Navigating Consciousness: Art and Transformative Technologies
Planetary Collegium


Just as the computer is more than the sum of its parts, and constitutes an environment which demands the faculty of cyberception[i] for its apprehension, so the hypercortex is more than the sum of minds interacting in the Net, becoming a field of consciousness that requires new psychic and spiritual vehicles for its navigation. Within the term “consciousness” I include all that lies outside our learned and rationalised perception of the world, the psychic and intuitional, the numinous and invisible; within ”science” I include all that constitutes hermetic, esoteric, hidden knowledge. By "art" I include everything lying outside official culture which has the capacity to bring change to the viewer’s state of being. Consciousness research brings forth new awareness, and is both ontologically and epistemologically challenging.


Gregory Bateson famously asserted that mind was immanent in whole systems rather than being the property of finite things and, in the context of technology, saw mind as brain plus computer plus environment [ii]. The hypercortex [iii] is precisely a whole system, although essentially open-ended and emergent. The term hypercortex is intended to bring together body, cortex and telematic environment into one indissoluble whole.


Before looking into the future, I would like to re visit an early project of mine which dealt with how minds might interact, through a process of “dispersed authorship”, and how a field of consciousness might emerge in the creation of a non-linear narrative. This was La Plissure du Texte : a planetary fairytale which took place here in Paris between December 1983 and February 1984, at the Musée d’art moderne as part of Electra[iv], organised by Frank Popper.


I would like to describe the background to La Plissure du Texte.

During my tenure as Dean of the San Francisco Art Institute in the 1970s word got round that I consulted the tarot and threw the I Ching on a regular basis. I was approached by Dr Brendan O’Regan, Research Director at the Institute of Noetic Sciences in Sausalito, to contribute to a serious TV documentary of new developments in “psychic  science”.


I had been studying psychic systems since the early 1960s in ways which led me a decade later to ideas of distributed mind and “distributed authorship” embedded in La Plissure du Texte. I followed both the left-hand and the right-hand path in pursuit of my esoteric interests - I’m thinking here of Robert Ornstein’s thesis the concerning left and right hemispheres of the brain in determining linguistic and cultural norms[v], as well as his readings drawn from anthropology, psychology, philosophy, mystical religion, and physiology, including ideas of William James, the Sufism of Idries Shah, Jung’s synchronicity and Charles Tart’s Psi studies [vi]. It was in these areas that  I encountered  J B Rhine’s work on parapsychology[vii] and JW Dunne’s theory of time and memory [viii]  and such writers as Ouspensky[ix], Papus[x] , and John Michell’s A View over Atlantis[xi].


For the documentary, I interviewed the Brazilian psychic Gasparetto, in front of what seemed to be the whole of the community of parapsychologists, therapists, and transpersonal psychologists of Northern California who were assembled to watch and discuss the demonstration. Thus I was inducted into the Bay Area world of the paranormal. This led me to Jacques Vallee[xii], popularly known as a French UFO expert on whom the character played by Francois Truffaut in the Stephen Spielberg’s 1977 movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind was based. But, fascinated as I was in this world, Vallee interested me more in his work with computer conferencing. His company Infomedia provided the PLANET network[xiii], giving international access to huge databases and widespread  computer conferencing.


This was all new to me, and particularly exciting was the fact that the portable terminal, with acoustic couplers to a telephone handset, could be jacked into the network from just about anywhere. Just as earlier, in 1964, I awoke to the value of cybernetics in art practice[xiv], I saw in computer networking the possibility for a new connective medium for my art. The National Endowment for the Arts in Washington funded my first project (dubbed Terminal Art by the press) in which I mailed portable Texas Instrument 765 terminals to Douglas Davis, Jim Pomeroy, Don Burgy, Eleanor Antin, in the US, and Keith Arnatt in the UK, and we set about exploring the potential of the medium.


As the project got underway, I was in Europe where I learned of the French government initiative to create a national Programme Télématique. The term télématique had been coined by Minc and Nora in their then recent 1978 report to the French President [xv]  .My reading in this new field fused with the lines of thought I had been developing throughout the 1960s and 70s which followed a path through Saussure , Levi-Straus , to Foucault and on to a more poetic reading of Derrida and full blown post-structuralism.


