Ascott’s “La Plissure du Texte” (“The Pleating of the Text”) project (1983) explored the potential of computer networking for the interactive, collaborative creation of a work of art. The project was produced as part of the “Electra” exhibition organized in 1983 by Frank Popper at the Musée de l’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris. Adrian, then an artist-in-residence at the Western Front art center in Vancouver, organized the artex (Artist’s Electronic Exchange) system. Identified by Leonardo’s editor Roger Malina as an unsurpassed landmark in the history of telematic art, “La Plissure du Texte” allowed Ascott and his collaborators at eleven locations in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Australia to experiment with what the artist has termed “distributed authorship.” Each remote location represented a character in the “planetary fairy tale, ” and participated in collectively creating and contributing texts and ASCII-based images to the interactive unfolding, or distributed authorship, of the emerging story (see chapter 14 below). 42 Bull, who participated in the event from the Vancouver node, described “the result of this intense exchange” as a “fat tome of Joycean pretensions that delved deep into the poetics of disembodied collaboration and weightless network rambling” (Bull 1993). 43
The French artist and media theorist Edmond Couchot has noted similarities between the process of distributed authorship and the surrealist game of cadavre exquis (exquisite corpse), in which one artist would begin a drawing, and several others, not knowing what preceded them, would continue it (Couchot 1988, 187). Similarly, each “character” in “La Plissure du Texte” could read the latest additions to the story, printed out or displayed by projection or on a monitor, and add to it—all locations receiving these updates electronically. In this way, the story was continuously supplemented with unpredictable twists that, like the surrealists’ experiments, “produced remarkably unexpected poetic associations, which could not have been obtained in any other way, ” and certainly not as the result of a single, organizing mind (Chipp 1968, 418, n. 1). This
collaborative process paralleled Ascott’s goal of creating a field of consciousness greater than the sum of its parts.
Telematic art projects like “La Plissure du Texte” have challenged both the conventional categories of artist, artwork, and viewer and the traditional opposition of subject and object. At the same time, in such works, the artist retains authorial control and responsibility for defining the parameters of interactivity and for imbuing them with meaning and significance. Aspects of traditional narrative structure may remain, while others are relinquished in order to allow a more open-ended development, fashioned by participants or “participators” (Ascott’s preferred term) involved in a multidirectional creative exchange. In this way, Ascott understood telematics as offering the artist new possibilities to create models for the future that would match Nora and Minc’s vision of “building the system of connections that will allow information and social organization to progress together.” The title “La Plissure du Texte” punningly alludes to Barthes’s book Le Plaisir du texte (1973). In contrast to the common perception of text as a tissue that simultaneously veils and permits access to the meaning or truth hidden behind it, Ascott drew inspiration from Barthes’s emphasis on “the generative idea that the text is made, is worked out in a perpetual interweaving … [in which]… the subject unmakes himself, like a spider dissolving in the constructive secretions of its web” (Barthes 1975 quoted on page 187 below). Similarly, Ascott’s “La Plissure du Texte” emphasized the “generative idea” of “perpetual interweaving, ” but at the level of the tissue itself, which is no longer the product of a single author but is now pleated together through the process of distributed authorship. Couchot goes so far as to suggest that telematic networks “offer the artist the only medium really capable of breaking the barriers of time and space, and that will one day set one free of the limits of individual, national, and cultural intelligence” (Couchot 1988, 187).
The potential of telecommunications to allow such individual and cultural freedom was at the heart of “Good Morning Mr. Orwell, ” a satellite telecast that Nam June Paik organized on New Year’s Day, 1984. It was intended, Paik explained, as a liberatory and multidirectional alternative to the threat posed by “Big Brother” surveillance of the kind that George Orwell had warned of in his novel 1984: Orwell only emphasized the negative part, the one-way communication. I see video not as a dictatorial medium but as a liberating one. That’s what this show is about, to be a symbol of how satellite television can cross international borders and bridge enormous cultural gaps… the best way to safeguard against the world of Orwell is to make this medium interactive so it can represent the spirit of democracy, not dictatorship. 44 Broadcast live from New York, Paris, and San Francisco to the United States, France, Canada, Germany, and Korea, the event reached a broad international audience and included the collaboration of John Cage, Laurie Anderson, Charlotte Moorman, and Salvador Dali, among others.
