Art's Birthday

by Anna Friz

Life is Short, Art is Long

One million years ago on January 17, someone dropped a dry sponge into a bucket full of water; and so, art was born. Who that person was is not important, for they are dead but art is alive. So goes the story of the origins of Art's Birthday, an international holiday declared by Fluxus artist Robert Filliou in 1963 and celebrated around the world by a loose network of artists and friends to this day. He proclaimed: close the schools and the factories! Let the people eat cake and make art! And the next year let it be two days of holiday, then three days, then four, five, six and so on, until every day is Art's Birthday, at which point everyone can get on with the art of living.

Art's Birthday grew out of Filliou's concept of permanent creation -- an art practise entirely embedded in and inseparable from practises of daily life. More than a move to release art production and diffusion from the restrictive and competitive institutions of the art world, Filliou believed permanent creation would saturate life with creative inquiry and interaction while reducing and eventually eliminating the divide between artist and audience. Bound up in the idea of permanent creation was a desire for continual self-renewal through exchange and collaboration.

Filliou and George Brecht launched La fête permanente (or the Eternal Network as they dubbed it in English) upon the closure of their 'non-shop' the Cédille qui sourit in southern France. Brecht and Filliou felt that their spirit of collaboration could continue without working together in the same location, and by extension imagined a network as a means of continuing artistic endeavours with others over time and space. The postal system was the pivotal communications conduit through which the Eternal Network could be realized internationally, giving rise to a flurry of correspondence art among a growing number of self-styled artists.

The challenge posed by the Eternal Network is to expand the circle of interactivity and implicate both artist and audience in the creation of art. A signature Fluxus postal work was initiated by Ben Vautier in 1965 entitled The Postman's Choice, consisting of a blank postcard with spaces to write addresses and stick stamps on both sides of the card. The sender enters a different address on each side of the card along with the required stamps for each destination, with the final destination to be determined by the postal worker. A whimsical collaborative work ensues, where Vautier has designed certain formal parameters of the work, to which the sender, the postal system, and the receiver contribute. Thus all parties act as generative nodes in the network to realize the work.

Creative exchange via communications media like the post expanded to include Telematic networks such as telephone, telefax, radio and slo-scan video. The late 70's and early 1980's saw experiments with large-scale international networking projects such as Die Welt in 24 Stunden (the World in 24 Hours) and Telefonmusik. The Western Front was among the participating nodes, as were artists in Vienna. This led to the conception of Wiencouver, an extra-territorial state existing in the networks established during a series of events between artists in Vancouver and Vienna.

The Western Front celebrated its first Art's Birthday thirty years ago in 1974, and it has continued to be a part of the Western Front's cultural calendar, with birthday presents being sent from friends around the world via telephone, fax etc. and eventually audio streaming and webcam. When Wiencouver was revived in the late 1990s through renewed collaborations between the Western Front and Kunstadio in Vienna, one such Wiencouver event was Art's Birthday 1999. The Vancouver festivities were a joint effort between the Western Front and CiTR 101.9FM, an independent radio station at the University of British Columbia. CiTR hosted 24 Hours of Radio Art while the Front provided audio and video streaming capabilities, enabling real-time Internet jams between radio artists at CiTR and at Kunstradio in Vienna. 6 AM found long-time Wiencouver initiator Hank Bull at the helm of the Art's Birthday breakfast show engaging in a duet with Tetsuo Kogawa on the phone from Tokyo. These collaborations were possible through pre-established friendships and exchanges, but their continued evolution expanded these networks to include younger generations of artists who came to know one another solely through telematic events.

Art's Birthday festivities persist in part because of their playful Fluxus beginnings; but aside from the absurdist bucket and sponge premise, the event continues to be a forum for permanent creation. The Scrambled_Bites residency celebrated Art's Birthday as an opportunity to further explore these principles of diffused authourship, collaborative creation and generative artworks. And of course, throwing a good party is always an excuse to invite your friends at home and abroad, so the perpetual motion of the Eternal Network carried on through Art's Birthday activities in 2004.

Scrambled_Bites and Art's Birthday

This year the Art's Birthday network consisted of nodes in 12 cities: Vancouver, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Montréal, Québec City, Columbus Ohio, Helsinki, Weimar, Vienna, Melbourne, Sydney and Tokyo. Each site had pre-existing connections to one or more of the other nodes, perpetuating and expanding a network of media art exchange: some of the remote participants in Art's Birthday 2004 were displaced Front members like Daniel Jolliffe in Ohio or Tagny Duff and myself in Montréal, while others were long-time Wiencouver collaborators such as the Kunstradio crew, Tetsuo Kogawa, and Toy Satellite. Several artists chose to engage the trope of the Eternal Network in historical terms and through streamed real time collaborations: Pascale Malaterre at Studio XX invited party guests to invoke the names of women artists and inventors who had influenced their work, while Margaret Dragu (Western Front) and Tagny Duff (Studio XX) exchanged signature gestures culled from the work of mostly Canadian performance artists from the past 30 years.

