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Digital Transit and Postmedia Condition

Centro Conde Duque, Madrid, Spain
February 7-April 2, 2006

Reviewed by Nora Raggio
Palo Alto, CA, USA


As a resident in Silicon Valley, California, USA, my vision of Spanish culture revolved rather naively around broad categories: delicious food including paella and tapas; flamenco music and dance; the literary genius of Cervantes; the architectural marvels of the Alhambra in Granada and Gaudi in Barcelona; the famous Madrid "Art Walk" including El Prado Museum, Reina Sofia National Art Center and Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum. Of course, the contemporary art and technology artist, Antoni Muntadas.

So why would I——who thinks Silicon Valley is one of the hottest technology places in the world——travel all the way to Madrid, Spain (a place I have long associated with cultural rather than technological marvels), to check out what’s happening in the art+science+technology+culture scene?

The answer: The MediaLabMadrid (MLM), founded and headed by Karin Ohlenschläger and Luis Rico, housed in Conde Duque, Madrid, a historic building that was originally used as military barracks. MLM is devoted to the production, research, education, and exhibition of digital culture. According to Karin: "We are exploring the frontiers between art, science, technology and social dynamics and, on the other hand, the frontier zones of visual, performance, sound, and spatial arts within the context of…digital culture." [1]

As it turns out, my visit this year to MLM, a key hub in a vast network of art and technology nodes located in different parts of the world, coincided with ARCO, the International Contemporary Arts Festival in Madrid. ARCO is known as one of the preeminent European art fairs, hosting galleries from around the planet, with an eye to commercializing contemporary art. Each year ARCO selects one country as a special guest: for 2006, it was Austria.

In keeping with ARCO’s selected country theme, MLM invited two Austrian powerhouses focusing on the intersection of art, science, technology and culture: Ars Electronica (AEC)——founded in 1979, in Linz , by visionaries Hannes Leopoldseder and Christine Schöpf——and Neue Galerie Graz (NGG)——founded by Prof. Hans Riehl , its first director (1941-1955). Recent directors of NGG include Peter Weibel (1998), of Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie Karlsruhe (ZKM) fame, and currently Christa Steinle.

The two parallel exhibitions, in association with ARCO (February 9-13, 2006), at MLM are Digital Transit (in collaboration with AEC, Linz) and Postmedia Condition (in collaboration with NGG). These two exhibitions actually last longer (February 7 through April 2, 2006) than ARCO since they are intended not only to exhibit works of art, but to include workshops, seminars, and educational opportunities for locals and those visiting the Spanish capital.

The opening at MLM on February 7 was attended by a list of prestigious contemporary and new-media art personalities, including Hannes Leopoldseder and Christine Schöpf; the joint AEC and MLM curators of Digital Transit; the curators of Postmedia Condition; the director of ARCO 06, Rosina Gómez Baeza; and Franz Morak, Austrian State Secretary for the Arts and Media. Thousands of visitors joined the evening activities held by the MLM——all events are free to the public.

The two exhibitions have different flavors and philosophies.

Postmedia Condition, curated by Christa Steinle and Elisabeth Friedler (with Peter Weibel as scientific advisor) borrowed the title from Rosalind Krauss’ book A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition [2], which posits two phases in post-media condition: first, the equality of media, and second, the mixing of media.

It focuses primarily on Austrian artists from the 80s to the present. The exhibition presents more than 40 artistic stances that primarily mix a variety of "new media" in one piece or create works with "traditional media" (e.g. painting) that reference digital media. The works celebrate a self-referential, solipsistic perspective on the fusion of different contemporary genres. The exhibition portrays an ambitious mix, ranging from a robot crashing a computer screen that generates a stream of abstract photographs; a painting embedded with a line of diamond-like encoded digital messages; photographs turning into hyper-real, animated, evolving video; emails encoded into changing architectural three-dimensional blueprints; video encoding an aural piece.

In his accompanying essay to Postmedia Condition, Peter Weibel references Rosalind Krauss and deftly describes the evolution of the arts and science from the ancient Greeks to the present. He then categorically states:

"[T]he pivotal successes of the new technical media consisting of video and computer are not just that they launched new movements in art and created new media for expression but that they also exerted a decisive influence on historical media such as painting and sculpture. To this extent, the new media were not only a new branch on the tree of art but actually transformed the tree of art itself . . . . [T]his state of current art practice is best referred to as the post-media condition, because no single medium is dominant any longer; instead, all of the different media influence and determine each other. The set of all media forms a universal, self-contained medium."[3]

