Over the past few years in Vienna, electronic music production has been more vigorous than just about any other creative endeavour. The international success of musicians and DJs in a flourishing club world, and the graphics experts, designers and artists who work with them have created a varied scene that likes to be known collectively as 'Viennese Electronica', but which is, in reality, scarcely possible to get a clear sense of as a unified whole. What links producers, clubs and studios are the laptops on their knees and the network cables dangling around their feet. What they produce are first of all files: sound files, video animations, websites, 'new funky software'.
Revolutions are usually more spectacular than democratic processes, but the thesis of 'Sounds & Files' is that pop culture and everyday aesthetics have been revolutionised by the democratisation of digital technology. Paraphrasing techno-philosopher Friedrich Kittler, curators Roland Schony, Christof Kurzmann and Constantin Peyfuss stated that 'Machines are taking over the functions of the central nervous system and not just those of the muscles, like all previous machines'. With its hands-on studio and appearances by distinguished electronic musicians such as Pulsinger & Tunakan, Scanner or SAND, the exhibition wanted to be seen as a snapshot of the 'state of the digital arts'. Visitors to 'Sounds & Files' were not to be fobbed off with looking at things from the outside: they were offered a trip 'inside the machine'. The show, which was designed by Eva Kraus and D+, was structured like the inside of a computer and visitors moved through it on a motherboard, which guided them past bundles of cables from the hard disk directory 'F:\gallery\graphics' via 'E:\cinema\videos' on to 'H:\studio\lab'.
The sector 'J:\artspace\installations' brought together the few works which were created for an exhibition context, including a video by Daniel Pflumm, a wind wheel installation by Patrick Pulsinger, and Magdalena Blaszczuk's photographs. But many of the exhibits were set pieces from other fields, transformed for the show: record covers by Dextro, Designers Republic or Tina Frank, and club flyers were pinned to the wall like butterflies in a showcase; photographs from music studios looked like timecapsules from a long-forgotten era called 'Techno'.
Has someone been turning back the clock? Yesterday, electronic music was still the acoustic and aesthetic harbinger of a digital tomorrow: decentralised and networked worldwide, subject to constant change and always trying to escape from the normative categories that attempt to compress this beautiful, newly coded world into traditional patterns. But today it's in a museum, released as dead material to be fitted into history.
Not quite. Although synthesisers and drum machines seemed to be lying in state in a mausoleum of the history of technology, if you wanted to, you could press buttons, turn knobs or even cut your own CD - sounds you could touch and build yourself; although given the miserable results when I tried, gadgets like the legendary Roland 909 beatbox suddenly seemed infused with a mysterious aura.
'Sounds & Files' was not an exhibition in which a brilliant artist-subject was supposed to be reinvented as a great master of machinery; the equipment was the core of the exhibition, the evaluation of cultural practices in terms of their means of production. Laptops and PCs were placed at the provisional end of historical development, but they also acted as interfaces and syntheses of image and sound that used to be separate. Videos and sounds are files - but is the exhibition a hard disk, and the world subordinate to the matrix of zeros and ones? Euphorically employing digital code as the central metaphor for an exhibition may work well, yet to grasp the implications and broader social effects of digital technology remains almost impossible when, looking through the data, you only see what can be represented in its own terms.
Translated by Michael Robinson