“After three years on the green campus of JKU, Ars Electronica returned to POSTCITY. 88,000 visitors, 1,542 artists, scientists, developers, designers and activists from 88 countries, 338 partners and sponsors, 650 exhibits and 575 events over 5 days at 14 locations in Linz helped to make this festival to a huge success. The theme of this festival, Who Owns the Truth? raised a multitude of meaningful questions, creating a collective as well as diverse perspectives of the discussions related to the core topics of our time: truth and ownership, interpretive authority, and sovereignty.”
The Ars Electronica Festival has been at the forefront of exploring current and pressing topics in the fields of art, technology, and society since 1979. As technology continues to shape our social dynamics, art and culture play a crucial role in helping us understand and navigate these changes. The theme this year is formulated as a question, which aims directly at key disputed topics of our time: truth and ownership, interpretive authority and sovereignty. Can truth be owned? Is there a right to truth and if it does belong to someone, what control and responsibility are associated with it? More on the theme Who Owns the Truth?
I was at the festival for two reasons:
1. ) I thought that the work and student artists of the Royal College of Art’s School of Communication, where I’m a Senior Tutor and Professor of Interactive and Immersive Arts, would be a good fit for the festival’s Campus Exhibition. I know the festival organisers from previous EU funded projects, so I asked for permission and support from the Dean of our School and initiated contact with organisers to make it happen. I then put out a call in our school and selected 9 works composed of recent MA graduates, PhD students and staff to bring with me.
Our RCA showcase was among that of 56 universities from around the world, showing emerging technologies and artwork on critical issues around climate change, AI and society, and many other pressing concerns that addresses the festival theme. The Campus Exhibition is an opportunity for universities from around the world to showcase the best of their students’ and staff work and provides an opportunity for recent graduates to reach a larger audience for their work, to put Ars Electronica on their CV to open doors for future career progression. (see LINK 1)
2, ) I was also at the festival as I had been selected to speak at the Expanded Animation 2023, Synaesthetic Syntax IV: The Ghost and the Machine conference. I presented on “Haptics and the Role of the Body as Interface to the Virtual in Immersive Artistic Experiences” on the last day, September 10th. My talk focussed on my experience in creating an emotional and physical connection between virtual reality (VR) experiences, narrative, and physical stimulus using haptic interfaces as the best way to create a fully immersive experience for audiences. I reviewed haptics more broadly and as they related to VR experiences, and discoveries from the design and exhibition of my VR installation artwork INTER/her. I also discussed other artistic VR experiences that use haptics, and how haptics can make audience experiences richer, deeper, visceral, and personal.
I had not been to the festival in person since 2019 before the pandemic, and in a totally different capacity – as part of a S+T+ARTS project there to present results from the project, as well as to see as much as I could, and network. This time I was “working” it on behalf of the students that I brought, and my focus was very much on making sure their showcase and their experience was good.
It is true also that sometimes shared experiences can colour the experience one has in these types of massive exhibitions or public events, which may have happened to me with the friends and colleagues I met there this time, as some of my friends were quite critical of the festival this year. Many whom I spoke to felt that the opening ceremony was badly managed: they reserved seats for the Founding Lab staff and students, but then they all arrived late and didn’t use the seats saved, and the artistic director Gerfried Stocker began yelling at the audience to sit down so that he could get on with the event, but then it ran way over time, impacting the follow-on event.
Overall, the opening event was too political in terms of the many self-congratulatory speeches from local politicians on the new university being launched as part of the Ars Electronica organisation. These didn’t seem relevant to the international audience who were bored, many not wearing their translators during these bits. The speeches were interspersed with some engaging performances, one by a group of students from the Founding Lab of different ethnicities and speaking in different languages, performing a spoken word piece addressing the issue of bias and agency (or lack of it) in the context of the use of AI and surveillance increasingly used around the world. Other exciting performances were by Maki Namekawa (AT/JP), Anouk Wipprecht (NL), the JIZAI ARMS Team (JP) and the talk by Jimmy Wales (US), the co-founder of Wikipedia – this last speech was by far worth the wait through all the political speeches. If the event had just been these performances and talk it would have been better. One of the best, however, was a robotic theatre performance by two 12-year-olds, whose narrative was about the lives of robots after the end of humanity.
