A new Digital Deal!

Ars Electronica - Technology is Culture, and Culture shapes Technology

An interview by Diana Fehr / July 19th, 2021

Kristina Maurer is a cultural producer, curator and researcher with a background in Cultural Studies, Media and Art Theory. Based at Ars Electronica, she develops exhibitions at the nexus of art, society and technology and works together with artists, universities and scientific partners such as the MIT Media Lab and the European Space Agency. From 2018 to 2019 she served as lead producer for „Compass – Navigating the Future“, Ars Electronica’s large scale redesign of the Ars Electronica Center. As current Head of European Projects in the Festival / Prix / Exhibitions department she develops workshops, events, lectures and exhibitions across Ars Electronica’s European collaboration projects such as the European Commission’s STARTS initiative or the European ARTificial Intelligence Lab. Her research interests focus on the social, political and societal implications of new technologies, the evolution of digital cultures as well as current developments in the fields of artificial intelligence, material studies and biotechnology.


Museo: Ars Electronica reflects the rapid pace of the Digital Revolution which is more relevant today than ever before. How is this achieved and what makes your organisation unique?

Maurer: Ars Electronica is quite unique because it started out in 1979 with the Ars Electronica Festival, which at that time was dedicated to bringing together artists, scientists, and researchers, who were starting to explore digital technology in their work. The artists were at the forefront of exploring what the implementation of digital technology could be, but also how it changes our environment and our daily lives.


The festival has allowed the Ars Electronica ecosystem to grow over the past 40 years by introducing aspects such as the Media Arts Competition. Artists are being awarded for outstanding pieces in different fields such as net-, interactive-, and computer art, and through the introduction of additional categories like life art, artificial intelligence, and hybrid art. In the mid 90s, the Festival gained a permanent home base in the city of Linz within the Ars Electronica Center, which entails a future lab section, a research and development lab and an atelier for artists who work together in the development of new technologies.


A central part of this growth was the development of our education program, composed of the Future Thinking School, which is a new initiative that is dedicated towards capacity building activities. These are aimed at any kind of institution that might want to get its’ staff and employees ready for the digital transformation, such as companies or city municipalities. What makes Ars Electronica unique, is that it has become an ecosystem with different departments, which are all working on the same main goals:


  • How can we mediate digital technologies?
  • How can we make the shift that is happening through them in our everyday lives visible?
  • How can digital technologies become part of the discourse in society?
  • What does this really mean for us, and how are these technologies impacting us?
  • Who is developing them and what are they doing with our data?
  • What happens when we really start taking these devices into our hands?


Museo: Why do you think that technological development is important for social development and for our combined future?


Maurer: I believe technological development is part of society. Therefore the question is – How can we start reflecting on the technologies critically, and think about their implications? Maybe we should move away from the position of the simple consumer and become empowered in reflecting on what technology is really doing with us. At Ars Electronica, our aim is to understand how we can develop agency and get people to reflect on the use of technologies beyond their everyday lives. Our focus is not the technology itself, but the humans who are developing and using it – so it’s always about the human aspect.


To say it in our artistic director Gerfried Stocker‘s words – we here at Ars ElectonicaWe’re not excited about technology, we’re excited about what we can do with it.“

Museo: Can you tell us more about the advantages of connecting different sectors to achieve these changes. Like interlinking artists, scientists, developers and entrepreneurs?


Maurer: I think when it comes to collaboration and bringing all of these different players together, we are looking for artists and partners who are interested in the next step. We focus on artists who are not only visualisers, but are active participants in solving concrete challenges not only in the prototypic stage, but also in the development of actual products.


One of our programs aimed at this is the European Commission S+T+ARTS initiative, which explores the idea that artists and their views can be brought into companies to tackle concrete challenges and create solutions. This is something that we also try to impart when partners come to the Ars Electronica Center to give them insight into how artists take on certain challenges like artificial intelligence and bio-technology.

Museo: What does the digital revolution mean to you and how can you support it in your role at Ars Electronica?


Maurer: It’s about starting to comprehend the technologies that we are using, and to think about them more critically. We need to understand how to develop and become involved with technologies in a more ethical and empathic way, and that is really at the heart of my work at Ars Electronica.


I strongly believe in the ability of artists to develop stories and visualise challenges, and their potential to break down very complex topics into bite-sized pieces that then allow people to engage and start understanding the tech that they have in their hands every day.


Museo: The Ars Electronica Center is a special Museum, but I am sure that as well as many other museums, you had to overcome quite a few challenges during the pandemic. How did you achieve this and what did this teach you about the future of your institution?


