PRION: ISEA :: Michelle Glaser

7 – 13 August 2006, San Jose USA The 2006 edition of the internationally renowned International Symposium Electronic Arts was held August 7-13, 2006, in San Jose, California in conjunction with the inauguration of ZeroOne San Jose: A Global Festival of Art on the Edge, a milestone festival. The 13th International Symposium on Electronic Art (ISEA2006) focused on the critical, theoretical and pragmatic exploration of four important themes: Transvergence, Interactive City, Community Domain and Pacific Rim. As the ISEA rhetoric pontificated: “What tactics, issues and conceptual practices expose or inform the distinctions of these subject terrains relating to contemporary art practice? What analyses illuminate art practice engaged with new technical and conceptual forms, functions and disciplines; provide for innovative tactical implementations of cultural production involving urbanity, mobility, community and locality; examine the roles and responsibilities of corporations, civic and cultural organizations, discuss strategic and economic planning as it relates to creative community; serve to expose new portals of production and experience; provide for interpretive bridges between cultures and identities; and provide for provocative examination of contemporary political and economic conditions? How is new media art practice re-shaping the world?”

Thanks for the opportunity to attend ISEA. It was a great experience, bigger than Ben Hur, more pumped than bingo on bennies, an enormous moveable feast (… albeit for bulimics).

ISEA invited PRION, the collaborative group of artists and scientists with whom I work, to exhibit Apocrypha (aka Cell Phone), a satirical and humorous work where visitors contact an onsite ‘oracle’ to ask for advice about their lives. (The oracle is actually a living colony of ancient cells called archaebacteria. Archaebacteria are the oldest living cells in existence, the “Adam and Eve” of life on this planet. Archaebacteria are still present today as colonies in ice deposits and salt lakes, but also in each human cell, where the archaebacteria are both slave and powerhouse to the more sophisticated nucleus. Archaebacteria are a direct link back to our earliest beginnings.)

Interaction from the gallery visitor stimulated the colony of archaebacteria to draw upon collected wisdom to offer intriguing answers to any question. In actuality, changes in the archaebacterias’ chemical state (stimulated by noise or movement) are tracked and “decoded” by an onsite computer to locate corresponding parts of text from the Apocrypha, those books excluded from the Bible. To add spice to the story, it is said by religious scholars that the Apocrypha is not forbidden knowledge, but rather a body of wisdom that would be revealed when the time was right. 2006 was that time!

PRION were also invited to take The Living Light Wall. a bioluminescent wall constructed from clear ‘bricks’ filled with living organisms called dinoflagelletes which light up and create coloured effects in response to changes in their environment. The wall is fed by a watering system much like the drip system used in gardens. The gallery visitor stimulates the wall directly or via an onsite computer. Unfortunately, our application for funding was unsuccessful and we could not afford the cost of creating this work in Perth, then rebuilding on site in the USA, with the long lead time required to grow the living component of the work in situ. Given the high cost of two artists attending the exhibition, we decided to put our resources into Apocrypha, rationalizing that this gave us access to the curators, artists, and theorists that ISEA would bring together. Given the large number of works exhibiting and the poor support from ISEA staff in the lead up and during exhibition, this proved to be an excellent decision.

At its best, ISEA is a great event that shows an enormous range of art that utilises new technologies. Probably the most apt comment I kept hearing as I shuffled from pillar to post was that attendance enabled you to “take the pulse” of the sector, to see what is hot, what is hyped, where the future might lie. Experiences that took place in real space, that dragged you across miles of sun baked sidewalks to participate in real time experiences that supplemented everyday life with a layer of technology offering interstices into other worlds or augmented experiences were big. High concept, low budget projects were de rigueur, not surprisingly given the costly nature of producing technologically enabled art and the funding restrictions under which most of us work. At the top end, it was a great chance to see interactive cinema at work, mega cinematic projections that brought buildings to life, seminal performances by Super Vision, Ryoji Ikeda, Troika Ranch and more. It’s great to see the variety of projects, the wealth of ideas, the international smorgasbord of the most celebrated and most hopeful all in one place.

