At Ars Electronica 2001

By Ck Kuebel & Ben Delaney © 2001

Originally published in Art New England, Dec 2001-Jan 2002 issue.

We attended Ars Electronica the first week of September. Held in Linz, Austria, the setting was almost bucolic, attendees from around the world were friendly and open, and the zeitgeist reflected a sincere belief that art is important, that art makes the arcane accessible, that art changes things. Our assignment was to write about the social impact of what was shown and talked about at this highly respected festival.

We arrived home in New York City late on Monday night, September 10th. We awoke early on the 11th, jetlagged, still on European time. And then we experienced how enormous an impact an event can have.

We saw the second plane crash into the World Trade Center from our roof. We saw the towers collapse. We saw thousands of people die. And we wondered what we would write about Ars Electronica in the aftermath of such a disaster.

In the next few days, we struggled to comprehend the horror, to make sense of it, to resume our lives, changed forever by the sights and sounds and smells we had experienced. Eventually we found memories of the festival coming back, and things started to fit together.

The theme of Ars Electronica this year was "TAKEOVER; who is making the art of tomorrow?" The attack on America was a takeover attempt. It was an effort to co-opt our hearts and minds. It was an attempt, in a way analogous to an artistic presentation, to reach us, change us, make us think differently. Like a great work of art, it was deeply effective, on many levels.

An exciting and controversial presentation at Ars Electronica addressed the theme head on. Oliviero Toscani, fashion photographer and trouble maker, best known for the Benetton advertising campaigns of the 80’s and 90’s, spoke one evening to a packed house. His talk was irascible, brilliant, annoying, inspiring, naïve, sophisticated, and funny. In fact, he was really funny.

But Toscani ended his two-hour presentation with a thirty-minute diatribe in which he urged the artists in the audience to throw off their corporate shackles and make true art, art that raises serious issues and art that changes the world for the better. His sincerity seemed genuine. But his message left a nagging question: How could one who has obviously done so well in the corporate world, one who has so well assisted the merchandising of often useless stuff, one who made his name as a brilliant photographer and marketer of fashion, tell us that corporations are bad, that advertising is bad, that marketing makes us nothing more than sheep, heading for the green pasture of social congeniality through brand identification?

We asked Toscani this question the next afternoon. He was holding court, the most notable in a hall full of overachievers, surrounded by fawning media people and conference organizers and delegates. He was enjoying himself. But this question, when we finally wedged in to ask it, upset the master. He was rushing for a plane. We talked for just a few minutes.

"This is such a moralistic question. Only an American would ask such a question," was his first response. We sensed he was stalling as he formed a real answer. We wondered, "What is American about this question? Do only Americans sense hypocrisy in both blaming and serving the same master?" Then he spoke again.
"I’m not against profit. But profit should not be the final goal of what we do." There is something beyond profit. We are all part of the system, he said. No one can escape that. But we must find the cracks, we must use our art like a wedge to widen those cracks, and we must work from within the system to change it. "The corporation puts you against the wall and checks you out. I’m fighting for the quality of the content." In his case, that content has a strong message of tolerance, love, and global social responsibility.

Toscani’s work is never dull. He showed dozens, perhaps hundreds of images while he spoke, commenting on some ("This one was banned in Germany. This one was prohibited in Denmark."), and letting others speak for themselves The work is technically excellent, but more important, Toscani has something to say, and he pulls no punches. His work for Benetton produced studies on illness (the AIDS campaign), war (Kosovo), and institutionalized brutality (Death Row). Following this work he launched a polemic magazine titled Colors, with the intent of continuing to shake things up. One may not agree with what Toscani says, but one cannot ignore him.

At Ars Electronica 2001, TAKEOVER was the theme, but hardly anyone seemed to be addressing it. In fact, Toscani’s presentation was one of only a few that seemed to us to address this year’s theme with any guts. In talking to the Artistic Director of the festival, Gerfried Stocker, we asked, "Isn’t TAKEOVER a weak theme? He said he disagreed. "Ars Electronica has one big philosophy, almost our mantra, ART–TECHNOLOGY–SOCIETY. One could say that we have the same theme every year: how does cultural life change due to new technology." A takeover is not always hostile, he pointed out. Art takes over advertising and artistic images become common. Art is taken over by commercial interests.

In fact, what most participants in this year’s festival really focused on was not "TAKEOVER," but rather the question of "who’s doing the art of tomorrow." And there were many inspiring examples of technologically enhanced art whose influence on culture shall be of great import.

