Like many other Gen-Xers, "The Dream of the 90s is Alive in Portland" sketch on Portlandia made me laugh out loud. Hearing Fred Armisen wax nostalgic about a mythical land where people were still into piercing, the tattoo ink never runs dry, friends encourage you to go to clown school, and it’s as if G.W. Bush never became president, undeniably rang a chord in me. Buzzing inside me was this feeling, “the 90s sure were great, weren’t they!”
However, thinking about the roll call of 90s tropes trotted out in the video — were those the things I was nostalgic about? I certainly have my own nostalgia for the 90s, but perhaps not exactly for Fred Armisen’s dream of the 90s. It seems to me that the nostalgia for the 90s from “The Dream of the 90s” doesn’t so much celebrate specific ideas from the 90s as much as reflect the nostalgia people in their late 30s and early 40s have for youth; for being young. For Gen-Xers, to think back the 90s is to remember one’s youth, college, and the still-new freedom of adulthood.
Nostalgia for your youth has two parts: first, a longing for what’s past. Who you were, and what the world was like but no longer is. (To be frank, I’ve always found this type of nostalgia a bit tiresome and self-pitying.) But the second part of nostalgia for your youth is quite different: it’s a remembrance of how you felt, of your dreams of the future. Remembering who you once wanted to be. Remembering a world of possibility, where your life lay ahead of you rather than behind.
All of those things are of course true for me when I think about the 90s. The 90s were a time ripe with potential, with the promise of the future. But is there anything specific to the 90s, beyond the fact that decade was a formative period in my youth, which make them worth being nostalgic about? Grunge rock? Tribal body art? The X-Files?
2. 20 Years Ago, a New Medium
It occurred to me that 2013 marks an important anniversary: it’s been 20 years since the first widely distributed web browser, Mosaic, was released, and I (like many others) first learned about the Web. I was 20 at the time, which means that I’ve now lived half my life with the Web. For my younger colleagues and students who have never known a world without it, it’s hard to describe the difference between the world before and after the invention of the Web. I was in film school at UCLA at the time, and the potential of a new medium — like film had been back in the 1900s! — was provocative and alluring.
In 1990, when the Web was first invented by Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Caillau at CERN[i] as a means to connect the work of scholars, researchers, and academics, MS-DOS was the dominant desktop OS (Windows 3 had been recently released, the first version of Windows to gain significant adoption); floppy disks (1.4MB!) were the best way to transfer content between PCs[ii]; pagers were the best way to contact people when they were away from a landline. The Web transformed how information could be published, shared, organized, and consumed.
Significantly, it realized a long-sought goal to make a technology system — unlike, for instance the camera and movie projector, or the printing press, or the radio — that could be both the means of production and distribution. Bertolt Brecht, in "The Radio as an Apparatus of Communication" (1932), posited that “Radio is one sided when it should be two. It is purely an apparatus for distribution, for mere sharing out. So here is a positive suggestion: change this apparatus over from distribution to communication.”[iii] The Web achieved this promise of a two-way medium and upended traditional hierarchical relationship between artist, audience, and text.[iv]
Given the Web and interactive media’s pervasive influence on our lives today, it’s easy to forget how startling, new, and thrilling the technology was at the time of its invention. Also, looking back, it’s easy to look at the 90s as (just) the seed of the dot-com boom (and eventual bust), and the birthplace — or, rather, time — of Amazon, Yahoo!, Google, et al.
Today we look at the Web as the connective tissue — or, using a different metaphor, the bedrock, perhaps — of distributed content and experience on the Internet. Twenty years after its invention, and after much debate over the years about how to standardize the various technologies from which experiences on the Web are crafted, we’ve reached a (relative) point of stasis, where today’s debates are largely around the various services built upon the Web, instead of about what it even is. In contrast, at the time of the Web’s advent there was a great deal of debate — especially in the academic and artistic circles — about the very nature of the Web and interactivity in general.[v] The new structures of communication, expression and experience newly enabled by the Web inspired a host of experiments by artists aimed to dissect and investigate this new medium — a medium, as artist Simon Biggs noted, could which could “be any medium,” in the same way Alan Turing described how a computer could be any machine.
