Leonardo Electronic Almanac volume 10, number 11, November 2002
ISSN #1071-4391

< The Third International @rt Outsiders Festival: Du bio-art à la vie artificielle (From Bio-art to Artificial Life)>
Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Rue de Fourcy, Paris, 18
September - 20 October 2002.

Reviewed by Stefaan Van Ryssen, stefaan.vanryssen@pandora.be.

The theme of the third international @rt Outsiders Festival at
the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris was "from
bio-art to artificial life," an apt description for the strange
mix of projects shown there from 18 September till 20 October,
2002. The festival consisted of some 20 lectures and
presentations by artists, critics and theorists of contemporary
art and a modest exhibition of ten recent works by
internationally renowned artists. The works were selected by
Henry Chapier (see www.Henry-Chapier.com) and Jean-Luc Soret, who
have been organizing the event for the past three years. The @rt
Outsiders website (http://www.art-outsiders.com/) is certainly
worth visiting, for those who consider Paris a bit too far out of
their way.

France and a large part of the French-speaking world have
followed a different path than the Anglo-Saxon world when
adopting computers and the Internet in the arts. I conjecture
that the highly centralized development of arts and sciences in
France - where anything shown or done outside of Paris is not
even considered worthwhile, whereas in the English-speaking world
several big cities perpetually compete for prominence - has led
to its precocious development of a networked information system
on the one hand (Minitel, started in the 1980s) and a certain
distrust of anything as unruly and chaotic as the Internet on the
other. For example, the IRCAM has dominated the scene for the
last 30 years and made its mark on the development of electronic
and digital music, to the effect that non-professional musicians
or artists from other disciplines have had a tough job getting
recognition. Similarly, computer graphics have been dominated by
professional computer scientists, leaving only little room for
experimenters and creative dabblers to get full attention, let
alone grants and access to resources. Far from suggesting that
French artists are in any way trailing behind, it does explain
why the public at large has only been slowly exposed to digital
art and intermedia - most of it has remained quasi hidden in
institutes, for the eyes and ears of experts only. A festival
like @rt Outsiders tries to make up for this lack of exposure, a
fact that accounts for its appearance as a mix of seduction and
instruction, the panoptic and the focused.

Christophe Luxereau's installation, *Electrum Corpus,* showed
images from an imaginary future when implants become functional
improvements and fashionable jewels adorning the body. Imagine a
younger (and more seductive, because less oversized) version of
Star Trek *Voyager's* character Seven of Nine, with her cyborg
implants covered by skin and still visible in outline. Fitting
for the fashion capital of the Western world, the work combined a
touch of savoir-vivre with a hint of what might be a commercially
viable road for bio-art. This is what aesthetically pleasing
mutilation might become, beyond the commitment of purely
graphical tattoos and the temporary redemption of chastizing
piercings. It holds the same aspects of fascination and
repulsion, and it makes one dream of (and fear) a confrontation
with a potentially lethal mate.

*Carbon* was a minimalistic multimedia work by Servovalve
(www.servovalve.org), in which the image of an indistinguishable
face, built of randomly walking microscopic white (non-carbonic)
lines, emerged from a solid carbon-black background. The dynamic
graphic quality of the image was unlike any ink or charcoal
drawing, escaping conventional routes. The effect it produced was
reminiscent of Chris Marker's cult film *La Jetée* (1964),
without the narrative connotations of the film.

Both *Electrum Corpus* and *Carbon* explored new aesthetics
rather than explaining new technologies - at least, that is, if
aesthetics is understood in the common sense of being about
beauty and pleasing the eye. The other works in the exhibition,
on the other hand, seemed primarily to be technical showcases or
philosophical statements. (Annick Bureaud, journalist and critic,
will most likely have addressed this problem in her talk at the
exhibition "Is Biological Art Aesthetically Pleasing?" It is a
question emblematic of this festival. As I said, there is a touch
of the instructive here, and I guess Bureaud would not have shied
away from giving the audience a solid intellectual bashing in the
best French tradition.)

