Book launch of
‘At a Distance’ Theo van Leeuwen
Four weeks ago I returned to Australia
after more than 12 years away.
A month or so before that I received an email from Norie and Annmarie
asking me to launch their book.
That was a real pleasure. It made
me feel welcome. So thank you.
It was even more of a pleasure to receive and especially read the book
itself. I quickly realized it was not at all going to be difficult to
say lots of nice things about it. It is an absolutely fascinating book
and a book that keeps you thinking about its subject matter well after
you’ve finished it.
Most of all it is an antidote against
the dominant commonsense of technological determinism.
We hear all the time how the internet (and digital technology generally)
have ‘led to’ new forms of art as artists engaged with its
crucial features – de-localized interactivity, networking, de-materialization
of the ‘text’ or the ‘work’, virtuality and
And we hear also how the internet
has ‘opened up’ new avenues for activism, for subversive
publication and interaction. Annmarie and Norie’s book shows that
artists – and activists – were already doing all these things,
were using older technologies to explore these very issues when these
new technologies were but a twinkle in the eye of their inventors. Hence
the subtitle: precursors of art and activism on the internet.
In his great book of the 1930s,
Technics and Civilization, Lewis Mumford talked about what he called
the cultural preparation of new technologies.
Long before new technologies find
their place in the mainstream of social life, he said, often long before
they are even invented, they already have their precursors in culture.
These precursors can be of different kinds – they can be ideas,
theories, philosophies. They can be works of art or music.
But they can also be – and
that’s what Mumford stressed in particular - all kinds of seemingly
marginal, whimsical, easily dismissable fashions, games, pastimes, crazes
and so on, which fascinate people without it necessarily being clear
to anyone why, and certainly without anyone having any idea what they
will eventually lead to, what they are the precursors of.
Mumford’s key example was the clock, but his idea equally applied
to technologies of information and communication.
To the way 18th century owners
of country estates would darken a top floor room to create a camera
obscura so their guests could look at a small upside down picture of
the landscape rather than at the landscape itself.
To the zootropes and praxinoscopes
and other toys for producing moving pictures which could be found in
every 19th century bourgeois children’s room in long before we
had the movies.
What Annmarie and Norie have explored in their book is the cultural
preparation for the internet and digital technology as it has taken
place throughout the 20th century, from the Futurists onwards.
And in the 20th century it has
of course been the artistic avant garde, often whimsical and playful,
which has played a role of absolute key importance in this process.
Such work continues to be dismissed as a waste of tax payers money and
as artists having lost the plot once they abandoned figurative oil painting.
Some reviews of the Biennale which I have just read in Australian newspapers
continues this debunking tradition
So it is important that this book makes the case for artists as profound,
indeed visionary thinkers and as co-creators of the world to come. Or
at least that is what they have been in the 20th century and what I
for one hope they will be able to continue to be.In this book we learn,
in fascinating detail, how artists have used mail, the postal services
to de-localize interactivity, to create international networks that
make it possible for artists (and people interested in art) to interact
and to distribute information in ways that herald the internet by being
more personal, even intimate, and by-passing the mass media which exclude
or marginalize what they consider too new or specialized.
We learn how artists have de-materialized
the ‘text’ or ‘work’, by moving from the production
of objects to the creation of ‘performances’, interactions,
involvements, experiences, often whimsical or bizarre – yet also
serious – as in the work of mail artist and performance artist
Anna Freud Banana.
We learn how they have moved from
working in the context of specific art forms to flexible ‘multi-media’
approaches well before ‘interactive multimedia’ technology
came on the scene, for instance in the Fluxus movement.
And we learn how they move from
an emphasis on the individual artist to team work and participation
often across distance, as shown in a chapter on the work of John Bischoff
and others in automatic and networked music composition.
I could easily go on like this, because At a Distance is a very rich
book. Let me instead more briefly mention another few aspects of the
book that I think are really important.
One is the link that we have in the subtitle between art and activism.
It is an important aspect of avantgarde art, expressed in its manifestos
as well as its practices, and it plays a role throughout the book, but
is perhaps most striking in the chapter on Paulo Bruscky and Eduardo
Kac, who worked in Brazil during the very repressive era of the 1970s,
and who, as a result of creating alternative networks and means of communication,
again with mail art, but also photocopiers, fax machines etc, were jailed
several times, received death threats, and so on.
Another point I want to make is about the way this book blends practice
and theory. Theorists (well, some theorists anyway) are like the artists
discussed in this book in that they can also be precursors, also cultural
preparers for new inventions and technologies, whether by discursively
destroying the old ones or heralding the new ones. And in the 20th century
avant-garde art and theory have often had a special relationship. Annmarie
and Norie’s book has contributions by theorists as well as artists
(and some people are both of course) so that (1) the more theoretical
contributions can help us see the artists as thinkers and co-creators
of social change, and (2) so that the book’s descriptions of the
work of the artists can concretize and document and enrich its theoretical
Finally the book is international in its orientation. It shows the interconnectedness
of the work of those visionary artists in the US, Europe, Australia,
South America, Japan – and more. I know from experience that it
is hard to set up a truly global network of contributors in enterprises
of this kind, so to have done this successfully is I think a quite significant
The result of that achievement is a fascinating book. A big book, almost
500 pages, but one that is actually a pleasure to read, not least because
of its rhythm of alternating between different kinds of contributions,
theoretical and practical, interviews and essays, and so on.
That is probably enough from me.
It is a true pleasure to launch
this book. I wish it well on its way into the world. I hope it will
inspired many readers to think and teach and write about artists as
thinkers and co-creators of this world we live in, also or maybe especially
when they seem a marginal ‘fringe’ – if only we could
see it. And this book helps you see it.