As media artist and artistic director of Ars Electronica, Gerfried Stocker has been realising projects between all the realms of art, science and interactive technologies since late 80s. Today he talks ethics of AI, artists in laboratories, favorite sci-fi, how to find a festival topic, balancing between mainstream and unique ideas, why art thinking should be a discipline, and so much more! Keep reading!

Lumen: Describe your background first! I mean education and first professional attempts before you dedicated all of your time to Ars Electronica.

Gerfried Stocker: It seems like I’m already the director of Ars Electronica for 22 years now since 1995, so this background was really long time ago. I have technical education, as well as professional artistic background. I has been working as media artist for many years and on many projects internationally. Then in 1995 when I was working on a quite large international network project, Ars Electronica asked if I would be interested in applying for a new position and that’s how I came to Ars Electronica.

Lumen: By the way, what are your areas of expertise now – after so many years of experience?

Gerfried Stocker: We have very particular expertise in the meeting point and this interface between man and machine. All these things that concern us – social, cultural or technological – what happens when machine environments and systems are colliding or meeting with humans, or when humans meet them. It’s our specific point of interest and perspective and this is something that I was interested in as an artist even before I came to Ars Electronica. I was working a lot with interactive technologies in the late 80s and early 90s to explore and develop strategies for this encounter of man and machine.

Lumen: So interesting! But in your opinion, what really happens when man meets machine and vice versa?

Gerfried Stocker: When we create machines, I think, there are two very important points. Of course, there is a rational efficient point of view that we try to create something that protects us, that helps us, that supports us. And the first technology we created as humans was probably our clothes that we needed to survive during cold winters. Or the first weapons and tools we created to kill animals to be able to feed ourselves and our children. So from those early achievements and up to now, when we try to create new AI machines, one point, of course, is this rational point about creating practical tools for us. But also I believe that throughout the whole history we’ve been also creating machines to explore our possibilities. It can give satisfaction. Building machines is very close and similar to creating art. It’s all about exploring ourselves and exploring our world.

Lumen: But if we talk about AI, when will we need to work on ethical component of interacting with machines? You probably watched Blade Runner or other sci-fi movies related to this topic!

Gerfried Stocker: That’s a big problem! I think that original creators and inventors of machines, technological systems and technologies (let’s call all these things “machines” just to make it easier) are usually the people with very high moral and ethical values. Most of machines weren’t created to kill or destroy. People were really hoping that their inventions would help humans and make the our world a better place. And it’s a usual thing: when these technologies become widely available, then suddenly only the commercial interest takes over. So it’s much more important to talk about ethical and responsible business, commercial activities and cooperation rather than ethical and responsible innovations and technologies. It’s the application of technologies that permanently get us into this dilemma of unethical use of inventions. Nevertheless, it is also a very important responsibility of scientists and engineers – the creators of the machines. As my opinion shows, you much rather find this ethical responsibility in innovators, creators and the people who develop ideas that in people who use and apply their ideas.

Lumen: Where’s the line between science-art and business? If someone creates innovative machines to sell them, is it still art? If we’re not missing the creative component.

Gerfried Stocker: We call some people artists and some people – businessmen. Both can be very creative, as well as very commercial oriented. But I think creating art follows a different intention.

Lumen: Elon Musk makes art or business?

Gerfried Stocker: (laughing) Well, maybe some of his things could even end up in a few hundred years in the same way as we see Leonardo da Vinci as not only an artist but also as an entrepreneur. Maybe in a few hundred years people will see Elon not only as entrepreneur but as artist, too. I think something that is comparable is that he’s very driven by his vision. But I don’t know him personally, maybe it’s just a good way to sell himself. But at least the way he presents himself and how he’s presented in the media shows that he starts from a vision and he uses business to pursue his vision. And I guess it’s something that is rather similar to what artists do while traditional businessmen understand business as the only intention, vision and mission. And nothing else! That’s why Elon Musk’s creating so much fuss, and so many people discuss him very emotionally. He’s found a very nice provocative way to blur the boundaries. It’s a very distinctive feature of our time: there are not many boundaries nowadays that aren’t blurry. Our time is all about giving up all categorizations and old way to divide things and people. The most interesting people of all times were successfully working in different fields! That’s why we appreciate Leonardo or Michelangelo so much!

Lumen: Can we say that our society needs more and more artists with degrees and skills in hard sciences to make really significant things in science-art rather than producing landscapes?

