Europe has got to get smart, artificially, bionically, telematically . . . and quickly. What we can do for sure, what in effect we do, is to anticipate the future, create new behaviours and identities, invent new attitudes and relationships, create visions of how European might evolve if the constructive spirit were to be prioritised and rewarded, if the properties of emergence were to be celebrated.
The big Fatigue? Tiredness induces the Deep Sigh. The day the computer can sigh, artificial intelligence will have come of age. The day the computer sighs will be the day that the technoetic adventure on which we are now embarked will have come full term. The technoetic adventure is our exploration of consciousness, of mind, ("noetic" from the Greek "nous") in a technological environment: artificial consciousness, telematic mind, and digital, genetic, electro- bio-technologies. The day the computer sighs will be the day that Europe realises its big mistake. It has treated the computer as simply a tool rather than as an environment. It has treated the computer as a machine rather than as an aspect of mind. It has sought to re-tool rather than to rebuild, to rebuild in ways which will accommodate the intelligence which is spilling out of our brains and flooding into every nook and cranny of our world.
You will understand that the perceptions of Europe that I am offering here are as an artist not a social commentator. The artist is no analyst or statistician. We work by intuition, psychic apprehension. We're a lot nearer to the shaman than to the scientist. Paradoxically, at the very time when art is embracing high technology, the shamanic way is the only way forward for the artist. I shall show later why I think this is so.
Europe - a Museum?
But first, Europe. Europe is trying to become unified just at the moment when the connectivity of cyberspace is enabling us to lose the sense of the unified individual. We are dispersed throughout the Net, our identities in flux, defined only by our connectivity, measurable more in time than space. We exist in a state of creative schizophrenia. In the Net, we are here and there, everywhere and nowhere all at the same time. Our possibilities are boundless. And yet Europe is still defined by national boundaries, tied into its geographical classifications, ensnared in its regional autonomies, hopelessly enfolded in its past. Unless it becomes a dynamic, connective state it will disintegrate into a million doorways for the homeless, a vast historical theme park, an extended museum of exotic fashions, folk dances, designer food and ....utter spiritual and cultural sterility. The signs are already there.
On the art front, with notable exceptions, a renewal of the arts and crafts movement is evident in digital art. Most computer-based art is craft, pure and simple: playing with the materials, re-arranging the parts, fingering the mouse - its the potter's wheel all over again. Decorative, sentimental, and accompanied often by the kind of bogus socialism that William Morris himself affected. As for the Fine Art "avant-guard", we have in the UK, for example, mediatised as the leader of his generation, an artist whose sensibility is invested in glass cabinets filled with preserved fish, dead cows and other cute collectibles. The vision of the 19th century museum is persistent! The Royal Academy in London recently announced that it hopes to revive its flagging fortunes by having an exhibition of what it considers the best of new British art : sadomasochism, death, violence, despair, destruction, cynicism and aesthetic sterility will feature high on the agenda.
The post-modern virus has infected the whole culture. It is doubly ironic that this should be the outcome of a strategy born initially in the light of optimism: we saw first in postmodernism how we might enrich ourselves aesthetically and spiritually by layering experience, enfolding meanings and associations, blending sources, cross referencing and assimilating cultural idioms. Instead, and essentially in European hands, post modernism acquired the mantle of deconstructive despair. Relativism, instead of being energising and liberating, has led to the inertia of pessimism. Never mind that it's moment as an artistic genre is now passed and is relegated to history, cynical despair remains the leitmotif of all those artists bereft of imagination, creative energy or vision.
In the European art academies, still struggling to preserve the artistic scenario of half a century ago, the constructive vision is despised, and collaborative creativity is totally discouraged. Once boldly constructive, painting has collapsed into narrative, sculpture into whimsy. In Brussels, there is absolutely no idea of the significance to art of digital systems, artificial life or the post-biological condition. Kaleidoscope, for example, the CEC's principal programme for funding artists, awarded in its last handout a mere fraction of its largesse to these fields, giving instead the bulk of the money to forms of practice which would not have seemed out of place a hundred years ago.
Who can deny that Europe is becoming a museum; that it feeds on its past; that it is culturally stagnant. See how much money is funneled into Opera, which nobody writes anymore, and few attend, and how little goes to the plastic arts, and especially the emergent arts based in new technologies, communications, digital systems and artificial life. Europe needs to get into an advanced state of connectivity, to become a Connective State. Connectivity, properly understood, could provide a completely new prospective for political activity and, indeed, political restructuring. In the matter of priorities within the European dimension, bandwidth is at present of a higher order of necessity than food production, certainly of those foods which are overstocked and over subsidised. Imagine a bandwidth mountain, instead of a butter mountain. Imagine Brussels administering a creativity subsidy instead of a farming subsidy. It is more imagination that Europe needs: new conceptual strategies, new cognitive maneuvers, new perceptions, attitudes and visualizations of the future. This is what artists do, this is what they could be doing at the European level.
