Prix Ars Electronica


Ars Electronica Linz & ORF Oberösterreich

Rearview Mirror: 1990-2004

Scott deLahunta / Peter Higgins / Hiroshi Ishii / Tomoe Moriyama / Elaine Ng

This year’s Ars Electronica Festival theme TIMESHIFT looks in the mirror at the last 25 years of the work of the festival since it started in 1979. The aim of this reflection is to identify “the developments that promise to be the driving forces in art, technology and society over the next quarter century”. While the Festival and the Prix Ars Electronica are not linked thematically, in making our jury statement this year and with TIMESHIFT in the background (and being aware that the Festival will feature the award winners and honorary mentions of this Prix Ars Electronica), we thought it appropriate to take a brief look back at the history of the Prix and the category of Interactive Art.

The Prix Ars Electronica was launched in 1987, and the Interactive Art category was initiated in 1990. From that time, including 2004, the five member rotating jury has conferred 15 first prizes (the Golden Nica), 30 Distinctions and 180 Honorary Mentions. The overall list of art works marks out a veritable territory of “who’s who” in the shifting genre of “interactive art”.(1) In its relatively short history, interactive art has consistently seized upon and coupled with technologies of the moment. The Prix Ars Electronica jury has had the task of reflecting critically on this wherever it moved: from viewer interactivity to artificial life; from aesthetics of software to the politics of the information culture; from the growth and nurturing of a new discipline to its incorporation into others. And these are just a few of the issues raised by looking back to 1990. In the first year of the category, Myron Krueger won the Golden Nica for Interactive Art for his 1977 work Videoplace, a camera based system that recognised one or more participants and reacted to their movements in real time. The jury also recognised Krueger’s general contributions to the field in having pioneered, since the late 1960s, many of the technical developments of interactivity. The jury wrote that new technologies made it possible for viewer interactivity itself to become part of the artwork; “These new works are often in unusual formats, question the status of the observer, and require the development of new criteria for judging the work”.

In 1991, the Jury’s statement drew attention to the artistic exploitation of the multiple capabilities of the computer as an important tendency in Interactive Art, and the top award that year went to Paul Sermon’s hypermedia work Think about the people now (Think about the media now) that made use of computer networks and databases. In 1992, the Golden Nica went to the Virtual City: Home of the Brain by Monika Fleischmann and Wolfgang Strauss, and the jury reported this as “the first year for an award going to a virtual reality system of this kind”. The 1992 jury statement also expressed reflections on tendencies in the field at that time; such as the fact that the work often made use of sophisticated technologies not available to most artists and that it was aimed at the context of the gallery.

In 1993, the jury made particular note of the fact that many of the artists recognised with an award or mention were mixing several media.

Impressed with the high quality of submissions they were inspired to write a short paragraph in support of the 1990 decision of Ars Electronica to create the Interactive Art category, stating that the choice seemed “fully justified” on the evidence of this quality and continued new developments; and they also speculated on the possibility of making sub-categories within the genre on the evidence of emerging forms, e.g. interactive cinema and fiction / poetry.

1994 was the first year that a work using the sophisticated algorithms of Artificial Life was honoured in the award of the Golden Nica to A-Volve by Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau. In 1995, the first prize went to the technical innovations of Timothy Berners-Lee that resulted in the World Wide Web. Recognising software or technical developments that could serve as creative tools or platforms for other interactive art makers would occur again in the context of the Prix Ars Electronica, including 2004. 1995 was also the first year that an award went to an “interactive performance” in the form of Michael Saup’s Binary Ballistic Ballet. Interactive performance is probably best described as a work for the stage that integrates interactive technologies and the traditional performing arts, but works such as these would not emerge as significant in the context of the Prix Ars Electronica Interactive Art category until this year as reflected in particular in our selections for Honorary Mention. As if to underline this point, in 1996 the jury again emphasized the concept that interactive art works take an “open, expansive approach to the interaction and participation of their users and audience”.

In 1997, the jury statement was given a title: “Transcending the Categories”; and included the declaration that Interactive Art had achieved the status of a “firmly established” arts genre. One could speculate that the 1997 statement was an indication of the influence of the emerging discourse on interactive art, a tendency that would continue to the present day as statements have been become longer and more reflexive.(2)

In 1998, John Markoff used the statement as an opportunity to suggest that Moore’s Law is a partial explanation of the continued evolution of interactive art works (i.e. rapid advances in computing power); and 1998 was the year of heavy duty computing as the Golden Nica went to the CAVE (automatic virtual environment) work World Skin by Maurice Benayoun and Jean-Baptiste Barrière. This direction would be reversed in the following year, when the 1999 Jury determined that the CAVE entries would not make it into any of the award categories, instead finding that the strongest works were those that dealt conceptually and artistically with the notion of interactivity and less with the strength of the technology itself.

