Ars Electronica: Facing the Future, A Survey of Two Decades. Timothy Druckrey with Ars Electronica (Eds) MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts (1999). 449 pp., paperback $19.95, ISBN 0-262-04176-6

Review by Richard Coyne
For The Information Society

This dense and enjoyable book is a compilation of key contributions to the Ars Electronica festival, conference and exhibition series that began in Linz, Austria, in 1979. The book provides a compact record of thinking in digital media and art spanning 20 years. The articles are short and digestible, and are based on talks and presentations given at the conferences. Some contributions may have appeared elsewhere in published form. The contributions are from writers of note in the digital realm, including Paul Virilio, Marvin Minsky, and Sadie Plant, as well as celebrated art practitioners. It is a reassuring tome, a near pocket-sized compendium or travel guide to 20 years of speculative cultural studies, a worthy reader for any digital artist or theorist. As such it presents as un-indexed raw material, but in chronological order, and under the loose headings of History, Theory and Practice.

Considering the span and importance of the compilation it is surprising that there is so little probing by the compilers of what this 20 year period amounts to. There is only the briefest reflection on trends, milestones, and watershed moments. There is plenty about electronic media, but little reflection on the narratives themselves that seem to be constructed around it: the predictions, promises, hopes, claims, conflicts, and the ageing fissures in the enthusiasm for electronic media exposed by the passage of time. Perhaps it is for others (those less in debt to the 74 or so contributors) to chart critically the social phenomenon of digital media theory construction.

Such probing might expose the pivotal role of certain world events: the decline of the cold war, and the events of the Gulf War of the early 1990s, the latter of which seems to have provided boundless opportunity to reflect on the role of information in terror, deception and counter-deception. See the instructive interview with Virilio on the theme of "infowars." It may be that the next Ars Electronica compendium will show the events of 11 September 2001 as equally pivotal in a shift in narratives about capitalism, commerce, war and digital communications.

Further transformations over this 20 year period need to be investigated. There are the early forays by artists into the techniques of electronic media and their hesitant justification, as in Hannes Leopoldseder’s 10 indications of an "emerging computer culture" dated 1986. One senses a gradual progression in the book from a preoccupation with technical matters to a self-confident assurance that we are entering an era of "global mind." Moravec’s futuristic history of robotics, presented in 1991, concludes with a fiction of a robot surgeon gradually slicing away at a living human brain to effect a painless transferral of mind to micro-circuitry, the resultant entity able to enjoy a faster, and altogether superior mode of thinking. This is not presented as a thought experiment, but the conjecture of an actuality &emdash; refuted by a later contribution by Peter Fromherz on the implausibility of neuron-silicon junctions.

Early contributions also focus on the possibilities of AI (artificial intelligence) as an exercise in coding the workings of the mind. This is later displaced by an interest in the body, reflecting not only the lack of results, funding and power on the part of the AI project, but a transition to a realm that more closely touches the interests of the arts, and their investment in the themes of movement, dance, performance, representations of the body, and art production. Clearly the populist spread of the Internet is also a major factor in narrative transformation, providing artists with a new medium about which to purvey the anti-institutional attitude, and reviving an enthusiasm for a community-based art, as indicated in Roy Ascott’s contribution on networking as the new (1989) metaphor.

The contributions also expose an interesting tension between popular science and critical cultural theory, as is evident in Richard Dawkins’ hyper-empiricist polemic against religious beliefs as the perpetration of mind viruses, inoculation against which comes from a good dose of reason. Dawkins seems unaware of cleverer accounts of the development of cultural artefacts provided by the critical cultural theorists who populate the rest of the book, those inspired by Roland Barthes’ account of myth, which implicates the Dawkins’ style of techno-science and bourgeois aphorisms as just such a perpetration of "mind viruses."

From the readings it is easy to see what is so appealing about these digital narratives, whether from popular science or elsewhere. They incite and provoke, and as such it is less a question of their truth status or validity as their productivity. For the artist, designer, and creative writer, the preposterous ideas of Dawkins’ mind virus, Moravec’s mind melds, and Langton’s machine evolution can fuel all kinds of creative possibilities. The propositions are potent in their simplicity, and their naivete. They also test the credibility of the institution of science, or at least the margins of science from which they seem to emanate. The laboratory is of course the site of a different game to art, and its polemic is also motivated by a desire to attract the substantial funds needed to sustain high-tech research programs.

Much popular science is not by scientists writing as scientists, but as quasi-philosophers, hobby sociologists and ingenuous cultural theorists. Perhaps it is Donna Haraway who is the rare example of a trained scientist and cultural theorist aware of the power of the most absurd proposition: the cyborg. Regrettably there is no contribution by Haraway in this volume, but Hari Kunzru endorses the need to retain the power of the cyborg to transgress: "the cyborg is still the baddest girl on the block."

It seems that electronic arts is an appropriating discipline, and long may it remain so. Whatever the inspiration for Stelarc’s stomach sculpture, third arm and bionic ear, his effect seems to be to lay bare the absurd extremes of Moravec and others. When new-age popular scientism is translated into the area of performance then it becomes something else. It is perhaps shown for what it is: a play of narratives. It moves into an arena where irony, incongruity and provocation can have their play. An interesting digital future would be one in which the tables are turned, in which we use the arts as the measure of what is credible, and science is seen to be but a certain form of play in the absurd. Perhaps then science would draw on art, as much as Ars Electronica is indebted to popular science.