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Telematic Embrace: A Love Story?
Roy Ascott's Theories of Telematic Art
Edward A. Shanken
Department of Art History, Duke University


Introduction. Art and Telematics: A Match Made in Heaven?

The marriage of art and technology figures prominently in utopian and dystopian formulations of the future. Following the binary logic of modernist discourse, art and her sisters (which include intuition, nature, and metaphyics) form a set that is mapped in opposition to technology and his brothers (analytic reason, machines, and physics). The slogan, "Art and technology - a new unity," which grounded the Bauhaus's modernist utopian vision of the 1920s, suggested that both art and technology were somehow insufficient on their own, and in need of each other. After two world wars and the dawning of the nuclear age, technology increasingly became seen as a threat to human life and free will. For Heidegger, art (poiesis) was the panacea to the threat of "technological enframing." McLuhan described art as a form of cultural "radar" for studying and controlling media, and for enhancing the "perception of our technologies, and their psychic and social consequences."2

The relationship between art and technology with respect to utopian and dystopian visions of the future is richly articulated in the theories of Telematic Art proposed by British artist Roy Ascott since 1980. Telematics refers to the conjunction of computers and telecommunications. The term was coined in 1978 by Simon Nora and Alain Minc in a report to French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, and popularized in the report’s subsequent publication in English as The Computerization of Society. Comparing telematics with the technologies that fueled the industrial revolution Nora and Minc claimed that it “will have wider consequences:”

Above all, insofar as it is responsible for an upheaval in the processing and storage of data, it will alter the entire nervous system of social organization... This increasing interconnection between computers and telecommunications - which we will term “telematics” - opens radically new horizons.3

While effusive about the potential impact of telematics, Nora and Minc were keenly aware of the desire of governments and other powerful interests to strictly monitor access to technologies in order to control constituencies, and that historically those same constituencies had become increasingly intolerant of such hierarchical control. Telematics, they recognized, could be used either to increase centralized control or to facilitate the decentralization of control:

Are we headed... toward a society that will use this new technology to reinforce the mechanisms of rigidity, authority, and domination? Or, on the other hand, will we know how to enhance adaptability, freedom, and communication in such a way that every citizen and every group can be responsible for itself?4

Which scheme (centralized or decentralized) would come to be realized, they argued, depended on which model of society was desired and chosen. While the question of who would do the choosing remained unanswered in their text, they recognized that it was no more likely that society would spontaneously produce a condition of decentralization than that the government would willingly promote its own demise. Nevertheless, they believed that telematics could help facilitate a productive transformation of the social order. “The challenge, they wrote, “lies in the difficulty of building the system of connections that will allow information and social organization to progress together.”5

Seeking in part, a similar goal, Telematic Art has drawn on a central tendency of 20th century experimental art to make the viewer an increasingly active agent in aesthetic exchanges. Ascott has been the field’s primary theorist, first applying the term “telematic” to art in 1983. Telematics, as Ascott has defined it, is ...a term used to designate computer-mediated communications networking between geographically dispersed individuals and institutions... and between the human mind and artificial systems of intelligence and perception.6

Crucial to Ascott’s theory and practice of Telematic Art is the transformation of the viewer into an active participator who collaborates in creating the work, which is never a static product, but always remains in process throughout its duration.7

In his essay,“Is There Love in the Telematic Embrace?” (1990), Ascott attempted to attribute to electronic art the potential to embody love. Mindful of the schism between utopian and dystopian perspectives on technology and the future with respect to art, Ascott addressed a common concern amongst critics of electronic art: the fear that technology would overwhelm and dehumanize the arts, a last bastion of humanist values. If it could be shown that telematic art had the potential to embody love, then it would not be a paradox for art to be electronic and simultaneously serve humanist principles.

In constructing his argument, Ascott strategically opposed seemingly incompatible ontologies. His Fourieran description of love as passionate attraction implied a universal, transcendental principle in dynamic interplay with the apparent contingencies of love regarding history, gender, and culture, and between love manifested in physical presence as opposed to telepresence. While maintaining an ostensibly unconditional principle of love and promoting collaborative emergence, Ascott characterized his project in Derridean terms as “pure electronic différence” - one rife with “uncertainty” and “instability.”8

These ideas (and the tensions between them) frame the following consideration of Ascott's theories of Telematic Art and unified planetary consciousness. While primarily descriptive and historical, this account also describes how the artist problematizes the aforementioned sets of oppositions, and proposes a more nuanced reconstruction of the relationship between art and technology. The discussion of yet another conventional opposition - theory and practice - in Ascott’s multifaceted creative praxis, touches on some of the eclectic sources that inform the artist's work, including Henri Bergson, Norbert Wiener, Heinz von Foerster, the I Ching, Teilhard de Chardin, Peter Russell, Charles Fourier, and Marcel Duchamp.

The interactive elements throughout the artist’s oeuvre can be interpreted as encompassing a range of dynamic attraction that imply a more ambiguous prognosis for the future than Ascott has proposed. Theoretical reflections on Duchamp's Large Glass and the glaring cathode-ray-tube (CRT) monitors of telematics, suggest that the technological illusion of transparency might rather disassociate love from the intimate mutuality the artist describes and impose instead a condition of introverted mediation at-a-distance. This analysis of the technological and psychological condition of love leads to a consideration of the dualism that characterizes the semiotic formation of art and technology, form and content, as pairs of binary oppositions. This context sets the stage for some concluding remarks about art, technology, love, and the future, in which critical concerns about the negative impact of technology are balanced with the constructive value of Ascott’s utopian theories of Telematic Art.

Cybernetics, Interactive Art, and Education
Ascott was profoundly influenced by early writings on cybernetics, including F.H. George’s Automation, Cybernetics and Society (1959), Norbert Wiener’s The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society (1948), and W. Ross Ashby’s Design for a Brain (1952). Cybernetics introduced a method for thinking about the relationships amongst the various interrelated elements of a system, concentrating on the regulation of these elements in order to control the outcome of the system. Primary to the management of the system was the ability for each element to offer feedback about its own status to the other elements of the whole. In this way, the elements could communicate with each other and provide information that would enable the regulation of the system as a whole in order to maintain homeostasis.

