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TECHNOLOGY : An Electronic Kaffeeklatsch : With videos, computers, fax machines and java, patrons at the Electronic Cafe are creating a high-tech artistic network

October 28, 1990|DON SNOWDEN

"Probably the most powerful magic that contemporary humankind has is the ability to pick up an instrument and talk to somebody on the other side of the planet," said Kit Galloway in the Electronic Cafe's Santa Monica headquarters.

"What we're stressing is that a telecommunications revolution isn't something you consume. It's something you do."

Since opening to the public in April, the Electronic Cafe has linked artists and audiences here with their counterparts in such far-flung locales as Seoul, Moscow, Berlin, Barcelona, Managua and several major American cities using standard telephone lines. But the grand design of co-founders Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz for the Electronic Cafe extends far beyond just reaching out to touch someone artistically.

It encompasses Rachel Rosenthal winning bravos from a Moscow audience for a performance on Earth Day and poets from New York's Nuyorican Cafe reading their works to a gathering of poets here. But those at the other end of the phone line didn't just hear Rosenthal or the poets' recitals--they saw video snapshots of them as well, transmitted via videophone images arriving at five-second intervals on television screens hooked up to the phone lines. And the Electronic Cafe plans to take people inside the Bio Sphere 2 project in Arizona during the next two years.

Galloway and Rabinowitz hope their prototype Cafe will foster a new era of artistic experimentation and global collaboration through telecommunications. Their goals: encouraging artists to come to grips with the emerging technology, creating a role for artists in developing that technology and providing a place for those who ordinarily might not have access to the technology to experiment with it.

But Galloway and Rabinowitz don't want the Electronic Cafe to become some high-tech version of "cocooning," with artists working in isolation. An equally important component in their plan is that the creative interaction--whatever form it may take--will take place in a relaxed, convivial cafe atmosphere open to anyone.

"The context is what's interesting--technology will change, the gizmos will come and go, but the important thing is that it's a new way for people to meet people and establish relationships," said Galloway, 42.

Added Rabinowitz, 40: "One line we've used for a long time is, 'We must create at the same scale that we destroy.' If you're going to be addressing global problems, you have to be stressing global solutions and, to do that, you have to able to communicate.

"In the 1980s, we got to see each other. We got to see the (Berlin) Wall coming down and Tian An Men Square. In the '90s, we want to see each other and talk with each other."

Located in a quiet industrial neighborhood, the Electronic Cafe doesn't have a sleek, high-tech look: One corner of the spartanly furnished converted industrial space boasts a neatly arranged array of video monitors and telecommunications devices, computers, fax machines and printers that form the core of the Electronic Cafe operation.

The white walls of the cafe are adorned with long horizontal strips of black-and-white and color print-outs of videophone images from the events held there. The remaining space is filled with a motley assortment of tables and chairs, and there is a small kitchen area set aside from the main room; coffee, cold drinks and a few desserts are the only items on the menu.

The Santa Monica facility isn't the first time Galloway and Rabinowitz have unveiled their Electronic Cafe concept. During the 1984 Olympics, the pair successfully established five different stations at family owned restaurants in various sections of Los Angeles over a three-week period. But now, the Electronic Cafe is taking its first steps toward Galloway and Rabinowitz's vision of worldwide network modeled on the Santa Monica facility.

"People have to come here 'smart'--not that they know how this stuff works but just the curiosity of wanting to come," Rabinowitz said. "It has to be people who are really interested or curious, whether it's in art or the technology or just seeing what a German person looks like and what they have to say for themselves."

That doesn't mean interested people can walk into the Santa Monica facility at any time and expect a connection with people overseas. The cafe schedule is still in a state of flux but it has gradually been expanding its operation since April.

Currently, Fridays are designed as free "check-out" nights for people curious about the operation. Programmed events with admission fees usually take place Saturday evenings and Sunday brunches are in the planning stages.

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