Swimming with the Cyber Artists
Without being eaten alive
“Learn how to swim rather than be sunk by cybernetics,” says the author. He describes
one or two ways to maintain the original function of the museum, a setting for the muses,
while staying fit. He closes with an account of his cyber-art juror experience.
1863 Words. 8536 Characters. 4 Pages. . sp970610 Swimming with the Cyber
Artists.docx. © 1997 Bill H. Ritchie, Jr.
A week ago I was about to walk to my exercise club but I thought I should check
my e-mail before starting out. There was a message from Poland (I think) asking for
information about video and performance and body art. Was there anything on my
Website, this person wanted to know. He or she had to write an essay. I wanted to go
I had been dictediting (dictating and editing to my computer) and, before that,
writing longhand in my new manuscript. I was ready for a break! But I was able to locate
part of Dennis Evans' narration, copy it to the e-mail response, and reply. In less than 20
minutes I was walking to my club. On my way, I wrote this essay for the Washington
Museum Association. I was reminded of a flower dealer in Seattle that had a big reader-
board. On it they always announced where they had sent flowers that day via the FTD.
For example, they would have "Today we sent flowers to Nashville." It was proof
that you really could send flowers across the country on telephone wires. Somehow it was
the same, sending this e-mail message halfway around the world--a few words by one of
the "flowers" of the performance and body art world of our region. Then, to have the
pleasure of telling this as "proof" that there are people who, like me, practice to have
knowledge of such arcane and unlikely media as video and cybernetic arts. We store
virtual artifacts in the same spirit as other people in art store paintings, utensils and
photographs in museums.
As creative director of LMASOCACAD, I have the best kind of role to play in the
context of today's Enough talk, just do it (the theme of the conference). I mean, in other
words, I stopped talking about it in 1970! Of course, I was just doing it neither knowing
why I was doing it nor what I was doing. I recommend you, who are responding to some
of the things you are finding in museum and education technology, approach cybernetics
in a similar way. Try, like me, to practice with one or two of the new tools and make it
Take the palmtop computer that I have in my pocket, for example. As I write these
words--for the first time they ever were written (and probably the last, since it is a custom
essay for the WMA 1997 conference) while I am, at the same time, peddling like mad on
a stationary bike at my exercise club. Body art, indeed! We used to make body art; now
they are writing to us, on the Internet, to ask about it. It's already a kind of art history.
And, like a musicologist, I conserved it. I save my body like some people save works of
The body art movement traversed the years of the 1970s. We did some body art,
sometimes in front of video cameras, sometimes without. Some artists stood nude in the
video studio, reading poetry. At other times they hung elaborate constructions from their
shoulders, swathed their heads, hands and waists. One dragged his floating sculpture, in
hip-high boots, across shallow ponds in wetlands. Another painted his faces with video
raster lines and put on a damp, musty video T-shirt; many people--students included--
created large collections of masks.
Wearable body art has, for many of these artists, gone inside their bodies. I, for
example, have lightened my body, rid my body of some apparently excess fat, and I tune
my heart and lungs, veins and muscles every day. Beyond the physical aspects of the body
as something to hang things from, to paint on, to pierce or mutilate to respond to our
inspiration, there is the spirit that lives inside us. We build shrines to the spirits of our
I think my ancestors live in my body. After all, did I not inherit my body from
them, in their love with each other? They ask me, sometimes in stern voices in my
imagination, "What are you doing, at this moment, with that fine body we gave you?"
I can answer, "Making art, with good craft and design," while doing hundreds of
reps (exercise club jargon for repetitions of an exercise) every morning. Every morning it
is the same question and the memories of my ancestors. They have gone to the great
beyond and have no more use for the things in what we call the real world. The real world
they leave it to us. We will leave it, too, to others.
In closing, I think the museum is a place for people to be amused. Furthermore, I
happen to believe the muses who ought to be in the museums are, in one sense, being
multiplied by new technologies. Some people see the situation as being like the sorcerer's
apprentice in the famous Walt Disney movie--each chip off the broom becoming a clone.
The clones get out of control, since the apprentice does not know how to stop their
relentless multiplying and task doing. They threaten to drown the apprentice and flood the
We speak about “drowning in information,” and that's a true concern. We must
learn how to swim with the cyber-wrights--the sharks of cyber media, in my opinion. Am
I am not one who swam rather than let myself sink? We might all gain something
valuable if we learn how to swim with cybernetics without being controlled by the art and
science of it.
