- Telematic Embrace: Visionary Theories of Art, Technology, and Consciousness
It is surprising how little has been published about the work and theories of artist, theorist and pedagogue Roy Ascott. A selection of his own writings has now at last been collected, selected and edited by Edward Shanken. Twenty-eight essays cover almost 40 years of thinking, teaching and theorizing, and it is not a day too soon that they have now become widely available. Future students of "Telematic Art," the history of interactive arts and the work of Roy Ascott will be grateful for this book. They will also thank Shanken for his clear, well-researched and coherent introductory essay on the artist and his work.
"Telematics" is the translation of the French télématique, a term coined in the 1970s by Simon Nora and Alain Minc in a report on the future of society after the telecommunications revolution. It stands for the integration of telecommunication and information technologies, what we would now more fashionably call ICT or "wired." For Ascott, who started thinking about telematics even before it was practically available, it means no less than a radical change in the way we deal with and perceive art, society, technology—even ourselves. He understands art as a process in which the roles of artist, object and audience are being dramatically redefined, where change is inevitable and the essence of the artistic process, and where interactivity between humans by means of technology or between humans and technology is the place where meaning is created. In the global telematic embrace, love is the force that unites individuals, science, art and technology, leading to a new level of consciousness, conceptually akin to the noosphere of Teilhard de Chardin or the cyborgian hivemind of Peter Russell.
It is impossible to summarize the complexity and wealth of Ascott's work in the space of 750 words, so I insist that you read the essays, one at a time, over a period of a few weeks or months, slowly digesting and preparing for the next bite. Ultimately, you will be able to see for yourself if you want to be embraced, telematically or otherwise, by Ascott's thinking. Edward Shanken's introductory essay, "From Cybernetics to Telematics," is 88 pages long and mostly devoted to an outline of Ascott's work and ideas. Summarizing and sometimes clarifying the essays in the collection, he succeeds in untying several threads and marking significant points of advance in Ascott's evolution. It is certainly brilliantly done, and Shanken shows his unquestionable erudition modestly and without diverting the reader's attention away from the real subject. But, about halfway through the essay, the smell of incense becomes a bit too strong. Shanken gives the impression that Ascott has unerringly foreseen and predicted each and every cultural shift, and even if he has been vague or contradictory on some issues, it certainly was not for a lack of prophetic vision. Ascott is elevated to the status of guru and oracle, with supernatural powers to match. And that is a pity because it hides "the real Roy" from view: a mere human being who has been struggling, working and studying very hard, who has been on a lifelong quest—for love, for understanding and for a better world—just like most of us—and who deserves to be forgiven for not predicting the rise of Nokia and the demise of democracy.
Shanken could have just refrained from interpretations informed with the benefit of hindsight and maintained a bit more distance. In the final pages of the essay, he takes the first steps "towards a critique of telematic art." In his view, telematic art transcends the dichotomies between art and science, between form and content, between conceptual and objective, and between modern and postmodern. "Telematic art offers an artistic meta-perspective capable of embodying paradox, dismantling convention, and constructing new visual forms that employ emerging [End Page 80] technologies in...