Vol. 34 Issue 2 Reviews

Ars Electronica 2009: ‘Human Nature’ in Linz, Austria

Linz, Austria, 3-9 September 2009.

Reviewed by Joyce Shintani and Metin Kara
Karlsruhe, Germany

Ars Electronica, the annual “Festival for Art, Technology and Society,” took place for the thirtieth time 3-9 September 2009, in Linz, Austria. The years since my review of the 2005 festival in these pages (www.computermusicjournal.org/reviews/30-2/shintani-ae.html) have been characterized by incremental developments as far as technology is concerned; but the events with the greatest ramifications have been the global financial and ecological crises. What differences from 2005 would be in evidence in 2009? Every epoch elicits a greater or lesser reaction from its artists, and this year’s artistic reactions in Linz were as dire as the global situation. But 2009 was also Ars Electronica’s 30th anniversary, and Linz enjoyed the distinction of being European Cultural Capital as well. These occasions for celebration combined with the global hangover made Ars Electronica 2009 a curious mix of events that at times left us at a loss for words.

The festival’s theme this year was “Human Nature,” presented by festival directors Gerfried Stocker and Christine Schöpf in the program booklet: “We are entering a new age here on earth: the Anthropocene. An age definitively characterized by humankind’s massive and irreversible influence on our home planet. Population explosion, climate change, the poisoning of the environment, and venturing into outer space have been the most striking symbols of this development so far” (www.facebook.com/notes.php?id=55661199917). As they go on to point out, genetic engineering and biotechnology are prime indicators of the transition into this new epoch. Humankind has barely begun to grasp how human life is created, yet it is already modifying entire genomes, cloning, creating, and inventing new life.

As in past years, the festival was spread over many venues, from the concert hall and museums of the ever-expanding art mile along the banks of the Danube (Brucknerhaus Concert Hall and park, Lentos Museum, new Ars Electronica Quarter) to the streets and other galleries scattered throughout the city (the complete program is available at www.aec.at/humannature/en/program-overview), although outlying locations involving transport, such as the 2006 visit to the St. Florian Monastery were not on this year’s docket (a few clips of the 2006 festival including the St. Florian visit can be viewed at shintanis.blogspot.com/2006_09_01_archive.html). In keeping with the theme of Linz as European Capital of Culture, sites within the confines of the city limits (easily accessible by foot) were highlighted—and “high” lighted they were, indeed! The six-story, 5,100 m² LED facade of the newly expanded Ars Electronica Center (aec.at/center_exhibitions_en.php; www.treusch.at/project.php) was “played” nightly thanks to the combined efforts of invited sound and light artists; and the show “Höhenrausch” (high-altitude euphoria), constructed over the rooftops of several Linz edifices (church, museum, etc.), exploited the 360 degree view of the city and Danube valley as backdrop for commissioned sound and visual sculptures aimed at orienting Linz in a larger geographical and cultural setting. Among works exhibited were such disparate elements as a vast scrap-metal installation on the floor of an attic (Serge Spitzer, USA), an herbal roof garden (Mali Wu, Taiwan), an ingenious “shower of sounds” (Paul DeMarinis, USA), and a Ferris wheel (Maider López, Spain), to name some of the more spectacular (www.ok-centrum.at/english/ausstellungen/hoehenrausch/index.html). These vertiginous events were surely planned long in advance of the current global crises, and their heady heights made the fall back to earth all the more graphic, metaphorically speaking. The festival opened with a blackout of Linz aimed at permitting star gazing (“Starry, Starry Night”), but rain on opening night dampened rather than ignited spirits.

As every year, Ars Electronica featured lectures and seminars, this year on the topics cloud intelligence, sound-image relations in art, the future of retail (!), archiving media art, wearable computers, education in the 21st century, etc. The keynote lectures on the topic “Human Nature” were held in the Brucknerhaus concert hall. Reflecting the apocalyptic mood of the times, the representation of human nature in the lectures included robotics with the festival’s featured artist, Hiroshi Ishiguro (www.is.sys.es.osaka-u.ac.jp/index.en.html), and bio-art with prize-winner Eduardo Kac, whose transgenetic work involves injecting plants with human DNA (www.ekac.org), both prodigious commentaries on crossing the borders of “human nature” today.

