Technology and Intuition: A Love Story? Roy Ascott's Telematic Embrace

Edward A. Shanken

Department of Art & Art History
Duke University
Box 90754 Durham, NC 27708, U.S.A.

"The loved object is simply one that has shared an experience at the same moment of time, narcissistically; and the desire to be near the beloved object is . . . simply to let the two experiences compare themselves, like reflections in different mirrors."

---Lawrence Durrell, Justine [2]

So Durrell's tragic heroine Justine theorizes love. Nonetheless -- whether by narcissistic self-reflection, passionate attraction, possessive desire, or the harmonization of multiplicity in unification -- hearts, minds, and bodies crave connection with others. These are just some of the qualities that characterize the enigmatic romance of technology and intuition as well as the sentiments of the artists, scientists, and philosophers who have attempted to conjoin them. My work addresses the dynamic relationship between technology and intuition and their philosophical roots in and points of intersection with reason and metaphysics. These "loving" couples have been conventionally constructed as the dialectical locus of utopic and dystopic formulations of the future, often manifested in theories of global consciousness and its wicked step-sister, or draconian big brother, global surveillance. Part of my project is to problematize these binary oppositions and to suggest a more nuanced reconstruction of the relationship of technology and intuition with regard to the future.

My work is grounded in the telematic theory, practice, and pedagogy of English artist Roy Ascott [3]. Telematics, as Ascott defines 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" [4] In order to describe the relation of theory to practice in Ascott's work, I shall touch on some of his principle sources, including Henri Bergson, Norbert Wiener, Heinz von Foerster, the I Ching, Teilhard de Chardin, Peter Russell, Charles Fourier, and Marcel Duchamp. Focusing on Ascott's utopian project, I examine the relationship of technology and intuition with regard to the notion of love he summonses in "Is There Love in the Telematic Embrace?" (1990) [5]. In this article, the artist defined love in the Fourieran sense -- as a principle of "passionate attraction" leading to "universal harmony" [6]. Citing Duchamp's Large Glass as activating such passionate attraction through its dual properties of transparency and reflection, Ascott suggested that this dynamic force, when distributed through computer-mediated telecommunications systems, potentiates expanded global consciousness, an all- embracing love.

Modifying Ascott's hopeful proposition, I suggest that the interactive elements throughout the artist's oeuvre encompass a range of dynamic attractions that offer a more ambiguous prognosis for the future. By refracting Justine's description of love as narcissistic reflection through Duchamp's Large Glass and the glaring monitors of telematics, I intend to show that the technological illusion of transparency disassociates love from intimate mutuality and imposes a condition of introverted mediation at a distance. My analysis of this technological and psychological condition of love leads to a consideration of the construction of technology and intuition, form and content as dualities. This context frames my concluding remarks about art, technology, love, and the future.

To begin with, Ascott was profoundly influenced by early writings on cybernetics including Norbert Wiener's Cybernetics (1946) and The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society (1950). 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 the system feedback about its own status. In this way, the elements could communicate with each other and provide information which would enable the regulation of the system as a whole.

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" [7]. 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. The artist applied such concepts in the systematic Groundcourse he designed and directed at the Ealing School of Art (1961--1964) 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, 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 work Ascott presented at his solo exhibition Diagram Boxes & Analogue Structures at the Molton Gallery in London, February 1963. The exhibition catalog for that show contains 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 his 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 Rogetin the exhibition catalogue, Ascott provided a related diagram on tracing paper, entitled Thesaurus, that the reader could interact with by superimposing it on the image of Video Roget to reveal both the meaning of the individual analogue forms and the feedback loops between them.

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" [8]. Not only did Ascott consider the artist's behavior to be properly considered art, but he expanded the province of art to include idea, ritual, and system -- important additional constituents of consciousness [9].

