This Canadian dial-up art is older than the internet, and was long thought to be lost — until now
Discover the little-known history of Telidon, which transmitted art through phones in the early 1980s
Before Google; before Reddit and YouTube; before Blogger, LiveJournal and Myspace; before Hamster Dance, GeoCities, Netscape and 50-day Free Trial AOL CD-ROMs; before even the advent of the World Wide Web, there was Telidon.
In 1978, the Canadian government introduced a videotex service that would enable the transmission of interactive text and graphics by way of a standard phone line connected to a specially adapted TV set. Field trials of the Telidon service began throughout Canada the following year. The largest was Bell's Vista trial, which put decoders in 500 to 1000 households across Ontario and Quebec. Users could retrieve news updates and weather reports; they could shop and bank remotely. Among its information providers, which you'd select from an onscreen directory and punch into the keypad like a TV channel, were corporations and interests such as The Bay, Encyclopedia Britannica and the Toronto Star. A decade before the first web browser — predating the popularization of the home computer, even — Telidon was a public-facing proto-internet.
Its uses weren't only commercial. In the heyday of video and electronic arts, the promise of a technology that could disseminate artwork across the country and perhaps, one day, the globe, was attractive. A community of arts-minded electronics wonks, telecom prophets and other curious sorts coalesced around it, embracing it as an art medium. "I think they're our first internet artists," says Shauna Jean Doherty, Programming Coordinator at InterAccess, a Toronto artist-run centre focused on new media which was, in fact, originally founded 35 years ago to provide artists access to Telidon page creation hardware (more on that in a moment). As part of its birthday festivities, Doherty and Denise Chan at InterAccess have begun the #telidon Instagram campaign, sharing archival images and exemplary artworks in celebration of a history that's little-known, and was — until very recently — lost.
It is often said that artists rise to the technology they have access to. Bill Perry holds that the inverse is also true: technology rises to the artists it can access. Perry applied to be a Telidon information provider in 1981 with an image, picturing the sun peeking over water, that he'd hacked together with code from the Telidon handbook on a friend's Apple IIe. It was meant to express the graphic capability of the technology. Bell liked it so much that they gave him a $25,000 page creation terminal for free with the understanding that he'd make more such content.
He located the unit at Trinity Square Video — a Toronto media arts centre — so that other creatives could learn Telidon, too. It became so popular that he and fellow artists Nina Beveridge, Geoffrey Shea and Paul Petro opened a separate non-profit facility called Toronto Community Videotex (later InterAccess), set up expressly for Telidon. While much of the system's corporate content was bland and utilitarian, Perry's electronic media magazine, Computerese, where he'd publish his artwork as well as the artwork of other locals, was routinely the most accessed package on the Vista trial — some months racking up as many views as the other providers combined.
The technology's constraints lent it a distinct aesthetic: very few building blocks, very few colours, explains Beveridge, who went on to develop Telidon projects for Rogers and CBC and then launched TSN's graphics department. "You'd use a tablet and click dots with a stylus to build your primitives. It wasn't very sensitive, so there was some trial and error." Whenever a new page was called up, the graphic would draw itself on screen. You had to think back to front and design economically, so images would load quickly.
Even within those parameters, artists found singular voices and areas of inquiry, says gallerist and curator Paul Petro. Nell Tenhaaf, for example, was compelled by the interactive capabilities of the medium and constructed elaborate narratives for users to navigate. Robert Flack, in contrast, created poppy animations playing with the ways they could build and reveal themselves on screen.
Perhaps the piece that best captured both the ambition of the tech and the spirit of the moment — Perry, working with Beveridge, playwright Deanna Taylor and a group of other artists made a videotex documentary called ART vs. Art. It tracked the 21-day mayoral campaign of Toronto-based performance art trio The Hummer Sisters, who entered the race as candidate "A. Hummer" against incumbent Mayor Art Eggleton and netted 10% of the city's vote.
"It wasn't long after we made it that it disappeared," Perry says. By the mid-1980s, the Telidon project was over. The personal computer stormed the consumer marketplace over videotex decoders and dumb terminals with keypads. The World Wide Web was just over the horizon. Like Betamax, LaserDiscs and other obsolesced media, the Telidon packages, saved on 8-inch floppies, languished on shelves and in storage bins or were scrapped outright.
ART vs. Art — along with much of Perry's Telidon output — was thought lost until a VHS copy turned up recently at Artexte, a media arts library and research centre in Montreal. Other artists, like the late Glenn Howarth from Victoria, have similarly been the subject of fresh finds. It makes the artists hopeful more work might yet turn up.
Though the original source code is gone, Perry and University of Victoria Head of Library Systems John Durno have successfully created a functional browser-based reconstruction of ART vs Art from the video copy. Unfortunately, the final summary, the climax, the very ending of the story is missing. It's still to be found — which, in this case, might be a good omen.
Follow the InterAccess #telidon Instagram campaign at @interaccessto. If you think you might have Telidon art, the artists ask that you email email@example.com.