Ars Electronica; Vitae Brevis

The old man is quietly pruning his rose bush behind the hedge as the voice in my headphones asks me to look at the three steps that lead to the entrance of this quiet suburban dwelling.  It was through this door sixty years ago, that SS officers filed to seek ‘comfort’ with female prisoners forced into prostitution.  The male voice continues with a description of how after the war, he remodelled the house, demolishing the two metre wide wooden cubicles to make domestic rooms.  I look at the old man pruning the roses but he does not return my gaze.

A female voice leads me around the corner into another quiet street; it was here she says that an SS soldier halted her during a visit to the camp dental clinic.  Whilst she waited, two men threw Hessian sacks from a truck, dashing them against the wall exactly where I am now standing; the sacks contained children. When the woman was allowed to continue the roadway was covered in a blood.

I pass Spiegelplatzstrasse (playground street) walking past gaggles of happy, healthy kids, riding BMX bikes and drawing hopscotch grids in chalk. I am beginning to feel very uncomfortable and uncertain if I should be nodding a greeting to the suburban housewives walking past with their baby strollers – they know what I am listening to, even though, as the author later informed me, no-one in the community has chosen to experience “The Invisible Camp”.  This is an Ars Electronica project and I am taking an audiotour through a small village built on the site of Gusen I and II the most notorious forced labour camps of the Third Reich, here 37,000 political prisoners were worked to death building the underground bunkers that housed the Messerschmitt Jet bomber factory.  More powerful and disturbing than any documentary, the juxtaposition of memory with the barely perceptible architectural traces of the camp that remain in this sleepy suburb of happy residents is chilling.

Sous les pavés, la plage!
As they used to say in Paris ’68 (and may yet again say again in Sarkoland), beneath the street, the beach!  The Ars Electronica festival theme “Goodbye Privacy” was symbolised by images of a beach, more specifically Bondi beach which furnished the metaphor of a public space in which people choose to display, or rather expose, a good deal of themselves whilst maintaining a robust sense of individuality.  Linz took the metaphor a step further, by physically constructing a sandy beach in Pfarrplatz (not a credible threat to Bondi!) and equipping it with a DJ kiosk, beach chairs et al.  Unfortunately, chill was what this chill-out space did best, as the weather was worse than nasty and the opening took place in a covered courtyard of the nearby Kunst Universität where the director’s wistful remarks touched more than once upon topless Australian sunbathers!

At the Gala event at the Brüknerhaus, Australians had the front row seats, and all the Austrian VIP’s on stage had 2nd Life avatars floating behind them as they presented their speeches and awarded the Golden Nicas (Oscars with wings but no heads or arms) to the lucky winners.  The obvious joke circulating amongst the winning SymbioticA crew was how we might grow the missing body parts back!

Club Med.
The 2nd Life sub-theme manifest in the physical domain as an entire street of converted shops and restaurants, reminiscent of a Philip K Dick scenario ~ replete with an ex-Chinese restaurant, closed down for serving dog-food, re-opened as a cyber-bar serving schnapps ~ and maybe dog-food?  Justine Copper (AUS/US) set up shop (sic) peddling an almost believable parody of a Yuppie drug HAVIDOL ™, a promise of effortless Gain and no Pain.  Cloying American sales voices and spay-on smiles coax punters toward arrays of Baby Blue merchandise ~ actually the shiny blue pills in the large jars turned out to be a very tasty Malted Chocolate (at least I hope that’s what they were as I ate handfuls of them!).  Reality hybridising with fantasy and fiction creeping into real-life, I am even more convinced that 2nd Life is Club Med populated by Ken and Barbie dolls sporting repulsive jewellery, who in reality are accountants and dental receptionists, anyhow there is more than enough to keep most of us busy in Life No.1!

Alternative Models of Interaction.
Ars Electronica encapsulates the broadest spectrum of “New Media” in both name and as an event, implying an embrace, for example, of the earliest experiments in electronic music or kinetic sculpture, through to contemporary activist art and current commercial digital animation.  Such a broad historical and thematic horizon makes Ars Electronica a robust event with a high degree of integrity and the capacity to be critically self-reflexive.

