prehystories of new media

"Prehystories of New Media" class at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), Fall 2008 + 2009, instructor: Nina Wenhart

“Our fine arts were developed, their types and uses were established, in times very different from the present, by men whose power of action upon things was insignificant in comparison with ours. But the amazing growth of our techniques, the adaptability and precision they have attained, the ideas and habits they are creating, make it a certainty that profound changes are impending in the ancient craft of the Beautiful. In all the arts there is a physical component which can no longer be considered or treated as it used to be, which cannot remain unaffected by our modern knowledge and power. For the last twenty years neither matter nor space nor time has been what it was from time immemorial. We must expect great innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts, thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bringing about an amazing change in our very notion of art.”
Paul Valéry, Pièces sur L’Art, 1931
Le Conquete de l’ubiquite

>> students' research papers, Fall 2008

class .01

first meeting of the PoNM class

----- austria:
--------- Sound of Music, 1965:
--------- Falco, "The Sound of Music", 1986:
--------- Falco, "Amadeus", 1985:
--------- Texta ft. Attwenger, "So schnö kaust gor net schaun", 2007:
----- people, syllabus, topics, approach, sources, assignments

class .02

early computer history

#00: animation:
"Skhizein", Jérémy Clapin, Jean-François Sarazin (FR, 2008)

#01: history of computer development:
----- computer-timeline until the 1960ies (selesction):
---------- difference engine, analytical engine
---------- a person
---------- Konrad Zuse Z1, Z3
---------- Turing Machine
---------- ENIAC, UNIVAC, ABC, LEO, Colossus, Harvard Mark I, Whirlwind, IBM 650, TX-2,...

#02: video: "the machine that changed the world"
----- impact of World War II on technology
----- "electronic brains"
----- Presper Eckert & John Mauchly --> UNIVAC for US Census Bureau
----- the J. Lyons Company
----- the McCarthy era
----- IBM gets into building computers, older technologies fit in with their customers' tools, sales force
----- first computer programming languages
----- from vacuum tubes to transistors to integrated circuits:
---------- "tyranny of numbers" + integrated circuits --> space race + cold war
----- blogposts: "the machine that changed the world - part 1: giant brains" --> we watched this episode in class
----- blogposts: "the machine that changed the world - part 2: inventing the future"
----- blogposts: "the machine that changed the world - part 3: the paperback computer"
----- blogposts: "the machine that changed the world - part 4: the thinking machine"
----- blogposts: "the machine that changed the world - part 5: the world at your fingertips"

#03: Norbert Wiener, Konrad Zuse, Alan Turing, Claude Shannon
--> posts on the prehysteries-blog

#04: art refering to these early developments:
----- David Moises, Severin Hoffmann, “Turing Train Terminal”, 2004
--> see prehysteries-blog
----- Christopher Strachey, "Loveletter", Manchester Mark 1 + David Link's Loveletter emulator, 2007
--> see prehysteries-blog
----- Bill Chamberlain/Racter, "The Policeman's Beard is Half Constructed", 1984
--> see prehysteries-blog

#05 books:
---- Richard Barbrook, "Imaginary Futures", Pluto Press, 2007 (

---- Fred Turner, "From Counter Culter to Cyber Culture", Univ. of Chicago Press, 2006 (

---- Norbert Wiener, "Cybernetics", Technology Press, 1948 (

#06: assignment Vannevar Bush's "As We May Think", 1945

class .03

computer history – SAGE and ARPAnet


#01: time context

-- atomic bomb

-- post war time

-- Cold War

----- former allies become enemies

----- arms race

----- perpetual escalation to keep peace

----- mutually assured destruction (MAD)

-- WW2 over, technology developed, world split in two, threat of the nuclear bomb, arms race between the US and USSR → Cold War→ negative image of technology

-- also the time when new technologies reached everyday life → World Fair in NY in 1939 and 1964 (→ see also: Brussels 1958 → Xenakis/LeCorbusier/Varese; Gsellmann)→ positive image of technology

-- video: “Duck and Cover”, 1951

-- video: “A is for Atom”, 1953

#02: the SAGE system

-- url to MITRE:

