The ZER0|1 festival explores technological advances in art

The festival’s epexegetical subtitle describes it as “the intersection of arts and technology at the Tower of David Museum.”

 DJ FELLER adds sonic strata to visual works by Elnatan Levine. (photo credit: DOR KEDMI)
DJ FELLER adds sonic strata to visual works by Elnatan Levine.
(photo credit: DOR KEDMI)

Technophobes may not like this, but art is increasingly going digital. That much should be glaringly obvious to anyone living on terra firma for the past two or three decades. It certainly is to Yair Moss.

Moss is joint artistic director, along with life partner Danielle Zini, of ZER0|1NE (Zero One) which, as the event organizers put it, is “Israel’s premier digital arts festival.” The festival’s epexegetical subtitle describes it as “the intersection of arts and technology at the Tower of David Museum,” which nicely encapsulates the oxymoronic confluence, as well as underscoring the seeming incongruity of displaying such envelope-pushing fare in a spot that traces its earliest roots back two and a half millennia.

With its latest edition completed – it ran November 11-13 – the three-dayer is no longer the new kid on the art presentation block. “This is our third time,” Moss exclaims with undisguised and well-earned glee, adding that it was the event’s first post-corona run out. “We are having a physical festival, on-site, on location,” he noted when we chatted on opening day.

He says he and his colleagues have moved swiftly along the learning curve, and the 2022 issue, which focused on the role of artificial intelligence (AI) in the art world, ran far more smoothly. “We have improved and become more efficient. Last year, I was an artistic director who rolled up power cables at the end of each event,” he laughs. “This year, we have more staff and we have a much better idea of how to do things.”

Rolling up power cables, somehow, seemed a little out of place in the bigger digital picture of things. In an age in which we click a mouse button or swipe a phone screen to instantly access information, it is strange to consider the grubbier side of the proceedings – strange but also comforting to know that the tangible still has a role to play.

 THE APEX - generative art project by Ronen Tanchum and Ori Ben-Shabat brings the Tower of David's ancient walls to life. (credit: DOR KEDMI) THE APEX - generative art project by Ronen Tanchum and Ori Ben-Shabat brings the Tower of David's ancient walls to life. (credit: DOR KEDMI)

The fine line that runs between the corporeal and the intangible, and between the terrestrial and the spiritual, was a recurrent and dominant theme of this year’s program. As digital art forms continue to make strides and technology advances to allow artists ever greater room for maneuver, the festival posed a slew of existential questions.

Is AI replacing the artist? Is the algorithm now the artist? Is data now thought and creativity? Those are some exciting or troubling questions, depending on which side of the aforementioned fine line you tread.

Moss says he is not sure about the seeming dissonance divider. “I think that, at the end of the day, this is all about storytelling.” That, he feels, applies equally to the ancient site of the festival and the envelope-pushing content. “All the physical elements, they really amount to storytelling. From my point of view, with the festival I am continuing the long line of storytelling that takes place in the Tower of David.”

The connection between art, tech, myth and magic

THAT BRINGS us neatly around to the event’s credo, which talks about exploring the connection between art, technology, myth and magic. During the course of the three days, the venerable Old City location hosted a number of learned lectures, as well as the fruits of leading local and international digital artists’ labors.

The first afternoon saw the citadel resounding to new music performances by students and graduates of the Musrara School of Art – aka The Naggar School of Art and Society – which sits just down the road from the museum. The physical-virtual synergy ante rose a notch or two on the middle day, particularly after sundown. The day’s itinerary, titled “Natural, Artificial. And the Space In Between,” offered festivalgoers “a journey through the citadel’s passageways leading to live performances from leading international digital artists from Austria, France, Holland, Croatia and Israel, where AI, big data, digital music and live acoustic instrumental music fuse in the citadel to bring an intense and immersive experience outdoors under Jerusalem’s night skies.” Pretty heady stuff and at a gorgeous unparalleled locale.

Moss has a long track record in digital arts, both in academia and on the street level, but he seems to keep both feet firmly planted on solid ground. He believes, as a member of the 21st century who knows a thing or two about both sides of the analog-digital divide, that the two can go hand in hand. There are, he says, benefits to be had all around. “The digital can disconnect us from the physical, and it says it’s OK to go for the pure ethereal. The essence is being in a non-physical space.”

 AUSTRIAN ARTIST MONOCOLOR featured in a digital audiovisual performance. (credit: DOR KEDMI) AUSTRIAN ARTIST MONOCOLOR featured in a digital audiovisual performance. (credit: DOR KEDMI)

While that may for some sound a little daunting, think of the spiritual or religious leaders who have dispensed ideas of striving for higher ground, of forsaking the accumulation of material possessions in favor of less tangible rewards.

