and the alchemists of our time

… and what comes after self-driving cars and the internet of things?

While the world still has its hands full dealing with the Digital Revolution and the cultural and social transformations and challenges that it’s brought about, a young generation of scientists and creative engineers has set a course for new frontiers and is already at work amalgamating the disembodied world of digital data with the physical world of our bodies.

They’re interconnecting bits and atoms in elementary form, fabricating new high-tech materials from natural substances. They’re teaming up with artists and designers, employing the neurosciences and biotechnology, digital hardware & software, and bringing together old handicrafts traditions with 3-D printers and laser cutters.

With their unorthodox approaches and highly inspiring projects, they’re not only blazing trails for new developments; they’re also opening up completely new ways of looking at the role of science in our society and the interplay of technology and nature.

In close cooperation with Prof. Hiroshi Ishii of MIT Media Lab, the 2016 Ars Electronica Festival will be focusing on this field, one that’s fascinating and challenging for art, technology and society in equal measure.

With his Tangible Media Group at the MIT Media Lab, Ishii has done pioneering work on the human-machine interface and thereby made a name for himself worldwide. His first high-profile appearance at Ars Electronica was in 1997. In the meantime, he and the staff of his lab have launched Radical Atoms, the next step in interlinking the digital and physical domains, and thus broaching a realm that goes far beyond the idea of an internet of things. The spectacular prototypes that have emerged from his lab are already milestones along the course of this new development.

Hiroshi Ishii about Radical Atoms…

“Radical Atoms” is our vision of human interaction with future dynamic materials that are computationally reconfigurable.

“Radical Atoms” was created to overcome the fundamental limitations of its precursor, the “Tangible Bits” vision. Tangible Bits – the physical embodiment of digital information and computation – was constrained by the rigidity of “atoms” in comparison with the fluidity of bits. This makes it difficult to represent fluid digital information in traditionally rigid physical objects, and inhibits dynamic tangible interfaces from being able to control or represent computational inputs and outputs.

Our vision of “Radical Atoms” is based on hypothetical, extremely malleable and reconfigurable materials that can be described by real-time digital models so that dynamic changes in digital information can be reflected by a dynamic change in physical state and vice-versa. Bidirectional synchronization is key to making Radical Atoms a tangible but dynamic representation & control of digital information, and enabling new forms of Human Computer Interaction.

We are developing our vision of interactions with Radical Atoms which do not exist today, but may be invented in next 100 years by atom hackers (material scientists, self-organizing nano-robot engineers, etc.) and speculate new interaction techniques and applications which would be enabled by the Radical Atoms.

Read more in an interview with Hiroshi Ishii on our Ars Electronica Blog.

Who are the alchemists of our time and what can they contribute to changing our world?

But we won’t only be dealing with the technological concepts; we’ll also be focusing on the people behind them. Who are the men and women developing our impending future; what drives them on; in what sorts of constellations and collaborative arrangements are they working; and what characterizes the locations at which their ideas and projects are taking shape?

Alchemists—the term that’s historically been used to characterize them—transcended the narrow confines that were delineated by the science of their time and culture. They’re emblematic of unorthodox methods and a profound interconnection of science with nature and metaphysics.

They were in search of the elixir of immortality, aimed to create artificial life, sought the universal panacea to cure all diseases, and they’re said to have discovered black powder. The hope that their arts might be the key to transforming lead into gold made them not only sought-after and well-paid specialists but also, often, despised and persecuted social outsiders.

Nevertheless, the alchemists played a decisive role in the emergence of the modern sciences and were key protagonists in the rediscovery of the knowledge of Antiquity and the Orient and its dissemination during the European Renaissance.

More about the festival theme…

In this interview with Gerfried Stocker, Ars Electronica’s artistic director elaborates on the theme of the 2016 Ars Electronica Festival and provides some impressive examples illustrating it. On the Ars Electronica Blog there’s a preview of what awaits festivalgoers in September 2016 in Linz. Read the interview…

Gerfried Stocker

Gerfried Stocker (AT)

Gerfried Stocker is a media artist and telecommunications engineer. In 1991, he founded x-space, a team formed to carry out interdisciplinary projects, which went on to produce numerous installations and performances featuring elements of interaction, robotics and telecommunications. Since 1995, Gerfried Stocker has been artistic director of Ars Electronica. In 1995-96, he headed the crew of artists and technicians that developed the Ars Electronica Center’s pioneering new exhibition strategies and set up the facility’s in-house R&D department, the Ars Electronica Futurelab. He has been chiefly responsible for conceiving and implementing the series of international exhibitions that Ars Electronica has staged since 2004, and, beginning in 2005, for the planning and thematic repositioning of the new, expanded Ars Electronica Center.

Christine Schöpf

Christine Schöpf (AT)

Since 1979, Christine Schöpf has been a driving force behind Ars Electronica’s development. Between 1987 and 2003, she played a key role in conceiving and organizing the Prix Ars Electronica. Since 1996, she and Gerfried Stocker have shared responsibility for the artistic direction of the Ars Electronica Festival. Christine Schöpf studied German & Romance languages and literature and then worked as a radio and TV journalist. From 1981 to 2008, she was in charge of cultural and scientific reporting at the ORF – Austrian Broadcasting Company’s Upper Austria Regional Studio. In 2009, Linz Art University bestowed the title of honorary professor on Christine Schöpf.

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