Cover - Telematic Embrace - Click for larger image
Telematic Embrace
By Roy Ascott
Edward A. Shanken, ed. London, UK: University of California Press (2003)
pp. 367-368, 370-371, 373-375


Cybernetics and Art Pedagogy

Ascott extended his theory and practice of cybernetic art into his work as an art educator. As head of Foundation Studies at the Ealing College of Art in London (1961-64), he created what might be called a cybernetic art pedagogy. He described how the continuum between his work in the studio and his work in the classroom made the two complementary: "In trying to clarify the relationship between art, science and behaviour, I have found myself able to become involved in a teaching situation without compromising my work. The two activities, creative and pedagogic, interact, each feeding back to the other. Both, I believe, are enriched" (page 98 below).

It is no coincidence that he used the language of cybernetics to suggest how his art practice and pedagogy interacted, "each feeding back to the other" in a mutually reinforcing system. One might even say that the classroom became a cybernetic studio, in which the artist could experiment with behavioral interactions among his students, and in which his students could learn some of the most advanced aesthetic theories firsthand, by participating in them. "I do not know of any other artist/teacher who projects such a high incident of integration between his teaching ideas and the art-hardware that he makes," noted the British artist and critic Eddie Wolfram (Wolfram 1968).

Throughout his career, Ascott has held a strong conviction, not just about the role of the educator in teaching art, but about the role of art in teaching culture. In the Foundation Studies curriculum he instituted at Ealing, the study of conventional artistic skills transpired within a context where theoretical concerns and the broader implications of art were foregrounded. "All art is, in some sense, didactic: every artist is, in some way, setting out to instruct," he wrote. "For, by instruction, we mean to give direction, and that is precisely what all great art does Through [the] culture it informs, art becomes a force for change in society" (page 98 below).

This conviction about the positive social function of art as an instrument of education and transformation has been a consistent feature of Ascott's theory, practice, and pedagogy for some forty years. The success of his pedagogical methods and his belief in the role of art in culture in general has led to numerous international positions as an arts educator, consultant and administrator (see Appendix I).

In the classroom, cybernetics offered a clear model for reconceptualizing art and education—and their roles in a larger social system—by suggesting the organization of art education curricula in terms of a behavioral system of feedback and control. The course of study Ascott implemented at Ealing beginning in 1961 focused on these cybernetic principles. Students collaborated together as elements of a system that regulated their artistic behavior as an integrated whole. As Ascott explained, forming groups of six, each student would be "set the task of acquiring and acting out... a totally new personality, which is to be narrowly limited and largely the converse of what is considered to be their normal 'selves'"(page 105 below).

Calibrator for Selecting Human Characteristics - Student Work - ca. 1963
Figure 13.
Calibrator for Selecting Human Chracteristics. Ca. 1963. Student work from Ealing College of Art, London.

Ascott's pedagogy threw into question a student's preconceptions about his or her personality and strengths and weaknesses as an artist, as well as about the nature of art itself. Students were actively encouraged to mature through the experimental adoption of different behavioral characteristics and a rethinking of art-making and art as process and system. Students created aleatory devices, such as the Calibrator for Selecting Human Charactmstics, in order to determine behavioral alterations in a random but systematic manner. Because their individual behaviors had to be integrated into a coherent group process, all members would have to be "interdependent and highly conscious of each other's capabilities and limitations" in order to accomplish together the "goal of producing .. . an ordered entity" (page 106 below). In one exercise, Peter Townshend (who later founded the rock band The Who) was restricted to transporting himself about the school on a trolley. He and the other members of his group had to compensate for one another's abilities and disabilities in order to make the collective function as an integrated organism. In this way, students learned about the principles of cybernetics as applied to art through their own behavioral interactions in a cybernetic art system in which the controlled exchange of information organized the overall structure.

In Ascott's "Ground Course" (the first-year curriculum for developing foundational artistic skills), students were introduced to other radical artists and intellectuals in a variety of disciplines. Gustav Metzger's presentation of his theory of "destruction in art" is a powerful example of the influence of Ascott's guest lecture program. Townshend has credited Metzger's theory of autodestructive art with giving him the idea of destroying musical instruments onstage at concert performances by The Who—a performative gesture that visually symbolized the anger of the generation that rebelled against the Vietnam war (Stiles 1987). Stiles has theorized this transference of ideas from Metzger to Townshend as an illustration of the process by which the most advanced and rarified conceptual developments in experimental visual art become assimilated into popular culture. In a similar vein, might not Townshend's experience of immobility in Ascott's cybernetic classroom have inspired the "deaf, dumb, and blind" pinball wizard in his rock opera Tommy? Such migrations of concepts from art to culture and society substantiate Ascott's notion that "art is ... didactic" and that "through culture it informs ... and becomes a force for change in society" (page 98 below).

Between 1964 and 1967, Ascott was head of the Department of Fine Art at Ipswich Civic College in Suffolk. His emphasis on art as behavior and system resulted in a variety of interesting student exercises. One in particular seems to have anticipated the popular parlor game Twister.

