TECHNOLOGY : An Electronic Kaffeeklatsch : With videos, computers, fax machines and java, patrons at the Electronic Cafe are creating a high-tech artistic network

"Probably the most powerful magic that contemporary humankind has is the ability to pick up an instrument and talk to somebody on the other side of the planet," said Kit Galloway in the Electronic Cafe's Santa Monica headquarters.

"What we're stressing is that a telecommunications revolution isn't something you consume. It's something you do."

Since opening to the public in April, the Electronic Cafe has linked artists and audiences here with their counterparts in such far-flung locales as Seoul, Moscow, Berlin, Barcelona, Managua and several major American cities using standard telephone lines. But the grand design of co-founders Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz for the Electronic Cafe extends far beyond just reaching out to touch someone artistically.

It encompasses Rachel Rosenthal winning bravos from a Moscow audience for a performance on Earth Day and poets from New York's Nuyorican Cafe reading their works to a gathering of poets here. But those at the other end of the phone line didn't just hear Rosenthal or the poets' recitals--they saw video snapshots of them as well, transmitted via videophone images arriving at five-second intervals on television screens hooked up to the phone lines. And the Electronic Cafe plans to take people inside the Bio Sphere 2 project in Arizona during the next two years.

Galloway and Rabinowitz hope their prototype Cafe will foster a new era of artistic experimentation and global collaboration through telecommunications. Their goals: encouraging artists to come to grips with the emerging technology, creating a role for artists in developing that technology and providing a place for those who ordinarily might not have access to the technology to experiment with it.

But Galloway and Rabinowitz don't want the Electronic Cafe to become some high-tech version of "cocooning," with artists working in isolation. An equally important component in their plan is that the creative interaction--whatever form it may take--will take place in a relaxed, convivial cafe atmosphere open to anyone.

"The context is what's interesting--technology will change, the gizmos will come and go, but the important thing is that it's a new way for people to meet people and establish relationships," said Galloway, 42.

Added Rabinowitz, 40: "One line we've used for a long time is, 'We must create at the same scale that we destroy.' If you're going to be addressing global problems, you have to be stressing global solutions and, to do that, you have to able to communicate.

"In the 1980s, we got to see each other. We got to see the (Berlin) Wall coming down and Tian An Men Square. In the '90s, we want to see each other and talk with each other."

Located in a quiet industrial neighborhood, the Electronic Cafe doesn't have a sleek, high-tech look: One corner of the spartanly furnished converted industrial space boasts a neatly arranged array of video monitors and telecommunications devices, computers, fax machines and printers that form the core of the Electronic Cafe operation.

The white walls of the cafe are adorned with long horizontal strips of black-and-white and color print-outs of videophone images from the events held there. The remaining space is filled with a motley assortment of tables and chairs, and there is a small kitchen area set aside from the main room; coffee, cold drinks and a few desserts are the only items on the menu.

The Santa Monica facility isn't the first time Galloway and Rabinowitz have unveiled their Electronic Cafe concept. During the 1984 Olympics, the pair successfully established five different stations at family owned restaurants in various sections of Los Angeles over a three-week period. But now, the Electronic Cafe is taking its first steps toward Galloway and Rabinowitz's vision of worldwide network modeled on the Santa Monica facility.

"People have to come here 'smart'--not that they know how this stuff works but just the curiosity of wanting to come," Rabinowitz said. "It has to be people who are really interested or curious, whether it's in art or the technology or just seeing what a German person looks like and what they have to say for themselves."

That doesn't mean interested people can walk into the Santa Monica facility at any time and expect a connection with people overseas. The cafe schedule is still in a state of flux but it has gradually been expanding its operation since April.

Currently, Fridays are designed as free "check-out" nights for people curious about the operation. Programmed events with admission fees usually take place Saturday evenings and Sunday brunches are in the planning stages.

