Visionary Theories of Art, Technology, and Consciousness
By Roy Ascott
Edited and with an essay by Edward A. Shanken
The University of California Press; 427 pages; $44.95

In the early 1960s, with the end of the Cold War still decades ahead, the Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Project Agency began to envision a computerized communications network in which discrete packets of information could be sent by numerous paths, ending up at the same terminals at the same time. So that, in the event of a nuclear attack, with its massive physical and electromagnetic disruption, vital messages could still get through. Around this time, too, Roy Ascott, a young English artist and teacher with a knack for writing theory was preparing his first major essay, "The Construction of Chance." Although the "telematics" he was beginning to sketch also consisted of "computer-mediated communication networking between geographically dispersed individuals and institutions," it wasn’t predicated on nuclear war, but on avoiding such catastrophic failures in communication in the first place. His premise was that, although art "works without practical power, (it) is responsible to a considerable extent for the direction in which society moves." This is not the art of the marketplace, which is concerned "with appearance, with the look of things, with surface reality," but with "the democratization of meaning (and) the democratization of communications, that is to say a shared participation in the creation and ownership of reality."

Ascott’s visionary path began with his study of cybernetics pioneer Norbert Wiener, paleontologist/theologian Teilhard de Chardin, who envisioned the "noosphere," "the engendering and subsequent development of all stages of the mind, this grand phenomenon," and the artist Marcel Duchamp, whose "The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, or Large Glass (1915-1923)" engenders the qualities and complexities of Ascott’s reflective mind. As his work as a media artist and his theoretical writing are concomitant, into this heady mix he stirred chance operations based on the Chinese "I Ching: Book of Changes," and investigations into practices such as Behavioral Art. But it is his experiences with shamans of the Mato Grosso, with whom he ingested the entheogenic ("searching for the God within") drug, ayahuasca, that sets him apart, because, as he so beautifully states it, "The shaman is the one who ‘cares’ for consciousness," and has a "profound empathy of mutual attraction, ‘love, if you will.’" Thus, the concept of embracing telematics.
In Brazil, Ascott experienced consciousness at ground level. Here the artist’s vision of reciprocity between hi-technology and deep insight began to focus a sharp pedagogical mind ("All art is, in some sense didactic: every artist is, in some way, setting out to instruct.") that doesn’t shy away from visceral insights ("It can feel not just like an extension of mind, but like an extension of the body…"), along with conceiving neologisms, such as cyberbotony, telenoetics, and cyberception, that ironically yoke and extend body, mind, technology, spirituality, and earth.

When the Internet is discussed in the popular media, it is almost always about "dot.coms," scams, pornography, or government plans for snooping and regulation.. Rarely mentioned is the international network of thousands of artists and writers who are developing a digital-based aesthetics that will shape the body of human culture during this century. Maybe they haven’t yet realized the scope and importance of the movement. Or, perhaps, most critics, who were brought up on books and material art, feel intimidated by the technology, and will leave it to the next generation to figure out. While, forty years ago Roy Ascott was already interested in telecommunications as an art, exemplified by his one-man show at the Molton Gallery in London, in which he presented, in the words of Edward A. Shanken, who wrote a superb 88-page introduction to Ascott’s place in contemporary art history for this book, "a system of interrelated feedback loops linking various conceptual ideas." Telematics, as Shanken writes, "provides a context for interactive aesthetic encounters and facilitates artistic collaborations among globally dispersed individuals." What is valued is bandwidth, shuttle points, clock speed, storage capacity, "and the systematic relationship between artist, artwork, and audience as part of a social network of communication."

At a time when libraries stacked with mass-marketed books on the Internet, the twenty-eight essays and projects collected in "Telematic Embrace," many of which have never been readily available in print before, are a welcome contribution, both to academic and general discourse. Presently, Ascott, an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Design/Media Arts at UCLA, and Director of the Centre for Advanced Inquiry in the Interactive Arts, at the University of Wales College, along with his successful career as a media artist, is exploring the "post-biological culture," in which "the moist materialization of art…will integrate symbolically with our own biology," healing the narrow individualist and nationalistic concerns that are plaguing our planet with endless cycles of hunger, epidemics, and war. "Intelligence is spreading everywhere," he writes with emblematic optimism, "leaking out of our brains and spilling into our homes, our tools, our vehicles…"

(Published in slightly shorter version.)
San Francisco Chronicle 2003