A festival of sex and Frankensteins

A report from the front lines of art, technology and fascism at Ars Electronica.



Andrew Leonard
September 5, 2000 7:00PM (UTC)

I knew I was going to have a good geeky time at the Ars Electronica Festival when, during a shared ride from the airport to the hotel, a spontaneous discussion of narrative style in computer games broke out. We all agreed -- the Perl scripting expert in human genome databases, the Sissyfight game designer and I -- that today's state-of-the-art games, despite their graphic flashiness, still aren't as cool as the old Infocom text-based games of the early '80s.

And that was before I even knew about the sperm races, or the stripteasing ice dancers, or the fact that Hitler himself claimed to be from Linz. And I certainly hadn't paid as much attention as I should have to the theme of this year's festival: "Next Sex: Sex in the Age of Its Procreative Superfluousness." Say what you will about Ars Electronica -- it might be too self-consciously bleeding edge, or it might not be doing enough to protest the ascendancy of right-wing nationalists in Austria -- but you certainly can't call it boring. Year after year, it lives up to its reputation as one of the world's most interesting annual concentrations of digital artists, thinkers and pranksters. And I'm not saying that just because I was invited here to present Salon's Free Software Project.

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Yes, I am an exhibit at the festival, and reporting on the festival. You can't get much more postmodern than that, even now, in the 21st century, when it isn't all that hip anymore to be postmodern. I am a "resident" of the "Electrolobby" -- one of several exhibit spaces scattered around the city. My job is to sit at one of the monitors and work on the Free Software Project, interrupted from time to time by camera crews, interviewers and curious passersby. It's a bit distracting, but at least I'm not attracting the kind of attention that, say, the sperm races were drawing in the main city square on the first evening of the festival.

Writing about free software, no matter what level of "interactivity" is included, does not remotely begin to merit the attention that other exhibitors at this conference deserve and attain. Take, for example, the case of Marta de Menezes' Nature? project, in which butterfly wing patterns are redesigned by de Menezes while they are still undergoing pupation. Or the "worry dolls" created by the team of Oron Catts, Ionat Zurr and Guy Ben-Ary, in which polymers are injected with living skin muscle and bone tissue to create partially alive dolls.

As Lincoln Stein, the Perl/genome database expert, noted in a tone of bemused alarm, "Usually, it's the scientists who are accused of being Frankenstein, but here it's the artists who are actually doing it!"

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The "president" and "chairman" of <a target="new" etoy -- a "culture-code manipulating corporation" that sells shares in itself in lieu of making and selling physical artwork -- made their announcements flanked by young women dressed in identical orange and black outfits. With their dark sunglasses, blond hair and set Teutonic stares, the posing women could be seen as richly ironic (one of the etoy boys noted that etoy had originally wanted twins, but that it turned out to be too expensive), or they could be regarded as vaguely neofascist and disturbing.

And neofascism is very much on everyone's mind in Austria today. This year's festival, the 21st overall, is taking place against the politically controversial backdrop of the rise to power of the right-wing Freedom Party led by Joerg Haider. Left-wing artists in Austria currently feel under attack, and some prominent artists outside Austria have criticized the festival's director, Gerfried Stocker, for not doing enough to make the festival a vehicle for protest against cultural repression.

Stocker can relax. His critics are off base, as guilty of their own straitjacketed cultural Stalinism as the new leaders of Austria. The mere existence of the festival is an affront to everything Haider and his cultural commissars stand for. Haider rails against cultural "pluralism" -- only good old rural folk culture is good enough for him or worthy of state support. But it would be difficult to imagine anything more pluralistic than the Ars Electronica Festival. The fundamental theme of the conference -- the impact of new reproductive technologies on culture -- provokes a pluralistic approach to sexuality certain to horrify anyone whose sunglasses might be tinted with a right-wing color.

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Which brings us back to Hitler. In a brilliant lecture given as part of the Next Sex Symposium, Bruce Bagemihl, author of "Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity," noted that biologist Konrad Lorenz first observed homosexual behavior in jackdaws (a European crow known for stealing shiny objects) in the 1920s, but dismissed it as abnormal. Hitler, said Bagemihl, later gained the nickname "The Jackdaw of Linz" in honor of all the art treasures he and the Nazi Party seized. One of the excuses given for confiscation of the art, observed Bagemihl, was that the owners were guilty of homosexual sex. Finally, in 1999, the city of Linz helped set up a webcam to broadcast 24-hour coverage of a pair of (heterosexual) jackdaws.

What does it all mean? Hard to say. But in a pluralistic society meaning is often hard to pin down. Everything doesn't always add up; there are no clear answers. And that's something that drives commissars of any type completely nuts. It's also something that Ars Electronica celebrates and embodies. The Jackdaw of Linz must be turning in his grave. Thank goodness.

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Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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