Around 1960, Ascott began exploring cybernetics in the context of interactive art and art education. In 1964, he published “The Construction of Change,” a text on the relationship between art, systems theory, cybernetics, and behavior. In it, he wrote: To discuss what one is doing rather than the artwork which results, to attempt to unravel the loops of creative activity, is, in many ways, a behavioral problem...It leads to a consideration of our total relationship to a work of art, in which physical moves may lead to conceptual moves, in which Behaviour relates to Idea.9

Ascott’s emphasis on behavior included not only the production of objects, texts, and pedagogy, but led to a theorization of art as part of an integrated process in which thought and action were interconnected components of an inter-responsive system, fundamental to which is consciousness. According to Ascott, it was at the level of consciousness that the artist, artwork, and viewer exchange aesthetic information and alter their individual states, thereby transforming the consciousness and behavior of the (social) system as a whole. The artist applied such concepts in the systematic Groundcourse he designed and directed at the Ealing School of Art in London (1961-64), where he introduced processes and methods such as inverted logic, chance operations, and behavioral psychology into the curriculum. Moreover, the courses he instituted both at Ealing, and later at Ipswich Polytechnic, had at their core a cybernetic approach to collaborative work, whereby discrete groups of six students functioned together as an integrated, self-regulating system.

Such ideas were also reflected in the art objects Ascott presented at his solo exhibition Diagram Boxes & Analogue Structures at the Molton Gallery in London, February, 1963. The exhibition catalog for that show contained an untitled diagram that illustrates a system of interrelated feedback loops linking various conceptual ideas. Similar relationships were represented in more concrete visual terms in works of art like Video Roget (1962), a conceptual matrix comprised of a grid-like assemblage in which abstract forms could be mentally recombined and shifted by the viewer in order to explore the potential of the system. On the page preceding the reproduction of Video Roget in the exhibition catalogue, for example, Ascott provided a related diagram on tracing paper, entitled Thesaurus. The reader could interact with the catalog by superimposing Thesaurus on the image of Video Roget in order to gain insights into the meaning of the individual analog forms and the feedback loops amongst them (fig. 1).

Immediately following Thesaurus and Video Roget, a two-page diagram (drawn like an electrical circuit) declared Ascott's bid to use text in an art context: “This Thesaurus is a statement of my intention to use any assembly of diagrammatic and iconographic forms within a given construct as seems necessary."10 Ascott’s Video Roget and Thesaurus drew an explicit parallel between the semiotics of verbal and visual languages. It proposed that the universe of potential meanings of his art could be derived taxonomically and discursively. In this multi-layered process, meaning was contingent on the flow of information between the artist, the object, the sign systems which govern the reception of works of art, and the actual responses of viewers. Such concepts, including the explicit use of the thesaurus, were concerns that became central to Conceptual Art, as in Joseph Kosuth’s Second Investigation, Proposition 1(1968) and Mel Ramsden’s Elements of an Incomplete Map (1968). Moreover, since Thesaurus and the diagram were largely textual, Ascott expressly put in writing his intention to use language in and as art.

Ascott refined his theoretical articulation of the relationship of art to behavior and process in his 1967 manifesto Behaviourables and Futuribles. He wrote:

When art is a form of behaviour, software predominates over hardware in the creative sphere. Process replaces product in importance, just as system supersedes structure.11

This passage suggests that Ascott not only recognized an artist’s behavior as a viable artistic medium, but that he expanded the province of art to include idea, ritual, and system - important additional constituents of consciousness.12 For Ascott, studio practice, classroom pedagogy, and theoretical writing all become integrated components of his creative behavior as an artist.

Quantum Physics and Metaphysics, East and West
In his ongoing inquiry into art, technology, and consciousness Ascott has consistently incorporated current research in theoretical science into his work. Initially he drew upon early cybernetic theory that concentrated on systems of feedback and control. Later, he incorporated ideas from second-order cybernetics into his aesthetic theories. Based on developments in quantum theory, second-order cybernetics, as described in Heinz von Foerster's Observing Systems (1981), focused attention on the influence of observers and instruments on experimental phenomena, and the interrelatedness of matter.13 Phenomena came to be seen as a system in which observers and their means of observation are inseparable elements even at the quantum level. In numerous writings Ascott has drawn parallels between second-order cybernetics, quantum physics and his own artistic practice. For example, in “Is There Love in the Telematic Embrace?” he cited Wheeler and Zureck’s contention that,

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.14

Similarly for Ascott, art became a participatory process (as opposed to a discrete object or event) defined not by formal parameters, but by behavioral relationships in which artist, observer, and environment (including global telematic networks) are all integrated in an emergent, interactive system of morphological relationships.

While science has continued to offer Ascott robust models for his expansive formulations of art as process, system and behavior, it comprises just one system of knowledge from which he has constructed his artistic cosmology. For example, Ascott also has integrated western metaphysical philosophy in his work. Creative Evolution, written in 1907 by French philosopher Henri Bergson, is paramount among these sources.15 Bergson argued that as scientific reason enables the accumulation of knowledge about physical matter, so metaphysical intuition enables the knowledge of spirit. He theorized that the union of reason and intuition (what he called durée, or duration) conjoins past, present, and future, dissolving the diachronic appearance of categorical time, and providing a unified experience (or conscious awareness) of the synchronic relatedness of continuous change.

The early influence of Bergson on Ascott’s work is visible in the artist’s Change Paintings of 1959-60 (fig. 2). The composition of these interactive constructions changed over time as viewer-participants altered the works by sliding plexiglas panels along a horizontal axis, bringing the image painted on each panel into myriad configurations with regard to the images painted on the others. The work itself entailed a durational aspect comprised of process, behavior, and change. For Bergson duration is marked by a utopian notion of consciousness in which multiple elements are harmonized in unification: the conjugal union of memory and sensation, reason and intuition. Increasingly for Ascott, the instrumental reason underlying technology and the irrational intuition associated with art became identified as complementary aspects (albeit, developed in alternative systems of knowledge) that were foundational for his artistic pursuit to create systematic forms for understanding and expanding consciousness.

