Communications Revolution: The Myth and Its Inversion

Juris Boiko

On September 15, 1987, Reuters in London came out with a scandalous announcement: unknown perpetrators had broken into the NASA Space Physics Analysis Network (SPAN), which linked 1600 scientific research institutes across the world, and had robbed its secret data bank. In the evening of that very same day it turned out that the scandal was rather exaggerated, that the obtained information was not at all secret and the perpetrators, hackers from Hamburg, who belonged to the aptly named organization Chaos Computer Club had not known what exactly to do with their bounty and, not being able to predict the reaction of the authorities, had themselves offered to improve the protection systems of the data bases.

This historical incident in the not-so-long lifespan of artificial intelligence could be considered a chance occurrence and remembered as an amusing fact if the outlines of the problems it suddenly highlighted had not revealed the immense dimensions of hitherto unacknowledged and unappreciated phenomena.

Until September 15, 1987, no legal code of any country had accounted for the possibility of such misdemeanors in the area of communications.  It means that the electronic space of communications was yet to be acknowledged as politically capacious, i.e. dangerous, risky or desirable; i.e. it had not been seen as a seat of power.  At that very moment it also became abundantly clear that communication structures (including mass media) are closely bound with the structures of power, which operate with information as an alibi in their constantly expanding process of dissimulation of reality, where the carrier of ideology is first of all the myth of the revolution of communications.

We have been living under the sway of this myth for half a century. Its pre-history began in 1923 in the United States, when a Russian émigré by the name of Vladimir K. Zworykin took out a patent on an electronic device with which a moving picture could be read. The gadget, which Dr. Zworykin called an iconoscope, caught the attention of RCA (Radio Cooperation of America) in the person of David Sarnoff, as well as several other American radio corporations. Yet it took fifteen years for the first component of a contemporary TV set, the cathode ray tube, to be built through communal effort.

The first television broadcast took place on April 30, 1939. In his speech at the unveiling ceremony, David Sarnoff said: "It is with a feeling of humbleness that I come to this moment of announcing the birth of a new art so important in its implication that it is bound to affect all society. It is an art which shines like a torch of hope in the troubled world. It is a creative force which we must learn to utilize for the benefit of all mankind.”[1]

Ten days later, the first regular television broadcasts were launched in the United States. Now we can attest to the soundness of Sarnoff's prophecy: television has thoroughly changed society and its models of perception, erasing the boundaries between past and present, fiction and reality, private and social life; yes, even between such fundamental oppositions in the consciousness of man as ‘I and the other’ or ‘subject and object’. I hasten to add, however, that Sarnoff was wrong in the use of the word ‘art’ in his speech: art was not born then – for technical reasons, so to speak. Up to now, television has failed to do what, in its day, was done by cinematography, i.e. to become aware of its limits; to create a form that could be called art. What was created in those "turbulent times" was telesophy – the new, 20th century creed with which all denominations, nations and parties have to make their peace and which allows us to say, in paraphrasing Master Eckhart, that television is the eye with which man sees himself. Since television exists, God has gone blind.

It may be that God has also been deaf since radio or the telephone came into being, yet there is something that separates television from both these media. The amount of information carried by the moving image in television is incomparably greater than what is transmitted by the radio, moreover, it concerns not only the primitive information usually understood by the word 'content' but by the incessant avalanche of cathode rays where the viewer himself, or rather his shadow, serves as the screen. With the quantity of information growing radically, the quality of communication also undergoes radical change. In fact, it is no longer possible to talk about communication, for the task of television is no longer "to create an image of reality but to conceal it. Or, to put it in stricter terms:  instead of providing an image of reality it permeates it and takes over the functions of constituting it and becomes the dispositive of reality."[2]

The first to try to lift the transparent veil of mystery covering the actual face of television out of curiosity were artists, the Fluxus apologists Wolf Vostell and Nam June Paik, famous in the late 1950s and early 1960s in Germany and subsequently all over the world. In 1963, Nam June Paik exhibited 13 TV sets with electronically deformed images on their screens and, by separating images from the content of the programming, revealed the absolute senselessness of television. On October 4, 1965, Paik used one of the very first hand-held Sony video cameras to record Pope John's visit to New York City. That date is considered the birthday of video art. From the very first, video art took an opposing stance to visual convention in general and television in particular. Paik is also the author of the term 'vidiotism'. “It would be a good thing if we could become completely aware of our condition: we live in an era of information overabundance which means that it is much more difficult to recall information rather than transmit it," Paik said.[3] In 1974 Paik created the video installation TV Buddha, where reality, without any delay in time, was projected on the screen of a monitor. This closed-circuit effect was one of the most outstanding discoveries of video art of the 1970s. Encountering this technical trick, the viewer becomes a part of it: he is an observer observing himself and how he is observing himself.

Where is reality here and where is the illusion?