-- predecessor: Whirlwind

----- Navy contracted MIT to develop flight simulator to train their bombers

----- realtime

----- very expensive --> Navy lost interest

----- proposal for use in air-defense

----- radar labs

----- feasibility study (“Project Charles”, 1949)

-- start of the MIT's Lincoln Labs (1954, director: J.C.R.Licklider)


-- SAGE = Semi-Automatic Ground Environment

----- video + info:

----- how it worked:

------- each of the SAGE site connected to radar stations

------- radar signal transmitted via telephone lines and modems to computer

------- tracking data displayed on CRT as icons

------- lightpen to interact with icons

---------- lightpen: see Ivan Sutherland: Sketchpad

---------- video:

------- response

----- first site operational in 1957

----- when system was fully operational, it was outdated already (--> Soviets had switcherd to missiles)

----- most expensive project + largest computer ever built (AN/FSQ-7, built by IBM)

----- incredibly important steps in the development of computer graphics:

------- realtime output on monitor (CRT)

------- lightpen as interaction device

------- backup computer as “dual processor”

------- memory

------- system included long distance communication via telephone lines + modems

#03: ARPAnet

-- 1957: launch of Sputnik (USSR), means “companion”

-- 1958 → ARPA: Advanced Research Projects Agency, space tech; renamed DARPA, then again ARPA, then again DARPA

-- “DARPA’s original mission, established in 1958, was to prevent technological surprise like the launch of Sputnik, which signaled that the Soviets had beaten the U.S. into space. The mission statement has evolved over time. Today, DARPA’s mission is still to prevent technological surprise to the US, but also to create technological surprise for our enemies.”

-- from 1960 on, all space related research was transferred to the newly created NASA (1958)

-- ARPA only occupied with computer science, information processing, behavioural sciences (→ cybernetics) → see R.Barbrook, “Imaginary Futures” about the national spendings on social sciences around this time!

-- cooperation with MIT/Lincoln Labs, Bell Labs and General Electrics

-- connecting computers at universities, which had a common protocol to communicate

-- first internet (started 1969)

----- J.C.R. Licklider at MIT's Lincoln Labs

------- first head of the computer research program at DARPA (his successor was Ivan Sutherland; Sutherland's brother Burt was one of the main developers of the TX-2 computers, btw, → Whirlwind)

------- “Man-Computer Symbiosis”, 1960;

------- series of memos in 1962

----- TX-2 at MIT connected to computer in California → first “internet” (1965)


----- dial-up telephone line, circuit switched system → replaced by packet switching

------- packet switches called IMP = Interface Message Processor (concept from MIT, NPL (GB) and Paul Baran's group at RAND → for military, 1964)

----- each server in this network was called a node

------- Kleinrock's institute at UCLA was the first

------- second node at SRI (Douglas Engelbart → inventor of the mouse:

---------- SRI:

---------- video: “mother of all demos”:

------- third and fourth at UCSB and U of Utah (→ Ivan Sutherland, who worked there at 3d vis.)

----- in 1969: first host comp connected

----- brief history of the beginning of the internet:

-- ideas can be traced back to Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think”, 1945

----- first published in the Atlantic Monthly

----- memex (memory + index) = concept of hypertext

------- components: cameras, readers, storage (= microfilm), desk (→ desktop computer)

------- tech. progress to make knowledge more accessible

---------- "Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready-made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified."

---------- a link in a memex could be extended + adapted for your own purposes → shared, but also personal → see: Walden's Path project

------- what became of V.Bush's ideas?: “associative trails” --> hypertext, new encyclopedias (→ wikipedia, 2001), semantic web; PCs/desktop, speech recognition, paperless future office

------- inspired the inventors of the internet (selection):

---------- J.C.R. Licklider, MIT, “Man-Computer Symbiosis”, 1960

---------- Ted Nelson, “Project Xanadu”, early 60s, “computer Lib/Dream Machine”

