Conversation between Anita Calà, Pier Luigi Capucci to retrace the last edition of Ars Electronica, since the late 1970s the beating heart of activities and discussions related to the relationship between art, new technologies and science. This year the event is now in its 43rd edition titled: Welcome to Planet B. A Different Life is possible. But how? As always, the Festival involves the city of Linz with exhibitions and events that continue even on Festival days, some of which can still be visited.
Mail, September 2022: Anita Calà
To: Elena Giulia Rossi and Pier Luigi Capucci
Object: Visit to Ars Electronica 2022
ANITA: Dear Elena and Pier Luigi,
I am writing you this email a few weeks after my return, thanking you so much for being such valuable companions in this my first time at the Ars Electronica Festival. It was one of my dreams in the drawer to be able to touch a reality that over the years has always accepted and faced the challenge of seeking answers to the complex issues that our time confronts us with. And I believe it is ‘present time’ that is the centre around which Festival 2022 revolves with a view to an invitation to Planet B, as suggested by the title. Also speaking with you Pier Luigi, one evening at dinner, the subject of the contemporaneity of the research exhibited came up. In this strange everyday life of ours, we tend to chase the future by looking at the past – the good old days – when instead we need to react on what is happening now. And that is what the great Ars Electronica machine highlights.
PIER LUIGI: Thank you for the invitation to make a few remarks about Ars Electronica. The first time I went was 1989, the “Interactive Arts” section invented by Peter Weibel and Roy Ascott was introduced (I wrote about it on a dedicated post published on my website on October 2016). Then, with a few gaps – due to the pandemic I skipped 2020 and 2021 – I went to almost every edition. A trip to Linz to Ars Electronica is a piece of advice I give to my students of all addresses, and several times, in different institutions, they have taken it. The same goes for my colleagues, with whom I have shared interesting moments that have also resulted in projects. I believe that going to Ars Electronica, even just once, is important not only for those who deal with art, culture, science and technology, but also for those who work with ‘traditional’ cultural frameworks and artistic forms: it can open up new expressive and theoretical scenarios, introduce new ideas, and help overcome obsolete prejudices. Precisely in order to have a glimpse of the future, to try to imagine it without looking back to the past, to what has been. Especially in a historical period such as the present, in which complex and planetary issues and problems have to be addressed, new paradigms are needed. Ars Electronica highlights issues, generates visions.
ANITA: You are absolutely right Pier Luigi, and that is exactly how my journey with Elena started: from a vision. As soon as we arrived, the first stop was Johannes Kepler University (a gigantic university, a magnificent location that hosts a large part of the Festival), and looking at the map, it came to me spontaneously to head for the TNF Tower, the tallest building on campus, called ‘SOMNIUM’. The name alone should have made me realise that my gaze was about to change point of view, transforming me from a contemporary arts viewer, whom I now watch somewhat bored, to an extraterrestrial who sets foot for the first time on a planet that is evolving and building, only to realise that it is actually her own old world that is changing. A bit like Kepler, who in his SOMNIUM dreamily described the effect of looking at one’s own earth from a different point of view.
In short, my dears… as I reached the top floor, the view opened up to a landscape I longed to visit. At that moment there were no performances or presentations, only silence, the light rain, the grey that I loved so much; and it was inevitable to think first: OK, I am ready to be amazed.
And yes. I was amazed and above all I asked myself so many questions looking at the answers shown in so many participating works.
ELENA: You described a beautiful feeling, a corner away from progress but also the direction that we all feel impelling, that of starting again from the earth. Even Ars Electronica, which has been projecting its vision into the future (starting from the present) since 1979, has in recent years cast an even closer eye on ecology in the round. This landscape, but also the emotional state that you describe, also reminds me of how differently our paths connect. Pier Luigi has been interested for years in themes at the crossroads of art, nature and technology. He is a true pioneer in this; I am not saying this because we are talking about it together. Many of us have trained on his texts and followed his thinking. Amongst many things, the three-year project art*science – Art & Climate Change, has brought an investigation into climate and ecology in the round developed over time through meetings with researchers and artists related to these issues long before this topic exploded into the debates of every sector and discipline (today it is all we talk about). At Ars Electronica, in more than one section we encountered the push towards children, the future, aliens ready to conquer Planet B. We must no longer neglect them. They are the future. If we neglect them, their power to build could overturn into the power to destroy. Ars Electronica has dedicated more than one section to these aspects of education, see for example the Future Thinking School and Create Your Own World. This and much more that even before the future starts from our present.
