Robert Adrian Smith (1935-2015): The Artist and the Media Condition

Robert Adrian (left) at The World in 24 Hours (1982)
Robert Adrian (left) at The World in 24 Hours (1982)

The Canadian Artist Robert Adrian Smith, who had lived in Vienna, Austria, since 1972, passed away on Monday September 7th 2015. Robert Adrian X is widely known as an art and telecommunications pioneer, but also was a painter who developed an analytic, conceptual practice, uniting aesthetics and politics in his answers to the question “What is Art?”

Born in Toronto on February 22 in 1935 into a family of artists, he studied commercial art at high school but did not go on to college and began his career as a painter instead. After moving to London in the early 1960s, and running a business cooperative that produced behind-glass paintings, Adrian started reflecting on modern art and broke with traditional “painterly” painting in the late 1960s. In 1969 in London he met his future wife, the Austrian radio journalist Heidi Grundmann, and in 1972 resettled to Vienna.1 Adrian's work found a positive reception in the small contemporary art scene in Vienna, which basically consisted of three galleries, one of whom, Gallery Grita Insam, became his gallery.

In the early to mid 1970s Adrian made “analytic paintings” which interrogated and deconstructed the constitutive mechanisms behind modern art. In Black Silk (1975/76) and Grey Series (1975/76) paint was added to self-supporting surfaces. A key subject for Robert Adrian was the encounter with Duchamp and the readymade and its appropriation in minimal and Pop Art. Towards the end of the 1970s, Adrian's interrogation of the modernist art paradigm led him to the creation of objects, using cheap industrial materials – another hallmark of his work. In Seascape (1980-81) Adrian built small toy ships from cardboard and in 1980 had them sail from the Giudecca in Venice as part of his participation in the Aperto show of the Biennale. In 24 Jobs (1979) he used Nimo, a modeling clay for children, to depict himself in 24 jobs he had taken on to support himself while being an artist, from working as a picture framer to a shopping window decorator. While those works use objects, those are not to be misunderstood as sculptures but are “meta objects”2 which assume a role in a photograph, performance or video.

As Adrian wrote, “it seemed that art - or at least painting – was fragmenting, splitting into its components all through the 1970s: the act of painting was played out as performance, video dealt with narrative, photography with illusion; the painted object was turned into its own subject matter while subject matter dematerialised into conceptual texts or manifestos.”3 The turning point from the 1970s to the 1980s was the beginning of a long engagement with the links between the Fordist mode of production and modernism in art, on one hand, and postmodernism, the codes of image production and distribution and the (new) media condition on the other hand.

In 1979, Adrian participated in a conference called Interplay, which brought him in touch with the emerging world of art and telecommunications projects. At about the same time, he had a solo exhibition at Insam gallery and participated in the Venice Biennale. Adrian's engagement with telecommunication started very much against the currents of the art system. 1980 saw a big comeback of painting and re-modernist minimalist geometric and neo-conceptual art. At the same time, Adrian became introduced to a company called I.P. Sharp that ran worldwide timesharing networks (a form of data networking different from the Internet as it uses central mainframe computers). Adrian got a free account on the I.P.Sharp system and started a project called Artex in 1980, an online communication project and network. Artex was probably the first artist-initiated online community. Artex became the platform for a number of seminal art and telecommunications projects such as Wiencouver I-IV (a series of projects linking Wien – Vienna - and Vancouver); The World in 24 Hours at Ars Electronica in 1982 and La Plissure du Texte (with Roy Ascott) in 1983. This was followed by the formation of the group Blix in Vienna in 1983 which carried out a series of telephone concerts between Vienna, Budapest and Warsaw.

In those projects, Adrian never glorified the technology. As Timothy Druckrey wrote, one of Adrian's achievements was sustaining, in works and writing, an adversarial role for the contemporary and media art scene, creating resistant images that could not be easily absorbed, neither by the commodified media machinery, nor by the art market.4 The work with electronic networks continued his intrinsic interest in questioning and expanding the possibilities of art. The art and telecommunications projects were, on one hand, about a new type of space, and secondly about bringing together the human, artistic network. Adrian revealed in an interview how he realized that the participants, although physically separated, met in an in-between space that was constituted through those projects.5 For The World in 24 Hours (1982), the ORF center in Linz was connected with Vienna, Bath, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Pittsburgh, Toronto, Wellfleet, San Fracisco, Vancouver, Sidney, Tokyo, Honolulu, Floremce, Istabul and Athens. In each of those places a number of artists performed work, among them Hank Bull, Helmut Mark, David Garcia, Annie Wright, Roy Ascott, Jupitter-Larsen, Eric Gidney, Min Tanaka, Shinobu Kurokawa and many more. An enduring image of “Bob” as Robert Adrian was known to friends, was him at the telephone checking with other destinations, if all lines were up and running.