But isn’t it so often the case that reading catalogues entries about new electronic arts is a bit like reading the gadget page of the more expensive magazines? Both offer a crack into other realms that your imagination rips open. Techno lust takes over, your digits twitch for an opportunity to fiddle with the latest creation, suck it dry and toss it aside in anticipation of the next new fix. Just to give you some idea of how much sucking and tossing was going on in San Jose: over 150 artists were represented in over a dozen exhibitions. Herein lies the downside of ISEA. It’s a huge event, individual artists are lost in the mix, largely unsupported by exhibition staff. Any individual work is hard to profile amongst the many.

PRION had the good fortune to be exhibiting in one of the main exhibition spaces, South Hall. Imagine a place you could park 3 planes and still have room for several thousand people! ISEA organisers struggled to segment the space and make it user friendly. It should be noted that organizers used bikes to get around – this should give some idea of the problems that the space posed for visitors. San Jose is a lot like Morley (non WA types please insert your own big, bland suburb that is big enough for a larger than life shopping mall but sansvibe). After trudging from place to place along broad concrete footpaths, visitors had the joy of traversing enormous distances around what amounted to a covered car park. No nooks to network in, no corners in which to canoodle with a creative masterpiece. The few works that succeeded in dealing with the scale of the place had teams that included an artist who was able to visit the space ahead of time. Works were assembled on the fly and often on the cheap (as ISEA is a self funded exhibition, for the most part). And we all know how hard it is to keep everything up and running, even when you are working in the best situation, with gear that is trusted, your usual 240 volt, and invigilators on hand to stop audiences thinking interactive is a invitation to break everything on hand and that a keyboard is incitement to hack. I noticed that none of the net based works on site lasted a day before being used to surf or check email, with no one on hand to return works to their normal state of operation.

OK, audiences aren’t all to blame for not knowing when enough is enough when interacting with the works. A criticism we should all take on board is that the works themselves, in general, did not communicate an adequate invitation to visitors to come and explore. Usually, it was hard to know what you were supposed to do, the joys you were supposed to experience, and the acceptable extent of your activities. Exhibits where the artists were on hand to talk to visitors might fare better, but sometimes you want art to be a private pleasure. Does it have to involve a conversation? On site/in catalogue blurbs were be too texty – and, life’s too short, most writing too obfuscatory. The works that fared best amidst the maelstrom were those that had a simple function, a simple message and that got in your way, rather than you having to find them, such as the mobile karaoke that transformed the back of an ice cream van into a disco stage where punters sang along to remixed songs that nostalgically reminded the listener of greensleaves.

A highlight of the stay was the opportunity to see The Listening Post by Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin (USA) a wonderful installation that transformed disconnected chat of the web into a moving visual graphic made p of 231 electronic displays that was beautifully presented as a arc of silvery posts that clicked and clacked pleasingly with changing text, and a score to die for. But that was a work properly installed for the long term and adequately looked after at San Jose gallery.

Would I go back? In a heartbeat. Where else do you get to meet up with your peers en masse, experience enough to feed the imagination for a couple of years, take in discussion at the conference by artists and academics that succinctly captures a moment in time. ISEA is the international platform for artists, cultural producers, media theorists, curators and the general public to share the latest ideas and practices involving new media. Discourse across disciplines, ideologies and philosophical frameworks is the self proclaimed objective.

But next time I’ll take a plug’n’play, something that fits into a suitcase and travels nicely through customs, friendly, fun, and fast to experience, sweetly bumping in and out with nary a need for even an extension cord. (And pigs might fly, or even grow wings…).

PS thanks again for the opportunity to attend ISEA. It’s beauty and the beast rolled into one, but I’m glad I was there.

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