Anyone arriving in Linz, a city in northern Austria on the border with the Czech Republic, cannot help but notice the sci-fi building called the Ars Electronica Center. The architecture was designed in 2009 by Viennese studio Treusch Architecture ZT GmbH, and the interiors live up to the promise made by the exterior.
This is one of the world’s biggest and most futuristic digital and artificial intelligence museums, but the journey to this achievement began back in 1979. 2009 was in fact the year in which the new Ars Electronica Center was opened, just one of the landmarks in a process which got underway in the late Seventies with a festival for the digital arts, new technologies and innovations in contemporary societies. It was called the Ars Electronica Festival and to this day it constitutes one of the cornerstones of the whole project. The year is significant, as back in 1979 very few people were staking their bets on the future development of the digital world; if anything, the late Seventies saw a major shift back to traditional manual artforms, such as painting and sculpture, away from conceptual and kinetic-programmatic forms that laid the artistic and conceptual groundwork for digital art.
Of all the many Biennials held around the globe, the Ars Electronica Festival was something of an oddity. But those wanting to see what the future held in store had to go to Linz, where the art being presented was already immersive, participative and dialogue-based...all characteristics which have now become quite normal.
Ars Electronica, a trailblazer for the future
Yet as we all know, the function of art is to show us the future, so when we went to Linz, then as indeed now, we felt we were already inside it. Merit for this is down to a group of pioneers answering to the names of Hannes Leopoldseder, Hubert Bognermayr, Herbert W. Franke and Ultich Rützel who had already grasped the present and future urgency of the electronic-digital world. So much so that after the initial phase when the Festival was a Biennial (1979-1986), it became an annual event, even introducing an annual prize which was before its time, the Prix Ars Electronica.
1996 saw the inauguration of Futur Lab, a laboratory for developing digital and creative practices which soon became a reference point for businesses and schools the world over.
The Ars Electronica Center was already operative, but given its global appeal, in 2009 it was moved to a building of its own, designed especially to house all the Ars Electronica initiatives on a permanent basis.
During this period of time and up to the present day, Ars Electronica has increasingly made its mark, not just as a digital arts museum, but also as an active laboratory for knowledge, experimentation and open appreciation. So much so that some of the award-winners include the free electronic encyclopaedia Wikipedia, social platforms such as Creative Commons (the non-profit organisation for broadening knowledge) and technologies such as the Linux operating system. But it has also given the award to artists such as musicians Peter Gabriel, Ryūichi Sakamoto and Apex Twin or computer scientist Tim Berners Lee and Hypertext.
Within this evolution, the relationship between art, science and philosophy has developed more and more. Ars Electronica, given its sociological and anthropological approach, has focused its areas of interest on research and fostering educational and environmental practices.
Ars Electronica is a museum which features cutting-edge artificial intelligence interpreted in a number of directions, including of the artistic kind, which is how it first started out.
What the Museum, Future Lab and Festival all offer is a new take on the idea of art, where the person is centre-stage, not just as a spectator or user, but actual co-author of the work itself. Digital artforms have the prerogative whereby if they are not activated, they don’t exist. In order to exist they need us to carry out, with the various artworks, gestures of learning and ethical growth on the scope of modern technologies, harnessing and interacting with 3D projections, machines for 3D virtual design, virtual reality goggles, tablets, smartphones and all things electronic in general.
An exhibition on changes in human life
As with every museum, this, too, has a permanent exhibition called "New Images of Man", constituting the core of the programme with four laboratories all linked to one another. It analyses the question of how the world of human life and man himself is changing; how Man influences his environment, and what our world might look like tomorrow. Indeed artists working with digital art and artificial intelligence are increasingly invited to long-standing events such as the Biennials. In this respect, we need look no further than the Venice Biennial in 2019, “May You Live In Interesting Times”, curated by Ralph Ruogof, in which Chinese artistic duo Sun Yuan and Peng Yu presented the work “Cant’Help Myself”, 2016, a glass room inside of which a robotic arm wielded an enormous brush and applied paint to the floor. In the words of the artists, it helped us reflect on the impact and power of new technologies. A form of painting which, like life itself, is constantly evolving, and perhaps it is for this very reason that the colour chosen by the artists for this artwork is blood red.
The enchanting magical element
Ars Electronica is not just a window onto the future, it is an environment from the future made possible by presence of so many immersive and participative artworks, as you can see by visiting the website. You will find yourself – even through your own electronic device – propelled into the future.
By Giacinto Di Pietrantonio