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ISEA 2010 Ruhr: A High Tech Phoenix Rises From the Rust

Reviewed by Simone Osthoff
School of Visual Arts, Penn State University


From August 20th to the 29th , the 16th International Symposium on Electronic Art - ISEA 2010 successfully engaged more than two-dozen venues in three German cities: Essen, Dortmund, and Duisburg. The Ruhr region (appointed Europe's cultural capital 2010) transitioning from the coal and steel industry to a post-industrial economy of information, knowledge and creativity, provided the momentous stage for the symposium, itself a model of transnational and intercultural collaboration. The sheer number of events - three cities in ten days - certainly proved the skills of ISEA organizers lead by Andreas Broeckmann and Stefan Riekeles, but it challenged participants as well.

In this regard, Brian Massumi's keynote lecture about the connection between distributed events and cognition was not only appropriate to art theory and to the structure of the program, but as he pointed out, it has also been a central topic for military theory in the age of 'netwar.' Massumi examined the complexity of constructing and anticipating trajectories, as well as of the role in this process of synesthesia, language, and archives. He began by pondering: "What makes an event an event when its occurrence is dispersive: when no unified perspective on it or integral experience of it is possible? Does distributed cognition solve the problem, or complicate it further?"

Essen and the first weekend of the program amidst the epic scale of the Zollverein Park

Massumi's lecture was delivered in the new and ingenious SANAA building, designed by the Japanese architecture firm after which the building is named, located in the Zollverein Park. The closed Zollverein mine at the center of the German coke and steel industry was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2001. In 2002, it was redeveloped by among others, Rem Koolhaas, who approached the preservation of this industrial site by putting the former plant structures to new uses. History, memory, and architecture were thus aligned with the future business development of the region. The park houses a large number of buildings and multifunctional areas including museums, restaurants, studios, lecture halls, exhibition and performance spaces surrounded by gardens and promenades for pedestrians, cyclists, and skaters. ISEA installations and performances took place at PACT - Performance Art Choreographic Centre. One of them was Christopher Salter's Just Noticeable Difference, a large black cube in which in total darkness, one person at a time, laying on the ground, experienced first a total sensory deprivation, then small variations of touch, light and sounds for a period of about 12 minutes that actually felt much longer. Other works took place outside, such as "Wet Sounds" by Joel Cahen's. In a setting reminiscent of post-industrial sci-fi films, a former factory swimming pool, now a public pool, was turned into a sound art installation with swimmers, mostly local families with children floating while enjoying the combination of different sound tracks under and above the water. On Sunday, elsewhere in Essen a day of sound works took place at the Institute for Computer Music and Electronic Media (ICEM), Folkwang University of the Arts.

The city of Dortmund and the central five days of the program

The fifty-three panels, main exhibitions, receptions, e-culture fair, workshops, evening concerts, as well as nightclub performances took place over the week in multiple Dortmund venues. Among them, the cafe and club Domicil became ISEA's informal sidewalk headquarters where the day's events ended with audiovisual performances and analog social gathering. A Wednesday free day was dedicated to excursions to various exhibitions, research centers and tourist sites in the region.

The panel discussions (typically four taking place simultaneously) ranged from stars and satellites to theory and history of media art, from algorithmic topology to climate crisis and eco-activism, from cyborgs and nonhuman performances to archive preservation, from software to the future of education, which, by the way, was also the theme of Roy Ascott's keynote lecture. A new area of focus was the Latin American Forum organized by Andreas Broeckmann and Andres Burbano. It brought together an exciting group of media artists, curators and critics from more than eight Latin American countries in four related panels. The Forum also included the Festicumex night performance, which was a lot of fun for performers and public alike.

