Vol. 30 Issue 2 Reviews
Ars Electronic 2005: Festival for Art, Technology and Society

Linz, Austria, 1-6 September 2005.

Reviewed by Joyce Shintani
Stuttgart, Germany

In his milestone article analyzing the moribund Germanic contemporary music scene, music critic Alex Ross noted that “if composers are to survive, they must learn the art of compromise,” and he quoted Leopold Mozart’s advice to his son: “Every work should have in it something for the connoisseurs and something for the people”. Concert directors in German speaking countries have had some trouble getting this message, but nowhere was the message heard earlier and realized more effectively than at the Linz Ars Electronica Festival. Initiated in 1979 by the ORF Austrian Broadcasting Corporation's Upper Austrian Regional Studio and the Brucknerhaus Linz with a farsighted focus on art, technology, and society, Ars Electronica took place for the 26th time from 1 to 6 September, 2005.

This year’s atmospheric opening concert took the festival to the people, to the huge assembly plant of the Austrian Federal Railways. Suspended locomotives, disco fog, and dramatic lighting created a buzzing party ambience in the unusual venue. The compositional highlight by Maurice Benayoun and Jean-Baptiste Barrière was Emotional Traffic for real-time electronics and visuals. One could listen deeply to Mr. Barrière’s finely chiseled and phased synthesized sounds that were complemented by Mr. Benayoun’s coordinated minimal visuals on seven discrete screens. Blending with the surrounding hanging red engines they created an eerie metallic reality, in which the lights and sounds seemed to move the cavernous hall around the listeners.

Once the festival kicked off, its 33,000 visitors could choose among 90 events featuring 450 artists and lectures from 26 countries at 16 venues in the city. The heart of the festival is the Bruckner Concert Hall with its park on the banks of the Danube, where most concerts and conferences as well as some exhibits take place. Five museums provide venues for the large visual exhibits: the Ars Electronica Center, the O.K Center for Contemporary Art, the new Lentos Art Museum, and the Architecture Forum, with additional exhibits scattered throughout the city. This plethora was organized around the “three pillars supporting the festival”—symposium, concerts, and exhibits. The awarding of the golden Nica prize, the “Oscar” of new media art, crowned the festival.

Festival themes can get threadbare, but this year’s Ars Electronica theme, “Hybrid— Living In Paradox,” seemed to strike the chord of the times. As Gerfried Stocker, artistic director of the festival, sees it, hybridization is an “evolutionary principle” that has driven natural as well as technical developments. He points out that the last 15 years have seen no major technical inventions, only the combining of existing functionalities. Fusion, crossover, mixité, even multimedia art itself: all are hybrids rather than innovations, possible expressions for a mixture of art forms. In broader terms, the notion of hybridism can be applied to other areas that combine existing bodies (of knowledge) with new technologies, such as bionics or artificial intelligence, to high-tech/low-tech hybrids, or to cultural hybrids. Further, Mr. Stocker alliteratively associates hybrid with “hubris” (German: hybris), the catastrophic result of not recognizing the limits of technology—think Icarus’ fall. Technology, technology everywhere, but nothing new, only hybrids? In this field of tension and conflict between a global explosion of inventiveness and an implosion of culture, Mr. Stocker positions the paradoxical role of art in society. This year’s festival aimed at locating fields of hybridization as a contribution toward comprehending and coming to terms with the paradoxes we live in today.

The site for reflection on the festival’s theme of hybridism was the symposium. Although occasionally criticized for lacking the fiery controversies of its early years, the symposium remains true to the festival’s mission of “nurturing personal encounters involving artists, designers, philosophers, sociologists, engineers, and scientists from all over the world,” and consistently provides a broad variety of viewpoints. This year’s symposium, curated by Derrick de Kerckhove, head of the Marshall McLuhan Program at the University of Toronto, dealt with such diverse topics as Al-Jazeera, Islam, multiple identities, robotics, ecology, and genetic engineering, with participants from countries as far flung as Mali and India, Taiwan and Turkey.

