The Telematic Embrace

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Telematic Embrace 2003
Roy Ascott/Edited by Edward Shanken

The first hundred pages of The Telematic Embrace are used by Edward Shanken to introduce us to the basics of telematic art and to the work of Roy Ascot while using him as a guide through the history of art in the last century. Ascott always combined his work as an artist with his teaching activities and considers the correlation between the two essential and is often reflecting on this in his theoretical writings. Telematic art is by Roy Ascott defined as ‘computer-mediated communications networking between geographically dispersed individuals and institutions…and between the human mind and artificial systems of intelligence and perception ‘(Ascott 2003:232). Telematic art is changing the relation between the passive art object and the active spectator by ‘creating interactive, behavioral contexts for remote aesthetic encounters’(Ascott 2003: 1). Ascott can be seen, according to Shanken, as a ‘visionary’ who developed a systematic method for
envisioning the future in the context of the visual discourses of art. His area of interest has especially
been focusing on the possibilities and problems of interactivity and networked communications,
issues that are nowadays central to art, culture and society. Shanken is convinced that artists can have
an important role in this exploring of new technologies and ideas that have broad cultural

What is Cybernetics in science and in art? Cybernetics is a study concerning the communication and control of living organisms, machines and organizations. Its focus is on how information is processed and how the reacting on this information –in order to improve performance- is taking place. But, there are many different definitions of cybernetics available and many individuals are using their own definition when working with it. Originally cybernetics is coined by Norbert Wiener in 1948 (Cybernetics: Or the Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. Paris, France:Librairie Hermann & Cie, and Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Cambridge, MA: MIT Press). For Ascott the science of cybernetics is very much related to his concepts of interactive art. He considered a work of art or a classroom as creative systems where the behavior could be regulated and influenced by the interactive exchange of information via feedback loops.

As an artist and a theorist, Ascott feels that science and technology can contribute to expanding global
consciousness but only with the use of other than scientific means. He turns to alternative systems of
knowledge like the I Ching and other modes of holistic thought as complementary to the traditional
Western epistemological models.

Ascott’s composite and associative way of thinking has challenged conventional systems of knowledge, crossed the boundaries of traditional artistic media and modes of reception, and attempted to merge categories that are commonly considered incommensurable (East and West, science and mysticism, technology and art)” . (Shanken 2003: 5)

By this combination of science, art, and esoteric knowledge, Ascott’s writings can be hard to fully
comprehend because the full ramifications of his interdisciplinary ideas are complex. His general
claim is that interactive aesthetic models that are technically mediated, certainly can encourage
personal and social growth: Ascott is convinced that art and science can provide important links in
social and personal development. His telematics can expand ‘perception and awareness by merging
human and technological forms of intelligence and consciousness through networked communications’ (Shanken 6). As quoted by Shanken, Ascott’s goals are not really modest and almost spiritual in itself as he expresses in Is There Love in the Telematic Embrace with the remark that ‘the telematic embrace could lead to the ‘harmonization and creative development of the whole planet’(Shanken 245).

Ascott is in his early development as artist heavily influenced by the Richard Hamilton and Victor
Pasmore who were at the center of movement to reform art education in England in the 1950s.
Hamilton and Pasmore combine their artwork, teaching, and theory in order to explore the correlation
between art, technology, and popular culture and are in this an inspiration to Ascott who also made his
theoretical writing an integral part of his artistic practice. In The construction of Change (1964) he
argues that basically, all art is didactic and accordingly he seas his teaching as complementary to his
studio-work: the creative and didactic qualities are feeding back each other. For Ascott art was only meaningful when it enabled a transformation of consciousness concerning the relation between the piece of art, the artist, and the audience. For Shanken this was only possible when Ascott’s art and his writing were considered as one and the same thing.

