Almost two decades of the digital revolution have been highlighted, analysed and critically assessed by Ars Electronica in the context of a 'Festival for Art, Technology and Society'. This has been the period of our century in which the transition from the industrialised to the information-based society has assumed its hitherto most salient characteristics. Frequently, groundbreaking concepts and whole new branches of knowledge have been the subject of examination. Enormous strides have been made in order to encompass new topics and establish new modes of perception. And there appears to be no limitations on technological developments to come. Yet the concomitant social changes have already assumed such rates of acceleration and compression that we are now fascinated, no longer by the possibilities of future utopias, but rather by that which as already come to pass. The future seems to have reversed directions and is collapsing upon us.
'FleshFactor - Informationsmaschine Mensch' the title of Ars Electronica 97, makes it clear that this year's theme is the Mensch, the human being. In light of the latest findings, developments and achievements in the fields of genetic engineering, 'neuro-science' and networked intelligence, the conceptual complex now under investigation will include the status of the individual in networked artificial systems, the human body as the ultimate original, and the strategies for orientation and interrelation of the diametric opposites, man and machine, in the reciprocal, necessary processes of adaptation and assimilation. To the extent that the tissues of our bodies and our minds are saturated by the elements of a networked artificially intelligent environment, this second 'natural' environment has become a reality to which we relate so intimately and intensively that a clear distinction between subject and object ceases to be possible. The classic Western model of the individual as an autonomous, inward-looking entity is relinquished in favour of a hybridized, networked subjectivity, within which we are forced to perceive ourselves as dynamic nodes in a social network of communication. At this point the qualifications of our co-communicators in terms of their natural or technological/artificial characteristics recede in significance.
Increasingly we find ourselves having to contend with new methodologies for interfacing with the physical/real and virtual/digital aggregate states of our environment, including the sensuous portrayal of information as a strategy for an 'expressiveness of subject' in telematic art. In a society defined by the psycho-sociology of surveillance, our media as a second skin at the periphery of the body, a body whose sentient pores are formed by surveillance cameras, image recognition systems, 'eye in the sky' satellites, personal data record systems, networked databases and intelligent agents.
And while this festival was in preparation, what should happen but a sheep named Dolly in Scotland takes a biological quantum leap, leaving the adventures of freely-selectable identities and constructed personalities of the Internet communities in its shadow, by portending 'body sampling' and biogenetic avatars in the place of mere networked VR-avatars. Meanwhile an open-minded reflection on techno-cultural developments is increasingly obstructed by massive ideological barriers which seem impregnable by means of a rational examination of the thematic ground. It may be that these ideological barriers, fortified with ethical and moral concerns, can only be breached by the force of a polarized and confrontational debate- a debate, moreover, taking place between artists and scientists, professionals coming from different points of view.
The theoretical and artistic events and projects of Ars Electronica 97 will provide a platform for this debate. In symposia, performances, installations, media and networked projects, the Festival will also seek to substantiate the decisive role of the arts as a formative factor of the digital information society.
Gerfried Stocker, Director
Ars Electronica Festival
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