ISEA 2009

A moment of truth or the emperor's new clothes?

I see a tangled mass of cables through the glass of Belfast’s Waterfront Hall. This is my introduction to the 15th International Symposium on Electronic Art. It is a major international event, a coup for Belfast, the first time ever that ISEA has reached these shores. It is art powered by the mac.

ISEA is spread all over Belfast. From Engaged Creativity in Mobile Environments at the Waterfront, to Kathy Rae Huffman’s curation of exhibitions across the University of Ulster’s Belfast campus, the Ormeau Baths Gallery and the Golden Thread Gallery.

ISEA brings together an impressive 66 works by 75 artists from 25 countries. Its mission? ‘To foster interdisciplinary academic discourse and exchange, among culturally diverse organizations and individuals working with art, science and emerging technologies.’

My first stop is almost PS2’s C13 Container multi-functional hub outside the hall… except the electricity generator isn’t working. So instead I play the voyeur, watching Botticelli’s 'Venus' appear on a mobile phone from Margarete Jahrmann’s 'Sema-Code Dress'. I'm intrigued, but too intimidated to enter 'Virta-Flaneurazine: Clinical Study'. It seems I have missed out on my second life.

I stand puzzled before an installation featuring a Darth Vader lookalike roped to another figure. This turns out to be an undercover surveillance exercise projected onto a TV screen with Darth Vader disappearing in the streets of Italy through blue screen technologies. I'm impressed. The Italian police less so.

Some of the exhibits, like this one, take on the Zeitgeist, the current political climate, the complexities of our society, with challenging depth. They are illuminating. They don’t shy away from asking difficult questions about Iraq, individualism, the power of Google or the impact of climate change. They open up spaces for thought, which is perhaps, what art does or can do.

I listen to the whispers around the hall. 'Have you done the corridor?' 'Have you done it yet?' Pleasingly, they refer to my organisation's interactive exhibit, which takes over a whole end of the Waterfront Gallery: ESC’s ‘Moment of Truth’ installation. It claims to be ‘a constructed space that manifests and embodies the act of storytelling’, ‘physically representing the process of cognition through a compact corridor structure’.

An empty corridor. A set of instructions. A space to find a thought, connect with that thought and record that ‘truth’ to camera. These truths are then uploaded to Youtube for the world to see and peruse. Which I do. It’s fascinating. I urge you to take a look.

Electronic art is many things. Challenging, intriguing, inventive, confounding, contradictory and controversial. It is esoteric. It is pretentious in places. It is also W5 for grown ups. The symposium aims to make people question what art is and what technology is. In this, they have more than succeeded.

Bits I wish I hadn’t missed? Ubermorgen’s interrogation of Guantanamo Bay - ‘Superenhanced Tribunal Room’; Scenocosme’s 'Akousmaflore – Sensitive and Interactive Musical Plants'; Revital Cohen’s 'Artifical Biological Clock'. Oh, and the DJ-ing ants.

Kirsten Kearney

There are rumours that the ''Moment of Truth' installation may reappear at ESC’s contribution to Culture Night, on September 25 in the Managed Workspace, 109-113 Royal Avenue, Belfast.