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isea preview


isea2013: resistance is futile/fertile

keith gallasch: jonathan parsons, director, isea2013, sydney


Jonathan Parsons, ISEA Director Jonathan Parsons, ISEA Director
photo Maria Barbagallo
ISEA2013 IS COMING TO TOWN, A FEAST OF IDEAS AND EXHIBITIONS FOCUSED ON ELECTRONIC TECHNOLOGIES AND THEIR EVER INCREASING PRESENCE IN OUR LIVES AND OUR ART, SUCH THAT WE ARE FREQUENTLY TOLD “RESISTANCE IS FUTILE”—WHICH IS THIS YEAR’S ISEA THEME.

For media artists and media arts academics and anyone intrigued by the impact of new technologies on communication, creativity, culture and ethics, the ISEA [International Society of Electronic Arts] Symposium is a critical, annual, international event, a merging of conference, exhibitions, performances and workshops. Each year since 1988 it’s been held in a different city, for example Nagoya, 2002 (RT53), Singapore 2008 (RT88), Istanbul in 2011 (RT106) and Albuquerque (RT113).

ISEA2013’s director Jonathan Parsons, an experienced festival director and late appointee to this role, just manages to exude his usual clear-eyed charm and good humour under pressure of pulling together a massive event .

Parsons tells me that each city presents the overall event in terms of its own vision and theme. The theme for Sydney is “Resistance is Futile” and the vision for the event extends from Sydney Harbor to the University of Technology, from Carriageworks in Redfern to Campbelltown Arts Centre. Presented by the Australian Network for Art and Technology (ANAT), ISEA 2013 is supported by the Australia Council and—to enable a connection between ISEA and the Sydney Opera House’s Vivid—by Destination NSW.

21 years on

The aim of ISEA, founded in the Netherlands in 1990, is to encourage “interdisciplinary exchange among culturally diverse organisations and individuals working with art, science and technology” (press release). The event was last held in Sydney in 1992. For Parsons it’s a timely return 21 years on. In the 1990s the ‘new’ in ‘new media’ was still meaningful. “Now,” says Parsons, “I think the phenomenon has become all-pervasive to the point where it’s so much part of the fabric of our lives that we’re starting not to notice it. I think that’s an interesting thing in itself to investigate.”

It’s not only that new media are embedded in our lives, but our engagement with them, says Parsons, has matured. Consequently, he’s very pleased with ISEA’s association with Vivid Lights. “Vivid Lights [that aspect of Vivid that lights up the city in unusual and innovative ways. Eds] is an expression of things that could only have been imagined in 1992. They’re quite mainstream now. But that kind of data mapping and its projection were largely only in people’s imaginations back then.”

submission or resistance?

As for this year’s theme, Parsons is clear: “The intention is to trigger discussion. Is the statement about the futility of resistance true? Or how much of it is true? There’s a certain sense of humour to it too. It’s a line that’s been used by many scriptwriters in countless science fiction movies and TV series.” I point out that every time the issue of internet censorship is raised, a host of voices will declare that it’s impossible. “Exactly,” says Parsons, “It’s led to one of the ISEA sub-themes, “resistance is fertile,” a useful counterpoint in the current context.

shaping the event

ISEA is spread over 10 days across greater Sydney. I ask Parsons about the shape of the event. “The core is the conference and certainly the program developed out of that in a number of ways. One of them entails a classic festival strategy: the opportunity for a number of cultural partners and institutions in Sydney to take advantage of the opportunity of having leading thinkers and practitioners in this field coming to the conference, and building on that by presenting their ideas and works publicly.

“Certainly my role has been to both harness that energy and support different cultural organisations to present what they want to do. That’s included an extensive call for proposals from Australia and internationally. So partnerships and invitations have informed the curatorial framework for the program. There’s a continuum with pre-existing programs, like the Anne Landa New Media Arts Award exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW and Experimenta’s Speak to Me touring show through to projects we’ve curated and are producing ourselves.”

ideas in words: conference & talks

Katie Turnbull, Modern Vanitas 2012 Katie Turnbull, Modern Vanitas 2012
photo Mark Ashkanasy, RMIT Gallery, 2012 (commissioned by Experimenta)
The ISEA Symposium this year is co-chaired by Ross Harley (College of Fine Arts, UNSW) and Cathy Cleland (University of Sydney) who, Parsons says, “have been driving the final selection of papers and presenters. On one level it’s an academic conference so certain processes need to be adhered to in terms of making sure that all the papers are published afterwards and there’s a peer-review process for selection into the conference. We’re providing administrative support. Where I’ve become involved is in the crossover territory—like the selection of keynote speakers. But the conference is just part of a range of talks programs that we’re presenting. The other key component is the Vivid Ideas program.”

