ISEA 2008 photo set
More than one doubt was raised with the choice of Singapore as host city for ISEA 2008. Indeed, William Gibson’s description of the city, coined in Wired mag a decade ago springs to mind: “Disneyland with death penalty”. In this almost spotless urban environment, freedom of speech problems are part of life, and any piece of art that criticises the government is not publicly tolerated – even if it enjoys local support. The most paternalistic government in the world aims to turn Singapore (together with Japan) into the most important hub for creative enterprise and new media in Asia. Their “Media Development Authority” is currently investing vast sums in this area. This year’s ISEA was backed up with unprecedented institutional support. The two big universities – the Singapore Management University and the Nanyang Technological University – provided at least six parallel lecture sessions over a four day period that produced plenty of interesting hints and some unexpected performances. With such an information overload it was necessary to consult the advice of friends in order to make some of the most interesting lectures, which would be more often than not missed by accident otherwise. Summits and sessions were also an important part for the almost 300 guests in attendance. The General Inter-Society for the Electronic Arts (ISEA) meeting gathered the ISEA board and some of the most active academics (among them a majority of women). One of best moments was when during the break participants were “ordered” to talk with somebody they didn’t know. ISEA now has become annual – the 2009 symposium will take place in Belfast, and there’s already a bid to host the 2010 one in the German Ruhr area. The popular Kurator panel addressed new (open) curatorial forms, which have been enabled by social technologies. It tackled controversial issues and was able to push boundaries. The “Mini Summit of new media art policy and practice” funded by the Asia-Europe Foundation was very promising, gathering academics, artists and organizations in order to discuss opportunities for serious ethical developments in the area. Finally, the Luminous Green session was quite crowded, and focused on the relationship between art, technology and environmental sustainability via a brainstorming session which allowed people to switch from one group to another. This provided a fresh way of meeting new people, sharing concerns and communicating sophisticated visions, in a sort of therapeutical yet idea-rich session. Of the different exhibitions, the juried one was hosted in the big National Museum, and it sported projects developed with prestigious international collaborations, during a 3-month residency program in Singapore-based high tech and research labs. These projects were quite often rooted in various South-East Asian cultural backgrounds. Among them, “Sourcing Water” by Shiho Fukuhara and Georg Tremmel approached the water supply problem of the city state. Singapore owns no water resources, and mainly imports from Malaysia. They revived the esoteric practice of dowsing – equipped with GPS and motion sensors – and finally compiled a map of “suspected” water sources in the underground. Jodi Rose’s “The Global Bridge Symphony” was a sonic connection with connecting urban infrastructures (bridges). The tension of cables generates sounds that were recorded and listened to in the exhibition space. The Serbian Eastwood collective built their “Civilization V” video game, metaphorically porting web 2.0 companies’ marketing strategies into an extreme strategy game; The Jee Hyun Oh’s “DIY GORI’s: seed_1216944000″ froze in time a specific moment of a wiki-documented project on an impressively long paper roll, thus giving it a significant spatial dimension. Kelly Jaclynn Andres’ “Finally, We Hear One Another” brilliantly made two persons aware of each other’s conversations on their mobile phones, incorporating for a limited time an identity switch expressed through a vocal medium heard in real time. Another small exhibition was “Relocations”, focusing on two Malaysian artists (Hasnul Jamal Saidon and Niranjan Rajah). Their work can be framed with the “post-colonial” label, but their experiments with video and the web embody critique and irony from the mid-90′s, placing them among the most important local pioneers. “Cloudland” was an exhibition organized at “The Substation” gallery by Aotearoa Digital Arts, the leading digital art collective in New Zealand, which has recently published an historical book about national new media art. Alex Monteith’s “Composition for farmer…” was a unique choreography for three dogs and 120 sheep with a melancholic involuntary melody made by the farmer’s whistling and dog barks moving through a long wall projection. Also worthy of note was the historical (1958) experimental 16mm film “Free Radicals” by Len Lye and several sound art pieces. Swiss artists were represented in “Lucid Fields”, a small documentary exhibition set up amidst the astonishing architecture of the Lasalle College of Arts. The symposium celebrated with a night of performances, like Pablo Ventura’s “Kubic’s Cube” which consisted of a two and a half meter long aluminium robot hanging from a ceiling, mechanically dancing to Francisco López music, and the charming noise of untitled_sound_objects impressive duo, who used small quantities of various tiny metallic or glass materials, inducing them to vibrate and then manipulated the abstracted and amplified sounds. A quite famous performance took place at the “72-13″ space. “Spektr!” was the title given to the old and new wiretapping data visualization, condensed in real time all over a big screen by Marko Pelihan and his three partners. His long standing project to gather “stolen” data still goes and never fails to destabilize the viewer. Finally, a painstakingly prepared keynote was performed by Lawrence Lessig. He mesmerized an entire aula magna full of participants with perfect pace and his usual crystal-clear arguments. The closing performances included: Indonesian noise and abstract visuals by Venzha and Honf (sporting a wearable hardware agglomeration), and the Singaporean Choy Ka Fai / TheatreWorks who composed a graphically appealing interpretation of sound waves, electromagnetic signals and radio frequencies data obtained through an investigation of the Syronan Jinja Shinto Shrine and the surrounding forest. With such a deployment of venues and people, not to mention the pharaonic plans for new buildings and infrastructures for the “creative class education”, coupled with a stagnating Europe and a recessive US, we feel impelled to ask the question – is the home of new media art now to be found in the East?