Post Script: A Juror's Statement
What follows is an essay written while the author was reflecting on his first jury
experience for computer art. The term had been used for over a decade, but the category
for art specifically from computers had newly entered the popular summer art festival
The significance of this essay is not apparent until you realize it was the opening
of the author's eyes to the possibilities of a “Digital Fine Arts Festival,” he later referred
to as the "Pacific Digital Fine Arts Festival." The author was one of several jurors for the
Edmonds Art Festival, which was the first known festival to specifically invite artists to
enter a category under the name computer, or cyber, art. The category was invented by C.
T. Chew, the first juror to screen work at this festival in 1996.
"What is the system," I was asked when I was juror for a new category for art in a
summer art festival. The new category is computer art. For this, I have not devolved a
system. This medium--I prefer to call it cybernetics--is still young, being only fifty years
old. Yet, in this young art, already I have seen amazing accomplishments, including the
creation of an appropriate channel into the three-day window of opportunity in one of the
region's pioneering art festivals.
I have no system. Maybe, though, my decision not to reject anything is a system. I
systematically accepted everything at face value. Why not? There is room for everyone at
this early stage of the art form.
Even in the few cases when--in a traditional medium--I wouldn't have selected a
picture, I found myself charmed by the silliness, and the technique filtered through cyber
art tools. We have got to have technique--discipline, ingenuity--and all that jazz. It seems
to me that people want to know, "Who do you think is the best? Who is the star?" I admit,
I have no gut reaction that reinforces this kind of thinking.
Because, in the case of cyber-arts, a new experience is opening up. It is an
experience that--especially here in the Pacific Northwest--needs to be free of those kinds
of (what is called in industry and business) hierarchical. I realize this seems ironic to
some people, because here I am, having been invited to jury (on the basis of confidence)
on the part of my former student, C. T. Chew, and seconded by the Edmonds Arts
Festival team. Therefore should be regarded as being someone who could judge the best
and worst. But in the sense of a trial, as in a courtroom, a jury of peers is more apropos.
After all, I was "tried" in my tours as an artist trying to climb some ladders of
success at arts festivals. True, I can recall some turning points in my life when, for one
example, Jan Van der Marck (who did the World's Fair in 1962) gave me, not one, but
two prizes when I was starting out on my career, seeking to be the best. Yet, on the other
hand it was only because I was facing crises of other kinds--rejection by other judges in
academe, that made acceptance by Jan seem so important to me.
In systems, it had come to that, and I am sad when I recall. We have an
opportunity to assist ourselves and those who venture into art (what has become a
precarious profession.) By seeing what happens when we remove the saddle and bridle,
grab hold of the horse's mane, we see if we have what it takes.
Can we learn what this new machine can do for arts and humanities, communities
and cultures, families and friends?
I just love art, cyber arts included. Here we have a new channel for people, and--if
there is harm in cybernetics--a possibility of a remedy. I say we must encourage the artists
of all kinds help show the ways of cyber art without constraints and hierarchies. The
limits that are set by standards we use in the other arts, crafts and design forms that crowd
around us are not necessarily the same ones.
Exhibitors and comments about their work.
Jaecy Jacks: A flower bigger than a Harley.
And two wise elders at tea.
Ballard, Jim: "I can't believe it's not a photo!"
Tudhope, Ryan: A control room for a fantastic voyage, or a steamy kitchen?
Hurd, Roland: Doodled-nude? Like an artist's thumbnail. Also, a self-important medal-
bedecked familiar face.
Cook, James: Stacked five postcards of cities--recognize anything?
Lamb, Allen: Peeling paint--always a winner. Also, "Boxcar 1" a successful dual-meaning
piece, like a red moon behind raging clouds.
Bledsoe, Kris: Purple fence, sunflower, bike. (See the other Bledsoe, also.
Jones, Deborah: No ordinary fish-print.
Also, A bright, brilliantly-colored image of palms in bi-symmetry she makes use of the
best the system has to offer.
Bledsoe, Kris: A musical anthem, a keeper--phantom shapes, too.
Diana Wells: This artist orchestrates many parts of the new machine. In "Found" and
"Sales", even the poet has a chance to sing.
Morgan, Jason: Our Native American stories get in the picture, too! I don't know this
story, "Dancing with the Moon."