PIER LUIGI: Rather than on particular works, I would like to focus on some themes, which I think are important, that have emerged from this year’s edition. They are many, but I will try to group them together. First of all, the increasingly central role in art of Big Data, algorithms and artificial intelligence, not only as coadjutors of human creative activity but as performers, actors, authors. For some years now, there has been an international debate – simplifying – on the ‘art created by machines’: in other words, whether it makes sense to argue that an artificial intelligence, an algorithm, a robot…, can make art in a manner that is, let us say, autonomous. This is not the place to go into this in depth, suffice it to say that it is much discussed, worldwide. This is present in this year’s edition of Ars Electronica, which, however, moves the boundary even further, in particular with the installation Ars for Nons (Art for Non-Humans), opening up an art for technological ‘non-humans’. Does it make sense to speak of “aesthetic emotion” for technological devices? So recognising them, in some way, also an existential dignity, a life-form, a ‘Third Life’? A topic that deserves to be explored in depth.
A further topic is the maturity demonstrated by the computer animation or interactive productions that have won awards in the relevant categories. It is no longer a question of more or less realistic narratives, perhaps thematically interested but often technically self-referential, which have been dominant for years. This year at Ars Electronica, I saw rendering techniques appropriate to the stories they represent, narrative modes that become installations with human storytellers, animation techniques based on videogames, interactive narratives that integrate Artificial Intelligence.
There was also a wide-ranging discourse on Climate Change, which pervaded the works and installations of many artists and was the subject of the large exhibition on the top floor of the Learning Centre of Johannes Kepler Universität, which involved students, universities and research institutions from all over the world.
Finally, there is, in my opinion, a further theme, which makes Ars Electronica, as always, at the centre of the contemporary debate beyond the technoscientific dimension. I will talk about this in my next speech.
ELENA: Speaking of what goes beyond the techno-scientific dimension, you brought to my mind another work present at Ars Electronica that is apparently far removed from the race for progress. It is the work of Antoni Muntadas, a conceptual artist who has always been committed to deconstructing the media landscape, the Media Landscape – as he himself defined it in the first half of the 1970s. It is true that his internet project The File Room was awarded a prize at Ars Electronica in 1995, but it was no small surprise to find there a work completely outside the technological sphere.
Beautiful vintage notice boards punctuated the space; inside them gadgets of various kinds, lighters coasters, a beer label, the imagery that kept alive the species of the Tasmanian Tiger, declared extinct since 1936, until science found a possible way to reintroduce it into the ecosystem. The element that draws the eye to this beautiful installation corner more than anything else, a large holograph representing the Tiger, is also the manifesto of a technology that is also in the process of becoming extinct. The biological species has survived its extinction and will probably return to inhabit the planet in the flesh, but will an endangered technology survive the acceleration of technical progress that is always projected towards the new? There are indeed many questions that Muntadas asks and they only seemingly leave the techno-scientific dimension. They enter into the complex relationship between reality, image and communication and delve into the technologies of genetic engineering.
ANITA: In the same section, I noticed the work “Chemical Ecosystem” by Yolanda Uriz Elizalde, where ten hanging synthetic organisms give off smells and sounds, generated by their surroundings, attracting anyone who passes by, who in turn is the one who creates what they perceive. And going back to Pier Luigi’s discourse on computer animation realisations, I was mesmerised by Yoriko Mizushiri’s video Anxious Body. It is spectacular proof of how simple and ordinary forms can hold the viewer’s attention, in a play of sensual movements and mouldings. I think what attracts me is the sometimes convoluted and complex research that is evident in these works, in finding new methods of communication, using physical interaction; and this leads me inevitably to tell you about the visit to the OK Center, where the exhibition of the two artists Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau makes visitors and works fit together like a tetris. The duo were among the forerunners in the early 1990s in the creation and research of interactive interfaces, at the crossroads between the biological and artificial worlds. the OK Center is hosting a retrospective until 26 February 2023 of their best-known works, which continue to astonish and open up new horizons, inspiring new research. But tell me the truth… in between Sommerer and Mignonneau’s installations… did you take pictures with the ‘analogue’ Pixel works? I have some that were too funny, the multidimensional experience made us all a bit of a child.
ELENA: Yes, we had fun interacting with the works of this visionary duo and entering the analogue reconstructed pixel world in the exhibition Pixels by CpriptoWiener (until 26.02.2023). Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignneau’s exhibition, ‘The Artworks as a Living System’, is truly incredible, celebrating thirty years of their work and research together. For those who have studied them, it allows you to get to the heart of the interaction; for everyone, it builds a narrative that makes the path that led the world to evolve to its current state, to become a hybridisation and mutual contamination between the physical and digital worlds, much clearer. I would say that the Ars Electronica days were an excellent opportunity to see the exhibition, happy that it will go on further because it is worth going to Linz, besides the city itself being a small jewel near Vienna, full of museums and initiatives. On the occasion of the exhibition, a beautiful catalogue was produced collecting the duo’s most important works, which you can now order online.
