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Ars Electronica 2009

Linz, Austria, 3 – 8 September, 2009

Reviewed by Yvonne Spielmann

The festival of Ars Electronica is celebrating its 30th anniversary in conjunction with the city of Linz being cultural capital in 2009. One would assume that this year’s conference and exhibition programme and the related events intensively discuss increased complexity or in reverse simplicity (which was a topic of Ars Electronica in 2006) of producing, debating and positioning electronic media in past and present at a comprehensive international and intercultural level. Surprisingly, solely reference to the beginnings of the festival and its enlargement over the years was given during pretentiously self-mirroring award presentations that indulged in boring self-contemplation of the here and now. Moreover, invited speakers – mostly white males – have changed little over the past decades of the festival, the same range of names reappear like in extended feedback loops. There is also indication that the topics around electronic media are evaporating and strong thematic foci are not on the horizon. Clearly, the festival deserves fresh impulses, more new faces and a clear direction where it is going and what positions need to be taken.

As it stands, two directions strike out that signify transformation of a timely important and trendsetting electronic arts festival into something else: the first direction heads toward sciences and results in many demonstrations of very specific technical applications without much consideration of the aesthetics, the installation environment and formal matters of presenting the tools and functions. The second direction also departs from the artworld and highlights games and gaming as ubiquitous means of entertainment suitable for all age groups in the family. Both tendencies intersect in the Ars Electronica Center which assembles milestones and newer works in the realm of elctronic/digital/interactive media applications in packed black boxes with a high surround noise level – a mix of machines and screaming kids. In this environment there is not much space left for reflection over critical encounter with the concepts and ideas that have driven the technological-aesthetic developments in the past and till today. Also, the “Device Art Exhibition” that focuses on Japanese examples offers too little information on the cultural context that would be helpfull to appreciate how technologies are fused with Japanese notion of aesthetics.

In another location, the OK galleries, another Japanese-Hungarian-Swiss team work strikes out. The group “double Negative Architecture“ (Sota Ichikawa, Max Rheiner, Akos Maróy, Kaoru Kobata, Satoru Higa, Hajime Narakuwa) presents the virtual architecture project „Corpora in Si(gh)te“ as one of the most complex and aesthetically convincing installations. It employs smart technologies – of military nature – to map and remap our built architectural environment and superimpose the buildings with the virtual possibility to make connections through decentralised networks which - like the internet – self-organise communicating structures in constantly changing environments. The group’s philosophy is to use data input from nature/outside (wind, temperature, light, sound) to build living architecture environments with intelligent sensors. In the architecture project „Corpora in Si(gh)te“ the concept is to decompose the parts and materials of real buildings and reassemble them as an autonomous structure with varying viewpoints, called super-eyes. Superimposed architectural models are built from data measuring light, wind, temperature, sound. The generated 3-D structure is constantly changing, demonstrating how the created corpora – which is constructed from the collected and connected data of multiple viewpoints - occupies and dominates the surrounding public space. The super-eyes are self-generating, self-assembling structures that exist in polar coordinates, not in Carthesian parameters. They create an intelligent structure that dismantles the smart technologies of military surveillance operations, using their sensors and wireless network functions. The aim is to demonstate how we may change the function of, and challenge the ways in which we perceive and behave in relation to, disturbing, decentralized, unstable, constantly reassembling environments.

The critical direction of a work like “„Corpora in Si(gh)the“ provokes aesthetic experience of network environments which we usually use but not consciously reflect, whereas the overriding festival title “Human Nature” aimed at an even larger scale of discussion. But in effect it signaled more a general motto that embraced many loose ends and did not provide any rigorous thematic structure of this year’s festival. Most surprisingly, the Golden Nica for interactive art was awarded to a rather non-interactive science demonstration. The installation “Nemo Observatorium” by Lawrence Malstaf (BE) provided the spectacle to experience an artificial snowstorm inside a huge glass cylinder and was meant to immerse us – but only 1 visitor at the time – in a flow of particles like inside a swarm of pixels. It remained unclear to most festival guests what arguments could have led to the decision to give the award. Other Golden Nicas were awarded to long-time companions of the festival: the Hybrid Art award was given to another genetic adventure by Eduardo Kac, this time he injected extracts from his own DNA into a petunia and displayed the outcome bluntly in large scale prints of the flower that are ready for gallery exhibition and success in the art market. In contrast, the sound installation by Bill Fontona received the Golden Nica in Digital Music for shifing sounds of the bells of Big Ben to other everyday locations in rather subtle ways that make as more aware of environmental sounds and the ways in which we usually relate audio to specific locations. More welcomed was Canadian Iriz Pääbo who won the Golden Nica in Computer Animation for portraying a hockey game with noisy sounds and images that joyfully express the structural violence and randomness of the players’ behaviour/movements in a given closed space. Even the highlights of the festival cannot be mistaken that the festival in its conceptual roots needs thorough re-engineering to blossom again vividly and with innovative and critical ideas.


Last Updated 6 October, 2009

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