A highpoint of the seminars was the talk by philosopher Michael Schmidt-Salomon, which entered into direct dialog with the festival’s theme. In the program booklet the festival directors had written, “Innovative high-tech methods are employed to observe the human brain while it is thinking, so that now we can look behind the veil of consciousness and see how mechanisms of perception and decision-making capacities are reflected in our neurons. The long-established boundaries separating nature and culture are breaking down.” Mr. Schmidt-Salomon took up this statement, noting that what characterizes us as humans is determined by neuronal processes, and not by human thought or will, a standpoint that negates the Cartesian premise of “I think, therefore I am.” Mr. Schmidt-Salomon credited his observation of a friend suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder with leading him to this insight. What occupied his friend’s thoughts and will—simply to take a leisurely walk in a public place—was continually blocked by false neuronal firings in his brain due to the disorder. Mr. Schmidt-Salomon distilled his friend’s experience into a philosophical question: If we are what our neurons determine, and if we are not what we think, then what are the consequences of this negation of Descartes’ premise that to this day underlies Western European philosophical and art traditions (including those of the composer)? By his reckoning, the consequence is a rupture in our notion of universal causality, a rupture long acknowledged in physics, but which endures “intact” in areas such as jurisprudence. Through his lucid presentation of a chain of arguments, Mr. Schmidt-Solomon suggested a nuance in the long fought-for notion of “freedom of thought,” to wit, the differentiation and separation into “freedom of action” and “freedom of will.” [And precisely this concept was illustrated in the animated film “Skhizein” by Jeremy Clapin and Jean-François Sarazin (www.muiye.com), Ars Electronica Award of Distinction.] Mr. Schmidt-Solomon’s conclusion was that yes, we are in the Anthropocene, but “we do not stand above Nature, we are a part of it.” He ended with a personal plaidoyer for humility in the recognition that “our species will perish, like all the others—as I myself will” (www.schmidt-salomon.de). Dark words for a dark time.

The accompanying exhibit in the Brucknerhaus was in step with the festival’s sinister prognosis for human nature, and works of art shown there took astonishing slants to make their points. “Drink. Pee. Drink. Pee. Drink. Pee” (Britta Riley and Rebecca Bray) dealt with the recycling of urine for nutrition. “Future Farm” (Michael Burton), drawing on the desperate reality of severely deprived people who consider their bodies as a site of financial income, predicted a future where people grow new pharmaceutical products in their body. And “Animatronic Flesh Shoe (Moving, Twitching, Pulsating)” (Adam Brandejs), sewn from latex casts molded from the artist’s skin, aimed at creating awareness of abysmal production conditions today. Finally, in “Shrink,” an extravagant take-off on society’s futile and often lethal quest to preserve life and freshness in plastic wrap, Petri dishes, and other see-through packaging, prizewinner Lawrence Malstaf performed the exorbitant shrink-wrapping of three human beings in a 15-foot high scaffolding (video with links to many other festival works are viewable at the St. Pölten University blog, festivalblog09.aec.at/brucknerhaus/lawrence-malstaf-shrink-performance/,  and a list with synopses of all prizes can be found at www.aec.at/prix_history_en.php?year=2009).

And music? Music’s vision, far removed from modern-day horrors, transported us to the resonating belfries of London, to Big Ben’s Gothic Revival style, electronically adapted in Bill Fontana’s prize-winning work “Speeds of Time Versions 1 and 2” (2004) (resoundings.org/Pages/Speeds_of_Time.html). This remarkable electronic work, a landscape sound sculpture based on the mechanism and chiming of Big Ben, was projected in the Brucknerhaus park along the Danube through giant loudspeaker assemblies at 10 p.m. on a drizzly night. Thus presented, the mostly quiet work combined with splashing rain to create a poetic statement of timbres in the dark mist of the jangling city. Once again, music’s power to evoke, to rivet the listener in time, and to transport into other worlds was demonstrated in an associative but completely unsentimental fashion. The mix of concrete sounds in the original succeeded at disguising the church bell noises, clothing them in a foreign, secular context. This also enabled the seamless intermingling of ambient waterside noises with the electronic sounds emanating from high above in the loudspeaker towers placed throughout the park.

Aside from this disembodied presence, there was a wide array of music and musical media art presented at Ars Electronica. Among the highlights, the super-sized Große Konzertnacht (long concert night) once again took place in various venues presenting a large variety of works from the 20th century, while the audiovisual concert datamatics [ver.2.0] meets unitxt featured Ryoji Ikeda and alva noto. At the Lentos Museum was the exhibit “See This Sound;” at the O.K. Museum Digital Musics prizewinners were exhibited (all Digital Musics prizewinning works are on the CyberArts 2009 DVD, available from www.hatjecantz.com/); and in the Art University works from MIT’s Media Lab were displayed. Tod Machover’s works there deserved more room, from the musician’s point of view, as did the functioning Max Brand synthesizer (1957-1964), which deserves a concert and a review of its own. Over “The Flood,” this year’s version of the public event the Visualized Sound Cloud, we lay the cloak of silent forgetfulness. It is worth noting that a Digital Musics Lifetime Achievement Award was awarded to recently deceased sonic artist Max Neuhaus.

