Ars Electronica Festival 2017

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A robot stops walking in response to a barrier (hand) placed in its path at ARS Electronica Festival 2017.

Growing up as a kid, the question was always whether you went into science or art. It was this weird dichotomy in learning, where there was the precision and quantitative of math, biology, chemistry, and physics, and then the interpretative and creative of art, music, language, and history. Two ways to understand the world standing in opposite sides and never mixing, like students at their first middle school dance.

I understand now that this separation is artificial and that the skills needed in each field intermingle – there is creativity in science, and precision in art – but the world seems to still cling to that science-art dichotomy, where ne’er the two spheres shall meet. After all, we don’t often talk of the exacting quantitative precision of the artist’s work, nor do we speak of the creative interpretations of the biologist’s findings. But why? Why don’t we more often unite these two disparate worlds, or acknowledge that the separation is artificial and never really existed at all?

For me and anyone who has ever had this thought, Ars Electronica is the dreamland you never knew existed, where the artificial barriers between art and science dissolve. It’s a year-round museum in Linz, Austria, but every fall Ars Electronica hosts a festival showcasing the creations that arise from the fusion of art and science. Here science and technology create art and history, and art and history build science and technology. From synchronized drone aerobatics to temporary electro-conductive arm tattoos that control your smartphone, the ARS Electronica Festival is four days of wonder, thought, and inspiration. Here’s what we captured in our visit*:

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Repurposing of industrial robot arms for shadowplay art.
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Doge overlooks a cryptocurrency gathering.
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The LightSail II in the Linz Cathedral, an interactive mesh-and-PVC pipe construction the size of a whale that responds to touch by varying sounds and projected images.
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The crowd in the basement of POST CITY for the Ars Electronica Festival Concert.
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A robot constructs a three-towered sculpture for nothing but concrete chips and string, while its creators look on from the right.
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RFID-reflective clothing, meant to protect your identity in the wireless future.
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A demonstration of DuoSkinDuoSkin, conductive temporary tattoos that enable you to control your smartphone or other electronic devices. Here, a man demonstrates skipping songs and changing the volume on a phone’s music playlist.
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A man reloads markers on an industrial robot arm repurposed for sketching.
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A woman interacts with a display that explores the ability of machines to read and respond to human needs.
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An artist explains his interactive darkroom-and-flashlight display.
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Visitors watch and film a synchronized drone show.
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Attendees at the festival’s seminars, which explore everything from the ethics and law of AI to art created from AI learning.

And a couple of videos:

It can be a little overwhelming to visit the ARS Electronica Festival for the first time, so here are some useful tips to help you get around:

  1. Trust but verify – we sometimes got mixed answers from volunteers as to where/when things were happening. Ask a few people to get a good idea of when/where the big events are.
  2. English speakers welcome – Many of the most fascinating events are in Austrian, but they offer free real-time translations! Grab a pair of headphones on the way into the room, or ask a volunteer on hand if they have any.
  3. Don’t buy a metro pass – Your ARS pass includes free travel on some of the city’s trams, at least from the Linz Train Station to the ARS Electronica Museum and back. (Applicable to full festival pass, not sure about 1-day passes)
  4. The ARS Electronica Concert is amazing – The concert runs late into the night and you might be tempted to skip it if you’re relying on the train to get home. Go for at least a few hours because it’s amazing and absolutely worth it. Tickets are free with the 4-day pass and can be picked up at the ticketing/info booth area in Post City.
  5. Leave time to explore – While most of the events are focused in Post City, there are events throughout Linz for ARS Electronica. Leave time to see those and to wander around Post City without any direction, because stumbling onto something unexpectedly can be thought-transforming.

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* I understand copyright law is a bit more strict in Europe, so if you’re an artist or copyright owner whose work is listed above and want it taken down, please email me.

Hong Kong, city of prosperity and re-construction

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A butcher sells his wares at a market in downtown Hong Kong.

