Prix Ars Electronica


Ars Electronica Linz & ORF Oberösterreich

Social Art

Silvana Lemos de Almeida, Isaac Mao, Danny O'Brien, Gunther Reisinger, Saskia Sassen

Digital communities can be seen as an everchanging, always incomplete, social art. There’s no final piece, no single author for such collectively created works. We can only glimpse—and judge—a blurred snapshot of what is intended, and what is achieved. Despite that challenge, as a jury, we are luckier than most. We do not always have to bring our own aesthetic principles so closely to bear on the result. Community may be hard to define, but the results of great artistry in this domain bring tangible results. While it would be wrong to judge every community on its consequences, the potential for a community to change the world is a touchstone that we confidently used in all our judgements.

The participants in the communities we present here have harnessed the power of internet and other ICT tools to empower themselves, to gather, share and create new works, and to increase the value of information they provide to each other and to the public. But digital communities have never simply been a matter of marshalling data, kneading and redistributing like so many communal loaves of bread. Successful digital communities can also help change the physical communities they are embedded within, improve the real lives of its users, or help to reduce the damage caused by wider social struggles. By using the tools forged with technology and milled by communal use, communities can bring their digital creativity back into their real lives. They can generate new social identities. A well-built digital community can dramatically improve the trust and sense of belonging between those community members, and its connection to the rest of the world. Digital communities make better analog communities.

Like every award in the Prix Ars Electronica, the skill and excellence of practicing the “social art” emerges with a different emphasis and different goals in each nomination. As a jury, we chose to select for our Honorary Mentions the finest representatives of the clearest categories that we saw emerging from the over 250 submissions. Rather than picking them as runners-up to the main prize, we saw each as a chance to describe the breadth of the nominations and the generally high quality we saw in all of these areas. We were relieved to have so many separate rooms in which to place our picks, since so many of our categories were not comparable with each other.

Above and beyond all of these considerations, were the terms on which we judged the Golden Nica and our two Distinctions. There we all agreed that only one criteria, one category of art, applied: excellence in implementation, as witnessed through the extent of their effect on the communities’ members and their potential to change and challenge the rest of us: we, the outsiders that surround, cushion and hopefully nurture every successful community, digital or not.

Art and community
One distinctive quality of the Digital Communities award is how often the nominations come from the many vibrant communities that surround Ars Electronica itself. As a jury, we knew that while the arena we drew from was global, we wanted to give some primacy to the communities of digital art itself; of individual digital artistic ventures that reach out to their own audience and transform them into participants in the work; net art critics and compilers who face the endless challenges of discovering and curating digital artworks; and, of course, online communities that exist to serve the digital artists themselves.

In the category of an artistic work transformed by its seeding of and collaboration with its own community, Man with the Movie Camera is an excellent artistic project in its own right, based on a famous film-artwork from Dziga Vertov in 1929, and yet excelling too in the social art, as it defines and addresses a specialized digital community. By conducting digital re-enactments of the different scenes of the film by Vertov and publishing them in a way that allows viewers to see endless permutations of the film, with newly created versions seamlessly edited from online contributions, and placed next to the original film, users contribute to the work and will—finally—create an endless array of new versions of Vertov’s original.

The challenges of mapping and critiquing the Cambrian explosion of digital artworks is revisited using Web 2.0 technology in the steve Museum. This project is based on art-historical research on the terminology used in museological contexts. Issues of adapting the art-historical methodology of the “description” of traditional artworks such as painting and sculptures, these approaches are combined with the aim of gaining knowledge by applying the newest tagging technologies in digital networks—a project that provides a new insight into the challenges of the performative sciences.

The “found art” of FFFFound! lies in the many beautiful visual works that we all stumble upon when wandering the web. FFFFound! takes the technology of “social bookmarking” and uses it to create a community of curators. You can pick one of its many users and simply follow their tastes as they collect and re-frame what they have discovered; or you can let the site uncover your own perceived tastes derived from your past choices. FFFFound! treads a careful line between the algorithms of recommendation engines, the quixotic choices of individual art lovers and the challenges of respecting the author’s intent when framing online art. It also presents an ingenious trick in ensuring that a community based around sharing doesn’t fall prey to spam or a dilution of its intent. Every curator on FFFFound! has only one invite that they can use to invite a new FFFFound! member; an artificial scarcity of community that limits the site’s growth, but defines its overall character. If FFFFound! allows the spectator to navigate the world of online visual arts, Freesound is a tool for audio artists to navigate the potentials of their raw material. A collaborative database of Creative-Commons-licensed sounds, Freesound does not aim to collate or index finished works, but instead the basic building blocks of audio works. A typical entry in its database of sounds is one minute forty-seven seconds of a chaffinch in the Black Forest or three seconds of a camera shutter closing. To navigate such a vast, sprawling soundscape, Freesound has created its own unique tools. Small widgets show the sound waveform beside a play button, like the sparklines of Edward Tufte. Geotagged sounds appear on a map of the world, letting you move from “frogs in a ditch” in the Western Cape in South Africa, then mouse over the Atlantic to hover over the collected sounds of a herd of wild horses on the coast of Chile. Over 500,000 users peruse and contribute Freesound’s archive, using it to build their own art and our knowledge of the creative possibilities of the world’s noise.

