At first glance, Melbourne's International Biennial of Media Art could easily be mistaken for a hands-on science museum at school-holiday peak hour. There's a hum of laughter and chatter as crowds line up to push buttons, peer into dark spaces and step behind velvet curtains. One installation takes your photograph and then ages it half a century. Another projects your life-size silhouette on to a screen, then loads it with rubbish. A little girl stands before her outline, shaking her leg to dislodge a virtual railway sleeper that's attached itself to her right foot. "It won't come off," she shrieks, then throws herself on the floor and rolls about as a witch's hat settles on her head.
Over the din, the curator Amy Barclay begins her guided tour with a breathless burst of techno-jargon as she lists the artists' tools and techniques: "High-definition video; standard-definition video; interlaced, anamorphic, facial-recognition software," she says. "There's no painting or sculpture here. We've moved on." The travelling exhibition, compiled in Melbourne, includes more than 25 works from Australia, Asia, Europe and North America that fit broadly into the genre known as media art, which can encompass everything from robotics and computer animation to biotechnology and even nanotechnology. (Prosaic "analogue materials" such as charcoal, watercolours, paper and canvas are conspicuously absent from the rectangular wall cards explaining the works).
With utopia as its theme, the exhibition tries to elicit the kind of emotional response you might have if you were to visit such an ideal community. The result is unusual for contemporary art - visitors walk out feeling good about the world. The exhibition's homage to slapstick cinema is undisguised. In one video installation, shot in a canal-side apartment in Amsterdam, the artist clumsily tries to plug leaks as water sprays out of his telephone receiver and power sockets. In another, baffled German supermarket patrons look on as a man goes about his grocery shopping with a bow and arrow, shooting a frozen chicken and yoghurt six-pack.
In yet another installation, a worker at a light-bulb factory in Guangdong province, in southern China, downs his tools and breaks into a dance routine. It's a meditation on the rise of individualism in a post-communist era - and it is hilarious. Also designed to lift the spirits is a mobile disco machine with a hidden on-switch; it won't start up until the sensors detect movement. To demonstrate, its creator Niklas Roy bounces about to a techno backbeat, until the black box lifts its lid to reveal a disco ball. Moments later, it flashes blue and dry ice pours out of the container and spills on to the dance floor.
When Roy is animated, so is the dance machine. But when he's still, it promptly shuts its lid. Is the work an allegory for a party building up momentum? "I wouldn't take the whole thing too seriously," Roy chides. "What the work does is force you to behave a bit strange in an exhibition space. Usually you don't dance in an exhibition space but here you have to." The exhibition, titled Experimenta Utopia Now, bucks many other conventions of gallery visits. Outside, a volunteer talks up the disco machine, inviting passers-by to step behind the curtain and "get the party started".
Entry is free, and the space attracts a very different clientele from that of the National Gallery of Victoria, less than a kilometre away, where the state's collection of French impressionist works and mediaeval tapestries hang. One volunteer reports a steady flow of heavy metal fans in town for an AC/DC concert. Experimenta's showstopper is an unnervingly lifelike Japanese robot that crawls down the street commando-style in a suit and tie, smiling benignly. Created in the mid-1990s just as Japan's economy came off the boil, Miyata Jiro, as the android is known, is a loyal and steadfast soldier of an ailing corporate empire. It performs with its creator, Momoyo Torimitsu, who fusses about in a nurse's uniform, mussing its hair and adjusting its collar.
"I have to take care of him," Torimitsu says, still in character. "He walks this way and that and I have to make sure he goes straight, and I have to look after his battery- it's almost like nursing." Torimitsu says that during the global financial crisis, Miyata Jiro has begun to serve a new and unexpected function. "Right now everywhere else the business people are very depressed- but he is always smiling. When he crawls down the business street it's like he's cheering," Torimitsu says.
Amid all the theatrical pizzazz of Experimenta Utopia Now, there are notes of calamity. The Russian quartet AES+F look at utopia's flip side, dystopia, in a video installation in which androgynous-looking teenagers menace each other with baseball bats to music by Richard Wagner. It's an apocalyptic scene, but it's too serene to unsettle audiences; the showdown plays out in slow motion, against cartoonish snow-capped mountains, and the actors pose like models in a Calvin Klein commercial.
The time-lapse installation that decays your image, likewise, carries sinister undertones. Its title is The Digital Picture of Dorian Gray, a reference to the 1890 Oscar Wilde classic about a man who sells his soul to fend off old age. "It turns your inner id to the surface and shows your sins on your face," says its creator, Marco Bresciani. But the meta-meanings are lost on most visitors, who approach the work as they would a fun-house mirror. As an attractive redhead with dimples is transformed into a crone with wizened cheeks, a voice calls out "she'd never look like that!"
Barclay says she enjoys wandering around the exhibition tracking reactions. "I love watching people with their mouths open, when they find themselves enjoying a moment that's completely unexpected. "It's joyous- and there's so much capacity here to involve the viewer in a serious journey." We are sitting in an outdoor cafe, and suddenly some water hits the concrete, narrowly missing the feet of a customer drinking coffee. The water was probably the result of wind dislodging a puddle formed in a defective awning, but it seemed to fall out of the sky. It was one of those improbable, slapstick moments that make you titter despite yourself.
I tell Barclay that it reminds me of the video installation in which water gushes from the power point and she replies: "That's the nice thing in the world, you never know what art is any more."