Fotograf Magazine

Ars Electronica Festival

The Festival in Linz, Austria, is unquestionably one of the most important events of the year for those whose artistic or scientific activities focus on new media. Just a few kilometers from the Czech border, there occurs every year at the end of the summer an attempt to comprehend the state of current thought and creativity in a world increasingly run by information technologies. Rather than an art festival in any traditional sense of the word, Ars Electronica is a meeting point of the various currents of the avant-garde of contemporary electronic art. Since the 1980s, these Linz encounters have been followed closely by kindred spirits worldwide, and the event continues to be regarded as the barometer of the given field, alongside similar events such as the Berlin Transmediale.

The exclusive character of the festival, consisting of its narrow focus on new media, may nevertheless also become its greatest limitation and peril. As Lev Manovich complained in his review of last year in the Internet magazine Rhizome (http://rhizome.org), September 19, 2003, the presentation of electronic art in Linz is isolated and does not support the sorely needed dialogue between new media and contemporary art. Manovich believes that digital work cannot be regarded as contemporary art, since it is so narrowly focused on its medium. On the contrary: its formalism makes it akin to computer science; like computer science, it is concerned with developing new possibilities of representation and social communication. If digital art wants to become part of a broader context, it has to relate its works to ideas that do not focus exclusively on technology and the generating of the works themselves.

Although this distinction may appear somewhat arbitrary, a cursory knowledge of the history of twentieth century art makes it plain that self-reflexivity is by no means a reason to deny any form of creativity its place in the pantheon of contemporary art. Manovich’s opinion of the festival’s cultural isolationism is to some degree justified; many works on exhibit, while using the most advanced technologies, would certainly benefit from the awareness of a broader context. But fortunately this year, as with other years, one could discern impulses transcending the chilly realm of advanced technologies, choosing from the wide variety of choices, as the festival is an amalgamation of science conferences, exhibitions, concerts, performances, educative activities, and other events.

The festival’s theme in 2003, chosen by the experienced curator of several former festivals, Gerfried Stocker, Code – the Language of our Time, stimulated a critique of the role of coding in present day society. The social importance of the artists’ approach to code, until recently almost entirely the domain of scientists, was addressed by the media historian and theoretician Erkki Huhtamo. At a time when the computer gains an ever growing influence on the everyday life of society, understanding the computer’s inner workings enables the artists to liberate themselves from the position of a passive user, and to participate in rethinking the conventional use of commercial software systems.

