Prix Ars Electronica


Ars Electronica Linz & ORF Oberösterreich

Pervasive Intermedia – Searching and Finding Criteria in the Open Space of Hybrid Art

Tim Edler, Yan Gong, Jens Hauser, Richard Kriesche, Michael Naimark

The Hybrid Art category is new and, “naturally”, still under construction. In its second year of existence, the jury therefore decided not to proceed from a predefined grid of conceptual evaluation criteria of how the quality of today’s transdisciplinary projects and approaches to media art could putatively be grasped. Instead, the prime consideration that Hybrid Art expands the borders of the existing Prix Ars Electronica categories has translated into the jury’s aim to examine the extremely broad range represented by the 363 entries regardless of any given genre, topic, medium or materiality. It put a special focus on how the combination of technologies, materials, topics, research areas and disciplines generate specifically inspired artistic projects or experiences that tie together vision, knowledge and the world of everyday life. It was ostensibly established as the “other” category for works that don’t neatly fit elsewhere, and this year's submissions clearly confirmed the urgent need for such a category, which encourages art on the fringe and is open to works emerging in the realm of a still unclear post-digital paradigm.

Digitization certainly leads to a culture in which many distinctions between media become apparently irrelevant when they are all together on the same machine. On the socio-political level, it also changes the notions of authorship and creates hybrid existences in a world of day jobs, with game companies, personal art work critical of corporate culture, and community work advancing individual political agendas all coexisting. Indeed, the inaugural year of the Hybrid Art category in 2007 already bore witness to the current shift from works based on the notion of universal code and information technologies toward works that increasingly inform matter by combining more specific and contextualized codes and material technologies; as a consequence, the first year’s jury had rejected “data translation art”—art works that just “map an arbitrary input to an arbitrary output without a significant layering and weaving together of context”—and prioritized art that echoed the etymological roots of the hybrid metaphor, with its origin in biology.

How then to search and find works that combine ideas and technologies in a new, complex and inspiring way that is able to question existing formats (disciplines, schools, markets)? Can excellence be defined by the degree of hybridity itself, or by what one may call situative or “appropriate intermediality”? Dick Higgins’ “Statement on Intermedia”, formulated as a Fluxus manual in 1966, still appears just as fresh when it comes to the dialectic between the media employed today. The issue at stake is “less the still further discovery of new media and intermedia, but of the new discovery of ways to use what we care about both appropriately and explicitly.” The newness factor itself is old, as technological flux is intrinsically dynamic. As Higgins puts it, “the central problem is now not only the new formal one of learning to use them, but the new and more social one of what to use them for.” On the other hand, fusion between different media and genres into new forms of artistic expression may provide “hybrid vigor”. This phenomenon of heterosis, or outbreeding enhancement, is discussed by Brian Stross in his paper “The Hybrid Metaphor—From Biology to Culture”, arguing that biological and cultural hybridity can be compared. What breeders appreciate as increased vigor or a greater capacity for growth, which is often displayed by hybrid animals or plants—increased growth rate, size, fertility—would also be expected of hybrid vigor in cultural terms. But insisting on the very notion of a hybrid as a total cultural construct, Stross also brings up the concept of the “hybridity cycle”: Hybrids, once enough of the same kinds are created, can be inbred to develop increasing homogeneity sufficient to be called pure-breds again, with their vigor decreasing in succeeding generations. What is once perceived as heterogeneous adopts forms and conventions, creates rules, generates traditions, inbreeding or “self-pollination”. In cultural terms, purity results from refinement, and from the conventionalization of a tradition. May these two complementary ways of reasoning have reflected on how tendencies and award candidates have been identified? May dominant clusters of works have appeared as already new pure-breeds? A great number of submissions dealt explicitly with climate change, ecology, Second Life or telesurveillance; others contained elements of telepresence, brainwave or electromagnetic interfaces, or presented video-enhanced stage performances and media architectures as “skins” for public spaces. While we expected that potential award winners would emerge from these clusters, these works finally appeared as quite predictable fusions and surprisingly were eliminated throughout the selection process.

