The exhibitions, concerts, lectures and performances were reflected in three impressive books, published by Veritas Verlag in Linz. Electronics is a tool, in about the same way as is the combustion engine or the photographic process, hence the fact that Ars Electronica is a hotchpotch of contributions, or perhaps we should rather say that it presents us with a an overview of the different ways in which people in music, visual art, the theatre, in television and in science, wrestle with the possibilities and peculiarities of new electronic techniques.
That the electronic medium stirs the imagination will be clear; indeed, it offers us the possibility of imitating capacities that seemed to be the exclusive domain of the human mind.
Electronic machines owe this capacity to their calculating skills. People can also calculate, but rather more slowly and there is a great risk of inaccuracies and unnoticed errors occurring. Electronic machines can calculate faster and more accurately than people and the use of electronics in the arts is determined by theextent to which the material used by musicians, theatre makers, writers and other artists can be translated into figures and arithmetical relations.
In as far as it concerns materials, this works rather nicely these days. Not only sounds, but also colours, words and even three-dimensional forms and movements can, with a little effort, be digitalised, and therefore imitated. It becomes more difficult when it comes to the other things that are part of artistic activities. Artists will then find themselves faced with paradoxical problems, especially when they harbour some kind of superstition over the intrinsic 'novelty' of what electronics can do.
The result is that much of what is written in the Ars Bectronica books is about electronics, leaving little to see and read in them about what has been made with electronics. Not only the essays exploring artificial intelligence, the effects of the application of the electronically simulated environment (virtual reality) or the interactive art works, but also many of the art projects reviewed, deal with electronics itself. The suggestion is of immediateness and worldwide fraternisation, with the Utopian concept of cosmic harmony of spheres based on arithmetical relations, finally becoming accessible to us thanks to electronics.
This nebulous treatment of the electronic machine can best be compared with the paintings and engravings known to us from the World Fairs of the Nineteenth Century, in which Greek gods bestow the steam engine and the railway train upon the delighted citizens who are inebriated with and grateful for so much Progress and Civilisation. Many contributions to the Ars Bectronica books dry up in this kind of artistically aroused exultation in the future. A considerable number of contributors has. ever since the second half of the Sixties, been pursuing the ideals of free imagination in its absolute form, of the immediate communication of all people through all senses, and of the artistic emancipation of the machine. And even if they are younger, their ideas still seem to pay tribute to the vocabulary of that period, freshened up with modern technical phrases.
What Ars Bectronica certainly demonstrates is that the era of the electronics revolution was also made possible by the cultural accelerations occurring between 1965 and 1975. Not only the electronics industry, but also science and military technological research, have each in turn eagerly fed on the imagination and mentality of the generation that wanted to democratise knowledge, to popularise art, to eroticise communication, to abstract religion into 'spirituality' and to 'tame' civilisation to stop it from further overusing Mother Earth.
Apart from articles that fantasise deliriously about the future, there are also the purely informative contributions, reporting on the state-of-the-art of technology itself. These prove how remote we still are from the world that virtual reality and cyberspace prophets dream of. The only examples of these new inventions that strike us as reasonable are all still at the testing stage. It is touching to see how the most prominent scientists, supported by the richest universities and the richest industries, after years of hard work, can only produce very simple examples of electronically simulated environments. Looking at the photos of the apparatus, the pictures of the 'virtual worlds' which one can enter with the help of all those crash helmets, wires and lenses attached to one’s head and body, one cannot help smiling. These photos immediately remind us of those late- Nineteenth Century pictures of electric hair-cutting machines, of diesel-driven, automatic sock-ironing devices, etc. Fifty years from now we will be splitting our sides laughing at them.
It will be a while before the results are as good as the idea of virtual reality. For the time being, the results present themselves to us like enlarged and intensified forms of things we already know, such as the telephone, videogames, fun-fairs and Disneyland, television and data banks.
Apart from Ars Bectronica s swooning and informative essays, there are also critical ones in Perhaps unintentionally critical is the contribution of Willem de Ridder, whose only condition for electronics is that it be the bearer of the ultimate virtual reality: the spoken story. For those who are willing to put up with his extreme theories (every human being projects the world from his eyes onto nothingness), it is funny indeed to see his stubborn plea for the most primitive of media, the story, placed among all those articles full of hi-tech jargon.
There is also a classically humanist, critical essay on the propaganda for the spread of virtual reality by Doro Franck, who argues that virtual reality will never become more than a form of electronic escapism, directed at 'true-to-iife' imitation of spectacular and sensational experiences. Because why should we imitate 'ordinary' experiences when they are there for the asking, without electronics. Day dreams, fantasies, memories, art, all these matters have long become virtual realities, but they are and will remain derivations of the actual consciousness of our actual situation, our real life. Matters are serious there. In her eyes, the virtual is parasitic to reality and the suggestion that, thanks to virtual reality, we could experience more than actual reality, is a lie.
Bruce Sterling draws our attention to the fact that, should a kind of cyberspace ever come into being, we would see the same struggle for power break out there as in our familiar reality, and that, socially, cyberspace will always be subject to the same mechanisms.
The Dutch Foundation for the advancement of illegal knowledge sees everything that the prophets of cyberspace put forward as just a new branch on the tree of mass media. The mass media have long become a kind of cyberspace, the authors state, and the media cyber-reality is ousting ordinary reality. The authors claim that there is growing, instinctive resistance to the omnipresence and increasing centralisation inherent to the media industry.
They point their finger at anti-media incidents such as the chanting of the slogan TV go away, when Mandela had been made invisible to the crowds welcoming him by an army of radio and TV journalists. They regard cyberspace simply as yet another medium, and at best they appreciate the blunt naivety with which its advocates abandon themselves to the urge to replace reality completely. But in that urge they see only a short-lived desire. Reality remains unconcerned, and the question is, will the anti-media lobby not loose its patience much sooner?
It seems that Ars Bectronica offers a rather complete overview of what, in the scope of culture, is being pioneered with electronic machines. But many of the pioneers are blinded by modern superstition and a simplistic comic-book imagination.
The titbits are the essays raising the problem of the influence of electronics without the authors closing their eyes to its possibilities. Really solid food for thought is offered in the form of a philosophically inclined introduction by the editor of the compilation, Peter Weibel, who foretells the end of the digital era. in which man pursued and exploited the dream of exact quantification. The future belongs to the quantum computer, and although the author of this review cannot yet envisage anything of the kind, it is such a grand and overwhelming gesture that, in his humble opinion, this opening article ironises everything that follows.