In connection with art directly derived from coding, there recently appeared the term “software art”. According to Christiane Paul, the Whitney Museum’s new media curator, the transition from traditional art forms to software work is the inevitable result of a process of evolution. Christiane Paul points out that the strata of codes or algorhythms forms part of any digital art, the differences lying in how we use these codes: while “traditional” art exploits digital constructs merely as tools for generating art objects – photographs, prints, paintings, and so on – for software artists technology becomes the medium of creation, conservation and presentation. These artists explore not only the formal qualities of software codes, but perceive it also as a construct with wider cultural and political implications. Contributions exploring the penetration of codes into the domain of the natural sciences were especially interesting. Peter J. Bentley of London University College spoke about the hidden possibilities of evolution theory as an inspiration of the alternative approach to writing code. While today’s programming inevitably runs against its “upper limit of complexity”, and overly complicated software leads to accumulation of superfluous code in the computer, the nature of biological code is different. In natural systems it is always efficiency that is crucial – the survivor is the organism best equipped to its environment. The new type of computer code should be inspired by the kind of constant selfgeneration that we encounter in nature. Its result should be selforganizing systems that themselves address the solution of problems, thus constantly modifying themselves: “Imagine a device whose structure does the thinking and by changing its own structure it changes it’s thinking. It sounds extremely organic. Can art be defined by shape, and can it redefine itself by changing its shape? /…/ When knowledge and the object become one, what will we have created? A new type of computer? A new type of art? I don’t know, but I’d love to find out.” Peter J. Bentley
The science symposium, held in the Brucknerhaus, originally a concert
hall, has since the mid-1980s attracted the most prominent theoreticians, engineers and artists, primarily from Europe and North America, who devote themselves to the problems of electronic art. The lectures are regularly accompanied by an exhibition on the given subject, located in the same building. One of the most striking works exhibited there was MicroImage, created by the American artist Casey Reas, who also appeared as a lecturer at the festival. His work explores the phenomenon of coming to being in real time, mediated by software Reas invented, and it could serve as illustration of Bentley’s evolutionary approach. Reas created programs for four types of organisms separated by color, in which he merely defined their response to their environment. The expansion of these organisms thus happens independently of their creator, and in reaction to the environment, unpredictable ever-changing structures come into being. Every organism is represented by a moving line, which is created by its current position and its twenty preceding positions; the colors of the individual organisms change depending on the speed of their movement. The work is presented as a non-interactive triptych – that is, it applies a classical format of painting (!) and explores a technological process, unique to software art: it is generated in real time. A part of the festival events take place in the Ars Electronica Center, which opened in 1996 on the opposite bank of the Danube, within sight of the Brucknerhaus. Among other things, the Center hosted an exhibition entitled Get In Touch by the curator of the festival. He broughttogether works that exploited digital technologies, set into motion by either the touch or voice of the visitors. One of the most powerful works of the exhibition, Protrude, Flow, by the Japanese duo Sachiko Kodama and Minako Takeno, applies black magnetic magnetic iron powder, dissolved in either water or oil, that rises from an opening in a round table, and depending on the character and intensity of surrounding sounds changes its form. The sound, translated by a computer into an electromagnetic voltage that determines the power of the magnetic field sets into motion strange, unstable groups of dark blue fluid craters that linger for a moment and than fade into a flat, motionless surface. Another important part of the exhibition is the freely associated section Cyberarts, which includes a competition – each year the Prix Ars Electronica is awarded in several categories. Comparatively wide in scope, the section covers the entire field of new media, ranging from interactive games combining real and virtual characters, experiments in the generating of new types of music, and installations in public space. In the vicinity of the Brucknerhouse, on the banks of the green Danube, each year there resounds the Linzerklangwolke (The Linz Clouds of Sound). This year their design was created by the English curator Tim Didymus: Floating Points were formed by loudspeakers suspended on cranes, with music generated by computers using the music software designed by the KOAN group. As a matter of fact, the festival as such developed gradually from the concerts of electronic music that have been taking place in Linz since the mid-1970s: the first annual festival dates back to 1979, and only some time later there occurred a major shift towards tendencies in art and science that gave Ars Electronica its present form.

One of the peaks of the accompanying program was the Messa di Voce performance – the Italian title signifies the location of sound, the result of cooperation of a duo of American software artists working under the name of Tmema, consisting of two performers: Joan La Barbara from the United States, and Jaap Blonk from the Netherlands. The latter perform their vocal and movement exercises communicating with the simple and poetic visual forms moving on a screen behind them. The complex technology linking the computer with a video camera makes it possible to synchronize the visualizations on screen with the movements and sounds of the actors, here served to create a theatrical event that could not be achieved by any other means, where the activity of the actors directly shaped the playful forms on the screen. The correspondence between software and the visual form of the work here occurs near that fine line, where “the way it works” is not overpowering, but still remains distinctly perceptible. Although according to Christiane Paul, the character of visual-technological correspondence is not crucial for the quality of a work, and the link between them may be indirect, in my opinion the most powerful works emerge precisely from that area between being a technological showoff and a complete veiling of the technological background. What is most fascinating about these contemporary works is often their unconscious play with their own history, as captured in the term “archaeology of the media”, used by Erkki Huhtamo to describe contemporary works in both art and science. However, few theoreticians of digital art are able to fuse an understanding of the works exploiting the most advanced technologies with a historical context, avoiding the seductive but simplistic trap of techno-optimism. One must realize that just as digital photography did not represent any drastic break with the history of photography, and instead merely extended the possibilities of the manipulation of the image, so software art does not come to being out of the blue, removed from the rich history of conceptual tendencies in the arts. An awareness of this historical context prevents the conceiving of software art as a mere technological quirk, and ought to help its firmer anchoring in the context of art.

Lenka Dolanová