I interviewed Bazooka for an article on Howard Rheingold’s Electric Minds site in 1997. Here’s the interview:
JL: Why art?
BA: I figured out I didn’t want to do anything else, I guess. I couldn’t figure out why anybody would want to do anything else besides art.
JL: what was your first experience of artistic creation, that turned you on?
BA: making a drawing and having it turn into something I didn’t know it was gonna be. Rather than me making something and have it turn out exactly the way I wanted it to be. Isn’t that the opposite of what science is?
JL: sorta. In science you have a preconception of what you’re after, in your…
BA: building on the past
JL: theoretical stuff, but also… (cf writing)
BA: Marcel Duchamps: art coefficient, coefficient between what you’re doing and what’s really happening. (Also “I have forced myself to contradict myself in order to avoid conforming to my own taste.”) The difference is what makes it art. I did do a lot of fingerpainting. I remember painting in preschool, and I can’t remember doing much else in preschool. Surely I must have done other things? We had a xylophone made out of different kinds of water, and alphabet, and drawing.
JL: how did you get into computer stuff? Did you come to computers as an artist, or get into computers first?
BA: I got tired of giving quarters to video machines, so I decided to buy a computer.
JL: Was that an Amiga?
BA: An Amiga. It was $800, and I figured I could probably spend $800 on some of those games.
JL: In quarters, yeah.
BA: Computer games used to make noise. [phone ring zap] Before I moved to Austin I was making sound tapes, where I would take a lot of little casette recorders and record different things, then play two or three or four of them, and edit ‘em down that way. Then I saw what the Amiga could do, with four-track sound, as cheap as it was, and the editing capabilities that it had, and thought, “this could be fun!” That’s why I originally bought the computer, not so much to make art.
JL: Were you already an art instructor?
BA: Yeah, I got an educational discount…
JL: At the University of Texas?
BA: Yeah, I was already at UT, in ’89, I believe.
JL: So how long have you been at UT?
BA: ’88. Around about this time (January) in ’88.
JL: You came from California?
BA: In a little red volkswagen.
JL: Were you fresh out of art school?
BA: I….wasn’t fresh! [Laughter].
JL: Well, fresh can describe many things.
BA: I got an MFA in ’76, and I had been going to school since preschool. Somehow I got a teaching job at USC. I answered an ad in a newspaper, believe it or not. They called me up and said they had a job where I could teach for a year. I hated it…it was terrible. Got sick driving up to USC, by the coliseum, every day when I had to come to work. I don’t know if that was me, or USC… Then I taught at my alma mater. I went to Pasadena City College, and they let me teach a night course. And after that I just went on unemployment, a great scam (laughs), for at least six months. Living in Long Beach.
The last year of graduate school I had gone around to galleries and got a gallery representative, and shows lined up.
JL: When was your first successful show?
BA: First show, I sold everything. This was ’77, ’78. Second show, I sold nothing. So I figured I couldn’t depend on that at all. A lot of the drawings from the second show, eventually, I sold for about two or three times what people could have bought ‘em for at the first show.
Anyway, I got unemployment, then I worked under the table at a restaurant, as the preparation cook. I got two meals a day. I had a boss that was like 20, that would supply all the helpers with marijuana, and all the food we could eat, and all the beer we could drink. I would wake up at 3 in the morning and break eggs, and cook bacon, and grate cheese. Finish work at about 9 o’clock in the morning, eat breakfast, go home and draw all day, and come back the next day. That was a nice life. Then Long Beach decided that their downtown art scene would be better served as a mall. The people down there relocated us, so I lived another six months off relocation money, and met a lady that decided we wanted to live together, but she didn’t wanna live in Long Beach, so we moved to Hollywood. I got a job moving art work around, an art mover, and my wife worked for the city art gallery. Still wasn’t teaching. A friend of mine that showed at the same gallery that I did, Sam Lemley, had been living out at Malibu above the animal hospital, and he had gotten tired of that. He thought it would be the perfect place for an artist to live, isolated, but it was too isolated for him and his girl friend, so he wanted to move. He snuck my wife and I in there. First it was just as three months’ replacement, while he went away, and had no plans of ever returning. I guess I impressed the doctor enough so I could stay on there. So I worked for this vet, and I still worked in town two or three days a week, moving artwork around.
JL: You didn’t feel too isolated?
BA: Oh, yeah. Especially after my wife left, decided that we were going to break up. She was still working 45 minutes or more away, so that was a real hassle for her. She started staying more in town. And wonderful arguments about money, and jealousy…I had a gallery and she didn’t have a gallery; she sold a lot and I didn’t sell anything. I said, “You’re crazy, why do you need a gallery? You’re selling plenty of things without a gallery.” Didn’t apply for any teaching jobs.
