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
Three years after its publication in hardback and two following its distribution as a paperback edition, At a Distance: Precursors to Art and Activism on the Internet remains an important and in some respects unsurpassed contribution to the multiple and overlapping strands of scholarship reconstituting historical and contemporary relationships of vanguard art and culture, politics and technology.
Its presentation of largely unstudied projects that variously explore information as communication through equally diverse interpretations of technology emphasizes the 1970s and 1980s, an historical period charged by global capitalism and post-industrial forms of culture. Editors Annmarie Chandler, a scholar and former research center director retired from the University of Technology, Sydney, and Norie Neumark, a sound/radio and new media artist still working as a professor of media arts and production there, reveal that an impetus for writing the book was "the rich history of distance art and activism in Australia, where distance has long been a vital concern for artist and theorists" (xiii). The result is an anthology consisting of twenty essays, interviews and recollections exploring "communication, activism, art, collaboration, performativity, and, of course, distance" (3). It considers distance as a feature of geography and as a discursive figure. Distance also involves art "going as far as to merge life and art, others to abandon art," which has meant "challenging the institutions not (just) of art, but of communication, from the mail system, to publishing, to radio and television" (12). Throughout the book, artists, curators, critics, and historians recall how, within a broad range of social and cultural contexts, during "the period of intense and extensive activity ... we are calling distance art/activism," distance featured in projects based on traditional, nontraditional or new media used to blur distinctions between artist and audience, individual and community, object and process, and culture and politics. They transposed the status of locations and experiences of space from the logic of the binary -- here and there, center and margin, capital and region -- into unmapped, unbounded multi-authored and often mass-usable networks.
Interestingly, following Neumark's "Introduction: Relays, Delays, and Distance Art/Activism," distance helps to organize the book's contents into three parts. Part I consists of five essays "written at the greatest distance from the projects themselves" (19), in other words, by cultural theorists and historians who retrospectively provide "critical frameworks for understanding distance art and activist projects" (26). Chapters in this section use concepts like new media, digital technology, information society, posthumanism, and postformalism. They review vanguard artistic activity of the early and mid twentieth century, reference communication theorists, explore the network as a material and discursive figure, and analyze important exhibitions. The ten chapters in Part II were written "by or with people who were involved in the projects discussed" (19); many had "a direct or indirect reengagement and reshaping of earlier art traditions that used parody, collage, and change" (140). Several chapters in this section examine radio-based projects in the US and abroad. There are also fascinating accounts of mixed media and mass media projects involving television, video, and computers, including in relation to mini-FM radio in Japan and a project called Gulf Crisis TV. Part III focuses on networking, "from metaphor to medium, from the intimate to the global" (336) "foregrounded here for political, aesthetic, (cross-) cultural and economic analysis" (20). Notable among the five essays are discussions of alternative artists using magazines to create community and a history of two automatic music composition groups in the Bay Area of California.
Chandler and Neumark position the projects in At a Distance as precursors to uses that today's artists make of information communication technologies for artistic and activist ends. However, Neumark explicitly rejects that the book is "reading backward from Internet practices and ideas" (4). Nevertheless, the editors do not detail how the projects in their book make acceptable choices as forerunners for something more contemporary, nor do they clarify exactly what the more contemporary examples might be. What Neumark does without equivocation is eschew technological determinism. She writes: "technology was not the defining factor in the art/activist practices, either in initiating them or in determining their outcomes" (26). Moreover, At a Distance intends to "keep in play, to reopen for question, these twentieth century art/activist projects, as offering practices and understandings of vital concern for the twenty-first century" (18). Although readers are told the book is not a history, its twenty-four page Timeline provides the date, venue, artist, and a description of works of art and events referenced by the chapters' authors.
Questions about its status as a history and its tacit methods of practicing history aside, At a Distance contributes enormously to contemporary art historical and visual culture studies. While wide ranging surveys concentrating on technological form, such as Software Studies: A Lexicon (2008), From Technological to Virtual Art (2007) and Network Art: Practices and Positions (2006) have their places, a strength of Chandler and Neumark's book is that it brings much new material to light on a topic focused thematically and historically. In this regard, it can be associated with titles like Information Arts: Intersections of Art, Science, and Technology (2002) and The Robot in the Garden: Telerobotics and Telepistemology in the Age of the Internet (2000).