In his ongoing inquiry into art, technology, and consciousness Ascott has consistently incorporated the most advanced research in theoretical science into his work. Whereas the early cybernetic theory that the artist initially drew upon concentrated on systems of feedback and control, second-order cybernetics, as exemplified by Heinz von Foerster's Observing Systems (1981) [10] included reference to developments in quantum theory, and focused attention on the influence of observers and instruments on experimental phenomena, and the interrelatedness of matter. 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" [11]. 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 [12]. 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 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--1960. The composition of these interactive constructions changed over time as viewers-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. Similarly for Ascott, technology and intuition became increasingly identified as complementary aspects (albeit, developed in alternative systems of knowledge) that were foundational in his artistic pursuit to create systematic forms for understanding and expanding consciousness.

Ascott's inquiry into art, technology, and consciousness 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 represents I Ching hexagrams, binary notation for digital computer systems, chaotic dot patterns, and wave forms as equivalent, interrelated systems of knowledge [13]. His Transactional Set (1971) was comprised of standard forms (rings, clothes pins, a funnel) set on a grid-like table. The composition could be continuously altered and interpreted, like changing hexagrams of the I Ching, by viewers-participants. Over a decade before the I Ching could be accessed over the Internet, Ascott had participants at their computer terminals around the world toss coins for the first planetary throw of the I Ching [14]. Ascott also has drawn on such sources as Navajo sand painting, Druid rock formations, and parapsychology as models of spiritual and cosmological systems that he incorporates in his work.

As seen above in the brief and partial sketch of Ascott's sources, the integration of technology and intuition made an early appearance in his work. In particular, the idea of the computer as a means for enhancing intuition and the use of telecommunications to enable non-local creative interaction would continue to play an important role in the evolution of his theory and practice. 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" [15].

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" [16].

Nearly a decade before the first personal computer, and over a quarter century before the advent of Web-based graphical interfaces, 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 artwork. An international project, Terminal Art linked artists between the U.S. and the U.K. over Jacques Vallee's Infomedia NOTEPAD computer conferencing system. Ascott "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" [17]. 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.

While Ascott had made remarkably prescient prophecies earlier, and had outlined his position on the potential of telematics in "Art and Telematics: Towards a Network Consciousness" (1984), I have chosen to focus on his article "Is There Love in the Telematic Embrace?" (1990) for its richly provocative description of how the marriage of technology and intuition in telematic systems might enable the systemic extension of human perception and the unified planetary expansion of consciousness. In this essay, he writes, "[N]etworking provides the very infrastructure for spiritual interchange that could lead to the harmonization and creative development of the whole planet" [18].

Such a spiritual interchange leading to planetary harmony is, for Ascott, the result of love, and the statement above demonstrates the artist's faith in technology to embody and cultivate it. The transformation he proposes is akin to the ideas 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 as theoretical constructs are rationally problematic, in the following pages I consider the implications of Ascott's application of such metaphysical theories to art.

Teilhard's model of expanded consciousness, the "noosphere" (from the Greek noos, or mind) represented the dawning of a new stage of human evolution. According to Teilhard's reasoning, just as matter gave rise to life (from which consciousness emerged) so consciousness itself would be succeeded by the noosphere, his concept of 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" [19]. While Teilhard's teleological notion of evolution is unpalatable to the postmodern mind (and was scientifically unacceptable to many Darwinists at the time of its publication) his characterization of expanded consciousness embodied in the noosphere is, nonetheless, a coherent account of a prospective condition and a visionary model for contemplating the future of the human mind in a global context [20].

Peter Russell builds on Teilhard's notion of noosphere in his theses on the "global brain." Writing in 1982, Russell claimed that, based on the trend of data- processing capacity doubling every two and a half years, by the year 2000, the global telecommunications network could 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 [21]. 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 technology and intuition.

Again, as with Teilhard, Russell's theory of the global brain is troublingly romantic. He uncritically draws parallels between the brain and global telecommunications systems without rigorously questioning the material and functional dissimilarity between these two systems. While the research of neuroscientists and philosophers such as Patricia Churchland and Owen Flanagan suggest that consciousness may be understood in terms of a materialist explanation, it is equally apparent that consciousness does not occur simply as a result of a high level of complexity.