Gerfried Stocker: If you ask me, then YES, of course! That’s what I totally believe in and what we (Ars Electronica) dedicated a lot of work and energy to. I think we need it for several reasons. Art needs strong engagement with all these scientists and newest technologies to be able to progress and develop. And this has always been crucial for art, in all centuries. Research is always important. For example, many many years ago artists were looking for materials that would allow their paintings to survive more than just a few years or something. Artists has always contributed in development of science and technologies, as well as in establishment higher levels of ethical and moral consideration. We would more need artists in business collaboration, artists in governments to develop really new ideas. Only if we think outside the box, we can discover new opportunities to progress. Art thinking should be a discipline, as a specific way of looking at things.

Lumen: Yep, at least social media artists in politics win! Okay, my next question is quite logical. How such artists with deepest knowledges of newest technologies can join Ars Electronica’s think tank in the format of art residences or festivals? Where to start?

Gerfried Stocker: There are different ways! if you already have good piece of art or project that you’ve finished, then our international award competition would be the best way to connect with Ars Electronica! We have a really good jury in all the categories. They make very good choices selecting the best artworks. If you’re still running around with your idea and need some support to produce it, like the artistic residence, then the best option is to email us your proposal, so we can see if we have a program where your idea might be implemented. For example, we have some biotechnology projects, but we’re not so well-equipped and don’t have so many good experts in this area. Anyway, we contact all the applicants to say “hey, let’s do it” or “sorry, interesting project but we have no program where we can support you”…

Lumen: Do you give a detailed feedback to projects you don’t want to develop – “why not”?

Gerfried Stocker: It’s not a standard letter that we send to everybody. Yes, we try to explain people why it doesn’t fit. The more concrete the proposal, the better we can evaluate it and provide artists with better feedback. I think it’s very important to really answer people… Of course, we get a lot of stupid projects.

Lumen: Ha, remember the stupidest one?

Gerfried Stocker: (laughing) I can’t answer because of ethical reasons!

Lumen: Uh, of course.

Gerfried Stocker: But I have no problems with communication with artists trying to explain them that certain aspects of their projects are not well-developed. But there’s a possibility to apply a project directly to the festival. So yeah, we have 3 areas: competition, residence and festival. We try adjust everything to get an interesting outcome for artists as creators and for us as an organization.

Lumen: How do you residences look like? Is it a certain place or what?

Gerfried Stocker: There are completely different programs! It depends on circumstances. We have programs supported by European Commission funding where we do residences in collaboration with science centers (like European Space Agency, Institute for the Unstable Media, QUT Queensland University of Technology, etc). Also we invite scientists to our FutureLab (Ars Electronica’s R&D center) to inspire our people and, hopefully, convert this inspiration into projects and works of art. Of course, with artists in residences you never can be sure if something’s going to be produced. It’s always a risk! But usually it’s very common interest of all the participating partners and institutions, including artists. Whatever the outcome of the residence is, we present it during the festival as a part of a festival program, which of course is very interesting and attractive part because it allows to get some public visibility for each project. Usually, residences have 3 steps: spending time with science institutions, spending time here at Ars Electronica and presenting at the festival.

Lumen: Sounds like a well-though mechanism! Who’s responsible for the concept? You?

Gerfried Stocker: Concept grew out of experience and demand. I, as an artistic director, and the whole team, we try to facilitate and respond. I didn’t wake up with an idea to create an artists residence. We respond to needs and demands from the artists and science institutions. It was very important to find partners! We just look at what artists are interested at and then we shape the programs in the way that suits needs and demands. And I think that’s the way how we understand our role.

Lumen: How to stay flexible after so many years of experience?

Gerfried Stocker: We have really luxury advantage and privilege to work in such a dynamic and versatile field. From newest technologies to social and cultural impact of digital technologies and digitalization. Every day we see new experts and spend a lot of time understanding how we can use, explore and apply technologies. We discuss risks and social impact of the most progressive innovations. Sometimes there are just hypes but sometimes they’re really very serious and interesting new developments like AI things which are really the game-changers in many areas. Keeping up to date with all these developments is definitely one of the best ways to stay flexible. And the other good thing in our case is that every year we contact with hundreds of interestings artists and art students, so yeah, in our area it’s difficult to be not flexible.

Lumen: Can you open any plans for this year?

Gerfried Stocker: I cannon announce the topic of the festival because it’s not finally confirmed. We’re still exploring different directions because topic of a festival is very important. It’s not enough to have just an interesting topic…

Lumen: How do you find festival topics?

