Ars Electronica Festival 2014: an interpretation

Here is an abridged version of the English Highlight guide tour that I gave on Sunday 7th September at Ars Electronica Festival 2014 (AEF). Thank you to the 6 wonderful audience members I had and that €2 tip really made me happy.

I was at AEF for 3 weeks from 23 August till 13 September 2014, thanks to the Sampad European Placement Programme for Digital Learning funded by Leonardo da Vinci Mobility Programme.

A little bit of history

Ars Electronica started as a festival in 1979 by 4 people – the head of Upper Austrian Regional Studio, a cyberneticist/physician, an electronic musician/composer and a music producer. The genesis of this has not changed much 35 years later where the festival is still a meeting point of people from all sorts of backgrounds, gathering together in the name of electronic art and whatever that means to them.

Prix Ars Electronica was established in 1987 to recognise the achievements of these people and projects; many household names from Pixar to Wikileaks were winners of this award that is the industry equivalent of Oscars. 1996 saw the opening of the permanent home for the organisation (later refurbished and reopened in 2009) – Museum of the Future / Ars Electronica Center (AEC) – as well as the start of its R&D / Production department, FutureLab.

Today, the Festival, the Prix, the AEC and FutureLab are the DNA of the Ars Electronica brand.

The now is future

What amazed me was how many of the festival themes were still as relevant right now – “Information society”,  “The higher the technology, the higher the need for contact. The more we introduce technology into
society, the more people cuddle together.” “Artificial life” “Humanum – the fifth cultural technique” (on being human, versus computer). These were the festival themes between 1982 and 1990, and still topics of discussions I had just a few weeks ago.

I particularly liked the key word of 1989, “Openness”. It has one of the shortest opening remarks of the all, but has, to me, poetically responded to at least two of the key moments in that year: the revolutions of 1989, and the 20th birthday of the internet.

(Ars Electronica made all their festival catalogues freely available on their Archive. I highly recommend reading this and this.)

My interpretation of  “C… is for change”, AEF 2014

Here is my take on how to make sense of the many sights, sounds, concepts – familiar and not. There were some topics that appeared repeatedly in the many exhibitions of the festival, and by giving them headings, perhaps would help us formulate questions and respond to the festival theme: “What does it take to change?”


1. Social activism: Using technology to comment or take action on a social issue

The guys at Perpetual Plastic Project designed and 3D-printed a festival egg on the last day of the festival using a filament made of recycled plastics

The guys at Perpetual Plastic Project designed and 3D-printed a festival egg on the last day of the festival using a filament made of recycled plastics

My favourite examples:

2. The return of the analogue

Wall installation “In Search of Lost Time” by Nataša Sien?nik.

My favourite examples:

3. Awareness of the human senses – related to “the need of human contact” (theme of 1984), how artists try to bring back awareness to our own self and the human body, rather than the screens

My favourite examples:

  • Touchy (the only way you could go round touching people because it was a genuine need)
  • Planted (have you ever wondered what you will hear if you were a plant in Linz? Definitely not music or podcast from your earphones)
  • Sonotopia (Even buildings sing)

4. Human-Machine relationship – how much do you trust machines? Are machines trustable like humans? Are machines like humans, & vice versa?

"Das Vergerät" by Boris Petrovsky

“Das Vergerät” by Boris Petrovsky

My favourite examples:

  • The Collider (run towards a closed door. Run without hesitation and the door will open at the last minute before you hit it)
  • Learn to be a Machine (you thought you are controlling an interactive video of eyeballs, but they are actual eyeballs of a human being hidden under the bench you’re sitting on)
  • Das Vergerät (household machines play a symphony)

5. Virtual / Real – How do you know what is virtual and what is real? Does it even matter anymore?

The last thing you'd see of Mirage performance. Think again.

The last thing you’d see of Mirage performance. Think again.

My favourite examples:

  • Mirage (this is so fake it’s real)
  • Smiling Buddha (smile is infectious. Look, even videos of people will follow you)

(6). Of course, there are always the projects that are technically out-of-this-world brilliant

"Walking City" by Universal Everything

A big fat blob that WALKS from “Walking City” by Universal Everything

My favourite examples:

  • Walking City (I want to be a fat walking man if I can walk to that soundtrack everytime I walk)
  • Spaxels (DANCING DRONES)
  • Clouds (…I was using the Oculus Rift for so long the usher had to politely ask me to leave)


Hack the Barbican: a personal reflection

Hack the Barbican officially launched on Friday 9th August 2013, exactly a month since I first joined its Org Team. It continued to run until Saturday 31st August, making the remaining time almost as long as when I first had my hands on it till to date.

Organising Hack The Barbican was organising an event, not unlike putting together a stage performance, but it was so damn different, because there was space to breathe.