There’s much from the 90s for which I am nostalgic — the freedom of youth, meeting and falling in love with my wife, making lifelong friends, pursuing my passions — but few of these are specific to the 90s per se. However, the new frontier of media experiences and ideas that exploded with the advent of the Internet and the digital revolution is something specific to that decade, indeed, which I am very grateful to have experienced, which forms who I am today — and which, I hope, is worth a brief reminiscence here. What follows is cursory,[vi] personal archeological accounting of some of the experiments and explorations that made the 90s a formative time (for me, at least):
The notion that users could navigate words and documents non-linearly, as opposed to being read in a predetermined order in a book, was radical. Nabokov’s use of footnotes in Pale Fire presaged this sort of experience[vii] — an approach continued (appropriately) in the 90s by David Foster Wallace in Infinite Jest, which has footnotes nested in footnotes, and in labyrinthine narratives such as Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, and David Lynch’s Lost Highway — but the capabilities of anchored links in HTML exploded the potential of previous literary experiments.
Mark Amerika, in his manifesto cum artwork HTC (HyperTextual Consciousness) (1995)[viii], described how hypertext was “an endless novel” that “will remove the limitations of physical space and will enable us to avoid having to be in a specific place at a specific time.” In retrospect, hyperbole perhaps, but not altogether inaccurate.
While many experiments were about creating published, standalone works that were distributed on the web, Nina Pope & Karen Guthrie created a Hypertext Journal (1996)[ix] documenting a four week road trip, which they described as an experiment in “the WWW as Live Interface.” We take the “live-ness” of the Web for granted today, but in the 90s — before blogs and blogging platforms, and indeed even before the term “blog” was coined in 1999 by Peter Merholz[x] — the idea that a content on the Web could be performative was a very new concept.
The formal, technical structures of HTML — frames, tables, popups, etc. — were also a source of creative exploration. Works such as Olia Lialina’s My Boyfriend Came Back from the War (1996)[xi] and Alexei Shulgin’s This Morning (1997)[xii] experimented with the way in which narrative could exploit — and, in turn, be shaped by — the unique, peculiar technologies of the Web, which had been developed for other purposes but now presented a new medium for artists to experiment with.
“Through the 90s, a kind of technological vertigo was a fact of life.”
— Simon Penny
While hypertext art experimented with new ways to construct narrative — and new ways to read text — other artists were investigating the new, unfamiliar, and sometimes peculiar experiences that the Internet and digital technology that were now permeating our lives.[xiii]
Building off Dadaist aesthetics — e.g. William Burroughs and Brion Gysin’s cut-up collages[xiv] — net.art artists experimented with the new ways in which Internet & Web technologies were blending images (moving and still), text, and sound. Ben Benjamin’s Superbad (1997),[xv] which won a Webby in the “Weird” category in 1998, was a hypnotic mash-up of disparate imagery.
Just as the Web was prompting new presentations and arrangements of media, the technology itself — code, markup, applications, operating systems, networks — became a subject for net.art. Jodi.org (1995 –) by Joan Heemskerk and Dirk Paesmans, presented experiences that feel like Web pages turned inside out, with the markup being the interface, and where code was the content.[xvi] Randall Packer describes Jodi as “Jodi is Code stripped of all functionality, Code for its aesthetic value, Code as abrasive language, Code as hallucination, Code as theater.”[xvii] The Form Art Competition (1997),[xviii] run by Alexi Shulgin, experimented with making HTML forms (!) an expressive medium. Shulgin ran a similar experiment in which people contributed screenshots of their desktops to a gallery, called Desktop IS.[xix]
5. The Web as Real-world Catalyst
Today, the capability of the Internet to affect real-world behavior — ranging from flashmobs to revolutions — is well appreciated. And prior to the Internet, artists — such as the fluxus movement[xx] — had appropriated public spaces as performative venues. But, in the 90s, this potential of the Internet to facilitate these sort sorts of events was still nascent. In 1994, UK artist Heath Bunting posted the phone numbers of a block of public phones in the Kings Crossing railway station, and instructed people to call in at a specific time to the numbers, creating what Bunting called an ad hoc “Cybercafe.”[xxi] Bunting’s provocation, like many of the experiments of the 90s, took concepts that artists had investigated in pre-digital times, and asked, how does digital technology in new ways facilitate or transform those ideas?
