Ars Electronica 2006 – Simplicity report

Ars Electronica, 2006, ars_electronica_2006_report.jpg

During the last ten years Ars Electronica themes have tried to be the litmus paper for the digital scene. In 2003, the epiphany of software art, the object of research was ‘CODE: the language of our time’, while in 2002, shortly before the Iraq war, it was ‘Unplugged, Art as the Scene of Global Conflict’. It is artless therefore asking why the 2006 edition was entitled ‘Simplicity’. Is simplicity a current artistic trend? Olga Gourinova, one of the artists invited to talk about this issue, wonders whether it might be an index of crisis. Going back to ‘simple things’ is a typical human reaction to deadlock moments, the same paralysis attributed nowadays to new media art. However Simplicity could also be interpreted as a symptom of maturity: you can be simple when you master a matter, when you are confident with the content, when you know the essence of things and translate them into an algorithm or in ten rules like those elaborated by John Maeda. He’s a MIT visual artist and researcher, and he was the unquestioned protagonist of Ars Electronica 2006. He has just published a book for Mit Press called ‘Simplicity’ with a decalogue that was the thread of the symposium and the talk commissioned by the festival as well as his personal exhibition at the Lentos museum. From reduction to time saving, going through learning, trials and failure, Maeda pretend to synthesize the secret of simplicity in subtracting the obvious and adding the meaningful. However, even if what the guru teaches contains something obvious, the way in which he elaborates it it’s charming. According to Paola Antonelli, the curator of the architecture and design department at the Museum of Modern Art (NY), the most important part of Maeda’s job is not about the final result but about the process, the complexity related half. In order to investigate the contradictions embedded in simplicity/complexity (simplexity), Ars Electronica organized a retreat day, Going to the Country, transferring all the activities to St.Florian, in a baroque monastery. The abbey, an ancient meditation place, was the ideal set to amplify this ambiguity: on one hand there were spirituality and isolation as the index of simplicity, on the other hand there were plenty of baroque art and its rich decoration as symbol of redundancy and complexity. A trait d’union was the musical itinerary that merged ancient music with digital sounds. In collaboration with the monastery organist, Robert Kovacs, two of the leaders of Spire collective, Mike Harding and Charles Matthews, designed a path that begins at the origin of music and culminates in the digital loops by Christian Fennez. The pipes of the Brukner organ vibrated when excited by Bach (another simplexity alchemist) music. The church unusually resonated of noise music produced on the altar ‘outraged’ by the Philip Jeck’s turntable. ‘Antiqua novitati concordabimus’ sounded like the perfect introduction to Michael Nyman’s composition, live executed playing the 8 bells of the monastery in his own style. Simplicity means also a return to physique. ‘Tmema’, the Erkki Huhtamo conference/performance based on the ‘hand’ in media art history was intriguing with so many references in art, pop and culture, interrupted by three performances by Golan Levin and Zachary Liebermann. There were many projects and installations revolving around the body. Some of these were on display at the O.K Centrum, like the ‘Khronos Projector’ by Alvaro Cassinelli where the firm pressure of a hand could reveal another perspective or time of the projected reality. ‘Ocular Witness’ by Arjian Kajfes, a series of installations dealt, instead, with light and seeing, and thematicize light in both a physical and metaphorical sense as a bearer of information and meaning. ‘Thermoesthesia’ on the other hand was an interactive artwork with an original thermal sense display. It has been developed to allow the user feel the temperature of the visually displayed objects, which is cool or warm by directly touching. Physical was also part of the interaction of ‘Machine-mensch’ by Christopher Rhomberg and Tobias Zucali, an assembly line where the human creator become the machine slave. In ‘Office Live’ by Techart Group, a sarcastic work about the self-running 21st century offices, everything started with the movement of a fish activating a chain reaction of different and distant mechanisms resulting in the end to being fed. Amongst the student project presented Medialab at the University of Art and Design Helsinki, the ‘Sankari Show’ was among the few with a strong focus, implementing in a tv show format a psychological transfer from members of the audience that tells the main character what to do. Different student projects were also presented in the ‘Interface Culture’ exhibition (made out by the Kunst Universitat Linz). But the choreographic ‘The Digital Barrel-Organ’ by Bernhard Pusch (an old barrel organ with a fully digitized playlist management) was a rare example in its own context of nice interface, content delivering and social intervention. A question of interface seemed also to be the playful ‘The Sancho Plan’, where the user can control animated characters through electronic drum pads and ‘Nomadix: interaction on the move!’ by Hyperwerk, a mobile sort of a lamp with an inside kinetic projector. Other highlights included the so popular ‘The Messenger’ by Paul DeMarinis, a large installation where every letter of received email moved a different physical representation (the washbins with the different voices were among the most shooted), and in the end it was physically visualizing electronic signals. Also ‘Hello World!’ by Yunchul Kim was a system for storing data with only acoustic signals that used speakers, microphones and copper tubes. The latter were the key elements thanks to their own acoustic delay properties. And in the sound sphere there were the unique Yokomono performances made by the Staalplaat Soundsystem duo. Ending with interface matters, two projects were surely worth of checking: the destructured self-running flight simulators Retroyou_nostal(g) by Joan Leandre and the destabilizing Random Screen (an apparently furniture-like big pixel illuminated square that seen on the back revealed to be illuminated with a system of rotating cut beer cans that moved thanks to the hot air generated by tiny candles. According to Christine Schopf, artistic director of Ars Electronica, “providing smart and simple solutions to complex and multidimensional goals is the challenge that we have to face at the moment”. But it’s very important to always be able to distinguish what is simple from what is simplistic.

Valentina Culatti