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Ars Electronica 2001

Linz, Austria 1- 6 September, 2001

Reviewed by Michael Punt, U.K.
E-mail: Mpunt@easynet.co.uk

After 22 years Ars Electronica is such an established landmark on the map of interactive arts festivals that its history and structure hardly needs rehearsing here. But for the record, established in 1979 with the support of Linz, a city known previously for its connections with Nazism, the Ars Electronic festival also became host to the Prix Ars Electronica 15 years ago, and since 1996 has had its own all year venue - the Ars Electronica Center - just across the river from the Bruknerhaus built to commemorate one of the city's less notorious sons. The winners and honourable mentions in the Prix Ars Electronica were on display at the O.K. Center for Contemporary Art, most other events took place in the Bruknerhaus, and throughout the city there were parties and creative interventions that constituted a fringe of counter culture.

The festival has from the first set its sights on the future and is an occasion for a convergence of international talent and curiosity connected with the art practices of tomorrow. This year the title of the festival (projects and symposia) anticipated a sea change in the practice and reception of art with the title "Takeover: who's doing the art of tomorrow" (note the lack of a question mark). The "Takeover" symposia comprised four days of presentations each supposed to address one aspect of an overarching thesis that digital communications had allowed art and artists to bypass the establishment to the extent that the values of past were no longer relevant to practitioners and audiences. We were entering a new paradigm, consequently the question mark belonged not to who's doing the art, but to quote from Directors Gerfried Stoker and Christine Schpf: "Which constellations, which factors are defining the art of tomorrow, where will it happen, who is doing it with whom?"

Given the self confidence (not the novelty) of the premise it was disappointing that the event was dominated by a parade of predominantly male superannuated speakers from the Mid-Atlantic art establishment. Much that was presented was familiar territory to anyone with any background in the kinds of things that Ars Electronica has stood for: almost exclusively a set of practices that has not sought approval from the art establishment, almost exclusively regarded practice, analysis and criticism as a continuous platform for legitimate artistic intervention, and has negotiated, collaborated and played with science as they have simultaneously excommunicated scientists. To this informed constituency many of the presentations must have been pushing at open doors. This could have been precisely the expectation - a deconstructivist structure for a symposium to show the redundancy of a discourse by grandly displaying its irrelevance. As such it would have had my vote (although perhaps demanded less attention) The same may be said for what was supposed to replaced it: an electrolobby take-over in which "smart hubs, hacks and killer apps. push the envelope ". It was, alas, indistinguishable from the ennui of the post-establishment establishment. The electrolobby afternoon, hosted by TNC Network's Sabine Wahrmann embellished by DJ Swo was an exercise in media cool in which young talent refused to be articulate for fear of being un-cool in such company. A bit of straight-forward talking may have plotted a pathway to the real questions that the Takeover thesis presents, instead through this mode of presentation it was always in danger of becoming identified with the very malaise that it was intending to expose.

Whatever the disappointments in the symposia, the reputation of Ars Electronica guarantees that among the frogs there will be princes. This indeed was the case with part iv of the symposia dedicated to a presentation of biotechnology and bio-informatics as artistic tools. In this session Eduardo Kac argued for a venerable history for bio-technic art and paid tribute to George Gessert. He elegantly talked us through his work and fielded the usual questions about the poor old Alba, a long suffering GFP rabbit who stoically endures audiences missing the point. Natalie Jeremijenko revisited the work of Francis Galton and through the filter of contemporary practice recontextualised it in a crossover space between the gallery and the garage. In the same session Joe Davis, a research affiliate a MIT, mesmerised the audience with a description of his project to catch sub-microscopic organisms with a fishing line and a 25 micron hook, and, in the true spirit of the creative practitioner, provided an insight into the control of unrestrained cell division. Davis' apparently frivolous use of high science also recuperates the influential position of lay interest in nineteenth century scientific knowledge. Amongst these established figures the SymbioticA Research Group breathed a different life with Oran Catts and Ionat Zurr's piece "Fish and Chips". Their installation achieved the promised radicalism that the Electrolobby failed to deliver. Reminiscent of Kac's attenuated logic the title of the work drew together the favourite dish of a prominent Australian Neo-Fascist and Austria's own political present. Although socially alert however, Catts and Zurr are essentially "wet-biology artists" who describe their piece, assembled from fish neurons grown over silicon chips, as 'a bio-cybernetic project exploring creativity and artistry in the age of biological technologies . . . a work in progress towards the creation of semi-living artistic entities." Electrical impulses from a fish's neuron connected to a fish retina were converted by clever machines into gestures (and sounds). Pneumatic arms and levers, with crayons attached tracked these gestures in a series of drawings that were displayed next to the sealed laboratory in which all the smart biotechnical work was going on. At the leading edge of biotechnology and triggering current debates in consciousness studies "Fish and Chips" could have taken art away from the anecdotal roots of Modernism and resurrected experience as the cornerstone of creation. Instead, along with access to highly sophisticated laboratory apparatus Catts and Zuur have been caught up in an establishment view of art that is at best "quaint" and their machine drawings etc. embarrassing intellectual liabilities. The fascinations and brilliance of their work (as with all wet-biological, genetic and bio-genetic art works) is the challenge it throws out to a history of art that has disavowed the transcendent in exchange for an overload of pleasure in which the experience of reality, its representation and its ideology converge to form an apparently complete whole as they have never done before. Catts and Zurr's work presents the enigma of the semi-living entity in a context in which some scientists in consciousness studies are arguing that humans may well be hard-wired to recognise the living. They have opened the portal between the material and the transcendent that art, history and science have remorselessly closed off for at least four centuries.

One cannot thank Linz and Ars too much for looking forward and asking the important questions, nor should one be too concerned that not everyone got the point. Kac, Davis, Catts and Zurr, along with contributors including information designer Tanja Diezmann, media interventionist Oliviero Toscani, and others addressed the heroic challenge to artists and theorists thrown down by the Takeover theme. What was fascinating about all of these contributions was that each in their own way proceeded with the methodology of the open-minded and an intellectual toughness which contrasted with the habitual thinking of the superannuated establishment and the finger snapping media cool. We should be pleased that this year the more interesting participants appeared to notice the lack of a question mark after "who's doing the art of tomorrow", and in the rhetoric of bio-technic, bio-genetic and wet-biologic artists asked the veiled question posed by Stocker and Schpf in the programme: what kind of entity will be doing the art of tomorrow?

Ars electronica, the Prix Ars Electronic, and the Ars Electronica Center can be found at the following urls:

Catts and Zurr are at:
Tanzia Diezmann is at:


Updated 6 October 2001.

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