Planetary Technoetics : art, technology and consciousness
  Séminaire du 28 novembre 2001


Intervenant : Roy ASCOTT, Fondateur et directeur de CAIIA-STAR



A fully differentiated interactive art praxctice

The cultural shift

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Roy ASCOTT, Fondateur et directeur de CAiiA-STAR (Centre de recherche avancée dans les Arts Interactifs) à l'Université de Wales, Collège de Newport, et du Centre de Recherche en Art et Technologie (STAR) à l'Ecole d'informatique de l'Université de Plymouth, où il enseigne " l'art technoetic".
Professeur associé au Département Art des Médias à l'Ecole d' Arts et d' Architecture de l'Université de Californie, à Los Angeles.

Traduit de l’anglais par
Madeleine AkTyPI



Our best destiny, as planetary cohabitants, is the development of what has been called "species consciousness" - something over and above nationalisms, blocs, religions, ethnicities,. During this week of incredulous misery, I have been trying to apply such a consciousness, and such a sensibility. Thinking of the victims, of the perpetrators, and of the near future, I felt species grief, then species shame, then species fear. Martin Amis. London: The Guardian Newspaper. 18 September 01

Amis is calling for a planetary perspective to be taken on the dreadful events of September 11th , and the way that subsequently justice might be served. In this paper I would like to look at the question of planetary consciousness, to see how that relates to our practices as artists and designers, to review the new media that is emerging, to consider the strategies of bottom up design that it entails, and to anticipate some near future scenarios, while at the same time contributing in some good sense to this troubled present. Before I do this, I think it may be useful to outline briefly the perspective from which I am viewing these issues, by setting out the principal features of my field of practice, and the markers by which it is distinguished from the past. Interactive art is conceptually led and technologically assisted. It employs telematic media and computational systems, and works towards the convergence of technology and biology into what I forsee as the 21st century substrate for art – moistmedia – the integration of silicon dry computer systems and wet living biology. I shall describe later more fully the extent and implications for art of moistmedia. But first let me outline the five-fold path which, as I see it, can lead to to a fully differentiated interactive art praxctice:



A fully differentiated interactive art praxctice

This five-fold path involves


The cultural shift

The cultural shift that this new approach to art entails, and which to some minds constitutes a rupture from past practice, can be summarized as follows.

tunnel vision
bird's eye view
ground pattern
artificial life
observed reality
constructed reality
autonomous brain
distributed mind
behaviour of forms
forms of behaviour



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Before examining more deeply developments in interactive art, let me return briefly to the events of 9-11. In order to address the issue, I would like first, out of respect for the many thousands of Americans who have suffered unbearable sorrow and grief, to make a sober reference to what might be called counter-interactivity. For that surely is at the centre , and in large part the cause, of the massacre of Tuesday 11th September. Terror as the medium of a design-build strategy of planetary dimensions; a top-down design, a blueprint sanctioned , in the minds of pathologically deranged zealots, by the great architect in the sky, or what they see as his authorized agent on earth. In fact what we see is the conflict of two world designs, fundamentally opposed to interaction between each other, two separate realities, unable to fuse, resistant to dialogue. There has been in different measure, violence and cruelty perpetrated over many decades on both sides. Unless wisdom prevails, it will lead to even more horrific events. How conceivably could the work of artists as artists - i.e. not pamphleteers, aestheticised social workers or political pundits, remotely be expected to contribute to the kind of process of reconciliation, mutual respect and understanding, that these mixed realities must attain?

