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The tireless enchantment of technological sorcery | Ars Electronica 2016 Review


During my visit to Ars Electronica I was humoured by the excessive amount of ‘hello world’ creativity that is often produced when science and technology meet and exhibit interactive spectacles that make very little claim other than an enchanting proof of concept. What I thought would be an interesting media festival turned out to be a robotics road show. This tech road show attracts over 90,000 people from Europe and Asia to wonder at the latest innovations in robotics, VR, bio-hacking, 3d printing, drones and anything that glossed the pages of Wired magazine as the next big thing.

The alchemists of our time, or as I like to call them ‘Dumb wizards’, are continuing to design and exhibit technological achievements in self-fulfilling speculative words that have very little concern, consideration or critique with any relevant social issues of our time. Excluding the CyberArts exhibition (curated by Genoveva Rückert), which I thought was a top selection of some of the best media art works of the last years, Ars Electronica is predominantly occupied by interactive spectacles that neglect to examine the social & political impact of technology.

To overlook how smart phones, big data and network computing are changing privacy & security, or how cloud based services are transforming the labour market or how Silicon valley start up culture has convinced a sizeable amount of the population that for every problem, there is an app based solution. In the bazaar of innovative design and interactive art I struggled to identify any work (be it art, product, or concept/agency) that voiced or articulated concern or criticism with technology, politics or social change. The most provocative aspects would be the whimsical one liner that is planted to introduce some speculative design projects, showcasing some daft prototype with a splash page and a quote in large font to grab the attention of the viewer.

What is the gold of our time?

How do we build a social relationship with others?

Innovation: Where do we go from here?

My favourite example of this was the disastrous ‘sky canvas: Shooting Stars. On demand’, an initiative to re-create the magic of a shooting star with satellite technology and glowing bits of plastic that can be shot into the night sky at the tap of a mobile app. The Alchemists of our time have fixed the magic of shooting stars. Great, thanks.

Much of the programme was better suited as light-hearted evening entertainment, drone racing, robot cooking, and endless drawing automaton. This robot, which I called ‘Human Pencil’ would throw around its inventor while he held 20 pencils and tried to make a drawing. Simultaneously inventive, pointless and entertaining; these robotic meme installations are better suited to robot fail video compilations on YouTube than to an art exhibition. The rejection of a critical consideration or a socio-political framing of the role of technology leads to what I call ‘enchantment art’, where the same devices used to execute mass killings in war zones become family friendly evenings entertainment.

Congratulations Dragan Ilić & team. Next performance at 10pm #Arselectronica16 #Artandscience @ArsElectronica

— GV Art (@GV_Art) September 8, 2016

So how has Ars Electronica, one of the longest standing and biggest media arts festivals in the world, found itself so far distanced from the political concerns surrounding technology? The first reason perhaps is that science does not bode well with critical theory. Many of the projects at Ars Electronica (again, excluding the CyberArts exhibition) feel like science museum artefacts that simply demonstrate technical (in)capability.

This attitude can be personified by the man I saw wearing a t-shirt stating “SCIENCE – It works, bitches”. Take for example this robotic arm reprinting Michelangelo sculptures which can only underline the immense technical potential of technology. Another possible reason perhaps that many of the works at Ars lacked social awareness is because they are produced by scientists & programmers in isolated laboratories. In this working methodology the viewer is rarely considered apart from in user tests, case studies and de-bugging. I found many maker lab types standing next to their large laser cutters avoiding eye contact while they printed out modular components and hoped for the next entrepreneur to walk past and slam down an investment fund. The lack of social awareness and engagement of issues surrounding our time have begun to impinge on the festival itself and an awareness campaign called #kissmyars is voicing concerns over the lack of female representation at the festival, particularly in the prix art prize which is awarded to men 9/10 times. The gender diversity in technology sector should no longer be ignored; this is one example of a socio-political issue not only overlooked at the festival program but also exacerbated by the organisation itself. I hope that the #KissMyArs campaign will not only rebalance the gender inequality at the event but also encourage the organisers to address other alarming realisations that operate within and around the application of technology in the social, political and economic sphere. Perhaps the Alchemists of our time should stop staring into the night sky planning the next life saving app and begin addressing the issues that applications can’t fix.