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  • Ars Electronica 2002:Unplugged—Art as the Scene of Global Conflict
  • Aparna Sharma

For 17th-century astronomer Johannes Kepler, harmony of the world was a certainty. Inspired by Kepler's epochal Harmonices Mundi, artists Hans Hoffer and Christian Muthspiel ventured to place destruction in the celestial cycle. Their hour-long show, "Harmony of the World," was a dramatic mix of fire, live music and a video-track of the collapsing twin towers of the World Trade Center that got Ars Electronica 2002 off to an epochal start.

On the first night itself, the show, also known as the "Linz Cloud of Sound," relieved eyes that have been fed a diet of conflict and terrorism, dotted with communal clashes, including the excruciating perennial sore—Kashmir. Maybe this relief was indicative of the "utopian quality of art," which director Gerfried Stocker had earnestly set the festival to encourage. But in my positive response to the stunning audio-visual event, I found myself rather isolated.

Hoffer, who conceived the visualization of the show, repeatedly juxtaposed three images of the collapsing towers in a montage comprising diverse imagery and graphics. He exploited the image as a concentric complex, composed of multiple layers of meaning with the [End Page 165] immediate or visible at the center. Through its meticulous and timely placement of images, the montage established exactly that link between the invisible or implied, and the immediate or the whole. Each repetition steadily opened up 9/11 imagery, detaching it from the obvious emotional significance that has enveloped it from the moment of its existence.

At another level, the repeated use of this imagery took issue with the mass media, which thrives on footage of death, destruction and disaster. In a subtle move towards the end, the two large screens on which the video-track was projected floated away in the Danube, emphasizing the impermanence of the mass media image and replicating the continual disappearance from sight in the face of the visual clutter bombarding viewers regularly. Consequently, in this work, not only the representation but the very meaning of the event was re-visioned, having merged into the celestial reality that encompasses the immediate. Unfortunately, many in the audience took exception to the repeated use of 9/11 imagery. Irresistibly confined within the immediate connotations of the visuals, they rejected the show as being "ironic," "pornographic" and outright dystopic. I remain intrigued by the reactions of the majority of the audience and, without meaning to underestimate or trivialize them, I am inclined to hold that the response stemmed not simply from a personal anguish or collective angst caused by 9/11, the most spectacular avatar yet of terrorist violence in communities unused to it.

As the clouds of dust that swelled in the space of seconds, settled months later, a self-contained, neatly tagged perception found itself ruffled by a diametrically opposed reality that was until then beyond perception. This shock to the system accounts, in my view, for much of the hostility expressed towards the show by the primarily Western audience. In this, they displayed the insularity that simultaneously multiplies and sharpens existing fault lines of difference, constricting notions of identity. This unwilling engagement, it seems, was symptomatic of the very malaise that Ars Electronica 2002 was out to spotlight.

The fault lines of difference stand out most noticeably in encounters between civilizations from the "advantaged" and "not-so-advantaged" regions of the globe. Oscillating between two extremes—one, impoverished, unstable and calamity ridden; the other, "exotic" and mesmerizing—popular Western impressions about the "East" (west Asia onward) and Africa have rarely transcended the precincts of the Euro-American fortress, despite the prolonged colonial intersection and the contemporary "global" one. The lure of these lands, traced well back into yore, make for no more than either mild flirtations with their "colors," "flavors," and "mysteries," or (worse) eccentric and unempathetic attempts at solving their problems.

Between its insurgent sentiments, eloquently conveyed by Stocker, and the larger sphere of Ars Electronica's own situation, the latter got the better of this year's festival. Even though the galleries at the Brucknerhaus, the festival's main venue, may have flaunted works from previously underrepresented...


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pp. 165-167
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