A grant designed to foster the development of innovative ideas with great future promise—the competition to select this year’s recipient of „[the next idea] voestalpine Art and Technology Grant“ is one of the 2014 Prix Ars Electronica’s six categories. Potential competitors are anyone who has an extraordinary art, design or technology concept and is ready, willing and able to take his/her project to the next level of development. Submissions are still being accepted; the entry deadline is March 19, 2014 (complete details are available online at ars.electronica.art/prix. The prizewinner will receive a €7,500 cash award provided by voestalpine as well as the opportunity to work on the project’s completion and implementation together with staff experts at the Futurelab, Ars Electronica’s R&D division.
We asked two people who are especially closely connected to [the next idea] voestalpine Art and Technology Grant to give us their take on a number of issues:
Ela Kagel is serving as one of this Prix category’s jurors for the third time this year. As an indie cultural producer, she organizes events and develops strategies at the nexus of open-source technology, media activism and digital culture. Three years ago in Berlin, Ela Kagel and two partners founded „SUPERMARKT“ and converted a former grocery store into a creative center for artists and freelancers.
Gerhard Kürner is director of corporate communications at voestalpine AG, a technology and manufacturing company that is the global leader in producing, processing and developing highly sophisticated steel products. Based in Linz, voestalpine has 500 subsidiaries, plants and offices in over 50 countries on five continents.
This year’s competition to determine the recipient of [the next idea] voestalpine Art and Technology Grant is focusing on energy, mobility and access. Why do you consider these three themes to be of such tremendous importance for the future?
Ela Kagel: These themes encompass just about every aspect of our life. Here, the future is ours to determine. The ways that we’ll be living, working and getting from place to place in the future will have a direct impact on our quality of life: How clean is the air we breathe? How will we go from Point A to Point B quickly, effectively, using a minimum of resources, and without wasting hours in traffic jams? How can we assure that everyone has equal educational opportunities? What does it take to engender a new energy consciousness? There are countless such pressing issues. I personally find it fascinating how social innovation processes can be set in motion anywhere—on the streets, in small communities, at universities. What can we do to motivate people to get creative? We now live in a day and age in which it’s no longer sufficient to rely on the emergence of good ideas at high-tech laboratories. Every one of us ought to get fired up to develop smart ideas and to work on putting them into practice. What we need are lots of “next ideas.”
Gerhard Kürner: Practically all of the future scenarios or prognoses about what are commonly known as megatrends—regardless of whose list we’re talking about—deal directly or indirectly with these themes. Thus, in their various manifestations, they affect virtually every one of us. What are the long-term solutions to satisfying our energy needs? Decreasing our ecological footprint? Increasing our energy efficiency? Facilitating mobility via collaborative transportation systems in and among rapidly growing metropolitan areas? Developing new models for individual transport? But also the matter of access: the availability of information and how we deal with it once we have it; equal opportunities or new barriers created by information technology (the so-called digital divide); information as the key to our political systems, and how new communication channels cause political upheavals or foster democratization. This list could go on and on. The fact remains that these are core areas in which new ideas and innovations are called for. And needless to say, these topics don’t occupy some abstract, theoretical realm. Take voestalpine, for example. As a major producer of technological and industrial products, the mobility and energy sectors account for about 60% of our revenues, and we’re proceeding under the assumption that this proportion will increase. Of course, we are monitoring developments in this area very closely and investing commensurate resources in R&D in order to come up with marketable solutions—for instance, totally new material concepts designed to raise our power plants’ efficiency, or innovative components in railroad track & switch technology.
Art and technology, to what extent can they benefit one another?
Ela Kagel: Art can open up various experimental spaces and application situations for technology. Technology always needs a context; otherwise, it’s ineffective from a social point of view. Art has the potential to make a technology applicable, to critically call it into question, and, above all, to investigate its impact on our lives. And technology, in turn, can expand and challenge the creative latitude of artistic strategies.
Gerhard Kürner: As I see it, a process of dialog and exchange can always be a win-win situation. Both of these endeavors entail gaining insights and encountering our world. When art confronts technology, the result, from a purely technical standpoint, is to open up new possibilities of expression. But much more significant is art that is substantively on the absolute leading edge of current developments. And some of the issues that emerge on this leading edge are those that should not be assessed from the perspective of technology alone. And conversely, art that takes a playful, unconventional approach can open up new points of view for non-scientists as well—show new ways to see technology and display its possibilities. To appreciate this, just consider a current example connected with Ars Electronica: The Spaxel Project. The quadcopter swarm and the coordination of each individual drone is truly a masterful technological achievement; nevertheless, few people would have gotten very enthused about it if it hadn’t been adapted for artistic use. The experience is what opens up insights on the part of non-specialists and the general public.
It’s often a long and winding road from a concept to the realization of a project. What advice would you give to artists looking to establish themselves as entrepreneurs?
Ela Kagel: I find it rather dubious to look at every artist and see a budding entrepreneur. Let’s be frank: most art isn’t fertile ground for the entrepreneurial logic of exploitation? Which is a good thing, wouldn’t you agree? Otherwise, independent artistic positions would soon be threatened by extinction. It’s certainly true that there are artists who can simultaneously function as entrepreneurs, but they’re the exceptions. I think it’s much more interesting to consider how to bring the two worlds together in such a way that something new is actually created, something that benefits both domains. What spaces are required for this to occur? What techniques of moderation and mediation? Fascinating questions emerge here.
Gerhard Kürner: I think it’s important to remain true to yourself and to believe in your idea. And even while remaining uncompromising, you should also try to look at what you’re doing through other people’s eyes to become more aware of your project’s concrete benefits for other people.