Interview with Horst Hörtner

Director of the Ars Electronica Futurelab, within the context of the Ars Electronica in Linz, Austria. Interview by Lorenz Pottharst and Marcel Bückner, Xenorama Studio, 11.05.2021.


Horst Hörnter, the director of the Ars Electronica Futurelab, within the context of the Ars Electronica in Linz, Austria discusses the concept of “art thinking” which involves focusing on questioning and generating new insights and possibilities rather than solely on finding solutions. He describes this approach as similar to design thinking, but without the emphasis on generating solutions. Hörnter also speaks about the need to bridge the gap between the virtual and real environments in collaborative ways, and emphasizes the power of creating shared visions and narratives for the future to generate a stronger sense of community identity.


Please introduce yourself, your profession and your institution.

My name is Horst Hörtner. I’m a director of the Ars Electronica Futurelab and the Ars Electronica Futurelab is one department within the context of the Ars Electronica. Ars Electronica is a private company Ars Electronica Linz GmbH & Co. KG and owned one hundred percent by the municipality of Linz.

The departments of the Ars Electronica are separated into different departments:

One department is taking care of the annual festival Ars Electronica that is happening in September and the Prix Ars Electronica, the competition for cyber arts, as we call it. Then we have a museum at the same time. That’s the museum of the future: The Ars Electronica Center, which is in itself a department running a 365 day exhibition with the topics that are covered also in the festival and in the Prix Ars Electronica, but targeting a totally different target group, which is the wider, broader audience, where else the festival and the Prix Ars Electronica are targeting more so to say, leaders in science in that context, the broader public is addressed in the exhibition of the Arts Electronica Center. The Ars Electronica Futurelab is the R&D department, the Labor / Atelier [lab / atelier] of the Ars Electronica, doing research, at the same time, doing art. And of course connecting both, doing art research.

We are about 36 heads at the moment, with close to 30% female members to it, which is not enough I’m sure, but it is comparatively quite high in the level of comparable institutions. And the Ars Electronica Futurelab is in so far very different from a university, for example, as we first of all don’t do education, but we do research, and we are not faculty based. So we have incorporated a lot of different disciplines with different backgrounds coming from art, like your traditional education at art school. But also physicists, musicians, software engineers, media designers, mathematicians, architects, civil engineers; a wide range of different disciplines.

And we are organizing our mental mindset -if you want to say so- along with research questions, and we try to formulate those questions in a way that every discipline could participate by introducing answers or more importantly, producing the right questions within that research field. So it’s not faculty based that we would have physicists in one corner and artists sitting in the other corner. It’s like a very, very transdisciplinary approach between the disciplines, but along the same pillars of research that we call our key research topics.

And we are not publicly funded. That is also a very big distinction between us and universities. The funding is generated by our contracts, the research and arts projects. So we are working as an arts community, if you want to say so, an arts collective, a laboratory, atelier, whatever, based on contracts that we get from private funding and public funding as well. So we apply, for example, for research grants, for specific research topics or programs. There is no base funding for the Ars Electronica Futurelab. We don’t have to make a profit, so we don’t have to generate income for the company. If we do so then everything’s fine and everybody’s happy with us, but we are not forced to do so, but we are also not allowed to cost money. So we don’t have our costs need to balance out with the income on a zero level, but the zero level definitely has to be reached every year.

Okay. Thank you for the overview. Maybe this also is a nice transition to the second or the next question.

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How would you describe the Futurelab’s relationship to art schools or to institutes of higher education, like for example the Interface Cultures Master program at Linz University of Art and Design. Also you mentioned you differentiate through the funding, if you could elaborate on that, how you relate to those institutions at the moment.

We do have quite a bit of a network of let’s say academic partners.

Of course then the local partners, like the Kunstuniversität or the Johannes Kepler University which is the natural science and some of the social science and now new medical science. And we collaborate intensely with medical science as well on a local basis.

