Prix Ars Electronica


ORF Oberösterreich

Moore's Law Applied to Digital Art?

John Markoff

In the nine years since the Ars Electronica created the Interactive Art category it has become increasingly evident that the category has continued to evolve as quickly as information technology has changed.

Indeed because almost every aspect of computing and communications is mediated by the industrial process known as "Moore’s Law" - the number of transistors that can be etched onto the surface of an integrated circuit has doubled every 18 months for almost thirty years - there is little wonder that the nature of art created in this medium has mutated just as rapidly.

Perhaps one of the clearest demonstrations of the impact of Moore’s Law upon interactive art is in the decision by this year’s jury to choose "World Skin" by Maurice Benayoun and Jean-Baptiste Barrière as winner of the Golden Nica. "World Skin" offered a startling tour of a modern battlefield from the perspective of a photojournalist. As they move through the landscape the audience can take "pictures" which steal an image from the scene The sounds made by the cameras increasingly echo the sounds of the battlefield as the viewers roll through the endless images of carnage and war.

This year was the first year that artists have entered works in the Ars Electronica competition based on the immersive CAVE environments pioneered at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications in Illinois. The CAVEs were originally designed by researchers at the center as a means of providing less restrictive or even shared three-dimensional environments.

CAVEs employ powerful supercomputers to repaint three-dimensional environments quickly enough to permit a small audience wearing stereoscopic glasses to feel as if is floating through a surreal world. Intended for scientists hoping to visualize the torrents of data now created by computational- based science in fields as diverse as astronomy and molecular biology, the tools have quickly found their way outside of the scientific community.

"World Skin" was one of three CAVE-based entries in this year’s contest. Indeed the fact that the CAVE technology has been seized upon so quickly by the interactive arts community is a dramatic testimony underscoring how much the fundamental nature of computing is changing in the world.

Until the end of the Cold War computing technologies generally trickled down from corporate and military institutions that historically have taken the lead in applying high performance computing. But since the early 1990s a remarkable inversion has become apparent. Increasingly, the most advanced computing technologies, from processing to storage to display and communications are now appearing first in consumer rather than corporate applications. The transformation has remarkable implications: Increasingly the most advanced and powerful computing technologies are being designed and sold by companies that make products that are found under Christmas trees!

For cybernetic artists, of course, this trend is cause for both joy and consternation. One wonders, for example, how the renaissance painters would have felt, knowing that the properties of the canvas on which they worked would be transformed annually.

This year there were numerous other examples underscoring how computing has escaped both the confines of the computing center and now even the personal computer among the 211 entries that were judged. One of the two Distinctions was awarded to Peter Broadwell and Rob Myers for a strikingly clear interactive explanation of some of the political and civil liberties problems posed by cryptography, a technology once confined to kings, spies and generals. Now, however, thanks to the plummeting cost of computing due to Moore’s Law, it is possible for virtually anyone in society to share secret information. Moreover, because it has become vital to the development of electronic commerce via the Internet as well as a potential threat to national security, encryption technology has become a flashpoint of political debate both in the United States and in Europe.

"Plasm: Not a Crime" is an interactive installation which vividly demonstrates a new idea proposed recently by MIT cryptographer Ron Rivest: how to share secret information without first encrypting it. Broadwell and Myers believe that by showing clearly how it is possible to circumvent national laws designed to prohibit the use of strong cryptography, they have demonstrated how futile the governments’ efforts to restrict access to encryption will prove.

A Distinction was also awarded Christian Möller for his "Audio Grove" installation, a forest of tall metal tubes that envelope visitors in a bath of sound and light as they move through the grove. Touching the tubes in different ways provokes different combinations of sound and light. This year’s jury was composed of two curators, a technologist, an interactive media artist and a journalist. We sought to find a middle ground between implementation and innovation while looking at projects based on CD-ROM, the World Wide Web, tiny microprocessor-based building blocks and perhaps a dozen other media.

Indeed, increasingly diversity appears to be the rule rather than the exception, making comparisons in judging a risky enterprise at best. There were, however, certain themes that would occasionally reappear: We noted that five of this year’s entries invoked Shakespeare in one way or another, four used canned television or news reports to document their projects, three were attempts at creating interactive books, two used the beating of the human heart interactively and three sensed brainwaves. In addition to the three prizes the jury nominated 12 additional entries covering a variety of approaches for honorable mention. For example, "Crime-Z-Land" by Stephen Wilson invoked the ideas of Yale University computer scientist David Gelernter, whose 1991 book Mirror Worlds hints at many of the ideas that later emerged in the World Wide Web.

"Crime-Z-Land" uses an abandoned lot near San Francisco’s City Hall to display crime data for the city more graphically than it would ever appear in the statistical records of the police department. In "Boundary Functions" Scott Sona Snibbe uses computer imaging techniques to map dynamic bright lines on the floor between people. As a group of people mill about in a circle the lines are displayed on the floor, constantly moving to reflect differing ideas of comfortable social distance.

Finally, in one case the jury decided that an entry that was clearly only a concept rose to the level of art and deserved an honorable mention. Christoph Ebener and Uli Winters proposed the idea of Byte, a diabolical computerized Skinner Box which they say is intended to breed a special kind of mouse capable of destroying computer network cables. The mouse, they propose, could be used as a weapon against computer networks.

Concept or reality? If Moore’s Law insures nothing else, it is certain that the dramatic increase in computer speed in the next few years will make it inevitable that future Ars Electronica juries will have an increasingly difficult time distinguishing between the two.

© Ars Electronica Linz GmbH, info@aec.at