Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz of Mobile Image don’t think along the small scale lines of producing video art tapes.
Their ultimate objectives are sweeping: to foster cross-cultural collaborations through a global network of telecommunications systems. The prototype for such goals was “Electronic Cafe,” the pair’s six-week project installed during the 1984 Olympic Games and companion Arts Festival here.
Galloway and Rabinowitz linked “Mom and Pop” restaurants in Koreatown, East L.A., Venice, the Crenshaw District and the Temporary Contemporary through a system that incorporated live video transmission and computers. The setup, which included a writing tablet for those unfamiliar with a computer keyboard, was designed to be simple enough that anyone could use it.
Said Galloway: “ ‘Electronic Cafe’ was a place in which anyone could come and register their ideas or opinions. It was a place where people could document their lives or achievements publicly. . . like the shoeshine boy who walked into Anna Maria’s restaurant in East L.A., complaining of people who wore running shoes and how there wasn’t a good piece of leather to polish any more.
“Then, he sat down and pointed the camera at a photograph of his sister, who was killed in a auto accident two years ago, put it on the screen, wrote this poem in Spanish and stored it on the optical disc system. He got it right away.”
According to Rabinowitz, youngsters who were asked what they enjoyed about “Electronic Cafe,” said “they liked meeting people. They were confronted with about $70,000 of equipment in each cafe, but the technology was transparent enough that they came away with the quality of the human experience they had.”
Galloway and Rabinowitz are hopeful their next project will leave a permanent network of “Electronic Cafe"-type systems in place in museums in Paris, Los Angeles, Moscow and Tokyo by the end of 1988.
“To accomplish what we wanted on a human, aesthetic and political level, you gotta work with these tools because they are such powerful cultural solvents,” explained Rabinowitz, 37, in the couple’s Santa Monica apartment. “You can’t leave them in the hands of people whose only objective is to make money off them. “
The high-tech nature of the projects also test Galloway and Rabinowitz’s ability to function within the real world of major corporations and government agencies as well as the art community.
“Art institutions have a hard time with us but we started out to do these projects whether they were art-like or not,” said Galloway, 39. “When our projects succeed, they transcend the art rhetoric and become a real situation.
“The personal satisfaction comes from seeing the concepts come to life, seeing the interaction happen and everything working without screwing up. We’re describing social dynamics that few people have imagined or only articulated academically and we’ve been creating them into a reality.”
Galloway and Rabinowitz met in Paris in 1974 and returned to the States the next year. Their projects meshed Galloway’s interest in live video and satellite communications with Rabinowitz’s conviction, based on her observations about how the human brain processes images, that the medium’s power resides in the “image environment” of the television screen more than the specific story lines.
Their first major project was the NASA-sponsored “Satellite Arts Project,” which involved having a troupe of dancers on each coast create a single, composite image of the performance on a television screen. The challenge: There’s a -second delay while the signal is beamed up to a satellite and back down again and Galloway and Rabinowitz insisted that improvisation be a major component of the dance piece.
The three-day event in 1977 was a success, according to Galloway and Rabinowitz, despite encounters with Murphy’s Law.
“We were working outside because we wanted to take advantage of the natural differences in light,” remembered Rabinowitz. “On the second day, we ended a four-month drought in California and it rained on both coasts at the same time.
“On the third day, a backhoe in Maryland accidentally cut one of the main power lines to the Godard Space Flight Center. All of NASA was shut down except for telephones and toilets. We thought that if anything screwed up, it was going to be us but someone cut the extension cord.”
Their next major event was “Hole in Space” in 1980. They erected one-way video screens at Lincoln Center in New York and the Broadway department store in Century City to observe how people would communicate when they stumbled, without warning, on to a video screen showing people 3,000 miles away.
The element of surprise crucial to “Hole in Space” meant Galloway and Rabinowitz had to solicit more than $35,000 in contributions without telling anyone what the project entailed. The pair likened the interaction during the three-day project--which saw the crowds swell strictly through word of mouth on the second day and then as a result of media coverage on the final one--to a cocktail party, with people flirting and exchanging jokes coast to coast.
Between art projects, Galloway and Rabinowitz survive on occasional consulting jobs as well as teaching and lecturing. They’re also collaborating on a book with Cal Arts professor Gene Youngblood delineating their philosophy and vision for the future.
“Too many people assumed that the communications revolution was a product that was going to march over the hill like a band and solve everybody’s problem,” argued Galloway. “All you would have to do is purchase it, but there’s no satisfaction in waiting to consume. Our ability to manage telecommunications technology is going to be our legacy or our epitaph.”
Added Rabinowitz: “When people think of the future, everyone can imagine the world being destroyed. If you don’t start balancing that by imagining how you can be creative on that global scale, the only vision of the future we will have is death and destruction.”