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Horst Hörtner, photo courtesy Plektrum Festival and Ars Electronica Futurelab Horst Hörtner, photo courtesy Plektrum Festival and Ars Electronica Futurelab

Organised by Richard Vella, from the University of Newcastle, and assisted by Australian Futurelab employee Kristefan Minski, the mini-tour provided the opportunity to ask Hörtner about the genesis of the Futurelab project and the central role of transdisciplinarity.

Hörtner speaks enthusiastically about a new kind of research that is being championed in his lab-cum-museum. RealTime readers will be familiar with the work that Ars Electronica has been showing for many years in their annual festival. The Futurelab is the latest incarnation of this project, providing a working model of the ways transdisciplinary research and practice can produce engaging results.

Can you explain what the Lab’s take on transdisciplinarity is?

“Well it’s actually been there from the beginning of Ars Electronica in 1979. It started out as a festival around the topics of art, technology and society, which already involves pretty much everybody and everything! At the Ars Electronica Centre, we are very much looking to the future. What is influencing our future, what trends are coming. What are the new technologies that are rising up that may change the paradigms of society in much the same way as ICT has over the last 20 years?”

The Centre provides hands-on experience for visitors (providing courses for kids to clone plants for instance). As a place of inquiry, the Centre showcases projects that Hörtner calls “sketches of the future” in a range of areas including nano-technology, robotics, gene technologies and the most advanced fabrication methods.

Hasn’t the future already arrived?

“The future arrives regardless of Ars Electronica,” he jokes, but what they’ve been doing for the last 30 years can now in some ways be seen as a “history of the future”. Their R+D department has 50 people from a wide variety of disciplines (architects, physicists, biologists, sociologists, game designers, industrial designers, media planners, telematicians, and civil engineers) working on art-based experimental projects. The Futurelab provides a context for a very diverse group of people and disciplines, and it’s this context that Hörtner recognises as crucial.

Do you see a huge difference between interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity?

“Well, according to experts, the major difference is that interdisciplinarity promotes exchange between the disciplines, whereas the transdisciplinary approach takes into account the fact that there are fields which don’t even exist yet. If there is no discipline for a certain area yet, we need to expand across to fields where no discipline is home. The reason there are so many areas covered by the Futurelab is because we approach problems from a large variety of angles. In order to see the problem and to understand it more deeply, you often have to leave the comfort of your discipline if you want to see the full picture. This is the place where crazy ideas come up that may not survive in their own discipline, but which make a lot of sense to those in other disciplines. That’s what I call the soil for growing innovation. This is where cross-over ideas can happen and where we can grow new things.”

How did you manage to get such a huge experimental arts centre like this funded?

“The Lab is a logical extension to a festival that only has a small window of public exposure. Having a permanent institution and network that would operate the whole year had enormous advantages and opportunities. The Ars Festival had grown interest locally, and educated the wider public to see that there must be something in the work that attracts many of the world’s leaders in the field of experimental art and research.”

In Australia, it would be hard to imagine government officials and local councils being convinced of such a proposition. Not so in Austria, where the Mayor and the City of Linz were convinced to “jump into this adventure”. Ars Electronica is a private company owned by the city of Linz, and funded 75% by the local city government and 25% by regional Austrian authorities. The Futurelab also has industry partnerships with companies such as Honda, Audi, SAP, Siemens and Vodafone. “Mostly they come to ask whether they can do something really cool, and don’t really come with a problem to be solved.”

Have artists changed their ways of working in terms of art and science?

“There is a very close intersection between art and science. Science generates knowledge about our world and art generates experience about our world. These are just two different words for discovering what lies beyond the horizon, what lies beyond the borders. Scientific practice has drastically changed in the last 20 years. A lot of scientific outcomes are actually judged by public opinion prior to the existence of the outcome. For instance, everybody has an opinion about gene technology, talking about designer babies and so on, even though we are miles away from that step.”

Hörtner argues that scientists now have to “perform” their work in a way that they didn’t have to in the past. He is quick to point out that artists are used to confronting an untrained audience, and suggests that there are methods and strategies in the artistic process that are capable of being imported into the process of scientific research. “Artists can play a new role in helping scientists do that research in front of an untrained audience.”

He stresses this is not about the beautification of scientific outcomes, but represents the possibility of a convergence of artistic and scientific work in what he calls a “space of action.”

So do artists need to be transdisciplinary, or do they need to work in a transdisciplinary context?

“That’s a good question! If you want to do transdisciplinary work, it doesn’t make any sense to tell other disciplines that they have to work in transdisciplinary ways, but that artists don’t have to work in that way because, you know, ‘I’m an artist.’ There has to be a willingness to share knowledge and to share approach.”

Are artists being trained in the right way then?

“Everybody’s talking about Art and Science, but in many ways the outcome is still poor. But there’s potential. In terms of education however, I would say we’re not at all prepared. 100 years after the Industrial Revolution we’re still teaching our children the curriculum that has been founded a century ago. We should probably think about that!”

Ars Electronica, Futurelab, Linz, Austria,

RealTime issue #109 June-July 2012 pg. 16

© Ross Harley; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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