Texts Strategic Arts

Texts from the orig­inal Strate­gic Arts Ini­tia­tive cat­alogue from 1986, by Derrick de Kerckhove and the participating artists.


doug back, carl ham­felt, lau­ra kikau­ka, ar­lene levin, moni­ka meri­nat, david roke­by, chris­tiane sch­er, pe­ter sepp, gra­ham smith, nor­man white

Toron­to-​Saler­no, Italy

May 28 & 29, 1986


Toron­to-​Paris, France

June 3&4, 1986

12pm - 2:30pm


(Pro­gram Notes)

The Strate­gic Arts Ini­tia­tive (SAI) is a Cana­di­an an­swer to the U.S. Strate­gic De­fense Ini­tia­tive. Its pur­pose is to show the rel­evance of the arts in the world’s com­mu­ni­ca­tion ecol­ogy. Com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nolo­gies are putting us in touch with the whole plan­et, but most of us are not aware of how this sit­ua­tion can change our sen­si­bil­ity. We are all trapped in an in­vis­ible mesh of elec­tron­ic talk. We still use com­mu­ni­ca­tions to trans­port in­for­ma­tion. We have not yet un­der­stood that the new tech­nolo­gies are al­so trans­form­ing re­la­tion­ships. One of the roles of the artist in this con­text is to re­veal these re­la­tion­ships.

The in­spi­ra­tion for SAI came from the late Mar­shall McLuhan whose work and par­tic­ular­ly his theme of the “glob­al vil­lage”, prompt­ed a few artists in Eu­rope and the US to ex­plore the es­thet­ic pos­si­bil­ities im­plic­it in or­di­nary me­dia such as the tele­phone, ra­dio, TV, video and telem­at­ics. Af­ter E.A.T. (Ex­per­iments in Art and Tech­nol­ogy, at the New York Mu­se­um of Mod­ern Art. 1968) The idea seems to have abat­ed in the U.S. dur­ing the sev­en­ties. A new im­pe­tus to cre­ate an in­ter­na­tion­al move­ment came from the ini­tia­tive of Mario Cos­ta in Italy, Fred For­est in France and Ho­ra­cio Za­bala in Ar­genti­na. To­geth­er they is­sued the first “Man­ifeste pour une es­thé­tique de la com­mu­ni­ca­tion” at Mer­ca­to San Sev­eri­no, Oct 29th 1983. Since that time there have been sev­er­al in­ter­na­tion­al col­lo­quia to bring to­geth­er artists and the­oreti­cians to give shape and mean­ing to the ac­tiv­ities.

The present oc­ca­sion is Art Me­dia II, an in­ter­na­tion­al col­lo­qui­um on Com­mu­ni­ca­tion and Arts, to be held in Saler­no (Italy), May 27-30) un­der the di­rec­tion of Mario Cost, pro­fes­sor and art crit­ic at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Saler­no. The theme is Art and Plan­etary Com­mu­ni­ca­tion. This event in­cludes a par­tic­ipa­tion from the Fu­ture The­atre of Ex­po 86 in Van­cou­ver which is ded­icat­ed to the theme of “Com­mu­ni­ca­tions and Trans­porta­tion”. The first col­lo­qui­um in this se­ries, art Me­dia I, on Arts et com­mu­ni­ca­tions oc­curred in Paris (La Sor­bonne, Oc­to­ber 1985) un­der the di­rec­tion of Robert Alleza­ud. A third one, Art Me­dia III, should take place in Toron­to in Oc­to­ber 1987, un­der the di­rec­tion of Der­rick de Ker­ck­hove. Oth­er col­lo­quia on re­lat­ed themes in­volv­ing artist, me­dia and art crit­ics, academia and the gen­er­al pub­lic have been held in Toron­to (Com­put­er/Cul­ture 1979-81), Vil­leneuve-​lez-​Avigon (In­for­ma­tique/Cul­ture, 1983), Tel Aviv (Art­com, Oc­to­ber, 1984), Paris (Elec­tra, De­cem­ber, 1984), Saler­no (Art­media, May 1985) and gain Paris (Re­con­tres et Per­for­mances sur l’es­the­tique de la com­mu­ni­ca­tion, Beaux-​Arts, Jan­uary, 1986).

