to homepage of William Osborne and Abbie Conant
This article originally appeared on the MSNBC site.
|Since presentations opposing
eugenics and biological determinism were not included, the potential for
debate was, to say the least, restrained.
THE GOAL of the festival, held earlier this month in Linz, Austria, was to
“scrutinize the contours of a society in which human beings are
genetically configured — not simply born.”
Eugenics has a long history. It has, de facto, become a part of society, particularly through the use of biological engineering, according to Ars Electronica director Gerfried Stocker. Anyone even vaguely familiar with the 20th century, let alone with new developments in medicine and bio-technology, can see that.
But since presentations opposing eugenics and biological determinism were not included in the festival, the potential for debate was, to say the least, restrained.
Indeed, Ars Electronica embraces a future where humans will be “fabricated,” and where sex will be “relieved of its functional indispensability for reproduction.” This will “reorder ... the battle of the sexes” and the “moral steering mechanisms” of society, according to the festival program.
Historical ironies abound. After the Anschluss of 1938, Hitler
planned to destroy the national identity of Austria by reducing Vienna to
provincial status and transforming his hometown of Linz into one of the
largest cultural centers of Europe, a grand city reflecting the newly
created eugenic purity of the Aryan race. (In nearby Mauthausen
concentration camp, 100,000 people were murdered as part of Hitler’s
“purification” of Europe.)
A half-century later, the Linz-based Ars Electronica embraces eugenics, biological engineering, and the use of living tissue for the creation of artworks. And one key festival participant notes, “Even rape can be considered an art-creational strategy.”
The festival’s views reflect a Darwinist philosophy. “Complex tools and technologies are an integral part of our evolutionary ‘fitness.’ Genes that are not able to cope with this reality will not survive the next millennium,” says a recent festival press release.
Meanwhile, the festival’s discussions of genetic engineering, its confrontation of sexual taboos, and its masculinism were all couched in what many saw as an emphatic mysogyny.
|Media artist and prophet of
cyber-sex Stahl Stenslie presented a lecture in which he said, ‘Even rape
can be considered as an art-creational strategy.’
The mysogony is illustrated by some of this year’s major festival
Evolutionary biologist Randy Thornhill, author of the controversial book “A Natural History of Rape,” presented a lecture asserting that rape is a natural part of male sexuality, and that women should restrict their behavior to avoid this “natural” phenomenon.
Media artist and prophet of cyber-sex Stahl Stenslie presented a lecture in which he said, “Even rape can be considered as an art-creational strategy.” This statement, also printed in his contribution to the festival’s 415-page program book, is not conditioned or qualified; it is meant literally.
The festival’s most publicized event was entitled “Sperm Race.” A “container laboratory” was placed in a central location of Linz where men could go to produce sperm samples. The “quality” of the sperm was then tested using “computer-assisted sperm analysis.” At the end of each day, a winner was announced. Women were allowed to go to the container and place bets on their “favorites.”
Nobuya Unno, a member of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Tokyo, presented a lecture on artificial placentas (extra-uterine fetal incubation.) His presentation included grotesque photos of goats being incubated in artificial placentas.
Researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital, in Boston, presented a project entitled “Tissue Culture & Art(ifical) Wombs.” Their goal is to use tissue culture and tissue engineering as a medium for artistic expression. They have created what they call “semi-living” dolls.
‘NATURALNESS’ OF RAPE
Thornhill’s biological views of rape were consistent with most of the festival’s other presentations. His “naturalization” of sexual violence easily followed along the lines of Stahl Stenslie’s notion that “rape can be considered an art-creational strategy.”
| Stenslie, known for his “cyber-s/m”
experimentation, studied at the Academy for Media Arts in Cologne. His
work has centered around tele-tactile communications. In a project called
“cyberSM,” he constructed leather bodysuits with built in “sensors” and
“effectators” that allow people to engage in forms of sexual activity via
their computer’s modem.
Participants begin by creating a “Virtual Identity” (VIDs), assembling a set of synthetic body parts on their computer screen. They then exchange their VIDs as visual interfaces for the sensory-padded suits. The first “link” took place in the fall of 1993 between Stenslie and an unnamed person in Paris who found the experience so ridiculous he “hung-up” and demanded the suit be taken off him.
Stenslie’s work is somewhat dated. Cyber-sex was a theme among media artists and theoreticians in the ’80s, but by 1993 it was already declared “tired” by publications such as Wired Magazine. Stenslie, however, remains undeterred. By embracing eugenics and bio-engineering, he hopes to make his ideas more plausible and provocative. In an e-mail article published in 1996 as part of a symposium on mimesis, he wrote, “The Web is full of intentions, but where can one feel the essential, hard core experience? Why shouldn’t the memes and digital metaphors boot up the body in ecstasy?”
In the same article he explained that digital technology and biological engineering will transform humans into self-evolving cyborgs — though, of course, he doesn’t say how.
Such speculation is commonly referred to as “hype” among computer specialists, but Stenslie insists this combination of biological and virtual reality, “opens up the thrilling possibility of a mind independent of the biology of bodies. ... Disguised in delicately coded flesh,” humans will “experience the primal scream of digispace.” After such revelations, Stenslie asks taunting questions, “What is there to be afraid of? Because the nature of the beast is bizarre and monstrous, alien and terrifying?”
Ars Electronica’s reactionary postmodernism, which defines the new
man as a perfectly engineered, hard-core cyborg of transcendant, male
creativity, is not especially new. Eighty years ago the Italian futurists
worshiped power, masculinism, speed, eugenics and technology as they moved
toward Benito Mussolini, their hard-core Nietzschian superman. Hitler
followed and created the largest eugenics program in the history of
Such considerations answer Stenslie’s question about what there is to fear.
