Friscawai'i: A Trans-Pacific Classroom Web Collaboration

Everyone loves to brag about an online collaborative artwork, no matter how thin the initial premise or small the innovation. And, as in private industry, rarely does a fine arts software project conclude with an analytical postmortem of a project of any kind. The project "Friscawai'i", involving the students of Violet Murakami and Mike Mosher, merits study because, well, it sort of sputtered to its incompletion.

Initial Web page, posted February 1998

1. What Was Wanted:

Artists Violet Murakami and Mike Mosher had spoken enthusiastically about the possibilities of collaboration on a project for some time, when Violet was in the Bay Area in 1995, and in several subsequent online conversations. Both are graduates of the San Francisco State University M.F.A. in Conceptual Design (Later Conceptual/Information Arts)

At the beginning of 1998 Violet had been teaching for several years at Kapi'olani Community College. Mike was teaching Art 412: Art and Emerging Technologies in the in the SFSU Art Department CIA Program. That year he was one of the lecturers teaching the classes of Professor Stephen Wilson--M.F.A. Advisor to both Violet and Mike--when Prof. Wilson was on sabbatical completing his third book.

Friendship and respect for each others work motivated Violet and Mike to develop this project, but there were two strong interests besides. The first was cultural studies, and the opportunity to get students to think critically about their environment and to put that critical stance into their work. Violet had assigned a rigorous reading list that included Edgar Heap of Birds critical of New Age appropriation of Native American imagery, Karen Kosasa, bell hooks, Douglas Kellner, Lynne Hershman, Media Virus and the Guerilla Girls. Violet had recently read Haunani Kay Trasks' From a Native Daughter and Lovely Hula Hands, which alerted her to the crass misuse of the imagery and language of traditional island people, so suggested changing Mike's neologism "Friscoaloha" to "Friscawai'i'". She recently created artwork on the subject of breast cancer, which appeared in the group show "Art.Rage.Us" in San Francisco,1998. Mike is a contributor to the journal of "Politics in Everyday Life" Bad Subjects, where his essay on cyberspace "Towards Community Art Machines" was included in its 1998 anthology from NYU Press.

The second motivating issue was the chance to question and play with the veracity and trustworthiness of online communications, an interest heightened by a hoax played-much to his amusement-upon Mike. Their fellow San Francisco State University M.F.A. Jerry Rosenbloom was visiting Violet in Hawaii in 1995. Suddenly e-mails from Violet about Jerry's impending arrival turned to disturbed messages about his arrest for mouthing of, joking inappropriately about explosives, in the airport. Subsequent e-mails grew more grim, suggesting that Jerry's radical past in the 1970s led to FBI involvement, and that he listed Mike as a personal reference. This was at the height of the search for the Unabomber, so all appeared plausible...until it later turned out that the messages were from Jerry all along, merely using Violet's e-mail account. How ready should one be to trust the sender on the other end of the wire, even if you trust the person whose name is in the return address?

2. Concept:

The concept behind "Friscawai'i" was to create a site for a fictitious nation, created by sesimic cataclysm that broke off the San Francisco Bay area and moved it to rest beside the Hawaiian islands. By using a fictious nation that was an amalgam of the two, like Swift, it was hoped there would be much room for serious cultural criticism, lightheared poltical satire and visual and literary invention.

The opening page said "Welcome to Friscawai'i... The unexpected cataclysmic tectonic shifts of the first decade of the Twenty-First Century resulted in the physical commingling of two regions previously separated by many miles-the Hawaiian Islands and the San Francisco Bay area. New life forms and new cultural artifacts soon developed. The new nation's history was publicly constructed in this historic electronic quilt, in which its citizens commemorated its many aspects and deposited and and stories." It went on to give directions, "To learn about the Flora and Fauna of the new islands, use the icons directly below", and two rows of icons were to follow directly above a map of the mythical region. "To learn about the History and Culture of the new islands, use the icons directly above", and two more rows of icons were positioned beneath the map.

The text continued: "The new political unit that ensued was alternately called the New Bay Islands, Hawaiiyerbabuena, depending on the speaker's agenda, but one name that stuck was Friscawai'i. Tales of exploration and self-exploration of this growing grafted culture was based on early contact, observation and misinformation or self-serving legend. From initial accounts it seemed to graft a modern culture and economy to battles over water rights and traditions of ocean navigation, support independence movements and ethnic pride in a polyglot salad-bowl of peoples, to a shared propensity for gay marriages and toleration of diversity. The new proximity of the cultural capitals San Francisco and Hawaii suddenly diminished the importance of the rest of California and the continental United States. We are the World... Like medieval travellers' accounts, the stories and artwork of the peoples of the Friscawahi'i were fantastic, powerful, subtle, radical, extreme, exciting, decorative, sexy and beautiful.
Please, enter into the RITUAL OF RECOLLECTION and enter your own contribution."

This link then took the visitor to the FRISCAWAI'I RITUAL OF RECOLLECTION, or method by which textual and visual imagery was contributed to the project. "To stimulate imagery for the Friscawai'i Historic Museum (and collaborative communication between the nation's citizenry), each participant in California and Hawai'i will be paired via e-mail with someone from the "other side"--Hawai'i or California --to be their partner. E-mail to be paired with a partner who'll send you three statements about "the other side" to match the three you send her/him. Each participant will provide the partner with narrative information, consisting of:
1) one statement that's true
2) one statement that's false
3) one statement that's ambiguous or misleading ...and the partner on the other side will then construct an exhibit image + text from that information.
Your partner won't tell you which statement is which! That's the mystery of it..."