If art is taken to be a conceptual process manifested in the behavior of the artist within a system of meaning, Ascott’s theoretical work, including the act and process of writing, can be considered part of his artistic oeuvre. (Shanken 2003: 11)

In the 1960s, Ascott regarded his writings not yet as art in itself but as merely being connected to his
practice as artist, just like teaching was part of his artistic development. In his mind, the writings
remained distinct from his art. But in this period he does perceive his artistic identity as becoming that
of a ‘man of ideas’ and he is enjoying the liberation enabled by the creating of texts. In 1963 he starts literally integrating text in his artworks and the thesaurus became a primary explanatory metaphor for his practice as visual artist. He extended his piece Video Roget from 1962 one year later with Thesaurus. The interactive nature of Video Roget and the following Thesaurus are already indicating the artist’s relation with cybernetics. Ascott reproduced his work Video Roget (relief sculpture consisting of small abstract figures made of wood and glass) in the exhibition catalogue of the Molton Gallery in London. On the page preceding, Ascott placed a related diagram on tracing paper, entitled Thesaurus. When placing Thesaurus on top of Video Roget, the words and lines of the Thesaurus are superimposed on the Video Roget and therefore adding meaning to the forms and shapes and indicating various feedback loops between them. The two works are drawing the attention on the relationship between the semiotics of verbal and visual language and show that ‘the universe of potential meanings of his art could be derived taxonomically and discursively’ (Shanken 13). Concepts like these and the use of a thesaurus became often used within the area of conceptual art by for example Joseph Kosuth and Mel Ramsden. Therefore, Ascott’s use of text in his art can be seen as part of the development of conceptual art in which language is the material, as was stated by Henry Flynt in 1961.

Conceptual art is according to Shanken, just like media art, often seen as too technological to be
appreciated under conventional canons of aesthetics but too artistic to be appreciated according to the
scientific methods of engineering. A similar thing is happening to artists writings that are often seen
as too much like criticism to be seen as art, and too artistic to be seen as criticism. This
interdisciplinary constellation of the work of conceptual artists is enabling linguistic, mathematic, and
other symbolic carriers of information that can be regarded as an appropriate medium for visual arts.
These new media are addressing on the one hand the relation between visual and verbal systems of
meaning and on the other hand questioning the categorical distinctness of art and art criticism.
Cybernetics What is cybernetics exactly? Originally the scientific cybernetics ‘emerged out of an attempt to regulate information flows in feedback loops in order to predict, control, and automate the behavior of mechanical and biological systems’ (Shanken 18). Wiener exemplifies the practical consequences of
cybernetics with the great control rooms at the locks of the Panama Canal as two-way message centers.
Not only do messages go out controlling the motion of the tow locomotives, the opening and
closing of the sluices, and the opening and closing of the gates; but the control room is full of
telltales which indicate not merely that the locomotives, the sluices, and the gates have received
their orders, but that they have in fact effectively carried out these orders. (Shanken 19, quoting
Wiener) Wiener recalls that this principle of control not only applies to industrial mechanisms like the Panama locks but also to social, cultural, environmental, and biological systems who are subjected to social feedback with of great sociological and anthropological interest. The actual application of cybernetics into the area of the visual arts can be understood as ongoing aesthetic experiments with duration, movement and process (Bergson, elaborate later on). Artists who were entering this field of research are, among others, Nam June Paik, John Cage, and Robert Morris. The cybernetics works of Ascott are altering the relation between the audience, artwork, the artist, and the environment. The system as a whole is constantly changing under the influence of these interactive relations. Art is no longer a stand-alone application to be looked at, but merely part of the bigger whole where the audience is an active part. The way Ascott integrated cybernetics into aesthetics made that art, culture, and society were interconnected systems of feedback loops. In Ascott’s work, art itself became a cybernetic system where the process started to replace the product. The earlier mentioned exposition in the Molton Gallery in 1963 showed these first cybernetic art examples and by this time, Ascott had articulated the theoretical foundation for his cybernetics by
merging Bergsonian ideas with constructivism and audience interaction while diagrams and texts
became formal elements of this work. The concept of change is important for his observations of the
world: with ‘his recognition of Change as fundamental to experience of reality (Shanken 2003:30).’
Ascott recapitulated a Bergsonian concept. This concept of change is related on the one hand to Dada,
Surrealism, and the I Ching-based works of John Cage, and on the other hand to the switch of Pollock
and Duchamp who started to approach their work horizontally instead of vertically. The artist (and the
audience) would look down on the work from above ant this way re-conceptualizing the concept of the
painting from a window on the world to a cosmological map of physical and metaphysical forces.
Ascott is using the language of cybernetics for explaining how his teaching activities and pedagogy are
interacting and re-enforcing each other. Even art in itself is didactic, according to Ascott, in the sense
that it is set out to give direction: ‘Through the culture it informs, art becomes a force for change in
society’ (Ascott 1960 cited by Shanken 35).

