Homo Reparans

In their preface, the curators of Ars Electronica 2010 sounded pretty alarmistic. Not to put too fine a point on the summary, you could phrase it with “the world is on fire, act now, there is no time for pessimism (or maybe even thinking)”. Before I went, I had my doubts whether a call for immediate action combined with an apparently clear goal to get the world “back on the right track” (i.e. repair it) would get us into a mode of “no alternative” (TINA). If there was no alternative, asking questions, reflecting, disagreeing would have to be regarded as a waste of time…

Tove Kjellmark's "Destruction of the Ego" Robot needs a repair

 

Technology and democracy

Of course, you can read the initial statement as a provocation, and the actual discussions were more balanced and aware of the two sides many measures to “save the world” have. The relations and tensions between technology and democracy formed a core topic on this festival around “Art, Technology, and Society”. Andreas Lehner of the CCC underlined the importance of hacker organisations for democracy with a quote of Albert Einstein: “Think also about the fact that it is the engineers who make true democracy possible. ” But while they (often) lay the foundations and enable communication and exchange, in a democracy, they should not be the ones to take decisions. As Amelia Andersdottir (MEP for the Piratpartiet) reported from her own experience, many decisions in today’s politics come prefabricated from expert organisations like the WTO. The European or national parliaments have little left to change – and often lack time and expertise to fully understand the concepts and even more to improve them. Additionally, more funding and experts form an advantage for large companies in the competition of opinions. This is not a conspiracy by “them” (a somewhat diffuse enemy Ralf Schmerberg wants to bash in his movie Problema), but a self-reinforcing process that needs to be changed.

216 prepared dc-motors/filler wire 1.0mm by Zimoun.

216 prepared dc-motors/filler wire 1.0mm by Zimoun.

Privacy

Today’s technology even enables a level of hypercommunication that goes further than most of its users want it, into the most private aspects of life. Google Streetview and Facebook were not in the center of discussions but a permanent subtext. (Maybe this is also because today’s developments in this area spread in realtime and solid critique is delayed, as Geert Lovink put it).The Austrian philosopher Andreas Hirsch even claimed that there is nothing left but an illusion of privacy. This brought up a fruitful debate with two remarkable statements:

Even this illusion is still valuable to Derrick de Kerckhove, because as long as we think of a private space, we can also think of a public space, reserved for arguments that are not meant personal. Joitchi Ito, who actually lives a pretty transparent life himself (deliberately), still was not convinced: Privacy is needed so that civil actions gain enough momentum before they are under public/governmental control (and possibly restrictions). If their is no private space anymore, there won’t be any strong impulses for the public space, the res publica. Privacy is an essential prerequisite to make “repair” possible for re(s)publics and democracies.

(You could also think of China as an extreme form of the expert society refered to by Andersdotter above, which might prescribe unacceptable standards for your way of life.)

Ars Electronica Courtyard

Courtyard of former Tabakfabrik, the venue of Ars Electronica

Open tools

A strong grassrootsmovement (at least at ars electronica) is dedicated to opensource technology. Open software is much more common and accepted today (just think of Mozilla’s Firefox), but it is not software alone anymore.

Unhappy with today’s versions of social networks, Maxwell Salzberg presented the Diaspora project that aims at making the flow of (user) data more transparent and thus giving users a better control of privacy (Gert Lovink added similiar projects like GNUsocial, AppleSeed, and status.net). I personally find this extremely important, not only because of the significance social networks have today, but also because the architecture of the new systems will have to offer solutions for some tricky problems (like interoperability, widespread acceptance, ease of use).

Head mounted eyetracking set

Head mounted open source eyetracker (hardware side)

When you hit the borders of opensource software, you will soon want additional hardware. The Free Art and Technology Lab, together with the Graffiti Research Lab, Open Frameworks, and the Ebeling Groupcreated a do-it-yourself eyetracking system (with claimed 50$ costs in hardware) called the Eyewriter. They initially created it for a friend who suffers of ALS/Lou Gehrig’s Desease and can’t moeve anything but his eyes. While eyetracking as an expensive technology is not new, this package of hardware instructions and powerful software puts it into the hands of everybody, to explore, adapt, and improve.

MakerBot

MakerBot in action

Material/3d printers used to be another high-tech, high-cost device. Now there is the makerbot to print out the 3d models of the general public. And from being the attraction itself it already tends to become a supporting part of other artworks, like in Daan van den Berg’s Merrick.

Oribots by Matthew Gardiner

The parts of Matthew Gardiner’s Oribotic project are also created with a 3d printer.

