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Telematic Embrace
By Roy Ascott
Edward A. Shanken, ed. London, UK: University of California Press (2003)
pp. 367-368, 370-371, 373-375



The Planetary Collegium [see chapter 22 above] is an example of visionary pragmatism that seeks to develop advanced research in the interspace between artistic, technological, scientific, and spiritual disciplines. As such it is inherently moist, a paradigmatic embodiment of the nascent moist culture. It sees its influence spreading from the research domain to engender new forms of creativity and learning at all levels, at all stages of an individual's life, in a variety of cultural settings. It presents a dynamic alternative to the orthodox university form of advanced research while producing outcomes of comparable rigour, innovation, and depth. The Collegium was first proposed in 1994 at the International Symposium on Electronic Art in Helsinki. The Planetary Collegium concept has evolved in step with the success of CAiiA-STAR to create a dynamic and harmonious community of doctoral and post-doctoral researchers of high calibre whose work transcends orthodox subject boundaries and whose practice is at the leading edge of post-biological art.

I established CAiiA, the Centre for Advanced Inquiry in the Interactive Arts, in 1994 at University of Wales College, Newport. Three years later I was invited to set up a similar centre for research, STAR, the Science Technology and Art Research Centre, in the School of Computing, University of Plymouth. I structured the two centres into one integrated research platform. CAiiA-STAR combines online research in cyberspace with periodic face-to-face sessions in different parts of the world. Specifically, this means that all members of the research group meet three times a year for intensive ten-day "composite sessions" of seminars, tutorials, critique, and public conferencing. Most research is undertaken at the researcher's home base, while maintaining regular telematic communication with the group. The composite sessions are spent either in residence in the host universities, at Newport or Plymouth, or by invitation at media centres or universities in various parts of the world. These have included Art House, Dublin; La Beneficia Cultural Centre, Valencia; Les Triches, Marseilles; the Federal University, Rio de Janeiro; and the College of Fine Arts, University of Arizona, Tucson; and are forthcoming in Paris, Turin, Los Angeles, and Nagoya [see Appendix IV]. Doctoral candidates enrol in either one of the two universities and receive their Ph.D. from that university, but in every other respect the programme is common to all candidates, and the intellectual, academic, and technological resources of each university are available to all. Appropriate high- level supervision and advising involve the development of an online network of mentors, who are experts in a variety of scientific and arts fields.[2] CAiiA-STAR can be said to create and explore spaces triangulated by issues of art, technology, and consciousness. A major international conference, "Consciousness Reframed," which is convened annually at Newport to address these issues, attracts over one hundred presentations by researchers coming from some twenty- five different countries [Ascott 1999].

The Planetary Collegium, having been developed, tested, and proven within the limits of the university framework, is now ready to cut loose from the Mothership and move out into a world in which many other long-established institutions and practices are becoming culturally redundant, commercially ineffective, and financially unviable. Just as historically the church as the centre of learning had to give way to the secular university, so now the university has to give way to new forms of learning set within the domain of cyberspace and moist- media. It may mean taking the Collegium to the new transnational marketplace of e-commerce in order to find the kind of investment and support for it that radically new practices require to grow. Despite the rather hysterical climate of the current world of start-ups and IPOs, this prospect is not as awesome as it might have been earlier, in the twentieth century, when investment in education was more generally to be seen at the level of bricks and mortar, rather than behaviour and communication. "Distance-learning" curricula hardly begin to address this central problem of the university in the telematic age. Habitual investment in physical real estate stands in the way of educational development in interspatial cyber estate, with all the implications of a fluid architecture, networked organisation and lateral structure that would support— and be supported—by it.

Within the framework of CAiiA-STAR, I have drawn together an international, transdisciplinary group of artists and theorists, each of whom represents a generic strand in the emergent field of the interactive, digital, post-biological arts.[3] The Planetary Collegium is the evolutionary projection of this late twentieth-century university venture into the post-institutional space of the twenty-first century—a century in which the old academic orthodoxies haVe to be replaced by creative research organisms fitted to the telematic, post-biological society. It combines the necessary face-to-face transdisciplinary association of individuals with the nomadic, transcultural requirements of a networking community.



