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Leonardo 34.2 (2001) 161-162

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Book Review

Ars Electronica: Facing the Future

Ars Electronica: Facing the Future edited by Timothy Druckrey. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, and London, U.K., 1999.

Ars Electronica started in Linz, Austria, in 1979 as a festival concerned with the future of arts, technology, society and culture and their interdisciplinary crossings in the face of a new millennium. Over the past 20 years the festival has invited experts for debates on topics such as computers and culture, possible relations between the human (brain) and the computer (machine), sciences and arts, as well as other fields of synergy--most recently "Life Sciences." The festival also provides the Prix Ars Electronia for computer animation, interactive arts, net-works and digital music. Facing the Future is a book of collected essays that Timothy Druckrey has compiled together with Ars Electronica to historically, theoretically and also practically reflect upon steps toward developing and thinking the "digital" on the eve of the third millennium.

Starting from the themes of the annual festivals, the book covers two decades of ongoing preoccupation with a future that is regarded as an era of transformations and crossings based upon the development of microelectronics, thereby bringing about the "third industrial revolution." The essays for this survey are taken from the festival's catalogues and viewed together predominantly foster the idea of the "break," the "shift," the "new," where the meaning of "going digital" is discussed in discourses on networking [End Page 161] and Artificial Life, as well as in political terms of "Electronic War" and "Information Warfare." Retrospectively it is interesting to note how the date 2000 has become a watershed--an almost magical barrier that quite literally divides life into "before" and "after."

In this view, the festival's own approach towards the future is especially marked. It stresses a techno-enthusiasm of increasing acceleration, concluding in a countdown--most dramatically when, in 1990, Ars Electronica was announced as "Millennium III minus 10." While Ars Electronica should be credited with its concern to champion electronic arts on an international scale for over two decades, nevertheless the festival has been criticized for becoming commercial, with its increasing emphasis on the prize winners, while at the same time marginalizing the experimental approaches that are essential to the arts. Nonetheless, despite this albeit justifiable critical standpoint, it is commonly agreed in the media community that Ars Electronica has consistently taken up the key issues at stake and has presented sophisticated positions in theory and practices in a public forum. Against this background the reader of Facing the Future is invited to follow an emerging history of research and thinking that, step by step, demonstrates the development and changes in the discourse and the technology. To this end the themes of over 70 articles are organized around three sections: history, theory, and practice, each laid out in chronological order.

The history starts with Gene Youngblood's discussion of video as visual art in 1984, where he points out the potential of the medium as digital video and videodisk, in clear distinction to cinema and television, since what matters in digital video is "simulation," not "fiction." At the end of the section, Friedrich Kittler analyzes the results of "digital simulation" where "information counts in war." Kittler dismantles the techno-political perfidiousness in scenarios of "information warfare" where the global computer network allows for a new dimension involving the merging of espionage with communication. In between, Peter Weibel informs us, with considerable technical knowledge, about the integration of video and computer in the "digital image" and identifies precursors of "digital art" in the history of experimental arts. Hervé Huitric and Monique Nahas closely describe steps in computer programming of visuals while Heidi Grundmann makes a well-informed contribution to the "language problem" (sound and noise) in radio arts. Kristine Stiles manages to look into the cultural phenomena of destruction in art without mentioning the works of destroyed architecture by Gordon Matta-Clark. Another series of contributions is concerned with robots (Hans Moravec), cyborgs (Hari Kunzru) and neurophysical experiments to connect brain and computer (Peter Fromherz...


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