Paul O’Brien lectures at the National College of Art and Design, Dublin.
Marion Laval-Jeantet’s May the Horse Live in me (in collaboration with Benoit Mangin) was the weird winner of the Hybrid Art section in the 2011 Ars Electronica Festival in Linz, Austria. This was a bio/extreme-art project whereby Laval-Jeantet experimented with human-horse hybridity through the injection of horse blood (plasma) into her body. Breaking the boundaries between humans, animals and technology may have been a theoretical commonplace at least since Donna Haraway, but one might have thought there were more pressing issues to which art could devote itself at this time (for example, the collapse of capitalism and the ecosphere). Similarly, Tuur Van Balen’s runner-up Pigeon d’Or, an attempt to transform pigeon shit into soap, displays a splendid indifference to real bio-political issues such as genetic engineering, unless it is an oblique commentary on them.
In contrast, another runner-up in the Hybrid Art category, by Christin Lahr, did take a crucial issue (the German national debt) seriously: since 2009 she has been transferring one cent a day to the German Federal Ministry of Finance, in an attempt to help balance the national debt. Each contribution is accompanied by a short text from Marx’s Capital, so that eventually the entire text will be transferred into the state’s central account. Reassuringly, Lahr writes that “Due to the exponential effects of interest and compound interest, my donation will be able to pay off the national debt of 31 May 2009, 1,746, 599,197, 210 Euro, within 300 years.” The project is a wry commentary on the dominance (and absurdities) of finance capital – though it’s questionable whether Marxism offers an effective antidote to Europe’s financial problems, despite the continued popularity of Marx (not to mention “ostalgia”) in red Berlin. Marxism, the most influential critique of capitalism, has always focused on economic and social tensions rather than on the depredations of the financiers, which is perhaps part of the reason the latter have succeeded in their destructive activities for so long.
The winner of the Interactive Art section also had a strongly political dimension. Newstweek by Julian Oliver and Danja Vasiliev is a device for “fixing facts,” the remote editing of the news read by people on wireless hotspots in cafés, libraries, etc. Newstweek functions as a corrective to slanted and distorted news stories produced by media monopolies and manipulated by entrenched interests, a form of intervention that also highlights the constructed nature of news in the first place. Like other new-media possibilities including direct video streaming from areas of conflict, this intervention has the potential to replace accepted, media-constructed ‘reality’ if not with the ‘truth’, at least with an alternative construction whereby the consumers can make up their own minds on political issues.
A political dimension was to the fore also in Face to Facebook – Hacking Monopolism Trilogy, which received an award of distinction in the Interactive Art category. This involved accessing a million Facebook profiles, running them by face-recognition software and posting them on a new dating website. Not altogether surprisingly, the site attracted the attention of Facebook’s lawyers, who demanded the removal not only of the original site but also of a site documenting the event – which the artists (Paolo Cirio and Allessandro Ludivico) have resisted in defence of freedom of expression. The work raises current – though familiar – issues about privacy, intellectual property, and freedom: issues that are pervasive, and growing in urgency.
The first prize in the Digital Communities section was awarded to the Smart Citizen Foundation, an NGO based in Chile that aims to encourage social involvement through the web, helping to open up democratic processes. Awards of Distinction in the same category included x_msg, a DIY SMS system aimed at women working in the sex industry.
The dystopian Metachaos by Alessandro Bavari was the winner of the Computer Animation section (a similarly apocalyptic runner-up, Floris Kaayk’s The Origin of Creatures, echoed the gloomy winner, evoking a sombre zeitgeist). But much more remarkable than either was The External World by David O’Reilly, a brilliant young Irish animator living in Berlin. This ironic, self-reflexive meditation on contemporary animation is a memorably comic, boundary-pushing experience and repays repeated viewing (at the time of writing, it’s easily accessible on Youtube). The provocative spirit of Dada seems to be alive and well, and living in contemporary animation.
The winner of the Digital Musics / Sound Art section was Jana Winderen’s Energy Field, which sampled sounds including those made by underwater creatures in the far North. Remarkable among the runners-up was A Hidden Place by the Iranian artist Sohrab, a haunting meditation with overtones of alienation and anxiety.
The overall theme of the 2011 festival was ‘Origin’, with the involvement of scientists from CERN in nearby Switzerland and presentations entitled ‘Language in the Quantum Age’ and ‘Quantum Money’. A working interferometer was on display, raising the spooky question as to whether we are making up everything as we go along, as in the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics; or whether this is only one of a multitude of parallel worlds, as in the Everett interpretation. (The current financial crisis might seem to suggest the former.) The ‘crossover’ art / science phenomenon, evidenced locally in Dublin’ Science Gallery and in recent cooperative work between Dublin students of art and science, shows no sign of abating, locally or internationally.