Even “bio technology” is now tinkered with. There are more speculative designs for debate, like Catherin Kramer’s Community Meat Lab. It combines the (future) in-vitro growing of meat with a community based form of production. While open sourcing biotec, she also tries to avoid the gap between food producers and consumers of today’s industrialised supply systems. Ready to build (it yourself) are the low tech/recycled The Windowfarms Project by Britta Riley.

Windowfarm

Britta Riley’s Windowfarms

Interestingly enough, considerable exhibition space was given to industrial companies in the Repair Fair – some of them surely a proof for former utiopias and brave enterpreneurship. Other big ones like Siemens or Linz AG apeared in a strange contrast to the rest of the exhibition, being as responsible for the often bemoaned state of the enviroment as well as potential contributors to “reparation”.

Repair for originals!

For many people who create opensource technolgy today, disassembling devices because they were broken has often been the first step into working with technology. This is contained in one of the statements in the platform 21 Repair Manifesto, (to me) one of the most important documents of the ars:

7. To repair is to discover.

[…]

10. Repairing is indiependence.
Don’t be a slave to technology – be its master. If it’s broken, fix it and make it better. And if you’re a master, empower others.

Woolfiller

straight forward repair by filting in situ: Woolfiller by Heleen Klopper

Additionally, they gave me a very enlightening explanation for “authenticity”, the feeling that certain things are somehow weaved into our personal history. We often tend to cling to old stuff, even when new products were easily available (a marketing department’s nightmare: happy people don’t buy new stuff, and authenticity is hard to synthesize). When you repair something after an accident or because it is worn out, you focus especially on the parts of a thing which make you aware of your “common experiences”. And repairing causes an self-reinforcing exchange with a thing: you dedicate time and effort and this makes it even more important and unique to you.

9. Repaired things are unique.
Even fakes become originals when you repair them.

Shoe Goo Repair

At the Shoe Goo repair station, Arne Hendriks applies “street knowledge” from skaters to make you shoes live longer.

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Out of the Order

versatile vehicle to fix all kinds of problems, in Switzerland

Ars Electronica 2010 takes a car repair shop point of view on society. Something is wrong with the world, we see it everyday: economy is causing more troubles than it solves, our ecosystem appears to be exploited beyond its limits, and a general felt lack of influence on political processes makes us feel helpless. We need to fix that.

Fix what?

Repairing something means that it is out of order, out of a state how it should be, how it was designed. It sounds like an engineer’s or expert’s perspective, starting out from a blueprint and a good plan.
While this makes pretty much sense for devices, it is leads to interesting consequences when applied to society and also myself (“Repair yourself” is part of ars electronica’s programme).

It starts already at the most prominent crossing of technology and society, the internet: The way it was originally designed and how it is used today are pretty far from each other. Now, various parties would like to “repair” the net – one extreme wants to have far less checks and control to enable a free flow of information. The other extreme wants to turn the web into a highly regulated marketplace where companies authorize any transaction to ensure their profit share. Both parties think there are some mechanisms out of order at the moment, but they think of different “orders”.

Fix how?

Ideally, one would think of society as a (big) assembly of people who negotiate how they want to arrange their social rules, their interactions with the environment, etc. (some copyright by Habermas here). Of course, this is not how it works because we all have very different capabilities to express ourselves and convince others (you can also think of money as a convincing factor), resulting in different powers to form society.

But also when leaving that problem unconsidered, the current state of society is something that has been negotiated in countless discussions and ballots. What we see today has never been planned for. There are some blueprints for the process itself, and people might come with blueprints into the discussions. But the result is usually far from these blueprints, it’s something most people can live with, a compromise.

So, the result is the opposite of a plan, and even more, it gets continually altered, rearranged, “improved”, like a garden. Like plants and herbs, people also act autonomously. Can you repair a garden?

Since this year’s motto raises a lot of questions, you could consider it a good one. I’m really excited and curious about the answers the speakers and artists will bring along.

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Explorations into the edges of human

Robots and genetical engineering were dominant topics at this year’s ars electronica, entitled human nature. “So, nothing new…” you might think disappointedly, considering that the latest developments were broadly discussed in their own domains already. But then, this is only the first view. On the second, it appeared that “the arts” (as seen in Linz) weren’t surprised by what today’s science makes possible, either. Some artists added scientific laboratories, complete with staff and researchers, to their toolbox where the general public might still expect brushes and pencils.

Next generation of bio toys?

Next generation of bio toys?