---------- Doug Engelbart, “NLS”, SRI, 1968

---------- Tim Berners-Lee, “World Wide Web”, CERN, 1989/90

---------- video: Hyperland”, Douglas Adams, BBC2, 1990,

#03b: "The Net", Lutz Dammbeck, 2003/04

-- topics include: cybernetics (norbert wiener et al, macy conferences), unabomber (ted kazcynski), counterculture (stewart brand, whole earth catalogue, the well, usco,...), studies of human behaviour @ harvard (murray/leary/LSD; authoritarian bahaviour), internet/ARPAnet
-- website for the documentary, including texts in english and german:

#04: assignment

-- write a short paragraph (~1/3 - 1/2 page) with your impressions and thoughts about "The Net", post it to our ning (;
-- deadline: Tuesday (29th of Sept) evening

class .04

"the brain is a meat machine" - reflection on lutz dammbeck's "the net"

my analysis is based on a deconstruction of the documentary in three main parts:

what are the different kinds of net in "the net"?

kaczynski's self-image:

- rambo-topos
---- a lonesome warrior in the woods fighting the whole world
---- comes in multiple episodes
---- the standard plot of an american action movie
---- the seer, the only one that sees clearly --> cassandra-myth
---- the savior
---- conflict between state and individual, both radically interpreted
---- trained by the state, state created expert, is abandoned, then individual turns on the state

- thoreau + counterculture topoi
---- K. as a radical, but also archetypical character of these times
---- in reflection: being the fly caught in the (inter)net as an icon

the film, dammbeck's approach, the structure:

- art documentary, subjective paths, dammbeck spinning his own net/web with this docu
- kaczynski as a starting point
- k's starting point as the artist lutz dammbeck's starting point
---- thriving from one association to the next
---- scribble as an indication for this --> storyboard for the film, dammbeck+film travel from one hint to the next
- modular montage as well as remix of old visuals with audio for his present as further indicators
- a puzzle, that in the end leaves the author puzzled as well as the audience
- kaczynski as a layer, but not the topic; as a parenthesis for reflection on technotopias (positive and negative) and their various aspects and histories and deliberately blanked out spots as well as forgotten connections; the unspeakable, what are the last taboos left today?
- dammbeck not supporting kaczynski, but trying to understand
---- critique of his film --> compare to hannah arendt's reportage for the newyorker of the eichmann trial in jerusalem --> “the banality of evil” -->
- navigation through film like navigating through hyperlinks --> vannevar bush
- net = web = spiderweb, who is the spider, who is trapped

the net of histories:

- of technological developments and their connections, especially:
---- of how they create and structure society
---------- state: superpowers; stronger, better, faster; predominance and superiority, creating fear
---------- from k.'s view: the oppressive perspectives, suffering from fear
---- of how they could as well -''- different societies
---------- counterculture: liberating effects

- of social experiments:
---- state, state institutions intruding into people's minds; domination
---- search for private alternatives to modern society; liberation
---- on the individual basis of k.: of how the state which he later on fights against creates his state of paranoia, his conflicts, uses him as a test rabbit

- of personal connections:
- success-stories: the people who are interviewed, that can be seen
- being in- or outside of the net = society:
---- self-chosen, voluntarily
---------- liberating --> in --> see success-stories
---------- necessary escape --> out
---- pushed out of society:
---------- ascribed/created/real mental illness
- net vs individual
- inner logics of systems (individual people, communities, state, machines) and closed systems

read chapter 4 of Gene Youngblood's "Expanded Cinema":

class .06

exhibitions, pt.1

#01: summary of class 5:
- what was new about computer art:
-- new technologies used
-- new kinds of artists: basically engineers as artists
- what was old about it:
-- conventional "masterpieces"-idea (f.e. Nake's Hommage or Noll's interpretation of Mondrian --> 1 out of infinite possible results of the algorithm used becomes famous, Nake even uses it as the starting point for his ia-version of the hommage)

- compare this with Gene Youngblood's vision of the computer in art:
-- "role of artist has already changed fundamentally"
-- "the ultimate aesthetic device"
-- impact on society at large

#02: exhibitions of that time, time context:
- mid 60ies to early 70ies saw a number of computer art exhibitions
- abrupt end, technology lost its innocence -> vietnam
- counterculture
-- stewart brand, "whole earth catalogue" --> wired magazine
-- fred turner, "from counterculture to cyberculture", 2007

