Noise on the Line:Emerging Issues in Telecommunications Based Art
by Stephen Wilson, Art Department, San Francisco State University
The author explains that telecommunications based art breaks new ground by
using the technology to create totally new contexts for art. He identifies
a series of issues that must be addressed in order to make this form of art
work stronger: clarity about the conceptual rationales for focusing on
telecommunications, attention to the sensual format in which information
appears, the need for editing and craftsmanship and consideration of the
appropriateness of local versus global works in some situations. The article
then introduces artitistic opportunities for working with related technologies
that are converging with telecommunications: artificially intelligent agents,
groupware, telepresence, and virtual worlds.
Note this article originally appeared in the Journal Leonardo Vol
24:no.2 (The 1991 special issue on Telecommunications edited by Roy
Ascott and Carl Loeffler.)
published by MIT Press.
Much computer art fails to address the radical cultural changes being brought
forth by the new technologies. Frequently, it is merely an attempt to use
new toys to create images, sounds and objects that do not fundamentally differ
from those created by artists previously. At its best, telecommunications
based art tries to do something much more profound. It uses the new technolgies
themselves to address the cultural changes being provoked by the technologies.
For example, it comments on the new possibilities made possible or it extends
the technology in directions that are likely to be ignored by commercial
In attempting to invent new art forms and contexts appropriate for this radical
critique and extention, telecom art takes risks because the art created and
the issues focused on vary from those historically validated by traditional
art institutions and critical communities. This willingness to forge new
art contexts and approaches is a provocative prototype for other artists
searching for powerful ways to work with culture changing technologies.
For the last several years I have been creating telecommunications based
art. (See the article "Interactive Art and Cultural Change", Leonardo
23, No 2). Like others working in the field, I am excited by the
potentiality of this technology. It can radically alter our sense of the
world and our connections with each other. It is an area of cultural foment
that cries out for artistic reflection.
Through my work and that of others, I have become aware,however, of certain
emerging issues that keep this art from being as strong as it might be ..
For a while, anything goes in an area of new artistic experimentation.
Eventually, however, hard questions must be asked about artistic purposes
and effectiveness. Below are some of the issues I see in current
telecommunications based art.
Clarity about conceptual rationales and reasons for being involved with
telecommunications: Telecommunications can be expensive and complex to set
up. There are plenty of other areas that call out for artistic attention.
Many situations demand the magic direct physical presence rather than mediated
electronic connections. .Some of the artists involved seem to lack clarity
about why they are focusing on telecommunications. In the early stages this
free-form experimentation may be fine, but as the field matures, artists
will need to be clearer and more explicit about the target issues in their
art. Here are some examples of possible rationales for art events focusing
Internationalism: Telecommunications allows people in different parts of
the world to communicate with an unprecedented ease. Artists might very well
want to focus specifically on the differences in cultures and perspectives
that telecom makes accessbile or on the interdependence of world communities
symbolically manifest in telecom networks. Artists must be aware, however,
that telecom technology poses an ironic threat to cultural diversity at the
same time as it tries to promotes it. Smaller cultures can easily be overwhelmed
and extinquished by the easy access to material from dynamic mainstream
industrial cultures and the forms of telecommunications information (e.g.
text and electronic imagery) might not be effective for communicating non
industrial cultural material and might warp it in transmission.
Real time interaction: The technology allows people in different places to
engage in joint interaction process. It is a chance for people to interact
with others who they would never meet otherwise. Artists might want to focus
on the specific quality of overcoming that geographical distance in real
Annoynmity: Telecom makes possible a special kind of interaction in which
people are there but not there. We are forced to construct an image of the
others based on limited mediated information. Artists might want to focus
on the annonymity and limits of media based communication.
Multi-person simultaneous interchange: Telecom allows the simultaneous linkage
of many people in a way that would be impossible in non mediated environments.
Artists could reflect on the unique nature of these kinds of experiences
such as collaborative production.
Access to information archives: Computer information services allow access
to a wealth of archival information in addition to access to other people.
Some futurists assume that all the information now available in books, magazines,
libraries, museums, film and video depositories, etc will be easily accessible
via computer telecom links. Telecom based art might well focus on the new
manipulations of information and the new contexts made possible by this kind
of access. It might also want to focus on the new ways art can find its way
into people's homes.
Commentary on cultural aspects of telecommunications: Telephones and computer
telecom linkages begin to create cultural meanings and to occupy particular
social niches for example, the intimacy illusions of phone contact;
the kinds of services invented for videotext; the international markets created
by satellites; phone sex services; potential invasions of privacy; the rendering
invisible of the gender, age, race, and physical appearance of someone at
the other end of a telecom link. These changes in our cultural life demand
Attention to the Sensual Qualities of Telecommunications: During these early
days of telecommunications based art, much of the interchange takes place
via scrolling text on computer monitors. Whereas this may make sense
logistically, it does not always make sense artistically. It is not the only
option. For example, regular phones provide a telecommunications sound option
that has been grossly underexplored by artists. Other options include image
and physical telepresence (via sensors and control of devices).
Scrolling computer text is often not visually appealing and difficult to
resolve. Even worse, it is often inappropriate for the artistic focus of
a particular event. Artists need to begin to attend carefully to how the
information being telecommunicated manifests. If computer text does not make
artistic sense, then other options should be considered. Artists can be key
innovators in development of ways to send information in other forms.
