I always feel a bit odd writing festival reports. There is no way one
can encapsulate the atmosphere of a festival in a few paragraphs. All
one basically can do is share the taste of a few delights and frustrations.
A huge event like Ars Electronica [www. aec.at], which celebrated its
20th anniversary this year, is always more than the sum of its parts.
Though I cannot shrug off the impression that this years AEC thrived
more on the almost mythical proportions its reputation has taken on over
the past years, than on the actual quality of its parts.
Hosted by the picturesque Austrian city of Linz at the Danube, the festival
has been at the forefront of digital media art, querying the intersections
between technological change and cultural production. Originally starting
out 1979 as an electronic music event, initiated by the ORF (the Austrian
Broadcasting Company in Upper Austria) and the cultural centre Brucknerhaus,
the vast developments in ICT soon enough caused the organisers to include
other art forms utilising digital media. Over the years AEC has become
more and more of an authority within the digital arts community. This
process institutionalisation, if you will, materialised in the opening
of the Ars Electronica Center in 1996. The venue hosts on the one hand
the " Museum of the Future " (exhibiting works of media artists),
and on the other hand the " FutureLab " (a workplace with hi-tech
infrastructure available to artists, technologists and businesspeople).
Institutionalisation works similar to the dynamics of identity formation
: it provides a structure which is stabile and recognisable. However,
often much time and effort is invested in maintaining that particular
structure, and then the innovative glance towards the future gets somewhat
lost in the process. Perhaps what AEC needs is an identitarian crisis,
to propel it again towards the future.
The inertia of institutionalisation can also be felt in the choice of
projects awarded a Golden Nica for the Prix Ars Electronica. Probably
commercialisation is something long-running huge festivals cannot wholly
avoid. Yet, selecting Hollywood blockbusters for the visual effects category,
is pushing it a bit too far. Last year Titanic ran away with the title
for best visual effects, and in the same vein the film What Dreams May
Come, starring Robin Williams won this years Nica. In the digital
music category Aphex Twin got a prize for " Come to daddy ".
One might as well attend and Oscar or MYW award ceremony instead. Nonetheless,
what is most irritating is the stubborn persistence of Ars Electronica
to preserve the idea that art is not a commodity, and thus not prone to
commercial contamination, let alone circulation. This creates an absurd
situation wherein festival-goers feel theyre attending a shopping
mall event, wherein the organisers desperately try to sell their products,
but deny it. I bet the big sponsors SIEMENS, Silicon Graphics, Microsoft,
Hewlett Packard, Oracle and Compaq, are laughing all the way to the bank.
Interesting note here is that the Hollywood productions were bestowed
the largest sums of money.
Since 1987 AEC has set a thematic focal point and symposium to the festival
in order to augment its scientific authority. Previous themes have been
: Endo & Nano Technology (92); Artificial Life (93); and
Infowar (98). This years festival dealt with the subject of
life science, more specifically biotechnology and genetic engineering.
The point of departure for artistic and theoretical elaboration was whether
the Digital Revolution will be followed by a Biological Revolution (Press
Release, September 99). The list of speakers was very impressive
(e.g. Manuel De Landa, Bruno Latour, etc). Nevertheless, the speakers
I heard disappointed. Take Eduardo Kac for example, professor of art and
technology at SAIC, Chicago. Kac mixes digital media with biological systems
in his creative process. The " Genesis " and " GFP K9 "
projects he presented at the symposium are examples of " transgenic
" art : a new art form based on the use of genetic technology. "
Genesis ", which was also exhibited at AEC, is created with the genetically
engineered JM101 bacteria, which cannot survive outside a petri dish.
The idea was to create an " artist gene " by taking a sentence
from the book of Genesis, translating it into Morse code, and then transferring
it to a DNA base pair. The bacteria and the " artist " gene
continue to mutate, the former through natural processes, the latter through
a synthetic one. By the end of the exhibition the mutated sentence from
the Bible is re-translated into English and the extent of modification
is revealed. The " GFP K9 " work is still in development. Kac
went into a lengthy and totally pointless discussion about human~canine
interaction, while showing a puzzled audience slides of dogs. The point
of this history of dog domestication was to stress that humans have domesticated
dogs, but that dogs have also domesticated us. Kac wants to create a fluorescent
dog by injecting the GFP (Green Fluorescent Protein) gene of fluorescent
jelly fish into the dogs nucleus. Quite a noble project, but why
bore the audience for 30 with doggy history instead of coming straight
to the point?
