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<nettime> ars electronica 2003
Armin Medosch on Thu, 25 Sep 2003 08:07:54 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> ars electronica 2003


Ars Electronica 2003 

The Festival, History and Context 

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.

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