Discarding essentialist identities, the Forum explored a number of network nodes and radical experiences. The deep roots of media history in Colonial Latin America were examined by the presentations of Domingo Ledezma and Karla Jasso, followed by a Siegfried Zielinski's presentation and commentary. Current media art was examined by a number of curators. The project (Ready)media: Towards an Archaeology of Media and Invention in Mexico was presented by Tania Aedo, director of the Laboratorio Arte Alameda. Titled Insulares Divergentes, the on-going research mapping collaborations, media labs and exhibition spaces, was presented by Jose Carlos Mariatequi and Victoria Messi in an informal and captivating dialogue. Giselle Beiguelman termed "technophagic emergence" the tendency of the digital culture in Brazil to devour and grind technology into new production models for collective use. She pointed out that in that country, over the last decade eighteen million people rose out of poverty for the first time, along with another thirty-five million from the lower middle class, and now have access to mobile technology, often skipping traditional literacy all together. Living in the poor city outskirts and slums, they are using and combining technology with the same waviness of ISEA's workshops titled "Experimental Electronics," "Hackteria," and "DIY makeaway."

Recent histories of Electronic Culture in Latin America included Enrique Rivera's examination of the beginning of President Allende's socialist government in Chile and the role of Stafford Beer's Management Cybernetics in it (the prototype of Beer's operation room from 1972 is today in Liverpool). Andres Burbano analyzed electronic music in Chile fifty years ago and up to the COMDASUAR - the personal Digital Analog Computer built from scratch by Jose Vicente Asuar in 1978 in Santiago. Among artists who document movements they participated in was the Uruguayan Brian Mackern. He delivered a performance full of humor and irony, declaring that "netart is not dead, it just smells funny," based on his artist's book Netart latino database, 1999. Answering a call on civil disobedience, Alejandro Duque examined uses of technology for survival - some classified as illegal - such as the pirating of satellites by people living in remote locations in Colombia and Brazil in order to communicate and create networks. Open Source was discussed by two separate presentations - Lila Pagoda probed issues of authorship in the context of Argentina and Claudio Rivera-Sequel examined three collaborative projects. Artists presentations included Arcangel Constantini's nanodrizas "pods" that float in the Xochimilco canals of Mexico City; Ivan Puig's SEFT-1 (Manned Railway Exploration Probe) on wheels, which is mapping eight abandoned Mexican railroads; Lucas Bambozzi's exploration of technological obsolescence; and Rejani Cantoni's research and works in interactive cinema.

Another multi-panel presentation was organized around Theory and History of Media Art. In one of them Edward Shanken argued for the need of a hybrid discourse and shared conceptual ground between Contemporary Art and New Media. Perhaps not coincidentally in Dortmund, is the exemplary work of curator Inke Arns, the artistic director of Hartware MedienKunstVerein (HMKV). A key ISEA partner, Hartware has consistently produced groundbreaking exhibitions that include old and new, analog and digital technologies as part of larger conceptual explorations. And the Arctic Perspective, curated by Inke Arns, Matthew Biederman, and Marko Peljhabeing, was no different. Focusing on the Polar region the exhibition displayed research and prototypes for transportation, communication and a mobile habitation system, that at times seem to belong to another planet. The Arctic Perspective Initiative (API) is a non-profit international organization supporting the cultural and ecological significance of the Polar region by combining traditional local knowledge with sustainable developments of science and technology. The exhibition was being showcased at the PHOENIX Halle, a spectacular 1895 factory hall belonging to the giant former steel production plant of Phoenix-West, located in the outskirts of the city, in which Hartware has been based since 2003.

The new Hartware galleries are located downtown in the U building (still under construction), a former brewery redesigned to house multiple cultural institutions. On the top of the building, giant video screens dominate the cityscape day and night with a wonderful selection of site-specific projections. The exhibition TRUST, curated by Broeckmann and Riekeles was showcased there. It included works by fourteen international artists who "deal with the trust we put in people, in media and in machines - out of desire for security, for entertainment, or for comfort." A few artists in the exhibition connected the gallery to the public space. The knowbotic research "macghillie_just a void", 2009, employed a camouflage suit for participatory public performances that keep users visible yet anonymous in the city. In Antoine Schmitt Time Slip, 2008, a wall gallery display continuously showed the news in scrolling text. Time Slip employed custom-build software that fed from official news agencies while conjugating every sentence in the future tense, and thus predicting disturbing trajectories such as "A plane will crash in Madrid killing 153 people." The prediction of events makes us smile but also wonder about invisible forces controling our lives.