Of course, there is no opposition whatsoever between technicity
and aesthetics or philosophy and beauty - it is all in the eye
and mind of... as is proven by the other installations in the
exhibition. For example, Magali Desbazeilles, Siegfried Canto and
guest writer Christine Beigel presented the installation *Tu
penses donc je te suis* (You Think, Therefore I Follow You), with
its untranslatable pun on "je te suis" (I follow you - I am you)
and its reference to Descartes' "Cogito ergo sum." The
installation offered visitors the opportunity to hear anonymous,
yet intimate thoughts of individuals lost in a crowd. The
spectator was invited to walk in the wake of these passers-by,
whose images were projected on the floor. It was a work of pure
poetry and introspection. In Miguel Almiron's *Anamorphose
numérique* (Digital Anamorphosis), a camera filmed visitors'
movements in real time and after being processed, a deformed
image from the immediate past was then displayed on a screen. The
structural integrity of the body was sacrificed for temporal
acuity and repetition.

Three works presented different visions of artificial life
(a-life). *Life Spacies II* was the name of an interactive
installation by Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau. Words,
chosen by the viewers, were decomposed and turned into a genetic
code to create virtual creatures on the screen. These creatures
lived in a synthetic world where they moved, foraged, mated and
eventually died. There was an endearing contrast between the
Pac-man-like appearance of the creatures and the uncanny,
Hieronymus Bosch-like jungle they lived in, as if God had been
creating with Mac OS on Wednesday and DOS on Friday. In *Quorum
Sensing,* by Chen Chu-Yin, spectators were invited to interact
with each other in a limited space. Depending on their number and
positions, a larger part of a virtual world seething with
artificial life forms was unveiled at their feet. The better the
spectators' understanding, the livelier and more communicative
the creatures became. *Biowall,* by Daniel Mange, was a mosaic
comprised of thousands of transparent electronic modules
(comparable to artificial molecules). Each of these molecules
enabled visitors to communicate with the Biowall surface simply
by touching it with their finger. This interaction was then
interpreted, using an electronic light display. The patterns
created by the viewer, using three different modes, then started
living lives of their own. Well-known algorithms of a-life
governed the lives and decay of the creatures and the wall
eventually turned into a rapidly changing, colorful canvas.
According to the artist, "The Biowall foreshadows tomorrow's
interactive paintings by including the spectator in the creation

*Genesis,* by Eduardo Kac, was by far the most ambitious
bio-artistic work in the exhibition. At the conceptual center of
the work was a transcription of a verse of the Biblical book of
Genesis into Morse code, which was then converted into DNA base
pairs. The resulting so-called "artistic gene" was then spliced
into a bacterium, which then developed due to spectator
intervention. A culture of the bacterium was grown in a petri
dish, lighted by a UV lamp. The spectator could turn the lamp on
and off, thus creating an environment where genetic mutation was
speeded up (with the lamp on) or slowed down. The process of the
bacterium multiplying was monitored by a camera and could be seen
onscreen. The sentence from the book of Genesis and the DNA code
of the gene were displayed on the walls. Spectators could
simultaneously listed to DNA-synthesized music, composed by Peter
Gena (what's in a name?). Kac was probably wise to assuage the
resentment of the religiously squeamish by choosing a verse from
the Bible. Some might have thought the artist was playing God,
which is as close to sacrilege as one can be, but that was not
the point of this work. What matters is the fact that at the
heart of our universe, and life itself, lie the fundamental
building blocks of information, disguised or expressed as words,
genes, individuals, codes, signs, images, sounds, even thoughts.
Bits of information can be deliberately or randomly transformed,
replicated, interpreted and changed, but the information cannot
be destroyed. When dealing with information embedded in a living
individual, artists are merely continuing what they have been
doing in spoken, written, sounded or projected media. Kac allowed
the spectator to become aware of the demiurgical bungling
involved in creation and reproduction. And, if we are to be
tinkerers, we had better do it in style.

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