Ars Electronica 2010: Artists Adressing NextNature

Ties van de Werff
September 9th 2010

Sind wir noch zu retten? That was the slogan of this year’s Ars Electronica festival in Linz (Austria). Titled ‘REPAIR’, the media art festival urged to leave our scepticism and lethargy behind and turn to artists, designers, scientists and engineers to search a way out. What do these pioneers tell us? How can we reach an alternative future? And what’s living like in NextNature?

Idealism starts by losing yourself. Many artists alter our existing view of reality by showing ‘nature’ in an aesthetic and immersive manner. The Earth of Finnbogi Pétursson was just beautiful and hypnotizing; by generating a 7,8 Hertz sound – corresponding to the physical phenomenon called The Schumann Resonance, that describes the resonation of the Earth’s electromagnetic field – our planet’s pulse became visible in waves on the surface of a water-filled basin. Similar, but even more poetic, is the live audiovisual performance ‘rheo: 5 horizons’ by Ryoichi Kurokawa . Fascinating dream-like rainy landscapes in transition into graphic analyses, mixed with eery sounds.

After being immersed for a while, it’s time for some action! How to mend our planet? First, we should start with ourselves. The Phantom Recorder by Revital Cohen can be used to generate the feeling of a limb where there is none. The system projects a cold, damp sensation onto the skin surface, enabling sensations to be inserted to the device. But why not just add a real extra limb? Stelarc’s Ear on Arm project shows that an additional prosthesis can be seen as a symptom of excess, instead as a sign of lack. His additional ear (yes, on his arm) is equipped with a microphone and a built-in transmitter, resembling the double function of the skin as reception and transmission mechanism. The work by Nico Ferrando was just as fascinating; a series of photographs of couples of which some of the body parts are interchanged, particularly those related to what is socially taken to define gender. The Telenoid by Hiroshi Ishiguro shows how communicating with a robot is not all that unnatural. You can communicate with a friend with a mic at the other side of the room via this little geminoid. And it works: you really start feeling intimacy with this pointy-armed, bold and creepy robot-doll. Strange experience.

Other projects more explicitly deal with new ways of handling of (what was once) nature. The Windowfarms Project is a web platform that helps city dwellers grow food in their apartments year-round by creating compact vertical hydroponic gardens in windows. The quelle 01 is a high tech drinking water purifying system which takes local tap water, physically and chemically purifies it, and delivers it as if from a natural spring. The Growth Assembly (by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg and Sascha Pohlflepp), featured here last year, was also on display and still fascinating. Coded into the DNA of a plant, product parts grow within the supporting system of the plant’s structure. When fully developed, they are stripped like a walnut form its shell or corn from its husk. Scientist-artist Cornelia Hesse-Honegger presented her famous pictures of flies and other bugs that have mutated as a result of environmental contamination and atomic radiation.

The robotic plant of Akira Nakayasu is an interactive installation inspired by the vision of grass blowing in the wind. It has 169 artificial leaves, which are controlled by using shape memory alloy actuators. They move independently when you move your hand over it. Matthew Gardiner just creates a whole new field of research with The Future Unfolds. His robotic plants are examples of oribotics, which thrives on the aesthetic, biomechanical and morphological connections between nature, origami (!) and robotics (you’re either an artist or you’re not). It results in beautiful artificial flowers, with oribot blossoms that open if a hand approaches, causing 1,050 folds to actuate in the bot.

These are just a few examples of an extensive programme, including interesting conferences on human robot harmony, digital communities, and how to live an open source life. Although, from an artistic point of view, this year’s Ars Electronica was less interesting than last year’s edition (which was themed around human nature), it nicely reveals how artists, scientists, designers and engineers are working on an alternative future. And it shows the need for a new idealism, nextnature style.

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Should men be able to give birth to children?


Koert van Mensvoort: Is the artificial womb frankenstein-like symbol of (male) engineers trying to steal the magical womb from women? Or… is it a feminist project and needed to reach through equality between the sexes? I personally lean towards the latter. To me it feels like progress if a girl can tell a guy to carry the womb for a change.

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