6. Body-data Interfaces
“The body is our general medium for having a world.”
— Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception
While the experiments on the Web investigated how new forms of content could be published, distributed, and experienced around the world wherever there was an Internet connection, a different group of artists sought to experiment with many of the same structures in interactive environments and instillations. Building off of established practices in video art pioneered in the 70s and 80s — especially by artists such as Bruce Nauman, Bill Viola, Nam Juin Paik — a new generation of artists sought to experiment with the role that computers could play in mediating people’s real-world interactions with media.
In Jim Campbell’s UNTITLED For Heisenberg (1994),[xxii] the viewer enters a black room, and in the distance sees a table with black and white video projected on its surface, of a couple embracing. The table is covered in salt, and the effect is very much like looking at sheets on a bed. As the viewer approaches the table, the video zooms in, making the video less and less comprehensible as one get closer, confounding the viewer’s own desires.
Other examples of the viewer’s bodily presence affecting and modulating media experience include Rafael Lozano-Hammer’s Surface Tension (1992),[xxiii] where the projected image of a giant eye follows the viewer as s/he walks around a room; Joachim Sauter’s ZERSEHER (1991),[xxiv] in which, using eye tracking, a digital painting is blurred wherever the user gazes upon it; and Ulrike Gabriel’s Breath (1992),[xxv] in which users can control computer-generated imagery by breathing.
No discussion of interactive media in the 90s would be complete without some mention of “Virtual Reality.”[xxvi] While VR never appealed to me very much — it seemed too much of an overreach at the time, which, as it turns out, was the indeed case — there were some experiments which were quite beautiful and inspiring: notably, Char Davies‘ Osmose (1995) and Ephémère (1998), in which viewers navigate ephemeral 3D spaces.
The flip side of Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, was presaged by Jeffrey Shaw’s work in the early 90s. In The Virtual Museum (1991),[xxvii] Shaw created a rotating platform in the center of an empty gallery, on which sat a chair facing a television monitor. Whomever sat in the chair viewed virtual artwork hanging on the walls of a virtual recreation of the (real) gallery space, the image on the monitor panning past the virtual artwork and gallery as the platform rotated. In EVE (Extended Virtual Environment),[xxviii] Shaw extended the concept of augmenting reality by placing a motion-capture helmet on a user, which controlled a robot arm on which was mounted a video projector; this whole apparatus was situated inside an inflatable dome, so that wherever the user looked, the perspective of a 3D virtual space was projected on the interior of the dome, as if the user were creating a dynamic window simply by looking around.
Looking to the Past, Looking Forward
What, if anything, can we learn by looking back at this remarkable time? Some of the experiments were noble but misguided. Others laid the groundwork for the way we experience interactive media today. But for me, there are a few virtues in particular to taking this trip down memory lane:
First, it’s to remember to remember. The past becomes the past awfully fast these days; what is brand new today becomes ever more quickly obsolete. As Laurie Anderson says, “We're hunting for information; we're starving for new equipment; we are in a personal arms race [for] memory or speed”.[xxix] We’re always looking for the next new device, the next new app, the next new service. There’s no reason to remember unless we choose to — otherwise, we’ll never enjoy the benefits of looking back! Other areas of design and art practice in our society — architecture, graphic design, film, painting, sculpture, fashion, and literature — appreciate this. The roots the experiments of the 90s have in previous art practice are evidence of this. But interactive design, by its very nature in looking forward, does not.
Second, the reason why things work the way they do today often stems from decisions made in the past, and looking back can inspire critical discourse about today’s technologies.[xxx] It is easy to take for granted or passively accept today’s technology landscape, ranging from client and server side technology, services (Facebook, or Apple’s app distribution framework), to platforms, and so forth; by looking at how people first reacted to concepts and technologies when they were first emerging, we can think more critically about the present.
Third — and most importantly — it’s to remember to be excited about the future. For me, to think back to the 90s, is to think back to a time when the future was wide open, and yet to be invented; a time when technology and its potential was something to be experimented with and pushed to its limit. The future is still ours to make.