The art of tomorrow

Gerfried Stocker

The art of tomorrow is the art of the media. This art is just as much visual image as music and performance; hardware-handicraft and software-concept in equal measure. What once could have been subsumed under the heading of media art has since branched out into a multiplicity of new artistic genres, symbiotic forms whose definitions are rather more oriented on scientific and technical disciplines, on interface development and information architecture or on net culture and the lifestyle of gaming communities than on the isms of the artistic discourse.

This development is being carried forward by individuals whose identity is often bounded by the parameters of artist, engineer, social worker and experience designer, and who act out of a clear understanding of its technological as well as its associated social and cultural aspects: coders and hackers, open sourcers and circuit benders who acquire mastery over technological components, ignore rules found in user’s manuals, deploy devices and systems in ways unintended by those who market them, and participate, with this analytical and critical processing, in the design of the way our world is now—art as a test-drive of the future.


If one considers Ars Electronica’s orientation since it was founded in 1979, it becomes apparent that it has also continually reflected the strongly international dimension of media art. In 2004, for example, 34,000 visitors attended the Ars Electronica Festival, and 555 artists from 28 countries exhibited their works and discussed their ideas. The Prix Ars Electronica—the world’s premiere showcase of excellence in the cyberarts—is the central node of a one-of-a-kind international network. Last year, 3,341 artists from 69 countries entered the competition, and more than 30,000 works have been submitted for prize consideration since the Prix was established in 1987. The Ars Electronica Futurelab is involved in R&D joint ventures and hosts artist-in-residence programs that make possible an ongoing process of exchange with artists and scientists from all over the world.

Thus, what has taken shape around Ars Electronica is an international pool of resources, talent and know-how that, in its own almost completely unique way, reflects the entire development of digital media art, its scintillating dynamism, its constantly surprising diversity and especially the artistic virtuosity and excellence of contemporary digital media art.

The Development of Media Art between
Yesterday and Tomorrow

From the very inception of Ars Electronica as a festival for art, technology and society, its stated mission has kept this undertaking focused on the development of art in the context of its technological framework conditions. Which constellations and factors will determine the art of tomorrow? Where will this art be done, who will be doing it, and what will they be doing it with? How will art respond to crucial social issues? What answers and impetus can it provide?
Digital media are commonplace today. They’re generally accepted phenomena without which everyday life as we live it would be inconceivable. Following an initial boom, this innovative economic sector dubbed the “New Economy” plunged into a worldwide crisis that seems to have been overcome now. The phase of consolidation into corporate conglomerates has been carried out, so that the behemoths of this digital domain have now taken their place within the foremost ranks of the world economy and stand eye to eye with established global players. The Digital Revolution as such thus seems to have achieved closure, and normality has become the order of the day.

What are the implications for art, and particularly media art that owes its development and the public attention it has garnered essentially to the same dynamics that have shaped the course of the New Economy? Can media art, understood as an overarching term encompassing artistic encounters with the technological reality of our world, maintain its innovative dynamism? Will it, in keeping with an avant-gardist definition, continue to contribute to overall social development, or will its power, its glamour and its attractiveness fade in a world in which media are increasingly ordinary features of everyday life.

Will media art become a part of the art establishment and recede into the confines of galleries and museums, will it dissipate its energies in the vast expanses of commercial media design, or will it be able on a long-term basis to live up to its promise to constitute an open, dynamic artform able to thrive and assert itself as a critical investigator and catalyst of social and cultural transformations?


New Reference Systems

Digital information technologies are more than just advanced means of production and distribution. The Internet constitutes a fast, efficient and, in its own way, new reference system in which ideas, talents and capabilities emerge and are enhanced, refined and perfected through the inspiring interplay of cooperation and competition. The Internet accelerates not only production processes but also the acquisition of qualifications, talents and abilities. These new reference systems can be set up quickly and employed productively, and provide stiff competition to traditional artistic training systems and rituals of access.

Expanded Areas of Impact

The possibilities of being able to communicate at any time and everywhere give rise to concomitant new prospects for social, and thus artistic, interaction.

