The 2009 Ars Electronica will surely be an edition to remember. The festival, which takes place in Linz the first week of September, celebrated its 30th year. Much attention was focused on the little Austrian town for the fact that Linz was chosen as European Culture Capital for 2009, and so it has experienced an intense year, dense with launches and cultural events.
For the director of Ars Electronica Gerfried Stocker, it must have been a difficult task having to program an event that was to be stimulating for those people who have known the fair for some time and are not shy of certain subjects, but also for a more vast and heterogeneous audience that is curious about technology.
Like every year, the famous festival dedicated to art, technology and society, has had an important theme relating to certain aspects of the era in which we live. The title Human Nature was inspired by a definition expressed by the scientist Paul Crutzen, who gives the name “Anthropocene” to our current era, described as a phase where the earth has entered into a new geological era characterized by irreversible changes, caused by human action that has broken the delicate balance of the planet.
These changes have not only taken place in the environment in which we live, but certain technological evolutions have made modifications possible inside our own bodies as well, making us face the necessity of a redefinition of human nature itself. This double valence of new technologies, of seeing itself as a creator and destroyer of worlds, was the leitmotiv at Ars Electronica 2009, and was discussed thoroughly at many meetings and encounters. And in the exhibition held at the Brucknerhaus, there were a series of works that were conceptually connected to these themes.
Among these was Genpets by Adam Brandejs, an installation that consists in a series of packages, exposed as stock of a store, that contain some little strange beings that initially look like little action figures. But upon close inspection, every now and again a slight movement can be seen in the eyelids or a muscle contraction, which tells us that these are not merely inanimate objects. The creatures are resting in a kind of hibernation, waiting to be adopted; whereas some led lights on the packages control their vital statistics. The Genpets are animatronic with the features of little mammals created in a laboratory.
To understand whether they are alive or not is secondary, it’s interesting to observe the sensations that they create in visitors; life exposed like merchandise and available on the market, it’s evidently something that can disgust or attract people. This work does not ask itself about the positive or negative effects of bioengineering, but rather about our capacity to manage it in a responsible way.
From the same artist, the Animatronic Flesh Shoe was exposed as well, a shoe made up of different pieces of rubber sewn together, treated so that they look like layers of human skin and flesh. On some pieces of fabric there are still some hairs as well as the “Swoosh” the famous Nike logo. Every now and again the point of the shoe and its heel move up and down, or the shoe moves as if it were alive, making the oblivious spectator jump. The disturbing image represents some aspects of our economical system, a world of easy and quick consumption, where people don’t think about where merchandise comes from and how it was made, preferring to ignore the fact that this system takes advantage of human beings for other people’s well-being.
Among other disturbing visions of this exhibition are the series of sculptures Unknown Creature by Shen Shaomin, that look like they’ve come out of a crypto-zoology atlas. The skeleton remains of unknown creatures are presented as if in a museum of natural history. The “findings” are built from real animal bones assembled together to make a series of imaginary beasts that are fascinating. Their great size seem to suggest a prehistoric origin, even if something in their shape recalls existing animals. The remains seem to belong to mysterious extinct creatures that had something to do with the evolution process and developed in a distorted way. The work fluctuates between the representation of personal mythology and the vision (premonition?) of dangers that the inconsiderate use of genetic manipulation and in general all the strategies that act in order to change natural balances.
In the same exhibition, Human Nature, the Shrink performance by Lawrence Malstaf created much curiosity, where three performers, including the artist, get into big transparent plastic bags hung onto some frames. All the air inside the two sides gets sucked out, as they find themselves in a condition of suspension and progressive compression, being able to breathe thanks to some tubes that bring them the minimum amount of oxygen needed. The vision is strong, it could be compared to images of merchandise (meat) being packaged, but it is hieratic. Malstaf declared that he worked on the contrast between external and internal, on opposite feelings that are created from the opposite conditions of actor and spectator; what may seem claustrophobic and uncomfortable to one can be reassuring and comforting to the other, just like a great motherly womb.
Lets go into the core of the festival, and talk about the exhibition at the O.K. Centrum, the contemporary art museum in Linz; set up with a panoramic Ferris wheel on the roof, used by the unafraid, and many wooden walkways with breathtaking views of Linz. As every year at the O.K., there were works from the Prix Ars Electronica exposed.
Among the winners was Lawrence Malstaf, author of the aforementioned Shrink, who received the Golden Nika in the category of “Interactive Art” with the work Nemo Observatorium. The installation consists of a transparent cylinder of great size, with a seat in the middle where the visitor is invited to sit. From this position he or she can, by pressing a button, activate 5 strong ventilators that make thousands of polystyrene balls fly about, creating a sort of cyclone around them. If the spectator tries to concentrate on the movement of the balls, or tries to look beyond them, it seems that being in the midst of such an environmental catastrophe on a small scale has a calming effect on the senses. To be in the eye of the storm is a spectacle that immobilizes and hypnotises at the same time.
