Prix Ars Electronica


ORF Oberösterreich

Interaction - New Modes and Moods
Christiane Paul

Interactive art now has a decades-long history -- not counting early artistic experiments that date back almost a century -- and has recently become a more widely recognized field as art institutions worldwide have begun to pay increasing attention to this form of artistic practice. It comes as no surprise that the number of submissions to Ars Electronica's interactive art category has continuously been growing and exhibiting more diversity. Interactive art is by nature a hybrid field and this year's submissions covered a broad area, including interactive installations and immersive environments (with or without network components), screen-based work, music projects and performance, interface mechanisms that could be adopted for various purposes, as well as interactive systems for display of content in a museum or public setting.

The term "interactive" has now become almost meaningless due to its inflationary use for numerous levels of exchange. The models of interaction that form the basis of these exchanges differ widely in conceptual and technological sophistication and a competition such as Ars Electronica provides an ideal forum for taking a close look at the variety of approaches in this field. A huge portion of interactive art can be summed up under the label of reactive or responsive art where input such as the audience's movements and actions, changing light levels, temperature or sounds trigger responses from the environment. In many other works the interaction is based on enabling the audience to explore "databases" of preconfigured materials through seemingly infinite combinations. Yet another model is system interaction, where elements of software systems themselves interact with each other with varying degrees of audience input. The creation of technologized tools and "instruments" that are used and played by the audience is an area of inquiry that has consistently grown. The "re-engineering" of existing, commercial systems (such as game engines) or their inversion and subversion has also increased, although this territory arguably remains underexplored. Considering the potential of the digital medium, there are still relatively few works that create open systems by allowing users a sophisticated reconfiguration or rewriting of the system itself or by relying on networked communication processes in challenging ways.

     As the number of new media programs in academic institutions multiplies, we are seeing a new wave of promising practitioners in the medium. At the same time, artists are still exploring tried-and-true methods of interaction which have been used for over a decade and aren't necessarily carried to new levels. This is not meant to say that novel ways of user interaction cannot be accomplished through existing software and technologies but we noticed a fair amount of redundancy in approaches. Going through over 350 submissions, one also becomes more aware of a certain lack of fine-tuning and sensitivity that characterizes many sensor-based or motion-tracking installations. A problematic aspect of several submissions proved to be technology that was underused. There were some CAVE projects, for example, that would have worked equally well as a projection. Immersion was treated as a "nice effect" rather than a necessity for exploring new paradigms of interaction.

     Establishing criteria for judging a hybrid field such as interactive art is obviously challenging, if not impossible. In our selection process, we kept discussing and outlining certain "standards for excellence" – even if this a rather pretentious term – taking into consideration the models of interaction and issues outlined above. One of our main criteria was a strong artistic concept supported by and realized through technologies that communicate it in the most sophisticated, accomplished and appropriate way. At the same time, we acknowledged new forms of interfaces that question familiar notions of interaction, expand concepts of functionality and reveal the technology's social influences. We felt that interaction should not be explored as a mere effect but as an intervention that expands the audience's agency – allowing them to create, change and intervene with events in a meaningful way – or reflects on the aesthetic and cultural impact of technologies. The originality of an artistic concept is obviously an important standard and does not rely on technological wizardry.

     With hundreds of submissions, there are never enough prizes and honorary mentions to acknowledge everything one likes. Some very promising projects had to be disregarded because they were still under development and Ars Electronica requires projects to be fully realized at the time of their submission. In selecting the honorary mentions we tried to be as inclusive as possible, considering all the different submission categories mentioned above. Among the 12 honorary mentions are three music projects and "instruments" (Block Jam, Hyperscratch and Instant City) that – in very different ways – explore possibilities of non-linear composition and of expanding the dynamic structure of music in user interaction. We also acknowledged new forms of interfaces, such as the Aegis Hyposurface and Justin Manor's Cinema Fabriqué (as artist-created DJing software). Marcel-lí Antúnez Roca's POL represents an original new model for theatrical performance; Agnes Meyer-Brandis' Coral Reef (with its extension Earth Core Laboratory and Elf Scan) puts a charming fantasy twist on low-tech augmented reality; and Iori Nakai's Streetscape condenses a site-specific experience (sounds of a city) into a minimalist, navigable map. Two of the selections address the concept of a mediated memory: while Scott Snibbe's Deep Walls creates a temporary memory of viewers' shadows, Last (by Ross Cooper & Jussi Ängeslevä) functions as a clock incorporating live video feed and constructing a record of its own history. The audience becomes the focus and subject of the artwork in Marie Sester's Access – which allows remote users to track people in public space with a robotic spotlight and acoustic beam – as well as George Legrady's Pockets Full of Memories, a cultural database and self-organizing map of the audience's personal belongings.

