(Peter Lunenfeld) (by way of Pit Schultz ) on Sat, 26 Jul 1997 00:29:01 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> In Search of the Telephone Opera - Peter Lunenfeld

In Search of the Telephone Opera
Peter Lunenfeld
Art Center College of Design

I. The World Wide Web As Communication Art

"Listen to me now or listen to me later...Gonna get it together, watch it.
Gonna get together, Ma Bell. Like Ma Bell, I got the ill communication!"
                                                                The Beastie
Boys [1]

"It is in the process of the use of equipment that we must actually
encounter the character of the equipment."
Heidegger [2]

        When logging on to local Internet service providers, the first
sound heard is a familiar one, the reassuring seven tones of a local
telephone call. While not quite as homey as the clicks of a rotary dial
(which is now to the ear as the lithograph is to the eye), this dial tone
anchors explorations of the World Wide Web.
        Links between the telephone and new media forms are not as
circumstantial as they might first appear. One might begin with the oft
repeated maxim that "cyberspace is where you are when you're on the phone."
It is hard to overestimate the impact of Bell Labs on the history of
computing, and the net's nodal construction is based on the model of the
interstate telephone system. The 1990s have seen growing pressures exerted
by telecommunication companies like Nynex and Pacbell to determine how
on-line environments will be billed -- which is a if not the defining issue
affecting the next growth phase of the Web. And since the advent of
cellular systems, telephones are suddenly sexy again.
        This present relevance of telephony prompts a reconsideration of
the history of art as communication in the twentieth century, and the
related issue of how technologies carry the weight of art.  With the
instantaneity of electronic mail bringing about a resurgence of epistolary
culture, the Internet is - like telephony - a communicative medium par
excellence. The Web has excited cultural producers (a term both more
expansive and less troublesome than "artist") as no technological
development since the arrival of video. From the start, people have been
drawn to its communicative properties, to its ability to create a dialogue
between producer and audience, the first step towards the hazily grasped
goal of fully interactive aesthetic practice. With the Web, the computer
becomes an instrument unique in the history of audio-visual media: for the
first time the same machine serves as the site of production, distribution
and reception.

