‘In Kepler’s Gardens’: Adapting to and interrogating the global zeitgeist

In the first of a two-part series, STIR examines how Ars Electronica presents a responsive and diffused exhibition model from Johannes Kepler University, Linz, Austria.

by Manu Sharma Published on : Nov 11, 2020

“Anyone who’s been away for more than four weeks will not recognise the campus of Linz’s Johannes Kepler University.

It’s a wonderful playground that Ars Electronica 2020 was to use for the first time between September 9-13, turning it into “Kepler’s Gardens.”

This serves as an introduction to the 2020 In Kepler’s Gardens festival, and was written by Veronika Liebl, Head of European Cooperation, Organisation and Finance, Ars Electronica. The festival was organised by Ars Electronica, using the gardens of the Johannes Kepler University at Linz, Austria, as its focal point, and saw events occurring simultaneously in 120 cities over a five-day period in September 2020. Liebl was contacted through Robert Bauernhansl, who works at Mediaservice, Ars Electronica, and she responded to an interview by STIR in order to shed light on the scale and significance of the event.

Visitors feeding ducks at the JKU Campus | In Kepler’s Gardens | Ars Electronica | STIRworld
Visitors feeding ducks at the JKU Campus Image: Courtesy of Ars Electronica

Discussing the conceptual aspects of the festival, Liebl told STIR, “We started the whole endeavour as an experiment stating not despite but because of COVID, the festival needs to emerge from the network and manifest itself in many places around the world”. This harkens back to the festival’s namesake astronomer, Johannes Kepler, who lived from the late 16th century to the early 17th century and developed Kepler’s laws of planetary motion, which outline the movement of the planets of our solar system in relation to the sun. Like Kepler’s model, In Kepler’s Gardens also features over a hundred satellite events that orbit around the aforementioned focal point.

Botanic Quartet, from the Ars Electronica Garden, Bangkok. This project explores ecospheric sentience by generating sound acquired from four plants that are endemic to Thailand | In Kepler’s Gardens | Ars Electronica | STIRworld
Botanic Quartet, from the Ars Electronica Garden, Bangkok. This project explores ecospheric sentience by generating sound acquired from four plants that are endemic to Thailand Image: Courtesy of Ars Electronica

Administration for the event was neither entirely centralised, nor wholly diffused, with the Ars Electronica team working continuously in the background in order to coordinate events and activities between 160 network partners around the globe. Additionally, as Liebl explained, experimentations in effective online exhibition formats was a core focus within the logistical forethought undertaken in order to make In Kepler’s Gardens a reality. This resulted in carefully orchestrated event timings, with several events being streamed simultaneously and globally, in real-time.

Corona Jam Sessions, a series of improv audio-visual telematic jam sessions by co-located students and artists | In Kepler’s Gardens | Ars Electronica | STIRworld
Corona Jam Sessions, a series of improv audio-visual telematic jam sessions by co-located students and artists Image: Courtesy of Ars Electronica

When discussing the raison-d’etre of the event, it is however equally necessary to consider its spirit, and it is here that the life and career of Johannes Kepler is once again a critical point of reference: as Liebl mentioned, “The brilliance of his work often makes us forget how rocky the path was for this pioneer”. This is worth pondering, and may very well be true for most great artists and academicians of their time. She went on to connect Kepler’s life with the festival held at Linz, stating, “and we are even more likely to forget how rocky the path has been for Kepler’s successors, for artists, scientists, environmentalists and social activists who fight for new advances in the here and now and are therefore excluded, criminalised, suppressed and persecuted. People like Johannes Kepler have an impact far beyond their discipline. Their findings not only change how the scientific community thinks, they also revolutionise our image of the world and ourselves. This year’s Ars Electronica has a lot to do with Johannes Kepler: his curiosity, enthusiasm and imagination, but also the courage with which he stood up for his convictions.” The festival then positions itself as a safe space for artistic and scientific inquiry, with participating practitioners from all over the world engaging with the pressing issues of our time.

The event sujet | In Kepler’s Gardens | Ars Electronica | STIRworld
The event sujet Image: Ars Electronica

Collectively, the issues taken up by the artistic and scientific agency at the heart of Ars Electronica’s In Kepler’s Gardens attempt to tap into developing terrain by extending our accrued knowledge to emergent challenges. Among the themes traversed by the festival partners, two which stood out prominently were responses to the COVID pandemic and the tryst between technology and ecology. With regards to the first, several partners put together cultural programmes as well as critical reflections on the present situation. While these spoke in no small measure to the tenebrous uncertainty caused by the pandemic, there were certain events as well which sought to foster more cathartic interludes for participants and visitors. For the second, the broad association of ecology and technology was articulated through several highly nuanced and critical perspectives that manifested themselves in a variety of exhibitions and activities, focusing on topics such as eco-conscious city planning and nutrition to name a few.

Design by Decay, a project that designs effluence in order to model a zero-waste world | In Kepler’s Gardens | Ars Electronica | STIRworld
Design by Decay, a project that designs effluence in order to model a zero-waste world Image: Courtesy of Ars Electronica

As Liebl informed STIR further, beyond the physical venue at Linz, the true central platform that brings together Ars Electronica 2020 has been, and henceforth shall remain, the festival website. The many pathways one may take in order to learn more about this event all lead to the ars.electronica.art/keplersgardens site, and this is where the program is displayed with all streaming platforms and social media channels being integrated. The stream runs on a total of four YouTube channels, which invite viewer feedback and discussion. Additionally, the group took advantage of Mozilla’s open-source project in order to create virtual spaces that present artistic and scientific content to visitors, with over 60 hubs being simultaneously accessible during the course of the festival, many of which are still open. The simultaneity and duality of local-physical and globally networked events has transformed Ars Electronica into an exciting experimental laboratory for emergent networking paradigms. To quote Liebl, “these include new forms and possibilities of fusion and coexistence of analogue and digital, real and virtual, physical and telematic proximity”.

One major concern many participants and attendees to the festival would justifiably have had was the question of safety from infection during the present pandemic. The entire event was planned and executed in conjunction with the city municipality of Linz at the local-centralised level, and an external expert for COVID in the larger sense. Testing for staff members and temperature monitoring for both staff and visitors was carried out with utmost diligence by the core team, which was paramount in ensuring the safety of visitors.

Through its meticulous management of territorially diffused venues, the intricate minutiae of In Kepler’s Gardens came together to present a compelling exhibition model that speaks to the current global paradigm. It will be of great value for groups that are similar to Ars Electronica to understand and attempt to reproduce the sophistication of the festival.

(In Kepler’s Gardens was held at JKU Campus, Linz, from September 9, 2020 to September 13, 2020.)

Also read Part 2: 'The Transparency of Randomness' at JKU Campus.

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