Wednesday, September 8

NYT: Ars Electronica Review

Ars Electronica Asks What Will Be Next

Published: September 8, 2004, NY TIMES

INZ, Austria, Sept. 6 - Twenty-five years ago an electronic music festival and conference called Ars Electronica was added to a local celebration of Anton Bruckner, the native son composer. Since then the festival's focus has broadened considerably, and it is a leading forum for media art, which uses technology, often in an interactive fashion.

Since 1987 it has awarded a Prix Ars Electronica for interactive art, computer animation, digital music and Web art. This year it added "digital community." All categories share a total of $121,000 in prizes.

For this year's festival, which ran from Thursday to Tuesday, Ars Electronica chose to explore the next 25 years of media art while including a smattering of its greatest hits.

What started as an awkward genre appears to have become more self-assured. For instance, this year's top prizewinner for interactive art was "Listening Post" by Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin, both Americans. In it 231 small displays are mounted in a grid. A computer scans Internet chat rooms, message boards and forums, and displays the results, while a speech synthesizer reads some of them.

The cycle starts its scanning for the phrase "I am," which is soon elaborated upon: "I am Turkish." "I am a Beatles fan." "I am sure you are right." All of these are read once, as the unseen writers assert identities, perhaps false, while gentle electronic music plays. When most of the grid is filled, it goes dark, and the real-time scanning of user-ID's is shown, whirring past so quickly that it sounds like wind.

Then come text fragments that remain for only a moment to be replaced by the next scan, short sentences that are also read out. Since each displayed text has been posted only seconds earlier, the viewer never sees the same "art" twice.

Many of these pieces involve the viewer. A popular one this year was "Messa di Voce," also by two Americans, Golan Levin and Zachary Lieberman. One steps up to a projection, casting a shadow on one of three selected backgrounds, and makes sound into a microphone. The shadow becomes surrounded by a line, which can then be manipulated by waving the arms or making a different kind of sound.

The participants in Ken Rinaldo's "Augmented Fish Reality" are Siamese fighting fish, which are intensely territorial and have excellent vision. Mr. Rinaldo has put three in separate fishbowls fitted with sensors the fish can trigger to rotate a plant mounted in the bowl's center or move the stand on which the bowl is mounted across the floor. Are the fish learning to do this? Do they choose to move close to one another to perform threatening stances? Whatever, there's no question that they have been moving around the space.

The basement of Linz's new Lentos museum has some exhibits of past prizewinners, which sometimes reveal the perils of media art: especially with works created on older machines. It's something of an inside joke among media art fans that every exhibition has to be visited multiple times, not just to re-experience works but to see everything run at least once.

The Ars Electronica Center was erected in 1996 to exhibit, document and archive media art. It has become so popular that it can be jammed on weekends. Most of the works exhibited at the center are lighthearted, like "Cheese" by Christian Möller. It consists of filmed head shots of six young American actresses who were asked to smile for up to an hour. Software that purports to measure emotions determines whether the smile is genuine; when it judges it's not, a red light goes on.

"La Pâte à Son," a screen with a grid on which whimsical pipes and vents can be placed, moves little candylike bits of electronic melody through a "factory," manufacturing tunes. And in "Moony" by Takehisa Mashimo, Satoshi Shibata and Akio Kamisato, water evaporating from a surface forms a mist into which three-dimensional butterflies are projected. Users can manipulate the butterflies' position by moving their hands, but if they try to touch one, it flies away.

A regular event at Ars Electronica is an invitation to a media arts program at an educational institution to occupy the Linz Art College for a week. This year's visitors were from the International Academy of Media Arts and Sciences in Ogaki, Japan.

The visiting students provided some of the high points of this year's festival. For instance, "Karakuri Block" by Natsu Kawakita and Nobuya Suzuki has two plastic blocks with Game Boy-like screens. When plugged into a grid, a block shows an animated Japanese family crest. When a second block is plugged in, elements from one block flow into the other.

Even the cafe here was interactive: Hisako Yamakawa had a tea dispenser in which one deposits a euro. A screen lights up and asks you to sign a promise to enjoy the tea and drink it all, and the signature then determines the exact blend.

Music and dance also are part of Ars Electronica. Over the weekend there was a well-received performance of a dance piece, "Apparition," designed and composed by Klaus Obermaier, in which two dancers begin by playing with lines projected behind them and quickly move to more complex interactions. Desiree Kongerod and Robert Tannion's precise, vigorous performance brought a storm of applause afterward.

The grand prize winner for digital music was Thomas Köner for "Banlieue du Vide," a mix of 3,000 surveillance photos taken on deserted streets during a nighttime snowstorm. It was mixed with documentary sounds of the daytime streets and some electronic sounds. Some appeared to be a bit confused about why this was considered music rather than a video installation, but most viewers seemed to feel it deserved a prize.