Aesthetics argued on a phone extension

November 10, 1995

Roy Ascott argues that the time is ripe for a revolutionary art gallery on the terrain of the twisted pair.

You may never have navigated the Internet, visited a Web site or immersed yourself in virtual reality, but even the most cursory scanning of the newspapers or television will have informed you about cyberspace and the information superhighway. You may not recognise Telematic Culture as the legitimate heir of this century's love affair with art, science and technology, but you will know that the convergence of computers and communications is shaking the foundations of many cherished institutions and professional practices. Some are stirred but not shaken: private galleries and public museums have been unusually quick to adjust to the new environment. Increasingly, the Internet is where the artist, dealer and curator display their wares. Connectivity is now an imperative that few in the culture business can ignore. There may be something in the order of 100 million Internet users by the end of the year.

There are already thousands of university art centres, museums, galleries, artist groups, cultural entrepreneurs and private dealers setting up Web sites, mounting online exhibitions, publishing catalogues and critiques, and establishing archives and collections in the dataspace of the Net. You will see that number multiplied once digital cash is introduced.

The Louvre had one million visitors to its Web site in the first nine months of coming online, and the Smithsonian has more visiting the Internet than ever come through its doors on foot. Art viewing online looks like replacing art viewing on the hoof. The collection of one of the very earliest galleries in Europe, that of prehistoric cave paintings at Combe d'Arc in the Ardeche, was accessible in all its majestic authority on the French Ministry of Culture's home page within just one month of being discovered.

As far as the relationship between the Internet and works of art situated in physical gallery space is concerned - on Cork Street, at SoHo, in a Frankfurt museum or a Tokyo department store - there is little to be said. Of course there will be distortion in any transposition from the concrete art object to the ephemeral digital image, and picture resolution is still generally rather weak. At the same time, as the designers of Chartres knew, the backlit image is intrinsically more arresting than the light reflecting surface. And the World-Wide Web's digital representation of paintings, prints, and sculptures allows for a truly planetary distribution. In this sense, cyberspace is a marvellous extension of telephone space.

The Web site can be a superior kind of art magazine or cultural mail order catalogue. The downside is that questions of copyright are raised which cannot easily be resolved, and once an image is set loose in cyberspace it can become anybody's possession. I'm reminded of this issue in Greg Egan's recent sci-fi collection, Axiomatic.

While William Gibson gave us the metaphor of cyberspace, he had nothing to say about art or the gallery in the Net. Neuromancer dealt with drugs, illusion, hallucination, power play, money. (On second thoughts, maybe it did say something about the gallery world.) Egan has things to say about consciousness, telepresence, and virtual life which are very relevant to our cyberculture. In this instance, his take on the copyright dilemma is very pertinent.

He has the director of an art gallery put it this way: "I spent the morning dealing with the curator for a large insurance company who was looking for a change of decor for a few hundred lobbies, elevators and boardrooms, real and virtual. I had no trouble selling her some suitably dignified electronic wallpaper by some suitably revered young talents. Some starving artists put low-resolution roughs of their work into network galleries, hoping to strike a compromise between a version so crude as to be offputting, and one so appealing as to make buying the real thing superfluous.

"Nobody will pay for art unseen - and in the network galleries, to see was to own. Physical galleries - tightly run - remained the best solution. All my visitors were screened for microcameras and visual cortex taps: nobody left the building with anything more than an impression, without paying for it. If it had been lawful, I would have demanded blood samples, and refused entry to anyone with a genetic predisposition to eidetic memory."

That may be taking the fear of copying too far but it is entirely true that on the Net, to see is to own. Whatever arrives at your particular node of the network, whether it is image, text, or soundbite, is yours to keep. But there is of course more to it than that. The problematic of Art online, the gallery in the Net, is not simply one of copyright and ownership, electronic money or archival hacking. The central question is that of interactivity. In cyberspace, to see is not only to own, it is to invite transformation.

