Prix Ars Electronica


Ars Electronica Linz & ORF Oberösterreich

2007: The Return of the Interactor

Erkki Huhtamo, Söke Dinkla, Geetha Narayanan, Hiroshi Ishii, Shu-Min Lin

Art changes, and so do its definitions and categories. Interactive art is no exception. Since its inception in the 1970s and 80s, interactive projects by artists have embraced many different technologies, media and contexts, from room installations to public artworks, performances, gadgets, sound environments, network projects and hybrids of different forms. This evolution has been reflected in the decisions made by the Prix Ars Electronica juries over the years. However, instead of just reflecting external developments, it could also be claimed that the juries have influenced interactive art itself, leaving their fingerprints on the “genre”, its forms and definitions.

This has not always happened without controversy. Indeed, some of the jury decisions have created more confusion than clarity. It has been claimed that some of the works awarded in the Interactive Art category have not been, strictly speaking, “interactive” at all. Statements like these beg for definitions. What, if anything, is it that characterizes interactive art in all its myriad forms? This was the task the 2007 Interactive Art jury set out to explore. It was facilitated by the introduction of a new category, Hybrid Art. For it could, with some justification, be claimed that at least a few of the works awarded in the Interactive Art category over the past few years were chosen mostly because they clearly deserved a prize and there was no other category to place them in. Neologisms such as “system interactivity” or even “passive interactivity” (an oxymoron) were invented to justify their inclusion.

The problem was not the artistic quality, ambition or complexity of these projects. Many of them were wonderful and memorable. The problem was that they did not engage the audience in anything but “mental interaction”. The works existed and their internal processes unfolded independently of the observers, who were given roles that differed little from those of traditional gallery visitors or cinema audiences. Interactive art, however, was born from a conglomeration of very different impulses, from the process-oriented art practices of the 1960s to the inspiration provided by interactive computing, networking and virtual reality. Participation, destruction, deconstruction, reconstruction, displacement, replacement, interaction – whatever form the process may have taken, the observer was invited to contribute, communicate, construct, co-create: to turn into an interactor.

Without any nostalgia for the past, this year’s Interactive Art jury wanted to “return to the basics” and restore the centrality of the active user as the hallmark of interactive art. Whatever medium it uses and whatever form it takes, an interactive work always “reaches out” to humans, challenging or seducing them to abandon their customary stances. This does not reduce the complexity or “internal life” of the work in any way. An interactive artwork may be playful and gamelike, but it should at the same time also renew and question the modes of perception and experience, stimulate the mind (and the body), and challenge the prevailing hierarchy of the senses. Touch, in particular, emerges from its subsidiary role and takes its place alongside sight and sound as a major channel for experience, fulfilling Marshall McLuhan’s intuition.

That said, some qualifications have to be made to avoid positing normative canons or erecting new orthodoxies. There are works that may be called interactive, although the audience plays no “hands-on” role at all – this has been handed over to professional performers functioning as “surrogate interactors”. There are also “meta-interactive” works, whose actual interactivity may be limited. The clou of these works is elsewhere: in the discourses on interactivity they launch. In both cases the active user is an integral part of the concept, even if the interaction by the audience may not be direct. Whether such works should be classified as interactive art proper, or treated as adjunct forms, was deliberately left open.

When it comes to this year’s choices, the almost 400 entries received provided ample evidence that the rumors about the demise of interactive art have been premature. While there were few true revelations, a great variety of ideas and approaches could be detected. With the possible exception of works inspired by games and game machines, no apparent trend stood out from the pool of entries. Instead of celebrating any particular mode of interaction, technological direction or artistic philosophy, the jury ended up looking for a few things: original ideas, innovative technological applications, clever user interaction, social significance and artistic excellence. As can be expected, these criteria rarely coalesced in a single work.

The Golden Nica

Ashok Sukumaran’s Park View Hotel, the winner of the Golden Nica, got farthest in satisfying these criteria. Applying the SunSPOT programmable object technology, Sukumaran has set up a situation where the user, with a specially built pointing device, peeks from the outside into interior hotel spaces, “pinging” them optically. Once a space has been hit, the color of the space leaks out into the facade of the building, as if jumping across the street. Technological innovations have been harnessed to realize an original idea that raises huge issues about the public and the private, interfacing of architecture with media, seeing and the seen, the individual’s role in the media-saturated neo-panoptic society. Sukumaran’s work demonstrates that an artist working with interactive technology can be simultaneously an aesthetic innovator, an experience stimulator, a system creator and a discourse generator.

