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Ars Electronica: A few of my favorite things

I was walking in Linz with my friend Kristen Taylor. She’s a talented videoblogger and doesn’t leave home without her HD Flip camera. As we watched fireworks over the Danube, she pointed out that just carrying a still camera leaves you incapable of capturing some of the most experiences you have while travelling.

I spent Sunday wandering art exhibitions in Linz and discovered that she’s totally, completely right. Almost without exception, my favorite pieces of artwork made noise and moved, and my cheap digital SLR doesn’t do them justice. But here they are, in their grainy, pixelated glory.

“Headbang Hero” by Tiago Martins, Ricardo Nascimento and Andreas Zingerle. Like Guitar Hero, the game encourages you to score points by wearing a controller (a dreadlocked wig) and banging your head in time to the music. Unlike Guitar Hero, the game issues a printed report on the potential health damage your headbanging has caused, and urges you “to learn how to play a cool instrument, like a flute or maybe the shamisen.”

“Quartet”, by Jeff Lieberman and Dan Paluska, was one of the winners of an award of distinction in last year’s Ars Electronica Golden Nica awards. It’s a robotic music ensemble, currently installed within the Ars Electronica center in Linz, and it’s utterly hypnotic to watch. The melodic sounds are produced by a set of 35 tuned wineglasses, rotating on individual turntables and gently played by robotic fingers, and by a “ballistic marimba”, an instrument that looks like a percussion section designed by Rube Goldberg. The marima is played by a set of rubber balls, fired by air cannons (I think) about two meters into the air before landing on 42 tuned wooden keys. An “ethnic percussion ensemble” keeps the beat, and it’s a quartet, because you can “play” by visiting quartet.cc and entering a brief theme into the interface, which will be expanded into a three-minute composition, performed in Linz and streamed as video to you.

The Ars Electronica Center features a video installation space called “Deep Space” – it uses a number of projectors and mirrors to create a screen that covers a two-story tall wall, and about half the floor of the venue. This allows for videos that feel extremely immersive – objects sweep and flow over you as they rise up from the floor to the screen. It’s pretty much the perfect place to show Ryoji Ikeda’s data.tron, a gorgeous video of algorithmically-generated black and white images, accompanied by an aggresive, noisy digital score. The video above shows a section of the piece as it’s projected onto my jeans.

Sunday night featured the Grand Concert, “Pursuit of the Unheard” at the Ars Electronica festival, a moveable feast of concerts that spanned five venues in two buildings and one park. One of the highlights for me was a performance on an early synthesizer designed by Robert Moog for composer Max Brand.

The instrument is a beast – a pair of consoles, a set of four pedals, and an array of boards filled with knobs and dials to tune the circuits Moog built for Brand in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It was on display as an art object in the ground floor of the Brucknerhaus, where many of the conference sessions took place, and moved upstairs to a small hall for a performance of a work by Elisabeth Schimana, performed by Manon Liu Winter and Gregor Ladenhauf – the work, needless to say, was composed specifically for this one of a kind synthesizer.

I was too blown away by the first movement of the piece – walls of nasty, thick, growling sound produced by rapid, repeated rhythmic figures – to pick up my camera – the video is from the second, quieter section, and features a projection of the keyboard, pedals and knobs being manipulated.

Actually, my very favorite show at Ars Electronica was the one I couldn’t film, an exhibition at the Lentos Museum called See This Sound. It featured an overwhelming number of artworks that focus on making sound visible or otherwise tangible, and in exploring our relationships to sound, music, noise, etc.

Laurie Anderson's hand phone table

The image for the show posters and catalog is of Laurie Anderson’s Hand Phone Table. You seat yourself at the table in an otherwise silent room, place your elbows in the shallow depressions in the tabletop and clamp your hands over your ears. Gently, quietly, you begin to hear music inside your head. Your elbows are touching small, vibrating surfaces, and your bones convey the sound through your body into your head, despite the fact that you can’t “hear” it in any conventional sense. Mindblowing. I want to build one.

A very long day’s worth of looking at art and listening to strange music helped remind me of two critical things:
– It was a very good decision for me to drop out of art school in 1994
– That shouldn’t stop me from making music, or even better, building strange things that make music

And that alone was probably worth the trip.

1 thought on “Ars Electronica: A few of my favorite things”

  1. Wow, thanks, Ethan. I missed some of these pieces (“Quartet” was one of my favorites, too), so great to see them here.

    The other part of videoblogging is that at an event like AE you end up with more than a hundred short videos :) so my post will be up later today or tomorrow as I sort through (and upload) everything.

    Let us know when your experimental sound concert series begins, please.

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