Analogue: Incidents in the Life of Roy Ascott
Roy Ascott was born in Bath, England in 1934. From 1955–59 he studied under Victor Pasmore and Richard Hamilton at Newcastle University, where he also took art history with Lawrence Gowing and Quentin Bell. After graduating, he began his own distinguished teaching career, in England at Ealing Art College, London and Ipswich Civic College, Suffolk, and as a Professor of Communications Theory at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna; and as Professor of Technoetic Arts at the University of Wales, Newport. He was the President of OCA (Ontario College of Art) for a radical and tempestuous 10 months in 1971 and subsequently was the Vice-President and Dean of the San Francisco Art Institute. He is currently Director of the Planetarium Collegium at the University of Plymouth, England.
Professor Ascott is a pioneer in the field of interactive and telematic art, in which he used online computer networks as an art medium. He has written extensively about cybernetics and published a collection of essays under the title, Telematic Embrace: Visionary Theories of Art, Technology, and Consciousness (University of California Press, 2003). He is also a practicing artist who had major retrospectives in both 2011 at the Plymouth Arts Centre, called “The Syncretic Sense,” and “Syncretic Cybernetics” in 2013 at the 9th Shanghai Biennale. He was in Winnipeg for the opening of “Roy Ascott: The Analogues,” an exhibition of non-digital, non-representational wallworks made between 1963–67, which have not been shown since 1971. The exhibition, curated by Anthony Kiendl and co-presented with Video Pool Media Arts Centre, continues at Plug In ICA through September 27, 2013.
While in Winnipeg Roy Ascott talked about how he became an artist, his life before and during the time he made the “Analogues,” and the attitudes from which they developed.
**Analogic: Incidents in the Life of Roy Ascott **
I remember the works in this show very clearly. I was making what I called “Change Paintings” in London and was playing with ideas of pattern, mould and template. My work was still associated with Constructivism and kinetics. At the time, Lord Snowdon was in the course of doing a book on ’60s artists called Private View (Nelson, 1965) and I got this call saying that he would like to photograph my work, and I said, “No, this is the wrong time because my work is in transition.” Can you believe the arrogance of youth? I was a fool. So yes, I have a very strong memory of making these works. The thing I have absolutely no memory of, however, is how I disposed of them. They were made between 1963–67. I moved around a lot back then—Toronto, London, Minneapolis, San Francisco—and somewhere in there I must have done something with a whole lot of work.
The “Analogues” sat in a barn in Ontario for almost four decades. I had had a show in Guelph, some work was shipped back to England and some was left with a friend of mine from what was then the OCA (Ontario College of Art). I gave him one work, and he put the rest in the barn. I never did anything about them and then he died, sadly, at which time I thought I should move them. Barbara Rauch, who had been working with me in Wales and was now teaching at OCAD University, kindly offered to pick them up and store them. She got them back, dusted them off and there was the most terrible stink. They had been in the barn with vegetables or something and apparently the smell was unbelievable. You couldn’t show them in a gallery. Along the way, Anthony Kiendl from Plug In got to see them, they were cleaned and restored, and now they’re in Winnipeg. When I came into the gallery I couldn’t take my eyes off them; it was as if they belonged to someone else.
The “Change Paintings” came about as a result of working on some very large paintings, which were wholly gestural. I was thinking, if there were a basic gesture to this particular painting, what would it be? What would the gesture be that was at the root of the gestures? Then I would actually paint that gesture, the shape it took, on a small panel in the top lefthand corner of the paintings, which were usually oblong. It was as if to say, this is the seed of this work.
You could see how I would then think, what would happen if I had nothing but seeds? They’d have to be on transparent panels within a framework so that the viewer, now as a participant in the work, could slide them back and forth. Out of that they could build a painting, as it were, in innumerable variations. It was as simple as that. The “Change-Paintings” varied in size but the scale overall was consistent with the works in the gallery.
Shelter, one of the “Analogues,” is about choice; it is the idea of selecting from one set relative to another set (this—and/or/not—that) and while the two little arrows don’t really line up with anything specifically, the piece, analogically, speaks of choice for the viewer.
I was interested in what I call meta-forms. The idea was that one image could be generative of a cluster of meanings—bottle/womb/container/nest-for example. I used templates, moulds, funnels, in the analogue structures as well as the tabletop pieces. That was the idea. So, take the comma shape: it’s about the spiral, which is the start of everything. But the instinctive thing comes in when you play with it; so it’s an unfurling in the womb, and the pause between two parts of a statement. It is so rich. Something about the form is also hugely important to me.
My earliest interest was in theatre. As a young boy, I was acting in British Shakespeare Society productions in Bath, but I realized I actually wanted to be a director. I also wanted a university education, and in those days the obvious one was Bristol, which is one of the top universities. It also had a drama department that used the theatre of the Bristol Old Vic Company. Then something happened. In the sixth form we had an interim art teacher who was probably a student from Corsham Court. To this day I deeply regret I can’t remember his name. Art at school had been the kind of thing where you build a little model house made of the toy bricks you got as a kid, with a mirror for the pond, and then you painted a representation. But along comes this teacher who wants me to do a painting of my journey from home to school. I thought, where would I start? Would I do a drawing of the house, or the school, or the path? He said, “No, let me show you what I mean,” and he rolled out this large scroll of paper, and it wasn’t about places; it was about feelings, about experiences. It was magic and it changed my life. That was the turning point. I would get myself a basic kit, the leather jacket and the black shirt (no need to clean it!), and travel the world. You get the car and this great roll of paper, and you are on the road!