On a national basis it’s the same, it’s with the Mozarteum in Salzburg, for example, or with the The University of Applied Arts. And we are very proud to be the only non-academic institution that general public official collaboration with over several years the MIT media lab namely Joseph Paradiso and Hiroshi Ishii , annual tests at the festival and beyond that a lot of collaboration going on in different projects and in topic related aspects as well as with the Radical Atoms. That was the term he used. And that will be corporated in quite a lot. Then there is the Royal college of art and design, the Queensland University in Australia, Newcastle University in Australia, where I’m also running a co-joint professorship, and the Tsukuba University in Japan, Tokyo University and ATR Advanced Technology Research labs, et cetera.

Especially locally we are also educating, or members of the future lab are teaching in some of the institutions that I’ve named, and we provide the infrastructures of the Ars Electronica Futurelab to educational institutions like the University for Applied Science to have their courses at the Ars Electronica Center. And since last year, even the Medical University is holding the anatomy course in the Deep Space 8K, in the platform that you have visited, as a virtual anatomy class.

Nice. Yeah. This was also what I wanted to ask you how this relationship for example could look like, but now I think you turned in that direction anyways. And this is quite a lot already quite impressive, I think.

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Do you have any ideas or maybe even some concrete plans how these relationships might develop in the future? Is there any strategy or any aims that you’re following?

Yes. And it’s more towards the structures of academia. And to give an example for that: we have started an annual semester course at the Queensland university in Brisbane, where we have invited students from different faculties and Institutes into one class. So we could provide a course for a full semester. It ended actually once the semester was extended until September. So the end of the semester was a presentation at the Ars Electronica Festival.

We’ve started with a group of people from different disciplines like mechatronics, mathematics and design. It was the design school where we started this course. So different design classes were involved, dance, robotronics and humanities were involved. So it was at the end 80 students in this class, but over the years, this has developed into a very broad setting of student types, if you want to say so, including staff of the university. So we opened it up and we’ve included the professors into the course. We’ve included the PhD candidates, masters, the honorary master and the bachelors. And then of course you could find all different ages in the hierarchy, like from the professor to the bachelor students or vice versa. And therefore we opened that class to local artists and invited local artists, younger artists, and older artists into that course. And at first we didn’t allow them to introduce themselves to the others, they were just allowed to give their first names. And we didn’t know anything about their background or their merits. We wanted the 85 participants from all different disciplines to create. It was a show at the Ars Electronica Festival, but we wanted them to create their own task list or challenge.

And we utilized one, it’s not really a methodology yet, but we are forming and transforming the way how to create things on a very question-based generative mission. I still call it methodology. We call it Art Thinking, and Art Thinking describes a process where it’s not at all about solutions or solving something, which is always very tricky when you talk to engineers, they always want to, you know, think in solutions, but we want to think in questions at this point, and that’s also why it’s in the title, very similar to design thinking. But it’s not design thinking on the process that is generating solutions. We wanted to address the actual issue beforehand and how to identify the issue. And this is very deeply embedded in artists as they question the environment that they live in, or that they want to work about from different perspectives and in a very deep manner. And this kind of questioning the issue that you are going to discuss is actually transporting a new field of activity, gives you a new impression or probably even an insight on new possibilities and out of that new possibilities, generating visions, utopian dreams.

So then we generate what we refer to as people thinking. A 360 degree perspective of different ideas that are addressing this vision and try to communicate the vision rather than preparing a solution. And by doing so, this kind of visionary approach is, I think, a very important aspect that has a lot to do with the process of art. And it’s not the actual artistic action or the actual artistic production, but the mindset, the artistic mindset that delivers the status quo, that delivers the approach to it. And this is what we try to strengthen, even in the frame of our thinking, even in workshops, not only with art students or students of all kinds, but also with our industrial partners to give different perspectives, inspirations, and finally insights into their own future, into their vision. That was a long answer to the short question, sorry.

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Where do you see the impactful roles of artists, art and creative work?

I wouldn’t limit it to being the visionary power or helping others to create meaningful missions as a group. That is one strong proposition of artists and clearly art can contribute a lot to it, but I think that we need help when it is about creating that entity and discussing your own identity.

