Event Report

Ars Electronica 2019: Out of the box and into the future

Ars Electronica has had a long voyage into the future – through the hypothetical visions mapped out by movers and shakers in art, science and tech. Now, ageing into its 40th year, the festival asks us to reflect and rethink technology’s trajectory, with the theme, ‘Out of the Box – The Midlife Crisis of the Digital Revolution’. 

At FabCafe by Loftwork, we view Ars Electronica, one of the world’s biggest media art festivals, as both a benchmark and an old friend. Throughout the years, we have cross-pollinated each other’s platforms by appearing as guest speakers or judges (Loftwork President Chiaki Hayashi frequently features as a guest speaker and Ars Electronica director Gerfried Stocker was a YouFab Global Creative Awards judge back in 2018). This year, one of our creative directors Haruka Koshimoto headed to Linz, Australia to study the festival and report on the whirlwind of big ideas.

An Immersive Space That Captivates Visitors

This year’s festival featured 16 locations, 501 exhibitions, 548 events, 1,449 artists and scientists from 45 countries, and some 110,000 visitors.

The most prominent feature of Ars Electronica might just be the Ars Electronica Center itself. Sixteen exhibit spaces were set up in a massive, unique structure. In spite of being indoors, a sense of space and openness pervades – and the experience of circling through the maze-like rooms drew us ever deeper into this world of art.

POSTCITY was the largest space with the greatest number of exhibits. This massive production facility, formerly used as a post office delivery center, could be seen as the very source of the sense of immersion.

The exhibit extended deep into the earth, with displays scattered throughout the dark and mysterious space. As one descended from floor to floor, one had the distinct sense of being swallowed into the depths of an unfathomable world.

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AIxMusic Festival, a program highlight, allowed us to ponder over what kind of art we might create with artificial intelligence and music. Various projects sought to provide an answer, with content primarily conducted in the chapels and cellars of St. Florian Monastery, the largest monastery in Austria’s northern region. This baroque building, combined with the sculptures, paintings, and furniture on display, created a setting that further accentuated both the performance and these pieces.

 Kaoru Tashiro at the AIxMusic Festival Evening Concert / Credit: vog.photo

The Ars Electronica Center operates throughout the year, serving as an educational facility for the public when not in use for the festival. This center was refurbished during May of this year to bring greater attention to its wooden elements, lending a sense of warmth and gentleness to the cold and inorganic atmosphere often occupying science or tech realms.

Turbulence / Melt (PL) Fotocredit: Ars Electronica / Robert Bauernhansl

Light façade Ars Electronica Center credit: Nicolas Ferrando, Lois Lammerhuber

Breaking away from preconceptions with art

‘Out of the Box – The Midlife Crisis of the Digital Revolution’, the theme of this year’s festival, may be an introspective look at all the things tech’s ‘Pandora’s Box’ let loose. In many ways, it’s also a provocative rally cry to break free from the ‘box’ of preconceived ideas and notions – be they companies, organizations, nationalities, or even one’s self. 

As Hideaki Ogawa, artist, curator, researcher and director of Ars Electronica Japan, aptly put it, “Design is useful when creating the outside of a box. However, when it comes to breaking out of a pre-existing box, art takes on a very important role.”

Accordingly, we visited POSTCITY, an area based around the theme ‘Human Limitations – Limited Humanity’, an interrogation of established notions of the body and humanity. Here, things we take for granted, like gender and blood relations, were brought sharply into question. We liked:
In Posse, by Charlotte Jarvis (UK)

Using women’s blood, among other things, this project aims to create the world’s first “female sperm”. It also studies same-sex reproduction and parthenogenesis.

I’am by Luís Graça (PT), Marta de Menezes (PT)

An installation that probes the boundaries of human identity and the coexistence of people, the project sees an artist/scientist duo exchanging skin transplants to share each other’s immune cells.


Making future societies creative and art-driven

Connecting science, technology and society with art, Ars Electronica has emerged as a festival of social progress over the years. What binds so many projects together at Ars Electronica is the recontextualization of questions as hypotheses, which in turn form new dialogues. These projects look to a better, more creative future:


Creating a sustainable ecosystem by combining manmade forms with natural ones, this project uses material created from concrete and amino acid to encourage the growth of algae fuels and marine plants.

