>>LETTER FROM LINZ
■ Ars Electronica AJ Stooke
Ars Electronica festival is a host of digital arts moments, durations and discussions based on an institution that exists year-round to promote the relevance of technology in culture. Linz seems convincing as the model of a municipality that is future orientated and determined to see cultural policy development as a part of urban renewal. How refreshing! Next year will be the 30th anniversary of the festival when Lintz also becomes European City of Culture. The town perceives the festival to be a key marker of its future as well as its past. Local people do not seem averse to the risk of the contemporary cultural interventions of Ars Electronica invading most of their central public spaces. They swarmed like happy pixels to the weekend spectacle on the banks of the Danube, in the type of heavenly weather that does give an evening outdoor experience a bit of a head start, and seemed perfectly happy with the programme of new sound works and projections sugared, perhaps, with a display of notso-culturally progressive fireworks. The festival events are hard to map as they consist of overlapping performances, exhibitions and conferences. There was a very clear Ars Electronca branding present at all the 18 sites throughout the town, despite the shortcomings of the technological installations, involving masses of those cables that you try to push behind the bookcase at home. The result was a trestle table aesthetic, like a small village fêête, which showed strange restraint just when I had expected full-on techno. This worked with charm at the Pfarrplatz, where a number of projects by, among others, David Burns, Matias Viegener and Austin Young were documented in trailers around a small stage and a children’s sandpit. Young’s Fallen Fruit, 2008, included home-made wine and prize fruit finds. In other locations, however, it proved that human movements have none of the predictability of data bits but share the ability to build to massive numbers with an awesome fecundity. Several of the local fêêtes were simply overwhelmed and
ran out of jam or, even worse, beer. In these instances it tended to reinforce the suspicion that the lovely closeness we have with our computers – rich and fulfilling as this intimacy can be – does not necessarily transfer to the big screen. It cannot offer sustenance to a big audience. The world of things and of us is strangely unlike the world wide web where we are wont to be always alone at our terminals. The festival intends to have a (digital) community spirit and much of the debate in the conferences concerned the problems of transferring real world values into the new space that fast data transfer opens up. This raised a number of tough questions of interface, interaction and the potential for democratic participation in new electronically mediated art forms. There was a sense that the visitor was occupying a rather different map of the city than its indigenous citizens, a map composed of digital landmarks superimposed over the dirty and detailed physical world. These manifestations were only gentle inflections within the normal fabric of urban life. Together they constituted a speculative proposal as to how a digital culture can, and perhaps already does, ghost our lives as a constant ‘mash up’. The problem with this is that such remixes are not new, they have not been new for quite some time, in fact they seem as familiar as the site of Ars Electronica visitors’ aluminum laptops yawning open to check their e-mails as they enter a free wi-fi zone. Among the most articulate instances of this civic redraw was in a small exhibit from the Kunstuniveritäät Interface Cultures Masters and Doctors programme, a regular slot in the festival. Here various clothing-like items offer their wearers influence on something mediated by a computer: these take the form of gloves and hats and swimsuits – I hasten to add that these were by no means the only non-conventional interface experiences available at the festival. These familiar items, looking slightly tired and the worse for wear, strive to alter the interaction of the mouse and the click into something from our non-virtual, interpersonal lives, as comfortable as a handshake or a nod of the head. The fact that this place looked like a run-down charity shop staffed by relaxed students worked in its favour. It allowed its effects to resonate with
domestic wardrobes as opposed to museum vitrines. Trying on bits of clothing is an activity that seems grounded. In this festival intermedia was everywhere; elements of film, text, action and soundwork were strewn untidily across the floor reflecting the uncomplicated and easy acquaintance with the technology of generations weaned on gaming alongside other art forms. To make the point Dolo Piqueras’s Fishy, 2008, was installed in a rather retro games console in the space. Interactiveness is perceived as a vital passage to our cultural future but remains a deeply troubling route in even the most optimistic account of the ability of digital technologies to enrich our cultural lives. Just as the infinite scope of the world wide web shrinks pretty quickly when the developing world is squashed from its panorama, so seemingly perfect communication between digital artwork and interactor does not look that perfect when you have little hope of understanding the totality of the system before you. The effect of the entire festival made this point: no matter where you stood and no matter for how long you engaged you got no closer to grasping the whole thing. The printed programme, the publications, the website – all refused to offer assistance. In Linz, fetishisation of the glitch has given way to a desire for a clear signal which is a high ambition if the moment of interactive digital art is to be on a par with the greatest works of the analogue tradition. The awe here was in the programming, but we still live in a world where Masaccio has not realised the potential in Brunelleschi’s perspective or where the silhouette of a galloping horse has not been twisted by the Lumièère brothers into a locomotive thundering towards us, pinning us in our auditorium. The word on the street was that the event is coiling up for just such a spring in 2009. ❚
Ars Electronica Festival for Art, Technology and Society took place in Linz, Austria September 4 to 9.
AJ STOOKE is art director at Sherborne, Sherborne House Arts and Oliver Holt Gallery.
