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Ars Electronica: Facing the Future. A Survey of Two Decade

Editor: Timothy Druckrey
Publisher: Cambridge, MA & London, UK: MIT Press, 1999
Review Published: July 2001

 REVIEW 1: Jamie Brassett

'e téchne mimeîtai tèn phúsin
Art imitates nature, Aristotle

Opening in Linz, Austria in 1979, Ars Electronica combined an international festival, a series of symposia, and (later) a competition devoted to the exploration and development of the relationship between art and technology, as well as between artists, scientists, theoreticians, and other interested parties. As the co-founder Hannes Leopoldseder notes in his foreword -- himself quoting from the blurb from the 1980 festival -- "Ars Electronica is intended to set signals for the future. Not only as an attempt to link tradition and avant-garde, but also as a cultural experiment seeking to influence the cultural awareness of the public in new ways" (3). This book then is a collection of "original texts . . . taken from the respective catalogues of Ars Electronica and the Prix Ars Electronica from 1979 to 1998" (2). In his introduction "Ready or Not?" editor Timothy Druckrey adds: "While nothing could replace a comprehensive reading of the full archive of materials available, we hope to provide a resource that cracks open the door to a history largely unknown, to point to ideas, works and histories whose reverberations touch so much of the field" (19).

It's quite strange reading a survey of past conferences, which themselves sought to survey their contemporary's attempts to survey future possibilities for electronic art. It's an exercise not unlike reading last year's horoscopes. Still, I have not seen a better collection of incisive articles -- written by the key players/evil schemers -- on the mutant hybridizations of art and technology. If a review, in the end, does one thing, it should recommend -- or not -- the book to its audience. Well, I'll do this at the beginning: if you are at all interested in the relationships between art and technology, you simply must have this book.

Divided into three parts -- History, Theory, Practice -- this book bursts with essays by the usual suspects in the art-tech. world. There are articles from Roy Ascott and Paul Virilio, Vilèm Flusser and Derrick de Kerckhove; from Sadie Plant, Sandy Stone, Manuel De Landa, Marvin Minsky, and Bruce Sterling; and also from KR+cF Knowbotic Research, Stelarc, and Steve Mann. And we shouldn't forget those by less well known, but equally important thinkers/practitioners: Otto Rössler, Andreas Broeckmann, and Friedrich Kittler (to name only a few of the authors of the 73 essays included). Therefore, to try to give an homogenizing account of the entire book would be ridiculous, and would go against the multiplicitious, multidisciplinary, and multinational nature of this text. Given that it, also, is printed in very small text, with very small margins, this book wears its overripe heart on its protective sleeve.

My approach will therefore be to pick out for comment a few essays from each of the parts, with the caveat that these by no means should be taken as indicative of the book as a whole and yet might just give a flavor of what this fruitful collection has to offer.

We begin with an essay from the "Theory" section: Vilèm Flusser's "Memories," originally presented at the 1988 Ars Electronica conference. In true philosophical fashion, Flusser takes into account the possibilities for humanity that computer technology will provide -- what in more recent times have been described as the creation of the post-human condition. In the easy-going (almost jokey), yet highly scholarly style that Flusser has made his own, this article examines the affects upon how we see ourselves that the digitization of information, and its extra-bodily storage, may have. He writes: "Acquired information (data) will no longer be stored in brains but in electronic memories. As a consequence, brains will be free to adopt other functions. People will no longer have to memorize facts but learn how to store, recall and vary data expediently. They will no longer need to learn systems' repertoires but instead their structure. Data processing of this kind -- which had been checked by the need to learn facts -- is called "creativity"; hence, we can now reckon with a true burst of human creativity" (205).

Once free of the need to learn facts, sequences or processes (which itself can be an arbitrary undertaking, depending upon the vagaries of our biochemical system) other possibilities may be open for us. And if this sounds like the utopian future vision, so beloved by the 1960s -- robots and increased automation leading to increased leisure-time, which has so patently not happened -- Flusser has earlier announced an important philosophical consideration of this technologization of memories: "Almost all occidental "eternal" ontological questions (for instance those about the relationship between "body" and "mind") and all "eternal" epistemological questions (for instance those about the equation of "thinking" substance to "extended" substance) are to be ascribed to this idealogical reification of cultural memory [into the notion of the "soul" or the "spirit" or the "ego" or the "self"]. They constitute "eternal" questions because they have been put wrong. The invention of electronic memories will help to end such nonsense" (204).

If ever the relationship of memory to the self is finally to be given the lie, it will be through the prevalence of (and our increasing reliance upon) peripheral, electronic, digital memories. Among a nebula of technological objects and material, wherein we have deposited various memories (images, sounds, facts, stories, desires) what is the point of reifying a single, simple self, soul or mind within the biological organism? What "nonsense" it is to have ever imagined such a thing -- thinking or otherwise. Flusser continues: "We have to see ourselves as nodes in a net through whose lines (whether material or energetic) information flows. Within these nodes, information is accumulated, processed, and transmitted, but the nodes themselves are not anything; if we undo them (untie the relational lines forming them), there is nothing left (just as with the proverbial onion). In other words: we have to develop an anthropology that regards humans as nodal point [sic] (warp) of several intersecting fields" (205).