The ambition to work without boundaries, beyond categories of learning, to build new realities, new language, and new practices, redefines the work of the artist and gives those practices relevance in the social context. It replaces the historical sense of the artist's role as an "honourable calling" with the idea of such work as a "transformative vocation"—a concept that is central to the theory of society of the Brazilian thinker and Harvard professor of law Roberto Mangabiera Unger. His programme for social reconstruction shows how, against the idea of work as purely instrumental or as an honourable calling, a third idea of work has appeared in the world. "It connects self-fulfilment and transformation: the change of any aspect of the practical or imaginative settings of the individual's life." In order to be "fully a person" one must "engage in a struggle against the defects of the limits of existing society or available knowledge," according to Unger. "The dominant institutional and imaginative structure of a society represents a major part of this constraining biographical circumstance, and it must therefore also be a central target of transformative resistance" [Unger 1997].

The imaginative structure and constraining institutions that Unger identifies are losing their dominance and appear everywhere to he crumbling. The value of interactive and telematic media in the context of transformation is immediately apparent, since the widespread diffusion of ideas and the enrichment of individual and collective work are the defining attributes of such media. And it is in art practice that these attributes have been most imaginatively explored and where new models of communication, construction, and, indeed, resistance have been most subtly modelled. Here both the concept of emergence and the principle of uncertainty must be evoked, since the processes involved are neither prescriptive nor deterministic—all is open-ended, incomplete, and contingent, awaiting always the intervention and constructive collaboration of the viewer. The telematic embrace releases feelings of solidarity and co-operation, just as it raises those issues that previously isolated cultures, social groups, or individuals left hidden and unanswered. We are only now moving from the industrial age of paranoia into the telenoia of universal connectivity and transparency.

These issues of mind/body, spirit/matter, and concept/form are tied up with questions of identity, of self-definition, of what it is to be human. Do we possess creativity, or does creativity possess us? Should the artist firmly claim the meaning of his work, or is its semiosis invested in the viewer? Is not art, like knowledge itself, always on the edge of instability, oscillating between certitude and indeterminacy, just as the quantum world seems to be? Since the meaning of an artwork is a product of the viewer's negotiation with the system, is the artist responsible for its content, or is it his role to provide contexts from which meaning can arise? These are the enduring questions that follow us into the twenty-first century. They apply as much to architecture as to art, as much to narrative as to performance. Our double consciousness simultaneously constructs and navigates a world that is at once virtual and actual: a technoetic fabric of minds, set in a moist ecology. We are at home in this indeterminacy.


Architecture provides a useful focus of visionary pragmatism, since its practice resonates in a number of pertinent contexts: building in both hardware and code, terrestrial and in cyberspace; intelligent environments; and nano-construction at both biological and industrial levels. While Euclidean space appeals primarily to the physical body, cyberspace appeals primarily to the mind. The body loves surfaces, solidity, resistance; it wants its world to be limitless but safely ordered, open to the clouds but protected from indeterminacy. Above all, the body wants its senses put in perspective. In twentieth-century architecture, the body ruled. But in our new century, architecture progressively will embody mind; technoetics will be at the foundation of practice. The mind seeks connectivity and complexity, uncertainty and chaos. It knows reality to be layered and ambiguous, constantly collapsing and reforming, observer-dependent, endlessly in flux. In reflecting these attributes, twenty-first-century architecture will be like nothing the world has ever known. Distributed mind, collective intelligence, cybermentation, connected consciousness, whatever we choose to call the technoetic consequences of the Net, the forms of telematic embodiment likely to emerge will be as exotic to our present conception of architecture as they will be protean. Stylistic and functional diversity will increase exponentially as the practical consequences of nano-engineering kick in. In turn, our frustration with the limitations of our own bodies will demand prostheses and genetic intervention of a high order. We realise that the body, like our own identity, can be transformed, indeed must become transformable. The many selves hypothesis, [4] like the many worlds hypothesis of physics, is not only compelling but also necessary to life and liberty in the moist culture.

