Hello world! The hype is over, long live the hype

A report on DEAF96 in Rotterdam by Volker Grassmuck.

The global media art family has gathered again. This time in Rotterdam. On the menu was the International Symposium on Electronic Arts (ISEA), the Dutch Electronic Arts Festival (DEAF), the V2_East Meeting, and all of them stood under the umbrella of the Rotterdam Festival "R96 The New Temptation" with 300 events in 21 locations, including a ship training simulator, the medical faculty of the university giving insight into the human body, a police station where visitors could let themselves be scanned in for a date, and even traffic lights were turned into interactive installations. As you can imagine, it was an overkill of events all happening in parallel. The Dutch press already speaks about a "festivalization" of the Netherlands.

As usual, the fights are fiercest and most passionate among those closest to each other. In the media family the dividing line is between the critical and the technological approach. The role of the second - always going for the most advanced machinery - commonly associated with Ars Electronica, was here attributed to ISEA, the first to DEAF. Alex Adriaansens, director of DEAF and pronounced member of Rotterdam art space V2, said in his opening speech that the media hype is over - fortunately. He later elaborated that especially the economic aspects of media have been hyped, with all kinds of utopian hopes about changes in society and the strong tendency from corporations to double the world and create a market expecting short-term returns on their investments.

Now, you can notice a certain frustration and cynicism. People heard so many stories, but it's not becoming reality. "It's very good that the hype is over," said Adriaansens. "It gives places like V2 who do research more air to talk critically about media, and not only from this marketing aspect. V2 always said, the last thing we want to be is a state of the art festival in the technological sense. You see that also in the exhibition. There are works done without technology or with low-tech. It's more the reflection on technology and the quality of the art work. One of the problems we focus on in the festival this year is: what are the characteristics of the networks, what are the metaphors from our daily life we use to navigate and understand information?"

The common topic of R96 was electronic media and their relation to the city. I had an interesting experience of how seamlessly these "Digital Territories" - as the title of DEAF went - intermingle with real space. At the festival cafe of DEAF I was doing what is the most important at these events: face-to-face networking. After a meeting with Gert-Jan Kuiper of VPRO-TV, we decided to go over to the main exhibition at V2, but we lost each other around the terminals of the Digital Dive. So I decided to go there with a friend.

There, Cortex's "Sense:less" translucent egg was mysterious to look at but impossible to enter, because it was booked for the rest of the day. If the "Crystal Ball" by Jaap de Jonge really allows us to look into the future, it will be old wine in new bottles: a very pretty interface lets us watch - random cut-up selections of 30 TV channels. Mikami Seiko has driven her "Molecular Informatics" one step further. Now, two participants wearing eye-trackers can 'see into existence' a chain of molecules in an empty virtual space, with the overlapping lines of both visitors chains turning red. Much of our eye movement is involuntary, so it would take quite a bit of training to control the construction process. Still, the implications for a collaborative mode of being in virtuality are powerful.

Next, we were playing around with Fujihata Masaki's "Global Interior Project" that won the Golden Nica 96. An abstractly human-shaped tower of 18 boxes containing body parts and icons of the world made of Lego are doubled-up in virtuality. Three terminals throughout V2 allow navigation of the cubes. While roaming around, all of a sudden, a computer graphics phone rang, and a voice said "Hey Volker, isn't that you?" After I maneuvered myself around the huge telephone, I saw a video image of Gert-Jan. Lost in real space and found in cyberspace. A little later we met again in the flesh at the V2 bookstore, and had a good laugh about it.

The exploration of the network as a territory, and its convergence with physical space was set as a theme in the R96 opening performance by Stelarc. As in previous versions of this work, Stelarc's body was all wired- up with sensors and stimulators connected to the Internet. If until now, it was people at remote sites controlling his muscle contractions, he has gone one step beyond that. Ping is an Internet program that measures the distance and traffic load between one's own and a remote computer. By using ping values to control the stimulators, Stelarc effectively mapped the activity of the Net itself onto his body. The Net became his external nervous system. Needless to say that the performance was also relayed back onto the Web. The concept is fascinating but the realization is also rather hermetic. The audience needs a deep understanding of the Net in order to see more than a twisting body on stage.

In his presentation at ISEA two days later, asked why he speaks of "the body" instead of "I," Stelarc explained: "In working with technology I get the feeling I have less a mind of my own." But this is no reason to believe in machines conspiring against people. It is technology which makes us human. His experience of living in Japan for twenty years made him realized that the Western concept is the ego-driven body. Instead, he is more interested in what happens in between bodies, in sociological phenomena experienced bodily. His speech was interspersed with his famous diabolic laughter that seems to come from deep within, or maybe from the other side of the humanoid.