Art of Our Time
Celebrating ten years of the Southampton Solent University Art Collection
19 September –18 October 2008
Millais Gallery, Southampton Solent University, East Park Terrace, Southampton SO14 0YN Tel: 023 8031 9916 www.solent.ac.uk/millais Admission is Free
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>>LETTER FROM TAIPEI
■ 08 Taipei Biennial Frederika Whitehead
It is hardly surprising that it would be difficult to find a work in the 2008 Taipei Biennial that could be exhibited in mainland China. Most of the works are simply too politically charged. Several people who visited the Shanghai Biennale en route to Taipei, which opened a few days earlier, noted the gulf between the two exhibitions, one describing the Shanghai Biennale as ‘bland in comparison’. Especially irksome to the Chinese would be Tiananmen survivor Liu Wei’s video A Day to Remember, 2005. It is a moving film that bears many repeat viewings. Wei’s ambition is to break the silence imposed by the government about the military crackdown on student protestors on June 4, 1989. On the anniversary of the massacre Wei spent the day walking the streets around Beijing University and Tiananmen Square. With his camera in hand he asked person after person if they knew what the date was and what day it was. The film begins light-heartedly in the morning; some respondents quite genuinely seemed not to know what he was getting at and became quite giggly in front of the camera. As the sun heats up others seem more aggravated and refuse to talk to him. Some try to evade the question. Some choose to lie and do so with varying degrees of success – some shamefacedly, some just plain badly. Several complain about the camera, and one man gets angry and demands to know what unit Wei is from. At dusk he finally finds one weary-looking female student who gives him an answer. She tells him that it is the anniversary of the student strike. He asks her ‘Will you say a few words about it?’ She replies, ‘No, absolutely not’, and turns away. Other governments are put on trial with equal force.Curators Manray Hsu and Vasif Kortun have invited Oliver Ressler to curate a show within the biennale. ‘A World Where Many Worlds Fit’ is dedicated to counter-globalisation movements. A cacophony of videos and graphic images document protests at meetings of the G8 and other global organisations. Allan Sekula’s slideshow Waiting for Teargas, 1999, includes the images that we are all sadly too familiar with: police in full riot gear teargasing protestors who have only bandanas to pro
tect their faces. Other films show the lighter moments of protesting: Nuria Vila and Marcelo Expóósito have sought and collated images of protestors who have used costume and performance. The costumed performances serve to entertain, to alter the relationships at the demonstrations, or simply to play out a small piece of theatre for all to see. The symbolism of the man in a pink tutu dusting a tank during a protestin Tactical Frivolity+ Rhythms of Resistance, 2007, is particularly loaded. Back in the main exhibition The Yes Men’s acerbic and very funny parodies of global businesses and the American government are a joy to watch. Their trick is to pose as representatives of a particular global brand and slowly ramp up the claims for their product until they become quite preposterous. The credulity of the unwitting audiences is stretched until it breaks. Its most famous victim so far has been BBC World. The channel believed one of The Yes Men when he posed as a representative from the Dow chemical company and interviewed him on air. In the interview he said that Dow – now owners of the Union Carbide plant that released 40 tonnes of toxic gas into the atmosphere in 1984, killing 3,800 instantly and leaving 100,000 with chronic illnesses – was accepting responsibility for the Bhopal disaster. The news channel ran two cycles of the interview and Dow’s stock lost £2bn on the German exchange. Two monitors run side-by-side in the gallery, with a big comfy sofa to suggest home television viewing. One shows the BBC World interview and the second shows the crummy stage set of an office from which the supposed Dow representative was speaking. The main venue for the biennale is the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, which is one of the most iconic and impressive modern buildings in Taipei. Outside the Biennale the art world in Taipei is smaller than those in Shanghai or Beijing but still vibrant. There is not the same goldrush as is presently occurring on the mainland, or the same volume of speculation in the market – although good sales were recorded at Art Taipei 2008 in September with $23.5m worth of works sold. Footfall was up to 72,000 visitors – 4,000 more than visited Frieze Art Fair last year. Taiwan is a wealthy country and Taiwanese collectors have played a substantial part in the art market boom on the mainland. The art scene in Taipei is well funded and supported by the Taiwanese government. Ma Ying-jeou, president of Taiwan, has been mayor of Taipei and during that
time he was a regular fixture at art parties. In terms of artist-run/artist-orientated spaces the most famous include IT Park, VT Salon and the Taipei artist village. IT Park is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Its reputation as a trailblazer stems from the fact that it was one of the first galleries to champion installation and new media art. This gallery is architecturally beautiful with cutaways in the walls that flood the interior galleries with light. It is currently showing Michael Lin. VT Salon a few doors down is a gallery with a hip bar attached. Taipei artist village is situated in a former government office building – the building lay empty for many years until the Cultural Affairs Bureau took it over in 2001 – and now houses an extensive residential studio programme and operates exchange programmes with 30 similar organisations worldwide, including Gasworks and the British Council visiting artists scheme. Some of the best known commercial galleries include Main Trend, Dynasty, Grand Sièècle and AKI. Main Trend is a huge space off theCheng De Rd, it represents Wu Tien-chang and Chen Chiehjen, two of Taiwan’s ‘fab four’, the other two artists being Yang Mao-lin and Hou Chun-ming. Taiwan Panoramadescribed the quad as part of ‘the postmartial-law “Museum Generation” ’. Grand Sièècle deals exclusively in new media art and is currently showing Chen Wen-Chi. Many saw fit to comment on the dominance of new media art in the biennale but, given the prevalence it has within the main galleries, it seems appropriate that the biennale would in some way reflect this. It is a strong biennale, because it feels well-rooted in the local scene. More new media art was to be found at MOCA in its third digital arts festival which opened on the same day as the biennale. So far so cohesive, except that on the day that I had earmarked to visit it Taipei was hit by typhoon Sinlaku , 147mph winds and torrential rains causing the Taipanese to batten down the hatches. It seems that even the strongest and most cohesive of art groups can be blown shut by strong winds from outside. ❚
08 Taipei Biennial is at Taipei Fine Arts Museum and various venues from September 13 to January 4.
FREDERIKAWHITEHEAD is assistant editor of Art Monthly.
Nick Crowe and Ian Rawlinson Newlyn Art Gallery
Gemma Pardo Nottingham Castle
Neeta Madahar aspex, Portsmouth
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