I have just been to see and highly recommend to visit Roy Ascott: The Syncretic Sense, on view at SPACE gallery, London, until 25 June 2011.
The retrospective exhibition presents a variety of objects relating to Roy Ascott’s work as an artist and teacher, including artworks as well as copies of texts, diagrams, games devised for his students and photographs and videos documenting his work as a tutor. Such eclectic material is testament to the fact that Ascott’s practice as an artist, his thinking on the creative process and his work as a teacher are highly intertwined and influenced each other over more than four decades of work.
Between 1955 and 1959, Ascott studied in Newcastle-on-Tyne under Richard Hamilton and Victor Pasmore and, at graduation, he was appointed Studio Demonstrator (1959-61). As a result of this training and teaching practice, Ascott developed a deep interest in art as a process and, by the early 1960s, he was deeply engaged in the theoretical as well as practical application of cybernetics to art. Cybernetics (the study of networks of dynamic relationships) was applied by Ascott to interpret human behaviour and communication, with a particular focus on the artistic creative process and the relationship between the artist, the artwork and society at large. Among the works included in the display is Mind Map Groundcourse (Ealing, 1963), a fascinating example of Ascott’s application of cybernetics to his conception of art. The two framed photographs depict a complex data flow diagram representing the circuitous relationship connecting society to art - where society is conceived as an organism ‘requiring vigilant inspection and a viable programme for planning at all points’; and art is described as governance, in relation to the ‘purposive behaviour of artist to feed back information to effect social reform’. Art is also defined as abduction: as ‘Art may embrace the process of arriving at new kind of rules or logical models’. In fact, for Ascott, change is what ultimately defines humankind, while the behaviourist artist’s aim is to generate change for its own sake (1). At the same time, art is not disinterested or separate from real life: an artist always needs to develop an inquisitive interest in the world and the society he is part of.
In his 1963 text ‘The Construction of Change’, Ascott first laid down his conception of art as a behavioural problem. The focus of his interest was not in the finished artwork, but in the process of doing, of which many aspects can be examined rationally; and in the substance between artist and spectator, both contributing to the shaping of the artwork’s meaning (2). In this respect, Ascott described artworks in terms of thermodynamics, as carriers of more or less defined messages from the artist to the spectator. If an artwork is hot, it is ‘densely stack with information bits, highly organised and rigidly determined’. In this case, the work acts as a one-way channel, carrying a message from the artist to the observer. Differently, in a cool artworks, the bits of information it is made of are less densely and more loosely organised. In this case, the artwork admits more feedback, allowing the observer to participate by projecting his order, meaning or relations into the work. At the same time, incredibly hot artworks - saturated with multiple information - can turn into very cool ones, as their inclusiveness of meaning offers a high level of possible interaction (3).
In line with his understanding of art as a form of behaviour - a process rather than an activity oriented towards the making of objects - Ascott envisioned art schools to be ‘structured as homeostatic organisms, living, adaptive instruments for generating creative thought and action’ (4). In the first course he directed, the famous Groudcourse developed at Ealing School of Art in the early 1960s, first year art students were asked to engage in a number of activities and exercises that would more or less explicitly question students’ assumptions and preconceptions. For example, the nature of drawing was questioned in a number of exercises which set strict parameters, as in the case of a project defined as time-drawing of the model: ‘Draw her hair in three seconds, face in three minutes, left hand thumb nail in three hours, legs in six seconds, right ankle in two days.’ (5)
If the resolution of problems demanded a total involvement on the part of the students, who often had to devise complex solutions, the formulation of the same problems was for the teacher an equally creative and stimulating task. This meant that, in Ascott’s work, the creative and the pedagogic activities would feed back to one another, constantly energising each other.
Ascott’s career as an artist and educator has spanned five decades, taking on prominent positions as Professor and Dean at different art colleges and universities, including Ontario College of Art, Toronto; San Francisco Art Institute; University of Applied Arts Vienna; and University of Wales, Newport. Yet, in the UK, he is still mostly known for establishing the Groudcourse at Ealing Art College and for teaching in other London art schools at the end of the 1960s, including the Slade School of Art, Central and St. Martin’s School of Art. Unfortunately, not much material or information on this particular period of Ascott’s career as a tutor was available in the exhibition. If you studied with Ascott in London and would like to share your recollections, please get in touch: we would very much like to know about your experience!
1. Roy Ascott, ‘Behaviourables and Futuribles’ (1967), in Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings, ed. by Kristine Stiles and Peter Howard Selz (Berkely and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1996), pp.489-491 (p. 490).
2. Roy Ascott, ‘The Construction of Change’ (1964), in The New Media Reader, ed. by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003), pp. 128-132 (pp.128¬-129). 3. ‘Behaviourables and Futuribles’, p. 490.
4. Ibidem, p. 491.
5. ‘The Construction of Change’, p. 131.