Intimately Public

A review of the Telematik Workgroup

Carolyn Guyer

In Hamburg, Germany, at the School of Fine Arts, a circle of intently energetic young artists and their professors, calling themselves the Telematik Workgroup, have been working together and separately with a certain poetic phrase in mind: "Alone, I know not further." These are the words of Kurd Alsleben, a guiding light for the Telematik Workgroup (TWG), who also claim Joseph Beuys, Gene Youngblood, Kit Galloway, and Sherrie Rabinowitz as influences. A various lot themselves, TWG members are of different nationalities and have backgrounds in a spectrum including fine art, film and video, public media, and computers.

The diversity suits them well since, as a group, they are particularly drawn to hypertext and its cultural implications, and they have a lengthening list of projects - most of which have been public experiments with dialogue using some sort of electronica. But possibly TWG's most complex and broadly accessible activity is the one they undertook this year. They were co-organizers for the third INTERFACE symposium, an international art and science conference held twice before in Hamburg, Germany (this year, called appropriately INTERFACE 3). A relatively small group, they assumed the large task of coordinating a corollary online symposium called INTERFACE 3-Network. This portion of INTERFACE 3 actually began in March, 1995, and rolled on through the regular conference dates at the beginning of November. The intention has been for it to continue as long as there is active participation.

The notion of an "electronic corollary" signals a direction we have begun to see more and more in conferences, publishing, and other areas, but in this case, with the ambition of the young and earnest, the Telematik Workgroup set up a dimensional array of possibilities which should keep them occupied for some time to come.

The underlying questions posed by the conference itself were familiar enough: what are the possible changes in perception, thinking, expression, and social relationships caused by electronic communications? To open this densely compressed consideration to its real multiplicity, the members of TWG began publicly posting, at their web site, email discussions and online chats with some of the speakers and participants. At their "X-Change Space," a participatory site devoted to facilitating contribution, they set up, and still continue to sponsor, Gregory Ulmer's project, "Show Your Fetish," one of the most interesting of the conference proposals. Here we are invited to create a space which gathers "heterogeneous materials into a set around a . . . trivial detail eccentrically significant to its user." Ulmer is suggesting hypertextual space as an alternative logical operator to "concept." He has developed a somewhat convoluted rationale for understanding the project in relation to the linguistic history of the word fetish, as pidgin and then creole. "Show Your Fetish" imagines a hypertextual space, associatively organized, as being radically different from the linear, topical reasoning that is more suitable to print. While this project is more or less consistent with what most other hypertext writers have always asserted, Ulmer is suggesting a way to bring the idea into a practicing experimental arena where genuine cultural differences can be brought together for a kind of postcolonial consideration.

"I am [as] in need of the other's expression as every person is." (Alsleben)
Most of the pre-conference work had a relaxed, considered quality, at least partly related to TWG's interest in promoting a model of conversation and hypertext as a viable method of cultural formation. Conversation is usually less concerned with authority than it is with genuine connection. As a method of cultural construction, its emphasis is on learning and creating in an intimate and personal fashion rather than on imposing givens from above. Many people have a high preference for the authenticity of intimate conversation over public lectures and experience the nuanced complexity, the layered multiplicity, as having - like hypertext - more possibility for plumbing meaning. An excerpt from an exasperated e-mail missive written by one of TWG's members, Catherine DeCourten:
. . . . we had some talk here realising that we are somehow bored with 'fliesstext' within networks. Fliesstext . . . means these endless productions of texts in a book-like style. They talk and talk and are so tiring to read and often are without much relevance to one's questions. We then thought that writing within networks should have its own quality. Instead of writing books, network-texts should address one or more persons on the other side of the line. At least this is the experience I have had with e-mail conversations. One senses whether the one writing is addressing me or is just writing a monologue for an audience. . . . . This attitude of addressing a certain person can be another hypertextual characteristic.
The Telematik Workgroup is attempting not only to understand, but also to create, our era. This notion of intimate, conversational interaction as being the appropriate mode for electronic culture could make room for new and workable formulations of community and the individual. Among the examples built by TWG, I found myself particularly taken by the gentle banter and provocative undertone of selected portions of web-published electronic "chats" between Gerard Mermoz, the Coventry semiotician (and speaker at the Hamburg conference), and the same Ms. DeCourten - conversations which are affecting for their sweetness, and indeed, for the realization that they took place on the Internet with all the incumbent dislocation clearly apparent in their edited stream. For insistent questioning of the electronic medium was the other half of the twisted thread woven throughout this immense art project. The unwillingness of artists to accept whole-cloth assumptions, even about their own enthusiasms, lent substance and grace to the weft of exploratory conversation which pervaded the entire constellation of INTERFACE 3.