Despite their problems, the theories of the noosphere and the global brain provided Ascott with provocative models on which to build his own artistic theorization of telematic consciousness and the future. Criticisms of Teilhard and Russell apply only partially to Ascott's work, unconstrained as art is by the rational conventions of biology, neuroscience, and philosophy. As a cultural system established simultaneously adjacent to and apart from other disciplinary conventions, art often makes use of systems of thought unacceptable anywhere else and at odds with convention. Art, for Ascott, functions as both theory and practice, and simultaneous as neither, as an entity unto itself drawing on the theory and practice of other disciplines for its own ends. These ends function in the realm of consciousness, in the transformation of belief, and in the modification of behavior. The import of Ascott's theoretical writings and telematic projects lies not in their technical achievement, nor in their practical application as a means to attain their theorized aspirations, but rather, I believe, in their conceptualization and transmission of alternative realities, artistic models for the future.

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, 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" [22]. Participants, telematically connected around the world, collaborated in the creation and transformation of texts, images, and artificial- life forms related to this idea. Ascott's conceives of this work as behavioral and interactive, constantly in a state of becoming, where distinctions between artist, viewer, and artwork are blurred, and where artist, viewer, and artwork, technology and intuition, are potentially united in the unfolding duration of their harmoniously negotiated mutual creation, or global consciousness.

But participants may not experience an expanded form of consciousness on the level of the noosphere, nor have telematic projects reached the computational complexity of a global brain, yet. Moreover, there are no hard data to prove the expansion of neural activity in the brains of participants, nor has the electromagnetic radiation given off by the theorized global field of consciousness been quantified. Ascott claims, however, that the activity of distributed authorship (a process during which the work emerges as an interactive collaboration amongst participators) evokes an experience of collaborative consciousness, a fusion of individual consciousnesses dispersed around the planet into an integrated whole. 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.

Because of his prophetic pronouncements on expanded planetary consciousness, Ascott is often criticized for his unabashed utopianism regarding the technological future, a point worthy of further consideration. In this regard, it is interesting to note that the artist performed radar surveillance as an officer in the Royal Air Force between 1953--1955. Obviously his optimism cannot then be attributed to his innocence of the political and social ramifications of telematic systems. Perhaps in part it is Ascott's awareness of the potency of technologies of control and surveillance that drives his conviction to imagine alternative scenarios in which technology promotes collaboration, expands human consciousness and presence, and creates global harmony. Indeed, one of the artist's guiding principles is, as artificial life researcher Christopher Langton has so eloquently described it, to envision "life-as- we-know-it in the larger context of life-as-it-could-be" [23]. I think Ascott's utopianism is the result of the positive spirit of an artist whose creative mission is to formulate constructive visions of the future as an inspiration for change. He maintains that artists and designers can contribute to shaping the emerging future by creatively envisioning its many possibilities. In this sense, 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" [24]. I contend that it is in this spirit of avant-garde art that Ascott'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 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 the artist's concept of love as the principle of passionate attraction, the utopian object of which is expanded and harmonious global consciousness. In his attempt to show how electronic forms of art can possess loving, human content, Ascott cites Duchamp's The Large Glass or The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915--1923) as embodying love and as prophetic of telematic art. Generating energy and emotion from the "tension and interaction of male and female, natural and artificial, human and machine," he writes, the vitreous sculpture "always includes both its environment and the reflection of the observer" [25]. Ascott claims that by observing the work, the viewer becomes implicated as a participant in it and thus a progenitor of the love that is "contained in this total embrace." In this case, Ascott defines love in terms of 18th century French utopian philosopher Charles Fourier's theory of passionate attraction, which is "the drive given us by nature prior to any reflection . . . [t]oward the coordination of the passions . . . and consequently toward universal unity" [26].The artist defines love as a natural, intuitive force that draws human beings towards one another (like gravity) and makes one from many. According to Ascott, the Bride embodies and generates love by drawing viewers into a hybrid field made up of its passionate imagery, its environment, and the viewer's own reflection. Similarly, Ascott describes the embrace of telematic art as one in which many participators are drawn into the hybrid field of cyberspace, an environment where they meet and which they collaboratively transform in a process of unification embodying and generating love.

