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Taking Care and Taking It All In at Ars Electronica

Posted by Jess

This year, I was privileged to showcase a project at Ars Electronica for the first time as part of Hexagram’s “Taking Care” exhibit as part of the AE Campus. Dietrich Squinkifer and I showed our speculative plant dating simulator, ‘rustle your leaves to me softly’. We were proud and happy to be showing our work at this amazing international art and technology festival, so we wanted to attend. Thanks to TAG’s support, we were able to get there!

September 1st 2018 marked the beginning of my second dissertation design project, so I decided to go to Ars Electronica with the goal of seeking inspiration. I was not disappointed — even the projects that I had negative reactions to provided food for thought, making me think of alternatives and how I might redesign a project instead. And, of course, watching someone interact with a project that you made is always a fascinating experience!

Some of my favourite projects at Ars Electronica were at the Ars Electronica Centre itself. This year, an entire floor was dedicated to projects from the MIT Media Lab, and let me tell you, I am excited for what the future will bring once these projects become accessible. My favourite was Cilia, where 3D-printed fibres can be programmed for individual control. The fibres feel soft and hairlike, but apparently each can be programmed and used for all sorts of kinetic purposes. I watched the Cilia prototype pull a bar up through a tube, using the motion of its many tiny hairs. I watched the Cilia direct a ball on a path through itself. The projects were very embodied, very kinetic.

[Not the Cilia project — this was an MIT Media Lab project involving bendable, programmable textiles.]

At a nearby venue, Post City, other student projects were being shown. What I found most interesting about these projects was that the kinds of feedback they generated were often very similar despite the fact that the input was always very interesting and unusual. What I mean by that is that although the pulsating LEDs’ colour and pattern might be influenced by, say, the electromagnetic fields being generated in space, they were still pulsating LEDs. Understanding that these were student projects, I still wished for a more complete, immersive framework and narrative to surround them.

At the student exhibits in Post City, I asked a machine called “The One Who Knows”, by Ben Olsen and Giacomo Piazzi, what my next design project should be about. The One Who Knows answered me in riddles:


You threw 58
Tui / The Joyous, Lake

Moving to 14
Ta Yu / Possession in Great Measure

Download plugins. Find supporting tools. The image of unselfish modesty. The two trigrams indicate that the hotkeys. Do another tutorial. Do they move and controlled way.

And yet, it was in its way, a sort of meditative, magic 8-ball type of answer. I think I interpreted the response as my needing to think more about it and learn more before I could proceed.

At Ars Electronica, I also had the pleasure of visiting and revisiting Faye Mullen’s performance piece, “Of Wall to Ground”, since it was part of the Taking Care exhibit and it was positioned near one of the main entrances — the piece evolved and changed throughout the days that we were there. Although Faye occasionally took breaks, she was usually there, and stopping by her piece as she performed became a meditative act for me, a time to pause and consider. The accompanying words and the performance itself changed meaning for me as I watched, depending on my mood, depending on what sentence I walked in on, all contextualized by Faye’s physicality and actions relating to the wall structure that she had built. We were also privileged to show work alongside other colleagues and friends who I greatly admire, such as Whitefeather Hunter, who showcased ‘Aseptic Requiem’, TAG member Ida Toft, who showcased a game project called ‘Promises,’ and TAG member Alex Saunier’s ‘Vitra’ project. It was excellent, despite the usual tech issues that it was good we were around to fix.

This is, of course, only a fraction of what was available to be seen. On the whole, I think that I found the inspiration that I was looking for at Ars Electronica — now I’m trying to translate that inspiration into a workable, practicable design. You can keep an eye out for that on my process blog,