Ars Electronica 2004

By Sabine Niederer

The theme of this years’ Ars Electronica Festival was TIMESHIFT: The World in Twenty-Five Years. Ars Electronica got to celebrate her 25th birthday, and took the opportunity to reflect on the (recent) past and to look into future of digital arts and culture.

AEC & Lentos

Language of Networks
The TIMESHIFT conference was preceded by a 2 day event titled ‘Language of Networks’, the 1st interdisciplinary international conference & exhibition on networks, September 1-2, 2004. This side conference, organized in collaboration with the FAS Research Centre was accompanied by an exhibition on the theme of Visualizing Networks. The Language of Networks conference was especially interesting and useful for (web) designers, considering the huge amount of ‘how to’ lectures: how to visualize information, data streams, content, concepts, etc.

In the panel session titled ‘Visualization of Networks’, different speakers talked about various ways of mapping, and visualizing (huge) networks. Anne Nigten (V2 Lab, Rotterdam) held an interesting presentation in this panel. In this presentation, she fortunately did break through the practical character of the meeting, and provided the audience with a few concepts on different mapping categories. She distinguished two types: notation systems & cartographic maps, and personal, artistic or emotional maps.

For this latter category, Anne Nigten formulated the following criteria:

-contextualization (to add meaning to the project);
-flexible range of meaning;
-on-going change & flexibility (open environment);
-openness for communication process & co-authoring.

This co-authoring aspect means a framework providing freedom for a bottom-up organization, while taking into account issues like protection, trust, community building and context. The examples she used to illustrate the concept of mental maps, were V2 projects like DataCloud 2.5 and the hybrid architecture of the D-tower in Doetichem, the Netherlands (collaboration with Nox architects).

The main AEC 2004 conference had the theme of timeshift. Guest Curator Michael Naimark, did a wonderful job pairing up young practitioners with senior researchers, specialists and media-gurus. The young researchers each had the task to look back into 25 years of ars electronica’s history. Furthermore they were to present a panel of four established authors and researchers, each with a different discipline and/or background. This construction seemed to work out well for everyone. The younger moderators each giving their contemporary view on the recent history contrasted nicely with the established speakers (like Sherry Turkle, Peter Weibel, Marvin Minsky) peering into the future. After each session, the discussion continued downstairs in ‘the kitchen’, a casual discussion space.

With broad themes like Progress, Disruption, Spirit and Topia, each speaker could still give a personal touch to his/her vision of the future.

For instance, the first strand was called Progress and consisted of four very diverse speakers. The session was moderated by the young Peruan researcher José-Carlos Mariátegui. He started the session with a short presentation titled Progress revisited: biology meets science (again). He wandered through 25 years of Ars Electronica to point out several interesting issues concerning crossovers between biologically and socially oriented projects.

After this NASA space scientist and astronomer Roger Malina (F) talked about future space science in 2029. Het sketched the current state of spece science, witch in short is that we still know very little yet. Or, as he stated it: we know only of the details, the things we can see. Alle the rest, we do not understand. In figures this means the following: 97% of the universe is still totally unknown matter, 25% is what we call dark matter (= unknown matter), 70% we call dark energy (= unknown energy), only 3% is matter as we know it.

These days (2004) we are entering new worlds of knowledge, but we do not have the language or methods to describe what we are discovering. Rather than studying the world, NASA studies databases of the world using new techniques such as scientific visualization and sonification. Scientific simulation is creating a virtual model of the universe and comparing its behaviour and evolution to that of the real universe. The direction of science unfortunately is culturally contingent. When Bush decided to tell NASA to go to Mars, he could have also chosen to tell NASA to solve the energy problem on earth and spend all this money on solar energy sattelites. Roger Malina pointed out the importance of art-science-technology coupling. It will not just lead to ‘better’ science and technology, according to Malina it will create/facilitate new Leonardo da Vinci’s: scientifically and technoically literate artists that can engage underlying issues.

Therefore we should get towards a network model of art, science and technology.

Peter Weibel (Austria) was asked to describe progress in the field of the arts. Social changes evoke artistic responses. In which complex way does art react to these social changes. Weibel chose to focus on kinetics and virtuality in art.

Kinetic art, and the stereokinetic phenomenon are findings from the Gestalttherapie, appropriated by artists. To see the problems underlying virtuality, one needs to look at the manifestos of 50s and 60s. Umberto Eco wrote in 1962 about ‘arte programmata’ and ‘opera aperta’ (open works), kinetic art. It adresses not only the idea of virtuality, but also the art of programming. This concept was already hidden there.

According to Weibel, art works in 3 stages:

1. new emphasis on an issue addressed by an artist;
2. problems are singled out, focus on 1 problem only, art proceeds slowly;
3. issue becomes replaced.

Progress is the destruction of things achieved by, and standards and norms of past generations.

Progress allows us to do this in the name of enlightenment. We are not allowed to destroy everything in the name of progess (for instance: tempels in Tibet). Human beings need apparatuses to see, we keep storing information in data. Artists can adjust to this trend, or oppose to it, simply refuse this kind of communication. Terrorists are the current media avant-garde. They act as long as the media are present. Lacan: “the repressed will reappear as a spector”. Artists can refuse the impact of the media and refuse to make images, or play in a soap opera or be an action hero. We don’t need to select because there is so much storage capacity. In the future there might be some sort of storage art. Maybe there will also be an ars chemica. Weibel cited Beuys, saying: “everyone can be an artist”. With technological art however, there is a return to compentence and expertise. Artists will expand its competence and will acquire scientific and technological competence.

The last speaker in this session was Esther Dyson (USA/RUS), chairman of EDventure Holdings, columnist of New York Times and blogger of Release 4.0. The theme of her talk was that the once utopian Global Village, had turned out te a “not so nice global city”. According to Esther Dyson, we need a spreadsheet for process, not for data. “Not just calculating, but tracking is the kind of progress we are looking for. But what’s the downside of that? Is there something like information diabetes? Data overloading our children, maybe we should have more thought on cause and effect. Overall progress is the result of mistakes. We should try to limit the affect of your mistakes and try to fix things locally. Make progress locally, don’t try to fix the world. Forget the notion of global progress. Spread the news of your mistakes as broad as you can…”

Adjoining the Timeshift conference, projects were organized like the 25+ online timeline, the digital Avant-garde presentation and exhibition in Lentos Museum, the excellent exhibition IAMAS, with progressive media arts education projects from Japan, apart from the yearly recurring Cyberarts-exhibition, and several smaller projects in galleries in Linz.