LEONARDO THINKS 1968 – 2011
Historical Opinion by Roy Ascott
Roy Ascott sees our age as one that includes an art of interactivity, involving the human use of computerised communication and electronic telepresence. He believed this approach carries great potential and hope for our emergence into the next millennium as caring, cooperative and creative human beings…
Connectivity: Art and Interactive Telecommunications
Telematic systems have brought us to the edge of another virtual reality. The last one, conjured out of the thinking of the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, presented a world of certainty and determinacy in which subject and object, mind and matter, art and science were all quite clearly defined, separated out and neatly categorised. That world is in many ways crumbling; we see now that it was not the world after all. It was a virtual world-necessary to com- bat superstition, sufficient in its mechanistic determinism to feed the dream of reason-but virtual nonetheless. This certainty and solidity seemed at the time to be the real thing. For centuries artists seemed to think so too. But “all that is solid melts into air.”  The real was only virtual after all. Now we have a different paradox to deal with-actually to celebrate: the virtual is becoming real. With computer-mediated systems of perception, memory, intelligence and communication, we are redescribing and reconstructing the world; we inhabit increasingly what is essentially a dataspace, a telematic environment, a virtual reality.
We know it to be virtual, a telematic construction, yet we live its reality. This is so because we see that, everywhere and at all times, reality has always been constructed and mediated by the ultimate technology – human language – in all its varied philosophical, cultural and technological configurations. Interactive telecommunications – telematic technology – is language before it is anything else. It speaks us – that is, gives us new language – and in doing so at our human best, it speaks a language of cooperation, creativity and transformation. It is the technology not of monologue but of conversation. It feeds fecund open-endedness rather than an aesthetics of closure and completion. Interactive telecommunications is a technology that empowers the individual to connect with others.
This paradox of the virtual as real, real as virtual, once a topic of hot debate for philosophers and aestheticians alone, now permeates our everyday thinking. The question it poses is one of human presence, of being there. This question, which seems to have caused such phenomenological angst to Husserl and Heidegger, for example, is being treated with sublime creativity by artists using the media of new telecommunications technology. It is with such matters, with the creativityof presence and the presence of creativity in electronic space, that this publication is concerned.
The new telematic systems of computerised communications are giving rise to a new, felt quality of human presence, a fascination with presence, an eroticism of presence. Simply put, this is a quality of being both here, at this place, and also there, in many other places, at one and the same time – both here-and-there or here-or-there, simultaneously or asynchronously. The play is with presence, place and time-the intermingling of presences, of space and time. This is a strange experience, new in the repertoire of human capabilities. To meet others in dataspace, mind to mind, virtually face to face, at no matter what geographical location, or in multiple, dispersed locations, in real time or in computer-mediated asynchronous time, is exhilarating. It is also demanding.
For the artist it demands new insights into creative work, into imaginative inter- activity; it demands new insights into the nature of art. Art in dataspace, in the electronic telecommunications continuum, is always incomplete, indeterminate, in flux, in flow. To interact with it, to interface with it, is in part to define it, to create it. In telematic art there is no creation without participation, there is no participation without distribution. This publication, then, is about interactivity in art, as art: culture as connectivity.
To be both here and there, in a state of distributed telepresence, whether mediated by computer networks, interactive video, slow-scan television, fax, digital image transfer, videotex, teleconference, videophone or online communications by means of telephone, cable or satellite link, has huge implications for art, for its institutions, its protocols, its markets, its makers and its consumers.
