Prix Ars Electronica


Ars Electronica Linz & ORF Oberösterreich

Interactive Art: Maneuvering through the Strategies of Spectatorship

Andi Cameron, Sonia Cillari, Stephen Kovats, Tomoe Moriyama, Joachim Sauter

Interactive art has been an established form of art practice for many decades now and yet it continues to be an unstable term and a site of contested meanings. The 400+ entries in the 2008 Interactive Art category were indicative of this continuing struggle to situate practices that address (among other things) technology, history, activism, biology, relational aesthetics, representation, play, gaming, tradition and gender politics. The task for the jury was to find a way to evaluate this large number of seemingly heterogeneous pieces and make sense of them according to a coherent set of critical principles. In one sense of course, the task is an impossible one. The artworks under consideration differed enormously from each other not only in their subjects and preoccupations, but also in their physical realization and their strategies of participation and spectatorship. The task for the jury was both difficult and stimulating, and it involved us all in a highly rewarding journey through a shifting critical landscape. Due consideration was given to the balance and diversity of the winners as a reflection of the field of practice seen in the submissions. Interactivity in art, as the jury was confronted with, remains in itself a form of synthetic domain containing multiple elements and influences, with a rich diversity of execution.

The jury was reluctant to define the word “interactive” at the outset, preferring instead to let the term emerge from the range of practices under consideration. This is not to say that we considered “interactive” to be a relative or ambiguous term that can mean whatever an artist wants it to mean, but rather a recognition that the way interactivity is used within a broader aesthetic strategy can be rigorous or fuzzy, as well as challenging, provocative and perverse. Nonetheless, we were confronted by a sense of blurring boundaries, particularly by what may be considered interactive vis-à-vis “hybrid” art, given the inherent technological, conceptual and material hybridity of interactive art as cross-disciplinary practice. We argued for an understanding of interaction to include also the complexity in dealing with matters of sociopolitical relevance, human conditions and aesthetic choices, rather than for an “oversimplification” of ideas realized by technological devices. This year an increasing number of works from Asia attracted our attention, requiring dialogue to go into a certain, even more unstable terrain of cultural signifiers, connecting technological art with very different fields of contemporary expression, including calligraphy, literature and decidedly non-Western views of device art.

Another key debate centered on the word “electronica” and the way in which technology intersects with cultural form and broader contemporary artistic practices. While recognizing the importance of electronic and media art within the historical context of Ars Electronica, the jury also accepted that interactive art is not constrained by a specific technology or set of technologies and that a simple, effective and highly relational piece should not be rejected on narrow technological grounds. The choice of the three prizewinners faithfully addresses these issues. Among the list of winners and Honorary Mentions, we have observed a major critical train of thought featuring artists’ strategies attempting to radically break the connection between physical and social place, making physical location much less significant for our social relationships. One of the many elements of interaction that came up for debate focused on the notion of process and system interaction. The dialogue that moves an interactive piece beyond mere “reaction” is one which may arguably exist beyond a direct user interaction and reside within technology, between systems, processes or a dialogue created by the art work with its own environment—one which may be living, generative or cognitive on its own terms. As such, we were interested also in the nuances presented by the manipulation of complex environments, in interaction between artist and artwork, between machine and nature, between perception and experience.

The Golden Nica: Image Fulgurator by Julius von Bismarck

It is very rare to ascribe ingenuity to a work of art. And yet there’s no doubt: this project deserves the ascription. With its brilliant concept, which evolved by combining simple, existing components, Julius von Bismarck has succeeded in unlocking a tremendous creative and illuminative potential. The Image Fulgurator makes it possible to imprint information on other people’s photos while they are shooting them and without them realizing it. Technically, the Fulgurator (Lat.: emitter of flashes of light) functions like a normal camera—but in reverse. Julius von Bismarck has installed a flash at the back of an analogue reflex camera, which he then loads with previously exposed film that contains specific images. If the flash on his camera is triggered, an image from the pre-exposed film is projected—indiscernible to the human eye—through the lens and onto the targeted object. A standard commercial flash sensor (slave), like those used in studio photography, has been mounted on the camera. Hence the Fulgurator is triggered automatically by any flash going off in its immediate vicinity. If the Fulgurator is set up in front of a specific object in urban public space, every shot taken by another camera with a flash receives an image from it. To date, Julius von Bismarck has imprinted a few sites with information using his device, and in doing so has caused both confusion and reflection. He has also developed a number of other guerrilla ideas, though they still await realization.

