Roy Ascott



On loan

Centre Pompidou, Metz (Metz, France): The Art of Learning and Teaching. A School of Creators

Roy Ascott born 1934
Wood, perspex and paint
Object: 1270 × 895 × 75 mm
Presented by Tate Members 2014


Video-Roget 1962 is a wall-mounted work made up of five horizontal panels or discrete areas positioned above each other. The top two and bottom two panels are wooden and each has machined abstract shapes suggestive of organic forms mounted on it. Three of the panels contain three such forms, while the one second from bottom has four. The central panel is made out of blue Plexiglas and covers a painted scale, over which a moveable glass calibrator can be made to slide and so make connections to the fields above and below it. Video-Roget was included in Ascott’s second solo exhibition in London, held at Molton Gallery in 1963. In the accompanying catalogue to this show entitled Diagram Boxes and Analogue Structures, Ascott described his interest in Cybernetics – defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘the science of communications and automatic control systems in both machines and living things’ – stating that:

Cybernetics has provided me with a starting point from which observations of the world can be made. There are other points of departure: the need to find patterns of connection in events and sets of objects; the need to make ideas solid (working in wood, etc.) but interfusable (transparent panels, hinged sections), an awareness of change as fundamental to our experience of reality; the intention to make movement a subtle but essential part of an artefact.
(Quoted in Molton Gallery 1963, unpaginated.)

Video-Roget encapsulates many of the ideas expressed in this statement which were also key to the development of Ascott’s art practice: the combination of multiple possibilities of meanings achieved by the interrelation of the panels, and solid wooden elements combined with a transparent moveable central panel that allows for ‘change’. The work is completed by a behavioural process in which the viewer participates and, through this interaction, brings the object into being – the participation being as much mental as physical. Ascott further explored the relationships between the elements of Video-Roget in the catalogue to the Molton Gallery exhibition by placing tracing paper with text over a reproduction of the work. This printed ‘Thesaurus’ (designed by Noel Forster, a tutor on the ‘Groundcourse’ which Ascott introduced when he was a tutor at Ealing School of Art between 1961 and 1964) defines the different elements of the work and how they might interact or embody change. Where the Plexiglas and glass ‘Calibration Unit’ is described in the Thesaurus as a ‘linkage device’ between the two fields both above and beneath it, each of those areas are themselves separated from the other by a raised bar of wood that marks a ‘shift potential’ between them. Thus the three ‘Metaforms for organic growth’ in the upper panel can each shift through the different formal strategies exerted on them to form a ‘flap’, ‘wedge’ or ‘split-pitch’ shape. Such a shift in potential can then be registered through feedback by the six shapes in the lower two registers or layers of shape that communicate ‘items of intention’. For instance, the ‘wedge’ or ‘split-pitch’ forms in the upper register can be linked to a ‘source’ or ‘forming potential’ shape and the ‘pulse energy potential’ shape. The development of form could thus be shown, through feedback loops, to lead to different behavioural results in which a ‘bottle/container’ shape could be analogous to a ‘claw/holding’ shape; in both cases the shape can be read as an object and an action. An untitled diagram (also designed by Forster) that occupies the following page spread in the Molton Gallery catalogue situates Video-Roget within a cybernetic system of information and communication flow as ‘a statement of my intention to use any assembly of diagrammatic and iconographic forms within a given construct as seems necessary’.

The machined wooden relief forms in Video-Roget directly relate to the organicist constructionist language that underpinned the work of Victor Pasmore (1908–1998), under whom Ascott had studied, and that derived in part from his indebtedness to D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s examination of organic form and structure revealed in his book On Growth and Form (1915), a publication widely circulated among artists in the mid to late 1950s. The dominant form in Pasmore’s relief Black Abstract 1963 (Tate T00587) or his print Points of Contact No. 2 1964 (Tate P04888) demonstrates a correspondence with the ‘metaforms’ in Video-Roget. This shape language (machined yet organic in source) is, in Video-Roget, positioned within a cybernetic system embodying dialogue and participation in its flows of information and communication. Instead of being physically transformable (as were Ascott’s Change Paintings of 1960 which were made up of moveable panels of painted glass and Plexiglas), they offer a kit or ‘thesaurus’ of possibilities as to how the work can be read, calling for a projection and transformation between different registers.

In 1961 Ascott had become interested in Cybernetic theory through the writing of F.H. George, especially Automation, Cybernetics and Society (1959), Norbert Weiner and his The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society (1948) and W. Ross Ashby’s Design for a Brain 1952. He adopted these cybernetic approaches into his formulation of the Groundcourse at Ealing College of Art, and especially following a lecture that Gordon Pask gave at Ealing in its first year. Through this course Ascott integrated his art and pedagogical practices and encouraged his students to explore processes of interaction, to continually challenge their preconceptions about making art, and to respect their responsibility towards their materials and society. Ideas of theory and problem-solving occupied a primary position within the course, unlike other foundation courses that were based in a manipulation of media. Ascott’s use of the cybernetic language within his work led him in the later 1970s to a use of computer networking as a way of creating a wider matrix of participation, dialogue and feedback. Through his pioneering use of computers he evolved, from the late 1970s on, what he termed a ‘Telematic’ practice that led him to concentrate on the ethical concerns regarding the use made of computer and telecommunications networks.

Further reading
Diagram-Boxes & Analogue Structures, exhibition catalogue, Molton Gallery, London 1963, reproduced, unpaginated.
Roy Ascott, Telematic Embrace: Visionary Theories of Art, Technology and Consciousness, London 2003, reproduced pp.12–13.

Jenny Powell
September 2013

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Display caption

In 1961 Ascott became interested in cybernetic theory and adopted cybernetic approaches into his formulation of the Ground course at Ealing College of Art (1961–4). For Ascott, cybernetics represented a process of communication and behaviour from which observations of the world could be made. Here, the combination of multiple possibilities achieved by the interrelation of the panels and solid wooden elements, combined with a transparent moveable central panel, allows the work to be created by the viewer whose interaction brings the object into being.

Gallery label, September 2016

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