[Excerpted with permission.]
The past decade has seen the two powerful technologies of computing
and telecommunications converge into one field of operations that
has drawn into its embrace other electronic media, including video,
sound synthesis, remote-sensing, and a variety of cybernetic systems.
These phenomena are exerting enormous influence upon society and
on individual behaviour; they seem increasingly to be calling into
question the very nature of what it is to be human, to be creative,
to think and to perceive, and indeed our relationship to each other
and to the planet as a whole. The "telematic culture"
that accompanies the new developments consists of a set of behaviours,
ideas, media, values, and objectives that are significantly unlike
those that have shaped society since the Enlightenment. New cultural
and scientific metaphors and paradigms are being generated, new
models and representations of reality are being invented, new expressive
means are being manufactured.
Telematics is a term used to designate computer-mediated communications
networking involving telephone, cable, and satellite links between
geographically dispersed individuals and institutions that are interfaced
to data-processing systems, remote sensing devices, and capacious
data storage banks (1). It involves the technology of interaction
among human beings and between the human mind and artificial systems
of intelligence and perception. The individual user of networks
is always potentially involved in a global net, and the world is
always potentially in a state of interaction with the individual.
Thus, across the vast spread of telematics networks worldwide, the
quantity of data processed and the density of information exchanged
is incalculable. The ubiquitous efficacy of the telematic medium
is not in doubt, but the question in human terms, from the point
of view of culture and creativity, is: What is the content?
This question, which seems to be at the heart of many critiques
of art involving computers and telecommunications, suggests deep-seated
fears of the machine coming to dominate the human will and of a
technological formalism erasing human content and values. Apart
from all the particulars of personal histories, of dreams, desires,
and anxieties that inform the content of arts rich repertoire,
the question, in essence, is asking: Is there love in the telematic
In the attempt to extricate human content from technological form,
the question is made more complicated by our increasing tendency
as artists to bring together imaging, sound, and text systems into
interactive environments that exploit state-of-the-art hypermedia
and that engage the full sensorium, albeit by digital means. Out
of this technological complexity, we can sense the emergence of
a synthesis of the arts. The question of content must therefore
be addressed to what might be called the Gesamtdatenwerkthe
integrated data workand to its capacity to engage the intellect,
emotions, and sensibility of the observer (2). Here, however, more
problems arise, since the observer in an interactive telematic system
is by definition a participator. In a telematic art, meaning is
not created by the artist, distributed through the network, and
received by the observer. Meaning is the product of interaction
between the observer and the system, the content of which is in
a state of flux, of endless change and transformation. In this condition
of uncertainty and instability, not simply because of the crisscrossing
interactions of users of the network but because content is embodied
in data that is itself immaterial, it is purely an electronic difference,
until it has been reconstituted at the interface as image, text,
or sound. The sensory output may be differentiated further as existing
on screen, as articulated structure or material, as architecture,
as environment, or in virtual space.
Such a view is in line with a more general approach to art as residing
in a cultural communications system rather than in the art object
as a fixed semantic configurationa system in which the viewer
actively negotiates for meaning (3). In this sense, telematic networking
makes explicit in its technology and protocols what is implicit
in all aesthetic experience where that experience is seen as being
as much creative in the act of the artists production (4).
Classical communications theory holds, however, that communication
is a one-way dispatch, from sender to receiver, in which only contingent
"noise" in the channel can modify the message (often further
confused as the meaning) initiated at the source of transmission
(5). This is the model that has the artist as sender and therefore
originator of meaning, the artist as creator and owner of images
and ideas, the artist as controller of context and content. It is
a model that requires, for its completion, the viewer as, best,
a skilled decoder or interpreter of the artists "meaning"
or, at worst, simply a passive receptacle of such meaning. It gives
rise to the industry of criticism and exegesis in which those who
"understand" this or that work of art explain it to those
who are too stupid or uneducated to receive its meaning unaided.
in this scenario, the artwork and its maker are viewed in the same
way as the world and its creator. The beauty and truth of both art
and the world are "out there" in the world and in the
work of art. They are as fixed and immutable as the material universe
appears to be. The canon of determinism decrees prefigured harmony
and composition, regulated form and continuity of expression, with
unity and clarity assured by a cultural consensus and a linguistic
uniformity shared by artist and public alike.