In his teachings Ascott experimented literary with this concept of change by challenging the students to act out a totally new personality, which would be the narrowly limited and reversed version of what they considered their normal selves in order to question the preconceptions of ones identity and their week and strong points as an artist. In this way, students learned about the principles of cybernetics as applied to art through their own behavioral interactions in a cybernetic art system in which the controlled exchange of information organized the overall structure. (Shanken 2003: 37)

So this way Ascot was not only addressing the system of the re-enforcement by the self-image but also
the notion of art itself. As head of the Department of Fine Art at Ipswich Civic College in Suffolk
between 1964-1967 he addressed art as behavior-system which resulted in several interesting student
experiments. Brian Eno, a former student of Ascott, explained in 1984 how they were instructed to
develop several games that would test and evaluate its players. In the end all the students had to play all the games and a mindmap would show how the student would behave in the company of others. Eno is explaining: ‘In the next project each student produced another mindmap for himself that was the exact opposite of the original. For the remainder of the term he [the student] had to behave according to this alternative vision of himself’ (Shanken 38).

From the 1960s on, Ascott was experimenting further with art as a cybernetic system. He wrote The
construction of Change
(1964) and Behaviorist Art and the Cybernetic vision (1967) where he
emphasized the notion of process. Ascott was convinced that technology alters human consciousness
and that artists had the responsibility to comprehend these technologically induced changes in order
to offer alternative visions and possibilities for shaping the world. Ascott proposed a educational
model called the cybernetic art matrix (CAM) in order to promote creative behavior in a technological
society. The CAM existed of a ‘elaborate , integrated system for promoting a cybernetic model of
information feedback and exchange throughout culture (Shanken 45). Art as a system that could
transform behavior and consciousness was central to his conception of the art for the future. This
futuristic art had to be interactive enabling the viewer to become actively engaged. The traditional and
dominant feature of art of the past was that a piece of art transmitted a clearly defined message to a
more or less passive receptor. Shanken is quoting from Ascott’s Behaviorist Art and the Cybernetic
vision (1966-1967) to illustrate this clearly:

This deterministic aesthetic was centered upon the structuring or ‘composition’ of facts, of
concepts of the essence of things, encapsulated in a factually correct visual field. Modern art, by
contrast, is concerned to initiate events, and with the forming of concepts of existence. The
vision of the art has shifted from the field of objects to the field of behavior. (Shanken 47)

The spectator is made part of the interactive feedback loop what extends him through the artistic
process where all levels of experience are addressed: physical, emotional, and conceptual. The viewer
becomes an active participant in determining the work.
For Ascott, technology played an important role as enhancing human creativity and by enabling
collaborative interaction between participants from diverse fields and geographic locations. This
brings the topic to the next major theme in Ascott’s work, telematics.

