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Bridging Open Borders

Ars Electronica Linz – “The longing for new worlds knows no bounds.”

Manuela Naveau


Flammarion engraving, wood engraving by unknown artist. First appeared in Camille Flammarion’s L’atmosphère: météorologie populaire (1888). Source: Wikipedia

Before I go into detail about Ars Electronica Linz and its participation in Digital Design Weekend, I’d like to say a few words about the metaphorical burden of “borders” and the huge expectations invested in the “bridges” taken up by this year’s Digital Design Weekend at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. It’s not that I’m of the opinion that this topic is unimportant. Quite the contrary—if one calls to mind the political discussions in the USA, Europe and England, their sole point seems to be: How best to set oneself apart from the others? But I’m particularly taken by the Bridging Open Borders theme. What is meant by “open” here and what exactly does the title refer to? Is this meant to go in the direction of stronger community thinking of open territories, or does this have to do with more diversity and direct exchange among existing open territories? The Digital Design Weekend in London will display to us the palette of potential approaches to this topic. 
To confront this matter in somewhat more inspired fashion—especially in these turbulent times—I wish to invoke French astronomer and author Nicolas Camille Flammarion (1842-1925), who said: “The longing for new worlds knows no bounds.” 
Nicolas Camille Flammarion was an outstanding person who made his living from the natural sciences and science fiction in equal measures. The co-founder of the Société Astronomique de France (SAF) was a prolific author of scientific articles, and his fantastic tales influenced, among others, the Parisian surrealists. Particularly prominent was a 19th-century illustration, the origins of which are unknown but that came to be known as the Flammarion engraving as well as Wanderer on the Edge of the World (or in French: au pèlerin / on pilgrimage) when it was published in one of the SAF’s journals of popular science and gained fame as such. Now, one may very well hold the view that art and science meet in this image. Nevertheless, I am of the opinion that an interpretation involving nature is a much more convincing one. And here, I would like to bring up the idea of a “first nature” and a “second nature”, whereby the first one is the given nature, the one that surrounds us and long preexisted humankind, and the second nature is the one that human beings have constructed and that encompasses the first one. With the help of technical instruments and technological processes, humankind created a new reality of life that goes beyond the first nature and is based on people’s longings. The first nature with a naturally grown landscape, with trees, bushes and fields; a Sun that the lone wanderer calmly observes, and the wild sea of stars that stand in stark contrast to the ordered world of technology and science with its automated sequences, repetitions and experiments—our second nature, which is, like the first, a part of our shared reality. Whoever believes that harmony constitutes the tenor on both sides of this representation hasn’t taken note of the wild predatory felines on the top of the wood engraving’s frame, who signify the dangers on both sides. Nevertheless, the wanderer seems hungry for knowledge and, with an outstretched hand, self-confidently goes forth. He turns his back on his accustomed surroundings but proceeds cautiously, on his knees, slowly approaching this other world, the second nature, with all of its undiscovered secrets and mechanisms. The longing for new worlds is not only the driving force of the wanderer in Flammarion’s engraving; it is also what motivates the artists that Ars Electronica Linz is showcasing on Digital Design Weekend.

Veronika Krenn wants us to realize that we are already part of new worlds, though we are hardly capable of understanding them. She creates tangible objects that function as proxies of data and information, and thereby calls attention to phenomena of this day and age. 
Davide Bevilacqua points out a totally new dimension that people per se are hardly capable of comprehending, much less influencing it—machines that communicate with each other and exchange information. What sort of world are machines contriving? Can machines develop longings? 
Leo Peschta’s robotic works question the functional efficiency of automatons. He builds machines that are sufficient unto themselves and serve no further purpose. In a world in which machines are considered, above all, as aids but are increasingly being endowed with intelligence, Peschta argues on behalf of a new understanding of machines—respect as well as distance. As if we were encountering a new acquaintance, a complete stranger. We surely wouldn’t believe all this person’s claims right off the bat. And s/he would, first and foremost, have to earn our affection. 
Irene Posch and Ebru Kurbak, for their part, create tools that connect worlds. They embroider a computer, and completely reinvent electronic components and devices by combining traditional textile handicrafts with electronic technology in extraordinarily futuristic ways.

Especially now, in times of digital reality that we have manufactured ourselves, we realize that we actually don’t understand it—we can’t read it, speak it, smell it, taste it or breathe it. To get an impression of our times, we need artists who immerse themselves in new worlds and, from these vantage points, boldly look back to tell us what and where we happen to be at the moment. Inherent in the people we require is an incessant longing for the unknown and the novel. Precisely like the artists featured in this exhibition, as well as Nicolas Camille Flammarion.

Manuela Naveau

Here, I would like to express my sincere thanks for having been invited again to Irini Papadimitriou of the Digital Design Weekend at the V&A. Our gratitude is also due to the Austrian Cultural Forum in London, as well as the AVL Cultural Foundation and NIO Nextev (UK) Limited for their support of the participating artists.