Kunstradio founder, Heidi Grundmann, notes that the stripped down data exchange enabled by the Scrambler harkens back to another series of improvised network projects: Chip Radio (1992) and Real Time (1993), organized by the Transit collective. MIDI data was transferred via modem over dedicated phone lines connecting various regional ORF (Austrian National Radio) studios in Austria, so that an artist wearing a MIDI controlled glove could play a drum kit or vibraphone in another city. Both Chip Radio and Real Time allowed for performative actions in one space to trigger physical actions in another. By working with the space between three studios, improvised music was created through remote collaboration. The Scrambler enables a similar exchange of physical actions between numerous locations but with far less infrastructure (an average online connection will do), thus relieving artists and audience from performances revolving around the ubiquitous computer screen and instead manifesting the network in a more congenial social setting.

Many of the sensor-driven applications exchanging data through the Scrambler exhibited typical Fluxus prankishness, such as the cake crusher operated by remote sledgehammer hits, the radioactive sponge in a bucket of water, or the various automated drink mixers. Recurring themes emerged from different birthday celebrations: party robots of all sorts, at least three pieces deconstructing the "Happy Birthday" song, a blinking jello cake in Sidney and a jello layer cake with embedded binaural microphones in Montréal, numerous exchanges of weather, wind and satellite data -- not to mention copious amounts of cake and cookies.

Though the festivities as initiated by the Front were centred around the goals of the Scrambled_Bites residency and use of the Scrambler, not all nodes were able to or interested in applying this focus to their events, favouring instead more conventional media such as radio, telephone, audio-video streaming and non-wired performance art. Kunstradio was exceptional for their dual focus of Scrambler-assisted data exchange as well as sending and displaying audio and video streams. Producer Elisabeth Zimmermann notes that Kunstradio's intention was to host a great local party complete with a plethora of robotic installations powered by Scrambler traffic, while still maintaining a web presence for online visitors and for other Art's Birthday locations to see and hear the party happenings in Vienna.

After the party had wound down in Montréal, I logged on to follow events in full swing in time zones further west. The Western Front webcam was zeroed in on an excessively iced cake, its doom incrementally impending in the form of a toilet lid inching toward it on the cake crusher apparatus. In Winnipeg there were intermittent stills of a band playing in a room festooned with balloons, while satellite positions in Ohio determined the mix of drinks being poured in both sites, or so I surmised from watching the data traffic in the Scrambler. As I poured myself a drink and settled in to see if the cake would survive or be squished, I pondered whether the artist and audience had merged as Filliou intended.

In the days leading up to Art's Birthday, the Scrambled_Bites residents provided knowledge and tech support through the Art's Birthday e-mail list, as well as teaching workshops and mentoring students to create sensor-driven works that could generate or respond to exchanged data. Diana Burgoyne integrated technical explanations into her performance and use of robotics, so that partygoers could better understand the nature of the network in place.

There were many opportunities for the birthday-going public to interact and participate with the various installations onsite -- to enliven works operating in their locale or in another city by dancing on a dancepad or taking a turns at sledgehammer hits. Some people were inadvertent participants, such passers-by on the campus of Ohio State University whose positions in the Oval became data that fed gizmos two timezones away. Some participated simply by eating cake. But just like a more conventional house party full of people, the feeling that you are attending a great party does not necessarily stem from talking to everyone who is there, but rather from the excitement and energy generated by the combined presence of those people. The Art's Birthday network boosted local parties with the added dimension of feeling the presence of others abroad, whether their remote activities caused lights to flicker and installations to move, or whether we could actually see and hear each other on our homepages. For all the disparate or random data exchanged, the message could be reduced to this: we are here, and so are you, so happy birthday!

And as for the cake vs. crusher, apparently the crusher broke before the cake was little more than a third squished, proving that art is long, but cake is longer.

(Anna Friz, March 2004)


"Hello All! What a party!... we are still feeling the resonance here... I'm just going through everybody's documentation and I'm completely blown away by the creativity and imagination that everybody pulled out of the hat!... wow..."

Ken Gregory, e-mail to the Art's Birthday list, January 18th, 2004.


Essay from Scrambled_Bites / Art's Birthday, published by The Western Front Society, Vancouver, 2004, ISBN 0-920974-03-1.