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Ars Electronica: Facing the Future: A Survey of Two Decades

Editor: Timothy Druckery
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999
Review Published: September 2007

 REVIEW 1: Carolyn Kane

Timothy Druckery's Ars Electronica: Facing the Future: A Survey of Two Decades remains a landmark in the history and theory of the electronic media arts. The compilation is a cross-section of excerpts from the beginning of the Ars festival in 1979 to the then-present, comprising a survey of the field's attitude and approach to "the future" of new media art. The book is divided into three sections: History, Theory, and Practice. "History" comes first, excerpting past catalogs that give the reader an overview of the dominant concerns at each Ars festival in the last two decades. The "Theory" section contains several key pieces from the canon of media studies, including theorists such as Friedrich Kittler, Peter Weibel, Gene Youngblood, Paul Virilio, and Sadie Plant, to name a few. The third section on "Practice" presents artists' statements, documentations, and reflections on their recent work.

Artists and theoreticians are concerned with the social and political contexts in which they are producing work. Since Ars began in 1979, it has been concerned with creating an experimental forum for "society, technology, and the arts." Many of the early festivals explore art through the use of synthesizers, chess computers, and electronic music. By 1982, the catalogs indicate that Ars was predominantly focused with "the future" -- that being the year 2000 -- and the "cyber age" that loomed ahead ("life," Hans Leopoldseder begins in his foreword, "is always a preoccupation with the future," p. 11). There is something striking about this obsession with the future in the Ars catalogs in the years leading up to the new millennium, a fascination that is made clearer to a contemporary reader by virtue of our (apparent) lack of concern for the, or any, "future."

Facing the Future, to repeat, is obsessed with the future. Yet its preoccupation is ironically directed towards an account of its blindness: the "new era cannot yet be seen" (11). Following Foucault, it is precisely the lack of visibility that charges such an uncertainty with significance and power. This tension permeates many of the excerpts, especially in the first and second sections.

Many of the writers tend to side with one of two extremes. On the one hand, authors project utopian possibilities, yet not without rigorous critical insight. If we have become veiled by the limitations that come alongside the freedoms of new media, Ars asks, how can experimental artists reveal these blind spots? (13). Peter Weibel in "Virtual Worlds: The Emperor's New Bodies" (1990) observes that VR, albeit synthetically, feeds the "spirit and our human desire for tele-organs, to be [following Freud] gods of prosthesis" (87). Dreams of omnipotence and total control inhabit the wish images of the late-20th-century.

On the other hand, theorists recount the ideological and military history of electronic media. Authors such as Virilio, Kittler, and Manuel De Landa foreground the military and industrial history of electronic media. Kittler's "On the History of the Theory of Information Warfare" (1998) shows that the "military industrial complex" is the origin and history of the internet and all technical media. Technology can no longer be separated from science; the lines of access to communication have become the chief weapon in contemporary warfare. Destruction and loss are only accredited to a loss in information transmission.

In 1999, Gerfried Stocker and Christine Schopf discussed the development of the electronic arts as it arose from experiment and testing to formalized aesthetic principles such as omnidirectionality, networking, and processing. These traits are asserted in distinction to older qualities of transmission and dissemination, and the "original" work of art, to be viewed by the "autonomous subject." Herbert W. Franke in "Art from the Screen" (1986) adds to this sensibility when he notes that, "the single image is not an adequate form in which to present computer art; it is much better depicted as series" (35). Electronic aesthetics can no longer be based on "metaphor" or "analogy" as older art forms have been. Electronic technology has restructured aesthetic perception itself by reorganizing the faculties of time and space.

Many of the authors question if we will retain a "humannum" -- that is, the anthropomorphic capacity to have a "conscience, ethics, [and] interpret and create" (5) in the future. Vilém Flusser, in "Memories," posits that our very humanness is on par with the storage of data that computers now manifest. The theme returns throughout the text, at times a candid farewell, and at other times as that mythical last gasp to assert the primacy of the human in the face of machine domination. In 1979, Franke remarks that the myth of natural evolution in technology is erroneous. We organize and create our own Lebenstraum (habitat).

Authors also demand politically aware electronic art. Kristine Stiles, in "Thresholds of Control" (1991), calls for the proliferation of "destruction art" as viable political critique. Critical Art Ensemble in 1995 poses the political tactic of the "Slacker Luddite." Gene Youngblood in 1984 and 1996 calls for art that challenges consciousness and the status quo of perception. Art, Youngblood writes, has the "aim to produce non-standard observers" versus mere "communication," which is the "production of standard observers, and to maintain constant cognitive domains" (43).

The consensus of the text is that man does not need to fear or dominate technology, but can learn to creatively produce with them. Pioneering digital color artists Hervé Huitric and Monique Nahas start using the computer in 1970s and claim such a desire for a machine aesthetic. Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz, Youngblood observes, also use the new networked media with the desire to mold technical media in the service of human use and production.

Overall, Druckery's compilation shows that the Ars Electronica festival is devoted to the practical and political engagements with electronic media. The text demonstrates that if we take responsibility for our forms and objects, we also claim responsibility for the realities we create and live in. To face the future is to encounter the history and politics of production in the present.

Carolyn Kane:
Carolyn Kane is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University where she is working on her dissertation entitled "The Synthetic Aesthetics of Electronic Color." Her research fields include Critical Theory, Aesthetic Philosophy, and New Media.  <clk267@nyu.edu>

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