It is no longer the technological possibilities but rather the socio-cultural structures of the Information Society that are decisive in the context of an art of tomorrow. The Internet as a cultural and commercial sphere is the basis and breeding ground of innovative, inspired modes of doing artistic work, which have an impact over an enormously expanded area due to the network linkage that is immanent in the medium. Flexible community membership is a key concept that manifests itself in concrete terms in the sudden and successful shuttling of persons or projects among art, design, science and commerce, or in productive parallel existences in (these) dissimilar domains. An upshot of this is a fundamentally altered conception of self prevalent among this young generation of artists.

The Digital Revolution and the theories and technologies of information upon which it is based have found a direct correspondence in the emergence of a new type of art.
Electronic art, media art, cyberart, net-art – terms which have come to be taken completely for granted but nevertheless remain ambiguous labels for the ways artists deal with the constituent elements of the Information Society and its technological as well as social dimensions – have long since gone beyond testing out that which is technically feasible and have developed into a broad spectrum of highly diverse artistic forms.

Even though the only aspect that the heterogeneous, hybrid configurations of current works often have in common is their use of the computer – that is, their technological or material medium – an essential, defining feature of this new art is impossible to overlook: despite the experience that has been gained and the virtuosity that has developed, media art is, above all, an experiment – one that often brings the creators
and proponents of this “new art” into an association with engineers and researchers.

The unique characteristic of media art as “new art”
is the process of getting beyond that realm in which the computer and its data processing derivatives are used merely as one more implement or, ultimately,
as a medium of representation that would be interchangeable with any number of other ones.

As a counterpart to the convergence of production, transmission (i.e. mediation) and reception that is inherent in this technology, artists employ digital information technologies not only as a tool and a material, but as a subject as well.
In doing so, they have taken leave of familiar domains, and have begun to go beyond basic formal and aesthetic research and to delve into the technological and sociocultural contexts of the process of reordering our society into a global information economy, in that their highest priority is accorded not to interpretation and description but rather to analytical investigation in order to thus shed light upon the mechanisms and functional principles of that society’s systemic foundations.
In a situation in which the configurations of software and hardware act much more powerfully than laws as determinants of the freedom of movement within the new public domain of global networks, this artistic strategy is also endowed with an immediate political relevance.

Faster than media art theory (in any case largely nonexistent) is capable of offering a description of this phenomenon, a conception of media oriented upon transmission and dissemination (that is, centralized, unidirectional distribution) has become passé in actual artistic practice. This conceptual schema – one rooted in the industrial epoch and in which the overcoming of geographical distance, the transfer of messages, and thus speed are inherent central parameters – is now countered by the concept of omni directional and participatory spheres of communication of which the Internet is the prototypical example.

These are networks in which presence and community do not have to coincide physically and geographically or even temporally in order for them to be able to take place; these are spaces whose make-up is primarily specified by social rather than geometric dimensions, and in which the number of users and their activities
become the determinative units of measure.

In such scenarios in which participation is not a result but a precondition, there arises a concentrated form of interactivity which can fulfil art’s claim to serve as an interface between society/culture and science/technology.

The image of the engineer/artist and researcher/artist which has long sufficed to describe the practice of media art must be expanded by one yet-to-be-invented term to refer to the diminishment of the linkage of artist and artwork characterized as that of genius and original in favour of a process oriented position as contextual network node.


Media art thus does not reign supreme as a result of the images and sounds that it is able to marshal and dispatch, but rather due to the quality with which the explicit characteristics of the employed media are orchestrated. It is no great achievement to transfer traditional artistic patterns and behavioural schema into media art; the challenge is to invent new ones.

The products of this art shift from object to process, from information and presentation to interaction and communication – or as the Japanese researcher-artist Masaki Fujihata put it: “from document to event.” This, however, should not necessarily be equated with a process of vanishing into virtuality. Aesthetics as a qualitative category of sensory perception remain relevant in cyberart as well.

In order to meet these demands, the business of art must develop new strategies of mediation and dissemination. A festival cannot content itself to function as an exposition of this season’s masterpieces; rather, it must open windows to artistic/technological working processes.

It must strive to live up to the principle whereby transmitter and receiver are mutually equated. The chance to accomplish this lies in the conglomeration of many different network-linked processes. By enabling artists and their audiences to come together and meet one another, a festival as a project workshop can become a catalyst of such working processes.

