Leonardo Thinks

On Networking by Roy Ascott

Historical Opinion by Roy Ascott

Roy Ascott looks at the recent convergence of computers and telecommunications systems, proposing that telematics offer extraordinary opportunities to artists.
On Networking

The recent convergence of computers and telecommunications systems-telematics-offers an extraordinary opportunity to the artist. The new technology offers videotex, telefacsimile, laser disc, slowscan TV, computer animation and simulation, teleconferencing, text exchange, telemetry and remote sensing and interactive structures and environments. The scale of these interactive systems may be as small as that of a lap-top computer or as extensive as that of a planetary network, and through the process of digitalisation all of these systems can interconnect (eventually through fully integrated services digital networks (ISDN) involving satellite, cable and telephone), allowing us to circulate, store and transform images, texts and sounds. But these are more than new tools, they invite new relationships between people in the creative process and they imply new visual language.

Telematic interactivity has the effect of erasing the old dichotomies – artist/viewer, producer/ consumer – by offering the means of collaboration in the creation of images and text, involving not simply the exchange of ideas between people but the direct involvement of many individuals in the creation of meaning. The viewer becomes a participant in the creative system either by making choices between a number of alternatives provided by the artist, by affecting the configuration of environments or sounds by his or her presence or by actually interacting with others in the creation of a flow of images and text. This suggests new responsibilities for both artist and viewer, as well as new possibilities of creative activity and it certainly means that the relationship between artist and public has changed, and that the boundaries between them are diffused.

In telematic networking, authorship of images can be dispersed throughout the system. At the same time, the zone of reception and encounter with these images is enormously extended, with the effect of decentralising and destabilising the idea of gallery or museum space. The art employing these interactive processes challenges ideas about the ownership and origin of images and text and raises questions about the way meaning is created. But if this sounds in a certain sense like the death of the author, we would be quite wrong to imagine that it leads to some kind of anonymous, totalising collectivity of minds, endlessly recycling data, in which individual visions and aspirations are subsumed and diminished. Instead, this telematic interactivity offers the possibility of the amplification of individual thought and imagination, by linking up minds with minds, person to person, and so widening our creative frames of reference, opening up new horizons and contexts of work and diversifying the connections between aspects of different cultures and individual realities. Telematic interactivity is likely to lead to a heightening of the process of individuation in our society.

But it is not simply the process of interactivity which is important here; it is the mediation of such processes by the computer which suggests a paradigmatic change in the nature of art. Since the computer can be accessed from virtually any part of the world and its vastly capacious memory can store huge amounts of data – digitally encoded images and texts, for example – the participant in a creative exchange can become involved at any time of day or night, asynchronically and regardless of distance and location. Thus inputs from a variety of sources can be retrieved at whatever moment or in whatever context a collaborator may choose-to-be acted upon, modified,  played with, deconstructed, inverted, twisted, stretched and eventually re-circulated throughout the network according to each individual desire. Separate realities can be woven into new cultural tissues.

In its capacity to accommodate, layer and transform a great diversity of cultural and personal material, telematic networking is the perfect vehicle of post-modern culture. Similarly, it supports a more comprehensive approach to knowledge and leads the artist to embrace other disciplines and fields of knowing. Science and technology have often been seen to be the enemies of art, or at least to stand in opposition to artistic practice. They have claimed a closer place to truth and reality, just as philosophy, in the past, has claimed privilege over poetry in this regard. But our current thinking holds them all to be essentially metaphoric, coping as best each can with a contingent universe. Uncertainty and indeterminacy are seen to be the only elements common to all disciplines in our relativistic and pluralistic culture. Instead of separation and confusion between art, science and technology, we can see a field of metaphor and a range of practices that can serve as a source of entirely new creative activity.

To network between the diverse discourses of art and science, between the rational and the poetic, between the natural and artificial – to collapse these dichotomies – is the prospect for telematic culture. It leads to an art that is both inconclusive and immanent, that celebrates new forms of human communication and interaction, just as it celebrates the open-endedness and ubiquity of these forms. This is an art that deals not so much with the art object, but with the flux and flow of images and forms within shifting creative strategies – an art concerned not so much with the material but with the immaterial, the virtual, the invisible, the becoming. It has much in common with the new physicseeing endless regeneration, re-creation and transformation of form and structure brought about by the flux of collusions and collisions of personal interactions.

In this new creative immateriality there are essentially (to borrow Norman O. Brown’s words) “no things, but an irridescence in the void. Meaning is a continuous creation, out of nothing and returning to nothingness. If it is not evanescent it is not alive. Everything is symbolic, is transitory, is unstable. The consolidation of meaning makes idols, established meanings have turned to stone” [1].

Questions of image, surface, text, sound, structure, environment are addressed within new considerations of time, space and memory which telematic systems open up. Fusions, conjunctions and interactions of media coexist with new relationships of content, source material and objectives. As barriers are broken down, so new kinds of collaboration between artists themselves and between artists and the viewer are formed.

This may lead to a paradigm change in culture, as telematic interactivity becomes more ubiquitous, challenging more and more creative individuals to question, develop and extend the enormous potential for imaginative work that this new field of practice offers.

Dispersed authorship, collaborative work and a fuller participation by all members of society in creative interactivity are implicit in many disciplines and forms of discourse-in science, in new technology, as well as in the visual, plastic, textual and musical arts. We look, as artists, for closer liaisons with scientists in all fields, for the creation of new forms and new modes of creativity – a new cultural initiative in society in which each individual can more fully participate.

[1] Norman O. Brown, Love’s Body (New York: Vintage Books, 1968).

telemetry: the process of electronically measuring a quantity (of, for example, radiation intensity, pressure, speed or temperature) and transmitting the measurement(s)  to one or many remote locations for display.

videotex: the general term covering a variety of electronic systems of information exchange, storage and distribution. The interactive system that enables users both to send and to receive data is called Viewdata. The one-way broadcast system is called teletext. Users can access and update information through a database. A variety of technical standards and levels of resolution are employed in different national systems.
Roy Ascott, a British artist and theorist, is the President of the Planetary Collegium.  His web site is http://http://planetary-collegium.net/.
ISSN No: 1071-4391
Author: Roy Ascott, Honorary Editor, E-mail: roy.ascott@btinternet.com
President, the Planetary Collegium
Originally published in: Leonardo Vol. 21, No. 3 (1988), pp. 231-232
Print: ISSN 0024-094X, Online: ISSN 1530-9282, DOI: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1578647, Vol. 21, No. 3, 1988.
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