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by Dominique Moulon [ November 2007 ]
The Ars Electronica Festival reveals the principal trends of each year and in 2007, finally found its place within “Second Life”. But this twenty-eight edition, through its symposium entitled “Goodbye Privacy”, was also the occasion for a more general reflection on the notion of privacy within the digital age. As for the appearance of a prize celebrating “hybrid” works of art, it spotlit the emergence of an aesthetic field that questions the living.

spacerThe Pfarrplatz in Linz at the beginning of September is covered in sand and so consequently looks like a beach. The Festival-goers, relaxing comfortably in their deckchairs, can thus connect to “the other place”, which is an exact copy of where they are, but in Second Life, by using computers that are part of the installation. So what else is there to do, but converse via a keyboard with someone who is undoubtedly sitting only a few metres away? Unless it were to go to Cosmos Island to attend, online, one of the performances reconstituted by the artists of the Italo-American collective 0100101110101101.org.


The Pfarrplatz,
in Second Life.
spacerThe “Synthetic Performance” of Eva and Franco Mattes reconstitutes that of Joseph Beuys, in 1982 at Documenta 7, when he set up 7000 basalt columns in Kassel. The act was as symbolic as it was monumental as the German artist proposed that the buyers commit to planting an oak tree at the foot of the column they had just acquired. The last tree was planted five years later during Documenta 8, when the last column finally disappeared from Kassel. Twenty-five years later, the question of knowing how long it will take for this second pile of columns to disappear is all the more pertinent in this era of climatic upheaval.

Synthetic Performance

Eva & Franco Mattes,
“Synthetic Performance”,

spacerAnother question pops into one’s head in going in the other direction from the Pfarrplatz in the Linz quarter, renamed “Second City” for the occasion, to the ’“other place” in Second Life: where am I exactly? All the more so since artists, following the initiative of the German Aram Bartholl, have participated in taking the visual codes of the virtual world to re-inject them into the real world. So it isn’t unusual to bump into people on the Marienstraße wearing the name of the avatar they’ve put together during the “Wow” workshop above their heads. Others have opted for the T-shirt on which “MISSING” and “IMAGES” can, with difficulty, be deciphered. Aram Bartholl has been inspired here by the message that, at times, replaces the texture of the clothing of the avatars in Second Life.

Missing Image

Aram Bartholl,
“Missing Image”,
spacerThen there are those who are tempted by the “promotional offer” of a German artist, Joachim Stein. He has borrowed the Marketing codes used in the world of cosmetics in order to establish a commercial proposal entitled “Become Your Avatar”. The inhabitants of virtual worlds are all young and good-looking, but what do you do when you come back to the real world carrying a few extra kilos? It was in acknowledging this intolerable difference that Joachim Stein came up with a complete solution, ranging from the use of food supplements to cosmetic surgery; its singular objective being to help us better resemble our other self, our online avatar. Even the neighbourhood hairdresser is in on the game and is offering hairstyles that are as extravagant as those of the inhabitants of Second Life. All of which is happening of course under the watchful eyes of a plethora of video-surveillance cameras set up around Linz.


Manu Luksch,
spacerA video-surveillance aesthetic

spacerThe Austrian artist Manu Luksch, who lives in London, explained to us during one of the conferences of the “Goodbye Privacy” symposium, that the video-surveillance systems of the United Kingdom are among the densest and most sophisticated on the planet, before adding that “its inhabitants are the most watched in the world”. So it was naturally in the United Kingdom and more exactly London, that the founder of Ambient TV made the film “Faceless” during a five-year period. It is a feature length film of an entirely new genre as it was, in conformity with the manifest intended for CCTV (Closed Circuit TeleVision) filmmakers, filmed entirely with video-surveillance cameras. The approach in this experience is as innovative as the result is strange. It involved first of all finding sites that were video surveyed and then playing the role of a young woman who, surrounded by people without faces, miraculously finds her own. The artist then invoked a British law called the “Data Protection Act” dedicated to protecting data in order to obtain the sequences of the scenes that had been “filmed”. But the people in charge of the video surveillance systems, when they cede to this law, are required to conceal the identity of any third party and so consequently block out their faces. Manu Luksch decided to exhibit a few extracts of her epistolary exchanges with surveillance companies during the festival. So we are able to observe, analyse and survey the practices of those who ordinarily, survey us. The trailer for “Faceless” is accessible on YouTube, a place where people looking for celebrity deliberately file fragments of their private lives. The images are jerky, the colours saturated, the space of the “sets” is deformed by the camera’s focal points, but more importantly the faces have been masked or cut out. Except for one: that of the “main actress”.

Park View Hotel

Ashok Sukumaran,
“Park View Hotel”,
spacerThe most highly awaited prize of the festival since its inception is the Golden Nica for “Interactive Art”. This year it was awarded to the Indian artist, Ashok Sukumaran, the author of the “Park View Hotel” installation in 2006. He is already known to Gerfrid Stocker and Christine Schöpf, the artistic directors of Ars Electronica, for having already received an honourable mention in 2005 for “Glow Positioning System”. These two installations / performances proceed from the same desire: that of offering passers-by the possibility of partially controlling (in 2005) a public space and in 2006, a private space. The installation “Glow Positioning System” enabled passers by to light up the facades of a square in Bombay, in one direction as in the other, by activating a handle. While in a park in San José, the installation entitled “Park View Hotel” enabled them to turn on the lights inside the rooms of a hotel. It is with this second installation, which resembles a telescope that the public of OK Centrum can “survey” the employees of an office that is situated in a building opposite them. Here again it is possible to turn on the lights of the private spaces being observed from a distance. The mediators inform us that, “the employees being observed have given their consent”. What a relief!


