Tilman Baumgaertel on Wed, 9 Jul 1997 00:06:36 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Interview with Robert Adrian

"We entered this vast area which we now think of as cyberspace"

Interview with Robert Adrian

Robert Adrian (* 1935, Toronto) did net art long before the term existed.
In the late seventies and early eighties the Canadian artist, who has been
living in Vienna since 1972, was involved in art events that made use of
modern telecommunications technology. Those projects included
telephone concerts, fax performances and Slow Scan TV
teleconferences. The following interview was done at the "Beauty and
the East" meeting in Ljubliana in May 1997.

?: Can you tell me something about your artistic background?

Robert Adrian: I grew up in a family of artists in post-war Toronto,
which was a unique situation at that time, because artists were pretty
rare in Toronto. My mother and father were both artists, and they also
had brothers and sisters who were artists. I went into the art course
at high school because I wasn't very good in academic subjects. Then
I just left home and got myself a studio when I was about nineteen.
That was my art education. I don't have a diploma or a paper anywhere
saying that I am an artist. I knew how to be an artist, because my
father was an artist. But I never had any training as an artist so I
guess I have a bit of a casual attitude. I worked at a few jobs, I
exhibited a bit, I ran a gallery, and in 1960 I moved to England and,
in 1972, to Vienna.

?:  How did you get involved with this group of artists who did projects
that used telecommunications in the late 70ies and early 80ies?

Adrian: In September of 1978 I met Bill Bartlett at the Fifth Network
Conference in Toronto. The Fifth Network was presumably the fifth of
a series of conferences about media and media artists. In 1978 media
usually meant "video". There was probably also a play on words intended
to suggest a "fifth" (or alternative) network. I remember talk at the
conference about a satellite that was dying somewhere over Northern
Canada which the Canadian Government was supposed to be donating to
the Inuit, and other native peoples but, technically, could be used by
anybody. It was reported that they were letting it be used for community
communications for maybe half a year before it burned up in the
atmosphere. I was very excited by that report and also by the the fact that
I could watch the conference live on cable TV from my parents living
room. It should not be surprising that Canadians are interested in
telecomm because Canada is a place that has serious communication
problems - it is very wide and it has a lot of languages, not just English
and French, but also the languages of the native peoples and the
immigrants. Bartlett was actually based in Victoria, on Vancouver Island,
which is quite a long way from anywhere - which made his early interest
in communications understandable. He was into mail art but I wasn't.
I am actually "third-generation" in this sort of stuff. Bill dropped out
in about 1981 - right after I got really hooked - because he ran out of
money and had a new baby daughter. As well as that, his phone had
been cut off because he couldn't pay his phone bill anymore.

?: Why did this idea with the telecommunications via satellite appeal
to you as an artist? Did you have any experience with this kind of

Adrian: There was a completely absurd episode in 1956, when I was
still in Canada. I was working in a jazz club and one of the musicians
there told me that the Canadian Pacific Railway Co. was looking for
people to work in an installation that involved a computer. The normal
office workers couldn't handle it so they were looking for people to
come in who could improvise - create a system for the machine. To me
it was just a temporary, well-paid job. I guess there were about twelve
of us - artists, musicians, students, writers - everybody was under 25.
They had built a whole building in Montreal for this computer - which
probably had about 8 Kilobyte of RAM. The computer counted railway
cars. The data on the railway traffic was collected at different
locations in Canada. They wanted to know exactly where each car was,
whether it was empty, whether it was full, what was loaded etc. We
got this information on teletype machines that also made punched
tapes which we turned into punched cards. Every night the cards were
sorted and transmitted to Montreal. You can still see this sort of
machinery in old Hi-Tech movies from the early 60s. I worked in the
Toronto Data Center and we had to communicate with the other Data
Centers, the Computer Center in Montreal and the train
yards in our region, so we were always on line via teletype. This
network technology isn't as new as we think it is. It was always
there in the managerial offices of those big firms - as a business
tool or executive plaything.

?: Was that the first time you used a computer?

Adrian: That was just about the first time anybody used a computer!
But to be honest, I didn't actually use the computer - I was just a part
of the communication chain that gathered data and fed it into the
computer. It was just one of these amazing flukes. So when Bill
Bartlett called me about this communications art thing ... well,
actually we didn't make overseas phone calls in 1979, because it was
much too expensive. He sent me a postcard! He wrote something like:
"... there's a telecommunications firm in Toronto that has just opened
an office in Vienna called I.P. Sharp Associates who have a world-
wide computer time-sharing network. In a couple of months we are
going to do a project with their system. They will give you a free
user number if you want to participate in the project".

So I went there to I.P. Sharp with Richard Kriesche, because I was too
nervous to go by myself. I remember that we sat next to each other at two
different tables, and on each table was a terminal like a big office
typewriter. There were no monitors at this point, because they were
much too expensive. Everything was printed out on paper. So Richard
sent me a message, and it immediately printed out on my terminal - but it
had reached me by way of Toronto! That was it! I was gone! Because of
this crazy experience I had had at the CPR nearly 25 years earlier, I knew
exactly what was happening. I knew that I was in contact.

?: That sounds like you got turned on by this new technology...

