Unravelling the cultural technology of the future from the Ars Electronica Festival 2021
On Wednesday, September 8th, 2021, Tokyo Midtown and Ars Electronica held an online talk session entitled "Ars Electronica Festival 2021: Cultural Technologies of the Future".
The talk was held to coincide with the beginning of the Ars Electronica Festival 2021 - A New Digital Deal. The members of Ars Electronica and Daito Manabe, an artist and member of this year's Prix Ars Electronica jury, reviewed this year's award-winning works and discussed the cultural technologies of the future.
This article introduces their discussion in an interview format.
(Interviewer: Nami Fujitani, Producer, Ars Electronica Collaborative Project, TOKYO MIDTOWN)
Artist, programmer, and DJ.
Launched Rhizomatiks in 2006. Specially-appointed professor at Keio University SFC.
Manabe’s works, which range into a variety of fields, takes a new approach to everyday materials and phenomena. However, his end goal is not simply rich, high-definition realism by recognizing and recombining these familiar elemental building blocks. Rather, his practice is informed by careful observation to discover and elucidate the essential potentialities inherent to the human body, data, programming, computers, and other phenomena, thus probing the interrelationships and boundaries delineating the analog and digital, real and virtual.
Emiko Ogawa is a Japanese curator and artist based in Linz, Austria. She is Head of Prix Ars Electronica which is known as the world’s most time-honored media arts competition organized by Ars Elecronica. She has worked for the launch of the new Ars Electronica Center in 2008 and since then she has curated the exhibition for the Ars Electronica Center, Ars Electronica Festival and Ars Electronica Export.
Kyoko Kunoh is an ambassador of Ars Electronica.
She has created extensively on art works in the interactive art field, and has been active in a wide range of fields such as directing in the public and commercial space, design of exhibit products, and joint project with companies and universities. Her projects have been featured in many different locations both domestically and internationally including Ars Electronica (Austria), SIGGRAPH (USA), Centre Pompidou (France) and Japan Media Arts Festival (Japan).
Ars Electronica Festival was a hybrid of physical and digital events.
Thank you all for coming today. Diato and I are joining from Tokyo, Emiko and Kyoko from Linz, Austria. First of all, Kyoko, could you give us an overview of this year's festival?
Sure. This year's Ars Electronica festival was held in Austria and online for five days, from September 8th to the 12th. The Ars Electronica Festival has been running since 1979, and every year a theme is set to be discussed, and this year's theme is "A New Digital Deal”. This theme may remind some people of New Deal policies or the Green Deal, but what we want to discuss is how the digital world can work for society. Digital technology is now commonplace in our work and everyday lives, and we want to rethink the culture that has been created by it.
Next, I'd like to ask Emiko, who oversees the annual Prix Ars Electronica competition, and Daito, who served on this year's jury. First of all, Emiko, could you give us an overview of the Prix?
Prix Ars Electronica is a media art competition that has been running since 1987 and this year we have three categories: Digital Musics & Sound Art, Computer Animation, and Artificial Intelligence & Life Art. Today, I’d also like to introduce the STARTS PRIZE, which is commissioned by the EU and organised by Ars Electronica, and two new prizes built this year, the new Ars Electronica Award for Digital Humanity and the Isao Tomita Special Prize.
Prix Ars Electronica
Digital Musics & Sound Art Golden Nica "Convergence" Alexander Schubert
This is a category that has been around since 1987, when Prix Ars Electronica began. This work was created by a German artist, and it is a 30-minute stage performance in which five musicians and AI work together to create sound and images. The significance of this work is in the usage of AI as a mirror of humanity, in other words, not to create music by AI but to find humanity from the unique perspective of AI.
I was the jury for this category this year, and in general, there were many works that used AI. Among them, there were many works that were highly experimental in their use of AI or that pursued the possibilities of the technological part of AI. Yet, this work focused on humans, and all the jury members appreciated this point. Also, it had a strong performance and music. If this was a little while ago, just using AI to create a piece of music would have been highly regarded, but nowadays, it's difficult to get recognition unless the piece is a complete work of art, and this award shows that.
"When the Sea Sends Forth a Forest" Guangli Liu
This is a 20-minute documentary by a Chinese artist. The film consists of an autobiographical account by an old man, Mr. Liu, who narrates the situation of Cambodia during the time when genocide was taken place by the Khmer Rouge. As there are few real photos and videos from that time, the few that remain have been reconstructed using 3D, modelling and virtual reality to create a new collective memory.
Artificial Intelligence & Life Art
"Cloud Studies" Forensic Architecture
This is the work of a group of architecture technology activists by a laboratory at Goldsmiths, University of London. The theme of this work is the “cloud” like smoke from airstrikes, tear gas to disperse demonstrations and toxic clouds to humans and the natural environment. The materials used include footage are videos taken by anonymous citizens using their smartphones uploaded to YouTube, surveillance camera footage and images, and satellite images. By reconstructing thousands of videos of clouds using AI and modelling, they are creating evidence to expose environmentally violent crimes and human rights abuses by the state and military.
Forensic Architecture is a group that I introduced to my class, but I honestly didn't expect them to win the Prix Ars Electronica. Although they are highly regarded in the field of speculative design, I thought they were a little different from media art. They are different from other artists and designers with a more fictional approach because they don't stop at posing problems; they also provide clues to solve them, in other words, they actually go out to solve social problems. So I think it is symbolic that they have been awarded the Golden Nica.
