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Digital Avant-Garde: Celebrating 25 Years of Ars Electronica

a collaboration with the American Museum of the Moving Image, Eyebeam Gallery, and the Austrian Cultural Forum

Interactive Bars,” by Golan Levin, Zachary Lieberman and the Futurelab (2004).

Now that the hype of the Internet, with its faded IPOs and stock market roller coaster ride is over, and media conglomerates are gobbling each other up on the broadcast food chain, whom can we look to for inspiration and innovation? Ars Electronica, founded in Linz, Austria in 1979 fosters the most exciting digital art on the planet that intersects at the flashpoint of art, science, and technology. It not only talks the talk but more importantly walks the walk to showcase developments of researchers cum artists cum technologists, a small, international coterie who think so outside of the box that the box long ago morphed into strands of circulating light, sound, and touch.

Currently interactive means clicking a mouse or perhaps tapping the word “cash” on an ATM screen, but interactive is well on its way to becoming an all encompassing sensorama incorporating touch, speech, human motion, visual pattern recognition, and eventually odor. And, as the possibilities become endless so does the ability to surveil, track, and control. Christa Sommerer from Austria and Laurent Mignonneau of France allow a user to do nothing more provocative than touch a live plant in “Interactive Plant Growing.” The movement of a hand with its innate electrical impulses is transmitted through the plant into a numeric data growth program that causes virtual plants on a projected screen to grow and morph, depending on how often and where the live plant is touched. “Riding the Net” is such a futuristic use of the Internet that it is hard to believe it when you see it. A speech recognition program is used that understands 250,000 words. Christa said the word “woman” and thousands of images of women were retrieved from the ‘net and floated onto a huge screen. Using her hand she “grabbed” the specific image she wanted and download it. She spoke the word “lemon.” The actual word l-e-m-o-n appeared on the screen, she touched the word, and little yellow graphics of lemons burst from inside. She touched one of them and downloaded it. Next she showed a gnarly gourd filled with touch and pulse sensors that felt like you were holding someone else’s beating heart in your hands. Two people exchanged gourds and carried around each other’s hearts: an experience fraught with eroticism and intimacy.

Spoken language and its visual texture is further explored through “Re-Mark” by Golan Levin and Zachary Lieberman, both from the U.S., in collaboration with Christopher Londoner from Austria. Using fragments of speech like “Ohh” and “Ahh” spoken into a mike, the syllables became shapes: round and bubbly for “Ohh,” squiggly and elongated for “Ahh.” Using the shadow of their hand cast from a projected rear light, they scattered the bubble shapes. Or, they let the bubble shapes remain, and the bubbles burst to spell out a sound like “Ahh.” All interaction was hands-free and people painted shapes by using only the tone and pitch of their voice. Zachary and Golan also built what has got to be a lounge lizard’s best friend and will probably lead to a whole host of convoluted pick-up lines in the future. In “Interactive Bars Phosphorescent,” squiggly worms darted around and followed a finger’s every move on top of an illuminated table. The electronic worms could be caught, then let go where they would navigate to the closest beer bottle and spin colorful light streamers round its base. The implications could be as benign as a digital baby monitor or as sinister as an isolated, electronic prisoner-tracking device.

John Gerrard from Ireland builds two 3D-modeled portraits on flat screens that adjust their facial expressions when you touch their features. If you want to make them wink, slide your hand over an eyelid and it closes. To make them smile, push up the corners of their lips. This could be construed as just a fancy toy, except when the two flat panels face one another, they automatically adjust, emulating each other’s expressions. So, when going to the ATM of the future you might encounter a 3D model of a human smiling or frowning directly back at you, or an exact duplicate of yourself that you need to match in order to receive permission to enter your apartment.

But Canadian artist David Rokeby’s whimsical and satiric pieces nail the real issue: more interactivity = more surveillance. Cameras can now scan images of peoples faces as they walk down a street, take those images out of context, and store them for years for possible line-ups a decade hence, or for secret match-ups in a mega database of facial images. Rokeby also played with computers’ knowledge bases to locate the point at which they find informational consensus. He allowed them to throw nonsensical sounds around and, lo and behold, eventually they moved towards stasis to sound like one big universal Om.

Chanting machines aside, the real engine in software development is not the artistic market, but DARPA (The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), which brought us the original Internet. DARPA now funds 70% of all Internet and technology research and a lot of that is currently used for robotics, as in robotics for penetrating restricted terrain. But the issue of what is restricted terrain (a notion waiting to be tested this summer during the Republican Convention in New York) can be flipped on its head, as demonstrated by the Institute for Applied Autonomy, whose company logo is the mighty slingshot ( Their Little Brother is a robot who actually hands out subversive materials and brochures on street corners, employing an irresistible aesthetics of cuteness to penetrate those restricted areas. They have also pushed the mediated criminal experience by building remote graffiti writers, little robots and trucks operated by remote control that spray wanton or targeted political messages surreptitiously, right under the noses of those who are paid to stop it. But it is their I-see project that is truly an activist’s delight. I-see has mapped every surveillance camera in Manhattan, and with a route planning algorithm, supplies the budding activist with a downloadable route (Palm Pilots included) of the least surveillable course between point A and point B.

But is it art? Well, yes, and no, and yes. Art like painting, sculpture, and even photography works through a complicated system of mediated symbols or signs that are abstracted and then culturally referenced through education and deconstructed dialectic. Computer art vis a vis Ars Electronica vein is more concerned with creating an immediate experience, and then letting the viewer/participant interpret the artificial reality that is built to perturb their inner state.


Ellen Pearlman


The Brooklyn Rail

JUN 2004

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