Digital Arts Circus

The new-media bohemia gathers in Belgrade

They do not call themselves ‘artists’, but their creations mesmerize and challenge passers-by. They are shun by traditional auction houses and most museums, but might be the future of art. We met the new-media art scene in Belgrade last week, at the Resonate festival.

Belgrade has been announced to us as the new Berlin. Serbia was hit hard by the financial crisis. That’s the first thing locals mention. Berlin’s flamboyant mayor Klaus Wowereit is notoriously close to his city’s cultural class. Dragan Đilas, Belgrade’s mayor until late 2013, is a mass media mogul, who has brought Big Brother to Serbia. Performance artist Marina Abramović, who exposed at the New-York Guggenheim and works with Lady Gaga, is from Belgrade. The Museum of Contemporary Arts collection holds works by Salvador Dalí, Andy Warhol, George Maciunas and Hannah Wilke. When it opened in 1958 it was one of Europe’s first national museums of modern art. Since it closed for renovation works in 2007 it has been slowly transforming into a ruin. Government funding has run out.

Belgrade is setting out to fulfill the “poor, but sexy” promise, that Wowereit famously made about Berlin a decade ago. A young generation of artists is bringing the city to the center stage of the art scene. Its cheap rents are turning it into a safe haven for creative types. In cost of living surveys Belgrade regularly ranks far better than Berlin or other cities famous for their bohemian scenes such as Portland or Istanbul.

Concept stores, galleries, coworking spaces and creative agencies are popping up all over the old centre along the banks of the Sava River and towards the Danube. Artists, tinkerers and hackers are at the forefront of this development. Milos Rancic, the founder of Hacklab Belgrade on the borders of the city centre, thinks young Serbs’ taste for computer code goes back to inventor and futurist Nikola Tesla. Rancic has been working on free software projects for over a decade. “People aspire to be as inventive with electronics as Tesla”, he says as he takes a sip of his energy drink and lights another Davidoff cigarette.

500 participants from 184 cities.

Around Studentski Square in the centre of Belgrade, the Resonate festival, organized by Maria Jelesijević, a Belgrade-based visual artist, and Filip Visnjic, an architect living in London, is bringing together code artists from 184 cities. It's an intimate crowd of only 500 participants. The tickets of have been sold out for months.

I. Code Bohemia

Space not taken up by laptops is covered with cables, duct tape, and circuit boards. Multicolored running shoes navigate their way through narrow staircases filled with smoothie-fueled chatter. A mix of games, performances, data visualizations, interactive installations and artificial intelligence projects is presented in front of bulging lecture theatres. The digital arts circus has put up its tents in Belgrade. It’s the first day of Resonate festival.

Some participants have already arrived a couple of days before the official launch of the festival. They’ve been trading insights in workshops on coding with light, face manipulation, or specific frameworks for algorithmic art. They often know each other from previous collaborations or hackathons that rarely last longer than a couple of days. The new-media art community is small. Few coders work with the software tools these artists develop. Programming environments like OpenFrameworks, Cinder and vvvv are exotic concepts even for regular programmers. At Resonate festival they are omnipresent. Artists use them to control light, sound, visual elements on screen and program interactions involving the audience or physical objects. Many manipulate so called Arduinos, mini-controllers that transform inputs from sensors into outputs to lamps, motors or musical instruments.

We build stuff for 3 weeks and then people come and break it.
Douglas Edric Stanley, Professor of Digital Arts, Aix-en-Provence

There’s a video that participants routinely refer to, in which the Japanese artist Daito Manabe makes his face dance to music. Manabe’s goal is to create a device that automatically transmits the expression of one face onto another. For one of the early test performances Manabe sticks myoelectric sensors, usually used for medical examinations, and uses electric impulse generators to make his facial muscles move to music.

Daito Manabe’s performance “Face Visualizer”

Technological advances and the creation of new devices constantly change the way new-media artists work. They provide them with new physical and digital materials and create the social shifts their work reflects. Google Glass is ostensively absent at Resonate festival and speakers at panels loathe its privacy infringing features. But most new-media artists are obsessed with data. The more sensors collect, the more raw material for data-based art. Some run apps on their phones which meticulously measure every step they make. Graphic designer Nicholas Felton even publishes ‘Personal Annual Reports’ that reflect his life in charts and visualize his daily routines.

II. Open Source Art

The default behaviour of many new-media artists is open source. That means that they often share the code of their art works with the public and allow people to build upon it - often before completion itself. They rely on programming languages and environments that are collectively developed. Resonate festival is not an exhibition or an art fair. Its open format, discussions and space for creation rather resembles a university.

