A personal history of the development of new media art in the UK from the day the internet spoke its first words ;

“Below is a record of the first message ever sent over the ARPANET. It took place at 22:30 hours on October 29, 1969. This record is an excerpt from the "IMP Log" that we kept at UCLA. I was supervising the student/programmer Charley Kline (CSK) and we set up a message transmission to go from the UCLA SDS Sigma 7 Host computer to the SRI SDS 940 Host computer. The transmission itself was simply to "login" to SRI from UCLA. We succeeded in transmitting the "l" and the "o" and then the system crashed! Hence, the first message on the Internet was "lo"! We were able to do the full login about an hour later.”[1]

Although we seek to locate significant epochal dates from which to extract histories, that search is often in vain as these histories usually creep slowly into being, growing up from the ground beneath our feet in many ways and places. However, as a starting point for a history of new media art in the UK the first message sent on the internet is perhaps as good as any. Certainly, it wasn’t an event that happened in the UK, but whatever the origins of new media work it is clear that any UK element is just one part of a global phenomenon triggered as much by the inherent connectivity of its elements as by any single one of those elements.   

The appropriateness of this late 60s starting point is reinforced by the fact that it also encompasses what was the first significant exhibition of computer art in the UK -  the famous cybernetic Serendipity show curated by Jasia Reichardt at the ICA in London in October 1968. Although this event was something of a lonely pioneer for a number of years as any subsequent show on this scale was not to appear in the UK for quite sometime. As the US Time Magazine reported in October 1968 ‘In seven weeks, it has packed in 40,000 London art lovers, schoolboys, mathematicians and Chelsea old-age pensioners’[2].

In fact, for some years after this point any UK activity had a fairly low profile with people such as Roy Ascott working internationally, but few specific highlights until a point in the early 1990s when the World Wide Web became a popular reality and a number of institutions started to emerge in the UK who would coalesce the curiosity of artists interest in these new technologies into the bones of a practice. Inequitable as it may be, it might be appropriate to pin the second flag of UK new media practice again in London where designers operating in and around a number of Universities and Art Schools began to release some of their doodles into the public domain, hosted in the form of the pristine magical form of the newly minted CD-ROM. Perhaps inspired by the short-lived and long-lamented Voyager company of New York, who had published a range of artists’ works on CD-ROM in the late 1980s (including work by Pedro Meyer, Laurie Anderson and The Residents)[3] these artists took their cue from the technical design knowledge they had developed in using these new tools to create works that were rich in technical experimentation, but blissfully outside of  the prevailing trends in gallery based contemporary art. The Anti-Rom, which spun out of the work of designers associated with the design agency Tomato in 1994 was one of the first to circulate, while alongside this the impressive interactive music works by  AudioRom and Peter Gabriel’s Xplora set the tone for design-led experimental creativity. The following year the Toybox project, shown at Tate Liverpool and published in 1995 as part of the Video Positive festival in that city, emerged as the first published anthology of artists working in the UK with new media. It featured early works by Thomson & Craighead, Nina Pope and Julie Myers amongst the 19 works featured on the disk. (Incidently the Tate Liverpool was also the publisher of the first of what would become a plethora of strategy documents about the impact of new technology on the gallery and museum sector when it released ‘Very Spaghetti’ in 1991, a report documenting the creation of ‘Sculpture Interactive’, Roy Stringer’s laserdisc based interactive work).  The mysterious and enigmatic CD-ROM, hailed at the time as the almost boundless platform for data creativity became the platform for further works, most notably the powerful ‘Rehearsal of Memory’ by Graham Harwood, made following a residency at Liverpool’s notorious Ashworth High Security Hospital [4] and the Electric Art series curated by the Film and Video Umbrella in London and published by ellipsis. This series featured monographic CD-ROM disks featuring work by Simon Biggs, Jane Prophet, Stephen Partridge, Ellard & Johnstone and myself.