Life Science Installations
Arguably this part of the festival was most interesting. The selected
art works for the Cyberarts 99 Prix Ars Electronica were exhibited in
the beautiful O.K. Centre for Contemporary art [www.ok-centrum.at]. Founded
in 1988, the OK Centre prides itself on being an exhibition and production
house for (multi-medial) art. It was a pleasure wandering from room to
room, checking out the installations. I really liked Daniel Rozins
(USA) elegant interpretation of what digital painting could be. In this
work traditional art meets cyberart. Rozin devised a large painting easel
with a blank canvas. The painter/spectator applies a paintbrush to the
canvas, yet instead of paint live video from 3 cameras positioned nearby,
appear on the canvas. Each brushstroke puts a new updated layer of video
on the canvas. Rozin used fishing wire in the paint brush, in order for
the bristles to act as fibre optics and emit infrared light through the
canvas. The camera captures the IR light and transfers it to the computer
through a video digitising board. The other cameras supply the computer
with data of the surroundings. Consequently the computer mixes all the
images and sends them back through a projector to the canvas. The effect
is wonderful, as if real brushstrokes were creating the image.
Another stunning piece of work were the " Sound Creatures "
created by Japanese artist Kouichirou Eto. The installation consists out
of 3 major elements : Web browser, consoles and robots. Upon entering
the room one encounters a " stage " where 6 little robots are
buzzing and whirring. Through the input of visual patterns over the internet,
which are transformed into sound patterns, the visitor can influence the
movement and sound the robots produce. When the robots come close to each
other they exchange sound data, which on its turn gradually modifies the
robots sound production and moves. In addition to this, there are
2 consoles placed in the exhibition space, where visitors can give the
robots commands regarding movement and sound. However any robot at random
only execute this instruction when in the " Infection Zone ",
a location on the stage lit by a spotlight. Etos idea was to present
the robots as performers who exchange sound information by bumping into
(infecting) each other. The beautiful thing about this piece is that the
whole is more than the sum of the parts : all 3 elements are interdependent
and inter-influential of each other. For example, it may well be that
a visitor witnesses his/her web sound input change immediately by the
bumping of their robot into another one. The result is a mesmerising robotic
Canadian artist Luc Courchesne won an award of distinction for his interactive
video installation " Landscape One ". Courchesne has a background
in interactive design, and claims to be much more interested in processes
than results. Another concern of his is to transcend the technology by
putting emphasis on content, and interaction with people. In " Landscape
One ", for example, a realistic landscape is projected on all 4 walls
of a room. This landscape - the Mont-Royal park in Montreal - is visited
by real and virtual figures. In order to take a stroll through the virtual
garden, real visitors require the help of the virtual characters, which
is established through touch pads, and microphones. I did not particularly
like this work, but Courchesne was one of the few artists who had something
interesting to say about the labour and (wo)manpower involved in creating
a piece of multi-media art. He was indeed one of the few artists, who
explicitly thanked the whole battalion of technicians and programmers
who helped creating the artwork. More often than not it is the artist
coming up with a concept and a troupe of other people giving it shape.
These people have invested their labour, time and talent in the art work,
and thus only deserve to be acknowledged for that.
Christoph Ebener, Frank Fietzek, and Uli Winters installation also
got an honorary mention in the Interactive Arts category. With the intriguing
title " Hamster-symbiotic Exchange of Hoarded Energy ", this
group of German artists had 12 (!!) hamsters use a running wheel in order
to move little vehicles (intelligent robots) which ought to transport
portions of hamster food, located at the other side of the space back
to the hamsters. Both machine and mammal are co-dependent : the robot
vehicles are immobile if not moved by the hamsters running wheel,
and conversely the hamsters will starve if not brought the food. It is
interesting to see how this project seeks to investigate behavioural patterns
between animal and machine. Sadly enough we didnt see too much interaction
: the hamsters were quite terrified from all the attention, and decided
to remain in their little cots most of the time.
Open X/Closed X
The Open X part examined new strategies for net.art. So-called "
net-practitioners " were invited to show and explain their websites
to the public. Granted, this is a bit strange : these things should be
viewed on the web and not exhibited. Check out the following URLs
* Rtmark (USA) : www.rtmark.com
* Eugene Thacker (USA) : www.formless.org
* C5 (USA) : www.c5corp.com
(a personal favourite!)
