Prix Ars Electronica


ORF Oberösterreich


There is a perpetual debate about art: about its definitions, boundaries, function, aims and means; about accessibility, politics, status; about high culture versus popular culture; about inclusion versus exclusion; about funding and money; of camps in these about art and anti-art.

There's an abundance discussions, and they tend to fight fiercely. But such discussions are not the fodder of the net jury: we are, as of yet, far too much engaged in attempting to define what net art might amount to. Net art does not equal taking whatever is on your gallery's walls, converting it into something the computer can digest and making that accessible via the net.

Net art deals with the consequences of what it means to be on the net and the implications of the choice of making that particular technology one's medium. For instance, film as a medium has its own rules and restrictions: it works within certain technical possibilities (montage, editing, camera points) and can't deal with others (you can't play back, the public can't interfere with the story-line nor select or influence the shots), it responds to specific aesthetic conventions, it is part of a history of visual display (focusing means singling out a character; black & white footage connotes "historical material") and narrative reception. In short, the medium shapes the art, both in form and content. The same goes for other media: novels, paintings, photographs etc. have their own rules and (dis)advantages. Having made an artwork, one may very well convert it to a digital format and put it on the net. But that transformation - and we grant that it may sometimes be a very complicated one - does not of its own accord constitute "net art".

Museums or galleries where art is on show are clearly not themselves art - unless the building has a very special architecture, but then it would be the building that would earn this definition. And the documentation of a project is hardly ever a piece of art in itself. Nevertheless, the misunderstanding that reproducing or exhibiting analog art on the net will magically produce net art is a very common one, and far too many contestants insist on submitting homepages that merely "contain" art. After browsing them briefly, we invariably dumped them. (In fact, at some point we became rather vicious about it: "Oh, another gallery," we'd say, at that point using the term "gallery" as a generic term for homepages that were basically exhibitions of art.)

Since every medium has its own rules, we will attempt to describe the aesthetics and structure that the net engenders, in order to make artists more aware of them. And just as important, we aim to identify new areas of development on the net and to generate some attention towards these areas. We wish to point out these new, often virginal regions of creativity to artists and to thereby encourage artists to explore them.

The novelty of the net and its prime importance is that it links. Connectivity is its structure and its means. The net "connects computers, people, sensors, vehicles, telephones, and just about anything together in a global network which is fast and cheap," as Joichi Ito put it; this interconnectedness is the context. "The fun and substance of the [net] is that it is meant to connect living minds at work in all manners of complex and purposeful configurations," Derrick de Kerckhove wrote in the 1995 "Prix Ars Electronica" catalogue. Using this connectivity, showing an awareness of this connectivity and making sense of all the archived and real time information that abounds in this context is what net art should be dealing with. Anything stable - "stable" as in: done, finished, not growing, unchanging - is not net art. What we are looking for is places on the net that reflect, stimulate, enhance this connectivity, that draw from it and thrive on it - that need the net in order to be able to exist.

We came up with a short list of criteria that we think are indispensable to define this elusive yet all-pervasive "connectivity":


Just as a novelist uses narrative devices, a sculptor uses spatial arrangements and a director draws from cinematographic conventions, people on the net are working with and continue to develop a grammar. Basically, a grammar defines the lay-out of a homepage, it's accessibility and its embeddedness. This grammar can be parsed into how one uses links, the transparency of the rules of navigation, the use of frames and backgrounds, et cetera.


All media we knew before the net are linear, time-based. There is a sequential orientation: a step-by-step chronology where one step is the (indispensable) building block for the next, and where the author of art is by necessity, as Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg put it, im-posing "a benevolent dictatorship". On the net, linearity may be abandoned. You can keep previous versions of your work on-line, you can offer people a range of routes to go through your story, allow archives to accumulate and mix them with your current work. Users should always be allowed to retrace their steps, to go through homepages in a variety of ways, none of them "better" or more meaningful than the other.

Public service and net-awareness

Does a page, program or interface provide the net with a public service, with some kind of community information? Does a homepage or interface enhance our knowledge (or sensation) that we are part of a giant,global network?Is it able to acknowledge what else is happening on the net and use that as a treasure, as a joke, a metaphor, as something ironical, as something to dwell upon or fantasize about?


Does a project reflect that it is embedded in the richness and vastness of the net, or is it insulated? Is it something various people work on or with? Are there any outside links? Is material from other places on the net being incorporated, commented upon, drawn from? Does it stimulate co-operation and contributions? Can one interact, or is one supposed to just click a few buttons and consume?

Community and identity

The net allows people to meet, mix and mingle in new ways: people from various backgrounds who live in widely varying places can meet and swap information, create communities, build worlds and develop a sense of belonging. Does a program, interface or homepage promote this sense of community? Does it allow you to exchange information? Has this community any influence on the analogue life of its participants? Does it allow people to take on various (virtual) identities? Does it allow people to overcome some of the disadvantages they may encounter in analogue life, such as sex, age, colour, disability, lack of social status?