The status of both art and artists changes radically in this environment. There is as much rupture with institutionalised aesthetic values as there is continuity with those creative strategies that have woven their way through twentieth-century art in celebration of change, chance, uncertainty, ambiguity and incompleteness- the provenance of Marcel Duchamp, Jackson Pollock, James Joyce and John Cage, for example, as well as of all those artists, musicians, writers and performers who laid the ground for what can be called the ‘cybernetic vision.’ In this developing scenario, richly underpinned by the philosophical, scientific and critical insights of thinkers such as Nietzsche, Bateson, Wiener, Derrida and Rorty, responsibility for meaning is shared, creativity comes out of cooperation and authorship is dispersed. Art is no longer seen as a linear affair, dealing in harmony, completion, resolution, closure-a composed and ordered finality. Instead it is open-ended, even fugitive, fleeting, tentative, virtual. Forming rather than formed, it celebrates process, embodies system, embraces chaos. The technology of these transformative systems fulfills a profound human desire: to transcend the limitations of body, time and space; to escape language, to defeat metaphors of self and identity that alienate and isolate, that imprison mind in solipsistic systems. Our need is to fly, to reach out, to touch, connect-to expand our consciousness by a dissemination of our presence, to distribute self into a larger society of mind. That is the future of art, that is the relevance of telematic systems. The interface to these systems is not the window to an ordered reality as presented by Renaissance art, but a doorway to an infinitely transformable reality, the threshold to variable worlds, in which we can creatively move and meet and have our being.
In telematic interactivity it is not the case, as it was with nineteenth-century Romanticism and its twentieth-century over spill, that the artist, as the subject of art, generates ideas that are visualized and as the object of art. Instead, the represented ‘artist’ interacts in electronic space with other telematic ‘users’ (the word fortunately lacks aesthetic provenance) whose behaviour is virtualized so as to constitute a This art, whose is human connectivity, brought into a telematic presence. subject embrace  on monitors and screens, in acoustic space, or as articulated environments, finds itself endlessly transformed by the interaction of these virtual presences, the digital extensions of users remotely located from each other in time as well as in space. No matter that they may have accessed the systems through widely different interfaces employing keyboards, palettes, mice, touch screens, voice commands, data gloves, eyephones or other triggers and sensors of quite subtle, often invisible complexity – nor that their interactions in creating image, sound and text may also involve artificial intelligences, memories, databanks, laserdiscs, hypermedia, ROMs (read-only memory) and RAMs (random access memory) of all kinds. This new quality of presence remains. The experience of being (t)here, dispersed in space, displaced in time, remains. In this field of creativity, art is not representation but transformation; its hypotheses are transient; aesthetic resolution gives way to a connective evolution. We can think of a collective imagination in which individual sensibility is heightened, perception extended (often remotely), thought amplified and consciousness widened-a global vision. The fear that new technology will lead to a homogenised, uniform, lobotomised culture has been found to be entirely groundless. The variety, richness and unexpectedness of ideas, images, projects and experiences to which telematic interactive communications systems can give rise is well demonstrated by the artists presented in this publication.
Through the technologies of interactive telecommunications, simple human contact in local physical space becomes superconnectivity in deep dataspace.  More does not mean better, especially in the banal context of an ‘information society’ dominated by military, industrial and commercial interests. But with planetary interaction between creative individuals exploiting the new technologies of computerised telecommunications, a rich transpersonal, multi-cultural perspective is opened up. This publication is devoted to the writings of artists taking up this challenge. We are artists of an emerging telematic culture, displaying in our practice a multiplicity of communication modes, utilising all kinds of high and low technology, which together constitute a new kind of connectivity.
Ours is an art of interactivity, involving the human use of computerised communication and electronic telepresence, which we believe carries great potential and hope for our emergence into the next millennium as caring, cooperative and creative human beings.
Roy Ascott, a British artist and theorist, is the President of the Planetary Collegium. His web site is http://planetary-collegium.net/.
ISSN No: 1071-4391
Author: Roy Ascott, Leonardo Co-GuesEtditor, E-mail: email@example.com
President, the Planetary Collegium
Originally published in: Leonardo Vol. 24, No. 2, Connectivity: Art and Interactive Telecommunications (1991), pp. 115-117
Print: ISSN 0024-094X, Online: ISSN 1530-9282, DOI: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1575277.
Leonardo is a registered trademark of the ISAST.