There is literally more to this work than meets the eye—though at this point its potential is not foreseeable and it may even turn out to be dangerous. The basic principle has been formulated and an open-source blueprint of it will be published. Its misuse has been factored in and is inevitable. Before long, advertisers will surely be using it to smuggle product information into photos. Interest groups of a different political persuasion to the artist’s will very probably use this technology for their own ends too.

Artistic practice permits ambivalence of this kind and, if need be, the consequences have to be accepted.

The best ideas are always those where you ask why it took so long for someone to think of them and implement them. The jury decided to award the Golden Nica to the Image Fulgurator not only because it is a brilliant technical idea, but also because its artistic potential is inherently great—as Julius von Bismarck has demonstrated in a few instances so far.

In awarding a Distinction to Norimichi Hirakawa’s a plaything for the great observers at rest, the jury recognized an artistically powerful work that poetically and expressively unifies strong visual, user and sound interaction. The work questions our positions and beliefs, both physically and psychologically within the scientifically presupposed system of the universe. It raises the position of the viewer to that of a relational deter minator . . . that of a “great observer” playing with the fundamental heliocentric and geocentric theories that place us on a planet circling a star. What if we had the power to alter these relationships and thus to speculate about space, time and place as a personal journey where we control our own subjective understanding of the world? Hirakawa has built a special device and created a contemplative space to do this, at ease and with a familiarity somewhat reminiscent of the mechanical planetary alignment models we know from primary school.

Jeff Lieberman and Dan Paluska’s Absolut Quartet sits squarely within a tradition of musical automata stretching back over several centuries. It is an improvisation device that takes a simple tune typed in on a keyboard and transforms it into a three-minute composition, complete with harmonic variations, counterpoint, inversions and soon. This is then performed by a “quartet” of robotic devices, which fire balls into the air to fall onto the keys of a xylophone, spin and “sing” tuned wine glasses and beat out a rhythm with robot arms on percussive instruments. It’s an awesome sight, not for its conceptual innovation, but rather for the extraordinary imaginative quality of its technical implementation. At six meters long, Absolut Quartet astonishes with the scale and complexity of its ambition and bedazzles with the exuberance of its superb implementation. Sometimes craftsmanship and spectacle are enough.

Awarded an Honorary Mention, Appeel is as low tech, as interactive and as relational as it gets. With a grid of orange circular stickers pasted onto a wall, Appeel artists TheGreenEyl (aka Richard The, Gunnar Green, Frédéric Eyl and Willy Sengewald) invite their audience to peel off the round stickers and redeploy them elsewhere in the space. Each sticker peeled off leaves a white circle, which itself becomes an element in an emerging design. These orange and white spots are used by the audience to create images and messages for each other within the gallery. Appeel feels like an analog form of pixel art deployed via the basic technology of paper, glue and wall, and as such encourages us to reflect on the connection between screen-based media art and those broader interactive practices often subsumed under the category of relational aesthetics.

Currently, the technique of projecting layers of virtual information onto real objects seems to be an interesting process for many artists and designers. A large number of projects in this direction have recently been presented and they all use a similar technique. In them, a sculpture is modeled on the computer and then textured and rendered using moving images. The resulting film is then projected onto the physical object with the utmost precision.

The jury has chosen Pablo Valbuena’s Augmented Sculpture Series for an Honorary Mention as in comparison to the works usually viewed it excels both in the quality of its formal aesthetics and in its experimental approach. In his sculpture Conde Duque, Valbuena constructs an arrangement of cubes and convincingly projects a layer of moving images onto them while sounds are generated in response. The projection feels its way across the sculpture, superimposing itself on it, taking possession of it. By so doing, the two enter into a symbiosis. Pablo Valbuena has done something similar in his work Entramado, at the Plaza de las Letras in Madrid. In it he projects layers onto a public square. The projections feel out the space, establishing references to it and appropriating it. In particular, the jury found the dramaturgy that unfolds via the projections extremely compelling. The spaces and sculptures take on a temporality and enter into a symbiosis with it.