Also Knowbotic Research's new piece "Anonymous Muttering" took bits running through the Net as starting point. The site was a large steel structure on the roof of the Dutch Architecture Institute with surround sound and strobe lights. DJ's at several parties in Rotterdam produced the "original" sound material. A granular synthesis program fragmented it down to bits. The visitor in the installation holds a silicon membrane she can bend and thereby manipulate the sounds. A similar grid on the Web allows visitors to interact and listen to the sounds via RealAudio. Given some delay and several people acting at the same time, the effects of one's own actions are not very clear, but as an exploration of the discontinuity of experience and loss of reference on the network it's a powerful work.

NOX in their piece "SoftSite" created a representation of network traffic, as well, this time of hits on the DEAF Webpages. It starts from a 3D model of the city of Rotterdam, onto which abstract shapes, "softscrapers," depicting the artists' pages were overlaid. Between them thick cables were growing representing the number of Web accesses. But not only was communicational behavior mapped onto an image of the city, and this, in turn, projected into the real city: the facade of the Dutch Architecture Institute, but it also changed the actual links between pages. Page objects being endowed with behavior of their own attracted or repulsed each other. Like "a book which changes by the way it is read" the DEAF Website and NOX's depiction of it constantly metamorphosed. Behavior informing form and vice versa.

At the V2_East meeting, Moscow artist, curator and founder of WWW Art Center, Alexej Shulgin, demanded that art should move away from representation toward communication. What we saw in works like those of Stelarc, Knowbotics and NOX was a representation of communication in its pure form, disregarding any content: packets, hits, sound bits.

If their installations operate on the far side of deterritorialization, the V2_East meeting made it clear that the territorial nation state still determines to a large degree who we are. The meeting, organized by Inke Arns and Andreas Broeckmann, brought together media art curators, archivarians, and activists from almost all East European countries.

Martin Sperka (Bratislava) recounted how the first computer animation in Slovakia was made in 1986 on an IBM PC that had to be smuggled into the country because of the COCOM embargo. Nowadays, there is access to technology - there is even a Cyber Cafe in Bratislava -, and Slovak artists want to make a name for themselves in the West, rather than cooperate with artists in the Czech Republic, even the two have been one country not so long ago.

Ryszard Kluszczynski (Lodz/Warsaw), talked about the roots of today's Polish media art in experimental film in the 1920s and 30s, how no significant art was possible under Stalinism, how the situation opened up again and made such internationally renowned digital video artists like Zbigniew Rybczynski possible, and how the link to the West was severed again during the 1980s. Janos Sugar (Budapest) said that media art is a history of hardware, which also determined the forms of expression. Video was used as film, because in contrast to movie equipment it was accessible.

Another central issue in media art is money, which in most East European countries is provided nearly exclusively from the private Soros Centers. Poland is characterized by the absence of the Wall Street Tycoon's money, which is the reason, according to Kluszczynski, that the category "media art" is not used. Artists, rather then being inspired by the meatpots, start from a concept and then decide whether painting, video tape, installation, or performance is the best suited means of expression. They do not define themselves via media. Therefore, Polish works are more artistic and less technological. The proof: they regularly get rejected at Ars Electronica.

Above hardware and money, there is the question of national identity and its corruption. What is "Polish" about an art work? Do Slovak artists living in the West have to be included in a Slovak art exhibition? A foremost task for young East European artists in this time of globalization is reconnecting to one's own cultural roots, archiving the socialist era, and reclaiming the past. To aid in this process by charting and transnationally linking the various efforts was the main task of this V2_East meeting. As Pierre Levy wrote: "A true balance between regions can only be achieved by ... initiatives that are both 'indigenous' and open to the world."

Where is media art going from here? After a period of pioneering new media, overcoming technological problems, and getting a grasp on communication, next on the agenda are the more perplexing questions of meaning, content, and social context. Says Adriaansens: "I talked to several companies that invested a lot in hard- and software. They all say, we are missing something, and that's the content. We would like to cooperate with the artists and develop worlds and see what you are doing, how you are working, and what we can learn from it. A Development Company for the city of Rotterdam launches a plan next week according to which they will invest in culture and art, especially in media, because they see that as the motor for new economic development of the city. Not only art as entertainment, but also as content for these media developments. They know that the companies can't deliver it. This in turn might attract other companies to the region. That's a very typical plan. They also said, we don't want to make profits for the next 7-10 years, but it's an investment for the future, the next 10-20 years." After DEAF/ISEA, the wandering media crowd moved on to Budapest for the "Metaforum" under the title "Content. Under Construction," and also next year's ISEA will have "Content" as its theme.

Content is culture. On the plane to Tokyo - having exchanged one transitory space, the conference, for another - I was thinking that the idea that cyberspace would become like a virtual Holland is appealing. The country is one of the most multicultural in a positive sense. There is no censorship (proven again in the recent case of Germany against xs4all/Radikal). In most of Holland, people have almost free access to the Internet through the cable TV system. The Digital City of Amsterdam, as Pierre Levy pointed out, is a "role model" for digital communities. And there's always a coffeeshop close by.

for InterCommunication Magazine, 9/96
© Volker Grassmuck

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