Winter 2000 – Review: Ars Electronica

Circa 94 Review

Top left : Istvan Kantor: Intercourse - The File Cabinet Project ("machinery and raw emotions collide - a dramatic encounter between the human body and its technological extensions" - AE); photo the artist; courtesy Ars Electronica
Top right: Klaus Obemaier: D.A.V.E. - "dancer as virtual character, switching effortlessly between young/old, male/female, reshaping its body" - AE); photo the artist; courtesy Ars Electronica
Bottom left: Lawine Torrèn: Hearing Monkeys ("five scientists research the biological-societally ambivalent construction of sex" - AE); photo Sabine Starmayr; courtesy Ars Electronica
Bottom left : Istvan Kantor: Intercourse - The File Cabinet Project ; photo Sabine Starmayr; courtesy Ars Electronica

The Ars Electronica festival in Linz, Austria, which takes place at the start of September every year is a number of things, a plethora of happenings spread out in various locations: the Brucknerhaus concert hall in a park beside the Danube, the ORF broadcasting station, an exhibition venue and the Ars Electronica Center itself. Given additional indoor and outdoor events happening in various locations around the city, a week is hardly enough to take everything in. Linz is a strange place. An enlightened local government ensures a fertile ground for this enterprising and long-lasting institution (it goes back to 1979). At the same time, overlooking everything on a hill is the castle where Hitler (Linz was his favourite town) planned to spend his retirement. You can almost feel those eyes on you...

Ars Electronica includes a Symposium focused on controversial intellectual issues, with associated exhibits and platforms for web activists; a prize-giving and exhibition of winners and runners-up in the different categories (net art, interactive art, computer animation, digital music and a section for school-age computer artists from Austria); and a number of indoor and outdoor performances. Finally, there is the Ars Electronica Center itself, an electronic wonderland styled the 'Museum of the Future' which, refreshingly, is about as far as one could get from the kind of art gallery Hitler planned for Linz when he had won the war. A modest entry fee enables the visitor to explore cutting-edge installations in virtual reality and interactive art. (Dublin's Arthouse could be like that, given more money and a more public orientation.)

Following on from last year's focus on 'Lifescience' (genetic engineering etc.) this year's festival entitled Next Sex: Sex in the Age of its Procreative Superfluousness (www.aec.at/nextsex) controversially and sometimes provocatively engaged with the divorce of sex from reproduction. The scene was set with an installation in the main square of Linz where participants were invited to donate samples for a 'sperm race' where semen quality would be assessed and a winner announced. (With uncanny synchronicity, the cranes used for the outside events were prominently identified as originating with the Viennese firm Wanko.) Though situated in the context of an art festival, the project was at base a scientific one addressing a serious issue - the decline in sperm quality in recent years. Contestants adopted pseudonyms like 'Rocketman' and 'Fast Fritz' and the progress of the race could be tracked on computer screens - while the 'Ladies', not to be left out, were invited to place wagers on the result. (Not wishing to inject an element of unfairness into the competition, I refrained from participating.)

The local media, of course, took this event up with gusto, ignoring the science aspect and characterising it only as a typically outrageous piece of agit-prop.

Paranoia currently burgeons in the art community, as artists unsympathetic to the national government - i.e. virtually all of them - wonder who is going to be next to have their grant cut. There are cold winds blowing in Austria. The central government - including the bizarrely-named Freedom Party - looks with disdain at the cosmopolitan excesses of the avant-garde, proffering instead the alternative of 'native' Austrian culture. Unlike in Ireland, folk culture has never been integrated into avant-gardism and tends to be seen as antagonistic to it - as in fact the natural preserve of the far Right. Ars Electronica - operating in what the local mayor, at the opening ceremony, was at pains to call the "open and tolerant city of Linz" - is relatively free of such pressure at the moment, since only a small portion of its funding comes from central government. But whether such freedom will last remains to be seen.

Issues addressed at the Symposium, oscillating between the scenarios of Brave New World and Gattaca , included future human genetic choices, the prospect of people being able to bank their eggs and sperm to facilitate future reproductive decisions, the replacement of the real womb by an artificial one, transsexuality, and so on. Speakers included Carl Djerassi, the so-called 'father of the contraceptive pill' and Stahl Stenslie, who argued for future sex as art practice and enthused about the possibilities of the orgy. But the real shock-horror came with a paper read by socio-biologist Randy Thornhill who (with Craig T. Palmer) has written a notorious book arguing that rape is biological and natural. (Not that it's a good thing, mind...) Unfortunately, the concern for free speech which was such an issue with liberals at Ars Electronica - a 'Free Speech Camp' operated in the grounds of the Ars Electronica Center - did not extend to giving him a fair hearing, since he was frequently and loudly interrupted by people who disagreed with his position.

There was much impatience with conventional sex where "the woman spends the whole time trying to come, but can't, and the man spends the whole time trying to stop himself coming, but can't" in the words of one speaker, and excitement about alternative, fetishistic web sites. (Check out, for example, The Corduroy Man , the Hiccup Lovers' Website , or, for the adventurous, Safe Fun With Electricity .) My overall feeling about the Symposium was that there seemed to be great excitement about the mechanics of future reproduction, and the enhanced sexual permutations opened up by the sex/reproduction split, but that somewhere along the way love had got lost. A foretaste of the future?

(A couple of interesting sidelights. According to contributor Xin Mao, China is considering laws against extra-marital relations in order to protect the rights of women, allegedly more emotionally vulnerable than men. And Indian feminist contributor Veena Gowda defended Indian laws against people with AIDS marrying, on the basis that Indian men with AIDS often don't notify prospective brides of the fact.)

