re:view – Arts & Culture: I’m risking my life for that kitten!

The web is everywhere – and we shape it. It’s culture, baby! The Arts & Culture track at #rp17 was all about digital art, cultural policies, net activism and education. The most prominent topic: virtual reality (VR) and all the things it makes possible.

Here’s a quiz: What is a so-called “Gretchenfrage”? In Germany, most people should be able to answer that – it’s a crucial question that highlights the core of an issue, the name being derived from Goethe’s Faust. For everyone else there’s: Nutella or peanut butter with your breakfast? – That, for instance, would be one of a lower stakes sort.

But how come we even know the concept of a Gretchenfrage? Because it has been integrated into our cultural tradition and is continuously passed on. Through clay tablets and parchment rolls we have been able to draw on millennia old knowledge. The web, however, has complicated the transfer of knowledge: We find ourselves in a situation where it is mostly profit-oriented companies that decide what should be kept and what should be erased. “Some will save important things, while others will simply erase incredibly important things”, information philosopher Luciano Floridi speculated during the panel discussion on “cultural memory”. Platforms that network cultural and scientific institutions with one another, and make knowledge accessible, are becoming increasingly important in this respect. Otherwise, the only thing coming generations will remember will be the army of YouTube fashion and beauty vloggers. No offense.

A more sense-oriented approach towards knowledge transfer was taken at the “Wer verstehen will, muss fühlen – Was Virtual Reality besser kann” (You have to feel to understand – What virtual reality is better at) session. In WDR’s project “360 Degrees of the Cologne Cathedral”, the visitors were able to explore the architectural pride of North Rhein-Westphalia with VR headsets. “The advantage compared to reality: you were able to float through the cathedral without the threat of any kind of fall”, reported Stefan Domke from WDR. “You can experience five different locations in the cathedral, some of which are not even accessible to the public in real life.” These types of intense VR experiences also enable memories to be kept alive. The 360 degree documentation “Inside Auschwitz” captivated many of the re:publica visitors and managed to create a completely new awareness for the unspeakable misery and suffering of the concentration camps.

Tech journalist Luca Caracciolo predicts that virtual reality will become increasingly integrated into our daily lives in his talk “A Deep History of VR”. He says: “Virtual reality gives social aspects a natural sphere within which to exist and interact.” It is fairly evident that Facebook will orientate its social network towards VR. “Our geographical location will become completely irrelevant in the future”, Caracciolo prognosticated. “We can include and gather people from everywhere and anywhere”. Caracciolo had just the right video prepared for all those people who think the VR world is just an illusion: Japanese VR test subjects were shown with very real beads of sweat forming on their brows as they attempted to save a kitten on a thin plank of wood, 200 meters high up in the computer generated world. The subjects were shaking all over and balancing with outstretched arms – even though they knew that nothing could physically happen to them.

To close things off, we’ve got a “Gretchenfrage” of our own: Is that cool or disconcerting?

Of course, these weren’t the only topics in the Arts & Culture track at #rp17. You can find an all the topics here. Video and audio clips can be found in the respective sessions or directly in the audio archive or on YouTube

by Shea Westhoff (EJS)

Photo credit: re:publica/Jan Zappner(CC BY-SA 2.0)