Vuk Ćosić, one of the pioneers of Net.art, revisited the Ars Electronica festival in Linz, Austria, this year after almost 20 years. Makery took the opportunity to contemplate Ars Electronica through the artist’s personal rearview mirror.
Along with Jodi, Heath Bunting and Alexei Shulgin, Vuk Ćosić is one of the original Net.artists. Also a co-founder of international forums for Internet critique, theory and art Nettime, Syndicate, 7-11 and the Ljubljana Digital Medialab, he spoke on the History panel at Ars Electronica 2019.
Let’s start with archaeology, in vivo.
That was a long time ago. Archaeology is a matter of time. That’s what I studied. I’m a professor of archaeology, and the question is: How come an archaeologist is into new media? Semi-short answer to that question is that there are similarities between the two professions. You see, archaeology is a science or a field where you create a narrative based on some material evidence, and it’s a narrative about certain time. You talk about the past. As an artist, you create a narrative, also about time. Only this time, it’s about the future. If we accept this super superficial explanation, then I’m some sort of a camera that has turned its focus 180 degrees from the past into the future. But it’s the same tool. My work with new media is sometimes quite seriously methodologically archaeological—deliberately so, because I find archaeology to be a beautiful thing. I was studying that deliberately. My infatuation with archaeology didn’t diminish just because I’m not in the profession. So I’m still an archaeologist, even if it’s files that I make.
At what point did Ars Electronica happen for you?
I was there in ’96, ’97 and ’98. In 1995 I couldn’t make it. I didn’t have a visa for Austria because at that time I was a citizen of some other country and I couldn’t move easily. And all my friends, all my band from Ljudmila [Ljubljana Digital Media Lab, as it was named in the ’90s], they went. There are interesting stories, but I’m not gonna tell you (laughs). Funky thing is that they were practically staying in the car. Why is this interesting? In 1995, all the digital media activities from Ljubljana were reduced to two or three people. This Ljudmila band, without me, were the only people from Slovenia over there, I believe. Next year when I was there, we were in a hotel, simple place, just watching. We knew people quite seriously then. Net.art had already happened. I met a lot of months-old friends. And the community was super strong.
Then in 1997, we got co-opted. I had a commission, and many of my Net.art friends got commissioned. So we also had a fine place to stay, a better hotel this time, and we were part of the program. In 1998, I was a head of the jury for a prize for information weapon, and with very illustrious people on board. By the way, we gave the prize to face-recognition software. Even back then it was completely obvious that this is the evil. It was a super lucky crescendo of circumstances. That was my last time in Linz, before this year. There was no higher floor. That was funny. That’s how my involvement looked like.
And this year you came back to Ars Electronica after 20 years?
Exactly 20 years. I mean, of course I knew Gerfried [Stocker] and Jutta [Schmiederer], because we were meeting not just in Linz but also in all kinds of places where I was doing my projects. We did some meet-ups in the past 20 years. Last year, we co-organized a two-day conference about AI in arts and culture in Rijeka, where I worked. Gerfried kind of wanted to take my pulse about me coming to Linz. Also, I had gone to Linz for some other conference last year. It was a fantastic one! Art meets Radical Openness, and that was amazing.
[The Slovenian Aksioma crew passes by, we say hello.]
I had a talk there, and Gerfried came. We had a grumpy old man’s kind of fancy footwork. We kindly approached each other so that nobody gets offended, nobody’s feelings are hurt. A bit weird in retrospect. I told him right away “Fuck off, I mean, whatever you want, just tell me. It’s easy to come, if you feel like I can contribute. I’m game. I didn’t leave Ars Electronica.” I decided to leave the entire circus, and Ars Electronica was just a part of it. It was part of my retirement plan in 1998.
Yeah, I should tell you that. Let me just wrap up the story of how I got there this year. So, Council of Europe has invited me to help organize a conference, a big one. Then they changed ambition, it became a smaller one. Because they had some regular big events on digital culture, they decided that this one would be about AI. It came to me because it was planned to happen in Rijeka, so it was my territory. And then, it also turned out that Gerfried was doing the previous conference. That was the logic: they put us together, we spent some time organizing this event, the speakers. I suggested this, he suggested that and it turned out fine. And when he came to Rijeka, we spent two days at a conference. And after the conference he sent me a fantastically funny e-mail, two months before this year’s Ars Electronica, saying: “Hello dear friend, this year we are marking a big anniversary with a pre-event with the very pioneers…” and some horribly ass-licking, manipulatory Tom Sawyer stunt, you know.
He succeeded, obviously?
Yeah, yeah. I told him “You had me at hello. Just count on me.” It was just simple talk between two people, and that’s it. It was an invitation to spend time with people I know all my life talking about Net.art. It was easy.
But Net.art was not all you talked about?
Yes, with Vladan Joler I am now working on a book on AI in arts and culture. It’s going to be principally published by Council of Europe, I work with them as an expert. But that book is going to be distributed and in other ways helped by Ars Electronica, formally and officially. Obviously, Gerfried knows that Joler and I are buddies, so he put us on a panel.
You see, Ars Electronica is a very messy affair. It’s huge, it’s impossible to keep together, and the result is that they leave you with a lot of autonomy. Like, you make a deal two months ahead of time, they give you the precise hour, they give you the contract, you sign the papers, everything works perfectly. But as a matter of fact, there was no curatorial oversight after the first moment you made a deal. So, you sometimes go back saying, “Hey guys, it’s in two weeks now and I’d like to discuss how are we going to approach…” whatever question is the topic. And you soon discover you are on you own. But I like that. To me, it’s good. To many people it’s not so good, because they like to be pampered and taken by the hand. So our talk wasn’t like a pre-programed publicity stunt, it was more riffing, like jazz jamming.
