Since meeting in 1975, Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz have focused their collaborative art career on developing new and alternative structures for video as an interactive communication form. Under their organizational moniker of Mobile Image, the pair have created three major works, Satellite Arts Project (1977), Hole-In-Space (1980) and Electronic Cafe (1984) [see photo captions for descriptions], as well as numerous smaller projects. Their sophisticated knowledge of satellite telecommunications has made them sought-after consultants in the field and their research has resulted in numerous contributions to the technology. They combine the technological and sociological possibilities of two-way communications with artistic sensibility to create elegant models of the way things could be. These "models," a term they prefer to "artworks," serve not only as a vision of how telecommunications could serve humanity but also put forward some provocative notions of the future and function of the artist.
Gene Youngblood has been a
writer, lecturer and teacher on the subject of art and new technology
for 17 years. In 1970 he authored Expanded Cinema, the first book
about video as an artistic medium. Today he is considered one of the most
informed and articulate theorists of media art and politics. His theory
of the "creative conversation" is an inspiring vision of the
role of the artist in society. 1
SHERRIE RABINOWITZ: When Kit and I first met it was in Paris. I'd been invited over and I was introduced to him as the person who knows everything about ze video in France, in Paris.
KIT GALLOWAY: Bit of an exaggeration.
SR: Before we met I
was working in San Francisco and helped start Optic Nerve, a group there,
and Kit was working in Europe with the Video Heads. Both of us through
our experiences had come to two realizations. One is that the power of
television is its ability to be live, to support real-time conversation
independent of geography. Number two was a sense of the way television
is experienced, the way it's taken in, this wash of images with nobody
really remembering the context of any particular image. Television is
an image environment and that's how you have to understand it. Making
tapes didn't make sense because it wasn't affecting the context or the
KG: Living in Europe
I could see what effect television was having on different countries,
reading all the material at UNESCO back when satellites were beginning
to appear and were seen as a weapon against illiteracy. I was seeing how
most of the world apart from the United States had an international policy
for telecommunications. But the United States, under the guise of "free
flow of information," was putting forward a policy of first-come,
first-served, screw you if you can't get up there and park a satellite.
Satellite Arts Project: A Space With No Geographical Boundaries, 1977. In collaboration with NASA, the world's first interactive composite-image satellite dance performance. Using the U.S.-Canadian CTS satellite, dancers located 3000 miles apart at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Maryland and the Educational TV Center, Menlo Park, California were electronically composited into a single image that was displayed on monitors at each location, creating a "space with no-geographical boundaries" or virtual space in which the live performance took place. Performance includes the first satellite time-delay feedback dance; three location live-feed composite performance; flutist Paul Horn playing with his time echo. July performance and three-day performance in November. Pictured: The center dancer, Mitsuko Mitsueda, is in Maryland, keyed into the west coast location to dance with her partners Keija Kimura and Soto Hoffman in California.
SR: It's still the most sophisticated. And it's only been in the past few years that people have come to appreciate what it is. It's still not been duplicated.
HIGH PERFORMANCE: How did your projects develop?
KG: We came back here with the idea that we would work domestically, doing model projects, and then, when we had the credentials, to move out internationally.
SR: We did a number of projects-largescale ones like Satellite Arts, Hole-In-Space and Electronic Cafe and smaller ones that had a different intensity, laboratory things.
KG: The first project was called the Satellite Arts Project.
SR: When we first did Satellite Arts nobody was interested in satellites, everybody was interested in, I don't know, video art. It took a long time. And now others have caught up. We always approached the image as a place. To our way of thinking, the essence, the magic is this ability to carry a living event and then interconnect with satellites to connect places over vast distances. When we started, and even now, there was no aesthetic approach to this. Businesses used teleconferencing, but the aesthetics of what that connection is, is a whole new reality that hasn't been explored. In a sense it's a meta-design. It's looking at the live image in telecommunications as part of a grander structure.
KG: You just don't go out, which is relatively easy to do, and rent satellite time and do something that would be of any significant contribution outside of the context of ignorance. There's a great context of ignorance both in the industry and in the art world as to the intrinsic nature of this medium. We focus on the living event, not being too concerned with whether it's artlike or not. We don't produce artifacts, we produce living events that take place over a period of time, to facilitate a quality of human to human interaction.
