Sorry to burst your bubble right on the offset; you will not be reading an all-encompassing review of the 2016 edition of the Ars Electronica Festival. With a 5-day program consisting of 534 events brought by a group of 842 brilliantly selected artists and scientists from 50 countries worldwide, the act of merely sampling the festival highlights proved to be a formidable feat.
This final tally of this year’s awe-inducing festivities seems to be as difficult to grasp as the speed of light itself and the sheer size of this edition is mainly due to the fact that POSTCITY, the former Austrian Postal Service logistics facility adjacent to the train station, featured for the second time as one of the festival locations, providing an ideal setting for performances, conferences, workshops and outlandish exhibitions alike. The previous year’s experience in bringing to life this massive industrial building and integrating it in an artistic circuit was clearly visible and adequately noted by participating artists as well as returning festival-goers; stepping inside the halls of POSTCITY meant joining a riveting and seamless string of events which made it all too easy to lose track of time. But the fine people of Ars Electronica didn’t just bask in the comfort of replaying last year’s on-site scenario – instead, they welcomed the challenge of opening up the basement to the public for the first time and added a whole new layer of experiences, fully taking advantage of the location’s feel and configuration.
This year’s unifying theme was “RADICAL ATOMS and the alchemists of our time”, deriving from the work of long-standing collaborator Prof. Hiroshi Ishii of the MIT Media Lab.
He set out to connect the “pixel empire” to the physical realm in an effort to reinstate tangibility; his vision is that of fabricating new high-tech materials from natural substances, so-called smart materials, endowed with astounding properties and capabilities, which can be programmed to shift their appearance, reflecting dynamic changes of physical form in digital states and vice versa, in real time.
The festival theme highlights the relationship between art, technology and science, while also focusing on the modern alchemists – the people who are transcending the traditional boundaries between them through their inspiring projects, unorthodox approaches and artistic takes on futuristic technologies.
Indeed, we were stoked to see one of our favorite fashion designers, Iris van Herpen, featured at the POSTCITY Artist Labs as the winner of the 2016 STARTS Grand Prize for Artistic Exploration with her clothing collection entitled “Magnetic Motion”, made up of pieces which were “grown” using magnetic fields. What’s more, the field of fashion was abundantly represented in this year’s edition of the Ars Electronica festival: Irene Ródenas and Julia Nüßlein proposed integrating plants in our clothing as a means of filtering the air with their work “Green Filter”, Aniela Hoitink used mycelia to build flexible textiles made of modules in “MycoTEX”, Ying Gao’s “Incertitudes” presented garments which reacted to the spectator’s voice, while other artists such as Julia Körner (“Sporophyte Collection”) or Jessica Rosenkrantz and Jesse Louis-Rosenberg (“Kinematics Dress”, “Floraform”) employed 3D printing to create otherworldly shapes.
Although POSTCITY provided a substantial 80.000 m2 of display space, the Ars Electronica festival sprawled across numerous other venues as well, electrifying the entire city of Linz between the 8th and the 12th of September: the Ars Electronica Center housed the RADICAL ATOMS exhibition; Central was reserved to the animation section of the festival; the Linz Art University served to introduce the guest university of Tsinghua from Beijing and the Brucknerhaus housed the Ars Electronica Gala, the ceremony where the Golden Nica statuettes were awarded to the Prix Ars Electronica prizewinners. The Lentos Museum and St. Mary’s Cathedral were also part of the circuit; the Anton Bruckner Private University provided the ideal venue for Sonic Saturday and Music Monday, while the OK Center for Contemporary Art showcased the CyberArts exhibition and acted as playground for Modular Music Days.
In fact, it was at the OK Center that we got our first taste of just how much the festival promoted involvement and encouraged the public to interact with the exhibits in order to go beyond the status of mere spectators, to feed their curiosity and to be inspired by the works on display. The one-eyed bear got a bionic upgrade as Louis-Philippe Demers and Bill Vorn sent us into “Inferno”, a participative robotic performance which involved total subordination to a machine with rather impressive dance moves while techno music blared and strobe lights flickered. Who knew being a raving cyborg could be so much fun? (Answer: the 76-year-old lady who also took part in the performance.)