Artists talk about letting their work breathe. A writer should be brave of leaving his/her first draft and only come back a while later. In making art, “efficiency” is never a featured concept unless necessary which is normally related to time and financial circumstances.

What happens when there is no more efficiency in management? It becomes a fascinating process.

I vividly remember the first Org Team meeting I joined (it was open to anyone interested), the team was in a situation where a debate needed to happen as it related to integrity of HTB. To sidetrack a little: when I refer to the team, it really did not refer to a fixed list of people but rather referred to whoever was there at that point of time. Back to the story – I didn’t know or know of anyone. At the end of the meeting – despite how intense it was – I raised my hand and said I was happy to take on the responsibilities of doing X and Y, and so they were.

It was an immense act of trust and an unconditional sense of acceptance that I would not forget.

Further down the journey, one point, the dynamics of the team put me in an uncomfortable place. I felt that I wasn’t able to go ahead with doing my part well (in my standards) without the help of another team member who was under much more pressure than I did. Understandably I felt bad pestering him, but at the same time my perfectionist self had myself asking again and again. Yes, I was frustrated because it wasn’t good teamwork in my books, but I refrained from doing something unnecessary – showing the frustration.

It must have been one of the many times where we just had to believe that things would sort itself out – and I suppose it needed a certain degree of wisdom.

As the month went along, the things that needed doing were just as it sounds – things that really needed doing to keep the project going. The practical stuff that need people to get down and get their hands dirty and the number of people willing to do so was far and few – it drove us crazy.

When the month ended, I was beyond relieved. No more using one day as two, no need for explanations of why things were done so because they were set up in an unconventional way. I was exhausted, and I felt it was so for the rest of the people who spent a large chunk of August in the Barbican. The supposedly closing party performance was cancelled on the day and there were about 10 of us who turned up in the last two hours on the last day. We sat around a table and spoke a bit about our reflections, but the discussion did not take off – we ended up playing toy guns and a remote-controlled toy car that could breakdance instead. Just before I left, I wrote on the famous wall of HTB for the last time: “Goodbye #htb2013, we will miss you.”

In the later days and weeks, I tried to not use use the phrase “Hack The Barbican” as much as I can (it was instead I referred to it as “the thing at the Barbican” wherever possible). The only time I spoke to someone about it in its entirety was to a wise theatre producer friend. Even so, it was not a complete reflection. I talked about its organisation, what we did practically and how things could have been different if done another way; it wasn’t until now that I started to get an idea of the value of putting on HTB and placing it in a wider context.

The real value of Hack The Barbican lies in its chaotic nature. More importantly, to me, was the fact that there were no labels attached. When I first joined, I kept calling it a residency, based on the description that was given; at the end, it was referred to as a festival and in all honesty, I still don’t know how to refer to it.

Without labels, Hack The Barbican spoke to wide range of people. The number of people I met and found interesting in many different ways through the project was more than a handful. In a project, there normally is a something that binds all its participants together – an interest, a belief, an industry, age group, an end goal etc – and everyone is there for that particular reason. Hack The Barbican did not have that. We were there because of our individual reasons to be at this platform.

This particular takeaway for me continued way beyond the project itself.

Note: Hack the Barbican started way back in January 2013, so me joining at a very late stage meant I had already missed out a long, long journey. Whether there was a “neutral”, agreed-by-all definition of HTB, I am not sure. After this reflection was written, I learnt a little more about the background of the main initiators and I now try to consolidate what it was a little more and hopefully it makes a little more sense – HTB took a Hackspace approach, and it was an experiment of fostering a self-organising community in a short space of time. Will there be another HTB? How would it look like? We don’t know. After all, it is all self-organising i.e. for whoever who wants to do it, don’t wait for others, do it now.

Without Arts Education

The more I think about the fact that creative subjects are not in the EBacc, the stronger I feel about it and I just have to get it out of my chest.

I was reading Time Out London handed out for free at the tube station last week. On the very first page – the content page – it endorsed: “The Hot List – The next seven days in the world’s greatest city”.

If creative subjects are not included in EBacc, I can guarantee that in 15 years time, it would probably read, “The Hot List: The next month in London”, featuring regular sections of Arts (no longer separated into the current sections of Film, Music, Clubs and Cabaret, Comedy, Theatre & Dance), Shopping and Style, Eating and Drinking and Time In. Maybe LGBT would stay, maybe.


I come from a country where there are no creative subjects in school curriculum. Arts are for those who have the extra money to spend and the extra time to spare outside of school curriculum. In other words, those few – like me. We cheer when we finally have people who want to make it as artists, but realise there is no audience, not big enough to make it a fully-functional industry.