GENE YOUNGBLOOD: When video first started there were three directions that it took, all simultaneously. One was "artist's video," that is, people like Bruce Nauman and Vito Acconci, who came from the art world, using video to document their art practices. Then there was what is called, for lack of a better term, "electronic video," that is, the exploration of the essence of the medium, represented by people like the Vasulkas. Then there was "political video," guerrilla television and so on, which was essentially a documentary tradition. But that excluded this whole other world of live interconnection, which is what Kit and Sherrie represent. It's an important direction.
KG: Other artists have accessed satellite technology but look at what Douglas Davis has done with his access, or Nam June Paik more recently. Doug's pieces have been very sort of "artist using a satellite with a written scenario," like a theater piece that is all scripted out and some interaction is then portrayed during the access of this technology. It's still held within the context of control.
SR: One of the essences of our work is scale. When you galvanize that much technology and that many resources it's not like an artist working in a garrett. As soon as you work with telecommunications, a satellite's part of your structure, as is the society around you. You have to deal with NASA and Western Union to access your satellite time. You have to deal with where the satellite comes in, you have to deal with the real thing, and it's expensive. So the idea of doing something that's self-focused just doesn't seem to be a very ecological political use of the medium. You can't deal with this technology without dealing with it politically.
GY: It really pushes
up against a question of how far an artist is willing to go in the direction
of not being an artist, giving up the ego identification with the product.
That's a central issue with all this. Everybody knows that people in power
can use this technology to put on a spectacle, we see it every day. So
the fact that all artist could raise the money to do this is not really
a revelation. It doesn't constitute a revolutionary use of the medium.
But if somebody were to set up a system and then turn it over to people,
like Kit and Sherrie do, nobody else does that, nobody. So who in our
society is going to do that? The artist as traditionally understood won't
HP: I'm very intrigued with this idea of using art to empower other people instead of using it to empower yourself.
SR: I don't see the way we create our pieces as based solely on the fact that you have to empower people. The way we embrace the issue is pretty classically art. If you define the aesthetic of the medium by defining what the essence and integrity of that medium is, then good art in the sense of telecommunications-means that you create a situation that has to be some kind of communication between people in order to maximize what that technology can do. If you're just scripting from one side to the other side, you don't need a satellite, you can run two tapes. There has to be that quality of tension that defines what communication is, that higher level, which would be, as Gene points out, the conversation. And unless you create that tension in the work, then you're not really looking at the qualities of the medium, or the qualities of the art.
HP: Were you aware of a television program called "The Peoples Summit" that featured a live studio audience in Seattle hosted by Phil Donahue meeting with a live studio audience in Leningrad hosted by Vladimir Posner?
KG: The Phil and Vlad show.
SR: That's who we're starting to work with now, those and others. Not Donahue.
KG: We believe very much in the principle of informal networking, which is aligned with the new phenomenon of citizen diplomacy. Now when you put that in the context of a nationally-rated syndicated program like Donahue, then again it becomes a spectacle, and it's not really an informal network. When that happened I felt that it was very much a disaster, illconceived, ill-executed. The consequences were not all that good. Yet in a context of ignorance even a gesture in that direction is somewhat healing, or an improvement over what existed before.
SR: Everybody, including the Russians, is ready for something more interesting, more cultural integration between the United States and the Soviet Union and also cultural integration between all of us and the electronic culture.
HP: On the order of Hole-In-Space?
KG: There's interest in that. Our work with Electronic Cafe was carried to the Soviet Union. They looked at what we did here in Los Angeles as an international model for cross-cultural communications systems. I could show you newspaper articles from Pravda where they took the concept and totally embraced it. They made an Electronic Cafe in Moscow, did some slow-scan and voice-only connections with San Francisco.
SR: One of the things we're working towards now is the composite-image performance similar to what we did in '77 (Satellite Arts). We'll have performers in the Soviet Union and performers in the U.S. meet in this composite-image space, this virtual space with no geographical boundaries, and in that space they'll perform together and dance together. Dance and performance doesn't need to be translated. When you start communicating and being able to touch and join bodies it creates a whole other context.