So Far, the Cana­di­an par­tic­ipa­tion in these events and in the on­go­ing in­ter­na­tion­al in­ves­ti­ga­tion in­to the rel­evance of the arts to com­mu­ni­ca­tions has been very good and well rec­og­nized. Thanks to the ef­forts of such artists as Nor­man White (Hearsay project 1985), Robert Adrain X (I.P. Sharp net­work - since 1977), Lisa Sel­lyeh (pAR­Ti­ci­FAX, Oc­to­ber 1984), Bill Bartlett (i>P. Sharp and slow-​scan TV), Glenn Howarth (Telidon Show, 1983 Sao Pao­lo Bi­en­nale), Herve Fich­er (Mar­cro Po­lo project 1984-85), and the on­go­ing sup­port of the­orists and ad­min­is­tra­tots such as Richard Hill Pho­to/Elec­tric Arts Foun­da­tion), Tom Sher­man (Me­dia Arts, Cana­da Coun­cil), Derek Dow­den (Cul­tur­al Soft­ware, Semi­ot­ica/Sim­ulacra, April 1984) and Der­rick de Kerkhove, (McLuhan Pro­gram Sem­inars on Com­mu­ni­ca­tion in Art), the Cana­di­an pro­file is high and has been dubbed as “the light from the North”. Cana­da has ac­quired an in­ter­na­tion­al rep­uta­tion for ex­per­tise in com­mu­ni­ca­tions and it is once again demon­strat­ed by the the­mat­ic choice of Ex­po 1986.

There are no hard fast rules about how to fit in the SAI ide­ol­ogy. The artists are joined by a com­mon in­ter­est in com­mu­ni­ca­tion me­dia and their artis­tic pos­si­bil­ities. All the work so far is based on per­for­mances. Though all in­volve tech­no­log­ical in­stal­la­tions, some per­for­mances are punc­tu­al, such as the work of Ham­felt/Kikau­ka, Roke­by, Smith and Back/White: while oth­ers are on-​go­ing pro­cess­es invit­ing a ran­dom au­di­ence par­tic­ipa­tion over a pe­ri­od of time (Meri­nat/Sch­er and A-​line). Whether punc­tu­al or on-​go­ing, al­most all these per­for­mances re­quire the in­volve­ment of an anony­mous au­di­ence. This is very im­por­tant as the works are open and in­ter­ac­tive in na­ture. The in­tent is to cre­ate re­la­tion­ships and these re­la­tion­ships are avail­able to any­one who cares to en­ter them. An­oth­er im­por­tant fea­ture is that all per­for­mances in­volve ac­tion-​at-​a dis­tance rather than lo­cal­ized events. This is the ‘plan­etary” di­men­sion of the new art­form.

At a deep­er lev­el, these per­for­mances do not gen­er­al­ly stress con­tent and in­for­ma­tion but ef­fects and sen­si­bil­ity change. The au­di­ence is their con­tent. This is the main source of their es­thet­ic val­ue. Oth­er than sen­sa­tions, feel­ings and emo­tions, these com­mu­ni­ca­tion artist are not very con­cerned about com­mu­ni­cat­ing any­thing in par­tic­ular.

Two of the per­for­mances stress au­di­to­ry and tac­tile sen­sa­tions across vast dis­tances. To feel a phys­ical pres­sure through the tele­phone lines in Back/White Tele­phon­ic Arm Wrestling per­for­mance is a nov­el and un­set­tling sen­sa­tion which un­der­scores the re­al prox­im­ity and in­ti­ma­cy the tele­phone has giv­en us since it be­gan. There is an im­me­di­ate sen­su­al­ity to David Roke­by’s body of com­mu­ni­ca­tion by sound which can be felt al­most in­ti­mate­ly at 6000 Kms dis­tance.

