ROY ASCOTT –
PIONEER OF MEDIA ART, TELEMATIC VISIONARY, AND PLANETARY MENTOR
Edward A. Shanken
Prix Ars Electronica Panel III (Roy Ascott and Edward Shanken, moderated by Derrick de Kerckhove) Linz, Austria, 6 September 2014.
Roy Ascott in my mind is a Shaman who came to this Planet Earth in the guise of an Englishman to introduce non-materialistic, and frequently taboo concepts to the West. If you saw him pass by on the street, or participated in an academic meeting with him, you would never guess what an Outlaw he is. But, his guise falls and he reveals his spirit when talking about his World View, introducing the concepts such as Vegetal Reality and creating projects that use networks to amplify our telepathic powers. This gentleman in proper clothes, speaking proper English and drinking proper tea, shape shifts when he visits the jungles of Brazil and consumes ayausca.
– Victoria Vesna
It was twenty years ago, here at Ars Electronica, that I first met Roy Ascott. By that time, Roy already had a significant history with the festival. His telematic artwork Ten Wings, which was part of Robert Adrian’s Golden Nica award-winning global telecommunications art project The World in 24 Hours (1982), consisted of a planetary throwing of the I Ching. The resulting hexagram was “Chun” (difficulty at the beginning), a reading that also prophecies that “if one perseveres there is the prospect of great success” [I Ching 1950, 16] Indeed, we are all here to honor Roy’s great success as a visionary pioneer of media art. Roy won a Golden Nica in 1993 for his telematic artwork, Aspects of Gaia. Inspired by James Lovelock’s notion of the Earth as a living organism, this artwork incorporated contributions of images and texts from around the world and provided a highly embodied, physical encounter with these ideas. Roy was commissioned to write a proposal for the Ars Electronica Center, which he conceived of as a Datapool, in 1993. In 1996, the Televator (part of that proposal) was permanently installated in the AEC. Related to the Eames’ Powers of Ten, as one ascends in the Televator, projections on the floor give the impression of rising up in the sky exponentially, as Linz, Austria, Europe and the Earth itself appear to recede into the distance. As one descends, the projections return one to Earth and Linz.
I would like to return to the idea of the artist as shaman that Victoria Vesna raised in her brilliant statement about Roy Ascott. For many people, Joseph Beuys is the archetypal contemporary artist-shaman. Here we see Beuys, the artist-shaman, following a renaissance model of the individual artist genius, transmitting a message, following a one-way communication model to a decidedly passive audience. By contrast, in his telematic artworks, like La Plissure du Text (1983), Ascott takes backstage and the principle of distributed authorship prevails. Here a collective, multiplex, and geographically dispersed exchange generates emergent forms of creativity and consciousness. In this regard, Ascott theories of telematic art anticipate participatory culture since the 2000s, emblematized by Wikipedia and social media. Beuys is the artist-shaman of the 20th century. Ascott is the artist-shaman of the 21st century.
Although it was over twenty years ago, I clearly recall the first time I encountered the writings of Roy Ascott. It was for me, much like Roy described his first encounter (c. 1960) with cybernetics: “an Archimedean “‘Eureka experience’ - a visionary flash of insight in which I saw something whole, complete, and entire.” As an aspiring art historian who loved figurative painting but was equally fascinated by the recent emergence of the Web and interactive CD-ROMs, Ascott opened my mind to an alternative aesthetic framework that was radically different from the conventional one I knew. As he noted, the “recognition that art was located in an interactive system rather than residing in a material object . . . provid[ed] a discipline as central to an art of interactivity as anatomy and perspective had been to the renaissance vision.” As exemplified by his unplugged Change Painting (1960) and Transaction Set (1971) in his retrospective exhibition upstairs, Roy realized over fifty years ago that in the “Information Age” meaning and material value are not embedded in objects, institutions, or individuals, so much as they are abstracted in the production, manipulation and distribution of signs, which has become the new currency of interactive systems.
Roy made it possible for me to imagine how emerging technological media were offering new tools with which the future of art would be developed, for he had been doing that for decades. Indeed, his praxis amounts to a substantial history of ideas in the field of media arts. But more importantly, his work extended beyond the realm of art or, rather, epitomized how art, at its best, could offer a model of possible futures that people could experience in the present.
In this respect, Ascott’s telematic art and theory actually function in the present as a testing ground for what Bourriaud later described as “learning to inhabit the world in a better way.” So I would argue that Roy is not only a pioneer of media art but a pioneer of relational aesthetics and contemporary art in general.
When I met Roy at Ars Electronica in 1994, I proposed editing a book of his essays. Although I had only completed my first year of graduate school, he agreed. I could hardly believe it. Entrusting his work to me was one of the greatest gifts anyone has ever given me. That gift deeply influenced my own teaching method and approach to life. And it resulted in the volume, Telematic Embrace: Visionary Theories of Art, Technology, and Consciousness (2003), which serves as an enduring testimony to Roy’s pioneering contributions to media art and contemporary art in general.