Art can be extremely helpful. And the reflection of artworks. The challenge that I see for the future is that there will be a lot of challenges, issues waiting for us, or are already there such as climate change, the migration flow, et cetera. That needs to be addressed on a very broad, I would say even holistic perspective. And it doesn’t translate into creating answers from a single discipline. Art has the capability to talk very strongly, and intensely emotionally full, but also intellectually full to an untrained audience.

And that’s the only science that can do so. Every other science needs to have at least a certain understanding of the field of the topic. The precondition is to be informed, and art doesn’t hold that pre-condition at all. I mean like an eight-year-old can tell you if the concept was great, or if he didn’t like it. You don’t have to have any preconditioning in order to enjoy or dislike and start the discussion about the topic that the art was obviously about.

And therefore we all would agree that we would need to have a very strong transdisciplinary approach when it comes to the future. I’m sorry to say that, but higher education and our academic world is very categorized and structured and not interdisciplinary at all. Only a few interdisciplinary examples. There are no transdisciplinary examples at all, as discussed in the humanities for 30 years now, it’s just not happening. And the reason for this is the structures of academia. But that’s not the topic I want to dive into.

I think that art, and this is what I want to dive into, could be a way to get out of that ivory tower. The ivory tower, peer reviews, you know, a scientific paper is answered by a scientific paper et cetera,. But if we want to cope with something like climate change in the future, it’s not even enough to have all the scientists of the world working together in a transdisciplinary method, because we need the rest of the eight billion on earth. But science is not addressing this. Art has the capability to do so. And that is true especially in this intersection of art and science. That is especially true in this intersection of beautification, that’s not what I’m talking about. It’s really a fundamental way to give access to cutting edge technologies, cutting edge scientific outcomes to a broader audience, an untrained audience that could help them make their own mindset. And I think that is one of the most important and urgent aspects of art for our future.

So you say this is basically the most impactful role that artists and art can have?

Horst Hörtner
This is the position where art and artists are carrying a lot of responsibility as well.

So kind of be this multiplier for the other disciplines in the society ecological topics.

Horst Hörtner
I wouldn’t say be the player for the others. I would say be a player together with the others.

I said multiplier.

Horst Hörtner
Yes. Right. Do it together. It’s not like we tell you how the world is working. Together we can find out how the world would work in a way that a lot of people could join or understand or to jump into.

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You already mentioned some relevant developments. Can you elaborate on that?

Art history is totally full of it. For example in the late eighties, there was Van Gogh TV. Van Gogh TV worked via an interactive TV environment, with robots, modems and screen design that was based on 640 x 480. The entire infrastructure has been experimentally developed for that one project. This infrastructure was then like 30 years later being seen on each and every TV channel at three o’clock at night when they started to have the SMS chats.

So I think there’s a lot of this kind of really preview perspective of art showing where technologies, where impacts could lead to, what the direction of the future could be. A major tangible, visible, and accessible of course, is the vision. And not as the working prototype for the industry, but as a vision decades before it really happens.

The same thing is with Joachim Sauter, ART+COM. There’s an endless row of good examples of really hardcore media art driven concepts that were discussing the consequences, like in the eighties, they were discussing the consequences of opening up the media into something like a world wide web, which didn’t exist at the time at all, but it was like this notion of co-production in the best sense handing out the authorship to the audience rather than, you know, creating everything on your own.

That is a different political perspective of the artistic approach, of the understanding that the author object relationship is gone, and it’s all becoming an event approach. The artistic process itself was actually the main focus in these early projects, which I think brought a tremendous lot of value also for humanities. If only a few have understood that this aspect is embedded in these kinds of projects way before the Arab Spring. So, but it’s the same consequences. It’s the same kind of functionalities that have been discussed three years earlier. And, and I think that this is a fundamental quality of the art process. And I do stop here and wait for the next question.

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What do you think might be, or will be this future development in society and economy and in the arts that will most shape our futures? Maybe we can start with society. What do you think are the most influential future developments?

