I.P.Sharp Associates (IPSA) was an APL timesharing system based in Toronto but operating a world-wide network providing computer services to businesses via telephone. IPSA had offices in most major cities with local dial-in connection to the central computers in Toronto. In order to maintain contact with - and to support - their corporate clients, a computer communications (E-mail) program called Mailbox was implemented - which meant that IPSA was a kind of "mini-internet" existing outside the academic / military territory of the early internet/arpanet.


These were relatively early days in the story of computer-based networking and nobody knew what the effects might be on society - aside from commercial efficiency. In the late 1970's Bob Bernecky, chief APL programmer at IPSA, being interested in art - especially in art involving technology - provided a free user-account to Toronto artist Norman White to see what an artist might do with a networked computer system. This resulted in computer networking becoming known and, in a small way, accessible to artists.

Source: Robert Adrian, ARTEX - Artists' Electronic Exchange System link)

Norman White: Bernecky saw that I was working with digital electronics, and thought that I should become familiar with the very powerful computer language, "APL", upon which all of IPSA's commercial applications depended. He got me a free account, with the blessing of IPSA president Ian Sharp. But as I started logging onto the system, it wasn't so much APL which caught my eye, but rather the electronic mailing system used by the globally scattered IPSA technicians to communicate with each other.

Note that this was very much a closed in-house system, nothing like the Internet of today. You could send only text messages, and if you wanted to transmit images, you had to arrange your ASCII characters on the page in a fairly crude fashion.

About that same time there was a major conference in Toronto which focused on Art and Technology. I seem to remember that it took place at the Four Seasons Hotel, but I could be wrong on this. One thing that I know for sure was that Bill Bartlett was there, talking about a network of art-oriented individuals based around the Pacific Rim, including himself, who were communicating by Slow-Scan TV. (...) There I sang the praises of the IPSA electronic mailing system and encouraged people to get an account, if only to keep in touch. Bill and I found we were on the same artistic wavelength, both being fascinated by open-ended interactions whereby artists who were scattered far and wide, often far from urban centres, could collaborate on projects whose outcome was unpredictable and synergistic.

Of course, as I've mentioned, Bill had already assembled a robust SLOSCAN network in the Pacific region, including Hawaii, Japan, and Australia... so we had a LOT to build on.

Source: Interview with Norman White, by Jeremy Turner, 2003 link)

The first use of the I.P.Sharp network for a world-wide artists' communications project was "Interplay", a computer communications project organised by Bill Bartlett for the "Computer Culture" conference in Toronto in 1979.

Bartlett contacted artists in cities around the world in which an IPSA office was located and arranged for the local offices to provide free accounts and technical assistance in order for the artists to participate in the Interplay on-line conference. The participating artists were located in Canberra, Edmonton, Houston, New York, Toronto, Sydney, Vancouver, and Vienna. Interplay used Confer, the IPSA conference program, designed to allow IPSA staff and clients to discuss system issues in a multi-user environment without the delays inherent in Mailbox (email) exchange. Interplay was therefore basically what we now know as an on-line "chat".


In 1980 Bill Bartlett, the organiser of Interplay, sent out invitations for another project: an on-line expansion of the Artists' Use of Telecommunications Conference at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMMA). The media for this conference were Slow-Scan TV (SSTV) and Computer Conference. IPSA was once again providing free computer time. (...)

The availability of a computer network for artists was a very exciting development but it exposed a basic problem and inconsistency. For, while I.P.Sharp Associates provided access to the new electronic communications technology for the actual events (interplay and the 1980 Artists' Use of Telecommunications Conference), the organisation was still being carried out by mail and (budget permitting) telephone. This seemed to be a bit absurd so in in the autumn of 1979, Robert Adrian and Gottfried Bach (IPSA manager) in Vienna and Bill Bartlett in Victoria, B.C., began to work on the implementation of a simple, cheap electronic mail program which artists could use to create a network for the organisation of communication projects. (...)

The problems of organising world-wide communications projects using air mail and telephone were becoming serious and, in the summer of 1980, Bill Bartlett and I began to put pressure on IPSA to develop a cheaper and more user-friendly E-Mail program for non-corporate and non-institutional users. (...)

This resulted in the creation, by Gottfried Bach, of ARTBOX - a cheap and simple version of the IPSA "Mailbox". ARTBOX went through a number of versions untill about 1983 when it became formalised as ARTEX - the Artists' Electronic Exchange program - a "user-group" on the IPSA network. ARTEX had about 30 members and was used for the organisation of global projects and as a medium for art projects as well as for personal contact. It existed untill about 1990 when IPSA was purchased by Reuters and eventually closed down."

Source: Robert Adrian: Art and Telecommunication 1979-1986: The Pioneer Years link)

ARTEX (officially ARTBOX until 1982/83) grew out of the experience of both "Interplay" and the second, much larger, "Artists' Use of Telecommunications Conference" project organised by Bill Bartlett and Carl Loeffler the following year (1980).

ARTBOX was an attempt to create a permanent low-cost email program on IPSA (Mailbox was very expensive) in order to make project development and coordination quicker and easier and to provide a medium for text-based communications projects.

Other ARTEX projects:

Roy Ascott's "La Plissure du Texte" (1983).
"The process of pleating the text would be asynchronic, multi-layered, and non-linear in all its bifurcations. Bob Adrian agreed to manage ARTEX as the organising instrument of the communications infrastructure for my project. ARTEX was an electronic mail program for artists on the I.P. Sharp Associates (IPSA) timesharing network.. There was a core of about 10 artists using it regularly and around 30 to 40 others at any one time during its 10 years of operation."
(Roy Ascott, Navigating Consciousness: Art and Transformative Technologies(external link))

Norman White's "Hearsay" (1985).
"Hearsay was a telecommunications event based upon the children's game whereby a secret message is whispered from person to person till it arrives back at its originator. In this case a message was sent around the world in 24 hours, roughly following the sun, via a global computer network (ARTEX/I. P. Sharp Associates). "

Image Image
ARTEX Terminal - Hearsay installation at A-Space, Toronto | ARTEX Terminal - Planetary Network

"Planetary Network" (1986).
"PLANETARY NETWORK summed up all the low-tech telecommunications projects by artists since 1979. I organised the network on ARTEX for the last time. It was also the last comprehensive, multi-media, global network project. The networking of Personal Computers in BBSs and the increasing presence of FAX and other telephone peripherals in offices and homes made ARTEX and large-scale telecomm projects superfluous. (...) The pioneer days were over ...."

Robert Adrian, ARTEX - Artists' Electronic Exchange System link)

Robert Adrian: Art and Telecommunication 1979-1986: The Pioneer Years link)

IPSA Network, ca. 1982: link)

Communication Art

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