II. Telephone Art
        Those looking for sophisticated strategies to transform the Web
into a medium capable of bearing the weight of the aesthetic object would
do well to interrogate earlier communications media. Will the movement from
communications medium to art form be more successfully negotiated on the
Web than it was over the telephone?  One way to generate new questions, if
not answers, is to investigate the history of how artists have utilized the
open and responsive channels of other, earlier media to effect aesthetic
        Has there ever been any important art created specifically for the
telephone? And is this distinct from the issue of whether there has ever
been any art on the telephone? A distinction is needed, because in its
early era, telephonic communications functioned as proto-mass-medium
distribution systems, along the lines of contemporary cable television.
Media historian Carolyn Marvin has unearthed the history of the use of the
telephone as a point-to-point conveyor of information and entertainment at
the turn of the century. Starting as early as 1881, there were experiments
in Europe and the United States using telephone lines to pipe news, sermons
and entertainments from one place to another.  Royalty had live lines
installed from their opera houses,  heads of state from parliaments, and
"nickel-in-the-slot" public telephone stations piped in the latest from the
popular theater. The most sustained point-to-point telephonic distribution
system lasted over three decades in Hungary, where Telefon Hirmondó was a
fixture from 1892 to 1925. Targeted at the Magyar-speaking, nationalistic
upper classes, Telefon Hirmondó offered a schedule of market reports, news
of politics and foreign affairs, sports, and nightly performance from the
likes of the Royal Hungarian Opera House and the Folk Theater. [3]
        The first proposal for a specifically telephonic art was an
unrealized provocation offered by the Dadaists in Berlin in 1920. The
Dada-Almanach proposed that an artist could call in an order for a picture
by telephone, and have it made by an artisan. [4] In 1922, Lázló
Maholy-Nagy claims to have indeed ordered five paintings in porcelain
enamel by telephone from a sign factory. According to Maholy-Nagy, these
Telephonbilder as he called them, were created when he sketched out his
paintings on graph paper with the color chart from the factory in front of
him, and relayed his instruction via the telephone to the supervisor of the
factory at the other end of the line. Moholy-Nagy wrote years later of the
process: the supervisor "took down the dictated shapes in the correct
position. (It was like playing chess by correspondence.)" [5]
        It makes sense that in the heyday of conceptualism, the telephone
made its way back into artistic practice. In 1969, Chicago's Museum of
Contemporary Art opened a show titled, "Art by Telephone." The Museum asked
over thirty artists, including noted conceptualists like Joseph Kosuth, to
telephone in to the Museum, or to answer the Museum's call, and then to
instruct Museum staff about what their contribution to the show would be.
The Museum then produced the pieces and displayed them. A
"record-catalogue" was produced, replete with recordings of the telephone
engagements between artists and Museum. [6] My favorite proposal for this
show was English Fluxus artist George Brecht's poll of public opinion on
his plans to move the land mass of the British Isles into the Mediterranean
Sea. [7]
        In 1980, Allen S. Bridge founded the Apology Line in New York City.
A project that tested the boundaries between art and the mass media's
evolving culture of confession, Bridge posted flyers around the city
offering a telephone number that people could call anonymously to apologize
for sins real or imagined. These confessions were then re-purposed as
installations, audio tapes, and, after transcription, published in Apology
Magazine. [8]
        In the 1990s, there are also a few contemporary artists exploring
the aesthetic possibilities of our most stable communication technology.
[9] In Santa Monica, CA, Martin Kersels wired his dealer's telephone and
fax to trigger a cacaphony of taped sounds so that anytime a ringer went
off the whole assemblage would erupt in a frenzy, bringing any kind of
discussion in the gallery to a grinding halt. [10]  In 1997, Ian Pollock
and Janet Silk organized Local 411, a telephone project about the
uncompensated displacement of 4000 people to clear the way for San
Francisco's Museum of Modern Art and the Moscone Convention Center. Local
411 featured sound installations and live performances, centered around an
interactive, voicemail system, which played narratives about the area for
anyone who called in. As the artists wryly noted, admissions to Local 411
were the price of "regular telephone calls, any local and long distance
toll charges apply." [11]
        Though this survey of art for the telephone is incomplete, its
abbreviated nature is indicative of telephony's limited influence on the
course of 20th century art, avant-gardist or popular. This is obviously in
stark contrast to the impact of film, radio, and television. [12] Telephone
art - from Moholy-Nagy to Pollack and Silk - has not developed forms or
strategies specific to the medium itself. Telephony can not lay claim to a
unique aesthetic practice, as sound recording has had with the pop single,
the way television (and radio before it) can lay claim to the situation
comedy, or the cinema has the feature length narrative.
        This essay's title invokes something which is not: there has been
no telephone opera, no gesamtkunstwerk for this communication medium. This
is not to imply that telephony is not important (the telephone has molded
modernity at least as much as broadcast media), just that telephony is not
a system that has generated sufficient discrete cultural objects to slot
into the discourses of criticism and art history.