It’s cloudy when we arrive in Hong Kong, only an hour’s flight but worlds away from Hanoi. We board a modern double-decker bus to carry us from airport to the city, marveling at the skyscrapers that line the highway and the slew of construction equipment building ever-more. We’re only here for a week (in an ill-fated attempt to get Chinese visas), but even in that short time it feels like the city will be different—an old, crumbling building lost there and a new, shining one erected there. And between our arrival and departure, the city will have grown even further, adding to itself as land is reclaimed from the sea.

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Endless rows of high-rise buildlings on the way into the city.
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A barge, laden with sand, likely for land reclamation work.

It’s a city of lonefulness, a feeling I get when I visit New York. The streets are full of people, all rushing to get somewhere in quick strides, staring down at their phones or straight ahead to their destinations. You could pass hundreds of people in an hour here and not know you had passed a single one. Interactions only come when necessary, and otherwise people huddle in their groups of friends and acquaintances, sharing inside jokes and giggling. Or they sit without anyone, full in their alone-ness.

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A man walks alone by the space museum and planetarium.
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A man sits alone and drinks on the waterfront.
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A face, lit only by screen-light.

The people that will interact with you on the street want to sell you something, often “copy” or “replica” products. These street-sellers are immigrants from South Asia, India and Pakistan, who came here for the same reason most people come to a city: the prospect of jobs and better money. They crowd the main streets, asking if you want to buy a ‘replica’ watch, a SIM card, or need a room for the night. Their epicenter is Chungking Mansion, where we happen to be staying. Several decades old and brimming with stalls selling Indian curries, electronics, and everything and nothing you might need, Chunking Mansion is a city unto itself. It lives and breathes, exhaling and inhaling human bodies that make their way up the few squeaky elevators to tiny guesthouses and homes and restaurants run illegally from apartments.

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Immigrants from South Asia socialize at one of the entrances to Chungking Mansion
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Our hotel room, from end to end, is the width of one Stoytcho.
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The internals of Chunking Mansion. We’re on the fourteenth floor. Thirteen floors below us is the center cesspool, a mix of rainwater and whatever people throw down here.

Despite Chungking Mansion’s relative poverty, the rest of the Hong Kong downtown appears wealthy. Hong Kong was and continues to be a huge financial hub, although there have been some grumblings that the city is declining in prominence as China attempts to elevate Shanghai’s status as a financial center. Steps from the entrance to Chunking Mansion are storefronts boasting glittering figurines and jewelry made of pure gold. Parks are full of sculptures and art installations, while galleries line the streets of wealthy neighborhoods and an “Affordable Art Fair” we visited boasted works starting at only a few thousand dollars. Old buildings, like the PMQ, have been entirely renovated to house artisanal bakeries and design shops. There are people here in Hong Kong who want to live well and have the money to pay for it.

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A sculpture stands in the pond behind the Hong Kong Space Museum.
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A woman explains her work in an exhibit.
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Spot the banana: visitors giggle over a real banana hidden among ceramic replicas, a joke by the employees running the exhibit.

But undercurrent in the city is a mild anxiety, of what it is and will be in relation to China. Much news has been made abroad about the Hong Kong democracy movement, but it’s hard to say Western news outlets are unbiased, given that Britain only gave up Hong Kong in 1999 and would like to maintain influence there. Nor can it be said that China is unbiased, since it’s likely looking to bring Hong Kong’s government closer to one approved by the nation’s Communist Party and to avoid the spread of any ideals that would weaken the Party’s power. In the absence of unbiased sources, the best course of action is to ask the people of Hong Kong directly what they worry about and want, on streets and in coffee shops and clothing stores. Their response isn’t surprising: they worry that their future is dim, with investors nervous about China’s increasing influence in the city and China working to develop Shanghai as a major financial hub. What they want most is an assurance that they, too, have a future where they can prosper.

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A cat peers out from under stacks of goods at the market.