Art Works as Organic Communication Systems

Anna Couey

Published in Connectivity: Art and Interactive Telecommunications, a special issue of Leonardo (Vol. 24, No. 2) edited by Roy Ascott and Carl Eugene Loeffler, 1991.

© 1991 ISAST

The creative use of networks makes them organisms. The work is never in a state of completion, how could it be so? Telematique is a decentralising medium; its metaphor is that of a web or net in which there is no centre, or hierarchy, no top nor bottom. It breaks the boundaries not only of the insular individual but of institutions, territories and time zones. To engage in telematic communication is to be once everywhere and nowhere. In this it is subversive. It subverts the idea of authorship bound up within the solitary individual. It subverts the idea of individual ownership of the works of imagination. It replaces the bricks and mortar of institutions of culture and learning with an invisible college and a floating museum the reach of which is always expanding to include new possibilities of mind and new intimations of reality.

-Roy Ascott

The communities engendered via computer networks are organisms. Like physical communities they evolve and are influenced and defined through user participation. Like physical organisms, the extent of their impact on the ecosystem depends on their interaction with other organisms. Creative use of computer networks implies, from a user standpoint, experimentation with forms of communication and user interaction. From a systems standpoint, creative networking involves investigations into levels of user interaction in virtual space, community building and cross-pollination, or the creation of links between previously disparate communities. As organic communications systems, telematic art can initiate previously unknown behaviors and, over time, create operative new realities. Its meaning lies not in what it is (identity or objectification), but in what it effects.

Ideas gain validity in their practice, use and integration into the ecosystem. In the interest of representing activity as a means of reflecting, evaluating and generating ideas, following is a case study, or portrait, of the evolution of a perpetual computer networking organism forming through the creative investigation of constructs, processes and geographies of communication. Given the format of hard-copy publications, it is a fixed representation, covering the organism's evolution from 1986 to 1990. The organism is called the Art Com Electronic Network (ACEN). It was originally conceived by Carl Eugene Loeffler and Fred Truck, originally realized and structured in collaboration with Nancy Frank, Donna Hall, Darlene Tong, Lorna Truck, myself and the Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link (WELL), especially Matthew McClure and John Coate. As soon as ACEN became a working system, it became (and continues to be) defined by its users and the scope of its distribution.


ACEN is an ongoing investigation of interactive electronic communications media as a means toward new culture building on a personal basis. As an art system, it questions applications of cultural hierarchy: the role of artist as individual genius, of art works (as a noun), of the public as viewers of art. It creates art as process (art works as a verb or, at least, actualized upon the users' demand), and exposes viewers as artists, artists as instigators of art applications. It strongly underscores the concept of art = communication, by definition (co = with) a participatory process.

The following represent fragments of activity on ACEN, selected for and described in relation to their specific investigations of the creative process, the art object, and the roles of audience and artist in electronic space. These constructs are listed in order of chronological origination to illustrate the non-linear (yet often related) and evolving sensibilities towards electronic networking. Some of the projects themselves have evolved in structure over the years; they are described in their current form.

Art Com Magazine (electronic edition, 1986-)
This is currently a monthly periodical whose form and content (within the context of contemporary art and new communications technologies) is determined by rotating guest editors. Guest editorship is open, and proposals are encouraged. Art Com Magazine is available in ACEN's Newstand and in alt.artcom, an internationally distributed USENET newsgroup; it is also electronically mailed free of charge upon request, both to ACEN readers, and to readers on other networks. The magazine also encourages feedback, and issues that raise other concerns become bulletin board topics for further discussion. Art Com Magazine attempts to realize publishing as a creative (art publishing as art work) and communicative medium shaped by the community that reads it.