The three-day ISEA2013 Symposium features 200 speakers and eight keynote addresses “from global leaders in the fields of art, science, technology, media and communications” on topics including “bio-art, data visualisation, robotics, augmented realities and urban and virtual ecologies” (press release). The ISEA conference keynote speaker is pioneering US media artist Michael Naimark who “has made interactive ‘moviemaps’ and stereo-panoramic movies around the world, ranging from Aspen, Paris and San Francisco to Angkor, Jerusalem and Timbuktu,” exploring “‘place representation’ and its impact on culture” (press release). Professor of Experimental Psychology and Fellow and Tutor in Psychology, Pembroke College, University of Oxford, Brian Rogers will speak on “Perception, Art & Illusion.”

Speaking at Vivid Ideas will be Paul Cirio and Alessandro Ludovico (The Hacking Monopolism Trilogy), “whose infamous online project Face to Facebook involved stealing one million Facebook profiles, filtering them with face-recognition software, and posting them on a custom-made dating website” (press release). Vivid Ideas takes place on the first weekend of ISEA. Parsons says, “the opportunity to work with Vivid was a chance to offer more public presentations, appealing to a broader audience than the conference does.

Other speakers include Stelarc, Mark Hosler of Negativland (US), Kate Chapman (Australia) and Genevieve Bell (Australia/US), Director of Interaction and Experience at Intel Labs—and, says Parsons, an anthropologist by training whom Intel thought might have something to say about the engagement with technology.

ideas realised: exhibitions

Ryoji Ikeda, data.tron [8k enhanced version], audiovisual installation, 2008-09, © Ryoji Ikeda Ryoji Ikeda, data.tron [8k enhanced version], audiovisual installation, 2008-09, © Ryoji Ikeda
photo by Liz Hingley
The ISEA centrepiece is Ryoji Ikeda’s Datamatics (see cover image) in the huge main theatre at Carriageworks. Parsons thinks some Sydney-siders will remember Ryoji Ikeda from his performances as part of Dumb Type in the 1990s. “Since then,” says Parsons, “he’s moved into solo practice. Sydney has not seen any of his major installation work.”

Ikeda’s test pattern will also have a one-off presentation, again at Carriageworks. Parsons describes it as “a performance that as an audience you can drop in and out of. It’s an even more intense experience than Datamatics. That will be happening on the Friday June 7 as a one-off. It’s our kick-off really for the ISEA’s 10 days and then everything else at Carriageworks, including the installation, will happen from the Saturday night.”

I’m curious about the nature of the Ikeda experience which Parson describes as “intensely visual, and the sound as much a part of it as the visual. The sheer scale assists with this. I can assure you that Ryoji Ikeda absolutely works on the immersive level. There’s quite a refined aesthetic in the work—black and white—a connection with his heritage in Japanese culture.” As well as representing the entwining of tradition and the new, Parsons sees Ikeda as central to the “‘big data’ issue—is data visualisation an artistic practice or not? Certainly it’s true that a lot of artists are becoming interested in that field. To me, Ryoji Ikeda’s work is the ultimate in data visualisation. It’s absolutely about art, purely about the aesthetic quality for which the data and the code can be utilised by him as an artist. It’s not about the content.”

The extensive exhibitions program features works by 150 artists from Australia and around the world. At Carriageworks, Sydney artist Alex Davies will stage Very Near Future, “a large scale mixed reality/interactive cinema installation which will question what is real or virtual, fact or fiction (press release).” At the same venue, Performance Space will present John A Douglas’ Body Fluid II (Redux) (RT106; p44) “ a performance and video installation in which the artist presents the monotony of his daily dialysis treatment as a sublime act of self-transformation.”

Artspace will feature engaging robotics by Mari Velonaki (Australia)—involving a very human humanoid robot; Petra Gemeinboeck & Rob Saunders (Australia)—“an infestation [by] a colony of curious, social machines hidden within the Artspace gallery walls”; and Simon Ingram (New Zealand)—“a cluster of machines paint live in the space through an operational system run remotely by the artist in Auckland.”

Catching Light is an exhibition staged by Campbelltown Arts Centre which has “brought together five creative innovators from the analogue and early digital eras to mentor, collaborate and exchange ideas with five ‘new generation’ artists from various disciplines—art, sound and performance—who have a practice reliant on engagement. The teams are Linda Dement & Kelly Doley; Tom Ellard & Paul Greedy; Troy Innocent & Benjamin Kolaitis; Stephen Jones & Pia van Gelder; and Wade Marynowsky & Michael Candy.”

