Send us your Art’s Birthday presence! Traces of Art’s Birthday networks at the Western Front 1989-2007

WHISPERED:

it all started a 17th of January, one million years ago. 
a man took a dry sponge and dropped it into a bucket full of water. 
who that man was is not important. 
he is dead, but art is alive. 
I mean, let’s keep names out of this.

So goes the story of the origins of Art’s Birthday, a holiday declared by Fluxus artist Robert Filliou in 1963 and celebrated around the world by a loose network of artists and friends to this day. One million years ago art and life were not distinct categories; that is, until the fateful sponge dropped. So Filliou proclaimed: close the schools and the factories for an international celebration! Let the people eat cake and make art! And the next year let it be two days of holiday, then three days, then four, five, six and so on, until every day is Art’s Birthday.

Art’s Birthday is a manifestation of Robert Filliou’s ideal of “permanent creation”: an art practice embedded in and inseparable from practices of daily life. More than a move to release art production and diffusion from the restrictive and competitive institutions of the art world, Filliou believed the notion of permanent creation would saturate life with creative inquiry and interaction while reducing and eventually eliminating the divide between artist and audience. Bound up in the idea of permanent creation was a desire for continual self-renewal through exchange and collaboration. Eventually every day would be Art’s Birthday, and art and life would be completely (re)integrated (speculate as you will on the consequences of eating cake every day). 44 years later, Art’s Birthday often stretches over several days to accommodate time zones and schedules, and provides an excuse to engage in networked activities with a loose, growing group of international artists who participate each year.

as I was saying, at about 10 o’clock, a 17th of January, one million years ago, a man sat alone by the side of a running stream. 
he thought to himself:
where do streams run to, and why?
meaning why do they run.
or why do they run where they run.
that sort of thing.

Upon the closure of their ‘non-shop’ the Cédille qui sourit in southern France, Filliou and George Brecht launched la Fête Permanente. Filliou preferred to call it the Eternal Network in English, which the Western Front’s Hank Bull explains as Filliou’s practice of proposing parallel but differently nuanced concepts in English and French in order to expatiate his ideas. Brecht and Filliou felt that their spirit of collaboration could continue without working together in the same location, and by extension imagined a network as a means of continuing artistic endeavours with others over time and space. They also proposed the Eternal Network as an alternative to notions of an avant-garde—if no one could, at this point, know what everyone everywhere was up to in the art world, there was no method or sense in seeking out the cutting edge. Something happens, and then something happens. In fact, something is always happening. [1] The postal system was initially the pivotal communications conduit through which the Eternal Network could be realized internationally, giving rise to a flurry of correspondence art among a growing number of self-styled artists. Soon all forms of interaction, from in-person exchanges to telephony and even telepathy [2] were appropriated for the task. When the Western Front was founded in 1973, the work of correspondence artists such as Dana Atchley and ideas of artists like Filliou and Ray Johnson were certainly influential to the fledgling centre’s formation, praxis, and trajectory. Filliou was a regular visitor/collaborator with the Western Front for the next decade.

The challenge posed by the Eternal Network is to expand the circle of interactivity and implicate both artist and audience in the creation of art. A signature early Fluxus postal work was initiated by Ben Vautier in 1965, entitled “The Postman’s Choice”. It consisted of a blank postcard with spaces to write addresses and stick stamps on both sides of the card. The sender entered a different address on each side of the card along with the required stamps for each destination, with the final destination to be determined by the postal worker. A whimsical collaborative work ensued, where Vautier had designed certain formal parameters of the work, to which the sender, the postal system, and the receiver contributed. Thus all parties acted as generative nodes in the network to realize the work. Creative exchange via communications media like the post expanded to incorporate evolving telecommunications networks such as early text and e-mail systems, teleconferencing, telefax, radio, slowscan video, and later still audio, video and data exchange through the Internet. A gallery linked to a radio station linked to a café linked to someone’s bedroom.

personally, I once observed a baker at work. 
then a blacksmith and a shoemaker.
at work.
and I noticed that the use of water was essential to their work.
but perhaps what I have noticed is not important.