2000 was the “Year of the Roving Art Piece”, the title of the jury statement drafted by Joachim Sauter that discussed the emergence of selected works that explored “different aspects of mobile intelligent objects” and suggested that these works approach the viewer “on their own terms”.

In 2001, the jury expressed some frustration through the statement as Masaki Fujihata described trying to review Interactive Art entries that could not be experienced, but had to be imagined through video, description and images. Fujihata called for the invention of a “new language of interactive systems” that could better express the complexities of the genre.

In 2002 and 2003, both jury statements commented on the increase in interactive media art programs in schools and universities. The jury in 2002 made a distinction between this “increased acceptance and institutionalisation of interactivity and interactive art” and those “masters of this field” who had now refined and perfected their artistic research. This was reflected in the decision to award the Golden Nica for n-cha(n)t to David Rokeby, whose Very Nervous System interactive environment won a Distinction in 1991.

In 2003, the jury remarked on the prevalence of “tried-and-true” methods of interaction that had been used for a decade or more, resulting in an apparent redundancy of approaches. They emphasised that their main criteria was a strong artistic concept that did not rely solely on “technological wizardry”; but explored its aesthetic and cultural impact. They commented on the increase in the “re-engineering” of commercial systems like game engines, adding that this territory could be further explored. And they awarded one of the distinctions to a performing arts group, the art unit Maywa Denki, who create their own unique electronicmechanical musical instruments while at the same time framing their project ironically as a popculture movement.

Today: 2004

The jurors for the 2004 Prix Ars Electronica Interactive Art category brought to the process key lines of thought that began to emerge in 1999, when the jury referred to the technology as “mature enough to be less visible, to give priority to artistic questions and expressions”. Technological maturation was also a topic of the 2000 statement; and in 2001 the jury developed selection criteria that placed less emphasis on ‘human-machine’ interaction (10 years before the computer was absolutely central to this work). As mentioned, in 2002 and 2003 the increase in work that could be described as derivative was noted, often in the entries of younger artists or students. If maturation is the right metaphor, then the first nine years from the initiation of the category could be considered a period of early growth and development, and the time it takes for a set of concepts about this genre to fundamentally shift is going to lengthen. However, maturation does not mean that there are fewer opportunities to create original artistic work that explores new interaction ideas and deeply engages the participant and/or audience; and this was made evident in the breadth of imagination and creativity of the 2004 submissions.

In 2004, the very large number of entries (the number of initial submissions was 427) was marked by the same diversity of “artistic tendencies” seen every year in the Interactive Art category since 1990. While there were again a number of works that we saw as derivative, we also observed that some of these works appeared to be “new” in their “home” context where the local audience and participants would find them thought-provoking and compelling, in the same way we may have five years ago. We also remarked that students should be reprising earlier works and of course self-referencing is part of the maturation process that has been commented on. Our feeling that a work was derivative was not therefore a criterion for discounting it; but these observations did inform our discussions. We were also aware of looking at entries from different cultures that may have been produced under less than favourable conditions in terms of resources; but without more information about these conditions it was difficult to know how to take this into consideration.

As the 2004 jury met, we recognised and accepted our various areas of expertise: performing arts, i.e. dance and theatre; the contemporary or fine arts; interdisciplinary design approaches to public space and HCI or human-computer-interaction as practiced in the scientific field. In general, our criteria evolved daily over the three days as we became more familiar with each other’s terms of reference. In the end, we settled on three criteria, perhaps best described as contributions to a “broader definition of interactivity”. These were
(1) Mediation by computer is not a requirement, which makes explicit the approach to technology expressed by the 1999 jury;
(2) Constraints of “real-time” and directness of interaction should be relaxed; and
(3) We were prepared to allow passive interaction.
Both of these last two open up the possibility that reception and contemplation of an “interactive work” may not require the “active participation” that was so crucial to the earlier stages of the development of the genre. This pointed us in the direction of understanding how some of this work is making a transition towards a form of acceptance in the contexts of traditional performing and fine arts. A tendency this year was clearly towards the performing arts as four works which are directly related to the traditions of dance and theatre have been acknowledged with an Honorary Mention. Brief details on these will follow.