Then my friend Ken Hale here in Austin sent me a job description. He was going off to Spain for a semester. I applied for the job. Someone else got it, but they hired me as a drawing instructor instead of a printmaking instructor. Called me up, asked me if I wanted to come and teach drawing, and I said “Okay, but just for one semester. I hate teaching, I don’t wanna do it forever.” I got here and enjoyed it more than I thought I would.
JL: when you came to Austin, you never had been here before?
BA: Never had been here. What a shock! It was a shock.
JL: Did you have preconceptions.
BA: A friend of mine told me it was like Central California, around Davis. The rolling hills. I’d been to Davis, and didn’t expect all the trees here. When I drove up, like I said, it was weather like this [cold and wet], in a Volkswagen. Came to this apartment, the heater didn’t work. It was 22 degrees.
JL: Same apartment, huh?
BA: The same apartment. Didn’t have any furniture. The neighbor said she was going to give me some bedclothes and a futon. It got so cold that she and her boyfriend went to Mexico to stay warm, and forgot about leaving me a bed. So I was sleeping on the floor, no furniture, dark apartment. The apartment I had lived in in Malibu, the studio was about three times as big, nice and airy, ocean across the street.
JL: How long were you in Austin before you started doing computer stuff, and set up Pair O Dice (BBS)?
BA: I was here in Austin a year before I bought a computer. When I bought the computer I bought a modem. The guy at the Amiga store said I’d want to get together with the user group, to figure this out.
I called a BBS called Alliance that was also running on an Amiga, and made friends with the sysop, Bart. That turned into about a five or six line BBS for a while, and a big chat thing. That’s where I met Loyd Blankenship, who was impressed by my knowledge, as an artist. No other artist he’d met knew anything about computers.
And then the wonderful bust came along, the bust at Steve Jackson Games. After the bust Loyd tried to be really sociable, and really put up a good front. He was a very helpful person, they didn’t call him The Mentor for nothing.
A lot of BBSs were closing, because of complete fright from what was going on. Everyone at that time seemed to have wares sections, and a lot of gifs, on their systems, much more than today.
JL: You didn’t have Pair O Dice up at the time?
BA: No. But right after that, within a year, I borrowed a demo of the C/Net software from the sysop at Alliance, and put that up here. Loyd helped me some, and Bart helped me some, and that’s how it started…when as it? June 1992.
JL: Are you still running C/Net?
BA: Still C/Net. It probably has about ten upgrades since I stopped upgrading it. It was getting to be a real hassle, upgrading. You had to almost rebuild your BBS every time. Last time I said, that’s enough. It works fine, it’s not crashing…
JL: Are you still pretty active with Pair O Dice? Or does it just rock on?
BA: About six months ago, I decided, after the CDA business…I had a lot of users that were like 11 or 12, and were getting net access. I’d made a mistake about how I set up the BBS, so that anyone, the first time they logged in, could start reading Usenet news. And that sort of freaked me out, that something bad was gonna happen for that. So I gave everyone two months. I said “I’m’ gonna purge everyone in two months, and maybe I’ll be back, and maybe I won’t.” And did, and changed things so now people can’t see the net right away, they have to ask to get it. So far it’s real sleepy. We’ve got fifteen users.
JL: It got so that there wasn’t much conferencing going on anyway, as I recall.
BA: As soon as I got UUCP started, and was getting email and usenet news, people just migrated away from public conferences completely.
JL: You probably spend more time on web stuff today, don’t you?
BA: These days, yeah. When I read, there’s maybe one message in a conference per day on Pair O Dice.
JL: So you got Pair O Dice together in ’92. When did you discover OTIS?
BA: Almost four years ago, ’93 or ’94. Ed Stastny put a note on usenet, in alt.artcom, about putting up a place where all artists could store their work. It wasn’t about electronic art or digital art…
JL: Or collaborative art?
BA: Or collaborative art. In the beginning, it was more a place where people could achieve “digital immortality,” according to Ed’s phrase for it. If you didn’t have a scanner, you could just send in hardcopy of your art work and he would scan it for you. You could send it my mail, by ftp, by email…
JL: How did he get into all this?
BA: I don’t know, before that. I just know he had these brainstorming sessions with his friends up there in Omaha.
JL: What does he do to support himself?
BA: He works for synergy.net, he’s like their web guy. Before that, I’m not sure what he did. He sure had a lot more time before he had this job.
JL: He wasn’t teaching, in academia?
BA: No, Ed might be 21 now, or 23. He’s really pretty young. He used to take some art courses up there, draws a lot. He doesn’t really appreciate his own drawing. Most artists don’t. [chuckle]
So Ed put that notice up…I don’t know if I sent him some stuff right away, but I remember immediately asking him about doing collaborative work, because I was still doing a lot of regular mail art.