Is the protocol or programming language that is being used, open and transparent for others, or is it proprietary software? Can participants or users share it or modify it? We are looking for people who come up with memes: ideas that are structured to survive. "Survival" on the net is often about being copied: loading a copy of a webpage in your browser's cache, giving out freeware or shareware (that is, copies of one's program), offering people the possibility to copy, save, cut, paste and use information, pictures, programs, or other chunks of distilled ideas and creativity. Being copied on the net is indeed a measure of success: the more one's page is linked to, the more one's program or interface is used by others, the more people subscribe to one's memes by replicating it, and the more viable and vivid the meme becomes, the better adapted it is. Does the maker hold on to its original form and guard this memetic baby, or does he or she allow for mutation and variation to occur? Are they willing to let go and see how this particular idea evolves? (Interestingly, in last year's forum about the net prize, all winners expressed what we labelled a "willingness to be copied".)

While considering each submitted homepage and interface in terms of the criteria listed above and discussing our own affiliations on the net, we couldn't help but notice that Virtual Homesteads are becoming more prominent. Much to our surprise, hardly any homesteads had been submitted - presumably, we conjectured, because their makers and inhabitants mistakenly do not consider these homesteads to be net art.

Virtual Homesteads are communal "worlds". One can walk through them and encounter (see, read about) various people and objects there. There are things to do, things to see or read, adventures to be enjoyed. People who visit these worlds often become regulars, and help to build and expand their world.

These worlds and homesteads take on a life of their own: unpredictable things happen that startle even their makers. They grow a history, stories circulate, urban legends abound, and the concerted effort of their inhabitants even reaches into the future. (Why else would one build, if not for the future?) And apart from this binding sense of community that is being produced, these virtual communities tend to give people some air to breath. One can play with characteristics that are usually perceived to be stable and part of one's "core personality": sex, colour, age, class.

The differences between these types of worlds used to be vast. But that is changing. Layers upon layers are being added and new protocols and programs developed. IRC (Internet Relay Chat) is a text-based medium, but once "Palace" was invented, we had a graphic IRC of sorts as well. MUDs and MOOs are experimenting with graphic appendages. "Active Worlds" allow for the same building capabilities as MUDs and MOOs, but are based on graphics and use text only for conversations. There are now some VRML-worlds that accommodate inhabitants and to which one can contribute.

Each of these worlds has its own particularities and advantages. MUDs and MOOs don't need fat computers. Since they are text based, they can be run on almost any kind of computer. And the programs are free. Some argue that these text-based worlds, like novels, leave more room for the imagination and incite you to fantasize, to make your own visual representation of your co-inhabitants and your environment. "Palace" and "Active Worlds" are proprietary software and need license keys, devoted servers and lots of computer memory. On the up side, these worlds provide their inhabitants with shared pictures: you can build whatever is in your mind and present that to others, and let them use it. Also, some people and some cultures are better versed in pictures than in text.

How should these various interfaces and programs that all create worlds be judged? Are text-based worlds and graphic-based worlds two versions of the same phenomenon, or should we consider them to be different "media", just like books and television are different media?

What is interesting is that these worlds are solid: they persevere. The inhabitants are bent on creating permanence: they list and archive their history, they build and add (and whatever is built in these worlds cannot be undone), they invest time and energy, they gather skills, they build levels, they develop friendships and affinities. In short, inhabitants put their stakes in these worlds.

We are looking forward to more open protocols and platforms to create worlds like these. As of now, MUDs / MOOs, IRC, WebChats and VRML and a few games (Doom, Quake, Diablo) are the only open platforms. We look forward to seeing more of those and we predict that in the near future, Virtual Homesteads will combine text, VRML, avatars, games, sound and graphic into multi-media surroundings. It would seem that the media or technologies that these Virtual Homesteads make use of, are converging, while their originals are still available too. When these different modes of presentation do converge, the impact of Virtual Homesteads will be huge. After all, the World Wide Web only came into existence when text and pictures were combined via an open protocol - and look at the impact that created.

The Prizes

The problematics of sensory life is squarely the object of the winner of the Golden Nica, "sensorium" (www.sensorium.org). While it does perhaps suffer from a rather austere if not completely disincarnate style, it attempts to give us the sense of connecting in realtime with the life of the net, even as it translates the flow of packet switching into ambiance-like musical sounds. What is important about the piece is that it reflects something of what William Butler Yeats called "the emotion of multitude", a sense of awe at the moment of recognition of so many all-at-once simultaneous presences. "sensorium", in rather dry but nevertheless effective design, also gives us evidence of connective life on earth, and hence a sense of the earth itself. It is part of this developing art (and psychology) which is inspired by the satellite. Even the name "sensorium" deserves a mention. What it offers is quite literally a "common sense", hence it is not an absolutely necessary for it to be tied to each one of us personally, although that could be nice too.