There is an art which exists only in the Net, for the Net and by the Net alone. This is an art which is intrinsically interactive. It uses the computer not as a video terminal through which you view objects of art as if carouselling through a set of digital slides, but as a screen of operations, an interface, which enables you to enter into a process of manipulation and transformation of images, texts and sound. It deals not so much with the behaviour of forms, the aesthetic of appearance, as with forms of behaviour, the aesthetic of apparition. Your interaction is with its multi-mediated form and its many layered meanings. It is about the viewer being active in the creation of art, actually with the creation of meaning. It is not so much about navigating a ready made virtual reality as constructing an emergent reality.

It is this interface to cyberspace that I would like to concentrate on, since it is at the interface to the Net that the gallery - a significantly new kind of gallery - has to be constructed. While the works of art I first described are presented in the gallery seen as a vitrine, a window through which other people's art can be observed, contemplated and enjoyed, this latter art uses as its defining metaphor the door, a doorway into dataspace which the user can enter, interact, play, test and transform.

But first I would like to talk a little about virtual reality. At present, notwithstanding incredible work achieved with headmounted displays, cybersuits, and pixel rates, the technology of virtual reality produces a space which is particularly dry and arid. It has mostly been successful in simulating a kind of Renaissance or Euclidian space. Keep within those parameters and all is well, the show can go on. It is amenable mostly as a kind of stage set. So of course architects and real estate brokers have found it a useful demonstration medium. Artists have found it very difficult to escape its Cartesian frame.

But although virtual reality is presently as dry as our habitual reality is wet, there are signs of the emergence of an artificial reality which is, or promises to become, moist. And "emergence" here is a key word. It is in this moist reality, grounded in the technology of artificial life and the nanotechnology of atoms and genetically engineered molecules, that life-like behaviour will emerge.

This is the phase in our culture where art and science will most truly converge. Where after decades of, first the dematerialisation of the art object as Lucy Lippard defined it, and then the immateriality of the post-modern as Jean-Francois Lyotard defined it, art re-engages with the material world; a re-materialisation of art in the form of artificial nature, where as artists we might become partners in evolutionary change rather than expressive or analytical bystanders. This is a world pervaded by artificial intelligence, more generously described as consciousness. I think it is the world that Teilhard de Chardin envisaged as integral to the noosphere. It is a world in which everything is interconnected and telematically informed. You may well dismiss it as a utopian dream, but there is an art evolving in the Net which presages these developments.

An art of artificial agents and algorithmic assemblies which grow, expand, diversify, disperse, and reform within the networks. Their life and form in silicon depend entirely on connectivity and interaction. This is an art of seeding, growing, evolving. This is Net-art, the art of cyberspace, and it is the platform which it requires, both for being viewed and for being developed, that is the kind of Gallery of the Net which I wish to discuss. This is a hybrid art to be both created and viewed by more than the artist or art lover alone. It involves disciplines which are themselves hybrid: cognitive science and its neural nets, biological engineering and its genetic manipulations, the physics of consciousness. Hybrid also is the viewer, user or consumer of this art. Bionic to a degree, gender-free, wholly integrated into cyberspace, transculturally oriented to the Net, living globally in the interreality between the actual and the virtual, this is the post-biological human being. And perhaps most pertinent in our search for definition of the gallery in this telematic, post-biological culture, it is our new faculty of cyberception, the technologically amplified and extended processes of cognition and perception, which will determine the kind of space we shall inhabit, the kind of architecture we shall demand. But by setting this scenario somewhat in the future (after all artificial life is only just beginning to sprout, genetic engineering is in its earliest infancy, and nanotechnology has yet to produce its first self-replicated molecular agent) I do not mean to place the gallery out of reach or out of our consideration.