In 1978 for the CAA panel devoted to “post-modernism” convened by Douglas Davis in New York, my presentation drew in part on the second order cybernetics of Heinz von Foerster[xvi] - which included the observer in the system, relating it to my own theory of interactivity. Bateson’s concept of “mind at large” in his Steps to an Ecology of Mind was also potent (the term had originally be coined by Aldous Huxley whose Proper Studies[xvii] I had studied as a school boy.


At that time also Roland Barthes was important to me in emphasising how meaning can be elicited from the most trivial or disregarded objects or actions. Not withstanding the excellence of Eco’s magisterial A Theory of Semiotics [xviii], or the pioneering work of Charles Sanders Peirce[xix], it was Mythologies[xx], which first captured my imagination ... And it was Charles Fourier’s “universal theory of passionate attraction" [xxi] which inspired my utopianism, which I transposed to the telematics of utopia - the freedom to give/receive narrative pleasure in the open systems context of non-linear  (asynchronic) time and boundless (non-locational) space – to be both here and elsewhere at one and the same time, where time and the finality of meaning could both be deferred. I was ready for Derrida’s différance, seeing difference functioning as an aporia: difference in neither time nor space but making both possible [xxii].


My interest in signs, semiotics, and especially in myths was also aided by Vladimir Propp's study[xxiii] of narrative structure, and the morphology of the fairy tale. Unlike the structuralists' search for the underlying structure of myths, Propp’s investigation of folktales sought a number of basic elements at the very surface of the narrative. I was especially attracted to the idea that each mythic character actually represented a centre of action more than a simple persona.


In 1982 Frank Popper’s invitation to contribute to Electra gave me the opportunity to create a telematic event, which somehow might combine the many strands of ideas I have mentioned. Cybernetics, esoterica, interactivity, connected minds, fields of consciousness, narrative centres of action, myth, fairy tales, and a commitment to telematics as my working medium. These issues, amongst others less easily defined, led me inexorably to find my subject. As a painter and dreamer, associative thought had always been more productive to my creative process than strict rationality. All this added to the valued that Barthe’s notion of “juissance” gave to “le plaisir du texte”. Given the defining nature of the telematic process as that of non-linear weaving of texts and images, the title of my project was quick to form in my mind: the pleating of the texte, or in homage to Barthes, La Plissure du Texte.


The process started by assigning fairy tale roles (centres of action) to eleven cities.

Beast Alma, Québec(Langage Plus group)
Villain Amsterdam (David Garcia and Annie Wright)
Trickster Bristol (Mike Punt and group)
Wise Old Man Honolulu (John Southworth and group)
Magician Paris (Roy Ascott and group)
Prince Pittsburgh (Bruce Breland and group)
Fool San Francisco (Gregory McKenna and Tom Klinkowstein)
Witch Sydney (Eric Gidney and group)
Fairy Godmother Toronto (Norman White and group)
Princess Vancouver (Robert Adrian X and group)
Sorcerer's Apprentice Vienna (Helmut Mark and Robert Adrian X)

This was to be a project involving multiple associative pathways for a narrative that would unroll in time according to the centres of action that determined its development. The process of pleating the text would be asynchronic, multi-layered, and non-linear in all its bifurcations. Bob Adrian agreed to manage ARTEX as the organising instrument of the communications infrastructure for my project. ARTEX was an electronic mail program for artists on the I.P. Sharp Associates (IPSA) timesharing network.. There was a core of about 10 artists using it regularly and around 30 to 40 others at any one time during its 10 years of operation.  


Throughout  the project, I was developing the idea of a telematic art, where the artist would create context rather than content, providing a field of operations in which viewers could themselves create meaning and shape experience .


The second part of this paper looks at issues of “The Body, Cortex and Networks” from a futures-oriented perspective.


