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Cutting-edge festival brings together digital art, technology, and virtual experience

The world’s largest media arts festival is coming to Aotearoa New Zealand, co-hosted by the University of Auckland and Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington, an event that showcases installations at the nexus of art, technology, and society.

The two universities are co-hosting Garden Aotearoa as part of the international festival, a 3D cyber exhibition which can be accessed from anywhere in the world via computer screens, mobile devices or virtual reality headsets.
In the Mozilla Hubs cyber gallery, visitors will be able to interact not only with other virtual visitors but also some of the installations. The festival also includes a livestreamed digital concert night and other events featuring speakers, performances and demonstrations. 
“Ars Electronica Garden Aotearoa explores how the digital world connects with the physical world,” said Associate Professor Uwe Rieger, director of the University of Auckland’s arc/sec Lab for Cyber-Physical Architecture and Interactive Systems and one of the key organisers of Garden Aotearoa.
“It is for anyone interested in digital media, whether they’re ten years old or 100. Visitors can explore digital information in ways that will delight their senses, entertain them and make them think.”
Ars Electronica was founded in 1979 in Linz, Austria. For more than four decades, the festival has been at the forefront of the digital revolution, involving a transdisciplinary range of artists, scientists and technologists gathering for symposia, exhibitions and performances scrutinising potential futures.
It is is one of the most influential festivals in the electronic arts and media world, adds Professor Marc Aurel Schnabel, Dean of Te Wāhanga Waihanga-Hoahoa-Wellington Faculty of Architecture and Design Innovation. “And it’s incredibly special to host a part of this event for New Zealanders to explore, experience and enjoy.” 
The arc/sec Lab of the University of Auckland began participating in Linz in 2017 with large-scale interactive installations. In 2020, however, the Covid-19 pandemic meant festival partners all over the world presented their exhibits in online “gardens” and both universities co-hosted their first cyber exhibition then. This year, as in 2020, the pandemic prevented a planned physical exhibition from going ahead in New Zealand, but all 20 of the groups or individuals exhibiting have been able to adapt their work to the virtual format.
Highlights include LightSense, presented by the arc/sec Lab at the School of Architecture and Planning in collaboration with the Augmented Human Lab and Empathic Computing Lab at the Auckland Bioengineering Institute.
LightSense is an immersive installation that augments physical constructions with holographic, digital animations. Artificial intelligence allows the system to initiate and sustain conversations with audience members, whether on-site or as virtual visitors.
The ‘structure’ was trained to respond to verbal input with the use of artificial intelligence and 60,000 poems. It also changes shape in response to what audience members say to it. It demonstrates a new form of reactive architecture that responds to the emotional tenor of the conversation with audience members.
Another installation, Tumour Evolution in Extended Reality (XR) is the result of a collaboration between the School of Architecture and Planning, the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences and the Centre for eResearch at the University.
It represents a world first to bring together multimodal cancer patient data – donated by a real patient - in an interactive extended reality setting, allowing multiple users to interact with the digital 3D model simultaneously.
The prototype extended reality (XR) application facilitates generation and exploration of different hypotheses of how cancer evolves, by combining detailed genomic, pathological, spatial and temporal data. It allow for the immersion of viewers/visitors from a range of backgrounds (clinical, biological, and technical) deeply in the data.
“Ars Electronica Garden Aotearoa allows researchers, technologists, artists and thinkers to not only present ideas to local and international audiences but also trigger public discussion of digital issues,” said Dr Rieger.
“The information age presents challenges such as the security of data and its potential misuse. On the other hand, data can become a new building material for creation that doesn’t require huge resources or physical proximity. This offers huge opportunities for New Zealand.”
In addition to the two universities, Ars Electronica Garden Aotearoa is co-promoted by UniServices, a wholly owned company of the University of Auckland focusing on knowledge mobilisation and research commercialisation, arc/sec Lab and Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington-based Digital Architecture Research Alliance (DARA).
Ars Electronica can be visited online 8-12 September, and all events are free, though some aspects of the Ars Electronica festival originating in other countries carry modest charges. A full programme of New Zealand events is available at

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