Ana Viseu on 7 Oct 2000 17:07:12 -0000

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

[Nettime-bold] An Ars Electronica Report

[Forwarded from <> RHIZOME DIGEST: 
October 6, 2000.]

Date: 10.1.00
From: William Osborne (
Subject: Profoundly shocking Ars Electronica

There's no doubt that "Next Sex: Sex in the Age of Procreative 
Superfluousness"--the latest edition of Ars Electronica, Europe's largest 
festival for digital media and the arts--was calculated to shock. The 
festival has focused on bio-technology for the last several years, but this 
time took things a step further, demonstrably a step too far, by centering 
on the aesthetic use of eugenics.

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 
configurednot simply born."[1] 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.[2] 
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.[3] 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.[4]


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."[5] The festivals 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 misogyny.


The misogyny is illustrated by some of this years major festival events:

+ 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.[6]

+ 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 
festivals 415-page program book, is not conditioned or qualified; it is 
meant literally.[7]

+ The festivals 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."[8]

+ 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.[9]

+ 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.[10]


Thornhills biological views of rape were consistent with most of the 
festivals other presentations. His "naturalization" of sexual violence 
easily followed along the lines of Stahl Stenslies 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 computers modem.

His 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?"[11] 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 

Ars Electronicas 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 humanity.

Such considerations answer Stenslies 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. Its an age-old myth, but 
the festivals curators remain oblivious to it meanings.[12] (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.[13]

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.[14] Rightist Jorg Haider, head of the Freedom Party, 
exploited these forms of chauvinism in his rise to political power.


[1] _Ars Electronica Statement_. September 15, 2000. 

[2] Gerfired Stocker, "The Pencil of Nature II." _Next Sex: Ars Electronica 
2000_ Ed. Gerfried Stocker and Christine Schoepf (Wien: Springer Verlag 
2000): 20-24.

[3] Jeremy Rifkin attempted to oppose the festivals acceptance of eugenics, 
but he is not listed anywhere in the festivals official 415 page program 
book or anywhere on its official website.

[4] _Ars Electronica Statement_. September 15, 2000. 
( See also note 2.

[5] Stahl Stenslie, "Terminal Sex: Future Sex as Art Practice." _Next Sex: 
Ars Electronica 2000_: 209.
[6] 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: ( See also: 
Jerry A. Coyne and Andrew Berry, "Socio-biology and Fascism at the Front 
Door" at: ( (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 

[7] Stahl Stenslie, "Terminal Sex: Future Sex as Art Practice." _Next Sex: 
Ars Electronica 2000_:209.

[8] _Sperm Race_. September 15, 2000. (

[9] Nobuya Unno, "Development of an Artificial Placenta." _Next Sex: Ars 
Electronica 2000_: 252-3.

[10] Oron Catts, Ionat Zurr, and Guy Ben-Ary, "Tissue Culture & 
Art(ificial) Wombs." _Next Sex: Ars Electronica 2000_: 252-3.

[11] Stahl Stenslie, "Fleshing the Meme" September 15, 2000. 

[12] 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.

[13] Marie-Luise Angerer, a media theoretician and gender scholar, 
presented a talk but did not direct any comments to the festivals misogyny, 
such as Thornhills and Stenslies assertions. Even in an interview in 
Telopolis she seemed reluctant to criticize the festival. 

[14] 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: 

Additional Reading:

+ + +
A shorter version of this article appeared at

William Osborne is an American composer and arts activist living in Germany.

Tudo vale a pena se a alma nao e pequena.

Nettime-bold mailing list