Annemarie Chandler and Norie Neumark (eds.) (2005) At a Distance: Precursors to Art and Activism on the Internet.

Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press. ISBN: 0262033283.

Networked Art and Activism before the Internet

Paolo Gerbaudo

In each era, the ‘new’ plays a specific role, to carve out territory as well as to provide the energy that throwing off the weight of tradition can require. However, pursuit of the ‘new’ risks becoming a tradition itself, heavy and obligatory, if it refuses access to its precursors, the ‘new’ of the recent past.

(Chandler and Neumark, 2005: 442)

In the 1970s and ’80s – before the rise of the so-called information superhighway of the ’90s – a range of artists and activists were involved in playing with different technologies of communication: those already established (the postal system, television, radio) and those that were only just emerging (fax, slow scan, photocopy machine, satellite, computer, modem). This wide spectrum of practices, all exploring new forms of creative networks as well as the relationship with the audience and the conceptions of art and politics, were developed by artists and activists such as Fluxus, Ray Johnsonn, Anna Freud Banana, Sherrie Rabinowitz, Kit Galloway, Eduardo Kac, Tetsuo Kogawa and Roy Ascott. They were all involved in creating original and participative forms of communication that dealt with different media: mail, fax, satellite, Xerox photocopy machines, computers and magazines. Apart from their shared engagement with communication technologies, the artists also shared a research project. The project with the aesthetic, ethical and political possibilities which were opened up by playing with the principle of distance underlying communication networks.

At a Distance: Precursors to Art and Activism on the Internet, the recently published collection of essays edited by Annmarie Chandler and Norie Neumark (2005), provides an overview of this lively creative phase, by situating this multifarious group of practices under the operative definition of ‘distance art and activism’. The editors – both based at the University of Technology in Sydney – provide a panoramic picture of a wide range of different applications of this definition. According to Chandler and Neumark, the artists and activists considered in the book provide different readings of, and interventions into, the principle of distance underlying different communication technologies. In doing so, they all share a common playful and oppositional attitude, with creative and participatory purposes (28). The satellite art performances organised by Galloway and Rabinowitz, the postal networks built by mail artists and the different forms of creative publishing and distribution developed by Fluxus are thus all part of a common thread. The artists find in communication networks, and in their underlying ‘distance principle’, a structure to play with in order to enhance particular social and creative processes.

The publication is an innovative enterprise in the field of the history of Internet art, culture and politics that — apart from individual books and essays dealing with Fluxus (see Friedman, 1998) or the seminal volume Networked Art by Craig Saper (2001), focusing on mail art networks – remains to a large extent unexplored. Moreover, At a Distancerepresents the first comprehensive effort to offer a common definition of a series of practices situated at the interstices of radical politics and art that can provide a useful insight into the ‘intermedial’ and historical nature of networked art and activism associated with the Internet. In doing so, the book offers a valuable opportunity to reshape the current academic debate on new media, by showing the debt owed by contemporary practices to a series of forgotten precursors.

Unsurprisingly, technology is a central issue in the book. But rather than being considered as self-standing and predetermined, technology is perceived in relation to the interplay between art, culture and politics. According to Neumark, ‘technology itself can have an imaginary aspect, inciting metaphor, affect, and discourse’ (22). The book follows such metaphorical, affective and discursive possibilities by composing a multi-layered – not just historical but also geographical – exploration of networked art and activism practices, practices that hinge on a range of cultural and political phenomena we can observe on the Internet today. The word ‘Internet’ is, nonetheless, rarely cited throughout the different contributions and still rarely used as a term of comparison for the earlier networked art and activist practices. Rather, the editors aim at displaying a multiplicity that has only in part been actualised on the Internet, the current hegemonic network medium (16). To accomplish this task, the book adopts a Deleuzian and Foucauldian approach in following the different streams of distance art and activism discourse and in displaying their multiple entryways and ‘lines of flight’.

The collection is organised into three sections: the first one provides a theoretical introduction to the subject and ‘its general contextualising’ in experimental art and politics of the period (19). In the second part, consisting of highly inspiring interviews and essays, attention is drawn to particular artists and activists (19). The final, third part ‘returns to the voice of cultural criticism with a rethinking of networks’ (20).

In the first part of the book, different scholars and experts in the field explore the cultural project attempting to ground distance art and activism. Johanna Drucker investigates the development of distance art in the context of the emergence of the Information Society at the time when Marshall McLuhan and Buckminster Fuller were making their prophetic announcements based on a ‘utopian rhetoric of transformation’ (37). She explores the parallel development and interplay of postformalist and computational aesthetics in a period that was dominated by the popular perception that ‘computers and media were revolutionising every aspect of contemporary life’ (48). In this context ‘it was necessary to have a technology to play with’ (26) in order to ‘attend to cultural relationships rather than to imagine technology as simply a self-generated technical preoccupation’ (26). The German critic Tilman Baumgartel focuses instead on the concept of immateriality and on a decisive moment of the acknowledgement of its relevance with the exhibition Les immateriaux held in Paris in 1985 and curated, amongst others, by the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard (62). According to Baumgartel, the exhibition proved an important turning point in the development of the aesthetics actualised in contemporary Internet-based art practices: ‘much of the Art that was presented at Les Immateriauxwas a direct predecessor of telecommunications and Internet Art, which is not only dematerialized, but also unpretentious, ephemeral and . . . cheap to produce’ (65).

