Prix Ars Electronica


ORF Oberösterreich

Are We Still Enjoying Interactivity?
Machiko Kusahara

Is interactive art still too young? Possibly, as the paint and brush we use in this genre of art are still changing every year. But that is part of the fun. Certainly technical development is closely related to what artists can realize in interactive art, as John Markoff stated in last year’s jury statement Moore’s Law Applied to Digital Art? In fact the CAVE has indeed become a standard environment for virtual reality. CD-ROM and WWW have become standard environments for almost any interactive artists. The history of technical improvement and its reflection in the making of art is quite visible in the history of this young category of Prix Ars Electronica.

A major trend in this category in 97 and 98 was the development of more convincing and comprehensive virtual environments. In 97’s "Music Play Images x Images Play Music" by Toshio Iwai and Ryuichi Sakamoto, interaction between images and music brought an artistic and at the same time entertaining experience to the audience, while interaction between the participants from the Net and the famous musician/composer on the stage also took place. The work made a new possibility of multimedia as a form of art visible to us. Paul Garrin and David Rokeby’s "Border Patrol" was a virtual environment with quite a different theme, but also integrating image and sound. Maurice Benayoun and Jean-Baptiste Barièrre’s "World Skin", the winner of 98, was a powerful virtual experience made by the collaboration of visual artist and sound artist. Visitors wander in the CAVE among cut-outs of soldiers, sufferers and war machines taken from photos of WW I and Bosnia in the almost monochrome battlefield that continues endlessly. The sound of camera shutters gradually turn into horrifying screams and sounds of gunshots as visitors use the camera to take photos. The role of media is questioned by using the most advanced media technology. Christian Möller’s "Audio Grove" provided visitors with a much more peaceful experience. A space filled with steel posts creates an ever changing symphony of sound, light and shadow as visitors touch or caress the poles.

Altogether, the realization of multimedia / multimodal interaction for users was another strong element. The extension of virtual reality and developing more natural, easy-to-use interfaces, which has been a key issue in technology, seemed to be the basso continuo in interactive art as well.

This year, a change was to be observed. It was not easy to make a selection from more than 360 works entered in this category this year, but the strongest pieces were not those which tried to realize a virtual environment integrating visual and sound experiences with the maximum interactivity. In fact while there were quite a few CAVE pieces, but none of them made it to a prize after all. Among the pieces we selected, interactivity is applied more for questioning the relationship between real space (where the users are) and another space, which is not necessarily virtual. The relationship is not linear as it used to be, or it often employs multiple layers. In some works the notion of interactivity itself is the theme. Also, words such as memories, traces, landscape, dispersion were frequently seen among the titles of works we found interesting.

Another interesting phenomenon we observed this year was the number of entries using circular screens or projections. The idea is not new. Certainly a circle of light is optically the most natural and the oldest form of projection. If we think of the beginning of the history of imaging art, magic lanterns cast circular light and glass slides themselves were often prepared circularly. It was only after certain technical developments of the light source that full wall-size rectangular projection became popular. Cinema adopted a rectangular screen, and so did television and computer displays. Now circular screens seem to attract the attention of interactive artists.

What do these phenomena signify? Are we already becoming nostalgic? It seems that artists are exploring the next step of interactive art. To make it more interactive? Not necessarily. Interactive technology itself has still much to develop before notions such as ubiquitous computing or smart home may be realized in every household, not to mention the question of whether we really want this kind of life. But the nature of art (and its role, from a social or historical aspect) is not to demonstrate technical improvements. Artists foresee - and at the same time look back at - what is beyond or behind the technical issue, visualizing the real meanings of technology.

Actually this was already seen with World Skin. It was by the conscious choice of the artists to limit the degree of reality in virtual space or interaction that the strong concept of the piece could be realized.We have had other artists using this kind of aspect as well, but they were rather a minority when the technological development was still far from sufficient.

This year the interactive jury selected Lynn Hershman’s "Difference Engine #3" for the Golden Nica. The piece is not one of the visually spectacular works we have seen in this category in recent years. It is not an easy piece to enjoy either. The piece connects real space and the virtual world, allowing Net users to virtually fly through the real space using avatars, and to chat with the people in the real space. However, it is not a happy CUSeeMe kind of project, even though visitors can enjoy the experience and communicate with others. On the contrary, it depicts an increasing anxiety about the blurring boundary between the real world and the virtual and life in cyberspace, literally. Today, cyberspace is no longer a wonderland on the Net. Serious matters of real life such as transaction or identification are all moving onto the Net. The work is a well thought, strongly conceptual piece which integrates important issues we are facing in terms of relationships between real space and the virtual world. It deals with themes such as voyeurism, notions of self and others, the "life" of avatars, and coded identity on the Net.

