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Interactive Art: Where are we now?

Christa Sommerer

In the past 10 - 12 years interactive art has become an increasingly established field. While artists in the late 80s and early 90s had to struggle with interaction technology that was still in its infancy and most artists had to basically develop and invent their own interfaces and software programs from scratch, nowadays a whole host of hardware and software solutions for creating interaction experiences has become available. Nevertheless, early interactive artists had the advantage of finding an artistic and technological „terra nova“ layed out in front of them and subsequently they developed and defined this field by carving out artistic inquiries following their personal interests and artistic and technological visions.

Many of these early interactive artists are now considered pioneers of this field and their works are often used as landmarks to measure new works against. Being still highly productive, these artists have now refined and perfected their artistic research and at this year s Ars Electronica Interactive Art competition the jury witnessed several high quality artworks by the masters of this field.

On the other hand, the increased acceptance and institutionalisation of interactivity and interactive art in academia and research has helped younger artists to enter and embrace this field as well. In this year s Prix Ars Electronica submissions we could see many art works by younger artists and these works seem to follow certain common solutions of how to design an interface and how to relate images and sounds to interactivity. Alex Adriaansens pointed out during the jury meeting, that the growing number of media art educational programs at art schools and universities might be responsible for this standardisation of interaction design and the commercially available hardware and software packages have certainly had an additional impact on the establishment of interaction design and interactive art.

Several of the second-generation art works we could see this year were conceptually quite interesting, but too often relied on standard interface and interaction solutions. On the other hand, works that were technologically innovative and convincing, frequently lacked deeper artistic inquiries and conceptualisation. We also saw several works that were not designed as artworks per se, but instead satisfied qualities of entertainment, edutainment or engineering applications.

One of the (many) questions that occurred during the jury meeting was how to judge these very diversified types of works and how to identify fair and common criteria. We aimed to find (art)works that satisfied the following criteria:

- Match the content of the work with its interaction solution

- Propose novel artistic concepts

- Create innovative and intuitive interaction experiences

- Consider the social impact of this technology

- Consider the relevance of the work in connection to art, science and society

- Show professionalism of realization

These are certainly tough criteria to meet, but given the amount of high quality submissions we had, we were able to set the selection standard quite high. We focused on identifying (art)works that define novel forms of interactions, create engaging interactive experiences, use and apply innovative interaction technologies, and consider new applications that can be realised through those technologies. We tried to identify the best works that push the envelope of interactivity and by redefining the meaning of interactive technology in the context of art, technology and society (as summarised by Hiroshi Ishii).

We also constantly re-examined our criteria and aimed to stay as open as possible. We aimed to include works that would not exactly fit in the above list of criteria, but instead bring in novel concepts by pushing the boundaries of interactive art in other valuable ways, as for example in the area of gaming and entertainment (a speciality of the jury member, Masuyama from Japan). Or as Peter Higgins put during the meeting, we aimed to avoid … unknowingly narrowing this new emerging art form, whilst at the same time giving it more gravitas than is justified. The consequence of this is that the above protocols (selection criteria) may now need to be challenged as we strive to re-value the potential of the genre.

We debated about each of the works in length and in detail and once we had identified 18 selected works, it became quite difficult to judge which of these works would be among the top three winners. All 18 works where quite excellent in their realisation. We are especially satisfied to see also that several of the (art)works selected for the honorary mentions category have been created by younger artists and we are confident that the field of interactive art will see more of their high quality works in the future.

We are proud to announce the following there main winners of this competition:


„n-cha(n)t“ by David Rokeby

With this work David Rokeby succeeded in creating a system that combines cutting edge technology with artistic and conceptual refinement. While many interactive artworks nowadays impress us with either cleverly designed interfaces or conceptually interesting ideas, it takes a special artistic genius to combine hardware, software and concepts into a seemingly effortless experience that convinces us through its concept, its realisation and, most importantly, through some deeper human emotions that can be triggered through these experiences. With „n-cha(n)t“ David has just created such an artistically as well as technologically outstanding work.

Seven years ago at the Kwangju Biennale in Korea (organised by Nam June Paik) I remember David telling us (Paul Garrin, Steina Vasulka, Laurent Mignonneau, and others were there as well…), about his The Giver of Names project. We all couldn t quite visualise what David was talking about, but he surely was excited and inspired by this idea and during the following years he kept telling me about it whenever we met.

