Roy Ascott, a senior British artist and theorist active since the 1960s, is an undisputed pioneer of network-based art. He also seems like a bit of a kook.
In the early '80s, a decade before the Internet existed in any recognizable form, he recruited far-flung collaborators to engage in group storytelling and other activities using the rudimentary predecessors of modern email. Though technology has advanced, the ideas of virtual identity and decentralized authorship that Ascott explored 30 years ago have only become more relevant.
Still a keen adopter of new technologies at 78, in recent years Ascott has moved a portion of his practice to social media and the virtual reality environment Second Life. The Analogues, on view at Plug In ICA through next month, highlights several examples of these recent forays alongside a rarely seen body of significantly older work.
In the rear gallery, video monitors display documentation of last year's La Plissure du Texte 3, a chaotic, interactive CGI Tower of Babel constructed out of swirling text, while another monitor cycles through Ascott's various Thoughtcards, an ongoing series of images and texts he posts to Facebook. These range from jargon-heavy PowerPoint slides on subjects of technology, art, philosophy and consciousness to jokey, mildly unhinged "bumper stickers" taking shots at the EU, the Queen, organized religion and higher education.
The core of the exhibition, however, comprises eight elegant, largely abstract wall-mounted reliefs that predate Ascott's earliest computer-based experiments. Made in the 1960s, last exhibited 40 years ago, and stored in a shed outside of Toronto ever since, these "lost" works are presented in the main gallery as early, even unlikely evidence of an enduring sensibility.
A trio of wooden reliefs, some featuring collage elements or sliding Plexiglas panels (a low-tech precursor of Ascott's later interactive work), are divided into tidy rows of icons and figures. Some of these are legible -- regular waveforms, a stylized umbrella -- while others are simplified organic forms, such as embryonic squiggles, commas and thought bubbles. In Items of Intention, Ascott annotates these odd glyphs with precise, but ultimately indecipherable, diagrams, while additional charts and essays arranged in a nearby tabletop vitrine offer further, equally mystifying, layers of presumptive analysis.
Other works consist of painted plywood shapes that loosely reference the natural landscape. Two square panels overlaid with wonky pencil grids and vaguely topographical scribbling seem to show fragments of fictional maps with meandering cut-outs standing in for bodies of water. Cloud Template, a flattened hexagon riddled with sinuous, irregularly-shaped holes, could very well be a kind of oversized drafting stencil for reproducing cloud shapes.
Ascott's fascination with systems of communication, perception and understanding (along with the related impulse to disrupt and transcend those systems), provides a circuitous but definite link between the older and newer work. The map fragments and Cloud Template recall the human need to find meaningful patterns in the environment (even when there are none), while the more hieroglyphic panels suggest an idiosyncratic take on the origins and structure of language. The early digital collaborations complicate the idea of individual authorship, while the Facebook Thoughtcards offer a slightly off-kilter mix of structural analysis, political critique and references to consciousness-altering drugs.
Ascott has spent 50 years working on the frontiers of new technology and new ways of understanding, and every frontier attracts its share of explorers, innovators, visionaries and crackpots. He seems equally comfortable in each of those roles. We should all be so fortunate.
Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer and educator.