Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Leaving Linz

I've been threatening to write about Ars Electronica now for so long that I came to realize that I'm about written out on it in any systematic way, what with my three articles (all of which are linked below), and the subsequent discovery that Howard Rheingold is not the founder of Wikipedia, as I mistakenly wrote based on some badly-worded press from Ars, but, rather Jimmy Wales is. My fault entirely for not checking, but the heat of daily journalism as a freelancer -- with no staff to support you -- can mean that kind of thing happens. I'd just rather it didn't happen to me.

Instead, just some meanderings on the trip and the festival today, so I can leave it behind and return to the doings, such as they are, in dear old Berlin.

It's a 9-hour journey to Linz, changing trains on the way down in Nürnberg, which was great: the cheaper ticket meant an hour's layover, which was enough time to run across the street to the Bratwurst-Glöcklein for lunch. Pinkie-length sausages grilled over a beechwood fire with sauerkraut or potato salad, pretty much the same as they've been serving since the late 14th century, in the rather touristy and yet authentic Handwerkerhof, one of the best lunches in Germany.

Then, back on the train, rocketing through Bavaria until the border at Passau, which appears to be (and by all accounts is) a gorgeous city, and slowing down for Austria. I had no reservations, so I wound up sitting in the smoking car on this leg, which wasn't so bad except for the garrulous gentleman ahead of me talking to another guy, who was apparently deaf. The old coot kept talking about his son in "Dootledorf," and I don't know if that's an Austrian accent or what, but I do know that's how I'll think of that city from now on.

Linz's train station was in total chaos two years ago and it still is. I thought I was smart, having done a Map Quest or something for the LFI Hotel, where I was staying, and pretty much figured out where it was, so I just lit out walking to get there. Linz is small enough, after all, that it's perfectly possible to walk from the train station to the banks of the Danube, and that's pretty much what I wound up doing. I couldn't find the place anywhere. I finally snagged a cab and we set off, but he'd never heard of it and phoned in, finally, at my request, and then drove me all the way back to the train station, past it, and into a driveway marked Landesministerium für Wirtschaft. This is the office which promotes Austrian agricultural products to the world, and they have a guest-house for visitors, as it turns out. It's in the middle of a park, on top of a steep hill. That's the good news and the bad news.

Sweaty (it was way warmer in Austria than in Berlin) and tired, I nonetheless had to make sure I made the opening party, because it was being catered by Gordon W's Scharfness Institut, and Gordon would then abandon his post at the tandoor to play with Fuzzy Love. This party, too, was on top of a huge hill, in the dark, with the tower at its top, the Franz-Josef-Warte, whose context I never did get, but at least the festival provided buses to the site; after an hour's aimless wandering after the train-ride, I was pooped.

Standing in line for one of Gordon's justifiably-famous naan pizzas turned out to be a great way to meet people, and I talked with a composer from MIT and a professor from the University of North Carolina Greensboro, and various other folks. It took about 90 minutes to get served: Gordon's "performance cooking" is as much performance as cooking, after all. (Of course, since he operates Imbiss W on Kastanienallee here, I can get one any time I have a couple of Euros). There was another marathon line for beer, and after I was supplied, I watched Fuzzy Love until the exhaustion set in.

The LFI was, appropriately enough for the event, in a park called Der Gugl, and the next morning I started the routine of an absolutely amazing, all-Austrian-produced (except for the orange juice, I guess), all organic breakfast, then gathering up my stuff, and walking down the hill to the Brucknerhaus, the huge concert hall on the banks of the Danube where the conference was held. I had my first chance to use my Airport card, too, just opening up my iBook and wham, being connected to the Internet! Wonderful thing, technology.

That's also the way the speakers at this "Timeshift" symposium felt, although some of them (the younger ones, interestingly enough) sure could be dull about it. The first morning's highlights were Roger Malina, a space scientist who also heads something called The Leonardo Project, who discussed the place art inhabits in technological progress, among many other things, and effectively revised C.P. Snow's famous "Two Cultures" argument in favor of one with five cultures: Art, design, and entertainment; Science, particularly in its relationship to government; Technology and its relationship to the corporate world; a culture of "world views"; and a fifth, which he called Situation, about which I'm a bit nebulous. Esther Dyson turned in a nice lecture about progress (the theme of the morning symposium), and Ismael Serageldin, director of the Library of Alexandria project, attempted a video-conference, and although the sound came through very nicely, his image resembled nothing so much as the CGI bad-guy from (yes, I confess to having watched it one night while bored) the recent remake of The Mummy.

The afternoon session was called "Disruption," and was guaranteed to be fun: Joichi Ito slammed intellectual property laws, David Turnbull overturned the concept of maps as fixed representations of data, and then Bruce Sterling got up and gave his now-famous speech on spimes. Finishing with his battle-cry of "The future's already here; it just isn't well-distributed!" he got a thunderous ovation.

