Caught up in a love affair involving a cyberhug

Telematic Embrace

February 4, 2005

Telematics "integrates computers and telecommunications, enabling such familiar applications as email and automatic teller machines", Edward Shanken, the editor of this collection, tells us.

Illustrated with images that look like film stills from French 1960s after-the atom-bomb movies, this is an inventive, poetic and passionate journey through the parallel cultures of 20th-century communication technology and the author's own story of art.

More poet than scholar, artist Roy Ascott writes like Fernand Léger - in manifestos, simultaneously in love with the future and the notion of being hopelessly in love. This collection of essays began some years ago as "Is There Love in the Telematic Embrace?" It finally made it to the shelves without the "love" and with a much drier title.

Ascott studied in the 1950s at King's College, Durham, under Victor Pasmore and Hamilton Richard. From the outset, he championed cybernetics, the edges of science, technology and art and the goal of making images that search out the impact of digital and telecommunications networks on our collective consciousness. He defines telematics as "computer-mediated communications networking between geographically dispersed individuals and institutions... and between the human mind and artificial systems of intelligence and perception".

What becomes immediately clear in these at times repetitive essays is how his preoccupation has gained significance and momentum during the last half century and, as a result, how appropriate the editor's notion of Ascott as "visionary" is.

This said, his work, like that of many other visionaries, is not easy to read. All 28 essays have something serious to say, but his 1990 essay probably sums it up best. Bitten by the modernist bug, he explains the power of communications technology with an unusual and poetic passion. He creates neat passages of prose, the most pleasing of which is a short mineralogical history of art, taking us, in silica, from the pre-literate sand paintings of the Navajo to the processor chip and web-based art; his wittiest, best left as a quote: "The indeterminate dance of electrons, 'the snap, crackle and pop' of quanta."

His romance with flux, transparency, opacity of meaning, and the importance of not so much what the artists want to say but what the swirling audience believe they hear, is tacked on to his admiration for the pleasingly analogue work of late Pollock and Duchamp. His passion for the medium is clear. What is less clear is whether Ascott's love is unconditional, given the preponderance of clearly corrupting opportunities available on the web today.

This book is important as a relatively rare chance to read an artist's words. It is a must for those studying the relationship between mass communication systems and the visual arts.

Stephen Farthing is a painter and Royal Academician, resident in the US.

Telematic Embrace: Visionary Theories of Art, Technology and Consciousness

Author - Roy Ascott
Editor - Edward A. Shanken
Publisher - University of California Press
Pages - 4
Price - £29.95
ISBN - 0 520 21803 5

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