Meri­nat/Sch­er and A-​Line’s per­for­mances com­ple­ment each oth­er. Both elic­it ran­dom re­spons­es from an anony­mous au­di­ence, but the first is pur­pose­ly “artis­tic” and as­sumed­ly “high-​brow”, while the oth­er is spon­ta­neous. The first us­es ra­dio, a broad­cast sys­tem, while the oth­er us­es the tele­phone, a per­son-​to-​per­son com­mu­ni­ca­tion sys­tem. Both per­for­mances give voic­es to in­de­ter­mi­nate num­bers of peo­ple who are giv­en a chance to com­mu­ni­cate in ways un­known be­fore.

Smith’s per­for­mance high­lights the fact that we are now ex­tend­ing our eyes and our minds tech­ni­cal­ly across huge dis­tances. Smith’s work is a new kind of closed-​cir­cuit TV, a way of mak­ing tele­vi­sion’s pow­er, a per­son­al pow­er, not on­ly be­cause it gives us a re­al-​time per­son­al vi­sion on a dis­tant ob­ject, but al­so be­cause we can guide our “eye in space”, just as sure­ly as Space re­mote con­trol sys­tems.

There is more than a touch of hu­mor in most, if not all of the per­for­mances, and this hu­mor is stressed in Ham­felt/Kikau­ka in their at­tempt to par­ody the poor man’s com­mu­ni­ca­tion sys­tem., with the so­phis­ti­cat­ed means of present-​day tech­nol­ogy. The hu­mor re­acts against the dead­lock of tech­nol­ogy and in­tro­duces play where work on­ly has been con­sid­ered by the tech­nocrats.

If com­mu­ni­ca­tion has a fu­ture, it bet­ter be fun. Tech­nol­ogy is not sa­cred. It’s mere­ly func­tion­al. The whole world is un­der its gun. When we are through with the Tele­phon­ic Armwrestling per­for­mance, we plan to send the de­vice to Ronald Re­gan and Mikhail Gor­bachev. It might save us from the red tele­phone.

The Artists and their Per­for­mances

There should be sev­en per­for­mances (in­clud­ing one broad­cast from the Cana­di­an artist and one ex­hib­it of Cana­di­an videoart in Saler­no and in Paris. There are four lec­ture, work­shop and sem­inar ses­sions to be com­bined over the four days of the col­lo­qui­um in Saler­no, as well as two days in Paris. How­ev­er, the na­ture of these long-​dis­tance artis­tic ac­tiv­ities is to pro­vide artis­tic emo­tions and ex­pe­ri­ences to po­ten­tial art con­sumers in the ran­dom me­dia au­di­ence at large. The art gallery of the fu­ture may be the air­ways.

2 pipes 2 Sticks 2 Cities

By C. Ham­felt and L. Kikau­ka

Carl Ham­felt is an in­struc­tor at the Pho­to/elec­tric Arts Foun­da­tion at the Ona­trio Col­lege of Art as well as a pro­gram­mer for Art­Net at Cul­tur­al Soft­ware, a com­mu­ni­ca­tion sys­tem for artists. Lau­ra Kikau­ka is an elec­tron­ic in­stal­la­tion artist who has ex­hib­it­ed her work at A-​Space and at ARC in Toron­to, as well as at Artspace in Pe­ter­bor­ough, On­tario.

Their work is a pun which brings to­geth­er the most prim­itive sys­tem of com­mu­ni­ca­tions, tap­ping on the plumb­ing net­work, with to­day’s pow­er­ful com­bi­na­tion of tele­phone plus com­put­ers. It is al­so a par­ody of com­mu­ni­ca­tion as a plumb­ing sys­tem. “Strangers tap the night away on a trans-​At­lantic plumb­ing ad­ven­ture”.

His­toire sans Pa­role

By M. Meri­nat and Ch. Sch­er

Moni­ka Meri­nat and Chris­tiane Sch­er mare pro­fes­sion­al broad­cast­ers from CJBC (Ra­dio-​Cana­da) who con­sid­er ra­dio an art­form to pro­mote its es­thet­ic po­ten­tial.

