Roy Ascott: The Syncretic Sense

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Courtesy the artist
Roy Ascott, Plastic Transactions, 1971

Against the backdrop of documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis’s current BBC TV series exploring our increasingly complex relationship to computers (‘All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace’), this retrospective of the ongoing 50-year career of experimental artist and teacher Roy Ascott is more than timely. Since the 1960s Ascott has been pioneering an interactive theory of art based on ideas of cybernetic systems of communication and participation, known as telematic art. The importance he gave to theory, text and diagrams not only pre-figures early conceptual art but also chimes with a current trend for ‘visual’ art which is predominantly text based.

As might be expected this show is accompanied by a fair amount of its own contextualising text but there are plenty of visual things to contemplate too, such as Ascott’s ‘Change Paintings’ comprised of framed layers of overlapping painted sliding glass panels which can be moved about to alter the work; paintings on wooden panels representing left-brain and right-brain processes and a college course curriculum in the form of beautifully screen-printed diagrams. There’s also plenty of archive and documentary material in the form of booklets, photographs, video and computer printouts.

Ascott’s ideas also incorporate a move away from a notion of art as the perfect ‘object’, but somewhat perversely there’s an undoubted visual appeal to many of the objects here, based on the nostalgic effect of fading colour paper, old print processes and the imperfection of texts produced on a manual typewriter. Perhaps that’s also a timely reminder that analytical systems and structures are all well and good but you can’t map the emotional unpredictabililty of individual human behaviour.

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An excellent and timely show - opening just as Adam Curtis' documentary "All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace", on BBC2, mines the world of cybernetics and its, possibly profound, socio-economic implications. A good reminder that artists working with computers and technology is not a recent phenomenon, and that artists are at the forefront of using new technologies in their practice, and working with new ideas and theories.