It is this breadth of vision, which permits the inclusion of the “Conservation of Intimacy” a major installation of whimsical human-powered wooden kinetic sculptures by Bernie Lubell (USA).  These anarchic Heath-Robinson inventions, inspired by the C19th physiological experiments of Etienne Jules Marey, demand a high level direct physical engagement in order to activate pneumatic pumps that operate the work.  Lubell’s oeuvre seems to originate from an era before electricity let alone computers, and they playfully invert the slick, the polished and the super-cool, auras that frequently plague New Media practice (and practitioners).

Ashok Sukumaran (India) awarded the Golden Nica in the Interactive category for “Park View Hotel” shares Lubell’s irreverence by establishing quite simple interactive relationships that allow the possibility of dysfunction; users can jam, upset and deny the system.  Perhaps forms of interaction, which are antagonistic, broken or refused are more realistic modes than those complicit interactions implied in nearly all forms of New Media Arts.  In general, most cultural forms propose interactive relationships that are ‘composed’ within hermetic worlds, not substantially different from the rules of “Monopoly” and we all know how boring that is!

Another Award of Distinction in the Interactive category was pulled by Leon Cmielewski and Josephine Starrs (AUS) for their elegant work “Seeker” which, in the process of mapping ones personal geospatial history, allows the interactor to access layers of data relating to global resource conflicts and associated human displacement.  The highly resolved graphical display and beautiful panoramic landscape imagery belies the implied violence that the data visualisation represents; likewise I found the authors claim (made during the conference) that the work was non-political to be somewhat disingenuous.  There is a Bermuda triangle bounded on one side by subtle work that elicits a genuine ideological or political response; flanked on the second by old fashioned in your face, Agit-prop; and on the third by work that simply aestheticises pain and disaster ~ only one of these strategies has integrity!

Growing Hybrids and Selling Shit.
Ars Electronica inaugurated a new “Hybrid” category this year, noting a shift in the interests of New Media artists beyond information technologies and computer networks, towards the areas of materials technologies; biological, chemical, mechanical and (watch this space) nano-technology.  Rather than simply working with the vectors of the transmission and transformation of data, Artists are now engaging with these vectors as material manifestations.  The emphasis on the hybridisation of forms and concomitant interdependencies and cultural mixing re-formulates the easily jaded term “New Media” steering it away from the digital ghetto.

In this context, it is fitting that the inaugural Hybrid Golden Nica should be awarded to the work of the SymbioticA Laboratory, which is a paradigm of a collective, inter-disciplinary and hybrid practice.  The Lab has recently become a centre in the University of Western Australia and has initiated a Masters Degree in Biological Art, both developments attesting to the unique and vital opportunities SymbioticA offers and the high regard UWA has for its work.

The SymbioticA exhibition for Ars comprised of five works, curated to demonstrate the wide scope of the work undertaken in the Lab.  The works included a DNA fingerprinting performance by Paul Vanouse (USA); a video projection work with a maze-like screen manufactured from Collagen extracted from rats tails by Boo Chapple; an exquisite dress coloured by fungal material created by Donna Franklin; a live tissue culture work by Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr (a.k.a. Tissue Culture and Art) and a double data projection installation about sex, which included a (captive) audience of hundreds of crickets (by yours truly).

An unpleasant odour drifts down the corridor.  “Cloaca” by Belgian Artist Wim Devoy, duplicates the human digestive tract, something Vaucanson attempted with his famous “Canard Digérateur” automata, which he falsely claimed could eat and shit.  However, Cloaco really does the business as it mulches through several gourmet meals a day, but like all Automata, it invokes hubris by breaking the taboo of creating life!  But I guess here we are only contemplating the rear end of Creation and its Manna from Heaven!  A secondary layer of critique connects the cycles of conspicuous consumption and attendant conspicuous waste, directly to the controlling mechanism of Global Capital.  Devoy has managed to register his Cloaco Ltd. enterprise on the Belgian stock exchange (using 100 Kilos of shit as equity) and now trades shit on the open market, well as they used to say in the Old Country ~ where there’s Muck, there’s Brass!

Nigel Helyer © 2007