In the category “Digital Musics”, Speeds of Time by Bill Fontana won the Golden Nika. The project is a site-specific installation, and consists of a cycle of 12 hours of sound events that reproduces the sound of the Big Ben recorded by dozens of microphones positioned at different distances from the big clock. Fontana installed two microphones inside the Big Ben bells, and a sound sensor on the mechanics of the clock of the tower; in this way he gave life to a composition made up of the recording of the mechanical functions of the clock and a gamma of tonalities from the bells.
A series of microphones were positioned, beginning from the tower, on roofs and terraces; these record the hourly bell chimes but also the acoustic reverb and urban noises in the area. The distance between the locations where the microphones are, in relation to the speed of propagation of sound, means that there are a certain number of natural acoustic delays that create a multidimensional sound image of the Big Ben. Speeds of Time is a sound sculpture that captivates the attention by its immaterial aspects of the composition. The work can be listened to as a recording in the exhibition or via streaming on the web.
The winner of the “Hybrid Art” category is Natural History of the Enigma by Eduardo Kac; a project that tries to create a dialogue between biotechnology and aesthetical research in an era characterised by an increasing intrusion of science in daily life. The artist, in research that lasted many years in collaboration with different scientists, managed to extract a gene from his DNA and substitute it with the corresponding DNA of a Petunia, so that he could create a hybrid of himself and a petunia, through the genetic manipulation of the original flower. The new form of life, resulting from this gene transplant, is called Edunia, a flower characterized by red veins on like pink petals. The purpose of this operation of genetic engineering wants to make us think about the fact that there are methods that can “remix” different forms of life, and that these methods determine the creation of new issues on identity of genre.
Among other projects present in the exhibition, EarthStar by David Hines e Joyce Hinterding won the Award of Distinction in the category “Hybrid Art”. The installation gives visitors the possibility of appreciating certain phenomena that deal with the sun, that are not otherwise accessible in a common context of daily life. With EarthStar spectators have the possibility of observing, listening and smelling this celestial body that dominates our solar system. The exhibition consists in a projection that shows the wonderful images of the chromosphere of the sun, recorded with an H-Alpha solar telescope; at the same time a VLF antenna collects data relating to radiation of the star, which are then converted into perceptible sounds in the ear. On the last level of the presentation, the exhibition space that contains the work is laden with a particular odour, created by mixing two synthetic aromas that are similar in smell to certain chemical components present in the sun.
Going back to other appointments at the festival, the new Ars Electronica Centre created a certain curiosity: a museum dedicated to new technologies, that in January reopened after a long restoration period carried out by architects Andreas Treusch e Nadja Sailer. As well as extending the existing structure, the museum was made more technological compared to its previous version, so much so that it was described by Gerfried Stocker as: “A model of a museum of the future“.
The intentions of the building are not to be just an exhibition space, but rather a structure connected to an activity of experimental research capable of searching for the contaminations between art and science, taking into consideration those technologies applied to biology and medicine. The museum has a 5000 square metre glass facade, that at night-time lights up thanks to 40.000 led lights (low energy consumption). During Ars Electronica the facade was “animated” by some artists who showed their visuals on the enormous surface, and at times the audience could also send text messages that were then visualized on the huge surface.
Among the works in the AEC, there were the most various projects: interactive “big toys” for all ages, single machines with poetic mechanisms, autonomous robots of many kinds for the most various uses, mechanical limbs, visualizations of the infinitely small and the infinitely distant. And aside from this, two hyper-technological laboratories, a Bio Lab and a Fab Lab, where people could do geeky activities for hours on end.
Citing a few projects, the installation Absolut Quartet by Jeff Lieberman and Dan Paluska is a musical quartet that sees an ensemble of three robots plus a human being. Through a computer present in the exhibition hall, but also via the Internet, the user can compose a simple motif that will be useful as a structural base to the composition that will be played by the group. This motif will be extended in a 3 minute composition, played by a complex machine made up of three elements: a set of 35 wine glasses that are played by robotic fingers, a “ballistic” marimba (the marimba, a percussion musical instrument similar to the xylophone, here is played by 42 canons that shoot a series of rubber balls from a distance of approximately 6 metres, making them land on the 42 wooden bars), and a percussion instrument played electronically that completes the musical formation.
Perhaps less technically complex, but poetic and evocative all the same, are the cinematic sculptures by Arthur Ganson, like Machine with Eggshells. The device is a series of mechanisms, in iron string, that can be activated through a knob, in this way triggering a collision between 5 cups of eggshells. The installation compares to a kind of visionary music box and was created from the impulse of the artist to interpret the sound potential of eggshells. The work can represent an ironic reflexion on the complexity of relationships between objects, like being a mysterious machine that sends a message in code into the unknown.
Of a whole other genre is the project Geminoid HI 1 by Hiroshi Ishiguro, a robot that is very similar to its creator, that moves and talks like him. The robot can be commanded at a distance through a motion-capture system, which records Ishiguro’s posture and makes the robot do the same, with a microphone that records his voice. The purpose of the inventor was to find the “double” of himself, which could substitute his physical presence in various occasions, because he was tired of commuting. Ishiguro says he is interested in how people perceive his presence through the Geminoid, and the behaviour induced by this tele-presence; in this project he combines engineering and cognitive science, because he sees in the machines an instrument to be able to learn more about human nature.
