(a contribution to the new Encyclopédie Française, August, 1937)
It is probable that the idea of an encyclopedia may undergo very considerable extension and elaboration in the near future. Its full possibilities have still to be realized. The encyclopedias of the past have sufficed for the needs of a cultivated minority. They were written "for gentlemen by gentlemen" in a world wherein universal education was unthought of, and where the institutions of modern democracy with universal suffrage, so necessary in many respects, so difficult and dangerous in their working, had still to appear. Throughout the nineteenth century encyclopedias followed the eighteenth-century scale and pattern, in spite both of a gigantic increase in recorded knowledge and of a still more gigantic growth in the numbers of human beings requiring accurate and easily accessible information. At first this disproportion was scarcely noted, and its consequences not at all. But many people now are coming to recognize that our contemporary encyclopedias are still in the coach-and-horses phase of development, rather than in the phase of the automobile and the airplane. Encyclopedic enterprise has not kept pace with material progress. These observers realize that modern facilities of transport, radio, photographic reproduction and so forth are rendering practicable a much more fully succinct and accessible assembly of fact and ideas than was ever possible before.
Concurrently with these realizations there is a growing discontent with the part played by the universities, schools and libraries in the intellectual life of mankind. Universities multiply, schools of every grade and type increase, but they do not enlarge their scope to anything like the urgent demands of this troubled and dangerous age. They do not perform the task nor exercise the authority that might reasonably be attributed to the thought and knowledge organization of the world. It is not, as it should be, a case of larger and more powerful universities co-operating more and more intimately, but of many more universities of the old type, mostly ill-endowed and uncertainly endowed, keeping at the old educational level.
Both the assembling and the distribution of knowledge in the world at present are extremely ineffective, and thinkers of the forward-looking type whose ideas we are now considering, are beginning to realize that the most hopeful line for the development of our racial intelligence lies rather in the direction of creating a new world organ for the collection, indexing, summarizing and release of knowledge, than in any further tinkering with the highly conservative and resistant university system, local, national and traditional in texture, which already exists. These innovators, who may be dreamers today, but who hope to become very active organizers tomorrow, project a unified, if not a centralized, world organ to "pull the mind of the world together," which will be not so much a rival to the universities, as a supplementary and co-ordinating addition to their educational activities - on a planetary scale.
The phrase "Permanent World Encyclopedia" conveys the gist of these ideas. As the core of such an institution would be a world synthesis of bibliography and documentation with the indexed archives of the world. A great number of workers would be engaged perpetually in perfecting this index of human knowledge and keeping it up to date. Concurrently, the resources of micro-photography, as yet only in their infancy, will be creating a concentrated visual record.
Few people as yet, outside the world of expert librarians and museum curators and so forth, know how manageable well-ordered facts can be made, however multitudinous, and how swiftly and completely even the rarest visions and the most recondite matters can be recalled, once they have been put in place in a well-ordered scheme of reference and reproduction. The American microfilm experts, even now, are making facsimiles of the rarest books, manuscripts, pictures and specimens, which can then be made easily accessible upon the library screen. By means of the microfilm, the rarest and most intricate documents and articles can be studied now at first hand, simultaneously in a score of projection rooms. There is no practical obstacle whatever now to the creation of an efficient index to all human knowledge, ideas and achievements, to the creation, that is, of a complete planetary memory for all mankind. And not simply an index; the direct reproduction of the thing itself can be summoned to any properly prepared spot. A microfilm, colored where necessary, occupying an inch or so of space and weighing little more than a letter, can be duplicated from the records and sent anywhere, and thrown enlarged upon the screen so that the student may study it in every detail.
This in itself is a fact of tremendous significance. It foreshadows a real intellectual unification of our race. The whole human memory can be, and probably in a short time will be, made accessible to every individual. And what is also of very great importance in this uncertain world where destruction becomes continually more frequent and unpredictable, is this, that photography affords now every facility for multiplying duplicates of this - which we may call? - this new all-human cerebrum. It need not be concentrated in any one single place. It need not be vulnerable as a human head or a human heart is vulnerable. It can be reproduced exactly and fully, in Peru, China, Iceland, Central Africa, or wherever else seems to afford an insurance against danger and interruption. It can have at once, the concentration of a craniate animal and the diffused vitality of an amoeba.