Gerfried Stocker: It’s a process of ongoing conversation. We’re working on projects, discussing and changing ideas with artists, scientists, businessmen and people from the industry. What we try to do is combine all these things and find better. What could be a common interest for people in art, technology, artists and society in general. That’s the key element of Ars Electronica. We always look at these three sectors at once: art, technology and society. You can find an interesting thing and think WOW, we must discuss it, but a couple of weeks later you can understand that there are not a lot of artists who are actually working within this topic. That’s a big problem because you might be able to organize a good conference but if you don’t have enough interesting artworks, it’s not a good festival topic.

Lumen: Is it more important for you to talk about important or unique things?

Gerfried Stocker: Our approach is to find something that is important but see if we’re able to develop a different, special and even unique point of view, perspective or direction of it. If we only went for something that is really unique, people probably wouldn’t come. Of course, it’s important to make unique things for just a few people, but when you’re organizing a big festival, a platform and a marketplace, all these activities need a lot of diverse people. So we need to find a topic that has a certain visibility, importance, impact and urgency. And it’s always an analytic process: “Can we, as Ars Electronica, contribute something that is unique or at least not kind of mainstream?”. For example, last year Artificial Intelligence was important and very popular thing already, but we were focusing on its certain aspect by choosing a subtitle “The Other I”. We didn’t look at AI from a usual point of view, we chose to talk about human reflections. With Ars Electronica, subtitles are even more important than titles. It also shows our flexibility. We’re not Documenta or Biennale, where every exhibition should be a masterpiece, an artist’s statement. Our festival is a laboratory, a working process, which allows us to have more flexibility and be more dynamic, try something new.

Lumen: This point makes me ask another important question. How do you see the process of learning more about contemporary to us media art in 20 years? Will it look like going to a museum or something more futuristic and immersive?

Gerfried Stocker: As long as we stay humans! We have special conditions (“condition humana”). We need physical content because we’re physical beings. We need social exchange because we’re social animals. Festivals and museums provide very specific advantages and functionality. These are the places where people come together, where you can encounter the real (even if in the future it’ll be just a simulation), but being in the place, going to a museum, is like a ritual. The experience of museum starts when you go to the Internet and look at opening hours and pick an exhibition to visit. These steps prepare your attention. And this is something that we need as humans. This is what makes us happy and gives satisfaction. We will do it. Of course, there will be a normal increase of cultural presentation in media because there’s a huge demand. For example, when I go to the Louvre as teacher with my school class from Austria, that’s quite something. But using really good virtual representation of the most remarkable artworks in the Louvre is something I can use every day for education at school and universities. I guess we’ll end up with very natural and intuitive duality of real spaces for art experience and virtual spaces. And we will have a very natural and relaxed duality of works produced to be physical and works produced and be virtual. Only our generation still has to cope with a transition, with totally new elements like social media, VR experience and so on. In 20 years these elements won’t be new anymore. In the future world where being online will be like breathing air, it’ll feel like a normal thing. And so virtual and physical art galleries will exist side by side. Visiting physical museums will the same with us who still have opera houses. Things remain as parts of culture, and we assimilate new. The process of assimilation is a very exciting one. We’re very privileged and lucky generation to be able to witness all these new things that came with technologies and see how they’re assimilated in the culture and society.

Lumen: Well, you seem to have an idea of how things will work in the future. What are your favorite sci-fi books or movies?

Gerfried Stocker: When it comes to sci-fi, I still admire all the stories by Philip K Dick, who changed the way how I saw things, and movies by Tarkovsky (“Solaris”, “Stalker” in the original director’s versions). Of course, there are many decent contemporary sci-fi movies and books. I really liked some of “Black Mirror” episodes. Reality is going faster than fiction and that’s very interesting feature of our time. It is very difficult to make good sci-fi content now!

Lumen: Facts are louder than tales.

Gerfried Stocker: Exactly! And facts affect us faster. I mean, the time that it takes to write a good science fiction novel is probably the same time this or that Elon Musk uses to move technologies even further. Maybe it’s not the time to ask: “What is the next futuristic things?”, but the time to focus on what we are doing now with our reality. Maybe it feels the same for all generations, but I feel like we’re in the time when so much future depends on the present. So much future to deal with and integrate into our reality.

Lumen: Well, Ars Electronica’s mission is to help us with this integration, it seems. Thank you for this interview and see you on the festival!

Gerfried Stocker: Thank you, Marina, and all Lumen team!

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