To understand this years Ars Electronica it is important to look back at the history of the festival and also to consider the local context. In last years Issue of Mute Magazine I wrote:
“Ars Electronica is one of the, if not the oldest and biggest festivals for electronic art worldwide. It was launched in 1979 and led a relatively marginal existence until the late nineteen eighties. With the introduction of the Prix Ars Electronica (since 1987), organised by the local branch of the ORF (Austrian National Broadcast Corporation) and the building of the Ars Electronica Center (completed in 1996), it was given a permanent home and organisational base, and gained international influence and reputation through the relatively well endowed ‘Prix’. The city of Linz where the festival is held on an annual basis has transformed itself since the launch of the festival from a center of steel and chemical production towards a digital service economy. Even so the festival was once much smaller it has never gone through an ‘underground’ phase. From the very beginning it has been conceived, prepared and implemented by a local triad of godfathers from the ORF, local politics and arts. It is now considered as an exemplary success story. This was illustrated by the opening speeches of the mayor of Linz and the governer of the region Upper Austria, who stressed the importance of the festival for the transformation of town and region, giving it, in their words “a headstart in the global information economy”. (Mute Magazine, Nov.2002)
That said, the festival has of course also another function: providing a focus for a worldwide community of artists and theorists in the area of art and new media. Over time AE has acquired a certain taste, a mix of quite distinct directions and constituencies. Those “directions” that sometimes seem to contradict or even oppose each other are played out on different platforms within the festival.
– high-tech: the organisers have always been keen to get the high- tech sectors of the technologically most developed nations involved, notably the USA and Japan; this is reflected in the fact that the Prix Ars Electronica’s ‘Golden Nicas’ have often been given to mainstream Hollywood productions such as Toy Stories; three years ago the completely non-artistic product Linux won a Golden Nica in the category ‘net’. While other categories have changed over time the category computer animation remains unchallenged. This year the Golden Nica went to the American animation company Blue Skyes Inc. This emphasis on high-tech secures the faithfulness of a certain constituency, represented by people such as the famous ‘blogger’ and entrepreneur Joichi Ito who comes every year and did so too this time.
– high-end, high-tech art: AE pioneered the showcasing of the large scale interactive computer art installation. In the past this required the use of high-end machines such as the Silicon Graphics Onyx computer. Artists like Jeffrey Shaw used to work with whole teams of software engineers to realize their ideas. Similar work can now be realized with much cheaper hardware. Open Source software has enabled artists to gain the necessary programming skills themselves. But the genre itself has conceptually not changed that much. The Austrian artist couple Moswitzer/Jahrmann showed “The Nibble Engine”, an interactive 3D world that visualizes network commands; the whole work has been designed and programmed by the artists. similar in scale of installation and even more demanding in regard of necessary programming effort is George Legrady’s “Pockets Full of Memories”. Three different computer science research departments were involved in programming this work. The artist works more like a movie director, organising the resources and managing teams of contributors. The exhibition that goes with the Prix Ars continues to be a forum for this type of work. Whereas Moswitzer/Jahrmann’s and Legrady’s work have a lot to be said for other works of that genre simply tend towards high-tech-kitsch, displaying a deep lack of taste and engagement with art history. Some of this work seems to be better placed on a high-tech fair ground than in an arts context. (The ‘Play’ Zone in the Millennium Dome exhibition in 2000 showed a number of works which had been premiered at AE.)
– young, cutting edge and cheap: since Gerfried Stocker became the artistic director of AE in 1996 the so called ‘electrolobby’ has been the meeting place for a younger generation of artists which emerged together with the rise of the internet and is intricately involved with the languages, aesthetics and politics of code and the net. These artists often present the most cutting edge developments.