This is no remote dream, no fantasy. It is a plain statement of a contemporary state of affairs. It is on the level of practicable fact. It is a matter of such manifest importance and desirability for science, for the practical needs of mankind, for general education and the like, that it is difficult not to believe that in quite the near future, this Permanent World Encyclopedia, so compact in its material form and so gigantic in its scope and possible influence, will not come into existence.
Its uses will be multiple and many of them will be fairly obvious. Special sections of it, historical, technical, scientific, artistic, e.g. will easily be reproduced for specific professional use. Based upon it, a series of summaries of greater or less fullness and simplicity, for the homes and studies of ordinary people, for the college and the school, can be continually issued and revised. In the hands of competent editors, educational directors and teachers, these condensations and abstracts incorporated in the world educational system, will supply the humanity of the days before us, with a common understanding and the conception of a common purpose and of a commonweal such as now we hardly dare dream of. And its creation is a way to world peace that can be followed without any very grave risk of collision with the warring political forces and the vested institutional interests of today. Quietly and sanely this new encyclopedia will, not so much overcome these archaic discords, as deprive them, steadily but imperceptibly, of their present reality. A common ideology based on this Permanent World Encyclopedia is a possible means, to some it seems the only means, of dissolving human conflict into unity.
This concisely is the sober, practical but essentially colossal objective of those who are seeking to synthesize human mentality today, through this natural and reasonable development of encyclopedism into a Permanent World Encyclopaedia.
At a recent conference I was asked to address the question "Is the Internet a valuable resource for arts organizations?"
As questions go this is undoubtedly a sensible one, although like many sensible questions the answer is fairly transparent, as it would be in examples such as "Is the phone a valuable resource for arts organizations?" or "Would your job be made easier if you never had to receive another unsolicited proposal by an artist who wishes to make anal prints?"
(The answer is "yes.")
When I was first asked to speak on this subject my intention was not to come to honor the Internet but to bury it, a task which has become much harder given my recent experiences as codirector (with my colleague Jon Bewley) of Locus+.
We work with the artist Stefan Gec. Stefan is an Englishman whose father came from the Ukraine, and for many years he has produced works which examine geo-social links between the two countries. For his 1990 piece "Trace Elements," Stefan cast large bells using melted scrap metal from decommissioned Soviet submarines. He then attached the bells to a wooden structure on the River Tyne. As the tide rose, the bells rang furiously before being swallowed by the water and becoming once again submerged. The analogy was one of swords into plowshares, with a slightly ominous sense of foreboding that such a process can always be reversed.
We are currently working on a new project with Stefan entitled "Buoy," which will see the bells themselves being melted down and recast into a fully working navigational buoy. With the assistance of the International Association of Lighthouse Authorities, this buoy will be toured to ports in the UK before traveling further afield to ports of Eastern Europe, routes once taken by the Soviet submarines. The actual physical object of the buoy will not be accessible to the public, as it will be located in each destination far out to sea. Contact with the work will be made via the Internet.
For me, "Buoy" constitutes an ideal melding of formats, of the possibilities for interchange between the traditional art object and the new technology. I should emphasize, however, that this project did not start out as "Wouldn't it be great to do a project for the Internet?" Rather, the Internet has proved to be a valuable and, most importantly, appropriate tool which contributes to the overall coda of the artist. It remains, under the conditions of this project, discrete.
In this respect, it is relatively easy for me to identify the merits of such technology, yet I remain unconvinced of other distinctions which we should bring to it. This unease is a mixture of a number of things: part ignorance, part laziness, part Luddite, part of that peculiar characteristic of the English which makes us treat everything fun--even sex--as some sort of threat.
In addition--and this may sound surprising coming from someone who has spent many years working within the visual art structure--I have little faith in artists. Theodore Sturgeon's Law that 90 percent of everything is shit can still be applied to the majority of cultural activity without the slightest blush. There are, of course, many capable and extraordinarily talented artists in the world, working in many different contexts, yet I remain deeply apathetic to the claims which the profession as a whole makes for itself. This is not a criticism, merely an acknowledgment that the fervor which artists must possess in order to create work in the world must of necessity lead to a certain amount of blind self-belief and evangelical blinkering.