While much of Ascott's discussion of love in the Large Glass focuses on its dynamic form, he initially identifies the element of attraction in its sexualized imagery. In doing so, Ascott overlooks the perverse confluence of technology and intuition depicted in the interaction between male and female. Nine bachelors busily grind their chocolate. The seedy results of their masturbatory activity merely spray into the bride's general vicinity. The seeds neither visibly connect with nor enter her. Moreover, the machine-like anonymity and ambivalent relationship of the elements denies a loving interpretation. For the bride is stripped bare by her bachelors. The failure of the bachelors to impregnate the denuded bride should imply a halt to the process of progeneration. But somehow, through a miracle or curse of alchemy (and perhaps against her will) the bride blossoms nonetheless. In Duchamp's Large Glass, the marriage of technology and intuition is characterized by a constant shifting between transparency and reflection, ritual union and possessive obsession, unconsummated desire and metaphysical impregnation. If not grim, this depiction of love is highly ambiguous.

As Ascott notes, the Large Glass, like the vitreous surface of a computer terminal, resists a consistently transparent view by including the reflection of the observer in its image. Interacting with the Bride or a CRT monitor is like making love with mirror sunglasses on. An intimate bond can never really be consummated with such hyaline partners because they are pathologically unable to absorb love, but can only reflect it, or let it pass through their transparent voids. Rather than enabling a condition of mutual giving, the reflective glass surfaces transform communication into monologue, passionate attraction into onanism.

What does it mean for Ascott to venerate the transparent and reflective form of The Bride and to interpret the content as an intimate romance? In what ways, if any, does this undermine his claims for telematics with regard to love and attraction and universal harmony? As a model for telematic art, Ascott celebrates the Large Glass for its anticipation of the computer screen as a nexus of attraction and transformation. This "site of interaction and negotiation for meaning" was described by the artist in effusive terms as yielding a: "sunrise of uncertainty . . . a joyous dance of meaning [which] suggest[s] a paradigm shift in our world view, a redescription of reality. . . ." [27] But even if it is granted that the collective interactivity of telematics opens up new opportunities for the creation and distribution of information, and new methods and forums from which meaning and value may emerge, the ambiguous quality of love in the Bride suggests the need for a more cautious approach to the telematic embrace.

It may be illuminating now to reflect back on the quote from Durrell's Justine with which this paper began. For despite Ascott's enthusiastic embrace of this redescription of reality, one might argue that the only type of love possible in the Bride (and in telematic art) will be "shared . . . narcissistically . . . like reflections in different mirrors." Regardless of whether one interprets Justine's theory of love as dysfunctional or pragmatic, the heroine's dystopic musings do not reflect the type of passionate attraction called for in Fourier's utopic vision, much less the cerebral unity illumined by Teilhard or Russell. Justine's definition of love might even lead one back to question the unequivocalness of humanist values. If in fact there is love in the telematic embrace, but that love is characterized by narcissistic reflection rather than passionate attraction, is love desirable after all? What are the ramifications of narcissistic reflection being the prevailing mode of telematic interaction? What other modes can be envisioned that might be preferable?

Contrary to Ascott's utopic vision of telematics, the persistent self-reflection one experiences on a computer screen interrupts the mantric union of technology and intuition, network and node. It is a constant reminder that the telematic participant is inevitably a perpetual observer, a voyeur whose electronic relationships are autoerotic soliloquies in a pornographic global mirror. Like the exotically beautiful Justine, 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. And like Justine's broken-hearted lovers, at the same time one desires to become embraced in telematic love, one must also be wary of potentially being smothered by it if Ascott's redescription of reality should go awry. For what lies invisibly beneath the glistening telematic surface may unexpectedly dissolve into transparency, turn desire back on itself, and enforce its will in ways beyond one's control.

In "Is There Love in the Telematic Embrace?" Ascott attempted to attribute to electronic art the potential to embody love. His aim was to address technophobia in general, and in particular to answer critics of electronic art who feared 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 art could be electronic and serve humanist principles simultaneously. 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 characterizes his project in Derridean terms as "pure electronic difference" -- one rife with "uncertainty" and "instability" [28]. Indeed, the artist's resistance to conform to either an Enlightenment or a Postmodern ontology is a particularly provocative aspect of his work. His insistence on maintaining paradox, on permitting and encouraging the simultaneous coexistence of logically incompatible systems is, I believe, one of his important achievements. Such a strategy is consistent with his desire to merge technology and intuition, reason and metaphysics, and belongs to the tradition of artistic visionaries able to imagine the ways in which the confluence of philosophical rationalism, science, and the metaphysical aspects of aesthetic theory offer complementary structures for the construction of alternate systems of meaning.

