- Ars Electronica 2005: Festival for Art, Technology, and Society
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" (www.therestisnoise.com/2004/05/theodor_adorno.html). 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, at 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's 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...