Measured by bandwidth, the lowest way to communicate online, some would say, is ASCII—raw text. But as six thousand years of literacy has shown, text is a spectacularly well-compressed stream of bits. Readme.cc is an EU-Commissionfunded website that attempts to bridge the world of literature and the world of the internet—and at the same time to make connections between speakers of different languages. Languages divide communities as effectively online as they do in the world of literature, but the net provides a way, at least roughly, for us to convey our enthusiasm for a good book to any audience. By linking book-lovers from ten languages, Readme.cc shows that the commonality of literature overcomes even the form in which it is expressed.

Technology and community
Digital community, like so much of the Prix Ars Electronica’s ambit, is slowly developing a history all of its own. The longest-running communities took the bare bones of the early internet and crafted a vibrant habitat from them. Now, the most resilient of them are moving upmarket, into the gentrified estates of newest technology. The bulletin board 2chan, founded by Hiroyuki Nishimura, turned that basic ASCII into a common art form for Japanese net users and established anonymous postings as one of a unique expressions of Japanese culture. Taking the next step, Nishimura helped develop nico nico douga: 2chan’s heckling style applied to YouTubestyle video clips. In nico nico douga (literally Smiley Smiley Video), text comments are added graffiti-style to movies. Like 2chan, nico nico douga takes heckling as a medium to new heights. Wired magazine says that nico nico douga is just the beginning of Japan’s Web 2.0 boom: but it’s just one small step in the digital community at the heart of digital Japan.

drupal is an open-source project that has allowed communities without a core of technologists to quickly adopt the more advanced features of the best sites. Open-sourced in 2001, it quickly became one of the default choices when a website wanted to both create its own content and allow its readers to contribute too. drupal’s origins in bulletin-board software make it uniquely democratic in how it manages content. Every page on a drupal site could have comments; every user could have their own blog. After a long struggle to create a reasonable roadmap and not be pulled in many different directions, drupal is now reaching the position where its promise is matched by the ease of installation and the rich possibilities of its independently written module system. For both its contribution to other communities and its example as a longrunning community itself, we gave Drupal our honorary mention.

If code is the bricks with which an online habitat is built, then data is its mortar. And while the availability of code has exploded with the opensource revolution, much of the data about our world is still held under lock and key.

This is particularly true, tragically, for data collected on behalf of and paid for by the public. Too many countries, for instance, have attempted to hoard the very shape and geography of it’s the land beneath their citizens’ feet: reselling them mapping data that they have already paid for. openStreetMap is an international project that is creating a genuine public good in a area where many countries’ governments have failed us. The project collects thousands of users’ GPS tracks of their countries, as well as datasets contributed by professional organizations (such as cab companies) who have an interest in free road and topology data. From its humble beginnings in the UK (where the national mapping service, the Ordnance Survey, imposes restrictive licenses on the use of state-gathered information), the database has now grown to cover dozens of countries who, until now, have had no public definition of their own geography. Provided under a Creative-Commons-inspired license, openStreetMap is a practical assertion of Woody Guthrie’s folk song slogan: This Land is Your Land.

For many of us, the fascinating world of programming remains an unexplored country. We do not know and cannot feel the visceral thrill and the power of being able to control the technology that surrounds us and bend it to our will rather than that of our bosses, tech companies, our governments, or faraway technologists. Understanding coding stands as a way of understanding our modern predicament. Children exposed to Scratch, our next Honorary Mention, have an opportunity to examine, play with and reject or embrace such power, even before they can properly read or write. Scratch is a programming platform developed by MIT that uses visual cues rather than curly brackets or indentation to determine the structure of a program. Built on the venerable educational environment (and key inspiration for object-oriented programming and the windows and mouse GUI) SmallTalk, Scratch includes features that let children easily upload and share their programs for others to explore. A community of child programmers is a community that has a chance to understand the digital world more profoundly: a level of insight that the rest of us can only begin to imagine.

Building bridges
Connections between communities was a common theme this year, appearing as a feature of many of the nominations and all three of our prize-winners.