IV. The Electronic Corpse & The Digital Questionnaire
        So what do ruminations about telephone operas as yet unborn offer
to an investigation of the Web?  Start with two default uses of the Web as
communication art: the Electronic Corpse and the Digital Questionnaire. The
Electronic Corpse is the digital era's take on the Exquisite Corpse, that
well known parlor game of the Surrealists in which paper was folded over
and phrases or images were inscribed on the quadrants, each person unaware
of the contributions of the others. The paper was then unfolded and the
sentence or drawing was then seen in its splintered totality. The game
takes its name from the first sentence produced using its method: "The
exquisite corpse shall drink the young wine." Though created to take
advantage of an unmediated communication between individuals in proximity,
the Exquisite Corpse has been the inspiration for generations of
experimentation and its extension into communication media has been
inexorable. [13]
         There are innumerable projects on the Web which ship bits and
bytes of art from one point of transformation to another, and artists
continue to explore the potential of the Electronic Corpse as a
discontinuous continuum. In the best of the Electronic Corpse pieces,
Douglas Davis' Web-based text project, The Sentence: Breaking Out (of the
Virtual Closet) <>, there is an interesting
hypertrophy as the combinatory sentence has grown almost too long to read.
Davis' piece is less about juxtaposition than the sheer additive mass of
almost countless contributions from browsers of the site. While this
strategy can be productive when text-based, things become muddier -
literally - when visual images become involved.
        In 1964, two years before his death, André Breton maintained that
one of the intents of Surrealism was to "attain the point at which...
painting 'must be made by all, not by one.'" [14] The Web is circling
around that point, in that images can be shipped so easily from one person
to another. Bonnie Mitchell's group at Syracuse University has been
pursuing on-line versions of the Exquisite Corpse for some years now with
projects like ChainArt (1993), the Digital Journey (1994), and Diversive
Paths (1995). Chainreaction (1995)  was described as "a worldwide
collaborative art project that involves digital image manipulation and
networked integration of visual communication and the visual environment...
[artists] collaborate to build a structure of images that reflects the
multiplicity of the experience."
        Mitchell is not alone in her desire to use the communicative
potential of the Web to ship images around the globe, but the question of
whether this effort is worth the trouble goes unasked. [15] The problem
with the Electronic Corpse is that the additive processes and multiple
manipulations do not necessarily reflect a "multiplicity of experience,"
and in fact too often end up in a dismal sameness of murky rasturbations.
Artists (and site developers) tend to create Electronic Corpses simply to
show that they are capable of networked collaboration, not because the
collaborative effort will result in something richer or more complex than
work done individually and off-line.  Electronic Corpses tend to be
demonstrations of creative potential rather than systems worthy of critical
        If the central concern of the Electronic Corpse is shipping data
from point to point, then that of the Digital Questionnaire is responding
to data. The best known of the Digital Questionnaires is Komar & Melamid's
Most Wanted Paintings  <>. This well
known site canvases individuals about their aesthetic tastes. Based on this
empirical material, the artists then paint and post different countries'
most and least wanted paintings. The United States' Most Wanted painting is
a large-scale landscape with deer standing in a lake under a blue sky with
George Washington looking on. The Least Wanted (modernism be damned) is a
small, reddish abstraction of triangular forms.  With this brilliant play
on the post-industrial West's obsession with polling and market research,
Komar & Melamid explore and critique the utopian promise of the artist's
direct response to the desires of the audience, without ever succumbing to
that promise. [16]
        The Digital Questionnaire is so obviously resonant with the
communicative capabilities of the Web that artists have created dozens of
variations, from the Techno-Ethno-Graphic Profile at Guillermo Gómez-Peńa,
Roberto Sifuentes, and James Luna's Cybervato site
<> to Victoria Vesna's
Bodies© INCorporated <>.[17]  What artists want
with all this information from their users is not a question to deal with
here, it is appropriate to ask what they do with that data. Specifically,
if artists request data from their users, and in turn promise to respond to
that data, are the artists obligated to follow through on these promises?
        Bodies© INCorporated's correspondence logs raise precisely this
issue, which is perforce an ethical one. The site invites participants
(Vesna prefers this term to user) to construct a virtual body from
pre-defined body parts, texture maps, and sounds. The participant's virtual
body then joins the site's larger body-owner community. Putting aside the
banal premise of the site, the possibility of creating a representation of
the self (however modified or fanciful) has its appeal, and many people
responded to Vesna's questionnaire in hopes of seeing their individualized
bodies rendered at the site. Bodies© INCorporated promised a payoff for
participating, but did it deliver?  In the summer of 1996, one Borsi Tebroc
posted the following messages to the site's communal bulletin board:

YEAR!!! Do you sit expectantly at your monitor waiting for a response of
some kind from the academics and tech heads that enticed you into this web
site bodyshop?? Join the growing hundreds of body owners who wonder where
their bodies are!! Horrors!!!.... Send us your testimonial, Send us your
grief, tell us your tales of woe!!!! WRITE THE BODY CONSTRUCTION GRIPE

It would seem, when first stepping into your website, that participation
would render benefits to both parties. Yet, after several months of waiting
and hearing from others having waited OVER A YEAR that concrete body is a
one way street!! You have our data now what about your end of the

        An integral part of communication is establishing a framework of
reciprocity: if a work on the Web requests input from users in the promise
of some form of response, there is an imperative to respond. Yet like any
generalization in art, this one is meant to be transgressed, especially if
the piece is conceptualized specifically to frustrate this kind of
reciprocity, if its very function as a communication art is to demonstrate
the difficulty of communication.