Although this form of published work seemed very attractive at the time for producers, many of these works suffered the same fate as early video art in that they struggled to find an appropriate context in which to be used and understood. Audiences were unfamiliar with the codes of the technology and ill at ease with the invisible depths of the work – the intangible scale and complexity of many of the works meant that they were illegible to many users and the risk of paying £20 to buy one of these unseen works on CD-ROM proved to be too great for many of the published works released to a wider market. However, the growth of galleries willing to present video installation works during the 90s and the increasing sophistication of presentation technologies like data projectors meant that early in the decade works were beginning to appear in galleries which were wholly computer-based.

The inevitable effect of Moore’s Law [5] meant that computers themselves were becoming cheaper and more powerful and also more discrete and reliable for gallery-based works. Simon Biggs presented ‘Alchemy’ a laserdisc-based interactive work in the Tate Gallery Liverpool as part of Video Positive 91 and I first presented a fully computer-based artwork in the Bluecoat Gallery in Liverpool in 1992 (The Picture That Ate My Soul), which used a £200 Commodore Amiga computer which was robust and disposable enough to last a full 6 week exhibition run.  This was echoed in festivals and events that started to pop-up across the country in which the sight of a Mac Classic or Atari became increasingly common. Key events took place in the capital (Hedgehogs and Megabytes at the ICA, 1993 ) and across the UK (Digital Dreams in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1993; Lovebytes annually from 1994 in Sheffield) But perhaps the first major gallery survey of new media work in the UK came together in 1994 in an exhibition at the Tramway Gallery in Glasgow. Called V-Topia, this exhibition was curated by Charles Esche, Eddie Berg and Steven Bode who separately and together had been championing the work of artists using technological media for a few years prior to this. This show featured 7 works in the cavernous spaces of the Tramway by UK artists such as Susan Collins and Richard Land alongside US-based artists Graham Weinbren and Lynne Herschman.

The growth of artists working with new media and of venues willing to show their work at this time would probably not have been possible without a new generation of writers, curators and arts officers who worked to promote and critique this new work. At the Arts Council of Great Britain Lisa Haskel became the first officer with a specific brief for new media work after having worked at Moviola in Liverpool and the ICA in London before going on to run the innovative ‘Tech-Nicks’ peripatetic media lab [6]. Other key individuals such as Beryl Graham (who curated the ‘Serious Games’ exhibition at the Laing Gallery in Newcastle in 1996, later touring to the Barbican in London), Sarah Cook, Peter Ride and John Wyver (of Illuminations TV) raised the level of the debate and the profile of the work through conferences,  exhibitions and television programmes, while Frank Boyd at Artec in London established a  production space for artists as part of a European Funded training initiative in Islington and FACT in Liverpool nurtured a range of commissions and support services that grew the profile and capacity of artists working in this area.

For many, however, the aspirations attached to new media work only started to become fulfilled when the opportunity to create work in the on-line environment became a reality. Although artists such as Paul Sermon with his 1992 'Telematic Dreaming' project, and Susan Collins with her richly entertaining public projection piece ‘In Conversation’ had worked extensively in linking together separate locations through direct point-to-point telecommunications using state of the art technology such as ISDN, others were eagerly awaiting the demotic proliferation of the world wide web to create works that were simultaneously everywhere and anywhere.  In the UK the web arrived in 1992/3 when the first Mosaic browser became available and individual artists and designers got to grips with the arcane, but relatively simple, coding requirements of the hypertext transfer mark-up language (html). Many of those who were quickest to take advantage of this new tool used it to generate works with a provocative edge, using the ethical playfulness of the cultural hacker to create works in which the activism of tactical media is played out in the novel domain of the on-line world. One of the early adopters and most prolific artists at this time was Heath Bunting who, working with a number of others on the irational.org domain, created a large number of simple but powerfully effective pieces whose belligerent ebullience belied their conceptual power, technical skill and originality. Other artists created distinct and powerful real-time works (Richard Wright's 'Bank of Time' or Lise Autogena and Joshua Portway's 'Stock Market Planetarium') in which the data flow of the internet or of one’s own computer provided the content for a formal manifestation and commentary of the social and political employment of the on-line environment. Artists such as Graham Harwood worked with others to create works which examined the structure of the web itself (the I/O/D Webstalker project) or commented on the use of the corporate website as the fashionable tool of authentic self-promotion (the radical reworking of the Tate website [7]). However, many of these artists in the UK, like others across the globe, created works which were constructed in the quickly obsolescent material of the web and over time have paid the price as codes, protocols and servers were superseded or went off-line and became inaccessible. Many of the most important early works disappearing before any archiving method was available or feasible. Heath Bunting himself has created a video work entitled 'Memorial Stone (2006)' in which he simply describes to camera many of his works which are either no longer available or were out of time. In his own words 'all my work is falling apart......this video is an attempt to document the ruins and remains of my internet work' [8].