Perhaps we artists should lobby government for real subsidies just as the farmers do, or as the miners in Bonn have just done. Germany, for example, subsidises its coal production by $130 a tonne, Spain with a subsidy of $100. (Coal shipped to Europe costs just $40 a tonne. Australian coal costs just $20 a tonne to produce). That art should receive such subsidies! Should we overload the inforoutes just as the French farmer blocks the autoroutes, to hold the State to ransom? It's worth considering.
What we can do for sure, what in effect we do, is to anticipate the future, create new behaviours and identities, invent new attitudes and relationships, create visions of how European might evolve if the constructive spirit were to be prioritised and rewarded, if the properties of emergence were to be celebrated. There could be much to celebrate. The telematic culture, the networked world that we artists are doing much to define, is the culture of connectivity. Connectivity is often its own reward: it enlarges the spirit, promotes generosity, empathy, conviviality. I call it Telenoia. Think of its opposite: paranoia, the anxiety-inducing, lonely, alienated paranoia of the old industrial Europe. The paranoia of excessive individuality, competitive aggression, angry isolationism. Paranoia was the defining condition of a culture of compartmentalisation., categorisation, top down institutionalisation. Paranoia, where everything was taken for granted, and nothing was fully explained. Paranoia will be seen as the defining emotion of the 20th century. Thankfully, it is almost over.
Telenoia by contrast speaks of open systems, fluid and dynamic relationships, unconstrained communication. Telenoia must inform the quality of European life in the 21st century. The radical constructivism of post-biological philosophy joined with the radical connectivism of telematic art can provide a scenario of living in which we take on responsibility for the construction of our own identity and the reality it inhabits. An identity and a reality in a constant state of transformation and flux., in which no aspect of cognition or perception is taken for granted, no a priori conditions assumed or accepted.
Towards a New Nature
In taking nothing for granted, let's go back to the European farmer. Our rather to his over-subsidised farm. Farming, morally untouchable, as sacred as motherhood: it's time we examined the rural myth and the narratives of "Nature". Our post-agrarian sensibility insists that the sooner we start synthesising food, bottom-up, that is re-thinking nutrition, how better we might produce it and distribute it globally, in ways not dependent on nature-as-it-is, and take responsibility for nature-as-it-might-be (to adapt Chris Langton's famous description of Artificial Life), the better we shall all be. As farms become redundant, as the subsidies recede, we might think it worthwhile to hand them over to artists! Give the farmbuildings, fields, and machinery to poets, visionaries. We have to re-think landscape, re-think nature, re-think ecology.
We need to shift the European obsession with agriculture and livestock to an investment in information, creativity and artificial life, just as smokestack industrial production must be replaced by the production of new forms of behaviour and new forms of energy. Let us as a Community seize on the possibility a 'zero point energy' which was very recently detected in Los Alamos. Zero point energy, that "inconceivably vast store of energy in the apparently empty vacuum of space itself", as Arthur C Clarke has described it, is conceived as more fundamental than nuclear fusion which, itself, may very well eventually collapse as a viable economic strategy just as nuclear fission is about to do . The potential of zero point energy , as Clarke reminds us , was summed up by Richard Feynmann's famous remark that the energy in a volume of space no larger than a coffee mug was "sufficient to boil all the oceans of the world". Just as, early on, the Far East was quick to seize upon computer intelligence, fuzzy logic and high speed data processing as a strategy for survival and world recognition, and India has claimed its international niche with software production, so Europe should look to new emerging fields to venture new investment and opportunity. This could be based on research into radically new energy sources, for example.
Whatever the case, risk and daring will be required, qualities so far lacking in the leadership of Europe, which distinguishes itself only by a total lack of vision and a debilitated cultural will . Taking chances and conceptual leaps is the artist's role, and the artist's voice needs to be heard. In this respect, our involvement at the frontiers of science and technology is essential, and could lead to us playing a valuable part in modelling Europe's future. But for this to happen will require a paradigmatic change in the CEC's understanding of what artists do. This is acutely the case in everything which concerns electronic art and computer-mediated, bio-technological, cultural systems.
Its a matter of survival. Nature is at the center of this debate. Nature re-considered, re-evaluated and eventually re-configured and re-structured. Nature as we have invented it, our cultural projection. Unshaped it is dangerous, exigent, deadly. This is why the garden was the commanding image of ancient cultures: nature as we arrange it, nature-as-it-might-be. But now we are going to arrange it from the inside-out, from the bottom up, from the very atoms, molecules, and genes onwards. It will be the insights and innovations of Artificial Life which will show the way, just as it will be the mechanisms and methodologies of nanotechnology that will get us there. Clearly, the artist must be immersed in the research of Artificial Life, (as Christa Sommerer & Laurent Mignonneau, for examplem, have done with such consummate originality at the ATR, Media Integration & Communications Research Laboratory, Kyoto) where issues of complexity, emergence and algorithmic evolution must take on an importance once accorded only to the immutability of renaissance perspective and the classical laws of harmony. Of course the cultural shift will not stop there. Where there is artificial life, artificial consciousness is sure to follow.
