Article categories: Issue 58
February 24th, 2010

ISEA 2004 was an extremely popular event. Most people I know were keen to get there this year, so I feel particularly privileged to have been one of them. This ISEA had been established as a sustained networking event which included combined ferry, land conference and exhibition venues.

'Light Rain' by By Paul DeMarinas and Rebecca Cummins. Image by, sourced from

Its themes certainly dovetailed well with my own philosophical and practical interests (networked experience, critical interaction design, geopolitics of media and critical interdisciplinarities), offering an unparalleled opportunity for focused discussion and debate.

Furthermore because it was such a high profile event, there was a real guarantee that curators, festival organisers and venue directors would be present. I had a major networked interactive installation project under development, Intimate Transactions which I wished to actively promote for distributed showings. Having begun the process of promoting it through a previous trip to the UK, ISEA presented an unparalleled opportunity to meetmore of the right people in one place, and at an ideal stage in my career when I was beginning to establish national and international footholds.

Prior to arriving in Finland I renewed key contacts in London and Briston, both of which now bode positively for future showings. Arriving in Helsinki I gave myself a few days to acclimatise – always a bonus when one has had a full-on time before leaving. The cruise ship was a large, plush 80s beast – and appeared to be pretty much full of just us conference people. It was definitely a who’s who of media arts and, over that time, I was able to hook up with almost all the curators I already knew, whilst talking to others from Seoul, Singapore and diverse corners of Europe. Hence I kept the laptop handy and was able to give a few key impromptu presentations.

It was a tricky call for artists presenting works given the relatively short time of the cruise (2 days), a network connection that kept dropping out and all the vagaries of negotiating a large structure crammed full of talkative people. That aside there were some substantial works dotted around the ship on decks, in bars and in conference rooms, each of which enriched and thickened the experience.

Presenting a festival on a cruise ship is a good idea in terms of social focus, but the long leg from Helsinki to Stockholm and back to Tallinn could probably have been as well served by parking in the bay – this is not to say that there wasn’t great scenery sliding by, and we had that sexy sense of going somewhere, but mostly eyes were turned inwards, media, talk and alcohol glazed, cementing, in our way, all the great clichés of ‘cruise ship colonialism’. This was epitomised as we were towed in a glass box trailer through Mariehamn – a port we stopped off at very briefly on the way.

I wondered more than once as I strode past the belching smokestacks, about the fuel bill (+ global debt) we were directly incurring to party within such a beast. Interestingly (and maybe not surprisingly) the originally proposed ecology theme – with comment on the heavily polluted Baltic Sea and all its ramifications never made it to this event. However ecology shouldn’t be conflated to ‘environment’ – there were many other ecologies being sustained on this cruise. As we know, ecology is also erroneously reduced to the mockery of short-term economics – which recalls the event ticket price, which for us Aussie artists, was breathtaking to say the least (if not expected given all the rather nice trappings such as lush buffets and most-of-the-night entertainment).

Presenting works far from home at such an event, for many artists, raises major logistical issues. Many people had obviously brought easy, travel-able works to ISEA. Three artists I spoke to disappointingly admitted that they had brought minor works simply in order to ‘get it on their résumé’. Cynicism aside, most artists produced sincere and at times impressive works. Whilst people around me generally seemed a little underwhelmed by the work overall, the context of ISEA being mostly self funded and the difficulty of transportation and disparate venues and countries probably explained the profusion of DVDs playing documentation of interesting stuff, not present. The funded show at Kiasma Contemporary Arts Centre in Helsinki has the look of a pro show, despite the technical malfunctions that at times bugged all the shows. There was lots of wearable stuff – especially in Tallinn, although most was beyond touch and hence only demo fodder for those in the right place at the right time. The electronic sound/vision acts were of course very successful overall and there was a great ISEA Club night in a strip club in Tallinn (lovingly named ‘Club Bon Bon’), despite being one of the most overfilled, fire-trappish venues that I have had the nervousness to be in.

As a whole event, ISEA was massive. Imagine a cruise for a couple of days, stop-offs in Tallinn Estonia where there were 7 or 8 shows opening in one night, a return to Helsinki where there were a similar number, plus stops with works in Mariehamn and Stockholm and the huge Konieisto music festival thrown in, site specific installations dotted all over the place, performances, streaming and real radio events, sound events, music events  at the Helsinki Festival, three major conference venues.. so it went on and on. A course in stamina should have been prescribed before tickets were sold! Overall I think that the organisers should be very much congratulated on the vision and the energy and good cheer with which they battled to pull it off, with all its mind numbing difficulties. My response is similar to many, in that a less-is-more event would be quite a bit easier on everybody next time.

ISEA may be big but it’s not rich. This led to all sorts of confusion at times with a fair share of upset artists sweating in problematic venues and miscommunications re transport and hotels – all that checking in, arriving, departing and navigatig was something I perversely enjoyed (reminder of 20-something backpacking days I guess), but others clearly found it stressful and let rip gleefully to the dismay of various paid staff at hotels and travel points. A sense of humour is worth packing.

A major and important component of the trip or me was a presentation/event I had organised and booked weeks in advance, on the boat. However on the day of the event, the room was double booked, the projector had no facilities for connecting to a laptop and I was told I had to promote the event myself! Furthermore it coincided with docking in Stockholm where lots of people got off. Having come so far and having spent so much, this chain of circumstances could have led to one of those aforementioned outbursts, however I decided to press ahead and do what I could – resulting in two great conversations afterwards and some sound contacts made notwithstanding. At events like this, to keep sane, you look at the sum balance and don’t expect too much out of the loose change!

As for the papers at the conferences on the boat in Tallinn and Helsinki, I attended everything I could voraciously, despite the regular 4 parallel sessions which either meant you followed one strand (which was problematic as not all the papers of course are of equal interest and abstracts weren’t available in every venue), or you got a smattering of everything which was fun but very disconnected. Tallinn was even trickier than the plush media centre venue in Helsinki, as conference venues were physically separated, which meant you had to really opt for events in a very particular mode. This is not unusual of conferences, and I guess one needs to be reminded not to expect too much – you’ll need to be content with seeing a fraction of what’s on offer, especially if networking is also important to you.

So all up, an intense but rewarding event, with the ‘steaming media’ chill out sauna and obligatory bathing in the Baltic on the last day being a highpoint. So much so, that when my flight home was delayed 13 hours, I hunted out a historic group smoke sauna in Helsinki for one more fill of that frighteningly energy intensive, cathartic, naked Baltic medicine.

So thanks ISEA for a dramatic vision – for me the trip was a major tonic – and thanks ANAT for coming to the party!

ISEA 2004: International Symposium of Electronic Art, Helsinki, Tallinn and the Baltic Sea, August 14 – 22, 2004

Keith Armstrong

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