Needless to say, Lynn Hershman is one of the pioneers in interactive art, but even before that she was always dealing with issues such as voyeurism and virtual identity in interactive ways. In her well known project Roberta, the identity of a virtual persona was created through social systems (including the reactions of people who were users of information that Hershman issued). The artificial data of the virtual woman was processed to virtually create a real woman in society. In "Difference Engine #3" the information regarding a real person is processed in the system she has created, to become the entity of an avatar which will live its own life cycle apart from that of the original real person, and remain on the Net (numbered literally on its face) forever. The piece elegantly visualizes the relationship between the real world and the virtual world, as well as the meaning of virtual life on the Net. The relationship between real space and virtual space has changed. Enjoying exploring a virtual environment and having spontaneous interaction with its inhabitants is no longer a novelty. Creative multimedia environments can now be seen on the Net as well, with the advent of recent effective image and sound compression technology.

It might not be a coincidence that the three artists who won prizes this year are all well known, established artists who have been active in the field of interactive art with unique approaches. (However, it was also a pity that most of the interesting works are done by already recognized artists. We wished to find young talents.) It is understandable that since these artists have been using the technology for many years they are aware of the issues ahead of others. Also, the right use of technology to visualize these kinds of themes requires expertise.


Perry Hoberman raises such questions with a "nonanswer" situation. The artist has provided us with a chaotic, confusing situation where three different phases of reality and virtuality overlap as they are displayed on a single monitor. It is only by manipulating it that one can recognize what he/she is manipulating. It is up to you how to deal with it, the artist says. It is a piece which (as in the case of Lynn Hershman’s) strongly reflects the artist’s continuous approach to the relationship between real and virtual, as well as to interactivity. His much earlier pieces using stereoview or shadow already reflect the artist’s interest in the theme before he started using virtual reality. Playful irony and visual fun are also observed in Hoberman’s other works. Even though the piece is supported by a very highly technical platform, the way Hoberman uses the technology is totally different from a demonstration.

Luc Courchesne’s "Landscape One" brings up the question of directorship in interactive art. The piece can be considered as an interactive cinema, which consists of four screens to give a virtually 360 degree view to the users. Users can communicate with the people (and a dog) who arrive from different directions by making a choice from sentences that appear on the panel, as in his earlier works. But the artist does not try to bring the users into the immersive experience in the virtual world. It is different from exploring a fantasy world in the CAVE. A visitor will remain aware that he/she is in the real space and still talking with a character in the film, while observing what is happening in the space on the other side of the screen. It is a limited and predecided interactivity, which might have been regarded as "insufficient interactivity" in the short history of interactive art. But it is such a carefully designed interactivity that the high quality of the experience (i.e. being in an interactive cinema) becomes possible in this piece. This piece makes us think about the role of interactivity in a narrative story.

Honorary Mentions

Works selected for Honorary Mention represent examples of different possibilities in interactive art or original approaches to bridging art, science and technology. Some of the works included are equally as interesting as the award winning pieces in many ways.

"Robots Avatars Dealing with Virtual Illusions" by F.A.B.R.I.CATORS is another example of dealing with the complexity of the relationship between the real world and the virtual world. Avatars in the virtual world can be manipulated by controlling physical robots in the real world. There is a unique visualization of the increasing membranes of communication we see in our world.

In Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau’s "Haze Express", a night train experience is realized in a compartment with settings taken from a real train. Numerous crystal-like objects float outside the window like the passing street lights one sees on a foggy night. One can change the speed and direction of the train by slipping one’s hand over the window. By virtually touching the crystal pieces one likes through the window, similar shapes will circulate more often because of a genetic algorithm. But a feature like this does not seem to belong to the essence of a dream-like experience on a night train. It is more about going back to childhood memory (I remembered a phrase from Antoine Saint-Exupéry). When we remember that only a few years ago we saw quite a few pieces dealing with the concept of "Alife" in a straight manner, including those by the artists of "Haze Express", it is interesting to see that "Alife" has nearly retreated into the background.

It is a part of what we see this year—technology may now finally be mature enough to be less visible, behind the scene of artistic questions and expressions. Certainly the way artists see interactive technology is changing. Maybe we are finally becoming sceptical of the myth of ever-progressing technical development. Or at least we have finally come to the point where interactive technology is stable enough to let us stop for a moment and look around. What we see this year — stronger concepts involving the nature of interactivity and virtuality — may partly be a reflection of the deceleration of technical development. What will we see in the year 2000?

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