Did you feel that this year was festive or more of a commemoration?
There were a few things I observed. One thing is that out of every 20 people I met, there was someone from Slovenia. I liked that because when we were going there as Ljudmila crowd or by myself as a fabulously important Net.artist, haha, you knew nobody. I mean, there was nobody from home. And it was still a young field, just a few of us, no biggie. And then I stopped going. So now it was like WOW! Everybody I know in Ljubljana who makes files and deals with digital arts was in Linz. I liked it very much. These are small things, but it was refreshing. But the festival grew totally out of proportion for me. It was incredibly tiresome because I also gave myself a task to see as much as I can. Naively, I still have the tendency to believe that these big fairs, biennials, like Ars Electronica, are about art.
And some parts of Ars Electronica are so loosely curated that they are barely present, I mean, the invisible hand of a mastermind. There was some selection, it was not that bad. You could, for instance, see the totally not bad show at OK Zentrum, but as a matter of fact, you know, that’s a competition. So, whatever shows up in a competition gets chosen, the best shit gets selected for the final show for the awards. So, it’s not like a curated show. And then in the Bunker, the cellar of Post city, you see these galleries’ programs that was a completely different game, different league, different sport. You saw galleries that have carefully selected one or two artists, and presented their pieces in the best way possible. You saw that there was one clever curator per artist. And that ratio, one clever curator per artist, in the other part, is really low. That doesn’t mean that Ars Electronica’s curators are not clever, it just means that they gave themselves this gigantic task….
Did you miss any topics that were not addressed by this year’s Ars Electronica?
What was more interesting is that there were too many topics. It’s like a supermarket with many topics. And some of them, understandably, really, I have no grudge, I don’t think anything bad about the organizers… but when you do a project of this size you have to put the trends in. You know, female robot, things like that, were Slovenian Chamber of Commerce level. And I don’t think that’s a great level. Some of it was sales, which is understandable.
It seems like we are talking about a festival that has become a fair.
It’s a fair! In the 1990s it was on the edges; it was not painful. There’s been some apparently commercial stuff. But what can you do? What changed for me, or stayed the same… I guess that goes for any big biennial. You go there with expectations, with the energy, also a type of preoccupations that you have in life, in a point of your career… and then you meet similar people. If you are basically communicative and have a knack, a bit of an inclination to schmooze around, it’s a great place. If you are a bit lucky, you do bump into people with whom you later do things. So that is still there!
What does this say about the current state of affairs in digital environments? Is Ars Electronica a symptom of what you have already described as Internet evolving into something else than it was in the ’90s?
Internet was a space of freedom at that time. We were all enthusiastically naïve and quite avant-gardist in substance. Never mind that we were avoiding using that label. Most of my colleagues and I escaped that label. Now the Internet is a space of fear, distrust. Obviously occupied by an ugly part of the society, and so on. It doesn’t mean a space of promise, it’s now more a space of a fight. But more brutal, more critical, and sharp art is not presented at Linz. I mean, that’s also true. I look at Ars Electronica as a massive business endeavor that has in a very good way jumped on the wave at the right time. It has done its service, but the wave is not there anymore.
We see this in the digital world. Here in Slovenia, I’m working in business consultancy around digital, and I’ve just spent time with some friends who still organize a competition for the best website in Slovenia. I was doing that 20 years ago as well. It was a continent to discover, a place to make money. Why hide that, no? But now, you know, websites don’t exist anymore, practically. I mean, for a company to put up a website isn’t exactly a big deal. Nevertheless, these guys still organize that web award, simply because it’s their business. Same goes for Ars Electronica. They cannot, I’m sure of it, even contemplate the option of “Well, we’re finding new media art in all its variety, a part of mainstream,” or they can find another diagnosis. Or say, “We’re going to look for another field and stay with the ones that will show the way.” No, they’re not doing that. They are maybe trying to say it, but the fair is not showing me that. There’s much less experimentation, much less, you know, charming failures and disasters. It’s like they said, it’s mid-life crisis. This title of the festival I really respected.
Speaking of tempo, what about Ars Electronica in 2039, 20 years from now? What will be written on the invitation?
I expect thinner monitors, I expect quicker robots. I expect that Gerfried will look identical and will have a fine speech with a carefully measured sprinkle of humor in it. I expect to meet many people I know that were there this year. I expect it to be all about who’s invited to the Gala and who’s not. And who said what to whom 20 years ago. In terms of art, I expect it to be visible there but that we don’t obviously know. It’s going to be yet again a big set of domesticated critical media art that uses some rhetoric of critique, but is also displaying proudly the sponsor logo. It’s this in-between world, it’s not even so mysterious, and it’s called sell-out. And at the edges you will see, because Gerfried was always smart that way, you will see people who are genuine, you will find people who really have a lot to say, and who are contributors. They will not get the limelight much, they will not be talking in the name of the festival. If you look carefully, you will find them at the bar. Yet again, that was the best spot of Ars Electronica. Like, you know, the best parties are in the kitchen. It’s the same human model of socializing. It might just even be in a bigger place. A place that blinks a lot, during the night. Swarms of drones, high-resolution sponsor logos…
And full of Slovenians?
And everyone will speak Slovenian as a future second language of Ars Electronica.
The future sounds more bling than the present.
Yeah… many things will be things of the past. One of them is the selfie stick and the other one will be the electric scooter (laughs).