Making Strange

Article excerpt

In the spirit of the Bauhaus, Ostranenie '97 was a provocative inquiry into the state of the electronic arts in Central and Eastern Europe. Two hundred artists gathered in Dessau last November to view and discuss artwork that critically examines issues about the remapping of Europe. This forum differs from most media festivals in two important ways: first, it encourages the presence of the artists themselves, aiming to create a meeting point for vital conversation; second, in an effort to broaden support for and knowledge about Eastern Europe, it sought out participants from isolated and under-represented areas. This year's roster included artists from Albania, Moldavia, Bulgaria, Bielerusse - no small feat considering the red tape involved in getting them there.

Due to bureaucratic delays, featured artists Natalya Petrova and Russian Umarov arrived two days after the screening of their video Chechen's Ancient Land (1997). Visas, a revenue ploy for governments in post-communist transition, are required for travel into the "West." Artists must present an original invitation (not a fax or copy) to obtain exit visas from their countries, entrance visas into Germany - and then wait. This post-cold war situation was best described as "post-what" by art critic Bojana Pejic, referring to the expectations and promises that the term "post" implies versus the lived reality of many of the artists present.

The forum originated five years ago when codirectors Stephen Kovats and Inke Arns initiated a festival to examine artistic and technological activities in the former Eastern Bloc. As political boundaries began shifting, the focus concentrated on the East/West delineations. Five years later, the East/West focus persists. Common concerns among artists from locations as distant as Bosnia, Bulgaria and Russia are new national borders, access to technology and support for independent media.

This year's forum included installations, performance, video and a NET-Lounge or digital salon, and was given an historical context. There was an exhibition of works by original Bauhaus teacher Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, whose dictum was the unity of art and technology. Lev Theremin, inventor of the first electronic musical instrument in 1920 (the theremin, played by waving one's hands near metal antennae), was honored with a performance by Lydia Kavina, who mesmerized the audience as she grabbed music out of thin air. Historian Velimir Abramovic (Belgrade) lectured on the visionary work of Nicola Tesla, the father of radio transmission, whose experiments with electromagnetic fields, according to Abramovic, were 120 years ahead of their time. Tesla's 1898 patent for remote control, the basis of telecommunications, inspired a performance by Marco Peljhan and Carsten Nicolai titled "Wardenclyffe Project No. 2," named after one of Tesla's unrealized projects: a wireless broadcasting tower built on Long Island that was expected to provide worldwide communications.

In his opening speech, theoretician and historian Lev Manovich (Russia/U.S.) provided a critical framework for computer-based art by arguing that the "new vision" of the 1920s, which introduced aesthetic techniques such as extreme close-ups, camera tilts and aerial views, is embedded in the commands of computer software ("zoom in," "magnify"). Since the techniques that were once used to reveal the underlying struggle between the old and the new are now, by his analysis, basic work procedures, he encouraged the exploration of new resources for artmaking like the Web site that can be approached from many different perspectives - as a catalog, or as an associative personal experience.

In the former East the problem is more rudimentary: the technological infrastructure needs to be established. Thus, one of the critical issues facing artists is access to technology. In St. Petersburg, for example, there is no support system for independent video, so artists produce TV programs to gain use of equipment, a solution that has obvious plus and minus points. …