Ascott, Roy (1989): Gesamtdatenwerk. Connectivity, Transformation and
Transcendence. In: Druckey, Timothey (1999) (Hg.): Ars Electronica:
Facing the Future. MIT Press. 86-89.

Connectivity, Transformation and Transcendence

Roy Ascott

Networking provides the metaphor for late twentieth century culture: it speaks of interactivity, decentralisation, the layering of ideas from a multiplicity of sources. Networking is the provenance of far-reaching connectivity and, mediated, accelerated, and intensified by the computer, it leads to the amplification of thought, enrichment of the imagination, both broader and deeper memory, and the extension of our human senses. Computer networking means the linking of person-to-person, mind-to-mind, memory-to-memory regardless of their dispersal in space and their dislocation in time. In its global reach, in its complexity of idea processing, in its flexibility of output (image/music text and articulation of remote cybernetic systems, structures, and environments) and in its capacity to accommodate a great diversity of input modes, all of which are digitally treated in universal dataspace, it is particularly suited to take on the great challenge of late twentieth century art, which can be seen as the overarching project of our time: to make the invisible visible. That is, to bring to our senses, to make available to our minds, within the human constraints of space and time, what is otherwise beyond our reach, outside our perceptual range, the far side of our mind. This is not simply to speak of the complexities of chaos science, those infinite sequences of order and disorder which defy comprehension and representation within the computational range of the human brain . . . that fractal structuring of the world which the computer alone seems able to reveal. Nor is it only a matter of recognising how computermediated communication systems provide us with the remote-sensing capability to probe far out into cosmic space and deep into matter at the most profound quantum level. Neither is it enough to understand how dependent for image enhancement, data processing, with the rapid updating that implies, for us to negotiate a universe made up of transformations of energy operating at wavelengths or intensities far beyond the capability of our meagre sensory system to apprehend.

It is much more than all of this, but its implications for human growth and creativity can be stated quite simply: computer networking provides for a field of interaction between human and artificial intelligence, involving symbiosis and integration of modes of thinking, imagining and creating, which, from the point of view of art, can lead to an immense diversity of cultural transformations, and in science and philosophy, enriched definitions of the human condition. Computer networking, in short, responds to our deep psychological desire for transcendence—to reach the immaterial, the spiritual—the wish to be out of body, out of mind, to exceed the limitations of time and space, a kind of bio-technological theology.

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When people interact, when minds interpenetrate, a proliferation of ideas is generated. When sensibilities from diverse cultures from all parts of the globe interweave, collaborate, conjoin, and become restructured, new cultural forms emerge; new potentials for meaning and experience are brought forth. This is the scope and ambition of networking. This is to speak of superconnectivity, the production of a multi-layered culture, planetary culture, and a holistic world art. It is not to be confused with homogenisation, or neutralisation of cultural, regional, or individual difference. What this offers in effect is not only the opportunity for us to construct new realities but to enter into the realities of others, the interpenetration of parallel universes of discourse.

Our immersion in electronic global networks can lead to a reevaluation of the status of reality; to an understanding of its provisional nature, as one of many coexisting realities, all of which are constructed—"virtual" in a sense—and dependent upon our active participation for their construction. When we recognise the centrality of the computer in this process of production, and it has become central to both the construction as well as the dissemination of knowledge and therefore of experience, it is easy to see a comparison to quantum physics. For "quanta" read "data." A physics of information. For it is in the quantum world that reality is the production of observation. The apparatus we use, the measuring system we employ, the language we articulate, condition the nature of the reality we perceive. It is, in a sense, a conspiracy. From the ground of undifferentiated wholeness, we construct virtual realities, knowing that they are transient, impermanent, ephemeral constructs of mind. That they may be internally coherent and consistent only furthers the illusion of permanency.