Awards of Distinction

The Awards of Distinction highlighted two quite different approaches to interactive art. Bernie Lubell’s Conversation of Intimacy is exceptional as a highly interactive work that does not use digital technology at all! In fact, Lubell has built a huge user-activated wooden machine, which registers the users’ motions on a continuous roll of paper by means of a combination of bodily and pneumatic operations. As in all of Lubell’s numerous, far too little-known works, the playful appearance disguises a wealth of artistic, technological, scientific and cultural references, from Etienne-Jules Marey’s “graphical method” of registering human and animal motions to the bachelor machines created by the likes of Raymond Roussel, Marcel Duchamp and Jean Tinguely, and to modes of computer interaction – indeed, Lubell has even created a large functioning multi-user wooden computer! For the jury, Lubell’s delightful work provided an opportunity to combat technological determinism: the computer is not the “measure of all things”, not even “things interactive”.

The other Award of Distinction went to Leon Cmielewski and Josephine Starrs for Seeker, a project that challenges the user to relate one’s personal trajectories to the movements of migration, conflicts and human displacement. By inserting elements of one’s own and one’s family’s movements into an evolving database, the personal, private and local becomes part of collective and, ultimately, global destinies. Tapping the interface leads to a process that broadens one’s self-understanding; it leads the user to reflect on the forces that condition the formation of one’s identity in a reality that is increasingly trans-national and trans-ethnic, but also torn by religious, political and ethnic boundaries. For the jury, Seeker provided an outstanding example of interactive work that sensitively contributes to the search for solutions to the many problems plaguing today’s troubled world.

The Honorary Mentions

The Honorary Mentions represent a wide selection of approaches and emerging ideas. Not all the works chosen are absolute “masterpieces”. Still, each one of them contains remarkable features that impressed the jury and provided evidence of the continuing pregnancy of interactive art. While aesthetically very different, both Sonia Cillari’s Se mi sei vicino and Baba Tetsuaki’s Freqtric Project have both set themselves the task of enhancing human-machine interaction by re-defining the human body as a tactile interface. Cillari’s solution is poetic and erotic, while Tetsuaki’s “human drums” emphasize playfulness and social interaction. In a sense, tactility also characterizes Julien Maire’s Digit. It could best be described as a meta-interactive work: the performer’s finger produces printed text on a blank paper, seemingly without any technological intervention. Maire positions himself as a modern magician, who explores the history of technology in an unexpected and highly idiosyncratic manner. Nothing is what it seems, but makes, in the end, a lot of (non)sense.

Another kind of “magic” takes place in Yuichi Ito’s and Yoshimasa Kato’s White Lives on Speaker: the interactor’s brainwaves make prosaic potato starch vibrating on a loudspeaker turn into surprising jumping “mind sculptures”! In Gabriel Barcia-Colombo’s Animalia Cordata the visitor interacts with minuscule “human samples” collected in glass jars – a metaphor with rich connotations, from curiosity cabinets and sleightof-hand shows to laboratory practices and theories of human taxonomies. Both pieces are both surprising and humorous; they are good reminders of the fact that accessibility does not necessarily equal superfluousness. The same could be said of Vincent Elka’s SHO(U)T, which encourages the interactor to express one’s emotions by shouting, and responds with impressive audiovisual forms. While the idea is not new, the jury found the realization compelling.

In addition to Seeker, the possibilities of interactive media to deal with cultural, social, and political issues were featured in very different ways in works the jury wanted to recognize. Agnes Meyer-Brandis has designed an SGM Iceberg Probe that allows the user “penetrate” layers of ice and visually explore underground realms threatened by global warming and multicultural business interests. A playful interface, like a sleight-ofhand trick, provides an entry into “deep” issues. Brian Knep’s Deep Wounds is an ambitious sitespecific installation, where walking reveals suppressed layers of the history of the United States. Installed at Harvard’s Memorial Hall, missing data about the Harvard graduates who fought on the “wrong” side in the American Civil War appears on the floor. The work provides convincing evidence of the maturity interactive media has reached as a medium for public artistic purposes. In India, the Chitrakarkhana workshop, founded by documentary filmmaker and media activist Shaina Anand, has realized several innovative projects linking local people by means of cheap refunctionalized CCTV and CATV technology. These experiments, such as the KhirkeeYaan (2006), have created extraordinary results, leading to dialogs between factions of the society that seldom encounter each other face-to-face. From the Western high-tech perspective the technology used for these projects may not be anything new, but it is the contextualization that makes all the difference. Chitrakarkhana’s projects show that media does not only have to mean an impersonal “feed” superimposed on society from above; it can be re-defined at grass-roots level, empowering local residents to reflect on their identities and to better understand the social realities they share.

Finally, interactivity on a massive scale, both when it comes to the number of participants and the dimensions of the work itself, has been explored by Usman Haque in hisOpen Burble. Here the participants both contribute to the design and physically control a massive artificial “cloud” consisting of a great number of modular units supported by helium balloons. The resultant work is a hybrid between art, architecture, performance and social event. Interactive art also becomes linked here with the traditions of “sky art” in a fresh way, which involves open public space and brings a large group of people into physical proxemic interaction – a welcome and useful experience for the mobile-phone generation.

This statement was written by Erkki Huhtamo.

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