Alongside these critiques of the emerging on-line world, other artists were immersed in the possibilities of artificial intelligence or multi-user environments and created works that were prescient statements of future global phenomena. The world of on-line gaming was presaged in 1995 by Jane Prophet and Gordon Selley's 'Technosphere' in which users could log-on to create 'living' creatures in an on-line digital ecology [9]. Populated at any one time by between 4,000 and 20,000 creatures created  from a kit of design options, the project ran until 2002 before going off-line. The innovative 'Sodaplay' environment [10], created by the London design/art group SODA, created a cleverly coded toolkit through which users could log-on to create anthropomorphic machines that both demonstrated fundamental principles of physical science and created a world full of strange and wonderful creatures. The work of the London-based performance group ‘Blast Theory’ took the concept of the on-line gaming environment into the arena of the public spectacle with their ‘Can You See Me Now’ piece [11], in which the movements of live agents on the streets of Sheffield were controlled by remote players in an attempt to spot or be spotted in a bloodless real world facsimile of brutal on-line games like ‘Badge of Honour’ or ‘Halo’.

While new media has evolved in the UK through a number of diverse forms of practice it has for much of its recent history retained a coherence and distinctiveness partly through the distance that remains between it and the burgeoning UK Contemporary Art scene. The critiques of the MIT-based Russian Lev Manovich have provided a good commentary for the evolution of this form of practice and his binary separation of the world of contemporary culture into the two mutually distinct worlds of ‘Turingland’ and Duchampland’ [12] seems to hold special reference in the UK. Although this seems likely to change as, like other forms of media arts such as video and photography, new media practice seeks refuge in the more certain and secure arenas of the gallery or the design studio, the institutional roles and the conventions of the curator and the audience seem to remain under question with much of the work, both explicitly and implicitly via the mechanisms through which the work is often created and seen. Projects like the powerful ‘tenantspin’ on-line channel [13], seeded by the Danish artist group Superflex for Video Positive 2000 in Liverpool, remain strong in terms of engagement, conceptual rigour and investment, but also successfully retain a foot in both of Manovich’s camps, perhaps defiantly indicating through actions rather than words, that the power of the work lies less in its associated rhetoric and more in its experience, defying convention and orthodoxy to create works that provide clear views through the windows opened by technological innovation into modes of expression for which no history dominates.

[1] http://www.cs.ucla.edu/~lk/LK/Inet/1stmesg.html

[2] http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,838821,00.html

[3] http://www.nytimes.com/1994/12/13/science/cd-rom-review-disks-for-mac-voyager-still-leads.html

[4] http://www.mongrel.org.uk/rehearsal

[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moore's_law

[6] http://mediaartprojects.org.uk/reports/tech_nicks/

[7] http://www.tate.org.uk/netart/mongrel/home/default.htm

[8] http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=5033341190992459787

[9] http://www.janeprophet.com/technoweb.html

[10] http://sodaplay.com/

[11] http://www.blasttheory.co.uk/bt/work_cysmn.html

[12] http://www.rhizome.org/discuss/view/28877l

[13] http://www.tenantspin.org/

Essay commissioned for engage journal Oct 2009


© Clive Gillman