If you’re American, you likely don’t know teletext, but abroad, this low-fidelity format was a source of great nostalgia. Developed in the early 1970s in the UK, broadcasters used teletext as a way to transmit images during television broadcasts. Before the Internet, of course, the television was the only way to distribute visual messages to millions of people instantaneously. The BBC, for example, used their service for sports and news.
The issue, of course, was cost to viewers who needed to purchase a teletext machine to do so, but reading about teletext, you get these eerie notes of the future Internet. “Technically, telephone books, encyclopedias, a whole library of information could be programmed into teletext computers,” a 1979 article from The Evening Independent crowed. The system fell into disuse as the Internet rose in popularity.
Just like pixel art has captured game designer’s hearts, artists have been returning to teletext as a medium. And this year, the third annual International Teletext Art Festival opens in Berlin on August 14th. “Considering that teletext has been used by millions of people daily during its 40 years of existence, it has so far remained a relatively unexplored territory for artistic creation,” says FixC, the Helsinki-based art collective and curators of the show.
A single teletext page consists of a grid of blocks (also known as ‘character rectangles’) 24 high by 40 wide. Each block is made up of six “pixels,” bringing the total grid of 80 by 72 “pixels.” Then, each block can contain a single letter, space, symbol or up to six “pixels” of graphic information. You get eight colors, but changing colors or switching between text and graphic modes means taking up another character. Not exactly the easiest format to work with.
But the appeal, of course, is the intersection of simplicity and constraint as artist Dan Farrimond notes,
In some ways it’s more fun to operate within the restrictions of the format because there isn’t that unconscious pressure to make things realistic. When drawing faces, for example, it’s always going to look a *bit* like a caricature, but that’s the whole appeal of teletext. My modus operandi is ‘as long as you can tell what it’s supposed to be’.
Images via Dan Farrimond