ISEA 2004 :: Keith Armstrong

August 2004 :: Helsinki, Finland

ISEA 2004 was an extremely popular event. Most people I knew were keen to get there, so I feel particularly privileged to have been one of them. This ISEA had been established and promoted as a sustained networking event which included combined ferry, land conference and exhibition venues. Its themes certainly dovetailed well with my own philosophical and practical interests (networked experience, critical interaction design, geopolitics of media and critical interdisciplinarities), offering up an unparalleled opportunity for focussed discussion and debate.

Furthermore because it was such a high profile event, there was a real guarantee that curators, festival organizers and venue directors would be present. I had a major networked interactive installation project under development, Intimate Transactions that I wished to actively promote for distributed showings. Having begun the process of promoting it through a previous trip to the UK, ISEA presented up an unparalleled opportunity to meet many more of the right people in one place, and at an ideal stage in my career when I was beginning to establish national and international footholds.

Prior to arriving in Finland I renewed key contacts in London and Bristol, both of which now bode positively for future showings. Arriving in Helsinki I gave myself a few days to acclimatise – always a bonus when one has had a full on time before leaving. The cruise ship was a large, plush 80s beast -and appeared to be pretty much full of just us conference people. It was definitely a who’s who of media arts and I was able over that time to hook up with almost all the curators I already knew, whilst talking to others from Seoul, Singapore and diverse corners of Europe. Hence I kept the laptop handy and was able to give a few key impromptu presentations.

For artists presenting works on the cruise it was a tricky call given the relatively short time of the cruise (2 days), a network connection that kept dropping out and all the vagaries of negotiating a large structure crammed full of talkative people. That aside there were some substantial works dotted around the ship on decks, in bars and in conference rooms, each of which enrichened and thickened the experience.

Presenting a festival on a cruise ship is a good idea in terms of social focus, but the long leg from Helsinki to Stockholm and back to Tallinn could probably have been as well served by parking in the bay – this is not to say that there wasn’t great scenery sliding by, and we had that sexy sense of going somewhere, but mostly eyes were turned inwards, media, talk and alcohol glazed, cementing, in our own way, all the great clichŽs of ‘cruise ship colonialism’. This was epitomised as we were towed in a glass box trailer through Mariehamn – a port we stopped off at very briefly on the way.

I wondered more than once as I strode past the belching smokestacks, about the massive fuel bill (+ global debt) we were directly incurring to party within such a beast. (Interestingly (and maybe not surprisingly) the originally proposed ecology theme – with comment on the heavily polluted Baltic Sea and all its ramifications never really made it to this event..). However ecology shouldn’t be conflated to ‘environment’ – there were many other ecologies being sustained on this cruise. As we know, ecology is also erroneously reduced to the mockery of short-term economics – which recalls the event ticket price that for Aussie artists was breathtaking to say the least, if not expected given all the rather nice trappings such as lush buffets and most-of-the-night art entertainment.

Presenting works far from home at such an event, for many artists, raises major logistical issues. Many people had obviously bought easy, travel-able works to ISEA. 3 artists I spoke to disappointingly admitted that they had brought minor works simply in order to ‘get it on their resume’. Cynicism aside, as to be expected, most artists produced sincere and at times impressive works. Whilst people around me generally seemed a little under whelmed by the work overall, the context of ISEA being mostly self funded and the difficulty of transportation and disparate venues and countries probably explained the profusion of DVDs playing documentation of interesting stuff, not present. The funded show at Kiasma Contemporary Arts Centre in Helsinki had the look of a pro show, despite the technical malfunctions that at times bugged all the shows. There was lots of wearable stuff – especially in Tallinn, although most was mostly beyond touch and hence only demo fodder for those in the right place at the right time. The electronic sound/vision acts were of course very successful overall and there was a great ISEA Club night was in a strip club in Tallinn lovingly named ‘Club Bon Bon’ -despite being one of the most absolutely overfilled, fire-trappish venues that I had the nervousness to been in.

As a whole event ISEA was massive – imagine a cruise for a couple of days, stop offs in Tallinn Estonia where there were 7 or 8 shows opening in one night, a return to Helsinki where there were a similar number, plus stops with works in Mariehamn and Stockholm, oh and the huge Koneisto electronic music festival thrown in, site specific installations dotted all over the place, performances, streaming and real radio events, sound events, music events at the Helsinki Festival, three major conference venues.. so it went on and on. A course in stamina should have been prescribed before tickets were sold! Overall I think that the organisers should be very much congratulated on the vision and the energy and good cheer with which they battled to pull it off, with its entire mind numbing difficulties. My sense is I think similar to many that that a less-is-more event would be quite a bit easier on everybody next time.

ISEA may be big but its not rich – this led to alls sorts of confusion at times with a fair share of upset artists sweating in problematic venues and miscommunications re transport and hotels – all that checking in, arriving, departing and navigating was something I perversely enjoyed (reminder of 20 something backpacking days) but others clearly found it stressful and let rip gleefully to the dismay of various paid staff at hotels and travel points. A sense of humour is always worth packing…

A major and important component of the trip for me was a presentation/event I had organised and booked weeks in advance, on the boat. However on the day of the event, the room was double booked, the projector had no facilities for connecting to a laptop and I was told that I had to promote the event myself! Furthermore it coincided with docking in Stockholm where lots of people got off. Having come so far and having spent so much – this chain of circumstances could have led one of those aforementioned outbursts– however I decided to press ahead and do what I could – resulting in two great conversations afterwards and some sound contacts made notwithstanding. At events like these, to keep sane, I think you look at the sum balance and don’t expect too much out of the loose change!

As for the papers at the conferences on the boat, in Tallinn and in Helsinki – I attended everything I could voraciously, despite the regular 4 parallel sessions which either meant you followed one strand (which was problematic as not all papers of course are of equal interest and abstracts weren’t available in every venue), or you got a smattering of everything which was fun but very distributed. Tallinn was even more tricky than the plush media centre venue in Helsinki, as conference venues were physically separated, meaning you had to really opt for events in a very particular mode – this is not unusual of conferences – and I guess ones needs to be reminded not to expect too much – you’ll need to be content with seeing a fraction of what’s on offer, especially if networking is also important to you.

So all up – an intense but rewarding event – with the ‘steaming media’ chill out Sauna and obligatory bathing in the Baltic on the last day being a highpoint. So much so, that when my home flight was delayed 13hrs I hunted out a historic group smoke sauna in Helsinki for one more fill of that frighteningly energy intensive, cathartic, naked Baltic medicine.

So thanks ISEA for a dramatic vision – for me the trip was a major tonic – and thanks ANAT for coming to the party!

Tags: , , ,

Leave a Reply