For here is the great and present danger. Either the design of new galleries could overreach itself in trying too hard to accommodate the present phase of computer technology and screen-based systems, or it might retreat into a hermetic shell of classic materialism, a kind of Saatchi reprise. But the technology of the interface, the scope, density and bandwidth of the networks, the growth of post-biological systems and the amplification of artificial intelligence are developing at exponential rates. If the gallery is simply geared to the present, trying to service art in cyberspace as it is presently articulated it will be redundant before it is built. So much money and cultural importance are attached by necessity to any planned gallery venture that some futurology is absolutely necessary. Some intuition must be applied, some prescience is required. We must construct scenarios of 30 years hence and then work backwards to the present in order to understand how the gallery of the Net should best be developed at this time. Even the most traditional space, with little alteration, can house the Genetic Images of Karl Sims, or Pery Hoberman's Bar Code Hotel or the wonderful A-Volve installation of Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau, where visitors create and interact with three-dimensional virtual creatures that move and swim in a water-filled glass bowl, creatures that compete with each other, kill, mate and exchange their genetic code. And while any old home page of the Web can let us into the "biodiversity reserve for digital organisms" of Tom Ray (a wildlife reserve within the Net in which digital organisms are able to live, wander and evolve freely) or the Tele-garden of Ken Goldberg and Joseph Santarromana in Los Angeles (a tele-robotic Web installation that allows users to manipulate a remote garden filled with living plants, http://www.usc.edu/dept/garden/), we are approaching that critical point in the evolution of interactive, online, cyberspace, virtual world works for which wholly new environmental public interfaces will have to be constructed.

While this year the Interactive Media Festival will fit very comfortably and effectively in the Variety Arts Theatre on Olympic Boulevard, Los Angeles, and Ars Electronica could go on indefinitely accommodating itself to the limitations of the Brucknerhaus in Linz, the time has come to think about an intelligent architecture to house the art of intelligent systems which are growing out of our networked consciousness, out of what my friend Pierre Levy would describe as our "collective intelligence".

In fact, Ars Electronica is well on its way to an answer to the problem. The InterCommunication Centre in Tokyo is also far along in its definition. And there are a number of architects and planners around the world deeply involved in these questions. Nor is the gallery as a kind of large complex intelligent environmental interface the only solution. Much smaller public platforms are arising in many cities. Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz's Electronic Cafe is cloned and copied all over the world. These informal global community art centres are essentially electronic galleries where conservation has given way to conversation; where ideas come by the plateful and the menu is set by the customer.

We rafted into the 1990s on the Powerbook, plugging into the Net wherever we went. Compression made image exchange easier. Quicktime software put video into circulation. Refresh rates got faster, bandwidth got wider, though never fast or wide enough. This year the jury of the Los Angeles Interactive Media Festival, 15 of us spread across the United States, Europe and the Far East, have conducted our selection of the Festival Show largely by email and Web site. And as a sign of the times, the Prix Ars Electronica has dropped the category of computer graphics in favour of Web site design.

Finally, to indicate the acceleration of technology surrounding our considerations of just what the gallery might need to be, I should remind you that Greg Kovacs at Stanford and Michael Deering at Sun MicroSystems are taking about implanting a radio-linked interface chip into the back of the human neck. Not only is Ted Nelson's Xanadu hypertext now an everyday reality, but the hypercortex is evolving rapidly. Researchers are working on developing the first protein-based computer powered by a combination of semi-conductor chips and biological molecules, involving a bacterial protein which responds to light by changing its structure, allowing data to be stored in three-dimensional format in protein cubes. Using the same material a neural associative computer could be designed, capable of analysing data and images.

Where shall we by the end of the next 15 years? Electra took place in the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, and the Biennale project in the Arsenale del Corderia, a disused rope factory, but such temporary measures will no longer do. The digital, interactive and telematic arts, like the networks themselves, were marginal then and any old space was thought to be satisfactory. Now they are mainstream, complex and relatively sophisticated. Virtual reality online does not come cheap. Interfaces are migrating into our bodies and into intelligent environments. As this work advances so the gallery, the public interface to these arts, has to be entirely rethought.

I mentioned the Ars Electronica Centre as an example of such rethinking. As a member of the original design team for the Centre and of the Prix Ars Electronica jury for many years, I have seen ideas develop from the first scenarios we created with our architects Art+Com of Berlin to the emergence of the building overlooking the Danube which will be open in less than a year. In my planning report I saw art in cyberspace following a five-fold path: of connectivity, immersion, interaction, transformation, and emergence - terms applying to all the constituent parts: people, ideas, databodies. The building should be intelligent from top to bottom, its conceptual matrix cross relating memory, experience, experimentation, learning and cognition with artificial worlds, knowledge navigation, event projects, state of the art art, and historical origins, underwritten by a complex order of systems and services.