A view with wide-reaching implications of how the Internet is changing the nature of knowledge was presented by philosopher David Weinberger, best-selling author and Fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Institute for Internet and Society. According to Mr. Weinberger, Aristotelian categories, which for centuries have served as the basis for structuring knowledge in the Western intellectual tradition, have determined the way knowledge is structured in the physical world as well. These intellectual categories have been guarded by a class of “gatekeepers.” However, a kind of New Thought brought forth by the Internet is causing these categories to lose their significance. For example, Computer Music Journal is intellectually classified in a library system under a few selected topics such as computers and music, and it can be physically found on the “music” shelves of a library. On the Internet, CMJ can be found on pages referencing journals, computers, and music; but it may also be found on a page of “good magazines,” “Computer Music 101,” or “My Favorites.” This might not be perfect sorting, but “we don’t need perfect knowledge in an age of knowledge abundance. We just need pretty good knowledge, and that’s something we don’t need perfect gatekeepers for.” Thus, along with the transformation in the nature of knowledge comes a change in the status of gatekeepers—watch out, academia!—as well as a multiplicity of points of view, as represented, for example, by the “multi-subjectivity” of Web blogs.

Concert settings at Ars Electronica ranged from bars and clubs to museums and concert halls. Two colorful spectacles combined local traditions with modern multimedia: the presentation by the Sristhi School (Bangalore, India) on Linz’s main square, and Mercan Dede’s Turkish fusion group Gezgin, which combines oriental music from the Sufi dervish tradition with electronic improvisation.

The events that attracted the largest audiences were ingeniously constructed around the venues and music available in Linz. The popular Linz Sound Cloud took place on the banks of the Danube—stake out your picnic patch early! Hubert Lepka staged a dramatic show (music by Peter Valentin) based on the “what-if” fiction of Austria’s division into Soviet and American sectors, like Germany, at the end of World War II. The Cold War as historic pageant, replete with a low-flying B52 bomber (thanks to Red Bull’s private collection) and a modern jet fighter bomber (courtesy of the Austrian government), brought chilling messages of that era closer than many had ever experienced.

A spectacle of a completely different kind was the logistical tour-de-force “Listening Between the Lines,” which took place at four different locations around the Danube Park. The event featured the Bruckner Orchestra conducted by the indefatigable Dennis Russell Davies with a bravura trip through the history of electroacoustic music, from John Cage and Herbert Eimert through György Ligeti and Pierre Boulez, detouring around Dada and the voice-poetry of Kurt Schwitters and Ernst Jandl and ending with a spate of electronic works topped off by Maryanne Ammacher’s Sound Characters. For six hours, the audience wandered enraptured through 80 years of sound.

Of the seemingly endless visual showcases, several exhibits deserve mention for their imaginative programmatic accents, although strictly speaking not falling under the realm of CMJ reviews. Only kids under 19 are eligible to participate in the “U19 freestyle computing” competition and exhibit, and most entrants are local Austrians. Their grasp not only of computer hardware and software but also of media art concepts is the gratifying result of years of youth outreach by Ars Electronica.

The Animation Festival, inaugurated this year, documented the breathtaking dynamism in visual creation today. Screenings of more than 100 VX (3D modeling software) works and advertising spots illustrate the state of the art and current trends in visual design, cinematic content, film technology, and the film industry, including a large selection from the Japan Media Arts Festival Tokyo.

Student works from Bangalore’s Sristhi School of Art, Design and Technology and the Department of Visual Communication Design at Istanbul’s Bilgi University were exhibited. They demonstrated the remarkable creative qualities at work in these respective countries, but more impressive still was the message of globally shared multimedia art concepts the exhibits imparted.

Of 2,975 works from 71 countries submitted this year, 20 projects received prizes in six categories, with one golden Nica per category. First prize in the Computer Animation/Visual Effects category was awarded to Tomek Baginski for his Fallen Art—Pixar/Disney’s The Incredibles almost took the prize. This work, like most of the prize-winning visual works, was dark and irritating. It recounts yet another version of how the little man’s life feeds the big military-political system. Particularly paradoxical—and disturbing—was the way the vivacity of the film (excellent hand-drawing and attention to detail, great music, lively story-telling) contrasted with its nihilistic theme.