Nevertheless, a festival of this kind also remains a venue of the products of this art – though, indeed, no longer the place where they are exhibited and warehoused, but rather one where they originate and have an effect, whereby the origination, however, can no longer be accorded precedence over the processes of mediating and experiencing art and cannot be thought of separately from them.

In addition to the orientation of the Festival, Ars Electronica in general has been undergoing continual development in recent years and has expanded its presence in a number of areas.


Ars Electronica –
The Ongoing Development of an Idea

An avant-garde media art festival, an international competition in the cyberarts, a didactic “museum of the future” and an interdisciplinary R&D lab are the four divisions that comprise Ars Electronica. Their current constellation represents the successful implementation of a comprehensive view of and joint approach to what is happening at the interface of art, technology and society. This idea goes all the way back to the founding of Ars Electronica in 1979 and has remained the project’s mission statement to this day. But it was not until 1996, when the Ars Electronica Center opened and the Ars Electronica Futurelab was set up, that this philosophy was taken beyond the conceptual realm and put into actual everyday practice.

The conventional interpretation of these phases of development as “blocks” or “pillars” has its basis in the current form of Ars Electronica, where this differentiation allows extremely varied objectives to be realized for individual target groups of society.

It has not been a single format straining to straddle art, business, education and entertainment, but rather several of them.though all committed to the same concept and basic principles–and synergistically interactive fields of activity that have contributed to the success of the Ars Electronica undertaking.

The Festival and the Prix are wholly dedicated to art and science, whereby the competition’s character as a “Best of” showcase opens up opportunities for the Festival as a setting for risky experiments and works-in-progress.

The Ars Electronica Center–as the Museum of the Future–concentrates on a pedagogical mission oriented on the needs of a broad spectrum of
users. The Futurelab is the transmission vehicle that makes Ars Electronica’s artistic competence available in scholarly and commercial fields too.
And it is precisely this interplay that has given rise to an action radius and a spectrum of offerings that are extraordinarily rare among institutions engaged in cultural pursuits, and ultimately makes it possible to fulfil what is expected of a process of real networking and to bring out the reciprocities among the three programmatic fields of art, technology and society.

It would certainly be a case of romantic revisionism to maintain now that this highly individualized configuration took shape in accordance with a grand master plan; nevertheless it is an indication of the quality of Hannes Leopoldseder’s founding vision, and it has been a remarkably far-sighted long-term effort by the City of Linz to have enabled and nurtured this process of development. Its preconditions were emancipatory
strivings to endow the city with a new identity that would go beyond heavy industry and historical heritage. In this phase of urban upheaval and repositioning, Ars Electronica supplied the central concept; decisive for its acceptance and establishment
were the alliance formed by the City of Linz and the ORF–Austrian Broadcasting Company’s Upper Austria Regional Studio no less than the ORF’s role as booster of the energizing idea that an artistic event could be of significance to more than art alone.

It is emblematic of Ars Electronica prophet Hannes Leopoldseder’s unerring feel for involving the community (art accessible to, and working with, the public) that the beginnings of the “elitist” Festival were accompanied by the founding of the Linz Klangwolke as the “popular” counterpart of the Ars Electronica vision. In the mid-90s, Ars Electronica entered the penumbra that was already being cast by developments
and events looming on the horizon.
In this connection, the construction of the Ars Electronica Center represents a momentous turning point since it occurred simultaneously with the dawning
of the so-called Digital Revolution in the public perception. The Ars Electronica’s repeated evocations of reciprocities at work among art, technology and society were no longer just ambitious catchphrases. What began to emerge was a phase of technological virulence the likes of which we will certainly not experience again so very soon. Even in the early stages of the process that eventually exploded into the midst of everyday life much more rapidly thananticipated–
enormous increases in computer processing performance, the triumphal takeover of cell phones, computer games and the Web, the decoding and patenting of entire genomes, was already becoming apparent that a multifaceted encounter with the reality that was emerging could not be permitted to remain arrested in the stage of enchanted
fascination with futuristic speculations.

The time had come to orient the Festival’s focalpoint themes on a future that, meanwhile, had already arrived, and to confront and deal with the Digital Revolution’s nascent and already perceptible consequences for our society and culture.

This was less a curatorial decision than the order of the day, since the “adolescent Sturm-und-Drang period” had suddenly seen itself overtaken by reality, which called for, as it were, a process of “growing up.”

