Report From ARS @ ARCO 2006

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Report from ARS@ARCO
Madrid, Spain
Feb 8-9, 2006
by Jonah Brucker-Cohen (

During a temperate February in Madrid, the 25th
annual ARCO Art fair descended on the Spanish
Capital with close to 180,000 visitors, including
museum and art centre directors, gallery owners,
and representatives of international
institutions. The work of over 2,000 artists was
included in the event. From artwork in booths at
the convention center to those scattered in
galleries around the city, as well as many
speaking engagements, the fair was a massive
homage to the art industry as both a global
business venture and a cultural phenomenon. This
year's specially-invited country was Austria,
which brought along a wide array of digital art
projects curated by the Ars Electronica center in
Linz. Accompanying this exhibition was a
symposium on the theme of the "Future of Media
Arts" with artists from Austria and other invited
international visitors, curators, and theorists.

Located north west of downtown Madrid, the Conde
Duque complex housed the "Digital Transit" show
featuring interactive projects in an exhibition
curated by the Ars Electronica Center. Included
in the show were some projects from the
interactive art canon, such as Camille
Utterback's "Text Rain" and Christa Sommerer and
Laurent Mignonneau's "Life Species II." Other
projects in the show included John Gerrard's
"Watchful Portrait," two 3D portraits whose gazes
follow the sun or moon through each day and
night, and in the bio-art domain was
DNA-Consult's "GFPixel DH Portrait," a painting of
4000 Petri-dishes filled with genetically
transformed bacteria that produce green light.
Also in the show was Christian Moller's "Cheese,"
a video installation of six young actresses
attempting to hold a "smile" for over an hour
while video tracking measures the "sincerity" of
their smiles. An alarm sounded if their
"happiness" fell below a certain level. Most of
the projects in the exhibition had strong visual
components, including Norbert Pfaffenbichler,
Michael Aschauer and Lotte Schreiber's "24!," a
spatial audio-visual installation consisting of
24 pedestals in a grid formation with a
projection of a black pixel on the surface of
each. The pixel's movement is based on a simple
mathematical structure giving it 24 possible
movements to cover all corners of the square,
thus creating a cascade of sounds during these
movements. Examining public data sets was's "Vote Auction," a website that
offered US citizens a chance to sell their
presidential vote to online bidders during the
2000 elections which resulted in several states
issuing temporary restraining orders for "illegal
vote trading."

Across the plaza from the Digital Transit show
was the "Condition PostMedia" show curated by
Elisabeth Fiedler y Christa Steinle. This
exhibition featured projects attempting to bridge
boundaries between preconceived notions of media
art and more traditional art forms. A highlight
of this exhibition was the "Shockbot Corejulio,"
by Austrian artists Emanuel Andel and Christian
Guetzer, which consisted of a computer that ran a
program instructing it to "shock" itself by
lowering a metal instrument on top of its exposed
video card. The result was garbled video output
that attested to the frailties of modern
technology and its obedience to succumb to its
own demise. This project also recently won an
award at the Transmediale 2005 festival in Berlin.

North of the city, the Ars@ARCO symposium got
underway at the ARCO fair. The intent of the
panelists was to give their vision of where Media
Art will be in the next five to ten years.
Gerfried Stocker, director of Ars Electronica and
organizer of the panels and exhibitions began the
day by stating that the term "media art" is
problematic because it harbors too many
definitions such as "cyber art," "digital art,"
"virtual art," "software art," "," or
"interactive art." The main focus seemed to be
that digital art had moved away from the gallery
as the only way of seeing the work and was now
more integrated in arenas such as the Internet
and other "happenings" in public spaces. Heidi
Grundmann opened the panels with a presentation
of her work in "Radio art."

Focusing on media art in an international
context, the second panel featured artists,
curators, and facilitators representing work from
Africa, Asia, South America, and India. Jose
Carlos Mareitegui, from Peru, spoke on how
technology enables the "de-materialization" of
information that has created a new artistic space
for artists who can update their work on a
continuous basis. Geetha Narayanan, director of
the Srishti School for Art and Technology in
Bangalore, India spoke about how new media art
from post-materialistic societies will be
different than those from developing countries by
shifting from "consumption" to "quality of life"
oriented approaches. Elaine Ng, director of Art
Asia Pacific Magazine, spoke on how Japan is not
reflective of the greater art scene in Asia and
how Korea and Taiwan are beginning to follow the
technological lead of Japan. Focusing on the
African continent, Marcus Neustatter, curator and
artist in the "Trinity Session" of Johannesburg,
South Africa, spoke about how future media
artists are a mixture of everything from
entrepreneurs, to musicians, to filmmakers and
how the distinction between media artists and
those trained technically is decreasing.

The third panel featured artists and art
historians working in various media arts fields.
I spoke about my work in deconstructing network
relationships and how the future of media arts
relates to open systems and reconfigurable
rule-sets that change dynamically based on user
interaction. Beijing-based game artist Feng Meng
Bo spoke about his work in alternative gaming
interfaces and his project "Q3," in which he
digitally inserted himself carrying a camcorder
into the Quake 3 gaming environment. Also on the
panel was Dr.Katja Kwastek, an assistant
professor of Art History at the University of
Munich, who spoke about media arts from an
historical perspective. Derrick De Kerkove,
director of the Marshall McLuhan Program in
Culture and Technology, at the University of
Toronto, wrapped up the session saying that "More
and more the consumer has the capacity to modify,
shift, and obtain ownership of art," and that the
"Art" is the act of this manipulation itself,
where rules are broken by consumers. In the
larger sense, most, if not all, interactive media
art has rules associated with it and the future
will see the audience redefine and break those
rules through their interaction. The resulting
system will then be integrated back into the work.

As the ARS@ARCO event wound down, it was obvious
that the future of media arts remains a difficult
subject to clearly articulate. From commercial
and private research centers to art labs
releasing projects for the public domain, to the
independent artist working in their studio, the
creators of this type of art propagate from so
many different outlets and outlooks. With trends
in the blog-o-sphere pointing at DIY aesthetics
and "amateurs" creating inventive hacks to
existing consumer electronics products, the idea
of what "art" consists of, in this field,
constantly needs redefinition. The artists
involved in the symposium came to the conclusion
that media art is not only about using a medium
to express oneself, it is also about questioning
the very circumstances, time, place, and most
importantly, method and culture in which they are