Reviewer biography

Current Reviews

Review Articles

Book Reviews Archive

Ars Electronica 2006: Simplicity - The Art Of Complexity

Linz, Austria, August 31 - September 5, 2006

Reviewed by Maia Engeli
School of Interactive Arts and Technology

Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, Canada


Like every year, there were a few changes to the format of ARS, but this year they seemed a little more extraordinary. ARS is known as an electronic art festival with exhibitions, concerts, and a three day symposium that elaborates on a burning and usually quite avant-garde theme like ‘Hybrid-Living in Paradox’ (2005), ‘Code - The Language of our Time’ (2004), ‘Unplugged-Art as the Scene of Global Conflicts’ (2002), ‘Next Sex-Sex in the Age of its Procreative Superfluousness’ (2001), or ‘FleshFactor - Informationsmaschine Mensch’ (1997).

This year the theme was ‘Simplicity-The Art of Complexity’, a theme influenced by John Maeda who was the curator of this year’s symposium. Instead of running over three days, it was reduced to one day with two sessions, with designers, artists, curators, engineers and a professional blogger presenting. With this selection of speakers the meaning of simplicity and complexity in the context of art and design was demonstrated. However, the political provocations, cultural upheavals, or social controversies that used to provoke intense discourses among a larger part of Ars Electronica’s audience were missing. A pity for a festival in Europe, where traditionally various cultural, social, political, and philosophical perspectives get included in discourses about art and design. Instead, the symposium offered presentations by people with incredible personal drive to take new approaches to specific design questions. For example: Gary Chen showed a number of simple spaces to which he added unconventional space-transforming cabinets that turn into complex configurable landscapes for multiple spatial situations, arrangements of furniture, and purposes. Hugh Herr showed amazing developments of prosthesis by connecting and merging the human body with mechanically or computationally smart devices. Jason Kotte, a professional blogger, touched on the theme of complexity by allowing a glimpse into his way of working through numerous extensive information sources with the aim of filtering and presenting information in a "simplified" form in his popular blog. Through this symposium John Maeda was able–in his own unconventional and unpretentious style– to convey a sense of the meaning of ‘simplicity as the art of complexity’ in a design context.

An experiment at this year’s ARS was "Going to the Country", a one day excursion in search of simplicity to the St. Florian Monastery, about an hour’s drive from Linz. The baroque splendor of the location offered an interesting backdrop for performances, presentations and exhibitions including space and time for spiritual explorations. The day was packed with parallel events like talks, concerts, Zen bow shooting, a concert with church bells, or the presentation of John Maeda’s newest book "The Laws of Simplicity" to name just a few. My personal highlights of the day included two concerts on the famous Bruckner organ (named after the 19th century composer), a classical concert in the morning and a contemporary one at the end of the day; a performance-lecture by Erkki Huhtamo, Zach Lieberman and Golan Levin titled "Musings on Hands" in which Zach and Golan performed pieces using their own software to create music through manipulations of visuals and Erkki did archeological intermezzos looking at historical examples of performing hands that included amazing film footage from ombromanie (hand shadows), lightning sketches and magic shows; and Toshio Iwai’s 2.5 hour presentation which started with images from his childhood and the various objects he had created since he was little to take the audience along a fantastic journey through his artistic development including some live demonstrations. He ended with the series of toys developed for, with and by his daughter (just published as a book), and shared the fact that he decided to keep computers and electronic toys away from her for the moment, thereby raising the question about whether and when a child should be introduced to them.

