michael naimark




Prix Ars Electronica Jury 1998, Linz

Michael Naimark


Prix Ars Electronica, the world's largest electronic art competition, held its jury meetings this past weekend in Linz, Austria. I'm delighted to announce that Interval and friends of Interval did very well in the category of "Interactive Art," which received over 200 entries.

Rachel Strickland and team received one of twelve Honorary Mentions for "Portable Effects." Its concept, innovation in exhibit design, and effect on its participants were considered significant far beyond simply a design exercise.

Scott Snibbe's "Boundary Functions" also received an Honorary Mention. A walk-around installation based on his "Bubble Harp" voronoi diagrams, it makes visible the lines separating participants simply and elegantly, and encourages emergant social behavior.

Peter Broadwell and Rob Myers (two thirds of the original Plasm Team with Interval's Becky Fuson) were awarded one of the two Second Prizes for "Plasm: Not a Crime," a network system based on "chaffing and winnowing," an (arguably) legal alternative to encryption. The jury felt strongly that the electronic arts communities would benefit by understanding the issues here and that "Not a Crime" was a fine illustration.

Other Interval-related awards included David Small's "Poetic Interactive Garden," one of several entries from the MIT Media Lab; Interval past consulant and Forum speaker Jim Campbell's "Simultaneous Perspective;" and San Francisco State University faculty Stephen Wilson's "Crime-Z-Land."


I was one of five members of the Interactive Art Jury, but before you think the decisions above may have been over-affected by me, believe me, they weren't. I was honest and careful, but Lord Knows, my fellow jurors weren't the sorts to be easy pushovesr. They were: Machiko Kusahara, well-known curator for international art venues including the NTT/ICC Center in Tokyo and faculty in Tokyo and Kobe; Hans-Peter Schwarz, Director of the ZKM Media Museum and faculty at the Staatlich Hochschule in Karlsruhe; Jon Snoddy, Vice President of Design for GameWorks, which he co-founded with Steven Spielberg; and John Markoff, technology writer for the New York Times.

Being the longest-surviving past jury member (this was my fourth non-consecutive year), I was appointed Jury Chair. More than in past years, where the Interactive Art Jury consisted entirely of fine arts types, this year's was a mix of two curators/educators, two technical/commercial people, and, uh, me.

I must confess that the initial reaction on the part of the art types was that we'd have to keep Jon and John informed about, literally, "prior art," since many of the entries might seem more original than they were to someone without a background in contemporary art. This turned out to be true, but also turned out to be very much a two-way street, with Jon declaring "Disney did that years ago" or John saying "You can buy that off the shelf for $49.95," etc.

In the end there was a bit more commitment by Machiko, Hans-Peter, and me to poetic and metaphoric work and a bit more commitment by Jon and John to tech-based work more accessible by a mass audience. But no blood was spilled and everyone appreciated the diversity, which made my chairing job relatively painless.

(My main discomfort was around the issue of gender. Near the end of our deliberation I pointed how few awards we were giving to women. Everyone said they hadn't thought about it at all and had been exclusively concentrating on overall quality independent of the gender of the creator. Later I counted the number of entries with female sounding names and discovered it was a distressing 20%.)


The First Prize for Interactive Art went to French artist Maurice Benayoun for "World Skin," the first Ars award given to a CAVE piece. "CAVEs," a recursive acronym "CAVE audio visual environment" named by University of Illinois Professor Dan Sandin, are immersive environments typically consisting of stereoscopic projection on three adjacent walls and on the floor of a ten-foot cubic space, driven by a powerful realtime graphics computer. Though they are obviously expensive (there are believed to be about 30 in the world), CAVEs have become a technical standard.

"World Skin" is a piece about the Balkan war and the role of observers and participants. The imagery consists of a 3D world with a ground plane and a sky plane, but with everything else appearing as 2D "cut-outs:" tanks, buildings, aircraft, vehicles, and hundreds and hundreds of soldiers and war victims. Since these images were 2D, they didn't require any modelling but could be collaged from easily digitized images from newspapers and magazines, the Web, and television. This gave Maurice incredible artistic freedom, which he used well. It also gave the piece a unique, almost theatrical, look.

The participants wear wireless LCD (flicker) glasses and see the immersive projection as one continuous environment, through which one can navigate. But three small (but actual) still cameras hang from the ceiling and are active: when one points and shoots, everything in the pyramid shaped field-of-view looses its texture map and becomes white. The audio, an intense and immersive collage of war sounds and street scenes, is further affected by the cameras: the sound of shooting gradually changes from camera trigger sounds to gunshot.

The overall experience of "World Skin" wasn't as scary and gruesome as it was touching and humane. I noticed more participants compelled to stop in front of the virtual cutouts and simply observe rather than firing. The jury felt this piece was less obsessed with recreating photo-realism as it was with being a content-driven, conceptually economic work.

The other Second Prize in the Interactive Art category went to German artist Christian Moller for "Audio Grove," a large-scale outdoor art installation consisting of a matrix (approximately 20 by 20 feet) of tall solid cylinders (~1 foot diamter and 10 feet high), separated by enough space for humans to manuever through. The cylinders were touch-sensitve both in terms of position and rate of movement, which controlls music and spotlights. The jury found if to be a clean exemplar of the more-or-less traditional category of "public art."

The wackiest entry to receive an award from our jury (though not much due to my taste) was "Byte" by Christoph Ebener. "Byte" was a rat terrarium with a thick phone cable passing through it. The cable was instrumented to sense when it was being chewed. If yes, a "Skinner Box" on top releases food pellets to reward the behavior. The intention is to train a population of cable-chewing rats.

The other Prix Ars Electronica categories, Special Effects and Animation, Music, and Web also awarded three cash prizes and several honorary mentions, but you'll have to wait for the results to be posted (www.aec.at). These ranged from community/activist and student works to, alas, "Titanic," which took First Prize in Special Effects.