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E.A. Dobbs

[- review of Tom Sherman's Before and After the I-Bomb

Author: Brian Leigh Molyneaux

Keywords: review, tom sherman

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Before and After the I-Bomb: an artist in the information environment"
by Tom Sherman, edited by Peggy Gale, Banff Centre Press 2002,
ISBN 0-920159-94-X; 6.5 x 8.25, 384 pages, paper: $29.95 CDN / $20.50 US

A review by Brian Leigh Molyneaux

Tom Sherman's "Before and After the I-Bomb", a collection of more than
twenty-five years of public and private muses, performance texts and
internet pieces, represents a lifetime's seduction by technology.

Sherman makes his passion clear at the outset. He likes to "negotiate
reality with instruments". This is not a surprise for someone born
immediately after World War II. Sherman's earliest childhood was a time
when the masses were encouraged not only to fear the A-Bomb and its
technology but to love it as a protector. Many kids born in the aftermath
of World War II were like Tom and me. Deep in blue collar/middle class
North America and wary of protection, we pressed our ears against the
speakers of vast old radios, moving through fantastic jungles of noise in
search of distant, dangerous new worlds. We grew up, of course, and lost
our naivety during the VietNam war era, but we remained faithful to
technology as a vehicle for exploration and enchantment.

Sherman's first public act of techno-seduction was a subversive reverie
for a British communications journal that he published in 1974. His modest
proposal was to process Western art history into a "concise history of
painting" and create an Art-Style Computer-Processing System so that
television viewers could translate broadcasts in the "period vision" of
their choice ('let's watch the State of the Union address as Surrealism
tonight, dear'). Between this early bravura - 1974 was also the year of
the first personal computer - and his twenty-first century Epilogue, a
somber reflection on our current "techno-existentialism", he provides an
artist's perspective on the I-bomb. The I-bomb stands for the "thunderous
explosion of advertising, entertainment, voice and data" that heralded the
late twentieth century information age. What makes this book essential
reading for anyone interested in contemporary art and society is that
Sherman saw the bomb develop, got caught in the blast, and has a strong
vision of the world in its wake.

Sherman's narratives begin in a 1970s Toronto still resonating from
Marshall McLuhan's radical ideas about mass media. McLuhan's notion that
electronic media extended the central nervous system outside the body into
"a global embrace" had an especially strong impact on people already
mulling over Norbert Weiner's cybernetic theory. Weiner held that the
dynamics of communication and control were similar for humans, other
living things, and machines. Unconventional artists like Sherman saw this
new way of thinking as a challenge not only to contemporary art, but also
to traditional ideas of human nature. While realtime communication devices
eliminated the distance between people and vastly increased their web of
relationships, it did so at the sacrifice of a body-centered mind. In
various places in the I-bomb we read his complaint: "I worry about losing
my sense of self"; "my nervous system is not so central anymore". By 2002,
the courtship is over: "we are embracing technology itself as the
significant other in our lives".

The vision of a new bionic nature emerging out of the disembodiments of
the information age is not simply an intellectual conceit. The integration
of human and machine through multimedia extensions poses a threat to the
balance of nature. The problem is that this new adaptation is largely
untested. Nature had millions of years to sort out primate development and
create human animals well adapted to their natural environments. Since the
new information age has developed so quickly, it has become a cybernetic
problem, a world out of control. So, while the internet seems to be moving
us ever closer to McLuhan's ideal of the global village, we are not only
being "overrun by our own technological inventions", as Sherman writes,
but running ahead of our own evolution! The result is a chaos of choices,
like the fantastic array of experimental creatures produced millions of
years ago in early Cambrian seas near the origins of life. In Sherman's

"There is no collective idea of where we are headed. The future is
multidirectional. With no collective vision, the individual is at the
center of the universe again".

Such obvious disquiet at social fragmentation may seem odd coming from an
artist. Sherman knows, however, that the freedom that technology gives to
individual expression comes at a price: the architectures of software,
hardware and delivery systems are logical, highly structured and under
corporate control. No wonder videocams and computers are "the preferred
tools of authoritative organizations". In the techno-environment, we are
reduced to the level of our primate ancestors, feeding an information
economy, and "harvested like trees or minerals or fish". The effect of
this expanding multimedia world on creativity is clear, as anyone thinking
about the pathetically narrow window of their monitor must surely realize:
"Industrially produced architectures of thought generate imaginative
uniformity", making change, over time, "the same as endless uniformity".
We cannot escape our memes any more than we can our genes.

Sherman is always concerned with his own engagement with a world where
nature and culture, animal and machine, are all part of integrated
information systems. It is perhaps inevitable, then, that he devotes the
last part of the book to our problematic relationship with the natural
world - symbolized, in the last sentence in the closing text, by the
disturbing image of a manicured cedar tree in a Burger King entrance -
Nature firmly under capitalist technological control. While some readers
might assume that his clear love for the vicissitudes of nature is simply
nostalgia for a living system that worked, he clarifies his view in the
Epilogue. We are stuck with what we helped create; Nature is now our

Sherman's resolution is elusive, even evasive: cracks of light, hope,
memory, novelty. There is clearly no easy way out of our dystopia. In my
reading, however, there is refuge and inspiration in a subtle bit of text
that may reveal Sherman's personal approach. In "Nothing Worse" (2000), we
find his persona in his artistic hermitage, the man who does not want to

"If you want to go with the flow, you've got to be streamlined;
you've got to be smooth.

I don't fit in. The world spins around me. Everything I touch seems
to stop in its tracks. I get ideas. I move on these ideas. I make
things.... Somewhere, out there, there are other people who sit still and
watch the world spin around. They are like me. They, too, make information
that doesn't move."

Franz Kafka wrote: "the fact that our task is exactly commensurate with
our life gives it the appearance of being infinite" (Third Notebook,
January 19, 1918). Sherman's best writing - simple, lucid description,
contrived and yet free, paced at the rhythm of an ordinary conversation -
conveys the simple beauty and dreadful wonder that are the contraries of
life in a technological maelstrom. If we are to survive the effects of the
I-bomb, perhaps we too need to stop, take a few breaths, look away from
our monitors and listen.


Dr. Brian Leigh Molyneaux is an archaeologist, writer and
photographer. He is a specialist in art and ideology, the human use of the
landscape, and environmental approaches to technology. At the University
of South Dakota, he is Director of the Archaeology Laboratory, and
Co-Director of the Missouri River Institute. He is also a Research
Associate of the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada. He received his MA
in Art and Archaeology from Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario, in
1977 and his PhD in Archaeology at the University of Southampton, England
in 1991.


Tom Sherman's book, "Before and After the I-Bomb: An Artist in the
Information Environment," is available through Printed Matter, Inc.; or
directly from the Banff Centre Press.

Individuals can order via the WWW from Printed Matter, Inc.:

To order directly from the Banff Centre Press, send an e-mail to: -- or call 403-762-7532

This book is also available on-line at:,,,,,

Bookstores or libraries should contact:
LPG Distribution
c/o 100 Armstrong Ave
Georgetown, ON L7G 5S4
Tel: 905-877-4411 toll-free 800-591-6250
Fax: 905-877-4410 toll-free 800-591-6251

[note: bookstores in the U.S. can order through Ingram and Baker & Taylor]

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Submitted by GeertLovink
Posted on Sun Jun 8, 2003 at 2:20 AM EURODISCORDIA TIME

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