Spontaneity, Editing, and Craftmanship: In some telecommunications art events
(and indeed in electronic bulletin boards in general), much of the flow of
text that comes across is drivel. There may be some gems, but there is no
way most of the participants would tolerate reading the material if it were
in hard copy or listenting to it if someone were speaking the words. Similarly,
some of the images sent for example, by slow scan TV seem like
the products of first experiences with cameras rather than careful artistic
To a certain extent, the uneven quality can be attributed to the newness
of the art form. Also, the excitement of telecom linkages and the spontaneity
of real time interchange limit the polish that can be applied to the
transmissions. For some artists the quality of the transmissions has been
somewhat irrelevant; rather, the exploration of the very possibility of
international communication, the structure of the linkage network and the
inventive organizing concepts of particular events have been the art focuses.
As telecom networks become more commonplace, these rationales will be less
Eventually artists will need to find a way to craft the words or other
communications. If spontaneous interchange is not the focus, then as much
care and editing should be given to the material to be sent as is given to
other artistic production. Even if spontaneous, real time communication is
the focus, hopefully we will develop better methods of on-the-fly craftsmanship.
Some analysts suggest that telecommunications based archives will make old
patterns of editing obsolete. The whole point is to allow everyone to make
available their work without submitting to hierarchically validated editing.
With telecommunications, anyone can publish who wants to and anyone who wants
to access the material can do so. In this way, we can have access to unpopular,
fringe, or visionary ideas without waiting for their more general acceptance.
Eventually, however, some kind of editing is necessary since there is not
time to read and experience everything produced by everyone possibly reachable
by telecommunications. If telecommunications based artists do not put care
into their productions, audiences will give up on the material because of
the difficulty wading through it to find the gems.
Local versus Global Action: I worry about the rush to telecommunicate across
the world while ignoring the options to telecommunicate across town. Many
telecommunications based art events do not seem to be focused specifically
on the international or geographic potentials of the technology (for example,.
cultural perspectives or commentary on telecom social institutions); I wonder
why they require satellite hook ups. It is curious to me that there is not
much art looking at this technology on a local level.
Again, some of this conceptual carelessness can be attributed to the excitement
of trying out the technology. Real time interchange with communication partners
in Paris and Sydney is more seductive than interchange with someone down
on 20th Street. Nonetheless, there are important cultural and artistic
telecommunication issues that can be investigated in local situations.
Eventually, artists will need to sort this out and to explore telecommunications
art in local areas if the conceptual focus does not require a wider geographic
Future Possiblities: Telecommunications offers a fertile ground for artistic
exploration. Other computer based technologies eventually will converge with
it in intriguing ways that invite artistic comment. Here is a sampling of
some of these convergences. For more details on these, see my book Introduction
to Multimedia Design (Wilson, Prentice Hall, 1991).
Artificially intelligent agents: The computer world still continues to work
on development of computer programs that can simulate sophisticated human
intelligence. The rapidly expanding access to information via telecommunications
and computerized archives threatens to overwhelm us by its sheer volume.
Futurists propose the development of computerized "agents" to solve this
problem. These agents will be sophisticated intelligent programs that can
be trained to be aware of our personalized interests and can parse the immense
flow of material coming over telecom links to identify things we might want
to look into more. Artists can serve important purposes by helping to design
Artificially intelligent telecommunication partners: One often knows very
little about the person at the other end of a telecom link. The challenge
to develop artificially intelligent voice response programs that can "fool"
callers into thinking there is a real person on the other end poses invites
Groupware: Local computers are joined together into local area networks (LAN's)
and then these are linked together across geographic distances by
telecommunications. Developers are busy creating business oriented "groupware"
that facilitates collaboration on projects such as architectural design or
editing. People all over the world can conceivably work on the same problem
together as though they were in the same place. The developers are discovering,
however, that little is known about how collaboration can be facilitated
in mediated telecom linked environments for example, what protocols
are effective for letting several people work simultaneously on the same
visual display Creation of these systems cries out for the participation
Telepresence and shared virtual worlds: Inventors are working hard on developing
virtual reality systems. In these a user puts on position-sensitive goggles
that create the illusion of being in an artificial world by causing 3-D computer
images to track the movement of the head and data gloves that cause a simulated
hand in the virtual world image display to mimic the movement of the user's
hands and fingers. Because of the linkage of sensors to imagery and sound,
one can get a fairly realistic feeling of exploring the artificial world.
Connection of these virtual reality systems to telecommunications opens up
even more possibilities. With appropriate sensors and robotic effectors one
can experience telepresence that is, one can manipulate real objects
at a distance by acting in a virtual world proxy. Local hand actions viewed
in the display get translated into real actions on real objects far away.
For example, NASA is proposing to develop space station repair robots that
will be controlled by someone on earth in a virtual reality system. Another
possibility is that two people in geographically remote locations can
simultaneously explore the same real or virtual worlds through
telecommunications. Artists should be at the forefront of exploring these
Telecom art will grow increasingly important as the world becomes more
interdepedent and everyday life comes to depend even more on telecommunications
technology. Artists can help to explore the frontiers of this technology
and its implications. To be effective in reflecting on these trends and in
demonstrating new roles for artists, the art produced must be as strong and
conceptually focused as possible.