Prix Ars Electronica


Ars Electronica Linz & ORF Oberösterreich

Bodies in Motion

Scott deLahunta / Elaine Ng / Fumihiko Sumitomo / Edwin van der Heide / Benjamin Weil

This was the sixteenth year of the Prix Ars Interactive Art category and the number of initial submissions continues to grow annually, this year by eighty; up from 427 to 507. As there are three top awards (one Golden Nica and two Distinctions) and twelve Honorary Mentions, the Jury maintained a tight schedule that was as fair as possible to all the artists who submitted while narrowing the field in order to look more closely at potential finalists. Over the years, the most effective means of accomplishing this have become integrated into how Ars Electronica organises and supports the sessions. Advice on how best to conduct the discussions and decisions is provided by key Prix staff and passed on from year to year by mixing past Jury members with new.

The outcome each year is partially dependent upon this annual change in the Jury, which results in a different approach to how the contents of the submissions are viewed and understood. Because the Interactive Art category crosses and combines so many genres, the Jury represents a range of expertise across disciplines from theatre to fine art; from art to science. They also come from diverse backgrounds—artists, curators, writers, editors and organisers from or working in different cities and countries around the world—but they all share a strong interest in the field of new media art. The trends and directions that are rewarded by the final selections are partially intrinsic to the field of submissions in any particular year and partially the result of how the Jury reaches a collective agreement. This process is not entirely objective nor should the submissions and/or final selections be considered a comprehensive and representative sample of the overall field of interactive art.

Every year the jury for Interactive Art articulates a definition of “interactivity” which is adaptable to the submitted work (see Interactive Art Jury Statement 2004 for a description of this process). What is clear is that recognition with a Prix Ars Electronica award can have significant value for an artist, and what the jury does through the overall selection process is participate as much in the setting of trends as in recognising them. Given the interconnected and fluid nature of this process, it would be interesting to articulate further what an ethics for this selection might be.

The main trend of this year’s submissions falls into the category of locative media, and almost all the locative artworks submitted to this year’s Prix Ars Electronica involved or combined Global Positioning System (GPS) technology with modes of locomotion—from walking and bicycling to riding in cars and/or sailing in boats. Locative artworks are not in themselves new. The emergence of this term in the area of media art has inspired many researchers to revisit the history of contemporary artists who have worked with bodies moving through space and place, e.g. the work of Richard Long, Sophie Calle and Hamish Fulton; and the 2003 Golden Nica went to Blast Theory for their work Can You See Me Now? in which online and street players interacted using GPS technology. (1) The coupling of GPS to available mobile, wearable and personalised technologies and non-screen-based interfaces presents a rich media platform from which artists can critically probe and question a society evolving along with these technological capacities. Within this context our locative media choice for the Golden Nica takes on additional significance.

One other trend that has increased compared to last year in terms of projects submitted is interactive stage performance involving choreography and dance. This is also reflected in our selections in the categories of Distinctions and Honorary Mentions. Perhaps bodies in motion, whether in the context of traditional performing arts or in the geographies of locative artworks, are challenging the boundaries of the contained interactive installations that have so far dominated the genre. In fact, as you will read, the three top awards all test these boundaries.

Golden Nica and Distinctions
This year’s Golden Nica for Interactive Art is given to a locative media art project entitled MILKproject by Esther Polak (Holland) Ieva Auzina (Latvia) and RIXC, the Riga centre for new media culture. MILKproject explored the idea of “Europe as Europe. No borders, just land with people and things. People and things that move.” The project followed the “milk line” from Latvia to Holland; firstly from the source of Latvian cows, which are milked and the milk is distributed by Latvian farmers to a Latvian cheesemaking factory. The cheese from Latvia is then transported to a storage facility and the open-air market in the Netherlands, and finally to the table of the consumer in Holland. By giving a GPS receiver to the individuals involved in the transfer of this milk product along the milk line, the project enabled the collection of a set of specific personal accounts bound to the milk line narrative in the context of a trans-European story of exchange and transaction. As mentioned, we felt it was important to recognise this locative media trend in the submissions and MILKproject provided us with a socially engaged, imaginative, carefully conceived and executed project. The decision to award MILKproject the Golden Nica also emphasizes that the highest award is not reserved only for the most artistically and technically sophisticated artworks that are often produced in countries where there has long been access to the latest technologies. MILKproject shows that very well executed community-based interactive artwork founded on a simple but effective concept that also explores an emerging technology deserves recognition.

