I went to Ars Electronica at the beginning of the September. My mentor, Karen, had said it was essential I went as part of my development, implying I would have my horizons expanded and mind blown by the stuff on show there. Personally I wasn’t sure about going – I didn’t feel like I needed to have more ideas poured into my head – what I needed was some space to process the ones I already had. Ars felt like something I should do next year. But Karen was firm. Off I went.
The four days I spent soaking in Ars Electronica were nothing like I’d anticipated. It wasn’t bad and it was certainly worth going, but I’d seen more cutting edge digital art idly scrolling through a few Tumblrs than I saw there. The festival, if it had once had relevance, felt like it had been taken over by the dead hand of education with an emphasis on students who, by their very nature, are not at the height of their careers. A couple of exhibitions from Taiwan and Israel had a bit of bite but they felt detached from the broader festival.
I suppose the overriding message I got is there’s nothing inherently interesting about “electronic arts” in the 2010s. Nearly all art has an electronic facet and there’s enough history that it can get bogged down in it, such as the nostagia-porn vintage computer game exhibit which, when I moaned about it, chum Leon said was like seeing the Mona Lisa in the flesh as opposed to as a print. Yeah, whatever, it’s still tedious retro and I get enough of that at home.
I did like the uninentional art of the Ars catalogue sale with mountains of old catalogues from the last couple of decades being sold dirt cheap. This monument to the transience and irrelevance of speculating about digital art made me smile. If ever there was a medium that was agressively forward looking it’s the “digital”. A huge pile of questions, to which hindsight could mostly answer “no”. A firesale of futurism.
Maybe that explains the slightly conservative edge to the official Ars theme for this year. Total Recall, besides evoking Verhoeven/Schwarzenegger fantasies, addressed the panic how the hell we cope with all this stuff the digital world is throwing at us. Fears about the storage and fate of our digital “memories” is valid, but the answers are pretty complex. The artworks I saw that attempted it didn’t seem interested in addressing these questions in any real depth, merely framing them in ways that the viewer’s lizard brain would answer like a paranoid tabloid. Bio-terrorists will run amok! Hyper-surveilance marks the end of privacy! A theme I noticed through Total Recall was “Just because we can doesn’t mean it’s a good idea”. Not only is this a boring and deeply conservative statement, it confuses two quite distinct issues and allows easy emotional responses (while perfectly valid) to override the more intellectually tricky enquiries into how this stuff actually works.
Maybe in a secular worldview it is the job of Art to keep Science in check? To ask the moral questions religion would have considered its remit in the past? If so, I think Art needs to fully understand the science before it can preach ethics, lest we arrive at a Galileo scenario again.
In their defence, the Ars Electronica organisation does exist to bring artists and scientists together to pose these questions and maybe I missed the nuances, or the subsequent debates. But on surface and as a spectacle the Total Recall theme felt defensive, closing ranks against the frightening, complex future. Not what I was hoping for.
Of course, in any gathering of stuff this large there were bound to be things that hit my buttons. Even those which were derivative of ideas I’d seen elsewhere were interesting to see first hand. Oliver Bimber’s DIY light-field camera, built from an array of consumer webcams and viewed on a big telly using 3D specs, was neat. The Lytro, as a device, has always felt like a miss-step around a very interesting concept that could show the way cameras might develop, so it was good to see it broken down to some of the constituent parts and opened up for experimenting. The conversation I had with the volunteer manning it was illuminating but I need to research more into how the images are computed.
As always, the really important stuff is happening in the mysterious box, in the code. Obscuring this and just showing the outcomes was a flaw I saw again and again at Ars, and I suspect goes across all “electronic art”. I’m not saying show the code itself – that’s meaningless to most viewers – but explain the workings, show the flow of data and the decisions made. That’s not hard to do, or at least shouldn’t be for a professional communicator. But no, Art-speak all the way.
Given I’ve been rather obsessed with slit-scan photography I was quite pleased to see some on display in a corner of the exhibition, but it was pretty basic stuff, probably made with the lo-fi app I’ve been playing with. Jaak Kaevats had made four long scans of people walking along the street accompanied by a pointless “interactive” screen for zooming in. While disapointing it did fire me up to do better, and I suppose that was the theme of my Ars Electronica – realising this stuff could be done better and I could do it. Quite inspiring in itself really.