I am aware that the future is not a given, but is to be created, to be diverted from any pre-determination, and that the place of the artist in this process can be significant. Science does its best to construct an understanding of the world that we can build on but its strict rationality excludes much that is a part of human consciousness. We are beginning to see how contemporary scientists (in quantum physics as a popular example) are prepared to consider the implications of their research for ideas about consciousness. The conference Towards a Science of Consciousness [xxiv] convened at the University of Arizona sees over 800 scientists from every kind of discipline meeting in Tucson every two years to discuss the issues: what is consciousness? where is consciousness? and  even, why is consciousness? Some delegates look beyond the boundaries of their academic field in search of answers, challenging orthodoxies and seeking new perspectives. In parallel, my research centre, CAiiA-STAR[xxv] has convened annually Consciousness Reframed: art and consciousness in the post-biological era, where the object of the conference is less an attempt to explain consciousness and more an investigation of how it might be navigated. For the many artists involved in dealing with this mysterium,  consciousness is at the ultimate frontier of their research.


Here we can go back to Ouspensky: “. . .an art which does not reveal mysteries, which does not lead to the unknown, does not yield new knowledge, is a parody of art, and still more often is not even a parody, but simply a commerce or an industry”. He writes  in 1931 about the search for a more subtle means of creation, “The ideas of the “fourth dimension”, of “many dimensional space”, show the way by which we may arrive at the broadening of our conception of the world” [xxvi]. Here, in 2002, we are working in the many dimensional space of telematics. And just as in the classic example of the two dimensional being perceiving an object of the third dimension as a passage in time, so to we may change our conception of time to fit the new dimensionality of networks. In this way the body can be seen as a three dimensional aspect of a fourth dimensional whole. It is the hypercortex – mind in the hyperdimensional space of telematic connectivity which will give us the freedom to roam in the fourth dimension.


I cite Ouspensky because I am looking for roots, and it was only through correspondence with Linda Henderson that I realised I was far from alone in the 1960s in valuing ideas of the fourth dimension. She will show in the introduction to her new edition of Fourth Dimension & Non-Euclidean Geometry in Modern Art [xxvii]  what these ideas meant to Robert Smithson, as they had done to such figures as Moholy-Nagy and, especially, Buckminster Fuller. For these visionaries “time itself was not the fourth dimension but rather an inadequately perceived experience of a higher dimensional space”.

 “More influential . . . was the other legacy of hyperspace philosophy: the connection of the fourth dimension to expanded consciousness or mystical “cosmic consciousness,” which had been developed by [. . .] Ouspensky[xxviii].


This is what I believe the telematic hypercortex can apprehend if it is brought into conjunction with much older science of mind, such as yoga on the one hand, and that of ethnobotany and shamanic pharmacology on the other[xxix]. This re-organisation of the mind will be necessary if we are to attain the multi-layered  complexity of cognition and perception that the evolving planetary networks demand.


Cyberception is a faculty which is emerging in any case but instruments to enrich its realisation are worth pursuing. At the same time research into the plant technologies of archaic cultures, still in use amongst numerous indigenous groups in South America for example, is a prerequisite if our knowledge of consciousness is to advance[xxx]. My investigations in this regard have taken me to the Kuikuru tribe in the Xingu River region of the Mato Grosso in 1998. The object was to share with their shamans the experience of navigating cyberspace and discussing it in relation to their journeys into psychic space[xxxi]. In subsequent  years I have sought out ceremonies of the Santo Daime[xxxii] and the Uniao do Vegetal[xxxiii] in which the ingestion of the brew ayahuasca[xxxiv] is at the centre of the practice.


 These practices are ancient beyond history and as both Eduardo Luna and Terence McKenna have shown once extended to almost every culture on the planet. At the same time Jeremy Narby in The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the origins of knowledge[xxxv] shows how, as a product of ingesting the  ayahuasca, the shamans reading of DNA - his own and of other species - may account for the visions he experiences. He shows for example the similarity between the entwined snakes, at the base of all shamanic imagery, and the double helix.