We have several shopping malls the size of Westfield Stratford. We have food and drinks – of all cuisines and in various types of eateries – that open 24 hours all year long. We have hundreds of TV channels on our cable TV, featuring programmes all around the world.

But our TimeOut is published once a month, perhaps much thinner than TimeOut London and definitely don’t have the right to say we are the world’s greatest city.

“Great arts for all” (which makes creative industry and the national culture) is one of the best things that made England and the rest of the UK great. Arts audiences need cultivating from young age. Please don’t deny the right of children to have the access to arts. National curriculum is to educate the next generation who will shape the country with forward-thinking ideas, not for the purpose of “getting into university” or “getting a job”. If creative subjects are indeed only for those who are willing to spend the after school hours to work on them… What a huge, huge step backwards.

Define: Contemporary Dance

What a wonderful definition of contemporary dance by Sanjoy in this article! :

“If these pieces [of contemporary dance] shared anything, it was not style or substance or quality, but rather an underlying belief that the vision of their creators was more important than any particular tradition, technique or convention; a valourisation of idiosyncrasy, of creativity above conformity.” – Sanjoy Roy

Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet

Must admit – I recognised the name, mainly because of The Adjustment Bureau.
Whilst I normally avoid shows by company related to “ballet”, I was captivated by the trailer of the show.
So I decided it’d be good to go.

Collected ticket, seated, start.

I asked, “Are you the usual ballet dancers?”
“In 15 seconds, you will decide whether you like the show.” (voiceover)
OK, unusual start. Don’t confront me.

Then they crouched, as low as possible.
Live musicians.
Ah, it’s Hofesh.

And they moved, like a beast, with so much grace.
They flew and landed, and there was not a sound.
It was quiet, like a secret.

Hofesh drained all your energy
and asked you to be still.
And be still, you won’t.

But I didn’t get the story – I found no relationships.
Live music didn’t matter, might have just sounded the same…

“I should talk less, do more, maybe then people will like me.” (voiceover)
And you continued to act on the secret;
the secret that I don’t know.


I would get a programme, but I had only card.
So I walked to Stage Door to get some fresh air and to decide whether to get some cash,
And saw a dancer sneaked out for a ciggy
I was then sure I have time to go to the cash point.
But whatever. I will get programme and M&Ms, on card.

Bell rang.

It was so light hearted,
And we laughed.
It was not new,
the woosh and taks shown through quirky moves
but it reminded me of New York.
It works, but probably not again.

Interval. Curiosity. Googled.

Why is the company not touring much?
Founded by Wal-Mart heiress – wow!
What do they do when they don’t tour?
What is their business model?

OK, last piece, Crystal Pite. Expectations, sky high.

The soundscape was amazing,
as well as the set.
Maybe so was the choreography,
But all I was starting at, were
The dancers.

What are they?

Are they beasts with grace, in the most risk taking way?
Are they artificial beings, with incredible control in these falls and twirls?

I kept searching for answers.
But abruptly it ended.
Left me in an empty car park space, or an abandoned train station.

They came out and bow. In a line, hand in hand.
There was no hierarchy, and I found them incredibly contemporary.

So I said to myself,
Maybe it’s time again to see New York City.

Cedar Lake Cast bow

Cedar Lake Programme and Ticket

Ghost The Musical, try to believe…

Ghost The Musical was on my Musicals To Watch list since last year, and knowing that it will close in West End I quickly got some tickets to catch the last glimpse of it.


The beginning of the show was stunning – live orchestra, the special effects that seemingly brought us through space, the word “Ghost” in your face, and then through the thick dry ice, powerful light from torches was directly in your face again.

Unfortunately that was probably when the “wow” began to end.

Salute to the technological whizz who made disappearing on stage, walking through objects and spirits floating in air possible. Otherwise, the production, empty, was wrapped under the shell of its use of technology in a few key scenes; added to its depth was only the amazing Oda May Brown character and actress for whom I would pay to watch again. The ever changing sceneries – a combination of stage mechanics and digital projection – did nothing but treated the audience like idiots who needed to be spoon-fed. On top of that was some dance acts that looked like steps put together by an amateur choreographer (or choreographies too clever would steal the show even more?), danced by a cast who looked uninspired and were sick of changing costumes.

What I felt the producers wanted to do was to recreate the movie on stage, which was ridiculous in the first place. How could you replace or recreate a 2D experience with live performance, and vice versa?

My last hope was when Molly pulled out her potters wheel – I knew this classic scene from my mum who absolutely loved the film – but it was just another passing scene. In fact, the whole show was made up of passing scenes – storytelling in its blandest way.

I am glad I saw the show, not just it ticked one thing off my list but also I finally got to watch what is called a bad, large-scale production.