It was December 3, 2001, and I was at a gathering to celebrate the opening of the Ray Johnson exhibition "Correspondences" at the Wexner Art Center in Columbus Ohio. I was interviewed, for her University of Texas at Austin Ph.D. dissertation, by the wonderful woman and computer-art trailblazer (creator of the world's first cyber-opera) known as Honoria. (Official name Madelyn Kim Starbuck, B.A., M.A.)(Is she now Dr. Starbuck or better yet Dr. Honoria?) Her May, 2003 paper came to be called "Clashing and Converging: Effects of the Internet on the Correspondence Art Network" and I was delighted to be included in her research.
I was particularly grateful for the opportunity to put on the record some of my early forays into cyberspace. I was flattered when she isolated my vision of the Internet in her thesis as, "a mirror of the mind's great imagination machine with infinite possibilities." I guess she got that from me, more or less, but she made it sound so noble. I suppose my work with the Internet and computers has always been an altruistic and Utopian one, but the more detailed nuts and bolts of my story are also worth mentioning so I am indebted for her interest. For more details on these topics and more, I recommend reading her entire thesis, which can be found at www.lib.utexas.edu/etd/d/2003/starbuckmk032/starbuckmk032.pdf
Nevertheless, here is my long answer to her brief inquiry about an early Internet mail art message board I created on a system called Plexus and software called "Chalkboard": She called it the first mail art message board but I never thought of it that way at the time.
Honoria: Did you start the One World message board in relation to the One World Postal Art Show in 1996? I can't get to the archives of the first posts. I'd really appreciate one or two sentences from you about why you started a mail art message board. How did the Plexus board evolve from your Echo actions? I'd really like to set the stage properly with direct quotes from you. I think you were the first to build the mail art message boards and I think it's important to include your thoughts in the chapter.
Mark Bloch: I believe it was the late seventies or very early eighties when Guy Schranen of Belgium proposed a f2f (face to face) mail art round table at some gathering of mail artists in his home town. I could not attend but I remember proposing to him a computer database that would be used to hold the opinions of mail artists who could not attend. It was to take to place in, or be the first steps toward, a virtual Mail Art Country I had in mind-- decentralized and asynchronous in nature.
By 1990 or so I had realized that dream. After a few sojourns into The WELL's Art Conference where I interacted with Fred Truck, Carl Loeffler and Judy someone, (I am sorry her name escapes me but they were truly pioneers in this stuff) (and also Timothy Leary, Howard Rheingold and other cyberstars of that period) [MB note- Judy Malloy and this was 1989.] I found Echo, a New York counterpart to The WELL that was Manhattan-based.
The founder, Stacy Horn, asked me if I wanted to host an art conference but I declined in favor of a more freeform, performance art online creation of my own design called Panscan. I didn't want to type about gallery shows. I wanted to use the medium. There, hundreds of participants took place in a teleconferencing environment that stretched from "traditional" mail art activities like discussing the relationship between art and money or listing of mail art shows to more creative and community-based endeavors such as constructing a giant e-poem or swapping stories about our mothers and how it influenced our lives today. We also had a Q&A with a postal employee to discuss how the mail moves. It was terrific but I was sorry more mail artists couldn't log on. Those that did didn't stay because of the expense. I need to write more about it some day.
The Panscan experiment lasted several years until when I decided to shut down the place after an interesting event in my life. After the Art Strike and then my own Word Strike, I gave up art and the pursuit of an art career. But then through an old mail art contact that had become a close friend, I met Damien Hirst, then becoming known in the UK, and then, through him, a bunch of art world luminaries like Jeff Koons, Leo Castelli, Joseph Kosuth, Matthew Barney and others. This seemed significant at the time so I posted a ridiculous dream Koons told me he had had and then made the conference read-only as a kind of performance move that made sense to me at the time. Plus after 4 years I felt the whole thing had run its course.