In need of nutrition for the non-brain part of my body, I walked back into town and quickly found the Klosterhof, which I remembered from last time, although not fondly. Turns out that the Wiener Schnitzel is about the only bad thing on their menu; I had amazing stuff three nights in a row, and the Stiegel beer is also fine.

That night's party was on the banks of the Danube below the Ars Electronica center, using the flood tunnels as spaces for performances and allowing everyone to just hang out and talk. The highlight of the evening for me was a live performance of Julien Maire's Demi-Pas, an amazing little "film" performed with souped-up slide projectors and hundreds of very complicated multi-part slides, many with moving parts he manipulates. The story is just a day in a guy's life, and I'd seen the video of it at the OK Centrum, where a lot of the CyberArts winners were housed and not thought much of it. But live, with the performer jamming around his projectors and moving his fragile slides around like a club DJ does records was really impressive.

The next morning's symposium was "Spirit," and the stars were out again. Sherry Turkle, a psychologist who studies human-computer relationships, among other things, talked about "nurture as the killer app," and perhaps made too much of toys like the Furby. She was followed by a much more successful video conference with Marvin Minksy, who looked like himself, jovially refuted all the spiritual talk that had gone before ("Spirit, to me, is a very dangerous and pernicious idea which says your being is a gift, and it comes from somewhere else"), and invoked Freud's structure of personality to posit one of his own, ending with the prophecy that "In the next five years we'll find ways to let computers use tens of millions or hundreds of millions of ideas."

The conference's low point was the afternoon symposium, which was too academic and dry for my taste for the most part. Worst offender was a guy named Gerhard Dirmoser, who's been following Ars Electronica since the beginning and has developed charts based on such things as the themes or key phrases of each one and how they networked with each other. His current project is mapping 44,000 verbs used in the texts generated by the past 25 years of Ars. This is the sort of person one gives a wide berth to at parties. Finally, Stewart Brand of the Long Now Foundation put everything in a Big Time Persepective much as Roger Malina had done with his Big Space Perspective at the start. One thing I found particularly good about Brand's speech is that in a milieu which thrives with much schadenfreude on dystopias and disaster scenarios, he's actually optimistic, thanks to his interpretation of data accumulated over long stretches of time. None of us, of course, will likely find out if he's right, but it was the difference between Chicken Little and fried chicken.

Right after the symposium, I decided to walk to the dance performance, "Apparition," at the Posthof, which appeared to be about a 15-minute walk from the Brucknerhalle. I should have remembered what Turnbull had said about maps, because it was 30 or more minutes along the Danube and then into the harbor (and who knew Linz had a harbor?), during which I'd gotten so turned around that somehow I'd lost the ticket I'd had to get for the performance. I got in, though, fortunately, because I needed it for my Times story. Saturday night's party was at the OK Centrum, and I got there just as it ran out of beer, which was just as well because I had a noon deadline for my first IHT story the next day, and anyway €1.50 got you a beer out of the soft-drink machine at the LHI. So civilized!

Sunday was spent chasing down art, some of the best of which was the student work from IAMAS in Japan, and I ended my festival with the Digital Musics award concert, which was really disappointing. Janek Schaefer's "Skate" was interesting enough, the sounds of records with blank grooves (which I think he makes himself) which are easily damaged being electronically altered, although at 30 minutes the piece was maybe ten minutes too long. But whoever gave this gal who performs as AGF the idea that we wanted to sit and hear her sing tunelessly about her boring life and her fears that her education was perhaps useless while a guy rumbled around on a piano and a woman put projections behind her, should be fired from jury posthaste. Thomas Köner's "Banlieu du Vide," which was the grand prize winner, also didn't strike me as so much music as a video installation, and it was interesting as such. Someone's going to have to put someone who knows about music on the jury next year and let some of the groovy professors out to pasture.

Monday morning was chaos, since there wasn't any Internet access at the hotel, and I had to walk to the Brucknerhaus, file by noon, and go back to the hotel, pick up my luggage, pay the bill, and get to the train station by 12:25. It was okay: the train was late, and I stared longingly at the opposite track, where a train to Budapest was going to arrive. I'd shopped around the idea of doing a story on the paprika harvest in Hungary, only to be met with puzzled responses, and I sort of wished I was heading out that way. Ah, but there are harvests every year, so I'll try again then. I like the idea of going from the high-tech, high intellect world of Ars to a pepper harvest, so I hope it happens.

And I'm very, very happy to report that the return journey, although delayed by almost a half hour eventually, was totally eventless. Mostly because the events, when they happen, tend to be annoying. But I'll tell you one thing: after all those great meals at the LFI and the Klosterhof, I didn't eat meat for a week.

So I've been back for a little over a week, and now I guess it's time to start agitating for my next trip. And to be a bit more regular with this here blog.

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