Here we are again, strangely, at the Ars Electronica trade show in Linz, Austria.
What did we do wrong? Last year we got the show
a bunch of bad
publicity, and generally acted like conscientious scoundrels--was that not
good enough? Why have they flown us out here again? Our pride is in danger....
A bit of background. After WWII, Austria was considered a
victim of Hitler, despite its ticker-tape welcoming celebrations, etc.; therefore
it didn't have to go through the big nasty denazification process that claimed
so much of Germany's time. On the other hand, conscientious Austrians had to
come up with their own ways of overcoming the past, without anyone's help.
Ars Electronica was one of those ways. Linz had its own special
history problem: it was Hitler's adopted birthplace. Hitler had gone to art
school here, and when he took power he decided to turn his beloved Linz into
the "culture capital" of the world, by mailing to this industrial
town all the masterpieces looted from Paris, Rome, etc., and by planning some
giant museums. He also planned to retire here.
After the war, some Linzers found this history embarrassing,
and one of the things Linz has done to clear its name as Hitler's "culture
capital" has been to establish itself as the virtual culture capital
of the world, with Ars Electronica. The festival is today the biggest and most
spectacular technology trade show anywhere, and it is also the strangest,
as one might expect.
Invited back against all odds, the ®TMark
contingent celebrates Linz's special history by setting up a VCR with a loop of
last year's Danish Television segment on ®TMark,
a masterful bit of television that includes clips of Hitler marching into Linz
to the accompaniment of confetti in the shape of swastikas, etc. You can also
see Hitler inspecting his new bridge (visible out the window behind
the monitor), etc. Once again, we don't expect to be invited back....*
The subject of this year's Ars Electronica is genetic engineering. When we first heard this, we were excited that the festival was leaving behind mirages like "Infowar" to deal instead with a real issue: including, we expected, the ways corporations have
managed to foist genetically modified food on a seemingly willing populace.
But when we get here, we are disappointed to learn that the primary sponsor of this year's event is Novartis, Europe's biggest producer of genetically modified
grain. The Novartis logo is proudly displayed everywhere, as
big as possible, and the name of the conference--"LifeScience"--is obviously derived from Novartis's trademark "Life Sciences." And some prominent critics of genetic engineering--the Critical Art Ensemble, for example--are conpicuously absent.
Even we, who do not have the highest regard for Ars Electronica's judgment
or motives, are shocked. Hasn't anyone considered that this sort of brazenness
might be seen as tacky by the pesky sorts they continue inviting? To top it all off, the Novartis
press materials state in boldface that "Knowledge for its own sake is useless"....
Public relations has clearly not quite made it in Europe....
Making the best of an awkward situation, an ®TMark representative sneaks into the Novartis press conference, where five
Novartis representatives tell the assembled journalists that Novartis is sponsoring this festival because it
is interested in long-term relationships with artists. When it comes time for
questions, the ®TMark rep gives the Novartis reps some American-style advice:
According to its own press materials, Novartis believes it can use Ars Electronica
to establish genetic modification as acceptable in the public mind, for it
has seen how the festival has helped do this with computer technology. This is spelled out on Novartis paper, nicely and clearly. Any other version of why Novartis is here--"long-term
relationships with artists," for example--falls far short of the actual
story, and should be avoided as too ridiculous to be believed by normal folk.
Novartis, which has existed for less than five years, is promoting a technology
whose long-term effects on humans are totally unknown, and most likely very
bad, to judge from studies on mice. It must do this because the long term,
defined arbitrarily as something longer than twenty years, can be of no consequence
at all to a corporation like Novartis, which is driven, solely and by definition,
by (relatively) short-term profit. This is another reason Novartis should
avoid using "long-term" when explaining its presence here.
There is some request for clarification by Novartis, provided by ®TMark. The
festival organizer then steps in: "It is for the sake
of arguments such as these that we have invited you to attend this press conference,"
he tells us, apparently not aware that only the press was invited,
and that the ®TMark rep had to sneak in, "but now others should have their turn."
No one steps forward.
Having seen that Novartis has difficulty expressing itself, the ®TMark reps decide
to change their corporate identity into that of Novartis for the duration of the festival, so
as to explain to reporters "our" real reasons for being here. We change
the plaque next to our booth so that it describes Novartis rather than ®TMark,
conduct a few news interviews as Novartis (each time revealing the plot, at the end), and we also gather a significant
number of dirty looks, fortunately....
Ars Electronica is not all pedagogical drudgery for ®TMark.
In a public ceremony, a group called etoy
invests $1000 in ®TMark project WARO: "Create a simulated but realistic radio
news broadcast that urgently reports systems failures and the ensuing panic
that results from the Y2K bug. In the spirit of Orson Welles' 'War of the Worlds,'
broadcast and netcast the program on or near the day of January 1st, 2000."
etoy also awards ®TMark the Golden Nica in Visual Effects for GWBush.com
and YesRudy.com. The Golden
Nica is a big gold statue of a headless angel, and this instance of it was awarded earlier in the week, along with $15,000, to Digital
Domain, who also won last year's prize (for Titanic);
an alert etoy member nabbed it from the awards gala the night before. As Die
Zeit begins its full-page feature: "... Ernest [from ®TMark] clears
his throat to begin his thanks; the moderator [from etoy] suggests he rest the
trophy on the table. 'It's very heavy, because it's real Nazi gold.'"
In the audience, unfortunately, is one of the principle organizers
of Ars Electronica, and she is entirely furious. The Digital Domain folks, she
says, are very upset, and wish very much to return to Hollywood with
their trophy, not without it. It seems we must give the trophy back--or at least
The rest is sheer clowning, much nicer than instructing biotechnology
companies in the proper ways to manipulate public opinion. To placate
the organizers, we promise to return the trophy
in a public ceremony performed in the middle of the festival's crowning 25th
anniversary celebration--a giant affair, with a roving television crew interviewing
various luminaries from the festival's past, including Birgit Richard and etoy, who have donated their interview time for the performing of the ceremony.
When it comes time, we run a video showing us with the Golden Nica trophy
in the men's restroom, performing on it a genetic engineering experiment modelled
after the "plastinations"
of Günther von Hagens, several of whose grisly... pieces have
been gracing the trade show floor. After much declamation and crescendoing tension,
we unveil the result--which, unfortunately, is only four miniature, luminescent green
versions of the Golden Nica. Despite our assurances that they are as safe as
genetically modified food, no one from the festival steps forth to receive them....
*It turns out
this year's invitation was due to an organizational error. The organizers put
a young American artist named August Black in charge of part of the show, the
part to which he invited us. Organizer Gerfried Stocker tried to dissuade him, but was
unable to, and a sense of fairness prevented him from prevailing by force. We expect he will be learning some Total Quality Management
in the not-too-distant future... or maybe we'll be back again next year. [Note: Fortunately, we were not invited to the 2000 festival, which evoked Linz's nazi past even more cluelessly and tastelessly than past festivals. Perhaps it would have been too much for even us to stomach. See this excellent account of the mother of all bad judgments....]
And for yet another example of corporate sponsorship discovered too late, see this account of a show in New York.