Don't Call it Art
In choosing CODE as its theme, Ars Electronica 2003 has capitalized on (some would say: appropriated) developments within the field of new media art that already have been going on for a few years. As Andreas Broeckmann (the Artistic Director of Transmediale festival, Berlin) reminded the audience in his concluding presentation during the Ars Electronica symposium, already 5 years ago New York based artist John Simon suggested that it would be useful to treat software-based art as a separate category. Consequently, since 2001 the Transmediale festival competition has included “artistic software” as one of its categories, and devoted a significant space to it in the festival’s symposiums. Another important platform for presenting software art has become the Whitney Museum in New York and its Artport web site where curator Cristiane Paul has organized a number of important exhibitions during the last few years. As of 2002, software art became the subject of a new, smaller-scale but very significant festival, README. The 2002 README took place in Moscow, while 2003’s was in Helsinki. Finally, in January 2003, festival organisers (Alexei Shulgin, Olga Goriunova, Alex McLean, and others) established a comprehensive web portal for software art RUNME.ORG. Containing at present more than 60 categories, RUNME is an evolving conceptual map of what I see as the larger meaning of the term “software art”: the significant, diverse, and real creative activities at the intersections between culture, art, and software.
Given that Ars Electronica has much more significant resources than probably any other festival of media or new media art in the world, one would expect that it would correspondingly take the discussions of software art and culture to a new level. Unfortunately, my impression of the festival (note that although I spent five full days at the festival, I still could not make it to every single panel and performance) is that instead it narrowed the focus of these discussions. Intentionally or not, software art became equated with algorithmically generated media: still and moving images and sound. To quote the definition of “art created out of code” from Ars Electronica program, it is “a generative artform that has been derived and developed from computational processes” (the statement by the directors of Ars Electronica, festival program, p. 2). More than once I had to check my program to make sure that I was indeed at Ars Electronica 2003 rather than SIGGRAPH – or an earlier Ars Electronica edition from the 1980s when computer imaging indeed represented the key creative area of digital arts field. In a strange loop, Ars Electronica festival came full circle to include its own past. In the mid 1990s, recognizing that production of computer images was no longer confined to the digital “avant-garde” but became the norm in culture at large, Ars Electronica dropped this category, replacing it with “Net Vision / Net Exellence.” So why in 2003, would the Ars Electronica exhibition and symposium once again devote such significant space to algorithmically generated visuals and sound? As even a quick look through README depository demonstrates, “software art” constitutes an extremely diverse set of contexts, interests, and strategies, with algorithmic media generation being only one direction among many others.