Prix Ars Electronica


Ars Electronica Linz & ORF Oberösterreich

Software, Hardware, Nowhere

Ed Burton, Karel Dudesek, Golan Levin, Tomoe Moriyama, Cornelia Sollfrank

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the category for network-based art within the Prix Ars Electronica competition. Reviewing the past decade of jury statements, we were struck by the way in which certain persistent debates about the nature of network-based art resurfaced once again this year, but—owing to the maturation of the Internet—in subtly updated ways. The most significant example of this could be seen in the perennial debate about the value of “Webness”, which Derrick de Kerckhove identified in these pages in 1995 and which John Markoff articulated, five years later, as “the combination of elements that make a project inherently networked.” The kernel of the Webness debate is simple, for, although every jury in this category has preferred to applaud those projects which use the network itself as a primary artistic material (and in a novel manner), each jury has also, more than occasionally, been compelled to recognize the value or significance of certain projects that “simply” consist of interesting materials published electronically across the network. This question of Webness would surely be irrelevant today if the idea of “network publishing” still only applied to the sorts of self-contained, pre-computational art forms (e.g. poetry, photography, and documentations of paintings) that migrated into “online art galleries” in the mid-1990s. Instead, wholly new forms of unarguably legitimate artistic practices have evolved specifically for and within the habitat of the Internet browser—intended for viewing at a network outlet and made possible by the affordances of Internet-motivated technologies like Flash, Shockwave, Java, and JavaScript. And although our jury quickly grew (very) fatigued by innumerable “interactive-rectangle-in-a-browser” submissions, we could not deny that these Webnative art forms were nevertheless still a significant part of the family and fabric of network-based art in 2005. As a jury, we felt continually torn between a desire to acknowledge truly exceptional work of this kind, and the depressing recognition that oftentimes such entries could (putatively) exist equally well on CD-ROMs or in kiosks. (In the future, it may be reasonable to require that eligible submissions to this category transmit or receive at least one packet of TCP/IP or UDP data apart from their own download.) Ultimately, we did not give many awards to work like this. In the cases where it might be said that we did, we believe the artworks we chose are not only of surpassing intrinsic quality, but additionally fulfil more than a few of our other criteria as well. This brings us to the constellation of criteria we established for our selection process. Though perhaps “established” is the wrong word, for as we reviewed the many hundreds of extremely diverse entries, the good ones spoke to us and announced new ways of being good. Listening carefully, we chose to value:

Projects that articulated a unique artistic voice. Nearly all of our selections represent the work of single individuals, or in some cases very small collectives of persons. Although we felt no obligation to adhere strictly to this criterion, our emphasis on personal-scale approaches to netbased forms was nonetheless quite deliberate. In the context of the increasingly corporatized information landscape of the World Wide Web and other communications networks, we were, quite simply, intensely interested in discovering what a single person could achieve through determination and purity of vision. We felt, moreover, that our stance represented an important complement to that of the Digital Communities category of the Prix Ars Electronica, which for the most part recognized the larger-scale efforts of coalitions, corporations, grassroots communities and NGOs.

Experimental projects that postulated entirely new possibilities for net-vision—even (or especially) as thought-experiments or symbolic gestures. This criterion likewise represented a set of priorities set to distinguish Net Vision from the Digital Communities category, which we felt was better suited to recognize projects that had achieved (or could foreseeably achieve) a transformative impact on the daily lives of significant numbers of people. Instead, we felt that art should have the privilege of being exempt from these sorts of utilitarian demands or expectations. Our jury was not concerned about whether or not a good project produced a widely-adopted “paradigm shift” in net-behavior; instead, we were moved by the “value fictions” (analogous to science fictions) proposed by certain works, impractical as they might be, because of the philosophical or moral dialogue, or shifts in global perspective that they prompted. We identified these values, in particular, in the [V]ote-auction project by UBERMORGEN.COM, and in the Institute for Applied Autonomy’s iSee project. Although both of these teams developed net-based technologies which actually “work” in a strictly technical sense, the direct impact of these technological tools on the artists’ ostensible issues is mostly negligible; what is significant, instead, is the way that these projects have shifted the terms of public debate about issues of global concern.