Adrian highlighted the collaborative and ephemeral character of the telecommunication art projects. Those existed only as long as people were there and also did not have an audience in the traditional sense, thereby undermining categories of art theory such as work and authorship. As early as 1982 Adrian emphasized the low-tech character of the technology used, such as time-share computers, telephone, fax, slowscan TV and anything else that could send and receive signals (as for instance radio amateur technology).

As the technology progressed, Adrian got in contact with young computer enthusiasts and started the Zero network in Graz, Austria. Adrian also became webmaster of the Kunstradio website ( since 1995. In the 1990s he became an inspiration for many young artists who just started to discover computer networks and the early Internet. When the Web arrived, however, he was on the skeptical side, expressing his concerns about the looming commercialization of the Net in the seminal text “Infobahn Blues” (1995).6 Adrian was a bridge builder, an artist's artist, whose attitude was an inspiration for many artists, young and old. He also kept building electronic bridges, for instance with projects such as Horizontal Radio (1995), where Internet radio stations were connected together and through public radio also brought to the airwaves.

Adrian also continued artistic interrogations of the media condition that surrounds us. In the 1980s, Adrian carried out a number of projects that inserted themselves into the communications infrastructure. The project Surveillance (Überwachung) (I, 1979; II, 1981) used the camera system of the Vienna underground lines turning the system into an early sign of the emerging infrastructure of the society of control. For Adrian, the art and telecommunications projects and his other art were part of the same continuum of asking, as an artist, how can I understand this world today and how can I make a meaningful gesture in it. Great Moments in Modern Art I-II (1983-84) questioned the making of meaning in modern art and the power system behind it. Robert Adrian's work was driven by a political impetus, questioning the media-military complex, for instance with a series of works that presented collections of toy fighter jets, collaged with other materials: 76 Airplanes (1984-5); Yellow Airplanes (1986); Vicious Circle (55 Airplanes) (1989).

At around 1990, Adrian carried out a large scale public art work, Picasso's Eye (1989/90), a mosaic showing a pixellated eye on the outside of a building. In 1996 he realized the last step of the project Art and Politics on the cultural politics of the Nazis, a project that had begun in 1989 as a Hypercard project on the Mac.

The most interesting questions probably emerge where Robert Adrian, media artist and contemporary artist connect. While both areas of work were for him part of a continuum of his own practice, for the outside world those areas were at best engaged in a cautious flirtation sometimes, but more often characterized by long phases of separation, whereby media art's part was that of the sulking partner, feeling treated harshly for not being recognized by contemporary art. Yet as Robert Adrian said, “why should it?” Creative practices that involve new media, but also scientific knowledge and artifacts from science, constitute an unstable but burgeoning field that can only grow in importance, although it has still not found a proper place in the art canon and maybe never will.

In the 1980s the term media art became widespread, in the 1990s this was followed by net art, later by digital art. Yet all of those terms seem to be too closely linked to the technical medium used, and thus wedded to an outdated modernist concept of media-specificity. The 2000s saw therefore the rise of a new term, of the postmedia condition, a discourse that peaked about two years ago, when the “post-digital” was the official theme of Transmediale. Now, there is no one single adequate and agreed term to cover those practices. At the same time it is undeniable that there is a long and distinct legacy of practices, from Constructivism and Concrete Art, to the Experiments of the Black Mountain School and E.A.T., but also the New Tendencies in Zagreb to the contemporary art and technology, art and science practices – a long and proud but often troubled tradition with which the art market never really agreed and which finds itself today almost as marginalized as in the 1980s, as the worlds of contemporary and post media practices have once more separated.