Galloway and Rabinowitz also rent the facility to private individuals or organizations, and occasionally stage large-scale special events with global link-ups. The next scheduled events: a Day of the Dead connection with either San Francisco or New York Nov. 2 and one with the Stone Soup Poets from Boston Nov. 14. The next international event on tap: the Cafe's second annual "Around the World New Year's Eve Tele-bration."(For scheduling information: (213) 453-9519).

A more immediate project is a regular series of three-hour workshops they're attempting to inaugurate, which would cost $20 each. Advanced seminars on Tuesday and Thursday night will delve into telecommunications concepts and history while the introductory Saturday afternoon program deals with basic operational concepts of the Electronic Cafe. The objective: to familiarize others with how to use the equipment so they can operate it on their own artistic projects.

"People have to get the skills to use this stuff and not see it as 'technology,' " Rabinowitz said. "That's self-defeating. I don't know why your hair dryer is less a piece of technology than a videophone or using your lawn mower is less a piece of technology than a fax machine."

Said Rachel Rosenthal after her Earth Day performance: "If performance artists, including myself, start thinking in these terms, we could compose for the medium and that would be very interesting. It's like the advent of film, video, or photography--all these technologies have created new art forms that are symbiotic with them."

The cafe has already hosted a regular monthly gathering of poetry readings but a better indication of its potential are large-scale events. By the end of its 16-hour Earth Day program earlier this year, participants in Santa Monica had made international connections with Russia, Japan, Brazil and Nicaragua, traded performances with 30 German artists in Berlin, questioned members of the Bio Sphere 2 project in Arizona and visited with artists colonies in Santa Fe, New York City and San Francisco.

That program also displayed the cafe's informal, open-door policy. The chief translator for the Moscow connection was a visiting Soviet rock critic in town to assist a Russian band in get a record deal. His back-up: an Russian expatriate student at Cal State Northridge who heard of the event, dropped by and volunteered to help.

Later on that day, Guillermo Reyes arrived early for the connection with author/politician Omar Cabezas in Reyes' native Nicaragua. Reyes doesn't speak English but when Galloway called for a volunteer who spoke Spanish during another link-up, a friend encouraged Reyes to step up to the mike . . . where he had a short conversation with a schoolgirl attending a Catholic school in Yokohama, Japan.

"The kind of networks that you build are real important right now," Rabinowitz said. "What we're trying to create here is a community, a 'virtual' community made up of creative people, artists, thinkers. The value of this Electronic Cafe network is the quality of the relationships that are provided and maintained."

The Electronic Cafe system is built around regularly priced home electronic components but Galloway rated it as the equivalent of a 1.0 computer software program--the absolute minimum, starting-up point--compared to the pair's vision for the fully realized system. Certainly, the current incarnation of the Electronic Cafe doesn't offer a slickly formated "show" or the glossy technical presentation of big-budget commercial television.

"This is call Mom, call for pizza technology," Rabinowitz said. "Some people seem to be a little disappointed or put off and say, 'Well, I've seen that on Ted Koppel.'

"It's true--they saw it on TV. There's a separation--'I'm watching Ted Koppel experience it, but I am not experiencing it.' We can do satellite--we did satellites before Ted Koppel--but it's expensive."

Joked Galloway: "It's on the menu--coffee $1, videophone $10, full-motion satellite, $48,000 an hour. The distinction is that this is not a place where you only are an observer or an audience. You can become a participant or activate your own network and enlarge your constituency on a global scale and not just be, as we are conditioned in this country, passive observers of mass-dissemination media."

Electronic Cafe may be entering a new phase, but it's the culmination of a collaborative process for Galloway and Rabinowitz stretching back over 15 years.

Galloway, an Indiana native, was involved with a Dutch artistic collective experimenting with live video in the early '70s before continuing to pursue his interests in Paris. Born in New Jersey, Rabinowitz became involved with the Optic Nerve underground video/guerrilla television collective while attending UC Berkeley and met Galloway when she was in Paris for a video-arts conference.

