CultTech Media

The Coming of the Digital

Martin Honzik approaches us with a huge smile on his face and jumps into the conversation with a couple of jokes. He's the Chief Curatorial Officer of Ars Electronica Festival and even though it's the opening day of the event, and he must be exceptionally busy (and probably sleepless) — he's definitely enjoying the moment. Martin, like many other members of the Ars Electronica team, is an artist himself, and it's very clear from the beginning how emotionally involved he is. We asked Martin a few questions about the Ars Electronica Festival, its history and relations with the city of Linz.

Pavel (CultTech Association): Every time I talk to my friends and mention the city of Linz, they all go 'Oh, that's where Ars Electronica is happening'. How do you explain that the festival is almost more well-known than the city that is hosting it?

MH: The first thing is Linz is not a big city. Especially when you compare it to metropolia, where you expect these kinds of events in that size. Doing something on the surface of that city here has been so far an advantage — because it's not a competition you end up in. Just imagine doing that in Berlin — it might not be possible, because there's so much more stuff happening there at the same time.

And in Linz, when you're implementing a festival, you're kind of transforming the city into a festival location. Every cultural institution, whether it's a small one or not, is playing a role here — no matter if we want it or not. The concept of getting lost for the many foreigners that we have here is actually a concept of managing yourself. Even when I was a young man and had nothing to do with Ars Electronica and this whole digital thing (because I grew up in the countryside) — when Ars Electronica was on, I always went to the city. Because the smell of the many different global voices and colours was in the air. For humans who like that and are not afraid of it — it's just a perfect spot.

CA: Linz used to be a very industrial city. Do you think it might have been one of the reasons why Ars Electronica emerged here? They say that art thrives in post-industrial landscapes: look at Detroit or even Berlin.

I mean, that is very the reason. And by the way, Linz is still a very industrial city. There are not too many cities of this kind that come from the Nazi time: Linz and Wolfsburg, I believe. And Linz is still dominated by the steel manufactory. But today this manufactory is working on the biggest hydrogen generator, creating steel with green energy. Just looking at the legacy of Ars Electronica — things become very clear.

We used to be a disaster: a highly polluted, classical city dominated by industry. The air was brownish. We had problems. Our forerunners and the politicians at that time were so visionary that they came up with a cultural development plan that would last over 30 years. The endpoint was for Linz to become a European capital of culture, which, by the way, happened in 2009. And Ars Electronica was a seed in this plan.

The politicians at that time said: 'We need to invest in culture. We need more of that here'. But what culture should you invest in when you are 160 kilometres away from Vienna, the little cultural capital of the world, and 100 kilometres away from Salzburg? Building another opera house, which we now have, would have been simply the wrong approach. On the other hand, the domination of industrialization that we had here at that time was confronted with the new technology — electrification. And it was an incredible boost in the sense of effectiveness.

And then our forerunners thought: 'Can we find a way, a cultural interpretation, where we could not just let the industry live here, somehow make it more integrated?', So, they were aware that these kinds of technologies creating the boost in efficiency would go far beyond the understanding of automatisation and industrialization. It would influence us in all our daily lives and have an impact on our whole society. That was the soup out of where we have been growing, and the ingredients were free topics, technology, society and arts.

CTA: I was actually amazed when I found out that the very building of the Post City was being used by the Austrian Postal Service less than ten years ago.

It’s a wonderful example of digitalization itself. I always tend to say that the house we are in, this machine that we've transformed into a festival venue, is the third project. Just look at this huge piece of architecture. But then the digitalisation happened — and all of a sudden we are not sending postcards anymore. But then Amazon Prime happened — and now our cities are flooded with small parcels. We send socks from A to B.

So now Postcity is a symbol of the boost of digitalization: everything that we had thought in terms of scale — is simply not fitting in the 21st century anymore. So this is a symbol of the industrial idea of the last century.

CTA: It is quite funny when you have the technology which is aimed at the future, but then in 30 or 40 years, it often becomes useless, and you have to retransform it once again. Now, let's move to Ars Electronica. A general question: I think a lot of people might confuse Ars Electronica Centre and Ars Electronica Festival. Could you give us a quick explanation of that?

I would describe Ars Electronica as an organism. One could even compare it with a food chain. But let me quickly go through the timeline. Our founding momentum was the festival — after that, the politician's plan that I had mentioned was brought to life. The first festival had 15 protagonists, and one could have the feeling that these 15 protagonists were also their own audience at that time. We invited some people for international expertise, after which we understood that there could be a substantial discussion with very interesting and relevant terms in the future.

The idea came up to create a prize — which is now known as Ars Electronica Prix. It was the internationals that we wanted to bring into Linz to leave something here in the city. The first festival was held in 1979, in the 80s we founded the prize. In the 90s, politicians saw that this prize was growing rapidly, and the relevance and the global discourse totally fit in. And they understood that this prize was a forerunner in itself for the questioning of the Prix Ars Electronica. They said: «All right, so we have the internationals coming here once a year. We do this call, so we get an idea what topics the artists are confronted with and with what tools and technologies they tend to reflect those».

