A look at the year gone by – by Laura Welzenbach

Laura Welzenbach from Ars Electronica shares her experience from 2020 in working on the SySTEM 2020 project and transforming the Ars electronica Festival to an online format.

Laura at SySTEM 2020’s last in-person workshop of 2020

“On February 19th, 2020 SySTEM 2020 met in Belgrade, Serbia for a consortium meeting. My dear colleague Marion Friedl was joining me for the second time and we were excited to see how our consortium members were embedding the SySTEM 2020 principles and tools in their activities as well as sharing our Ars Electronica perspective with them. So many exciting activities were ahead of us.

March 7th, 2020 quickly came around and was when SySTEM 2020 Round#2 took place at the Ars Electronica Centre, which meant that we were in the middle of our longitudinal survey activities for SySTEM 2020. With this workshop, we wanted to reach the same youth groups as in our first survey round in 2019 and luckily many of them joined again. At that time, no one envisioned that the meeting in Belgrade was the last in-person meeting of 2020, that we would be cancelling our programme and that this SySTEM 2020 Round #2 would be the last in-person activity for a long while.

SySTEM 2020 Round#2. Credit: Laura Welzenbach.

It was March 16th, 2020 when Austria went into a total lockdown. I had just arrived in Berlin the week before and it became clear that I needed to get home soon because the borders would potentially close. Borders, suddenly there were borders again. That was only the very first worrying thing that caused my COVID-19 reality check. The week after was bizarre and surreal.

I think it was March 24th, 2020 when we had our first SySTEM 2020 check-in call with all consortium members. It was so good to see that everyone was safe. It was also interesting to see all the bookshelves, decorations and sometimes family members, cats and dogs in the background of our Hangout calls. The big question for these first calls was of course: what should we do now? All activities had to be cancelled, and we couldn´t expect to pick up our original ideas any time soon. It became clear that we would have to rethink everything we had planned for the remaining project.

How will SySTEM 2020 continue? What will happen at the Ars Electronica Festival 2020?”

April 16th, 2020 marked one month of full lockdown. So many calls! I don´t think I have ever spent this much time on the phone. For work during the day, in the evening and on weekends with friends and family members. Even while going for a walk, I was on the phone.

It was incredible to see how the online world reacted to the situation and unbelievable how innovative formats popped up also in the informal learning and online learning field. It was overwhelming and fun at the same time to explore the many new approaches, and for us, it was no different for our SySTEM 2020 actions and the upcoming Ars Electronica Festival.   

It was May 1st, 2020 when Ars Electronica launched the Home Delivery program. A weekly session that now has evolved into a program of guided tours of our exhibitions, excursions to our labs, concerts with real-time visualisations, and more. But at the beginning, it was one big experiment and a completely new experience even for a museum specialised in technology, art and science. The question was, how can we transform our contents from the physical museum into a virtual world, being just as inviting and exciting? In many ways, the challenges and successes with this format helped to shape the upcoming festival.

April 30th, 2020 soon came by where we had the Prix Ars Electronica Jury Meeting. This was our first venture into long online meeting sessions with external participants from all over the world. Over the span of five days, the Jury met to discuss the many submissions for the festival. Despite the time difference, despite physical distance, despite technical challenges and external circumstances, it was still possible to exchange ideas and to work on a common goal. It was early days but I was beginning to see how online events could be shaped…

June 1st, 2020 quickly came in and it was here when I returned to the office. It was now time to take what we learned from the previous months and expand it even further – let the festival production begin! We already knew that we wanted the Ars Electronica Festival 2020 to take place in a hybrid form. By that, I mean in the virtual world, on-site in Linz and on-site at various partner organisations all over the globe. At this point, we didn’t know yet that by September 2020 around 160 partners will be part of this very first hybrid giant called Ars Electronica Festival.

July 21st, 2020 marked exactly 60 days before the Ars Electronica Festival. The planning continued and we had fun in experimenting with different formats, including tutorials like Seedbombs – Flower to the people!, 3D print – from idea to print or Earth Observation Browser. September 9 seemed so far away but we knew we had to continue to reshape this event even further to make sure we were ready.

It was September 9th, 2020 which marked the day when Ars Electronica opened its online gates for the festival, which from the outside was different but from the inside felt the same. So many things were happening at once that I didn’t even know where to start. We had many virtual rooms via Mozilla Hubs, including the STEAM garden where SySTEM 2020 was also presented – I highly recommend you check that out. During the festival days, we offered exclusive guided tours through the online world. The on-site Area featured selected projects, many of them from young creators. If you want to get a glimpse of it, a video series called #festivalstories is currently released on the Ars Electronica Instagram profile. Young filmmakers, young talents, young learners were invited to make mini-documentaries that capture their perspectives and impressions of the festival’s themes.

Mozilla Hub STEAM garden where SySTEM 2020 is featured.

Among the program were also two SySTEM 2020 events: The amazing OMAi (AT) Team hosted Tagtool Connect: Workshop and Open Lab, presenting their first public online multiplayer Tagtool session, with selected international artists joining forces over the internet to create spontaneous projection art; Jugend hackt Austria (AT), c3 (HU), mb21 (DE), ArtechLAB (NL) together with Ars Electronica (AT) organised Jugend hackt remote: digital gardening a one-day online workshop which was also streamed on the Festival Channels. These workshops allowed us to continue the SySTEM 2020 work in trialling the self-evaluation research in the project to help us explore what additional benefits may exist in participating in in/non-formal science learning spaces, such as enhancing creativity, collaboration, communication, or critical thinking.

Tagtool Connect – Ars Library. Credits: Tagtool Connect by OMAi

All in all, we had to rethink the entire festival experience, and all those online and hybrid events were one big new experiment – who would have thought it would turn out to be such a huge success?! We learnt a lot through the process, all bumps and technical issues considered! Adapting workshops and activities to online was a steep learning curve for us but the Ars Electronica Festival showed that adapting events to online formats is possible and this venture is just the start for exploring further online engagement in art, science and learning…

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