With echoes of Hume and Nietzsche, and relationships with Deleuze and Guattari (among others), such a passage dramatizes exactly that which it seeks to describe. The Flusser node (in terms of the History of Philosophy) may have been somewhat marginalized by the Western Tradition -- especially as a Brazilian-based, Czech-Jewish immigrant -- and if a reading of "his" essay shows us anything, it is his importance as a warping of various strands of contemporary thought out of their well-worn paths as dictated by the flows of informational capital.

    To carry this to the extreme: if we see ourselves as the function of others, and all others as functions of ourselves, then "responsibility" will have to take on the importance which "individual liberty" has had till now. And then it will no longer be discourse but dialogue that structures culture in the future, no longer "progress" but mutual encounter (206).

In the same way that Guattari argued in Les Trois Écologies (1989) and "Regimes, Pathways, Subjects" (1991), Flusser here shows that the machinic accretion of memories (we may add Guattari's "vectors of subjectification") may not only be personally liberating, but socio-politically liberating too. The interflux of art, science, thought, and play could produce some very interesting results.

Flusser's words are as true today as they were in 1988. Even though many of the modes for accreting human memory in technological form -- note, the Internet -- have been cathected by the forces of international capitalism, the notion that our identities (especially as humans) are dispersing through our objects is still valid. Indeed, our vigilance in wrestling control over the possibilities for our post-humanity away from the forces of world capitalism is even more urgent. Flusser notes: ". . . if 'I' is seen as that to which others say 'you' (if self-knowledge is seen as a consequence of acknowledging others), the the distinction between knowing (cognition) and acknowledging (recognition) will also be rendered invalid: art and science will have then to be seen as 'political disciplines'" (206).

In "Fragments from 'Borderscape 2000'" (themselves taken from "The Chicano State Department Chronicles"), Guillermo Gòmez-Peña a.k.a. "El Mexterminator" and Roberto Sifuentes intervened in Ars Electronica 1997. Nine years after Flusser's piece, Gòmez-Peña and Sifuentes present a non-linear collection of paragraphs which sometimes read as bizarre e-mail fragments, at other times mad techno-art-political manifestos. If Flusser's interrelations of art and science in terms of political praxes have a materialization, it is here. Their section headings run:

    1 Dear Vampira 99, la unica, la primigenia (416)
    3 It's 1999 in AmeriKKKa (417)
    4 Tepoztecardiente (417)
    5 Today, (418)
    11 La desmodernidad lo abarca todo: (418)
    17 CENSORED (418)
    18 In the past 10 minutes (419)

We can see just in these headings -- without having to transcribe every word of their piece -- that Gòmez-Peña and Sifuentes mix languages, capitals and lowercase letters, nonsense and initials, gestures towards on-line dictatorship and techno-fetishism. But it will still be worth grabbing a few examples from the text:

    I'm sending you these last e-mails without any clear purpose estetico-politico, and I don't expect you to answer all of them. (You probably have to take care of other ethno-cyborgs in crisis.) You'll see that they, too (my e-mails not the ethnocyborgs, matizo) suffer from a serious crisis of literary identity. I ask myself #3 and I ask you (or whoever YOU may be at this point in time). . .

    4 Tepoztecardiente
    To give you some political background, in case you don't have access to the other Neta memory files: We, aca en el norte, have entered a postdemocratic era: We now live in a world without theory; sin estructeras ni contenido. The nation/state is purely a metaficcion nostaligica; the borders and climate fluctuate as I write. It's the end of the world -- and the word -- as we know it. Cambio . . .

    6 Today,
    I'm tired of ex/changing identities in the net. In the past eight hours, I've been a man, a woman, a s/he. I've been black, Asian, Mixteco, German, and a multi-hybrid replicant. I've been 10 years old, 20, 42 & 65. I've spoken 7 broken languages. I need a break real bad. I just want to be myself for a few minutes (416, 417, & 418).

Well, Flusser did mention that the possiblities of which he was writing could be dangerous. Still, however much the "ethnocyborg" sending these messages wants, we know that the desire for self-contentment, for self-containment, for self, is one that will flounder. Thankfully.

    . . . my nephew . . . read somewhere that "Cyberspace is dead." As one MIT cybermilitia leader declared in 1997, "No longer a privileged, white-free zone, nor the virtual shopping mall it was supposed to become -- it looks too much like the outside world now." Which means it is now entirely controlled by the CSDI. Meaning, it's brown, culti-multi, proletarian & rowdy, & its ligua-franca, agarrate mujer, es colloquial Spanglish, masticado asi bien cybersabrossso http://caliente/100% hornyficado/ (417)

Identities mix, mutate, hook-up, disconnect, and play, re-emerging only to muddy the cyberpool a little. New contracts of citizenship are necessary in these environments: fluid contracts for liquid citizens. No "progress," no "individual liberty" (Flusser), just new relationships of responsibility which will demand, what Flusser called, a new dialogue of "human dignity" (202). Traditionally oppressive linear hierarchies should not be allowed to dominate the new interrelationships between memories-people-things-words (add your own nodes of interest here . . .).