Tiger Penis Project by Kuang-Yi Ku (TW)

The Tiger Penis Project fuses new interpretations of traditional Chinese medicine with biotechnology, resulting in a Western-Chinese hybrid of medicinal science that aims to increase the viability of coexistence between human society and the natural environment.

Speculative Artificial Intelligence by Birk Schmithüsen (DE)

This series of aesthetic experiments was designed to use audiovisual translation to create an artificial neural network process that humans can perceive.

Breaking down barriers through inclusive learning

At the heart of Ars Electronica is a mission to bridge the gap between ordinary people and seeming obfuscating technology. Various interactive programs, such as the many guided tours available, helped to create an atmosphere of inclusion. With specialist-led tours, artist walks, sign language tours, and even a kids tour, even the most experimental themes or displays became more approachable and enjoyable.

In connection with the refurbishment of the Ars Electronica Center, there has also been a conscious push to ‘show the insides of the black box’. Artificial intelligence, in particular, suffers from negative preconceptions and misunderstandings, leading to fear and mistrust. With displays set up to demonstrate the basics of the technology, accompanied by examples of its usage, visitors were encouraged to use and interact with it in an accessible and educational way. In Ars Electronica Futurelab’s Neural Network Training, for example, an object is placed before a camera, and visitors are privy to the step-by-step process behind AI analysis and identification.

Kids didn’t miss out, either, with one area designated as the Kids’ Research Laboratory – though it hardly felt like a child-oriented space. Visitors here were encouraged to use programming and engineering in intuitive ways to create pictures and to make robots move. It’s a compelling and imaginative learning moment for any child, no doubt, but even adults were equally captivated and could not resist trying it out!

Japanese artists at Ars Electronica

Our Ars Electronica experience would not be complete without seeing Japanese artists, especially 100BANCH members and alumni. We were delighted to see Ei Wada’s ‘Electronicos Fantasticos!’ during the first night of Ars Electronica. One of the most captivating performances, this music extravaganza featured at both last year’s 100BANCH anniversary party and the Nananana Festival. (What is 100BANCH?) 

We also greeted media artist Ichihara Etsuko, who just recently joined 100BANCH. Her work, ‘NAMAHAGE in Tokyo’ reinterprets the function of traditional Japanese gods and folktales, bring them into the landscape of the present-day city. Here, Ichihara transformed herself into a namahage, a demon from a regional Japanese New Year’s ritual, in order to give an authentic namahage performance

NAMAHAGE in Tokyo / Etsuko Ichihara (JP), ISID OPEN INNOVATION LAB. (JP) Credit: vog.photo

Ars Electronica has had a long-running relationship with Japan – collaborating with Japanese artists and projects in its 40 years, as well as establishing the Ars Electronica Japan division. These dynamic cultural exchanges do not only exist within the ecosystem of the festival, but also extend out into the larger contexts of Linz, Japan and the world.

Ars Electronica: a cultural infrastructure

It has been 40 years since Ars Electronica began in 1979 as a festival where government and the people take center stage. Ars Electronica is now widely regarded for its work in forward-thinking community development. In Linz, the future-oriented educational and cultural spaces provided by the ‘cultural infrastructure’ of Ars Electronica are seen as equally essential to residents as plumbing and electricity. This was also the first internationally-attended festival to feature the works of educational and research institutions in its lineup, making it a truly unparalleled public organization and arts festival!

During the conference, the two creators originally behind the festival forty years ago were joined by Gerfried Stocker, the third and current festival director.

Ars Electronica Festival 2020
September 9-13, 2020
Linz, Austria
Buy Tickets here.


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Author Profile

Haruka Koshimoto

After graduating from university, Haruka Koshimoto managed sales planning at a company producing novelty goods. She then made a career change, moving from the world of producing tangible things to a more abstract world of formless creation, first becoming involved in website advertisement planning at an advertising agency, and then joining Loftwork in 2012. As a creative director, Koshimoto creates websites for businesses, as well as drawing on her experiences to plan and run events. She also works at 100BANCH to encourage along various projects.

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