In Europe a cosmic consciousness and knowledge of the hidden world was sought through alchemy and aspects of Gnosticism, practices of inquiry that led in England to the forming of the Royal Society in 1662. Back of this was a scholarly society in Oxford called the ‘invisible college’. A “college for the promoting of physico-mathematical experimental learning". John Wilkins, deeply involved in alchemy, freemasonry and the Rosicrucian order, had set this up.  Borges, who made a special study of Wilkins’ ideas, says that


“His main interests were theology, music, the manufacture of transparent hives for the observation of bees, the construction of spaceships for a regular service to the moon and the creation of a universal language”[xxxvi].


This melange of disparate interests, both physical and metaphysical is quite typical of the mid 17th century mind. Wilkins’universal language, were it to have emerged, would be in the best sense transdisciplinary, although it must be said that Borges found it somewhat unsatisfactory :


"These ambiguities, redundancies, and deficiencies recall those attributed by Dr. Franz Kuhn to a certain Chinese encyclopedia entitled Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. On those remote pages it is written that animals are divided into: (a) those that belong to the Emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) those that are trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids, (f) fabulous ones, (g) stray dogs, (h) those that are included in this classification, (i) those that tremble as if they were mad, (j) innumerable ones, (k) those drawn with a very fine camel's-hair brush, (l) others, (m) those that have just broken a flower vase, (n) those that resemble flies from a distance"[xxxvii].



To bring esoteric knowledge of what constitutes the mind into conjunction with advanced ideas in science, with the full instrumentality of technology ; integrating knowledge and experience at a new level of consciousness, creation at the edge of imagination, these are the things that drive my current research.


Virtual Reality interactive digital technology

telematic, immersive


Validated Reality reactive mechanical technology

prosaic, Newtonian.


Vegetal Reality psychoactive plant technology

 entheogenic, spiritual.


One project deriving from this enquiry is the Planetary Collegium, a rubric intended, within its cyberspacial implication, to echo the Invisible College of Wilkins.


I first presented the idea of the Planetary Collegium in 1994 at ISEA Helsinki[xxxviii]. At the same time as I had set up the Centre for Advanced Inquiry in the Interactive Arts (CAiiA) in the University of Wales, Newport focussing on research into art technology and consciousness. Later I established STAR, the Science Technology and Arts Research, at Plymouth University. CAiiA-STAR an integrated research platform, signalled the possibility of a new paradigm of inquiry. More recently the University of Technology in Sydney Australia has adopted the CAiiA-STAR model, and institutions in Zurich and in the North West of Brazil are moving in this direction. With each centre as a node of a larger network, an important  aim of the Planetary Collegium is achieved. 


There are other models of transdisciplinary inquiry I admire:


  • the research being undertaken in art and nanotechnology by Victoria Vesna of Design|Media Arts, and James Gimzewski of the California Nanosystems Institute at UCLA, which I hope might form the nucleus of a node of the Collegium


  • the group SymbioticA, led by Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, originators of Tissue Culture Art, with their dedicated  lab set within the school of anatomy and human biology at the University of Western Australia. - the first laboratory that enables the artist to engage with wet biology in a science department. This group too, I hope, will join us in our planetary network.


At the other extreme, I refer briefly to Vale do Amanhecer (the Valley of the Dawn)  in Brazil. Here, within its idiosyncratic eccentricity, a small township has evolved dedicated to the syncretic assimilation of psychic and spiritual practices. Syncretism is the hallmark of culture in Brazil and the Valley of the Dawn is a microcosm of a larger spiritual enterprise.


Given such diversity of interests, what then is the Planetary Collegium? Is it education or is it art? Does it seek to grasp new scientific ideas or simply ancient esoteric knowledge? Is it seeking to re-integrate the old plant technology /pharmacology into our models of consciousness, or is it looking at the leading edge of bio and nano research? In terms of planet earth, is its interest in geomatics or geomantics? The answer is, it aspires to incorporate all of these things. It is where synergy and syncretism meet, and connectivity rules! The space of the Collegium is a hybrid space both physical (local) and telematic (non-local). Connectivity is fundamental to its structure as well as its intellectual, artistic and social aspirations.