Another important part of the ARS festival is the PRIX ARS ELECTRONICA. The prix is given in seven categories: Computer Animation, Digital Musics, Interactive Art, Net Vision, Digital Communities, and u19-Freestyle Computing. The PRIX is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. The categories have changed slightly over the years; the first categories in 1987 were Computer Animation, Computer Music, and Computer Graphics. The newest category, introduced in 2004, is Digital Communities, a category that is not aimed at art projects but was given to an art project for the first time this year. canal*ACCESSIBLE allows handicapped people in Barcelona to take pictures of obstacles and put them online. In addition to built obstacles, obstructing situations caused by inconsiderate citizens are also captured. The platform thereby provides the handicapped with an empowering forum to make some of their frustrations apparent. On a more general level it seems that ‘Electronic Art’, from the perspective of Ars Electronica, has entered a contemplative phase by revisiting known principles, exploring issues more in depth, making small steps, or including historical references or, as Hans Leopoldseder puts it by using a quote from Marcel Proust, "not seeking new landscapes, but seeing them with new eyes".

The titles of the jury statements like "are we bored" (Digital Music), "Interaction Art Today: Between Tradition and Innovation" (Interactive Art), or "The Sole Requirement: Make a Compelling Piece" (Computer Animation) further illustrate this observation. This year the exhibition of the prize-winning projects seemed to have been reduced to the ones that were attractive to a larger audience, i.e. the population of the City of Linz. Therefore, all of the interactive art projects including the honorary mentions got exhibited, while projects from net vision and digital communities were only shown as very minimal posters at the conference venue. For the audience of ARS this was a pity; access to these projects should be provided during the festival to promote their discussion.

There were a number of other exhibitions. CAMPUS, an exhibition by a media art or design school has become part of ARS since 2001. This year the Media Lab of University of Art and Design Helsinki presented projects in the 4 areas: Digital cultural heritage, e-learning, advanced interactive audiovisual narrative system, and empowering human beings in the use of digital tools, which had an outstanding professional look to them. "Tangible, Audible, Playable, Wearable" was another exhibition of student work of the local Interface Culture masters program run by Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau. This exhibition showed a rich variety of explorations into the possibilities of physical interactions. Projects included the use of radio waves produced by the human body when one touched an electric fence to drive an installation: clapping coconuts to play movie scenes, using a scanner to create an image which then is locked in a can for a more or less infinite amount of time: and applying wearable electronic gadgetry with magnets to complete the partial circuitry of a jacket. These are just a few indications that give a sense of the range of technologies, themes and new meanings the students are researching and discovering in this program. On the Hauptplatz, the main square of Linz, two ‘bolder’ pieces were exposed: Sledgehammer keyboard, which required a hammer to ‘hammer in’ a message on a large keyboard, and Maschine Mensch, (human machine), a setup in which humans are integral parts of a machine which is controlling the muscle of the human’s upper arms as part of a mechanism to sort colored blocks. Both pieces were excellent choices that allowed the ARS-specific audience and the people of Linz to merge.

There was much more to ARS ELECTRONICA 2006, but this review cannot comment on it all. There were other conferences like ‘When Cybernetics meets Aesthetics’ or ‘Pixelspaces 2006 — Goblin City’. There were many more concerts and performances–there are traditionally lots of music events at ARS–titled ‘Some Sounds and Some Fury’, ‘Music with Roots in the Aether’, or ‘Visualizing Stravinsky’. As a novelty this year there were three 6-day workshops on either Python, Arduino, or OpenFrameWorks offered in the electrolobby kitchen. Ars Electronica produces two publications each year. One is the catalogue, this year titled "Simplicity — The Art of Complexity", covering the theme of the main conference and some of the other conferences, as well as texts by artists and curators at the different venues. The other publication is called "Cyberarts" and covers the PRIX ARS ELECTRONICA, including jury statements, prize-winning projects, and honorary mentions of all categories. The conferences are also available as podcasts at http://www.aec.at/en/festival2006/podcasts/index.asp.

Ars Electronica is a great electronic arts festival with a substantial tradition of over 25 years of addressing a broad audience that ranges from theoreticians, artists, and designers to the general public of Linz. This review cannot do justice to the multitude of possible experiences of this festival. Please read it as the point of view of a passionate visitor to ARS who always expects to find there a mirror of the current state of art and ongoing discourse in electronic arts.



Updated 1st October 2006

Contact LDR: ldr@leonardo.org

Contact Leonardo: isast@leonardo.info

copyright © 2006 ISAST