    17 CENSORED
    but all we have left is sex; either cyber-sex, without a body; o sea anonimo, sin facciones, sin identidad ("sin" en ingles equals pecado remember?); sexo robotico without emotional or biological repercussions; o bien, el sexo deportivo, aerobico, intrascendente, doloroso, extremo, impersonal, y sin proposito alguno, en la calle bajo le niebla o en la misma morgue. And the more anonymous, detached, and weird, the better CENSORED so death as a high spiritual goal is temporarily unattainable (418)

No more identities (anonymity), just nodal points within various flows of matter (bodies and bits of bodies) and energy (desire), DNA and information; at each interconnection and nodal accretion, a mini death.

So, all we have left is sex. Aristotle told us -- as mentioned right at the head of this review -- that Art (techne) imitates nature (phusin). In some way, our ability to impact upon the world using all our cunning -- art and technology -- follows, and expands upon, the natural urges found in all things (will, desire). Technology (techne+logos), art and science, as Flusser showed so well, are (and have always been) involved in a relationship which is if not auto-erotic then at least intimate. Multidisciplinarity, non-linearity, and ensuring the openness of the (post) human system (so as to ward off entropy) can only come from the assertion that self-identity means nothing and that relationships between things must be fostered. Theory, then, imitates sex.

The details of which we may look to Richard Dawkins's "Mind Viruses" (158-160) from Ars Electronica 1996, and reprinted here in the "History" section of the book. Dawkins asserts that minds provide ideal environments for a kind of virus to replicate -- in the same way as cellular physiology and computer networks provide for their respective viral parasites. Though he doesn't discuss what he means by "mind," his assumption is that it is an environment characterised by the ability to deal with languages (not just those of words, but of images and styles too). In conclusion, Dawkins writes:

    What matters is the minds are friendly environments to parasitic, self-replicating ideas or information, and that minds are typically massively infected . . . Accepting that a virus might be difficult to detect in your own mind, what tell-tale signs might you look out for? I shall answer by imagining how a medical textbook might describe the typical symptoms of a sufferer (arbitrarily assumed to be male).

    1. The patient typically finds himself impelled by some deep, inner conviction that something is true, or right, or virtuous: a conviction that doesn't seem to owe anything to evidence or reason, but which, nevertheless, he feels as totally compelling and convincing, We doctors refer to such a belief as "faith."

    2. Patients typically make a positive virtue of faith's being strong and unshakable, in spite of not being based upon evidence. Indeed, they may feel that the less evidence there is, the more virtuous the belief.

    3. A related symptom, which a faith-sufferer may also present, is the conviction that "mystery," per se, is a good thing. It is not a virtue to solve mysteries. Rather we should enjoy them, even revel in their insolubility . . .

    4. A sufferer may find himself behaving intolerantly towards vectors of rival faiths, in extreme case even killing them, or advocating their deaths . . . He may also feel hostile towards other modes of thought that are potentially inimical to his faith, such as the method of scientific reason which may function rather like a piece of anti-viral software.

    5. The patient may notice that the particular convictions that he holds, while having nothing to so with evidence, do seem to owe a great deal to epidemiology.

    6. If the patient is one of those rare exceptions who follows a different religion from his parents, the explanation may still be epidemiological. … Here we are talking about horizontal transmission, as in measles. Before, the epidemiology was that of vertical transmission, as in Huntigdon's Chorea (159-160).

Dawkins's scientific manifesto here explicitly targets faith, especially religious faith, to discuss viral terms. Yet, we may also add any conviction borne from philosophical contemplation or, even, from scientific observation. The affect upon the host organism may be different in these cases, but the vectors of infection may still be the same. Maybe the best way to prevent certain mental viral infections would be to change, radically, the environment of the mind. This may -- as Flusser has shown -- involve an intimate connection to our technological creations, or any other artistic or designed artifact -- the becoming ethnocyborg detailed by Gòmez-Peña and Sifuentes. Belief in the "self," the "ego," or even of the individual "mind" may, one day, finally, be purged from our multiconnected, intersexed systems.

And all this from looking at only 12 of Ars Electronica: Facing the Future's 449 pages. It would be interesting to know what you make of them.

Félix Guattari, Les Trois Écologies (Paris, Editions Gallimard: 1989).

___. "Regimes, Pathways, Subjects," in Incorporations, edited by Jonathan Crary & Sandford Kwinter (New York, Zone Books: 1991).

Jamie Brassett:
Jamie Brassett received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from Warwick in 1993 and for the past seven years has lectured in contextual & cultural studies at Central St. Martins College of Art & Design, London UK. Currently, Jamie is Senior Lecturer in Contextual Studies for BA (Hons.) Product Design and is working on a book charting the subjective consequences of intimacy with our objects. Jamie is also a student of Capoeira and a DJ (Drum & Bass, UK Garage).  <jamie@brassett.demon.co.uk>

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