Superfluous sex at Ars Electronica

Melinda Rackham

originally published
Realtime 40, 2001, Australia


"Test the power of your loins"” was the call for men to donate their semen for Sperm Race—one of the most publicised events of Next Sex: Sex in the Age of its Procreative Superfluousness, this year’s Ars Electronica Festival in Linz, Austria. The festival sought to engage electronic arts, gender studies and queer theory to highlight the mechanisms of discrimination based on sexual preference, gender or heredity. Analysing men’s semen for mobility and hence reproductive success, while giving women the opportunity to participate by placing bets on whose sperm they thought would be the fastest swimmer, seemed to reinforce rather than challenge these issues, but I tried to keep an open mind…

While the banks of the Danube resonated with To Rocco Rot from the outdoor sound stage, the very brown Bruknerhaus Concert Hall was hung with Dieter Huber’s huge vinyl prints of irritating, unerotic, morphed double vaginas and multiple penises. Wander upstairs and you’d find a pink faux fluffy viewing lounge for Natacha Merritt’s (US) web-published soft porn digital images of herself. Demonstrating the festival’s prevailing lack of critical engagement, Merritt was sure her work was really “art” as she also had a print publishing deal.

In a simulation of sleaze you could follow some gaffer taped arrows down back corridors to find Shu-Lea Cheang’s (US) The IKU Experience. The Blade Runneresque Experience has a variety of straight and queer couplings, a loose narrative of sci-fi viral cybersexual encounters, dialogue of the moaning kind, a sprinkling of sexy cinematography and 3D graphics—but I’m not sure how it ends.

The most rewarding installation was Sergio Messina’s Brave New Porn which showcases amateur (rather than industry) porn images from similar-interest-groups on the net. Perhaps you are looking for a hiccupping lover, a play pony to ride, another clog worshipper, or you just want to swap pictures with some friends that delight in “plush sex”—the arranging and photographing of cuddly toys in erotic poses. Messina illustrates with both humour and respect the variety of human desire as these otherwise marginalised consenting adults get together online.

On the gallery level clear plastic tents housed a selection of bio-art projects that manipulate nature by processes like changing the spots on butterflies by cell modification or inserting synthetic DNA into living cells. Australians Oran Catts, Ionat Zurr and Guy Ben-Ary (Israel) were showing their ongoing project Tissue Culture and Art(ificial) Wombs, now being carried out at Harvard Medical School in Boston—growing skin, muscle and bone tissue culture on degradable polymer worry dolls in the artificial womb environment of a NASA developed bioreactor. The project questions our loss of innocence in the age of technological reproduction, but is not clear on the ethical issues surrounding the seam between tissue culture and the creation of an autonomous living entity.

The Next Sex symposium covered tired material such as disembodied cyber sex, contraception, and transgender operative procedures. Sandy Stone, a pioneer in the field of virtual sexuality, had nothing new to say either as she did the same performance I saw at Digital Aesthetics in Sydney in 1996. The controversy of the festival was neo-Darwinist Randy Thornhill’s theories on rape as a natural evolutionary adaptation for survival, generating outrage from both men and women in the audience. However, there was no official platform for response.

Thankfully downstairs the independently curated electrolobby—a net event of streaming and sushi provided a haven from sex. Works included Sissy Fight, Eric Zimmerman’s (US) engaging multi-user bitchy playground game of teasing and scratching and ganging-up strategies and Icontown from Bernd Holzhausen—a network community project based on the concept of the pixel as building material. Also featured was Leonardo, with Annick Bureaud, the artistic and scientific network that has existed for more than 30 years and has been slapped with a lawsuit by a French financial firm claiming violation of its trademark rights and etoy (Switzerland) who won their legal battle against retailer E-toys in a similar name dispute, by mobilising a global army of net users to electronically engage and defeat the corporate giant.

The parallel Cyberarts 2000 exhibit in the Ars Electronic Centre and the OK.Centrum venues hosted a variety of interactive and sound works. Borderland from Laurant Hart/Julien Alma is a variation of the Streetfighter genre, a game console with a choice of about 40 disparate and amusing opponents, such as a woman with a sink plunger, a man covered in cardboard boxes, a set of twins, gasmask guy, the backpacker who swings the backpack as her weapon. You also get to choose the backgrounds, from postindustrial urban wasteland to desert terrains. The control buttons are a semi-dismantled standard computer keyboard leaving enough keys to move your player, adding to the sense of hacked genres.

On the large scale was Rafeal Lozano-Hemmer’s (Mexico/Canada) Vectorial Elevation, a stunning execution of public art with international participation facilitated by an internet site. Over a 2 week period you could design via the web a light sculpture to be made by 18 searchlights on top of buildings around Mexico City’s main square, which could be seen for a 10 mile radius. Global participants were sent back webcam documentation of their implemented design, creating a tangible sense of technologically mediated remote intervention into public spaces.

Each evening a different performance event was featured—the most enjoyable was Scribble with Golan Levin’s (US) Audio Visual Environment Suite software projected onto a massive screen in the concert hall where the mesmerising graphical interface generated soundscapes. Ars Electronica also ran a late night social club with themes of sex work, peep shows and beauty contests. These were supposed to be provocative, but hardly seemed to raise an eyebrow amongst the audience. The highlight was the wo-man gender morph night with two very differently paced acts—New Yorker Dred-Drag King Extrordinaire’s sweaty hip hop and rap sets, and Sydney’s norrie mAy-welby performing intelligent cabaret to the crowd’s delight.

The Free Speech Camp squatted outside the social club in the Ars Quarter. This motley assortment of caravans and a corrugated iron cantina provided the only mention during the festival of the current Austrian political situation where organisations such as Public Netbase in Vienna and Radio FRO may lose their funding and ability to provide independent commentary against Austria’s right wing government.

Being at Ars felt a little like playing shuffleboard on the Titanic, as eugenics and bioengineering were discussed without any reference to political contexts or social realities. Turning the ship around is unlikely as Ars Electronica is following the genetic theme again next year. Nearly everyone I spoke to expressed their dissatisfaction with this as well as the jurying process for the Prix and the lack of responsiveness to contemporary debates. In its larger context as an arts festival Ars Electronica is sponsored by global computing and telecommunications corporate entities that are perhaps unwilling to engage with these ethical issues.

Microsoft, one of Next Sex's main sponsors, may be excited by the possibility of a “genetic upgrade of mankind”, however the rest of us may like to stay with our current bio-operating system as the hidden upgrade costs may be too high.




Ars Electronica 2000 and Cyberarts 2000, Ars Electronic Centre, Bruknerhaus Concert Hall, OK.Centrum, Linz, Austria, September 2-7,www.aec.at/festival200


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