Social Media Archeology and Poetics: Web Archive

Serge Guilbaut, Joni Low, and Pan Wendt,
Hank Bull: Connexion
Confederation Centre Art Gallery/
Musée d'art du Centre de la Confédération, 2015

Reading Hank Bull: Connextion

"What this midden offers is an analogue of our networked presence -- and its fragmented, irregular social formations and communications, which we are only beginning to understand. Immersed in a cacophony of information, media, and interactions daily, we must intuit what to focus on, derive meaning from, and connect with -- and engage with the world on that basis" -Joni Low in Hank Bull: Connexion

The exhibition, Hank Bull: Connexion was based on Vancouver-situated artist Hank Bull's archives, collected beginning in the early 1970's and displayed by the artist himself in 2012 at the artist-run center for contemporary art and new music, Western Front. In 2015, curated by Joni Low and Pan Wendt, Hank Bull: Connexion was installed at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada. From January 20 to April 6, 2017, Hank Bull: Connexion returned to Vancouver, BC, Canada, where it was installed at the Burnaby Art Gallery.

Hank Bull's work resides at the intersection of painting, sculpture, music, performance art, video, sound, radio, and telematic art. Beginning in the 1970's, he was associated with Western Front, and in 1999, he was a co-founder of the Vancouver-based International Centre for Contemporary Asian Art (Centre A). In the second decade of the 21st century, where the darker sides of global contemporary social media dominate discourse, the catalog for Hank Bull: Connexion -- infused with images and texts from his work and philosophies, as well as containing primary essays in both French and English by Serge Guilbaut, professor of art emeritus at the University of British Columbia; independent curator and writer Joni Low; and Pan Wendt, curator at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery -- provides an entry way for revisiting artists' projects in the formative years of social networking.

"Networking as a mode of being manifests itself throughout Bull's practice, through collaboration, telecommunications art, and Filliou's idea of the Eternal Network, which Bull's material history so vividly expresses." -- Joni Low in Hank Bull: Connexion

Interactive approaches to radio were a starting point for Bull's work with communications, but from a Networked Projects in the Formative Years of the Internet point of view, the story begins when he began working on artist-centered telecommunication projects in the 1970's, utilizing slowscan, electronic text, and fax. In the 1980's, using Canadian carrier I.P. Sharp's ARTEX platform, he was a core participant in projects such as Roy Ascott's La plissure du texte (1983), a collaborative fairy tale written in English and French by nodes including Vancouver, Sydney, Vienna, Amsterdam, Bristol, Boston, Pittsburgh, New York, San Francisco, and Honolulu, among others. "The Magician," British artist Roy Ascott, was at that time based in Paris. As the narrative progressed from node to node, an improvised, collaboratively-created text emerged. La plissure du texte was documented in the exhibition Hank Bull: Connexion with a printout bound in string.

The catalog situates material from the exhibition in a click-bait-reminiscent array of entryways to Bull's work that suggests multiple interpretations and in the process, explores the roots of social networking in artist-centered communication circles. Beginning with the HP Dinner Show, (radio, with Patrick Ready, 1976-1984), in the catalog, an "Illustrated Chronology" by Bull himself sets forth projects such as Telephone Portraits (Taki Sekiguchi and others, 1977); Canada Africa 1.1 (conceived by Robert Filliou,1983); and Weincouver IV (Robert Adrian, Hank Bull, and others, 1983).

"...a collapse of the proscenium arch separating actor from audience..." - Hank Bull in Social Media Archeology and Poetics

Along the way, Hank Bull himself was a core creator of global projects, such as Shanghai Fax (1996), which he, Shi Yong, Shen Fan, and Ding Yi organized at the gallery of the Hua Shan College of Art. In his chapter in Social Media Archeology, Bull addresses the nature of the "audience" in telematic art projects. "As we see in the Internet today," he observes, "there was a collapse of the proscenium arch separating actor from audience, producer from consumer. Access to the tools of telecommunication, like the access to video that preceded it, enurtured hopes for democracy, a sense of being able to 'talk back to the media' and spawned an alternative economy of symbolic exchange outside the market." [1]

Additionally, foreshadowing the role of social media in global politics -- such as the 2008 Facebook Group Un Millon de Voces Contra Las FARC or the Iranian voices on Twitter in protest of the 2009 Iranian presidential election -- in his chapter in Social Media Archeology and Poetics Bull describes how an "Art's Birthday" celebration evolved into networked protest.