I have since learned that Roy is widely known for his generosity. Indeed, throughout his career, Roy’s generosity as an artist, scholar, and mentor has deeply influenced innumerable artists and theorists around the world, who have spread and expanded on his ideas, a rippling effect that has had an incalculable impact on artistic practice globally.
Joseph Kosuth stated that “Art ‘lives’ through influencing other art, not by existing as the physical residue of an artist’s ideas. The reason why different artists from the past are ‘brought alive’ again is because some aspect of their work became ‘usable’ by living artists.” Extending this logic, Roy Ascott’s work is more alive today than it was in 1960 or 1990, and I envision that it will be more alive in 2020 and 2050 than it is today.
In the spirit with which Roy entrusted me with editing a collection of his writings, and also in the spirit of “distributed authorship,” which is at the core of his theory of telematic art, I have entrusted some of his colleagues and students with providing insights into his influence on their own work and on media art around the world. I am grateful for their generosity in sharing their perspectives and heartfelt sentiments. Their statements offer strong evidence in support of my claims about the ongoing importance and vitality of Ascott’s work for decades to come.
Victoria Vesna, US
Roy was the beginning of an entirely new journey – he opened worlds for me that no one in art schools even mentioned. Above all, he is a teacher and related to me the importance of that role – to inspire others to take unknown paths, risk being misunderstood and in the process discover the most marvelous worlds that only opening up to collective consciousness can unfold. This is his vision for the Planetary Collegium – a collective network of artists, scientists, philosophers and any other creative who ask the eternal questions of human existence and share the knowledge.
Unbelievably, it has been almost thirty years since we met and he is still a teacher to me. Perhaps the most valuable lesson I received from Roy is the importance of joy and I have quoted him many times saying: “After the third drink, there are no more disciplinary divisions”. Ultimately, his message to the world is that we are magical creatures and relating the journey, inspiring others to join on the path of wonder is the artwork.
Paul Thomas, Australia
I first met Roy Ascott telematically in 1983 through an art project created by Eric Gidney and Tom Klinkowstein using ARTEX (an early computing networking platform for artists). Roy was the inspirational visionary of the future who not only lived the dream but who gave that dream a reality in education. When he lectured in Perth in 1986, I knew I had found a guide that immersed me in a telematic-mentor’s embrace, and inspired my own telematic artwork You Send One (1987, with Neil Hollis and Benno Poeder). Roy’s ongoing visions for the future have been remarkably profound in creating aspirational perspectives for new understandings of life in which all aspects of being human are challenged and contextualized. These visions are generous, freely given gifts at the cutting edge of contemporary art practice and syncretic educational paradigms.
Jill Scott, Switzerland
I was one of Roy’s first doctoral students back in 1994 when he founded what is now the Planetary Collegium, but we first met the mid-1970s at the San Francisco Art Institute, where (much to the faculty’s amazement and consternation) he arrived as vice-president with evolved cybernetic views on education. Roy is unique thinker with a generous interest in nurturing artistic research and in the deeper questions of representation, reality and consciousness. In 2004 we collaborated on the forming of Z-node, a research arm of the Planetary Collegium, based in Zurich (www.znode.net). We now have three groups focused on cultural themes that relate to discoveries and discourses in science labs and the Z-node has graduated a dozen Ph.D.s, who extend Ascott’s aesthetic and pedagogical theories around the world.
Gilbertto Prado, Brazil
Ascott’s important appearances in Brazil include Arte no Século XXI (1995) at Museu de Arte Contemporânea/Memorial da America Latina, São Paulo, and Invenção: Thinking the Next Millennium at Itaú Cultural (1999), São Paulo. A particularly synergetic moment was the expedition to Kuikuro´s tribe in Xingu National Park (1997) with the artists Tania Fraga, Malu Fragoso, Diana Domingues, and myself, introducing Ascott (the artistic shaman of cybernetic and telematic art) to the indigenous shaman of the rainforest, joining visionary practices and forging multicultural insights. Ascott’s pioneering work as artist/theorist/educator have influenced many Brazilian artists, researchers and Ph.D. students at a myriad of institutions. His presence and participation in these trans- and intercultural dialogues has had vital relevance in the expansion of the field of art and technology in Brazil.
DooEun Choi, Korea
Former creative director of Art Center Nabi (Seoul, Korea), started working as independent curator in 2012. Her recent projects include the 7th International Media Art Biennial “Mediacity Seoul 2012” (Seoul, Korea), “ZERO1 Biennial” (San Jose, USA), and “Anima” (Istanbul, Turkey). Since 2011, she has been a visiting scholar at Parsons The New School for Design in New York, USA. Ph.D. candidate, Planetary Collegium.
