Cultural geographer Ronald Horvath wasn’t thinking of a specific place when he conjured the concept of “machine wilderness” in the ’60s. It helped him describe what he saw taking place across the American Southwest, as technology gradually transfigured the feral landscape. But the phrase describes New Mexico well. Our laboratory-centric economy and sprawling subdivisions rubbing up against raw edges of the desert, our car-centric meanderings along the mesa and foothills and tangled riverbank—they all confirm the sustained resonance of Horvath's idea.
His “machine landscape” does imply some degree of loss and destruction. But there's also an undercurrent of creative possibility running through it. Artist and UNM associate professor Andrea Polli seized on that potential for innovation when she pitched Albuquerque as a potential host of the International Symposium on Electronic Art. In 2011, the event's board picked Istanbul. Next year, it’s Sydney. And lucky for us, the Netherlands-based board of directors chose Albuquerque for ISEA2012.
Polli is the artistic director for the 18th annual incarnation of the event. She collaborated with Suzanne Sbarge of 516 ARTS to coordinate the symposium, and they seized on Horvath's idea. When it comes to maintaining the delicate ecological balancing act humankind is facing today, says Polli, it's urgent that we create spaces for meaningful and solution-based collaborations between scholars, artists, performers, scientists and technicians from all backgrounds.
Renowned for fostering interdisciplinary conversation and creation, ISEA is an ideal platform to raise both questions and awareness, Polli says. The hope is that participants will be provoked into pursuing their own mindful, creative solutions.
Polli says another aim of the symposium is to “consider how our machines and our technologies, whatever they are, can humanely and ecologically coexist with our wilderness,” rather than apart from it.
ISEA, as in years past, will showcase a dizzying breadth of international speakers, museum exhibits, performances, film screenings, workshops and site-specific installations arrayed across the city and select venues statewide.
A feeble stab at highlighting a few of the symposium's jewels: Laurie Anderson is slated to perform her newest solo composition at the KiMo Theatre. California artist Yulia Pinkusevich will install a kinetic sculpture titled “Polyscape”—a reference to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where plastic trash has been accumulated into a mass thought to be twice the size of Texas. A collaboration between French artists Grégory Lasserre and Anaïs met den Ancxt titled “Domestic Plant” functions as kind of a robot-plant hybrid that responds to human contact—and it will be fully interactive with audience members.
Of particular note during the Latin American Forum on Saturday, Sept. 22, is the artist talk by Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domené. You can go online (seft1.net) to watch their squat SEFT-1 rover chugging along abandoned routes of Mexico's old railway system. The vehicle is reminiscent of an unmanned planetary rover, with a metal undercarriage specially designed to allow traversal on both roads and railways. The artists use film and still photography to document their meditative journey.
It's this rigorous engagement between people from a variety of cultures, with different training and creative approaches, that is key to the goals of ISEA, says Polli. It's not always easy for experts in science and technology to translate the significance of their work into terms the general public can easily understand.
“There are topics that are difficult to communicate, and it can take an artist's creativity to really bring that across,” she says.
Another hope is that the event will build momentum in the city's art scene that will persist well beyond this year's ISEA preparations and scheduled happenings.
In reference to this and the National Hispanic Cultural Center’s participation in ISEA, Polli says “It would be great for Albuquerque to have its own biennale, or something recurring that focuses on border issues and our Latin American connection.”
There’s a groundswell of enthusiasm over such a high-profile art event taking place here, says Andrew Lyman of the ever-eccentric and lo-fi Tan gallery in Barelas. Lyman helped coordinate the scrappier Underground Symposium of Electronic Art. He says the attention around ISEA has acted as “a lightning rod of sorts” for a homegrown symposium; USEA aims to harness the momentum around the international event and convert it into a galvanizing moment for local artists.
Furthermore, it’s an opportunity to create a DIY counterpart to the more well-heeled ISEA action. “If all we have is one another to offer support,” Lyman asks, “what could we get away with? And what sort of fun could we have for ourselves, without looking outwardly for structures to validate our experience?”
USEA will loosely coincide with ISEA, with events from Sept. 18 to 27. Air time has been set aside on KUNM for audio work, and a block at the Guild Cinema will feature video and live performances, depending on the interests of participating artists.
Lyman says there will also be three installation and exhibition spaces, in addition to more off-the-cuff, sporadic happenings at spots in and around town. He adds that artists with digital film or audio proposals have until Sept. 1 to submit work.
“There's a lot of really cool stuff happening here,” says Lyman. “Any chance you get to pull people together and get them excited about what they’re doing, what their friends and neighbors are doing—that’s a really important opportunity to jump on.”