In 1990, artist Wolfgang Staehle and Blackhawk (the handle for Peter Von Brandenburg…), conceived of the idea of an online virtual community for artists. By 1991, Staehle, Blackhawk, and a group of about ten others launched The Thing Bulletin Board System into what was then exuberantly called “cyberspace.” The renowned early virtual community was at first for artists based in New York City and later included those who could connect to nodes in Düsseldorf, Cologne, Hamburg, Basel, Berlin, and Amsterdam. What makes The Thing particularly unique is not just that it was for artists to discuss art, but that Staehle and others saw the network itself as an evolving work of art that came out of interactions between engaged users. It was a constantly emergent, experimental, boundary-less “thing” whose meaning, as Staehle put it…“would come out of the relationships between the people and not the modernist ideal of the single hero artist that the market loves.”
The paragraph above is the opening for an essay, “‘Did We Dream Enough?’ THE THING BBS as an Experiment in Social-Cyber Sculpture,” that will form a chapter in a book I’m writing titled Slow Networks. Part of a cluster of projects called “Other Networks,” Slow Networks documents both the technical specs of pre-internet telecommunications networks and artists’ experiments on these networks. I was asked to write this essay for Rhizome–an organization that champions born-digital art and culture through commissions, exhibitions, digital preservation, and software development. The essay was commissioned alongside a restoration of The Thing BBS as part of the research project “Early Online Communities in Context” and was supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. It is now available online to coincide with “We=Link: Sideways,” an online exhibition organized by Chronus Art Center.
“Other Networks” is a handful of projects I’m working on that, first, uncover, document and archive networks that existed before and outside of the internet and, second, look at how these networks shaped and determined artist and writer experiments on these same networks. “Other Networks” includes a book, titled The Wire, on the Canadian time-sharing network IPSAnet and how the three undersea cables the network ran on shaped the artist networks it hosted; another book, titled Slow Networks, which, again, includes “‘Did We Dream Enough?’ THE THING BBS as an Experiment in Social-Cyber Sculpture” as it documents both the technical specs of pre-internet telecommunications networks and artists’ experiments on these networks; an extensive catalog of “Other Networks” from the late 1960s through the present moment; an article-in-progress titled “The Net Has Never Been Neutral”; and a published interview with internet pioneer John Day titled “What’s Wrong With the Internet and How We Can Fix It.”