For my national service I had to pretend I wanted to be a pilot to get into Fighter Control. The exam was easy because it largely involved relating angles. Being about aircraft flight paths, it was completely visual. I suddenly found myself doing these wonderful things with radar screens. It was a fascination with technology that remained with me. Unlike now, it was largely curtain radar and you had to carefully interpret the data. At this time, I was stationed in Northumberland and learned that interesting things were happening at the Department of Fine Art at King’s College, Newcastle, with the artist Victor Pasmore. Normally there would have been an entrance exam, but because I was stationed close by the head of the school, Lawrence Gowing, invited me simply to come and meet with him. The only way to get there was to be driven in a staff car. The entrance to the art department was in an enclosed space and so this chauffer-driven limo flying an RAF (Royal Air Force) pennant pulls up and I get out. I had forgotten how it might read and I felt really stupid. I thought I was dead in the water but Gowing didn’t seem to mind. He used his speech impediment with terrifying effect, but his critique was wonderful and he told me I could start that September.
When I was at Newcastle I had to find a dissertation topic and I was concerned to find something that would be substantial. I wasn’t going to write about Pollock or Constructivism, who were my immediate influences, but I was intensely interested in the very late Cézanne. Liliane Brion-Guerry had just published a book called Cézanne et l’expression de l’espace (Flammarion, 1950), to which my response was, “No, it’s _l’expression de temp_s.” This “expression of time” allowed me to look at Henri Bergson, in whom I was very interested. I could take Bergson, some aspects of Degas and the early Muybridge, and bring all that together around Cézanne. Gowing had this superb collection of facsimile watercolours of Cézanne and we would look at them together.
I studied with Richard Hamilton and Victor Pasmore. Victor’s constructivist emphasis was hugely important. For two years as a student I was absolutely involved with building relief works with the theory of Charles Biederman and the visual poetry of Pasmore. The idea of “art as the evolution of visual knowledge” was a current notion. Then, after two years I saw Betty Parsons’s exhibition of Jackson Pollock’s work at the Whitechapel, and I was completely overwhelmed. I went back to Bath and started making these huge paintings. We had crits every so often when the great and good would descend on us, and even though it was the most useful thing in the world, it was initially terrifying. I thought things were going to be especially tricky because my relief work had previously been favourably received by Victor, and suddenly, instead of constructions in Perspex and wood I was bringing these huge gestural paintings to the crit. I thought. what’s going to come of this? But Gowing was terrific. He had recently done a tour of the States and he said, “This is exactly what you’ve been doing previously. It’s still constructed; it is just the other side of the coin.” He got it.
Richard Hamilton had a way of working that was extraordinarily precise, but it was more than that, it was about a precision that was as much semantic as material. I’m not thinking of his famous 1956 pop collage, Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? I have in mind some of the later, more abstract works, where every mark is considered and every surface is meticulous. The other thing that was important was the doorway he opened into the world of Duchamp and associated things. For example, he brought Richard Huelsenbeck, the Dadaist poet, writer and musician to Newcastle. And, of course, in Duchamp’s Large Glass, you get the ultimate refinement of the mark. I was already moving in the direction of Duchamp but to have that personal connection through Richard was remarkable.
So there were these two really important things on my doorstep; the whole constructivist thing, which I thought was absolutely brilliant because it talked about cities and societies as much as about forms and structures and, on the other hand, this intellectually hermetic world of Duchamp. To have two people whose work so richly embodied these quite contradictory aesthetics was enormously stimulating but equally frustrating in terms of resolving the trajectory of my own work. My dilemma was resolved quite by chance in coming across a book by William Ross Ashby called Design for a Brain (J. Wiley, 1952) that introduced me to cybernetics, which I realized, in a flash, could provide an integrative theory of dynamic relationships that could accommodate both aspects of my practice. Cybernetics has been at the core of my practice ever since.
I think it’s important to retain the identity of “artist,” because I realize it gives me access to everything, everyone, everywhere. If you’re a biologist you have to name your specialism and, if it’s not the right kind, there are certain doors you can go through and many others you can’t. If you’re an artist, you can go through any door, you can access any world; you can speculate freely and still claim authority for your work. In almost every other field you can speculate on the way to making your claims, but you can’t simply speculate at the end of the day. So “artist” is an enabling label.
Technology is the product of desire. I think the same is true with statements about art or culture. I’ve spent my life making assertions about future developments in the arts, which were simply things that I desired to become the case and, curiously, that’s how they got to be. So my predictive essays are based on what I desired: I’ve said that’s how it’s going to be; and it turns out that way! But my greatest interest has always been in consciousness and, of course, that is the great mystery, and something about which predictions cannot be made, but about which I feel totally free to speculate.