Artist Talk, Uncommon Sense Exhibition

Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art

June 1997


by Nina Sobell and Emily Hartzell

We'd like to start by invoking the spirit of Mary Wollstonecraft, an 18th century protofeminist whose husband, William Godwin, was one of the earliest anarchists. Their daughter, by the way, turned out to be Mary Shelley. They were both compulsive writers. Among Wollstonecraft's extensive writings is a line which expresses the spirit of our work, and also anchors today's presentation. She wrote: "The silken wings of fancy are shrivelled by rules."

We were among the artists included in the Amicus Brief prepared by the Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts stating the case against The Communications Decency Act, for consideration by the Supreme Court. We were cited as evidence of how artists are discovering a vital new medium of expression on the Web. As you'll see, some of the images in our work would be criminalized by the CDA.

This Act was threatening because of its scope and its vagueness. It went way beyond the proscriptions already placed on hard-core obscenity or child pornography to criminalize the online distribution of any material considered "patently offensive" or showing sexual parts of the body. Obviously that covers a lot of material that could be art, or could be of educational value. The qualifications it provided for determining whether or not the material is permissable were vague and overbroad: the work would be judged according to "contemporary community standards." And what does that mean?

The sad thing is that the CDA threatens to reverse this great revolutionary potential of the Web. Here I quote from the Amicus Brief: "those who were once too poor, too busy, too far away or too intimidated to view, read, or listen to artistic expression can now freely receive those works of art." Sounds dangerous, doesn't it?

By linking all the world into a single electronic web (something Buckminster Fuller and Marshall McLuhan both anticipated), the internet offers a means for ideals long promoted by Individualist Anarchists. Freedom of expression, freedom of association, access to unmediated information. And since knowledge is power, I guess we shouldn't be surprised that there are those who have reacted by trying to defeat these freedoms. Anarchists have always been demonized and misrepresented, because they oppose authoritarian control. And now that communications technology has evolved to the point that it offers expression to anarchist ideals, the Communications Decency Act threatens to impose arbitrary restrictions (disguised as protections of our morals) on this information web. We're looking at an age-old struggle here, which is about control. And by revisiting the writings of anarchists and visionaries--as they apply to information access--we can help to frame the dynamics of what's actually at stake.

"Contemporary Community Standards." The CDA treats ethics like a static force which comes from above, kind of like a hammer or a brick, where we know that ethics grow from within, blooming as an expression of individuality. L. Susan Brown, a contemporary Individualist, understands the dynamic nature of ethics, and the importance of individuals' creation of their own meaning through engagement with the world:

"Human individuals are not given, but are always in the process of becoming. If humanity were like a god and could achieve being, there would be no question of an ethics, since meaning would be absolute. Ethics are needed only when meaning is called into question. So, it is in this ambiguity, this flux, that humanity reaches out and freely gives value to their world."

And what tools does humanity have, for reaching out and giving value to our world? We do it through talking to one another, through writing about our lives and experiences, through music, art, and education. In our world, though, swamped as it is by commercial media and popular culture, we've become alienated from our own forms of expression. We're left with the media as our mirror. And as we all know, this mirror is distorted by commercial interests. Its control is highly centralized (3/4 of the nation's daily newspapers are owned by chains like Gannet or Time Warner, almost all the movies in the US are distributed by 6 studios, 6 publishing companies account for more than 40% of the annual publishing revenue, and there's a trend toward "vertical integration"). Traditionally, mass media are non-interactive. The mirror held up by our media culture has blurred out individuality and replaced it with stereotypes, fiction, and violence.

The internet has changed all this. It offers us free access to information, to communication with like-minded individuals all over the world, and access to a global audience for our work. In this, it is the first medium to fulfill the ideals of visionaries like Buckminster Fuller, Marshall McLuhan, and John Cage, and anarchists like Emma Goldman.

"Meaning must always be recreated by human individuals living in history. . .Human individuals create a world which simultaneously becomes a context for their own existence."

This is Brown again, and she's describing a dynamic which can only now, with the Web, achieve some kind of equilibrium, in that we now have access to the tools needed to produce media. The Web unites us as a global culture, and it also enables us to represent ourselves to ourselves on a global scale. This has some exciting implications, which were foreseen by Marshall McLuhan in 1967.

"In an electric information environment, minority groups can no longer be contained--ignored. . . Our new environment compels commitment and participation." --McLuhan

As you may know, the Supreme Court last week ruled that the Communications Decency Act is unconstitutional. Now since the Web is global, individual state regulations still affect us all. For example, someone in Massachussetts who posts material indecent in Oklahoma could be extradited there. But at least the Supreme Court has set the right precedent. The decision has implications for artists, for audiences, and for education. The title of Section II of the Brief's Argument is "Unlike all previous media, the internet has the potential to eliminate economic and cultural barriers to the widespread communication and understanding of artistic expression." It's also important to note that individual viewers can use discretion and software to apply their own restrictions to the material which their browser can access.