Golden Solution, First Draft Depot Golden Solution, First Draft Depot
photo Alex Davies

Parsons says of the Running the City exhibition, “It looks in a different way at the resistance theme, about just how this technological work is becoming integrated into the urban fabric, especially via portable devices. What does this technology allow us to uncover or connect to in the city in different ways? Felicity Fenner is the curator and the artists are a mix of Australian and international exploring the theme in a range of different ways. Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba is a Japanese-American of Vietnamese background, an amazing video artist who was here a few years ago with a beautiful work featuring fishermen pulling rickshaws underwater (Towards the Complex—for the Courageous, the Curious and the Cowards, 2001; RT46). This time his work is very playful. It’s set up like a jukebox and people are able to choose a video of someone running through different cities in the world.” The other artists are Richard Goodwin (Australia), Volker Kuchelmeister (Australia), Laurent Gutierrez + Valerie Portefaix (MAP Office; Hong Kong), Brad Miller and Ian McArthur (Australia) and Marnix de Nijs (the Netherlands).

Vivid Lights and Experimenta’s Speak to Me will feature Human Effect by Yandell Walton (Australia) in an urban laneway: “Flowering vines twine up pipes and moss and ferns spread across walls, while vividly coloured butterflies alight on window ledges. Echoing ages before human habitation, this scene entices viewers to move closer—only to see the new life wither and slowly die, destroyed by the human presence. The habitat is renewed once more in a riot of foliage and motion as viewers move away” (press release). The rest of Experimenta’s Speak to me (RT112) will be installed at the Powerhouse Museum.

Other exhibitions, says Parsons, cover emerging talent. “The Depot program for example is more grass roots, more underground. It was important for me to create various access points for a range of practices and also for artists at various stages of their careers.”

ideas embodied: performance & participation

As well as Ikeda’s test pattern (a work you’ll be inside rather than simply looking at) there will be a variety of performances including electronic music in NEW WAVE: SOUND presented by Seymour Centre and Vivid Sydney in association with ISEA featuring The Noise, Infinity room, Frostbyte and Collarbones.

A range of performances and workshops in ISEA2013 reveal the diversity of participatory involvement enabled by technologies old and and new. Perth’s tactical media art group pvi collective will take over the streets of Darlinghurst with Deviator: “immerse yourself in an outdoor game experience and become an urban ‘deviator,’ temporarily transforming the city into a playground” (press release).

Stereopublic (Crowdsourcing the Quiet), Jason Sweeney Stereopublic (Crowdsourcing the Quiet), Jason Sweeney
photo Martin Potter
In his review of the music program of the Adelaide Festival, Chris Reid describes Jason Sweeney’s Stereopublic (Crowdsourcing the Quiet), as “an absolute delight for its gentleness and its ability to make you think about sound and listen for it. Sweeney guides participants on a walking tour of city sites with particular sonic characteristics…This is relational art, from which a small community with a new awareness is born, each walking-tour group forming a bond in Trappist monk-like silence.” Stereopublic’s “Earwitnesses” will each receive a soundwork and their “city-specific location will be placed on an ever-growing virtual soundmap of Sydney” (press release).

Other events include Carbon Arts’ The City Data Slam featuring leading national and international data art practitioners, while dLux MediaArts and Dorkbot’s Art Hackfest will connect artists in Sydney, Darwin and Byron Bay.

EBEMU, Paul Granjon, Paul Gazzola, Oh! I Wanna Dance With Somebody, Campbelltown Arts Centre EBEMU, Paul Granjon, Paul Gazzola, Oh! I Wanna Dance With Somebody, Campbelltown Arts Centre
photo Heidrun Löhr
A Paul Gazzola (Australia/Berlin)-Paul Granjon (UK) collaboration “deals with the rise of new generations of inventors and tinkerers, playing with technology in the broader community.” Parsons saw the work, Experimental Body Extension Manufacturing Unit, in Campbelltown Arts Centre’s Oh! I Wanna Dance With Somebody last year (RT112) and “loved the community engagement, the playfulness of it, the mixture of low and high tech. This time they’ll be working within the community around Carriageworks, using the same process, constructing new, fantastical objects of invention.”

An opportunity to engage your body quite directly with technology comes in the form of George Poonkin Khut and James Brown’s Theta Lab, “an experimental art research project combining neurofeedback with participatory art, electronic music and ‘slow design’ to explore and document qualities of attention and subjectivity facilitated by Alpha/Theta brainwave biofeedback.”

While the conference is central to ISEA2013, Parsons and his team have built a substantial public program that encompasses a huge range of responses to the potentials and challenges offered by media technologies, from solo artistic creations to community workshop, from data projection to sound art, to collaborations between artists across generations, all of it positioned across the city. And all of it open to discussion and debate. For Parsons it’s about “what it means to be here now in 2013. Australia has a very important place in international developments in the field of electronic arts, thanks to both its artists and its organisations and institutions.”


Follow ISEA2013 closely by joining RealTime bloggers Urszula Dawkins and Gail Priest. There’ll also be online reviews and video interviews and the launch of the RealTime Media Arts Archive, 1994-present.

ISEA2013, 19th International Symposium on Electronic Art, Sydney, June 7-16; http://www.isea2013.org/

RealTime issue #114 April-May 2013 pg. 4-5

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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