KG: All this sounds very strange, very experiential, but if you do this you realize the communication's power of being able to mix space or exchange spaces.
GY: People have kind of a phantom limb sensation, it's actually visceral.
SR: The video image becomes the real architecture for the performance because the image is a place. It's a real place and your image is your ambassador, and your two ambassadors meet in the image. If you have a split screen, that defines the kind of relationship that can take place. If you have an image mix or a key, other relationships are possible. So it incorporates all the video effects that are used in traditional video art, but it's a live place. It becomes visual architecture.
KG: A lot of work was done discovering things like reversing the scan on the image so that when the dancer moved to the right, the image moved to the right instead of the left, and all the special technology that surrounded the performers to facilitate this interaction. A lot of research and development went into how fast movement or activities could take place with the satellite time delay being present.
GY: It needs to be pointed out that they're doing the same thing that other people have gotten international recognition for in video, the Vasulkas for example. Most of their life has been this kind of research and development. They enter the digital domain and find out what's possible and they're internationally renowned for doing so. Kit and Sherrie are doing the same thing. These are new frontiers and you can't just step in and make art automatically, first you have to research and find out what's there, what's possible, what are the consequences. I think it's interesting that everyone recognized that as a value in video, but it has not been recognized so much in telecommunications. Nam June and Doug Davis just step in and make precious works of art immediately and there's no sense of exploration or research and development.
KG: Nam June did Good Morning Mr. Orwell. He took a lot of the work from Satellite Arts without discussing it with us and gave us a credit on the end. He had Merce Cunningham in some studio in New York stumbling in front of a TV monitor that hadn't had the scan reversed making a fool out of himself by his standards, certainly.
GY: This addresses the postmodern notion that what artists do now is not attach themselves to any particular medium. They just float amongst whatever mediums are appropriate to whatever they want to say. However, when it comes to creating on this kind of scale, you can't do that. There is only a limited set of technologies that operate at that scale and if you want to do something meaningful, something new, you have to know that tech, you have to get access to it over extended periods of time, you have to devote your life to it. You cannot come in as a dilettante or aesthete.
KG: We're not about the whole "access" mentality, which often doesn't really cultivate work. It's like running out, driving a stake in uncharted territory and saying I was here first.
SR: The art world in general is pretty impotent. I think part of the reason is the whole sense of scale of contemporary society, the scale at which we can destroy ourselves, the little chips that hold how many pieces of information we don't even know, genetic engineering. Really, all the new technological developments are out of human scale. The more that we explore space the more we feel lonely. It seems to us that the only real power is to work at the same scale that contemporary society is working on. If you don't create on the same scale that you can destroy, then art is rendered impotent.
GY: This is what I meant earlier about the metadesigner and the artist together. The artist is the one who can make the most powerful, the most moving representations of our life situation. Yet the forms that have traditionally been available to the art world just don't meet the scale of the problem. This raises the question of what is political art. My own opinion is that there is no such thing as political art. There is art about political issues. But only situations are political, only circumstances are political. So if you set up a space bridge or a hole in space or an Electronic Cafe as a situation, as a circumstance that spans boundaries of people, and then you put those poignant, powerful representations of the artist in there, then you've got both: art that addresses a political issue within a political situation. The whole thing becomes highly political and powerful.
HP: Do you grapple with the issue that some people bring up, such as Godfrey Reggio, the director of Koyaanisqatsi, that technology is inherently evil?
GY: To me it's beneath an answer actually. It's like this book Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television 2 --remember that book? These views are what is called "vitalism." It's like saying in protein there is life. It's voodoo. It doesn't contribute anything constructive to what we have to do.
KG: It doesn't contribute anything, in fact, it's backpedaling. The fact is if we don't learn how to use this technology to manage the human and material resources of this planet we're screwed. End of story. Fade to black.
HP: What are your realistic goals with this technology?
KG: We're not going to realize our vision in our lifetime, I don't have that much expectation, but somebody has to be creating models to liberate people's imaginations so they can apply them to hope and the possibility of redefining these technologies. We've gotten to a point where we've realized the limits of models. We want to take the revolution into the marketplace. We've designed a cost-effective, kickass, multimedia, cross-cultural teleconferencing terminal that will allow communities of common concern to link up and evolve collectively.
