- Ars Electronica 2001
After 22 years, Ars Electronica is such an established landmark on the map of interactive arts festivals that its history and structure hardly need rehearsing here. But for the record, the Ars Electronica festival was established in 1979 with the support of Linz, a city previously known for its connections with Nazism. The festival also became host to the Prix Ars Electronica 15 years ago, and since 1996 has had its own all-year venue-the Ars Electronica Center- just across the river from the Bruknerhaus, built to commemorate one of the city's less notorious sons. This year, the winners and honorable mentions in the Prix Ars Electronica were on display at the O.K. Center for Contemporary Art while most other events took place in the Bruknerhaus. Throughout the city, there were parties and creative interventions, constituting a fringe of counterculture.
The festival has, from the outset, set its sights on the future and is an occasion for a convergence of international talent and curiosity connected with the art practices of tomorrow. In 2001, the title of the festival-"Takeover: Who's Doing the Art of Tomorrow"-anticipated a sea change in the practice and reception of art (note the lack of a question mark in the title). The "Takeover" symposia consisted of four days of presentations, each intended to address one aspect of an overarching thesis: that digital communications have allowed art and artists to bypass the establishment to the extent that the values of the past are no longer relevant to practitioners and audiences. As we are entering a new paradigm, the question mark consequently belongs not to who is doing the art but, to quote directors Gerfried Stoker and Christine Schöpf, "Which constellations, which factors are defining the art of tomorrow, where will it happen, who is doing it with whom?"
Given the self-confidence (not the novelty) of the premise, it was disappointing that the event was dominated by a parade of predominantly male, superannuated speakers from the Mid Atlantic art establishment. Much that was presented was familiar territory to anyone with any background in the kinds of things that Ars Electronica has stood for: practices that have not sought approval from the art establishment; perspectives that regard practice, analysis and criticism as a continuous platform for legitimate artistic intervention; perspectives that have negotiated, collaborated and played with science as they have simultaneously excommunicated scientists.
To this informed constituency, many of the presentations must have been pushing at open doors. This could have been precisely the expectation-a deconstructivist structure for a symposium to show the redundancy of a discourse by grandly displaying its irrelevance. As such, it would have had my vote (although perhaps it would have demanded less attention). The same may be said for what was supposed to replace it: an "electrolobby take-over," in which "smart hubs, hacks and killer apps. push the envelope." It was, alas, indistinguishable from the ennui of the post-establishment establishment. The electrolobby afternoon, hosted by TNC Network's Sabine Wahrmann and embellished by DJ Swo, was an exercise in media cool in which young talent refused to be articulate for fear of being un-cool in such company. A bit of straight-forward talking could possibly have plotted a pathway to the real questions that the take-over thesis presents, but instead, through this mode of presentation, the event was always in danger of becoming identified with the very malaise that it was intending to expose.
Whatever the disappointments in the symposia, the reputation of Ars Electronica guarantees that among the frogs there will be princes. This indeed was the case with part four of the symposium, dedicated to a presentation of biotechnology and bio-informatics as artistic tools. In this session, Eduardo Kac argued for a venerable history for bio-technic art and paid tribute to George Gessert. He elegantly talked us through his work and fielded the usual questions about poor old Alba, a long suffering GFP (green fluorescent protein) rabbit who stoically endures audiences missing the point. Natalie Jeremijenko...