Ars Electronica 2020: tales of a Traveling Plant
Published 15 September 2020 by Rob La Frenais
Sharpen your thorns and you will travel safely! How a Traveling Plant challenged the restrictions of a post-virus Ars Electronica.
In early September, the Paris-based curator and director of Leonardo-Olats, Annick Bureaud, lamented the announcement of the “Austria and borders only” Ars Electronica for the first time in its 40 years history: “For me, the ‘beginning of the year’, after the summer break, is to go to Linz, to Ars Electronica. It launches, so to speak, a new year for projects and learning new things. I just realised that this year, I am going to be part of it, but from Paris. No Danube, no AEC, no Hauptplatz, no sharp comments on the Gala evening, no Gelbes Krokodil, no friends to have fun with and no new friends to be made. On September 9th, I’ll drink a beer, just to pretend. What else to do?” In her next post, she and a group of co-conspirators, bio-artists and writers, Tatiana Kourochkina, Marta de Menezes, Claudia Schnugg, Robertina Šebjanič (the ‘Seed’ group) came up with an idea “What do you do when, for the first time in (your) history, you can’t make it to Linz? Easy. You create a new collective project that is going to be premiered at Ars Electronica 2020! It is called ‘The Traveling Plant’, starting now, unfolding slowly over several years.”
The Traveling Plant goes to Kepler’s Gardens:
Indeed at the virtual Ars Electronica Gala the following week, on a chair next to Annick Bureaud, sits a pot plant, hopefully to about receive a Golden Nica. But is this a real or an “imaginary” plant? From the website: “the project is open to actual plants, existing, invasive, proliferating, endangered or extinct; to fictional and imaginary plants; to artificial plants, robotics, digital or otherwise; to organic or GMO plants; and any other sorts we may have not thought about. Under the word “plant”, when actual, we understand terrestrial, aquatic and underwater plants of any sorts and size including fungi and algae”. Also: “real plants will be planted along the development of the project in the locations of the different participating organisations.”
I asked Annick Bureaud about her actual plant. Would it eventually travel? “The plant of The Traveling Plant can be actual (of any sort) or fictitious or symbolic, or anything people can think of. This plant, on the chair, watching the Ars Electronica Gala online with me, can be considered my ‘muse’ for the project. This plant is actually living with me in Paris. I don’t know its name. The vision was to have this plant going around the world and back again carried from hand to hand with art events organised everywhere it would stop. Obviously, this is not feasible due to the restrictions in bringing vegetable matter from one continent to another, and also to avoid abusing a single plant by moving it all over the world.” It recalls Eduardo Kac’s “plantimal’ Edunia to bring a a hybrid of himself and a petunia and his efforts to bring the genetically modified plant from the US to Europe.
So what are the alternatives to sitting at screens on Zoom calls for festivals? I took part in Art Meets Radical Openness earlier this year as one of the very first virtual festivals in Europe, also in Linz, with a virtual performance about how I wanted to row my single sculling boat on the Danube and how I missed doing that and meeting up with the Times’Up Boating Association (read our previous interview), the ‘Rowing For Europe’ crew and the autonomous artship Eleonore, all to be found in Linz. I found it interesting to be ‘almost there’ but could not really see myself as anything other than a rectangle, despite innovations like virtual cooking.
‘Close to the Water’, online performance by Rob La Frenais:
I asked Annick Bureaud if this was now our foreseeable future? “I am missing physical attendance of everything: movie theatres, concerts, festivals, symposium. Going to a movie theatre for the first time again after the lockdown or not being able to go to Linz in September made me deeply understand and “feel” how much art is an embodied experience, and “thinking about” or “discussing” art, as well. I am not interested in participating in festivals only through screens. I do not believe that the future of festivals or symposia is online, or only online. What interested me in this year Ars Electronica is that it had a physical component, distributed all around the world and connected, the Ars Electronica online platform being the meeting point. The hope was to share a collective endeavour and have some sense of telepresence. I believe Ars Electronica was successful in this respect.”
Embodiment is the main problem here and it is a deeply emotional one. For as long as the history of the internet there have been virtual coffee machines and virtual drinking and eating, but how to taste and feel them? Artist Matthew Gardiner describes the atmosphere of a typical Ars Electronica evening: “Festival, late, Golden Nicas delivered. A mixed horde spill into Linz; eclectic electric musicians chattering in Nihongo, intro-and-extro-verted artists and friends not seen for an age for the tyranny of distance. Drawn involuntarily to places warmer and happier than Hans im Glück, to a lone Würstlstand in Linz. Perhaps beside the Linzer Nibelungenbrücke. Like crowned royalty of yore, they dine on high protein, rocket-high sodium, warm bread and mustard; on Leberkäs, Pustalaibchen, Käsekrainer washed down with a cold blue can of Puntigamer lager. As the festivals festivities fade fondly from the days’s memory, the conversations yawn to a close, they wander homewards to catch some winks to recharge for the next day of festival.”
