Telediagnosis: The Human Information Machine

Ars Electronica 97, or Media Art as Medical History

September is a splendid month not only because the spider webs glisten in the autumn sun but also because it's that time of year again for the Ars Electronica. The festival, consolidated last year as an ongoing project with the opening of the Ars Electronica Center in Linz, Austria, becomes for one week the navel of the digital art world.

But since we've brought up body parts: What does the navel of a human "information machine" actually look like? Is it an ethernet adaptor or an internal modem? This disturbing question cries out for a closer examination of the "corpus" of the Ars Electronica. Thanks to the wonderful new information technologies, one doesn't need to rush off to Linz. Instead, one can study the "Ars", as it's popularly refered to, via telediagnosis.

The first question the diagnostician must raise: Is the body "alive" or has it already become a machine completely, merely simulating life? Not a particularly nice question when one considers that the summary of the program, as printed in tiny font sizes in the catalogue fills a complete page. Of course, it's precisely this overly abundant programming which raises suspicions, perhaps pointing to the robotic nature of the patient.

Before we begin to analyse the individual organs of the Menschmachine more closely, let's pause briefly to review the general identifying characteristics, or the so-called thematic concerns.

As early as 1989, the Ars devoted itself intensively to "Vernetzung", or networking, for the first time. Because the Internet at the time [in Europe] was reserved for an academic minority, and modems that weren't approved by the Post Office were illegal, most of the participation took on a more abstract, metaphorical form and was derived from the tradition of the networking discussion of the eighties which dealt less with technology than with a general understanding of networking and interdisciplinary studies as social practice.

One Gottfried Hattinger was the director and Peter Weibel took on the role of artistic advisor. The artistic visions of Hattinger and Weibel didn't quite jibe, Hattinger going for heavy machine art a la Survival Research Laboratories (SRL) while Weibel had more of a thing for fully electronic immersive media art.

The opposing intentions collided for the last time with "Out of Control" in 1991 when SRL were invited but didn't come and were replaced by a potpourri of "metallheadz" -- Erik Hobijn, ZEV, Lydia Lunch, Barry Schwartz, among others, i.e., Hattinger's Farewell Performance.

Then, in the early nineties, came the period of the "artificial somethings", first "artificial life", and then "artificial ambient". Conceptually, this was up to par with the technology of the time, but had one minor aesthetic flaw in that most of the artists didn't have access to the appropriate technologies. Once again, "metaphoritis", a bacillus that had appeared in the medical history of the Ars again and again and had proven itself immune to all medication, e.g., a change of directors, was raging.

So in the exhibition rooms one could admire numerous fine yet completely analog works which, employing algae, electrochemical catalysis or stuffed artificial animals, took "life" as the running theme. The so-called "hands on approach" with genuine digital gadgetry could be observed in only a few exceptional works such as Sommerer/Maignaneau's plant growth installations based on genetic algorithms or the "knowbotic" works, all of them, incidentally, produced by students at artistic advisor Peter Weibel's Frankfurt Institute for New Media. In other words, there was a lot of "Weibeling" going on.

Finally, in 1995, the Ars for the first time became the @rs electronica -- the Internet had hit Austria. The artists chosen did indeed represent a decent cross section of artistic activities on the Net during this early phase (Eva Grubinger, Internationale Stadt, Siberian Deal, to name just a few), but the presentation of a tossed off officescape with its convention-like surf stations lined up in a row was so gutless and cold that taking it in all too easily devolved to walking back out. This was the last of Weibel's exhibitions.

In 1996, a leap in quality in the development of the festival was made with the Ars Electronica Center and the new director, Gerfried Stocker (according to Hannes Leoppoldseder of ORF [Austrian Television] and Ars initiator in private conversation). Certainly a lot happened in 1996, but whether one can really speak of a leap in quality (quantum leap? paradigm shift?) is another question.

Strangely, though I can barely remember the actual theme (wasn't it something bacillusish?), I can very clearly recall the interview with Gerfried Stocker. This was when he steadfastly defended his position, which, defined briefly, went like this: A curator who chooses to clearly define a theme and then insists that the works chosen align themselves to this theme would be committing a violent attack on art.

Instead, his approach -- supposedly terribly appropriate for the age of the Net -- was to group certain works into subthemes and thereby develop various emphases within a dehierarchized network whose horizontal links were more subterranean than open.

To me, this sounded like a grand excuse for not having a concept at all. Because somehow, everything is related to everything else anyway. And the actual program came off more confusedly multi-faceted than subtly linked. "Contained" was given one more opportunity to carry out a sort of electronic heavy metal circus at a dump, almost a leftover from the days of Hattinger, very Fellini-like, very romantic and the only bearable hang out besides the Stattwerkstatt, but as for the rest, it was difficult enough for me last year to find the right words.

The question raised here is an fundamental one. Wouldn't the task of a curator be to provide some sense of orientation in all the electronic mish mash of wires, thereby taking a position on what has been selected? And to try to get this across to the visiting public using all the didactical means of the exhibition? Or does a curator in the digital age become something of a conventioneer with few filtering powers to decide who's in and where they'll be placed?

So finally, we arrive at this year's Ars, "FleshFactor -- Informationsmaschine Mensch". The second part of the title reverently refers to one of the founding fathers of the Ars, Herbert W. Franke and his science fiction stories about Kyborgs (pronounced "coo", not "sigh"), and in so doing, touches on a fundamental theme of the twentieth century, the relationship between humans and machines. Great themes have a certain advantage in that there's a lot of space to move around in.