Ascott’s inquiry into art, technology, and consciousness also has incorporated both eastern and western systems of thought. Significantly, he has drawn parallels between western science and metaphysics and the ontological and epistemological systems of other cultures. In an untitled drawing from 1963, for example, the artist represented I Ching hexagrams (from the ancient Chinese book of knowledge), binary notation for digital computer systems, chaotic dot patterns, and wave forms as equivalent and parallel, if not interrelated, systems of knowledge.16 His Transactional Set (1971, fig. 3) was comprised of standard forms (rings, clothespins, a funnel) set on a grid-like table. The composition could be continuously altered and interpreted, like changing hexagrams of the I Ching, by viewer-participants. In this regard, Ascott's Telematic Art project Ten Wings (1982) had participants at their computer terminals around the world toss coins for the first planetary throw of the I Ching.17 Ascott's work has drawn on a wide variety of world cultures, including Navajo sand-painting, Druid rock formations, and Santo Daime shamanism as important models for creating spiritual and cosmological systems in art.

Computers, Telecommunications, Telematic Art, and Planetary Consciousness
The integration of technology and intuition in Ascott’s early work also emphasized the idea that the computer offered a means for enhancing intuition and that the use of telecommunications could enable non-local creative interaction. In 1966 Ascott developed a systematic plan for the construction of a “cybernetic art matrix,” in which the computer was conceived of as:

a tool for the mind, an instrument for the magnification of thought, potentially an intelligence amplifier... [T]he interaction of artefact and computer in the context of the behavioural structure, is equally foreseeable... The computer may be linked to an artwork and the artwork may in some sense be a computer.18

Anticipating the creation of the Internet by several years, Ascott further proposed that telecommunications networks could enable:

[i]nstant person to person contact [that] would support specialised creative work... An artist could be brought right into the working studio of other artists ... however far apart in the world...they may separately be located. By means of holography or a visual telex, instant transmission of facsimiles of their artwork could be effected... [D]istinguished minds in all fields of art and science could be contacted and linked.19

Nearly a decade before the first personal computer, and over a quarter century before the advent of web-based, graphical-user-interfaces (GUIs), Ascott had already envisioned the emergence of art created interactively with computers, and artistic collaboration via telecommunications networks.

It took nearly fifteen years for the technology to evolve, and for Ascott to gain access to it, before he could implement these ideas even in a rudimentary form. In 1980, he produced the first telematic artist networking project between the US and the UK. Terminal Art, as the project was called, linked artists across the Atlantic over Jacques Vallée’s Infomedia NOTEPAD computer conferencing system. As Ascott recounted in his essay "Art and Telematics: Toward a Network Consciousness" (1984), he

mail[ed] portable terminals to a group of artists in California, New York and Wales to participate in collectively generating ideas from their own studios. One of the group, Don Burgy, chose to take his terminal wherever he was visiting and log-in from there.20

Though primitive by today’s standards (the text-only visual display monitors he used, in which a telephone hand-set was lodged in a rubber modem housing integrated with a keyboard and printer, are now collector’s items) Terminal Art was an unprecedented example of Telematic Art at the time.21 As distinguished from telex or electronic mail, which did not offer “logical control of the conference context or a retrievable group memory,” Vallée claimed that Notepad was, “the first commercial use of a new medium that fully utilize[d] the logical and memory abilities of the modern computer.”22 In addition to being able to retrieve and add to information stored in the computer’s memory, users could search the database in a directed and associative manner. As Ascott explained at the time, the group could, "tell the computer to turn up any mentions of giraffes and ice cream…" and he added that, "'The surrealists could have a field day.'"23

Ascott’s La Plissure du Texte (The Pleating of the Text, 1983, fig. 4) was identified by Leonardo editor Roger Malina as an unsurpassed landmark in the history of Telematic Art. This work explored the potential of computer networking for interactive creative exchange between remote participators, first theorized by Ascott in 1966, as noted above. The project was produced as part of the Electra exhibition organized in 1983 by art historian Frank Popper at the Musée de l'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. La Plissure du Texte allowed Ascott and his collaborators at eleven locations in the US, Canada, Europe, and Australia to experiment with what the artist has termed “distributed authorship.” Each remote location represented a character in the “planetary fairytale,” and participated in collectively creating and contributing texts and ASCII-based images to the interactive unfolding, or distributed authorship, of the emerging story.24 Artist Hank Bull, who participated in the event from the Vancouver node, described “the result of this intense exchange” as a “fat tome of Joycean pretensions that delved deep into the poetics of disembodied collaboration and weightless network rambling.”25

French artist and media theorist Edmond Couchot has noted similarities between the process of distributed authorship and the Surrealist game of cadavre exquis, (exquisite corpse) in which one artist would begin a drawing, and several others, not knowing what preceded them, would continue it.26 Similarly, each “character” in La Plissure du Texte could read the latest additions to the story, printed out or displayed by projection or on a monitor, and add to it - all locations receiving these updates electronically. In this way, the story was continuously supplemented with unpredictable twists that, like the Surrealist’s experiments, “produced remarkably unexpected poetic associations, which could not have been obtained in any other way,” and certainly not as the result of a single, organizing mind.27 Such a collaborative process parallels Ascott’s goal of creating a field of consciousness greater than the sum of its parts.

Telematic artworks like La Plissure du Texte have challenged the conventional categories of artist, artwork, and viewer, and the traditional opposition of subject and object. At the same time, in such works the artist retains authorial control and responsibility for defining the parameters of interactivity and for imbuing them with meaning and significance. Aspects of traditional narrative structure may remain, while others are relinquished in order to allow a more open-ended development, fashioned by participants or "participators," (Ascott’s preferred term) involved in a multi-directional creative exchange. In this way, Ascott understood telematics as offering the artist new possibilities to create models for the future that would match Nora and Minc’s vision of “building the system of connections that will allow information and social organization to progress together.”

The title La Plissure du Texte is, moreover, a pun that refers to French semiotician and literary critic Roland Barthes’ essay “Le Plaisir du Text” (1973). In “Art and Telematics” Ascott claimed that text is commonly perceived as a tissue that simultaneously veils, but also permits, access to the meaning or truth hidden behind it. In contrast, he noted that Barthes proposed “the generative idea that the text is made, is worked out in a perpetual interweaving … [in which] … the subject unmakes himself, like a spider dissolving in the constructive secretions of its web.”28 Similarly, Ascott’s La Plissure du Texte emphasized the “generative idea” of “perpetual interweaving,” but at the level of the tissue itself, which is no longer the product of a single author but is now pleated together through the process of distributed authorship. In this vein, Couchot suggested that telematic networks “offer the artist the only medium really capable of breaking the barriers of time and space and which, one day, will set one free of the limits of individual, national, and cultural intelligence.”29

Looking back on nearly a decade of Telematic Art, Ascott’s article “Is There Love in the Telematic Embrace?” (1990) offers a provocative theorization of how the loving relationship between art/intuition and technology/reason in telematic systems might enable the systemic extension of human perception and the unified planetary expansion of consciousness. In this essay, Ascott claimed that telecommunications networking technology possessed an ability to embody and cultivate love which “provides the very infrastructure for spiritual interchange that could lead to the harmonization and creative development of the whole planet.”30 The transformation he proposed is based in part on the prophesies of global consciousness expounded by French paleontologist and theologian Teilhard de Chardin, who theorized the "noosphere" and by futurologist Peter Russell, who theorized the “global brain.” Ideas like these were invaluable to Ascott in his quest to imagine a parallel development through the visual languages of art. Though the noosphere and the global brain are unscientific and theoretically problematic constructs, in the following pages I consider the implications of Ascott’s application of such metaphysical theories to art.

The Noosphere, the Global Brain, and Telematic Art
Teilhard's model of expanded consciousness, the "noosphere" (from the Greek noos, or mind) theorized a purported dawning of a new stage of human evolution. Writing in 1955, Teilhard reasoned that just as matter gave rise to life (from which consciousness emerged) so consciousness itself would be succeeded by the noosphere, the ultimate stage in human development:

With and within the crisis of [self]reflection, the next turn in the [evolutionary] series manifests itself... a higher function - the engendering and subsequent development of all stages of the mind, this grand the noosphere.31

One might be rightly suspect of Teilhard’s unscientific and teleological explanation of the evolution of consciousness. Nonetheless, his description of the noosphere as an expanded field of consciousness offered a visionary model for contemplating the future of the human mind in a global context.32

Peter Russell, writing in 1982, built on Teilhard’s notion of noosphere in his thesis on the "global brain." Such an idea appealed to Ascott, who in 1966-67 had theorized that "A highly interactive CAM network on an international level might form the embryonic structure of a world brain."33 Based on the trend of data-processing capacity doubling every two and a half years, Russell claimed that by the year 2000 the global telecommunications network would equal the complexity of the human brain. He theorized that this global brain (the neurons of which would be comprised of individuals, all telematically interconnected, like a neural network) could give rise to an emergent form of consciousness.34 According to Russell, this structural system, modeled on that of biological organisms, provided the essential prerequisites for a new evolutionary level, the emergence of a cyborgian superorganism integrating human consciousness and global computer-networking technology.

Again, as with Teilhard’s notion of noosphere, Russell’s theory of the global brain is problematic. For example, it draws parallels between the brain and global telecommunications networks without rigorously considering the material, contextual, and functional dissimilarities between these two systems. While many scientists and philosophers believe that the operations of the human mind can be reduced to materialist explanations, the role that neuronal complexity plays in the production of consciousness remains subject to speculation.

An expanded form of planetary consciousness, such as the noosphere, may not be attainable, either by evolution or telematics. Computer networks have yet to reach the computational complexity of a global brain, and may never achieve the type of consciousness manifested in humans. Criticisms of Teilhard and Russell apply only partially to Ascott’s work, because art need not comply with the academic conventions of biology, neuroscience, and philosophy. Indeed, conventional scientific methods may not be able to prove or disprove the phenomena of networked consciousness that Ascott reported and conceptualized in an artistic context. But that hardly means they are not possible in fact, much less that they are not meaningful as art and as theory. The noosphere and the global brain, like Ascott's theory and practice of telematic art, imagine potentials for the future of consciousness. The question of whether or not such a consciousness emerges from Ascott’s telematic projects remains unanswered, and is perhaps unanswerable. What seems less tentative is that the artist’s work spreads and reinforces the idea of global telematic interconnectivity. As a form of experimental research established simultaneously adjacent to, and apart from, other disciplinary protocols, art often utilizes unconventional systems of knowledge that are deemed unacceptable by other fields. Far from lapsing into an irredeemable form of intuitionism, however, art exercises this intellectual freedom in order to expand the limits of knowledge and the understanding of human existence.

As art, Ascott’s inquiry into the telematic future inhabits an ambiguous zone of inquiry. He proposes his interactive telematic projects as working models of unified cybernetic systems (such as the noosphere and the global brain), in which participants at remote locations around the globe collaborate in the interactive creation and simultaneous experience of the work in real time. For example, Ascott's Aspects of Gaia, presented at the 1989 Ars Electronica festival in Linz, Austria, explored various facets of the earth - Gaia - seen from "a multiplicity of spiritual, scientific, cultural, and mythological perspectives."35 Participants, telematically connected around the world, and interacting with site-specific installations at the Brucknerhaus in Linz, collaborated in the creation and transformation of texts, images, and artificial-life forms related to British chemist James Lovelock’s “Gaia Hypothesis.” This holistic theory suggests that the Earth (Gaia) is a unified living organism, and that climate, atmosphere, geography, plants and animals have co-developed in a way that sustains the vitality of the planet.36 The Earth comes to be seen as a whole, unified living organism in and of itself. Ascott's conceived of Aspects of Gaia as behavioral and interactive, constantly in a state of becoming, where distinctions between artist, viewer, artwork, and Earth are blurred, and where artist, viewer, and artwork, technology and Gaia, are potentially united in the unfolding duration of their harmoniously negotiated mutual creation, or global consciousness.

On the upper level of the Brucknerhaus, a large horizontal screen purposely conflated the conventional vertical orientation of a computer monitor, and allowed viewers to gaze down on the data-stream of images and texts contributed remotely from all over the world. (This bird’s eye view is related to the horizontal working relationship between artist and the artwork that influenced Ascott’s cybernetic works of the 1960s and 1970s.) On the lower level, horizontal computer screens were set into what Ascott referred to as “information bars,” metaphorical cocktail lounges in which the consumption of data was intended to result in greater clarity of mind, rather than an alcohol-induced stupor (fig. 5). The networked images that appeared in the information bars could be altered by either acoustic sensors, which responded to the sounds of the users, or by a computer mouse on the counter.

In the dark, exterior space below the Brucknerhaus, viewers could ride a trolley (also in a horizontal position) which drove past LED screens that flashed messages about Gaia (fig. 6). The viewer became physically engaged in an experience that conveyed ideas about the emergent quality of telematic consciousness as it relates to the Earth as a living organism. As Ascott described in “Is There Love in the Telematic Embrace?” the elements of the work co-evolved like Gaia, such that distinctions between artist, viewer, and artwork, nature (Earth) and culture (technology), became blurred as they were united in the unfolding duration of their harmoniously negotiated, mutual self-creation.

The Telematic Embrace, or Loving Re/Deflections from Utopia
All visionary artists have been criticized for their prognostications, often because they tend towards either utopianism or apocalypse. Ascott is no exception. His theories of telematic art are subject to criticism for their deterministic and utopian attitude regarding technology and the future. However, the artist has been keenly aware of the threats that technology potentially poses to society, and expressed concern about how the misuse of technology by empowered institutions can serve to reinforce the status quo. Perhaps Ascott’s commission as a radar officer (at height of the Cold War in the mid-1950s) cultivated his mindfulness of the potency of communications and surveillance technologies. This experience may have influenced his conviction to imagine alternative scenarios in which these instruments of control could promote collaboration, expand perception, and foster more harmonious planetary relations. Indeed, since writing "The Construction of Change" in 1964, Ascott has insisted on the moral responsibility of artists and designers to contribute to shaping society by understanding the implications of technology and envisioning its many cultural possibilities. This position constitutes an aesthetic value that reflects his self-defined creative and ethical mission to formulate constructive visions of the future as an inspiration and blueprint for change.

The ethical responsibility of artists' use of telecommunications, and the potential efficacy of art to affect the structure and content of networked communications is a persistent topic of debate.37 In general, Ascott eschewed making explicitly political statements about the potential of telematics. However, in “Art and Telematics” he described how the aesthetic values of telematic art constitute a subversive paradigm shift that has sweeping ramifications for the social structure:

[A]rt itself becomes not a discrete set of entities, but rather a web of relationships between ideas and images in constant flux, to which no single authorship is attributable and whose meanings depend on the active participation of whoever enters the network... [T]here is no centre, or hierarchy, no top nor bottom... To engage in telematic communication is to be at once everywhere and nowhere. In this it is subversive. It subverts the idea of authorship bound up within the solitary individual. It subverts the idea of individual ownership of the works of imagination. It replaces the bricks and mortar of institutions of culture and learning with an invisible college and a floating museum the reach of which is always expanding to include new possibilities of mind and new intimations of reality.

Here, Ascott theorized how telematics could promote the development of a society that was essentially different from the inherited model of hierarchical, discrete, centralized, individualistic systems of communication. He claimed that this telematic model was “subversive” in as much as it would “replace the bricks and mortar of institutions.” In this distinctly political statement Ascott sanctioned not only the expansion of human consciousness, but a reconceptualization of reality that involved the replacement of traditional cultural and social institutions. Indeed, with the exception of the telephone, industry and government historically have restricted public communication transmissions to a one-way sender-receiver model in which the public has been a passive receiver. In the tradition of Bertolt Brecht's theory and use of bi-directional communications technology,38 it was artists like Ascott who first offered the public models of interactive, global communication amongst multiple, active participants.

In this regard, Ascott’s praxis bears a striking affinity to what art historian Kristine Stiles describes as “the strategic convictions of avant-garde artists throughout history: the perception, conception, envisioning and representation of alternative realities and systems of meaning.”39 This spirit of avant-garde art offers a rich context in which the artist's theory and practice can most usefully and thoughtfully be considered. Indeed, it is the reasoned impulse to imagine blueprints for alternative futures as a guide for building them in the present that shapes Ascott’s desire for a telematic embrace - a higher form of consciousness, a higher form of love. Such goals warrant a reconsideration of his concept of love as the principle of passionate attraction, his interpetation of Duchamp's Large Glass as a model for his theories of how Telematic Art can create a condition of expanded global consciousness and harmony.

In "Is There Love in the Telematic Embrace?" Ascott proposed the Large Glass as a model for the passionate attraction he theorized in Telematic Art. He interpreted Duchamp's magnum opus as embodying and generating love by drawing viewers into a hybrid field made up of its passionate imagery, its environment, and the viewer’s own reflection. Ascott celebrated the Large Glass for its anticipation of the computer screen as a nexus of attraction and transformation. He described this "site of interaction and negotiation for meaning..." in effusive terms, and proposed that it might yield a "sunrise of uncertainty... a joyous dance of meaning [which] suggest[s] a paradigm shift in our world view, a redescription of reality..."40 Similarly, Ascott described the embrace of Telematic Art as drawing participators into the hybrid field of cyberspace, an environment where they meet, and which they collaboratively create and transform in a process of negotiation and unification that embodies and generates love. While much of his discussion of love in the Large Glass focused on its dynamic form, Ascott also identified the element of attraction in the glass sculpture’s sexualized imagery. But alongside whatever attraction might be interpreted in Duchamp’s work, the exchange between male and female depicts a proto-cyborgian confluence of mechanical technology and bio-organic aesthetics. The machine-like anonymity and ambivalence of the eroticized intercourse between these aspects might be interpreted as creating a perverse tension rather than a loving embrace.

The Large Glass, like the vitreous surface of a computer terminal, resists a consistently transparent view because it includes the reflection of the observer and his/her environment in its image. Ascott advocated this quality for its inclusiveness, and claimed that it promoted the dissolution of traditional epistemological models based on binary oppositions, in particular the subject-object model of Western art since the Renaissance. Contrary to Ascott’s description of the relational intimacy of telematics vis-à-vis the Large Glass, skeptics may question whether or not a passionate bond really can be consummated through a computer monitor, which arguably disrupts the total engagement of love. Like Duchamp's transparent sculpture, the eroticism of the telematic embrace is seductive and appealing, perhaps more so for its elusiveness, for the impossibility of possessing it, for its insistence on keeping the relationship tantalizingly connected but always at a distance.

While enabling new conditions for, and qualities of, mutual exchange, such hyaline interfaces may equally transform communication into monologue, unification into narcissism, passionate attraction into solitary confinement. Might not the persistent self-reflection one experiences on a computer screen interrupt the mantric union of technological apparatus and human consciousness, network and node? Do not many delays, bugs, viruses, and crashes (to which computer networks are prone) remind the telematic participant that s/he is inevitably a perpetual observer, a voyeur whose electronic relationships are subject to autoerotic soliloquy?

Such questions are neither new nor unique to telematics or art. Skeptical assertions that love is but "a shared experience at the same moment of time, narcissistically … like reflections in different mirrors" have a long history in philosophy and literature.41 Similar issues have been raised in the context of film theory to interrogate the limits of a viewer's ability to identify with dramatic characters and the unfolding cinematic narrative. Media theorist Lev Manovich argued that the history of the screen in western representation offered the illusion of liberating access into infinite space, but may equally be interpreted as a prison, demanding that the viewer’s physical presence be fixed at a precise location.42

Ascott has argued that the application of theories about film to the conditions of telematics fails to address the functional dissimilarity of their interfaces, particularly the interactive, relational, multipath potential of computer networks. He rejected the Renaissance idea of art as a window on the world, and conceived of art rather as a map of actual and potential relationships. Similarly, Ascott understood computer monitors to be metaphorical “screens of operation,” rather than screens of representation. He claimed that the “telematic screen gives the individual mind and spirit worldwide access to other minds and spirits,” enabling expanded “cognitive, affective, and spiritual behavior. It is not at all … imprisoning.”43

Conclusion: Telematics Embraced
Ascott’s telematic embrace resides in the space where love draws together art and technology, where their union becomes consciousness, and where consciousness, in turn, becomes love, allowing the system to cycle and recycle in perpetuity. Indeed, just as the artist presented telematics as a propositional model merging the instrumentality of technology with the creativity of art, so his concept of love can be seen as a propositional model merging the contingent and the transcendental. If Ascott is correct that the principle of passionate attraction is activated in the form and content of the Bride, then such love is enigmatic. Similarly, the form and content of telematics are capable of both sustaining life and violating it; and violation and sustenance are not mutually exclusive. This ambiguity characterizes the dialectical locus of utopian and dystopian visions of the future with respect to technology.44

That emerging technologies extend the hegemony of technocratic institutions, economic systems, and governments is nearly a tautology. As the demands of an evolving military-industrial-media complex push the relationship between human and machine to its limits - not necessarily in the pursuit of any lofty ideal, but in the interests of expanding global control and profit - the question of human values becomes increasingly urgent. Which ones are worth keeping? What other types of values might emerge? Ascott proposed perhaps the most obvious yet unlikely value - love - as an organizing principle central to telematic culture. Yet, while certain aspects of love may remain stable, others appear subject to change. Similarly, it remains uncertain how the shifts brought about by telematics will transpire and what the costs and benefits will be.

Ascott's polemical query, "Is there love in the telematic embrace?" therefore proffers the further questions: "What will love be?" "How will it be manifested?" and "Who will benefit from it?" As Nora and Minc suggested, telematics may contribute to altering power relations by shifting political control from a top-down central bureaucratic model to a bottom-up, distributed, and decentralized system of negotiation. Nonetheless, the "sunrise of uncertainty" Ascott described may not appeal to those whose living circumstances are already tenuous. For no amount of telematic consciousness can result in planetary harmony unless the physical conditions of human life are vastly improved. Moreover, since at the end of the second millennium, only a fraction of the world's population had a telephone, one must ask how wide the arms of the telematic embrace will be.45 At the same time one must remain vigilant that its hugs do not squeeze too tightly.

Telematic spaces reproduce the physical world, simultaneously intensifying and dematerializing it. While online rape, child pornography, terrorism, and viruses are part of the economy and structure of the global village, telematic interaction also offers potential benefits that are unique. On the constructive side of this double-edge sword, Ascott’s artistic experiments, beginning in the 1960s with interactive art systems, and since the 1980s, on the emergent behavior of telematic art networks, can be seen as state-of-the art, aesthetic research and design. Ascott's oeuvre uniquely bridges cybernetics and cyberspace, drawing together four decades of this combined history of art and technology. His early collaborative networking experiments not only opened up a field of artistic research, they heralded a new paradigm for human interaction that is still in its infancy, the ramifications of which remain a work in progress.

The Centre for Advanced Inquiry in the Interactive Arts (CAiiA) represents a certain culminating point of Ascott’s inter-related pursuits as an artist, educator, and writer, extending his research on cybernetics and telematics into social praxis. Ascott founded CAiiA in 1994 at the University of Wales, Newport, as a Ph.D. program to support cutting-edge research at the intersections of art, technology, and consciousness. In the 1997-8 academic year, it expanded to become a joint degree program between CAiiA and the Science, Technology and Art Research center (STAR), in the School of Computing, University of Plymouth. The CAiiA+STAR curriculum is predicated on cybernetic and telematic aesthetic theories, and integrates artistic practice, writing, and pedagogy. The program transpires largely online and includes artist-researchers from four continents.46

1. Roy Ascott, Video Roget and Thesarus, 1963. Illustration in Diagram Boxes and Analog Structures (exhibition catalog) Molton Gallery, London.
2. Roy Ascott, Change Painting, 1960. Wood, plexiglas, oil, 66x21" Two different states.
3. Roy Ascott, Transactional Set, 1971. Mixed media.
4. Roy Ascott, La Plissure du Texte, 1983. Performers in Sydney enacting print-out from computer networking exchange.
5. Roy Ascott, Aspects of Gaia, ("Information Bar") 1989
6. Roy Ascott, Aspects of Gaia (trolley under Brucknerhaus), 1989

Author Bio
Edward A. Shanken is an art historian and media theorist whose research focuses on 20th century experimental art. He is editor of the first English language collection of Roy Ascott's writings, Telematic Embrace: Visionary Theories of Art, Technology, and Consciousness, forthcoming from the University of California Press, 2001. Recent and forthcoming publications include articles on the history of art and technology, art and cybernetics, telematic art, artificial life and art, conceptual art, and interactive multimedia. Shanken holds graduate degrees from Yale (MBA, 1990) and Duke (MA, Art History, 1999). He wrote his doctoral dissertation on "Art in the Information Age: Cybernetics, Software, and Telematics," and anticipates receiving his Ph.D. in Art History from Duke in May, 2001. He was a Fellow in Arts Administration at the National Endowment for the Arts in 1991 and a Henry Luce/American Council of Learned Societies fellow in 1998-99. He is a member of the editorial board of Leonardo Digital Reviews, and a participant in the Leonardo Pioneers and Pathbreakers of Electronic Art online project. More information about Edward A. Shanken is available at his website,

[1] This essay is revised and excerpted from the author's "From Cybernetics to Telematics: The Art, Pedagogy, and Theory of Roy Ascott," forthcoming in Roy Ascott, Telematic Embrace: Visionary Theories of Art, Technology, and Consciousness, Edward A. Shanken, ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

I dedicate this essay to Kristine Stiles, Associate Professor of Art and Art History, Duke University, whose wealth of knowledge, intellectual rigor, ceaseless generosity and love have been a constant source of inspiration and support. The author also wishes to thank Roy Ascott and Josephine Coy for their remarkable generosity.

Grants from the Duke University Department of Art and Art History and the Center for International studies helped support the author's research abroad in 1994 and his participation in the Einstein Meets Magritte conference in Brussels, where a shorter version of this paper, entitled, "Technology and Intuition: A Love Story?" was first delivered in 1995. That paper was first published in Leonardo Online <> (1997), and reprinted in Science and Art: The Red Book of 'Einstein Meets Magritte' Diederik Aerts, Ernest Mathijs, and Bert Mosselman, Eds., (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1999): 141-156. Extended abstract published in Leonardo 30:1 (February, 1997).

[2] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, second edition. (New York: Signet, 1964): ix.

[3] Simon Nora and Alain Minc, The Computerization of Society (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1980): 4-5.

[4] Ibid: 10-11.

[5] Ibid: 11.

[6] Roy Ascott, 'Is There Love in the Telematic Embrace?' Art Journal 49:3: (Fall, 1990): 241. Ascott credits Simon Nora and Alain Minc with coining the word 'télématique' in L'informatisation de la société, Paris: La Documentation Française, 1978, 2. Published in English as The Computerization of Society. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1980.

[7] As Frank Popper has noted, such ideas were already present in Ascott's first kinetic constructions of 1960. Frank Popper, Origins and Development of Kinetic Art (Greenwich: New York Graphic Society, 1966): 208.

[8] Ascott, 'Is There Love in the Telematic Embrace?': 241.

[9] Roy Ascott, 'The Construction of Change,' Cambridge Opinion (Modern Art in Britain 1 (1964,): 37.

[10] Ascott, Diagram Boxes and Analogue Structures. London: Molton Gallery, 1963. Unpaginated.

[11] Roy Ascott, 'Behaviourables and Futuribles' in Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz (Eds.) Theories of Modern Art, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1996.

[12] Although the monuments and rituals of diverse cultures ranging from Druid rock formations like Stonehenge to Navajo sand painting may be interpreted as instruments for expanding cosmic consciousness, the conceptualization of consciousness itself as an art object lies outside the material fold of traditional western art. Indeed, Ascott's own Druid roots and profound admiration for Native American and other forms of mysticism, inspire his focus on art as consciousness.

[13] Heinz von Foerster, Observing Systems. Seaside, CA: Intersystems, 1981. Cited in Ascott, 'Is There Love in the Telematic Embrace': 242.

[14] Roy Ascott, 'Is There Love in the Telematic Embrace?': 242. See also J.A. Wheeler and W.H.. Zurek, Quantum Theory and Measurement (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983): 6.

[15] Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1911.

[16] Roy Ascott, Interview with the author, May 28, 1995.

[17] This was Ascott's contribution to Robert Adrian X's World in 24 Hours, an electronic networking event at Ars Electronica in 1982. See Roy Ascott, 'Art and Telematics: Towards a Network Consciousness' and Robert Adrian X, 'Communicating' and 'The World in 24 Hours' in Heidi Grundmann (Ed.) Art + Telecommunication (Vienna: Shakespeare Co., 1984): 28.

[18] Roy Ascott, 'Behaviourist Art and the Cybernetic Vision,' CYBERNETICA: Review of the International Association for Cybernetics, Vol. IX, No. 4, 1966; Vol. X, No. 1, 1967: 29.

[19] Ibid: 47.

[20] Roy Ascott, 'Art and Telematics: Towards a Network Consciousness' in Heidi Grundmann, Ed., Art + Telecommunication (Vienna: Shakespeare Co., 1984): 27.

[21] Other early art telecommunication projects include the satellite art projects of Sherrie Rabinowitz and Kip Calloway, Willoughby Sharp, Liza Behr, Carl Loeffler and Sharon Grace. and Douglas Davis.

[22] Jacques Vallee, Saturn Encounter: Transcript of an International Computer Conference on Future Technology. (San Bruno: Infomedia Corporation, 1980): 5.

[23] Peter Large, 'Terminal Consciousness' The ManchesterGuardian October 4, 1980.

[24] The roles were: Alma (Quebec) - "beast"; Amsterdam - "villain"; Bristol -"trickster"; Honolulu - "wise old man"; Paris - "magician"; Pittsburg -"prince"; San Francisco - "fool"; Sydney -"witch"; Toronto - "fairy godmother"; Vancouver -"princess"; Vienna - "sorcerer's apprentice." Robert Adrian, "Art and Telecomminications: The Pioneer Years," op cit. A transcript of 'La Plissure' compiled by Norman White at the Toronto node is available online at <>.

[25] Hank Bull,'Notes Toward a History of Telecommunications Art,' unpublished manuscript, 1993. He further clarifed this statement, stating, 'It was like live radio or performance -- that the value lay more in the event, the process, the shared experience of the project, than in the literary quality of the final outcome. Nevertheless, a good writer could no doubt make an interesting job of editing it for publication.' Hank Bull, email correspondence with the author, September 23, 1998.

[26] Edmond Couchot, Images. De l'optique au numérique. (Paris: Hermès, 1988): 187.

[27] Herschel B. Chipp, Theories and Documents of Modern Art: A Sourcebook by Artists and Critics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968) 418, fn. 1.

[28] Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text. Trans. Robert Miller. (New York: Hill and Wang, 1975). Quoted in Ascott, 'Art and Telematics': 31.

[29] Couchot, Images: 187. Editor's translation.

[30] Roy Ascott, 'Is There Love in the Telematic Embrace': 247.

[31] Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1955): 181-182.

[32] It is interesting to note that Teilhard has been resuscitated as a model for networked consciousness and spirituality. See, for example, Mike King, "Concerning the Spiritual in Twentieth-Century Art and Science" Leonardo 31:1 (February 1998): 21-31; and Jennifer Cobb Kreisberg, "A Robe Clothing Itself with a Brain" Wired 3:6 (June, 1995).

[33] Roy Ascott, "Behaviourist Art and the Cybernetic Vision": 37.

[34] Peter Russell, The Global Brain: Speculations on the Evolutionary Leap to Planetary Consciousness, Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher, Inc., 1983.

[35] Roy Ascott, 'Is There Love in the Telematic Embrace?': 244. The female gendering of Gaia appropriately fits the set which includes art, metaphysics, intuition, and nature.

[36] James E. Lovelock. Gaia, a New Look at Life on Earth. Oxford: Oxford University Press: 1979.

[37] See, for example, Carol A. Gigliotti, "Aesthetics of a Virtual World: Ethical Issues in Interactive Technological Design," Doctoral Dissertation, Ohio State University, 1993.

[38] Bertolt Brecht, 'The Radio as an Apparatus of Communication' in Video Culture: A Critical Investigation. Ed. John Hanhardt. (Rochester: Visual Studies Workshop): 53-4.

[39] Kristine Stiles, course lectures in 'The History of Performance Art' Department of Art and Art History, Duke University, Fall, 1995.

[40] Roy Ascott, "Is There Love in the Telematic Embrace": 242.

[41] Lawrence Durrell, Justine (New York, Pocket Books, Cardinal Edition, 1961): 42. Originally published 1957.

[42] Lev Manovich, "An Archeology of a Computer Screen" Kunstforum International, 1995. One must wonder, however, if the screen is perceived as a prison, then what apparatus could not be conceived of, in some sense, as a prison. The term "prison" lapses into a generality in which it begins to lose its significance. Nonetheless, Manovich's point, following Baudry, is well-taken, for indeed the screen certainly demands and restricts behavior as it offers and supplies information.

[43] Roy Ascott, Email correspondence with the author, January 6, 1999. I have reordered this quotation for clarity.

[44] For a discussion of this dialectic, see Michael Heim, "The Cyberspace Dialectic"in Peter Lunenfeld, ed., The Digital Dialectic: New Essays on New Media (Cambridge: MIT Press): 24-45.

[45] Even if everyone were connected, there is no guarantee that cyberspace would be any less hierarchical than any other space. This sort of concern was anticipated by Licklider and Taylor as early as 1968, and remain a current topic of debate. See J.C.R. Licklider and Robert W. Taylor, "The Computer as Communication Device." Science and Technology, (April, 1968): 21-31. As recently as 1996, the plenary session at the annual conference of the International Society for Electronic Art (ISEA) focused on the need to increase cultural diversity in the exhibitions, membership, administration and symposia topics of the organization and its annual conference.

[46] In the 1995-96 academic year, CAiiA gained accreditation for the world's first Ph.D. program focusing on Interactive Art. CAiiA graduates include such internationally renowned artists as: Victoria Vesna (US, Ph.D. 2000), Bill Seaman (US, Ph.D, 1999), Jill Scott (Switzerland/ Australia, Ph.D., 1998), Joseph Nechvatal (US/France, 1999), Dew Harrison (UK, Ph.D. 1998), and Miroslaw Rogala (Poland/US, 2000). Other renowned artist researchers include Eduardo Kac (Brazil /US), Christa Sommerer (Austria/Japan), Laurent Mignonneau (France/Japan), Joe Lewis (US), Char Davies (Canada), Niranjan Rajah (Indonesia), and Marcus Novak (US).

Fig. 1. Video Roget, 1962