- overview exhibitions
-- nove tendencije, zagreb, croatia (started in 1961, focus on computer art in 1968; fromer yugoslavia, communist, peak of cold war), included conference, BIT international
------ blog-post: [Nove] Tendencije, BIT international

-- 9 evenings, E.A.T., NY, 1966
- goals:
-- redefining the possibilities of art, expanding its boundaries
-- redefining the role of the viewer, the audience as an active part of the work
----- blog-post: "Robert Rauschenberg, "Open Score", E.A.T., 9 Evenings, 1966"
----- blog-post: "E.A.T. - 9 evenings"
----- blog-post: "John Cage, "Variations VII", E.A.T, 9 Evenings, 1966"
-- original video edit by Alfons Schilling:
-- the daniel langlois foundation holds all teh documents of this event; some of the information about it is availabe online:

-- cybernetic serendipity, ICA, London, 1968
---- blog-posts:
------ cybernetic serendipity --> i brought the exhibition catalogue to class
------ blog-post: "Cybernetic Serendipity, ICA London, August 2nd - October 20th, 1968"
------ blog-post: "Jasia Reichardt, "Cybernetic Serendipity", audiofile from conference, 2005"
------ blog-post: "Cybernetic Serendipity catalogue" --> whole catalogue of exhibition scanned in (b/w), available as pdf
--- artist Gordon Pask
----- blog-post: "Gordon Pask" --> "colloquy of mobiles" exhibited at cybernetic serendipity
--- artist Edward Ihnatowicz:
----- blog-post: "Edward Ihnatovicz, SAM - Sound Activated Mobile" --> part of the cybernetic serendipity exhibition
----- blog-post: "Edward Ihnatovicz, "Portrait of the Artist as an Enineer""
----- blog-post: "Edward Ihnatovicz, "Senster", 1970"

- some more informations on exhibitions/artworks/artists:
-- Le Corbusier, Xenakis, Varese, "poème electronique":
----- blog-post: "poème electronique, Le Corbusier, Varese, Xenakis, World Fair 1958"
------- post includes videos for a reinterpretation of the work
----- blog-post: "Iannis Xenakis", including video
-- William Grey Walter, blog-post: "Grey Walter, "Elmer and Elsie", 1948/49" --> including video
-- blog-post: "exhibition: The Machine as Seen at the end of the Mechanical Age, MoMa, 1968" --> i brought the exhibition catalogue to class
-- blog-post: "re:place re:view" --> review of one of the re:place panels, focusing on early media art in spain, australia, E.A.T. and GENESYS
-- Jack Burnham's "Software" exhibition: blog-post "Edward Shanken, "The House That Jack Built: Jack Burnham's Concept of 'Software' as a Metaphor for Art ", 1998"

#03: books:
- exhibition catalogue: Karl Gunnar Pontus Hulten, "The Machine as Seen at the end of the Mechanical Age", 1968
- exhibition catalogue: Jasia Reichardt, "Cybernetic Serendipity", 1969

#05: DVDs:
- 9 Evenings, Robert Rauschenberg, "Open Score":
- 9 Evenings, John Cage, "Variations VII":

class .07

exhibitions, pt.2

#01: discussion about last week's class (9 Evenings documentaries andresume of Cybernetic Serendipity)

#02: Nove Tendencije:
- about:
- poster of darko fritz's research:

#03: Ars Electronica: the beginnings
- situation up until the late 70s: Linz as a cultural vacuum between Vienna and Salzburg
- social-democratic administration under chancellor Bruno Kreisky, "culture for all"
- ORF Upper Austria: monopolistic broadcasting corporation, progressive, Hannes Leopoldseder and Christine Schöpf, searching for a cultural identity for Linz: modern and distinguishable
- Hubert Bognermayr --> idea for an electronic music festival --> Bognermayr, Schöpf, Leopoldseder as the parents of the ide of Ars Electronica
- first Ars Electronica in 1979
- highlight: cloud of sound --> A.Bruckner's 8th symphony broadcast to an audience of 100.000 people in the Danube park
- cultural festival, not just a festival for art
- projects made use of the city's specific features
- projects in open space as culture for all and culture by all
- examples: Claus Schulze's "Steel Opera" in collaboration with the local steel mill, art projects in the open spcae of public broadcasting (--> Stadtwerkstatt, "Nobody is Safe", 1991), playfulness (--> Loren Carpenter, "Audience Participation", 1994), transforming parts of the city into Second City (2007),...
- --> history --> festival catalgues

class .09

high/low cultures - the creation of life
nov 11th 2009

#00: some final notes on 9evenings and notions of openness in art
- Clarisse Bardiot, "Diverting/Adapting Technologies"