If Ars Electronica represents the future of the body and gender, then women will face a continuation of one of patriarchy’s most common and violent narratives: domination, rape and dismemberment. It’s an age-old myth, but the festival’s curators remain oblivious to it meanings.
(Being a woman is a biological curse; the womb represents a chaotic force of nature which must be tamed; woman is a receptacle for the “natural” desire of rape, she is a half-living doll to be played with, she carries a burden of womanhood that can only be lifted by dismembering and re-engineering her body to effect a leap to men’s self-appointed status of creative autonomy.)
If the festival’s curators had included gender studies scholars in the program, the narratives that inform the festival’s misogyny could have been examined, but in the parochial atmosphere of Austria, such fields of thought play little role in the arts.
Ars Electronica is able to embrace eugenics, because historic ideologies related to biological determinism and cultural nationalism still influence many members of Austrian society. The Vienna Philharmonic provides an interesting example and corollary. The orchestra forbids membership to women and people of color, because they believe gender and ethnic uniformity give the ensemble aesthetic superiority — a sort of low-tech bio-engineering. Rightist Jorg Haider, head of the Freedom Party, exploited these forms of chauvinism in his rise to political power.
William Osborne is an American composer and arts activist living in Germany.
|Back to homepage of William Osborne and Abbie Conant|
ENDNOTES (Underlined passages are hyperlinked.)
 __Ars Electronica Statement__. September 15, 2000. <http://kultur.aec.at/festival2000/timetable/index.asp>
Gerfired Stocker, “The Pencil of Nature II.”
__Next Sex: Ars Electronica 2000__ Ed.
Gerfried Stocker and
Christine Schoepf (Wien: Springer Verlag 2000): 20-24.
Jeremy Rifkin attempted to oppose
the festival’s acceptance of eugenics, but he is not listed anywhere in the
festival’s official 415 page program book or anywhere on its official website.
 __Ars Electronica Statement__. September 15, 2000. <http://kultur.aec.at/festival2000/timetable/index.asp> See also note 2.
Thornhill presents a summary of his views in this article: Randy Thornhill and
Craig T. Palmer, “Why Men Rape”
For responses to Thornhill see: Susan Brownmiller, “Thornhill: Rape On the Brain” at: <http://www.echonyc.com/~sueb/Review/review.html>
See also: Jerry A. Coyne and Andrew Berry, “Socio-biology and Fascism at the Front Door” at: <http://csf.colorado.edu/pen-l/2000I/msg02450.html> (Jerry A. Coyne is in the Department of Ecology and Evolution, University of Chicago, and Andrew Berry is at the Museum of Comparative Zoology Labs, Harvard University.)
__Sperm Race__. September
15, 2000. <http://www.aec.at/nextsex/spermrace/>
 Nobuya Unno, "Development of an Artificial Placenta." __Next Sex: Ars Electronica 2000__ Ed. Gerfried Stocker and Christine Schoepf (Wien: Springer Verlag, 2000): 252-3.
Oron Catts, Ionat Zurr, and Guy Ben-Ary, “Tissue Culture &
Art(ificial) Wombs.” __Next Sex: Ars Electronica
2000__ Ed. Gerfried
Stocker and Christine Schoepf (Wien: Springer Verlag, 2000): 252-3.
 Stahl Stenslie, “Fleshing the Meme” September 15, 2000. <http://www.aec.at/meme/symp/panel/msg00061.html>
 See: Gena Corea, __The Mother Machine, Reproductive Technologies from Artificial Insemination to Artificial Wombs.__ (New York: Harper & Row Pub., 1985.) She discusses how present-day medical practices controlled by men attempt to appropriate birth itself.
Marie-Luise Angerer, a media theoretician and gender scholar,
presented a talk but did not direct any comments to the festival’s
misogyny, such as Thornhill’s and Stenslie’s assertions.
Even in an interview in Telopolis she seemed reluctant to
criticize the festival. <http://www.heise.de/tp/deutsch/inhalt/konf/8667/1.html>
Osborne, William. "Symphony Orchestras and Artist-Prophets: Cultural
Isomorphism and the Allocation of Power in Music." __Leonardo Music
Journal 9 (1999): 69-76.
See the article on the web at:
Publicists Timothy Druckrey and Geert Lovink published an open letter to Ars Electronica questioning its programming. See their letter and the response from Ars director Gerfried Stocker at:
German readers might like to read these two articles:
Telepolis “Ars Electronica 2000:
Schauderhafte Reden beim Symposium ‘Next
Sex.’” September 9, 2000.
Stefan Weber. Telepolis "Vergewaltigung als kunstschaffende Strategie?" September 4, 2000.
This excellently written article discusses a symposium in New York City that also presented artist's responses to genetic engineering. There are some striking correlations with Ars: Eugene Thacker. "What Did You Expect? Biotech Panel Discussions in New York Rhizome September 23, 2000" <http://rhizome.org/fresh/>
the article is no longer on the front page of Rhizome use these search words: utopia, responsibility, conference, biotech
You can contact Eugene Thacker at <firstname.lastname@example.org>)
There are only 40 women among the International Computer Associations 499 members. I obtained this information in an interview on Sept. 1, 2000 with an ICMA staff member during the ICMC 2000 in Berlin. She had just compiled the data based on new registrations.
are only 16 women university-level composition teachers in the 18 countries
of Western Europe. Twelve Western European countries to not have any
women teachin in such positions. See: Reinhold Degenhardt and William
Osborne, “Where Are the Women: A study of Women University-level Composition
Teachers In Western Europe.” __Journal
of the International Alliance for Women In Music__ (Vol.
5, Nos. 2/3 1999.) See the
article on the web at: <http://www.osborne-conant.org/Profs.htm>