Backgrounding Histories

Douglas Engelbart with his research team at Stanford University in his seminal networked computing lab in the mid 1960s.

The key to understanding how we have evolved a networked studio practice can be derived from historical precedents in both art and technology, in which a radical embrace of integrated, socially engaged modes of collaboration and information exchange has transformed the way in which we work and communicate today.

An important concept is the evolution of the gesamtkunstwerk (total art work), found in several 20th century avant-garde movements of art and design (i.e. Futurism, Surrealism, The Bauhaus, Constructivism, Fluxus, etc.). Each explored in varying ways the synthesis of the arts, in which an artistic construction and its materials were considered as a wholistic or interconnected form of expression.

Allan Kaprow, a member of the Fluxus art collective based in New York City during the 1960s, was deeply influenced by the gesamtkunstwerk, pioneering seminal works of performance art he coined as Happenings, which integrated any and all forms of media, action, gesture, spoken word and artifacts. In his seminal essay, “Untitled Guidelines for Happenings,” Kaprow described the Happening as an event that might take place over an extended period of time, distributed across a vast distance, occur in multiple locations simultaneously, and incorporate viewer involvement: a blurring of past and present, local and remote, audience and performer. In Kaprow’s Happenings, the artist would often introduce the audience member as an active agent in a networked, participatory, social exchange of scripted actions. This decentralization of authorship, location, and narrative foreshadows the non-hierarchical and non-sequential forms of interactive and networked media that expand and realign the boundaries of time, space, viewer and artist to create new kinds of experience and social engagement.

The development of the Happening during the socially transformative period of the 1960s runs simultaneous and in parallel with the work of pioneering scientists Douglas Engelbart and Alan Kay, both of whom were also interested in changing social dynamics with the invention of the personal computer, networked computing, and the graphical user interface. Engelbart proselytized the adoption of collaborative online space for research, work and learning, stating in 1963: “Our goal is to augment the human intellect… by organizing his intellectual capabilities into higher levels of synergistic structuring.”[1] In his work at the Stanford Research Center, he brought together a team of scientists to share information across a local area network, the first experimentation with the potentialities of synthesizing intellectual processes of thinking and learning via interconnected computers.

Alan Kay led his research team of scientists in the 1970s at Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) in the creation of the first personal computer with an operating system running a graphical user interface (GUI). Kay referred to his SmallTalk system – later appropriated by Steve Jobs for the Macintosh OS – as a metamedium: an integrated environment of graphics, animation, sound, and networking that could be thought of as the digital equivalent of the gesamtkunstwerk. The metamedium, or “medium of mediums,” developed in tandem with children to test the intuitive processes of learning and creating with computers, was intended to make computing accessible for artists, designers, scholars, educators, etc., not just engineers, leading to the explosive surge of interactive multimedia in the 1980s and 90s.

During this formative period during the 1960s and 70s in both the arts and sciences, the architecture of the gesamtkunstwerk became the idealized model for performance and media art, computer-mediated interactivity, open source technological development, and the augmentation of learning through systems of networking. These historical precedents have led directly to the subsequent growth of the Internet and the World Wide Web, in which there has been a dramatic expansion of networks of information, integrated media, and online social engagement as found in social media, blogging, Wikipedia, mailing listservs, bulletin boards, chat rooms, etc. These networks have coalesced into global platforms for creative, intellectual exchange, collapsing the boundaries between individuals, countries, and cultures. British theorist Roy Ascott refers to this large scale social networking as the gesamtdatenwerk (total data work):”to amplify individual thought and imagination through the dynamic interaction with others in the network.”

[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.

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