It was twenty-five years ago today… Imagologies at the ICA

Image for post
Image for post

In 1994 the ICA played host to the world’s first ‘webcast’ of a live event when the Intellectuals and the New Media debate, hosted to launch Esa Saarinen and Mark Taylor’s book Imagologies(Routledge, London, 1993), was relayed online. This is my version of what happened that evening. Others are available.

It’s April 29th 1994 and I am in a van on the way to London having just liberated a few tens of thousands of pounds of expensive computing kit from the company I work for in Cambridge, in the name of art.

It’s legitimate, mostly, in that nobody will ask me why I did it as long as it’s all returned by morning and still works, and I might even get thanked for extracting the contents of the training room and moving it the Institute for Contemporary Arts if the project actually comes together and generates some interest in this ‘Internet’ thing.

Because tonight, for one night only, a group of Cambridge’s finest net pioneers — back in the day when being online at all made you a ‘pioneer’ — are going to put the ICA on the web and host what turns out to be (one of) the first events that takes place simultaneously online and offline, as we take the debate accompanying the launch of the book ‘Imagologies’ in the ICA’s Nash Room and project it into cyberspace.

Well, if cyberspace isn’t ‘lines of non-light ranged the mind’ but a website with live updates, some audio files, and an interactive text-based MOO that lets anyone around the world with a net connection join in the debate ‘in the room’. It’s a start.

The kit is needed to make this happen because in 1994 the ICA’s “new media centre” is three years away ( https://www.designweek.co.uk/ica-opens-new-media-centre/) and there isn’t a lot of kit there. Fortunately the Director of Talks, Alan Green, has kindly (or recklessly) agreed to let me have the space next door to the Nash Room to create a pop-up cybercafe plugged into an ISDN line that he promises me is live, and my employer PIPEX has a load of kit including a bunch of network capable PCs (with CRT monitors and Windows 3.11 for Workgroups), a router and an ISDN connection that, if properly configured, will give us all we need to hurl tonight’s debate online.

I’m accompanied by a bunch of reprobates from PIPEX, CityScape and Metaverse, among them Tony Jewell, Simon Appleton, Bernard Jauregui, Lynne Hearnden, Paul Smith… if you were there remind me. Around 5pm we turn up at the PIPEX office on the Cambridge Science Park and load the kit — there are no forms to fill in, no security guards to worry about — and drive to London in a car and van.

Arriving at Carlton House Terrace around the back of the ICA we unload, head upstairs and get started making plugging things in to make a local network, and getting the ISDN router to link us to the PIPEX backbone. In my memory it all just works. Part of me thinks that’s implausible, but back in the day things often did just work, if only because of our belief in the new worlds we were conjuring up.

We have arrived as the ICA team are setting up for the real event, a debate to mark the UK launch of the book Imagologies, written by two philosophers — Esa Saarinen from Finland and Mark C Taylor from the US and inspired by their attempt to teach a class in the US and Finland simultaneously using network tools. The blurb says: “When the world is wired, nothing remains the same. To explore the new electronic frontier with Taylor and Saarinen is to see the world anew. A revolutionary period needs a revolutionary book” and we have arrived to give this revolutionary book a revolutionary space in which to reach out to the world.

The talk has been organised by Adrian Driscoll from Routledge, and he is expecting us, though he doesn’t really know what to expect and I can see his surprise at the rather random collection of people that turns up and starts carrying hardware into the room.

Later we meet the panel: Esa Saarinen, Sadie Plant, John Wyver and John Browning, and tell them what we’re up to, and they seem happy enough. All are familiar enough with the network and its capabliities to be happy experimenting, though I suspect they all wonder if any of it will have any real impact. That’s ok — I’m thinking the same.

They are going to get on with being a panel while we are next door with an audio feed, and the intention is to let the conversation run in the usual way, but to make it appear online in some way, and to invite the online participants to take part too, representing them in the room.

In 1994 this doesn’t mean streaming video and live chat — it means a web page built by Tony that lets us capture the debate as it happens and type a summary online. It doesn’t even mean streaming audio — this is before even RealAudio has emerged — and so we’re recording the discussion in ten minute chunks on a Unix laptop called a SPARCBook (of fond memory) and uploading it using FTP to our server so that people can listen in sections.

