The city is unequalled by any of humankind’s other habitats as a manifestation of our modern world’s complexity. It evokes the many social, cultural and ethnic conflicts that cut across our society, as well as the feeling of a common bond among its inhabitants. Millions of people live and work together in metropolises, cognizant that nowhere else on earth do people exist in such close proximity and nevertheless have so many options to pursue their own individual lives and lifestyles.
None of our other habitats, in order to make peaceful coexistence possible at all, necessitates such a complex composition of how human beings live together—a set of rules that circumscribes every aspect of our lives but at the same time opens up behavioral latitude to the greatest extent possible. One that defines itself as a commitment to every person’s right of self-determination, but that also demarcates clear boundaries. However, this container, so to speak, that is the sum of all conceivable compromises must never be capped and sealed; it has to be understood as an ongoing process that is made to keep moving by applying one new impetus after another. If that doesn’t occur or does to an insufficient extent, resistance arises.
That such disobedience can develop a dynamism all its own is demonstrated by a trendy sport named parkour. Back in the 1990s, young people in certain Paris suburbs began to take a totally new approach to making their predominantly steel, concrete and glass environment their own. They declared conventional sidewalks to be off-limits and set off on their own paths—routes that always had to lead from Point A to Point B as quickly and directly as possible. In going about this, the traceurs (“trailblazers”) acrobatically overcome seemingly insurmountable barriers. In addition to intentionally disregarding prevailing rules, the traceurs highly esteem not damaging their surroundings. Parkour stands for responsible, independent behavior that is freed from regulations and that shows respect for the environment and for other human beings. Now, 20 years after it was invented, Parkour has long since ceased to be a youth movement in the banlieue; it’s a trendy urban sport that’s being promoted by the PR agencies of an international soft drink manufacturer.
A completely different strategy of attaining one’s objective is celebrated by American artist Joseph Herscher. He designs and builds giant machines to perform very specific tasks, whereby the jobs are generally rather simple matters whereas the devices to do them are about as complex as can be. Herscher’s contrivances are usually powered by tiny balls that, once they’re set in motion, collide with various obstacles and, in doing so, invariably trigger new motion. Impetus is followed by movement is followed by impetus is followed by movement.
Whether speedy and direct like a traceur or as circuitous and slow as Herscher, the path is the actual objective in both cases. As playful and effortless, as unfailing as these two seem to be in arriving at their respective destinations, a trifle is all it takes to send either of them careening out of equilibrium. And that’s also exactly what it is about them that enthralls us. Hovering above every act of surmounting an impediment, no matter how elegantly accomplished, is the possibility of failing in grandiose fashion.
In this third exhibition staged jointly by Ars Electronica and Volkswagen, the spotlight is focused on a balancing act between absolute self-determination and utter disenfranchisement. In it, the urban space as an extreme example of a living situation that is as real as it is elaborately construed is conceived as a laboratory for the development and testing of innovative strategies and approaches. Prizewinning works of art open up extraordinary spheres of association that range from philosophical reflection to the pursuit of self-awareness in real-world settings.