Zero One just ended this past weekend after seven days of meetings, concerts, exhibits, art happenings, lectures, and the symposium for the Inter-Society for Electronic Arts. One goal was to kickoff a biannual event in San Jose that might rival Linz, Austria's Ars Electronica in scope and attendance.
My only initial contact was my conversation with Joel Slayton, one of the primary organizers, and that was mainly about the satellite event, the Pacific Rim New Media Summit. San Jose has recovered somewhat from the bursting of the Internet and dot-com bubble over five years ago. This is due to Google, Homeland Security money, and investments in bio-tech. However, events such as these depend on donations and in-kind assistance more than ticket sales and registration fees. The city of San Jose had subsidized an event the week before, an auto race on city streets, and coming up is a jazz festival. How they will evaluate their investment in Zero One will have a bearing on the future of the festival.
As an outsider who is interested in both computers and the arts I was excited about the range of activities and the artists whose works I would see and interact with. The ISEA2006 presentations and discussions took place next to the Tech Museum in two wonderful rooms (though one was cold enough to store cheese or age wine indefinitely) where the chairs were comfortable business chairs on rollers and many low tables, allowing the audience to reconfigure the arrangement easily. Power squids (power strips with tentacle-outlets) dropped from the ceiling so that laptop users did not need to hover on the edges of the huge room. Wireless connections were free and fast for a public setting, though at one point a denial-of-service attack brought down the network. I wondered if Ricardo Dominguez' 'electronic disturbance theater' algorithms had been turned on the art crowd instead of sites he opposed. Blowback? Probably not.
The other colder room had wonderful leather arm chairs for most everyone, but we were separated from the museum by a sliding wall. On Friday just after Mare Tralla (UK, Estonia) was talking about youth events in the Soviet Union where it was hard to control 20-30,000 kids singing patriotic songs, a school group entered the museum and began talking excitedly about the exhibits, reinforcing Tralla's comments. It's no surprise that the unplanned encounters during the event or in the halls provided many of us with the memorable moments. After Tralla spoke a group of us from Arizona, Peru, Pakistan, Estonia (and me) talked about the presentations and shared stories.
The first keynote on Wednesday was another high point for me. Lu Jie is a Chinese artist, curator, and culture worker who directs an ongoing project called The Long March: A walking visual display. It is a very complex project that compels individual artists from urban areas to work with artists and those who may not think they are in many different environments in rural China. Jie explained about a cultural survey his group did in one province where paper cutting is a traditional art form-- 20% of the 180,000 inhabitants do it. Jie said he is independent of the government though they are probably keeping an eye on the project. It has certainly reached audiences at festivals and art events throughout Asia, America, and Europe. I was impressed by his reflective responses to many complex questions from the audience, even though he has probably been asked them numerous times. I had a feeling that his work would give a fuller and more complex picture of what is going on in China than the just endless raptures about the building frenzy and economic activity in Shanghai and many other cities.
If the talk on stage was boring (or even if it was not) laptop owners could do email or amuse themselves to death on boingboing. A few institutions discourage this and now ask for the audience's full attention. In the main hall scribes were writing about the session in real time (unlike this after-the-fact report) and anyone could make comments. New Zealand media artists seem to have kept a number of web logs about the festival. Over the four day there were some very interesting presentations, but some people just read papers and other visual artists had some of the worst graphics: too many words on a slide, small fonts, white text on a mottled background. Except for the keynotes and conversations, the stage was high and removed from the audience which was usually small enough that it could have been more intimate. The other room had the speakers at the same level, and the audience and the speakers seemed somewhat more engaged. However, there were plenty of places for important casual contact.
The exhibits were spread around town: at City Hall where Shu Lea Chang (Taiwan) installed "Babylove: drive me drive me crazy" a set of giant teacup vehicles that we could pilot around the floor of the hall. The baby played MP3 music as we cruised and bumped into other teacups.
- the art museum plaza provided a space for several installations and visits by the ice cream trucks such as Karaoke Ice where kids lined up to receive frozen treats and then sing one of the songs on the playlist. Three little kids singing "These boots were made for walkin'" was quite bizarre.
- container culture was meant to engage curators from around the world in a collaborative exercise. Each Pacific rim city would design a project making use of a standard shipping container, and install them in a group on the main plaza. However, they had to be placed inside South Hall at some distance from the plaza. In some ways the space inside the container was confining for some exhibits and excessive for others. I had thought the containers would be set up in Vancouver, Singapore, etc. and shipped to San Jose, but that was too expensive. The contents were transported. For example, moving a container from Singapore to the port of Oakland and then by truck to San Jose (about 100 Km/60 mi) with a crane to offload: cost $30,000. Steve Dietz the coordinator of this project --and one of the main event planners--explained some of the challenges at the Pacific Rim New Media Summit. I thought the next iteration might be suitcase culture or make use of the air cargo pods which we rarely see on the street or being transported by truck. Maybe hand luggage culture or even wallet culture. Scalable concept.
