For five decades, British artist Roy Ascott has been at the vanguard of interactive digital art. From his writings on cybernetic theory in the early 1960s to his groundbreaking forays into online networks in the late 1970s to his recent “technoetic” research work with the pan-disciplinary Planetary Collegium, Ascott’s practice has been defined by a correspondence of cutting-edge technology, new media theory and the immaterial principles of conceptual art. And he has the exhibition track record to show for it, including the Venice Biennale (1986), Ars Electronica (1989), Shanghai Biennale (2012), and other high-profile venues worldwide.
Ascott’s often prescient take on the impact of virtual networks on real-life identity has made its mark on institutional approaches to new media as well. Over the years, he’s held advisory and teaching positions at a number of international organizations (UNESCO among them) and art schools—including a brief and controversial stint as president of the Ontario College of Art in 1971.
This summer, Ascott returns to Canada with “The Analogues,” a selection of “lost” wall-works produced in the heyday of early cybernetic theory and currently on view at Plug In ICA in Winnipeg. Earlier this spring, Bryne McLaughlin spoke with Plug In director and exhibition curator Anthony Kiendl to get the inside story on Ascott’s radical pedagogy, his contentious connections to Canada and how his work in “The Analogues” ended up in a shed outside of Toronto for 40 years.
Bryne McLaughlin: Roy Ascott is a well-known figure in the world of new media art and theory, but for those of us who don’t know better, let’s start with the basics: Who is Roy Ascott?
Anthony Kiendl: He’s a senior English artist, quite well known, especially in new-media art circles, but I was interested in his Canadian connection having been president of the Ontario College of Art in 1971 for about 10 months.
BM: In the press material, you’ve written that Ascott’s time at OCA was rather contentious. What were the circumstances around that?
AK: Well, he came to Toronto after having played a leading role in two art colleges in England: Ealing Art College in London and then Ipswich Civic College in Suffolk. He implemented something that was fairly radical at the time, what he called the “Groundcourse.” You can see some antecedents for it in what had happened at the Bauhaus, especially the idea of a foundation course.
But what he was really interested in was the discourse that was emerging at that time around cybernetics, computer-human interaction and behaviourist psychology. He saw his Groundcourse as a way to prepare students to think as artists. He wrote about how he saw students coming into art school with very conventional notions and with interests limited to painting. The kind of things that he would have students do is to work together in groups where they would actually have to adopt distinct personalities, generally in conflict with their habitual way of being. So if someone was very shy they had to be very outgoing, and if someone was afraid of power tools, they were put in charge of them. It was really about creating a radical awareness of oneself by adopting for short periods of time a different way of being in the world.
For example, in England he had taught a few now well-known people, like Brian Eno and Pete Townshend. One of Townshend’s assignments was that for two weeks he had to move around on a cart on wheels; he couldn’t walk in the school. So it wasn’t about how you used a paintbrush. It was really focused on these experimental ways of changing your view of the world.
Roy was also a student of Richard Hamilton and Victor Pasmore. I think because of that he was in the right time and place to develop this unconventional approach, having been uniquely taught by one of the progenitors of British Pop art and one of the early Conceptual artists.
So he was hired at the Ontario College of Art and he came in with a plan that broke down departmental boundaries. He eliminated painting and sculpture, and he redid the school’s approach to pedagogy to look more at structure and communication. For him, professors were a data bank of ideas and all of the students could go to those primary sources for direction rather than be specifically filed into sculpture or ceramics. He also released a 33-⅓ RPM record as the curriculum.
Anyway, he had this plan; it was very fast and probably not diplomatic or gentle. I guess it created controversy at the college, and he basically lasted 10 months before he was forced to leave.
BM: Where did you come across Ascott’s work and how did it develop into the exhibition at Plug In?
AK: Yes, so, all of that said about his teaching, the first reason I was interested in putting together the show was because of the ideas he went on to develop around telecommunications. He did one of the very first online art projects in 1980. That was before the Internet but there was ARPANET for the universities. He’s also done virtual environments and a lot of writing and thinking about art and electronically mediated networks.
In light of the recent educational turn in art and artists, and being interested myself in schools and pedagogy, I also thought it would be really fascinating to look back at what he did as an artist and teacher, especially in a Canadian context. He had a survey show at Space Gallery in London a couple of years ago, which I saw. So the first contact I had with him was about bringing that exhibition back to Canada.