The problem of content and meaning within a telematic culture gives
added poignancy to the rubric "Issues of Content" under
which this present writing on computers and art is developed: "Issue"
is open to a plurality of meanings, no one of which is satisfactory.
The metaphor of a semantic sea endlessly ebbing and flowing, of
meaning constantly in flux, of all words, utterances, gestures,
and images in a state of undecidability, tossed to and fro into
new collusions and conjunctions within a field of human interaction
and negotiation, is found as much in new sciencein quantum
physics, second order cybernetics (6), or chaology (7), for exampleas
in art employing telematic concepts or the new literary criticism
that has absorbed philosophy and social theory into its practice.
This sunrise of uncertainty, of a joyous dance of meaning between
layers of genre and metaphoric systems, this unfolding tissue woven
of a multiplicity of visual codes and cultural imaginations was
also the initial promise of the post modern project before it disappeared
into the domain of social theory, leaving only its frail corpus
of pessimism and despair.
In the case of the physicists, the radical shift in metaphors about
the world and our participation in its creation and re-description
mean that sciences picture window onto reality has been shattered
by the very process of trying to measure it. John Wheeler uses this
Nothing is more important about the quantum principle
than this, that it destroys the concept of the world "sitting
out there," with the observer safely separated from it by a
20 centimetre slab of plate glass. Even to observe so minuscule
an object as an electron, he must shatter the glass. He must reach
in. He must install his chosen measuring equipment. It is up to
him whether he shall measure position or momentum ... the measurement
changes the state of the electron. The universe will never afterwards
be the same. To describe what has happened one has to cross out
that old word "observer" and put in its place "participator".
In some strange sense the universe is a participatory universe (8).
In the context of telematic systems and the issue of content and
meaning, the parallel shift in art of the status of "observer"
to that of "participator" is demonstrated clearly if in
accounts of the quantum principle we substitute "data"
for "quanta". Indeed, finding such analogies between art
and physics is more than just a pleasant game; the web of connections
between new models of the theory and practice in the arts and the
sciences, over a wide domain, is so pervasive as to suggest a paradigm
shift in our world view, a redescription of reality and a recontextualization
of ourselves. We begin to understand that chance and change, chaos
and indeterminacy, transcendence and transformation, the immaterial
and the numinous are terms of the centre of our self-understanding
and our new visions of reality. How then, could there be a contentsets
of meaningscontained within telematic art when every aspect
of networking in dataspace is in a state of transformation and of
becoming? The very technology of computer telecommunications extends
the gaze, transcends the body, amplifies the mind into unpredictable
configurations of thought and creativity.
In the recent history of Western art, it was Marcel Duchamp who
first took the metaphor of the glass, of the window onto the world,
and turned it back on itself to reveal what is invisible. We see
in the work known as The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors,
Even, or The Large Glass, a field of vitreous reality
in which energy and emotion are generated from the tension and interaction
of male and female, natural and artificial, human and machine (9).
Its subject is attraction in Charles Fouriers sense (10)
or, we might even say, love. The Large Glass, in its transparent
essence, always includes both its environment and the reflection
of the observer. Love is contained in this total embrace; all that
escapes is reason and certainty. By participating in the embrace,
the viewer comes to be a progenitor of the semantic issue. The glass
as "ground" has a function and status anticipating that
of the computer monitor as a screen of operationsof transformations
and as the site of interaction and negotiation for meaning.
But it is not only through the Glass that we can see Duchamp
as prophetic of the telematic mode. The very metaphor of networking
interaction in a field of uncertainty, in which the observer is
creator and meaning is unstable, is implicit in all his work. Equally
prophetic in the Glass is the horizontal bar that joins the
upper and lower parts of the work and serves as a metaphor for the
all-around viewing of Renaissance space, embodied in the Western
pictorial tradition, where the metaphor of verticality is employed
insistently in its monuments and architectureemblems often
as not of aggression, competition, and dominance, always of a tunnel
vision. The horizontal, on the other hand, is a metaphor for the
birds-eye view, the all-over, all-embracing, holistic systems
view of structures, relationships, and eventsviewing that
can include the ironic, the fuzzy, and the ambiguous. This is precisely
the condition of perception and insight to which telematic networking
Perhaps the most powerful metaphor of interconnectedness and the
horizontal embrace in art before the advent of telematic media is
to be found in the work of Jackson Pollock (11). Here the horizontal
arena, a space marked out on the surface of the earth is the "ground"
for the action and transformation that become the painting itself.
