The Linz Effect
A sleepy provincial Austrian town? Hardly, says Asif Hashmi. Every autumn, Linz hosts a digital arts festival that sends it hurtling into the future
Back in the 20th century, when Vienna marked the cutting edge of things, the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig cracked that Linz rhymed with “province”. Say province in an Austrian accent and it ends in “z”. Just like Linz. Geddit? Dear pretty, provincial Linz. No bright lights, no big city – all Linz had to offer was small-town “zzz”.
Today? Well, Linz is still relatively small. While steel production ensures a buoyant economy, many of its workers commute from the surrounding countryside. Partly as a result of this, Austria’s third-biggest town has a population of only 190,000 people. In comparison, Vienna has a population of nearly 2 million.
Wander over to the main square, the Hauptplatz, a virtual chocolate-box cover, one of the largest squares in central Europe, elegantly lined with pastel-coloured Renaissance buildings. Is Linz still provincial?
Fast forward past the plaques commemorating visits by Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, past the imposing column, past the friendly, back-slapping locals lapping up beer and torte, the trams trundling by, the cobblestoned backstreets winding off towards pubs and cafés in sleepy squares and the nearby Danube. The same as it ever was – Linz, a typically Austrian town with a big heart.
Keep pressing the fast-forward button. Not only is it about to become the EU’s European Capital of Culture next year, but every autumn, beamed up to the holodeck, fragged into a billion pixels, Linz takes a turn toward the future.
Knocking away the town’s provincial facade and firing enough white light to leave the snootiest Viennese in a whirl is one of the world’s biggest digital arts festivals, Ars Electronica (4–9 September). Spilling out of Linz’s art mile, the stretch of award-winning galleries and museums down by the river, it deposits culture hackers, media theorists and digital nomads from all over the world throughout the city. There’s an animation film programme, concerts, mind-blowing installations, and events like debates on new media at a host of venues. You can also visit specialist interactive, digital and hybrid art exhibitions.
Jolted into life by avant-garde musicians and academics, Ars Electronica’s goal since the first festival in 1979 has been the “development of tomorrow”. If this sounds highfalutin, well, it is. Above computer-generated anime and flashing, twirling, bleeding-edge, bleeding-eye art installations and the thump of industrial techno, Ars Electronica’s geek elites delight in tech chatter – convergence, sousveillance, locative, Web 2.0. All the latest buzzwords bounce around its programme of debates.
However, what brings Ars Electronica to life is that many of its music, film and art events are about breaking out from the computer screen and into reality. According to Ars Electronica’s Christopher Ruckerbauer, by seeing the effect their work has on ordinary visitors, tech artists and academics can get a better appreciation of how culture and technology fit together. It’s applied research.