Ascott's cybernetic, behavioral art curriculum at Ipswich was as rigorous and challenging as it had been at Ealing. Brian Eno, who was one of his students there and later gained renown as a musician and composer, has provided a firsthand account of his teacher's pedagogical methods and their impact on him:

Student behavioural experiments at Ipswich Civic College, Suffolk, 1965. A precursor to the parlor game Twister? Photos by Roy Beston
Figures 14-15. Student behavioural experiments at Ipswich Civic College, Suffolk, 1965. A precursor to the parlor game Twister? Photos by Roy Beston.
Char Davies, Forest Grid, from Osmose, 1995
One procedure employed by Ascott and his staff was the "mindmap." In this project each student had to invent a game that would test and evaluate the responses of the people who played it. All the students then played all of the games, and the results for each student were compiled in the form of a chart—or mindmap. The mindmap showed how a student tended to behave in the company of other students and how he reacted to novel situations. In the next project each student produced another mindmap for himself that was the exact opposite of the original. For the remainder of the term he had to behave according to this alternative vision of himself. (Eno et al. 1986, 40-41)

Eno notes that w[f ]or everybody concerned this was an extraordinary experience .. . [which] was instrumental in modifying and expanding the range of interaction each student was capable of." He also recounts another educational experiment, later dubbed the "Quadrangle Incident" in w hich the students were locked in the courtyard by the staff: "They said nothing and would not answ er our questions ... for more than an hour. During this time, our mild amusement at this situation changed to uneasiness and then complete perplexity. We all had an idea that we were expected to do something, but none of us knew what." As Eno's biographer Rick Poynor has noted, this "object lesson in 'the tension that arises from being plunged into a novel situation'... would come to assume increasing importance in Eno's ideas about the function of art" (41).

The reputation Ascott gained as a progressive art educator using experimental methods rooted in cybernetics led to a number of distinguished positions, including those of president and chief executive officer of the Ontario College of Art (OCA) in 1971-72. Coincidentally, and ironically, it was there, in Toronto, the hometown of the visionary media theorist Marshal McLuhan, that Ascott encountered the most serious resistance to his cybernetic art pedagogy. The art education curriculum Ascott attempted to implement at the OCA was predicated on many of the ideas he developed at Ealing, and later at Ipswich and at Wolverhampton Polytechnic, where he was head of Painting between 1967 and 1971. Ascott elaborated his art teaching method in his essay "Behaviourist Art and the Cybernetic Vision" and created an innovative curriculum for OCA based on those principles, triangulated in a diagram whose components were information, concept, and structure.

Curriculum diagram, Ontario College of Art, 1972.
Figure 16.
Curriculum diagram, Ontario College of Art, 1972.

The OCA was a beleaguered institution that had "been in constant turmoil" for several years prior to Ascott's appointment. In July 1971, before the revamped curriculum could begin to yield its intended results, tensions were already beginning to mount. An enthusiastic Toronto newspaper headline read, "Revolution at Ontario College of Art." By December, another headline read, "Students and faculty are confused as 'future shock' hits our art college." Ascott ultimately was dismissed in 1972, but his departure met with great resistance, especially on the part of the students. A local art journal reported: "The walls were plastered with posters by the students, 'We want Roy,'''and one student said, "'For the first time we've wakened [j/c] up to the wonder in life.... and Roy did it."21 According to Norman White, an OCA faculty member, Ascott's lasting impact on the school was substantial. Among other influences, he created the innovative Photoelectric Arts Department, where White was still teaching in 1999, and which was still directed by Richard Hill, whom Ascott had appointed during his tenure.22

After leaving the OCA, Ascott became head of the Department of Fine Art at the Minneapolis College of Art & Design (1974-75) and then vice president and academic dean of the College at the San Francisco Art Institute (1975-78). In the 1980s, his pioneering research in telematic art (art projects using computer- mediated telecommunications networks as their medium) led to positions as founding head of the Department of Communications Theory at the University of Applied Arts, Vienna (1985-92), and head of the Field of Interactive Arts at Gwent College, Newport, Wales (1991-94). Ironically, ten years after Ascott's dismissal, the OCA participated as one of the nodes in Ascott's art project "La Plissure du Texte." By the mid 1990s, the World Wide Web had made routine the artistic and multidisciplinary collaborations Ascott had been proposing for decades, validating his initiatives to expand art education curricula in unconventional ways. Indeed, the struggle to balance traditional skills and aesthetic concerns with new techniques, media, and values is one of the most difficult issues now facing art education.

In this regard, perhaps Ascott's greatest accomplishment as an art educator was his founding of the Centre for Advanced Inquiry in the Interactive Arts (CAiiA, echoing "Gaia," or Earth) at the University of Wales, Newport, in 1994. In this program, his cybernetic and telematic aesthetic theories have been applied as an integrated pedagogical method. In the 1995-96 academic year, CAiiA gained accreditation for the world's first Ph.D. program focusing on interactive art—a course of study that has transpired largely online. CAiiA graduates include such internationally renowned artists as Victoria Vesna (U.S., Ph.D. 2000), Bill Seaman (U.S., Ph.D. 1999), Joseph Nechvatal (U.S./France, Ph.D. 1999), Jill Scott (Switzerland/Australia, Ph.D. 1998), and Dew Harrison (U.K., Ph.D. 1998). Other renowned students include Eduardo Kac (Brazil/U.S.), Christa Sommerer (Austria/Japan, Ph.D. 2002), Laurent Mignonneau (France/Japan), Miroslaw Ro- gala (U.S./Poland, Ph.D. 2001), Marcos Novak (U.S.), and Char Davies (Canada). In the 1997-98 academic year, a joint degree program was developed between CAiiA and the Science, Technology and Art Research center (STAR), in the School of Computing, University of Plymouth. The combined research institute has been named CAiiA-STAR. CAiiA-STAR regularly makes presentations on technology and culture to educational and civic institutions internationally, and has organized an annual "Consciousness Reframed" conference since 1997.

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Last updated: Feb 5, 2018.