Report from Ars Electronica
Published on Rhizome.org – 9/13/02
Linz, Austria
September 7 – 12, 2002

If you walked barefoot into the lounge at the O.K. center in Linz this week, you might think you reached the beach of the future. Instead of sand, millions of tiny plastic beads lined the floor of this blacklight neon room with low cushions and a fleet of laptops displaying net art projects. This year’s Ars Electronica took the theme “Unplugged: Art as the Scene of Global Conflicts” a metaphor for the state of post 9/11 artistic practice amid an international climate of political tension surrounding globalization, terrorism, and threats of war. As it was my first visit to Ars, I tried to inhale as much stimuli as possible without suffering my own blue screen of death.

The festival consisted of 8 venues scattered throughout the smog-infested, small town of Linz. The museum built specifically for electronic art, the Ars Electronica Center (AEC), is a fairly antiseptic space, and this year hosted the “Hidden Worlds” exhibit featuring Golan Levin’s “Hidden Worlds of Noise and Voice.” An augmented reality simulation that pinpoints the location of audible sounds and through display goggles renders 3D worm-like colors emanating from the source of the sounds. The project gave everything from high-pitch squeals to bass thumping burps a virtual counterpart. Also at AEC was Motoshio Chikamori and Kyoko Kunoh’s “Tools Life” an interactive installation consisting of various tools (e.g., hammers, cheese graters) that launch animations in the object’s shadow when touched. The focus of the work was to illuminate and display invisible data layers moving within physical space.

The more spacious O.K. Center hosted the honorable mentions and winners in the CyberArts category, which focused on themes of simulation and representation. Golden Nica winner, David Rokeby’s “n-cha(n)t” asked what it would sound like if a network of computers chanted in unison – computers hanging from the ceiling use speech recognition technology to transform visitor’s vocal input into lyrics. Taking telepresence to sonic heights, was Atau Tanaka and Kasper Toeplitz’s “Global String,” a long steel cable stretching from floor to ceiling connected to another cable’s resonant sound frequencies over the Internet. Also inspired by physical movement through spatial mapping, “Body Brush” developed by a group from Hong Kong, generated a colorful 3D landscape through “Digital Action Painting” where visitors could dance on the floor while their movements and gestures are tracked in space. The crowd pleaser was Volker Morawe and Tilmann Reiff’s “PainStation”, a rendition of Pong in an armored cabinet where users have to place their hands on elements that quickly heat up or be whipped by motorized strings if they miss the ball with their paddle. In effect, the threat of physical harm provided a compelling incentive to engage strangers in the game.

The festival’s defining strength seemed to be embedded in the energy and rawness of the performances. Japan’s 66b/cell group upstaged most of the events with its epic show at the Peter Behrens Haus featuring alien-like costume design, embedded LED clothing, perfect projection synchronization with dance moves, techno beats, and a dancer painted in gold with long spikes emanating from the tips of his fingers. Similarly, “Vivisector” by Klaus Obermaier and Chris Haring featured dancers moving within video projections and shifting their bodies to distort and shape incoming light movements. Rounding out the live events was the “Gameboyzz Orchestra Project”, a collection of six on-stage practitioners creating 8-bit console sounds through customized sequencers connected to drum machines.

The symposium’s focus on global conflict and media representation post 9/11 turned into a backlash against the political motivations of the exhibited art. Was the art political? Did it have a social message? If so, does this quality make it more or less valuable? Of the winners, Rafael-Lozanner Hemmer’s full scale “Body Movies” installation addresses the relational structures between urban landscapes and the people inhabiting them. His project raised the questions: “What is a city today? When does it begin an when does it end?” The answer seems to be based more on psychology than physical boundaries since everyone who answered seemed to have a different opinion. In Net Vision, RSG’s Carnivore project looked at the political junction of art and government surveillance and how public networks can be manifested through artistic output with real-world input. Also looking at public space was It’s Alive’s mobile phone, location-based, pervasive game “Bot-Fighters,” which tracks the relative position of people through a city, and engages them in a combat simulation as a robot avatar. Basing game play on fears of surveillance and tracking, the project transforms public space into a recreational arena similar to earlier, localized games like Laser-Tag.

Ars Electronica, billed as the decisive festival for digital creativity, remains an important milestone for artists working in this realm. Despite its ambition to be a global leader in the recognition of digital arts, Ars seems still receptive to having artists develop its identity. Whether it’s sifting through packets of people’s email in the Brucknerhaus with Carnivore or relaying spliced audio and data clips throughout the city with the Radiotopia project, there’s a major attempt to use the existing infrastructure of the city and its inhabitants for creative realization. In the digital domain, the aesthetic pressures of the professional art world are present but less obtrusive. There’s still no Michelangelo of digital art and that’s a good thing. It might be because the promise of artistic perfection is only upstaged by the realization that failure is more interesting.