As Jon Ippolito, associate curator of Media Arts at the Guggenhiem Museum observed: today's crucial artistic activity is being built "outside Art's backyard." Scientists making art, artists working out of research labs, designers subverting the messages of their corporate sponsors, creatives utilizing the global internet to spread cultural information – these are the exciting sources for the creation of art today.

Controversial but crucial experimentation in bio-engineering and genetics were discussed by some of those exploring the boundaries of this artistic field. Symbiotica is a laboratory whose team includes artists, scientists, programmers and engineers doing research projects linking art to neuroscience, tissue engineering, biomechanics, physics, and robotics. Blurring the boundaries between what is life and what is manufactured has raised serious ethical concerns. But Symbiotica argues that the "cybernetic notion of interfacing neurons with machines/robots is starting to become a reality." Siting as example the advances in the field of retinal prosthetics, among others, they presented a strong case for artistic exploration in this field of "wet biology."

Joe Davis, another pioneer in biotechnology art, is artist-in-residence at MIT. His bio/artistic experimentations have burst preconceived conceptions of life’s limits. He has coded pictures in DNA, and revealed the secret murmurings of protozoa. Now he is currently busy going after the Moby Dick of cancer, hoping his experiments will show a way towards a cure. This is art with an impact.

Challenging previous concepts of robotics was Tatsuya Matsui, resident artist at Japan Science and Technology Corporation. He brought his "daughter," Posy to the festival, where she performed a dance duet with a young woman on opening night. Later speaking at a symposium on new tools and concepts, Matsui showed video of Posy’s brother, Pino, as he learned how to walk over the course of a year. Both these "children" are automatons, but Matsui emotionally argues that they have consciousness, that our culture must understand that in the future we and our robotic creations will be symbiotically, and perhaps inextricably, linked.

Art is a major communications tool, and the Internet has emerged as a vital medium of cultural expression. Nora Barry is a writer helping to redefine the structure of narrative for the Internet. She is the founder of both the Streaming Cinema Festival and the first online venue for made-for-internet films, The Bit Screen. At Ars Electronica 2001, Barry pointed out how internet art, employing new artistic ‘brushes’ such as digital video, JavaScript, and Flash, has globalized the availability of art but also celebrated the variety of artistic expressions of different cultural milieux.

Tanja Diezmann co-founded the group pReview "to provide audio-visual work for research into new cultural forms of digital and analog media." Most striking to us was the site erected after the disastrous sinking of the ferryboat Estonia. The site made available updates on the situation, and provided personal information (password protected) for the victims’ relatives. This was an enormous advance in data usage and dissemination – a use of the Internet that will vastly aid those affected by our recent tragedy here in America.

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, artist/architect has called his work "relational architecture" which "amplifies the participant to the building’s scale." He utilizes the interplay of image, space, light, and sound, transforming cold urban space into Anyone’s playground. When his most recent piece was video-viewed at an Ars Electronica symposium it elicited enthusiastic applause. The setting was a public plaza in Rotterdam. Projectors cast gigantic, candid snapshots of people onto the blank wall of a dominant building in the plaza. This wall was also flooded with spotlights that washed out the various projected figures until a passerby’s shadow, blocking the floodlight, revealed them. Soon the audience realized their shadows were actors onstage, and interaction amongst them led to wild, hilarious scenes. Lozano-Hemmer brilliantly integrates place and participant. His work succeeds in giving the unchoreographed the power of a full orchestra. People making art with their neighbors in the town plaza? That’s impact, too.

The art of tomorrow?
As it has for the past 30 years, the Ars Electronica festival brought together many of the most important artists, scientists, thinkers of our culture. But in light of the turn events took on a clear morning in New York, one’s perspective has changed . The word TAKEOVER has an ominously different meaning than was being considered at Ars the previous week. How will the artistic community react now?

It seems that art now has a heavier social burden. In times past, art has been an effective instrument of propaganda. Will we now use art to convince the third world that the Western World is their friend? Can we use art to convince the corporate and governmental chiefs of the first world that the way to world peace is through equality, as opposed to the unrestrained competition for profit? Will we use art to convince ourselves that life will go on, that the world is not essentially hostile, and that on this Sphere spinning in infinite space, we are all one family? Can we prevent art from being used to glorify war, violence, decadence, and hatred? The truth is, art always has some kind of impact. One can only hope that that impact is positive, and life-affirming. As Stocker said, "This year, art is again our looking glass."

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