1 ANALOGUE TO DIGITAL
• sawdust and sheet aluminium
In the 80’s and early 90’s much of the work I made was exhibited in commercial galleries and museums. Some of my other works bypassed the gallery system and were distributed in bookshops and newsagents. My commercial dealer at the time was the Nigel Greenwood Gallery. I had been working on a series of projects focusing on particular city neighbourhoods for about nine years. The last of these projects was called The Terminator Line. None of these works used a computer. Even the Terminator Line book and catalogues I designed were all typeset, manipulated on copy cameras and xerox machines and then pasted up for the printer. My studio was full of dust, car paints, mechanical tools and sheet aluminum.
• create a blank page
But by 1992 I wanted to make a radical change in the way I worked and made a conscious decision to stop making work in the way I had been. I just didn’t like the work anymore or the processes I was involved in. This decision was made on February 3rd 1992. I emptied my over flowing studio of everything – old collage material filled a skip.
Over the next months I bought new audio and video equipment – setting up a small audio-visual studio with the advice of a musician friend. I started to experiment with sound, photography and words. I made some very bad music. But as the Commander of the US marines says
"True Experimentation requires you push until you fail" –
My main purpose was not to be “producing” anything.
Ironically, Nigel Greenwood gallery were made bankrupt a few months later in June 1992, a victim of that recession.
• a digital studio
A year later in 1993 I replaced my old Amstrad computer with my first Macintosh. At first it was installed in my office. So with the help of QuarkXpress and Photoshop I began to produce some very bad graphic design. It has taken a long time for my working procedure to become as fluid as it had been prior to using a computer. After a year I realised I hadn’t been in my main studio all year. So I started work on a new “clean” studio design.
I also have the trappings of a designers studio with data backup, data logging, databases, job sheets, spec sheets, invoices, etc.
At the beginning of 1994 I applied for an artists residency at the recently formed Laboratory at the Ruskin School of Fine Art and Drawing in Oxford.
The Lab was run by Paul Bonaventura, and Stephen Farthing was head of the Ruskin at the time. I was in a good frame of mind to make use of a residency.
• meanwhile… somewhere in Illinois spring 1994
Meanwhile, the Digital Computer Laboratory at the University of Illinois had been developing the worlds first network browser.
2 AN ONLINE RESIDENCY
Artists residency at The Laboratory, Oxford University.
• the plan
I started the residency in August 94. Initially it was for one year but was extended to two years. There was a small residency fee and a materials allowance.
I spent about one day a fortnight in Oxford. It was more of an online residency.
My proposal was to look at new methods of publishing and distributing art. Computer screen savers were an early idea.
I enjoyed the support that the Lab and the Ruskin gave the project – they were good ambassadors for the project out in the art world.
I spent my entire first-year materials budget on scanning 3000 35mm slides onto Photo-CD. I also had material on 50 Hi8 video tapes and the same again of DAT audio tapes. All of this material had been gathered on field trips to cities around the world over the previous three years. I was getting used to working with studio source material being on disc and tape instead piled up in boxes or leaning against the wall.
It’s difficult to visualise the amount of working material in a digital studio – or for a casual visitor to the studio to get a real idea of what is going on. I recently had a studio visit from a public gallery. Unknown to them I had spent two days printing out inkjets to help approximate on the studio walls what was on my hard drives.
3 THE WILD FRONTIER
• science meets art
The Laboratory had been approached by a 3-D software company who wanted to work with artists on products they were developing.
The software company was called MiloHedge, they operated from an office in the Oxford Science park. They had a small staff – made up of mathematicians and programmers who created realtime 3-D visualisation software. They were interested in working with artists.
• world wide web
On my initial visits to MiloHedge I discussed possible areas of collaboration as we got to know each other – neither of us had collaborated in such a way before. The original idea was to produce screen savers but they introduced me to the Internet and in particular to the experimental network browser from the University of Illinois. This was the World Wide Web. The browser had only been available for download for four weeks when we first used it. It had been developed by Marc Andreessen for Mosaic Communications – now Netscape. The web itself then was very small and mainly scientific in content - with only a handful of sites to visit.
The important part of being in the right place at the right time is actually being aware of it at the time.
The excitement that Milo Hedge had for this software and the world wide web was palpable and I could instantly see the implications for my own work. They taught me how to programme HTML and also about servers and the broader issues of how the Internet works.
• distributed art
I was also drawn to its creative restrictions which reminded me of commercial offset litho printing on a small budget. Something I’m very used to.
The web is a unique medium as the Internet occupies both public and private space at the same time. It has the benefits of the one-to-one experience of radio as well as the many-to-one and one-to many experience of online interactive lectures or online shopping. It mixes the boundaries between public spaces, personal spaces, retail spaces, exhibition spaces, broadcast media and printed matter.
Art has always hijacked evolving media and new spaces for its own ends. But unlike traditional broadcast media and other mainstream entertainment the Internet offers artists, and others, a real chance to communicate in a democratic way. You don't need a million dollar budget to build a website that will communicate to a large responsive audience. Artists that can connect the meaning and content of their work with this new medium are the unique position of being able to talk directly with a wider audience - and have the audience talk back and interact with their work. As with other forms of popular distributed art it functions rather like dada, fluxus or activist art - there is no conspicuous consumption involved. Its an exciting place to make art for those artists who can make use of the Web's shifting parameters.
4 HTML, FTP, HTTP
• BA 172
So on a flight to New York in November 1994 I worked out the ideas for my first website which I called – TheCooker. And also websites for the Ruskin and the Laboratory. Back in London I programmed my first web pages and uploaded them onto a server that MiloHedge had given us space on.
Those first six months on the web were extraordinary. New tools and ways to programme were being added every week – eventually you could use images too.
• what to do?
At first I wanted TheCooker to act as a conduit for all of the digital information that passed through my computer – The site was split into three sections.
HERE – THERE and FILES
These areas provided a set framework on which I could experiment.
I have changed the focus of these three areas of TheCooker greatly over the past eight years.
I have always worked “IN” HTML code – writing text and creating content directly in it. For the web I don’t write in a word processor or do elaborate design work on paper work first. The only paper organisation I do is for a websites’ directory structure.
5 POUNDS AND PRESS
The Laboratory funded the first 2 years of TheCooker. I fund its ongoing presence. The collaboration with MiloHedge continues. They host my websites and have become good friends. I’ve designed many of their sites and corporate identities and also acted as a design consultant on other projects.
I designed the Lab logo, website and early print work. I updated the Lab site and Ruskin site for many years . This commercial work also helped fund TheCooker.
These days TheCooker does pose the problem of how to market a site whose core idea is eight years old. A new addition tends to make it news worthy again for journalists. A good example would be the ISPY2K work that looked at the millennium bug. A few reviews in Sunday newspapers knocked the visitor rate up to 26,000 people a week.
With the Laboratory and the Ruskin I designed a small publication that was sent out to the artworld and also to the Oxford University community. It was small and simple and showed various screens from the website. At the last minute I had to re-design the book as the facility to use background images on a website had just become possible. Most people seeing the book at that time in the UK wouldn’t have seen a website before.
I still find print to be important tool for marketing a website.