Why Can't We Respond to Ars Electronica?


July 13, 2000

Comments on the gen-mus list's silence regarding Ars Electronica's 'Next Sex' Festival.

Well, I can't say the list's silence is deafening. It seems filled with the creaks and groans of ossification. Or are voices perhaps buried in the leaden cloaks of intellectual superiority? Or maybe I'm not being patient enough. Difficult questions have been raised.

In any case, the observations provided for this thread run through literature and concepts in a helpful way, but no one seems able and/or willing to address the concrete aesthetic developments mentioned, the potential evolution of a reactionary form of postmodernism. It seems like a rich topic. I wonder, for example, if correlations could be made to the reactionary modernism of the Weimar Republic. 

The list's silence concerning fundamental moral issues raised by Ars Electronica, the world's most prestigious festival of the digital arts, is especially notable since the essential theme of the festival was gender.

Is it the nature of the US academy to learn about concepts and theories, while often being reluctant to apply them to actual aesthetic or political developments? Is there a tendency for Europeans to set the trends in art, while Americans stand by and watch? _Wired Magazine_ said that a festival like Ars could have only happened in Europe. That seems true, but I worry that the debate is also being conducted mostly by Europeans, who often seem to have more political engagement and sophistication.

I want to thank Adam Krims for his second post reiterating the political flexibility of postmodern theory. His are important and well-informed observations. (Does Canada have a higher level of political discussion than the USA, perhaps because its forms of government are more closely aligned with European models?) There are books such as Leppert's and McClary's _Music and Society_, but their themes seem so tame in comparison to those sometimes raised on the continent. One almost chuckles at ironic titles such as "The blasphemy of talking politics during the Bach Year." How risque. 

On the other hand Derrida said, "America is deconstruction." And gender theory in music was initiated by Americans and is still dominated by them. So why all of the silence about Ars?

I would like to mention one other important book that addresses some of the moral issues raised by postmodern theory and Ars Electroncia: James Miller, _The Passion of Michel Foucault_ (London: HarperCollins, 1993.) It is a wonderfully readable account of the life and thought of Foucault. It addresses his relationship to the bathhouses of San Francisco, his redefinition of the body and sexuality, and the ironic tensions surrounding his death from aids. It is a very compassionate treatment. Foucault's discussions of sadomasochism, his concepts of an "art of unbearable sensations," and his ideas concerning the "scripting of the self" are all applicable to issues raised by Ars Electronica. Concerning aporia, one of Foucault's favorite quotes was a passage from Beckectt's _Waiting for Godot_. "I can't go on, you must go on, I'll go on, you must say words, as long as there are any, until they find me, until they say me, strange pain, strange sin..." 

William Osborne