Kyle McDonald, Daito Manabe, and Klaus Obermaier sit on stage behind a table that looks as if it was build out of gigantic wooden bricks. The three artists have just finished their collaboration on a code-based performance piece they have called ‘Transcranial’. It mixes dancing, distortion of filmed body parts, and Manabe’s notorious electric impulses on the performer's face. They show fragments that have inspired their work, such as a video of a reporter who gets his speech centre temporarily switched off by a magnet in front of a camera.

They also demo bits and pieces of the code they have written for it. At the end of their talk they share a link that points to the public repository, which hosts the performance's source code.

Thanks for fixing our code and thanks for not adding any glitches that will make people destroy their brains
Kyle McDonald, F.A.T., New York

McDonald, who is a fellow at the Free Art and Technology Lab (F.A.T.), even accepts to work for less money as long as his code remains open to the public. F.A.T. is a small collective of artists who criticize intellectual property law and produce pop culture for the public domain. In 2012 New York Magazine art critic Rachel Wolff recommended aspiring artists to “make art that’s difficult to collect”. The new-media bohemia is following this recipe rather closely.

III. Market Forces

The global art market is worth around $70 billion. New-media art has been missing out. The first computer art exhibitions were staged in the 1960s. The first major art auction dedicated to new-media art was only organized in autumn 2013. It was hosted by Phillips, one of the traditional fine arts auction houses, but the 20 works on display have only brought in the modest sum of $90,600. Even paintings by newcomer artists featured in the company’s “more accessible” auctions sell for double. The price for a Banksy can be $500,000.

The new-media bohemia publishes its work and shares code online. It does not seem to care about the rules of the art market whose thousands of collectors crave scarcity and exclusivity. But they also have to pay their rent. When a collector offers to buy new-media art shared on the internet, artists have agreed to transfer the ownership of the pieces domain or to take it offline. Wutang Clan have taken a more radical approach by producing only one copy of their latest album.

New-media artists are the unpaid research & development departments of the advertising industry
José Luis de Vicente, cultural researcher, Barcelona

Andreas Müller, an artist from London, is packing up four black boxes that read “Oculus Development Kit”. Their content looks like inflated ski goggles with an inside facing tablet screen in the visual field. He has finished his workshop on Oculus Rift, the virtual reality headset that was bought by Facebook for $2 billion. The founders of Oculus had turned to the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter to raise $250,000 - they collected ten times as much. Some of the participants at Resonate have managed to do the same for their products - amongst them a print magazine called HOLO (raised $70,000), and NeoLucida ($424,000), a prism on a stick that helps make realistic drawings.

Resonate participants working with circuit boards ⁞ © Resonate

If Resonate were a music festival, Aaron Koblin would be headlining it. The organizers have reserved the very last slot for his talk. His 2011 TED talk has been viewed over 1 million times and his work has been shown at MoMa in New York and Centre Pompidou in Paris. Aaron Koblin’s day job is at Google, where he directs the Data Arts Team. His data visualization and crowdsourcing pieces make playful use of the ecosystem created by technology giants. Amazon runs a platform called Mechanical Turk, where anybody can hire microworkers for simple tasks.

Aaron Koblin decided to make people draw sheep. One sheep cost him $0.02. 7599 participated, making an average hourly wage of $0.69. Only one asked in computer-mouse-drawn letters: “Why? Why are you doing this?”

A Meshu of places in San Francisco ⁞ © Resonate

Rachel Binx and Sha Hwang used to visualize data for clients such as MTV and Oprah Winfrey. Then they quit and built Meshu, which is an online shop selling customized jewelry. The form of the jewels is based on a map of places that matter to the buyer. For a whopping $80, you can buy your own pendant made of bamboo wood or metal.

Gifpop allowed me to confidently bring my very specific lack of taste and appalling aesthetic judgment to the fine-art table.
Lorna Mills, internet artist, New York

Their next commercial project, Gifpop, helps turn Gifs from digital artifacts into physical objects. The outcome is a website offering to print Gif-files on lenticular cards, which change their appearance when they get tilted ($25 each).

Now, they have even become Gif-gallerists selling works created by artists they display in the shop. They share the profits 80 to 20 - in favour of the artist. “Paying artists for their work is really rewarding,” Binx explains at the end of their session, “I love writing checks to people.” ▪

We have seen many inspiring things at Resonate. Here is a short list of our favourite projects.