In our selections, we included works that “made you remember”—less a view on how works might reflect nostalgia than on how collective and images and forms. At the same time we noted works that trigger reflection about future possibilities. We also embraced the computer itself by choosing works that revealed the enhanced understanding or learning that can be made possible through creative technology projects. We didn’t discuss distinctions between masters and students, but we did give a nod toward the short tradition of interactive media arts in our selection. As mentioned earlier, we discussed, and then made explicit in our selection, software or technical developments that could serve as creative tools or platforms for other interactive art makers. And we recognised that there are those who have contributed significantly to the history of interactive art through not patenting their software, who are deserving of but have never entered for Prix Ars Electronica. Perhaps in future a special mention can be organised for such individuals.

This should give the reader some sense of the thinking behind the selection of awardees and mentions for the 2004 Prix Ars Electronica in the Interactive Art category; and for which this brief look back at the thirteen year history of the Prix and the category of Interactive Art provides an overall context. We leave you now to make the connections between this section and the following short descriptions of the chosen works.

Honorary Mentions

The following works were selected for an Honorary Mention.

1000 Deathclock in Paris by Miyajima Tatsuo and Tachibana Hajime makes an explicit invitation to join in a collective and individual meditation on one’s longevity, life and death;

Demi-pas by Julien Maire uses “dissolving view”, pre-cinema principles, experimental projection techniques and live performance to convey subtle stories
Alert by Barbara Musil intervenes in the daily lives of the citizens of Cluj, Romania, giving them the opportunity to alter the sound of their car alarms.

Messa di Voce by Golan Levin, Zachary Lieberman, Jaap Blonk and Joan La Barbara puts virtuoso software and performers on stage together.

Loops by Marc Downie, Shelley Eshkar and Paul Kaiser exposes the old tradition of performing arts to the new tradition of software aesthetics in an homage to the renowned contemporary choreographer Merce Cunningham.

We interrupt your regularly scheduled program… by Osman Khan and Daniel Sauter integrates digital and analogue technologies in an abstracted history of the television broadcast signal.

3 minutes2 by Naziha Mestaoui and Yacine Aït Kaci sets up hybrid interactive habitats in public spaces.

Topobo by Hayes Raffle and Amanda Parkes is a tactile assembly system with gestural recording capability for exploring kinetic memory.

Iso-phone by James Auger, Jimmy Loizeau and Stefan Agamanolis absurdly but sublimely provides a counterintuitive option for thinking and sensing the future of communication devices.

Turing Train Terminal by Severin Hofmann and David Moises educates while at the same time commenting on the early hacking culture of the model train enthusiasts.

Isadora is a piece of software by Mark Coniglio that has been designed to make it possible for artists, in particular performing artists, with relatively little computer experience to start to work with real-time digital video manipulation. Future of Memory is a performance by Mark Coniglio and Dawn Stoppiello that uses the Isadora software.

The Interactive Generative Stage (dynamic costume for André Werner’s Marlowe, the Jew of Malta) by Nils Krüger, Andre Bernhart, Andreas Kratky, Bernd Lintermann, Joachim Sauter, Jan Schröder provides a glimpse of the type of media scenography for the performing arts that might be possible in the future.


One of the awards for Distinction goes to Beijing artist Feng Mengbo for Ah_Q; an adaptation of Quake III, an action-adventure game engine in which the ultimate aim is to kill or be killed by one’s foes. However, in this version Feng has replaced all enemy fighters with animated versions of himself (the artist) as a war correspondent—armed with a video camera and plasma rifle. The artist invites players to take part through their own nimble footwork on a dance-board rather than the usual keyboard or joystick. Initially the game appears to be simply a slight modification to the “shoot-em up” genre video games, but as in all of Feng’s digital artworks there is a strong autobiographical aspect. Feng is of the post- Cultural Revolution generation who came of age during the 1989 “incident” in Tiananmen Square and the birth of a consumerist China. On one level, the work reflects and critiques his childhood aspiration to become a military painter as well as the collective trauma of certain historical moments of China’s recent past. On another level, the work can be seen through the prism of an artist’s social agency, commenting on militarism and violence, both real and virtual. With the increasing worldwide popularity of violent multiplayer video games and the overwhelming depictions of bloodshed and mayhem in the media, Ah_Q questions our fascination with violence and the darker side of human nature. From the perspective of this jury selection process, Ah_Q also marks the importance of the interactive media artist who embeds reflexive socio-political gestures within the framework of popularist new media language and contexts. It is especially interesting to see such accessible yet ironic work that challenges the poor narrative content of gaming not only on the intellectual level.