Planetary Network
This project for the Venice Biennale (1986) was conceived by Roy Ascott. Nodes of artists (in Austria, Australia, Canada, France, Italy, the United States and Wales) created and sent news (open to interpretation) via ARTEX (the internationally accessed electronic mailbox service for artists on the I.P. Sharp Associates network, initiated by Robert Adrian in 1980) and slow-scan television to each other and for public display in Venice. As one of the nodes, ACEN created a link with ARTEX and opened a bulletin board topic for the posting of news, inviting contributions from whomever desired to participate. News contributions came not only from professional artists, but from professional futurists, writers, engineers, computer programmers, system operators and media activists, all of whom became exhibiting artists in the prestigious Venice Biennale. The definition of 'artist' in this way becomes 'participant' and is not restricted to specific professions. 'Art work' becomes the work of many individuals.

The First Meeting of the Satie Society
Conceived by John Cage and realized through the application of programs written at Cage's request by Jim Rosenberg and Andrew Culver (1985-86), this homage to the composer Erik Satie consisted of texts (presents) by writers who knew and loved Satie's work (or who might have if they had existed in a time period thar enabled them to know it), restructured by two computer programs. The texts were written by Henry David Thoreau, James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, Chris Mann, Marshall McLuhan and John Cage, and also included selections from The Book of Genesis; there was also a "response" by Satie, consisting of selected quotes. One of the computer programs, MESOLIST, by Jim Rosenberg created mesostics on Satie's name and works from lines of text selected by IC a program by Andrew Culver that replicated the chance processes of the I Ching. The reordering of the texts was intended to create a global rather than linear writing. The First Meeting of the Satie Society has also been performed live; on view in electronic space (ACEN's art gallery) it becomes a work made accessible for anyone to use -- "We are getting rid of ownership, substituting use"(1). As a 'meeting' the work conjoins minds of different geographies and times, much as online communities do. The First Meeting of the Satie Society, while conceptually the work of Cage, was written through the convergence of several humans and software -- and reflects of a multiplicity of (not entirely human) voices. Cage's emphasis on the readers' use of the work points both to the importance of process (that art extends beyond its completion by the artist) and to user participation (in creating additional meanings through use).

The Bad Information Base
Conceived and programmed by Judy Malloy (1986-7), this was originally set up as a bulletin board topic in which Malloy invited users to contribute information that was bad, wrong, silly or subject to misinterpretation. In the process, bad information was contributed by a wide variety of user artists and was shaped not only by their individual imaginations but also by the context of the group, as previous entries inspired new ones. Malloy later organized and programmed the contributions into a database structure, which is accessible in ACEN's art gallery. The Bad Information Base questions the authority of true, definitive databases by purposefully being a database of bad information. By locating the process of information-gathering in a creative context, The Bad Information Base describes information-gathering as art. And, by opening the creative process to an electronic public, it describes as artist those who choose to participate.

Slash or "/": Kinetic Drawing for Word Processor
This work by Stephen Moore (1987) was a 4K slash drawn simply with '/' strokes, stored online, and actualized in kinetic form when a user opened the file. Though low-tech in application, it pointed to creation as being the convergence of artist, software and the realization of the user's choice.

In the Heart of the Machine
Conceived by Dromos Editions (1987- ) this continual work in progress invites readers to submit their biographies for inclusion as characters in a subsequent chapter. The story is shaped by the identity of its readers.

Das Casino
Conceived by Carl Loeffler and Fred Truck (1987-88), this bulletin board topic invited participants to a conceptual game of roulette, winners determined by the spin of a random number-generating computer program. Since losing in electronic space was relatively risk free, bets were limited only by imagination. As the game progressed, winners and losers developed their own virtual characters. They bought each other virtual drinks, virtually flirted and fought. They created a place that was Das Casino, that existed in words. Things happened in Das Casino, and so the topic became a participatory text performance, in which the script evolved collectively through time.

Exquisite Corpse
Conceived and programmed by Gil MinaMora (1988- ), this is a version of the surrealist game to unlock the unconscious, rendered electronic and open to participation. Contributors see the last line of the previous contributors' entry, to which they are invited to add text and/or ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange) graphics. After 69 entries a Corpse is complete, and is displayed in its entirety, a record of its anonymous creators' processes of association.

