Originally published in ArtByte , Vol. 2, N. 5, January-February 2000, pp. 74-75.

Milestones: Ars Electronica

Tanya Bezreh

Ars Electronica turned 20 this year (Ars 99 Center for Contemporary Art, Linz, Austria, September 4-9): a milestone in the recognition, documentation, and sponsorship of electronic arts. Of course, reaching 20 in tech years also makes you more than ripe for a midlife crisis. So perhaps it was natural that this year's festival, with the theme of "LifeScience," staked out a new direction for art and technology Sponsored by the major European biotech firm Novartis, Ars 99 focused on genetic engineering.

While Ars is meant to exhibit and address both artistic and technological hybrids, this year's conference placed an unusual emphasis on the technology end. Before Ars 99 commissioned its theme showcase the number of people working worldwide with biotechnologies as art pieces was probably not enough to fill the exhibit halls. So while symposium speakers represented an engaging range of biotech innovators and environmental agitators, the general conference did not acknowledge any artistic trend, but rather created one to engage a technological revolution already well underway.

Artist, writer and theorist Eduardo Kac summed up the inspiration nicely in his program notes, saying that "the boundaries between carbon-based life and digital data are becoming as thin as a cell membrane". His Genesis project demands a conceptual appreciation of a perpetually mutating "artist's gene." In his symposium presentation, Kac gave a history of dog breeding, deftly illustrating that genetic engineering has long pursued aesthetic goals. The highlight was his plan for a phosphorescent green dog, using code borrowed from jellyfish. By implication, there are good times ahead for artists, as mastery of these new media results in a more-godlike-than-ever status. And those sentimental for distinctions between art and science, or art and life itself, face bad times: the primordial soup has a big paint brush dunked in it.

While awaiting this total code-level control, "LifeScience" artists contented themselves with dominion over medium-size creatures. Zooming out from the molecular level, Yasushi Matoba and Hiroshi Matoba's Micro Friendship provided an interface that allows the user to poke, prod, and pet enlarged images of microscopic insects, closing the gap on what was once a huge communication problem in terms of scale. Once such communication improves, the cockroach contestants of the wildlife performance event, bug race 99, might be able to sue. The piece was a four-night derby -- in which people bet real money on cockroaches running on a little plastic track -- that proved Stadtwerkstatt the winner in terms of showmanship and humor (and the ability to involve genuine drunk Austrians). Among other works, Hamster, by Christoph Ebener, Frank Fietzek and Uli Winters, created a symbiotic loop whereby hamsters running through little wheels generated power for robots whose sole function is to feed hamsters. Such works were charming, but nothing stirred digerati curiosity like the most visceral, least electronic feature of the festival: the lecture and standing exhibits of Dr. Gunther von Hagens, who takes cadavers, filets them into a variety of poses, and "plastinates" them. This year's favorite debate centered on the doctor's aesthetic motivations; while he claims his work has nothing to do with art, he dresses exactlly like Joseph Beuys and, among other fascinating choices, chopped one donated body into Nude Descending a Staircase.

At best, some artists problematized existing bioengineering projects. At worst, the conference was a rudimentary political and ecological primer (occasioning the outrage of new people hearing old biotech dirt). Gauging the bioengineering themeŐs still-emerging status was the fact that the prizewinning projects were in other areas, and the general categories for judging remained unaffected. Golden Nicas went to Linds Torvalds in the "net" category, Lynn Hershman in "interactive art," Chris Wedge in "computer animation", Digital Dormain in "visual effects," Richard James (of techno group Aphex Twin) and Chris Cunningham "Come to Daddy" in "digital music," and u19 in the category "cybergeneration," which honors young artists. Among the honorary mentions, Eric Paulos' vending machine, which dispensed user-designed deadly biological pathogens, amused and then made clear the horrowing real possibilities of death and suffering at the hand of those technologies.

In keeping with the focus on genetic engineering, Ars 99 exhibited some mutations in the conference logistical attributes as well. An amazing outdoor sound system, dripping music out of the sky between Brucknerhaus and the Danube, surrounded the OMV Klangpark, which served as a public space sound art series. This year featured Michael Nyman with collaborators such as Robin Rimbaud, a.k.a . Scanner. The final night of September 9th (9.9.99) was marked by a musical potpourri in honor of the fateful date. With other events corralled mostly to the Brucknerhaus and O.K. Center and without field trips to exhibits sprawled all over town (like 96's installation of Michel Redolfi's Liquid Cities in the public swimming pool or the projection of 97's Displaced Emperors, by Rafael Lozano-Hammer and Will Bauer, onto the façade of the Linzer Castle), this yearŐs festivities didnŐt feel like the media elite staging a Linzer siege. And while former festivals were embedded in the abandoned industrial spaces or vibrant hoards of scrap metal, all that remained was the trademark train ride through the steel mills.

Such observations and more are facilitated by a book published to commemorate the 20 years, Ars Electronica 79-99. Looking over the faces and choices of the festivalŐs 20-year evolution gives real insight into how electronic art has come of age. But more exciting is the poetry of having this festival in Linz. Housing new electronic art in steel mills and warehouses lends an Industrial Age grandeur and bestows legitimacy on the experiments of the Information Age. It's another sign of graceful aging that electronics have stepped aside to make way for the next generation, the embryonic artistic endeavors of "LifeScience".

Back to Kac Web