By broad­cast­ing a five minute se­quence of non-​ver­bal sound ef­fects to in­vite re­spons­es from the lis­ten­ing au­di­ence, Meri­at and Sch­er have de­vised a means to gen­er­ate radom lit­er­ary ac­tiv­ities in the pub­lic at large. Peo­ple in Cana­da, Italy and France have been in­vit­ed to tele­phone to broad­cast sta­tions or to send one-​page script­ed nar­ra­tives at­tempt­ing to give an in­ter­pre­ta­tion to the se­quence. The most rep­re­sen­ta­tive nar­ra­tives from each coun­try are to be fea­tured at the col­lo­qui­um and broad­cast on ra­dio and/or TV.

His­toire sans Pa­role has been fea­tured on CBC’s pop­ular ra­dio pro­gram “Morn­ing­side” and re­ceived over 200 re­spons­es in a few days. This art­form is more than a ra­dio quiz as it gives a tru­ly cre­ative di­men­sion to a ran­dom play­ful act. In it­self, the sound­track has a haunt­ing qual­ity which has moved many com­men­ta­tors. The ex­per­iment is meant to show the kind of pow­er of sug­ges­tion the sound­track has on the imag­ina­tion of dif­fer­ent peo­ple from dif­fer­ent cul­tures” (M. Meri­nat).

Oral Graf­fi­ti

A-​Line is a tele­phone per­for­mance artist from Toron­to who, un­der this pseudonym, hopes to avoid the po­ten­tial pub­lic­ity her very suc­cess­ful Hot­line tele­phone an­swer­ing ma­chine ex­per­iment could bring her. Since 1980, peo­ple have been hear­ing about a num­ber where one could leave a mes­sage, any mes­sage as long as it was less than a minute long. Though it has nev­er been ad­ver­tised, this sys­tem is uti­lized by an av­er­age of 300 peo­ple a day. Just for the sake of talk­ing, many peo­ple call and leave a mes­sage. Some call sev­er­al times.

In Italy and France, to save time, the Hot­line num­ber will have been ad­ver­tised. The idea is to gen­er­ate ran­dom re­spons­es and in­vite peo­ple to leave mes­sages which are to be gath­ered and pre­sent­ed at the vent. These mes­sages are of­ten high­ly emo­tion­al and share some qual­ities with the kind of anony­mous ex­pres­sions on one’s con­cerns one can find on pub­lic wash­room walls. They are “oral graf­fi­ti” which, to­geth­er, can give an idea of the “state of mind” of a cul­ture at any giv­en mo­ment.

“The world’s most com­mon and eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble per­for­mance space is the tele­phone. Ev­ery day in the name of com­mu­ni­ca­tion we play the ac­tor and the au­di­ence, the cre­ator and the crit­ic” (A-​Line).

Body Lan­guage

By D. Roke­by

Toron­to com­pos­er David Roke­by al­so com­bines in­ter­ests in elec­tron­ic mu­sic com­po­si­tion and com­put­er in­ter­ac­tions with graph­ic art.

His elec­tron­ic in­stal­la­tion will link up the Rober­son cen­tre for the Arts and Sci­ences in Bing­ham­ton, New York with Saler­no, and lat­er, the Na­tion­al Mu­se­um of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy in Ot­tawa with the Cana­di­an Cul­tur­al Cen­tre in Paris to cre­ate a mu­si­cal in­ter­pre­ta­tion of sig­nals em­anat­ing from body move­ments. These in­stal­la­tions use com­put­ers and video cam­eras to an­alyze mo­tion, and trans­late their per­cep­tions in­to sound by con­trol­ling a syn­the­siz­er. Each in­stal­la­tion will re­lay, through tele­phone lines, the sig­nif­icant as­pects of the move­ments tak­ing place with­in their space, and re­ceive sim­ilar in­for­ma­tion from the oth­er in­stal­la­tion. Move­ments unique to one city’s in­stal­la­tion will be char­ac­ter­ized by sounds iden­ti­fi­able with that in­stal­la­tion. This will en­able par­tic­ipants at both lo­ca­tions to pro­duce col­lab­ora­tive sound se­quences in re­al time. Co­op­er­ation will reg­is­ter au­di­bly. Sim­ilar move­ments in both lo­ca­tions will pro­duce more in­ter­est­ing and provoca­tive sounds.