In philosophy, Bergson and Nietzsche in their different ways have pointed to this. In science, Heisenberg and Schrödinger, and more dramatically Bell and Aspect, for example, have demonstrated this. The principle of indeterminacy and uncertainty holds dominion. Strict causality operates only within a limited stratum of events. Our perception of space and time is not the frame of reality, but an aspect of an undivided whole within which an infinity of separate realities, parallel universes, can endlessly be constructed. How quickly this science moves into metaphysics and brings us back to theology, mysticism, and mythology! It is in this richness of value systems, world models, cultural constructs, and virtual realities that the networking artist operates. In this he is never alone. To network is to be engaged with the mind-at-large, to amplify individual thought and imagination through the dynamic interaction with others in the network. In this enterprise, "others" includes artificial intelligences, sensing systems, and memory stores, as well, of course, as human beings from an enormous diversity of personal and cultural contexts. It is through computer networking that we can deal creatively with relativism and with pluralism, which provide pessimism in so much postmodern thought.

The subject of quantum physics is the transformation of energy; its object is quanta. The subject of computer science is the transformation of information; its object is data. Data exists in streams, dataflow is ephemeral, transient, shifting. Data is everywhere and nowhere. A physics of information would talk about phase space, the virtual space which data occupies. Processed in time—the beat of the computer's pulse measured in nanoseconds—data nevertheless is time-free and time-resistant insofar as its transformation within computer networking is concerned. That is to say that the user of such networks can access, interact, and collaborate with other users independently of the constraints of time or place. In this sense, data is asynchronously managed and networking becomes a non-linear creative medium. And, as with quantum behavior, data is discontinuous; it "jumps" between semantic states. In this it models, as well as supports, creative behaviour which is always non-linear, indeterminate, uncertain, just as, with brilliant graphic clarity, the computer reveals nature's capacity to jump unpredictably to new levels of order from chaos, the stochastic leap.

If the project of our time is to render the invisible visible, to bring directly into our consciousness the direct apprehension of the processes and systems, forces and fields, dynamic and transformative relationships of life which elude our everyday perception and lie beyond the capture of our senses,

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then we must recognize the necessity of making the currently very visible computer invisible. The computer as thing, as object, as apparatus, as machine is too much with us, too dominant. It is not transparent, it is not understood as pure system, universal transformative matrix. The computer is not primarily a thing, but a set of behaviours. Its purpose is not only computation but transformation; not only storage but dissemination. It is the agent of the datafield, a construct of dataspace. Where it is seen simply as a screen presenting pages of an illuminated book, or as an internally lit painting, it is artistically valueless. Where access to its transformative power is constrained by a typewriter keyboard or the gestural configurations of a mouse, it is culture-bound, the user forced into the posture of a clerk. The power of the interface cannot be overestimated; the role of the user must be clearly defined.

Rather than seeing the computer interface as a membrane separating out the computer as discrete object from ourselves, we should see it and design it as a doorway into dataspace, a synaptic interval in a human-computer symbiosis. To see the computer as no more than screen and keyboard, to use it as no more than the apparatus of the accountant's office, is to be condemned to produce art of the "bottom line," that is to say an art of finalities, of completion. To deny, in other words, the essential qualities of open-endedness, non-linearity, and fecund incompleteness that are the great distinguishing potential of computer-mediated art practice. Similarly, our gathering of images, music, texts, for example, from the endlessly flowing datastream of creative interactions with the networks around the world, should be understood as a kind of data-harvest, a form of accessing and selecting and displaying which will not confuse the identity or role of the interface with that of, say, a painting or book or film screen—for they propose quite different aesthetics.