In the Digital Music category, the golden Nica was awarded to Maryanne Amacher, “grande dame” of electronic music, for her work Teo! A Sonic Sculpture. This piece, a Francisco Rivero-Lake project to be presented at an outdoor plaza in Mexico City, unfortunately remains unrealized. For the sonic material, Ms. Amacher gathered samples emitted by sub-atomic particles (muons) beneath the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan and digitally processed them in the studio. Awards of distinction went to John Oswald for his plunderphonic Bach work Ariature and to Pan Sonic for its noise piece Kesto. Many of the works submitted, including the prizewinners, mixed analog and digital sources and processes. The 12 works that received honorable mentions are concept art, installations, and hybrid electronica with elements as varied as plainchant, breakcore, environmental electronic sounds, and (jungle) ambient. Works using music were also found in other exhibits, including two particularly imaginative and eminently musical games by designer Toshio Iwai. His Electroplankton was released in 2005, while his Tenori-On is still in the research and development phase. These two products provide the happy proof that industrial games can be musically satisfying and creative.

The category of Interactive Art is apparently difficult to define. It “crosses and combines many genres” representing a “range of expertise across disciplines from theater to fine art; from art to science,” and the jury decision process “is not entirely objective.” That said, the work that won is a locative (Global Positioning System) media art project entitled MILKproject by Esther Polak (Holland), Ieva Auzina (Latvia), and RIXC, the Riga Center for New Media Culture. It traces the production of Latvian milk into Dutch cheese and explores the idea of “Europe as Europe. No borders, just land with people and things. People and things that move.”

The Net Vision category is easier to understand. The prize is awarded to a work that makes a significant, innovative Internet contribution. This year, the Nica went to “Processing,” a programming language and environment for the electronic visual arts community built by Ben Fry and Casey Reas. The software, which exploits Java applets, was created to teach fundamentals of computer programming within a visual context and to serve as a software sketchbook.

The new Digital Communities category, created in 2004, was originally conceived to award “vibrant” new digital communities, for example Web-blogs or Wikipedia. This year the jury felt the necessity to honor a site based on an “overriding social or political objective.” Akshaya is a pilot project in the South Indian state of Kerala that has mobilized local institutions and individual entrepreneurship to set up internet centers within two kilometers of every household in the district. The project intends to generate over 50,000 employment opportunities in three years.
The U19—Freestyle Computing award (described above) was awarded to Markus Sucher, and a few separate prizes were also awarded, including one to Theo Jansen for his life work creating “Beach Animals,” bizarre structures made of plastic tubes and wraps.

Ars Electronica, the world's largest festival of electronic arts, unfolds a stunning panoply of events and exhibits every year. It is heavily sponsored, and critical voices often complain that the presence of “deep pocketbooks” imposes the creation of mass entertainment and compromises the creation of cutting-edge, critical art. Does the obligation to “satisfy” the masses necessarily reduce a festival’s quality? Can a subsidized festival dare to make a political statement? Or does the liberal festival sponsorship strategy, in an economy in which funding is perpetually threatened, produce interstices for free artistic creation?

Linz is campaigning to become Cultural Capital of Europe for 2009, and its actions are in the limelight. Electronic arts are a strong part of its candidacy, and the city strives to be a first mover in community communication networks. That priority means support for projects like free Wireless (WiFi) access for all, the U19 competition, or radio broadcasts produced by kindergarteners that are received in residences for senior citizens. The networks Linz has set up with other parts of the world are obvious in the prizes and exhibits of Ars Electronica. Yet, in spite of its exposed position, Ars Electronica quietly ventured a pro-Turkey statement with its outstanding Turkish exhibits, reacting to the conservative Austrian government’s hard-line stance against Turkey’s entry into the European Union. Turkey’s art is already here, where it deserves its place. It is a hard equilibrium to find and to hold onto, between financial support and free artistic statement, between commercial and creative success. It didn’t seem to hurt Wolfgang, and for the present at least it would seem that Leopold Mozart’s advice is being followed in Linz successfully, if gingerly, without jeopardizing artistic authenticity.

Note: Webcasts from the festival are online, PDF catalog articles will go on-line in the spring, and the two-CD set of music and visuals, CyberArts 2005, is highly recommended. All of these are available through the Ars Electronica Web site.