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Art at the click of a mouse

Switzerland's biggest arts festival for video and new media, the "Viper", is underway in Basel. It's the first time the city is hosting the festival and the organisers have high hopes that the new venue will pull the crowds.

The five-day festival, which ends on Sunday, has been staged in Lucerne since it was founded in 1980. With the move to Basel this year, the Viper has attracted more sponsorship, and has more space and venues, thanks to the largesse of the Basel Theatre.

The organisers are hoping that this year's record budget of SFr1.36 million, and the works of 50 artists from 20 countries, will prove sufficient to pull crowds. They are expecting a turnout of around 15,000.

The Viper started life as a festival for video, and in 1995 expanded to include works of art on CD-ROM and the Internet. For the first time this year, artists of the new media have been given the chance to compete in an international competition, separate from the video entries. Both prizes are worth SFr10,000 ($5,500).

The festival director, Conny Voester, says CD-ROM and Internet installations now account for a third of the festival's exhibitions. "New media art is in its first steps," she told swissinfo.

"It can look like the first steps of the cinema of the 20th century, but with the dynamism and potential that lies in using interactivity. You have to be very open, but you also need to compare the art to the grammar of other visual media."

Even art critics often find it difficult to evaluate new media art because there is no universally accepted measure on which to rate the works. "Sometimes you see stuff that you find really stupid, but you can never be sure," says Christoph Heim, film critic of the local Basler Zeitung newspaper.

Partly to help visitors judge the art, the Viper includes a retrospective of works, which the festival organisers believe are the most innovative and valuable video productions of the past 20 years.

But the emphasis is on breaking new ground. In the large foyer of the theatre, an American visual artist, Perry Hoberman, has set up his award-winning "Timetable" (1999). It consists of a large round table with 12 dials around the circumference, which control images projected into the centre of the table (

The dials, which can be operated by 12 individuals at the same time, trigger sound and images, and can accelerate or stop every motion. "It's is based on the idea of turning clocks forward and backward", says Hoberman. "It's a metaphor for taking control of time."

The Viper festival is popular with artists because it stays clear of commercialisation. "In America, I can show my work at 'c-graph', a big computer graphical conference", says New York artist John Klima, who entered his "glassbead" in the CD-ROM competition. "But that's a fair. For being recognised as an artist as opposed to a technician, the Viper festival is the most important to me."

The works in the interactive new media section almost make video projections look traditional, even though, at Viper, they share a willingness to experiment. Some films contain elements of the political documentary, while others are abstract. Others still concentrate on making full use of the technical possibilities of digitalisation.

One film, "Triptych" by the American Robert Arnold, shows a street corner with a tram track and a small park. The view, from the window of an adjacent building, is divided by two tall trees. The filmmaker uses the "natural" division of the screen to fast forward time in one of the sections, while slowing it down in the other. That way, he succeeds in compressing a 24-hour-day into 11 minutes, seemingly without ever having to halt or cut the film.

"Since Viper began 20 years ago", says Voester, "we have been trying to explore the interdependence of technical and aesthetic advancement. That's what we are interested in."

by Markus Haefliger

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