Although Marshall McLuhan’s theories were already published in 1962 (Gutenberg Gallery) and 1964
(Understanding Media) the propositions made by Ascott must have felt as Science Fiction in the realm
of art especially because it ‘would be many years before the artist could gain access to technology that
would make possible such collaborative computer-networking projects, a domain Ascott later dubbed
telematic art’ (Shanken 51).
Telematics can be seen as the convergence of computers and telecommunications and is rapidly
becoming ubiquitous in the developed world. William Gibson draws a parallel between cybernetics and
computer communication systems and coins the term cyberspace in his novel Neuromance in 1984.
Cyberspace gives a virtual location to the state of mind of the individual experiences in telematic
communication networks. In the former the individual experience is emphasized and in the latter the
opposite, the collective consciousness is emerging. But Shanken emphasizes that terms like
telematics, virtual reality, and cyberspace tend to overlap in complex and sometimes confusing ways.
Telematics is freeing the traditional artwork from its strings with the physical, located in a unique
geographical location and it provides ‘ a context for interactive aesthetic encounters and facilitates
artistic collaborations among globally dispersed individuals’ (Shanken 54). Just as cybernetics,
telematics emphasizes the interaction between the artist, the artwork, and the audience as part of a
systematic network of communication and artistic creation.
For Ascott a distinct feature of telematic art is that it functions asynchronously. His artworks from this
period could be entered from any place at any time and the data would become part of a database that
would be accessible for everyone’s use in various areas at any time.
Telematic art draws on the heritage of other streams of art like post-war experimental art, kinetic and
video art, happenings and performances, mail art and conceptual art and many artists working in the
area of telematics have roots in one of those genres. László Mohology-Nagy was probably the first artist
who used telecommunications as a medium for his work Telephone Pictures (1922) by just paintings in
porcelain enamel by telephone from a sign factory. If the paintings actually were ordered by phone or
not, the work addresses the isolated position of the individual artist and the uniqueness of the artwork.
Bertold Brecht made the concept of telecommunications as artistic medium more explicit with his
theory of radio as described in his pamphlet-like essay The Radio as Apparatus of Communication
(1932).He argued here that the radio should not just be used as a medium for distribution but also as a
medium for communication with a two-way send/receive capability. This kind of use of a radio would
enable the listener to listen and to speak and bringing him into a relationship with the outside world
instead of isolation by means of a less centralized and hierarchical networks of communication. Brecht
also inspired many of the early artistic experiments with television and video who aimed at ‘to wrest
the power of representation form the control of corporate media and make it available to the public’
(Shaken 57). Douglas Davis pointed out in the 70s that it was Brecht who showed that the
manufacturing the radio as a one-way machine was in fact a political decision and not an economic

Many different experiments have been conducted these early days by artists like Peter D’agustino,
Eleanor Antin and Douglas Davis among many others. According to media artist and critic Eric Gidney,
as quoted by Shanken, these early telematic experiments showed one of its important characteristics:
‘the metaphorical feeling a being in touch with a remote group of people, transcending normal barriers
of time and space’ (Gidney 1991: 147). Ascott saw in telematics an opportunity for artists to create
aesthetic encounters that would be more participatory, culturally diverse, and richly layered with
meaning in where the physical activity of networking is considered even more important than the mere
texts and images produced by it.
According to French media artist and theorist Edmund Couchot, as quoted by Shanken, telematic
networks give the artist the opportunity to break the barriers of time and space and that this will ‘one
day set free the limits of individual, national, and cultural intelligence’ (Shanken 67). This potential of
cultural and individual freedom enabled by telematic networks is exactly what Nam June Paik was
aiming at with his installation Good Morning Mr. Orwell in which he tried to give a multidirectional
alternative to ‘the thread posed by ‘Big Brother’ surveillance of the kind that George Orwell had warned
of in his novel in 1984’(Shanken 67). Paik noted that Orwell only was focusing on the one-way part of
the communication which made the medium appeared as a dictatorial one while he rather looked at it
in the Brechtian two-way off communication and considered it as a liberating one.
(Relation talk Marc Meadows (UVA 25 november, to be worked on) who is trying to raise awareness
about the amount of authority robots are getting and he is pointing out that it is us who is giving this
authority to them. With examples as talking cars, mobile navigation systems and cardboard policeman
he is making a plea for a more dissident attitude towards these automated systems.)
The breakthrough for the larger audience for telematic art happened to be at the Venice Biennale in
1986 where Ascott, Tom Sherman, Don Foresta, and Tomasso Trini organised the Laboratorio Ubique
in where several fax, slow-scan, and computer conferencing were assembled under the title of
Planetary Network. With this appearance at the established and internationally recognized the
Documenta the pioneer days of telematic art were over. Since the late 1980s and the 1990s the use of the
medium expanded and changed by the rise of inexpensive powerful personal computers, the
development of HTML (hypertext markup language),the GUI (graphical interface), and several browers
(Microsoft Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator. More an more people were connected to the web
with faster computers and connections. The WWW now serves as a venue for digital exhibitions and as
an archive of images but in the case of telematic art it is used as the medium itself.
Moreover, the development of various interfaces that connect remote users to robots, artificial
life forms, virtual reality simulations, and other devices and environments extends the domain
of telematic art to incorporate hybrid forms of technology. (Shanken 69) These characteristics are giving the medium its unique qualities like remote collaboration. The hyperlinking quality of the Web enables alternative modes of narrativity like non-linear text and multimedia narratives. Ascott and his students found out that remote and telematic exchange could have a powerful emotional and intellectual impact hard to grasp unless experienced directly. (This is a kind of similar to what people are experiencing in virtual worlds today. It is hard to tell what is real and what is virtual and emotions and discussions about embodiment, virtual reality and ‘real’ reality are still going on-elaborate on this later) The work mentioned by Shanken to illustrate this is Telematic Vision by Paul Sermon, Ascott’s student at Newport. He connected two people on remote locations who were each sitting on their own sofa but joined in the superimposed image on the wall. This image was screened on both locations so the participants had the sensation they were sitting on a sofa together. For Ascott, this piece was not strictly a telematic piece because it was time-based: the participants had to take at the sofa at the same time in order to be able to react on each other. Ascott’s piece Aspects of Gaia: Digital Pathways across the Whole Earth (1989) did fit his definitions of telematic art. Here he replaced the alcohol-induced stupor with the consumption of data to create a greater clarity of mind.He created an information bar, as alternative for the cocktail bar, consisting of a ‘horizontal computer screen that purposely conflated horizontal orientation of the monitor and allowed viewers to gaze down on a data stream of images and texts contributed remotely from all over the world’ (Shanken 2003:70). This horizontally view is related to his earlier cybernetic work from the 1960s. In Is There Love in the Telematic Embrace Ascott addresses the fear that technologies will de-humanize the arts. Seemingly incompatible systems of knowledge and being are converging by suggesting their complementarities like for example the universal principle of love that promotes collaboration and unification in telematic networks.