Digital Transit, curated by Karin Ohlenschläger and Luis Rico of MLM and Gerfried Stocker and Manuela Pfaffenberger, of AEC Linz, is a showcase of media art created by artists from Austria and throughout the world that have been presented in recent years at AEC. These pieces are housed in the Conde Duque vault, and create a dark and mysterious trajectory for the visitor, illuminated by outstanding artworks. One travels down a labyrinth discovering works that deal with art as the processing of data, referencing the grand idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk and applying it to humanity, life itself being an information-processing process. Further down, a portrait is created with an array of thousands of petri-dishes with transgenic bacteria genetically encoded with the GFP-gene (Green Flourescent Protein), each dish varying in its response to the GFP. Next, creatures are created and fed by words typed on a keyboard. Also an apartment can be created to the tune of typed words——the apartment is then mapped onto a neighborhood. Later, one encounters one’s body projected in real-time onto a screen, one’s body gestures interplay with poetry "raining" down the same screen. One can walk through a more abstract binary-code-generated piece projected on top of a grid of podiums activating a spasmodic, fidgety architecture — among many other pieces. The common theme being code: as language, as encoded space, as digital or genetic code.

In another part of Conde Duque, Digital Transit focuses on the "present vision into the future" with pieces created by, Urban Lab, Future Lab and Trans Lab, which include collaborations between MLM and AEC. These rooms are devoted to innovative works-in-progress. Visitors create personal, community neighborhood cartographies by adding photos and stories onto a particular coordinate of an electronic street map (two prototypes are Wikimap Linz and Madrid). One can transform real-time video into a three-dimensional environment through a game pad. Pages on a screen can be manipulated through body gestures like in the movie Minority Report. Performances have been interactively encoded creating real-time backdrops, even projected costumes.

In addition, as Manuel Pfaffenberger noted, MLM staffs exhibitions with mediators——MLM guides who have met with the artists and studied their work in depth. Mediators are always available to discuss with visitors the concepts and strategies behind the pieces.
Gerfried Stocker stated: "To work with MLM was a great experience; it’s hard to find people so dedicated and professional at the same time. From the curatorial work to the final setup and design of the exhibition they did a wonderful job." [4]

How did this extraordinary conjunction of art, technology, and culture flourish in Madrid? In an interview with the directors of MLM, Ohlenschläger and Rico explained that although MLM is about four years old, they have been collaborating and networking with Peter Weibel, AEC, and other art and technology network nodes around the world for more than 20 years. They said that this dynamic networking also takes place on a more local scale, with university and educational centers in Madrid and other parts of Spain.

Ohlenschläger and Rico mentioned that ARCO facilitates collaborations between MLM and the "special guest" countries, which in the past have included Mexico, Greece, and Switzerland.
Rico explained that MLM’s rhythm during the year is associated with a spatial/temporal dynamic——there is a part of the year (related to ARCO) where MLM is focused on external communication——the rest of the year is focused on "home cooking": research and reflection explored through "banquets" where MLM nurtures the continuity of the past and projects into the future with special invited artists.

When asked about MLM’s collaboration with ARCO and the commercialization of new media art — Ohlenschläger and Rico differed slightly. Rico mentioned that although there’s a heated debate, with widely varying perspectives on the matter, MediaLabMadrid is focused on empowering and consolidating a perspective of the artist as a researcher that plays an important social and cultural function; Ohlenschläger emphasized not the commercialization of new-media art, but the creation of networked knowledge and consciousness throughout the world: of how science and new technologies are affecting culture from the point of view of artists and other critical thinkers. Gerfried Stocker commented:
"I guess it really shows the growing importance of digital art in the larger field of contemporary art and also the growing interest coming from the art market. It was also nice to see how many artists whom we are used to know only from festivals like Ars or ISEA, have been shown by galleries in… ARCO." [5]

I have learned from this experience that Spain, and indeed Europe, has a thriving art + technology + science + culture that is being nurtured by key hubs like MLM in the context of a global network of artistic innovation.

For additional information:

[1] Raggio, N. Interview with Karin Ohlenschläger and Luis Rico. Madrid, Spain. <February 14, 2006>.
[2] Krauss, R. E. (2000). A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition (Walter Neurath Memorial Lecture). London: Thames and Hudson.
[3] Weibel, P. et al. (2006). Condición Postmedia; p95. Artes Gráficas Luis Pérez, S.A. Madrid.
[4] Raggio, N. "<AW: Interview tomorrow, Tue, Feb 14, 10:30 am>." Personal email. <Fri, 17 Feb 2006 01:41:25 +0100>.
[5] Raggio, N. "<AW: Interview tomorrow, Tue, Feb 14, 10:30 am>." Personal email. <Fri, 17 Feb 2006 01:41:25 +0100>.




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