Projects which inspired participation on a significant scale. At the same time that we acknowledged the value of symbolic gestures, we also recognized that some projects had earnest aims to build communities and respond to real human desires, and could be evaluated by their success in meeting these goals. This criterion, which contradicts the previous one in some respects, nevertheless proved helpful in evaluating the significance of artworks or projects which purported to have established open-ended communities of participants. Our question “Would people really want to participate in this?” was often easy to answer by simple observation. We identified this value, most significantly, in Ben Fry and Casey Reas’ Processing project, as well as in Alex Jarrett’s Degree Confluence Project, the IAA’s iSee project, Rainer Prohaska’s Operation CNTRCPY, Layla Curtis’ Message in a Bottle, and Hidenori Watanave’s NEtROBOtProject.

Projects that contributed significant innovations in the critical or social application of networked media. Related to the above criteria was our receptivity to projects with a manifest social conscience, which had developed new ways of deploying networked media critically in society. This became an umbrella criterion incorporating several (but not all) of our other interests.

Projects with significant physical components, which created new bridges between tangible reality and virtual information. We observed that this strategy represented one of the most fertile and interesting new directions for networkbased arts: more than half of our selections explored such connections in one way or another. Some projects, such as Rainer Mandl’s environmentally-sensitive Decoy installations, Fang-Yu Lin’s seemingly autonomous typewriter From The Great Beyond, Marius Watz’s Universal Digest Machine, Layla Curtis’ ocean-traveling Message in a Bottle, and Hidenori Watanave’s NEtROBOt Project, focused on the possibilities of networkenabled objects. Others works, such as Rainer Prohaska’s Operation CNTRCPY, the IAA’s iSee, and Alex Jarrett’s Degree Confluence Project, explored new ways in which social processes could be augmented through feedback with networked information resources.

Projects that contributed significant innovations to the formal development of visual language on the Internet. We identified this value, in numerous different ways, in the Processing initiative; in Yugo Nakamura’s highly influential Yugop.com site; and in James Paterson’s singularly unique collection of online works, Presstube.

Projects with a fresh approach to repurposing the language and contents of the Internet. It was enjoyable to discover projects with playful perspectives on how to best recycle the woolly masses of online information. We noted interesting approaches in Jonathan Harris’ synoptic 10 x 10 visualization, Amy Alexander’s chance-inflected CyberSpaceLand performances, the Surrealist responses of Fang-Yu Lin’s From The Great Beyond, and the dry, Borgesian attitude of Marius Watz’s Universal Digest Machine.

Projects that used the network as an artistic material in its own right. As expressed earlier, and also by many previous juries, we sought to recognize works which took significant formal and/or socio-political advantage of the affordances of the network and which, moreover, could not exist without networked communications. We observed this value especially in Amy Alexander’s CyberSpaceLand, and in UBERMORGEN.COMs [V]ote-auction and GWEI projects.

Projects that innovated through new uses of networks, and projects which explored the diversity of alternative networks apart from the Internet. We were especially delighted to discover projects which made artistic use of such networks as the Global Positioning System, Bluetooth, 802.11 wireless LANs, mobile telephony, land telephony, television and radio. We observed that these alternative networks (“alternative”, that is, with respect to normative notions of “Net Art” as strictly Internet-based) offered dramatically expanded contexts in which artworks could operate socially. We noted such innovations in Mandl’s Bluetooth-based Decoy, and in the mixture of GPS and Internet communications used in the Degree Confluence Project and Message in a Bottle.

While the task of winnowing several hundred submissions proved straightforward for our jury, the problem of arbitrating among our top selections proved considerably more difficult. As the Net has finally emerged as the de facto arena within which we enact our collective dramas of politics, culture and commerce, it is hardly surprising that this year’s Net Vision category of the Prix Ars Electronica has become something of a catch-all for an extremely diverse variety of competing notions about what currently constitutes good practice in network-based art. Our greatest conundrum was our schizophrenic desire to value both the highest achievements in network-based aesthetics, as well as the most significant manifestations of social conscience. This caused a strong (but ultimately prohibited) desire to award two Golden Nicas, to Processing and [V]oteauction. In the end, overcoming the extreme challenge of valuing one project over another, we selected three winners on three different axes. We now discuss our three award-winning projects in turn: Yugop.com and [V]ote-auction.net, which receive Awards of Distinction, and the Processing project, which receives the 2005 Golden Nica in the Net Vision category.