Pollock created his powerful metaphors of connectedness by generating
fields of intertwining, interweaving, branching, joining, colliding,
crossing, linking lines of energy. His space is inclusive and inviting,
his imagery carries a sense of anonymity of authorship that embraces
the viewer in the creation of meaning. Nothing in painting could
be more emblematic or prophetic of the network consciousness emerging
with the telematic culture.
. . .
The emerging new order of art is that of interactivity, of "dispersed
authorship" (17). The canon is one of contingency and uncertainty.
Telematic art encompasses a wide array of media: hypermedia, videotex,
telefacsimile, interactive video, computer animation and simulation,
teleconferencing, text exchange, image transfer, sound synthesis,
telemetry and remote sensing, virtual space, cybernetic structures,
and intelligent architecture. These are simply broad categories
of technologies and methodologies that are constantly evolving
bifurcating, joining, hybridisingat an accelerated rate.
At the same time, the status of the art object changes. The culturally
dominant objet dart as the sole focus (the uncommon
carrier of uncommon content) is replaced by the interface. Instead
of the artwork as a window onto a composed, resolved, and ordered
reality, we have at the interface a doorway to undecidability, a
dataspace of semantic and material potentiality. The focus of the
aesthetic shifts from the observed object to participating subject,
from the analysis of observed systems to the (second-order) cybernetics
of observing systems: the canon of the immaterial and participatory.
Thus, at the interface to telematic systems, content is created
rather than received. By the same token, content is disposed of
at the interface by reinserting it, transformed by the process of
interaction, back into the network for storage, distribution, and
eventual transformation at the interface of other users, at other
access nodes across the planet.
. . .
Telematic culture means, in short, that we do not think,
see, or feel in isolation. Creativity is shared, authorship is distributed,
but not in a way that denies the individual her authenticity or
power of self creation, as rather crude models of collectivity might
have done in the past. On the contrary, telematic culture amplifies
the individuals capacity for creative thought and action,
for more vivid and intense experience, for more informed perception,
by enabling her to participate in the production of global vision
through networked interaction with other minds, other sensibilities,
other sensing and thinking systems across the planetthought
circulating in the medium of data through a multiplicity of different
cultural, geographical, social, and personal layers. Networking
supports endless redescription and recontextualization such that
no language or visual code is final and no reality is ultimate.
In the telematic culture, pluralism and relativism shape the configurations
of ideas of image, music, and textthat circulate in
It is the computer that is at the heart of this circulation system,
and, like the heart, it works best when it becomes invisible. At
present, the computer as a physical, material presence is too much
with us; it dominates our inventory of tools, instruments, appliances,
and apparatus as the ultimate machine. In our artistic and educational
environments it is all too solidly there, a computational block
to poetry and imagination. It is not transparent, nor is it yet
fully understood as pure system, a universal transformative matrix.
The computer is not primarily a thing, an object, but a set of behaviours,
a system, actually a system of systems. Data constitute its lingua
franca. It is the agent of the datafield, the constructor of dataspace.
Where it is seen simply as a screen presenting the pages of an illuminated
book, or as an internally lit painting, it is of no artistic value.
Where its considerable speed of processing is used simply to simulate
filmic or photographic representations, it becomes the agent of
passive voyeurism. Where access to its transformative power is constrained
by a typewriter keyboard, the user is forced into the posture of
a clerk. The electronic pa palette, the light pen, and even the
mouse, bind us to past practices. The power of the computers
presence, particularly the power of the interface to shape language
and thought, cannot be overestimated. It may not be an exaggeration
to say that the "content" of telematic art will depend
in large measure on the nature of the interface; that is, the kind
of configurations and assemblies of image, sound, and text, the
kind of restructuring and articulation of environment that telematic
interactivity might yield, will be determined by the freedoms and
fluidity available at the interface.
