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Virtual and real worlds collide at NEoN Digital Arts Festival

From 9 - 13 November 2016 the NEoN Digital Arts Festival will explore how physical urban space and virtual information space are inseparably intertwined as it hosts exhibitions, workshops, talks, conferences, live performances and public discussions across the city of Dundee. We spoke to associate curator Sarah Cook about the inspiration behind the festival, now in its seventh year.

The Nemesis Machine - Stanza

What was the initial idea behind holding a Digital Arts Festival?

It started with the curatorial vision of Donna Holford-Lovell and Clare Brennan at Abertay University with Interactive Tayside in 2009 to create an event that could promote digital media activity in the North East of Scotland. With a focus on moving image, music and information technologies, the festival offered talks, performances, screenings and exhibitions that expanded the notion of art, information communication, media production and game design.

In the six editions of the festival since then, it has contracted and expanded in different editions, across different spaces in the city, from parking lots to swimming pools, and now includes partners at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, LifeSpace, Generator Projects, and other cultural agencies across the city, as well as kept its international outlook.

The field of digital art has also changed since 2009, as gaming, mobile technologies, screen-based work, and intermedia art has changed with new technological innovations and new audiences.

Digital media art and creative technologies don’t have geographic boundaries, but do they cross disciplines.- Sarah Cook, associate curator

How have audiences been responding to the festivals so far?

There is an appetite for shared experience of creative practice in Dundee - evidenced by things like the Make/Share forums, the Pecha Kucha nights (which attract hundreds of audience members) and the festivals devoted to everything from women in science to literature.

Dundee is a city with two universities and colleges offering courses in art and design, so to showcase art by artists from outwith Scotland is always well received. Dundee is an event-oriented place, which still surprisingly communicates what is going on through printed posters pasted up around the city. By putting the art into unusual or public spaces - shopping malls, lobbies, street corners, old warehouses - we are reaching new audiences of all ages and experience of art.

With the support of Creative Scotland we’ve been able to be more ambitious in our programming - there are over 30 elements in this year’s edition – which is drawing international attention to us as Scotland’s only digital arts festival.

Dispose( ) by Brent Watanabe and Cable Griffith

What can visitors expect at this year’s festival?

There are a few world premieres of new work! Because our theme this year is about architecture - the spaces we’re in - then many of the works are about how we understand physical and virtual space.

At the Visual Research Centre in DCA is a project called Paperholm by Charles Young. Since August 2014 Young has designed, made, photographed and uploaded a model of a building to the Paperholm website every day, often animating the results into gifs. NEoN and the Travelling Gallery are teamed up to present the entire collection of models which together make up a beautiful and beguiling archipelago city.

Paperholm by Charles Young

Berlin-based artist Aram Bartholl has a new commission for NEoN, titled ‘8k’, which is a large-scale printed screenshot of a scenic view of ‘Sin City’ from the computer game Grand Theft Auto V. You can sit in a car infront of this view and listen to YouTubers going nuts playing GTA V - the serene static view contrasting with the mayhem in the game as it is played. This is installed in the former print works of DC Thomson, so it makes sense to take a digital landscape of a big city, designed to be seen on screen and bring it into a huge space as a huge print.

We’ve got engaging digital artwork, suitable for all ages featuring a room full of interacting virtual creatures created by award-winning digital artists Genetic Moo in the Wellgate Shopping Centre; an opportunity to explore the city through sound with an app in collaboration with local musician, Andrew Wasylyk; a poetic commission which fuses together a hybrid between print, the web and cloud-computing by J.R. Carpenter; and Biome Collective and Joseph Delappe’s critically acclaimed video game, Killbox, which explores the nature of drone warfare. There are a lot of references to the data cloud, clouds, the sky, and the ground, in all of the works. Dundee is a city with big skies, so it makes sense.

How do you go about collaborating as a team to pull together such a diverse programme?

NEoN has a flat curatorial structure, with regular open meetings on Wednesday mornings and a shared online note-taking system. If you rock up with an idea for a project, it will be discussed, considered and folded into the planning. We look at art work together, discuss its strengths and how it pushes at our understanding of art, and try and agree on the quality and value of everything we choose to programme.

NEoN works with cultural partners across Dundee - from venues such as DCA and Nomas*Projects, as well as agencies such as Creative Dundee or other festivals such as the Science Festival – and we try to work with artists who match programming aspirations to the themes and aims of these partners.

When it comes to delivery, we split up tasks according to expertise - some liaise with artists, some organise equipment, some deal with press and questions like these! It involves volunteer effort but artists’ works remain at the heart of our commitment.