What is being designed by terror? Or more to the point how is the world being re-designed by terror? Simply put, it is in the way that design always operates – by the creation and manipulation (or erasure) of symbols, of powerful metaphors. In the case of the twin towers the symbol was created by us. Its erasure was the object of the terror. Our response, I believe, must be a matter of fighting metaphor with metaphor. What was attacked on Tuesday 11th.were what the terrorists and their supporters saw as overpoweringly massive metaphors of strength and domination. This is not to ignore the chilling reality of their grotesque slaughter of the innocent, but the symbolic significance to the terrorists of the destruction of these prominent metaphors is all too evident. We as artists are metaphor makers before we are anything else. I’m talking here of course about metaphor in its most potent sense: structural metaphor, behavioural metaphor, spiritual metaphor. We create metaphor, we critique metaphor, we are always on our guard, as Richard Rorty has wisely reminded us, against those metaphors which have outlived their shelf life and are in danger of ossifying as truths. His pragmatic treatise on Contingency Irony and Solidarity remains a valuable instruction for the media artist just as it continues to show how relativistic postmodernism can be constructively rerouted from the negativity and pessimism which dimmed the creativity of so many of its adherents. It was Nietzsche who first explicitly suggested we drop the whole idea of ‘knowing the truth’. His definition of truth as a “mobile army of metaphors” amounted to saying that the whole idea of ‘representing reality” by means of language, and thus the idea of finding a single context for all human lives, should be abandoned. Such thoughts help describe the context in which the more significant (i.e. non-ornamental) digital art can be produced. There are many takes on reality, many ways of finding their expression. But where hitherto art has been the servant of such expression, it is now more engaged in the process of creating reality, of constructing worlds, and in a sense legitimising all our own alternative realities. In this way art is an agency of Becoming... a constructive, more than expressive or decorative, process. The artist is ready to call upon any system, organic or technological, which enables that process to develop. For the same reason he must be prepared to look anywhere, into any discipline, scientific or spiritual, any view of the world, however banal or arcane, any culture, immediate or distant, in order to find those processes which engender this becoming. In my own work for example, cybernetics and shamanism, can happily co-exist in this multidimensional domain of knowledge and its associative structures. This calls for a general disposition of optimism, what describe as "telenoia" (the celebration of connectivity and open-ended collaboration) to replace the "paranoia", the anxiety, the alienation and loneliness of the old industrial and materialist age.

Such ambition redefines the work of the artist and gives it also relevance in the political context. It replaces the historical sense of the artist’s role as an “honourable calling” with the idea of such work as a “transformative vocation” - a concept which is central to the theory of society of Roberto Unger, the Brazilian thinker and Harvard Professor of Law. His programme for social reconstruction constitutes a radical alternative to Marxism on the one hand and “social democracy” on the other. He shows how, against the idea of work as purely instrumental or as an honourable calling, a third idea of work has appeared in the world. “It connects self-fulfilment and transformation: the change of any aspect of the practical or imaginative settings of the individual’s life. To be fully a person, in this conception, you must engage in a struggle against the defects of the limits of existing society or available knowledge”. (Politics: the Central Texts, Theory against Fate. London: Verso. 1997).

Let us consider then the value of the idea of Planetary consciousness. Questions of consciousness have an important place in the agenda of art and technology and in the formation of the post-biological culture to which we are contributing. There is no time to trace the history of its course through the art of the last century: enough perhaps to point to the work of Kandinsky, Boccioni, Duchamp for whom issues of consciousness, mind and spirit were predominant . Consciousness is the great mysterium that entices artists and scientists alike to enter its domain. It is the ultimate frontier of research in many fields, and probably only a truly trans-disciplinary approach will allow us to close the explanatory gap, or, in our terms as artists, to navigate its many levels , to reframe our perceptions and experience. It is within consciousness that our imagination is at work, and it is in imagination that we first mix the realities of the actual and the virtual.

Where consciousness evolves at the planetary level, a new sensibility arises, a new way of valuing ourselves, our attitudes, and actions. It has begun to arise from our understanding of the dynamics of living processes, the flux and flow of nature, the transformative continuum of energies at both quantum and cosmic levels, which condition both our material states and our sense of being. Computer assisted technologies have allowed us to look deeper into matter and out into space, to recognise meaningful patterns, rhythms, cycles, correspondences, interrelationships and dependencies at all levels. Computational systems have led us to a better understanding of how design might be an emergent process, replacing the old top-down approach with a bottom-up methodology. Telematic systems have enabled us to distribute ourselves over multiple locations, to multiply our identity, to extend our reach over formidable distances with formidable speed. We have learned that everything is connected, and we are busy in the technological process of connecting everything. But we forget, all too frequently, that connectivity must be truly ubiquitous and comprehensive if it is to be consistent and humane, and to maintain its ubiquity it must be cared for and protected, a rule that applies of course not simply to telematic networks and communication systems but must be extended generously to our fellow human beings. Our decision collectively to forget or ignore so many people and cultures in the world , in many cases actively to impede their communication, to silence their voices, often through sheer indifference as much as greed or malice, plays a large part in the situation we find ourselves in today.

