Featured in Mute Vol 1, No. 12 – Bringing It All Back Home
It has become a commonplace to describe the array of electronic and media art festivals held throughout Europe today as a travelling circus. Suggesting dazzling but ultimately superficial entertainment with only a fleeting relevance for its viewers this moniker of the moment also conjures up a repetitive presentation of the same things over and again, irrespective of locale. Certainly, were you to follow it, your hectic festival itinerary would span much of Europe and much of the annual calendar. From Linz to Rotterdam, Gwent to Osnabruck – after a slow start in springtime the show peaks, finally, during the late autumn months when the ‘major’ festivals occur in quick succession. Then the proverbial tents are dismantled, horses and elephants are safely tucked away in their stables and the ringmasters start to gear themselves up for another year of performances.
Irrespective of location or host organisation, their ambitious thematic scope, growing global reach and loyal band of attendees ensure that events like ISEA, Ars Electronica, EMAF, DEAF, Consciousness Reframed, CyberConf and Viper, to name but a few (some annual, some bi-annual and others more irregular), continue to act as prime catalysts for debate. Importantly, these festivals also function to showcase recent international work to the respective local audiences while, vice-versa, providing different frames of reference for, and analysis of that work. Nothing new under the sun, you might say: in this, the festivals are no different, more or less context sensitive (or indeed compromised) than any other type of ‘travelling circus’, be that a trade fair, contemporary art biennial or academic congregation. Perhaps their damning nickname is but a jocular swipe aimed at technology-heavy shows and a tiny group of professional travellers? However, lately it has felt as if there is something rotten in this electronic state of Denmark. Notwithstanding the gradual process of development each event may have undergone, a more general and profound process of evaluation is going on – both on the part of the host organisations themselves and their most devout publics (not to mention the ‘general public’ in whose name the larger events are, by definition, put on). As with the other cultural ‘circuses’ (Manifesta and the Berlin, Venice and Sydney biennials come to mind) questions are being asked as to the usefulness, continuing relevance and ultimate beneficiaries of a year-in year-out wagon trail of bonanzas: is there really anything more profound to all this than the sophisticated management of international, or rather Western, cultural industries? Are regional, local audiences not only attending these events but also getting something out of them? Taking part in the panel ‘Biennials: Hope or Hype?’ at the recent ICA symposium Beyond the Artist, Manifesta co-curator Robert Fleck for example commented that, of the already small (c. 13.000) audience that actually visited the Manifesta2 exhibitions, only a fraction (c. 3.000) resided in the host city of Luxembourg – attributing the relative size of the visiting audience largely to professional motives). When arguing for the necessity and good of the biennials, the festivals, the symposiums, what is being assumed about the desires of local and visiting audiences? What is being assumed about the ways in which cultural production and consumption works?
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