Now this work is finally finished and it is certainly one of David s best pieces. In his own words, …[the system is].. awash in a sea of languages [that] can manipulate but cannot understand. Its plight and its loneliness seem to demand a social group. So I imagined a group of intelligent agents, hanging out in some corner on the Internet during their idle time, jamming with their synthetic wits… trying out languages on each other… perhaps finding their own patois… making this alien language somehow their own (Rokeby, 2002).

Apart from the technical innovations that David developed for this work (such as on-the-fly learning algorithms combined with speech recognition), he also touches upon some of our deeper inner fears of loneliness, or the longing for social acceptance. Or as Hiroshi Ishii put it during the Ars Electronica Jury meeting this works strongly reminds us of the society we live in. This is a society, which appreciates homogeneity at the surface and gets distracted by strangers (visitors) who make noise. This works succeeds in making visitors aware of the delicate balance of community and the self-organising defence against intruders. In a time of globalisation and compartmentalisation where fears of anything foreign or unknown have become important political issues, „n-cha(n)t“ eerily reminds us that we are all foreigners and there will always be groups of individuals that shut themselves off against outsiders. Do they talk about us when we have gone? asked Peter Higgins during the jury meeting.


Body Movies by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer

A very different type of interaction design was created by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer in his newest work the „Body Movies“. This work was presented in a public space in Rotterdam during the V2 festival. It builds on the idea of shadow play. Participants can interact with each other through their shadows which are projected on a large façade of an adjunct building. Participants can not only see their own shadows and those of other participants but also the images of recorded users. Some shadows appear big while others are smaller. This scale difference automatically triggers a very entertaining power game among users, where the bigger shadows often try to bully the smaller ones, of vice-versa, the smaller shadows try to provoke the bigger ones.

In a special twist of technical realisation, Raffael not only uses the participants shadows for interaction but also brings in images of recorded users that can be uncovered when the users matches her shadow with that of the recorded user. A cleverly designed method of flooding the high quality image of the recorded users with a bright light that can be intercepted through the participants body in the form of a shadow, creates a simple yet sophisticated interaction scenario. Users can re-establish the images of the recorded users by virtue of their own shadow play. They may change focal length/size of shadow, but will be excited by the potential of their dark negative shape that exposes light and image.

The simplicity and elegance of this interface allows users to invent their own interactions and by simply moving around and playing with their own shadows and other people s shadows and images, a spontaneous exchange among complete strangers suddenly occurs. There is sufficient feedback as to tell the user what he is doing, yet the unpredictability of what will happen next and who will join in the experience creates an exciting platform for social interactions. The staged and collective performance among the participants creates an open system that uses people s sense for improvisation and appreciation for play and casual social encounters as an elegant, easily accessible and highly entertaining form of social art.


The Crossing by Ranjit Makkuni at al.

While the above two systems are artworks of two artists who are at the peak of their artistic creativity and have given us superb works of interactive art, the third work we choose for an award of distinction, represents a totally different field where interactivity has become increasingly important.

In the past several years museums have increasingly used interactive systems for accessing and translating the cultural and technological content of their exhibits to their audience. While an interface in a public museum used to be typically just a touch screen or some monitor with mouse and keyboard, museums and exhibitions are now increasingly eager to include interface design that is more accessible, more intuitive and more versatile, attracting a general audience that often ranges form the very young to the older and the experienced.

„The Crossing“ exhibition, developed by a group of researchers around Ranjit Makkuni from Xerox Parc, USA, developed a good example of how cultural content, such as Indian mythology, can be translated and made transparent through the application of novel and intuitive interfaces. Using for example an Indian rickshaw as interface allows users to experience parts of Indian culture. This exhibition opens up new ways how to bring interface technology to education, edutainment and entertainment in a culturally grounded and customised fashion. This initiative is also especially valuable as it is within the context of an emerging technological nation that has especially important and fascinating cultural stories to tell. Whilst technology is self-evident in the business community in India, it may not probably have been used so effectively within the cultural domain before. In addition, the support and collaboration of the commercial partner in such an unlikely scenario should be applauded (Peter Higgins).

By combining state-of-the-art interface techniques with content-rich cultural experiences, „The Crossing“ project thus engages the general public to create and enhance the collaborative learning experience in a museum setting. To juxtapose the purely artistic realisations of interaction design and to recognize and encourage the increasing influence of interactivity to the field of education, entertainment and edutainment in culturally diverse settings, we choose this work as a specially well-crafted example which can point into future directions were artistic, scientific and engineering applications can meet.

 
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