"In 1991, we faced the imminent possibility of war in Iraq. Karel Dudasek, of Ponton Media, had stationed himself in a hotel room in Amman, Jordan, equipped with a videophone. By a tragic twist of fate, just as everything was ready for our January 17th transmission, the bombing of Baghdad started. While millions sat stunned before their TVs, mesmerized by the spectacular and highly theatricalized representation of horrific events, the Art's Birthday network was immediately transformed from party to war protest. We found ourselves -- some twenty nodes, from Tucson to Tokyo -- operating our own independent global media network, with live reporting from Amman relayed and a street protest in Pittsburgh beaming back." - Hank Bull, Social Media Archeology and Poetics. [2]

"The role Hank Bull often played within this milieu was that of a host, a person who produces a setting, a loose structure for the exchange of ideas, and who acts as a mediator or conduit between personalities." -- Pan Wendt in Hank Bull: Connexion

The role of "host" in early nonprofit social media was, in many cases, conceived differently from the role of "moderator" in that there was no censorship or hierarchical consideration of participation in the idea of host. Ideally, a host welcomed and facilitated democratic discourse. However, varied interpretations of the-role-of or the-need-for "hosts", were, are, and will continue to be areas to review and discuss as we look to the future of social media.

For instance, in a larger sense of "host", in many of the projects initiated by the Electronic Cafe -- such as at the 1984 Olympics, where diverse communities were linked in cafes across Los Angeles -- Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz could be considered the hosts, in that they provided the technology and created the environment. The same could be said of contemporary social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter. However, they are large commercial entities, whereas The Electronic Cafe was an artist-run project.

For ARTEX, the Canadian time-sharing telecommunications carrier I.P. Sharp (IPSA) provided the technology, but projects were initiated by the artists themselves who served as host for various projects. A model was Bill Bartlett's 1979 Interplay, carried by IPSA, as a part of the Computer Culture Exposition at the 1979 Toronto Super8 Film Festival. During Interplay, from node to node, artists in Canberra, Edmonton, Houston, New York, Toronto, Sydney, Vancouver, and Vienna discoursed on future roles of computer culture, and, as the discussion progressed, computer printouts of their dialogue appeared in the participating cities. Other artist-hosted projects hosted by IPSA included Robert Adrian X's The World in 24 Hours (1982); and Norman White's hearsay, a tribute to Hungarian-born poet Robert Zend, in which, following the sun, a text was sent around the world in a 24-hour time-based event (1985). Hank Bull not only was a core participant in many of these projects but also served as a host/catalyst to inspire and provide platforms for projects on other systems.

Beginning in 1985, on The WELL, there were various levels of overall management, but conferences were hosted by individuals (or, in the case of Art Com Electronic Network, an organization). For instance, techno-journalist Howard Rheingold developed and hosted The Mind Conference. SRI International futurist Tom Mandel developed and hosted the Future Conference. As the WELL notes on its website:

"Hosting in the conversational sense is online innkeeping — a large part of what makes a sense of context and "place" worth coming back to again and again in the glistening, fragmented wasteland of the Web. Designating an informed, opinionated and outgoing conference host who is focused on encouraging interaction with a light touch, without censorship of ideas or language, is part of the magic of The WELL." [3]

In the 1990's, on Arts Wire there was also an overall management that provided the technology and the environment, and, in an overall sense, hosted "interest groups" that were proposed, developed, and hosted in different ways by different individuals or organizations. For instance, AIDS and LGBT activist Michael Tidmus developed and maintained AIDSwire. Composers Pauline Oliveros, Douglas Cohen, and David Mahler hosted NEWMUSNET, a virtual space that centered on issues about/for composers, performers and presenters of experimental music and served as an incubator for new ensembles and new works. Anna Couey and I developed and hosted INTERACTIVE, an online laboratory for focused discussion and production of interactive art. Funded by the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the NATIVE ARTS NETWORK ASSOCIATION (NANA), a group of Native Arts Organizations, had core involvement from Atlatl in Phoenix. PROJECTARTNET -- created in 1993 by Aida Mancillas and Lynn Susholtz -- was a San Diego-based community arts networking project that brought children from schools in immigrant neighborhoods online to create a community history.

