The 21st International Symposium of Electronic Arts

On the 12th of August I boarded a flight to Vancouver for the 21st international symposium on electronic arts (ISEA) hosted by Simon Frasier University, where I would be presenting my paper “Smash the Black Box – designing for creative mobile machinery”. This would mark my very first time in Canada, and I feel incredibly privileged to have Microsoft money to send me to this amazing conference. ISEA describes itself as: “the world’s most prominent international arts and technology events, bringing  together scholarly, artistic, and scientific domains in an interdisciplinary discussion and showcase of creative productions applying new technologies in art, interactivity, and electronic and digital media. The event annually brings together artists, designers, academics, technologists, scientists, and general audience in the thousands. The symposium consists of a peer reviewed conference, a series of exhibitions, and various partner events—from large scaleinteractive artwork in public space to cutting edge electronic music performance.” At it didn’t disappoint.

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I stayed in a little hovel called the Cambie Hostel, which luckily was only about 200m from the main conference venue. Yet the events that we attended, saw us dashing across town, boarding trains and buses to attend exhibition openings (of which there was one almost every night), musical and visual performances, lectures and…let’s just say, experiences. A lot of ISEA took to the street (and ubiquitous mobile devices) as their stage and seminar room.
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The keynote opening,  by Dominique Moulon was an eye-opening one. Dominique compared the emergence of networked technologies as an art form to the establishment of video as an accepted medium for art. This transition, he holds, took 30 years to become established: “If it took as long for digital technology to achieve recognition as a contemporary artistic medium after having become democratized in the 1980s, then the time for acknowledgment has come. Thanks in part to the widespread use of the Internet and its mass appeal, digital culture, in all its forms, has become part and parcel of everyday life. Digital and networking technologies have made their way into all private and public spheres of contemporary society; they have also had an impact on how we relate to others and on our worldview. The time has come, then, to consider the consequences of such massive permeation for the art world, without neglecting any of its key stakeholders, whether artists or collectors, critics or curators, galleries or institutions. For the art world is an ecosystem with well-established rules.”

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Dominique drew attention to the very specific characteristics of the digital in the art world today, warning that although these “may be insidious at times”, it is becoming inescapable that “all artworks worldwide are now shaped, in part, by digital technology, sometimes unbeknownst to their creators. The way we perceive the world has changed now that it fits in the palm of one hand or can be grasped between thumb and forefinger.” Although I hail from the South, and access to digital technologies still inhibit such board statements, I have seen these predictions come to fruition in many aspects. Today, the majority of my friends who practice as artists, do so in a predominantly digital sphere. To them, the existence of the traditional gallery space holds much less appeal than the audiences they can access through social media. And although there is very little digital art that I know of which can be compared to the zany experiments presented by many of the global North participants of ISEA (projected MRI scans gently shaping a crystallising skull in a glass tank in a white cube gallery; a drawcart glass city with concealed cameras that traverses between Dubai and Vancouver drawing attention to the similarities in global waterfront architectural aesthetics; responsive digital environments, etc, etc) I can see these emerging in due time.

Dominique’s message that the internet has opened the materials that enable art in unprecedented ways by erasing privacy, was part provocative, part dystopian horror: “From now on, everything on the Internet belongs to us, from the most trivial files to the most sensitive data. The final impediments to acknowledging the interconnection of digital technology and art—from media permanence to artwork scarcity—have crumbled away. That is because digital media and art now resonate together, because the practices of artists and amateurs have become intertwined. It is now time to consider what digital technology brings to art and vice versa. It is now or never.” He drew examples through this lens – and most striking was an high-browification of online sex cam performers into iconic works of art in Pablo Garcia’s “Webcam venus”.

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The opening reception, an event titled “Fuse” was held at the Vancouver Art Gallery. For ISEA Kate Armstrong and Malcolm Levy curated “Disruption” and drew together all of the delegates to view the curated submissions for the conference. The evening was a roaring success, and the public were queued down the street for the entire evening.
The conference itself was fascinating, but very few of the talks spoke directly to my work. There were two stand out sessions, the first  “Analyzing Disruptive Tactics and Strategies in Media Activism” (with Lorna Boschman, Michael Heidt, Vicki Moulder and Robin Oppenheimer) inspired many ideas in my own work. The group of panelists consisted of activists from a variety of settings who mapped the influence of technologies for creativity over activist movements: “Our 21st century media environment has grown more immersive and predominant with the invention of communication technologies such as telephones, satellites, video cameras, and computers. We are all now electronically connected, able to communicate, observe, and react to what is happening anywhere in the world in an instant. How do we make sense of and trust these myriad electronic messages and their messengers, or even know or understand who or what is behind the code that creates and designs our mediated reality? More importantly, how can we have agency to disrupt and change the mainstream media’s dominant control over most of these messages? This panel will share our knowledge of disruptive media activism by examining its historical origins, current code-controlled aesthetics, and strategies to promote community-based digital storytelling.” What really hit the mark for me was a discussion by Robin about the guerrilla filmmakers of the 60s, and how technologies like portapak suddenly enabled an entirely new media reality, where anyone could extend the scope of their experience to an audience via cheap and accessible video. Discussions of the video guerilla’s of the 80s and 90s, and how these influenced aesthetics of feminist movements like riot girl really had me thinking around low-fidelity and low-resource as the enabler of an aesthetic that can become iconic because of it’s limitations.

The second session that I really enjoyed was titled “Visual politics of Play” (with Fox Harrell, Jennifer Jenson, Anna Everett and Soraya Murray):

“Digital games are so pervasive that they increasingly shape how people ascribe meaning to their world; in short, games are now culture. Similarly to music, literature, television, fashion and film, games as culture constitute “networks of meaningness which individuals and groups use to make sense of and communicate with one another” (Stuart Hall). Games expand the ways that we image our own possibilities, create empathetic connection, and seed ethical engagement with lived-world challenges and problems. Recent games ‘culture wars’, notably, GamerGate definitively confirmed that games traffic in the politics of representation, just as any other form of mass media. This panel examines the social functions of playable media as powerful forms of visual culture and ideological world making, especially as they relate to notions of difference.”
The panel included a wide index of contributions in critical games research that foreground the politics of representation through intersectional approaches. Fox (who is from the MIT Imagination, Computation and Expression Laboratory) built an algorithm that could detect racism in games! It was interesting to see the insides of this popular medium being dissected in such detail, and the absolutely fascinating analysis that stretch down to the very code on which these systems for fun are built. Gamer gate was thoroughly discussed – and sessions like this reminded me how incredibly uneven the playing field (excuse the pun) is in game development. The inscribed sexism and racism remain embedded in the various genres that have come to define gaming culture.

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Other highlights from the trip include getting up close and personal with a Stefan Sagmeister exhibition (swoon!) and lounging around the park with my new bestie/conference buddy Jon Frickey. Who is an absolute visionary animator and artist, and watching the Yes Men close the show (with some activist intervention from the audience nogal!)

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Let’s hope someone foots the bill again next year!

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