That is, you know, first of all, I’m totally reluctant to prognosis. Not because it’s hard to make a prognosis about the future. It’s about how they are constructed, the way they are executed. They are just extending the present because the analytical mirror, you look at the data that you come in and you try to put your prognosis up to the future and escalate it, maybe even for the next 30 years or so have the challenge that you only can do this by your present perspectives. And they’re the first step anticipation would be the right address to look at our future.

And again, if anticipation is somehow the road to follow, then art again, could play a fantastic role in creating those perspectives. I’d say perspectives, which are less bound in, or based on our present situation, and really could open up new horizons. As I explained before, it has been proven by media art already in so many examples.

That’s one thing, the other thing is: where do I think we go coming from Corona? And I don’t think that Corona is gone at all. Corona was by far the biggest digitalization driving force that we have experienced in the last decades. We have experienced all the different video conference platforms that are existing at the moment, and we have seen all the lags and we are confronted with the lack of communication quality. I’m expecting a lot of special arts driven concepts, and that’s going to be the nearer future, concepts that would overcome the mutation on that conferencing quality that we are facing. It’s like even though I can see your room in your background, I never feel that I would be there. It’s all happening on my surface in front of the camera. The surface that I can touch is flat, but there’s the experience of the space delivered with the video conference, et cetera. I’m expecting a lot of reaction to that learning or experiencing curve that we have.

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I was really fascinated by this research topic of co-immersive spaces, as you pointed out on the website. And then I was wondering if, if you also now in the light of COVID 19, see this kind of, what you just mentioned as a potential, co-immersive or non-screen bound, but still online or digitally happening form could be used for educational purposes? I mean you’re already doing it, but what could happen there in the future?

But I think that’s all happening in the near future and new concepts will arise. We will try to decrease the separation of the digital space from the real space. We will try to overcome the gap between virtual and real environment, and therefore co-immersion. Not being immersed as a single person with a head-mounted display and ignoring the real space, but being immersed in a way that we could have collaborative environments that would really allow us to use the environment, to actually collaborate.

The environments that we are using now aren’t mutually supporting this. The environments that we are using now allow us to have a whiteboard to share, but that’s it. There’s no deeper integration of the two different spaces. This will be addressed on several levels. I think immersive environments or VR environments will play a role, always being open to be addressed from the onsite visitors and the online visitors. And they would share one environment.

And this perspective is clearly one of the positive outcomes of Corona. Corona also played a role in that we have learned all of a sudden for the first time, more or less, or we became aware of the fact that we all share the same problem – and “all” doesn’t mean all citizens in the city, or all citizens of the nation. Like “all” on the entire globe. And we had the same problem and we had faced the same challenge. That was, I think, a very kind of joining experience. And it has the answer to that, but there was some truth to it. It was kind of getting connected with, you know, even seeing the camera shot from Tokyo or from San Francisco or from you name it, they all have the same challenges with the masking, the face and the seven-day-incidence. That was kind of a very special moment with the challenge.

And I hope in a way, I see the first reaction in the statistics, is that climate change now is understood as a global challenge as well, and that the people coming out of homes, again, have changed their behavior, at least for the immediate situation. And this is, this has gone in some branches super high or in other branches maybe not that far, but still recognizable enough. This is also on a long-term perspective. This is also something that I think we could take as wind in our sails and move our global community towards a more sustainable notion in consumer behavior.

That’d be nice.

Horst Hörtner
You have indicators, especially from the car industry, they now claim the thing will be done with combustion engines and replaced through electronic or hydrogen solutions by 2030, rather than 2045, which was true a year ago, but now it isn’t anymore. And there is kind of really huge pressure coming.

And that’s interesting, not only from Friday For Future, where I want to congratulate Fridays for Future of Germany to get a constitutional fight through for their own. I’m sure you have followed the news the week before. That’s a big breakthrough because it turns around the power relationship. But not only Greenpeace and Fridays for Future, also the industries moving – and probably it all might be very naive and it’s all just like the fig leaf. But I think it’s already gone beyond it, because I don’t think that collecting fig leaves now at this general or public discussion would provide any benefits for the industry. I think there is at least the will behind to go faster on that approach and I find that very interesting, and I’m sure this is done because of the wrong motives, which is cash at the end, but even if we have to bring the wrong motives on the table to achieve the right thing, I kind of can live with it.