The presentations of the Founding Lab organisers from the Board of the Founding Convent developing the new university of the Institute of Digital Science Austria and Ars Electronica were long and those presenting seemed to be overexcited about the future of tech. My friends and I thought not enough focus was on how the university will (if it will) put effort into finding solutions for current and future critical issues, especially the most existential: climate change. They had more focus on policy recommendations than solving current global concerns plaguing humanity: climate change, war, refugees issues (often due to war or climate issues), climate poverty, technological threats (AI, surveillance and corporate control), vast and increasing inequalities, and issues facing the global south (mostly climate related). When the developers of the new university stated that they have one person whose job is Climate Negotiation, my friend asked incensed “how do you negotiate with the climate?!”.
And this was only the start of the festival.
I did spend most of my days at Post City, exploring. There were many amazing exhibitions from universities, research organisations, companies and artists – the Bunker was amazing for the breadth and depth of the work exploring many of the issues above. To be fair, much of the exhibits were focussed on these societal, climate, technology and other threats and concerns. Those that stuck out for me were the exhibits that investigated the nonhuman perspective and the relations between robots, slime mould, bacteria or mycelia. However, book-ended works developed through the Creative Europe project More-than-Planet (2022 – 2025) exhibition of residency projects, (Co)Owning More-than-Truth, focussed on the shift in worldviews, relationships, language, consciousness, and narratives across the planet that were noteworthy:
- being the work Cartographies of the Unseen by artists Felipe Castelblanco (CO), Lydia Zimmermann (CH) exploring the ecosystem in the Andes in Columbia in contested territory near the Ecuadorian border in collaboration with the Ñambi Rimai, an Indigenous Media Collective, guided by the microclimates and upward movements of water from the forest to the mountain, more social science / ethnographic work than art but very thought-provoking; (see LINK 2) and
the final work in the Bunker which was also the S+T+Arts Grand Prize Winner for Innovative Collaboration, Broken Spectre by Richard Mosse (IE) (LINK 3)
Broken Spectre is a heart wrenching piece of extremely original filmmaking documenting or perhaps witnessing the destruction of the Amazon Forest: illegal logging, mass burning, wildcat gold mining, the theft of Indigenous lands, species extinction, flooding and damming of rivers, and the forest’s colonisation, through the eyes of the scientists, loggers and ranchers and the displaced Indigenous people of the Yanomami and Munduruku communities, through innovative camera techniques. What struck me, literally to tears, is that through the different innovative camera and filmmaking techniques we see the ravaged destroyed lands and through the voices of the indigenous people we hear the cries of help. But it wasn’t that alone but the fact that they were appealing to the filmmaker to help them that brought tears to my eyes, but my fear that thousands of artists and art lovers will see it, but will the politicians who can actually do something about it, in particular, see it? And especially in those South American countries with corrupt governments, with big payouts from massive corporations like McDonalds and others who benefit from the destruction of the forest, will they care?
Another excellent, provocative work was that of artist Charlotte Jarvis in collaboration with Prof. Susana Chuva de Sousal Lopes in Leiden and Biotehna / Kersnikova Institute in Ljubljana for her work In Posse (see LINK 4) to make the world’s first “female” semen. The work in a space in the bunker was also accompanied by re-enactments of the ancient Greek women-only festival of Thesmophoria. This work had a strong feminist tone and is meant as a form of technological, biological and creative activism.
Also notable was the Ars Electronica Garden Montreal imprints: Hexagram Network Research-Creation showcase with exciting interactive projects from academics and students at Concordia University in Canada. Those that caught my interest were Marie-Eve Morissette’s ON/CONTACT, an interactive installation in the form of a haptic column that the interactor squeezes against their body (LINK 5) and Nora Gibson’s the dream installation using EEG on the artist or a participant whose theta (brain) waves are captured through a sensor to animate a particle system in real time intended to install calm through its bio-reactive feedback system (see LINK 6)
Noteworthy as well was the 3D artwork called Slow Track by Timothy Thomasson, which involves hypnotic backward tracking shot, slowly moving out to reveal windows within windows, “a ‘perceptually photorealistic’, slow, gentle, and possibly mundane image which is wary of the software that produces it. Rather than a computer-generated image that seduces us with spectacle, this is one which asks for patience” (quote by the artist). For a description see LINK 7.