Nevertheless, it must be said that there is a strong insecurity to evaluate these hybrid spaces of inbetweeness to inhabit. Also, the category’s premise of “transcending the boundaries between art and research, art and social/political activism” does not seem to converge into an overall questioning either of the social status of the artist or of his or her ways of appropriation of conquered transdisciplinary territories. Couldn’t we also expect a scientist-in-residence in an art center, instead of vice-versa? Is the “social label” of artists symbolically claiming or suggesting participatory potential, or the classical subversion of supposedly strictly commercial tools enough to conceive art that in one way or an other happens to become pervasive? One of the conclusions of the selection process might be that the (public) staging of a concept or an intervention needs to overcome the supposed evidence of artistic input as automatically “added value”, and aesthetic strategies to be developed, not to let the field of aesthetics fully be taken over by advertising. In order to question the hybrid paradigm for its future potential ever to gain a viable base in the art’s transition, the works that the jury awarded have been chosen less for their multi-mediality or exponential hybridity. What counted more has been their quality of appropriate intermediality and their ability to condense their complexity into intriguing trompe-l'œil “oneliners”—between operationality and symbolism—in which mediated experiences become tangible.

The Golden Nica

HEHE (Heiko Hansen & Helen Evans)

The Paris-based duo Hehe has developed Pollstream as a series of installations and interventions between 2002 and 2008. As a continuous and voluntarily ambiguous collection of ideas, forms and images, the ongoing project explores and aestheticizes man-made clouds in a wide range of cultural and political meanings. Around this central idea, and beyond a univocal moralistic approach, Hehe has constructed diverse forms of concrete public interactions and engineered non-utilitarian design solutions that have culminated in the recently performed Nuage Vert project in Helsinki: the vapor emissions from a coal-burning power plant were illuminated with a high-power green laser animation, drawing an outline of the moving cloud onto the cloud itself and turning it into an appealing city-scale neon sign which directly responds to local energy consumption. Nuage Vert aims to shift abstract discourses about carbon emissions from abstract immaterial models and fashionable buzzwords to the reality of urban life, featuring a public monitoring of the collective consumption in the area. By motivating several thousand local residents to unplug their electrical devices for the purpose of an aesthetic spectacle, Nuage Vert temporarily lowered energy consumption by 800 kVA. The global inter-relatedness of energy flow is further stressed by the fact that the energy saved is “wasted” by the laser projection, itself evoking a green, even more toxic cloud. The realization of this art project on a citywide scale took five years of negotiation, mediation and public discussion, and relied on partners from the fields of laser physics, computer science, electronic engineering, energy producers, air-quality monitoring organizations, cultural institutions, environmental activists and a governmental energy awareness agency.

The other works in Hehe’s Pollstream are equally open to interpretation. Champs d’Ozone is a chromatic cloud work, consisting of a window installed on the sixth floor of the Centre Pompidou in Paris in which real-time toxin measurements from local air-monitoring stations are translated into synthetic cloud floats superposed onto the real Paris skies. Toy Emissions (My friends all drive Porsches) is a humorous and efficient tactical performance with a miniature radio-controlled Porsche Cayenne, coloring the polluted air of New York City green while disrupting the Big Apple’s traffic flows. Smoking Lamp coincided with the pan-European ban on smoking in public places, consisting of a lamp that reacts to cigarette smoke and thus turning the now prohibited pleasure/disturbance into an anachronistic beauty attraction. The jury wishes to acknowledge the great pervasiveness, the accurate choice of situations and media of Hehe’s long-term project, which blurs the boundaries between industrial design, mechanical engineering, ecological media art, public engagement and a fecund, unpretentious moral stance.

Awards of Distinction

The Awards of Distinction are given to two extremely different strategies of work dealing with the observation of physiological and cognitive phenomena, highlighting the openness of the category: an outstanding live performance and an autotelic gallery installation.

Yann Marussich’s Bleu Remix is a highly compressed, intense performance based on biomedical intervention in which the public is metaphorically and metonymically engaged in a relation of co-corporality with the performer’s presence. Lying motionless in a transparent rectangular structure, the artist controls a physiological choreography of methylene blue, which progressively seeps out of body cavities and pores, using thermal regulation and precisely calculated timing. The inner sounds of his body are remixed by a DJ, thus creating a situation in which the relationship between outward immobility and inner mobility is experienced and the current understanding of an “action” is questioned. At first sight a continuation of the 70s Body Art movement, the performance is, however, based on long-term research involving chemists and physicians and points to the great future potential of biomedia in general as a growing field of performative and rematerialized media art to appear as immediate. The jury recognizes that this approach helps critiquing current and rigidified definitions of what qualifies as media or interfaces.

With micro.flow, Julius Popp has created a tour de force combining computing and cognition with visual spectacle: a pumping machine creates visual patterns of colored liquids that do not mix in transparent tubes; a computing machine observes, analyses and reproduces the patterns and feeds the recognition back by communicating with the pumping machine. The work addresses how our brain deals with information, its perception and learning processes. Presented as a self-sufficient “bachelor machine”, micro.flow explores human perception and intelligence within the framework of a senseless robotic being, allotting humankind a more humble position as just one parameter in a larger system. In Julius Popp’s captivating installation, exchanges between seemingly simple, autonomous devices within controlled environments can be witnessed and studied. The fluid parameters—metaphorically alluding to communication flux—make the work aesthetically accessible even though the informative structure of the artwork remains hidden.