The first part of the title conjures up rather unpleasant associations. The term "FleshFactor" leaps too soon to answer the question regarding the relationship between information technologies and machines. So what humans bring to the equation is flesh, biological materiality -- not, say, cultural ideals, goals and networks. And it's also the language of the "enemies", those contemptuous of art, like Minsky or Barlow, who degrade the natural world as "meatspace".

Those who oppose this rhetoric such as, for example, the publishers of the book geld.beat.synthetik (those publishers: Buero Bert, minimal club, Verlag ID-Archiv), clearly see festivals like the Ars as propaganda for new biotechnologies within the context of the profit systems of interested parties. This position is quite possibly not so far off the mark since "FleshFactor" is once again a highly tech-affirming theme, although such claims do tend to way overestimate the impact of the Ars on public opinion. Nevertheless, with this blunt thematic statement, the Ars runs straight at the critics' openly wielded knives.

Or. Could this even be done on purpose? Should a theme be chosen that really isn't one at all? Just so that a festival can be thrown up, as it is every year, so that the "community", or the international traveling cadre, as Tilman Baumgaertel would put it, can meet again? The actual planning of the program suggests a certain legitimacy for this suspicion.

It's not content that's being programmed, but old loyalties. Since Stocker's an artist himself with a background in the audio art scene (Kunstradio [an Austrian art radio program], etc.), it's no wonder that names such as Giardini Pensili, Concha Jerez, Helen Thorrington, or Beusch/Cassani appear, all part of a tight Kunstradio circle who've met for years at the same radio art meetings.

In the Net.Shop, it's exactly the same people, Rachel Baker, Alexei Schulgin, Jodi, Vuk Cosic, etc., who, on the Nettime mailing list, are discussing, which, according to their own testimony, doesn't actually exist outside the framework of a typical Net hoax. Net.Artists by the dozen? Then Net.Shop is truly the correct term. Instead of having to choose, one has simply bought the whole shelf.

Just as obvious is the ongoing influence of the ORF [Austrian Television] duo Schoepf and Leopoldseder, an influence that doesn't extend to the awarding of the Prix only. They tend to place value on a more classical sense of quality and are responsible for names such as Donna Haraway, Sakamoto and Coates, among others, that is, they go for transatlantic brand name recognition, acquired at festivals such as Siggraph. With the exception of a theoretician like Haraway, the word "art" can in this context be superseded by the word "media", since the point above all is to show off new software and all it can do.

The opening of the festival by Stelarc is part and parcel of the Ars. The new performance looks more or less the same as all the other Stelarc performances. Signals from the Internet are transferred to stimulators hooked up to Stelarc's musculature. For the audience, there's not much more to it than that, so Stelarc, as always, carries out his cyberkabuki, the main effect of which -- the noise -- is derived from eight analog cassette recorders Stelarc has tinkered with around the world. He can trigger the signals with his arm. Very cutting edge.

The point here is not to degrade Stelarc's legitimacy as a techno-performance pioneer, especially since he consistently uses his own body at great risk to his health. That alone sets him light years away from many cyberblusterers. What seems to me worth thinking about, though, are, for one thing, his quoted statements that outline a sort of space-bound disembodiment, and for another, and this would be more important, the uncritical way all this is bought by the festival organizers who celebrate the onstage presence of "Stelarc" as pure spectacle.

The human directly connected to the information streams of the Internet, reduced to pure biomass and its reflexes, becomes, without commentary, the "FleshFactor", the emblem of Informationsmaschine Mensch.

Finally, all it takes is a poster like British Telecom's with its lettering over the globe spelling out "Geography is History" to outline the artistic tendencies of the Ars Electronica in its real context. With the denial of geography, "information" takes on a sort of transcendental substance which can replace all other levels of human existence, making them seem obsolete. With The Californian Ideology, Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron have persuasively laid out just how this techno-theology-goes-marketing-strategy propels the exploitation of the real body and real space. The text appeared in 1995, but the Ars hasn't budged since.

Via telediagnosis, it can be determined that the "Informationsmaschine Mensch" has been cobbled together out of various common gadgets from the arsenal of the high tech mainstream. So that it could be passed off as "art", a dash of hacker chic and art guerrilla aesthetic has been added. The central nervous system has been attacked by "metaphoritis". The causes, or perhaps simply ongoing motifs, are certain mental disturbances leading to a situation in which the terms of information processing are uncritically equated with biological and cultural processes -- also known as the Wired syndrome.

While the electronic components of the Informationsmaschine function without a hitch, the organical ones are suffering from identity crises which can be traced back to the mental disturbances noted above. This identity problem would be an appropriate subject for the symposium, which might serve as a sort of psychoanalyst's couch. To be avoided would be the symposium themes originally set forward, i.e., basically the same warmed-over mantras of the last few years revolving around technophilia and technophobia.

Still, the week in Linz can be terrific. The parties at the Stadtwerkstatt are legendary and the Muehlviertler Most (a kind of apple wine) is to be highly recommended, especially since the reflexes of the flesh to the techno bombardment can be that much less critically enjoyed. For those who couldn't make it, I recommend Donna Haraway's Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium: FemaleMan Meets OncoMouse and a comfortable spot in the park.

Translated from German to English by David Hudson and published on REWIRED, the Journal of a Strained Net. (Armin Medosch)