Ars Electronica 2009: More Electronic Than Art… | MARISA GÓMEZ

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As every September since 1979, the city of Linz celebrated this year 2009 the thirtieth edition of its known and prestigious festival Ars Electronica, a festival that along its long trajectory has focused on highlighting the impact of the “new technologies” and the digital revolution on culture and artistic practices.

And this is not little. When the first edition of the festival started at the end of the 70’s, as part of the International Bruckner Festival -focused basically in classical music as a homage to this composer born in Linz-, very few institutions had focused their attention on the socio-cultural transformation that digital technologies were carrying out. In fact, only the SIGGRAPH (Association for Computing Machinery’s Special Interest Group on Graphics and Interactive Techniques) had started in 1974 to celebrate its annual festival in US, focused on the development of computer graphics and their interactive applications, especially in the audiovisual industry.

Apart from some isolated exhibitions that took place in 1968, like “Cybernetic Serendipity”, in the Institute of Contemporary Art of London or “Software”, celebrated in the Jewish Museum of New York, the Ars Electronica Festival was the first event with international vocation that explored the relationship between the artistic practices and technologies of communication and information, which these years started to expand.

Having become a point of reference for everybody interested in this field, in 1986 the Festival claims its independence from the Brucknerfest and begins a new phase of operation -which lasted until 1995- under the guidance of Peter Weibel, curator and director of ZKM -recently known in Spain as the curator of the Bienal de Sevilla-, and one of the founders of thought regarding the relationship between art and technology. In 1996 the Austrian artist Gerfreid Stocker takes over the management of the festival, turning it into a permanent focus of ongoing activity supported by the creation of the Ars Electronica Center, the basis of the future activities of the Ars Electronica Festival.

Its model, followed by many other festivals that later emerged in Europe -such as the European Media Art Festival, Osanbrück (Germany), 1981, Transmediale, Berlin (Germany), 1988, or Art Futura (Spain), 1990- is based on a set of exhibitions related to the topic of each year, in the Prix Ars Electronica, the Cyberarts competition that rewards the most innovative proposals in categories such as Digital Animation, Digital Music, Hybrid Art, Interactive Art and Digital Communities, and FutureLab, a permanent research and creation laboratory in the field of interactivity and interfaces.

New Ars Electronica Center, 2009

This major international festival format will directly enter the sphere of major art events that are filling the agendas of professionals and amateurs in recent decades: Biennials, Documentas, Art Fairs and festivals are, in themselves and beyond their content, a phenomenon that characterizes the art institution today. Although its ability to attract crowds of the most disparate backgrounds and interests and to stimulate peripheral regions and inserting them into the world cultural map is indisputable, one might ask whether, in practice -in the level of content, objectives and development- these big events come up to the fame and the publicity that precedes them.

Ars Electronica 2009

As I explained above, the importance of the Ars Electronica Festival in promoting and generating discussion around the relation of art to technology is undeniable, also confirmed by the fact that manuals, articles and reviews about this subject constantly quote it.
That is why, when someone like the person who writes these lines -with an interest in these issues that goes beyond mere curiosity- decides to board on a plane to spend a week visiting the festival, she does so believing that she’s travelling to the navel of the world of contemporary technological and artistic experimentation. And of course, this is true to a great extent. However, perhaps due to excessive expectations, the festival turned out to be, in my case, quite different from what I expected.

The fact that this year the festival celebrated its thirteenth edition, coinciding with the European Culture Capital status of Linz and the opening of the new building of the Ars Electronica Center -a multifunctional structure of multi-level deck with LED glass façade designed by a prestigious Viennese studio of architecture- and also a radically innovative theme in the contemporary landscape, “Human Nature”, were, in my opinion, good enough reasons to raise expectations.

Of course, when facing an event of this size it is necessary to consider that, as it’s said, “there has to be a bit of everything”, in other words, you know you will find pieces that will fascinate you and others that won’t stimulate any interest. On the other hand, when one comes from the art world, like myself, he/she must approach the Ars Electronica knowing that, taking into account the fact that its intention is to establish a dialogue between art, science, technology and society, the presence of discourses on art is not dominant.

And in the case of this latest edition, perhaps because of the subject itself -a reflection on the challenges put forth by genetic engineering and biotechnology not only on our environment, but also on life itself and, ultimately, on the human condition-one might say that in general, discourses on art were not only non-dominant, but they occupied a subordinate role.

For example, the section “The Device Art Project”, which presented a number of widgets produced by the hand of top Japanese engineering -like Media Vehicle of Hiroo Iwata- or the presence of the guest artist, the media star of the festival, Hiroshi Ichiguro with Geminoid HI-1 robot, a replica of himself based on the study of human behavior, left little room for dialogue regarding artistic practices and aesthetic issues; instead, they were presented as a showcase of engineering and its potential for trade. It is worth  commenting, as an anecdote, Professor Ichiguro’s huge surprise when, in a casual conversation, I mentioned that I came from the world of art history.

Geminoid HI-1, Professor Ichiguro

I’m not trying to be conservative or reactionary, because neither art nor aesthetic categories exist in the most traditional sense anymore, and artistic practices are and will increasingly be hybrids between engineering, biotechnology and informatics. This is the essence of this new technological art and it is the result of a cultural paradigm that tends towards the intersection of scientific and humanistic fields.

However, I think that this model still needs a lot of reflection from the point of view of artistic practice and I think that the multiple cycles of conferences organized around the festival -including some of the major theorists of the contemporary techno-artistic scene- didn’t insist as much as they should on generating debate about this new context in artistic practices; they only focused on engineering.

Although one expected to find an environment full of professionals in creation and research in art and “new technologies” that would generate a special focus of debate, it was actually more common to find individuals who defined themselves as “businessmen” of technology, a species of “hunters of technological novelties with a commercial potential”, especially from Japan.

Exhibitions much smaller than one could have imagined, a conference program that left a lot of room from improvements and a more than superficial tribute to previous editions of the festival, might have been a result of -as it was often commented in the circles of the event- a lack of funds due to of the huge investment in the new building or inner management problems amid the uncertainty about its new director.

In any case, beyond criticism, the experience was worth it. Whether or not art remained in the background, without any doubt the festival is a perfect way to ponder upon the relationship between art, science and technology and its objective to be, as explained by Jose Luis de Vicente, a great forum of ideas and a showcase for sophisticated and innovative projects, is more than fulfilled; however, the festival is becoming less important as a source of new discourses, particularly regarding the field of art practice.

Standing out …

As I said, in an event of this kind, of course, beyond the general impression, there are many positive elements to be emphasized.
In my opinion, one of the most attractive things of the festival -part of the new building and action center of the FuruteLab– was the Deepspace, a room equipped with the most advanced three-dimensional projection technology where immersive virtual reality projects of enormous interest and quality could be collectively experienced.

Performance with Max Brand’s Synthesizer

In addition, in the parallel program -events, concerts, performances, etc.- and the exhibitions and conferences, one could find the most attractive proposals. Among them, besides the great concerts on Sunday night -in which Brucknerhaus hosted symphonic music by Arvo Pärt and Alan Hovhaness accompanied by digital projection- the interpretation of E. Schimana of a composition for Max Brand’s synthesizer is worth mentioning. A concert that consisted in giving life to a synthesizer of 1957, a historical mechanism of our digital culture, whose surrounding sound was based on sub-harmonic frequencies described as “a trip to hell with no return ticket”.

On the other hand, I’d like to point out other concerts and performances related to electronic music -one of the great pillars of the festival- such as those held at the historic hotel Rother Krebs. Next, I post a sample video of the live performance by Dj and performer Ronnieism.