Report From Ars Electronica 2004
Linz, Austria
Sept 2-7, 2004
By Jonah Brucker-Cohen

This year’s Ars Electronica festival was a reflection on the history and progression of media arts throughout the last 25 years of the festival’s existence. The theme was “TIMESHIFT: The World in 25 Years”, a homage to the importance and prominence that digital art practice has had not only within the creative spectrum but also its dissemination through multiple disciplines and cultures. Over six days, the festival attempted to provide a structural coherence to the performances, exhibitions, conferences, and special events that comprised its program. This was evident in the diverse range of speakers and exhibitors including a large show of student work from Japan’s IAMAS and Ravensbourne College in the UK, and a diverse mixture of symposium speakers.

The festival began with the “Language of Networks” exhibition and conference examining the proliferation of networks, maps, and social software. Brian Holmes spoke about his research on the geography of information flow and urban cartography. Josh On extrapolated on this by placing the importance on the people enveloped in a network as an approach of studying networks. A pivotal moment was when he exclaimed, “Saying we live in a networked society is meaningless, it’s like saying we live in a social society.”

The TIMESHIFT symposium was curated by Michael Naimark and based around the four themes of Progress, Disruption, Spirit, and Topia. Each topic featured a younger revisitor of the Ars archive and four “senior” experts in the field who gave larger thematic talks and predictions about what might transpire over the next 25 years. Beginning with “Progress”, Roger Molina, editor of Leonardo, spoke on knowledge and how future directions in science are based on socially derived imperatives. He presented an “ontological challenge” that attempts to make us question how our universe is constructed and interpreted. Peter Weibel, director of the ZKM, asked how we can predict progress in the arts as the industrial revolution provided an impetus for creative expression by allowing people to see the world differently, such as viewing flowers as flowing dots out the window of speeding trains. However, he believes that humans have the final say and that computers cannot improve our own inherent intelligence. Ester Dyson’s talk compounded the belief that we might be entering information overload. She said that progress rests on finding, managing, and disseminating information we already have access to on a global scale. Looking like a Technicolor enigma on a broken video conference was Ismail Serageldin of the Library of Alexandria who reminded the audience that progress occurs locally.

I moderated the “Disruption” section, and attempted to give an overview of projects from the Ars archive that illustrated this theme through topics ranging from collective action to critical geographies. Celebrity blogger, Joi Ito spoke on how media is disseminated through the blog-o-sphere as information that is somewhat relevant to a mass audience but then gets pushed to the forefront of the public eye. He showed some humorous anti-bush and file sharing advertisements as examples of how people are taking media into their own hands through humorous remixes. Artist Krzysztof Wodiczko then spoke on his installations that function as armaments to immigrants while David Turnbull injected a debate on how indigenous communities map their histories. Science fiction writer Bruce Sterling provided the comedy and rants on the panel speaking on the wastefulness of “blobjects” (consumer goods designed on workstations) and “spimes” (gadgets with infinite functions). He pointed to his Palm TREO, calling it a gizmo or the defining artifact of our time that has “crazy” amounts of functionality, but little inherent value.

The other two groups of speakers in the “Spirit” and “Topia” panels attempted to challenge traditional notions of how communities use technology and future predictions of how sustainable technological developments might have an impact on our survival. Geetha Narayanan of Srishti School of Art, Design, and Technology in Bangalore, India gave an impressive presentation on how lived experience has to be an integral part of any discussion on human well being by giving examples of communities in rural India that exemplified this ethic in practice. Sherry Turkle of MIT, followed this by rejecting the notion that technology is merely a tool, positioning it as objects that make us reflect ourselves. Her focus on projecting “self” onto “technology” (other) was illustrated in “the power of the transitional object” which pits objects, devices, and code as extensions and integral parts of the human body and experience. These debates asked the question of how culture and experience are integrated into what it means to be an individual and act autonomously.

Between the hectic schedules of talks and events, I managed to sneak in some fast food, and wander over to the various venues. Some highlights included the retro-fitted O.K. center’s installation of Ben Rubin and Mark Hansen’s, “Listening Post”, which consisted of hundreds of LCD panels displaying live chat room text. Also of note was Feng Meng Bo’s “Q4U” which features the artist inside a Quake mod and allows members of the public to “play” him. Across town, the Time’s Up “Sensory Circus” was a metal-clad amusement park of physical gaming meets gothic theme park. My favorite ride was “Sonic Pong” a projected pong game you played by leaning your body left and right on hydraulic panels. The signature performance of the event, “Apparition” featured a disappointing interactive graphics performance with dancers and real-time projections mapped onto their bodies. Despite the promise of live performance and interplay between sensing movements and producing on-screen feedback, the performance seemed to get lost in the awe of technology and forget why it was being used. This was upstaged by Julien Maire’s “DEMI-PAS”, a brilliant mechanized slide show that uses low-tech gears. motors, and water drops to create vivid projected animations.

As this year’s festival came to a close, it seemed less self-congratulatory than it has in the past. Since many of the invited speakers had never met before or were first-timers to the festival, the discussions and interactions seemed to avoid their previous cliquish nature. It seemed as if the themes this year brought out the need to experiment with re-appropriation of existing methods and technology to redefine their intended use. This was excellently illustrated when interactive video pioneer Myrun Kreuger explained how he created the world’s first computer projection in the 1970s by aiming a camera at the computer screen. From hacking Google News with Marcus Weskamp’s “NewsMap” to reinventing copyright with Creative Commons, TIMESHIFT presented a clear need to experiment with the now to discover how the next 25 years might evolve. In the end, it seemed obvious that Ars itself might lose relevance in the next century if it fails to continually question its own existence.