South Hall is a sort of giant inflatable structure to supplement the more permanent San Jose Convention Center. Many of the juried installations were set up there. Some were whimsical and others were involved and sometimes difficult to understand. I rode a bicycle where a rear-mounted speaker produced laughter which increased as you pedaled faster. It was great fun producing such great art. Fete mobile, a Canadian project from Quebec, is a robotic blimp with a camera and wireless transmission to a ground unit on a bike. The wind was too strong to launch
the times I visited.
Playas: Homeland Mirage: An interactive video installation focused on an abandoned mining town in New Mexico which the Dept. of Homeland Security leased for anti-terrorist training. The participants appeared on the projection screen as faint wraiths overlaying the action which consisted of first person shooter navigating through rendered versions of actual buildings, and inside each house there was live video of home movies of mundane suburban life: kids playing, a barbecue. The more active the shooter was, the more distorted the whole screen became. The program spawned enemies and friends as you played. If you have a fast Mac/PC you can download the game (~340 MB).
There were dozens of other installations, all described in the newspaper supplement published by the Metro, a local freebie weekly. Looking back at the program for this report, I realize how much I missed.
At the San Jose Museum of Art one of the most impressive exhibits was Jennifer Steinkamp's extraordinary liquid displays of flowers, trees, waves, and geometric patterns. I recommend the QuickTime videos on her site, and the longest, steinkam_reel.mov includes "Dervish" a 2004 installation at Lehman Maupin in NYC. If her work is in your town, go see it.
There were many free events after 1 p.m. and in the evening. SpecFlic 2.0 was a program of live video displayed on a video wall outside the library and a call-in program with a future Infospherian--a librarian in 2030. While it was meant to comment on the future of books (quaint, rarely viewed, limited in capability) and an oppressive intellectual property regime as well as lending cards only available after an eye scan, it came off as rather negative, especially for those who don't think the library of the present is all that exciting or relevant. It was held at San Jose Public Library in the joint university/public building. The infospherian with silver face paint, bright red lips, and a wig, lectured about 21st century artifacts and took questions from the audience. Usually she would go into a trance and begin jabbering in what one person called a 'scream of consciousness' about the topic. It was funny up to a point but very dystopian. Perhaps it was meant as a warning, but as a librarian I thought it was way too pessimistic. Libraries will remain oases of access and choice. I left after 40 minutes, but there were other facets to this program. Unfortunately the people with the programs were sitting far away from the crowds watching the show. Finding them was much like finding a book without a catalog.
Probably the best attendance was at the Friday night show put on by Survival Research Labs. When their shows are not authorized, they do some outrageous things--at least from what I have seen on video. This one was carefully scripted and approved by the fire department (on call at the street). Ear plugs were provided. The crowd was excited as the Tesla coil began crackling and throwing bolts before 11 p.m., but for most of
the hour-long program all 2000 of us were quite silent. I enjoyed it, but there was less energy than at similar displays of destruction, noise, and fire at Burning Man 1999. It was worth $20, and given the small space they worked in, I think it was a success by San Jose standards.
The high cost to realize an interesting concept like an international art festival will count when the organizers plan for the 2008 version. The budget was $2,000,000, two-thirds of which was corporate and foundation money. Nobody can count the value of the many volunteers. There were many categories of donors with top billing going to the city of San Jose, Adobe, Cisco, and San Jose State University. There were some VIP affairs for the donors, and many of the speeches opened with tributes to them. My own organizing needs were modest, and I raised a mere $1000 from the Center for Science Technology & Society at Santa Clara University, to supplement the same amount from the festival in order cover some expenses of participants from Peru and Canada. I could have brought others had I raised more money. The organizers said it was impossible to get an accurate number of attendees, but 50,000 is a rough estimate. In 2008 when ISEA meets elsewhere, there won't be the core of artists and participants who were present during most of the festival. This may be the main challenge to the organizers.
One attendee was less enthusiastic. On August 15 the San Jose Mercury News published a letter from Mark Almassy of Santa Clara:
"I was at the ZeroOne Festival on Friday and Saturday The lack of attendance was at first disheartening, but as I wandered the event longer, I realized there was nothing to see. People came downtown expecting exciting pieces of cutting-edge electronic art, but were instead shown piece after piece of confusing (and often uninteresting) concepts related to computers. I am a young, avid computer user and frequenter of art museums, but I found nothing of interest to me. Nobody knew what or where the hot events were, if there were any. The idea of the festival was a nice thought, but the execution was poor."
I was glad to play a very small part in this festival, and I'd help out again, if they are able to engage the same groups and new ones to help make the 2008 event more accessible to the public.