Another thing I noticed was how a curatorial or artistic vision, if that’s the term, can, by trying to layer meaning on a work, spoil the work itself. Here’s something I wrote in the Ars cafe:
A large number of the exhibits at Ars have disappointed me, not in and of themselves – they are often well considered and executed within their remit – but related to my expectations. Kurt Hörbst’s people_scans (alarm bell from the unnecessary underscore in the title) is a good example. The title, underscore aside, implies a scan of some kind. While “scan” is a broad term, I’d assume it to be something more than a photograph, otherwise you’d call it a photograph, no? But his work is effectively a composite photograph of a person. Yes, the images are gorgeous and display incredible detail. But they are photos. Was I naive to expect something more? Some study of depth or time or something more than a photograph? His work is “an intentional deceleration of high-speed photography” but I couldn’t see how. The camera was a standard high-spec SLR, the environment very similar to a standard photographic studio. What he’d done was spin the studio around, macro instead of longlens, and using this track to keep the camera on a horizontal plane. As an exercise in perfection it’s really interesting, and it’s great to see an artist using a spirit level. But there was nothing slow about it. It’s just a composite photograph, no different to a stitched panorama of a landscape. “People Panoramas” would be a neat and accurate title for this. But it’s not a scan.
Does that matter? Shouldn’t the work be allowed to stand alone from the curator-speak? Can the artist be blamed for the naming of their work? No, and Kurt Hörbst’s work in and of itself is fine. I like the images. They have a flatness which is intriguing. I like how the folds in the clothes are disconcerting. They are great photos. But as part of what I was expecting Ars Electronica to be about they’re a bit of a letdown.
Later, when looking into Hörbst’s work in more detail, I saw the curator-speak was his own, so the artist can be blamed. Although you could argue he wouldn’t have gotten the commission without it. Artists gotta eat.
The exhibition that impressed me the most was IL(L) Machine a collection of Israeli art students which I only found because I went on the official tour (thinking that my initial impressions of Ars could be improved with a bit of context – they could, but only a bit). Two pieces stood out to me. Here’s the notes I tapped on the sofa there:
Cubes: Boxes with simple circuits that react to inputs – touch, shade, noise, wind, etc. Essentially the Arduino starter kit turned into an exploratory plaything. Idea: use these boxes to control cameras. I like the non-obvious ones like blowing through a hole to trigger a sound. Also, measuring distance using IR could create a Theramin camera?
C.T. Sound TVL-Linz: This is a nice installation. The curator-speak is annoying but the end result appeals to me. Yes, I’m drawn to the pixels station and the tenori-on style sequencing, but there’s something else there. I think it’a the “playing” of an image and seeing what the sounds of that image evoke. It’s a transcode, or transmediation, seeing what is lost and found in that process. Does a sad image play a happy tune?
Another piece that stuck with me were a wooden cabinet of glassware and crockery which was vibrated by rumblings and explosions through the wall, shaking the contents until they gradually fell off and smashed. As an allegory of Jewish immigrants (the cabinet and contents were very old-world) trading war zones for war zones it hit all the right buttons and wasn’t too obvious. I also liked a forest of small loudspeakers suspended from the ceiling which played back street sounds from Tel Aviv. It didn’t quite reach the full potential but the basic idea, of creating an immersive soundscape with cheap consumer tech, was interesting.
I revisited the Israelis a few times and enjoyed each visit. I don’t know if art improves when it comes from a place of strife – that feels too easy – but there was a certain bite and urge there that the Western Europeans lacked, and where the artworks were simple it felt from necessity rather than naivety. I also liked the way Ars had put this exhibition in a building commissioned by Hitler himself before the war, acknowledging that Linz was his favourite city. There was still a disconcertingly proud 1936 relief in the corridor, which just emphasised this niggling sense that Austria never really learned the true lesson on WWII (something I didn’t want to dwell on because I was here to judge Ars, not Austria, and the UK can’t stand proud on this stuff) so giving this building to Israeli Jews was at the very least interesting and possibly rather bold.