The essence of the interface is its potential flexibility; it can
accept and deliver images both fixed and in movement, sounds constructed,
synthesised, or sampled, texts written and spoken. It can be heat
sensitive, body responsive, environmentally aware. It can respond
to the tapping of feet, the dancers arabesque, the direction
of a viewers gaze. It not only articulates a physical environment
with movement, sound, or light; it is an environment, an arena of
dataspace in which a distributed art of the human/computer symbiosis
can be acted out, the issue of its cybernetic content. Each individual
computer interface is an aspect of a telematic unity such that to
be in or at any one interface is to be in the virtual presence of
all the other interfaces throughout the network of which it is a
part. This might be defined as the "holomatic" principle
in networking. It is so because all the data flowing through any
access node of the network are equally and at the same time held
in the memory of that network: they can be accessed, through cable
or satellite links, from any part of the planet at any time of day
or night, by users of the network (who, in order to communicate
with each other, do not need to be in the same place at the same
. . .
To the objection that such a global vision of an emerging
planetary art is uncritically euphoric, or that the prospectus of
a telematic culture with its Gesamtdatenwerk of hypermediated virtual
realities is too grandiose, we should perhaps remind ourselves of
the essentially political, economic, and social sensibilities of
those who laid the conceptual foundations of the field of interactive
systems. This cultural prospectus implies a telematic politic, embodying
the features of feedback, self-determination, interaction, and collaborative
creativity not unlike the "science of government" for
which, over 150 years ago, Andre Marie Ampere coined the term "cybernetics"
a term reinvigorated and humanised by Norbert Wiener in this
century (25). Contrary to the rather rigid determinism and positivism
that have shaped society since the Enlightenment, however, these
features will have to accommodate notions of uncertainty, chaos,
autopoiesis, contingency, and the second order cybernetics of fuzzya
systems view of a world in which the observer and observed, creator
and viewer, are inextricably linked in the process of making reality
all our many separate realities interacting, colliding, reforming,
and resonating within the telematic noosphere of the planet.
. . .
Our sensory experience becomes extrasensory, as our vision is enhance
by the extrasensory devices of telematic perception. The computer
deals invisibly with the invisible. It processes those connections,
collusions, systems, forces and fields, transformations and transferences,
chaotic assemblies, and higher orders of organisation that lie outside
our vision, outside the gross level of material perception afforded
by our natural senses. Totally invisible to our everyday unaided
perception, for example, is the underlying fluidity of matter, the
indeterminate dance of electrons, the "snap, crackle, and pop"
of quanta, the tunnelling and transpositions, nonlocal and superluminal,
that the new physics presents. It is these patterns of events, these
new exhilarating metaphors of existencenonlinear, uncertain,
layered, and discontinuousthat the computer can redescribe.
With the computer, and brought together in the telematic embrace,
we can hope to glimpse the unseeable, to grasp the ineffable chaos
of becoming, the secret order of disorder. And as we come to see
more, we shall see the computer less and less. It will become invisible
in its immanence, but its presence will be palpable to the artist
engaged telematically in the world process of autopoiesis, planetary
The technology of computerised media and telematic systems is no
longer to be viewed simply as a set of rather complicated tools
extending the range of painting and sculpture, performed music,
or published literature. It can now be seen to support a whole new
field of creative endeavour that is as radically unlike each of
those established artistic genres as they are unlike each other
. A new vehicle of consciousness, of creativity and expression,
has entered our repertoire of being. While it is concerned with
both technology and poetry, the virtual and the immaterial as well
as the palpable and concrete, the telematic may be categorised as
neither art nor science, while being allied in many ways to the
discourses of both. The further development of this field will clearly
mean an interdependence of artistic, scientific, and technological
competencies and aspirations and, urgently, on the formulation of
a transdisciplinary education.
So, to link the ancient image-making process of Navajo sand painting
to the digital imaging of modern super computers through common
silicon, which serves them both as pigment and processor chop, is
more than ironic whimsy. The holistic ambition of Native American
culture is parallelled by the holistic potentiality of telematic
art. More than a technological expedient for the interchange of
information, networking provides the very infrastructure for spiritual
interchange that could lead to the harmonisation and creative development
of the whole planet. With this prospectus however naively optimistic
and transcendental it may appear in our current fin-de-siecle
gloom, the metaphor of love in the telematic embrace may not be
©Roy Ascott 1989
Ascott, R. 1990. "Is There Love in the Telematic Embrace?" Art
Journal. New York: College Arts Association of America. 49:3.