We continued to keep "public mindedness" or "public service" in mind. The net is a social service. It carries social obligations and it can stimulate many creative services that benefit everybody. "Make Money Fast (www.clark.net/pub/rolf/mmf/) fitted this criterium perfectly. That was the factor that consciously or otherwise brought the jury to agree to award a Distinction to a site that, at first glance, doesn't "look like art" at all. It also seems too "specialized", focusing, as it does, on a rather exotic variety of Web ills. That is part of it. But "Make Money Fast" is unique to the Net. It is a publicly accessible platform which can help you trace the origin of the annoying chain-mail that sometime clutters your e-mail. The chain-mail is a disease of the Web, an automated malfunction of human intelligence once it is accelerated by networks. Finding antidotes that are neither brutal nor legalistic is a public service. The human dimension of "Make Money Fast" is also strong, warm and funny.

Humour was also present to our minds when looking into "TechnoSphere" (www.technosphere.org.uk/), the other ex aequo Distinction. "TechnoSphere" allows one to build a creature out of a variety of choices for heads, bodies and legs, name it and let it loose in digital space. The critter looks rather cute at first, but then you never see it again. However, you can receive a regular report on its condition by calling up its ID: a page will show you its fitness, age and activity. One can trace its location and family tree. More serious events - such as death, attacks and pregnacies - are announced via e-mail. This semi-random but endlessly recurring activity allows us to populate the Net with new varieties of e-pets or "net pets" if you prefer. It is an interesting concept, if still a bit disincarnate for the voracious sensory craving of many Webfreaks.

The Honorary mentions

Hypernarratives: The Web is full of interesting stories told with adroit use of the technology. However, many are linear and hence fail to make use of one of the net's greatest resources, the instant accessibility to anything in any order. Others don't work very well: either they are too top-heavy and take too much time to download, hence interrupting the flow of the narrative structure, or they are too disjointed to allow a user to make sense of them. "Cyberpoetry" avoided such pitfalls and tells its many stories with exciting voice and choice alternatives.

VRML: A special category had to be created for this rising technology of the Web. We were surely all tempted at one point or another to hand a prize to Ocean Walk, the most beautiful and effective VRML many of us have seen on the Web. What stopped us was the rule of thumb that, however beautiful or effective the site, if what it shows would be just as much fun as a CD-ROM and consequently quite a bit faster, it would not qualify for more than a mention. This VRML piece only worked well for us on a Silicon Graphics high-speed processor. Container-City was selected for its imaginative use of grids and blocks with great artistry. Both pieces, of course, are gratifyingly interactive.

The rule of the CD-ROM also applies to documentary sites such as Harappa. What struck us with that one is its sheer beauty and ease of execution, glorious colours and design, fascinating and complex information made simpler than browsing in a specialised library.

Virtual Homestead: Worlds are communities on line which today number above 400,000 registrants (called "immigrants" in the right circles), complete with different varieties of avatars capable of different varieties of functions from live and spatially referenced speech to limb and facial expression movements. Reaching a new warp speed in connectivity, worlds such as Sherwood Forest and Virtual Roof are beyond the Web altogether, residing on a server and providing the kind of permanence and stability normally associated with the real. Indeed you can build and unbuild anything you want, but you cannot unbuild someone else's property, nor can anyone else unbuild yours.

Code as Medium: The idea of this category might not have come to us, were it not for two delightfull sites which bring relevance to "art for art's sake" on the Web. Form is design that has humour as its only content; Jodi is most elegantly coded. (Try to find the rocket inside.)

Webcam: Ever since we dipped into "Mike's FishTank" and threw snowballs with "The Snowball Throwing Machine," there have been enough experiments with Webcams to warrant a specific category. Shooting Back pokes technofun at the user by showing constantly changing conditions and angles chosen by the artist.

Collage / collider: The Multi-Cultural Recycler manages to let cultures clash on the net, recycles art and builds something new from this collision.

Public Service: Energized Gaming Culture received a mention for that group of sites, because it is a beautifully crafted, well researched and passably interactive site. It serves as a record of development of digital games with a special emphasis on their appearance online, thus acting as a living archive. Archiving the history of developments of specific genres on-line is a valuable public service.

At the end of what was unquestionably the longest and perhaps also the most arduous jurying process, we found that we had only eleven mentions instead of the usual twelve. We decided to leave it that way, thereby marking the fact that this year's selection may not have given us all the choices we were expecting. We would definitely like to see less technology and less transported art, and more net art.

© Ars Electronica Linz GmbH, info@aec.at