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Camberwell

A woman in a white room looks towards a white neon tube light.

Students showcase their digital and computational artwork at Ars Electronica festival in Austria

Written by Sarah McLean
Published date 26 November 2019

This September staff and students from Camberwell and Wimbledon Colleges of Arts attended Ars Electronica, one of the world’s largest festivals celebrating art, technology and society, which takes place annually in Linz, Austria.

Describing itself as a media art venue, digital music festival, showcase for creativity and innovation and a playground for the next generation, this year was the festival’s 40th anniversary and saw 110,000 visitors to more than 500 events and exhibits.

Under the theme of Spectacular Resonance, students working with digital and computational art techniques at Camberwell and Wimbledon were selected to showcase their practice to the international audience at the festival.

We spoke to Fine Art Programme Director, Lois Rowe, about the trip.

A woman lies smiling in strange contraption with black screen tilted at an angle over her face.
Lois Rowe (in the work of Antony/Perrakis) at Ars Electronica 2019. - Credit: Tom Mesic photography

How did the trip to Ars Electroncia this year come about?

The trip came about through an initial invitation by Dr Christa Sommerer, who is the Course Leader of MA Interactive Cultures at the University of Linz.

I had become aware of Christa and her partner Laurent Mignonneau's work as a student in the 1990s. They are very interested in human interactions with digital experiences of nature. As a film-maker, I found this particular area of experiential art-making really fascinating. An underlying message of their work is a real existential questioning around new media, or computation, as we are calling it today, and its impact on how we experience the 'natural' world.

Around seven years ago I met Christa and coordinated a VR symposium between UAL, University of Linz and the Ars Electronica Lab. With a group of students we had created a virtual gallery space in which to meet up with VR artist/theorist Tamiko Thiel and Laura Mercier, curator at Ars Electronica, as well as a group of their students. We performed this meet up live as part of the Tate Exchange 2016 and based on its success we were invited to extend this exchange into the 40th Anniversary of Ars Electronica in Linz this year.

A man in a grey shirt stands behind various objects suspended from the ceiling with electrical wire.
Robin Weijers and his work at Ars Electronica. - Credit: Tom Mesic photography

Which students went with you and how were they involved? What kind of work did they show – any examples?

Students from across Camberwell and Wimbledon were invited to be involved, with the selection around the theme of Spectacular Resonance. I worked with Jonathan Kearney, currently Course Leader of Camberwell’s MA Fine Art Digital, to curate the final selection, which was Cheska Lotherington, Manolis Perrakis, Robin Weijers and Mathis Antony.

The students presented very varied computational work. Cheska showed an interactive light display, Robin installed an interactive musical apparatus that was coded to reverberate sounds from found objects back into the space. Manolis and Mathis presented an AI lounger, which 'reads' the viewer's face and generates life guidance accordingly. And the longer you lie there, the more advice is generated. The advice to me was fairly bossy and religious in nature, so not sure what that says about my face, but it was a real attraction of the festival!

What were some of the highlights of the trip for you?

The highlight for me was the opportunity to work with students in this incredible location. Spectacular Resonance was installed within Post City, which is a disused postal factory next to the rail station in the centre of Linz. We were given a space in which to freely work and I think the students found this really empowering. There were very few Health and Safety restrictions! We could remove ceiling tiles, hammer walls, and so on.

The international scale of the festival was mind-blowing. The whole city just embraces this annual event and seeing the way in which the city embraces the festival as a kind of beacon of the future feels somehow very hopeful.

There were also some incredible and memorable projects - some fascinating ways of exploring the gesture of drawing through machine learning, the most life-like female cyborg (made by a man...), I could go on...!

A woman in a white room looks towards a white neon tube light.
Cheska Lotherington views work at Ars Electronica. - Credit: Tom Mesic photography

What is the value of being involved with events and organisations like Ars Electronica – for you as an academic, for the college and for the students?

It is incredibly important at an event like Ars Electronica to see how artists are questioning a world, which is increasingly computational. To see how questions arise that ponder the human condition and what it means for the local community.

Interestingly, there were wheat and corn plants installed everywhere throughout the exhibition. It was hard not to be really aware of the relationship between the digital and the global, between the digital and nature. A lot of people are talking about the affect of smart phones on the environment and what the future looks like. Ars Electronica seemed to really foreground some of these questions.

The students, who all have very specific ways of working, were amazed to find other artists who are interested in very similar things. All of the students made connections that will, I know, develop into future opportunities and dialogue around their areas of interest. The Ars Electronica Artificial Intelligence Centre in Linz feels like an important institution to continue a dialogue with as we build the Computational Arts area at Camberwell. For its network, for its capacity, and for the extent of its research.

A group of people looking at the camera.
From left to right: Cheska Lotherington, Jonathan Kearney, Mathis Antony, Robin Weijers, Manolia Perrakis. - Credit: Tom Mesic photography

How do you see the learning from this trip feeding into the Computational Arts courses at Camberwell?

The trip inevitably invigorated the thinking around the design of the BA and MA Computational Arts courses. It certainly foregrounded the areas of ethical responsibility in relation to machine learning and the study of 'things' and data.

The most political works in the show have stood out as exemplars for the kind of practice we would like to see in the computational arts area: the questioning of gender assignment in relation to AI, the re-positioning of ethical positions of comfort and privilege.

But probably more than anything, the trip demonstrated that creativity or play is often a good starting point for computational work. The thinking, the contextualisation, the science and technique... that can come later. The most gripping and memorable work, like any artwork really, seems to come from the most human place of asking questions about our world and our existence.

Read Lois Rowe’s profile

Find out more about Ars Electronica