As an aside I should report that, in response to a recent call for papers from my research centre, CAiiA, in the University of Wales, for our July 1997 conference Consciousness Reframed: art and consciousness in the post-biological era, over a hundred proposals of high quality were received from artists and scientists worldwide within a matter of weeks. In the same way, the 1996 Science of Consciousness Conference at Tucson Arizona attracted hundreds of delegates from a vast diversity of scientific disciplines. Consciousness - cognitive studies, the extension of mind - is high on the international agenda in art as in science. It is in the service of consciousness that the Net will continue its exponential growth, and within this noetic complexity that a hypercortex is forming.
Will there be major subsidies for consciousness research? Whether or not, Europe must surely recognize that the economy, the ecology, even the market is now totally web-dependent, net-linked, telematicised. Those who bring enterprise, invention, imagination and vision to the Net will survive. "To be in the net is to be everywhere, to be outside the Net is to be no where at all". That was my definition of network participation in the first worldwide telematic art project, La Plissure du Texte, which I initiated in the Museum of Modern Art in Paris in 1984. That now is my definition of participation in the European economy and its place in the telematic ecology of the planet ...
A New Imagination
What Europe lacks is imagination. It will not come from politicians. In the universities it is starved by lack of funding: research scientists, artists and academics are being abandoned to so-called market forces. Throughout Europe, institutions of higher learning are either chasing the favours of international corporations or aspiring to their manner of operation. The problem with this is that their sights are fixed on old corporate structures, failing to recognise that Business is undergoing radical change and transformation. The more advanced corporations are becoming more fluid, re-structured from the inside out rather than outside in, bottom up rather than top down. Top down institutions are doomed to extinction. Without a real understanding of the nature of network struuctures in a telematic society, universities will be doomed also.
With corporate telematisation, middle management will disappear. It is only needed in a pyramidal, top down structure.. A cybernetic, networked model does not need that middle strata.. Bottom up, inside out models of industry and business have no layered chain of command. Instead, information and control passes from node to node, in the fluidity of the net. But beware! The laying off of hordes of middle-class, middle management, administrative personnel will create a massive pool of angry, educated and impotently authoritarian (if not actually fascist) dissenters from the telematic society. The revolt will not come from the streets, but from the very dining tables around which the chattering classes endlessly bemoan their future. Chances are that they will bring in organised religion with them. What can replace their frustration and despair? I can see no political agenda that even recognizes the problem, much less presents new policy. Art has frequently been instrumental in mediating new attitudes and new values in the light of incipient social change. One has only to think of its role in the early Renaissance in illuminating the passage of power from the Church to the State, and in the 19th century, giving expression to the rise of individualism and personal authenticity. Much attention must be paid now to ways in which art, in alliance with science and technology, might serve to inform and enrich the paradigmatic changes which European culture is inevitably and necessarily about to undergo.
Art in recent years has given much of its attention to the body. It's not that we are tired of the body so much as being impatient for its renewal, its restructuring, and redefinition. But we have given much less attention to the urban body, that is the city and our built environment. But our interest is moving from the body to the mind - not in dualistic opposition to the body, but as the inevitable extension of our involvement in identity and the human condition. Mind is now our concern in art, and what might be called 'strategies of consciousness' are what the artist aspires to create. The city and the body are, of course, interdependent. To change one is to need to change the other. The question of the city is also one of consciousness: architecture must become sentient, buildings must become aware, responsive, even anticipatory of our behaviours, dreams and desires. Soon a building without a memory will be as uninhabitable as a house without windows.
Consciousness is irreducible. It joins space and time as the coordinates of our reality. It adds the technoetic dimension. But in this dimension Old Europe is redundant. That Europe is still split in two, mind and body, North and South. How desperately it needs the Net to put it together again. But it fears telematisation, it resists assimilating the connective state. It sees an environment totally out of control, not understanding that within the flux and flow of this apparent chaos, Net life promotes and elicits diversity while creating cohesion and integration. It is precisely because it is totally out of control, out of top-down control that is, that is can serve as the substrate of a new social order.