There is the mag­ic of child­hood and won­der of dis­tant com­mu­ni­ca­tion in this per­for­mance which gives one a tan­gi­ble feel­ing of ‘touch­ing the oth­er side of the plan­et” with the elec­tron­ic ex­ten­sion of one’s own bod­ily pres­ence.

Dis­placed Per­spec­tives

By G. Smith

Pho­tog­ra­phy artist Gra­ham Smith was born in Van­cou­ver but he works in Toron­to. His work in progress in­cludes a Ki­net­ic Time Ma­chine which will pho­to­graph­ical­ly record en­vi­ron­ments over ex­tend­ed pe­ri­ods of time. The art I cre­ate is shaped by the en­vi­ron­ment in which I live. I see tech­nol­ogy not as a tool but as a palette: video, robotics and ki­net­ics are sim­ply dif­fer­ent col­ors ready to be mixed in­to a new work”.

Dis­placed Per­spec­tives al­lows view­ers to ex­plore dis­tant en­vi­ron­ments through the video eyes of a re­mote­ly con­trolled robot. It is a teleguid­ance sys­tem which will al­low par­tic­ipants in Saler­no or Paris to ex­plore a site in Toron­to by di­rect­ing a small video cam­era mount­ed on a re­mote­ly-​con­trolled robot, which trans­mits re­al-​time dig­itized im­ages via the Mac­in­tosh com­put­er “MacVi­sion” sys­tem.

“This abil­ity to see, and con­trol a ma­chine, across the At­lantic is the most vis­ible part of the piece, yet con­cep­tu­al­ly it is on­ly a sur­face el­ement. The true pow­er of the piece lies in it’s def­ini­tion of com­mu­ni­ca­tion as an in­ter­ac­tive ex­plo­rative pro­cess which re­sults in the con­struc­tion of a 3-di­men­sion­al men­tal mod­el. The robot us­es the same scan­ning pro­cess peo­ple use when en­ter­ing any new space; they look all over and build up a 3-di­men­sion­al mod­el from many dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives. It is this def­ini­tion of com­mu­ni­ca­tion: many small pieces mak­ing up some­thing greater than the whole, which lies at the heart of this piece” G. Smith).

Tele­phon­ic Arm-​Wrestling

By N. White and D. Back

Amer­ican born Nor­man White and Cana­di­an Doug back are Toron­to com­mu­ni­ca­tion artists who spe­cial­ize in robotics and com­put­er de­sign­ing for artis­tic pur­pos­es. Both teach at the On­tario Col­lege of Art.

Based on an idea by Doug Back, the Tele­phon­ic Armwrestling de­vice will en­able par­tic­ipants lo­cat­ed in Saler­no or Paris to arm-​wres­tle with par­tic­ipants in Toron­to us­ing mo­tor­ized mech­anisms which trans­mit and re­ceive ki­naes­thet­ic in­for­ma­tion via tele­phone mo­dem sig­nals. The con­cept has been en­gi­neered by Nor­man White.

“We want­ed to send a tac­tile sen­sa­tion over the phone” (D. back).

“I con­cen­trat­ed my at­ten­tion on pub­lic build­ing works which mim­ic sim­ple or­gan­ic sys­tems. My ‘per­cep­tion ma­chine’, Fac­ing Out Lay­ing Low (1978-86) gleans in­for­ma­tion about its en­vi­ron­ment us­ing a va­ri­ety of sen­sors, and re­sponds to per­ceived pat­terns of change with ap­pro­pri­ate move­ments and sounds” (N. White).