In short, this leads to a phenomenon in which each time a new development comes along to change the face of the world as we know it artists and arts organizations are driven lemming-like into new alleyways of endeavor. They are motivated to varying degrees by a voracious appetite for knowledge, by a hunger for new contexts for art production, and by not wanting to be left out of the party.
This fascination can often be manifest as a sincere belief that by merely engaging with the tools of technology one automatically endows a project with the full grandiose pomp of the system within which it exists. This is, sadly, not often the case.
To put it another way, a lone 16 inch Trinitron on a plinth in a gallery showing a tape of a thirty second slow zoom into a light bulb in the artist's flat does not a radical work make, even if someone did have to put some electrical juice into the damned thing to make it work. If it did achieve such status, it would be presented in low light next to Turner's "The Fighting Temeraine" with a deeply stressed museum guard watching anxiously that you didn't approach too close to the fast forward button.
Not everything with a plug on it means the same thing for art projects. The Internet is vastly different in the way it offers access to artists than, say, television.
I decided to carry out a small experiment and see what a mere sixty minutes of net time could offer me in finding some good art, or at least some clues as to what art is, or was from three o'clock to four o'clock yesterday afternoon. I turned on the ansaphone, configged me PPP, tapped in the word "Art" on the search engines of Netscape.
The initial search, which took approximately two minutes, yielded a list of one hundred possible jumping on sites. My first response that there may be a lot about art on the net, but very little of it is actually art in itself. A quick scanning of the first names proffered a thicket of juicy nodes such as "The Flatlining of U.S. Cultural Policy" or "Congressional Record - In Support of Federal Funding."
Doubtless the information contained within these sites would make the professional art curator or fundraiser salivate with the desire to be in at ground level with the cut and thrust of art politics, yet there was little to interest artists looking for actual work, let alone the casual punter taking a break from a porn search under the epithet "beaver" in favor of things more wholesomely aesthetic.
I decided therefore, fifteen minutes into my cyber-time, to opt out of the main search list by way of investigating more obviously interesting sites and following a new and convoluted trail. This was difficult at first, especially as "Art" had yielded such diverse offerings as "Rec: Martial Arts", and, for some unknown reason, the "Tazmania Episode Guide." Resisting the temptation to learn a new preying mantis kick, or who was the cel artist for Taz's buddy "Wally" (which I may someday regret, as you can never tell in my line of work just when such information may come in useful), I entered Arts Wire, a national U.S. network database. This proved a smarter move, as Arts Wire offered a diverse range of discussion groups on issues of multiculturalism, community art and self-help artistic endeavor.
Nevertheless, for the sake of this experiment I had to remember that art was my preferred destination, not the chance to network with like-minded curators and organizers, so it was with regret that I backed out of a consideration of mural techniques and instead delved into the "Arts Section of the Virtual Library of the Buzzard's Nest."
This proved to be a wise move. A much longer and obviously idiosyncratic list appeared. By the way, you can always spot a more idiosyncratic list when the sites are accompanied by text such as "Copyright Dave 'Woofer Bow Wow' Jones."
I entered into "What's New @ Art On The Net!," excited at the prospect of this particular site ending in an exclamation mark which surely signified a degree of enthusiasm that I had not previously come across. The main menu on this site indicated that three artists a month showed a selection of their works. At last, something visual. Danny Connant presented a number of black and white and color nude photographs, both male and female, printed on gauze which had been folded to distort the models' sinuous curves. Paintings by Stephen Linsteadt consisted of color field abstractions based upon the theme of passion fruit, the odd fruit bowl appearing foregrounded on a bed of swirling purple and yellow.
This was more like it.
Disappointment was to follow, though, with "Artistic Representations in Virtual Reality." The title had led me to expect a pictorial array of the greatest and grandest incursions to date in this field, yet it merely consisted of a massive bibliography of books on the subject. As I scanned the list of books, I realized that this was virtual art in a way, as it was somehow there in front of me but I couldn't actually see it. The heading "Transactions of the Information Processing Society" gave me a sense of unnerving dread for some reason, so I exited hot foot.
