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At a Distance: Precursors to Art and Activism on the Internet

by Annmarie Chandler and Norrie Neumark
The MIT Press, Cambridge MA USA, 2005
496 pp. Trade, $39.95/25.95
ISBN: 0-262-03328-3.

Reviewed by Michael R. (Mike) Mosher
Saginaw Valley State University, Michigan 48710


Chandler and Neumark have assembled a rich history of telematic art using FAX and videotext, public access television, networked electronic music essentials, decommodified conceputal art, artists publications, and goofy performance groups. Not only do these significant examples predate the Internet (which has made global delivery of art, texts, music and video so much easier and inexpensive) but they contain political or socially critical content...or at least make fun of authority and the powers that be.

There are features on artists Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz, Tesuo Kogawa, and culture-jamming consortium Negativland. Johanna Drucker discusses Aesthetics, and Maria Fernandez examines the group Estri-Dentistas. Stephen Perkins provides historical perspective on artists' magazines, including Arftorum, which was purposely named to cause confusion with Art Forum. John Held Jr.–not to be confused with the 1920s humorous illustrator of that name–gives an account of the early days and flowering of Mail Art. Held traces the ongoing influence of Fluxus and artist Ray Johnson's New York Correspondance School in 1962, but stops his account before Ryosuke Cohen's international Brain Cell project, which has had over 600 issues of collaborative prints since the 1980s.

This reviewer learned how Eduardo Kac, now noted as a biotech artist for his living gene-spliced phosphorescent rabbit, was once a noted opponent to Brazil's government. Jesse Drew gives a history of Paper Tiger Television and their subsequent 1990s Deep Dish Network. Roy Ascott, an early theorist of telematic art and organizer of the virtual university Planetary Collegium, examines the simultaneous transmission project La Plissure du Texte. This reviewers' sole complaint is that there is not enough imagery in the book. Granted, conceptual art privileges the idea over what Marcel Duchamp called the "retinal"——sensual visual pleasures——but I'd like more pictures illustrating these useful texts.

Networks are not always progressive. They can be top-down, and citizens of the United States must be vigilant to protect the Internet's current "net neutrality" that prevents any exclusive corporate hegemony that excludes alternative voices. Nevertheless, this anthology proves with persuasive evidence that inspired artists have prototyped and created working models of the best, most diverse traditions we now find in cyberspace.



Updated 1st March 2007

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