Their works are sometimes difficult to be exhibited in any gallery- like situation. The electrolobby solves this problem by having an exhibition area (on the first floor of the Brucknerhaus) for the more easily presentable work and an open forum in the ‘electrolobby kitchen’ downstairs for show and tell sessions. The kitchen works well as a meeting place and forum for internal discussion but has little appeal for the wider public which is not necessarily the fault of the artists or their work but a side effect of the presentation format. For me personnally this was the most interesting part of the festival but little was done to translate the themes and topics discussed in this ‘greenhouse of innovation’ in such a way that an informed but not necessarily specialized audience can understand what it is all about. Some of the discussions dealt with the question if a new ‘post net.art’ paradigm has arrived. (more about artists/projects at the end of the report)
– the talking shop: the conference section of AE continues to attract and appal in equal measures. As a festival for “art, technology and society” the conference part is by definition inter-disciplinary. This should not necessarily have the effect that the quality of presentations is ‘mixed’ to say it most euphemistically. Year for year the same spectacle: highly intellectual academic lectures of international stars of the theory scene are followed by incompetence or awkwardness. This year Friedrich Kittler gave a very informative historic overview of the history of Code. Erkki Huhtamo reflected on the more recent history of art and code. Florian Cramer gave a passionate statement for the aesthetics of the command line interface of the Unix operating system as opposed to the icon-based navigation of the Apple and Windows operatings systems. Scott DeLahunta introduced the concept of Open Source Choreography. But unfortunately there were many other talks that could not keep up with this level. This in turn makes the round table discussion appear unfocused and hard to follow because participants don’t even share a common language. An insider who asked to remain anonymous described the way the topic ‘Code’ was approached in the conference as “grotesquely off the mark”. After Lawrence Lessig cancelled his participation due to private reasons (birth of daughter) no replacement was found for him, so that the whole Intellectual Property question (or proprietary vs. open code, copyright vs. copyleft) was not adaequately adressed in the main conference. The catalogue is a good opportunity to read up on the more interesting lectures so that nothing has been missed by not having been there.
– students exhibition: clearly a good innovation are the student exhibitions. For a number of years now each year another new media arts college or university is showing graduate students works. This year it was the turn for Hochschule für Gestaltung Zürich (HGZ). The students works were refreshing, surprisingly political and at the same time bustling with humour. This part of the program makes AE attractive for other educators and students from other institutions.
Former net artist Alexei Shulgin made a remark along the lines that this mix of high-tech, high-end, high-tech art and the youngish avantgarde is a quite ‘interesting’ feature of AE. He wondered whose curatorial ‘taste’ it was that led to such a mix of works. In 1997, he said, the whole net art scene was in the electrolobby, people like Geert Lovink and Heath Bunting were trying to shake up the AE from within, challenging its rituals and formats and trying to influence it to adapt to the then new paradigm of the net. But this attempt to put pressure on the festival direction to change has failed according to Shulgin. I was less surprised about this unability or unwillingness to change. When I had put a similar question to Gerfried Stocker last year, he replied it would be unrealistic to expect the festival to change in any fundamental way. According to him it has developed its own tradition and would only change slowly and in some aspects.
From my point of view the problem is that there is a lack of quality criteria and going hand in hand with this a lack of curation. The main exhibition consists of works that won Golden Nicas or got honorary mentions. Therefore it is not a curated exhibition at all but one that merely reflects the subjectivities of the different juries for the Prix categories. As artist Christa Sommerer put it, not just AE but the whole field of media arts has avoided a discussion about quality and content. The criteria were mostly formal – in that sense that technological formalism sets the agenda. This seems to be a correct assessment. There is no such thing as media arts criticism. Catalogue texts are favours done by writers for artists. They try to present the work in the best possible light. Another, more critical layer of writing is missing. If someone tries s/he writes him/herself out of the field and does not get invited anymore. That does not mean that there is no good work. Many young artists are very politicised and a lot of work is done that combines digital and network based media art with political activism, for example. But when it comes to critical reflection of this work artists are still left at their own devices.