In three Honorary Mentions, the superlative development of what Bowling Alone author Robert Putnam calls “bridging social capital” dominated our judgement. Take Back the Tech takes a leap that seems unusual at first sight, but makes more sense the closer you examine its achievements: connecting ICT development with fighting violence against women. The individual empowerment that computers can give, the power to tell your story—particularly anonymously—to others in the same situation as you are and their ability to create unity amongst an otherwise diffuse and disempowered minority, are all-powerful weapons against the dangers of violent assault in male-dominated society.

While the value of Take Back The Tech is easy to see once considered, the community that has grown around Groklaw seems to have far more inauspicious parents. Geeks and lawyers never mix, surely? But when the two groups united to understand and fight back against a threat to Linux and open-source development, the result was positive for both. SCO was a company that thought it had come up with the perfect profit center: hitting up users of Linux for money by claiming that the free operating system was stolen from SCO’s own proprietary code base. To fight back, the tech expertise of Linux enthusiasts had to conquer the equally Byzantine world of American law. In doing so, this community helped save free software and turned Groklaw’s webmaster, Pamela Jones, into an internet hero. In open-source software, many eyes make all bugs shallow: in law, many eyes make even the most expensive litigation vulnerable to the truth.

Finally, a wall between communities that has lasted for thousands of years has been shaken. yeeyan is a Chinese site that works to break down the language barrier between the West and China, one translated text at a time. Originally a website that allowed volunteer translators to quickly cooperate to turn the many media sources of the world into Mandarin and Cantonese, yeeyan has now become a hub for those wishing to understand the world outside China—and for Westerners wanting to hear first-hand from the Chinese themselves. From poems to the latest tech news, yeeyan injects subtlety and cultural re-mappings where the machine-translations of Google fail us.

Our two Distinctions continue the theme of bridge building, but with a wider brief.

Global Voices is a world-renowned global project that engages dozens of grassroots contributors to collect, translate and interpret online voices from around the world. Originally intended to combat the isolation that every national media shows (under-reporting international news, over-reporting the local and domestic), Global Voices has in recent years developed a voice and power all of its own.

The site can report what is happening at any moment around the world, often faster and with more thoughtful contributions than the traditional media. Contributing editors not only quote from their local blogosphere in a neutral way but also put their own personal insights on the site to highlight the general and specific problems around the world. Its dynamic website takes scattered voices and subtly arranges and coordinates them to allow readers to drill down easily into one region’s history or to pull back to see a truly global overview of individual concerns. As if to show that even the most diverse community will always find common ground, the site has also spawned an advocacy wing, which coordinates internationally to support and publicize jailed bloggers and others online who are fighting censorship and seeking global conversations between conflicted groups. For Global Voices many years of bridging the internet and the world, we award it the Prix Ars Electronica Distinction.

As there are more and more people facing the problem of illness around the world including ALS, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, HIV and mood conditions (including depression, bi-polar disorder, anxiety and more), so they also face the challenge of isolation, exclusion and loss of confidence. PatientsLikeMe is a place that provide a space for those people who may want to actively deal with their diseases with the social support of similar peers. On the PLM site, patients interact to help improve their outcomes, while the data they provide helps researchers learn how these diseases act in the real world. PatientsLikeMe endeavors to create the largest repository of real-world disease information to help accelerate the discovery of new, more effective treatments. The site is designed to help those users find and support each other, in a context a world away from the usual medically mediated world of traditional medicine. And yet the tools provided online can be used to measure one’s own improvements scientifically and hopefully increase their efficacy through the support of an experienced community. PatientsLikeMe is not just a medical tool: it is the intimate heart of a truly communal attempt at rehabilitation.

The Golden Nica
1kg More has a simple name, and a simple idea. Every traveler who travels between the urban and the rural worlds of mainland China, from backpacker to business visitor, can afford to take one kilogram more in their luggage, to be delivered to the poorer communities of that vast nation. The 1kg More site acts as coordinator and arbiter: the travelers find what small schools need before they go; their photographs exist as proof and testimony to the kilogram’s delivery (and in the pictures of delighted schoolchildren, a powerful advertisement for others to join the project).

Books, stationery, even pencil erasers can be hard to obtain in some Chinese communities, yet the complexities of organizing state or charitable donations on a large scale can quickly drown such simple tasks in a mass of bureaucracy, internal politics and/or local suspicion. The simple act of connecting a rural school with a lone traveler has proven to be far more effective: and for those involved it is a more satisfyingly personal experience. This is the scale on which the internet thrives at building its communities: one person at a time, possibly across vast distances, and always with the possibility of easily multiplying one act across thousands. “Pass, Communicate and Share” is the motto of 1kg More. It could be the motto of the internet; it could be the motto of all community.

© Ars Electronica Linz GmbH, info@aec.at