Constraint City / the pain of everyday life by Gordan Savicic, which the jury has also awarded an Honorary Mention, is a critical urban performance in its contribution to re-examining the way we “look” at contemporary city landscapes. By exploiting the electromagnetic waves generated by the wireless networks spread all over the urban area, the artist maps them out on his own body thanks to his homemade chest-corset. The stronger the wireless signal from the closed encrypted networks, the tighter the corset gets. The mapping detected by the system is recorded on a GIS (Geographic Information System), which keeps track of ordinary everyday walks and, assigning values to the different signal strengths, it selects alternative routes . . . a path of lesser daily pain. The attempt to create an interface for an invisible city by using a bodily and “painful” strategy confronts us with a new awareness of the urban scenery, an exploration which reminds us of a contemporary “psychogeography” that can affect the actions of individuals by transmitting information.

Extended Cognitive Tools by Jun Fujiki is a set of expressive software tools playing on the extension of human recognition, based on three modules known as “Incompatible BLOCK”, “OLE Coordinate System” and “Constellation”. The OLE Coordinate System, developed as a student project, was awarded a prize at the Japan Media Arts Festival, through which the system is now being released as “Infinite Corridor”, a software set for Sony PSP (PlayStation Portable). The first part is a block-based 3D modeling software with an interface featuring a set of miracles, or physical impossibilities, in which the user edits blocks by dragging elements and creating optically contorted constructs. The second part delves further into interactive illusions that enable the character to perform impossible motions on and along the blocks and the stairs in a virtual 3D world. The third segment is a coordinate-based animation system that combines all the previous interaction mechanisms. In this virtual world, the character attempts to maneuver non-contiguous blocks through Escher-like landscapes, both challenging and playing with our perception of space and movement.

Globe Fire by Du Zhenjun is an interactive installation set in a large 12m-diameter dome, which can be activated on the inside and seen from the outside. Within the dome there are 12 temperature sensors, each installed on a 1.6m-high metal stand. Each sensor has two functions—one shows the current temperature while the other gauges the temperature at which an image of a massive flame can appear. Lit by a real flame, the projections burst into an inferno inside which the flags of some 200 countries can be seen. Each sensor can react on its own to trigger individual flames, which, if activated simultaneously by multiple visitors, burst into a near apocalyptic fireball, an explosion of smoke, dust and fire. The scenes in themselves are relatively short, with a dynamism that engulfs the visitor in a huge spectacle, leaving an eerie yet beautiful impression and subjugating our sense of spatial boundaries.

It’s fire, you can touch it by Yoko Ishii and Hiroshi Homura transforms ideographic Chinese char acters into graphic elements creating a new visual language. We can reach for a line of text, scrolling it onto our palm, and pass it along to the other visitors, subliminally sharing its content. If the text flows off the palm it drops onto a table, transforming into a freely moving animation. The character (fire) begins to burn, while the character (beauty) scurries away from the user in the form of an insect. The texts are “Tanka”, or “short song”, a traditional form of Japanese poetry, short verses of 31 syllables each. The artists turn contemporary Japanese poet Homura’s unique Tanka into a kind of tactile sensation by giving it a tangible presence. As a kind of haptic literature, the verses seek to stimulate the imagination of the visitor and to touch his or her mind deeply.

Many of the artworks in competition for the Interactive Art awards fell into well-established categories such as interactive sound, reactive sculptures or projection-based pieces in public space. But Soomi Park’s LED Eyelash is in a category of its own—glittering, yet profound, clumsy yet extraordinarily beautiful and strange, and dealing with important issues of gender and identity with a disarming and charming sense of playfulness. LED Eyelash refers to the obsession among Korean women for big eyes, and how this often leads to plastic surgery to make eyes rounder and less Asiatic. Soomi Park proposes a technological solution in which the eyelashes are complemented with reactive LEDs that flash when ever the user blinks or moves his or her pupils. The result is absurd yet engaging, and it succeeds in communicating a serious idea in a way that is both delicate and perverse.

levelHead by Julian Oliver is a spatial memory game in which we are confronted with a small and simple, solid plastic cube. Lifting it up reveals an enigmatic 3D space of rooms, doors, stairs and passageways on a screened projection, where each face of the cube contains its own set of spaces linked to one another. A small character, an avatar-like silhouette trapped within one of the virtual cube’s rooms, appears and walks into the space, seemingly looking for an exit. By tilting and rotating the cube we can help the figure walk from space to space, from “cube” to “cube” . . . but can we actually manage to release him onto the table, into the real world? Oliver’s take on an expanding practice of pattern-recognition visualization uses entirely “home brewed” opensource software that will allow anybody to play the game once the software and templates are released. The Honorary Mention for levelHead was awarded in recognition of the work’s subtle, aesthetically poignant and refreshingly playful presence, which is closer to the ingenuity of the Rubik cube than to the often presump tuous and overbearing world of aggressive computer gaming.