I set off again with only twenty minutes left. "WFC Art Gallery" promised the chance of further visual gratification, surely. Upon entering the "Visitors Center" of the WFC I was given the choice of going into the gallery direct or stopping off at the gift shop. As any good art curator knows, galleries make money nowadays from their franchise operations, such as the tiny restaurants replete with mung-bean salads, and the souvenir items of pre-Raphaelite key rings, so I entered via the gift shop in a gesture of pan-global solidarity. I was offered a WFC coffee mug at a snip for eight dollars; I could have chosen the deluxe version for a piffling twelve bucks.
I chose neither and entered into the gallery proper. As it turned out, the gallery was devoted to comic book art images. Firmly engaging with the counter-culture seemed to be the way to go, so I picked out the most doom-laden text topic I could--"What Will the Future Hold/"--imagining I would download an aggressively cross-hatched vista of burning buildings, starving children being gnawed upon by bulbous brained invaders from another planet and a radioactive smog encircling the horizon.
What I received was an indication that the future is yet to happen, surprisingly, as all that was downloaded was a black field with the words "Exhibit Under Construction."
A number of other sites were not available for a number of reasons, forcing me to delve more hurriedly into other files. It was at this point that I suddenly realized that most of the promotional literature which heralds the Internet consists of multi-colored vectoral lines encircling the planet, glowing pathways down which one can surf, hanging ten in the White House, shooting the tube in Japan. As one site crashed after another, denying me access by dint of "DNS Server Not Answering," it seemed to me that a more appropriate promotional image would not be a surfboard but a Skoda, banging and wheezing around country lanes, crashing against roadblocks, having to reverse without the benefit of power steering and nip into the next blind alley, cascading an exhaust stream of failed and toxic anticipation.
It was in this state that I was even refused entry into the Sistine Chapel. Deciding that not even God was on my side, and that the sum total of the visual cornucopia that I had envisaged had manifested itself as a couple of bare buttocks and some sub-Miroesque plums, I raced back to my exit point, hard closing at 59 minutes and 12 seconds.
If truth be told, the experiment that I had set had hopelessly loaded the dice against the possibility of experiencing an artistic epiphany. If truth again be told, I am still a relative novice on the net, and I am sure that most people reading this are far more knowledgeable than myself on tracking down the riches that it can undoubtedly yield. Especially if you have longer than an hour.
Nevertheless, as a microcosmic experience of the Internet the experiment yielded a number of significant points. Perhaps the most important one--especially for artists and arts organizations--is that the reality of engaging with the net is far removed from the way we would like to envisage it. Of course, developments in the technology will radically improve access, and increased bandwidth will not always make us cringe when we realize how long we will have to wait to download any image bigger than a postage stamp.
Yet this is merely a case of efficiency, a momentum which has previously produced easier to program VCRs and more user-friendly fax machines. The Internet is here in principle, in all its protean glory, regardless of how traumatic it can be to deal with it in its infancy.
The lesson that artists and arts organizations should learn is rooted in how we have traditionally dealt with other mechanisms which have shrunk the globe. This is where my faith in artists becomes shaky again, because an artist's modus operandi has always been to convert any system for the promulgation of their creativity into a metaphor. And, truth to tell, the metaphor just don't care. This is regardless of whether an individual artist's sensibility veers towards the Dystopian or the Utopian.
The type of artists that Locus+ works with cannot necessarily be polarized into one or the other, yet even a cursory examination of twentieth century art points out that those artists who wish to become socially relevant invariably do so not by painting water lilies but by grasping the nettle, so to speak, of the big issues which we face.
In 1916 in Zurich, the Dadaists staged events which acted as a manifesto that served notice that the world order was hopelessly corrupt, that the advent of industrialization which had promised to liberate mankind from the work ethic had merely produced the means to stage the first world war. The Dadaists' response was to produce work aimed at outraging the bourgeoisie.