Another installation we thoroughly enjoyed having hands-on experience with was the Tangible Media Group’s (MIT Media Lab) “inFORM“, a shape display which lends physical form to digital information. As motorized pins extended from a tabletop, inFORM could accurately move objects placed on its surface, allowing the user to manipulate them remotely. “Can you hear me?”, Mathias Jud and Christoph Wachter’s Golden Nica-winning project for Interactive Art+, enabled us to send via WiFi anonymous messages open for all to read, reenacting the artists’ performance in Berlin, where their makeshift antennas, built in plain sight, occupied a space usually reserved for wiretapping and turned it into an open communication network in order to challenge the constant state of surveillance we live in. We couldn’t possibly resist leaving a comment on Kyle McDonald’s work, “Exhausting a Crowd”, which invited people to take a stab at describing the mundane events occurring in a busy public space like Piccadilly Circus in London through annotations or tags. Comments like “I’m not just a red car, I’m a red PRIUS”, “Run like you stole it” or “I’m just gonna walk REAL close behind these people… Nothing creepy about that” served not only to copiously amuse readers, but also to raise awareness on the subject of mass surveillance.
The entire festival is conceived as a deeply immersive adventure, which welcomed both specialists and neophytes.
The U19 – CREATE YOUR WORLD series is probably the most eloquent example: young people under the age of 19 are invited to think, tinker and play at open workshops which place emphasis on actually doing things and coming into close contact with artists and scientists, in order to discover an expanded view of the world of tomorrow (and learn to pilot drones). Inspiration is indeed a keyword here and a driving force behind the entire array of event categories, be it through the thought-provoking conferences on themes such as the future of education, the reciprocal impact of science and art, digitization, interactive art and robotic design, or as an inevitable result of taking part in one of the many WE GUIDE YOU tours around POSTCITY and the Ars Electronica Center. The opening tour at POSTCITY led by Ars Electronica artistic director Gerfried Stocker got us incredibly revved up to be starting the festival; the expert commentary added to the warm welcome provided the energy and insight to blaze through the long weekend. Highlights tours introduced festival-goers to POSTCITY, the OK and the Ars Electronica Center, with special family tours and kids tours available as well. For a more in-depth exploration of subjects such as artificial intelligence, urban ecology or Pneuduino, you could opt for an experts tour, guided by field specialists who were more than happy to share their knowledge and a healthy dose of food for thought. For maximum accessibility, community tours in Arabic, Turkish, Romanian and other languages were also organized, along with a special tour for the blind and one held in Austrian Sign Language – thankfully, nobody was left out of this brilliant happening, as there was no shortage of wow factor in any of the festival locations.
One of the customary highlights was the Deep Space 8K in the Ars Electronica Center, the projection hall featuring twin 16-by-9-meter display surfaces on both the wall and floor which allow for breathtaking imagery and minutely detailed representations at an incredible resolution of 8,192 × 4,320 pixels. We took a 3D trip around and beyond the galaxy, experienced the viewpoint of a professional skier going down the Hahnenkamm section of the Streif at about 150km/h and enjoyed the many visualizations and participative projections on site. Deep in the darkness of the POSTCITY Bunker we found “CHOZUMAKI”, Nelo Akamatsu’s bottled vortices, Michael Montanaro and Navid Navab’s “Aquaphoneia” – an alchemical lab fit for a phonetician, we wandered through a “Chemobrionic Garden” grown by Robertina Šebjanič, Ida Hiršenfelder and Aleš Hieng – Zergon and found ourselves wrapped in the comforting smell of freshly washed linen as we stepped into Thom Kubli’s “Black Hole Horizon” a.k.a. bass & bubble paradise.
As one might expect, robots figured prominently in the exhibitions, ranging from a DIY surgery robot which Frank Kolkman designed in order to start a discussion on inequality and the lack of access to essential health services experienced by a growing number of people around the world, who find it all too often unaffordable to get adequate healthcare, to Quayola’s “Sculpture Factory”, an industrial robot which carved huge blocks creating a series of variations of the Ancient Greek masterpiece Laocoon and His Sons. We were particularly taken by the concept behind “Jller”, a machine which sorts pebbles from the bed of Jller river and arranges them according to type and age. In an age when productivity is supposed to be maximized and increasingly complex gadgets are built to attain that goal (though rarely employed at their full potential), Prokop Bartoniček and Benjamin Maus decided to build a machine that does… well, basically nothing much of use. It takes around 2 or 3 days for all the stones to be analyzed and placed in order; the result resembles a Japanese garden, both in appearance and in the soothing quality of the robot’s movements.