It was hoped that this process would provide a framework for the students to stretch a bit and think about their daily assumptions about their place and time.

"Nature might include ocurrences as a result of forces you see around you now. Culture might include issues of:
a. Tourism, Travel and Sense of Place.
b. Tribe/People/Nation/Empire. But don't satirize another's, make a wry statement about your own.
c. Citizen's family or self-portraits, often arrayed with the symbols of meaningful technology.
d. The Uncharted and the Unknown."

We then gave directions as to the desired visual amd textual output: "When you've digested your partner's statements, create a GIF or JPEG 280 pixels tall and 240 pixels wide and statement about it. Try to keep your file size small. Aattach also a 32 x 32 pixel GIF or JPEG derived from the larger GIF to serve as an icon near the map on the Welcome page. When the historic image for exhibition is completed , attach it [MIME off, Mac default not PC] to an e-mail statement that describes your contribution. Send the description in ASCII e-mail, not as an attached text file, please. "

3. The Artists' Classes & Their Expectations:

In the fall semester, Violet's Art 201 class had created self-portraits in PhotoShop, layering personal imagery. These were then put on pages in which the visitor could enter responses to questions about the visitor's perception of the artist.

A prototype for the "Friscawai'i" project was assembled in Adobe PageMill by Mike then edited into manageable shape by Violet. At one point shortly after it was loaded an eager student webmaster redesigned it, but his design both eradicated the sense of multiple levels, quilt-like structure of the opening or home page, and the map which made sense of the entire project, so Mike's design was reloaded. The imagery in the student's version was also found somewhat distasteful by Violet, redolent of tourist-industry cliches of dancing happy island people.

After several telephone calls (a medium to which the e-mail-adept artists never thought they'd be forced to resort) to plan "Friscawai'i", the project began. Where to position it in each class' syllabus was an issue, as the Hawaiian class began in early January, while San Francisco's began at the end of that month. As a compromise the "Friscawai'i" project was slated for late February, and both instructors optimistically thought it could be completed in two weeks.

Mid-February Mike asked who would like to undertake an extra-credit piece to put themin the running for the solid A. As it wasn't to be taught to them in taught in 410 (the companion class they were taking) until later in the semester, Mike relied upon students already versed in PhotoShop, for nearly half the class raised their hands when asked who was familiar with it. The five students in Violet's class were expected to generate two images each, as they were paired with nine SFSU students, while Mike took the role of the tenth.

4. Disappointing Results & Bad Communications:

All five member's of Violet's class completed compositions from statements sent by San Francisco students. In depicting the "Californian" half of Friscawaii, all five students used imagery of the Golden Gate Bridge, which the San Franciscan students pretty much universally felt was clichéd when the page was brought up and projected in front of the class. There was some confusion as to the size of the buttons, for when existing small GIF icons were stretched they lost definition (and Mike never redesigned his own prototype icons as he'd intended).

Of the group of nine SFSU student participants, Tara Lindsay sent away her three statements, then received three which she turned into a page about "Fish SPAM". She was the only San Franciscan to complete an image from Hawaiian statements, and when asked shrugged that she thought the procedure asked for was understandable and doable. The rest of the SFSU participants sort of nervously winced, but Daniel Dunping Zheng, a student from Fujian province in China, exclaimed exasperatedly that he sent his Hawaiian partner his group of three statements several times and got no reply. Mike never received three statements, from which to generate an image, from the Hawaiian student to which he sent his three.

Mike expected that the students' e-mail communications would be frequent enought that they might introduce themselves to each other (What are you studying there? How old are you? What music do you like?), giving a context to the work they were doing together in their artificial role of Friscawai'ian historiansIt appears there was none, with more communication generated from students to the instructors when they failed to hear from their trans-Pacific partners.

5. What They Would Do Differently:

A cause of breakdown may have been the status of the project in each class. For Violet's small class, the project was a requirement. For Mike's large class, it was positioned as an extra credit the students could complete in order to secure a solid A. An extra-credit project beyond the large final project was always a requirement in Art 412 when taught by Stephen Wilson, and Mike wanted to maintain his standards for the year he replaced him on sabbatical. Yet with other lab projects in Director and SoundEdit 16, plus conceptual & reading assignments on their plate-for both Art 410 and their simultaneous course Art 412-few students were really thinking about (and pacing themselves for) extra credit at that point. Mike's Art 412 students who volunteed for "Friscawai'i" may have found themselves too occupied learning Macromedia Director skills at that part of semester, plus the assignments of a rigorous 410 course too, to focus on this small strange project. Had the project been offered them in late-April, those who already saw their Final Projects nearing completion might have jumped in and completed "Friscawai'i" contributions authoritatively. For a long-distance collaborative student project to succeed they would now recommended it fit into both class syllabii such that it was given equal weight to all participants.

"Friscawai'i", which Mike Mosher and Violet Murakami entered into with enthusiasm and expectations, was frustrated by their students' differing senses of time and priority and perhaps by the instructors' own differing curricular emphases. Both artists Violet and Mike have expressed impatience with other artists' artistic collaborations that fail to achieve both visually attractive and conceptually innovative results, that leave only their snail-like trails of process and little else of significance, so they were both disappointed that this endeavor was not a richly satisfying one to themselves nor to most of their students.

© Mike Mosher 1998

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