In his essay ‘From Representations to Network’ Reinhard Braun explores media art discourse, with special attention paid to the Austrian scene. In this context ‘interventionist and participative practices oppose the idea of an artwork as a complete and fixed form’ (74). Openness and lack of completion thus signal some of the fundamental shifts in a conceptual approach, ‘whereby the conditions of institutional framework are revised and the potential for participation is created’ (74). In the final part of the section, John Held Jr. and Owen F. Smith engage in the analysis of the network practices developed in Mail art and Fluxus. Held finds in Mail Art an ‘open system of communication, established through the postal service and other forms of marginal communication by a coterie of “advance scouts”‘ (89). This project was first envisioned by Robert Filliou’s definition of Eternal Network and put into action in the work of Ray Johnson and the New York Correspondence School between the 1960s and 1970s (90). The social aspect of networking practices is further developed in the essay by Owen F. Smith concerning Fluxus. According to the author, ‘Fluxus is a group of individuals who constitute an entity, or may be better, yet, a community called Fluxus’ (118). Or, as Ken Friedman, member of the group, put it in the Fluxus Reader: ‘Fluxus is a way of viewing society and life, a way of creating social action and life activity’ (1998: viii). Fluxus proved path-breaking in modelling ‘a way of being creative that offers a communal, participatory, and open-ended alternative to the traditional forms and functions of art-making’ (123). Its transnational network, according to Smith, was established around three fundamental concerns: gathering a collection of works, creating a network of artists and exposing their works (119).

Among the different projects reviewed in the central section of the book, I was particularly impressed by the work of Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz, acting under the name ‘Mobile Image’, and presented in an essay and interview by Annmarie Chandler (152-174). Their joint effort encompasses some of the typical issues and tools put into play by distance art and activism. For the performance Hole in Space in 1980, screens were erected in windows at two department stores, one in Los Angeles and the other in New York, thus creating a virtual third space through which people from the two cities could meet and converse with one another (164). The two artists played on many other occasions with satellite and other distance technologies. In the project Satellite Arts (in collaboration with NASA) they let distant dancers interact in the same show, first divided by a split screen, and finally merging in a third space – not here nor there but somehow in-between. The Electronic Cafè – 84 project reached a further degree of complexity by developing a communication network among five different cafés in disadvantaged areas of the periphery of Los Angeles during the ’84 Olympic games (167). This work involved a wide range of ‘distance technologies’, such as slow scans, phone link video systems, telewriter electronic tablets, computer terminals, keyboards, hardcopy printers and video-screens (168). These different tools were put together to fit a communication project developed in collaboration with community members and facilitators, with the purpose of building a network of interactive communication among different marginal communities. All of these projects, even though still dealing in part with traditional media authoring tools (scripts, storyboards), were mainly focused on the interaction design of technological environments users could play with. Other interesting projects reviewed in this section include the Mini-Fm radios, a network of independent radio transmissions developed in Japan during the ’80s and reviewed by Chandler in an e-mail interview with its initiator Tetsuo Kogawa (191-209), and different forms of ‘assemblings’ (employing magazines and forms) explored in an essay by Melody Sumner Carnahan (227-244). This part of the book is also a vehicle for the presentation of a small number of proper activist projects, such as the Paper Tiger TV, which appeared during the ’80s on Manhattan cable television. It was designed as a ‘public access TV show’ and aimed at ‘developing a critical consciousness about the communication industry’ (212). This project is analysed by Jesse Drew as a precursor of the media and Internet activism that blossomed during the so-called ‘Battle of Seattle’ in December 1999 (211).