IV. The Killer Ap?
        Confounding this medium's ability to communicate is to challenge
the very status of the World Wide Web as the Killer Ap of the Internet. The
Killer Ap (short for "application") is yet another grail of the computer
industry: the hardware/software combination that creates an entire market
segment for itself.  For the first generation of IBM personal computers in
the early 1980s, The Killer Ap was the financial spreadsheet (specifically
Lotus 123) that convinced millions of businesses that they had to
computerize to compete. For the Apple Macintosh in the late 1980s, it was
desktop publishing (made possible by the development of Postscript and
other WYSIWYG - "What You See Is What You Get" - packages). For Silicon
Graphics in the 1990s, the Killer Ap has been three-dimensional animation
(accomplished via programs like Alias, Wavefront, and Softimage).  The Web
itself has been hailed as the Internet's Killer Ap precisely because it
added a crucial visual interface to a previously text-based medium.
Consider the following question: Is conceptualism the Killer Ap of
Web-based communication art?
        The answer to this is contradictory. First, claiming conceptual art
as a Killer Ap violates the very premise of conceptual art, at least as Sol
LeWitt defined it in 1969: "The conventions of art are altered by works of
art... Successful art changes our understanding of the conventions by
altering our perceptions." [18] Therefore, if conceptual art were to
function as a Killer Ap, it could do so for no more than an instant,
because its very presence would alter the conditions of its production and
consumption. On the other hand, Killer Ap or not, a rigorous conceptual
phase could rescue the Web as communication art from the worst failings of
both the Electronic Corpse and the Digital Questionnaire. There is a link
here to the telephone projects covered earlier: those few projects had a
conceptual edge, because they were not simply about communicating. Instead,
they interrogated the very idea of communication.
        There is much that can be done on both the conceptual and the
structural level with the Web. Artists could explore the tyranny of the
browser itself, the way that no title is presented in the dominant browser
without having the word "Netscape" precede it. In no other art medium is
this kind of blatant commercial promotion permitted: at least "Printed on
Kodak Paper" appears on the back of the photograph. [19]
        Too many artists have posted home pages without interrogating what
the proliferation of individual representation implies for representation
itself. If we can read Douglas Hubler's project of the 1970s,
"Photographing Everyone Alive," as a conceptual lampoon of August Sander's
plan early in the century to visually record every category of German
citizenry, what are we to make of the Web? If everyone with a computer is
well on the way to his or her own home page, then the Web is advancing
towards Jorge Louis Borges' map as big as the world. With the Web, Sander's
catalog and Hubler's conceit are - like Davis' Sentence - hypertrophied,
not in a metonymic but rather in a strictly representative way.
        Other fertile areas would include features unique to the Internet's
information infrastructure. Take the FAQ file, short for Frequently Asked
Questions. The FAQ is a remarkable discursive invention, a generalized
pedagogical tool designed to bring new users up to speed on an issue or
topic of discussion, to prevent the endless repetition on-line of questions
that have been long considered settled. Here is an ideal arena for
conceptual work that could engage not simply with the Web, but with the
very notion of received wisdom in an ever more communicative era.
        So, who is doing conceptually provocative work on the Internet? One
answer is <>. Like so much of electronic media, Web
sites should be critiqued along the lines of live performances (which are
time based and not necessarily accessible to the reader) rather than as
discrete objects (which can be catalogued, recorded, and presumably visited
in the same state in which they have been described). That noted, these are
some impressions of at the start of 1997.
        The first screen is simple: lines of green characters on a black
screen, with a green highlighting function cycling down. Long term computer
users will find their experience tinged by nostalgia: for me, the font,
colors, and black background were reminiscent of the first portable
computer I ever used, a little Kaypro with a tiny monochrome screen. There
are no identifiers, no marks of authorship or ownership, no indication that
clicking on this essentially meaningless screen will lead into the rest of
the site. The next screen to appear creates a vaguely three dimensional,
gridded space with variously colored directional arrows. Clicking on any
element of this page simply rearranges the arrangement and direction of the
arrows. This section is indeed interactive, but to absolutely no purpose.
There are other nodes of the site: they are independent, but somehow
connected in their interrogations of the schematic: from the 2.5
dimensional mapping of the first grid, to machine age blueprints, to
information era interfaces that mock the icon happy, user friendliness of
so much of the rest of the Web.
        As enigmatically satisfying as the site is,'s home page is
truly the center of the project, for there is a secret there. The gnosis
that opens up to the initiated confronts a central facet of aesthetic
production on the Internet: the World Wide Web is a medium in which the
creative coding - hypertext markup language (HTML), virtual reality markup
language (VRML), and whatever comes next - is visible at the same moment as
the audio-visual object. The Web's visible coding is in distinction to the
cinema, in which the frames are not visible when the film is running, or to
video, in which the analog signal on the tape is never visible through the
same equipment as the sound-image matrix.'s pulsing green and black blankness is not so blank as it
seems, that is; one just needs to know where to look. In Netscape's tool
bar menu, there is a command to view "Document Source." The source code
comes up as a text document, and what is revealed is that there is a whole
layer of pictorial, ASCII text art "below" the surface of This
too is reminiscent of the early days of computer art in the 1960s and '70s,
when Snoopys and christmas trees composed of alphanumeric characters were
spit out by teletypes in computer labs around the country.  In referencing
the volksgraphics of the emerging digital class, and in embedding this
richly associative material in the site's HTML, conceptualizes
code as essential to the structure of the Web as communication art. So, is the telephone opera, the Web's Killer Ap? Of course not, but what
gnostic pleasure.