In the art world at large, it is not yet widely recognised that an entirely new cannon of creativity, a technoetic aesthetic, has replaced the old aesthetic of appearance. Artists are no longer interested in the surface view of the world, they seek to make the invisible visible. The 'artwork' is understood as an object of the consciousness of the viewer who is complicit in its transformation and realisation, and who now stands at the centre of its evolution. Indeed art is better understood as a complex system of interactivity between artist and audience both physically and at the level of consciousness. The viewer seeks increasingly rich sensory identification with the work of art and a kind of cognitive instrumentality in its formation . He desires an holistic immersion, and from it, the emergence of new ideas, forms and behaviors.. Actually just as the viewer is becoming more active and empowered by the interactivity art now offers, so the artist is becoming, in a special sense, more passive. That is, he aspires to a state of dynamic readiness, a Zen-like preparedness, in order to identify new ideas, forms and structures as the emerge from the hyperconnectivity of the Net. It is at this point, as I indicated at the start of this paper, that I invoke the image of the shaman. The artist's role now, it seems to me, is required increasingly to be shamanic: bringing forth forms and ideas, enabling their emergence and evolution in the Net. Where the shaman inhabits psychic space, we move through cyberspace. I think with the growing insight we are acquiring into the chemistry of the brain, overlapping with other aspects of bio-technology and digital systems, we may eventually bring these two spaces together. Perhaps we should call this new field shamantics. Shamantics will give meaning to artificial consciousness which is itself the inevitable correlative of artificial life.
Here we might invoke the alchemical dictum concerning the macrocosm and the microcosm: 'as above, so below' and see its relevance to our contemporary technoetic condition. "As in cyberspace so in nature". Just as we multiply our individual selves by telepresence, being both here and elsewhere in the Net at one and the same time, so now we clone our unique individuality can be both here and elsewhere at one and the same time in geographical space. Where Dolly the lamb goes, we shall surely follow. What are the identity and gender games of Netlife is not the prelude to the genetic restructuring that the Genome project will surely lead us to. Equally we might say "as in outerspace so in cyberspace" for the galactic wormhole provides a metaphor which resonates throughout the links and connectivity of hypermedia. Cognitive wormholing, tunneling through the datafoam as if through quantum foam, this is the quintessential behaviour of the 21st century mind. It must eventually become the quintessential attribute of the 21st century city as well, since wormholing is now the ultimate challenge for architecture. Not just buildings that think but building perforated with wormholes linking virtual and real worlds, buildings with minds of their own which engage a diversity of real, imagined and virtual spaces. We want to zap around geographically, in the interspace between the virtual and the real.
One thing remains to be said. We have passed from the post modern to the immaterial in contemporary art. All is screen bound, siliconised. The apparitional aesthetic, which has replaced the old aesthetic of appearances, the technoetic aesthetic of apparition, where art is the creativity of emergence, of coming-into-being, dealing with the invisible, is still largely confined to the digital realm. But this is merely a time of preparation for the eventual re-materialisation of art. Then with the full palette, as it were, of nanotechnogy, neural networks and molecular engineering , and perhaps zero point energy sources, questions of identity, architecture and ecology will take on the full implications of the transformatiive, connective and noetic aspects of our present art practices. The future does not lie in silicon. The future is moist, progressively we shall integrate our artificial systems with our own wet biology.
You may feel that all I have written is far too esoteric for the Brussels politician, and anathema to our cultural "leaders". The academies, museums and councils of art will not give a moments attention to any of it. The foundations and corporations will continue to defend and sustain all that is reactionary and conservative, all that is the "faux avant guarde". Art is expected to provide what is pretty and posed in the world, or to present what is bleak and blighted with a entertaining sentimentality, but not to disturb and destabilise further what is already a demoralised and disintegrating culture. Well, let the politicians have their way. They are probably never going to invest in art in the ways I am proposing, whatever may be the case. Let the old, musty, despairing, negative, and hopelessly cynical culture of Europe continue on its road to irrelevance and extinction. If it will not take up our technoetic challenge, we must leave it, however reluctantly, to its inevitable demise.
We are connectivists and constructivist of energy and vision. We need new horizons, a wider landscape. We need a clean slate to work upon, a tabula rasa, a substrate worthy of our dreams. We have such a substrate on which our moist realities can grow. Close to Europe but far from its pessimism and sclerosis. We love Europe but not in its present mutation, its indifference to innovation, creativity and vision, its rejection of the Connective State. It might have been a new Europe, enlightened and refreshed, unfettered by its past, unrestrained by its ancient institutions. But that Europe is unlikely to emerge. Instead we need only to raise our heads, to look upwards and outwards to our celestial neighbor, Planet Mars. Mars may be the place to plant our future, the place where a new nature might be evolved, where our post-biological culture might flourish, where we might sow the seeds of a new architecture, a new world, and test the possibilities of wholly new relationships between ourselves and the new forms of noetic life which are evolving. We could bring love as well as life to Mars. Let Europe sigh if it will. Its cultural fatigue may nearly be over. It need not bother much longer about the European artist. Our future lies in space. Who can wait for lift-off? (Roy Ascott)