Increasingly, the attitude of the mind towards the body is post-biological. Its view is cybernetic, seeking always the perfectibility of systems. The hypercortex, mind in the Net, needs shelter. Human bodies and artificial agents need common habitats. At the point where cyberspace and post-biological life meet, an entirely new kind of social architecture is required. A truly anticipatory architecture must prepare itself for this marriage of cyberspace with moistmedia, combining self-assembling structures and self-aware systems. Visionary pragmatism, in architecture as in other creative practice, must embrace the anticipatory design science advocated by Buckminster Fuller. Indeed Puller's entire oeuvre provides valuable grounding for development in this respect [see Vesna I998]-

As the century advances, the paradigmatic change in architecture will be registered at the level of behaviour rather than form. To give just one simple example, the twentieth century's exaggerated interest in what a building looks like, its mere appearance, will give way to a concern with the quality of its gaze, how it sees us, how it perceives our needs. Questions of the physical structure of buildings will be overshadowed by ambitions for their dynamism and intelligence, their ability to interact with one another and with us, to communicate, learn and evolve within the larger ecology. Engineering will embrace ontology. Time will become more dominant than space, system more significant than structure. Seeding, as I have argued earlier, [5] will become at least as important as designing, and design will be a bottom-up process, always seeking short-term evolutionary gains. The goal will be the building of sentience, a moist architecture that has a life of its own, that thinks for itself, feeds itself, takes care of itself, repairs itself, plans its future, copes with adversity. It will be an architecture that is as much emotional as instrumental, as intuitive as ordered. We shall want to get inside the mind of such architecture and shall demand an architecture that can get into our own minds, such that our neural networks can be synaptic with the artificial neural networks of the planet. If the building of sentience is the challenge to architecture in the twenty-first century, the emergence of moistmedia will be the manifestation of its radical restructuring.


Since this essay is intended as a textual portal to the future, there is no end or closure to these issues, and my final remarks will be inclusive rather than conclusive. The Planetary Collegium is clearly a moist project, bringing together nodes located in cyberspace and at physical locations across the planet. More than a matter of intelligent architecture, its design treats the Collegium as a brain, developing a connective intelligence and connective tissue that embodies the associative thought of its own hypercortex. The structure should be emergent, growing bottom-up from the interactions within its community. One would not plan for the Collegium so much as expect it to plan for itself. Then the focus could be on its own sentience, how consciousness might arise within its internal system, how ideas could come into being, and how forms could emerge from the human /artificial complexity of the whole community.

In this way, it will find its place within the larger self-organising, self-aware, planetary environment that it is in large measure the artist's responsibility to plant, grow, and cultivate. The notion of cyberbotany thus extends from the wise application of plant technology, in the technoetic context, to the creative employment of horticultural metaphor in envisioning outcomes at the material level of construction: hyperculture seen as horticulture, the moist synthesis of artificial and natural systems.

Visionary pragmatism is perhaps the most useful way to inform the artist's participation in building worlds we would want to live in. Visionary pragmatism can take the love inherent in the telematic embrace and create new relationships, new societies, and new culture. Just as art in the next hundred years will be not only interactive hut also psychoactive and proactive, so human affairs will benefit from closer connectivity, distributed intelligence, and spiritual solidarity. As the unfolding years of this new century will show, the media best employed to effect these changes will be moistmedia, the networks that sustain them will be technoetic, and the cyberperception of the planetary society as a whole will reflect a growing sense of optimism and telenoia.



2. For example, Tom Ray, John L. Casti, Carol Gigliotti, Linda Dalrymple Henderson, Roger Malina, Kristine Stiles, and Francisco Varela.
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3. They include, online, Peter Anders, Donna Cox, Char Davies, Elisa Giaccardi, Pamela Jennings, Eduardo Kac, Jim Laukes, Laurent Mignonneau, Marcos Novak, Niranjan Rajah, Miroslaw Rogala, Gretchen Schiller, Thecla Schiphorst, and Christa Sommerer; on-site, Jon Bedworth, Geoff Cox, Gillian Hunt, Kepa Landa, Dan Livingstone, Kieran Lyons, and James Norwood; graduates, Jill Scott, Dew Harrison, Joseph Nechvatal, William Seaman, and Victoria Vesna; post-doc, Tania Fraga; on-site co-ordinators, Michael Punt (Newport) and Mike Phillips (Plymouth).

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4. As noted in chapter 19 above ("Telenoia"), Ascott derives the "many selves hypothesis" from P. D. Ouspensky, but the latter by his own admission adopted it from the teachings of G. I. Gurdjieff (see, e.g., Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous [ New York: Harcourt Brace, 1949], pp. 239-40).—Ed.
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5. Roy Ascott, "The Architecture of Cyberception" (1994), chapter 23 above.
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Last updated: Feb 8, 2018.