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Since my first visit to Linz, in Austria for the Ars Electronica festival in 2009, I have been trying to analyse the impact of the oldest festival (32 years old already) in the field of art and science on culture and the regional economy. How was a city like Linz, with its 190,000 inhabitants, (400,000 including the region), able to fund the festival and the associated centre that became models at a global level and what where the resulting influences?
For more than 30 years, the Ars Electronica festival has been operating at the forefront of the digital revolution by exploring the relationships between art, technology and society. The Ars Electronica Centre, open in 1996, aims to be the museum of the future. I had the opportunity to meet and interview the founder of the festival, Dr. Hannes Leopoldseder, the Culture Director of the city of Linz, Dr. Julius Stieber, and his predecessor Mag. Siegbert Janko as well as several participants and organizers. The analysis of all these interviews highlighted the influence of the festival as a powerful catalyst for culture and the regional economy.
A little history
In the 1970s, Linz was an industrial and provincial town whose economy was based on the steel industry with its associated problems including pollution, the decline in activity and the poor image of the region. At a cultural level, between Vienna and Salzburg, Linz was not even a conceivable stopover. The city lived in a self-sufficient manner with only a small local theatre.
The main industrial area, Vöst Alpine AG, completely changed after the crisis of the steel industry. Following a bankruptcy in 1985, the company successfully reinvented itself as a specialised, international, technological business, producing a specific kind of steel in very progressive environmental conditions. Nowadays, the company invests more than 100 million euros a year in research and development, four times more than in 2000.
Unlike Vienna or Salzburg, Linz had no cultural tradition, but on the other hand it had a technological tradition. After Vienna, the first Austrian radio broadcasted its programs from Linz. In the thinking processes that led to the creation of the festival, the will to differ from the traditional cultures of Vienna and Salzburg made it possible to press forward on cutting edge projects. Politicians hardly had any idea of what these were about but they nevertheless courageously supported them.
Created in 1979, the festival first took place in the regional studios of the Austrian television (for the symposium) and at the Brucknerhaus (for the concerts) with two strong ideas: being international and offering culture for all. The Ars Electronica prize was founded in 1987, with three initial categories. This year, Ars Electronica received 3.611 applications from 74 countries in seven categories: digital communities, computer animation, interactive art, u19 - create your world, digital musics & sound art, hybrid art and [the next idea].
The project of the Ars Electronica Centre was launched to ensure the sustainability of the festival. Contrary to appearances, this was not an easy task. The City had released a call for proposals for this venue and had received six submissions on various themes including dance, research and east-west culture … Ars Electronica was eventually selected. The first centre and the Future Lab where created in 1996. The renovation, that included the current buildings, dates back to 2009. The Future Lab produces exhibitions and works on independent research or with worldwide companies and research laboratories.
More than half of the festival and the centre are now being funded by public subsidies, primarily from the city but also from the region. The rest comes from their own resources, sponsors, entrance fees… The building itself was essentially funded with public money, mainly from the city.
The influence of politicians
As everywhere else, at least in Europe, politicians are the lifeblood of culture, controlling the money needed to build, maintain and develop. How was then Ars Electronica able, from very early on, to attract the local politicians to its territory? In retrospect, Siegbert Janko names three factors that have been strongly decisive, in addition to the general context described above:
The founder of the festival, who was then directing the regional branch of the Austrian television and had many contacts in the press, was able to generate the initial press coverage. Later on, the innovative subject proved to be engaging, particularly for young journalists who covered the event.
- public event
Politicians like the fact that 100,000 people travel every year to attend the "Klang Wolke", the great evening show along the Danube. This annual event takes place during Ars Electronica whilst being organized independently by the Brucknerhaus, a remainder of the founding past of the festival. This strong public appeal, quite rare for such events, has consequently attracted support from politicians.
- 15 years culture plan
In the late 90s, the city launched the development of a plan, spanning over 15 to 20 years, for its cultural policy. In order to achieve this, all the major decision-makers in Linz, the region, businesses, and universities… were interviewed on the importance of culture for the region but also directly for their sector, their own company or University. The same questions were asked to a large number of people from all social backgrounds.
