| Michael Naimark
from the 2004 Ars Electronica catalog
The two most prominent observations
many attendees of Ars Electronica Festivals have are first, how absolutely
astounded we are by these events, particularly if we are Americans.
The city of Linz appears invaded by an army of mostly young, clad-in-black,
laptop toting artists, scientists, and critics who take over the streets,
the squares, and the banks of the Danube with temporary art structures,
video projections, and giant speaker systems. This doesn’t happen
everywhere, and outsiders, particularly Americans, are left with the
sense that the city and region around Linz support electronic art
more than the entire United States government (which is probably true).
The second most prominent observation about Ars is how un-astounded
the locals are by this: the Ars Electronica Festival seems like just
another cultural tradition, like national holidays and food festivals,
albeit a bit more eye opening.
Ars Electronica is now twenty-five years old, and the first generation
of “Ars babies,” locals (and non-locals) who witnessed
the Festival every year as far back as they can remember, are now
adults. It just may be the case that Ars nurtures the next generation
of Leonardos, Michelangelos, and Galileos—and Lovelaces, Curies,
and Kahlos—better than any other place in the world.
For this twenty-fifth anniversary, the theme for the Ars Electronica
Symposium is “Timeshift: the World in Twenty-Five Years,”
and a good opportunity for deep reflection. Rather than highlighting
what’s been “hot” over the past year, for which
Ars is so well-known, this year’s symposium seeks the long view,
looking back over the past twenty-five year period to facilitate an
informed look forward twenty-five years.
An early realization about this theme of the future was that age does
matter: a twenty-year old, a forty-year old, and a sixty-year old
all have very different perceptions about a twenty-five year period,
in both directions, much more than they would about a one or a five-year
Another realization was that history is important for discourse about
the future but sentimentality is not. We want to use history as a
tool for looking forward rather than as a means to escape it. The
specific history of Ars Electronica is not only emblematic of the
times, it’s also particularly well documented, given its association
with ORF Austrian Television.
Our solution, at the risk of being “age-ist”, was to invite
senior pioneers to speak about the future and young practitioners
to speak about the past, particularly about the past of Ars Electronica.
In this way, we would reap the benefits of experience when looking
forward without getting snagged by romanticism, and we would gain
insights into the past through fresh, unbiased, eyes.
We also wanted to integrate the three “mantras” of Ars
Electronica: Art, Technology, and Society. Since a theme such as “The
Future” has less intrinsic structure than a theme like, say,
“War” or “Nanotechnology,” it became obvious
and important to insure that representation was shared by these three
areas. We therefore sought to structure each panel around experts
loosely specializing in art, technology, and society, as well as having
a generalist and a young history “revisitor.”
Finally, we wanted to give the symposium shape, dramatic shape, over
its two-day course. The natural place to begin was with The Dream:
of connecting everyone to the world’s information and to each
other, of leveling the playing field for the disadvantaged and under-represented,
and of empowering everyone with powerful, new, ubiquitous tools for
their own expression and exploration. Even the most ardent critics
share a piece of this dream. With a few well-known exceptions, even
they use email and have Web access.
Hence the first panel is on PROGRESS, about the promise
of science and technology. “Progress Revisited,” based
on the Ars Archive, is presented by Jose-Carlos Mariategui,
a young Peruvian scientist and media theorist dedicated to promoting
such work in Latin America. Roger Malina, astronomer
and Executive Editor of Leonardo Journal, serves as its generalist.
Both as an artist and a meta-artist, ZKM Director Peter Weibel
discusses art and progress. Esther Dyson, a writer,
high-tech entrepreneur, and former Chair of ICANN (Internet Corporation
For Assigned Names and Numbers) with a long history of working in
Eastern Europe and Russia, speaks on technology and progress. Ismail
Serageldin, Director of the Library of Alexandria in Egypt,
the world’s grandest international library initiative, speaks
on society and progress.
The second panel, to end the first day, is the obvious and necessary
counterpoint to Progress. This panel is on DISRUPTION
about error, accident, and dissent. As many in the arts community
perceive their role as being a mirror for society, these issues are
particularly resonant today. Ars also has a lively history here. (Ars
Director Gerfried Stocker: “We need this panel because we do
it so well.”) Jonah Brucker-Cohen, a researcher
at the Media Lab Europe and a PhD candidate at Trinity College in
Dublin, and artist and writer, will present “Disruption Revisited.”
This panel’s generalist is Joichi Ito, an early
Internet adopter, activist, and entrepreneur in Japan. Polish artist
Krzysztof Wodiczko, known for large-scale public
art interventions and currently the Director of MIT’s new Center
for Advanced Visual Studies, addresses art and disruption. David
Turnbull, an Australian sociologist and cartographer working
with Aboriginal and other indigenous groups, speaks about technology
and disruption. Science-fiction writer and Wired Magazine net critic
Bruce Sterling speaks on disruption and society.
Our goal at the end of the first day is exhilaration and exhaustion.
We wake up the next morning to the third panel, SPIRIT,
about beauty, passion, and inner drive. Our approach is less about
“happy art” than about cognition and consciousness, including
both the light and dark sides. “Spirit Revisited” is presented
by Alena Williams, a Columbia University Art History
PhD candidate with a background in the history of modern art and media
theory, currently Visiting Scholar in Berlin. The panel’s generalist
is Geetha Narayanan, founder/director of the Srishti
School of Art, Design and Technology in Bangalore and member of ThinkCycle,
an international initiative supporting distributed collaboration among
underserved communities. Roy Ascott, founder of the
first PhD program in Interactive Art and organizer of the Consciousness
Reframed conferences, speaks about spirit and art. Sherry
Turkle, a clinical psychologist whose attention turned toward
computer culture and who is founder/director of the MIT Initiative
on Technology and Self, reflects on spirit and technology. And Artificial
Intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky, whose recent
work explores emotion as well as cognition, speaks on spirit and society.
The final panel is about mapping and prediction. We call this panel
TOPIA, to denote both utopian and dystopian scenarios.
Nadja Maurer, a Cultural Studies student at the University
of Hamburg working with code translation of transcultural phenomena
and media structures of communication, presents “Topia Revisited.”
Local computer scientist Gerhard Dirmoser presents
his unique and ambitious information-theory-based (but hand made)
word diagrams culled from the past twenty-five years of published
Ars documents. Joan Shigekawa, Associate Director
for Arts and Humanities at the Rockefeller Foundation, discusses current
large-scale community studies about art and culture. Derrick
de Kerckhove, Director of the McLuhan Program in Culture
& Technology, speaks about possible features of the next 25 years.
Stewart Brand, Founder of Whole Earth and co-Founder
/President of the LongNow Foundation, speaks on long-term thinking.
The goal in all four panels is to focus on the future, the World in
Twenty-Five Years, and in the end, to provide a unique insight into
an expanded moment, about timeframes long enough that generations
grow up, ideas evolve, and landscapes are transformed. Ars Electronica
is not only a venue; it’s a large-scale cultural experiment.
And there is a flipside to assembling artists, musicians, and scholars
to exhibit, perform, and speak. They are both witnesses and participants
in this experiment. When they leave Linz, they take with them a potential
model for their own community. And in doing so, perhaps the next generation
of Leonardos, Michelangelos, and Galileos—and Lovelaces, Curies,
and Kahlos—will be nurtured there as well.
Good news. We could all use a Renaissance right now.