The main interactive element is a MOO, a text-based virtual reality, built and managed for us by Simon Appleton. This offers a ‘virual ICA’ where remote users can log in and interact with us and each other — we are transcribing the debate as it happens into the MOO.

So our ‘live’ event is a regularly updated webpage, a periodic dump of the audio, and a text-only model of the ICA. It could be nothing, but as we’re getting ready to start co-author Mark Taylor joins the MOO from the US, along with some of his students, and we realise that this has become real.

During the debate questions come in online and one of us goes next door to the Nash Room and intervenes from the online sphere, feeding answers and comments back. Now we have a feedback loop, and in that moment we’ve created something that has not existed before — an event that takes place in the newly emerging liminal space between online and offline, between here and there, and which offers a new way to be present. Not all the voices in the room are in the room; not everyone listening is there solely to listen; and a new set of possiblilites have emerged.

But that’s what I think now. That night, we’re just pleased it works and that we can have some fun with the technology. So later, when I’m back in the car and we’re on our way back, I don’t reflect on what a major breakthrough we have made in making the web more visible and the internet more accessible. Because although it was an exciting time and we enjoyed yourselves it didn’t feel that we we we shaping the Internet — we were just doing something that had newly become possible.

Which, of course, was and remains the point.

Later we did some other stuff: a daily report from the first World Wide Web Conference in Geneva http://thebillblog.com/index.php/2014/03/16/it-was-twenty-years-ago-in-may/; the first website for the Edinburgh Fringe, complete with a popup cybercafe, daily updates with material from the Guardian and Observer; the first website for an elected politician in Europe (Anne Campbell, MP); sites for the Cambridge Folk Festival and Comic Relief; even a failed attempt to do a live video relay between Cambridge and the ICA to perform a distributed two-handed play about the failures of communication (it didn’t work because we couldn’t get the audio to work); and more. The group of us in Cambridge in the mid-90’s were at the centre of something and by then we knew it.

But I will always remember standing outside the PIPEX office in the Science Park as we loaded the kit and set off for London and not feeling as if we were doing anything particularly unusual. We had simply realised that something was possible, and decided to do it. Sometimes that’s what revolutions feel like.

And twenty-five years later I’m still in touch with most of those involved in some way, keeping the network alive.

ENDS

Here’s the announcement

https://groups.google.com/forum/#!original/uk.net/aUKDFXtx8pQ/AYrH1h1yb4wJ

Announcing the forthcoming Net-Event at London’s Institute of Contemporary

Arts

URL: http://www.cityscape.co.uk/ica/

_Intellectuals and the New Media_

As part of the “Towards the Aesthetics of the Future”

series at the ICA, there will be a talk entitled

“Intellectuals and the New Media”, on Friday, April the

29th.

To coincide with this, CityScape and Unipalm will

demonstrate one vision of the future of book, by holding

a live, World Wide Web, publishing event. The aim will be

to produce a resume of the talk, as it happens, and

publish these pages onto the Internet, via the Web. At

the end of the talk we will attach sound files of the

complete discussions. The aim is to demonstrate the power

of — how a document can be viewed all over the planet,

within minutes of it being created, without the need for

paper, printing or distribution. If this is successful,

we hope to do a regular series of live Internet Events at

the ICA

_A Technical Description_

Firstly, the most obvious problem was that the ICA

currently have no form of Internet connectivity. Unipalm

and CityScape will run an ISDN line into the allocated

room, and connect it via an ISDN modem and router to the

PIPEX PoP in London. Onto this network we will attach a

Tadpole SparcBook, and a number of PCs running Mosaic for

demonstration purposes. While the talk is taking place,

an audio feed into the SparcBook will create the sound

file ready for attaching at the end of discussion. At

the same time, notes will be taken on the discussion, and

converted into HTML, slotted into templates, and then

transferred to CityScape’s server in Cambridge, where

they will then be ‘live’, and accessible on the Internet.

There’s a video, it seems… will try to find

http://bufvc.ac.uk/dvdfind/index.php/title/10738

Written by

I'm a hack and pundit

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store