Article categories: Issue 56
March 18th, 2010

Ars Electronica was my first international new media festival and a blast on many levels which started even before I’d landed. As I was reading the program on the plane somewhere between Canada and Europe, I looked out of the window and saw laid out in the landscape, a giant circuit board in the pattern of the roads and fields. A portent of thing to come…

Image: James Geurts

I had arrived late in Linz and after searching for a place to stay, found myself homeless. I met two lost souls along the way, a Croatian arts writer and a curator, who coincidentally were also visiting the festival. We eventually got lucky and found a luscious villa overlooking the Danube and awaited the dawn onslaught of the new media-techno frenzy.

The festival had festival spaces, performance venues and exhibition spaces throughout Linz, and straddled both sides of the Danube. The main exhibition spaces were the OK Centre and the Ars Electronica Centre. I found that the former had more an art focus and the latter had a prototype and museum focus, which appeared to be driven more by the technology than the art.

As my new Croatian friends only had a few days to write their art pieces, we went straight to the OK Centre exhibitions. We were met with a myriad of rooms and spaces that allowed you to move and interact with light, sound, video projection and gaming.

The theme for this year’s festival was “Code” and was simply demonstrated by Marie Sester’s work. Her idea was, to me, the strongest. Her work was set up in a thoroughfare and was an invisible surveillance motion tracking system. A spotlight would pick a person travelling through the space and follow them until they left the space. The interesting part of it was the hidden coding logic which created a curiosity for the visitors who tried to take the light of others and control it. Every time I visited the OK Centre, I saw a unique interplay with such a simple device – people would dance around the space, run away from it and try and offload it onto friends, some even unaware they were in the spotlight.

Some of the speakers at the conference weren’t that inspiring because of their micro perspective on technology. Because of the range of both speakers and participants at the festival (artists, psychologists, new media professors, dancers, curators, art writers, theoreticians, composers) heated debate sometimes raged after the sessions. Debates ranged from code theory, philosophy, content and context. Although this was interesting, I found that the issue of the relationship between art and technology was generally skirted around.

A highlight of the conference was Joachim Sauter who took us through his collaborative virtual opera which used techniques I’m interested in developing for my Artesian experimental opera. This technique used an informed camera which followed the characters on the stage, processed their form through an alpha channelled shape, then projected that same form back over the characters. This created a unique spatial illusion of multi-dimensional stage and video. They also used a three-screen backdrop where they created a virtual walk through architectural spaces of the scenes. The combination of these two elements worked strongly with the thematic basis of the story. Every night there were fringe events with the techno art gurus. The most immersive was the Principles of Indeterminism – a live mixing, piano and real time graphics performance which accelerated into an intense, all consuming blast of electronic sound and white light. Another performance, Messa di Voice, was a great starting point with a powerful technique: abstract harmonics were used to communicate to each oterh which augmented in real time in a visual display of abstract lines and shapes mimicking the sound language. Although it was visually spectacular, I thought it didn’t fuse as one fully developed piece yet.

A great cyber-surrealist work was the POL – Mechatronic Performance, which used robotics and exoskeletons live on stage and was controlled by the performers. It was a poetic fusion of elaborate interactive technology, and an engaging surrealist fable, which translated magically.

Intense coffee-fuelled mornings at the conference shook the haze and loaded my brain with code, technique, philosophy and process, followed by discussions on the long, yellow cushions next to the riverbank. A few people said that it wasn’t possible to see everything and to pace myself as I was looking like burning out. Although I kept seeing them dozing in the Electrolobby, I figured that I’d flown halfway around the world for this experience and that I’d sleep once I got home.

Dialogue and ideas were continually exchanged with artists such as Hans de Brook, Amsterdam, an installation artist with an environmental content, and Irish John, who currently has a residency at Future Lab, the research and development program which is based at the Ars Electronica Centre. I also met New York artist/programmer, Jefferson Han; Hannah Redler, a curator for a new media gallery in the UK; Tapio Makela, the programme chair for ISEA2004; Tony Begal, new media artist; Paul Thomas from BEAP; and Fabienne Nichols from Experimenta. Interaction with this diverse bunch has been an invaluable experience and has helped expand my thoughts and ideas. As a result of being at the festival, I ended up “film jamming” (with four 16m projectors and three slide projectors) in Berlin with Joe from Light Surgeons, and helped out on an experimental theatre piece called Alaska with Lilth Reidhard. Both were interested in Artesian and offered to help in whatever way they could, should the project ever find its way to their part of the world. Being creatively involved with these projects was the perfect way to follow up such an intensive, informative week in Linz.

I also met Hans de Man, who heads up one of the major arts organisations in Brussels, and runs Foton Records. Hans invited me to Brussels after the festival to work on a collaborative, interactive installation exhibition.

It was both inspiring and enlightening to see what’s happening outside of Australia. It is often said that what is happening “over there” is far superior to what is going on back home. Although I did find work that I hadn’t seen before, and work that pushed the boundaries of new media, I generally found that the work at Linz was focussed on technology rather than content which I find is the opposite in Australia. The experience of the conference (thanks to ANAT), particularly the new media performances, now allows me the freedom to further explore my Artesian project with greater confidence and enthusiasm.

James Geurts

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