[this review is up for grabs. the magazine i was hoping to publish this in has opted for another author. please feel free to use this review. it is as all my content CC-licensed]
one year after the celebrations marking the 25 years of its existence ars electronica had slightly less visitors, but still managed to pull 33’000 visitors to witness the 453 participating artists, lecturers and panelists from 26 countries. this year the biggest media art festival in europe took on the theme “hybrid – living in paradox”, and developed this topic in conferences, performances and curated art exhibits in almost 20 different locations all around linz, austria. the prix ars electronica handed out golden nicas and awards of distinction to 20 projects in 6 categories including the 2 special jury prices; one to theo jansen and his project strandbeest in the interactive art category, the other to the filesharing software bittorrent in digital communities.
cockroach controlled mobile robot #2
“no more cockroach driven robots, please. try to give other bugs their turn next year”, is how one austrian newspaper jokingly commented the installation featuring cockroaches by garnet hertz [CA] shown in the lobby area of the ars electronica symposium. fortunately nobody called the cockroach liberation front so the piece was allowed to receive huge public attention daily. it was fascinating to watch people either go “ewwww” or observe in awe as the huge [!] cockroaches from madagaskar moved their three wheeled robot around the floor by walking on a ping pong ball that worked as a sort of tracking ball. i was in the “ewww” camp, but hey…
suspended engines party
the opening party is quite usually a highlight of the ars electronica festival, but this year it was particularly fantastic. suspended engines was held in the train assembly halls of the austrian national train company ÖBB amidst dramatically lit trains floating in midair. the party featuring, among others, a superb performance by marc leclair aka akufen with visuals by gabriel coutu-dumont kicked off the festival in style.
theo jansen strandbeest
theo jansen’s art is one of these things that you have to see in order to appreciate. the huge creatures were designed by jansen on his computer and then built on the beaches of delft using the cheapest possible materials; electrical tubes, some wood, some light metals and connecting it all with simple electrician brackets and wires. 180 tons of sand had been brought to the main square in linz to simulate the natural environment where “the beasts” usually “live”, a beach. “live” because yes, they do move. jansen has developed an ingenious mechanism employing wind and air to create energy that allows the beasts to move around in a clunky fashion. when i observed how kids react to the creatures and how theo deals with them i was in the bag. theo jansen was the undisputed star of this years ars electronica.
another star was of course toshio iwai who was presenting tenori-on and electroplankton, a nintendo ds game with cute japano-style planktons as visual guides to all kinds of interactive music games. tenori-on is a collaboration with yamaha with the declared goal to create a digital music instrument that is equally stunning in shape, interface and sound. digital instruments quite generally do the opposite. they sound great, but they tend to ignore the design aspect of things as most come in ugly, black boxes with some knobs and switches attached. not so tenori-on – the stunningly beautiful object was presented as a beta version and basically it could be called a visual midi sequencer. it consists of an interface with 16 by 16 led buttons that light up to visualize the music. sound gets triggered by pushing those buttons which is so intuitive that within minutes amazing music can be created. after watching iwai and his assistant yu nishibori perform on the instruments, let us hope that this will move beyond beta version and be available in stores some time soon.
neil gershenfeld summed up this years symposium nicely when he said: “the only paradoxical thing is that nothing paradoxical has been said so far”. and eventhough this was said after the very first of four half-day sessions dedicated to the topic “hybrid – living in paradox” and hosted by derrick de kerckhove, sadly even after seeing all of the sessions not much can be added to the comment. yes, we do live on the cusp of time when more and more hybrid forms of life will start to dominate the landscape. yes, we are not cyborg yet but we are certainly moving there. the panel of speakers all seemed to agree on these points and very few warned. it has been a few years that the symposium has lacked steam and controversy, long gone are the heated debates from a few years ago. let us hope that next years symposium will be able to reignite the spark.
prix ars electronica
the digital musics [yes, the -s is not a typo] category awarded musical projects in the very leftfield, experimental corner of electronic music. nothing unusual there and in a way this is a good thing, because specialized awards like this one do have their place and need to exist. unfortunately it also means that attending the musical performances of the winning artists is almost impossible to do without your face falling asleep. even john oswald, the true inventor of the mashup/bastard pop genre, was not given an award for his plunderphonics work, but for a newer piece that involves him clonking around on a piano.
the net vision category is set up to hounour extraordinary projects in the web art field. in recent years the jury had done an excellent job honouring projects that were representative of the recent trends. not so this year. all projects that got the honours, be it yugop.com, vote-auction.com and processing.org, seemed curiously outdated. all of them are brilliant pieces, no questions there, but it still seemed strange to honour three such pieces in a fast moving field like net art. vote-auction.com was launched in the year 2000, which means it is 5 years old, yugop.com very much feels like it is more of a life-time achievement award than an award for an innovative new thing, those flash interfaces are no longer very interesting, and finally processing.org was started in 2002 plus it had already received much attention at ars electronica when fry and raes had lectured on it 2 years ago.
so what has happend? i think it just goes to show that jurys are a very tricky institution. most jurys are simply no good to judge art because the resulting choices are more about group dynamics, alpha animals and colusions. and especially in a category like net vision a public voting should be decisive.
at least the awards in the category digital communities were spot on this year with the nica going to akshaya, a project attempting to get the poor indian state kerala online and thereby also fighting iliteracy. telestreet.it (award of distinction) was a brave choice because it is primary a pirate tv project, which meant a different technology than the internet got the honours. and not much needs to be said about the free software foundation, who won the second award of distinction and bittorrent – winner of the special price of the jury.
the launch of hotspot linz was another underrated highlight of this years festival. this long-term project is a collaboration between the city of linz and the ars electronica organisation. the initial launch consists of 16 hotspots spread out all around linz; 37 will be online by the end of 2005. over the next few years the plan is to expand the wifi net further as the goal is to have citywide free wifi by 2008 – in time before linz will be the cultural capital of europe in 2009.
great no? it may not come as such a surprise that a city like linz hosting a radical media art festival like ars electronica is also determined to be on the forefront of free, wifi accessability. let us just hope that the wifi waves do not transform the local cockroaches to become the size of the ones from madagaskar that we saw and ewwed at this year. because who knows, we might not be aware of all the secondary effects of wifi yet, or are we?