Not far, also in the U was Bill Seaman's Exchange Fields, 2000. This interactive video installation was comprised of three screens side by side and thirteen austere geometric sculptures distributed in front of them, each a case for a body part - say an ankle, an arm, or one's back - which viewers used to trigger related video images. Aside from the ingenious interface, juxtaposing our flesh to the steel history of the Ruhr, I found the installation disappointing mostly because of its cliche images of dancers. Shouldn't interactive art be about a less traditional kind of representation and aesthetic experience?

The translation between an input and an output of a different modality was the focus of many of the artworks displayed in the ISEA's main exhibition titled "Electronic Atmospheres" at the Museum fur Kunst und Kulturgeschichte: "the freezing of water translated into sound, the decomposition of leaves made audible, human hairs used as a sound source" were a few among twenty-nine works by thirty-seven artists from sixteen countries, selected by a jury from over a thousand entries. A particular focus of Electronic Atmospheres was three artists from Brazil selected by Giselle Beiguelman from the Instituto Sergio Motta in Sao Paulo. Among them was Lucas Bambozzi's Mobile Crash, an interactive video installation that explored technological obsolescence. Four large video projections with sound surrounded viewers with images of a sledgehammer repeatedly destroying cell phones, circuit boards and other electronic gadgets. The rhythm and sequences of images responded to viewers' movements and gestures, accelerating in seed and scale of destruction as one continued to engage the work. This cathartic experience of consumer's revenge allowed participants to become conductors, as if leading a Luigi Russolo's Futurist orchestra a century later.

Mobile phones were also referenced by Peter Weibel's keynote lecture. And although they continue to be essential in our lives, Weibel pointed out that the mobile phone represents the end of an era of multimedia still based on the mechanical - and thus on wheels - adding that classical media theory is an extension of the organs and it is therefore analog. Weibel's lecture titled "The Tongue That Sees: Neuroaesthetics, Molecular Aesthetics and Media Aesthetics" focused on synesthesia and cognition, and thus the shift from representation to perception, from simulation to stimulation, as well as the passage from recording technologies to stimuli in the brain.

Across the street from the Museum fur Kunst und Kulturgeschichte, at the Dormunder Kunstverein, the exhibition Exchange Emergences showcased four artists in collaboration with the Japan Media Arts Festival and the Austrian Coded Cultures Festival. Ei Wada's Braun Tube Jazz Band reversed a TV light output into sound input, thus turning a number of TV monitors into performance drums, which the artist played with talent and flair often accompanied by participating audiences. Nearby, in the Westfalenforum gallery, the exhibition "Heavy Matter: Rethinking the Role of Material and Medium in the Present" showcased a strong selection of works by twenty-two students of the Academy of Media arts Cologne. The last keynote lecture in Dormund was delivered to a full auditorium. In the Orchesterzentrum Margaret Morse's "Out of Synch" examined the crisis of concepts such as "media" and the gap between how we talk and make "media art."

Duisburg and the second and last weekend of the program

Duisburg is Europe's largest inland port located at the mouth of the Rhine and Ruhr rivers. It has been an axis not just for industrial coal and steel shipping, but also as a connection between Central and Western Europe since the middle ages. Unfortunately, I could not stay for this part of the program focusing on the urban space, and including Charlemagne Palestine's organ concert in the St. Maximilian Church.

In contrast to symposia and festivals located in "non-places," such as convention centers in large cities, ISEA 2010 Ruhr engaged the region bringing about significant change. The strategic articulations between nomad, transnational and site-specific elements characterized the symposium and were central, for instance, to the exhibition Arctic Perspective as well as to the Latin American Forum. ISEA 2010, infused with creative thinking and new technologies, highlighted a rebirth in the Ruhr. We look forward to the upcoming collaborations in 2011 in Istanbul and in 2012 in Albuquerque.

Last Updated 2 November 2010

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