Ascott, too, desired to engage a broader public in telematic exchanges. To this end, he created “Organe et Fonction d’Alice au Pays des Merveilles” (Organ and Function of Alice in Wonderland) for “Les Immatériaux, ” an exhibition curated by Jean-François Lyotard and Thierry Chaput in Paris in 1985. “Organe et Fonction” was accessible to anyone connected to Minitel (the French national videotex system, begun in 1981). Ascott’s use of this system enabled a potential audience of thousands to experience the sort of intertextual pleating the artist had initiated in “La Plissure du Texte.” “Organe et Fonction” can be interpreted as an archetypal postmodern artwork. Randomly selected quotations from a French translation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland were juxtaposed with quotations from a scientific treatise entitled Organe et fonction, creating unexpected relationships and associations. Conventional notions of originality, authenticity, objecthood, narrative, and style were supplanted by appropriation, duplication, distribution, juxtaposition, and randomness.
(Edward Shanken, 2003)
We are creating a culture in which the “artist” becomes a complex and widely distributed system, in which both human and artificial cognition and perception play their part; an art that is emergent from a multiplicity of interactions in data space. It is from telematics in art that we have the concept of “distributed authorship.” I coined this term in 1983 to describe the process of creativity involved in my project for Frank Popper’s exhibition “Electra” at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. The title of the project, “La Plissure du Texte: A Planetary Fairy Tale,” alludes to Roland Barthes’s book Le Plaisir du Texte, a famous discourse on authorship, semantic layering, and the creative role of the reader as writer of the text. But in my title for the project, plissure (pleating) is not intended to replace plaisir (pleasure), only to amplify and enhance it. The project used the I. P. Sharp timesharing global computer communications network to create a virtual community of co-authors, interacting in data space to write a planetary fairy tale. There were fourteen principal nodes, spread across four continents, each node in turn linked to a local regional network of groups and individuals. Each node represented a character, an archetype from the repertory of characters in fairy tales: Honolulu was the “Wise Old Man, ” Pittsburgh “the Prince, ” Amsterdam “the Villain, ” San Francisco “the Fool, ” Toronto “the Fairy, ” Vancouver “the Princess, ” Vienna “the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, ” Alma, Quebec, “the Beast, ” Sydney, Australia, “the Witch, ” and Bristol “the Trickster, ” while I, with the role of “the Magician, ” set the whole thing in motion from Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris. The story developed as each node inputted text into the net, which was then stored in I. P. Sharp’s central computer in Toronto until other nodes came online, outputted the developing story and added further twists and turns to the tale.
Needless to say, the emerging texts were multilayered, insightful, witty, wise, and inventive in turn. The story was non-linear, indeterminate, branching, and unforeseeable at every point. The process continued night and day for three weeks. It existed in the data space until retrieved, transformed, reprocessed, and restructured by a node coming online. Most nodes offered access to the network to the public, who were encouraged to participate in the writing of the fairy tale.
During this period in Paris, I experimented with another “Plissure du Texte” within an interactive system of a more public kind, this time, however, pleating the texts of two authors from two quite different spheres within the (then) newly developed interactive system known as Minitel, the public access videotext sys tem that has since become so hugely popular and pervasive in French communications culture. The texts were randomly selected from Henri Bué’s translation into French of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Organe et fonction, a scientific treatise by two theoretical biologists in Montreal. The piece, “Organe et Fonction d’Alice aux Pays des Merveilles, ” was part of Jean-François Lyotard’s 1984 postmodern exhibition at Beaubourg, “Les Immatériaux, ” which existed not in the building as such, but throughout the data space of the Minitel network, allowing for participation at home by the public wishing to play with the piece’s “meaning.”
In all telecommunication projects, whether involving computer conferencing networks, interactive videotext like Minitel, bulletin boards, or e-mail systems, each individual interface is an aspect of a telematic unity, such that to be at any one interface is to be in the virtual presence of all other interfaces throughout the network to which it is online. This might be defined as the “holomatic” principle. This principle was well demonstrated during the Venice Biennale of 1986, when the “Planetary Network” (which I initiated as an international commissioner of the Biennale) had the effect, through its worldwide network of artists, of stretching the location of the Biennale from its traditional base in Venice to extend over the whole face of the globe. As with “La Plissure du Texte, ” the flow of information generated, transmitted, manipulated, distorted, transformed, and reciprocated was rich in poetry, visions, stern political realities, beauty, fantasy, and facts. In this faster-than-light, stratospheric atmosphere, a group of well-grounded Aussies were always there in the network ready to bring us back to earth. But whatever the content in all its diversity, the data flow at any one point was the data flow at all other points in the system, and as it changed, through online interaction at any one point, so it changed at all other locations.
(Roy Ascott, compiled from various chapters of Telematic Embrace)