources, as a visual representation and publication. The value of archival material cannot be overemphasized. It's difficult to examine works fully or understand their issues and concepts if what remains are secondary sources, for example, critiques from gallery catalogues. Heidi Grundmann devotes a section to this problem in her chapter, "REALTIME" (pp. 323-326). While researching and editing At A Distance, we felt very privileged to be allowed access to, and receive valuable collections of material from, many artists, particularly for section two of the book which is primarily archival with personal memories and stories supplemented with texts, photos, and other data from the projects and events themselves. Our printing budget limited the scope of what could be reproduced here but as our reviewer signals there is indeed a collection of "intriguing photographs deserving further study." Thus exploring visual representations of artists archives, and being able to develop methods that link these with both temporal (timeline) and spatial (mapping) components would, I think, be a fruitful research project with contemporary digital technologies and a way of bringing additional perspectives to studying the work.
Once again, it's been a great pleasure to have At a Distance selected by the RCCS and I'm deeply grateful for Jennifer Way's review, particularly for positioning the text as a significant resource for current and future researchers.
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