I met Robert Filliou somewhere in the 1970s, could have been Vancouver or Toronto. He had a lot of presence in his unassuming way. When he made reference to the Eternal Network I thought at the time he was referring to the spirit of curiosity and creativity that will always glow or bubble up or erupt around the planet. No matter how sour and stiff and roboticized our societies would become, there was always hope in youth and all those who refuse to stop playing. Filliou was one who joked around as if his and everyone else’s life depended on a sense of irreverence and frivolity and invention. I was fortunate to know Clive Robertson who had managed to fix and firm up Filliou’s spirit in media, video and other deceptively modest media, including audiocassette editions, and later audio CDs.
I understood the practicality of Filliou’s obsession with travel and connection and networking because I had interned as a boy sending out messages in Morse code as a ham radio operator from my bedroom in a small town in Michigan. I spent even more time DXing short wave and medium wave radio stations around the world and setting up ‘tapespondence’ networks through which locally originated reel-to-reel audio recordings were exchanged through the postal networks. We didn’t have long-distance telecom access in late 1950s or early 1960s (the use of telephones was financially prohibitive). I figured out how to find out what was going on everywhere else and to manifest my own voice and participate in and invent global networks because I had to in order to survive. In rural Michigan there were few cultural options at the time: hunting and fishing, sports, car culture, alcohol, pop music and three television networks. I didn’t know there were people like Robert Filliou and horizontal networks like Fluxus forming at that time, but I was starving for information and desperate to find others who weren’t satisfied with the mass media culture of Ed Sullivan or Elvis Presley or Walter Cronkite.
Later I would realize that Filliou and artists of like-minds would understand that the sparks of curiosity and discovery could be amplified and highlighted through networks. I saw artist-run centres spring up and floods of mail art begin to circulate through and beyond this constellation of alternative institutions in parallel to commercial galleries and museums. Horizontality flattened verticality and became for many an ideal. Postal networks gave way to bicycled videocassettes and slow-scan television and photocopy and fax and primitive e-mail systems. Telephony, just a whisper of what it would become, was enlarging at an incomprehensible rate, kicked into light speed by analogue to digital conversion. Satellites and later fibre-optic undersea cables fired this mushrooming connectivity. The idea of ‘communities of interest’ became more and more apparent and necessary. Communities of common interests were forming concretely, suddenly, without the necessity of physical, in the flesh, communities. Kindred spirits were connecting ethereally and interactivity was arising like Brownian motion around the foundations, the ruins, of mass media. The phenomena of distributed authorship were becoming tangible. The economy of goods and services was shifting into the information economy—economies based on scarcity were collapsing as gift economies were emerging in rich cultures of abundance.
The weak signals of unpopular culture gained enough strength to form clear alternatives to mainstream cultures through networked exchanges. The electronic and eventually digital telecommunication networks accrued in layers of webs over obscure galleries and clubs, universities and town halls, those places were people actually meet. Everyone aspired to create difference. Anomaly was actually the norm for a while. But as culture was atomized into rivers and seas of individual voices (as we have become full transceiver cultures), differences have become less significant and people have become less interested in being different and more interested in being the same. Don’t ask me why, I just know that this is true. Young people want to be part of a set of emergent identical behaviors, moving this way and that like schools of fish. Maybe this results from more and more consistent prompts from the mediated environment--a kind of engineered roboticism, the behavioral response to endlessly consistent instruction sets--or maybe there is simply too much risk associated with being different? (maybe it is only acceptable to internalize, to ‘secretize’ 21st century individualism?) One thing for sure, the connective tissues of networks are far more elaborate and comprehensive than ever before. We are flush with channels for trading messages. Telecom is simultaneously personal and institutional and evolving at unprecedented speed. Kindred spirits are no longer isolated by distance and time. Kindred spirits find themselves jam packed in overcrowded networks.
Where is Robert Filliou when we need him? We need artists with miners’ hats, the helmets with probing lights mounted on them, to comb the clogged networks for signs of copious curiosity and playfulness. (Baseline inventiveness.) Where are those flaunting ignorance for a chance to celebrate what they don’t know? Risky takers of chance. Lovely eccentrics. People who make our head hurt just being themselves. I think things have changed more than we think they have over the past fifty or sixty years. The kids are playing in seclusion with intelligent artifacts and far too many people are humanizing cats and watching dogs speaking in affected voices in the English language on their Apple telephones.
Tom Sherman is an artist and writer with a history of involvement with networks. He is a professor in the Department of Transmedia at Syracuse University in central New York. http://vpa.syr.edu/directory/tom-sherman