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Gary Michael Dault

The Art of Roy Ascott

artscanada #166/167/168, Spring 1972.
[ 1,395 words ]


In February, the University of Guelph mounted the first show in Canada of the work of Roy Ascott, comprising pieces from 1960 to the present. I should like to point out some of the qualities and concerns of Ascott's art by concentrating on three areas of work: the Video Roget of 1962, the templates and chance-maps of 1967-70, and the current 'transactional' pieces.

The Video Roget, featured in his one-man show at London's Molton Gallery (1963) is perhaps the outstanding result to that date of the artist's dissatisfaction with the static one-to-one spectator / artifact relationship and his attempt during these years to provide himself and his audience with a machine for wide ambiguous experience and more particularly for the infinitely suggestive cross-referencing that occurs between shape and mind. Acting as a visual thesaurus, the Video Roget presented alternatives and near-equivalences of relationship, this time in terms of shape instead of word-meaning. The piece consisted of four horizontal rows of archetypal or at least highly generalized shapes (flap, wedge, bottle-container, claw, umbrella-shelter, etc.) separated (two rows, above and below) by a horizontal black (unknowable) area referred to as a 'calibration unit', a linking device between rows of shapes, a 'black box' which suggested that it housed the spectator's reaction space and the process of the mind's construction of meaningful relationship between the shapes. The piece presented not only an opportunity for personalized, participatory image-making by the viewer but also offered itself as a simplified demonstration of the working of any analogue structure: the essence of metaphor that this is possibly equivalent to that, run through the switchboard of Mind, equivalences between them close enough and suggestive enough to alter and enhance simultaneously both original ideas.

The long series of templates and chance-maps had to do with the artist's concentration upon the ideas of boundaries and parameters. For Parameter III (1967), Ascott set out to investigate some of the ways in which boundaries are decided upon, to see how spatial limits are chosen and fixed, and to find out what it is a parameter really does, what it means. With Parameter III, he worked on wood, on a sheet of wood larger than the diamond-shape he had previously decided upon and measured out as the controlling outside shape and size of the piece. Then, acting on the wood surface both inside and outside of this chosen area, he drew, scribbled, and otherwise despoiled the surface in random ways, cutting away certain areas of wood where his resulting lines suggested that cuts be made (often finding in the process that certain cuts caused such a weakening in particular parts of the sheet that whole areas of it would crumble away) and then building up on the surface that remained (survived, actually) coat upon coat of polymer wash, thus effectively toning down and eventually blocking out almost entirely any information about how the final shape came to be, how its edge was chosen. The end result is a large irregular shape of wood now sufficiently containing itself, its perimeter the wandering high-pressure outline holding it all together, the piece now at rest in a kind of final blandness (though with the apparent peacefulness of its surface belied by the distant recollection of the struggle of its making demonstrated by the writhing of its outer edge). More recent variations upon this work, Chance-map (Red) (1970), for example, allow the spectator to see the gyrations and criss-crossings of crayon lines on the surface of the wood, this drawing being the chaotic undifferentiated activity upon which the artist's decisions about, for example, cutting the wood, have been made; in this particular work, some areas formed by the crossing of lines have been darkened by staining, some other such areas cut out those areas, according to the artist, that were 'almost looking like something but not quite' those areas where generalized, almost significant images came swimming up through the chaos; the piece in this respect acts as a primitive Video Roget. In this case, however, only a couple of steps backwards from it, the piece becomes a large coloured wooden panel, something only in the process of becoming a display-case of generalized universal images.

One of the terms Ascott has coined to help explain the meaning of his work is the word 'metaform'. Obviously deriveable from 'metaphor', a metaform is a form (flat shape or three-dimensional object) 'greater than the particular', abstracted from it (the 'idea' of a wave-form, for example, or perhaps a spiral or perhaps a tube); so are the generalized shapes of the Video Roget metaforms. But in addition to its appearance as a generalized physical form, a metaform has, the artist feels, audience-reactive, behavioural, performance qualities as well. That is to say, it may be introduced with measurable effect, for example, into an otherwise inert 'situation'. Ascott talks of his interest in setting up certain physical and possibly banal situations like 'wardrobe' or 'supermarket' or 'bathtub' and introducing into this kind of benign everyday theatre a particular metaform or assortment of metaforms, which upon contact will then animate themselves and their contexts together, charging both with new meanings. In just such a way, for example, does Marshall McLuhan's DEW-line card pack work as a programmer of hitherto unexpected approaches to a problem. In one method for use of the pack, the problem-solver is dealt three cards, each of which is printed with an aphorism or a pun or an otherwise suggestive statement. The object of the thing is to force a new look at a previously unsolvable problem by bringing to bear upon it a new meaning for it, the result of the energetic juxtaposition of the three previously unrelated ideas forced into confrontation and focused on the neutral problem. If, in Ascott's work, we see the neutral physical situation of say 'bathtub' as the 'problem' we are attempting to animate, then we bring to that situation not aphorisms or puns but Ascott's metaforms', concrete visual objects (visual ideas) capable, like McLuhan's aphorisms, of wide energetic interpretation. Just as the introduction of potent idea into neutral problem further animates both idea and problem in the ensuing dialogue, so the introduction of the metaforms into the neutral physical situation energizes and renders significant both metaform and original situation in a new total way.

In the current 'transactional' pieces, the artist has provided a variety of physical situations, a counter top, a metal ladder, some tables, and a selection of metaforms, in this case 'found' ones, things easily available in hardware stores, certain already abstracted things (a plastic funnel, for example, a pure idea made visible); furthermore, he has not only brought these units together for their mutually animating effect, but has added the possibility of spectator participation (thus their 'transactional' potential) as the 'players' rearrange the objects in ways that they themselves determine. Unlike classical 'found objects' (Duchamp's, for example, had to do with criticism) these readymades of Ascott's are quite literally visual ideas; they act as tools in the transactions which occur when they are manipulated. As Ascott points out, one of his table-tops loaded with arrangeable objects is not so much itself a proposition (except for the mutually animating one we have discussed) as it is the raw material with which a proposition can be made. The transactional process of two people pulling up chairs, sitting down and arranging generalized, familiar, but strangely evocative objects in new and surprising ways, this game-playing is of course an analogue for the way things get themselves discovered in science, in art, and in administration of all kinds; indeed, the process of playing with these things is a useful analogue for the contemporary administrative process. Appropriately enough, Ascott is administrator as well as artist, in this case President of the Ontario College of Art; I should be tempted to refer to his current work as an artist as 'theoretical administration'; certainly the aesthetics of the things he makes and the meaning of the things he says and does are all of a piece. Ascott's metaform for open-ended art education has, as is common knowledge, pretty well polarized the College. It has done so in very much the same way as a concrete visual metaform energizes the hitherto benign theatre into which it is introduced.

artscanada #166/167/168, Spring 1972.

Text: © Gary Michael Dault. All rights reserved.

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