They returned to New York in 1975, continuing their research and presenting several telecommunications projects that blurred the distinctions between vanguard art and high technology. The most fascinating may have been 1980's "Hole In Space," which involved erecting rear projection television screens in a display window at the Broadway department store in the Century City shopping mall and a second one at Lincoln Center in New York City. For one weekend, random passers-by at those locations could communicate directly with a screen full of strangers 3,000 miles away.

Like "Hole in Space" and most of Galloway and Rabinowitz's other projects, the Electronic Cafe system was chiefly assembled through donations from corporations and entrepreneurs. But Galloway doesn't fear the arrival of home telecommunications equipment on the consumer market, a development he anticipates in approximately 10 years.

"We are not threatened by personal, privately owned technology," he said. "The technology can come faster than the literacy in the society to use it or creatively animate it.

"Certainly, selling of the technology is no guarantee that the people consuming it are going to use it creatively. A lot of people buy these like waffle irons that end up in the utility closet of the kitchen. Then there is the disparity between that class can afford this personal technology and those who can't.

"So here we are as the public commons, the equalizer, in which this kind of activity can take place. As a telecommunications hybrid--the tele-cabaret, tele-theater and information center--people can come and learn about this technology."

But Galloway and Rabinowitz are committed to keeping the Electronic Cafe within the artistic "family" as a forum for fostering art on a global scale.

"Our idea is of creating this global creative network that will already be in place and functioning and ready to go by the time the next level of technology comes out," said Rabinowitz. "When it does, these people will already be hip. They'll know how to use it so their infrastructure will be in place--socially, politically and aesthetically--so they'll be ready to take off even further, thereby creating a cultural and creative reality that can have an impact."

The Electronic Cafe's programming isn't confined only to performances. The venue already boasts a small electronic videophone "gallery" where callers can peruse computer visual images left by artists which they hope to expand in the future.

But Galloway and Rabinowitz's efforts to expand their network have run into some obstacles on the technological front. Their supply of videophones, which were introduced on the market in 1987 and quickly pulled from the market, is limited and they're still waiting for the development of a reasonably priced writing pad, which would allow people uncomfortable with typewriter/computer keyboards to participate in the cafe network.

That network is slowly expanding, both in the U. S. and abroad, as Galloway and Rabinowitz rely on friends and artists to set up new locations.

Explained Galloway: "There are always networks or communities of people who are not defined by geography. Some of the places we connect with are very informal and others are associated with schools like the Chicago Art Institute or Carnegie-Mellon University. Since we're now here as a permanent place, we've created a center for this in that people in that constituency can always reach somebody here."

Added Rabinowitz: "We sort of create the reality in the sense that we exist, because it creates another point. As soon as you have another point, you have a conversation."

Mirroring their 1984 version of the cafe, some of those conversations will be taking place with artists within the Los Angeles city limits as well as San Francisco, New York, Chicago and Boston. But cafes are already in place in Seoul, South Korea, Hamburg and Berlin in Germany, plus Toronto and Vancouver in Canada. Others are in the works for Paris, Moscow and Japan but Galloway and Rabinowitz intend for the international part of the cafe network to be low-cost and wide-ranging.

"We've said, 'Send a Mr. Coffee and a videophone to Gambia and they've got an Electronic Cafe,' " said Galloway. "That's bootstrapping. That's the low end and that's enough. You can see and you can hear."

Added Rabinowitz: "The German and French Electronic Cafes will be very high-end, but unless you also have Gambia and Nicaragua--the smaller countries and their cultures included--the big, fancy networks don't mean very much. If you just have Germany and Paris and New York talking to themselves, it ain't interesting."

But Galloway and Rabinowitz's brand of international cultural contact is diametrically opposed to the multinational corporate vision. The Electronic Cafe is designed so that variety, not uniformity, will be the key element in the creative recipe.

"Not a melting pot--we want a chunky stew here," Galloway said. "We want a world of ideas, not make everybody look and sound the same on radio and TV. We celebrate the variety of life.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World