Filliou visited the Western Front shortly after it’s founding in 1973. The Western Front celebrated its first Art’s Birthday in 1974, and it continues to be a high holiday on the Front’s cultural calendar, with birthday presents in the form of creative gestures and objects being sent to and from friends locally and around the world. Producing a comprehensive account of the Western Front’s activities on the yearly Fluxus holiday of Art’s Birthday is from the outset a fatally flawed enterprise. The networks in which the Western Front took part (and in many cases initiated) were by nature and design both playful and ephemeral, prone to tangents, and constantly shifting, unstable forms. Some participants would cancel (or breakdown) at the last minute, while others showed up unexpectedly in the mix. Though the tasks of organizing far-flung participants, wrangling technology and accessing bandwidth required considerable organization and no small amount of good luck, Western Front events were typically informal in presentation, open to the lately-inspired and the random passer-by alike. One node might fall out of the network only to have another jump in. The formal events have always retained, somewhere, an interactive component that encourages spontaneous addition and excess, so that the events remained open ended; partial to such accident, breakdown, or surprise. For Filliou, life with other people is inherently performative; so when network performances include the making tea, conversing, or blowing your nose in the audience, the full scope of such projects is difficult (if not impossible) to apprehend, and documentation becomes even more elusive.

Furthermore, though one never knows who might be listening to some late-night art on the radio (particularly unlicensed radio), with the advent of online streaming technology and rapid data exchange it became truly impossible to track who in the world might be listening, remixing, or rebroadcasting. In recent years both the Western Front and regular collaborators ORF Kunstradio, Vienna, have endeavoured to post comprehensive listings of participants and activities on Art’s Birthday websites, but there are many more nodes of participants who are linked more peripherally—not to mention Art’s Birthday events of which the Western Front is not even remotely aware. It is also worth emphasizing that creating and maintaining Telematic network connections is a capricious business at best. As Peter Courtemanche notes, some years “we may have spent all of our time just trying to connect (as often happens).”

The Art’s Birthday chronology can never be complete or even truly representational; all it can do is offer traces of activity. Something happens, then something happens. As Filliou reminds us, it is more important to be present. “Now, look at what you’ve done. But perhaps what you have done is not important.” [3]

anyway the 17th goes into the 18th

Hyper Space Radio for Art’s Birthday 1989 connected CiTR radio (101.9FM in Vancouver, an independent radio station at the University of British Columbia) with “Poptart TV” at the Western Front and RADIA FM in Banff, Alberta via teleconferencing for a one-hour broadcast. The participants followed an elusive script that provided cues and times as to when and what to perform. “You get three radios for the price of one, i.e. free!” The Banff Centre for the Arts acted as a hub for telecommunications activities from the late 1980s through to the mid 1990s, focusing primarily on radio and videophone events.

In the early 1990s the Western Front connected to its partners through telephone lines—fax, teleconferencing, videophone (or Slow Scan), as well as providing the in-house cake, jokes, entertainment, and revelry. However, 1991 was characterized by the outbreak of the first Gulf War, with most of the contributions manifesting some kind of protest to the war. “Just before showtime, the Americans started the bombing of Baghdad and our party turned instantly into a protest. We found ourselves in the possession of an international electronic network, just like CNN’s, the important difference being that ours was interactive…Symbolically, this event offered an alternative to the television viewer’s passive frustration.” [4]Though the Art’s Birthday network was far more modest than the totalizing networks of command and control that enabled and reported the Gulf War, it nonetheless posited an alternative, viral appropriation of Telematics as well as human relationships. The Art’s Birthday events from January 1991 turned into “Text, Bombs, and Video Tape,” an exhibition, telecommunications event, and protest held in March. The exhibition was a show in Pittsburgh organized by DAX (digital art exchange) and Carnegie Mellon, while the exchange events of Art’s Birthday included the Western Front, DAX, Van Gogh TV, Interaccess, Banff Centre for the Arts, and Niagra Artists Centre.

then the 19th then the 20th

In 1992, Robert Adrian X was in residence at the Western Front for Art’s Birthday. This event coincided with Radio Rethink, a project at the Banff Centre for the Arts where a large group of artists and theorists were participating in residencies and broadcasting on RADIA 90FM. Also present in the network were Galerie Jacques DonGuy in Paris, Metropophobobia in Pheonix, Electronic Café in Santa Monica, and Jeff Mann at Interaccess in Toronto.

Slow scan with Paris was accomplished using a ROBOT 1200C SSTV unit, originally designed to send video images over shortwave, now adapted for telephone lines. The 1200C could broadcast and receive in colour at frame rates of 12-72 seconds a frame. The more contemporary Videophone sent black and white, lower resolution images at a rate of 8 seconds a frame. Peter Courtemanche remembers the images from Pheonix as brightly lit close-ups accompanied by a heavily effected, barely distinguishable poetry, while the Galerie Jacques DonGuy appeared to be hosting a tea party. These images, refreshed every 20 seconds or so, made a kind of stop-motion animation of the distant locations where people could be seen eating, drinking, joking, performing. A grainy window to other places in the network.

the 21st the 22nd the 23rd the 24th the 25th the 26th the 27th

The late 1970s-early 1980s saw experiments with large-scale international networking projects such as Die Welt in 24 Stunden (the World in 24 Hours, Ars Electronica, 1982), and Weincouver IV (1983), where the Western Front was among the participating nodes, as were artists in Vienna. Hank Bull (from the Western Front) conceived of Wiencouver, an extra-territorial state existing in the networks established during a series of events between artists in Vancouver and Vienna. When Wiencouver was resurrected in the late 1990s through renewed collaborations between the Western Front and Kunstadio in Vienna, one such Wiencouver event was Art’s Birthday 1999.