The second award for Distinction goes to American artist Ken Rinaldo for his Augmented Fish Reality. From the perspective of the jury criteria, this work rests firmly in the gallery tradition of sophisticated interactive media work that has been evolving since the beginning of this particular Prix Ars Electronica category, as noted above. Within this tradition, Rinaldo produces very thoughtful and professional pieces that also provide imaginative inspiration to the scientific field of HCI (or as in the case of this work—FCI, Fish-Computer-Interaction). Augmented Fish Reality was created to explore “interspecies and transpecies communication”. This is realized in an interactive installation of five travelling robotic sculptures topped with fish bowls and placed together in the same space. Each fish bowl contains a Siamese fighting fish, which are known to have excellent vision and to display a high degree of social organization. Sensors attached to the bowls register the movements of these active creatures, transforming them into movements of the sculptures. Thus the installation itself mirrors the fish’s social behaviour. Because the fish are also affected by human presence in the space, Augmented Fish Reality manifests a set of interactions that are both humorous and fascinating while at the same time thought provoking. The high level of sophisticated engineering makes the tangible realisation of the project extremely robust and accessible. Witnessing such instinctive reactions materialized and communicating across a wide class type (fishmachine-human) helps us extend the continuing debate of real time interactivity.

The Golden Nica

The Golden Nica for Interactive Art 2004 has been awarded to the two American artists Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin for their multi-media installation Listening Post. This work incorporates sound, text and the Internet to represent the boundless In a dark room, words and phrases culled from online chat rooms illuminate the 231 tiny LED screens suspended in a curved, curtainlike grid. Simultaneously, these words are vocalized and emanate through eight loudspeakers and two subwoofers around the room. Only bits and pieces are captured and these often begin with “I am…”, “I like…”, “I love…”, providing a snapshot of our world via the Internet. However, these slices of “dialogue” are not randomly selected; Rubin and Hansen have developed a computer program based on statistics for measuring and analysing the data. This form of eavesdropping reveals the fluidity of the net, the social component of the technology and the basic human need for communication. Unlike many works which could be classified as “interactive art” or “net art”, in which the human interaction often perpetuates an isolated interface, namely where it occurs, classically, between the user and a computer screen, Listening Post allows us to experience the totality of technology and Internet communication in a simultaneously immersive and humanizing way.

From the perspective of the jury selection 2004, Listening Post makes manifest our expanded definition of interactivity and criteria in that the reception and contemplation of this work does not require the active audience participation that was so crucial in the earlier stages of the development of the genre. To be clear, this is not a new position for the jury to take, as “system interaction” with varying degrees of audience involvement was part of the definition of possible interactive works in prior years. However, we think it is unprecedented at the level of the Golden Nica and suggests productive alignments of interactive work with other arts traditions in the future.

The Prix Ars Electronica Interactive Arts 2004 jury would like to convey their appreciation to the staff at Ars Electronica for a remarkably well-organised event. Without the preliminary work done to organise, sort through and preview the large number of submissions (here we also acknowledge the extra work by Jury member Elaine Ng) followed up by the support staff working alongside us to provide instantaneous access to materials with a variety of digital formats, we could not have accomplished this challenging task in a way that feels uncompromised, considered and respectful to the submitting artists.

This statement has been prepared initially by Scott deLahunta with editing and contributions from the other jury members: Elaine Ng, Hiroshi Ishii, Peter Higgins and Tomoe Moriyama.


(1) The archive on the Ars Electronica website gives open access to all of these materials: http://www.aec.at
(2) “Transcending the Categories. Statement of the Interactive Art Jury”, in: CyberArts. International Compendium Prix Ars Electronica (ed. by Hannes Leopoldseder / Christine Schöpf). Springer, Wien – New York, 1997, p. 106 ff.
3 Examples of the emerging discourse:
Söke Dinkla, “The History of the Interface in Interactive Art”. ISEA, 1994;
Erkki Huhtamo, “Seven Ways of Misunderstanding Interactive Art”. In Digital Mediations, Art Center College of Design, Pasadena, CA, 1995;
Simon Penny, “From A to D and back again: The emerging aesthetics of Interactive Art”, in: Leonardo Electronic Almanac 1996.

© Ars Electronica Linz GmbH, info@aec.at