Below is a guest post from George Fifield, director and founder of Boston Cyberarts Inc., an organization that is a fiscal sponsor of Virtual Street Corners. He and I are working closely together on the project, and here he helps contextualize Virtual Street Corners from a curator’s perspective.

Fifield is a distinguished curator in new media, a writer about art and technology, and a teacher at Rhode Island School of Design and Massart. Read more about his work and view more of his writing here.

Art and Telecommunication

Throughout time, Artists have greeted new communications technologies with great enthusiasm. With the advent of telecommunication satellites, for example, artists sought to use these systems to create artistic communications.

In 1977 for the opening of the Documenta VI art survey in Kassel, Germany, Joseph Beuys, David Douglas, Nam June Paik and Charlette Moorman did a live telecast via satellite to over 30 countries. It was German TV’s first live satellite transmission. They showed video art and three live performances, though the event was not interactive — those on the receiving end were not part of the broadcast. But the hope for distance video communication was clearly there. The final performance was David Douglas’ The Last Nine Minutes, in which he seems to try to break through the glass wall of the monitor in seeking to physically touch the viewer on the other side.

In 1980, Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz created Hole in Space, a life-size video display telecast over satellite of people in two distant locations: the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City, and the Broadway department store in Los Angeles. There were no signs or sponsor logos to help people understand what was happening, just the sudden appearance of a giant window between the two cities that was sustained over three days.

On a much more intimate level, Telematic Dreaming by Paul Sermon in 1992 connected two beds that were hundreds of miles apart through an ISDN digital telephone network. One person lay down on one bed and another on the other. A video projection of each bed was projected on the other with no sound, and the two people were made to interact with each other by substituting the visual for touch. As Sermon put it, “In Telematic Dreaming the two users exchange their tactile senses and touch each other by replacing their hands with their eyes.”

Virtual Street Corners

John Ewing’s Virtual Street Corners builds on this history using now-ubiquitous videoconferencing technology. Rather than connecting two business offices, he is connecting two neighborhoods: Coolidge Corner in Brookline Mass. and Dudley Square in Boston. And unlike Hole in Space, which appeared without warning or explanation, Virtual Street Corners will engage the two communities in a constant civic dialogue about their similarities and differences.

Artists know that technology has a way of mediating communication that might otherwise not take place. If a person walking down the street were to suddenly turn to a stranger and start discussing the issues of the day, the general reaction would be one of concern and even self-protection. We do not suddenly engage strangers, except when a shared experience moves our relationship from isolation to community, even if only a little bit, as in a slow-moving line. The only people talking on an elevator are those who knew each other getting on.

But with a virtual public space, like Hole in Space and Virtual Street Corners, the technology breaks down the isolation of strangers, creating a tentative community. People start talking to each other.

At this point in the Virtual Street Corners project, there exists context but not yet content. Ewing and his team are building a month’s worth of content to bring two separate and quite different neighborhoods together to address what it means to be a community. Through the use of curated discussions, neighborhood reporting teams, youth discussions and even using new technologies to capture and display Twitter feeds and SMS comments about the project, they are hoping to engage both communities in serious, friendly, thinking about themselves and others.

It will be the opposite of spectacle.

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