The Origins of an Imagined Landscape

imagining the place
(or the day the madonna appeared on my computer screen)
I remember fumbling my way through the door and out into the bright sunlit corridor, astonished by my abrupt re-entry back into the physical world. It was the spring of 1994 and I’d just spent the last hour in a darkened room staring wide-eyed at a computer screen. I was suddenly back from a journey I didn’t fully understand; reeling from an epiphany that left me pleasantly manic and bewildered.

A graduate student had offered to demonstrate an engineering project she was working on, a mere six blocks down the street from the art school. It was called Mosaic and I had a dim sense that it involved the internet and digital images.

As we huddled together in front of the glowing monitor, she began typing long and cryptic lines of text into an input box. At the time, I had never heard of a URL. As she patiently tried to explain the world of browsers, clients, and servers I nodded politely and pretended I had the faintest clue what she was talking about.

Images began to appear in the software window, mostly art historical stuff – I particularly remember an Italian Renaissance painting of the Madonna with Child. Then she typed in another long string of text, and after a few seconds’ pause a new image appeared. How nice, I thought.

And then it hit me.

She was typing in the addresses of other computers. The images I was viewing were actually files stored on machines disbursed around the world: New York, Washington D. C., Munich, Rome. It didn’t matter where they were physically. As a matter of fact it didn’t even make sense to think in those terms. In the spatial physics of cyberspace the entire conglomerate of image archives existed just on the other side of my screen, which all of a sudden felt infinitely deep.

This moment stands as pivotal in my life as an artist.

In the middle 1980’s I received a very traditional training in the fine arts at the San Francisco Art Institute. What I mean is that I absorbed and accepted, without conscious awareness and without question, all the prevalent biases that defined the 20th Century fine art world. And like the legions of pissed off and underemployed MFA students before me, I left school laboring under the hope that my work might, if I was exceptionally lucky, end up on the walls of some gallery or museum. And of course there was the longshot possibility that the uniqueness of my objects, that thing behind their magical aura, might occasionally translate into cold hard cash.

Every new show was another notch in my belt, my prowess increasing with the growing length of my exhibition record. But in the background was the troubling knowledge that only a small minority of the general population regularly set foot in a museum. And then there was that dirty little secret my iconoclastic black-clad comrades and I never wanted to mention: even fewer of those folks could ever think about owning our expensive little items of conspicuous consumption, and the occasional patrons who could afford the price tag were usually corporate lawyer-types into cultural slumming and diversified investment portfolios.

It was around this time that I landed a job teaching photography at San Jose State University. To be exact, it was 1986 and, though it didn’t mean much to me at first, I was about to spend the next five years working in the fledgling heart of Silicon Valley.

My training as a photographer had already placed me at the intersection of art and technology, so I slowly began paying more attention to how digital technologies, many being produced in my own backyard, were beginning to alter the work of picture-making. And in 1991, when I received a job offer from the University of Illinois – technological birthplace of movies with sound, the transistor, and the mythic homicidal computer HAL – it was an offer I just couldn’t pass up.

In 1992 I purchased my first computer, a Macintosh IIci, and became one of the early clueless hoards making truly atrocious images and digital prints in the name of what we thought was Art. After several months of getting absolutely nowhere, I finally began to conjure the occasional satisfying image on my screen. But these fragile creations invariably died a brutal and agonizing death in their journey from ethereal screen image to concrete printed art object. Hardcopy output was pathetic in comparison to the lush tones of silver-based photography. I was just on the verge of disgust, prepared to walk away from my hoaky digital darkroom on that spring morning when the digital Madonna appear before my unbelieving eyes. And like all true epiphanies, the realization was immediate and urgent. I finally got it, the whole computer thing. And what I understood, finally, was that it wasn’t just about computers (or prints), but computers that could communicate.

I had found the missing link, and it was called the network.