The thematic orientation of the Festival on manifestations of sociocultural evolution (INFOWAR, UNPLUGGED), the expansion of its thematic field beyond digital technologies to genetic engineering and molecular biology (LifeScience, NEXT SEX),
explorations undertaken in peripheral realms of art and business (TAKEOVER) and the accompanying recourse to a discussion that is currently being hyped by the medial presence of technological and scientific themes have been, needless to say, a balancing act as well. It has called for heightened vigilance to make sure that the programmatic continuity was recognizable not on the basis of the hype itself but rather from their socio-political orientation.
But this path of development also meant that Ars Electronica would necessarily have to undergo a fundamental shift. Initial moves in this direction were already apparent in 1993 and 1997, but a really consistent process of dealing with this thematic domain was not possible until LifeScience in 1999 and NEXT SEX in 2000–and this accompanied by concerned glances and critique of this turning of attention to a new thematic field.

One particular challenge in going about this was to maintain, in the area of genetics and
biotechnology as well, the laboratory character of works and presentations that is so typical of Ars Electronica. Setting up functioning labs for tissue culture (SymbioticA Research Group) or the timely breeding of genetically modified butterflies
(Nature!, Marta de Menezes) and the collaboration with biotech labs and firms that was necessary to accomplish this were extreme challenges for the Festival’s organizers as well as occasions for heated discussions about the ethical and moral boundaries of artistic work.
Museum as Platform and Interface
To harness the energy between increasing specialization and widening interests, the Center was assigned the function of catalyst and local interface for the advancement of the Ars Electronica project. Not as a museum of media art but rather as a mediator of media competence and a physical setting for the encounter with the social and cultural
implications of media culture, the Center has also been performing an important local role as facilitator and disseminator since 1996. In light of this mission, the setup of a media lab assumed central significance. Nurturing artists by giving them access to high-tech equipment and competent technical support was more important than just providing exhibition space and presentation possibilities. One thing that a “Museum of the Future” ought to be in particular is a production site.

With its exclusively interactive form of mediating the public’s encounter with the state-of-the-art, with the intensive utilization of Virtual Reality and prototype interface technologies, the AEC targets the general public.

Neither to hide technology nor to mystify it but rather to make its applications accessible and understandable in a very concrete way is AEC’s aim. Interactivity and the availability of trained guides to handle guests’ queries are designed to make the
public’s encounter with exhibit content as intensive as possible and to encourage the visitor to get engaged as a user. There’s no question that utilizing works of art to mediate the public’s encounter with content is always a balancing act; that this
approach can also function very well as illustrated by Print On Screen for instance. This exhibition featuring art projects by John Maeda, Camille Utterback, Christa Sommerer, Golan Levin, Casey Reas and others did a great job enabling visitors to experience
interactivity as a form of artistic expression while simultaneously motivating many of them to undertake a process of critical reflection about the inadequate state of user interfaces in our current computer technology.
The great extent to which artistic approaches can inspire technical research is shown in exemplary fashion by the works of Hiroshi Ishii’s Tangible Media Group at the MIT Media Lab as well as FutureLab R&D projects like INSTAR.

DIGITAL TRANSIT – a further collaboration between Ars Electronica and Medialab Madrid
Digital Transit is a project being produced jointly by Ars Electronica Linz and Medialab Madrid for Austria at ARCO 06.

From February 7 to April 2, 2006, the Centro Cultural del Conde Duque will be the setting for exhibitions, performances, screenings and workshops dealing with the interplay of art, technology and society.

One exhibition will showcase outstanding examples of media art by artists from Austria and around the world that have been presented in conjunction with Ars Electronica. The process by which “The Digital” has come to pervade all spheres and aspects of life will be elaborated on and critically analyzed from the perspective of artistic work. The human being as reflected by his cultural and technological codes: genetic codes, digital codes, the code of languages and encoded spaces are among this exhibition’s themes.

Experimental zones like Future Lab and Urban Lab present new ideas and prototypes for digital spaces and interactive performances.

At the accompanying workshops, Austrian and Spanish artists will focus on Digital Transit at the interfaces of art and science as well as on architecture and urban development.

The Ars Electronica Archive Lounge will present a comprehensive assemblage of graphic materials documenting the historical development of digital art and illustrating its contributions to the theory and practice of 21st-century media culture.