by Ian Hooper
I knew I would like Jason Brush’s IxDA talk “The Dream of the ‘90s is Alive” when he played a funny clip from Portlandia where the characters wax nostalgic for a time of riding unicycles and skateboards, wearing flannel shirts, and buying and selling CDs at a record store.
This presentation felt tailor-made for me. The 1990s was the period of time when I really dove into technology. It was an exciting new discovery, full of promise. A lot of the buzz at that time was hyperbolic and utopian. In retrospect, I had often attributed this optimism to the selective filter of my age and grad-student status. But this presentation showed me that this attitude was not just an illusion of my own rose-colored glasses. Jason Brush clearly showed that society as a whole was wearing those hopeful spectacles. His presentation started with some context-setting images and quotes to give someone who had not experienced the ‘90s some idea of what the time was like. Germany was re-united after the fall of the Berlin wall, Nelson Mandela was free from prison, and the World Wide Web was born. It seemed that digital communication tools like email and the Web were going to fuel a new age of better understanding and unity among people. He described this feeling as ‘Technological Vertigo’.
Most remarkable to me about this presentation was that rather than dwell on technological change (death of the floppy disk, Windows 95, video on the web, etc.), he focused on the work of artists in digital media. He included early explorations into hypertext by Mark Amerika and David Foster Wallace and showed how this mode of thinking even made it into mainstream culture, citing Pulp Fiction as a non-linear movie example. He describes how early web art practices focused on individual, independent experiences. They created their own bespoke way of telling their stories. But rather than concentrating on the technical development of blogging platforms, Brush showed the work of Nina Pope and Kern Guthrie in A Hypertext Journal (1996) as an example of an early weblog that predates the popularization of the form by a number of years.
Of course no description of the 1990s technological landscape would be complete without a mention of virtual reality and CD-ROMs.
Again Brush chose to focus on the use of these technologies by artistic innovators such as Jeffrey Shaw and Char Davies. Although the presentation did not take the time to go into the meaning or message of these early electronic art pieces, Char Davies’ description of her art seems appropriate today as the computer-human barrier erodes through ever more sophisticated sensors and gestural interaction methods. Describing her late ‘90s work, she says, “having the immersive experience dependent on the intuitive visceral processes of breath and balance, was intended to counter conventional ways of navigating and interacting in virtual space. (Such techniques, by relying on hand-based devices such as joysticks, pointers or data gloves, tend to reinforce an instrumental, dominating stance towards the world.) Our approach was intended to counter the medium's bias with a vision of the medium as a channel for ‘communion’ rather than control.”
So what of the “dream of the ‘90s” is still alive today? Brush offers that the future is currently as open as it was, and we are going through our own period of technological vertigo. We can find our footing by learning to question the past and to realize how much of the present came from the past.