The awards for Distinction went to two excellent works, both of which are indications of fruitful directions for interactive art to continue developing in. One is a work for the stage involving a stimulating collaboration between American visual and media artists Paul Kaiser, Shelley Eshkar and Marc Downie with the renowned contemporary choreographer Trisha Brown. Entitled How long does the subject linger on the edge of the volume… this piece uses a sophisticated motion capture and sensor system to record the exact position of a dancer’s body in space. For this work there are at least three dancers being tracked simultaneously as they perform on the stage. The resulting data is streamed to the computer in real time where sophisticated algorithms used in artificial intelligence research extrapolate patterns from the relationships between dancers on the stage. These relationships are also rendered and visualized in real time via projection onto a scrim at the front of the stage. By calling these “thinking images”, the artists reference Mabel Todd’s book The Thinking Body (Hober, 1937) that inspired many twentiethcentury dance artists. Overall, this work proposes to forge a new artistic correspondence between real and virtual motion. Most interactive dance works have a functional approach to gesture as input for interaction independent from the gestural language used in the dance. The creation of an artwork where the interaction is taking place at the level of a shared gestural language, as it clearly does in this piece, is unique. How long does the subject linger on the edge of the volume… shows a convincing direction in the communication between choreography and realtime generated image.

The other Distinction goes to an equally compelling and very different kind of development. Life Support Systems—Vanda by Netherlands-based artist Mateusz Herczka places us in the territory of art and science with a project that is aesthetically resolute and critically engaging. The piece is a spatial display of multiple orchids in an exhibition space. The orchids are equipped with electrodes measuring the changing variables at multiple locations caused by the inhabited environment. By analyzing electrical signals from the vanda hybrida orchid and applying language modelling techniques to these signals in a computer, the system produces a virtual model of the orchid, which continues to generate similar signals long after the original orchids are gone. This computerized longevity as made manifest in the form of vanda’s language and behaviour model can be stored in any hacked Microsoft Xbox, and the model may be accessed at any time should one want to experience the essence of vanda again. Besides turning a scientific experiment into an aesthetic construct, the work poses questions about consciousness, longevity, and new life forms through computing.

Special Prize of the Jury
Before proceeding to the list of honorary mentions, the jury would like to acknowledge the submission by Dutch artist Theo Jansen of his Beach Animals series. Theo Jansen has worked for fourteen years creating a “new life-form” from an evolutionary line of creatures built with yellow PVC tubing normally used to contain the electricity cables in a building. Jansen’s objects, however, are non-electrical and powered solely by the wind. The “animals” are impressive kinetic sculptures with a size appropriate to a beach environment. The mechanical structures are on the one hand used to realize movement, but at the same time represent “behavioural” rules that control and steer the objects. This entire remarkable body of work shows the most sophisticated expression of “bottom up” artificial intelligence some members of the jury had ever seen. However, the jury was unable to agree unanimously on the inclusion of the work in the category of Interactive Art this year, and therefore the decision was made to honour Theo Jansen’s Beach Animals of with a Special Mention.

Honorary Mentions
Life: A User’s Manual by Canadian artist Michelle Teran probes and makes visible the wireless surveillance spaces of a city. The work manifests as a public street performance in which Teran carries a video scanner and pushes a shopping cart with a television inside that displays what is seen by the scanner.

Capture is a work conceived for the stage by the French composer Kasper Toeplitz working with, amongst others, French performer/choreographer Myriam Gourfink. Capture makes use of camerabased tracking to map the very small movements of three dancers to sound and video within the framework of a convincing aesthetic realisation.

The Network of No_des by Sarai Media Lab in Delhi (IN) is a subtly provocative work created collaboratively using simple HTML and hyperlinks as an interactive work. It makes imaginative use of a range of research field notes and juxtapositions between various found media materials to explore the ongoing debate on the issue of intellectual property. It is best to browse yourself at http://media.opencultures.net/no_des/.

The interactive installation work Glow Positioning System (a wonderful play on Global Positioning System) by Ashok Sukumaran (IN) transforms a public square in Mumbai, India into a large-scale lighting instrument in which a simple hand crank can be used by anyone to control a 360-degree circle of lights along and against the surrounding architecture and landscape.