In the same era, Wolfgang Staehle served as the catalyst, as provider of technology, and as the overall manager for THE THING. THE THING began in New York City. Nodes followed in Cologne, Berlin, Vienna, London, Stockholm. Under THE THING's umbrella, an amazing array of projects that ranged from 9 Sculptures, New York, an online art project by Helene von Oldenburg with "floor maps of nine New York Museums and a legend indicating dimensions and location of nine imaginative sculptures in these spaces"; to Felix Huber and Philip Pocock's Arctic Circle, in which performance videos and sound loops were produced in the Arctic Circle; to the postcolonial BindiGirl web project by Prema Murthy, in which Murthy's avatar juxtaposed her own images with images from ancient Indian texts. [4]

On contemporary commercial social media, the richness of content and dialogue that existed on early social media systems is there, but it is often diluted and difficult to find. Additionally, in defense of contemporary social media platforms, it should be noted that we don't see many big media outlets in other broadcasting systems (television, for instance) offering free platforms with a potential for equality to everyone in the world. Nevertheless, not only should the issues of Big Social Media as monopoly hosts in the provide-the-technology-and-the-environment/interface sense be debated, but also there is a need to incubate nonprofit alternatives where management does not own or misuse content -- particularly in the arts, where censorship is seldom appropriate, and unseen algorithmic censorship is insidious.

Reading Hank Bull: Connextion

If this were an in-depth essay on the roles of hosting/moderation/management in profit as opposed to nonprofit social media platforms, this would be the time to examine this issue from the point of view of (for instance) Facebook groups, Twitter hashtags, and management's algorithic control of content. Meanwhile, what is core in this review is that publications such as the catalog for Hank Bull: Connexion, as well as Bull's extraordinary archives themselves, are vitally important in such discussions because they allow us to look not only at art history per se but also at the models that both individuals and organizations developed in the nonprofit era of social networking.

"Follow the clues..."

In "Style de vie", the concluding section of Hank Bull: Connexion, Joni Low, Alex Muir, and Pan Wendt arrange a series of images and lexias (in both English and French) that ground the exhibition and catalog in conversations in Hank Bull's apartment at Western Front during the years that led up to these events.

The wind dislodges and breaks Yuxweluptun Lawrence Paul's wooden sculpture (made for the roof of Western Front at Hank Bull's request), and the sculptor’s surprising reaction is remembered; noise makers of all kinds are strewn on top of a piano, eliciting discussions of noise, music, and telematic communication; "Stories intermix and misunderstandings become openings for reinterpretation. Humans, like vessels, hold and spill stories along the way, sometimes accidently, other times deliberately. Follow the clues..."


1.Hank Bull, "DictatiOn: A Canadian Perspective on the History of Telematic Art", in Judy Malloy, ed., Social Media Archeology and Poetics. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016. pp. 127-138, 133.
2. ibid, 135
3. The WELL, "Hosts and Hosting". Available at Accessed May 27, 2018
4. Susanne Gerber, "Crossing-Over of Art History and Media History In the Times of the Early Internet with Special Regards To THE THING NYC" in Judy Malloy, ed. Social Media Archeology and Poetics. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016. pp. 309-332.

reviewed by Judy Malloy

Networked Art Works: in the Formative Years of the Internet

Judy Malloy: Introduction

Early Telematic Projects

Nina Sobell: Work, 1977-1997

Interview with Tom Klinkowstein

Poietic Generator
Interview with Olivier Auber

Marcello Aitiani: Nave di Luce (Ship of Light)

Nancy Paterson: Stock Market Skirt

Projects Nurtured in Online Conferences

Fred Truck: Independent Work: 1985 to 1995

Robert Edgar: Memory Theatre One

Anna Couey and Judy Malloy:
The Arts Wire Interactive Art Conference


Review in retrospect:
Heidi Grundmann's Art Telecommunication

Review: Serge Guilbaut, Joni Low, and Pan Wendt:
Hank Bull: Connexion

Networked Art Works in the Formative Years
of the Internet is an
ongoing supplement to the MIT Press Book: Social Media Archeology and Poetics