If this listing of the vast offering of musical fare is summary, it is due in part to the fact that many of the works and/or exhibits were presented in similar form in other venues recently visited, and they can be better heard online than in these lines. It is also due to curatorial weaknesses that denied visitors an adequate platform for listening to the works (e.g., O.K. Museum, MIT Media Lab display, Max Brand synthesizer). And finally, it is because none of the works heard seemed invested with the power to grip the listener to the degree that visual exhibits did. As the Digital Musics jury (Sabine Breitsameter, Germany; Rupert Huber, Austria; Daito Manabe, Japan; Rogelio Sosa, Mexico; Pamela Z, USA) statement put it, “Today it almost seems as if the discussions that led to the expansion of the concept of music, in particular those in the 1970s and 1980s, never took place. With growing frequency over the past few years, there appears to be a lack of awareness in the cultural and media world of recent developments in art history—especially in the field of sonic art forms” (CyberArts 2009: 66). After all was seen and heard, our favorites were the projections on the new Ars Electronica Center facade. They were presented every night but were always different. An integral part of the festival, the projections helped shape the atmosphere of the city. They utilized the Danube, edifices, electronics, and natural ambient sounds in a combination of human and nature that was at once background lighting and recurrently attention-grabbing. In a word, the projections embodied the motto of this year’s festival.
But that was not all Ars Electronica offered. In addition to all the concerts and exhibits, it also provided room for reflection on its own 30-year history. Retrospective exhibits (static posters and chronologies—economical) were complemented by a (sumptuous) huge catalogue (H. Leopoldseder, C. Schöpf, and G. Stocker, editors, The Network for Art, Technology and Society. The First 30 Years. Ars Electronica 1979-2009, Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2009), as well as by interviews, presentations, and oral histories that, sadly, didn’t attract many visitors. All these documented the steadfast perseverance of a festival, conceived from the beginning to address technological issues and their consequences for society and culture, making of Linz a center for electronic art (pp. 33-34). Perhaps one of the motivating factors in the establishment of the Ars Electronica Festival may be seen in the desire to establish a new identity for the city capable of overshadowing less savory elements of its past: from Hitler’s youth and later dreams for “home town” to Ars Electronica sponsor Voestalpine, today one of Austria’s top ten corporations, founded by Hermann Göring in World War II to supply Germany with steel. These facts might be overlooked, were not the Linz city fathers bent on calling attention to Linz’s “new face.” Indeed, in mid-2008 Linz went so far as to introduce a new city slogan, “Linz.verändert” (Linz has changed, or Linz changes you). And curators of the European Cultural Capital chose exhibits that openly and bravely attacked thorny questions surrounding the city’s past (Hito Steyerl; Linz city archive). The far-sighted and far-reaching decision in 1979 to add a new element to the International Bruckner Festival, which eventually became Ars Electronica, firmly pinned the future identity of the city to electronics. But not just in terms of an electronics industry, rather in terms of culture. Starting from high-brow concert culture the path was gradually paved and sustained to exhibit and foment new kinds of art and the thinking behind them. This has been no easy act.

A final quote from the festival program: “Thirty years after its founding, this globally established festival’s mission remains the same—we are steadfastly dedicated to the pursuit of the curiosity that is so deeply rooted in humankind’s nature, and we continue to peer intrepidly far into the future. Our immediate objective: to once again foment a fruitful, fascinating dialog at the interface of art, technology and society.” This is a praiseworthy mission statement. But Ars Electronica’s intrepid peering into the future with Armageddon exhibits may have thwarted for the moment its immediate objective of fomenting dialog. The current reviewers were sometimes left at a nonplus. And Mr. Fontana’s prize-winning work, understood as the focal sound statement of the 2009 festival, suggests that music, for the time being, has not yet recovered from its speechlessness and articulated a response. Or, perhaps its response is to recoil and to recollect the harmony of the spheres, reviving the atavistic human capacity to become one with the environment through hearing. One might see the visual art presented as representational (horror scenarios) and music as evocative (utopia): Big Ben and the sonic/visual projections on the AEC—both took place in the night, in the locale of wordless dreams. The skill of hearing—at the neuronal level—has always enabled man and woman to meld with their surroundings. Man and woman in their cave at night, without light and without sight, were only in touch through hearing, and through hearing, “becoming” (to borrow a notion from Gilles Deleuze), becoming human. We hope that the cultural utopia evoked by Mr. Fontana from the midst of our world’s dark night is not just sentimental retrospection, rather a contribution to drawing us into a new and lighter period of becoming—humane, humanist, human.