Reflecting and playing, and the unexpected in between

Back in 2004, we launched the triennial Device_art festival as a research and comparative project that would pave the way for dialogue between Croatian and regional device art and the related specific, technology-oriented art scenes in other countries. We have traveled with the festival from the neighboring Slovenia and the Czech Republic, the homeland of ńĆapek’s robot, all the way to the distant Japan, the mighty Canadian scene, and California ― the cradle of makerspace culture. The last edition of the festival in 2018/2019 was dedicated to global device art trends and the interconnection of machines, devices, and technology with ecology, biology, sound, body, and cosmology. This new festival edition, realized in collaboration with a group of curators from ZKM | Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe, unites in a way the local focus of the project and its latest international iteration: by focusing on the German scene (which is in fact extremely international), the 2021 festival takes place in the interspace between local and global, on the borderline of their mutual permeation and negation, coinciding in some ironic way with the “international” lives that we have been living locally and online for the past two years from our own homes.

When we prepared a monograph on KONTEJNER ten years ago, celebrating the tenth anniversary of our organization, we defined “device art” in the book’s glossary as a branch of art in which the device or machine equals the content of an artwork: by using interactive technologies, such art plays with the idea of the purpose of a technological device in a ludicrous manner, by appropriating or displacing it from its original context toward affectation, cynicism, and humor that goes beyond the usual functionality and utility. In the past ten years, technology has evidently become an integrative part of our lives – one can even say, of almost all lives, wether they a part of privileged, gadget-obsessed societies or countries that serve as a source of cheap labor and a technological waste depot. In a time of deep anxiety, crisis, insecurity and uncertainty, device art still invites us, beyond the traditional dichotomies, to reflect on the relationship between living and non-living, organism and machine, and all that is witty, bizarre, and unexpected in between.

Formally, the field of device art (from its very beginning, and especially in the past ten years) has been an extremely hybrid area of ​​media, formats, and artistic poetics, which is clearly evident in the works of this year’s festival participants. Some of the more prominent topics are certainly the issue (and mythology) of sustainable life (on Earth?), environmental and ecological crisis, and the inevitable questions of corporeality, sensory perception, and the interaction between a (living) being and a machine. What makes it different from the past editions of the Device_art festival is, perhaps more than anything else, the focus on machine dematerialization and the domination of data and computer programs, in line with the society’s growing awareness of the machine as a disembodied entity that intangibly dictates our destinies and shapes the world we live in. The artists we are presenting here deal equally with tangible and intangible machines – program codes and algorithms as well as hardware, mechanical constructions, and physical devices, and their correlations, contrasts, and couplings. Important emphasis has been placed on sound as an artistic medium in a substantial number of presented artworks. Artists have explored the sonority of devices, experimented with and manipulated sound images, and created generative compositional algorithms for their mechanical and robotic instruments. This is certainly another difference in relation to the past festival editions and a trend that can be observed on the global new media art scene for quite a while. In visual terms, device art is usually very attractive and appealing to different audiences, which is also one of the important features of this year’s festival program: whether it is through their raw DIY aesthetics or minimalist, polished design, these artworks outspokenly communicate and often encourage a multilayered reading of concepts and meanings – from the initial interactivity, tactility, and joy of playing to reflecting on philosophical and social-theory topics, critique of post-capitalism, contemporary society, and the current policies of sustainable development.

In addition to interconnecting art scenes from different countries and presentation formats such as exhibitions, performances, and discursive programs, an important part of KONTEJNER’s work in general, and specifically of the Device_art project, has been investing in Croatian artists and collaborating on productions by local authors, with a special emphasis on encouraging interdisciplinarity and facilitating collaborative processes between artists and professionals working beyond the field of culture (especially in technology and science). The motivation behind these activities has not only been the need to affirm local authors in the international context and connect them with the key players from different parts of the world, but the desire to improve the working conditions of new media artists in Croatia – conditions that are still very unfavorable and difficult compared to those in various countries we have so far collaborated with through this project. In terms of ratio of international and Croatian artists, this festival stands out from the previous editions in that it features an equal number of artists from Germany and Croatia: in addition to KONTEJNER's six new productions and co-productions to be presented at the Zagreb exhibition, the accompanying Device_art exhibition in Split brings works by six Croatian new media artists who deal with technology and devices as a means of artistic expression. Since its reluctant beginnings in the early 2000s, when this project was launched, Croatian device art has grown into an agile and versatile scene that pays growing attention to the research process as an integral part of the creative work, experimenting with various media and techniques, and correlating them conceptually with commentaries on the current social situation as well as personal narratives and experiences.

Along with the Extravagant Bodies and the Touch Me festival, Device_art is part of the triennial trilogy that has defined the first twenty years of KONTEJNER’s work. All three projects deal through different thematic prisms with investigative and intermedia artistic practices – an exciting hybrid area of ​​extended body, taboos, and twisted paradigms. Over the years, the topics of our major authorial projects have begun to intertwine more intensely with other, related and yet specific artistic fields in which we have worked, such as sound art. This process has been parallel to the interconnection of media and formats that currently takes place in the contemporary art practices and naturally builds upon it, affirming this kinship and affiliation per se as (for us) the most exciting feature of the contemporary art we are involved with. This edition of the Device_art festival is in a way a result of these overlaps and permeations characteristic of KONTEJNER’s work over the past few years. Moreover, from this edition onwards, the entire Device_art – as a project we have so far realized in a recognizable festival format – will be immersed, wired, dissolved, and rearranged into new constructions and concepts in order to continue our device art story in the future.