But then he said, you know there are actually these eight works in storage in Toronto and they haven’t been seen for 40 years. When I saw them, I was really excited because they’re not at all like what we know of as his contemporary work. They’re kind of like large, abstract-shaped canvases. But at the same time, they’re not at all separate from his subsequent work, because his writing and thinking in them is about ideas of viewer engagement and the location of body in space…it really is a completely logical precursor to his later new-media work. Some of these works are titled after Norbert Wiener and other legendary cybernetic guys. They were all made around the same time as Roy was reading the original computer theory books right as they came out in the early 1960s.
BM: So this was work he had produced before coming to Canada?
AK: Yes. He actually produced the works in England and brought them over to Canada. He showed them only once in Canada, at the University of Guelph in 1971 or ’72. Then they went into this guy’s storage shed. And then Ascott left Canada.
After OCA, he was appointed dean and vice-president at the San Francisco Art Institute. He spent several years there in the late 1970s, and his interest in cybernetics and telepresence suited the context of nearby Silicon Valley, the emergent personal computer revolution, and interestingly, Bay-area characters who shared Ascott’s interest in the paranormal.
You see, Ascott’s work may be described as a yearning towards extra-perceptual or out of body experiences—whether they are paranormal or psychic. While his work has been received by those interested in the virtual realm—as in computers— I would say he is equally absorbed by all kinds of “alternative” states of consciousness, including those induced by brain chemistry, psychotropic drugs, alien encounters or paranormal phenomena. He noted that the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind had just come out, and it was in San Francisco that he had an epiphanic experience of figuring out who he was and what he was searching for. He cites the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, who created heteronyms (alternate characters a step beyond noms de plumes), as a further source of inspiration.
What’s interesting, too, is that I keep running into people here with their own connections to Ascott. Bernie Miller was a student at OCA when Roy was working on all of this stuff. I just ran into another artist, John Armstrong, and he was telling me, “Yeah, I met Roy when I was at art school in England in the 1970s.” And I saw Garry Neill Kennedy and he said, “We were presidents at the same time and I remember Roy. Roy had a plan and at NSCAD we didn’t, we just followed art. But Roy had this structure that he implemented.” And I thought, well, that’s interesting. All of this talk about art schools and Garry’s recent book The Last Art College…it just seemed like the time was right. It’s really interesting that we found these works that no one knew about except a couple of his old colleagues from OCA in the 1970s.
BM: Is there any story behind you getting your hands on the works, stored as they were in a shed?
AK: For the last few years, they’ve been in the basement of an OCADU prof, Barbara Rauch. There was another sculpture professor at OCA when Roy was there, and when Roy left he put them in a shed or a barn just outside of Toronto, where they stayed for 35 years. They’re small but very significant to his subsequent works and career.
On the level of painting and formal aesthetic, I see young artists doing this kind of work now. I did studio visits with graduate students at Concordia earlier this year and I could see that they would be really interested in the way his work looks today. There are all of these different connections. He’s in his late 70s and he just had a retrospective at the Shanghai Biennale last year. So he’s done well, but I kind of like reconnecting him to Canada.
BM: What is Ascott’s perspective on this particular series of works? Did he explain to you how he feels about them now?
AK: He seems quite pleased to show them. He doesn’t want a ton of conservation work done to make them look brand new. He thinks they are of a time. But he considers them a very important part of his practice and essential precursors, or even the beginning stage, of that movement toward a radical new-media practice. He went on to show at the Venice Biennale and did some pretty influential online artworks, some early Fluxus stuff, too.
BM: It’s interesting to consider Ascott’s work and thinking, not to mention his tenure in Toronto, in the context of OCADU today and the school’s emphasis on new media–based practices and careers. It’s telling to think about where the Ascott model for a future art school matches up, and where it doesn’t.
AK: Yes. Roy also wrote some really interesting things at that time in the late 1960s and early 1970s about pedagogy and art schools. Some of it seems kind of simple, but I think it really was prescient. He wrote that colleges won’t be based on brick-and-mortar structures and that they’ll be renting office spaces all over downtown. If you look at somewhere like Concordia, that’s really true, there are departments spread all over the city. Maybe Ryerson is a bit like that, too. And he describes temporary contracts and the importance of travel for faculty and students so that they’re not based in one geographical location. Everything is dispersed, temporary and in flux. So I think there is a connection with OCADU and other schools. It’s really consistent, for better or worse, with what’s happening there now.
This interview has been edited and condensed.