It didn't prove to be easy to identify the three winners among the final selection of work but after extended discussion we decided to give the awards to the following three projects:

Blast Theory, Can you see me now? (Golden Nica)
Blast Theory's mobile game Can you see me now? may still capture only the humble beginnings of what our networked future will look like but it points to a new era of interaction in an inventive way that raises profound questions about embodiment. Unfolding both in the physical and virtual world, the game essentially takes the form of a chase where online players navigate their avatar through the streets of a city map in order to escape from "runners" in the physical city who are hunting them. The runners – equipped with a handheld computer-cum-GPS tracker that sends their position to online players via a wireless network – attempt to "catch" the online players whose position is in turn sent to the runners' computers. The virtual players can send text messages to each other and receive a live audio stream from the runners' walkie talkies. The game is over when the runners "sight" their virtual opponents and shoot a photo of them (which obviously just captures empty space). While the technologies could be implemented in a more fluid and seamless way (the military is using more advanced equipment), the game achieves a noteworthy level of merging and collapsing physical and virtual space.

Compared to predecessors such as Botfighters – which relied on mobile phones and SMS messaging to create a shooter game played in the virtual and physical world – Can you see me now? succeeds in exploring the issue of "presence" in a more substantial and inventive way. Artistic experiments in telepresence have mostly focused on the fusion of images from remote places in a new, virtual "image place" or on remote interventions in physical space through robotic devices.

Blast Theory's project operates on the boundaries of telepresence and -absence: through networking, absence creates a presence in its own right that is absurdly documented in the sightings photos. Photography, an established mode of technological representation, becomes obsolete in the face of a presence – consisting of virtual movements – that leaves no physical trace. As its title indicates, the project questions the very process of seeing itself, suggesting a form of perception independent of embodiment. At a time where GPS technology and "networked cells" are mostly associated with destructive or negative potential (surveillance, war machinery, terrorism), Blast Theory emphasizes the creative possibilities of the human and technological network.

Maywa Denki, Tsukuba Series
With their Tsukuba Series, the "art unit" Maywa Denki – led by "president" Nobumichi Tosa – has taken experiments with electro-mechanical musical instruments to new levels. The Tsukuba Series consists of approximately two dozen instruments or musical devices that are played mechanically or computer-controlled through motors and electromagnets. The highly original instruments are the result of a unique combination of invention and craft and include devices such as "electric mallets" as a base unit used in various configurations; a remote-controlled pedal organ (with a built-in 100V controller) that plays six guitars at the same time; a saxophone-shaped Yankee horn built from bikers' klaxons that produce sounds on 6 scales accompanied by lights blinking on each blow; or an electric "music saw" that is shaped and operated like a bow. The Tsukuba Series stands in the tradition of both George Antheil's Ballet mécanique (1924) – which was performed by traditional instruments in combination with 16 player pianos, electric bells, a siren and different-sized airplane propellers – and the work of Seattle-based sound sculptor and composer Trimpin who has been interfacing computers with traditional musical instruments. Maywa Denki have extended the concept of electro-mechanical instruments into wearable configurations and live performance and developed considerable talent at performing their instruments in contexts ranging from pop to avant-garde. They are at the crest of a developing trend to augment live performers with robots or robotic extensions in order to replace "preformatted" speaker systems. Maywa Denki succeeded in transforming what could essentially be considered "folk art" into a pop-cultural movement that treats creative work as "product" and encompasses anything from videos to nonsensical machines and toys.

Margarete Jahrmann / Max Moswitzer, nybble-engine-toolZ
Billing itself as a "radical meta-art system shooter" and "collaborative statement tool," Margarete Jahrmann's and Max Moswitzer's nybble-engine-toolZ explores very different forms of interaction to the other two winners. The project may be more of a deliberately abstruse experiment than a transparent implementation of a tool – it doesn't conceal its self-ironic attitude – but investigates important aspects of networked, open systems and real-time programming tools. Referring to the nybble (half a byte, or four bits) as a basis of digital conversion and software logic, nybble-engine-toolZ is a peer-to-peer server network and modification of the Unreal game engine that self-reflexively constructs the game itself out of network processes. Players may log on to the engine from various locations – including the installation, a 180 degree circular screen – to navigate the environment, meet other players and bots (in this case, representations of server processes) and communicate with them. Shots fired in the environment generate anti-war mails or calls for peace to a government server; pressing buttons on the gamepad sends ping commands to government servers. The log files produced by the network traffic itself and data on the hard disk (text, images and sound) become raw material for 3D "movies" out of which the game environment itself is constructed. The environment thus consists of real-time network activities. As a conceptual proposal, nybble-engine-toolZ raises important issues about generative art, the possibilities of software and engines as tools. Game engines are arguably one of the most important (and underexplored) generators of narrative in the broadest sense. Jahrmann / Moswitzer's project opens up the engine – as a tool and algorithmic framework for handling the "mechanics" of game playing – and makes it reflective of the process of playing itself. nybble-engine-toolZ points to the possibilities of game playing as editing of code and rewriting of the very tool that creates the game in an open collaborative system.

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