|Bios [Bible], robotlab|
photo Alex Davies
Outside the Brucknerhaus auditorium, still thinking of clouds, I look up to see three vacuum-sealed figures suspended in large freestanding frames. This is Lawrence Malstaf’s performance, Shrink (see cover image). The physicality of these performances, staged three times a day during the festival, is a constant reminder of the sensitive relationship between our bodies and the insulating qualities of technological developments, whether we term them clouds, networks or some other metaphor.
The History Lounge downstairs in the Brucknerhaus celebrated the 30-year anniversary of Ars Electronica with a comprehensive retrospective of the festival including fantastic pieces such as Lifewriter (2006), by Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau. [You can see this act of typing unleashing a flood of creatures on YouTube. Eds] The works here have stood the test of time and remained poignant as society faces new issues, a difficult task in the dynamic world of electronic arts. Also exhibited here is a complete collection of the festival posters, reflecting how the event has branded itself with three decades of progressive themes, daring typography and curious imagery.
There was also plenty of exciting new work in the Prix CyberArts show at the OK Center for Contemporary Art. The strongest category was Hybrid Arts. Three very interesting and very different works received awards of distinction: Bios [Bible], EarthStar and the New York Times Special Edition. All point to the instability of social systems, namely religion, science and the media.
Bios [Bible] by the German group robotlab is an industrial robot that transcribes the Bible on scrolls of paper, producing the whole book over seven months. The precise movement of the calligraphic pen nib is mesmerising to watch, inviting us to consider how something produced ‘by hand’ could have such continuing impact on humanity. Australian artists David Haines and Joyce Hinterding present Earthstar as an exploration of the sun’s elemental and mythical qualities [see article RT88; see article RT89]. In a world dominated by images, their work aims to bring to our attention the unseen, using sound and scent, reintroducing the possibilities of sensory experiences to science. The New York Times Special Edition, by Steve Lambert and a herd of collaborators, was released on November 12, 2008, one week after the election of Barack Obama. The paper was distributed across the streets of New York City, Boston, Los Angeles and San Francisco with the headline “Iraq War Ends” and stories on a maximum wage, a new national public transit system and other hopeful prophecies. The aim of the authors was to suspend the disbelief of readers for at least 15 seconds in order to collectively imagine the idea of peace.
80+1/A Journey Around the World was an Ars Electronica project for the 2009 European Capital of Culture. The general idea was to exhibit several technologically driven approaches to the globalised future. Sound a little too wide-ranging and optimistic? The exhibition housed a very strange project called WIA<>WIA, Water in Africa, Water in Austria. In this work, a public toilet was installed, purportedly to be linked to an African village’s well via the internet. The water usage data gathered would be transmitted in real time and drive the flushing of the Linz toilet with the same amount of water being used in the village. It turns out the exchange is completely fictitious, as is the artist, Melissa Fatoumata Touré. In fact, it is an intriguing ‘creative hacking’ by German artist Niklas Roy looking at how arts festivals are desperate to include content from the underdeveloped world. If their global research radar was a little wider, I am sure Ars would not only have realised this earlier, but could have found some very interesting and genuinely African projects to exhibit. However, the choice to go ahead with the installation even after it was exposed as a hoax is a courageous one. It shows that even after 30 years, the festival still has the capacity to be self-reflexive. On the other hand, perhaps it was simply too late to cancel.
While the installation does encourage valuable skepticism of ‘feel good’ virtual collaboration, it is also intensely problematic. Firstly, the true nature of the project was revealed only in the festival display in the Brucknerhaus, complete with Photoshop images of the imaginary African village and stills from skype conversations with a digitally ‘blackened’ white German person wearing an Afro wig. The other display, in the main square of Linz, where the actual toilet is installed, has few hints to expose its illegitimacy. This exhibition has been open to Austria’s public for months, and has undoubtedly attracted a far bigger audience than the Ars Electronica Festival. So, is it fair game, even ‘subversive’, to dupe the general public as long as you let your fellow artists in on the joke? The second major issue is the representation by the artist himself as an African woman. He employs a series of racist stereotypes in the form of crude English language and naive imagery and we are left with nothing but another Eurocentric view of Africa, albeit an ironic one. I can’t help thinking such a project would never go down in Australia, Canada or the US, let alone, and perhaps most importantly, in Africa.
|M∞ Sarcophagus, etoy.CORPORATION|
photo Alexandra Crosby
|Geminoid Hl-1, Hiroshi Ishiguro|
photo Alex Davies
Ars Electronica 2009, Festival for Art, Technology and Society; Linz, Austria, Sept 3-8
For more images and information on Lawrence Malstaf’s Shrink see www.360cities.net/image/shrink-performance-ars-electronica-linz;
RealTime issue #93 Oct-Nov 2009 pg. 30
© Alexandra Crosby; for permission to reproduce apply to email@example.com