Adrian: I got turned on by the space! Richard and I were personally
sitting next to each other, but when we communicated with these
machines, we entered this vast area which we now think of as
cyberspace. When the machines are on and your fingers are on the
keyboard, you are in connection with some space that is beyond the
screen. And this space is only there when the machines are on. It is a
new world which you enter. For me it was never a question of travel. For
me it was always a question of presence, of passing through some
membrane into another territority. It's not about things, it's about
connections. Of course, we were prepared for this by conceptual art, by
minimal art and all these movements. An electronic space is very easy to
imagine once you have grasped the idea of a conceptual space for art

?: What got you interested, as an artist, in this electronic space?

Adrian: I wanted to create networks, and in these networks things can
happen. I am interested in the strategic part of it, not in the content.
I am curious to see what happens once this space for art is created.
Making pictures is not what it's about. It is about finding ways of
living with these systems, to look at how culture is changing in these

?: How did this group of telecommunication artists get together?

Adrian: Actually, nobody was interested if somebody was an artist
or not. In the end I was probably the only full-time old-fashioned
artist left in the group. Many of the people were on the edges of art.
There were managers of art spaces, university professors, video
artists, people in video labs and soforth. But if they weren't artists,
when they started, they were artists by the time they finished. The
term artists has to be defined much more broadly in this context.
You have to include so-called hackers in this definition for instance,
because they are operating creatively with these systems.

?: But is it art just to master those technologies?

Adrain: No, what you need are good ideas, and you can find anybody to
put them online for you. There isn't really anything to learn in terms
of technology once you get into this state of mind, and you grasp the
idea that you are in contact through these things. Art in the 20th
century is much more about ideas than it is about practice and
handwork. The interesting things that we are talking about are
basically coming out of Duchamp and Warhol. These people were
making philosophical statements.

?: Was there any money in these projects?

Adrian: There was no way to make money out if it, and there still
isn't. You support the communications side of your work with money
from elsewhere. I sold artworks and used the money to support the
communications stuff. There was nobody from the big art centers like
New York or London or Paris or Cologne involved. The people who
participated in these projects needed the communication, because
they lived in Vancouver or Sidney or Vienna or San Francisco.

?: What is so striking for me is that whenever you read about these
telecommunication projects there is always a different story. You
keeping reading about the documenta teleconference in 1976 or the
projects of Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz, but in general
these telecommunication projects have not become part of the master
narrative of art history. Is that because there is no artifact that
remains once the project is finished?

Adrian: First of all, there were no big names involved in our projects.
There was no "big art". There was no Nam June Paik, no spectacular
video displays or anything like that. None of us was really bothered by
that, actually. We didn't publize it in the art world. And from the very
beginning the problem has existed of identifying and defining the
"work" and the "artist" in collaborative or distributed network projects.
The older traditions of art production, promotion and marketing did not
apply, and artists, art historians, curators and the art establishment,
trained to operate with these traditions found it very difficult to
recognise these projects as being art. Net art challenges the concept
of art-making as a more or less solitary and product-producing

?: If you compare your situation back then to the hype around net art
now, do you see any similarities?

Adrian: We used to think that we were doing very advanced things,
and that we would have a break-through very soon. But there weren't a
lot of us. At that time there were probably 50 potential collaborateurs
in these telecommunication projects. A lot of people came by, tried it,
and didn't like it. Maybe it was too difficult. They said that there was
no art in it, that it was a military structure, and that we all were
being consumed by big business. So in a way, nothing has changed.

?: How would the things you were doing relate to the military?

Adrian: When the Gulf Wars happened, the Americans were in trouble.
All of a sudden it seemed like all these art projects we had been doing,
were only there to make those telecommunication technologies look
good. I was in shock.

?: What? You felt, that you had somehow contributed to the war
technology that was used during the Gulf war with your art?

Adrian: Yeah, you were part of it, and there was no way out. Suddenly
there were those pictures from the Gulf war. And it was same the
technology we had used. The same thing is happening now with V.R.
systems that are based on training suits for fighter pilots. What we were
doing was basically window-dressing - to make the technology look nice,
look harmless.

?: And that was the end of these telecommunications projects?.

Adrian: No, there is a number of other problems with these projects.
Once you've done three fax projects, you have exhausted fax as a
medium. There is nothing more in it. It is too thin. Same thing with
SSTV or picture phones. You can go on using it, but it's easy to

?: That's a common criticism of many of these telecommunication
projects: that they provide a structure for communication, but no
real communciation ever happens there. That has been said about
the television shows that Van Gogh TV did at the last documenta...

Adrian: That was an exciting project though! But there you have the
same situation: You can do this kind of thing once, but than you can't
do it again. The next time they did it with much more sophisticated
technology, and it was a complete wash-out. They developed
complicated interfaces for the computers, but I couldn't figure out
what they were doing.

?: Do you see net art as a continuation of what you were doing?

Adrian: I see all the different kinds of telecommunication as one big
medium now. There is one mega-medium now, that contains the
telephone, the broadcast media, the internet. You have this marriage of
recording and transmission technologies, and they are all components
of a giant medium. But I think it is simply not useful to us. Computers
are not really useful in any way. We delegate more and more tasks to
these systems, and they are basically just putting a lot of people out
of work.

Interview: Tilman Baumgärtel

Robert Adrians Homepage with detailed descriptions of his projects is at:

The text of "Plissure du texte" is at:

The text of the "Hearsay" project (which has a striking
resemblance to Muntadas'  documenta thing) is at:
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