And this is media arts. The next step was making a centre that would be here as a membrane, as a catalyst in transforming and translating the avant-garde point of view to the dialect of the region. I mean, we are spending tax money here, so the idea was that we create a centre that is a prototype. If you go to an agency and say, 'Hey guys, I want a prototype', then of course you'd get an answer, 'You'll get a prototype' — but it's the one that they're going to sell to everyone the next day.

So, Gerfried Stocker came up with a genius idea to create something that is now called art residencies. We could ask the artists who submit their works for the Prix if they would want to spend a year or two with us — in order to create this prototype. And that was the founding moment of our FutureLab, our research department.

And here we are. 2009, Linz received a mandate to be a European capital of culture. With all the European and local money together, we could extend our museum to the centre that we have now. To close the circle, so to say.

CTA: Ars Electronica Festival today consists of so many things: Campus, Ars Electronica Prix, STARTS, the Future Lab — could you give us a quick overview of these basic components that comprise the festival?

Well, the festival is a mothership. And at Prix Ars Electronica, every year, we come up with special categories artists can address — but we don't give any particular topics. So you have to know how to read between the lines. When you look through the submissions, you can learn about the geopolitical conflicts in the world and the big transformations. So every year, there comes incredible creative expertise at the Prix Ars Electronica.

The Centre is this translator to the region. Our FutureLab is a sort of catalyst, a membrane towards science and industry, which aims to create this culture of collaboration. Then there's another unit called Export: after the festival, we export the works, mostly via exhibitions. The branch is a business-oriented case: we create all sorts of solutions that are a continuation of the FutureLab (because the lab is here to invent, not to promote, sell and do all the marketing stuff). In a while, after trying to bring it all under one umbrella, we came up with the Solutions department — their goal is to put everything together and develop projects out of it for commercials' sake.

CTA: What about the STARTS platform, Campus and the Gardens' exhibitions?

These are the things that make a festival what it is today. The festival originally started as a platform for the arts. Nowadays, we have become a festival for the entire public, which has a lot to do with the genius minds that brought Ars Electronica forward, but it also has a lot to do with digitalisation. The predicted future from cyber-punk novels is coming so early and quickly that we have the cultural order to address the entire society.

CTA: There's so much stuff exhibited here at the festival, and I'm guessing it's only a small percentage of works that have been submitted or projects you considered to take in. How do you manage to go through so many projects as a curator?

That's the honey side of the bread (laughing).

CTA: How does it work — the current festival ends, and then the next day you're already researching projects for the next one?

No-no. In times of these constant changes, we cannot really afford the luxury of planning like they do in opera houses. We start developing the program five or six months before the festival. We never start in the previous year.

Until the festival, the world is coming to us. Then, when the festival ends, it's time for us to go out. We the parts of the festival, put them in different constellations and try to continue the narrative — to write the next chapters on external ports, with external partners in different cultures. We don't copy, we keep on telling the story.
CTA: How do you pick the main theme of the festival? Is like a five-hour symposium where everyone's trying to convince the rest that their idea is better?

No-no, we have a hierarchy and a genius mastermind of our artistic director Gerfried Stocker, who has been a part of this journey from almost the very beginning. He's the guy sitting on the golden egg, although he surely sues us as testimonials, when he's dropping some ideas and looks how we react. The festival always came exclusively from Gerfried, he's the man developing that.
CTA: The intersection of art, science and technology looks like a very attractive field for big companies. Is it hard to remain an independent festival these days or it's not a concern at all?

The questions are: what is truth, and what is independence? Ars Electronica has been changing drastically. When I started in 2006 — which wasn't the very beginning at all — we still used to develop most of the projects at the curatorial level on our own. We are all hybrid persons: project managers, cultural managers, but originally, most of us are still all artists.

Since we're in the Postcity, digitalisation has come beyond its revolution. In the past, everybody was talking about digital transformation — now, we talk about the urgent need for digital socialism. All of that made us change our attitude. Now we see ourselves as a platform rather than a control-freak curatorial organisation where we are in charge of every brick used for building the house.

The simple thing behind this: the digital world has become so complex and global, that the festival has entered a different stage. This is something we have been observing in the last few years — we have so many cultures represented here, and they all come with very personal stories. The imminent stories, with their own dialect, coined by their cultural background and histories. Yet, in the end, you see that they are all facing and questioning global issues.

This global complexity and the opportunity to have a platform festival gives you multiple access to understand the problems that we are facing. And we feel totally enriched and benefitted when guys from, let's say, Columbia are telling us their own story. It is so easy to breach this on a global level, and this is the method that artists are offering to the other fields. We don't invent technology, but we show that one could use it in a different constellation for the sake of alternative results. And this is the method.

We also try to reflect on ourselves by using the diversity of the festival. Sometimes we say 'Okay, so this is a limitation that we cannot go beyond' — that's when we talk about sustainability, for instance. So we're asking people — how are you dealing with it in Africa, Dubai or East Asia and all over the world? And I'll stress it once again: for people who are open to the world, Ars Electronica is the right spot.