But, as Moss explained in a Zoom lecture on the last day of the festival, it is really about maintaining a balance between the natural and the artificial. How do we, for example, rein in any desire we may harbor to achieve some level of godlike standing? With the seemingly limitless creative possibilities at our fingertips, how can we be sure we don’t end up with some golem, Frankenstein’s monster or other anthropomorphic creature that may well get out of hand and start doing its own thing? How can we guard against some person or organization producing a being with superpowers and using it for their own nefarious ends? Are we in danger of playing god?

Surprisingly, Moss thinks that the means that could be used to aim for that unconscionable end can, in fact, bring us back to cold, hard reality. “I have the sense that these technological tools can deflate the ego of people on planet Earth,” he chuckles. “We might, for a moment, see ourselves as the dominant organism. You know, at least in academia, they say we are living in the Anthropocene Era. They say this is the age of man, and man has become more than an organism; he has become a geological force."

"Man now impacts so significantly on the planet that he actually changes it.”

Yair Moss

If Moss was looking to placate any fears I may have had about things getting out of control on the technological front, he was missing the mark by a mile. Then again, there were softer, more fairytale-like sides to last week’s ZER0|1NE roll-out. The stated elements of myth and magic may not be the product of some alchemist with a cauldron boiling away; but invisible processes, such as computer algorithms with their binary calculations careening away, can also produce unexpected results and, yes, a sense of magic.

The artistic director recalls a delightful and thought-provoking exchange with a much younger member of his family, which puts the business of – as it were – creating something from nothing into more manageable and humane proportions. “There are all sorts of concealed layers. I remember walking home from synagogue one Shabbat, after a cousin’s bar mitzvah, with my five-year-old niece. We talked about belief, and I asked her what that meant for her. She said belief is when you know something exists but you can’t see it.” Fair enough.

We always accepted the magical

MOSS SAYS our technological bottom lines produced by some unseen magical process are nothing new. “Even back in the day, when we were pagans, there were gods we would pray to, something which took us beyond our everyday reality. I think there is something similar to that in technology. The moment, say, we pick up the telephone we project our brain into another sphere, some kind of different reality when we talk to someone who is not standing in front of us.” Simply and succinctly put.

Even AI is nothing new. “AI has been around since the 1950s,” Moss explained in his Zoom session. “AI is really any technique that enables computers to mimic human intelligence.” There is nothing, he notes, particularly divine about that. “A computer does that by using logic,” he explains, adding some user-friendly building bricks to his discourse. “In programming, there are small sentences that say things like: ‘If this happens then do this.’ Logic is something we, as humans, can surely relate to.”

Moss also believes that the human-digital relationship is not a zero-sum game. It is not a matter of them or us. “There are lots of shades of gray in this,” he notes.

Anyone who has ever attended a rock concert, for example, any time in the past half-century will have witnessed various degrees of pyrotechnics that could not have been produced without the aforesaid logic which, after all, is human-driven. Moss demonstrated the simplicity of visual creation by keying in a textual prompt that duly produced the requested aesthetics in seconds. Fascinating and not at all scary.

Where all of this is going to lead, of course, only time will tell. However, presumably, as long as it is all the product of human endeavor, with the proviso that a megalomaniac doesn’t get his mad hands on the controls, we can continue to sit back and enjoy the ride.

Three years on, I wondered where ZER0|1NE now sits on the global map of similar events. According to Moss, the Tower of David venture is sitting pretty. “We speak the same language as other festivals that engage in digital art, such as Mutek in Montreal, which has various offshoots around the world. And there is [new media art institute and festival] Ars Electronica in Austria. There is a circuit of festivals, and we communicate with them.”

Then again, the Jerusalem venture is one of a kind. “We have our own unique character,” says Moss. That, at least partly feeds off the special home base. “We are here in the Tower of David and we look to the future, but we are still connected strongly to the past. There is something about ZER0|1NE which tries to connect the past with the future.”

Zini says there is plenty to be proud of over here and to look forward to. “Slowly, we are beginning to see the community of digital artists blossoming in Israel, and we are excited to give a platform and place to those artists. We hope to grow from year to year and to expand the stage for other artists and more original productions, while deepening the connection between the creative world and the technological world here in Israel.”

Where we will be when the fourth edition of the festival rolls around is anyone’s guess, but it is safe to say that Moss and Zini will have plenty to show us. ❖