Paul O’Brien

This year’s event in Linz had a strongly environmental theme, focused on the issue of ‘Repair’ and with a lifebelt as an icon. Held in a huge, disused, monumental cigarette factory designed by Peter Behrens, it was a (no doubt deliberate) contrast to the comfortable setting of recent years, the Danube-side Brucknerhaus concert hall. Perhaps reflecting the global economic downturn, many of the exhibits appeared on video only. Alternative vehicles, including electric bicycles, scooters and ‘cargo bikes’, jostled for space with all kinds of energy-conservation and recycling projects. (The ‘rebicycle’ was described as a search for a 100% sustainable product.) Themes included scrap design, repair as art form, and design for repair. ‘Repairing’ was seen as a creative challenge that could replace recycling, the transience of fashion and planned obsolescence: a process of discovery and unique creation that values permanence rather than temporality.

Cornelia Hesse-Honegger: Seed bug; image held here

Issues under debate at the event included climate change, population growth, and agricultural pollution. Cornelia Hesse-Honegger’s images of deformed creatures were on display in the tobacco factory, silently critiquing the nuclear installations that – through radiation-emission – were suppposedly responsible for the deformation. Implicitly, the support of some Greens for nuclear power as a ‘solution’ to anthropogenic global warming was called in question by this work. Some of the other proposed ‘solutions’ to current environmental problems were intriguing, particularly the opportunities afforded by soil-less agriculture employing hydroponics and aeroponics, and opening up the possibility for urban dwellers to become mini-farmers using the windows of their apartments as vertical farms.

However, it wasn’t all eco-tech at Ars Electronica. Honda’s weirdly endearing asexual robot Asimo made an appearance, proudly displaying his / her ability to walk and even dance. Hiroshi Ishiguro’s Geminoid – a seated android adept at mimicking human communicative signals – made an appearance last year and was under discussion again this year. A robotic ‘homeless guy’ pushed a cart through the premises, evoking a bemused reaction from spectators. The lifelikeness of both artificial figures evoked the concept of the ‘uncanny valley’.

Stelarc: Ear on arm; image held here

On the ‘art’ side, there was the usual mix of provocation and conscience. Stelarc’s Ear on Arm project – an artificial ear was inserted into the artist’s arm, exemplifying issues around the ‘post-human’ – won first prize in the Hybrid Art section. (As with the work of artists like Orlan engaged in similar projects, one couldn’t help wondering if the surgeons might have utilised their skills in a more socially conscious way.) A runner-up in the Hybrid Art section was the intriguing Men in Grey by Julian Oliver and Danja Vasiliev, which involved some spooky dark-suited guys walking through public spaces where people are surfing the net on laptops – supposedly ‘private’ information is displayed visually and aurally by devices carried by the Men in Grey, in a warning about the limitations of ‘privacy’ in a wireless zone.

Julian Oliver, Danja Vasiliev: Men in grey; image held here

The winner of the Interactive Art section was The Eyewriter, an unquestionably conscientious device by Zach Lieberman et al to track eye-movements, thus enabling a paralysed artist to work as before. Work on The Eyewriter is open-source, ongoing and collaborative.

Zach Lieberman, James Powderly, Tony Quan, Evan Roth, Chris Sugrue, Theo Watson: The Eyewriter; image held here

High-tech interventions to help the physically challenged are a recurring theme at Ars Electronica – this year’s event also featured a device to help visually impaired people get around without bumping into things. The first prize in the Computer Animation section was won by Nuit Blanche, a short film by Canadian film-maker Arev Manoukian. The piece is a hyper-real romantic fantasy blending digital animation with film noir in a black-and-white crossover mix.

Arev Manoukian: Nuit Blanche; image held here

A notable runner-up in this category was Plane Stupid, Polar Bears by Jake Mengers, involving digitally rendered polar bears falling from the sky, in a commentary on the destructive effects of aviation on their natural habitat. Rheo: 5 horizons, an impressive mixture of music and visuals by Ryoichi Kurokawa, was the main prize-winner in the Digital Musics and Sound Art category.

Ryochi Kurokawa: Rheo: 5 Horizons; image held here

There was provocation as well, including a parodic event referencing porn and entitled Arse Elektronika, featuring the slogan ‘Photoshop: Feminism’s Biggest Enemy’. There was also an outdoor happening in the evening in the Dionysian style reminiscent of Hermann Nitsch and Vienna Actionism: a man suspended from hooks through his skin circled over a fire to loud music. (The semi-barbarism of Viennese Actionism functions perhaps as cultural counterpoint to the stereotyped Viennese refinement of Klimt and Jugendstil.)

Recurrent political themes included ‘hacktivism’, the campaign for freedom from copyright restriction (an MEP from the Swedish Pirate Party made an appearance), and privacy in the digital age (including instructions on how to commit ‘digital seppuku’, ie effectively removing your digital identity from the all-seeing gaze of the Internet).

Mention should also be made of the installation in the Ars Electronica Center, entitled The World in 100 Years, that focused on retro-futurism. The theme, illustrated by an image of women in 1920s garb using what looked eerily like an early twentieth-centiry version of Skype or an iPhone, is summed up by a quote from Robert Sloss in The World in 100 Years, published in Berlin in 1910: “Everyone will have his own pocket telephone that will enable him to get in touch with anyone he wishes. People living in the Wireless Age will be able to go everywhere with their transceivers, which they will be able to affix wherever they like – to their hat, for instance…” Apart from the sartorial anachronism and the gender-specific language, it was spot on.

An Irish dimension included an informative presentation by Michael John Gorman of Dublin’s Science Gallery, and some impressive student work from Cork in the area of new media.