Where in recent history did the notion of planetary consciousness and species consciousness come from? Certainly Marx used it in Private Property and Communism back in1844, and more recently its currency has been renewed by New Age writers of varying complexion, from the so-called info-mystics to more orthodox scientists such as the Pittsburgh physicist Oliver Reiser with his Psi-field of 1966. Peter Russell in The Awakening Earth 1982 made the case for its emergence out of our telecommunications complexity. We have seen other terms appear in this context. Pierre Levy in 1994 published L'Intelligence Collective, and Derrick de Kerckhove, a tireless advocate of McLuhan’s global village, published Connected Intelligence in 1997. Aldous Huxley talked of Mind-at-large In the Doors of Perception, 1954, as did Gregory Bateson, in Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972) . De Chardin’s Noosphere provided a more fully spiritual dimension. And of course no one can forget Buckminster Fuller’s planetary vision.

For my part, I proposed a Cybernetic Art Matrix in Behaviourist art and the cybernetic vision in 1964 which saw in worldwide communication a necessary conduit for art as it became increasingly process-based, fluid and transformational. At the end of the seventies the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, gave me money, astonishingly, to stage the first international telematic art project, Terminal Art, linking artists in two continents. At the same time Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz created their historic Hole in Space, a real time communication satellite hook up between people on the street in New York, and those in LA. The planetary implications were clear. La Plissure du Texte: a planetary Fairy Tale was the title of the project I created for Frank Popper’s Electra at the Musée d’art moderne in Paris 1983. Here artists at 14 nodes around the world took on the identity of fairy tale personae, and across the networks created a non linear narrative. The planetary perspective was celebrated in Planetary Network: Laboratory UBIQUA (Venice Biennale) 1984 which I organised as an International Commissioner along with Don Foresta, and Tom Sherman. I put a more mixed reality technology at work in Aspects of Gaia: digital pathways across the whole earth (Linz)1989. I first introduced the concept of the hypercortex and the global mind in 1991 at Art Futura in Madrid, and at FAUST in Toulouse the same year.

Enough of history; although I consider it important to show that planetary consciousness as an ideal, as a dream, has been with us for a long time. But now I believe we must work towards its real emergence as a matter of necessity. Networking supports and promotes intimacy, and as the technology of empathy, can provide the conditions for love and compassion. In this context, I find it interesting that my text of 1991, Is there love in the telematic embrace? is consulted quite widely on American campuses and further afield. In my view, to bring together telematic media with Mixed Reality technology is an important next step, as much for the powerful metaphor it will provide as for the content that users might generate through the contexts that artists will provide .

Planetary consciousness needs more than the expansive drive of telematic networks however. A sensibility to cultures which lie outside the Western paradigm is essential, and here, despite the obvious reference to Islamic cultures (and I use the plural with grave emphasis), which clearly we need to approach and understand more intimately, I refer to the “exotic” and largely ignored indigenous cultures of South America, and Australia. . Here is knowledge of a kind we too often ignore or despise with a kind of techno-aristocratic sneer ( containing perhaps as much fear as hubris) . And here too a mixed reality obtains, where “ordinary” perceptions, ordinary reality, ordinary state of being are crossed by, converge with, are entwined within, non-ordinary states of awareness and non local states of consciousness. As in the West, a technology is instrumental here in producing the condition of Mixed Reality: but it is Plant Technology rather than digital technology at work. And make no mistake, the technological skills, methodologies and instrumentality of the shaman - healer, mystic and man of knowledge (or woman of knowledge as it is in Korea today and always was largely throughout the Northern Hemisphere) - constituting what we what we would classify as pharmacology, botany, biology, and psychology - amount to a knowledge base certainly as extensive and complex as what is prized in western science.. As is the case with the advanced tools of the West, the shaman’s two realities mix on the plane of imagination, their convergence offering the potential of new ways of being, perceiving and behaving . My feeling is that we can learn from these cultures in ways that will bring Mixed Reality technology into our lives as environment, rather than merely a tool, however efficacious or profitable that tool , in surgery, engineering , architecture or entertainment might be.. Indeed we have much to learn from these cultures in the widest and deepest sense, not least in how we shall manage the condition of double consciousness, multiple identity, and mixed reality. The tools are different of course - in one case taken from nature, in the other brought to our post-biological world, a condition in which technology has assimilated and, in some cases, replaced natural process.