Art Com Electronic Mall
Conceived by myself, Carl Loeffler and Fred Truck and programmed by Fred Truck (1989- ), this pop virtual representation of a shopping mall is predicated in part on the recognition of electronic space as territory. A mall can be viewed not simply as a construct of capitalist consumption but also as a functional mechanism for cultural production through the dissemination of products. Distribution makes art by making it communicate, by making it accessible. Functionally speaking, the Electronic Mall makes access to contemporary art information and products irrelevant to geographic location and time -- and it employs the technology of computer networking as a distribution venue for art activity. The emall currently contains an art bookstore, art video store, and art software store. Shoppers can browse the aisles, see descriptions of the art products and purchase items online with the checkout cashier. Currently under production by the Normals (aka the Normal Art Group™) is the option of shoplifting at the mall -- at your own risk!

Couey Virtual Museum of Descriptions of Art
Initiated and "curated" by the Normals (1990- ), this is a bulletin board topic of users' descriptions of art works as a museum. Users variously describe their experience of seeing a work of art, or create their own through description. The museum also has featured in-depth descriptions of the works of a single artist. Its collection is determined by what users choose to add to it. The Virtual Museum points to the art work as being that which is communicated -- what the viewers see.


Art effects culture to the extent that it interacts with its society at large, especially if its intent is to evolve participatory cultures. Computer networks are not de facto generators of new realities; the construction of electronic space is determined by the perceptual constructs of their creators and user base, and the flexibility of the system to accomodate evolution. In this context, the structuring and distribution of systems is an integral element of the telematic art process.

From its origination, ACEN has been attentive to its relationship to and location within the ecosystem. It is a personal computer networking system, employing ASCII format standardized text -- it does not depend on users owning specific systems in order to interact. It houses itself on the WELL (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link), an inexpensive, publicly accessible bulletin board system based in Sausalito, California, and linked on a 'near-local-phone' basis across the United States and to 70 countries through long range carriers such as Compuserve Packet Network. The WELL's user community is broad-based, including professional artists as well as individuals of varying creative, progressive, technical and non-technical professions and backgrounds.

ACEN's current evolutionary emphasis is connectivity, the creation of new geography and new cultures through the linking and interaction of internationally dispersed communications nodes. One of the first steps has been to initiate a newsgroup, alt.artcom, on USENET, a network of systems that is fed automatically to 29,000 sites globally and is accessible locally, thus bypassing the often prohibitive expense of accessing internationally diverse nodes. USENET is structured as a distributed conferencing system, providing users with access to participation in global communications. ACEN is also developing mechanisms for data exchange so that projects and information generated on local nodes are reciprocally disseminated across the network. Its concern is to decentralize and broaden communication between diverse cultures and minds (including socio-economic backgrounds, interests, experiences and perspectives) and to explore what can happen with combinations of communities -- what happens, for instance, when farmers in the Midwestern United States discuss with artists political mechanisms for increasing ecological rather than short-term profit farming? Or what happens when Australian aboriginal communities bring their perceptual constructs to the online environment? Or ...?


Being an environment of minds, electronic space can be seen as territory of the imagination. Being public and participatory mental space, it offers the opportunity to investigate possible constructs of collective imagination. In its ideal state, a creative communications system evolves in contrast to the paradigm of art-making that relegates cultural production to a small segment of the population. It is not a 'one-to-many' communications relationship; it is public art because the public makes it. Employing networking technology, it evolves in contrast to the paradigm of mass media. It is predicated on building new ways of being in the world that generate from the perpetual expansion of the territory of mind created by user participation and choice. The extent to which it realizes its idealism is directly based on the extent to which it addresses real issues of participation and access -- issues of economics, language, distribution, politics -- concerning the use and development of technology.


This article is a portrait of art-making that employs technological tools as a means to generate participatory cultures. This art takes as its subject constructs of communication and interaction -- ancient cultural forms, such as storytelling, contemporary social constructs, such as shopping, and virtual community building. Rendered perpetual via computer network, these constructs are not fixed representations, but creative processes that conjoin artist, art work and viewer (now user/participant) in evolving public imagination.


1. John Cage, Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse), (1965) Section I, line 2. Cage included this statement as part of his introduction to The First Meeting of the Satie Society.