What further distinguishes At a Distance is the consistency with which each chapter richly diversifies the common theme of distance without digressing. Equally important is that as a collection of interviews, recollections, and critical assessments, many supplemented with intriguing photographs deserving further study, At a Distance falls within and between classifications of primary and secondary source material, which affiliates the book with the efforts of major institutions to archive documents to facilitate the creation of genealogies and other types of interpretations of modern and contemporary artists' uses of information technologies. Good examples are the Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science and Technology, which has electronically archived the journal Radical Software, published during the early 1970s, and the Rose Goldsen Archive for New Media Art at Cornell University, a research repository of new media art and resources for which Neumark serves as a member of the International Advisory Board.
In addition to presenting much unpublished material, more than a third of the chapters reference Fluxus along with the names of well-known artists and theorists associated with conceptual and information art, post-structuralism, and new media studies. The book's commitment to the second half of the twentieth century and work that builds upon or advances the socio-political and cultural matrix art historians associate with conceptual and information based art renders At a Distance a crucial accompaniment to histories such as Open Systems: Rethinking Art c.1970 (2005) and Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972; a Cross-reference Book of Information on Some Aesthetic Boundaries (1973).
Curiously, the Index omits the words activism and activist. In the preface to Part III, the editors note, "It is clear throughout this part of the book that although all the contributors and subjects were consciously and critically engaged with the question of their relations with technology as artists/activists, not all shared the same approach" (146). Undoubtedly, At a Distance enriches the literature of art, culture, and activism, such as Art and Revolution: Transversal Activism in the Long Twentieth Century (2006), The Art of Protest: Culture and Activism from the Civil Rights Movement to the Streets of Seattle (2005), Art, Activism, and Oppositionality: Essays from Afterimage (1998), But is it Art: The Spirit of Art as Activism (1995), and Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art (1995). In foregrounding distance, it makes a distinctive contribution to titles linking activism and technology, like Tactical Biopolitics: Art, Activism, and Technoscience (2008) and Ethno-techno: Writings on Performance, Activism, and Pedagogy (2005). Yet, as with questions about history invited by the appearance of the word precursor in the title of the book, so does referencing activism to describe something about its contents raises questions the book does not answer. What did activism mean for the projects the book recounts? How did their activism relate to social politics and to subcultures or countercultures in the art world or elsewhere? In what ways could we gauge their effects in shaping the art, society, or technology of today? If At a Distance doesn't answer all of these questions, its fascinating contents permit us to pose and begin to respond to them. In this sense, the book is a welcome precursor to future research.
Tom Corby, Editor, Network Art: Practices and Positions (New York: Routledge, 2006).
Beatriz Da Costa and Kavita Philip, Editors, Tactical Biopolitics: Art, Activism, and Technoscience (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008).
Donna De Salvo, Editor, Open Systems: Rethinking Art c.1970 (London: Tate Publications, 2005).
Nina Felshin, Editor, But is it Art: The Spirit of Art as Activism (Seattle, WA: Bay Press, 1995).
Matthew Fuller, Editor, Software Studies: A Lexicon (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008).
Ken Goldberg, Editor, The Robot in the Garden: Telerobotics and Telepistemology in the Age of the Internet (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000).
Guillermo Gomez-Pena, edited by Elaine Pena, Ethno-techno: Writings on Performance, Activism, and Pedagogy (New York: Routledge, 2005).
Grant H. Kester, Editor, Art, Activism, and Oppositionality: Essays from Afterimage (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1998).
Suzanne Lacy, Editor, Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art (Seattle, WA: Bay Press, 1995).
Lucy Lippard, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972; a Cross-reference Book of Information on Some Aesthetic Boundaries (New York: Praeger, 1973).
Frank Popper, From Technological to Virtual Art (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007).
Gerald Raunig, translated by Aileen Derieg, Art and Revolution: Transversal Activism in the Long Twentieth Century (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e); & Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007).
T.V. Reed, The Art of Protest: Culture and Activism from the Civil Rights Movement to the Streets of Seattle (Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2005).
Stephen Wilson, Information Arts: Intersections of Art, Science, and Technology (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002).
Jennifer Way is an Associate Professor of Art History at the University of North Texas where she teaches Theory of Contemporary Art: Cybernetics, Cyborgs & Visual Culture and researches the history of cybernetics, art and culture since ca 1945. During 2007-8 she co-directed Women Art Technology, a visiting lecture series that brought nine critics, scholars and artists from South America, Australia, Canada and the US to her university. <JWay@unt.edu>
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