The SonicWireSculptor by Amit Pitaru (US) is an interactive 3-D drawing tool that doubles as a musical instrument and can be adjusted to work via different interfaces (e.g. small kiosk to larger immersive environments). One of the strong characteristics of this tool is that it combines an intuitive user-friendly interface with robustness as an expressive instrument in the sense that with practice the quality of one’s performance can increase, as Pitaru demonstrates.

Canadian artist Steve Heimbecker’s POD (Wind Array Cascade Machine) proposes real-time interactivity within a closed system that utilizes interaction between the natural and the machine world. POD uses the wind as an input device mapping the velocity, amplitude and wave patterns of wind as it blows across an open field or rooftop and visualised in a gallery space using a sculptural array of LEDs.

Interface #4 TFT Tennis V180 by Dirk Eijsbouts (NL) simulates a tennis match between two players. While delivering a game experience, the work playfully bridges the gap between the first breed of popular computer games such as PONG and an actual game of tennis. The work requires the players to make large movements in space with the two rackets formed by two TFT screens.

In another game related work, Michael Wilson and his team of collaborators (known at the time of this work as C-Level, a US based co-operative) have produced a politically charged artwork in their Waco Resurrection, which uses an available source game engine to create an alternative documentary experience of the 1993 Waco, Texas incident when FBI agents controversially clashed with the followers of religious ideologue David Koresh.

Run Motherfucker Run, an interactive installation work by Marnix de Nijs (NL), shifts the site of the interface to a large industrial treadmill that one must run on to move forward through projected menacing scenes of city streets and an abandoned running track at night. The treadmill is designed to support running at full speed at which point the ability to continue to physically control the interaction is challenged.

Keith Armstrong’s Intimate Transactions was one of a few works submitted that used a telepresence or remote spaces approach for a twoperson interactive experience. Here a unique furniture-like interface has been designed that requires the participant to shift his or her weight in unusual ways in order to interact with the projected screen space in front of the participant, promoting a “sensory intimacy” between remote spaces.

gravicells by Seiko Mikami and Sota Ichikawa (JP) create an interactive installation that combines sensation and visualisation to stimulate the participant to reflect on his or her relationship to the earth’s gravitational field. The piece bleeds across visual and tactile senses by placing the participant in a space where the position and weight of each is sensed and mapped to a corresponding visual display. By invoking the physical world, the piece makes a poetic proposal for the suspension of its realities.

Japanese American artist Atau Tanaka’s evocative interactive sound and image installationBondage scans an image by notorious photographer Nobuyoshi Araki to represent the harmonic spectrum of the sound composition by Tanaka and uses the movement of visitors as they encounter the installation to uncover the provocative image. Araki’s image is projected onto a traditional Japanese shoji—a rice-paper sliding door-based wall—bringing the watcher into a hypnotic relationship with the physicalized presence of an elusive culture.

Brief Summary
The notion that interactive art has reached some level of maturity as a genre has been explored in jury statements from previous years. However, the uniformly high quality of the selected works this year plus the fact that they are strong individual artworks (as different from some of the tools and systems recognised in the past for the possibility they offer other artists) seems to suggest we can state once again that the genre has arrived at a level of considerable maturity. All these artworks are extremely well conceived and engineered. They are also well designed, inventive and occasionally extremely original. Furthermore, they are contextualised, combining the poetic and the political. It is indeed encouraging and positive to observe the critical and thoughtful evolution of interactive art.

(URLs accessed on 14 May 2005):

(1) A small selection of links to sample essays, books, blogs
and projects:
Albert, Saul. “Locative Literacy”. Metamute 28: Summer/Autumn 2004. 06.07.03. //www.metamute.com
Blast Theory, www.blasttheory.co.uk
Persuasive and Locative Arts Network (PLAN) http://open-plan.org
Pope, Simon. “The Shape of Locative Media.” Metamute 29: The Precarious Issue. 09.02.05. www.metamute.com
Rheingold, Howard. A Website and Weblog about Topics and Issues discussed in the book Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution, www.smartmobs.com/index.html
Rieser, Martin. Progress Report 2: The Mobile Audience: Art and New Located Technologies of the Screen. http://mobileaudience.blogspot.com/2004/11/progress-report-2.html
Turbulence Networked Performance Blog, www.turbulence.org/blog/

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