“Is there love in the telematic embrace?” welcomes the challenge that telematic art poses to conventional aesthetic values, while maintaining that the electronic medium serves humanist
ends. (Shanken 2003: 74)

At the same time Ascott is explaining his work with the Derridean concept of defferal of interpretation
and he celebrates telematic art as a site of interaction and negotiation of meaning, and as a redescription of reality. Inspired by the physicists John Wheeler and Wojciech Zurek ,who argue that the
word participator needs to be replaced by observer (the universe as participatory universe), Ascott had
long considered that art is a participatory process, in which artist, observer, and environment –
including the global telematic networks- working together to create an interactive and distributed
system instead of the discrete aesthetic object limited and determined by formal parameters (This
notion of convergence is interesting to use as a tool to look at virtual worlds, avatar behavior, and
distinction between user and creator, maybe from the perspective of audience research).
Ascott considers Duchamp’s Large Glass as a model for the passionate attraction within telematic art.

He [Ascott] interprets Duchamp’s Magnum Opus as embodying and generating love by drawing viewers into a hybrid field made up of its passionate imagery, its environment, and the viewer’s
own reflection, and claims that telematic art similarly draws participators into the hybrid field
made up of its passionate imagery, its environment, and the viewers own reflection, and
claims that telematic art similarly draws participators into the hybrid field of cyberspace,
which they collaboratively create and transform in a process of unification that embodies and
generates love. (Shanken 78)

This quote is a summary of telematic characteristics paired to those of the Large Glass. Ascott easily
compares the vitreous surface of the Large Glass -that includes the reflection of the observer and his
environment- to the surface of the computer monitor. The elusiveness of the Large Glass and the
eroticism of the telematic embrace is seductive and appealing because its impossibility of possessing
it: ‘tantalizing connected but always at a distance’ (Shanken 78). At the same time, Shanken argues, is
the interface transforming communication into a monologue. The self-reflection of the user in the
screen and all kinds of computer and network related bugs and delays reminds of the fact that everyone
just is a spectator, a voyeur. Ascott is not believing in the Renaissance idea of art as a window on the
world but rather sees it as a map of actual and potential relationships and corresponding, computer
screens are no screens of representations but screens of representation (Shanken 79).

“The telematic screen gives the individual mind and spirit worldwide access to other minds and spirits” he [Ascott] says, enabling expanded “cognitive, affective, and spiritual behavior”.
(Shanken 2003: 79)

Thereby Ascott is actually proposing to value love as the organizing principle central to cybernetic
culture. His ideas on art and telematics are by his essays and articles put in the context of ‘life as it
could be’ . Telematic art constructs new visual forms that use technologies in order to redefine
knowledge and being.