This text will be published  as "In Search of the Telephone Opera: From
Communications to Art," in Afterimage v. 25, n. 1 (July/August, 1997).

[1]  The Beastie Boys, "Get It Together," from the album, Ill Communication
(Los Angeles: Capitol Records, 1994).

[2]  Martin Heidegger, "The Origin of the Work of Art," in , Poetry,
Language Thought, trans. Albert Hofsteadter (New York: Harper and Row,
1975), p.33.

[3]  Carolyn Marvin, When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking About
Communications in the Late Nineteenth Century (New York: Oxford University
Press, 1988), pp. 209-231.

[4]  Richard Huelsenbeck, ed. Dada-Almanach (Berlin: Erich Reiss, 1920).

[5]   Lázló Moholy-Nagy, The New Vision and Abstract of an Artist (New
York: Wittenborn, 1947), p. 79. It is uncertain as to whether or not Moholy
Nagy, who was in Berlin in 1920, saw the Dadaists' piece. There is also a
dispute as to whether he did actually call in the Telephonbilder. Lucia
Moholy claims that they are, in fact, apocryphal. Lucia Moholy, Marginalien
zu Moholy-Nagy - Moholy-Nagy Marginal Notes (Krefeld, 1972), p. 76. An
attempt to syncretize the various claims and denials is found in Louis
Kaplan, "The Telephone Paintings: Hanging Up Moholy," Leonardo v. 26, n. 2
(April, 1993), pp. 165-168

[6]  See "Art by Telephone," record-catalogue of the show, Museum of
Contemporary Art, Chicago, 1969.  I gleaned much from Eduardo Kac, "Aspects
Of The Aesthetics Of Telecommunications" in John Grimes and Gray Lorig,
eds., Siggraph Visual Proceedings (New York: ACM, 1992), pp. 47-57. It can
be found on-line at

[7]   Maurice Tuchman, A Report on the Art and Technology Program of the
Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of
Art, 1971), p. 56.

[8]  See the last issue put out before the artist's death: Allen S. Bridge,
Apology Magazine: The National Confession Issue 2 (New York: October,

[9]  As for other telecommunications media art, there is On Kawara's series
of "I am still alive" telegrams, that he has sent out on and off since
1970. The fax brought on its own art projects, like 1982's The World In 24
Hours  and pARTiciFAX in 1984. As we move into further hybrids between
point-to-point communications and visualization technologies, there are the
closed circuit television happenings of the '60s and early '70s that Nam
June Paik participated in, video letters between artists, and Kit Galloway
and Sherry Rabinowitz' famed hole in space project in 1979 (which
established the still extant Electronic Cafe International).

