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■ Ars Electronica AJ Stooke

Ars Electronica festival is a host of digital arts moments, durations and discussions based on an institution that exists year-round to promote the relevance of technology in culture. Linz seems convincing as the model of a municipality that is future orientated and determined to see cultural policy development as a part of urban renewal. How refreshing! Next year will be the 30th anniversary of the festival when Lintz also becomes European City of Culture. The town perceives the festival to be a key marker of its future as well as its past. Local people do not seem averse to the risk of the contemporary cultural interventions of Ars Electronica invading most of their central public spaces. They swarmed like happy pixels to the weekend spectacle on the banks of the Danube, in the type of heavenly weather that does give an evening outdoor experience a bit of a head start, and seemed perfectly happy with the programme of new sound works and projections sugared, perhaps, with a display of notso-culturally progressive fireworks. The festival events are hard to map as they consist of overlapping performances, exhibitions and conferences. There was a very clear Ars Electronca branding present at all the 18 sites throughout the town, despite the shortcomings of the technological installations, involving masses of those cables that you try to push behind the bookcase at home. The result was a trestle table aesthetic, like a small village fêête, which showed strange restraint just when I had expected full-on techno. This worked with charm at the Pfarrplatz, where a number of projects by, among others, David Burns, Matias Viegener and Austin Young were documented in trailers around a small stage and a children’s sandpit. Young’s Fallen Fruit, 2008, included home-made wine and prize fruit finds. In other locations, however, it proved that human movements have none of the predictability of data bits but share the ability to build to massive numbers with an awesome fecundity. Several of the local fêêtes were simply overwhelmed and

ran out of jam or, even worse, beer. In these instances it tended to reinforce the suspicion that the lovely closeness we have with our computers – rich and fulfilling as this intimacy can be – does not necessarily transfer to the big screen. It cannot offer sustenance to a big audience. The world of things and of us is strangely unlike the world wide web where we are wont to be always alone at our terminals. The festival intends to have a (digital) community spirit and much of the debate in the conferences concerned the problems of transferring real world values into the new space that fast data transfer opens up. This raised a number of tough questions of interface, interaction and the potential for democratic participation in new electronically mediated art forms. There was a sense that the visitor was occupying a rather different map of the city than its indigenous citizens, a map composed of digital landmarks superimposed over the dirty and detailed physical world. These manifestations were only gentle inflections within the normal fabric of urban life. Together they constituted a speculative proposal as to how a digital culture can, and perhaps already does, ghost our lives as a constant ‘mash up’. The problem with this is that such remixes are not new, they have not been new for quite some time, in fact they seem as familiar as the site of Ars Electronica visitors’ aluminum laptops yawning open to check their e-mails as they enter a free wi-fi zone. Among the most articulate instances of this civic redraw was in a small exhibit from the Kunstuniveritäät Interface Cultures Masters and Doctors programme, a regular slot in the festival. Here various clothing-like items offer their wearers influence on something mediated by a computer: these take the form of gloves and hats and swimsuits – I hasten to add that these were by no means the only non-conventional interface experiences available at the festival. These familiar items, looking slightly tired and the worse for wear, strive to alter the interaction of the mouse and the click into something from our non-virtual, interpersonal lives, as comfortable as a handshake or a nod of the head. The fact that this place looked like a run-down charity shop staffed by relaxed students worked in its favour. It allowed its effects to resonate with

domestic wardrobes as opposed to museum vitrines. Trying on bits of clothing is an activity that seems grounded. In this festival intermedia was everywhere; elements of film, text, action and soundwork were strewn untidily across the floor reflecting the uncomplicated and easy acquaintance with the technology of generations weaned on gaming alongside other art forms. To make the point Dolo Piqueras’s Fishy, 2008, was installed in a rather retro games console in the space. Interactiveness is perceived as a vital passage to our cultural future but remains a deeply troubling route in even the most optimistic account of the ability of digital technologies to enrich our cultural lives. Just as the infinite scope of the world wide web shrinks pretty quickly when the developing world is squashed from its panorama, so seemingly perfect communication between digital artwork and interactor does not look that perfect when you have little hope of understanding the totality of the system before you. The effect of the entire festival made this point: no matter where you stood and no matter for how long you engaged you got no closer to grasping the whole thing. The printed programme, the publications, the website – all refused to offer assistance. In Linz, fetishisation of the glitch has given way to a desire for a clear signal which is a high ambition if the moment of interactive digital art is to be on a par with the greatest works of the analogue tradition. The awe here was in the programming, but we still live in a world where Masaccio has not realised the potential in Brunelleschi’s perspective or where the silhouette of a galloping horse has not been twisted by the Lumièère brothers into a locomotive thundering towards us, pinning us in our auditorium. The word on the street was that the event is coiling up for just such a spring in 2009. ❚

Ars Electronica Festival for Art, Technology and Society took place in Linz, Austria September 4 to 9.

AJ STOOKE is art director at Sherborne, Sherborne House Arts and Oliver Holt Gallery.

Art of Our Time

Celebrating ten years of the Southampton Solent University Art Collection

19 September –18 October 2008


Millais Gallery, Southampton Solent University, East Park Terrace, Southampton SO14 0YN Tel: 023 8031 9916 Admission is Free

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