We had done alot of experimenting. The move to freeze the conference was largely misunderstood by the cyber-community of mostly computer scientists and doctors and regular folks. The community that had developed around Panscan in lieu of mail artists had nowhere to go to do their daily dose of "online performance art" and they rebelled against me for closing them out. They were understandably angry but I did not get it at the time. I was busy doing my own liberating gestures, using the place as a tool. Panscan never recovered from the rift. It was shut down after that--by me and then Stacy, the owner of the system. No new outside posts were added after I did a swansong-- a daily one-man diary in there that others could read but not write to. Eventually the entire place was archived both on Echo where members can still read it-- like a ghost town of former glory-- and on my own home computer where I hope to revitalize it some day by posting the results.
Shortly thereafter I was looking for a place to continue my activities in this area and I met Robin Murphy [MB note- actually spelled "Robbin" Murphy] of the New York based Artnetweb bulletin board. His project was web-based and project-based. He was full of praise for my activities on Echo which he had participated in briefly and he encouraged me to collaborate with him and his fellow Artnetweb co-founder Remo (sorry I am bad with some last names) [MB note- Remo Campopiano]. One thing led to another and I eventually met, through them, Stephen Pusey who was starting up the PLEXUS site and bulletin board. I told him of my upcoming mail art show called One World, which was to be an homage to the UN and communication across national borders. So I started the One World board with the idea of forging an entirely new communication paradigm on the then-new web.
My original idea with the One World bulletin board was to use the web and combine it with mail art. Since images could be posted there, I wanted people to take the images from the One World Mail Art Show and freely change them-- A continuation (electronically) of the Add to Send to of Ray Johnson, which he started in 1963. But that never came to pass. I became bored with the site when no one, to my knowledge, ever added to an image there. It was too early. People didn't know what to do with images at that time. Gifs and JPEGs were pretty new.
Eventually the web caught on and though I rarely had much to do with the site I was told from time to time that it was thriving and that my name was still attached to it. I used to drop by and read stuff but it had a life of its own so I let it ebb and flow. Stephen Pusey once told me that it was the only part of Plexus that got any hits. And it got alot. Eventually it was hooked up with the Guggenheim Museum, just as Echo had been hooked up with the Whitney Museum and that was exciting in a careerist sense.
But as far as pure cutting edge value goes, I really preferred the early Panscan experiment, which was text-based. I used to say that ASCII text was the best killer app ever invented. It was better than any virtual reality someone could invent. Text and the mind in tandem have never faded away as a medium because they are a great imagination machine with infinite possibilities.
I have to give a few plugs for important developments along the way. Bill Paulouskas was a guy in New York that had a great BBS that he ran out of his house in Queens in those early days. That was terrific. It was just 24 hour a day online poetry. I wish I could remember what he called it. [MB note- Bill Paulauskas' DreamWorld BBS.] Bill was also a regular contributor to Panscan. He and I also worked on Factsheet Five together during the infamous Hudson Luce tenure.
A guy named Ray Gallon was also a big influence in those early days. He had been involved in early cyberspace experiments in New York as well as in France and elsewhere. He was also in touch with Hank Bull at the Western Front in Vancouver. There was also this guy Bruce Breeland in Pittsburgh. He was a friend of my friends Jeff Brice and Matt Wrbican. Somehow that whole network of theirs with the DAX group connected up with Ray Gallon's and the ITP group at NYU and the whole thing was interconnected. So a tangled web was already forming.
Also when I speak of Howard Rheingold and Timothy Leary, you have to remember that in those days people like Electronic Frontier founders Mitch Kapor and John Perry Barlow as well as Bill Gates were just a click away. I remember there was a guy out in Montana or something named Dave something [MB note-Dave Hughes in Dillon, Montana], who logged in from his horse and he hosted a convention/gathering out there and lots of people went. It was a small cyber-world then. You could think of something and be the first to do it online. Many of us were busy dreaming of the Utopia the web would someday become. (We could have spent our time preparing ourselves to retire rich a few years later but I never thought of that. Duh.) Unfortunately there weren't alot of artists and certainly fewer mail artists.
Actually the very first interactive international electronic event I ever participated in was pARTiciFAX in 1984. It was a fax project organized by Collective Art X Technology in Toronto. 26 countries sent faxes. There were others later. But that was the first.
Thanks for asking. It is fun to think about all of the above.