And again, art, we were talking a lot about art and science and recently about art in journalism. More and more, I have the impression that there is something to say for artists and these future perspectives in the realm of art in governance. There’s so many different politically active artists groups: Cooper, not only saying we don’t want that, they are saying we would like to achieve that and produce a positive aspect towards the future. That could be, if not like a guiding rule, but it could be of course, a perspective that would be valuable for the rest of the society, as well, even if it’s only inspirational. If we talk about art in the future, I think that these perspectives and these sometimes very radical statements are super fruitful and the process of moving our society towards survival. Right.

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You named a lot of different developments from the societal economic and also artistic sector, let’s come back to our topic of art education. What roles could institutes of art education and the creative sector in general play to prepare people for those developments and changes of the future that you just mentioned?

I think that art has a certain kind of pioneer role already. Art has always been very interested in encountering new fields of activities or new disciplines, that has been true for several hundred years, but it’s still true. Like an artist who is interested to work in bioart is encountering the discipline of biology or gene technology, or media art is encountering the digital realm.

I think that this perspective, which has been solving a lot of this transdisciplinary approaches, needs to be increased and the different aspects need to be strengthened. The character of the art is, as I tried to explain before, to be communicative on some level, and this communication layer that is embedded in the way we talk to our audience. This seems to be a very good precondition for inventing languages that reach across disciplines and are able to identify the bridges that are to be built between the disciplines.

And I very strongly fundamentally think our academic educational system needs to take and go transdisciplinary, without losing the expertise, without losing the ability that is existing already to focus on a single point and try to generate knowledge out of it, no doubt about that’s needed, but that at the moment is the only thing that science is doing. And the other part that is at least as important as the outstanding disciplinary expertise is to be able to work across disciplines, to be able to open up the mindsets. And let’s start to have discussions between musicians and physicists, which are happening by the way (AI music is a big topic), and the different worlds collide and meet again. But what I’m saying is also that the separation between physicists, chemists and sociologists needs to be opened. We need to build the bridges between all of the disciplines. And I think art could be a good metaphor or a model to achieve that.

We as the audio-visual art collective Xenorama share this perspective. I think we mentioned at the beginning our collective is not diverse in terms of gender. Sadly not, but of our backgrounds. So some of us have an art school education, others a scientific education for example, we have one physicist on board, but also one autodidact. This constitution is also something we think made us relevant for this project.

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So, would you say in terms of changing art school education it should mostly be focused on the interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary approach?

Yes, it is. And our future is going to be transdisciplinary, no doubt. And the solutions that we all need, we all expect. And if we hope to survive, we expect certain solutions to come from a multidisciplinary, transdisciplinary layer. Nobody’s expecting that one single professor would save the world. So we need all of them working together. Then this is one of the most important developments in our educational system that we have to address. And it is to enable, to empower each and every student, not only the students of art, to empower them, to be able to talk across the borders of their own discipline and address the challenges they might find in their own discipline – also in a way that others, the so-called untrained audience, could participate in that discussion.

You mentioned doubts or this question of how artistic research should work. If it makes sense to use the same methods that are used for natural scientific research and apply it to artistic research. Can you elaborate on that?

I think there is a reason to doubt the methodologies that are mainly imported from nature science, but also from humanities and to just let them do their job in an artistic realm. Art is fundamentally different. Art can be both, but artistic research should not be limited to the analytical approach of the natural science realm, and it can’t be in my opinion limited to that dimension.

And therefore, I question the ability of those who make the decisions on artistic research, because most of them who make these decisions were running through an educational system from natural science or from the economy. All these decisions are based on the profit-cost-model which is questionable in itself.

I don’t see the right answer for artistic research as a methodology yet. There is a lot of practice-based research that has been done here and there. And there’s a lot of practice-based PhD concepts that I’ve seen, but it’s still not fully convincing. I doubt that’s where my reluctance comes from, a media artist who is working with the field of animation or time-based media should be forced to write a hundred pages of text. If you want to have an author or writer, then this might be a very valuable approach, but artists very often select their media very freely. And that’s why I’m a little bit reluctant on that because it tries to import the past methodologies or the best parts of the academic world into the art. And that at least, I think that could happen here and there. And then that’s why I’m questioning this.