The electrolobby exhibition and ‘kitchen’ round tables were the most interesting part of AE. The exhibition contained a show curated by Christiane Paul, NYC. This online show had started its life as an online exhibition by the Whitney museum. Gerfried Stocker asked her to repeat this exhibition with international artists (the Whitney only shows American artists). This show brings the program code that is usually hidden behind a user interface to the surface. Contributions included works from Harwood, jaromil, epidemiC, Jean Leandre and Krautgasser/Mandl. Unfortunately just next to this small and neat show were works by other code artists which looked like decorative fractal wallpaper. A New York gallery now tries to sell such work as large prints, framed and behind glass – a conceptual misunderstanding and a quite widespread one too. A lot of this “software art” (a term that gained currency a few years ago since Transmediale introduced an award category of this name) is merely reflecting the aesthetic output of code. Code becomes a new l’art pour l’art instead of emphasising the social context of the work and digital media in general.
One of the hidden highlights of the electrolobby was the work done by a group of artists, musicians and coders from Graz, Austria, with the free software program Pure Data. Pure Data can process any signal or data and connect anything with anything. Currently this demands a high level of computer knowledge and programming skills, but as new modules get written by groups such as Reni from Graz libraries of tools are created that can be used by less hardcore programming artists. Similarly the Italian artist/programmer jaromil has developed the boot CD linux distribution dynebolic. This is a powerful tool that enables everyone with a computer and a modem to run a streaming media live studio. Pure Data and dynebolic are two examples of a growing body of work in the area of free software that shows that this field is now quickly maturing and delivering new tools. A few years ago Free Software was considered to be only valuable for system administrators. Now the multimedia and interactive capabilities of free softwares are rapidly improving. However, those things were only really present for those who knew to find them in the dimly lit dungeon of the electrolobby. Too few artists are aware of the problems with proprietary code and its dependancy on one manufacturer. The free artistic software community would have deserved a bigger platform.
Intellectual Property issues were discussed in a one afternoon symposium organised by Radio FRO, a local free radio station. Cindy Cohn from the EFF, Erich Moechel from Quintessenz and others discussed the current ‘war on piracy’ and the potentially damaging effect of the copyright industries on culture and society. Trusted Computing, Digital Rights Management and anti-copyright circumvention laws threaten free speech and open democratic systems. This type of discussion tends to focus on the negative and depressive aspects of information society. A more optimistic approach was missing. Nevertheless the IP activists would have deserved a bigger forum. Except for a few remarks by a reconstructed and more sceptical Howard Rheingold this important issue of our times was not discussed in the main conference.
There were many more events, performances, small exhibitions in off centre locations. AE now spreads itself over the whole city and has a full schedule which is hard to catch up with. Despite the problems with quality control and lack of progress in certain ways – as I tried to point out above – AE was once more a valuable experience. It is a bit like a very large ship that keeps going into the same direction even so the captain has thrown around the steering wheel. But despite necessary crticism AE still fulfills an important role. In the bigger picture it is the only yearly event where artists and theorists can come together in such big numbers and a huge variety of work is being shown. Even so most of the work shown is not relevant for the commercial ICT sector as such it is of significance to have it all together in one place at one time. The festival serves as a laboratory of the new and has the ability to catch a certain picture of an emerging and evolving techno-society. Indirectly this also influences the way technology is seen and developed in the commercial markets which naturally have a much stronger impact on ‘consumer society’ than the arts. Seen in this light it is worrying that strong rumours persist that the ORF wants to withdraw from AE after next years 25th anniversary festival. It might be the case that there are some powers in the Austrian political establishment – currently governed by a coalition between the centre right and the far right – who would wish to scale down the festival. The Austrian chancellor has famously declared the ‘Internet Generation’ to be his political enemies. Those who criticise the festival so very strongly should be aware that in the current political climate AE is still a positive force. At the same time it is true that the more interesting and specific work is done now outside the big festivals such as AE.
Armin Medosch, copyleft 2003. This report was commissoned by the ACE Interdisciplinary Arts Dept.