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 so on.

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 contributions.

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 achievement.
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.
Thank you