* Rhizome (USA) : www.rhizome.org/starrynight
* TNC Network (F) : www.tnc.net
* Radio B92 (FRY) : www.freeb92.net
* DreamTech (USA) : www.d-b.net/dti
* Margarete Jahrmann & Max Mooswitzer (A) : www.konsum.net
* Encart : www.encart.net
* X-change : http
* Olia Lialina (RUS) : http
* Irational/UK : www.irational.org/
for more links go to link page
Closed X featured the same people as in Open X, yet now they were supposed
to talk about their latest projects. Again, checking out the web sites,
should give you all the info you need. A remarkable appearance, though,
was made by the boys from etoy [www.etoy.com], who won a golden Nica in
1996 for their Digital Hijack [www.hijack.org] : between March and July
1996 etoy infiltrated the webs search engines, and placed over a
thousand designated key-words within the top 10 rankings. Etoy agent Zai
sketched brief etoy history, and then had the audience in stitches when
he confessed that etoy stole the visual effects Golden Nica, at a party
the day before, and were going to donate it to RTmark. It is still unclear
whether they were bluffing or not.
The Commotion around Linux
Linus Torvalds of Finland got the Golden Nica in the .net category for
the Open Source system Linux. Often misinterpreted, Torvalds is not the
great inventor of Open Source : most components Linux runs on are derived
from GNU, which was developed in the States by people like Richard Stallman.
However, GNU lacked a system kernel, and this is what Torvalds provided,
when a student in 1991. Open Source is the term used for computer systems
where the source code is accessible for the user to modify according to
her/his preferences. OS is a countermove against proprietary software.
For more info on Open Source check out the Wizards of OS conference, which
was held on the 16th and 17th of July in Berlin [www.mikro.org/Events.OS].
Nevertheless, the public needs a guru, and what better guru than a talented
Torvalds, who now lives in the States, was contacted via videoconferencing.
He came across as humorous and modest. He made a very interesting point
that Open Source models retain a sense of totalitarianism when viewed
from a single leader model. As in politics, these models have to evolve
to more democratic models if they want to survive as Open Source, wherein
people can make use of their own creative input.
Linux was not submitted as an entry for the Prix AEC, but the jury chose
to award Linux for its evolutionary, collaborative and organically growing
merits. Heres where the commotion starts. On September 6th, the
day of the Prix AEC Gala, a hoax email message is sent to the nettime
mailing list, stating that Microsoft forced the jury to award Linux a
prize. Of course the hoax was immediately discovered, but it did trigger
a very interesting discussion whether an Operating System could be awarded
an artistic prize, and on the aesthetics hi-tech media. Member of the
jury Lisa Goldman justified the jurys decision as follows : "
The jury was looking for works that reflected a net aesthetic - Derrick
de Kerckhove coined the term " webness " to describe this quality.
We thought of this as work that is distributed, community-driven, evolutionary
in its form and development, and that actually couldnt be
created without a network. Using this criteria, Linux seemed to us to
be an outstanding example of what the net makes possible, and to be well
deserving of the Prix " (nettime, 12.9.99).
FutureLab Exhibition and Other Events
Gunter von Hagens, who also was a speaker at the symposium, is the inventor
of " plastination ". This method allows life-like preservation
of human tissue for an almost unlimited time. At the Brucknerhaus a few
whole-body specimens were exhibited : morbid artistry. Its quite
a disconcerting experience viewing Hagens "Chess player ",
knowing that perhaps once upon a time the plastinated body might have
really played chess.
The exhibition at the AEC Centre was independent of the festival. A very
fun work was German artist Anna Anders "Touchscreen ",
where upon touching the screen at various different spots, the visitor
interacts with different video sequences, like someone wiping the screen,
someone kissing the screen etc. It is a nice play on visual dialogue,
human and machine can have.
Another beautiful project is Rebecca Allens (USA) " Bush Soul
", which explores the role of avatars and human interaction in an
Artificial Life environment. The user navigates through the space with
a haptic, force-feedback joystick. The visuals and audio are stunning.
It took 3 programmers, 6 visual designers and 4 sound designers to realise
The night program of the festival was rather disappointing; somehow Austrians
fail to throw a good party. One starts wondering why on earth they invited
Michael Nyman to give a concert : we stayed for exactly 5, and then
ran. A crazy project from the Linzer art forum Stadtwerkstatt, was "
The Worlds Fastest Bug Race ". Here people could bet on cockroaches
for 4 consecutive nights : lots of shillings were spent, and some roaches
did disappear into the crowd. The program for the last night looked fantastic
: curated by Digital Music jury member Naut Humon (USA) it featured performances
by Farmers Manual, Rehberg & Bauer, Otomo Yoshihide, DJ Craze,
Ikue Mori, Granular Synthesis, and many many more. Lots of noise, of which
some excellent, but still no party in sight. Perhaps next years
AEC will give visitors more of an impetus to party.