Honorary Mentions

The selection process for the twelve Honorary Mentions offered the opportunity to acknowledge works that are either locative and pervasive in the most diverse environments, that acquire their quality through the perfect combination of specific materials and concepts or through their obsessive and maniacal character.

The Thinking Machine by Masahiro Miwa and Martin Riches is a ternary logical machine that outputs melodies formed by three sounds as a result of the calculations. It elegantly addresses contemporary issues relating to electronic and computer art by using non-electronic elements. This under-represented genre forces us to think about “media art” by making visible and audible the fact that the computers that support contemporary society are driven by self-contained logical thought in a dimension beyond objects. As a trans-species experiment in which birds and computers teach “vocal” language to each other, Call <-> Response by tEnt (Hiroya Tanaka & Macoto Cuhara) proposes a hybridization between natural eco-systems and computational systems. Their “Natural Computing” asks whether interfaces per se need to be humancentered. “Eco-actions” with public participation are in the center of Brandon Ballengée’s trans-disciplinary Malamp UK project: fieldresearch to study the decline of amphibians and unexpected malformation, which the artist refers to as “monstrous environmentally sculpted creatures”. Exploring the boundaries between art and the biological sciences and technology, Brandon Ballengée creates multidisciplinary works out of information generated from ecological field trips and laboratory research. Malamp UK completes the artist’s previous undertaking of breeding extinct Hymenochirus frogs backwards from domesticated sub-species and to resurface historically described physical traits.

Within the prominent scope of tactical public art interventions, Loca: Set To Discoverable by John Evans, Drew Hemment, Theo Humphries and Mika Raento is an ambitious and well-executed art/research project, which combines a cityscale installation with pervasive design, software engineering, grass-roots activism, hardware hacking, SMS poetry, sticker art and ambient performance. The group tracks and communicates with residents via their cell phones without their permission, so long as they have a Bluetooth device set to discoverable. People are sent messages from a stranger with intimate knowledge of their movements. Ahmad Sherif’s Ahmad Sherif Project is highly significant in that it uses search-engine advertising as a medium. Over a year, Ahmad Sherif has built a media architecture whose dynamics are based on the most accessible services of the Web 2.0, using Google Ads for political messages in the context of censorship in Egypt. In Johannes Gees’s straightforward provocation Salat, automated “sound bombs” broadcasting the Muslim call for prayer were clandestinely installed on five important church towers, as a mirror for the intended referendum to ban the construction of minarets in Switzerland. Questions of legal use of public space and the “normality” of standard movement are raised in the series of events organized by Improv Everywhere (Charlie Todd), starting with Frozen Grand Central, a public mass performance in which a huge group of people stops moving at the same time at an important public place.

In Standard Time, a work by Mark Formanek, realised by Datenstrudel, a “digital” time display is built by resolutely ubiquitous analog means: a huge crew of workers constructs a giant wooden clock in real time, involving 1611 changes within 24 hours, constantly on the verge of failing and creating a theatrical, emotional effect. The actorless stage performance Theatre#_ by Mikko Hynninen emphasizes the dominance of technological equipment over content: smoke machines, air conditioning or microphones play down an anthropomorphic mechanical ballet. The strength of Harun Farocki’s and Matthias Rajmann’s multiple video installation Deep Play, made up of various perspectives on the final of the 2006 World Cup, lies in the grotesquely exaggerated, media based analysis of a supposedly spontaneous football game. TV footage, abstract computer-generated animations and biomechanical analysis classify and assess the play. Not unlike war, here the laboratory of football makes it possible to demonstrate the most advanced technology in the production of moving images.

The last cluster of mechatronic gallery works is well deserved by Chico MacMurtrie’s recent Totemobile, a complex robotic sculpture that appears as a life-sized representation of the iconic 1965 Citroen DS. The absurdist art work follows through a complex narrative as a biomorphic journey upward. In Wave (Dalay), Alexander Ponomarev has poetically assembled a repetitive installation that gives the impression of reduced speed through the choice of water as its main material ingredient. Inspired by a trip to Tibet and the country’s monasteries, the artist’s heavy breathing projected on the screen causes the wave’s pulsation in a large tunnel filled with water, assuaging an agitated (political) space.

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