Roy Ascott’s insightful thoughts have inspired curators, theorists, and artists in Korea to find their own paths to media arts. The Art Center Nabi in Seoul opened in 2000 with a collaborative telematic art event that he led to create a ‘mind bridge’ between Korea and the global world. In 2002, his book Technoetic Art was published in Korean and became one of the bibles on media art, quoted by prominent Korean media theorists. Recently, a Korean university started a media art and humanities major called “Technoetic Humanities,” borrowing Ascott’s term. His influence in Korea is not one-way but interactive and participatory; his interests in Korean culture and spirituality and writings regarding the encounter with Korean Shamans ignited our own culture as the spirit for the future art.
Peter Anders, US
Chair, ISEA; Principal Architect, Kayvala; Ph.D. Planetary Collegium, 2004.
Roy Ascott has been a life-changer for me. We were introduced at a Consciousness Reframed conference in the ‘90s at a time when I was questioning the materialistic bias of architecture. My Ph.D. studies with Roy at CAiiA-STAR at the University of Plymouth were the best educational experience of my life, leading me to presently develop a node for its successor, the Planetary Collegium, in the US. Roy is a crucial figure in the integration of art with science, one who has identified consciousness as the substrate of both. I remember a conversation in which he defined aesthetic as being what remains when all sensible aspects of a work of art have been removed, which called to mind Buckminster Fuller’s definition of synergy as the difference between the whole and the sum of its parts. Both addressed material reality on a cognitive level and in this they express science and art as a product of spiritual endeavor.
Xiaoying Juliette Yuan, China/US
Founding Editor, “Media Arts Series” Bee Publishing Company, Beijing
Independent Curator, incl. “Roy Ascott: from Cybernetics to Syncretic Mind”, 2012 Shanghai Biennale, Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art, Shanghai, China Oct.1, 2012 – Mar.31, 2013
Ph.D. candidate, Planetary Collegium
There is no better to describe Roy Ascott’s ambition and achievement than inspiring the world through his unique vision. Born with the mission of creating new knowledge, he became a pioneer of telematic art, and founded the unprecedented international platform for art, science, technology and consciousness research, the Planetary Collegium. With the foundation of the Technoetic Arts Institute at The Beijing DeTao Masters Academy, Ascott continues to innovate and challenge by introducing his vision and knowledge to China. As one of Ascott’s Ph.D. fellows, I consider him not only as an excellent professor and educator, an astonishing artist and theorist, but as a wise and lucid investigator of human mind and existence.
Jennifer Kanary Nikolov(a), Canada/Netherlands
Ph.D. candidate, Planetary Collegium
Artist researcher, Labyrinth Psychotica
Your ideas, your artworks, and your students have consistently produced intimidating and mouth-watering examples of artistic knowledge production, which continue to inspire and challenge young artists and scientists all over the world to embark on journeys of artistic research that are worthy of the visionary core of your excellent program.
In the spirit of this year’s Ars Electronica theme, “What It Takes to Change,” I would like to conclude with a little thought experiment I initiated on in May 2013, when I asked the following question on Facebook:
What would the world be like if Roy Ascott’s La Plissure du Texte, 1983 sold at auction for $34.2 million instead of an abstract painting by Gerhard RIchter? In what sort of world (and artworld) would that be possible?
The first response came from Caroline Seck Langill, who wrote, ‘And all that money would be distributed, like the artwork’. This short, sharp prod shrewdly suggested an alternative economic model based on ‘distributed authorship’, whereby royalties from the resale of a telematic artwork would be shared among the project’s geographically disparate participants.
Let’s imagine a scenario in which the commercial artworld embraced Ascott’s La Plissure and its ideology of distributed authorship. It would be logically consistent for that artworld to express those commitments by distributing the economic wealth generated by the sale of the work.
What, after all, could generate more cultural capital in participatory culture than making a gift of the appreciated value of an artwork, particularly an artwork that was a harbinger of participatory culture itself? The values of this prospective future artworld, and the larger world of which it is a part, will be very different than those currently prevailing in neo-liberal capital markets. Such a world would place a premium on collective production as well as the collective sharing of the wealth generated by that production, including its appreciated value. Art would not be a primarily financial investment but rather would be an investment in the cultural capital accrued by supporting visionary art. Here, the highest form of cultural capital would be garnered by the distribution of wealth rather than by the accumulation of it. And it would reward visionary investors who had the insight to acquire artworks that best exemplified an ethos of collectivity, sharing, and love that characterize Roy Ascott’s artwork, aesthetic theories, and educational programs. By recognizing Roy Ascott as the inaugural Visionary Pioneer of Media Arts, Ars Electronica is taking an important step in this direction.