Report from Ars Electronica 2003

Hopefully this isnt too late - but for those who missed it (and those
who made it) just thought I'd send out my annual report….

Report From Ars Electronica 2003
Sept 6-11, 2003
Linz, Austria
By Jonah Brucker-Cohen ([email protected])

Along the banks of the Danube river in Linz, Austria, the world
famous Ars Electronica festival opened with a heavy duty roster of
theorists, performers, artists, and practitioners. This year's theme,
"Code: The Language of Our Time," was meant as a starting point to
examine code and software art's development, aesthetics, and
implications. Debates centered around the question: If code is the
language of technology what does this mean for the future of art
practice? Despite a wide range of answers from participants, the
human side of the equation was ignored. For instance, how do we react
to code? It might sound sentimental, but how does code make us feel?
Machine code might be integral for computers to function, but
ultimately humans dictate their use. I tried to answer these
questions during the six day event, but felt overall that user
experience remained an afterthought to most of the discussions and
exhibited work.

The symposium began with hard-hitting theorists of code and
information visualization. The approach was to emphasize the
framework of the conference topic as existing within a larger body of
work from sociology to political to personal contexts. I arrived on
the second day of the symposium, when an adamant Richard Kriesche
spoke about code as a set of interconnected signs wherein code itself
could be seen as art form in itself. Roman Verostko, an artist and
theorist provided a nice alternative when he presented his graphic
drawing machines built in the 80s as examples of rule-based
sculptures illustrating how changing a single variable in a process
can create infinite and unpredictable behaviors. Following this
presentation, Casey Reas, co-creator of Processing (,
argued that programming languages are materials, like other enabling
media, and that despite their flexibility, they can also be limiting.
His inspiration for Processing stems from the processes of code
executing, rather than the act of writing code, or the code's output.
At the Q&A session after his talk, Andreas Broeckmann (co-curator of
Transmediale) posited to Reas the simple question:"Why do you
program?" Of which Reas replied, "Because I have to". Coding might be
a biologic need for some, but the debate raged on as to how code can
translate from one medium to the next.

Other symposium sessions focused on the scalability of code into new
forms including community and networks to physical devices and
objects. During the "Social Code" panel, Howard Rheingold, author of
"Smart Mobs", spoke about the battle over code where conflict of
ownership ultimately curbs innovation. Florian Cramer disputed the
festival's theme by emphasizing the appropriation of code as art and
how this distinction creates and artificial relationship between code
and language. Looking at biometrics, Fiona Raby, formerly of the
Royal College of Art, threw some humor into the mix by outlining the
"BioLand" project, a virtual mini-mall of bio-metric devices and
gadgets including a human DNA encoded pet pig. Also, Hiroshi Ishii,
professor of Tangible Media at the MIT Media Lab, spoke about
decoding code through physical interaction with objects and how by
creating these dynamic relationships could contribute to a new human
language of collaborative design. Finally Crista Sommerer, artist and
professor at IAMAS in Japan, spoke about her various installations
that attempt to transcend the aesthetics of the machine such as two
haptic squash-encased devices that share people's heartbeats across a
Bluetooth connection.

Escaping the talks for some fresh air, I wandered down to the
exhibition across town. Toned down from last year, the show featured
a wide range of interactive projects from the CyberArts Honorary
Mention category. Walking up the O.K. Center's long concrete
stairwell, visitors were tracked and illuminated by Marie Sester's
"Access", a responsive spotlight that follows your movements as
dictated by online participants. On the first floor, the
Japanese-based musical group/corporation, Maywa Denki's amazing
electronic and human controlled musical instruments were set up,
including several interactive guitars and drum machines with
electronically controlled mallets connected to custom software
running on a PC. Other highlights included the "Biker's Horn" a
saxophone like instrument with flashing lights and multiple tubes and
the "Drum Shoes", wherein the CEO of Maywa Denki wore actuated shoes
with mallets as toes that were triggered by tapping his fingers on
custom built gloves with keys. Down the hall was Daniel Reichmuth and
Sybill Hauert's "Instant City", a block interface based musical
system where visitors could build structures that depending on the
amount of blocks placed triggered different samples. Another simple
yet effective musical interface was "Block Jam", a collection of
small reconfigurable blocks with embedded LED displays that allowed
people to create custom rhythms based on the blocks position,
orientation, and proximity to each other. Finally, in fine contrast
to the high tech installations was Iori Nakai's, "Streetscape", a
pen-based interface that played city sounds as users traced an
embossed map of Linz.

Scattered throughout the main venues were various performances and
special events that kept Ars visitors occupied. The main event was
Golan Levin and Zachary Leiberman's "Messa di Voce", an experiment in
interactive 3D graphics and sound, where vocalists Japp Blonk and
Joan La Barbara's cacophonous utterances came to life amid a giant
triple projection screen backdrop. Instead of focusing on a distinct
theme, the piece felt more like a collection of unique vignettes that
emphasized universal appeal over any distinct viewpoints. On the
music side, Steve Reich's monotonous "Drumming" performance featured
countless percussionists pounding repetitive rhythms in a room of
swirling visuals provided by FutureLab resident artist, Justin Manor.
The last night of Ars featured the bizarre "POL - Machatronic"
performance in the PostHof with actors donning robot exoskeletons
while reenacting a sausage themed love story. Afterwards, the late
night Code Arena at the Stadtwerkstatt pitted programmers against
drunken audiences who voted for the first ever Chocolate Nica Award
presented by Sodaplay creator, Ed Burton.

As the festival ended and all the code was compiled, there still
seemed to be something missing. Despite all the featured examples and
practice of software aesthetics in execution, code as language, input
and output, and modes of representation, there was little discussion
about experiencing the code itself. For instance, who uses all of the
code produced? What are we thinking, feeling, and experiencing when
code is used and what reactions exist in these instances? Although
insight was gained on how producers and theorists of this medium
postulate connections with code to cultural and social phenomenon,
there was little focus on the human response. Ultimately it is this
distinction which makes our experience unique and allows us to
understand the technology we interact with everyday. Perhaps in an
art context this might seem elusive, but the debate seemed incomplete
without uncovering the fundamental source of our frustration and
happiness with code.

-Jonah Brucker-Cohen