North to Cyberia

John Potts reports on the Fifth International Symposium on Electronic Arts (ISEA) held in Helsinki

It is one of the few heated moments at ISEA. Rejane Spitz, from Brazil, is chairing the Global/Local panel, provocatively subtitled Transcultural Approaches To Electronic Art: Do We Really Care? Are there only token references made to cultural differences, while the digital matrix imprints its Western profile on every colonial outpost? Will the information superhighway turn the whole world into outlying suburbs of Los Angeles? In this one little pocket inside the Congress Centre of Helsinki, Spitz is doing her best to agitate trouble.

“How many of you in the audience are not native speakers of English?” she demands. Two-thirds of the audience raise their hands. Emboldened by this showing, she later repeats the exercise, appending a challenge to the one-third without their hands raised: “You English speakers are in the minority! Why are we speaking your language?”

It’s true: English is the universal language spoken at ISEA (with the exception of one Romanian video artist, who uses a translator.) English is the dominant language of global media, of pop music, cinema and Euro-MTV. Spitz is doing no more than pointing out its ubiquity, yet she has succeeded in irritating some members of her audience (the ones without their hands in the air.) “What’s your point?” – an irate American accent – “what’s the problem? What other language can we all speak?”

Spitz refuses to become defensive, even though she acknowledges that nothing else comes close as a common language. Perhaps translators, UN-style, might preserve some of the cultural differences feeding into this universal gathering. The discord arising from Spitz’s provocation points, at the least, to the assumptions which otherwise go unchallenged about global electronic art: we meet and communicate in the one language, but how much gets lost, sliding away through the gaps where speakers give up their native tongues? Yet the issues are more complex than this, beyond the scope of a simple cultural imperialism model. As every European nation wrestles with the future of a United Europe, connected by information flow and infused with global media, what is the role of cultural difference? Is it subsumed into the transcultural info-net, or does it adapt new technologies to its own ends, resisting the homogenising wave that sweeps around the world?

This is one contentious point within ISEA; there are several others, deriving from speculations on the potential of electronic art forms. Is computer based art a continuation of Western scientism, or a break from it? Does virtual reality present a new metaphysical space for the imagination, or does it merely extend the Renaissance project of mastering space and nature itself? The debates extend to gender-related issues: what does it mean for women artists to work with this technology, the hand-me-downs from the military-industrial complex? The answers to this question, and the others, range from the creative to the reductive; or, at times, the issues peter out in confusion. A panel discussion on gender and technology becomes obsessed with the patriarchal nature of Cartesian rationalism, now perhaps under siege in a world of virtual spaces and interactivity. Yet a (male) American theorist effectively hijacks the debate with a laboured demonstration of the gridding of space. This is one occasion, of several, where our gracious Finnish hosts need to apply the hook from the wings, dragging the speaker and his grid off the stage and away out of the perspective.

ISEA brings together artists and theorists working in all manner of electronic arts. Video, sound, multi-media, interactive CD-ROMs, dance, music, VR, holography, performance, digital photography, digital painting, installations: you name it, it’s there on show, it’s analysed from all angles in three days of papers and discussions. The one common factor is the computer , as the base for most of this art. As Derrick de Kerckhove, from Canada, remarks in the opening theory session, the digital binary is now the universal translator of all substance. What are we to make of this endless flow of information?

Pierre Levy, from Paris University, has an optimistic vision of the future. The Internet, he says, is the first glimpse of a collective intelligence, a group imagination with the powers of growth. “A mutual rebound of singularities,” he calls it, in one of many lyrical catch-phrases, even after their translation into English. Hypertext is a “deterritorialisation of the library”; cyberspace creates a community akin to the pre-literary groupings of humanity. “We are nomads chasing after the future of humanity,” he proclaims; we will soon “collectively invent ourselves as a species.” These are fine visionary statements, and an uplifting start to the symposium; the only problem is that there is nothing here that Marshall McLuhan didn’t say thirty years ago. Has it taken the French, with their proud literary tradition, three decades to find this neo-tribal key to the future?

At least Monsieur Levy, via the old-fashioned medium of reading from the printed page, leaves us with some stirring phrases. Volker Grassmuch, from Germany but based in Tokyo, presents his arguments in hypertext: his non-linear assortment of material is projected onto a large screen while he mumbles into a microphone. The content of his presentation, again heavily indebted to McLuhan, provides a glimmer or two of insight into the media landscape in a computer age; unfortunately, in demonstrating the techniques of hypertext, he has lost the audience, which has become bored and restless. Still he flashes bits and pieces of hypertext onto the screen, but there is no insight now, and he is way over time with no sign of him finishing. WHERE IS THAT HOOK?

The Electronic Art Exhibition is held in Helsinki’s Museum of Contemporary Art. What have the artists come up with? The best of them play with the space opened up for interaction between audience and artwork. This is a zone of chance, individual difference, and random creativity: elements not catered for in the good old Renaissance grid. Talking Picture by Kimmo Koskela and Rea Pihlasviita of Finland, appears to be a traditional painting of a woman: a semi-erotic representation of a woman reclining in a bath. But as you get closer, you can see her moving, and talking; if you stand in front of her, you can talk to her (in a number of languages.) A small camera and microphone in the frame allow the woman – a live and active video representation – to interact directly with whomever is standing in front of her.

