Arse Elektronika: Sex and Technology in the Mission

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What drives innovation?  For instance, is it true that VHS beat out other, technologically superior tape formats like Betamax and Video 2000 because the pornography industry backed VHS?

The Austrian artist and activist Johannes Grenzfurthner is still not sure, but it is another instance of sex possibly driving technology.  “Sex must also be behind the spread of broadband internet,” the 38-year-old artist says and then follows his thought.  “I remember the first time I tried to download porn.  It was five seconds long, and I had to keep my computer on for days to get it! And with the rise of internet porn you suddenly have everyone wanting fast internet.”

Welcome to the world of Grenzfurthner, the founder of Monochrom, a leftist techno-art collective, who managed to turn such musings on sex and technology into a small conference in the basement of kink.com.  That was 2007 and seven conferences later – the meetings are always held in San Francisco – Arse Elektronika has grown into a gathering, funded by donations, ticket, book sales, and a small grant from the Austrian government.  Grenzfurthner, now  a lecturer on art theory and practice at the University of Applied Sciences in Granz, Austria, presides.

With more than 20 presentations over four days earlier this month, Arse Elektronika 2013 attracted some 125 hackers, makers, artists, porn stars and activists of all backgrounds and gender identities.

“Sex is very nearly universal, but it just isn’t discussed frankly by most people,” said Eric Sheur, an animator from Portland, who created the sex storytelling show Mystery Box Show with his partner Reba Sparrow.

“We think the sex-positive movement is a great thing, but it also can be uninviting,”  he said referring to the movement that grew out of the sexual liberation of the 1960s and espouses sexual openness and respect for all orientations.  “If you’re comfortably monogamous and heterosexual some people will accuse you of being closed-minded.”

“It’s great that there really seems to be an open perspective here” Sparrow, added, “I just love knowing that this conversation is out here and people are taking part.”

This year, the four-day Arse confab met at the Mission District spaces Noisebridge,  the Center for Sex and Culture,  and Chez Poulet to focus on how we present ourselves online.

Dating websites and online privacy received special scrutiny.   Interesting fact – many dating sites, such as Ok Cupid, can legally sell answers to some extraordinarily personal questions.   “How often do you use hard drugs? “Have you ever paid for sex? “Have you had sex with someone within an hour or meeting them?”  Any answers to these or dozens of others questions can be given or sold to companies, advertisers, law enforcement, or anyone trying to sue you.

A session by a  graduate student and semi-professional porn actor who identifies himself online as Ned Mayhem offered possibilities for applying online community models to combat real world sexual harassment.

Mayhem’s developing a social network platform that will allow users to anonymously log harassment complaints against an individual. Once a threshold number of complaints had been reached, the complaints would be delivered in a bundle to a disinterested authority figure.

Mayhem told the audience that he hoped this model of “Information Escrow” would help combat the stigma against the first person to speak out in a harassment situation.  He sees it having immediate application on college campuses, in corporate offices, and in the military.

In one talk, two German artists, Jos Diegel and Lisa Schröter, discussed the project that had brought them to Arse Elektronika.   Up until six days ago they had been virtual strangers and had only met once.  For the past six days, however, they had thrown themselves into a simulated relationship, trying to live as if they had been dating for years and broadcasting the whole production in Facebook posts and uploaded pictures.

Their presentation consisted of a series of posed “vacation pictures”  intercut with uncomfortably intimate scenes of their week together, including them showering, brushing their teeth, and having sex.

As they sat side by side and stumbled over their words – it was hard to say if this was due to emotion or presenting in a second language – they talked about how quickly their manufactured intimacy fell apart.  As a brief video clip of the two of them in their underwear cuddled together on a bed flashed on the projector, Schröter muttered, “This was a super weird situation. I hated it.”

Within minutes it was apparent that the difference between forming the simulation of a relationship and actually being in a real one was something of a blurred line.  At one point, Diegel talked about how he wanted to capture images of themselves to say something artistically, but at the same time he just wanted some nice pictures of the two of them to keep for himself.

“It’s very emotional for me because she’s getting on the plane tomorrow and will be gone for some days or weeks” he said.

“Or forever,” Schröter cut in.  Simulation, it appeared, had crossed into real emotion.

Grezfurthner has been considering this sort of public intersection of art and life for years. At previous Arse Elektronikas, he encouraged couples attending to have a sexual encounter buried underground in a coffin and broadcast via nightvision.  With his art group Monochrom, he has made sausage from his own blood, erected illegal public art statues in parking lots, and catapulted cellphones.

Grezfurthner began experimenting with life and art publically in 1993 when he formed Monochrom as a fan zine where he and his other teen friends could geek out about cyber punk pop culture, technology and the newly emerging Internet.

He called it Monochrom because he couldn’t afford to print in color.

The fan zine became a web site around 1995 for practical reasons – to reach more people. But Grenzfurthner’s ascension from fan to artist was accidental.  An early project on the Monochrom webpage was a small robot made of Legos that anyone could issue remote commands to via the internet. They would upload a low-resolution picture of the robot’s surroundings every fifteen seconds.

Because anyone could issue commands simultaneously, the more people involved, the more erratic the robots movement would become.  This anti-crowd-sourced project caught the attention of a curator at a major museum in Austria, who invited Monochrom to set it up as an installation.

“We were beyond excited,” Grenzfurthner said.  “The museum was down the street from my flat, so we walked the robot down and said ‘alright, where’s your internet connection?’ and of course they didn’t have one at the time, they just made us set the robot in a corner.”

This experience was the first of a two-decade long series of installations, performances, and “context-hacking,” Monochrom’s term for trying to change people’s perceptions of the world. They’ve done this by boiling Coke until it can be sculpted into a brick, liquefying dollar bills and using them as fertilizer to microbes, and dozens of other projects.

Monochrom’s other conference series, Roboexotica, encouragers participants to design and build bartending robots, and discusses how technology and futurism impact our lives.

Despite feeling San Francisco is the perfect fit for Arse Elektronika, Grenzfurthner worries about “preaching to the converted.”

“We can bring the crazy to ourselves here, but I want to bring the crazy to Detroit, to Birmingham, to Bismarck” he said.  He would know.  In one of their most famous stunts, Monochrom once invented a fake artist complete with portfolio and 500 page biography and sent him to the Sao Paolo Art Biennial, with the members of Monochrom themselves pretending to be his technical team.

Suzanne Carmody, who is a sex positive blogger and self-identified geek, said it was important to have a public conversation around how technology is changing sex. However, she, and many other attendants expressed frustration that speaking publicly and candidly about sex can easily lead to a backlash, especially for people that hold public positions, corporate jobs, or work with children.

Outing the conversation, however, is what Grenzfurthner wants.  “Monochrom is about bringing the conversation into the world” he said, “We want to reach out and drag the world to the weird side”.

 

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