Ascott's work resides in the space where technology and intuition meet, where art becomes consciousness and consciousness becomes love. Indeed, just as the artist presents telematics as a propositional model merging technology and intuition, 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 Bride, then such love is ambiguous. As the forms in which telematic love emerges, technology and intuition are capable of both sustaining life and violating it; and violation and sustenance are not mutually exclusive. A similar ambiguity characterizes the dialectical locus of utopic and dystopic visions of the future.

I would like to propose, therefore, that technology and intuition are inseparable. Like one of Ascott's Change Paintings, each element slides along an axis, so that the relative position of each is always subject to change. What was once utopic in this spatio-temporal continuum is now dystopic; at times they may overlap perfectly. In all cases, the two elements are inseparable parts of the artist's system of meaning. Indeed, technology and intuition, like form and content in The Bride, and like form and content in telematic art, cannot be considered in isolation. Neither is form a receptacle for content, nor content an armature for form. In addition, the way in which technology develops is inseparable from its content. Conversely, the developing content of technology is inseparable from its form. The telematic embrace does not embody love by virtue of its formal structure, any more or any less than by virtue of the sensitivity and caring that it potentially communicates. The traditional dichotomy between the corporeal and the technological is also a persistent site of misunderstanding. Many forms of technology -- such as language, or one-point perspective, for example -- have become literally incorporated into human consciousness, and into the behavior of bodies. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine navigating the world in the absence of such pervasive technologies.

As the demands of an evolving military-industrial-media- information complex for technology push intuition to its limits -- not in the pursuit of any human ideal -- but in the interests of self-preservation and power, the issue of human values still remains. Which ones are worth keeping? What other types of values may emerge? What role will visual information (and its corollaries in textual and other systems of envisioning) indeed, art, and the ability to comprehend it -- play in the future? Unraveling Ascott's polemical query, "Is there love in the telematic embrace?" reveals the further questions, "What will love be?" "How will it be constructed?" "By whom?" and "For whom?"

There is clearly much at stake in the effect of emerging technologies on human consciousness and society and vice-versa. Ascott's jubilation about how the world is being redefined is as important as his belief that it is being redefined. It remains to be seen whether or not that process will be as highly participatory as he prophecies. In a world in which only 20% of homes have telephones, how wide will be the arms of the telematic embrace? The creation and expansion of a global consciousness is an admirable aspiration, and may serve to generate greater empathy, but no amount of consciousness can result in planetary harmony unless the physical conditions of human life are vastly improved. The readers of this text may enjoy a higher level of interaction with geographically remote colleagues than ever before, but on a global scale, it would appear that emerging technologies exacerbate social segmentation rather than bring people closer together. While we use and become absorbed into emerging technologies, and technological modes of being, we continually distance ourselves as a priviledged elite from the 80% of the world that does not have telephones, much less an institutionally supported internet link. Moreover, Kristine Stiles has suggested that the international intelligence community now has the educated classes right where they want us -- at home, in our computerized cottage industries where our behavior can be most easily monitored. In this light, it is doubtful that telematics or any technology will enable the radical reorganization and unification of global society in the near future.

Ascott resists the inevitability of such sober prophecies. He summonses the social force of art against technology. Unencumbered by the destructive history of technology and the demands of rational epistemology, perhaps art -- as the cultural convention charged with the embodiment and maintenance of the loftiest of human ideals (which includes the rigorous questioning of them) -- can circumvent the scenario described above. Since the threat is the machine itself, rather than a deus ex machina, art may be able to offer a deus ex aesthetica -- a meta-perspective capable of embodying paradox, dismantling convention, and constructing new forms with which to reconsider the situation. By applying his creative powers to the formulation of alternative, optimistic scenarios of the telematic future, he provides theoretical and practical models intended to inspire hopeful visions of "life as it could be," and to incite the collective imagination to build it in the present. Perhaps love in the telematic embrace is related to Montaigne's proclamation, by which Ascott abides with the greatest seriousness: "It is pricing life exactly at its worth, to abandon it for a dream" [29].

