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The Original Net Artists

The artists of Telidon, Canada's doomed pre-internet web.

Jordan Pearson

Jordan Pearson

A Norpak page creation terminal. Photo courtesy of Nina Beveridge, scan by author

In 1982, as new wave and queer punk were invading the Toronto music scene, a computer programmer and artist named Bill Perry brought a desk-sized computer to an artist-run video production centre called Trinity Square Video. While the music stuck around, the art created on that computer has been almost completely forgotten.

The computer, made by a company called Norpak, was used to create graphics for a Canadian image transmission protocol called Telidon. The protocol was like a government-funded and corporate-controlled precursor to the graphical web, at least conceptually—and nearly a full decade before Tim Berners-Lee described the world wide web.

Telidon could efficiently transmit crude computer graphics rendered in geometric primitives—such as circles and squares—over the phone lines and into people's homes. The idea was that people could dial into central servers with keypads plugged into Telidon decoders hooked up to their TVs to shop, bank, and find someone to hook up with. Users could not only request information, but input their own.

An at-home Telidon setup from the 1981 Bell Vista directory and user guide. Courtesy of Bill Perry, scan by author

Telidon was promoted as a next generation version of a European invention called videotex, but with more advanced graphics and fully interactive. In the early 1980s, government and corporate promotional materials as well as breathless news reports about "TV newspapers" and e-magazines created the feeling that Telidon's success was all but certain. Telidon development was expected to continue for decades.

Into the 1990s, Telidon's underlying protocol, the North American Presentation Level Protocol Syntax, was indeed used by some early bulletin board systems, including Prodigy, an ill-fated but nonetheless early online service provider. But despite it's promise, Telidon itself only existed for seven years: between 1978—when it was announced by the Canadian government's now-defunct Department of Communications—and 1985, when the government shut the program down for good.

The Apple II line of computers went through four upgrades in the time it took Telidon to die

Although Telidon's commercial potential ended up falling flat, it became a popular tool for artists just wading into the nascent world of interactive computer graphics. But when Telidon disappeared, so did their art. The only remnants that exist today are photos and video of the original interactive pieces, as well as floppy disks.

A Norpak Telidon page creation terminal. Courtesy of Nina Beveridge, scan by author

Hello World

Perry, now 62, wrote the alphanumeric code for a Telidon graphics page in the word processor of his Apple computer and submitted it to Bell as part of his application to become a Telidon content provider for their Vista field trial. Bell was so blown away, as he tells it, that the company gave him one of its desk-sized Norpak computers to use in whatever way he saw fit.

Instead of keeping the Norpak for himself, Perry set the machine up at Trinity Square Video and ran workshops as a way to teach video artists the basics of computer graphics.

"The workshop program turned out to be hugely successful," Perry told me when I caught up with him on a sunny bar patio in Toronto's sleepy east end, where he's lived for years. "My best student was AA Bronson. But there were lots of famous artists like that who came to take this."

"It's important to note that Telidon was a part of a larger thing"

The community of Telidon artists that Perry kickstarted eventually became so large that in 1983 they incorporated their own artist-run organization: the Toronto Community Videotex. They applied for more government arts grants, received more Norpak computers, and operated like a co-op. Members paid dues to access the computers, and big decisions were put to a vote at members' meetings.

The Toronto Community Videotex, for the few remaining years of Telidon's life, would serve as a central hub for artists to create work and share tips on how to use the technology. After all, while many Telidon artists were computer programmers—like Perry—many were artists first, and hackers second.

Prices for access to the Norpak creation terminals at the Toronto Community Videotex. Courtesy of Paul Petro, scan by author

No Censorship

As Nina Beveridge, Toronto Community Videotex co-founder and Telidon artist—she's now a successful documentary producer—tells it, the Telidon artists in Toronto were mostly having "fun." Although their money came from the government, and their hulking Norpaks from corporate partners, there was no editorial control over the work they produced whatsoever. They could do whatever the hell they wanted.

