Ars Electronica 2010

I attended the Ars Electronica festival in Linz, Austria, September 2 – 11 2010. The festival theme was “repair”, oddly utopian. Personally, I would have preferred to “heal”, nonetheless it was an action-packed few days of talks, performances, exhibitions and a kind of trade show that all took place in an abandoned tobacco  factory in need of some repair itself…

Linz lego repair

Imagine a future city where everyone rides electric bikes, or bicycles that store excess energy when you brake that can be reused when peddling uphill. For longer trips people drive electric cars that can be rapid charged at numerous charging stations around town, electricity coming from renewable sources, such as wind, geothermal and solar. The cars can fold and collapse for easy parking – you can even give a voice command to the car and it will go and park itself in a tightly packed arrangement that would be impossible for a human driver to achieve. For longer trips, people take a supersonic maglev trains that travel underground in a 3m diameter tube, almost in a vacuum as the air has been removed to reduce friction. Major intercity trips across Europe take minutes or an hour, so the need for air travel has been almost completely eliminated. The consistent and grating sonic burr of oil-based engines has gone, since electric engines make almost no noise. Instead, one can hear birdsong and human conversation, footsteps and bicycle bells fills that fill the clean air as you walk around the city. Many city buildings are vertical farms housing the production of food and recycling water.

Sounds like science fiction, but in fact most of these technologies exist today, or are under serious development. And they were all discussed at Ars Electronica under the festival theme of “repair”.

In many ways, the “trade show” exhibitions based on sustainability, repair and “clean” energy were more interesting than the art, which in some cases had only tenuous connections to the festival theme. The main venue was the Linz Tabakfabrik (Tobacco Factory), that was producing cigarettes up until only last year when it was purchased by the Linz regional government to be used as a cultural venue. While the Tabakfabrik’s architecture was impressive, and its cavernous labyrinth of spaces vast enough to house plenty of art, seminars and exhibitions, I was left that with the impression that this was not the best place for many of the works and activities of Ars Electronica. Many works suffered sonically and visually, the lack of conventional exhibition spaces making many of the more traditional exhibition components appear slightly amateur. Cornelia Hesse-Honegger’s beautiful paintings of radiation-affected insects were suspended in the centre of the large factory floor using undulating black tape that proved both a visual distraction and a poor way of trying to position paintings uniformly suited to viewing.

There seemed to be numerous student exhibitions that filled many floors. While great that the next generation of fledgling media artists get to exhibit their work in a world-class festival, the standards were patchy and left me feeling this was a voluminous exhibition, but not a carefully curated one.

On the positive side, the cavernous properties of many of the spaces gave some of the sound performances a spatial edge, with a series of sound performance pieces organised to specifically match a composer’s style with the long and echoic reverb that space naturally presented. The impressively decorated Lösehalle (why didn’t I take a picture of the giant clock?) was the venue for the slightly cheesy “Prix Ars Gala”, made even more cheesy by the inclusion of Asimo and a lot of Honda logos – the old W.C. Fields adage about never working with kids or animals should be extended in the twenty-first century to include robots.

The Lösehalle was also the venue for a number of highly impressive music performance evenings: an Arvo Pärt compendium performed by the Bruckner Orchestra was magical, with Maki Namekawa competently handling the piano on Lamentate. The digital music and sound concert featured two spectacular audiovisual performances. First was Montreal artist Herman Kolgen‘s INJECT – an intense multiscreen HD visual and sonic immersion (both on-screen and off). This was followed by Ryoichi Kurokawa‘s rheo: 5 horizons: a reconfigured version of his Golden Nica winning 5 screen/channel installation that was also exhibited at Ars in the exhibition spaces.

As for the discussion components, well, a mixed bag. The Tabakfabrik’s space was certainly not the best in terms of seeing or hearing the speakers, since they were almost everywhere obscured by support columns or AV infrastructure. As a result I spent most of the conference component looking at the video screens projecting an image of the speaker only a few meters away! It was nice to hear of all the clever inventions, big and small, to save the world, but the idea that our desire to save might also be linked to our desire to destroy seemed too complex a problem to handle in an arts festival.

Running since 1979, Ars Electronica is now a mature festival, and some might claim, slightly tired in terms of approach and format. Gerfried Stocker has been artistic director for 15 years, so we can only speculate about what a new curatorial approach might bring. The festival has brought a lot to Linz, and it is certainly impressive to see the town and regional government enthusiastically support this significant event every September. The Ars Electronica museum remains the major electronic and technology focused art museum of its type, although after the recent 2009 “makeover” the content seems too strongly focused on entertainment and education rather than exhibition and historical relevance. At the same time, I wonder if Ars Electronica has become too introverted and constrained by its commercial responsibilities and reputation. The instant availability of media on the internet allows you to cherry pick with ease without ever leaving home. I doubt many people ever went to Ars to see the latest or most boundary pushing technology art (there are many other smaller festivals and events that do that), but you do expect some surprise, stimulation, excitement or at least confirmation that technology-based art still has something to offer. For me, I’m not sure the festival managed to do that this year and I wonder if it ever will be able to: ironically, I think technology has overtaken much of the need for a festival about technology and art.