PIER LUIGI: The retrospective dedicated to Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau, to thirty years of their research on non-organic living forms, is worth the trip to Linz alone. And it is precisely from here, from artificial, inorganic life, that I want to start to outline the last theme that I consider important in Ars Electronica, the organic-inorganic relationship. We have seen it expressed in many works, the most significant of which, in my opinion, is the multi-handed installation-performance – with the participation of Jens Hauser, among others – ECOLALIA, a sort of poem of extinction that links the disappearance of biological species to the disappearance of languages.
However, the duality inorganic-organic, immateriality-materiality, was most evident in the Francisco Carolinum Museum, a splendid building constructed in the late 19th century. Two exhibitions were held there in two separate spaces: one, historical and contemporary, dedicated to digital arts and NFT (some from the museum’s own collection), with a solo exhibition (‘How to make Art in the Age of Algorithms’) by Swedish artist Jonas Lund.
The other exhibition presented the work of Ukrainian performer Maria Kulikowska, centred on the body, particularly the female body, on violence, flesh, organs, blood… Thus, the museum presented side by side, albeit in separate spaces, the inorganic, essentially immaterial dimension of the digital and the organic, material dimension of the body. These two different dimensions are destined to coexist ever more closely in the future, as we have seen in the two years of the pandemic. European cultural and social policies are also moving in this direction.
ELENA: I agree it is a magical museum and location. The exhibitions are extremely well cared for. At the end of the visit, and thinking back on this beautiful experience, I was struck by the transversality of a museum and a collection that looks at the changes in the world from different angles.
ANITA: There are so many emotions and sensations that I would like to write to you about, to remember with you our moments of pause between the excellent fries (expertly salted with a master’s play on the fryer), the chats, the long walks, the encounters on the bridges while we were taking photos, the laughter, the points of view that each of us had on the works on display. I would like to be able to describe to you the emotion I felt during Laurie Anderson’s concert with the orchestra Filharmonie Brno (CZ), where her voice enchanted playing among the harmonies created by the musicians, while we, the motionless and hypnotised audience, floated in the scenery created by the threads of light from the sun coming out after a downpour, thus creating a visual and sound atmosphere, we were observers/listeners in the right place at the right time.
I thank you for this experience and confrontation, anyone who wants to look into the future cannot do so without having first experienced the present time at Ars Electronica, which succeeds in providing answers but also creates new questions ready to be resolved at the next event.
Anita Calà, Pier Luigi Capucci, Elena Giulia Rossi
(the conversation happened through e-mail between the 26th and the 30th of September)
Still on in Linz:
Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau: The Artwork as a Living System, OK Center, Linz, Austria 02.09.2022 – 02.26.2023
PIXELS by CryptoWiener, Ok Center, Linz, Austria, 26.08.2022 – 26.02.2023
Maria Kulikovska in collaboration with Oleg Vinnichenko,My Body is a Battlefield, Francisco Carolinum Museum, Linz, 08.09 – 20.11.2022
Meta.Space. Visions of Space, 01.09.2022 – 08.01.2023, Francisco Carolinum Museum, Linz
images: (cover 1) Ars Electronica, poster (2) Rashaad Newsome,«Being», still from computer animation (3) TNF Tower SOMNIUM, ph. Ars Electronica (4) Denisa Pubalova, Lea Luka Sikau, Michael Artner, Julia Wurm, «Ars for NONS», installation, ph. Pier Luigi Capucci (5) Marc Hericher, «Absence», computer animation, ph. Pier Luigi Capucci (6) Alex Verhaest, «Ad Hominem», interactive installation, ph. Pier Luigi Capucci (7) Antoni Muntadas, «Tasmanian Tiger: Case Study of the Museum of the Extinction», 1993 – 2022, Ars Electronica, Linz (September, 2022), installation view (8) Yolanda Uriz Elizalde, «Chemical Ecosystem», sensorial installation (ph. Ars Electronica (9) Christa Sommerer, Laurent Mignonneau, «People on the fly», interactive installation, ph. Anita Calà (9) Christa Sommerer, Laurent Mignonneau, «Eau de Jardin», interactive installation, ph. Pier Luigi Capucci (10) Klaus Spiess, Ulla Rauter, Emanuel Gollob, Rotraud Kern, «ECOLALIA», bio-installation, ph. Pier Luigi Capucci (11) Art NFT Linz, ph. Pier Luigi Capucci (12) Maria Kulikowska, «My Body is a Battlefield», installation, ph. Pier Luigi Capucci (13) Maria Kulikowska, «Lustration/Ablution», performance, ph. Pier Luigi Capucci (14) Jonas Lund, «Studio Visit. How to Make Art in the Age of Algorithms», installation, ph. Pier Luigi Capucci