As robots become a common reality rather than a figment of imagination, it seems fitting to share the question which puzzled Jasia Reichardt, this year’s recipient of the Golden Nica for Visionary Pioneers of Media Art for her trailblazing exhibition, “Cybernetic Serendipity”: what more could be created today to be as exciting as the first instances of computer art?
We certainly reflected on the issue on the way back home, as the festival program left little time for dawdling. The animation section could have easily been a stand-alone festival, with its very own Expanded Animation symposium, which covered the interrelation between science, society and industry by exploring topics such as character animation, 3D scanning techniques, data visualizations or virtual reality and going well beyond treating animation as a mere form of entertainment, and a whopping total of 15 programs (8 one-hour themed categories and 7 special features). It’s hard to pick favorites, as the works presented were selected from the entries submitted for prize consideration in the 2016 Prix Ars Electronica’s Computer Animation / Film / VFX category. We definitely enjoyed a few hours in the dark watching Comedy & Black Humor (who wouldn’t?), Narration, Expanded & Experimental as well as Visuals & Sound. There was also a special feature on Mihai Grecu, who poetically mixes various techniques in his symbolic and surreal portrayal of distress, cloning, hallucination, city life and war.
And this was all just during the day.
The delightful hubbub went on well into the night and the nocturnal program frequently started with a leisurely stroll on Landstrasse and a sip of Sauvignon blanc, as the Ars Electronica Festival conveniently overlapped with the local wine festival. The opening event at POSTCITY more than lived up to our expectations, with stirring performances being held in the massive dock where the railroad freight cars used to be loaded and unloaded. We didn’t make it in time for Silk Fluegge’s highly acclaimed dance performance “MYGRATION—beget”, but got to witness the sheer force of Navid Navab’s “Practices of Everyday Life. Cooking”, a culinary concert which awakened our senses and portrayed a mystically infused rite of cooking, reminding us of the beauty to be found in simple things. We welcomed Friday night in the same train hall as the POSTCITY Nightline unfolded: after a 3D printed drink, Funkstörung conjured up a “Lightstorm” to go with their electronic beats, creating a perfectly entertaining avatar of city life, with its ubiquitous lights and sensory overload. Aisha Devi went on to enrapture the audience with her signature sound, meandering and dramatic, heavy yet liberating, while Pulsinger & Irl delivered a roof-raising live set which not even the most tired of feet could resist, setting the tone for Saturday’s (a lot more than) OK Night, when modular music took hold of the OK Platz (whimsically adorned with a huge disco ball hanging from the Flying Fox zip line), OK Center and Solaris club. We eagerly climbed to the OK Center’s third floor as Uciel aka PDP-11 was heating things up; what followed was a full 6 hours of sonic debauchery, peaking with a lesson in raving by Colin Benders. Saturday evening had an extra treat in store for us: Ars Electronica and Intel put together “DRONE 100 – Spaxels over Linz”, a synchronized aerial performance above the Danube involving 100 LED-clad drones and many more hundred gasps and cheers from the audience perched on the river bank.
Closing off the nighttime program was the traditional Big Concert Night, an unmissable event which wonderfully amalgamated the stately quality of the Bruckner Orchestra playing classical music with the raw industrial setting of the POSTCITY train hall and computer-generated visuals. The arresting performance conducted by Dennis Russell Davies included Simone Zaunmair’s piece for wind instruments called “La Lucha” and Marc Reibel’s reinterpretation of a theme in the style of Claude Debussy with jazz, rock and funk elements. For the interlude, FM Einheit invited us by the spiral package chutes to be engulfed in their distinctive resonance, after which the classical concert resumed with pieces by Ravel and Stravinsky, an Alexander Scriabin-inspired audiovisual performance by AROTIN & SERGHEI and pianist Mikhail Rudy and our inescapable collapse due to a long weekend of information overload, constant scuttling and devastating excitement.
As first-time participants in a media art festival, we found the Ars Electronica Festival both enriching and frustratingly overwhelming.
There’s definitely a lot more to say about the experiences it provided – be they artistic, scientific or social – even with so much of its program remaining unexplored at the end of the day. So as we look back to the 2016 edition of the Ars Electronica Festival, one thing’s for sure – we’re also looking forward to the next one! Tschüss!
Words: Violeta Năzare
Photos: Florian Voggeneder, Tom Mesic, Violeta Năzare