[10]  The piece itself was titled, Objects of the Dealer (with Speakers),
see David Pagel, "Musical Chairs," frieze 25 (November-December, 1995), pp.

[11]  Ian Pollock and Janet Silk's  "Local 411" ran from January 20 to
February 17, 1997 in San Francisco.

[12]  The linkages between film and art practice are simply too numerous to
list here. One place to start is the recent catalogue of the show Hall of
Mirrors: Art and Film Since 1945, organized by Kerry Brougher at the Museum
of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, in 1996, edited by Russell Ferguson and
published in 1996 by the museum and the Monacelli Press, New York. On
radio, see Douglas Kahn and Gregory Whitehead, eds., Wireless Imagination:
Sound, Radio, and the Avant-Garde  (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992). The most
recent collection on the intersections of video technologies and art
practice is Michael Renov and Erika Suderburg, eds., Resolutions:
Contemporary Video Practice (Minneapolis: University of Minnesotta Press,
1996). The linkages between art and television are less compelling argued
but present, nonetheless. Recent manifestations include Joshua Decter,
"Deliver Me Into Reality? (Or It's All There on TV, Theoretically),"
Art+Text 54 (May, 1996) and the decidedly minor Bernard Welt, Mythomania:
Fantasies, Fables, and Sheer Lies in Contemporary American Popular Art (Los
Angeles: Art issues. Press, 1996).

[13]  Ray Johnson's mail art of the 1950s and '60s is obviously a
derivative of the exquisite corpse, as was Craig Ede's Exquisite Fax of the
1980s. A comic book based on the theme was edited by Art Speigelman and R.
Sikoryak, The Narrative Corpse: A Chain Story by 69 Artists (New York and
Richmond VA: Raw Books and Gates of Heck, 1995);  The Drawing Center
organized a major show of collaborative work entitled, The Return of the
Cadavre Exquis in 1993 , which also showed at the Santa Monica Museum of
Art in 1994.  Finally, there is a Web site directly titled Exquisite
Corpse, organized by Jager Di Poala Kemp design,

[14]  André Breton, "Against the Liquidators," in What Is Surrealism?
Selected Writings, edited and introduced by Franklin Rosemont (New York:
Monad Press, 1978),  pp. 351-354, p. 352. Breton is, of course, recasting
Lautrémont's maxim: "Poetry must be made by all, not by one."

[15]  See for example, Collaborative Internet Art Online (CIAO)
<>, which similarly
leaves its precepts almost entirely unexamined.

[16]  Most Wanted began in 1994 as an off-line project. For an extended
discussion of this project see Laurie Ouellette, "Painting by Number,"
Afterimage 23, n. 5 (March/April, 1996), pp. 6-7.

[17]   The text accompanying the Techno-Ethno-Graphic Profile read as
follows: "The following questionnaire, conducted by experimental Chicano
anthropologists, attempts to survey the inter cultural desires and artistic
concerns of the Internet users. The results will be utilized as source of
inspiration for a series of performances and "living dioramas" currently
taking place at 'DiverseWorks,' Houston. Please answer the questions as
fully as possible, and if you prefer not to identify yourself it's fine.
Carnales, we are looking for innovative ways to utilize this technology."

[18]  Sol Lewitt, "Sentences on Conceptual Art," in Ellen H. Johnson, ed.,
American Artists on American Art: From 1940 to 1980 (New York: Harper &
Row, 1982), pp. 125-127, p. 126.

[19]  Fabian Wagmister raised the issue of the tyranny of the browser in
his presentation at my "Digital Dialogues" seminar, Art Center College of
Design, Pasadena, May 29, 1996. See the way that his students at the UCLA
School of Film and Television's Laboratory for New Media have played with
the "Netscape:" feature in their works, distancing their own titles as
fully as possible from the corporate identifier <>.

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