We've been doing live video performances over the Web since 1994. The critical factor in our using the Web has been that we've been independent of the art world infrastructure which controls distribution of work. We have been able to gradually define a vision and style which is highly individual, and we've been able to do it in a space (our online studio at NYU's Center for Advanced Technology) which is both entirely intimate and public. As artists in residence at the CAT, we've been privileged to be able to work experimentally while having access to the bandwidth necessary to stream images out live.

Our archives have grown, in the past three years, to comprise almost 80 performances. Even in the very beginning our site was unlike anything else on the Web, in its dadaist, non-narrative approach, and it's always attracted a steady stream of hits from a global audience.

By being able to develop our own vision incrementally, without judgment but in the light of public exposure, we've been able to attract those who are drawn to the work, some of whom have become collaborators. For example, the PORT show at MIT was largely inspired by our use of the Web for time-based artworks. And it was through our work for PORT that we met musician Jesse Gilbert and Sonya Allin, who have become collaborators and greatly added to the work. Jesse has opened the door for RealAudio, and we are now doing live video/audio jams in the studio, and streaming both out live.

With ArTisTheater, we have opened a window onto the creative process, which viewers can access via the Web. This in itself is something which would be hard to do otherwise. A gallerist who stopped by our studio not long ago, one who's actually relatively receptive to new media, was turned off by the notion. She said she preferred that the process be unavailable to viewers--that they, and she, be able to encounter the finished, pristine work, without being distracted by the process. We're using the medium to reveal another aspect of the work--its process. John Cage is quoted in McLuhan's "The Medium is the Massage:" "Theatre takes place all the time, wherever one is. And art simply facilitates persuading one this is the case." The Web, we've discovered, facilitates the expression of this aspect of art.

"Individuality is ever conspicuous in those enthusiastic flights of fancy, in which reason is left behind, without being lost sight of." That's Wollstonecraft again.

VirtuAlice acts out some of the principles of anarchism and individuality which we've been talking about. It was L Susan Brown who wrote about the importance of individuals' ongoing re-creation of meaning--VirtuAlice is the vehicle for a shared experience, whereby participants collaborate in transferring that experience into meaning, into history.

Here Emma Goldman defines anarchism. Think of it in terms of the internet and information access.

"Anarchism stands for a social order based upon the free grouping of individuals for the purpose of producing real social wealth; an order that will guarantee to every human being free access to the earth and free enjoyment of the necessities of life, according to individual desires, tastes, and inclinations." Emma Goldman

This could have been written about the internet instead of anarchism, and information instead of the earth. The role of individual desires, tastes, and inclinations finds its expression on the internet.

VirtuAlice is a curiosity machine. Until participants climb aboard, she's just static and dumb. It's their curiosity which brings her alive. They drive/point toward what they're interested in. And in that sense she's a metaphor for this new model of experience we encounter in interactive information environments: websites, CDROMs, and interactive installations like VirtuAlice can be seen as information containers, and our curiosity is what governs our experiences there. I picture it like a worm eating its way through an apple. The worm is the participant, the apple the content-world. The participant can pick her own path, and each time through she'll have a slightly different experience. It's that experience, mixed with the information in the container, which yields meaning.

This show, Uncommon Sense, is a perfect example of a content-world designed for interactive viewing. Have any of you been to the show more than once? There are so many different experiences which a person can have here--it's very exciting. And you can view any given performance or artwork from so many different angles.

Karen Finley's piece, Go Figure, a collaboration with ParkBench, uses interactivity to offer the audience opportunities for self-expression--through drawing from a live model in Go Figure, and in Fear Of Offending, through entering into a computer terminal and posting on the Web the answer to the question "What Offends You?"

So interactive environments are conducive to the kind of dynamic model of meaning which Brown describes in "The Politics of Individualism." Meaning created by each person in expression of their own existence.

Albert Einstein writes about the value of curiosity:

"The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. . . .Never lose a holy curiosity." Einstein

Art is only one genre of information-transfer. Another is education. And education stands to gain as much in terms of diversity, individuality, and expression as art does, from the use of the Web, and the anarchist principles the medium embodies.

McLuhan said: "Education must shift from instruction, from imposing of stencils, to discovery--to probing and exploration."

In the same way that the Web can help us to express ourselves with more individuality, it is a tool which can help to welcome curiosity into the classroom. Because students can access whatever information they need very easily, it becomes the teacher's role to give them experiences which arouse their curiosity in order to direct their research, rather than to dole out the learning in terms of facts and figures which must be mastered. The Web expresses the interconnection of all subjects. Buckminster Fuller, the "comprehensivist," would be delighted.

"Up to the time I was born, the reality people shared was one where everything we were doing could be seen, heard, smelled, touched, or tasted. But when I was three years old, the electron was discovered. And from then on, we began to get into an invisible reality. And now today, 99.9 percent of everything that is going to affect our future is being conducted in the realms of reality non-directly contactable by the human senses. And if the newspaper can't take a photograph of it, they can't talk about it. And then everybody is so specialized. So the big problem of tomorrow is getting everyone back into comprehensive thinking and understanding, ...getting humanity to really educating itself properly. Once humanity has the right information, it's going to make some very good decisions, particularly through the electronic media." --Buckminster Fuller