On the opposite side of the Danube, in a mirrored position compared to the Ars Electronica Centre, is the Lentos Museum: the museum dedicated to modern and contemporary art, which at night time creates a double of the image of the AEC, being a luminescent structure capable of varying its chromatic tone. The Lentos Museum today hosts the exhibition See this sound curated by Cosima Rainer, and open to the public until January 2010, which in 8 sections tries to map a series of reference points in artistic research that investigates the relationship between sound and image, according to different approaches and perspectives.
Today it is common to use cultural products made up of different levels, which use audio and video material; but in the past this was very banal, and in certain fields there was a net predominance of visual works. Inside the exhibition context the contemplative aspect still prevails, but sound has definitely caught up.
See this Sound documents this development in the visual art perspective. Among the exhibited works is Random Access by Nam June Paik, an installation from 1963. This contains a series of recorded magnetic tapes, stuck to the wall in an abstract visual composition, that the spectator has the possibility of “playing”, making a tape recorder head given by the artist move over the tape, in so doing giving life to original and unique personal compositions.
Through The Handphone Table device created in 1978 by Laurie Anderson, it’s possible to see a particular phenomenon: bone sound conducting. The visitors are told to put their elbows on two precise points on a wooden table, and at the same time to cover their ears with their hands. In this position it will be possible to perceive sounds and voices that start from the table and are implemented with other sound conductors, and will get to the ears through the bones of the arms.
Optofonica Capsule from 2007, curated by Italian artist TeZ (Maurizio Martinucci), is a device that allows for the synaesthetic use of audiovisual products in an immersive environment. The object is a bubble shaped capsule, which surrounds the upper part of the body of the visitors isolating them from the outside. The user from the inside can select a track of their choice from a series of audiovisual compositions on a touch screen from various artists who work of multimedia supports. The panels that make up the “shell” are created in a particular material that reproduces sound without the use of traditional speakers. A platform placed under the users’ feet vibrates and sends out low frequencies directly to the bone structure of the human body. The screen, at a short distance, covers most of the users field of vision, immerging the spectators in vision. All of these elements happen together and create a new sensorial dimension for the use of audiovisual art, expanding the possibilities of creation for artists.
As usual, this year at the Kunstuniversität in Linz student projects were exhibited from art middle schools and institutes for new technologies all over the world. Specifically, the exhibition IMPETUS, curated by Hiroshi Ishii & Amanda Parkes, presented works from students of the MIT Media Lab of Cambridge (MA), a interdisciplinary laboratory interested in the impact of new technology on daily life.
Chameleon Guitar by Amit Zoran, Marco Coppiardi, and Pattie Maes is a guitar that combines the advantages of the use of natural material like wood, which gives traditional acoustic instruments particularly warm sounds, to the power of modern electric elaboration that allows the control and modification of the characteristics of sound of an instrument. Chameleon Guitar is its name because of it capacity to imitate other instruments it’s an electric guitar whose body has a removable central part. This section can be substituted depending on the kind of wood or other material that must be used for the instrument. The sound can also be manipulated to create a different effect, form or size of the resonance.
Siftables by David Merrill and Jeevan Kalanithi, is a project whose objective is to create hardware that allows people to interact in a spontaneous and playful way with certain information in a daily context. Siftables are independent devices made up of sensors, graphic displays and wireless communication; they are little square cards of small dimensions. The project applies technology of wireless sensors to physical, tangible interfaces that can be used in an intuitive way by simply putting them next to each other.
Among other events of the festival, I appreciated the performance carried out with one of the first synthesisers ever to be created, created by Robert Moog for Max Brand. Robert Moog began to project electric circuits for the Austrian composer in 1957, but the synthesiser was completed 10 years later. The impressive instrument made up of different keyboards and a series of pedals and tables full of knobs and wires, was exposed during the festival as an art object at the Brucknerhaus until the great night of the Ars Electronica concerts. That night, in the other hall, it was possible to listen to the sounds of that instrument.
The composition by Elisabeth Schimana (who is always a guarantee) carried out by Manon Liu Winter and Gregor Ladenhauf, was composed especially for this kind of synthesiser. It was a unique experience. The first movement was an explosion: powerful walls of sound and an obsessive and repetitive rhythm, followed by other calmer sections that surely contributed to the overall mix and completed an extraordinary and memorable execution.
As I mentioned at the beginning of the article, there are editions of the festival that are more or less memorable, but in any case, in my opinion, when you return home you feel like you have been through an experience. This year Ars Electronica has yet again come to its conclusion, with the relief of its organisers who must have feared this challenging edition, the 30th edition of the festival, in the year when Linz, bestowed with the title of European Culture Capital, tries to make a come back from a difficult past, when it was the cradle for a child who would one day be called Führer.