The Western Front presented 24 Hours of Radio Art for Art’s Birthday on (pirate) Private Radio (89.3FM in Vancouver) in 1996, an event which Anna Friz and Peter Courtemanche decided to revive in 1999 through a joint effort between CiTR and the Western Front. CiTR hosted 24 Hours of Radio Art from midnight to midnight, with the Western Front and Firstfloor-Eastside (Matt Smith) providing audio and video streaming capabilities, thus enabling real-time Internet jams between radio artists (a first for CiTR). The late night madness of art + radio spilled out from the broadcast studio and the two production studios, with artists entangled in gear on every flat surface at the radio station, while down the hallway the encoding computer was set up to send the stream to the Western Front server and out to the ether. 6AM PST found long-timeWiencouver ring leader Hank Bull at the helm of the Art’s Birthday breakfast show engaging in a duet with media theorist Tetsuo Kogawa on the phone from Tokyo; later in the day CiTR programmers Industry and Agriculture jammed with an office full of collaborators at Kunstradio, Vienna. At one point online listeners from pirate Radio 100 in Amsterdam e-mailed to say they were rebroadcasting the jam. The following year CiTR continued the tradition of 24 Hours of Radio Art, so Hank and Patrick Ready were back to roast wieners for breakfast in the studio and improvise with Tetsuo Kogawa on the phone. Other radio jams that day included the hosts of the Noiz Show at CiTR connecting with Kunstradio (with failed connections to Alarm 112 in Copenhagen), and Anna Friz at CiTR connecting with Steve Bates at Videopool, Winnipeg. These collaborations were possible through pre-established friendships and exchanges, but their continued evolution expanded these networks to include younger generations of artists who came to know one another solely through Telematic events. These iterations of Art’s Birthday renewed connections with CiTR that had been dormant for most of the decade. They also implicated the regular volunteer radio programmers at the station, many of whom had little or no radio/art experience per se, but who became very excited to experiment with the studio and their expectations of radio, and to contribute to the Eternal Network through radiophonic creation and exchange.

the 28th the 29th the 30th

In 2004 the Art’s Birthday network included nodes in 13 cities: Vancouver, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Montréal, Québec City, Columbus Ohio, Helsinki, Weimar, Vienna, Melbourne, Sydney and Tokyo. Some of the remote participants were displaced Western Front members like Daniel Joliffe in Ohio or Tagny Duff and myself in Montréal, while others were long-time long distance collaborators such as the Kunstradio crew, Tetsuo Kogawa/Radio Kinesonus in Tokyo, and Toy Satellite in Australia. Some artists chose to engage the trope of the Eternal Network in historical terms: Margaret Dragu (Western Front) and Tagny Duff (Studio XX) exchanged signature gestures culled from the work of mostly Canadian performance artists from the past 30 years across the country via real time audio/video stream.

The Front’s Scrambled Bites new media group residency characterized Art’s Birthday exchanges that year, described by curator Peter Courtemanche as creating “a data stream that received messages from multiple electronic installation and performance works. These messages were mixed together into a single stream on the Internet… composed of numbers relating to audience interaction, temperature, light, wind, and other parameters.” [5] The ‘Scrambler’ stream was in turn sampled by other electronic installations and devices in remote locations, causing them to respond to the incoming data. This allowed for performative actions in one space to trigger physical actions in another—fluctuations in barametric pressure in Helsinki caused robots to move in Vancouver. The stream operated with far less infrastructure than data-heavy audio and video streams, and thus relieved artists and audience from performances revolving around the ubiquitous computer screen. Many of the sensor-driven applications exchanging data through the Scrambler exhibited typical Fluxus prankishness, such as the cake crusher operated by remote sledgehammer hits, the radioactive sponge in a bucket of water courtesy of Alien Productions, Vienna, or Scrambled Bites resident Ken Gregory’s automated martini mixer at Video Pool, Winnipeg.

the 31st of January.