Tuesday 11 September 2001: a day of the utmost horror and barbarism. While it is clear that life will never be the same again for any of us, and may be far shorter than we might have expected, we need as artists and as citizens to reflect carefully one the dynamics of the situation we are facing, and to seek for wisdom in the guidance of our response and future actions. In the light of the omnipresent terror, meaning can quickly escape from peoples lives. Our job as artists is not to provide meaning but to offer creative contexts in which new meaning can be built and from which new meaning might emerge.

My feeling is that the cannon of digital art, our aesthetic values and aspirations, may offer a useful model to civil society confronted with terrorism from within and without its boundaries. Ours is an art which is dialogical . I have alluded to the cannon of Connectivity, Immersion, Interaction, Transformation and Emergence. Meaning is created out of interaction, and dialogue can transform attitudes and behaviors. It is as if art, media art, must more clearly highlight its aesthetic uniqueness, and must fully communicate its values more widely to the world. For these principles wisely applied could enable a more integrated and coherent world politic to emerge. Make no mistake. I am not arguing that art can effect these changes directly. Art of whatever complexion always works, and is allowed by society to work, on the symbolic level, through its construction of powerful models and metaphors. It can ebable us to navigate new reaches of consciousness. In interaction with the viewer, the artist enables new meaning and new experience to emerge, creating paradigms of perception or construction which may then effect events or aspirations in the social, political or industrial world. But the relationship is indirect. It is this indirectness which protects the artist and permits our dreams and visions to have currency and survive.

Mixed Reality will constitute the hub around which I would like to frame this discussion of a technoetic awareness, and my description of the steps that might be taken, in the frame of art and research, to cultivate the hypercortex, enabling a planetary consciousness, a species consciousness to fruitfully emerge.

The emergence of Mixed Reality technology marks a further step in our quest to control our own evolution, to redefine what it is to be human, and to become actively responsible for the construction of our own realities. It is this quest which distinguishes us from past generations imprisoned in superstition or in thrall to scientific determinism .

Mixed Reality, in its convergence of events in actual and virtual space, parallels the convergence in the material world of nano structures and living systems. It provides a metaphor for the convergence of cultures, that we do desperately need. We need to be able to live in mixed realities, mixed ethnicities, mixed cultures with the ability seamlessly to shift focus , while comprehensively grasping the planetary whole. In its strictly technological form Mixed Reality is in many ways a rehearsal for the truly enormous changes that lie ahead as the dry digital technologies converge, with the biologically wet, producing what I call moistmedia.

Moistmedia arises from the convergence of Bits Atoms Neurones and Genes: the “Big B.A.N.G.” of our post-biological universe. As examples, think of Osaka’s nano-bull, (a three-dimensional model bull just 10 micrometres long - about the size of a red blood cell), Roslin Institute’s lamb called Dolly , Kac’s Alba the florescent Rabbit , Robokoneko, Starlab’s kitten, or Steve Grand’s robot baby orangutan, Lucy. Relevant here too is the work of Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr of Tissue Culture Art in Perth, Australia, and Ulrike Gabriel of Berlin. They are the harbingers of the re-materialisation of a culture which earlier we thought would be totally immaterial and virtual. It’s a matter of “bye-bye Baudrillard”. Also, we might add that, at the level of Hollywood, and its influence on popular consciousness, the movie AI should not be ignored, with its rubric: “his love is real but he is not”.

The aesthetic, as well as pragmatic, value of Mixed Reality technology should not however disguise the fact that what is commonly regarded as “unmediated” and “directly apprehended” reality is as much a construction as the virtual reality with which it becomes technologically fused.

If we see the tools of Mixed Reality technology as an extension of our own organic systems of perception and cognition (together constituting an emergent faculty of cyberception), we can more readily understand the whole flow of events in this domain as primarily technoetic.

Overall, we can foresee the development of a quite radical Mixed Reality which will be made up of three essential parts, which can be called the Three VRs:

Validated Reality involving reactive, mechanical technology in a prosaic, Newtonian world.
Virtual Reality involving interactive, digital technology in a telematic, immersive world.
Vegetal Reality involving psychoactive plant technology in an entheogenic, spiritual world.

