Backgrounding Histories

(include the Happenings and influences of Fluxus)

How did we arrive at a networked art practice from historical precedents? The interweaving of paradigmatic shifts in the artistic avant-garde with those of the forerunners of information technology provides a window of understanding. This has been the central thesis of my research for the past twenty-five years, which culminated in 2001 with Multimedia: From Wagner to Virtual Reality. What was not so well known back then, and remains somewhat of a mystery to this very day, are the connections between engineering aspirations in the early days of computing and the radical forms of artistic thinking that that have evolved throughout the 20th century.

One such connection is the evolution of the gesamtkunstwerk in 20th century movements of art and design (ie. Futurists, Surrealists, Bauhaus, Constructivists, etc.), which had been consistently trending towards a synthesis of the arts, as originally theorized by Richard Wagner in his seminal essay from 1848, The Artwork of the Future. Directly related to this artistic yearning for integration, or what Dick Higgins referred to as intermedia, was the work Alan Kay pursued at Xerox PARC in the 1970s with the invention of the graphical user interface (GUI). He to referred to his Smalltalk operating system and the first GUI as a metamedium: an integrated environment of graphics, animation, sound, and networking. This radical approach to dynamic media, or hypermedia, in which he envisioned the computer interface as a universal “medium of mediums,” would influence all multimedia communications thinking to follow.

The architecture of Kay’s metamedium is fundamental to Open Source Studio, and perhaps even more importantly, the way we work with networked forms of media in general. The networked environment is essentially an open framework where all media forms and mediated experience coalesce into a single, wholistic environment, or perhaps as Roy Ascott would call it, a gesamtdatenwerk. The Internet is essentially all mediums rolled into one: music, theater, film, radio, and television: in which the boundaries between the distinctions of sensory cognition and datatypes are now blurred into a single metamedium.

Alan Kay’s work at Xerox PARC was built on a lineage of pioneering scientists and thinkers that reaches back to the early 20th century, engineers who were at the forefront of speculating about how future generations were going to cope with increasingly complexity and the sheer abundance of information that would come with the advancement of personal computing. Considered the father or perhaps grandfather of the personal computer, MIT Professor Vannevar Bush authored the 1945 essay “As We May Think” to introduce the concept of the “Memex,” based on the need to extend human memory via the “hyperlink” in anticipation of the emerging global information culture. According to Bush, “He [mankind] has built a civilization so complex that he needs to mechanize his records.” [1] In today’s media arts, there is a critical need to find solutions for documenting and organizing the substantial output of digital production that threatens to overwhelm not just artists, but anyone who owns a digital camera. Bush’s call for the mechanization of our “records” provides both a philosophical and technological rationale for the OSS project: the development of an effective content management system and online database to serve as a “memory extension” and “knowledge repository” for preserving media-based research and creative work.

Douglas Engelbart, whose work at the Stanford Research Center in the 1960s led to the concept of the “Intranet,” a collective space for collaborative online work and learning, stated in 1963: “Our goal is to augment the human intellect… by organizing his intellectual capabilities into higher levels of synergistic structuring.”[1] In the “synergistic” space of the network, the aggregation of work is not only fundamental to the organization, tracking and sharing of information, but also “augmenting” the artistic process by increasing access to the work of other artists. When we share the process of studio work online it multiplies the opportunity for connection and interaction.

These historical precedents form a logical progression to where we are today: the incorporation of peer-to-peer, process-oriented, practices in the arts benefits each participating artist when expertise is distributed through the network. Marc Garrett, co-director of the online arts space Furtherfield (London), emphasizes process and peer-based practices as essential to the artistic process, stating: “The process is as important as the outcome, forming relationally aware peer enactments. It is a living art, exploiting contemporary forms of digital and physical networks as a mode of open praxis, as in the Greek word for doing, and as in, doing it with others.”[1]

[1] Engelbart, D (1963). “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework” in Packer, R., & Jordan, K. (Eds.). Multimedia : from Wagner to Virtual Reality ([Expanded ed.). New York: Norton 2001.

[1] Bush V. (1945). “As We May Think” in Packer, R., & Jordan, K. (Eds.). Multimedia : from Wagner to Virtual Reality ([Expanded ed.). New York: Norton 2001.

[1] Garrett, M (2014) “DIWO: Artistic Co-creation as a Decentralized Method of Peer Empowerment in Today’s Multitude,” Sead White Papers Network