New Media Precursor: Roy Ascott

Roy Ascott setting-up Plastic Transactions at the president’s office desk, Ontario College of Art and Design, 1971. © Roy Ascott.

Know of the visionary artist who anticipated as early as the 1960s the internet and interactive network exchanges as now found in social media? Meet British artist, teacher and theoretician Roy Ascott (1934 — ), pioneer of cybernetic and telematic art, who questioned the effects of telecommunications on human consciousness and its global influence on people relationships.

Roy Ascott, © V2.

The first word to characterize Ascott’s practice is cross-disciplinarity. He gave vital importance to developing ideas as part of a process, making connections and synthesis between fields related or not to atistic discourses. This all-encompassing attitude towards art emerged early in his career as a student of leading postwar artists Victor Pasmore and Richard Hamilton, both of which mixed aesthetic and non-aesthetic sources and inferred an art practice that also included writing and teaching. As such, one should acknowledge Ascott’s educational work and theories as an integral part of his artistic practice, which as we will see is more concerned with immaterial processes than the production of physical objects.

In 1961 Ascott discovered the science of cybernetics through the works of Norbert Wiener, F.H. George and W. Ross Ashby who provided with insights on information, feedback, and systemic relationship. A good explanation for cybernetics is that it parallels the functioning of systems to that of the human brain, with neuronal connections and nodes feeding messages in a decentralized manner. In other words, given information wouldn’t be dispatched from one to all but from all to all.

Roy Ascott, Change Painting, two different states of display for the overlaying of interchangeable elements made of plexiglass, wood, and oil painting, 1959, © Roy Ascott.

Stemming from this definition of cybernetic networks, Ascott became increasingly aware of the impact that technology would have on knowledge and behavior and thought it was the artist’s responsibility to build socially useful schemes. In his essays The Construction of Change (1964) and Behaviorist Art and the Cybernetic Vision (1966–67), Ascott explained the educational purpose of all art, saying its value lies in generating mental, conceptual and conscious shifts in behaviors, altering the artwork-artist-audience relationship. Notions of duration and interaction emerged as he wished for the viewer to become an active participant and conduct aesthetic experiments which could result in numerous outcomes, transforming the artwork from a static object to a time-specific and unique activity that requires feedback.

Left: Roy Ascott, Change Maps, sculptural painting developed through aleatory methods using wax and crayon on stained wood, 1969, © Roy Ascott. Right: Roy Ascott, Table-Top Strategies, composite photograph of interactions with a Transaction Set consisting of various found objects, 1971, © Roy Ascott.

Cybernetic art gave Ascott the opportunity to experiment with the making of events that result from a context of one or multiple interactions that the artist cannot control, instead just setting a framework as an educator would do. For instance, Ascott’s Change Paintings (1959) required participants to overlay different panels of plexiglass with oil-painted elements. The interchangeable layers become a fundamental part of the visual construction showing the need for interactivity and the Bergsonian concept of change, impermanence, and uncertainty. Other works like Change Maps (1969) highlight aleatory methods and early concerns for unpredictable yet statistically probable outcomes — something which will become even more predominant in his Transaction Set (1971) for the play-out of “table-top strategies.” Cybernetics also influenced his teaching as he asked students to create aleatory devices like Calibrator for Selecting Human Characteristics (c. 1963), an installation randomly assigning role play for the experimentation of behavioral interactions.

Roy Ascott and his students working on an aleatory device, Ealing College of Art, London, ca. 1963.

At the end of the 1960s, Ascott started focusing on interactions amongst geographically dispersed people and advanced the idea of telecommunication networks allowing artists to work together from a distance. This idea corresponded to what Alain Minc and Simon Nora coined “telematics” in 1978, bringing together the words “telecommunications” and “informatique”, the French for computer science. The duo explained telematics’ main issue: “Are we headed […] toward a society that will use this new technology to reinforce the mechanisms of rigidity, authority, and domination? Or, on the other hand, will we know how to enhance adaptability, freedom, and communication in such a way that every citizen and every group can be responsible for itself?”

No wonder Ascott opted for the second option — more adaptability. And while telematics promoted systems similar to cybernetics, the potential reach of computer telecommunications was significantly broader, bringing the actual technology to an until then theoretical concept. In the late 1970s, these technologies mainly worked as military equipment, satellite communications had limited access, and only a few artists had access to computer-conferencing networks, the earliest form of telematics. It is only between the late 1980s and 1990s that the use of internet spread. Ultimately, Ascott pioneered telematic art with his work Terminal Art in 1980, which consisted of organizing a three-week computer-conference connecting Ascott with seven other artists across the globe to generate ideas collectively from their respective studios.

Roy Ascott, La Plissure du Texte, computer printout from International telematic art project, including interactive exchanges from artists of eleven countries, notably Austria, the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, and Australia, 1982, © Roy Ascott.

The idea of a decentralized but collective state of mind grew on Ascott, as he developed projects like his well-known La Plissure du Texte (1982). The work relied on computers ability to function asynchronously and asked artists in different time-zones to contribute subsequently to the piece by writing texts or building ASCII-based images. The work’s value lied first and foremost in its interactive and communicative reach for Ascott believed “products or objects originating in telecommunications projects are merely documentary relicts of an activity that took place in the electronic realm.” In turn, Ascott showed the new media’s ability to transcend usual barriers of space and time and pledged for distributed authorship. Artists act here as mere participants, blurring the boundaries between the emitter and the receiver, with participants playing both roles as part of the systemic process.

Roy Ascott, Organe et Fonction d’Alice au Pays des Merveilles, video still from telematic art project using the Minitel network, Centre Prompidou, Paris, 1985, © Roy Ascott.

Ascott also made a significant contribution to Robert Adrian’s The World in 24 Hours (1982) and in1985 participated in Jean-François Lyotard and Thierry Chaput’s exhibition Les Immatériaux at the Centre Pompidou. For this latter work, he developed a system for the audience to build a text in real-time from alternating quotations of the two distinct written sources: Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and a scientific report called Organe et Fonction.

Roy Ascott, Telenoia, 24-hour networking telematic art project involving telephone, fax, videophone, and internet, 1992. © V2.

Planetary Network (1986) marked the advent of the internet and a turn in artistic endeavors for its attention to interpersonal communication. Telenoia (1992) — a 24-hour online performance connecting artists through the various networks of the telephone, fax, videophone, and internet — made further concrete Ascott’s wish to create a “planetary discursive community outside, or able to bypass, the institutionalized administration of discourse.” Reminds you of Facebook? Well, that’s no Zuckerberg, and it appeared some 25 years before.