The Campus Exhibition, where my students also were showing work had many intriguing investigations, although I was left thinking that they each needed a brief one-liner explaining to the audience what the work was supposed to do or how they should interact with it, not only the high-level conceptual abstracts that most had. In fact, many of the established artists’ exhibits could have had this as well. Even though it is presented as art it doesn’t need to be obtuse for the audiences as an interactor.
The Ars Electronica Gardens Exhibition 2023 were a bit overwhelming, and the space wasn’t conducive for appreciation the work there – there were a couple of works that made me stop, but by the time I reached this room I was starting to be completely overwhelmed by the hundreds of works (literally) that I had already perused. There were many other exhibits by companies and other research organisations and the Create Your World – Truth or Dare, exhibition that I mostly missed as well, but looked engaging.
I was not as impressed by the Prix Ars Electronica Exhibition works, as they seemed overly pretentious and again under-explained in a way to reach the audience. The Golden Nica winner work Delivery Dancer’s Sphere by Ayoung Kim (KR) in the New Animation Art category (see LINK 8) was charming by underwhelming as commentary on the gig economy and platform labour during COVID through the eyes of a female motorcycle food delivery driver in Seoul. It in some ways reminded me of the video game Death Stranding in a present-day context, demonstrating the loneliness and futility of the job. It was well-produced but left me a bit cold, since they were complex and not well explained on site. More information can be found here (LINK 9) Everyone has different things that move them but some of the works just didn’t draw me in and were not well explained.
I visited the Ars Electronica Centre and while I have seen the Deep Space 8k screen which is very impressive, I was more interested in the There Is No Planet B exhibition, the Global Shift exhibition, and the AI and Music exhibitions – all of which were informative but more science museum in nature, rather than focussing on artists and their interpretation of the issues. The exhibits are also intended to educate, so they had that approach and were less exciting overall, but necessary to reach the greater public outside the Art & Technology niche of the main festival.
I ended up not making it to any of the other locations such as the University of Arts Linz, St. Mary’s Cathedral, Atelierhaus Salzamt, Lentos Kunstmuseum, Stadtwerkstatt, OK Linz, Francisco Carolinum Linz, Anton Bruckner Private University, DH5, the missimo truck or the OÖKunstverein.
There were many performances I missed due to having to open my students’ exhibits each morning, or due to visiting with friends and acquaintances, so of the few that I saw I was not very moved by…
However, one that really stood out as impressive was that of Oszilot (LINK 10) featuring two musicians playing everyday objects like bowls, pots, a mannequin’s arm, etc, were played like an orchestra in an improvisational style with unexpected outcomes. It reminded me of a Dadaist or Bauhaus style work but using modern sound tools. As they state on their website, it is “a mixture of sound installation and musical performance, consisting of oscillating everyday objects. The movements of these objects are translated into sound, generating shifting musical patterns. It is an ongoing experiment, in which basic pendulum physics meet digital sound synthesis.” (LINK 11)
Sadly, my hotel was not close nor convenient for staying out late and my students needed me every morning or I would have had a few late nights to see the concerts and other events.
However, my participation in the Expanded Animation Symposium: Synaesthetic Syntax Day at the end of my time at the festival was fulfilling. There were a number of great talks and work presented (of those I caught), each with different perspectives on haptic bodies, agency, liveness, and process in the context of performance, which was full of really exciting works and artists, including my own work and perspective, which was an honour.
Overall, there was too much to see, as always.
It was great to be at the fantastic Post City again, as I had heard that the festival in the other locations and venues in the previous few years weren’t as exciting. Again, the rumour is that it will not be possible to host it at Post City again and that the facility will finally be demolished or something and there will be new locations for next year – shame, it’s an amazing space perfect for a festival of this size and calibre. It was great for me however as I reconnected with friends whom I hadn’t seen in the flesh in a year, did a talk in a prestigious conference and my students seem to have had a great time, too…