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ARS Electronica 2002-- Rokeby Unplugged
Since its inception in 1979, the Prix Ars Electronica Festival in Linz, Austria has become one of the most important annual gatherings of digital artists and cultural theorists from around the world. Over the past two decades the festival has explored the expanding territory of new media through themes ranging from the sublime, as with 1982's "Sky Art", to the disastrous, as with 1991's "Out of Control", a look at mechanization-run-rampant.
2002's festival has chosen a theme befitting a world newly at war -- "UNPLUGGED: Art as the Scene of Global Conflicts," with a special focus on globalization, Africa, and the Third World. As Ars Electronica's artistic director Gerfried Stocker explains on the festival's Web site: [http://www.aec.at/festival2002/]
The choice of topic for Ars Electronica 2002 is indicative of how the issue of the political element in art has returned with a vengeance to the agenda of intellectual discourse and artistic practice -- a development that did not just begin to manifest itself as a reflex to 9/11, but was already emerging in conjunction with the protest movement in Seattle, Genoa and Porto Alegre, and is moving forward essentially on energy and input supplied by the computerkids generation. The issue of art as the scene of global conflicts is a question of the viral power of art and its capability of coming up with alternative conceptual models, strategies and approaches.
This year, Canadian artist David Rokeby was selected to receive one of the festival's most prestigious awards, the Golden Nica for Interactive Art. The prize was awarded for Rokeby's n-cha(n)t, a ground-breaking work that uses speaking machines to explore the tension between human and artificial intelligences. The installation, described by Rokeby as "a community of computers speaking together: chattering amongst themselves, musing, intoning chants," might seem an odd, if linguistically beautiful, choice to be honoured under the auspices of such a politically-charged theme. Until one recognizes that Rokeby's art has often been subtly political and contrarian, dedicated to the sort of alternative conceptual models that make us question technology and its everyday function as an expression of human desire.
If globalization and the World Wide Web have grown up together, then questioning the politics of a globally networked world may also mean questioning the technology that supports it. David Rokeby's art, whether asking questions about the veracity of artificial intelligence, or the dynamics of human-computer interactions, or the all-pervasiveness of digital surveillance, has always tried to draw attention to technology itself, and especially to its power to influence human perception and behaviour. In a world of increasingly ubiquitous and transparent technology, where the computer's influence on human lives is drifting toward the invisible, what could be more political that that?
This year's Golden Nica marks the third time that David Rokeby has been honoured at Ars Electronica. The first came in 1991, when Rokeby was granted the special Award of Distinction for his musical installation Very Nervous System. The second came in 1997, when Rokeby and collaborator Paul Garrin received the Award of Distinction for Interactive Art for their video work Border Patrol.