Alasdair Milne

The World Question Centre – Television and Telephony as a Space of Appearance

Link to film: The World Question Center (1969)

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[00:00:04] Hello, I’m Alasdair. And this paper is called ‘The World Question Centre –Telephony as a Space of Appearance’.

[00:00:15] In 1969, James Lee Byars gathered together at heterogeneous group of intellectuals in Belgium, both in person and via telephone link. Seated in a circle adorned in robes, the congregation included a selection of Byars’s friends and acquaintances. John Cage and Joseph Beuys, among other prominent figures, joined remotely. The performance that followed, The World Question Center, although its ritualism might suggest otherwise, was not a clandestine assembly. It took place in a television studio. Rather than a cultural obscurity, this work was part of a mainstream televised broadcast, an introduction for many to the possibilities of communication technology for experiments and the sharing of knowledge. The viewer can hear Byars and enunciate into an invisible loudspeaker telephone.

[00:01:15] Could you present us with a question you feel is pertinent with regard to the evolution of your own knowledge? Dialed in interlocutors from around the world share a singular pondering over the telephone in real time. Byars thanks each contributor for their question and, without contemplating an answer, moves on to the next caller. The filming was in grayscale, however colour photographs of the performance reveal the coral pink of the participants’ robes. This very literal uniformity suggests a commonality between the participants, recalling the pigmentation of cult homogeneity. Upon closer inspection, it transpires that the robes are, in fact, one elongated garment, revealing a theme explicitly articulated in the Marshall McLuhan quote, which initiates the performance.

[00:02:10] Quote: ‘the electric extension of the process of collective consciousness, of making consciousness without walls, might render language walls obsolescent.

[00:02:22] Languages are stuttering extensions of our five senses and varying work ratios and wavelengths, an immediate simulation of consciousness would bypass speech’, end quote. Histories of technology reveal to us that novel forms of mediation are frequently co-opted spaces of occupation and experimentation, rather than simply a means of sending and receiving communications. This has been encouraged by suggestions that their virtuality can somehow displace the corporeal as a means of appearance and self-presentation, in what can quickly slip into a reappraisal of mind body dualism. Cultural practitioners have often been central to exploring the new forms that existence, occupation and singularisation could take, when these new communication technologies are engaged. Video artists have frequently been foregrounded in the history of networked or informational practices. A video art pioneer, [name], for example, Erika Balsom contends his work, quote, ‘interrogated the desire to become part of the data stream and anticipated the internet of the 1990s by reimagining television as a chaotic, biological space in which the content becomes, in the artist’s words, oneself and connection with someone else’, end quote. The telephone has long been seen as a dyadic technology, traditionally associated with the self/other conception of conversationality, as something that would typically occur between two individuals. Cultural perceptions of how different communication technologies fit into a narrative of modernity is subject to fluctuation however. In 1969, art critic Lawrence Alloway used the telephone as a technological counterpoint to artistic experimentations in technology. In a scathing review of an exhibition at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies, he wrote:

[00:04:40] ‘The junction of art and technology does not result in cultural lodestone, but in an art of most trivial of facts. You feel more part of the 20th century by making a phone call from the Metroliner on the way home from Washington’, end quote.

[00:04:59] Despite this understanding of telephony and our history, the telephone has been employed in both technological development and artistic practice to solicit complex networks of collectivity. It also provides the conditions for a meaningful form of encounter, circumnavigating a troubling pitfall of other forms of media, most notably mainstream social networks, whose virtual spaces are frequently projected upon as a place to occupy, gather and congregate. [00:05:36] The first time I encountered The World Question Center was on display in archival exhibit at the White Chapel Gallery. As an experiment in both the televisual and the telephonic it broke likewise with this conventional self/other dyad of the phone conversation, it posted as an alternative, a more broadly singular rising practice, of networked listening, in which Byars’’ presented how things might be if we privileged questioning over answering in the pursuit of collective knowledge. This aggregate of communication infrastructure appealed novel in 1969.