Since antiquity, the meaning of the word 'art' was based on the antagonism between reality and illusion. When this antagonism has been destroyed, it is too complicated to use this word in some undefinable second meaning whose essence is much closer to the word 'technique' in the Heideggerian sense for "…the essence of technology is itself nothing technological". And: “ is the way in which the truth reveals itself as existing.”[4]

Gene Youngblood, whose articles have inspired this brief essay would have added that "it is not our task to find a new definition for the notion of 'art'. Our task is to change the course of art and redirect its energy to a different channel."[5]

In 1977, two American artists, Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz created, in collaboration with NASA, the Satellite Arts Project. With the help of the American and Canadian satellite Hermes CTS, they fused two images, which in reality were separated by a distance of 5000 km. In this project, video became the stage for a performance, which existed outside any geographical boundaries, exclusively in virtual space. Dancers who participated in the performance had to adjust to the two-dimensional plane without any objective reality: their partner's movements were projected with a delay of a quarter of a second – the exact time needed for a signal to travel, through the mirror of the satellite, the 90,000 km distance from one coast of the United States to the other.

The next work by Galloway and Rabinowitz, created in 1980, was called Hole in Space, which was essentially a unique example of design. Three evenings two sets of video equipment ran for two hours – one in a Broadway store in Los Angeles and the other at the Lincoln Center in New York – joined by the video channel of a satellite. The image on screen was actual size. People in New York could communicate with people in Los Angeles or at least observe the observers observing them.  

The 1985 project Light Transition was an immense electronic sculpture: cameras set up by two different oceans, showing a split screen of a sunset and a moonrise. In its relation to the environment, this work to some degree was reminiscent of Christo's deeply poetic yet monumental installations, as well as of the prehistoric monuments of Stonehenge and the Temple of Karnak.

Electronic Café by Galloway and Rabinowitz was completed during the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. It was a communications hub between a real-time multimedia computer and the environment, plus a bank of images – a technologically state-of-the-art (for that time) laboratory for creative work in a communications network. The lab was furnished, first of all, with public metamedia, the instruments for the simulation of sound, image and text, and second, with public metamedia that provided for the transmission of information through the dimensions of space and time with the help of telecommunications systems. Thus an electronic unit was created with relative simultaneity, making possible that supreme registered or historically validated. If form of communication, conversation.

Conversations are closed creative processes with which we create realities about which we talk by way of talking about them; as a result, fraternities of realities are born. The viewer as an autonomous individual is a myth; there are only fraternities of viewers or communities of realities whose individual member can talk about things (art, science, religion) – they create things whereof they speak because they are speaking of them. All these fraternities of realities are autonomous, self-constituting and self-organizing self-governments. Each strictly autonomous structure is closed from the point of view of organization: it forms in repeated cyclical communications, which could be called conversations. A fraternity cannot be separated from the conversations it has created. Telecommunications provide the opportunities for geographically independent fraternities to exist, yet satellite and telephone channels lack memory: they operate only in real time and the 'virtual fraternities’ that are thereby created can exist only during the time of transmission. Unless such transmission is continuous and intrusive – as are the mass media transmissions – then it is politically senseless. But, if the computer is used as a component of conversation, certain principles of social organization apply: a continuous Universe is created, which is independent of the transmission and possibly becomes a political unit of a new kind – an independent fraternity in historical continuity, which, thanks to the computer, can be reached anywhere in the world.  Such is the essence of the computer in general and of the Electronic Café in particular.  

Using as points of reference the works and ideas of Galloway and Rabinowitz, Youngblood finds the intersection between the vectors of contemporary art and modern technologies in the currently most politically influential sphere, communications, where said vectors essentially lose their former content and, as interpreted by Youngblood, acquire a new definition – metadesign. As two parallels reaching in the same direction, telesophy and metadesign are contrasting notions, which do not deny each other, however. This provides for a certain amount of differentiation in different social strata, which will be determined solely by the qualities of the individual will. The result of such differentiation provides for the generation of totally new hierarchical structures, which probably will rob of any content the hitherto existing forms of state and models of power (including the democratic one), which, like poltergeists, are sustained by our excessively serious attitudes toward them.[6]

The postmodern world or worlds, which we have created as conversations, about which we talk, thus making them extant, do not have to become better, wiser or more beautiful – it, or they, must become increasingly impossible. But that is not the objective: it is a task to be accomplished.



[1] A. Simmons,Fernsehen und Kunstgeschichtlicher Abris einer unwahrscheinlichen Allianz” // Kunst und Video. Köln: DuMont, 1983, S. 14.–15.

[2] F. Heubach, “Die verinnerlichte Abbildung oder das Subjekt als Bildträger” // Kunst und Video. Köln: DuMont, 1983, S. 63.

[3] Nam June Paik // Kunst und Video. Köln: DuMont, 1983, S. 179.

[4] M. Heidegger, “Die Frage nach der Technik” // Vorträge und Aufsätze. Teil I. Pfullingen, Neske. 1967. S. 5, 23.

[5] G. Youngblood, “Metadesign” // Kunstforum International. Bd. 98, S. 82.

[6] G. Youngblood, “Der Virtuelle Raum” // Ars Electronica, 1986, S. 297.