"I remember thinking about the optimism of the time, and the relative fearlessness of diving in and seeing what would happen"

"Artists were doing well and exploring all forms of communication," Beveridge said, sitting next to Bill on the patio. "It's important to note that Telidon was a part of a larger thing. Video and performance artists were doing interesting things, and collaborating together. Queen West—[a main downtown street]—was a real artist's' haven. It was a real collaborative atmosphere. People making music, people making art."

Paul Petro, general manager for the Toronto Community Videotex in the 1980s, created some of the more queer and new wave-leaning Telidon work. I visited him in his downtown art gallery, where he unearthed relics from the heydays of Telidon for me to view, including prints and copies of a compilation film of Telidon art Petro produced called "Canadian Artists and Telidon."

"3-D Series" by Anat Matri, 1983. Screenshot: Canadian Artists and Telidon

Petro showed me a trove of Telidon works that he's preserved for decades, despite a flood that destroyed some of his collection. Strewn among images depicting 1s and 0s circling the Earth and a self-portrait of a young Petro sporting an earring and a shock of blue hair were neckties and high heels drawn in Telidon's primitive graphics. Petro tells me that these were meant to question the main symbols of gendered corporate power in the 80s.

"I remember thinking about the optimism of the time, and the relative fearlessness of diving in and seeing what would happen," Petro said as we pored over film negatives of Telidon art events from decades past. "It was a free-form arena for exchange and discussion, and that's a template for things that happened over time in all sorts of different sectors."

Nell Tenhaaf was another Telidon artist who produced works that might be considered radical even by today's standards. Now a professor of art at York University, in the early 1980s she was a new media artist living in Montreal. She got roped into local Telidon trials by a Department of Communications bureaucrat with an eye for art who gave her access to a Norpak computer. But without an art community like the one in Toronto to help her out, working with Telidon was difficult.

"They put me in this room in a building on St. Catherine Street, a completely no-name sort of space," Tenhaaf told me at Toronto's Gladstone Hotel as she typed on her slim, modern MacBook Pro. "That's all that was in it: this big Norpak computer. I'd go in to work on this Norpak with no support, unless I saved my questions and called this guy. It was really alienating and weird."

Obsessed with the notion of propaganda and the illusion of choice in media, Tenhaaf used Telidon to address the Cold War, which was then at its height. She found a Communist pamphlet and lifted its words, as well as images, to create an interactive Telidon package called "Us and/or Them." The user was instructed to navigate an information tree, and in the process, confront both sides of an ideological divide.

Network Access

Even though the most exciting thing about Telidon was its online interactivity, most artwork never made it to the databases owned by the Department of Communications and its corporate partners. Instead, the work was actually played offline; art was videotaped and played back in lofts, bars, and galleries, or saved to Norpak-built Electronic Projection Systems for later retrieval.

"People who made this work were like computer scientists—programmers, hackers"

"The exclusive nature of the materials and the language associated with them made it very difficult for the general art world to engage with at the time," Caroline Langill, a professor at the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto, told me in her sunny office at the school. "People who made this work were like computer scientists—programmers, hackers. Also, the work requires a lot of maintenance. It needs a connection to the grid, and galleries weren't necessarily equipped for that."

Even filming a Telidon piece for playback was difficult because videotex pages cycled at 30 frames per second, and a normal 16 millimetre camera at the time instead exposed at 24 frames. This mismatch meant that filming straight off a display resulted in rolling scan lines that would ruin the image. An instruction document from the period calls this effect "extremely disturbing."

Guidelines on how to film the screen of a Norpak. Courtesy of Paul Petro, scan by author

In one instance, a cinematographer in Toronto named Robert Rouveroy tweaked a 16 millimetre Panasonic camera to expose at 30 frames per second at an astounding cost of $18,000 to capture Telidon images. This might seem unbelievable, but the alternative was to track down a rare and difficult to operate Auricon camera with a special shutter to do the job, according to the document.

In at least one notable instance, however, some radical Telidon work did make it online and into the homes of Canadians participating in the Bell trials.