I employed for the centre the metaphor of a "data pool" into which data in all its modes flows, to be endlessly transformed through public interaction, and then to emerge, art-in-flux, flowing on into other domains, other pools, other tributaries of the datasea. This called for the viewing public to plunge into the datapool, immerse themselves in its fluid changeability, navigate its knowledge bases, dive to its depths of meaning, accessing art as a fluid, moving stream of data configurations, embodied in networks, on screens, in intelligent structures,and responsive environments.

I felt that the centre should be anticipatory, not imposing perspectives on the history of art, but opening up a pool of possibilities from which art might emerge, working at the forward edge of contemporary culture, as an agent of cultural change, as a cause of art practice rather than as a cultural effect. The public would learn to immerse themselves in the datafield, to interact with the elements it contains, and navigate through its many layers and networks. It would become a seedbed for the future, a testbed of present inquiry and experiment, and a fertile ground of historical reference.

Despite the building's reliance on advanced technological systems, its governing perspective should not be that of the machine but of a post- biological organism: an intelligent building with its own memory which reacts to us, as much as we interact with it. The visitors would share the new sensations and paradoxes of events in electronic space, of telepresence, cyberspace, of being on-line to a global community, of being both here and someplace else at the same time.

To ensure a high degree of connectivity between all its parts, the building calls for an electronic central nervous system. The classification of the layers is no more than provisional and cannot wholly reflect the relational complexity of the field of digital, online arts in all their technological and conceptual diversity. To enable the visitor to grasp this complexity and to exploit it with confidence and pleasure, there are such information amenities as an interactive staircase, a televator, voice responsive event-menus, a personal electronic rucksack, and private vidphone booths.

The activity inside the building should be shown outside the building on digital wall screens, so that there will be a constant flow of data from the datapool to the immediate external environment. Similarly, satellite, cable and Internet communications must allow for the 24-hour-a-day, two-way flow of data from other local, regional and international centres and public places.

The centre is by no means a paradigm. But it is a response to the question of what the gallery might be and how we might create institutions for the telematic culture.

To explore further the requirements of the new kind of gallery we should consider the aesthetics of art in the Net. The canon of interactivity is quite unlike that of the plastic arts. Interactive, telematic art demands another kind of role of the artist. Rather than creating, expressing, or transmitting content, as has been the case historically in the tradition of western art, the artist is now involved in designing context: contexts within which the observer or viewer can construct experience and meaning. The skill, sensibility, and intelligence required to design such contexts are no less than those demanded in the plastic arts. But the outcome is radically different. Connectivity, interaction and emergence are the watchwords of cyberculture. The observer of telematic art is put in the centre of the creative process not at the periphery looking in. Indeed, whatever the dominant medium, whether it is electronic, digital, optical or genetic, the art of the cyberculture is generically interactive. This is characterised by a systems approach to creation in which the behaviour of the system (the artwork, network, product or building) is responsive in to the behaviour of its user (the viewer or consumer). More than responsive, it constitutes a kind of structural coupling between everyone and everything within the Net.

This kind of work is inherently cybernetic. Artists in cyberspace increasingly seek to control computer-mediated systems through biological input sensors and biocontrollers in the nervous system, responding directly to signals from the brain, eye and muscles. I talked about this with Tom Furness and William Bricken at the Human Interface Technology Laboratory at the University of Washington in Seattle recently. This made plain to me that alongside advanced scientific research, in the heart of scientific laboratories devoted to the most advanced technology, ideas about art, culture and social relationships are evolving, and doing so as richly as in many of the better informed ateliers and academies of art.

This talk was given at the Tate Gallery and ZKM Karlsruhe in May.

Roy Ascott is director of the Centre for Inquiry in the Interactive Arts, Gwent College of Higher Education.

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