Since 1979, the Ars Electronica Festival in Austria brings together artists, scientists, engineers and a curious public. This year seemed no different. The exhibits, performances, workshops, talks, and discussions attracted thousands of visitors and hundreds of artists to the main festival sites in the city of Linz. Still, this year was different. Due to the ongoing pandemic and travel restrictions, many people weren’t able to visit Linz in person. But fittingly for an arts and technology festival, Ars Electronica found a creative digital solution.
Certain parts of the festival were available via online video channels and attendees could connect in digital hubs. The channels not only broadcast some of the events in Linz, but also gave a platform to various science art sites around the world.
It’s difficult to make virtual events engaging. Attendees will never have the same sense of connection and the feeling of “being there” as if they were at an in-person event. Add to that the fact that many people have been present at dozens, if not hundreds, of virtual meetings and talks over the past six months, it’s a challenge to create a virtual event that has its own unique character.
At this year’s Ars Electronica event, different groups around the world were in charge of providing segments of the digital version of the festival, and there was a lot of variation in content. Among the type of material that best leant itself to the medium and found a way to make viewers feel connected were those that combined high-quality prerecorded content with a live panel broadcast from a central location (showing all speakers engaging with each other in the same room) and engaging viewers by taking questions.
One of the virtual events that made good use of the online platform in this way was “Genetic Biotech through the Eyes of Artists”, hosted by the Centre for Fine Arts (BOZAR) in Brussels. It started with a video that followed artists Sandra Lorenzi and Kuang-Yi Ku as they met with scientists of the Flemish Institute of Biotechnology (VIB). The video captured the artists’ initial impressions of the research and their interaction with the scientists. For example, when researcher Sofie Goormachters showed Ku a field of soybeans that’s being genetically adapted to be able to withstand European winters, Ku compares the plants to immigrants, instantly providing Goormachters with a new way to think about her work.
After the short video, the project’s artists and scientists gathered in a space at BOZAR to talk about science and art collaborations. They touched on topics such as whether artists have a role in helping scientists to communicate their work or whether the research acts more as inspiration for the artist. The rapid pace of the event meant that there wasn’t much time to go very deep into all these topics, but it was nevertheless interesting to see artists and scientists share their diverse views on these collaborations.
Some of the other virtual Ars Electronica content consisted only of prerecorded segments. Even though there wasn’t any interaction with the creators, these were usually very well-produced films, such as the short video Contain, which showcased the work of UK-based Open Cell, who are building mobile Covid-19 testing labs in shipping containers, ready to be transported to where they are most needed.
However, even a well-planned festival can’t always keep the digital program free of surprises. Some remote panels had difficulty connecting, or weren’t available at the expected time. Just like at a physical event, there were occasional room changes that could mean you were suddenly at a different panel or video than you had planned. In a way this uncertainty replicated the serendipity of a real festival, where you never quite know exactly what’s around the corner.
Perhaps ironically, the virtual programming around “Uncertain Practices” had none of these unexpected technical surprises. This series of talks and a panel discussion was expertly broadcast from Aalto Studios at Aalto University, and introduced science artists Koray Tahiroğlu, Laura Beloff and Andy Best. Each of the projects they presented was in some way linked to the kind of uncertainty that underlies many scientific processes or research. For example, Tahiroğlu performed and discussed the AI-tery musical instrument that uses an AI model to generate audio samples in unpredictable ways.
After their individual talks, in which the speakers were placed in front of a virtual background so that it looked like they were standing in an otherworldly area with a screen behind them, the artists all came together on the same stage for a panel discussion about their work and about the topic of uncertainty. Just like the BOZAR discussion on genetics and art, this discussion touched on interesting topics that somewhat abruptly ended when the virtual talk was over and the audience was left sitting alone at their laptop.
Ars Electronica highlights some of the latest technological advances and scientific techniques through the eyes of artists, and made a commendable attempt to bring that experience to the virtual world for people unable to visit Linz this year. It will never be the same as being present in person, and having a casual chat with other attendees to digest the events of the day, but one of the hallmarks of both scientists and artists is that of adaptability and considering the circumstances the combined in-person and virtual festival was the best way to adapt to a changing world.