- Umberto Eco, Open Work
----- In „Opera Aperta“ („Open Work“, 1962), Umberto Eco defines a work of art as open, when it allows for various ways of „reading“ and interpreting it, when it embraces things that cannot be fully planned or foreseen, when the author/creator includes and welcomes chance, pluralism, complexity, multiplicity of meaning, unprecictability, ... It results in a willing loss of complete control on the side of the author. Eco especially puts the term openness in the contemporary-historical context of the early 60s. The computer and new scienctific developments challenge the arts + their means of expression: „The old forms were developed for representing an ordered, hierarchal and mappable reality. Inheriting a set of univocal conventions, the artist breaks or subverts the formal language to create work which allows varied interpretations, reflective of a contemporary worldview which is less hierarchal and more pluralistic.“ (

- Roland Barthes, "Death of the Author", 1967
------ excerpt, please understand "text", "author", "reader" in a very broad sense:
"Thus is revealed the total existence of writing: a text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader, not, as was hitherto said, the author. The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination. Yet this destination cannot any longer be personal: the reader is without history, biography, psychology; he is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted. Which is why it is derisory to condemn the new writing in the name of a humanism hypocritically turned champion of the reader’s rights. Classic criticism has never paid any attention to the reader; for it, the writer is the only person in literature. We are now beginning to let ourselves be fooled no longer by the arrogant antiphrastical recriminations of good society in favor of the very thing it sets aside, ignores, smothers or destroys; we know that to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author."
----- openness of the text, infinitely unfinished, each reader is co-authoring

#01: macro level - Robots vs Cyborgs

#01a: background
- robots: constructed from inanimate matter
- cyborgs: combination of cybernetics and organism

- for artist including the computer in sculpture/performance means to
----- give up (part of their) control
----- reflection on the human condition
- topos: life made from inanimate matter
----- definition of a topos: archetype, an idea that resurfaces over time, though changing in appearance it stays the same
----- golem, homunculus; from Frankenstein to Rocky Horror Picture Show
video: the golem, 1920:
----- alchemy, science, magic + what happens when you mess around
----- out of the lab, out of control --> the sourcerer's apprentice, Dr. Faust
----- creation of life as a scientific as well as artistic goal
----- Hans Moravec, "Serious attempts to build thinking machines began after the second world war. One line of research, called Cybernetics, used simple electronic circuitry to mimic small nervous systems, and produced machines that could learn to recognize simple patterns, and turtle-like robots that found their way to lighted recharging hutches." (

#01b: examples

- Chico McMurtrie/Rick Sayre, "The Tumbling Man", 1991
----- pneumatic robot, animated sculpture
----- lims controlled by two players, computer choses which limbs correspond with each of the participants, shifts over time;
----- "the ability for the sculpture to make decisions has opened up new boundaries"
----- questions power and control, letting go of control, and the power of collaboration
----- earlier work as a puppeteer --> computer has led to the freedom of his sculptures

- Time's Up (artist collective from Linz, including Tim Boykett, Tina Auer et al)
----- "Sensory Circus", 2004:
----- "Body Spin", 2000:

- Stelarc
----- body becomes obsolete, parts can be exchanged or modified --> just like in machines
----- machines to enhance the body
----- body as an object, not a subject
----- "redesigning the body / redefining what is human"
----- blogpost-title: "Stelarc"
----- "Third Hand", 1992:
----- "Parasite Visions", 1997:
----- + discussion + reading
----- "technologies also become obsolete": but can be replaced by always better + newer ones, the body becomes a constant site of construction
----- "stelarc's body of work"
----- the subject and the object, being a body and having a body