He has developed an augmented reality version of that ubiquitous sausage and beer stall running late by the bridges. He invites you to think like Proust and the famous Madeleine and its effects on memory: “Wherever you are today and whenever you may have sat or stood somewhere, late late late at night, in Linz. This work is for you, this work invites you use our AR gadgets to place a Würstlstand (sausage stand) in your town, or place a Leberkas Semmel on your plate at home. Share a post and write a short memory of a day (or night) at an Ars Electronica Festival. He also provides a very realistic revolving 3D model of the Puntigamer lager can to install on your device and jokes: “Bier for intelligent kunstlers, not for kunstliches intelligence!”
I asked Marta De Menezes, also part of the ‘Seed Group’ what other examples are there of practical alternatives to the virtual conference framework? : “For me, as a person, as an artist, a curator and as the director of an art institution, it is important to assess the role and relevance of any public activities for the international audiences and for the local ones. How much travel needs to be done for the growth and stimulus of the field and what can be done remotely? If some of it can be done remotely, in what way should and must it be organised to be effective and not lacking? To start doing this we need to understand (situation by situation) what would a remote event need to achieve in terms of consequences and more or less nuanced objectives of the activity for the participants and for the institutions organising them. Practically, it depends on the event, the audiences, the objective and the purpose it may serve for all involved. A good example, for me, may be found in the project Biofriction and the activity called Braiding Friction that was planned and executed during the pandemic.”
For her, ‘Traveling Plant’ was “about connecting people, through non-people, bypassing and at the same time challenging the political/national/economical set dogmas as possible. Mostly in a non confrontational way, which is attractive to me too. It is, in my opinion, a superbly thought way to symbolically and in a very concrete way, resist the distance that should no longer be felt with such intensity.”
The Traveling Plant Video Tour (11’30):
On what is the now more conventional form of virtual conference, the organisers have conveniently put all the talks on Youtube. With the Northern European heatwave this is useful and I no doubt have many long days of viewing ahead. For now I caught Andy Gracie and others in ‘The Art and Science of Political Disasters’ in the Barcelona section of Kepler’s Gardens and Daniela De Paulis and others in ‘The Cosmos Above Us And he Touchscreen in Front Of Us’ in the St Petersburg section of ‘Telluric Vibrations’ in the distributed Leonardo Programme.
Art and Science of the Political Ecology of Disasters, Barcelona Garden:
LASER: Cyland (LASER Saint-Petersburg) on the Chaos and Cosmos Theme with Leonardo/ISAST, Garden Los Angeles:
This Ars Electronica has also taken place during the launch of the Netflix series ‘Biohackers’ (delayed because of sensitivity to the pandemic) which contains many tropes clearly drawn from the world of bio-arts and the world of DIY bio and synthetic biology which have featured in many editions of the festival in the past. Featuring genetically-modified glowing mice inspired by Eduardo Kac’s Alba, with cast names like ‘Double Felix’, jokes about ‘CRISPR dating and a scene directly referencing Stelarc’s Third Ear, with a so-called ‘body hacker’ desperately trying to implant himself, ‘Biohackers’ also brings up the issue of rogue science and the abandonment of ethics which reflect the race to develop a COVID vaccine.
Essentially this year’s Ars Electronica has created a new distributed model of the global and the local, again symbolised by the Traveling Plant project who ask “How to do something together, collectively, combining online and onsite elements? The Traveling Plant …traces the voyage of a plant —real, artificial or fictitious— around the world, telling her own story, the stories of other plants and living creatures (other than human and humans) she encounters, of whom and what she meets If every host to the Plant will have the freedom to organise the event it wants, there will be common elements, one will be online (a kind of exhibition of exhibitions) and at least one will be tangible, something that each host will produce and share. We are currently working on defining those elements.”
In the Traveling Plant logbook, one of the participants, Barbara Imhof of Liquifer Space Systems, extends that view to the International Space Station, playing on the space industry’s love of acronyms. “Good morning TP! Is it ok to call you TP instead of traveling plant? Here on Space Station, we use abbreviations a lot. I am in the midst of preparing your arrival. We have this really nice greenhouse which will become your home soon.”
Another is not really a plant but a lake: Aliya Sakhariyeva writes “My name is Balapan, I’m an atomic lake. Yes, I am radioactive, but I hope this won’t petrify you much. My name in Kazakh means a ‘nestling’. Finally Pierre Guillet de Monthoux warns any traveling plant who might wish to visit Scandinavia “Swedes love Nature. Beware of them. They might eat you up. Stop them from all that! Sharpen your Thorns! And you will travel safely.”
In a note to this, there is actually a real-life controversy about travelling plants. Remains of Bottle gourds, originating in Africa, have been found as part of pre-Columbian civilisations in the New World originating over 10,000 years ago. Were they carried by humans over the Bering bridge or did they float independently across the ocean? Recent evidence points at them floating independently.
The Traveling Plant’s website.