Ascott, R. 1996. "Is There Love in the Telematic Embrace?" Behaviourables
and Futuribles. in: K. STILES and P. SELZ, eds. Theories
and Documents of Contemporary Art. Berkeley: University of California
Press, pp. 396, 489-498.
1 The neologism "telematique" was coined by Simon
Nora and Alan Minc in Linformatisation de la societe
(Paris: La Documentation Francaise 1978).
2 The German word "Gesamkunstwerk" was used by Richard
Wagner to refer to his vision of a "total artwork" integrating
music, image, and poetry.
3 Humberto R Maturana and Francisco J Varela, The Tree
of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding
(Boston: Shambhala, 1987).
4 Roland Barthes, "From Work to Text", in Image-Music-Text,
trans Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977).
5 C E Shannon and W Weaver, The Mathematical Theory of
Communication (Urbanba: University of Illinois Press, 1949).
6 Heinz von Foerster, Observing Systems (New Your:
7 James Gleick, Chaos (New York: Heinneman, 1987).
8 J A Wheeler and W H Hurek, Quantum Theory and Measurement
(Princeton, N J: Princeton University Press, 1983).
9 See Michael Sanouillet, ed, Salt Seller: The Writings
of Marcel Duchamp, (Marchand du Sel) (New York: Oxford University
10 Charles Fourier (1772-1837). His "system of passionate
attraction" (elaborated in Theorie des quatres mouvements
et des destinees generales (Paris: Bureaux de la Phalange,
1841) sought universal harmony.
11 Elizabeth Frank, Jackson Pollock (New York: Abbeville
12 David V Tansley, Subtle Body (London: Thames and
13 Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Future of Man (New
York: Harper and Row, 1964).
14 Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind (San
Francisco: Chandler Press, 1972).
15 Peter Russell, The Awakening Earth (London: Routledge,
16 James L McClelland, David E Rummelhart, and the PDP Research
Group, Parallel Distributed Processing, Vol 1 (Cambridge:
MIT Press, 1986).
17 The term was first proposed in Roy Ascott, "Art and
Telematics: Towards a Network Consciousness", in Art Telecommunications,
ed Heidi Grundmann (Vancouver: Western Front, 1984).
18 Paul J Curran, Principles of Remote Sensing (New
York: Longman, 1985).
19 Stephen R Graubard, ed, The Artificial Intelligence
Debate (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1988).
20 Koji Kobayashi, Computers and Communications (Cambridge:
MIT Press, 1986).
21 Roy Ascott, "Art Technology and Computer Science"
in XLII Esposizione Internazionale dArte (Venezia,
Biennale di Venezia, 1986). The international commissioners for
the 1986 Biennale were Roy Ascott, Don Foresta, Tom Sherman, and
22 Roy Ascott "La Plissure du texte", in Frank
Popper, ed Electra (Paris: Musee dArt Moderne de la
ville de Paris, 1983).
23 Roy Ascott, "Gesamtdatenwerk: Konnektivitat, Transformation
und Transzendenz", in Kunstforum 103 (September/October
1989): (project by Roy Ascott in collaboration with Peter Appleton,
Mathias Fuchs, Robert Pepperell, and Miles Visman).
24 Stewart Brand, The Media Lab (New York: Viking Penguin,
25 Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics or Control and Communication
in the Animal and Machine (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1948).
26 VPL Research, Inc, of California demonstrate "shared
virtual reality" and "walk-through cyberspace"
at Texpo 89 in San Francisco, June 1989.
Roy Ascott is the Founder-Director of CAiiA-STAR
Recent projects include "Art-ID/Cyb-ID. Identities in Cyberspace"
<www.mind-shift.net> in the Biennal do Mercosul, Brazil, December 1999, and
"The Moist Manifesto" Installation in gr2000az, Graz, Austria. MayOct.
See also La Plissure du texte