The outcome of the plan proved less important by its findings than by the process itself that had led to wonder and reflect on the place of culture and its importance for the area but also for everyone in their own field. The common issue with culture is that it often comes last, there are always other priorities to finance such as a new road, a hospital, a school... Once the seed of culture had strongly been planted in the minds of decision makers and inhabitants at large, the financial means followed.
In 2009, Linz received the prestigious label of European city of Culture, fruit of a long preparation work. The first application letter sent to the European Commission dates back to 1995! Siegbert Janko recalls that at the time his colleagues did not believe in its chances and that Ars Electronica was a decisive element in the application. Obtaining the label sped up many projects including the complete renovation of the Ars Electronica Center.
The changing regional economy
Linz was once a deterrent for talent. Thus, the former head of culture of the city remembers the teasing of his Viennese friends when he decided to settle there in the early 80s. In the 90s, thanks to the festival, the local population and politicians got used to innovative and diverse projects, open to the world. This naturally accompanied a strong internationalization of the city and its companies but also brought an increasing tolerance towards changes.
Today, Linz is attracting talents, as shown for instance by the development of the Hagenberg Software Park, a gathering of companies located 20 km from the city, that registers numerous businesses altogether employing more than 1,000 people and close to 1,500 students. Several international high-tech companies have settled in the area, including many in the field of the "cleantech" green technologies. Linz has set an example for a city at once industrial, clean, green, cultural and international.
The integration of education
The partnerships between Ars Electronica and the local schools and universities also form rich pedagogical innovations. Much more than anywhere else, students explore the city as a ground for experimentation and study for their projects. They benefit from worldwide exchange programs, researchers and artists who come there in residence, promoting creative exchanges.
Projects start in high school. For instance, this year, two classes from different schools worked together on the engaging project of a hotel room that memorizes the messages of the previous occupants so as to whisper them to the following ones.
Furthermore, as these schemes started a long time ago, trained generations now come back. In the city, people call “the children of the festival” those who have studied in these areas, one or two decades ago, and who are back with international recognition such as Sam Auinger, the composer whose music was played all night in the Cathedral.
The themes are evolving
What sometimes surprises me when comparing Ars Electronica to other festivals of the same kind, is the areas, often very social and ecological, it has been covering for a long time. Besides, the city is pushing the green approach with reflections on transports, consumerism, recycling and sound environment. The centre is also working on life sciences that will radically transform our future existence.
How to measure the influence of the festival?
It is obviously difficult to measure this influence accurately. However, by combining many converging factors, it is possible to establish a reliable diagnosis on its importance. Its influence is very broad indeed, it reaches beyond culture and the economy mentioned above, towards a social, collective life and international openness.
Thus, a recent cultural controversy in Salzburg, a scandal triggered by the coming of the Manneken-Pis, amused the people of Linz where it would have gone unnoticed because everyone has now long been acquainted with various, sometimes shocking, cultural proposals in the public space as in exhibitions.
Beyond real but quite intangible factors such as openness to others, it is important to acknowledge much more measurable elements such as the filing of patents. The Linz area is the Austrian region that has filed the most patents indeed. Similarly, opinion studies show that the inhabitants of the region have a much more positive vision of the future than the rest of the Austrian population. For a while, there was a sign at the entrance of the tram in Linz saying: "Future, please come aboard". This alone is very telling of a state of mind open to change and could well be the very core of the influence of the festival!
What about the future?
Ars Electronica has paved the way. It has been the precursor festival, inspiring many other events around the world and, as seen above, is strongly involved in the cultural and economic development of its region. So what about now, what place will the festival occupy in the region and the world tomorrow?
Even if the major influence of the festival and the centre will undoubtedly continue to grow locally, when it comes to the globalized world, with an increasing pace of innovation, its place at an international level is likely to be challenged by other events and centres around the world. Something exciting to follow …
Malo Girod de l'Ain
Published in the Digitalarti Mag #7.
Digitalarti Mag, the international digital art and innovation magazine.
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