The freedom of science is very broadly agreed to. The freedom of art is limited. If you have to change your media as an artist, that’s a criticism on the understanding of the arts research that is practically executed at the moment, but there’s not an answer to it that I could say, and that would be a right way, or that would be a right way.

I’m just saying that’s something where we need to look at and try to make it better or try to make it more art related. For the methodology of creating or expressing the outcome of research an artistic medium should be allowed, the use of art to express the outcome should be allowed. And it shouldn’t be forced into a lot of text writing. I’m not criticizing text writing at all. It’s a fundamental cultural technique, but it’s really hard to transport mathematical research into industrial design. But this is what we ask the mathematician to do. It’s not writing mathematics in your mathematical language. It’s to write about your mathematics in the language of something completely different. And that would not happen; they never would think of leaving their medium. Why should they, but artists often, especially sound artists, are forced to leave their media in order to express the research.

When one tries to compare or measure artistic research with the standards of natural scientific research. That is the key point, I guess?

Horst Hörtner
The challenge of that in addition above is that the scientists then need to find papers to publish their scientific outcomes in order to have their papers published. And that’s fine for the scientific part of the work. But I doubt that this is a valuable or valid quality check on artistic practice or artistic approaches. That, at least I think, should be considered twice. It is one. And I want to add, because simply I forgot one of the big challenges that we are going to be focusing on, of course, is digitalization. And the realm of the digitalization that comes with it. Be it artificial intelligence, methodologies, whatever it be it might be out of the realm, but that is something that is going to hit a society with a very, very big hammer very soon, and to prepare the society for what is coming up. I think a different artistic perspective towards the future is needed. One of the members of the lab, Susanne Kiesenhofer, mentioned in one of her proposals from last month, that as strong as our tradition, or even stronger as our tradition and our past that we might share with others are responsible for a common identity. The common perspective, the shared vision or utopia of the future is generating a way stronger identity among a community, and this perspective that we kind of create our own stories for the future and if we share those stories, our identity we have in common is so strong, stronger than the past, is stronger than our tradition, the culture where we come from, et cetera, is proven in so many facts. Like for example, the American flight to be the first on the moon. This was one storyline, one future vision, one identity that was given by JFK. And I think we kind of have forgotten about the power of a joint future scenario that we would all like to live in or that we would all like to achieve. I think it’s a very important aspect also on artists or on art in general to generate their narratives for our future.

I think also on a side note, this was very fascinating during my bachelor thesis “Communication with the Future“, I actually looked at the history of the future. And there’s this concept of kind of the expectations about the futures coming in waves. Let’s say like the time span of outlooks, like how far one can, can extrapolate in the future and that this is getting smaller and smaller and the long distant future becomes really out of imagination for us currently, whereas like a hundred years ago, people were thinking about how would life be in a thousand years.. But now it’s really hard for us to imagine how life will be after COVID and maybe this also kind of brings us to our last and maybe hardest question.

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I saw it on the website, it’s the 25th anniversary of the Futurelab. It happens to be that the outlook of our projects is the year 2045. So it’s almost 25 years in the future. Yeah. Would you dare to make an outlook of how Ars Electronica Futurelab might look like in the year 2045?

I think that in 25 years from now, I hope that the Futurelab would still be looking for trends or opinions in our society and would still be very open to inviting foreigners and artists who are residents and research residents and exchanging blood, so to speak, on a regular basis. I hope that the Futurelab will be still seeking those visions and perspectives that are going to be generated by it, then with the aspect on 2076 or so. So like the 30 years ahead, what would it look like? No idea, to be honest – there will be changes so fundamental, maybe the robotic avatars are really taking place and really happening and walking around. I have no idea. But as I said, it’s all about anticipation and it’s not about prognosis. So, I would say, I anticipate that there will be a bunch of super clever people and think about super interesting challenges. That’s the Futurelab in 25.


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