Biotechnological Palettes

The best and most outstanding example for this is Eduardo Kac, this year’s winner of the Golden Nica in the (never more applicable) category of Hybrid Art. Under the cryptic title The Natural History of the Enigma, he had a part of his genome combined biotechnologically with a regular petunia flower. This plant now shows fine red veins in its otherwise pink face (that the upper/inner part of a blossom is called a “face” appears as a helpful coincidence for Kac). It was also Kac who had the first “glow in the dark” bunny produced in 2000, which had fluorescent fur due to flyfish genes smuggled into its DNA.

In his talk, Kac put special emphasis on the fact that the extracted part of his genome usually is responsible for detecting alien material in human blood. So, not only was part of “his blood” now making the flower’s “blood” transportation system visible, it also sneaked into the plant as an alien (with a little help from the biotechnological researchers). The result was then defined as a new life form called “plantimal”, and this particular member baptized (not without wink, as it seems) “Edunia”.

There were a lot of finely considered details, which all together make clear that the artist didn’t want to show (only) what is technologically feasible today. He merely used the potential of today’s technology, which also becomes more and more an everyday procedure, to pursue his aesthetic goals.

This was made even more obvious (or compelling), as this year’s ars electronica gave each prize winner’s talk an accompanying lecture from a “real” scientist. Josef Penninger (Director of the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology, Austrian Academy of the Sciences) explained his work on so called knock-out mice and how he was struggling to find the genetical causes of arthritis.

From both talks resulted the strong impression that the genome is just a set of bricks, and that you can design any property or appearance of a creature by the right combination of these biobricks. The audience put this into question and Penninger also conceded that all of this is less stable than we might think: “motherly love [can even] change the genome”. Still, this remark appears more like a side note. For this piece, the deliberate expression of the artist in his final work was described as central, and less the initiation of processes one can’t quite control or (yet) fully understand.

ars09_023_short

You can even find a S(ecurity level) 1 laboratory as part of the permanent exhibition in the basement of the new ars electronica center.

Robot in the mirror/Uncanny Robots

Gigantic metal monsters, stampeding over planet Earth, that’s a well known and sort of old skool techo-apocalypse. On the one hand, these monsters are already available on the market (less gigantic but at least as leathal as you might expect). On the other, research as well as the arts are often more interested in finding acceptable counterparts for humans, Sociable Robots as the MIT dubs them.

The Geminoid by Hiroshi Ishiguro (from the JST Erato Asada Project), this year’s featured artist, is an exact copy of the body of the artist in the form of a motor driven puppet. The Geminoid is not a robot (or Android) in the classic sense, because it has almost no sensors, world perception or decision making circuits, it can’t even walk. It is controlled by an external, remote operator.

The artist’s goal is to form a puppet that serves as a credible stand-in, e.g. in a discussion at a table, providing a perfect form of telepresence. Showing a certain amount of small, involuntary movements, as it is typical for humans, is among his strategies to bridge The Uncanny Valley, his “ultimate benchmark”, as Ishiguro put it himself. And while you couldn’t tell who is who on a photo, the puppet’s movements are still too slow and uneven to be accepted as humanlike. The ultimate uncanny feeling caught me (in the ars electronica center’s exhibition) when I touched the puppet, feeling the half-soft, half-rubberlike skin, not cold but also not at body temperature.

Ishiguro also reported that he wants to send his Geminoid to “give” his lectures at the Osaka University. It would be still him who talked and he doesn’t expect his students engaging him in fierce discussions, anyway. The university declined his wish so far, and it appeared pretty much as if this caught Ishiguro by surprise.

The artist is present (through the Geminoid)

The artist is present (through the Geminoid)

While most of us will smirk about this anecdote, this really comes to the central point of these efforts: Why do we think we need a “real” person to give a lecture? And what qualifies a “really present” person over a remote controlled puppet that performs all necessary tasks, one that might even be undistinguishable? Which then extends the question to how we could tell apart human and puppet, anyways (especially in everyday life where we usually don’t pay so much attention)?

Additionally to what you could see in the exhibition, Ishiguro is also looking into self-controlled robots. And because it turned out to be very complicated to program every possible move into a machine beforehand, his CB2 starts out as a “baby”. Just as human babies, CB2 starts out with very little knowledge about his motor capabilities and how to use them. It has to “learn” everything, by trial and error, by repetition, with external assistance (the “mother”). While it is entirely grey and has a far fainter visual relationship to the human body than the Geminoid, this mimicing of a central human behaviour leaves you with uncanny feelings, just as well.

