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Proto-Digital Art by One of Victoria's Leading Artists

Glenn Howarth, "Him (portrait of the artist)" (circa. 1984), Telidon digital imaging,
dimensions variable. (Photo: John Durno)

 

By ROBERT AMOS, JUN. 2016

Last year the Special Collections of the University of Victoria’s library received the papers of Victoria artist (and UVic graduate) Glenn Howarth. Amid the sketchbooks, diaries and photo albums was a cache of old-style floppy discs. Between 1981 and 1985 Howarth, a painter, experimented with artistic applications of the Telidon project, a Canadian prototype of the World Wide Web. Those floppy discs were tantalizing to John Durno, a computer specialist at the UVic Mearns Center for Learning. And after a year spent decoding the arcane data stored on them, Durno has revealed their contents in presentations to librarians, archivists and the public in Toronto, Vancouver and Victoria. 

Even in the early 1980s, Howarth’s work was rarely seen, though it was part of the Canadian entry at the São Paolo Biennale of Art in 1983. Since then, the software to run it has disappeared and Durno was fortunate to find one of only two remaining Telidon monitors. “These things are incredibly rare,” Durno chuckled, as he fired up the clunky machine. He found it at The Society for Preservation of Antique Radio in Canada (SPARC) Radio Museum, a volunteer-run operation on the grounds of the old Riverview Psychiatric Hospital in Coquitlam. 

“The Telidon network essentially ran off decoder boxes which would be hooked up to people’s television sets,” Durno explained. “You would have remote control unit, and could page through menus to look up weather and things.” Dr.Ernest Chang led a team at UVic developing a Picture Creation System based on the Canadian Communications Research Council’s Telidon protocol. His associate, Dave Godfrey, who was head of the Creative Writing Department, brought Howarth in to work on the project, and offered him space at his company, Softwords, to test-drive what was the first “paint” program.

Glenn Howarth, "Sherry" (circa/ 1984), Telidon digital imaging, dimensions variable. (Photo: John Durno)

In his office last week, Durno set in motion the collection of Howarth digital paintings for me, which slowly developed on the screen before us. In the beginning the artist had a very limited palette of “three bit colour” — red, green, blue, magenta, cyan and yellow and six shades of grey. There was no way to blend the colours. “That was it,” Durno said. A blocky portrait of Dave Godfrey emerged, revealing its progress as Howarth  plotted shapes and filled them in with colours. He had no opportunity to adjust the order of the elements — they just showed up in the order in which he drew them. 

“It was remarkable what he was able to do with the incredibly primitive technology,” Durno commented. “These would have taken hours and  hours to create.” Fortunately, Howarth was already a very accomplished draughtsman.

There were a few artists working on computer art in Toronto, but Howarth was the only one in western Canada. As an unpaid “artist in residence,” he created upwards of 100 images. The next one that came up on our screen was the view of a landscape seen from his Victoria apartment, which was then overlaid by a window frame, and on top of that an image of his daughter, baby Rhiannon, who was born in 1982. It was Rhiannon who recently donated this material to the University. 

John Durno and the Telidon Monitor at UVic, March 2016. (Photo: Robert Amos)

An arcane government technical manual from 1979 miraculously showed up in the UVic library, enabling Durno to recreate the software by which these images could be processed. Halfway through Howarth’s work on the project, in about 1983, a new form of the software evolved and his imagery become more sophisticated. Durno was able to run this later material with a program he found called DOSbox, which is available on-line for retro-gamers. 

The first commercial Paint program was not written for the Graphic Mac computer until 1984, so Howarth’s work was a little ahead of its time. These images, which were showing up on the screen in front of me, “marked the first time someone who wasn’t primarily a computer technologist got in there,” Durno concluded. 

On reflection, I felt that what Durno had shown me was the result of a remarkable confluence of resources: the discovery of these obsolete discs by someone who could write the software for them; the location of that rare piece of hardware that could play them; and the inherent value of these images created by one of Victoria’s most interesting artists. Those interested in Howarth will be pleased to know that an exhibit drawn from his papers, and the University’s art collection, will be installed at the University library’s Maltwood Prints and Drawings Gallery from July 30, 2016 to January 29, 2017WM

 

Robert Amos

Robert Amos is an artist and writer living in the seaside city of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. He has dedicated himself to the city of Victoria and its art life since 1975, and has written an art column for the Victoria Times Colonist every week since 1986.In addition to being self-appointed art historian of the city, he has spent many years enjoying James Joyce's final book, Finnegans Wake.

(Photo: Bruce Amos)

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