The intersection of science, technology, and art has become an increasingly rich site of exploration in the wake of the digital revolution—an inquiry that S+T+Arts, an initiative of the European Commission, has been leading. Falling under the umbrella of Ars Electronica—an educational and scientific institute and platform dedicated to art, technology, and society—the initiative is perhaps most well-known for its annual competition, the S+T+Arts Prize. The prize, which honors projects that highlight innovation within technology, industry, and society while being arts-driven, commenced their open call last month.
Beyond this prestigious award, however, S+T+Arts has a wide-ranging mission that “explores the collaborative potential between science, technology, and the arts,” and encompasses everything from artist residencies to outposts across 11 EU countries.
We reached out to Gerfried Stocker, the artistic director of Ars Electronica and founder of FutureLab, the in-house research and development branch, to learn more about S+T+Arts and its projects.
Since joining Ars Electronica in 1995, what are the most significant changes or developments you’ve noticed over the decades?
When we talk about the “digital revolution,” we could refer to different dimensions: technological, cultural, or social. Two key points that combined all three are 2007, when the iPhone reached the market, and 1989, when the conception of the world wide web (WWW) was formed. Technology and its possibilities were opened to a mass audience. What is a revolution if not something the masses are jumping into?
The invention of the WWW provided a wider audience a window into the digital world. Around the same time, Ars Electronica Center was envisioned, and later opened in 1996. It marked an important twist from being mainly an arts-driven festival for a small community to an educational institution as well. It was conceived not as an art museum to exhibit digital art from the festival, but as a complementary institution that would utilize the energies and excitement that artistic experiments with technology could bring to the need of communication, education, and training of a larger audience.
It was also clear that if we want to continue our mission, to have an impact on the capability of our society to cope with digital revolution, we need not only the international network of artists or a center to communicate with the citizens, but also a place for research, development, and experimentations on our own. And this is when FutureLab came in.
Since then, many things have transformed, but the next pivotal moment was mid-2000s, when social media and smartphone revolution happened. It became obvious that Ars Electronica would have to become a platform for a growing number of people. Its strength would be magnified by people from all over the world, and it would prove that artistic work has an impact on the technology-driven transformation of our society.
As one of the early developers of S+T+ARTS, what were some of the core inspirations behind the formation of the initiative?
The inspiration was our experience at Ars Electronica. We saw that with education and artistic-driven programs, we could create a strong impact on the community and support social innovation. Simultaneously, we saw that FutureLab could help our industry partners understand the application of technologies in a different way that is centered around the human perspective and needs.
Can you tell us about some recent S+T+ARTS endeavors, and how they have addressed prevalent global issues?
I’m particularly interested in the projects that, by showing what is possible, push us to rethink the usual way of doing things, such as “Rock Print,” developed by ETH Zurich and MIT. They built huge structures out of stone—without concrete or glue, but with a robot placing layers of string. It was such a mind-blowing and thought-thriving prototype. Instead of using robots to make buildings out of ordinary materials, these guys created a prototype questioning all the concepts we had—how to build houses and bridges, how to tear them down, how to recycle them, and how to use robotics, computers, and engineering in a clever way.
I would also mention Barcelona-based project “Remix el Barrio.” They addressed not only how to use biodegradable materials and recycle, but how to engage the community. They built up the whole ecosystem as a prototype collaborating with restaurants, craftsmen, etc.
As the S+T+ARTS Prize open call recently commenced for 2023, do you have any advice for participants?
The best way to raise your chances is to make a good, inspiring project. Do not just stop with the first level of your idea and its possible implications; try to think beyond. Innovative collaborations are so important. More people working together from diverse areas raises the likelihood that different ideas come together for an exciting concept.
Don’t think too much on how to get a prize, but how to contribute to the further development of our society. This is what our jury members are looking for.
What are some past winning artists’ projects that have particularly stood out to you?
S+T+ARTS is not just an arts award. The best projects are the ones where the artistic aspect is necessary to kick the project into the realm of what it can do, because they can’t be done by just innovation-application collaborations.
I liked “Oceans in Transformation” by John Palmesino and Ann-Sofi Rönnskog, the scientific visualization and diagrams of the oceans. It is a difficult field of climate change: We have so many facts and they’ve been presented so often; we recognize more and more that knowing these facts and getting them presented are not engaging enough. Here an art-design-architecture driven approach was the foreground of the project. It gave us a strong impression of how important it is to deal with this topic. It also relates to Julia Foscari’s project “The Antarctic Resolution.” The artists didn’t come along the science road or the need for social activism; they looked at the topic as being based on art, design, and creativity. This made the project so strong.
Are there any current S+T+ARTS projects that you find particularly exciting? Are there any projects that you are hoping to engage with in 2023?
The great thing is that we have so many projects! We can endlessly talk about them, and when I have a reason to go to our database, and I see projects like “The Substitute” I always get excited. It was a clever way of using visual language and technology to make the visualization possible that creates a strong artistic experience. And we have dozens of them.
The type of the projects I want to engage with I referred to before—projects that not only warn us again of climate change, but make us conscious of it. The consequences of climate change are clear, and there is no reason to hope that in the next eight to 10 years we will completely change the way we deal with our planet. We need to prepare for the consequences not in terms of escapism, but by reconfiguring how we think about technology, and in particular how we think about humanity and society on a global scale. This will be difficult, in my opinion; it will be easier to have free nuclear energy for everybody in 50 years than develop a concept of humanity that can deal with all the things that will happen in a way that keeps us human.
This is where we need the artistic contribution—to develop a new expanded concept of humanity, of responsibility for each other. I think this is not only what I’m expecting and hoping to see in the projects in the next years of S+T+ARTS activities, but it is what all activity is for.