The question on why the conversation went quiet is a good one. I’ve been puzzled that many of those who agreed to contribute have not done so.
For myself, I can explain my silence. I’ve been thinking. It seems to me that there have been two meanings of the word “network” in use here.
One meaning applies to art works that use and mirror networked systems. Examples would be Nam June Paik’s spectacular use of television networks in projects such as the 1984 television project titled “Good Morning, Mr. Orwell,” the elegant 1969 exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago titled “Art by Telephone,” or my 1973 mail art exhibition at the Joslyn Art Museum titled “Omaha Flow Systems.”
The other meaning is that of networks in the larger sense of ongoing systems that permit interactions of many kinds – networks such as postal systems, the World Wide Web, the Internet, or the global telephone network, as well as networks fornews transmission, publications, or regular social and economic interaction. This is the kind of network that I was referring to in my somewhat pessimistic statement about the failure of artists to generate durable, functioning networks.
On February 7, Johannes Birringer asked me about a comment in an earlier post. I had written, “most of the projects, networks, and systems that artists try to build fail. I wanted to know why, and how to do better. This led me to questions in humanbehavior, sociology, and economics. I found general history and world history useful in examining how people have addressed different kinds of issues at other times and places.”
Johannes wrote, “nothing could be further from the truth I think, it surprises me really that you claim this overwhelming failure, Ken, which is historically not accurate at all I'd think. (well, maybe I should speak from my perspective: most of theprojects and networks that I tried to help build and sustain did work, and even if there are adaptations and modifications needed, they can be accomplished). I am sure many here know examples of organizational networks that worked.”
What I meant, though, was not specific projects or art works using networks, but actual network systems that thrive and develop for longer than a year or two.
Any network can be made to function if one pours enough resources and funds in. The challenge is to develop networks that generate true networks effects, becoming more valuable and more effective as more nodes affiliate. Examples of networks that function and grow successfully have – at times – included the telephone and telegraph systems, canal networks, railroad networks prior to the advent oftrucking and then cheap air transport.
Robert Filliou and George Brecht’s concept of The Eternal Network was a concept of community, not a concept for an art work. Projects such as Art’s Birthday continue and flourish – but these use a network, they are not in themselves networks, and the constituencies and communities that generate them change, die, and flourish through revivals rather than the continuity the describes a network.
Johannes asked, “What did you have in mind, Ken? what projects, networks and systems?” I’d feel inappropriate describing the particular details of projects and systems that don’t work or didn’t. There is too little time and room for a robust, detailed analysis in a list conversation such as this. In a conversation where key participants are unwilling to post a first entry, I’m not prepared to launch a sociological and economic analysis of projects to which, in many respects, I was and remain sympathetic.
If artists have indeed created social and economic networks that function for more than short periods supported by massive external subsidies, it would be interesting toknow of them.
In 2005, The MIT Press published Anne-Marie Chandler and Norie Neumark’s book At A Distance: Precursors to Internet Art and Activism. I wrote a chapter for the book titled “The Wealth and Poverty of Networks.” This chapter describes some of the issues that I feel describe networks, and I give examples of networks that succeeded and failed.
Interested list members can download a PDF copy of the chapter – produced with permission of the publisher – at URL:
One aspect of all networks is that they are lodged in a culture and a technological era. They are also subject to the laws of biology, chemistry, and physics. Therefore, allnetworks eventually vanish. The Sumerian civilization began nearly 8,000 years ago. A king named Culgi who rule 4,000 years ago was quite proud of his sophisticated network of roads with a postal service and rest stops:
“I, Culgi, the mighty king, superior to all, strengthened the roads, put in order the highways of the Land. I marked out the double-hour distances, built there lodging houses. I planted gardens by their side and established resting-places, andinstalled in those places experienced men. Whichever direction one comes from, one can refresh oneself at their cool sides; and the traveller who reaches nightfall on the road can seek haven there as in a well-built city.”
The Sumerian road system went the way of Ramses II and his works – as Shelley wrote, “Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away.” One expects that Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System will follow, along with most networks we humans have built.
The main difference between these and the networks I noted is that they flourished longer by giving rise to successful network effects with a smaller proportional inflow of external energy applied relative to the economic and social valuethey spin off.
For now, I’m happy to make “The Wealth and Poverty of Networks” available at:
Ken Friedman, PhD, DSc (hc), FDRS | University Distinguished Professor | Swinburne University of Technology | Melbourne, Australia | [log in to unmask] | Mobile +61 404 830 462 | Home Page http://www.swinburne.edu.au/design/people/Professor-Ken-Friedman-ID22.html<http://www.swinburne.edu.au/design>
Guest Professor | College of Design and Innovation | Tongji University | Shanghai, China