Over recent years we have been introduced to “in-game interventions”, in which artists attempt to reverse the meaning of the game itself, overriding the engineering of 3D game-development technology. In giving an Honorary Mention to Moving Mario by Keith Lam, the jury agreed on its clear and aesthetic attempt to reverse the relationship between the player in physical space and the game dynamics in digital space. As the artist writes: “Moving Mario is not reproducing Super Mario Bros. in a physical way,” but it tries to focus on the physical engagement of the player in attempting his intended movements. In fact in “scrolling games” you are not controlling the movement of the character, but actually only scrolling the “game background”. This work converts some of the TV-game development elements physically and mechanically, while rethinking and repositioning the players in their own “real” space.

Optical Tone by Tsutomu Mutoh is a spatially dynamic play of light and color, recalling not only the history of color theory and cognitive perception but also contemporary experiments defining the zones intersecting natural and artificial ambient environments. The piece is an interactive experiment playing with our sense of reading the electronic RGB signals we are increasingly surrounded by. The work is a small forest of anchored posts topped with light-emitting spheres that move through tone, hue and intensity as the objects are swung and rotated by the audience. With each move the color balance of the space is altered, expressed as a dialogue between the ephemerality of the spheres among themselves and with the fixed coloring of the walls. The work, which the jury has awarded an Honorary Mention, allows us to step outside our assumed world of predetermined light intensities into one that we can play with, attempting to control light as a spatial gesture.

The Replenishing Body by SHOW studio’s Ross Phillips is another fundamentally simple and very effective artwork, giving its audience the opportunity to create a video grid via a touch-screen and camera interface and to construct complex, creative, highly personal and moving compositions. This is a work that must be situated within the long tradition that started with Myron Krueger’s VideoSpace. In Phillips’ work, the image of the audience is co-opted to become the subject of the artwork, and yet The Replenishing Body seems richer than many of its predecessors for its absolute directness and simplicity, as well as for the space for true creative collaboration that it offers its audience. Both Appeel and The Replenishing Body exemplify what might be called the Occam’s-razor approach—the principle that the purest forms of interaction often give rise to the most aesthetically satisfying outcomes.

In recent years, new media have appropriated urban public space. Often presented as gigantic media facades, they are rarely used subtly. With touched echo, Markus Kison convincingly succeeds in communicating highly explosive content via quiet means and a gentle appearance. The project uses new media to intervene minimally in a public space in Dresden (Germany). Visitors to Brühl’s Terrace are taken back in time to the air raid carried out by the Allies on February 13, 1945, in which 200,000 people died. An icon on the railing invites visitors to rest their elbows on it and put their hands over their ears. In this position they hear the sounds of B-25 bombers flying over their heads and dropping bombs on the city. Sound conductors built into the railing generate the noise. It is then transmitted via the oscillating railing, through the arm and directly into the inner ear (bone conduction) and cannot be heard by anyone else. In their role as performers in this piece, the visitors take on the posture of those who originally put their hands over their ears to shut out the noise of the explosions. The jury has awarded an Honorary Mention to this project because it exemplifies how new media can be used in public space. With this work, Markus Kison has succeeded in constructing an unobtrusive but moving memorial commemorating the horrific bombardment on the night of February 13, 1945.

Special Mention: openFrameworks
An interactive artwork is an artwork in potentia, demanding input from its audience to actualize it—for its existence as an artwork to become real. In this sense an interactive artwork is always to some extent an instrument or a tool, and its authorship is always shared between those who make the tool and those who use the tool. A critical issue for interactive artists—those who make the tools—is the extent to which they open up their work to input from the audience and the extent to which the interactivity is restricted, circumscribed or enclosed. There is a kind of continuum, from highly open works, in which the audience contribution is unconstrained and unconditional, to works that involve the pushing of buttons or the ticking of boxes.

In this context, the boundaries between artwork and toolset start to appear rather tenuous. And it is in this context, too, that the jury decided to award a special prize to openFrameworks, an initiative by Zach Liebermann and Theo Watson that provides a platform for artists to creatively explore and implement their work in C++. open-Frameworks is not just a wrapper for a range of C++ classes—it is a growing community, a forum within which to exchange problems and solutions, a support structure where inexperienced programmers can create powerful interactive experiences and a library of work that everyone can share, exchange and build upon.

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