The essence of the interface is its potential flexibility: it can accept and deliver images both fixed and in movement, sounds constructed, synthesized or sampled, written texts, speech. It can be heat sensitive, body responsive, environmentally aware. It can respond to the tapping of the feet, the dancer's arabesque, the direction of a viewer's gaze. It may not only articulate a physical environment with movement, sound, and image, it is an environment; it is actually an arena of dataspace in which art of this human-computer symbiosis can be acted out. The computer interface is in each individual case an aspect of a holographic unity. To be in or at any one interface is to be with all the interfaces throughout the network of which it is a part. This is why, for example, the Ubiqua laboratory, as interface to the Planetary Network for the Venice Biennale of 1986, was, in effect, pulling the exhibition from its rather elite, centralised, and exclusive domain and stretching it out over the face of the globe: the flow of creative data generated through the interaction of artists all over the world could be accessed equally all over the world. Venice was no longer privileged in that sense. Networking has the effect of destabilising the gallery/museum system just as it extends and enriches the scope (and perhaps nature) of individual creativity. In this case, a range of interactive communications media were employed—electronic mail, computer conferencing, videotex, slow-scan TV, as well as computer exchange. The laboratory further included interfaces served by videodisc, digital sound, paint systems, and cybernetically responsive structures and environments.

On a much simpler but geographically pervasive level, an interactive project devised by Art Aces for Les Immatériaux in Paris in 1985 can be cited. This involved the French public service videotex system "Minitel" as the network for on-line interaction between artists "in" the exhibition and the large population of the subscribers distributed throughout the Greater Paris region.

The interface for "La Plissure du Texte," a project created for Electra in Paris, 1983, involving the development of a Planetary Fairytale by means of "dispersed authorship" through electronic networking, involved little more than the orthodox terminal and keyboard, with a data-projector carrying the text to a public dimension, dramatising its electronic presence which was at once ephemeral and concrete. This was a perfect vehicle to involve the viewer as participant in the layering of texts, in the

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semantic ambiguities, delights and surprises that an authorship dispersed through many cultures in many parts of the world can generate.

At Linz, for Ars Electronica 1989, the project "Aspects of Gaia: Digital Pathways across the Whole Earth" attempts to investigate the potential of the digital screen seen on the horizontal, rather than on the more familiar vertical format, from above and below, offering images from a bird's-eye view and from below, as "wormholes" into parallel universes. The posture of the viewer is reconsidered and the deployment of digital sound in acoustic space is integral to the realisation of the project. In this case the design of the interface environment is the product of collaboration of five artists working with computer image, digital sound, electro-acoustic structures and environments. As in the case of those responsible for planning the networking projects for Electra and the Venice Biennale, the development of the concept and its technological determination has been conducted as much through a computer conferencing network as from face-to-face interaction. Invitations to artists all over the world, similarly were transmitted through electronic networks, making full use of EARN, BITNET, I.P.SHARP, for example, as well as fax, calling for their participation in this global network. From the point of view of visitors to the interface environment at Linz, the opportunity to interact with this incoming material, to add to it, to select, change, erase, transfer it, and then have it transmitted back into world-wide electronic space for its further transformation, is an important ingredient of the project.

Increasingly, as artists we are impatient with single modes of operation in dataspace. We search for synthesis of image, sound, text. We wish to incorporate human and artificial movements, environmental dynamics, ambient transformations, altogether into a more seamless whole. We search, in short, for the Gesamtdatenwerk. The site for such work must be the planet as a whole, its dataspace, its electronic noosphere. The duration of the work will of course be, ultimately, indeterminate since this must be a work in flux and flow, permitting an infinity of interactions, inputs and outputs, collaborations and conjunctions between its many participants. Since reciprocity and interaction are of its essence, such work cannot differentiate between "artist" and "viewer," producer and consumer. To participate in such a network is to be involved always in the creation of meaning and experience. The roles cannot be separated out. One can no longer be at the window, looking in on a scene composed by another; one is instead invited to enter the doorway into a world where interaction is all.

We are a long way from the Gesamtdatenwerk. The computer industry is slow in releasing those technologies which will facilitate a seamless interface, although research departments, most notably, for example, the Media Lab at MIT, are investigating and creating interface environments of considerable subtlety. Ultimately, it is a matter of artists and technologists collaborating, with or without institutional support, to bring the interface into the full sensorium of human experience and engagement.