References and Notes

1. This article is dedicated 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 the honor of working in Ascott's archive, their remarkable generosity, and continuing confidence. Grants from the Duke University Department of Art and Art History and the Center for International studies helped support the author's research abroad and participation in the Einstein Meets Magritte conference. Thanks also to Bill Broom, Associate Slide Curator and digital imaging wizard at Duke.

2. Lawrence Durrell, Justine (New York, Pocket Books, Cardinal Ed., 1961) p. 42. Originally published 1957.

3. Roy Ascott is Director of the Centre for Advanced Inquiry In the Interactive Arts (CAIIA), University of Wales, Newport. See for more information on the artist and CAIIA's online Ph.D program in interactive art.

4. Roy Ascott, "Is There Love in the Telematic Embrace?" Art Journal 49:3 (Fall 1990) p. 241. Ascott credits Simon Nora and Alain Minc with coining the word "telematique" in L'informatisation de la societe (Paris: La Documentation Franžaise, 197) p. 2.

5. Ascott [4] pp. 242 and 247, note 10.

6. Ascott [4] pp. 242 and 247, note 10. See also Jonathan Beecher and Richard Bienvenu, trans. and eds., The Utopian Vision of Charles Fourier: Selected Texts on Work, Love and Passionate Attraction (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971) especially pp. 216--219.

7. Roy Ascott, "The Construction of Change," Cambridge Opinion (Modern Art in Britain) (Cambridge: 1964) p. 1. Ascott's theory of art as process and behavior anticipates by five years the more widely known formulation by Joseph Kosuth in "Art after Philosophy," Studio International Vol. 178, Nos. 915--917, (October-December 1969).

8. Roy Ascott, "Behaviourables and Futuribles," in Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz, eds., Theories of Modern Art (Berkeley, CA: Univ. of California Press, 1996).

9. 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.

10. Heinz von Foerster, Observing Systems (New York: Intersystems, 1981). Cited in Ascott [4] p. 242.

11. Ascott [4] p. 242. See also J.A. Wheeler and W.H. Zurek, Quantum Theory and Measurement (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1983) p. 6.

12. Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1911).

13. Interview with Roy Ascott, May 28, 1995.

14. 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) p. 28. An automatic I Ching diviner is posted at (

15. Roy Ascott, "Behaviourist Art and the Cyberbenetic Vision," CYBERNETICA: Review of the International Association for Cybernetics Vol. IX, No. 4 (1966); Vol. X, No. 1 (1967).

16. Ascott [15].

17. Ascott [14] p. 27.

18. Ascott [4] p. 247.

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

20. It is interesting to note that Teilhard has been uncritically resuscitated as a model for network consciousness in the most recent (June 1995) issue of Wired magazine.

21. Peter Russell, The Global Brain: Speculations on the Evolutionary Leap to Planetary Consciousness (Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher, Inc., 1983).

22. Ascott [4] p. 244.

23. C.G. Langton, ed., Artificial Life (New York: Addison-Wesley, 1989). Quoted in Roy Ascott, "Back to Nature II: Art and Technology in the 21st Century," Convergence: the Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 1:1, 23--30 (Spring 1995) London, John Libbey.

24. Kristine Stiles, course lectures in "The History of Performance Art," Department of Art and Art History, Duke University, Fall 1995.

25. Ascott [4] p. 242.

26. Jonathan Beecher and Richard Bienvenu, trans. and eds.,The Utopian Vision of Charles Fourier: Selected Texts on Work, Love and Passionate Attraction (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971) p. 216.

27. Ascott [4] p. 242.

28. Ascott [4] p. 241.

29. Quoted in Ascott [14] p. 53.


copyright 1997 ISAST

created 10 March 1997

| order | search | map | index | Leonardo On-Line |