Finally, the third section of the book focuses again more explicitly on a critical stance by engaging with the work of people such as the Fluxus member Ken Friedman and the art curator Stephen Perkins and their use of the concept of network. Even though Neumark carefully remarks in the introduction that ‘The histories of network with which these chapters engage are not intended to frame or reframe the book’s understanding’ (20) the outcome of this section seems to be exactly this. In the essay ‘Wealth and Poverty of Networks’ (409-422), Ken Friedman explores the genealogy of networks in modernity. According to him, the role of networks is ambiguous. While they favour democratisation, they also ‘often homogenize[. . .] the culture that they transform[. . .]’ (410). Friedman dates the emergence of Castells’ ‘space of flows’ in the creative context back to the experience of Fluxus and, in particular, to Dick Higgins’ notion of ‘intermedia’, Robert Filliou’s Eternal Networks and Joseph Beuys’ project for a Free International University (412-414). All of these terms relate to an idea of an artistic community that ‘is fluid, composed of people who may never meet one another in person, and who do not always agree on their concepts of life and art’ (414). Stephen Perkins works along a parallel path by focusing on Assembling Magazines and Alternative Artists’ Networks. The author traces different steps in the development of networked art and activism in the work of Fluxus, Ray Johnson, and in some declarative statements – such as the ‘NET Manifesto’ proposed by the Polish artist Piotr Rypson (394). Perkins finds a decisive point of actualisation of such network program in assembling magazines, such as Omnibus Newsand Ace Space Company, which ‘constructed a publishing model . . . that included its own built-in distribution system, through which they hoped to attain the greatest possible circulation’ (397). At the time, artists were invited to submit their works that were then usually listed in alphabetical order. A number of copies of the magazine was sent back to each collaborator to be sold or distributed freely (400). From the different contributions hosted in this section, the network emerges as an ‘intermedial’ pattern, a social and communicative organising principle that was explored and creatively shaped in the practices of distance art and activism.

But is this art or activism? The title of the book captures this very dilemma, a question that still faces scholars when they are dealing with cultural and political practices on the Internet. While the great majority of projects considered in the book would be more easily categorised under the label ‘art’ rather than ‘activism’, such art embraces some features of what is commonly understood as activism, and, in particular, as media activism. First of all distance art can be understood as activism because it questions the art industry, and especially the Fine Arts canon, by actively supporting amateurism as a creative stance and participatory attitude, rather than by simply questioning the objectification and commodification of art. This position brings with itself a radical questioning of the idea of artist as an autonomous subject with particular authority and technical abilities, and reconfigures his/her role as a node in a creative network. In this sense distance art has to be understood in terms of activism because its networked form pushes the artist out of his/her isolation and puts them into action within a social structure, urging them to deal with the political potentials of the network itself. Thus, in the context of distance communication, art and activism converge towards a common platform, being both engaged in the strive for the autonomous structures of communication and distribution.

The main conclusion to be drawn from the collection as a whole is that many of the issues that are commonly associated with the Internet and its activist and artistic uses have actually already been germinating since the 1960s in the practice of artists and activists using different media acting in different geographic and social contexts. For over a decade, the expert and academic discourse about the Internet has suffered from an excessive emphasis on the medium’s novelty and its autonomy from other systems of communication, forms of creative production and contexts of reception. The possibility for the emergence of horizontal and open-ended structures has often been uncritically praised in this debate, while the Internet has been hailed as a space of freedom and opposed to the old and authoritarian mass media. Nonetheless, as this collection testifies, creative and political practices currently existing on the Internet are all but an automatic and neutral product of the technology itself. They are instead situated in a wide cultural project that, spanning through different communication forms and cultural contexts, has influenced contemporary Internet-based art and activism. As Johanna Drucker points out, ‘Long before the technical infrastructure could support their projects, artists had conceived imaginative uses of digital communications at the interstices of creative studio and technology laboratory’ (35). Furthermore — as argued by Maria Fernandez in the final section of the book – this overall aesthetic program had already been theoretically anticipated by modernist avant-garde movements (Futurism, Estridentismo and Dada) (343-367).

The essays included in the collection prove successful in sampling a complex basin of oppositional and participatory practices, by offering the reader a comprehensive overview of a lively stream of media art and activism in the 1970s and ’80s. Thanks to the different accounts offered by artists and activists included in the central section, the book provides an unrivalled reference for students and researchers undertaking an investigations into the continuity between 1990s and 2000s new media art and activism on the one hand, and 1970s and 1980s distance art and activism on the other. The useful timeline provided at the end of the book and the rich range of photos available throughout reinforce the profile of a successful editorial work.

In conclusion, At a Distance: Precursors to Internet Art and Activism can be considered as one of those precious publications in the context of new media that does not limit itself to adding new answers to the same old questions (virtual reality, cyber-identity and so on). Rather it aims at opening new entryways into this field by shifting the focus from the research of unifying features in contemporary artists and activists networks to an investigation of plurality in their history and ‘intermediality’.


Friedman, K. (1998) The Fluxus Reader. London: Academy Editions.

Gudis, C. & Farmer, J. (eds.) (1999) Ray Johnson: Correspondences. Columbus: Wexner Center for the Arts.

Networking: Art by Post and Fax (1997) London: South Bank Centre.

Saper, C. J. (2001) Networked Art. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Paolo Gerbaudo is a doctoral student at Goldsmiths College, University of London, UK. He is investigating alternative digital cartographies as a political tool for the construction of autonomous systems of knowledge.