Just as a human baby, this robot can’t stand up in the beginning. It needs to learn it by combining random movements, remembering previous successful efforts, and by following its (up to now human) teachers. In this context, Ishiguro also pointed out that human brains are more powerful than supercomputers, but operate on a considerably higher level of noise (i.e. not everything computes logically correctly). He speculates that this noise might be particularly key to the human brain’s learning capabilities.

Robot research has become more human, obviously. Not so much or not only in trying to copy humans, but in arriving in the same research areas as anthropologists, cognitive scientists, and brain researchers. And, besides all nerdiness that surrounded Ishiguro, this is also his declared goal: Building robots to learn more about humans.

Social Conditions

To me, the Digital Communities category always has been one of the wonderful aspects of ars electronica. This year, a whole conference day was dedicated to the topic of Cloud Intelligence. Unfortunately, the Nica winners from Wikileaks were not part of the panels, even though they provide a very important service for intelligent societies, transparency.

The first part of the Cloud Intelligence Symposium looked at online communities from a scientific or meta level. Ethan Zuckerman (Global Voices) set out to talk about mapping online communication but ended up with the Digital Divide.

Surprisingly, he started with stories about the Marshall Islands that barely rise more than four meters above sea level. That means you can’t go from one island to the next on sight. Old maps used by indigenous people therefore depicted certain distortions in the rhythms of the ocean waves, which are caused by the islands, and can thus guide experienced navigators.

Zuckerman used this as an explanation on how communication mapping can work: not observing what is there (infrastructure), but what happens (emergence). Apparently and to little surprise, the USA, Europe, Japan and south-east Asia all were bustling places, and they are also wealthy regions. Some other countries also were in the bloggers’ focus, the ones which were devastated by military conflicts.

World map distorted by the number of cell phones in use - by Worldmapper

World map distorted by the number of cell phones in use – by Worldmapper

This approach surely provides better results on the “intelligence potential” than just counting registered users or the bandwidth installed in fibre cables. But looking at the installed or rather mostly missing high-speed infrastructure e.g. in Africa can also tell you that there haven’t been huge efforts so far to connect these parts of the world. On the other hand, and this might turn it into a hen-egg problem, it might have been due to a lack of demand from a wider audience which then kept the infrastructure suppliers from building. Speaking out loud what you think has also less of a tradition in these countries, most of which had or still suffer from authoritarian regimes.

One of Zuckerman’s findings was also that most of the communication, interlinking between blogs, or facebook friendships happen on a domestic scale. “Flocking with the same” is obviously an anthropological constant which stays true in a (technologically) globally networked world. So even internet infrastructure tells you something about “human nature”.

Transcending human imagination

Besides high-tech and deeply researched artefacts, you could also find the very calm ones that aren’t less thought provoking. Perfect example is the machine with gears and concrete by Arthur Ganson: … While you can see that it is moving at its “origin” (motor), after 12 gears of reduction, no movement is perceivable at the other end. We can calculate the movement because we know the mechanics. But also this will just give us some numbers that we can not relate with on a human scale. In fact, the final gear will make a full turn in a trillion years or so which is why Ganson can “savely” attach it firmely into concrete. Quite an interesting link of mechanics and philosophy…

Machine with Gears and Concrete

Machine with Gears and Concrete

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digital ambiguity

screenshot of Martin's favicons with white and grey backgrounds
The website of the interaction designer Martin Frey is represented by a fascinating favicon. It’s a rather simple matrix of grey and transparent pixels, his initials “MF” set to pure white. With the browser’s location bar usually set to white as well, the “MF” should remain invisible (at least until it gets displayed on the (in my case) grey background of a tab).

If I look onto the screen of my notebook under a very small angle, however, I can see the initials nevertheless – stunning! Even more surprisingly, I was not able to reproduce this “hologram effect” on my large flat screen or on my girl-friends notebook.

To me, it seems like a little secret hidden in an actually exposed but usually discarded place. Despite the strict commandments of the binary world to be either 1 or 0, smart and gentle (or even “in between”) notions still might be possible.

scrennshot of the SAP favicon
Another interesting favicon is used by SAP: It keeps on scrolling until the site is fully loaded – very nice!

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Inbox Expo

discussing art people

at the exhibition of inbox artspace

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If Spam was Art

comart banner

… we all could sell it and become rich fast. Really? If everyone has a lot of the same, we won’t make much money. In fact, we will have to look out for the real rare and precious gems. A newly founded company, Com+Art Galleries, started idealistic expeditions into this unknown territory.

This presentation (pdf: 1 mb, German only but a lot of pictures) offers some insights into art and into its surrounding businesses.

Drop by often because Com+Art Galleries will go public soon, offering the possiblity to participate in this exciting project to you.