- Donna Haraway, "A Cyborg Manifesto", 1985
----- "Simians, Cyborgs and Women", includes the Manifesto (chapter 8, p89 ff):

- The Squames, "Cumulus", 1991

#02: interlude: virtual reality

#03: micro level - life from the labs

- SymbioticA:
----- biological art
----- Australian based laboratory, where artists and scientists collaborate
----- "artistic inquiry into new knowledge and technology with a strong interest in the life sciences"
----- "this research is speculative in nature"
----- "SymbioticA strives to support non utilitarian, curiosity based, and philosophically motivated research"
----- "new means of artistic inquiry, one in which artists actively use the tools and technologies of science, not just to comment about them, but also to explore their possibilities."
----- blogpost-title: "SymbioticA"
----- video:

- Joe Davis, artistic molecules (sincethe mid 80ies)
----- some artistic molecules: "Microvenus", "Milkyway", "Riddle of Life"
----- blogpost-title: "Joe Davis, Microvenus":
----- "art as a form of life"
----- artistic graphics translated into genetic code and implemented into bacteria, replicated, sent to space
----- works at MIT's Rich Lab for about 10 years now, unpaid
----- video seen: "Gone Fishing", report on ABC

>> recommended books

  • Richard Barbrook - Imaginary Futures: From Thinking Machines to the Global Village
  • Fred Turner - From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network and the Rise of Digital Utopianism
  • Howard Rheingold, Tools for Thought, MIT Press, 2000 or online:
  • Oliver Grau - MediaArtHistories
  • Oliver Grau - Virtual Art: From Illusion to Immersion
  • Neil Spiller, Cyber Reader: Critical Writings for the Digital Era. Phaidon Press, 2002
  • Stephen Wilson - Information Arts: Intersections of Art, Science, and Technology: Intersections of Art, Science and Technology
  • Gene Youngblood - Expanded Cinema
  • Ruth Leavitt - Artist and Computer
  • Jasia Reichardt - The Computer in Art
  • Jasia Reichardt - Robots. Fact, Fiction and Prediction
  • Herbert Franke - Computer Graphics, Computer Art
  • Frieder Nake - Ästhetik als Informationsverarbeitung: Grundlagen und Anwendungen der Informatik im Bereich ästhetischer Produktion und Kritik (Hardcover)
  • Norbert Wiener - Cybernetics
  • Claus Pias - Cybernetics - Kybernetik 2. The Macy-Conferences 1946-1953
  • Jasia Reichardt, Cybernetic serendipity: The computer and the arts, 1968
  • Catherine Morris, 9 Evenings Reconsidered, 2007
  • John Cage, Variations VII by John Cage: E.A.T. - 9 Evenings: Theatre & Engineering (1966) - DVD
  • Robert Rauschenberg: E.A.T. and ARTPIX: Open Score by Robert Rauschenberg (1966) - DVD
  • Noah Wardrip-Fruin - From Wagner to Multimedia
  • Erik Davis - TechGnosis: Myth, Magic + Mysticism in the Age of Information
  • Wendy Hui Kyong Chun - New Media, Old Media: A History and Theory Reader
  • R.L.Rutsky - High Techné: Art and Technology from the Machine Aesthetic to the Posthuman
  • Lev Manovich - The Language of New Media
  • Lev Manovich - Soft Cinema: Navigating the Database
  • Siegfried Zielinski - Variantology. On Deep Time. Relations of Arts, Sciences and Technologies: On Deep Time Relations of Arts, Sciences and Technologies
  • Siegfried Zielinski - Deep Time of New Media
  • Timothy Druckrey - Facing the Future. 20 years of Ars Electronica


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... is a Media Art historian and independent researcher. She is currently writing on "speculative archiving && experimental preservation of Media Art" and graduated from Prof. Oliver Grau's Media Art Histories program at the Danube University in Krems, Austria with a Master Thesis on Descriptive Metadata for Media Arts. For many years, she has been working in the field of archiving/documenting Media Art, recently at the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Media.Art.Research and before as the head of the Ars Electronica Futurelab's videostudio, where she created their archives and primarily worked with the archival material. She was teaching the Prehystories of New Media Class at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) and in the Media Art Histories program at the Danube University Krems.