Ars Electronica Award for Digital Humanity
"Branch Magazine" Climate Action Tech
This is a new award supported by the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The first grand prize was awarded to an online magazine called the “Branch Magazine”. As the subtitle of the magazine is “Online Magazine for a Sustainable and Equitable Internet”, it’s a magazine full of examples we can take to protect the environment, such as how AI can help environmental sustainability, how to reduce the energy needed for cryptocurrency, or how to open up the IT sector from fossil fuels.
Isao Tomita Special Award
"Apotome" Khyam Allami, Counterpoint
This is a special award within the music category of Prix Ars Electronica, newly established this year. Isao Tomita is a legend in the world of Japanese music. The award is given to works and artists that embody his creative and daring spirit. The prize was awarded to an online tool that allows users to compose music using tunings that cannot be expressed in the Western twelve-tone scale, such as sound from the Middle East, the Orient and other parts of the world. The award was given for combining such traditional music with digital techno-research and opening up new possibilities for people.
Since we are in the music category, I would like to say a few words. There are a lot of things that make this tool great, but the most important thing is that it has a well thought out mechanism for community and online collaboration. It's a device that encourages the emergence of creation by many people through online collaboration, rather than just one person composing. Isao Tomita is not only a great composer but also a person who has challenged new ways of using tools, so the work that is close to his way of thinking and being was chosen.
This is a prize commissioned by the EU and organised by Ars Electronica. Two grand prizes are awarded for art that stimulates innovation, technology, industry and society.
Grand Prize - Artistic Exploration
"Oceans in Transformation" Territorial Agency
This is a community project led by two architects, focusing on environmental issues in the ocean. The results of a large-scale study in collaboration with hundreds of scientists and activists are projected onto twenty giant screens, and it's a work you can't help but stare at.
Grand Prize - Innovative Collaboration
"Remix el Barrio,Food Waste Biomaterial Makers"
Anastasia Pistofidou, Marion Real and The Remixers at Fab Lab Barcelona, IaaC
With 720 tonnes of food going to waste every day in Catalonia, artists and designers are collaborating with local restaurants and galleries to upcycle food waste, including dyes made from avocado peels and bioplastics made from orange peels.
I often apply for this prize myself, and I think it is an award that emphasises the work’s connection with society rather than the work itself. Of course, there are many projects that place environmental issues and sustainability as their key concept, but I think the prize is highly valued for the way it encourages people to take action, not only by raising issues but by actually creating art and communities and holding workshops in the real world. This is a genre that Japan is not excelling in, and I thought that the Spanish project that won the Innovative Collaboration award was very European.
What is needed for the future of media art in Japan?
Daito, as well as the Ars Electronica Festival, you also exhibit at art festivals and take part in workshops around the world - what are the differences between Japan and overseas?
I make most of my work in Japan, but Europe is the place where I often show my work. There are many festivals and exhibitions. In Japan, it's hard to think of such places. Of course, there are a lot of art festivals in Japan, but I feel that there are not many that are properly integrated into the city. It's not in the city. It’s in commercial facilities or in private places. I think it's difficult to do that in Japan because of the environment. If you do it on the street, you get a lot of complaints. People say it's too loud, or something like that. It's hard for art festivals to be accepted in the city, so they have to go into nature out in the countryside.
This "School of the Future" is not so far out of Tokyo Midtown. I think that if we don't spread out a little more into the surrounding city, we won't be able to reach the point where we can transform the behaviour of the citizens.
As I’ve been observing the Ars Electronica Festival up close, one of the things that really struck me was how often people from all over the world would meet at the festival and start their next project with someone they had made friends with. That's what makes Ars Electronica unique, a place where people can collide with each other outside their familiar community, and I think that is what people are looking for in a festival like ours.
I understand that very well. The reason I go to Ars is because I think it's interesting to see the coincidence of things happening that you didn't originally expect and to meet all kinds of people. Japanese festivals tend to have similar faces, so if you don't actively mix _people from different genres, there's a danger that you'll end up with a very small village that exists forever.
I think the key is to find a way to collaborate with a wide range of people. At Ars, we do this by involving people. We ask a lot of artists to do things, especially if they want to take on a challenge, because we hope that by involving a lot of people, new things and discussions will begin. I'm careful not to underestimate small achievements or challenges that didn't work out. Even if there might not be a cutting edge technology, I try to have a positive take like “it’s trying to make a new approach to the current situation” or “it’s an experiment that is consciously rethinking the classic elements of technology”.
I talked to Rashin Fahandej, the winner in the music category, and she told me that she was inspired to make this work ("A Father's Lullaby") when she was an artist-in-residence at the office of the Mayor of Boston "talking to a lot of police officers". This kind of "I don't know how it will turn out" can result in a work of art that can be a bridge to issues that we citizens need to think about, or it can lead to interesting experiences that we don't really understand, so I think tolerance for artistic experimentation is important.
In Japan, there is a tendency to say, "you can't make something you don't understand", and as long as you spend money on technology, you tend to be required to solve problems. I think there are too few places where people are willing to try things even though they don't really know what will happen.