The work was of its time, and does not travel well through the bumpy years of the twentieth century. Yet I cannot help but feel that the nonsense poetry of Dadaist Hugo Ball, shouted in order to drown out the sound of the cannons, has a strange relevance for us now as we stand at yet another crossroads. His nonsense poetry ...
gadji beri bimba
... can find echoes in the cadences of http colon slash slash dash dot @ dot org dot and the array of epiphets which permeate the net today. Many of the sites I looked at were already carrying advertising, which is a sign to the Hugo Balls of this era that the forces of capitalism were not in the slightest affected by his gibberish. Neither will they be affected, I suspect, by the savage beauty of a virtual three dimensional cone lit from above in an electronic gallery, or the counter-cultural cock a snooking of those peddling images and creeds designed to shock and outrage. Use of the net in this respect does not differ greatly from the Mail Art projects undertaken by the Fluxus artists of the sixties and seventies.
All of this points to the fact that artists should positively engage with the Internet; to ignore it or to attempt just to subvert or destroy it does not really cut the mustard if one is prepared to reject the cliché of the romantic rebel and replace this with a more meaningful role. And finally, we shouldn't expect the Internet to be anything more than it already patently is: a reflection of just how very clever we can be.
(research by Gregory Taylor; Oblique Strategies © 1975, 1978, 1979 Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt)
Oblique Strategies is a collection ideas of conceived by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt. Oblique Strategies began life as a limited edition of 500 decks of cards in 1975, they were reprinted in 1978 and 1979. (The subsequent editions differed slightly from the original, always an effective way of unlimiting an edition.)
Peter Schmidt died in 1980; the cards have never been reprinted. Healthy memes don't vanish; the text has traveled well across the decades and the Internet. We're only reprinting the text of the first edition. Researchers and scholars (or, more likely, Brian Eno's legion of admirers) can find more information than one might ever need at other well-indexed Internet sites.
Remove specifics and convert to ambiguities
Don't be frightened of cliches
What is the reality of the situation?
Are there sections? Consider transitions
Turn it upside down
Think of the radio
Allow an easement (an easement is the abandonment of a stricture)
Go slowly all the way round the outside
A line has two sides
Make an exhaustive list of everything you might do and do the last thing on the list
Into the impossible
Ask people to work against their better judgement
Take away the elements in order of apparent non-importance
Change instrument roles
Disconnect from desire
Don't be afraid of things because they're easy to do
Don't be frightened to display your talents
Breathe more deeply
Honor thy error as a hidden intention
Only one element of each kind
Is there something missing?
Use 'unqualified' people
How would you have done it?
Do nothing for as long as possible
Bridges -build -burn
You don't have to be ashamed of using your own ideas
Do the words need changing?
Ask your body
Make a sudden, destructive unpredictable action; incorporate
Consult other sources -promising -unpromising
Use an unacceptable color
Humanize something free of error
Fill every beat with something
Discard an axiom
What wouldn't you do?
Balance the consistency principle with the inconsistency principle
Listen to the quiet voice
Is it finished?
Put in earplugs
Give the game away
Abandon normal instruments
Use fewer notes
Repetition is a form of change
Give way to your worst impulse
Trust in the you of now
What would your closest friend do?
Make a blank valuable by putting it in an exquisite frame
[blank white card]
You can only make one dot at a time
Just carry on
The inconsistency principle
Don't break the silence
Discover the recipes you are using and abandon them
What mistakes did you make last time?
Consider different fading systems
Mute and continue
It is quite possible (after all)
Don't stress one thing more than another
You are an engineer
Remove ambiguities and convert to specifics
Look at the order in which you do things
Go outside. Shut the door.
Do we need holes?
Do something boring
Define an area as 'safe' and use it as an anchor
Overtly resist change
Work at a different speed
Look closely at the most embarrassing details and amplify them
Mechanicalize something idiosyncratic
Emphasize the flaws
Remember .those quiet evenings
Take a break
Short circuit (example; a man eating peas with the idea that they will improve his virility shovels them straight into his lap)
Use an old idea
Destroy -nothing -the most important thing
Change nothing and continue with immaculate consistency
The tape is now the music
The popularity of Oblique Strategies may in part be attributed to artists' fear of running out of ideas. In closing then, a few words by Robert Pirsig in praise of dead ends:
"What's really been getting you stuck is the running from the stuckness through cars of your train of knowledge looking for a solution that is out in front of the train. Stuckness shouldn't be avoided. It's the psychic predecessor of all real understanding."
Stare. (Visual Information