Plan­etary Arts Video 1

Strate­gic Arts Ini­tia­tive is al­so pre­sent­ing a video­tape from as se­ries com­plied by the­orist and artist Pe­ter Sepp. The se­ries is a sam­ple of video doc­umen­ta­tion by Cana­di­an artists in­volved in com­mu­ni­ca­tion art in­clud­ing Michael Bid­ner, C.A.T. gallery (Col­lec­tive Art and Tech­nol­ogy), Robert Adri­an X, Hank Bull and oth­er.

Der­rick de Ker­ck­hove is the Co-​Di­rec­tor of the McLuhan Pro­gram in Cul­ture and Tech­nol­ogy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to. His work on the cul­ture and psy­chol­ogy of the nu­cle­ar bomb has at­tract­ed some at­ten­tion. He has coined the des­ig­na­tion “Strate­gic Arts Ini­tia­tive” and he will read a pa­per on “The role of art in fos­ter­ing a plan­etary con­scious­ness”.

“To help pro­mote a civ­ilized plan­etary con­scious­ness via me­dia, com­mu­ni­ca­tion arts are more fun, less dan­ger­ous and ul­ti­mate­ly more ef­fec­tive than the bomb or ter­ror­ism”.

Or­ga­ni­za­tion and Spon­sors

Der­rick de Ker­ck­hove is the gen­er­al cu­ra­tor and the head of the Cana­di­an del­ega­tion. Shel­la Hill, Di­rec­tor of The Pho­to/Elec­tric Arts Foun­da­tion, has been des­ig­nat­ed as the gen­er­al co­or­di­na­tor for the Cana­di­an del­ega­tion. Derek Dow­den is the Di­rec­tor of Cul­tur­al Soft­ware in Toron­to, the cu­ra­tor of Dis­placed per­spec­tives, and is in charge of the Toron­to-​Paris and Toron­to-​Saler­no con­nec­tions with the as­sis­tance of Ian McGu­gan. Carl Ham­felt is re­spon­si­ble for the Toron­to base at ARC with the as­sis­tance of Michael Ed­munds (Di­rec­tor of the me­dia cen­tre at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to).

The prin­ci­pal host spon­sor is the Uni­ver­si­ty of Saler­no and the Town­ship of Saler­no. The Uni­ver­si­ty of Saler­no has agreed to pro­vide lo­cal ac­com­mo­da­tion and par­tial equip­ment sup­port for the Cana­di­an par­tic­ipants. The host spon­sor in Paris is the Cana­di­an Cul­tur­al Cen­tre. The host spon­sor in Toron­to is The Art­cul­ture Re­source Cen­tre (ARC). For David Roke­by’s per­for­mance in Saler­no and Paris, we grate­ful­ly ac­knowl­edge the sup­port of the Rober­son Cen­tre for the Arts and Sci­ences (Bing­ham­ton, New York) and the na­tion­al Mu­se­um of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy in Ot­tawa. Oth­er sources of rev­enue have pro­vid­ed air­fares and spe­cial equip­ment re­quire­ments. Among the con­tribut­ing spon­sors are the On­tario Del­ega­tion in Paris, as well as sev­er­al or­ga­ni­za­tions based in Cana­da, the Min­istry of ex­ter­nal af­fairs, the De­part­ment of Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, the Min­istry of Cul­ture and Cit­izen­ship of On­tario, the Cana­da Coun­cil, The Cana­di­an Pavil­ion at Ex­po 86, CBC-​ra­dio Cana­da, Tele­globe Cana­da (pend­ing), Ap­ple Cana­da, Art­cul­ture Re­source Cen­tre, the Me­dia cen­tre, uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to, and the Pho­to Elec­tric Arts Foun­da­tion in con­junc­tion with the McLuhan Pro­gram, Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to.

Pro­gram notes by:

Der­rick de Ker­ck­hove


McLuhan Pro­gram in Cul­ture and Tech­nol­ogy

Cat­alogue by Mil­lie Chen

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