By the end of the festival I was starting to wonder about photography and digital imaging. Given the ubiquity of the camera and the drenching of society in photographed imagery it seemed odd that Ars seemed to have a blind spot here. Sure, there were a few works that used cameras but they tended to either fetishise the process (Hörbst’s “scans”) or have a process that felt 10 year out of date. A crude camera played tunes according to whether areas of the image were black or white, which was neat but very simple. No cameras take photos like that anymore, not even cheap CCTV. It had no relevance to today and even the set up – old b/w CRT screens on bare metal shelves – had the feel of a 1980′s surveillance room.
Where photography (and I include movies in this) was being used was as documentary, to show something, rather than as a medium in itself. But even here things I’s assume would be accepted were seen as novelties to be given lip-service to. With Flickr at 10 years old you’d hope an Electronic Arts festival would have figured out how to interact with photos and video online, but the closest I saw to embracing this was giving GoPro cameras out to visitors to record the festival in an unmediated way, displayed on screens in the Geodome in the main square.
It’s a nice project but it felt a little dated and unfocussed. What is the purpose other than to maybe make a statement about documentary bias? What is the value of these videos? I hope the project doesn’t end with the festival and folk are able to pick through the footage and create new narratives and documents, but I fear it’ll just be stored away, ticking the engagement box. It feels like a marketing gimmick, not an artwork. And there’s nothing wrong with marketing gimmicks, I hasten to add. Just don’t pretend they’re art.
Along with the “use you smartphone app to join the performance” stuff for the obligatory big spectacular show there was a real sense of top-down engagement. The great thing about “social media” in the pure sense is each person is self-directed. They’re following their own script, creating their own personal narrative. When you, say, grab all the photos from a geographical location you’re not seeing a directed collection. You are literally seeing a multitude of unique perspectives. Yes, there’s a crowd mentality and massive overlaps, but each eye is self-directed. This is what makes those patterns, when they emerge, so interesting. To turn the crowd into a directed tool seems to miss the point. And when you give explicit instructions to the crowd, no matter how loose – “film the festival using this camera – it will be displayed on these screens” – you destroy part of that autonomy, that uniqueness. But giving up control seems like something artists have a big problem with.
Later I saw some of the results of these GoPro cameras. They’d been given to some kids who, rather than engage with the festival, had strapped them onto a remote controlled car and driven them around a neighbouring square. It’s a failure but a really nice one as they kids went completely self-directed and off-piste.
That was interesting, this blind spot Art has towards some really interesting developments in visual imaging. I get that art is not about novelty, that great art can be made with the most basic of tech. I saw this at the Israeli show. But surely a festival devoted to exploring the potentials and possibilities of electronic arts would have been exploring the artistic potential of recent developments in cameras? At the very least I was hoping to see stuff in the flesh that I’d only seen online, but the closest I got was a Lytro camera from 2011 or so. And let’s not even start on a festival theme about memory in the digital age that doesn’t address how people are using photography as a visual language on social networks. That’s just scary.
If, and it’s a big if, Ars Electronica’s blind spot for photography is not unique and the wider Art world is similarly numb to the potentials and possibilities of cameras today, then this is actually quite an exciting time to be a photographic artist. I have to be wary of hubris, obviously, but hell, the field looks wide open.
Compare this with the state of Sound Art currently. There’s loads going on, some of it beautiful, some of it challenging, all of it interesting. And at Ars, despite this conservative streak, it was not hard to find. A cathedral was populated with keyboards which when triggered would play field recordings. On a smaller scale, four Japanese artists were presenting Wave Form Media, taking the graphical representation of sound files familiar to users of services like SoundCloud, and turning them into 3D objects – a simple and in many ways shallow exercise but one which made me reconsider the aesthetic value of the histogram for photography.
A major piece on show was Ei Wada’s Toki Ori Ori Nasu – Falling Records in which a bank of old reel-to-reel tape players (again with the retro-porn) played a low drone as their tape fell down a long pipe into patterns at the bottom. When the tapes were run through they quickly rewound revealing the drone to be The Blue Danube.
