John Durno

Telidon

For the past few years I have been working on a series of projects focussed on recovering and restoring Canadian digital artworks from the early 1980s. They have been among the more rewarding and challenging projects I have worked on to date.

Drawing of cityscape with mountains and blue sky in background, framed in a window, in bright colours and flat, simple shapes
Glenn Howarth Telidon drawing (Victoria cityscape), 1983

 

In 2015, at the request of our University Archivist, I began a project to restore the digital artworks of Glenn Howarth (1946-2009), a well-known Victoria artist. For most of his career Howarth worked in traditional media like paint and charcoal, but in the early 1980s he took an extended detour into digital media. From 1981 through 1985 he created hundreds of digital images in a couple of graphics formats that developed out of a project called Telidon.

 

In 2012 the University of Victoria Archives had received a donation from Howarth's estate. Included in the donation were approximately 200 floppy disks, two dozen of which were found to contain his Telidon art files. Rendering the files as images proved an interesting challenge.

 

Telidon was the Canadian variant of videotex, which in the late 70s and early 80s seemed a promising approach to building consumer-oriented interactive computer networks. There were successful videotex implementations in other countries - most notably France, with Minitel - but despite its initial promise Telidon ultimately failed to get much beyond the field trial stage. As Telidon relied on proprietary Canadian-made hardware, software and protocols, its relative obscurity had the downstream effect of greatly complicating the restoration of Glenn Howarth's digital artworks.

 

Ultimately, however, I was able to source the necessary equipment and software, and by the spring of 2016 most of Glenn Howarth's digital art had been restored. It was exhibited as part of a retrospective of his works than ran from mid-2016 through early 2017, initially in the Libraries' gallery space before moving to the main UVic gallery downtown.

 

My involvement with Telidon art restoration could have ended there, but in the course of researching the Howarth project I became aware that there had been many other Telidon artists in Canada, most of whom (if they thought about it at all) had long believed that their works were not recoverable. It seemed to me irresponsible not to at least explore the possibility of recovering some of their works also. By this point I had come to believe that, over and above the artistic merit the works certainly possess, Telidon art has significant historic value as maybe not the absolute beginnings of Canadian networked computer art, but certainly as very early examples of it. (It is possibly the earliest example of interactive networked computer art in Canada, but don't quote me on that). Not to mention being some of the few remaining examples of the Telidon project itself.

 

A Telidon-related entry on the Dead Media Project site led me to the artist Geoffrey Shea, who back in the 1980s was one of the four founders of Toronto Community Videotex (now InterAccess), an artist-run cooperative that was one of the major centres for Telidon art production. Geoffrey introduced me to the co-founders, Bill Perry and Nina Beveridge. I met the fourth founder, Paul Petro, somewhat later.

 

I had the honour of meeting Bill and Nina in person when I visited Toronto to speak about my Telidon restoration work at InterAccess in 2018. Although he has since moved on to other projects, for four years Bill Perry was my primary collaborator in the recovery of Telidon artworks and the development of a comprehensive Telidon art archive.

 

That 2018 InterAccess visit also marked the beginnings of a project to develop a couple of exhibitions of Telidon art to celebrate InterAccess' 40th anniversary in 2023. As of spring 2023 the exhibitions project team includes curator Shauna Jean Doherty, IA Executive Director Ginger Scott, IA Programming Manager Evangeline Brooks, and myself. Artist and IA Board Member Rob Cruickshank advises and assists from time to time as well.

 

In April 2021 we were pleased to announce that our planned web exhibition is being generously supported by the Digital Museums Canada Investment Program. You can read more about that in our press release.

 

During a study leave in 2021 I developed a DOSBox-based Telidon terminal emulator to exhibit Telidon artworks on the web. I then used those technologies to restore dozens of significant Telidon artworks, drawn from ~10,000 Telidon art files recovered from floppy disks in the InterAccess archives, University of Victoria Archives, and several personal collections. Some of those restorations will be showcased in our two exhibitions.

 

In August 2023 I completed a project to convert five HP T610 thin clients into interactive Telidon display kiosks for the gallery exhibition. On CRT monitors (sourced by our curator Shauna) and with custom keypads (designed and assembled by yours truly) the displays do a pretty good job of capturing the experience of viewing Telidon art on mid-1980s Telidon hardware.

 

Update, September 18, 2023: The opening on the 6th was very well attended, with 3 of the 4 founders of Toronto Community Videotex present, as well as over 100 other folks. My talk on the 8th was well-received. The thin client displays held up reasonably well once I had diagnosed and fixed a problem with the screensaver that was causing them to hang. (The screensaver was a last-minute addition I coded into the software when I realized that something of the sort would be required in order to avoid burn-in on the CRT displays used in the show, and had not been tested enough when I shipped the displays to our curator.)

 

The opening of the web exhibition has been pushed back a bit. As of May 2024 we are looking at a September opening, hopefully. Ultimately it is our funders who will decide when we are ready to launch, so the date of its premiere is a bit unpredictable.

 

Last modified: May 02 2024 21:58:46.