The Planetary Collegium calls for a hybrid architecture that can bring together the laboratory, the academy, and the museum into a new kind of synthesis.


It is intended that each node of this networked Collegium will have a significant architectural presence. I have involved the architect Peter Anders in the design of the first node which it is hoped will be located in the North East of Brazil.


[i] Ascott, R.1995. The Architecture of Cyberception. In:  M. TOY, ed. Architects in Cyberspace. London:  Academy Editions,


[ii] Bateson, G.1972. Steps to an Ecology of Mind. San Francisco: Chandler


[iii] Ascott,R. 1997. Cultivando o Hipercórtex.(trans. Flavia Saretta) In: D.DOMINGUES (ed). A Arte no Século XXI: a humanização das technologias. Sao Paulo: University of Sao Paulo. Pp 336-344


[iv] Ascott, R. 1983. La Plissure du Texte. In: F. POPPER, ed. Electra. Paris: Musée d’Art Moderne,  pp. 398-399


[v] Ornstein, R.E. 1972. The Psychology of Consciousness. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman.


[vi] Ornstein, R.E.1973.The Nature of Human Consciousness. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman


[viii] Dunne, J.W. 1927 An Experiment with Time. London: Faber & Faber


[x] http://www.chez.com/crp/marti/papus.htm

Papus. 1958. The Tarot of the Bohemians (trans. A. P. Morton). New York: Samuel Weiser.


[xi] Michell, J. 1969. A View over Atlantis. London: Sago Press


[xiv] Ascott, R.1967. "Behaviourist Art and the Cybernetic Vision". Cybernetica, Journal of the International Association for Cybernetics (Namur), 9, pp. 247-264, and 10, pp. 25-56


[xv] Nora, S & Minc, A. 1978. L’Informatisation de la société. Paris: La Documentation Française


[xvi] Foerster, H von.1981. Observing Systems. New York: Intersystems.


[xvii] Huxley, A. 1949. Proper Studies. London: Chatto & Windus.


[xviii] Eco.U. 1979. A Theory of Semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press

[xx] Barthes, R. Mythologies. Paris: Seuil, 1957


[xxi] Fourier, C.1971.The Utopian Vision of Charles Fourier; selected texts on work, love, and passionate attraction. (Trans. Jonathan Beecher and Richard Bienvenu. London: Beacon Press.


[xxii] Derrida, J. 1978. Writing and Difference. (trans. Alan Bass). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.


[xxiii] Propp, V. 1985. Theory and History of Folklore (ed. Anatoly Liberman). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.


[xxvi] Ouspensky, P.D. 1931. New Model of the Universe. New York: Knopf.


[xxvii] Henderson,L. D.1983. The Fourth Dimension and Non-Euclidean Geometry in Modern Art. Princeton University Press.


[xxviii] Henderson, op cit.


[xxix] McKenna, Terence K., McKenna, Dennis J., Stevens, Jay.1993. The invisible landscape : mind, hallucinogens, and the I Ching. San Francisco: Harper.


[xxx] Schultes, R. & Raffauf, R. 1992.Vine of the Soul. New York: Synergetic Press.

(Richard Evans Schultes, Director of the Botanical Museum (Emeritus), Harvard University and Robert Raffauf, Professor of Pharmacognosy & Medicinal Chemistry (Emeritus), Northeastern University).


[xxxi] Ascott, R. 1999. “Seeing Double: art and the technology of transcendence”. In: Ascott, R. ed.. Reframing Consciousness.: art, mind and technology. Exeter: Intellect.


[xxxv] Narby, J. 1998. The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the origins of knowledge.New York: Tarcher


[xxxvi] Borges, J. L. "The Analytical Language of John Wilkins." In: La Nación, 8 February 1942.


[xxxvii] Borges, J.L. 1964. Other Inquisitions 1937 –1952.( trans:Sims, R..L.C Austin: University of Texas Press, Austin.


[xxxviii] Ascott, R.1994. "The Planetary Collegium". ISEA ‘94, Catalogue and proceedings of the symposium.   Helsinki: UIAH.



© Roy ASCOTT & Leonardo/Olats, février 2003