Maurer: The Ars Electronica Center is indeed quite a special museum that has existed since the mid 1990s, and has undergone three main stages. It was initially about giving people a first insight into the digital realm, at a time when people didn’t widely have access to internet at home. So it was about the first interaction with the digital. In 2009 the Center underwent its first big redesign based around the idea of participation in the form of interacting with digital technologies to create new products. The third step came between 2017 and 2019, when we started to envision the museum as a compass showing us the way towards our full technological potential to solve societal, political, and environmental challenges.


This idea of the compass proved vital during the pandemic as it lead us to think about how to engage with the museum’s various audiences on a deeper level. The first idea that we implemented was a large-scale online program launched on YouTube called Home Delivery. This allowed us to keep people “in the museum” without them being physically on-site, while also adapting to focus on education and mediation for the various target groups such as students, families, and senior citizens. But at the same time, we also have to get used to the idea that this pandemic might not be a unique case. Maybe museums will find themselves in various similar situations more frequently in the upcoming years.


Museo: More than 75,000 ideas, projects and artworks are stored in the Ars Electronica Archive. This is an incredible documentation of the history of media art. Could you name some examples of these works which you consider to be outstanding cultural innovations?


Maurer: I think what’s really fantastic about the pre Ars Electronic Archive is that it demonstrates the development of media arts and artists over the last 30 years. This means you can really see the shift in which kind of technologies were being used, and which were at the forefront at a certain point in time, such as has been the case with artificial intelligence and virtual reality technologies in the last five years. So a lot of artists started working with AI and exploring it as an artistic medium to portray big topics that were at the forefront of their mind at a certain point in time.


It’s very hard to handpick certain examples. One of my favourites, that I got to explore a few years ago as I was working on a VR Lab and a history of virtual reality at the Ars Electronica Center is “Inter Dis-Communication Machine” by Kazuhiko Hachiya, a VR piece exploring embodiment in virtual reality in a very empathic way in 1996.


As somebody who grew up as a gamer, I’m partial to many of the wonderful pieces in the computer animation realm, such as Runi Shi’s “Strings”:


Another piece close to my hear it is “Rhizome”, a wonderful, sprawling animation that won the Golden Nica in Computer Animation in 2016, that shows the rise of an imaginary civilization in intricate and wonderful detail.


Last but not least, in 2018 and 2019, during the redesign of the Ars Electronica Center I immersed myself in the works of artists who were just starting to explore AI models in their artwork, and one of the artists I admire very much in this context is Anna Ridler and her ability to explore the technology with a critical and empathic eye, as she did in her work „Mosaic Virus“.

Museo: But how exactly is the archive relevant to the development of the modern day society?


Maurer: The archive also shows the constantly shifting concerns that we as a society are facing through the lens of artists.


In the past three years, for example, we could see a clear trajectory that a main concern that artists are tackling are the massive environmental, societal and geopolitical challenges and the effects humanity is having on our planet, whereas 10 or 12 years ago one of the main foci of many artists lay on exploring the early effects of social media platforms, big data and the development of critical viewpoints on the digital economy.

In that sense, the archive and the artistic pieces that are presented there function as a mirror showing what the big challenges for society were at a certain point in time through they eyes of artists working at the cutting edge of new technologies. This additionally makes it a huge asset for policymakers and their strategies.


Museo: In September you will host the next “Festival for Art, Technology and Society“. What is the focus of this new festival and what does its’ theme „New Digital Deal“ entail?


Maurer: This year we are focusing on accelerated digital transformation, while also referring to some of the questions that I touched on earlier, like, how we can start reflecting on the development of technologies. How can we start implementing ethical frameworks for the development of technology whilst taking into account both the environment and our resources? These are the key topics that we are tackling this year, both through physical exhibitions here in Linz, but also with a large scale online program with partners all around the world.


Museo: What are you and your institution aiming to achieve in the future?


Maurer: What we have been working on for the past 40 years and and what is going to drive us for the next 40 years, is to continue developing new approaches by keeping up with time. At Ars Electronica, our main aim for the future is to continue developing such new approaches, by staying relevant and by focusing on our main research points which are the co-existence of humans and technology in society, and the importance of audience interaction.


This year for example, in collaboration with the Johannes Kepler University, we are launching a summer school called the Festival University, where artists, creatives and researchers are coming together to explore the big topics of the future. So at Ars Electronica we are working at the forefront of artistic innovation towards a future where – technology is culture, and culture shapes technology.


Museo: Thank you very much for this interview and your insights into Ars Electronica.

Images: Kristina Maurer (Header), Jürgen Grünwald (1 and 2), vog.photo (3)