In 1982, the same year Perry brought the Norpak to Trinity Square Video, three women called the Hummer Sisters ran against Art Eggleton to become mayor of Toronto. They were artists and performers at a techno-art extravaganza called the Video Cabaret, and they called their campaign "Art vs. Art." They were openly artistic and antagonistic towards Toronto's political elite at the time. They won 10 percent of the vote, coming in second to Eggleton.

Telidon artists were deeply involved in the Video Cabaret—monitors playing Telidon graphics were a common site at Cabaret events in the 1980s—and so Perry created a Telidon package for the sisters' campaign. He called it "ART vs. Art," and uploaded it to Bell's Telidon servers as part of his electronic magazine, Computerese.

Paranoia

The critical—even dark—side of Telidon art is also apparent in the newsletters produced by the Toronto Community Videotex during the early to mid-1980s. These newsletters contained essays about the coming age of connectivity led by Telidon, and reports from videotex art hubs across Canada and in Europe.

An issue of the Toronto Community Videotex newsletter. Courtesy of Paul Petro, scan by author

One essay by the administrator of a Toronto-based bulletin board system called the POOL, from an August, 1985 issue of the newsletter lays out many of the concerns we face today on the post-Snowden web:

As we use computers for security, banking, shopping, etc., our privacy is threatened. Detailed files on our political, consumer, lifestyle, and entertainment tastes will grow as we live. We must entrench laws that will give us complete access to these files without any fear of scrutiny or punishment, as well as those laws preventing or at least controlling the access to these files by outside parties. These laws protecting our privacy must be created while the technology is still being formed: for it will be more difficult after it is established.

Perhaps because Telidon was essentially a government and corporate project—all access to the tools to create Telidon art was, at one level or another, controlled by either or both of these parties—a sense of paranoia crept into the Telidon artist community.

"Sometimes I did have the feeling that I was being followed"

What did these powerful groups think of the more provocative elements of the Telidon art community, anyway? Even "Canadian Artists and Telidon" features a funding credit for the now-defunct Canadian Department of External Affairs at the end.

"I remember I was at the Lord Elgin Hotel in Ottawa, and I had a suitcase and a box of disks," Perry recounted. "I set the box of disks on the suitcase and I turned around, and the box of disks disappeared. And I thought, who would take a box of disks? Because sometimes I did have the feeling that I was being followed, because I was in opposition to Bell Canada and causing trouble."

The cover of a Toronto Community Videotex pamphlet. Courtesy of Paul Petro, scan by author

Goodbye World

As hot as Telidon and its art scene were, however, it had a quickly approaching expiration date. The revolutionary Apple II personal computer was released a year before Telidon was announced, and the Apple II line of computers went through four upgrades in the time it took Telidon to die. Telidon would be no match for the world wide web, either, and certainly not for the internet, which already existed as a semi-obscure military and academic project in the US.

And so, in 1985, the Telidon project officially ended. The artists moved on. As Perry tells it, his involvement with the scene ended when internal debates about the Toronto Community Videotex's mandate—was it an equipment access centre or a gallery?—reached a boiling point. He simply got up in a meeting, said he was going to the bathroom, and never came back.

Beveridge told me she was just riding the wave of technological innovation at the time, and eventually moved on from Telidon to the next big thing. Tenhaaf told me she had simply exhausted the possibilities of the medium, and Petro had similar reasoning. For Telidon, there was no dramatic "lights out" moment, just a slow fade.

"Web" by Robert Flack, 1984. Flack died of an AIDS-related illness in 1993. Screenshot: Canadian Artists and Telidon

Now, Telidon is a weird technological artifact. There's a reason why the web took over, after all, and we're not all using keypads to access corporate-approved content on dial-in servers. However, videotex systems like France's Minitel persisted for a few decades after Telidon. Remnants of Telidon's heyday also remain scattered around Toronto. The Toronto Community Videotex rebranded itself as Inter/Access in 1987, and remains a hub of new media art in Toronto to this day.

While it pre-empted the future of the internet in many ways, Telidon misfired in so many more. It was a product of the past, even as it was invented. Thus, Telidon is one of the most poignant case studies we have about the difficulty of divining the future, and why it's important to remember our clunky old devices. Because one day, some jerk might come looking for them.

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