HP: Are you talking about providing a set of instructions? Are you talking about providing actual hardware?
KG: We're looking at turn-key hardware solutions. There have been all these attempts at networking cross culturally but all of them take place using a different set of technologies. Some are cost effective, but most are made by the teleconferencing industry that's marketing to the Fortune 500, so the markup is like tens of thousands of dollars over the value that's really in the box. We see the possibility of creating a turn-key system that would create a compatibility standard for a multimedia teleconferencing terminal that provides fax, slow-scan, fullmotion video, written annotations on pictures, pictorial data management, text conferencing. We can see putting that together at a price that would fall into the small organization price range. That's what we're looking at right now. The creation of a pilot network is our first priority because people must have the opportunity to experience systems like this or like Electronic Cafe to fully realize the indispensable value of technology such as this.
SR: The whole nature of this so-called information and communications society is really dependent on people synthesizing and being creative. It's almost as if capitalism and communism are turning in upon themselves and possibly meeting in a new place. It's determined in part by the progression of the technology, which is becoming decentralized, which is becoming dependent on creating this information economy. How do you create information? When you get right down to it information is based at some point on somebody's discovery or somebody's synthesis or somebody's research and development.
GY: I'd like to address this. We've been talking about the communications revolution. People take this in one of two ways: either it's some kind of '60s, hippie, utopian idealism or it's a marketing scam by industry-you know, "The communication revolution is here, and our product ..." There has been no middle ground discourse between those extremes. I would just like to point out that any interesting thing that people like Kit and Sherrie would do with this technology would by definition have to be a model of what a communications revolution would be like if there were one. McLuhan said, "The medium is the message." What's the medium? Depending on who you talk to, the medium is television, the medium is this and that. But I always understood it this way: the medium is a principle, it's not a piece of hardware. The medium is the principle of centralized, one-way, mass-audience communication. We happen to do that through broadcast TV, but you can do it through cable TV, you can do it through the telephone lines. That's the medium, and that medium is the message. It determines that what will be said over a centralized, one-way, mass-audience communications system will have to be said within a very narrow framework of what is possible, what will be accepted by such a mass audience. That is the medium. A revolution would be to invert that principle through whatever technologies permit you to invert it: a decentralized, two-way, special-audience system. Art-world theorists who criticize anyone who talks about this would have you think that this all was attempted in the '60s and failed! This is bullshit! The only thing that happened in the '60s is that we got the vaguest notion that this was even something important to think about. We woke up in the '60s and now we're starting to take the first steps to see what direction that inversion might lie in. Do we think it'll happen? That's completely beside the point! The point is that this is the only meaningful thing to do with our lives because we know that no other institutions are capable of addressing the problem.
KG: The trouble is there haven't been enough participants to make a major shift that would land on the cover of Time magazine. What we've been trying to do is to get it out into public spaces so that people participate in these environments. We create the context and invite people to come in and do their laundry, hang up their clothes, live there for a while and see what it's like. To begin to recognize the value of it and to acculturate it for a period of time. Redefine themselves through it.
SR: In an art context
what we've been doing is perfectly logical. If the
art world has problems with it it's because that logic challenges the
validity of the art institutions for this new practice in contemporary
Electronic Cafe, July-Sept. 1984. Called "One of the most innovative projects of the Los Angeles Olympic Arts Festival," officially commissioned as an Olympic Arts Festival Project by the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Los Angeles. Electronic Cafe linked MOCA and five ethnically diverse communities of Los Angeles through a state-of-the-art telecommunications computer database and dial-up image bank designed as a cross-cultural, multi-lingual network of "creative conversation." From MOCA downtown, and the real cafes located in the Korean community, Hispanic community, black community and beach communities of Los Angeles, people separated by distance could send and receive slow-scan video images, draw or write together with an electronic writing tablet, print hard-copy pictures with the video printer, enter information or ideas in the computer database and retrieve it with Community Memory(TM) keyword search, and store or retrieve images on a videodisc recorder which held 20,000 images. Electronic Cafe ran six hours a day, six days a week for seven weeks. Pictured: The Electronic Cafe table at Ana Maria's Restaurant in East Los Angeles.