Associated art projects included Marta de Menezes' project - not at the genetic level, she was at pains to point out - for creating live butterflies with wing patterns artistically modified. In addition there was Tissue Culture and Art(ificial) Wombs by Oron Catts, Ionat Zurr and Guy Ben-Ary, also entitled The Process of Giving Birth to Semi-Living Worry Dolls . This installation, intended to foreground contemporary anxieties regarding developments in biology, displayed semi-living sculptures or 'worry dolls' produced through tissue engineering. These combined synthetic materials and living biological matter and possibly foreshadow the development of new types of human organs. There was also an installation entitled 'artistic molecules' by genetic artist Joe Davis (with Katie Egan) consisting of coding high-resolution digital images into molecules of synthetic DNA. The project, entitled Microvenus and created in collaboration with others at Harvard Medical School and Berkeley, contained graphic information for the ancient Germanic rune representing 'life' which, by coincidence, resembles the external female genitalia - an enterprise which apparently grew out of attempts to communicate with extraterrestrials. Davis, situated on the extreme edge of genetic technophilia, prophesises the eventual creation through biological science of a "rose that will cry real tears." (And who could blame it?)

In contrast to the ominous forebodings associated with the above (the death of Nature?) a post-Dada puckishness pervaded the competition entries. For example, distinctions in the interactive art section included the august-sounding Institute for Applied Autonomy (i.e. a group of anarchist pranksters) whose remote-controlled Graffiti/Writer is a high-speed, tele-operated robot that sprays messages in paint on the ground and thereby takes the risk out of writing political graffiti. The Institute, who cite their success in persuading policemen and girl scouts to operate the device, solemnly promise to transform "public spaces into critical sites for free speech and public discourse while simultaneously transforming ordinary citizens into petty criminals." (Well, you can't get more civic-minded than that.) Also notable in the interactive art category was Rania Ho, whose work, "handcrafted by skilled artisans living in the depths of the remote island Manhattan" enables old electric toasters and the like to come alive and move around the room, thus, in her terms, "enabling them to fully realize their suppressed ambulatory desires."

Noteworthy also in the interactive art category was Naoko Tosa's marvellous Unconscious Flow where mermaid-avatars reflect the measured subliminal reactions to each other of two participants. The winner in the interactive art category was Raffael Lozano-Hemmer, whose Vectorial Elevation enabled visitors to the website (www.alzado.net) to design through a 3D interface their own patterns with searchlights in the sky over Mexico City. Hitler's archtect Albert Speer had explored this territory already, as the artist acknowledges, but the alchemy of the Internet - in this instance at least - transforms totalitarian into democratic art. (A bit like the kind of Millennium event that never happened in Dublin, in fact.)

Etoy (www.etoy.com) who have become something of a fixture at Ars Electronica, were there too with an honorary mention in the .net section. This was in response to their truly (art-) historical exploit whereby they turned a legal war over trademarks with their near-namesake eToys into a major cultural event in cyberspace (causing eToys to lose five billion dollars worth of equity in 81 days). The genius of Etoy has been their refusal to treat the legal and economic spheres as distinct from the realm of art practice, thereby continuing a tradition - though with incomparably greater success - that goes back at least as far as George Grosz and Dada. Reference to earlier twentieth-century art was also in evidence with Sharon Denning's Exquisite Corpse ú(www.repohistory.org/circulation/exquisite) which adapts for the Net the surrealist game of a story that grows of its own accord, through each participant adding to the contribution of the last through screen interface or e-mail. The overall winner of this section was the science-fiction writer Neal Stephenson, whose latest book seems to salute both Poe and Lovecraft with the title Cryptonomicon . It is noteworthy that the Ars Electronica organisers bemoan the sharp drop in entries in the .net category. Apparently anyone who can design a Web page is being sucked into the industry and relatively few people have time any more for the 'art' side. The commercialisation of cyberspace grows apace.

The winner of the Computer Animation/Visual Effects section was the young Czech Jakob Pistecky for his intriguing short film Maly Milos about a little man terrorised by his huge wife. Despite his denials, it was difficult not to see a reference to recent Czech-Russian difficulties (and perhaps also a reaction to feminist orthodoxies). Honorary mentions included the impressive Fiat Lux by Paul Debevec utilising St. Peter's Basilica in Rome and citing Galileo's conflict with the church. As is perhaps the case in the wider art world, the strongest electronic art seems to be that which resonates with broader cultural/political issues.

In the virtual reality 'Cave', situated in the basement of the Ars Electronica Center, was a VR project by Catherine Ikam (www.ubikam.com) Face to Face . With disembodied heads free-floating in (cyber)space this was simultaneously engaging and disorientating, but the most challenging experience was a three-metre-wide, free-rolling sphere or 'trackball' where you are sealed in to experience the IRS (Inverted Reality System). Somewhat dubiously I obtained a ticket and queued up - one or two people in front of me silently melted away when they saw what was involved. What happens - and let's hope no Third World dictator ever gets to hear about it - is that your chest and wrists are electronically monitored for bodily stress levels and, in a process of positive feedback, the system becomes more unstable the more stressed you get. (The cop-out was that there was a panic button and you could talk to the operator through a head-set.) In the end I had a breathless but not unpleasant experience trying to find my way through the visual projection - fairly basic grid-like graphics - and came out feeling as if I'd had a go on a bouncy castle. After all this high-tech nerdishness, I took the train down to the sublime Alpine village of Hallstatt for a bit of hiking in the mountains. Nature still has it, by a long shot.

Ars Electronica 2000 (Next Sex: Sex in the Age of its Procreative Superfluousness) , Linz, September 2000

Paul O'Brien lectures at the National College of Art and Design, Dublin.

Article reproduced from CIRCA 94, Winter 2000, pp. 62-64.