Much of the festival’s content is the result of ambitious creative collaborations too…?

NEoN is fortunate in that Dundee is a small city with an incredible international outlook and creative talent. Our core curatorial team are very well networked and, yes, ambitious in our aspirations for bring artists’ work to life. We collaborate very closely with New Media Scotland, Scotland’s agency for fostering creative engagement with technology which manages the Alt-w Fund and has supported countless artists across Scotland to realise research and new productions. They are the partner in the Travelling Gallery show which will be in Dundee for NEoN, and are staging one of their ever-popular ‘Atmosphere’ expanded cinema events with the film Wreck-it Ralph.

We also have a firm base within the Hannah Maclure Centre at Abertay University, an exhibition venue linked to learning and academic research. This means we don’t shy away from ambitious projects but seek to bring international art to local audiences by working in collaboration with producers and curators who know what they’re doing. The new works by JR Carpenter, Monica Studer & Christoph van den Berg, Linda Havenstein, Knifeandfork and Aram Bartholl couldn't (and wouldn’t) happen without NEoN’s aim to realise great new digital art tailored to the city we’re in.

JC Carpenter

There’s a strong link to this year’s national celebration of Innovation, Architecture and Design – tell us more...

In 2015 we chose not to have a theme but to focus attention on a geographic area, bringing artists from across northeast Asia to Scotland and shine a light on practices not so well known here. In the next few years we are linking ourselves with themes identified by the Scottish Government as we recognise that digital media art and creative technologies don’t have geographic boundaries, but do cross disciplines.

Much digital media art considers real and virtual space, and consists of artists creating their own tools, designing their own landscapes, real and imagined. Guillaume Brisson-Darveau, an artist from Montreal, spent some time at Hospitalfield Arts in nearby Arbroath this summer, and when we met him we realised that his ‘Cloud Walks’ were both a reflection on the idea of cloud computing and a playful reflection on what it is to not really know where you are in physical space. They will be represented in NEoN.

We have commissioned a work from Andrew Wasylyk which allows you to soundtrack your experience of buildings across Dundee, many of which will be illuminated as part of Light Nights, the Scottish Festival of Architecture finale later in November. The festival really does question whether there is negative space in cyberspace and how artists can manipulate space - virtual and real. We have a single channel screening programme and a mini symposium dedicated just to these questions.

The festival is far from “virtual”, with several exhibitions and installations hosted in the huge West Ward Works. How did you approach the challenge of filling such a space?

As a new and largely untouched raw industrial space in Dundee it was too tempting not to use West Ward Works. We decided not to fill it (it’s huge!) but rather to activate the (enormous) ground floor space with works that benefit from not being in either a white cube gallery, nor a black box cinema, but that have a relationship to the street, to informal or neglected spaces, to imagined or repurposed spaces.

There is also a key curatorial conceit in the choice of works exhibited in West Ward Works: West Ward was where papers were printed and then loaded on to lorries to be delivered across the country, so there was a constant journeying of information and images, cartoons and comments, to and from the building.

So the works in the show are similarly about print (a giant billboard, digitally-rendered wallpaper) or about temporary or recurrent movement - excursions - through spaces (Studer and VdBerg’s ‘Shack’, Linda Havenstein’s walks, Brent Watanabe’s endless games, even the drone’s delivery of a bomb in the game Killbox).

While the newspapers once printed in West Ward have moved from paper to screen, the festival has many so-called ‘virtual’ or born-digital things which have made the move back to the physical.

The Neutron Flux Archive - Gair Dunlop

What do you foresee as being the next big trends and themes around digital and creative technology?

We are working again this year with LifeSpace Science Art Research Gallery to bring artists Genetic Moo to Dundee - LifeSpace engages artists creating interdisciplinary work addressing biology, biotechnology and the visualisation of scientific research; we have no doubt in Dundee that this area of interdisciplinary artistic practice will continue to grow.

We are working with Joseph DeLappe, an international artist, activist and recent appointment as Professor of Games Research to Abertay University, to present his collaborative game work about drone warfare - NEoN feels strongly that politically-engaged work about current technological shifts in society will always be relevant.

Dundee is revamping itself with the waterfront development and the impending arrival of the new V&A Museum of Design, and NEoN wants to be there to show how art can create a space to question or interrogate these large-scale physical transitions as well as the personal digital and virtual transformations in how we live together brought about by new technologies - the spaces we’re in.

NEoN Digital Arts Festival runs from 9 – 13 November 2016 across the City of Dundee. It was supported through Creative Scotland's Open Project Fund. See this news release for more on what to expect from the festival.