HP: What about the communications possibilities of videotapes now that every- body's got a VCR?
KG: The great thing about tape rentals is that they're just knocking the side out of broadcast television and cable. It's just knocking them for a loop.
GY: Mailing around personal videotapes and the home VCR network is revolutionary, but the real issue is to have an alternative social world that doesn't stop, that is continuous the way television is. Television is a social world, it's there 24 hours a day, it has a history. They're called series, you know. The news develops a history: "You know what happened yesterday, here's the update," and so on. So it's a world. The point is to have this alternative social world that's always there and never stops and is always validating itself as a possible social world. And then along side of that are all these other supplementary "periodic" media. I can go to the store and get a tape just the same as I can go to the store and get Mother Jones or Newsweek. But if it were only these periodic media, this would not constitute an alternative social world of any significant power. So they're complementary.
HP: The Electronic Cafe ran for over seven weeks. Why couldn't it have just kept running indefinitely?
KG: Nobody wanted it to come down, but we couldn't perpetuate it because it was not cost effective. We put it together with available technology and it wasn't the system to perpetuate. Now we've got a system that's cost effective.
SR: One obvious idea that we've thought about is a new electronic museum. It's a way to link people, places and art works in this new environment.
GY: Electronic Cafe created this new inversion of the art and life situation. The longer it ran the more it just became life, right? In a sense you could say the less it became art, the more it became life. Or the shorter it ran the more it became art, but the less it would be doing what it ought to really be doing, which is becoming life.
KG: Just look at this
as interaction with a system. It's looking at creativity applied across
the boards and at different levels. Even though Electronic Cafe
had to go away, it's successful in that it empowered people in those communities
with enough experience to describe what is desirable or what they would
want as a system. It's politically hot, culturally hot. It created a lot
of travel, an exchange between these communities, and used Los Angeles
as a global model. When you look at the archiving aspect of it, this is
important because the face of Los Angeles, the demographics, the dynamics
of it are so wild that the face of history is going to change so fast
that there's not going to be much of a record of it. But when you have
environments where people can come and register their opinions and ideas
and show their stuff and accomplishments-little kids breakdancing-whatever
it happened to be, all that can be there to be looked at under the context
of a social space, it's not private.
GY: If this isn't political I don't know what is. They gave people a living experience of one of the hottest political issues of our time-how can we move into electronic space and still be anonymous? Are we going to be anonymous? Is anyone even talking about that? Has the issue even come up? No. You gotta join The Source, you got to give all your data to Compuserve. Anonymity is a possibility that could just vanish, except for those people in East L.A. now who've had that experience, who are therefore much hipper than probably most of the consultants to AT&T who never thought...
Aesthetic Research in Tele-communications (ART-COM), 1982
2 Jerry Mander, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, New York: William Morrow, 1978.
A SELECTIVE RESUME OF MOBILE IMAGE (Galloway/Rabinowitz)
Biennale of Venice, Italy, 1986. Part of the "Art, technology and Informatics" Exhibition. Three evenings of slow-scan video transmitted from Mobile Image's studio in Santa Monica, California, and projected live on large screens in the exhibition hall in Venice, Italy.
Electronic Cafe, July-Sept. 1984.
Professor/lnstructors, University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), 1983. School of Motion Picture/Television. Graduate level, course: "Experimental TV."
Aesthetic Research in Tele-communications (ART-COM), Loyola Marymount University, 1982. Designed and taught full semester multi-disciplinary laboratory examining the effects, potentials and future of interactive video.
Hole-In-Space, 1981. 30-minute award-winning documentary.
Hole-In-Space: A Public Communications Sculpture, 1980.
Satellite Arts Project, 1978. 30-minute award winning documentary.
Satellite Arts Project, 1977.
Exhibitions and lectures include: Venice Biennale, Italy; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Museum of Modern Art, New York; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Long Beach Museum of Art; The Kitchen, New York; American Film Institute, Los Angeles; Tokyo Video Festival; American Center, Paris; Avignon International Arts Festival .
Grants and support include: Times Mirror Corp., Museum of Contemporary Art, Honeywell Corp., National Endowment for the Arts, American Film Institute, Sony Corp.. NASA, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Western Union, General Electric.