Julien Maire,
spacerThought made material

spacerThere is something magical in being able to light up the room one is looking at from a distance, but this is not Ashok Sukumaran’s intention as he describes to us the technologies that were used to achieve this. As for Julien Maire, his lips are sealed during his performance called “Digit”, conceived in 2006. The French artist is seated at a table and makes lines of text appear by meticulously sliding his index finger of his right hand over a sheet of paper that appears to be perfectly normal. He seems to be entirely absorbed by the calligrams he is making and at times, changes the direction of the page. In the audience, there are many people who try to understand what is happening. Is there a computer hiding somewhere? Does it involve a mechanical or chemical process? Others simply surrender to the idea that Julien Maire is the only interface between the spirit and the sheet of paper, between the artist’s thought and its materialisation in the form of visual poems that evoke Guillaume Apollinaire’s first calligrams.

White Lives on Speaker

Yoshimasa Kato
& Yuichi Ito,
“White Lives on Speaker”,
spacerThe performance of the Japanese artists Yoshimasa Kato and Yuichi Ito, “White Lives on Speaker”, is also expressed around the idea of materialised thought. The performers measure the Alpha and Beta waves from the brains of the members of the audience who want to participate in the experiment by attaching electrodes to their skulls. A mixture of white potato starch and water has been placed at the other extremity of this “conversion process” on the membrane of a speaker. This same mixture starts to move in contact with the vibrations of the membrane when it starts to emit its staccato sounds. It literally comes to life and people read into it whatever they want, whatever they can. One moment we recognise an elephant and then ears or maggots! The “animation film” that is played out before our eyes could just as well have been made in 3D and the abstraction in it has the practicality of facilitating the projection of ourselves into it. Then there is the play of looks between the person whose thoughts seem to be being materialised and those who are watching. Do they see what I see? Isn’t this person’s mind rich and diverse! Shortly before the end of the experiment, the artists suggest that the “guinea pigs” voluntarily touch these animate sculptures with their fingers and so manipulate some of their thoughts, or maybe their more deeply anchored feelings of fear or obsession of the moment.

Victimless Leather

The Tissue Culture
& Art Project,
“Victimless Leather”,
spacerBiology in art

spacerIt was not to an artist or collective that the new Golden Nica for Hybrid Art was awarded, but to an Australian research laboratory in art and science called SymbioticA, founded in 2000. This lab is especially well known for its “semi-living entities” resulting from its TC&A (Tissue Culture & Art) research programs initiated by Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr. These latter have already shown their work in France, notably during the exhibition “Biotech Art” organised by Jens Hauser at the “Lieu Unique” in Nantes. And this is how they describe their practice in the 2003 catalogue that was published for the occasion: “The process generally begins with the construction of structures of the desired form in biodégradable and bio absorbable polymer that are then seeded with living cells coming from complex organisms that are subsequently cultivated in bioreactors.” These same research scientist artists consumed “victimless meat” in 2003 during a meal performance where they ate frog steaks in front of the animal that provided the cells they artificially cultivated. The leather jacket they made the following year by blending cells from pigs, mice and human beings, was also “cultivated”, revealing how much the barrier that separates humans and animals is being progressively erased. Day after day, the use of biotechnologies is pushing back the barriers of the possible and this is undoubtedly what the artist research-scientists Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr were showing us with irony in 2002 when they “sculpted” wings from pig cell cultures. Is it not true that we say the impossible will become possible “When Pigs Fly”?

Personal Cloaca

Wim Delvoye,
“Personal Cloaca”,
spacerIf there is one work that perfectly symbolises the use of biotechnology in the field of art, it is “Cloaca”. Its author, the Belgian artist Wim Delvoye has in fact made four versions, each time with the same objective: to artificially conceive excrement that is in all respects similar to human. The first version, inaugurated in 2000 in Antwerp, was composed of six glass reservoirs connected by tubes containing bacteria and other enzymes. It represented a human digestive tract, about twelve metres in length. It was fed with food at one end in order to excrete the precious matter at the other end. The idea is not new, as the French inventor Jacques de Vaucanson had already built an automated duck that he claimed was capable of digesting food and then excreting it in the form of droppings in the 18th century. However, the idea of considering faecal matter as works of art is more recent, as we had to wait until the beginning of the 1960’s for the Italian artist Piero Manzoni to package some of his own excrement in jam jars and entitle it “Merda d’Artista“. It should be noted here that the price of a gram of these packaged stools has long since surpassed the price of gold. But coming back to Cloaca, its second version can be controlled from a distance thanks to a modem that has been brought on board. Art meets science and technology! So we are not surprised in this period of mobility to discover the portable version, or rather transportable of Cloaca, in Linz. It is called “Personal Cloaca” and appears in the form of a washing machine that has an “added” function: that of producing shit. But imagine the deception of those who might be tempted to acquire these precious evacuations when they go onto the Web site “Cloaca.be” and discover that the last hundred vacuum packed units, signed by the artist, were sold in March 2003.

spacer“Personal Cloaca” has obtained but one distinction, that of the Golden Nica in Hybrid Art which had been previously awarded to SymbioticA. But if the interest of Ars Electronica for its artistic practices inducing the use of biotechnology is not new, the creation this year of a prize dedicated to such practices is a sure sign that consecrates the advent of an emerging aesthetic field: that of the living.

Written by Dominique Moulon for "Images Magazine" and translated by Geoffrey Finch for "newmediaart.eu", this article is also available in French on "nouveauxmedias.net".