I would thus go back one step and claim that Robert Adrian questioned and represented the media condition in his work, in art and in society. He reflected on the changing media condition in the context of a transition from an industrial to a networked age. One of the foundational problems in both philosophy and art is the question of mediation, of the link between the subject and the object, between societies and the cultural forms of self-representations they produce. Such an understanding of mediation had, initially, little to do with technical media, since the term was introduced by Georg Friedrich Hegel in the early 1800s. Soon thereafter, however, through photography and telegraphy, the fast rotating printing press and Linotype, and finally through film, radio and television, technical media became involved in the process of mediation. As the Toronto School of media theory found out, the structure of those media had an influence on the way we perceive the world. Connected with this thesis is not only Marshal McLuhan but other less well known Canadian scholars such as Harold Innis and Jack Goody. From the position of being an artist, Adrian was also a Toronto School media theorist – he questioned and theorized media in art and writing. Adrian saw art as still belonging to the industrial paradigm, a world based on making and selling objects/commodities. The art and communications projects transcended that context and pointed to a new type of art where concepts such as object or authorship, on which the old system of art depended, made no sense any longer.

Yet while Adrian conducted his practical, experimental investigation of the media sphere, he should be remembered not only for what he did, but also for what he consciously avoided doing. He shied away from a glorification of the technical apparatus and avoided commodity fetishism – the belief that mistakes social relations for relations between things. In other words, he never conducted an idolatry of technology, as is so often the case today. He also did not use the technology to put himself as the artist into the center of attention by creating pretentious art which projected back the values of old bourgeois art on the new media condition. His approach was always exploratory, testing the limits of the media condition, finding out about its structures and its structuring influence on the mediation between the personal and the social, between the particular and the universal. In this regard, he had the capacity to bridge the gap between everyday life and the grand techno-political transformations of the world, which, it must be said, contemporary art finds itself increasingly unable to understand because of its technical and media illiteracy.

While doing this work, as a practical, experimental inquiry – as opposed to scholarly book research – he always kept his critical guard and did not resort to esoteric metaphors of, for instance, a mystified collective intelligence. While Robert Adrian had a strong personality, his work never dwelled on meek, individualist, psychological stuff. His critical thinking made his work resistant to the increasing pressure for the instrumentalisation of art in the discourse on the creative industries. And all those things together made him a role model for many younger artists, I must say, like me at the time, who also started to play with computers and modems in the mid to late 1980s. It was his presence and example as an enabler and facilitator that encouraged many to continue in that direction.

Last not least I would like to highlight something more personal. Robert Adrian was certainly a nice person, as Gerfried Stocker said at the funeral ceremony, a “friend of humanity.” But being a friend of humanity sometimes makes it necessary to object and contest dominant patterns of thought. Robert Adrian had a passionate, sometimes combative and opinionated debating style. As Heidi Grundmann has pointed out, he could not help but think about art, always looking at the connections rather than the isolated facts, questioning the appearance of things and asking for a deeper truth, which made him a real connected thinker. At the same time those properties are not very popular in the network age where everybody is constantly shapeshifting in order to fit into project structures and adapting to the expectations on the creative individual in the innovation machine. I think that also in this sense Robert Adrian Smith should be seen as an example – and I am optimistic at least in that regard that this critical attitude, which sometimes has to quite harshly and abruptly negate the status quo in society in order to attain something better, will not die out with Bob.

  • 1. When Adrian participated in a group show at Gallery St. Stephan the Austrian artist Marc Adrian complained that he had taken his name and even went to court. Robert Adrian then had to add an X to his artist name, and for many years was known as Robert Adrian X. The X was silently dropped after Marc Adrian passed away in 2007.
  • 2. Robert Adrian, 1976. “Meta Objects.” In: Exhibition Catalog, Gallery of Taxispalais, Innsbruck, no pagination.
  • 3. Robert Adrian X, 2001. “Interview.” In: Robert Adrian X., edited by Lucas Gehrmann and Kunsthalle Wien, pp 46-73.
  • 4. Timothy Druckrey, 2001. “Absurdities and contradictions … Signals and Noise: Feedback from the Old and New World Order.” In: Robert Adrian X., edited by Lucas Gehrmann and Kunsthalle Wien, pp. 25-41.
  • 5. Robert Adrian, Interview with the author, February 19 2015. Accessible online:
  • 6. Robert Adrian, 1995. “Infobahn Blues.” In: Ctheory, online, available at