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Engineering Nature: Art & Consciousness in the Post-Biological Era

by Roy Ascott, Editor
Intellect Books, Bristol, UK, 2005
333 pp., illus. Paper, $39.95
ISBN: 1-84150-128-X.

Reviewed by Rob Harle (Australia)


Engineering Nature
is a collection of papers that were presented at various annual "Consciousness Reframed" conferences, particularly the 2003 conference that took place at the University of Wales, Newport. It also includes selected papers from the Technoetic Arts Journal. There are over 48 essays by almost as many contributors. These entries are presented in six sections as follows: 1––The Mind. 2––The Body. 3––The Place. 4––The Text. 5––The Art. 6––The Future. The only entry in the Future chapter; The Nanomeme Syndrome: Blurring of Fact and Fiction in the Construction of a New Science is a very balanced discussion concerning nanotechnology and how much of the current media hype regarding this fledgling science is actually fact or fiction.

The essays, as the subtitle indicates, are somewhat eclectic within the very general area of Art and Consciousness in the Post-Biological Era. The book is edited by Roy Ascott who is founder and also editor of the Technoetic Arts Journal and is Director of the Planetary Collegium, University of Plymouth, UK. In Ascott’s own words, "This book embodies the writings of artists and scholars from twelve countries in four continents, and so may be considered as a valuable reflection of international thought, practice and meditation on the place of technology and consciousness research in the current techno-culture"(p. 7).

There is quite literally a smorgasbord of concepts and explorations presented with an emphasis or bias towards an alternative understanding of consciousness. That is, what sort of attributes and embodiment constitute post-biological consciousness. Consequently, many of the papers investigate interactive technologies, immersive virtual environments, and experimental art works that push the boundaries of our conscious involvement or presence in both the comprehensible world of gross physical matter and the perhaps, incomprehensible universe of quantum probability and non-causal synchronicity. There is a dearth of papers dealing with the neurophysiological aspects of consciousness and one or two which discuss future modes of consciousness in terms of ancient spiritual modes as in Cinematic Soteriology: Darshanic Effects in the Tamil Bakthi Films (p. 253).

I found some of the essays quite inspiring, providing ideas for future research, and others provocative enough to initiate serious thought and analysis. A few I found deadly boring and still stuck in the postmodern biological era. Yes, it’s time to move on ladies and gentlemen, we’re on the brink of the most momentous, exhilarating future imaginable, and some are still quoting Barthes and Derrida as though they are demi-gods who have bestowed us with the answers to everything.

Engineering Nature would have benefited from some decent proof reading as there are too many minor typographical and punctuation errors. A second, though more serious criticism, is that many of the papers are too brief; this is perhaps due to the fact that the papers were conference presentations. I think the book would have been helped immensely if a few of the repetitive papers were omitted and the authors of the remaining papers asked to expand and fully develop their ideas. I was getting into the brilliance of some of the papers when they suddenly finished. This is not only a criticism of this book but of much futuristic and speculative research writing generally. That is, a scholarly full development and discussion of the subject is often lacking. Some authors are so keen to embrace the future, with its embedded technology, that they become blind to a balanced approach and rigorous critical investigation of the issues involved. A small number of the papers in this volume fall into this category.

This book’s forte, as is to be expected with "speculative" research publications generally, is to challenge our conventional ideas, provide inspiration for scholars to examine previously unimagined areas of research, and to act as a kind of guide to cutting-edge developments in current art and technology practice and investigation. Engineering Nature: Art & Consciousness In The Post-Biological Era fulfils these criteria very well.




Updated 1st May 2006

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