There were also musical performances, some better than others but embracing a wide range of sonic arts from classical orchestra to discordant noise. Nothing struck me as particularly new but I was taken by Chris Carlson’s Borderlands Granular, an iPad app which he played on stage with a live video feed projected behind him. I really liked this projection, which solves the “electronic music is boring to watch” problem and brings it into the performative world of the guitarist. Graphical touch interfaces are by their nature visually interesting and seeing where the sounds “come from” involves the audience. There’s also something refreshing here. This is just an ipad app. Anyone could do this. Not in the same way or to the same standard, but there’s no mystery, no hierarchy. It’s not weird or expensive tech – it’s just an app. That’s quite exciting.
More to the point, the ideas explored by the app are interesting. Small sound files are represented as now-familair waveforms which can be resized and moved around. Small circles are them placed on the waveforms which play whatever section they’re over. Micro-loops of sound are filtered and distorted to create new tones. It’s a beautiful constraint. I wonder what the visual equivalent would be. A light wave? A histogram plotted though a movie clip? More to the point, where were the people exploring this?
I left Linz on Tuesday with mixed feelings. On the one hand it was great to have spent five days with my Art head on and to be able to frame my thoughts and ideas in this environment. But on the other hand Ars Electronica was not at all what I’d expected it to be. When I went to SWSXi for the first time in 2008 I was blown away, not by the ideas on show but by the way they were being presented and thought about. All my seemingly silly notions about what would soon be branded “social media” were being given a serious platform by serious people. It was both an affirmation that I was on the right track and a map showing how far I had to go.
When I returned to SXSWi in 2009 I had a very different experience. Facebook was in ascendance, VC money was rife and “social media” was starting to be co-opted by the marketing and PR wonks. The good people were in retreat and now can be found at smaller events like XOXO and Webstock though I don’t feel the need to join them anymore.
Last week I got talking to an artist on a Still Walking walk who said he’d been to Ars in the early days. My ears pricked up as I hadn’t had a chance to talk to Karen (I’ll be doing this next week!). I told him of my disappointment and confusion. He said something had happened a few years back, some new regime or ideology. I suspect it was inevitable. An edgy, innovative festival gets established, builds a museum, becomes part of the city and looses the thing that made it vital. I’m sure It’s still an important place to go for the European Art crowd, to meet and mix before the next event in the next city, but as somewhere where important work is made and shown, not so much, not anymore.
And that’s fine. Finding the good stuff shouldn’t be easy. I may well have been doing Ars “wrong” (though I did ask the embedded Birmingham contingent who had been there for a few weeks and they had a similar feeling) and maybe the good stuff was behind a corner I didn’t know about. Maybe I was wrong to concentrate on the exhibits and to not stick with the conferences though, from what I saw, they were alienatingly academic and dense.
I wouldn’t write Ars Electronica off after one visit. I’d like to go again with a guide, someone who had been many times before and understood the backchannels, the fringe. I didn’t have that, nor the chutzpa to find it on my own. But for an emerging artist going on their own with no substantial body of work, someone going for inspiration, to push themselves into new areas, I don’t think I’d recommend it. Which is a bit of shame.
Still, Linz is lovely, the weather was stupendously good, the people very friendly and the food, once I figured it out, rather splendid. I particularly liked how my mistakenly ordering a kebab for breakfast, something that in the UK would have been a disaster, turned out to be perfect – a fried breakfast in a bun.
I think Ars Electronica 2013 can best be summarised by their choice of Featured Artist. HR Giger was a visionary who, through his association with Alien, contributed vastly to the futuristic aesthetic of the 1980s. For me he was an essential part of my artistic education, visually, politically and personally. He took an underground aesthetic into the mainstream and changed the world.
But Giger is an old man now. I missed his Q&A but Leon reported HR pretty much sat in the corner while the curator spoke eloquently about the work. Towards the end he mumbled something and that was it. A great hero who has had some great adventures laid low by age. Upstairs a scene from the movie Prometheus was on a loop, illustrating genetics or something in a populist way. Giger’s role in that movie felt like Ars Electronica’s role in contemporary electronic arts. Once a powerhouse of innovation and excellence, now a shadow.
Is the Ars of days gone by happening in another city somewhere? Or has the era of being able to put “Electronic Arts” under one umbrella passed?
My trip to Ars was funded by the Arts Council as part of my Grant For The Arts funding to “enable me to consider how my work fits within the international digital arts context, and be an inspiring experience from which to develop future projects”. Since this post is an outcome of that funding, here is their logo:
- Thinks Summary
- Waves through time