…(originally coined by Simon Nora and Alain Minc in 1978 as a technical term) was first used in the theorization of an art form, which celebrates the marriage between art and technology, by Roy Ascott in early 1980s. Following Nora and Minc’s concerns over decentralization of decision-making mechanisms, Ascott had been drawing from “a central tendency of 20th century experimental art to make the viewer an increasingly active agent in aesthetic exchanges.” He was, since his explorations in the context of interactive art and art education around 1960s, overtly influenced by cybernetic theory, which introduced a methodology for thinking about the relationships amongst the various interrelated elements of a system, concentrating on the regulation of these elements in order to control the outcome of the system. Primary to the management of the system was the ability for each element to offer feedback about its own status to the other elements of the whole. In this way, the elements could communicate with each other and provide information that would enable the regulation of the system as a whole in order to maintain homeostasis.
Ascott’s was an attempt to theorize art “as part of an integrated process in which thought and action were interconnected components of an inter-responsive system, fundamental to which is consciousness.” This was followed by the observable effects of second-order cybernetics, which focused on the influence of observers and instruments on experimental phenomena, on his thinking (especially apparent in his notion of “participatory universe,” and his conception of art as a participatory process defined by behavioral relationships between the artist, observer and the environment—as opposed to an understanding of art as a discrete object or event). Making use of computer’s capacity to enable non-local creative interaction between remote participators, his later projects were anticipatory of the creation of the Internet, PCs, and GUIs in their reinforcement of the idea of global telematic interconnectivity:
[A]rt itself becomes not a discrete set of entities, but rather a web of relationships between ideas and images in constant flux, to which no single authorship is attributable and whose meanings depend on the active participation of whoever enters the network… [T]here is no center, or hierarchy, no top nor bottom… To engage in telematic communication is to be at once everywhere and nowhere. In this, it is subversive. It subverts the idea of authorship bound up within the solitary individual. It subverts the idea of individual ownership of the works of imagination. It replaces the bricks and mortar of institutions of culture and learning with an invisible college and a floating museum the reach of which is always expanding to include new possibilities of mind and new intimations of reality.
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It was Paul Sermon, who took Ascott’s ideas into further realms, refining them throughout a series of installation works that centralize the idea of telematics since the beginning of 1990s: “Telematic Dreaming” in 1992, “Telematic Séance” in 1993, “Telematic Vision” in 1994, “The Tables Turned—A Telematic Scene on the Same Subject” in 1997, and “Telematic Encounter” in 1999. “All these works,” in Sermon’s own words, “embody open systems of interaction, involving two or more remote locations and participants, linked together via computer data networks, developing and exchanging content through participation and involvement through complex interface environments/installations.” Consequently, it is his shared belief that the marriage of the terms “tele” and “informatics” (telematics) most significantly signals the possibility of being in more than one place at one time (telepresence) as an ultimate system of teleportation.
The following, which reveals quite openly the influence of Ascott’s ideas on his work, is a few excerpts from a private interview with Sermon himself over “Telematic Dreaming”:
Paul, how does “Telematic Dreaming” exactly function and what’s the kick of the project in your opinion?
“Telematic Dreaming” functions like a mirror that reflects your image within another person’s reality. The basic technical system consists of a camera situated above a queen-size bed. The camera receives an overhead view of the bed, which is fortunately of equal ratio to that of video format. The image of the bed, and someone lying on it, is sent via ISDN lines and teleconferencing systems to a video projector situated above another bed in a geographically distant location. The live image is projected down on to the bed, and so with it the live, life-size image of the person. Another video camera situated next to the video projector sends an image of the projection, and the second person lying on the bed under the projection, back to the first bed. “Telematic Dreaming” raises and addresses many questions, but above all, it is the question of consciousness that interests me most. The visual image of the bodily form on a bed allows the user’s consciousness to race back and forth between the cause and effect of their remote and local body form. It is a means of extending consciousness through a technological extension of the body.
How important is the role of the spectator?
The spectator or user is central to the installation. Without them the bed is an empty space of potential. When entering the bed space the user becomes the voyeur of [his/her] own spectacle.
Present/Absent—the bodies “meet” somewhere in the digital network. Does “Telematic Dreaming” create a new relationship with the body?
The bodily form encapsulates our consciousness. I believe it is possible to extend our consciousness beyond it, as in a telephone conversation or email message, but we are a long way off the conception of it. The bodily form as a signifier is still necessary to identify and locate our consciousness at a distance. Therefore I am not concerned with escaping my form but rather to look back and observe it at a distance from the outside.
Touching as looking, looking as touching—what does this concentration on one sense mean to you?
The human senses are as malleable as is the language that defines them. All sensory input definitions are a construct of language, which itself constructs our reality. Just because language dictates that we touch with our hands and see with our eyes doesn’t mean that’s all. It’s absolutely conceivable that we can also see with our hands and touch with our eyes in just the same way. It’s a matter of manipulation and definition.
For further information on Paul Sermon’s work, please refer to “Telematic Connections: Reach Out and Touch the Telereal” at http://telematic.walkerart.org/index.html.