When the face-to-face conference finally got underway, TWG offered "tutoring" for any participants who wanted to come up to speed in order to be involved with the elaborate electronic surround. (They made the same kind of help available to the public at large in the pre-conference Network activities.) At the Konversatorium, a large room in the conference building where attendees could gather for coffee and snacks, computer terminals were placed around the room to facilitate electronic kaffeeklatsch and catching up with INTERFACE 3 developments on the Network.

Electronic guided tours were available, ongoing networked discussions of lectures were arranged, and a daily e-journal of mainstream and sideline events was published. As an early pass at analyzing ideas issuing from the symposium, and of course, in hopes of stimulating further discussion, the journal also included a tri-part thematic attempt (each day a different aspect) by TWG and the other conference moderators to portray contradicting theses in the speakers' talks. For live (synchronous) international online chats and discussion, a MOO was made available, and for deposit of textual/graphical materials, an FTP site was set up.

To keep all this afloat, the members of TWG themselves provided technical support, produced and maintained announcements and general information to the network public, and offered design assistance for anyone wanting to "visualize" their work for location on the network. This is the kind of dedicated, artistic involvement social activists dream of.

Dialogues illustrate first of all a search for orientation, they are exemplary manifestations of ethical questioning. Arising with the . . . dialogue-role of the artist ... 'Antwortnot' - that which is when one says, 'Alone, I know not further'. (Alsleben)
In need of answers. . . . Antwortnot. A group of artists uses hypertext - on the Internet, locally, and throughout a year-long conference - to create permeable events of indeterminate proportions. They open conversations, support the crossing of boundaries, make (a) way for anyone who wants to enter.

Now, when so many fret about anticipated ill effects of the Internet on our lives, about the cultural impact of a technology that seems to encourage anonymity and lack of responsibility, when there is anxiety about the loss of singular voices to the mash of Everything Allowed, now is when we require the art work this group is doing. To seek identity, both individual and communal, to understand how the two twine and especially how they are altered by electronic influence, is the critical task for our imaginations.

Telematik Workgroup

The current Telematic Workgoup: Catherine de Courten, Regan King, Prof. Matthias Lehnhardt, Matthias Mayer

Past members: Cordula Flege, Marcus Giltjes, Dieter Kaitinnis, Nina Koennemann, Kurd Alslebens



Past TWG Projects and Self-Portraits of the Telematik Workgroup

The INTERFACE Conference

INTERFACE 3 took place November 1 - 3 in Hamburg, Germany. The themes were: "Delicate Constructions - Thinking Networks, Exchanging Art, Social Fidelity" with emphasis on communications in electronic networks.

In 1993, at INTERFACE 2, attendees discussed "World Images, Image Worlds, Computer-Aided Visions."

The first international INTERFACE Symposium took place in Hamburg in 1990, where artists and scientists discussed "Electronic Media and Artistic Creativity."

Works cited Kurd Alsleben "Computerkunst - Form als ethisches Fragen," in: Klaus Peter Dencker (Editor): Interface 1. Hans Bredow Institut, Hamburg 1992.

E-Mail exchange, edited and posted by Catherine DeCourten. 1995. URL:


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