JL: So was it your idea initially to collaborate?
BA: I think he was thinking about it too. But definitely I remember talking to him before we all started doing things. The first project we did, I had sent him images through email that never got to him, so I didn’t get to take part in the first one. But after that, most of the collaborative things I’ve had some hand in. At least in participating, not really organizing it. The first one was “Smart Bomb,” maybe. It started out where some of the Panic things that we’d do, some people would have a party, and they would have video grabs or some way of inputting who the people were there, and they’d ftp the images to the OTIS site, and all the OTIS artists would manipulate ‘em, and send ‘em back. That’s pretty much what happened at Robofest [‘93]; that was one of the models that we had. As it went on, a lot of the original people, because they were gaining web and html experience, all the sudden ended up with too much work on their hands, and not enough time. So a lot of those fell by the wayside. Just like Ed really got to, after a while. Ed spends all day long doing web work, and if you spend all day on a computer, you don’t want to come home, and spend all night on a computer. Well [looking at jonl], most people don’t. Some people do. [laughs]
[Discussion of carpal tunnel syndrome].
JL: At what point did you start thinking of yourself as a cyberartist? That there was a distinct form of art that you could do online, and that was evolving into an art form in its own right?
BA: Sometime with OTIS I decided that this could work as art. When I first started my BBS, I was trying to convince myself that the BBS was art, like open-ended art, the conferencing, etc. But it just didn’t ever look like art. Not enough artists called, and it had a lot of other things that made it seem pretty much like any other BBS. I couldn’t really justify it as art. I would have these discussions with my peer at school, Bhagan Przinsky, about how to make art with a computer…how to not just use a computer to re-represent art in a different form, like a lot of art on the Internet is. Even some of my art that I put up exists as a drawing or as something else, and then I just put it up on the web. But how to make something exist only within cyberart, or within that space, that doesn’t need a connection to a physical object. The collaborative process seemed to satisfy me, just organizing the people, somehow that activity seemed more artlike than the other things that were going on. Like with Cristo, the artist who wraps things. A lot of Cristo’s art is not so much the wrapping of objects, but the social construction they do in getting volunteers to come together, and getting all these people to work. It’s almost that the artwork is an excuse for the art, rather than the other way around.
JL: That’s sort of like concept art, except that it’s more than just concept. It’s like social realization of concept.
BA: Well, you can be a conceptual artist by yourself.
The social activity of cyberspace interests me more than using Photoshop to make whizbang pictures.
JL: I think that’s the real new thing about SITO, the fact that it is basically a social construction; it’s collaborative and it’s interactive…to me, it’s one of the best implementations of the interactive nature of cyberspace.
BA: You should get a synergy id and join in the phun. SITO never rejects anyone.
JL: You don’t have to have an artist’s cred…
BA: I can remember this one guy that came on, whose login name was ‘bad art,’ and really coming down on everyone for making good art. His was the only art that was bad art, and that was really disturbing a lot of people on the list. And people were telling me “throw this guy off.” Well, if you’re gonna throw him off, are you gonna throw me off? Cause I’m gonna leave if you’re going to throw off anyone. Everyone has a right to be here, bad art, good art, or in between art.
[Discussion of infamous spammers. Is spam art?]
One of the people I met at SIGGRAPH this year, Paul Brown, was talking about spamming the erotic binary groups, grabbing a lot of the pictures and putting corporate logos on them, “This pornography sponsored by Shell”…
JL: Much of this stuff has a giddy quality to it. Like the Mondo grid [a collaboration created for an upcoming Mondo 2000]
BA: Giddy? [laughs] Well, that was a lesson in what it takes to get one of these collaborative projects to go. Like Ed says, a lot of it is cheerleading…you have to get people to stay interested in the project…people in cyberspace will jump onto something new, but it’s hard to get people to stay on it.
I had started another one in summer that just sorta petered out, partly because I lost time to be able to stay on it. People would send me email and reserve squares, and if I wasn’t there, the whole project sorta faltered until I would come and answer my email. So when I had this Christmas break, I had enough time to be here [and keept the Mondo grid project going].
Collaborative projects let me do things that I normally wouldn’t do. I give myself permission…I’m not gonna be consistent, and not gonna worry about fitting in with all the other things that I’ve done. Not that I’m very consistent anyway, I just try things to try things, and not worry if they fail. Artists, after a while, start getting all sorts of weird conflicts about things. Once people start writing about your artwork, once people start talking about it, you start wondering what it really is. It’s hard to see your own work when you’re experiencing it through other people’s eyes.
Any talk about my art work sorta puts me in a weird sense, trying to figure out what people are saying.
JL: It’s a nonverbal mode. Maybe there’s just not words for it.