The Western Front hosted Reverie: Noise City for Art’s Birthday 2005—a group residency to create the online infrastructure and inhabitation of a virtual audible city. The interface included various ‘venues’, that could be inhabited by anyone joining the network, and thus provided a convergence point for the otherwise growing yet diffused Art’s Birthday events. This also marked the first year the European Broadasting Union’s Ars Acoustica group formally joined the festivities, bringing with them a network of affiliated state radio stations across Europe; and through the Ars Acoustica group artists were able to access the EBU broadasting satellite. Other nodes included The New Gallery and EMMAX in Calgary, Videopool in Winnipeg, Modern Fuel Gallery in Kingston, Studio XX in Montréal, art@radio in Baltimore, Share New York, Kunstradio in Vienna, MLAB in Helsinki, and Radio Kinesonus in Tokyo. Symphonies of snapping rulers, birthday songs, tuning radios, and popcorn popping spread around the globe.

The following year the Ars Acoustica group proposed TransDadaExpress as the theme to celebrate the 90th anniversary of Dada, and the Western Front participated with an evening of audio in the dark called Inneretina Recital. As the network expands and includes more institutions with social and technological infrastructure, there is also more interest in planning themes to better link the performances and exchanges criss-crossing the hemisphere.

thus time goes by.

The Eternal Network is evident in the actions and exchanges between artists, in the participation of people logging on or attending local events, as well as in the signals of radio stations around the world who broadcast some part of the Art’s Birthday festivities. Thus Eternal Network is more than an metaphorical figure, but a material (if ephemeral) electronic and radiophonic, digital and analogue manifestation. These are not networks of economic trade or political alliance, but are evidence of what Filliou terms the ‘poetical economy’, devoted to experimentation and play. This networking among remote participants is also based on friendship and ongoing social relations, as many artists remain interested and involved, in part, because of face-to-face contact over the years as well as through ongoing mediated dialogue.

Filliou noted that the Eternal Network is not limited to organized events but includes all public life:

“The artist must realize also that he is part of a wider network, La fête permanente, going on around him all the time in all parts of the world. We will advertise also, as alternative performances such things as private parties, weddings, divorces, lawcourts, funerals, factory works, trips around towns in buses…” [6]

Thus the Eternal Network describes daily social reality as inherently performative, while also applying the mindfulness and attention of art-making to all aspects of public life. Nearly 20 years after Filliou’s death, Art’s Birthday festivities persist in part because of their playful Fluxus beginnings; but aside from the absurdist bucket and sponge premise, the event continues to be a forum for permanent creation, where celebrating Art’s Birthday is an opportunity to further explore these principles of diffused authourship, collaborative creation and generative artworks. And of course, throwing a good party is always an excuse to invite your friends at home and abroad, so the perpetual motion and the sugar rush of the Eternal Network carries on through Art’s Birthday activities every year.

I’m not trying to conclude. 
not trying to conclude alone is important. [7]

RESOURCES

Robert Filliou: From Political to Poetical Economy. Vancouver: Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, University of British Columbia, 1995.

Filliou, Robert. Whispered Art History (as registered on twelve 3-minute records for jukebox, Knud Pedersen, Kunstbibliotektet, Editor. Copenhagen, 1963).

Grundmann, Heidi. Beyond Broadcasting: The Wiencouver Series. Forthcoming web-chronology.

FOOTNOTES

1. “There is always someone asleep and someone awake
someone dreaming asleep, someone dreaming awake
someone eating, someone hungry,
someone fighting, someone loving
someone making money, someone broke,
someone travelling, someone staying put
someone helping, someone hindering
someone enjoying, someone suffering
someone indifferent
someone starting, someone stopping
The Network is Eternal (Everlasting).”

Filliou, Robert. From Research on the Eternal Network. Qtd. in Robert Filliou: From Political to Poetical Economy. pp 8.

2. For instance, Filliou’s Telepathic Music No.2, that proposed sending silent waves of good luck to Eternal Network members around the world, for a split second, or day and night, or all days and all nights.

3. Filliou, Robert. Whispered Art History.

4. Bull, Hank, in Whispered Art History, Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 1993. pp. 150. Bull was one of the organizers of remote partners for the telecommunications exchange for Art’s Birthday that year.

5. Courtemanche, Peter. “Introduction.” Scrambled Bites-Art’s Birthday. Vancouver: Western Front, 2004. pp. 4.

6. Filliou, Robert. Teaching and Learning as Performing Arts. Köln/New York: Verlag. Gerbl. König, 1970. pp. 204.

Also quoted in Perkins, Stephen. “Utopian Networks and Correspondence Identities” in Alternative Traditions in the Contemporary Arts: Subjugated Knowledges and the Balance of Power. Estera Milman, ed. The University of Iowa Museum of Art, The University of Iowa Libraries. 1997. http://sdrc.lib.uiowa.edu/atca/subjugated/two_5.htm

7. Filliou, Robert. Whispered Art History.

Link(s):