In 1988 I was browsing through Green Apple Books in San Francisco and stumbled across a copy of Neuromancer, a strange and dark novel by an author I’d never hear of, William Gibson . I was not a great fan of science fiction and found Gibson’s writing style jarring. I still don’t know why I bought the book. But I read it in a blistering couple of days, and then went back to buy and read anything else by him I could find. I didn’t completely understand Gibson’s vision of cyberspace, and it certainly had very little in common with any technology available to me at the time, but it got under my skin.

Around 1992 I began vaguely exploring the internet, which meant toying with e-mail, newsgroups, and text-based Gopher servers; all very primitive stuff in today’s wired world. But my 1994 brush with the Mosaic browser (later commercialized as Netscape) and the World Wide Web, this network of text and images, pushed everything over the edge and into a new place.

My computer was now more than just a production tool, it was also a distribution instrument. More, I realized that the computer had become an environment, a community, a world: the place where electronic work could be produced, experienced, and shared. And there was the curious fact that this work never became physically embodied. The whole notion of original versus copy didn’t matter, or even make sense, any more. The art as commodity equation had popped like a soap bubble.

I was hooked, fascinated, and never looked back. The year 1994 marked the last time I spent any significant time in a traditional photography darkroom. By 1995 I had sold my enlarger, safelights, trays, tongs, and everything else that went with a wet process.

I began work on a new project called the place during the summer of 1994, about two months after my initial encounter with the Digital Madonna. I designed the first interface, wrote a manifesto, and started work on an autobiographical narrative called Life With Father. By early September Life With Father was almost finished, and on September 15, shortly before midnight, the place was born when I posted an announcement and the URL to a few newsgroups. Within 15 minutes, I got my first response: a visitor noting a typo in the text of Life With Father. It was so weird and exhilarating to realize that there was just one mouse click between me and an audience. (If you visit any of the links above or below, please be gentle in your criticism. Remember that the place is now a prehistoric network relic, abandoned but not unloved, designed and engineered with technology is now mostly non-functional.)

Was the first cave painter an artist or an engineer? – Stephen Johnson

So began a period of roughly three years of active engagement with this experiment in virtual place and space. From the traditional linear structure of Life With Father I moved on to Urban Diary, an experiment with a different kind of narrative approach and a reaction against the cool and slick surfaces I was encountering so often in electronic art. Other experiments came and went. The Soapbox started accumulating my ideas, opinions, and rants on issues that that were relevant to the time. The last piece to take up residence was the first iteration of io, reflecting both my interest in simple artificial intelligence programs as storytelling machines, and my fascination with the blurring division between flesh and machine, computer intelligence and human consciousness. io was also the first time I wrote code, and started to see this code as a creative raw material very much like pigment.

Interestingly, the initiation of the place closely corresponded with the birth of my first daughter, Emma (1995) and the end of my active engagement with it roughly coincided with the birth of my other daughter, Adrienne (1999). My curiosity about the network didn’t wane I just became absorbed by other forms of fascination and creation.

I also realize, with hindsight, that the place was a tool, a torch. It helped illuminate a dimly perceived landscape at the edge of an unknown frontier. This was, for some intuitive reason, where I needed to pitch my tent and try to make a clearing. It was a place, the place, where I began to circle and clarify and carve out some of the ideas that are still at the core of my creative practice. Life with Father helped me understand the deep influence that my own autobiography has on how I process experience and create meaning. Urban Diary taught me about my fascination with form and why ambiguity is so at the core of my creative vocabulary. io, it turns out, was an early experiment in the deep beauty of code and alternate ideas about the poetics of narrative structure – all of which eventually fed later into FLAGRANTWORLD | hymn 43.

Overall, my time in the place gave me a richer understanding of how everything that I make always requires the marriage of art and engineering. I learned that ideas are always conveyed by the vehicle of craft. Psyche and Techne. Always in conversation, always completing one another.

Note: In 2001 the place was officially acquired by the Walker Art Center as a part of its permanent collection. It officially resides here.

image credit: Life of Pix

words: © copyright Joseph Squier, 2016. No use without written permission. Contact: