Introduction. Art and Telematics: A Match Made in
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
dEstaing, and popularized in the reports 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 fields 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 Ascotts 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
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 Ascotts
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 artists 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 Ascotts utopian theories of Telematic Art.
Cybernetics, Interactive Art, and Education
Ascott was profoundly influenced by early writings on cybernetics,
including F.H. Georges Automation, Cybernetics and Society
(1959), Norbert Wieners The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics
and Society (1948), and W. Ross Ashbys 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
Ascotts 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.
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
Ascotts 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 Kosuths Second
Investigation, Proposition 1(1968) and Mel Ramsdens 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 artists
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
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 Zurecks 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 Ascotts work is visible
in the artists 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.
Ascotts 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
Computers, Telecommunications, Telematic Art, and Planetary
The integration of technology and intuition in Ascotts 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
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 Vallées 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 todays 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 collectors 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 computers 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
Ascotts 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
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 Surrealists
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 Ascotts 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," (Ascotts 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 Mincs 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
the subject unmakes
himself, like a spider dissolving in the constructive secretions
of its web.28 Similarly, Ascotts
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, Ascotts
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 Ascotts 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 phenomenon...is the noosphere.31
One might be rightly suspect of Teilhards 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 Teilhards 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 Teilhards notion of noosphere, Russells
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 Ascotts 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
Ascotts telematic projects remains unanswered, and is perhaps
unanswerable. What seems less tentative is that the artists
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, Ascotts 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 Lovelocks 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
birds eye view is related to the horizontal working relationship
between artist and the artwork that influenced Ascotts 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 Ascotts
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, Ascotts 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
Ascotts 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
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
viewers 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 sculptures sexualized imagery.
But alongside whatever attraction might be interpreted in Duchamps
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 Ascotts
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
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 viewers 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
Conclusion: Telematics Embraced
Ascotts 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
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,
Ascotts 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 Ascotts 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
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
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, http://www.duke.edu/~giftwrap
 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
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 <http://mitpress.mit.edu/ejournals/Leonardo/isast/articles/shanken.html>
(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).
 Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions
of Man, second edition. (New
York: Signet, 1964): ix.
 Simon Nora and Alain Minc, The Computerization of Society
(Cambridge: MIT Press, 1980):
 Ibid: 10-11.
 Ibid: 11.
 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.
 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.
 Ascott, 'Is There Love in the Telematic Embrace?':
 Roy Ascott, 'The Construction of Change,' Cambridge
Art in Britain 1 (1964,):
 Ascott, Diagram Boxes and Analogue Structures. London:
Molton Gallery, 1963. Unpaginated.
 Roy Ascott, 'Behaviourables and Futuribles'
in Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz (Eds.) Theories of Modern Art,
Berkeley, University of California Press, 1996.
 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.
 Heinz von Foerster, Observing Systems.
Seaside, CA: Intersystems, 1981. Cited in Ascott, 'Is There
Love in the Telematic Embrace': 242.
 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.
 Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1911.
 Roy Ascott, Interview with the author, May 28, 1995.
 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.
 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.
 Ibid: 47.
 Roy Ascott, 'Art and Telematics: Towards
a Network Consciousness' in Heidi Grundmann, Ed., Art
+ Telecommunication (Vienna:
Shakespeare Co., 1984): 27.
 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.
 Jacques Vallee, Saturn Encounter:
Transcript of an International Computer Conference on Future Technology.
(San Bruno: Infomedia Corporation,
 Peter Large, 'Terminal Consciousness'
October 4, 1980.
 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 <http://www.bmts.com/~normill/artpage.html>.
 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,
 Edmond Couchot, Images. De l'optique
au numérique. (Paris:
Hermès, 1988): 187.
 Herschel B. Chipp, Theories and Documents
of Modern Art: A Sourcebook by Artists and Critics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968) 418,
 Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text.
Trans. Robert Miller. (New York: Hill and Wang, 1975). Quoted
in Ascott, 'Art and Telematics': 31.
 Couchot, Images: 187. Editor's translation.
 Roy Ascott, 'Is There Love in the
Telematic Embrace': 247.
 Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of
Man (New York: Harper &
Brothers, 1955): 181-182.
 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).
 Roy Ascott, "Behaviourist Art and the
Cybernetic Vision": 37.
 Peter Russell, The Global Brain: Speculations
on the Evolutionary Leap to Planetary Consciousness, Los Angeles:
J.P. Tarcher, Inc., 1983.
 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.
 James E. Lovelock. Gaia, a New Look at
Life on Earth. Oxford: Oxford
University Press: 1979.
 See, for example, Carol A. Gigliotti, "Aesthetics
of a Virtual World: Ethical Issues in Interactive Technological
Design," Doctoral Dissertation, Ohio State University, 1993.
 Bertolt Brecht, 'The Radio as an Apparatus
of Communication' in Video Culture: A Critical Investigation.
Ed. John Hanhardt. (Rochester: Visual Studies Workshop): 53-4.
 Kristine Stiles, course lectures in 'The
History of Performance Art' Department of Art and Art History,
Duke University, Fall, 1995.
 Roy Ascott, "Is There Love in the Telematic
 Lawrence Durrell, Justine (New York, Pocket Books, Cardinal Edition, 1961): 42.
Originally published 1957.
 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.
 Roy Ascott, Email correspondence with the
author, January 6, 1999. I have reordered this quotation for clarity.
 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.
 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.
 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).