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The future reviewed

The Ars Electronica has been committed to the Future for 25 years. According to its own statement it became not only the largest and most prominent but paradoxically also the oldest festival for the world between art and technology. It attracted a large number of regular visitors and participants who now thought the time had come to do a review.

Synopsis of the Past

Quite a number of exhibitions was dedicated to formerly excellent items, such as “Liquid Views” by Monika Fleischmann. Those “former times” seemed to dominate the conversations and thus contributed to an atmosphere of a retrospektive, as if many of the long-time veterans remembered the beginnigs of the computer revolution with bulbs and punch cards half amused, half stunning. Proving that the electronics then were seriously dependent on mechanics John Paradiso wired his “Modular Synthesizer” Monster everyday for new melodies. Itsuo Sakane could already talk about media art as a historian and his personal knowledge enabled him to tell even intimate details about its very beginnings. Especially for artists and art school students his speech should have been of special interest.

 

Ars Electronica | The Sensory Circus by Johannes Landstorfer 2004

Ars Electronica | The Sensory Circus
by Johannes Landstorfer 2004

Of course there is no review without statistical Analysis which is only available with a sufficent time past. At Ars Electronica conventional diagrams can’t be used: In cooperation with the Ars Electronica Center’s Future Lab Gerhard Dirmoser developped a detailed “Memory Theater” which related all topics and objects of the last 25 years and provided central figures and various trends via different arrangements. To cope with its complexity extra-large posters were printed but facing this enormous number of layers all attempts of information design failed.

According to the diagrams Gerfried Stocker is closely tied to the Ars. This name is not completely transparently linked with many others which might be the point for a small dissident group out of the festival to claim the Ars Electronica a Festival for art, technology and insider relationships…

Current Exhibits

It became clear in any case that at an Ars Electronica you can dive into a vast world of a huge number of projects. Highlights from former times are still fascinating but the festival knows above all but one direction: forward, towards the future. One of the audiences’ darlings ought to be the “Augmented Fish Reality” by Ken Rinaldo where the visitors got the unusual role of passive spectators. Main actors were to siamesic fighting fish which had not only the possibility to move around in their tank but also this way move the whole tank in the room – especially for toy fish probably an unknown freedom.

A very strong hint towards the interaction of the art scene with other areas could be found in the 3D-world of Ah_Q, which was created by Feng Mengbo using the game-proven Quake-III-engine.

The award-winning animations delivered very interesting and illustrative items but exeptionary ones as well: A highly dramatic story of a girl who had to tumble by her own clumsiness off a bridge to save a some minutes earlier picked up foundling not missing to celebrate harmony and happiness in front of a deluxe-airbrush-sunset (and a quite suddenly appearing sea-site) in advance. It was just like that. Noone I had the chance to talk about the movie could explain it to me. The exception was even more visible because “Ryan”, the winner, had both a fascinating story and its very own, deconstructed images.

IAMAS school from Japan showed animations as well along with a wide range of their creations. The works very excellent thus justifing the distinction granted with the invitation but above all were remarkably humorous and offered a lot of fun.

Ars Electronica | the IAMAS school of Japan

Ars Electronica | the IAMAS school of Japan

Digital Communities

In comparison to the last year the festival concentrated less on one specific area but presented a wide range past and current contributions. The result resembled more an album then a dossier. Some more peaks or depth would have made a better explanation for the promising motto. The Ars was not very futuristic and it was always easy to find one’s way back to the real world after having left the exhibitions. And if it was to reensure oneself of one’s sensual existance by the tasty experience of a Marillenknödel.

The only and not central focus was created by the “Communities”. The conferences around a “Language of Networks” were started on Wednesday already, a novelty to the schedule granting professionals the whole weekend for the actual exhibitions. The importance of the weekend-period was illustrated by the immedeatly emptied but formerly crowded conference rooms and the only scarcely occupied Donau riversides on Monday.

Ars Electronica | The Monday After

Ars Electronica | The Monday After

Nevertheless there was an intersting program: Since 2004 there is a new prize-category especially for communities. Severeal forums and discussion panels were now dedicated to this group. Intresting not at last because personalities from Joitchi Ito to Jimmy Wales to Laurence Lessig presented their views. A perfect match could be found in the electrolobby were the brandnew creativecommons section Austria was brought to life – celebrated with bottled “OpenSource Water”.

Having been a general review of past and current computer arts the Ars was worth it in any case because you could see how vibrant and active the world of networks is at those places were these networks are built.

[note: I wrote this review originally for the online magazine of Mediamatic]

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