Many artistic media are deeply rooted in tradition. Painting, drawing and sculpting all use well-studied methods which have been perfected over the course of many millennia. Artists today continue a practice started before history, preserved in iconic relics such as Löwenmensch, Altamira and Lascaux. Even the black charcoal and red ochre iron-oxide pigments found in cave paintings are still used to this day.1 The subject matter has progressed with culture, and culture with it, but until recently there were only a handful of methods for artistic expression in spite of a world that continued to grow in complexity.
Along with the technological boom of the information age has come an explosion in the diversity of media and creative tools. While traditional artists can study the works of masters from Leonardo Da Vinci to Salvador Dali, electronic artists work with media that are rapidly and continually changing with the development of new technology. In addition, these artists have the power to create and shape media as they push technical boundaries to bring their imagination to life. As a result, new media are inherently interdisciplinary, requiring the cooperation of creative and analytical minds. Art of this kind cannot be created by an individual working in a vacuum, but instead requires teams of artists and technicians, building upon each other theoretically and technically. Sometimes these teams are brought together formally, but more often they exist as invisible connections, bound through the sharing of information.
In this complex network of individuals, electronic art festivals form the nodes which give structure to what would otherwise be a confusing sea of information. Festivals such as Ars Electronica and SIGGRAPH bring together minds and matter from around the world, in a brief, but intense synaptic flash. Through these nodes ideas are shared, coalescing into new creative potential. Attendees are awarded with new knowledge and new inspiration regardless of whether they came to share or to learn.
Returning home, they bring with them not only the information presented, but new ideas sprung up at the intersection of old ones. Perhaps they will share these new ideas with their community, publish them in a technical journal, or produce something to exhibit at a nuit blanche, biennial or gallery. Regardless, information is carried around the world, to further nodes where ideas are again reshaped, enabling the influence of every individual to propagate to anyone connected through this expansive cultural network.
Some festivals focus on technology and popular culture which can be commodified. For example, a large portion of SIGGRAPH is dedicated to an exhibition filled with paid booths, which, according to the SIGGRAPH website, provides companies with “…extensive, targeted opportunities for exposure and in-depth interaction with your key customer audiences.”2 Yet this is not SIGGRAPH “selling out,” but instead forming a crucial interface between art, science, commerce, and industry. The technology, research and artwork shown at SIGGRAPH will go on to influence or become some of the most popular and widely consumed cultural media. The commodification which occurs at this particular node creates a vector through which academia and the arts become distributed to the masses, shaping the global culture. Simultaneously, this node is crucial to creators and researchers, as it provides them with early access to the resulting products which they can in turn build upon.
Other festivals, such as Ars Electronica, seek to showcase exceptional technology as high art, removing much of the commercial aspects of SIGGRAPH. The annual festival is held in the city of Linz, Austria, a city which has dedicated its purpose to bringing together technology and the arts.3 Since the festival began in 1979, the city has developed more facilities to not only host the festival, but continue showcasing and developing the art and technology which is featured there annually, transforming the city into the Mecca of electronic art. The city features the Ars Electronica Center, also known as the “Museum of the Future,” – a facility filled with continually developing interactive and participatory exhibits, as well as the Future Lab, a research and development center dedicated to progressing art and technology directly through active experimentation.4 The festival itself is a venue reserved for some of the worlds greatest media artists, hand picked by the Ars Electronica committee, and has the air of a biennial rather than a technical conference. The Prix Ars Electronica however, is open to anyone who wishes to apply, and awards the most exceptional works from around the world with a Golden Nica statue, 10,000 €, and of course the prestige and fame that comes with such an award.5
Through these various means, Ars Electronica establishes and maintains an institution of the electronic arts, allowing those who win The Prix to gain entry to its exclusive ranks of worthy artists. In this way festivals also serve the institutional model of art as suggested by Arthur Danto and George Dickie. They establish the institution of electronic arts, within the overarching hierarchy of the Artworld, defining what is and isn’t art by committee. While they are influenced by this institutional model, they also enable science and technology to in turn influence the Artworld from the outside. The festivals once again form nodes for the collection and distribution of information, and in this case, influence. They enable these conventionally divided disciplines to engage with each other and become more intertwined as art and technology progressively become more integrated.
Electronic arts festivals are the nodes of the new Artworld, connecting a diverse range of individuals and enabling them to shape the future of art and technology, while simultaneously defining culture and society. They enable the propagation of information and influence creativity at a pace suitable for the complexity of the information age. They ignore conventional disciplinary boundaries and bring together artists, technologists, and the global community as a whole. They establish the “high art” of new media, and facilitate the generation, and progression of popular culture. They are essential in a modern society which is inventing new technologies and media at a rate never seen before. Not only do they allow the arts to keep up with the progress of technological development, but they give art the influence to shape that development and further compound the rate of advancement.
1. “Lascaux Cave Paintings,” Encyclopedia of Art, accessed June 25, 2017, http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/prehistoric/lascaux-cave-paintings.html.
5. Ars Electronica Linz GmbH, “Prix,” Ars Electronica, https://www.aec.at/prix/en/einreichdetails/preise/.