Vegetal Reality ?! The question will be asked: what meaningful relationship can there possibly be between the spiritual practices in the rain forest and the materialism of silicon valley or the labs of molecular biology.? The link may lie in the area of DNA research. Jeremy Narby, in his book Cosmic Serpent : DNA and the Origins of Knowledge , suggests that the shaman’s visions come from communicating with his own DNA, We have to remember that we do not know why most of our DNA is there. A mere 3% accounts for the whole diversity of life. Narby thinks the shamans information comes from the mysterious junk DNA, the 97% we don’t account for. DNA in one cell exchanges signals with the DNA in other cells. Narby suggests that once someone taps into their own DNA, it can then communicate across organisms, across species - even across the boundary between animal and plant - and that the totality of all the DNA in the world forms a kind of matrix. This is another way of coming upon planetary consciousness. This transmission of signals between DNA in separate cells is effected by the emission of photons, the signals are in the form of light, and at a wavelength visible to humans.

Narby’s working hypothesis is that shamans can take their consciousness down to the molecular level and gain access to information related to DNA, which in their terms are "animate essences" or "spirits." He writes: “Here they see double helixes, twisted ladders, and chromosome shapes. In this way shamanic cultures have known for millennia that the vital principle is the same for all living beings and is shaped like two entwined serpents (or a vine, a rope, a ladder ... ). DNA is the source of their botanical and medicinal knowledge, which can be attained only in defocalized and "nonrational" states of consciousness, though its results are empirically verifiable. The myths of these cultures are filled with biological imagery. And the shamans’ metaphoric explanations correspond quite precisely to the descriptions that biologists are starting to provide”.

Before we dismiss critically these ideas as “merely metaphorical” ie not real genetic or biological science we should remember perhaps that the war of interpretation in quantum physics was won with metaphor by Neils Bohr and his Copenhagen School, as Mara Beller of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has shown in her recent book Quantum Dialogue; the making of a revolution . Just as she argues for dialogical discourse rather than paradigmatic dogma within science, so I think we should attempt to build a dialogic discourse between western science and native bodies of knowledge.

It could well be then that DNA’s highly coherent photon emission accounts for the luminescence of the shaman‘s hallucinatory images, as well as their three-dimensional, or holographic, aspect. On the basis of this connection, Narby conceived of a neurological mechanism for his hypothesis. The molecules of nicotine or di-methyl-tryptamine, contained in ayahuasca , the psychoactive brew of choice of most south American healers, activate their respective receptors, which set off a cascade of electrochemical reactions inside the neurons, leading to the stimulation of DNA and, more particularly, to its emission of visible waves, which shamans perceive as "hallucinations." There, he concluded, is the source of knowledge: DNA, living in water and emitting photons, like an aquatic dragon spitting fire.

I think it is worth reciting this account of Narby’s work because it amplifies the intuition that there is much to be gained in both biological sciences and the arts from research which seeks correspondences and collaborations between the two technologies of machines and plants, within the natrificial space of the Three VRs, virtual, validated and vegetal. Indeed it can be argued that the whole ecological movement could gain if a constructive dialogue with technology would be instituted which tried to see the deep correspondences between western science and archaic knowledge. The problem is not with science but with the rejection of science at its leading edge in favour of the old scientific paradigm, that very paradigm which refuses the spiritual implications of quantum physics, for example, or the very intelligence of plants, so to speak, that molecular biology might reveal.

In this talk I have tried to indicate some of the many issues that call for research and reflection, innovative practice, and theoretical elucidation, if new media art is to mature and take its place in the world. If potent images, environments, systems and structures are to be constructed which can challenge the constraining orthodoxies of thought and behaviour, now increasingly supported by violence, whether overtly fundamentalist or covertly repressive of our liberties, and not only from without but increasingly within civil society, new conditions for creative practice, transdisciplinary research, critical interaction, and collaborative effort must be established and maintained. The orthodoxy of universities and art academies more or less inhibits, if it does not expressly outlaw, this very transdisciplinarity. New instruments, and organisms of learning and production are quite urgently needed. I would like to move to the second part of this presentation by referring you to you one attempt to address this need, my research center CAiiA-STAR, which, while it is currently located within the university framework, is to be seen as a prototype node or hub of an emergent Planetary Collegium. I shall present this material in the form of the two appendices which follow hereafter. ©Roy Ascott 2001

Appendix 1. CAiiA-STAR
Appendix 2. Planetary Collegium