Yugo Nakamura’s interactive browser-based artworks, compiled online at his web site Yugop.com, represent the highest caliber of beautifully designed and elegantly executed graphic concepts to be found on the Internet today. We valued numerous dimensions of Nakamura’s projects, including their startling originality, charm and whimsy; their highly economical expressive means; and their illustration of the artist’s prolific and long-term commitment to this form. Indeed, Nakamura’s works at Yugop.com have had a global influence on a generation of artists and designers. Although a few other highly accomplished artists submitted similarly significant compilations of browser-based creations—notably James Paterson, who received an Honorary Mention in our category—we ultimately awarded this prize to Nakamura because of the scope and diversity of his expressions. In particular, we noted that many of the works at Yugop.com succeeded not just for the quality of their surface aesthetic or their aesthetic of interaction, but in many cases for their aesthetic of interaction across the network as well.

UBERMORGEN.COM’s [V]ote-auction web site was created to allow Americans to “auction their votes” in the 2000 and 2004 Presidential elections. This project incorporated the server-side technologies and design format of an online auction service (such as eBay) into a novel and sharply insightful combination of political and artistic intent. [V]ote-auction’s total fiction of corporate business code and form was sufficiently opaque (indeed, was it a fiction?) as to prompt actual users to execute several hundred auctions. Unsurprisingly, the questionable validity of these manoeuvres precipitated a large media and governmental backlash, causing the project’s creators considerable personal and financial hardships. Several years on, the project’s creators continue to suffer constricting legal injunctions and an array of extremely costly financial harassments as a consequence of this project.

In [V]ote-auction, UBERMORGEN.COM worked with the net as a pure material, in a very close and direct sense—beyond political decoration and social ornamentalism. Indeed, the UBERMORGEN. COM group embarked on a trail where art strategy and process intervened in multifaceted areas of actual governmental and economic monopolies. Such an intense and complex engagement was naturally imperfect and bound to be painful. But this is inevitable when one provokes governments and economical placeholders towards self-reflection: their response is tough, panicked and very aggressive.

With its wry slogan, “bringing capitalism and democracy closer together”, and its use of one network (the Internet) to inflame numerous other networks (the network of mass broadcast media, and the international legal/security network), we felt that this project illustrated the most successful and direct use of a network for socio-political criticism. In our current time—when a great deal of art refuses to take a political position and seems only to play with the aesthetic of criticism as a fashionable element, and when the corruption of consumerism and the fear of social incompatibility brainwashes our society—the [V]oteauction project is “the other”.

Processing is a free, open-source software development environment built for the media arts communities. It is created to teach fundamentals of computer programming within the media arts context and to serve as a software sketchbook. Used worldwide by more than 20,000 students, artists, designers, architects, and researchers for learning, prototyping, and production, Processing has already had a significant impact—enabling a generation of people to understand and use computation as a creative medium. Made by artists for artists, Processing represents the vision of just two individuals—Ben Fry and Casey Reas—who have committed themselves to growing the computational literacy of the global media-arts community.

It is reasonable to ask why Processing should be considered a “Net Vision” project. Even among our own jury, for example, was one member who (noting some of the projects authored with it) questioned whether Processing ought instead to receive an award in another category, such as Computer Animation. To this we have two answers. The first is that Processing exploited the Net in order to spawn a global, distributed community of developers and teachers committed to the creation of a free, open-source tool. Secondly, Processing has enabled an even larger community of net creators—students, artists, designers and researchers who use this tool in order to create yet more interactive, net-based artworks.

The timing of our Golden Nica award to the Processing initiative could not be more significant or appropriate. Three days before our jury meeting in April 2005—while Ben Fry and Casey Reas were putting the final touches on Processing’s first public release—the software giant Adobe announced its acquisition of Macromedia, the leading developer of interactive media authoring environments for the Internet. The consolidation of Macromedia’s Flash and Shockwave authoring tools into Adobe’s desktop-publishing business effectively creates a global software monoculture to which Processing is perhaps the only remaining free, open-source alternative. For the thousands of media-arts students around the world who are just now learning to program computers, the consequences of this cannot be underestimated: without Processing, the pedagogy of computational arts would effectively be controlled by a single company (“Macrodobe”) and guided by its closed-source, for-profit policies. Owing to the market segments and technological affordances covered by these tools, such a situation would essentially be the case regardless of pedagogic subfield—such as animation, interaction design, generative design, game design, or information visualization—and would affect the creation of artworks both inside and outside the networked information space. Insofar as today’s media-art students are tomorrow’s artists and technologists, we believe this has immense implications for the electronic arts community as a whole.

© Ars Electronica Linz GmbH, info@aec.at