A different form of interaction is possible with To Fall Standing by Rebecca Cummins, from Australia. The viewer shoots images with an 1880s shotgun; the images blend into others on video monitors, while drawing attention to a staple twentieth century feature: the fusion of camera and gun.

Interaction can take unforeseen twists, not always desirable, sometimes reprehensible. Cybersm III by Kirk Wotford and Stahl Stenslie, electronically connects two human bodies separated in space. Each wears a suit equipped with sensors; by touching a part of his/her body, one participant can trigger a heat reaction in the body of the other. Regrettably, the opening night demonstration of this cyber-connection leaves the female participant, surrounded by viewers, at the mercy of the male participant, hidden from view. “Don’t leave me with this man!” she cries, as it becomes apparent that this interaction is nothing more than an electronic feeling-up.

Interaction, however, is rarely put to such ends. Artists aim to create complex spaces where electronic properties blend with individual choice and pre-existing environments. Christian Moller’s Audio Pendulums connects huge steel pipes to a computer system via video signals. Anyone can alter the sonic environment of this space by moving one of the pipes: the resultant electronic sounds mix with the local ambience: passers-by, street traffic, rustling leaves.

Interactive CD-ROMs are also on display, attracting major interest. The strengths and weaknesses of this form are revealed when two of the artists discuss their work in a multimedia forum. Christine Tamblyn (USA) describes her CD ROM She Loves It, She Loves It Not: Women and Technology, as a revisionist history of technology, re-inserting women into technological history. Thematically, this is an important project, but the contents of the work – simplistic and unquestioned fragments of dogmatic text – mock the claims made for CD-ROM as a non-linear, liberating form of interaction for the user. The text-bites are reductive and didactic, with no alternative views: this CD-ROM is of Reader’s Digest standard in intellectual content. It leaves several in the audience reflecting on the inferiority of this form to the old-fashioned book, with its complexity and potential for a multiplicity of views.

The CD-ROM was redeemed, however, by Australian Brad Miller’s A Digital Rhizome. Although its text is drawn directly from the work of contemporary theorists Deleuze and Guattari, it augments this source with a parallel lyricism and labyrinthine quality. There is no didacticism or hierarchy here: the user is left to wander around the many paths of inter-connections.

The contributions of other Australians at ISEA offered a similar blend of theoretical sophistication and technical finesse. In the area of sound, especially, Nicholas Gebhardt, Virginia Madsen, Frances Dyson and Nigel Helyer gave incisive presentations. The critical dimension offered in their papers was generally unmatched by their American colleagues, while the familiarity with technique provided an edge over many of the Europeans. Gebhardt and Maria Stukoff injected, in their discussion of “Interactivity and the Labyrinth of Forms”, a much needed critical corrective to the romantic “revolutionary” claims made for the interactive technologies.

ISEA 94 placed a special emphasis on sound and electronic music: here too
some of the contradictions emerged. Electronic works were played in the Sibelius Academy’s electro-acoustic chamber hall, with its 32 channels playing through 96 loudspeakers. This hall is literally wall-to-wall speakers. And what are we listening to, through this astonsishing technical aray? David C. Little, an American composer, uses computers to analyse music and then, by programming chaos formulas, makes the computer generate electronic music.

The signs are not good. Here is the music now, and, as you would fearfully expect, it has all the aesthetic interest of a textbook.

But all is not lost in the Sbelius Academy. On the final night, Mari Kimura, a Japanese violin virtuoso, plays a number of compositions in interaction with a computer program. Here is a subtle exploration of dynamics, a diversity of shapes and colours generated in partnership with the computer. Violin figures are treated, echo longer and longer until they double back, resound in silence as they re-define themselves. This is human-computer musical artistry, a universe away from the “music” eked out by algorithmic plodding.

There are many more things to record, ideas and practices flashing around in these unformed circuits. Computer boffins and digital artists vie for control of the technology. Stelarc puts his stomach on display. Geert Lovink, a Dutchman and a “data dandy”, assures us that the European cyberspace will be distinguished from its American cousin by a “profound melancholy”, its unshakable European heritage. On Euro-MTV, identikit hosts speak Engish with a

Euro-blend accent, addressing music consumers as “Europeans”. AT&T promises its patrons that Europe is now delivered up without national borders or language barriers. But here in Helsinki, in the cobble-stone town-squares and market-places, no-one is rushing, no-one is worrying, and information superhighway or not, this does not feel like an extension of Los Angeles. And as for the language problem, next year’s ISEA in Montreal will offer a new twist: the symposium will be held in French first, English second.

RealTime issue #3 Oct-Nov 1994 pg. 10-

© John Potts; for permission to reproduce apply to

1 October 1994