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Transcending the Categories

When the Prix Ars Electronica created a separate category for "interactive art", they must have had a mental image of the frameworks within which this category could be judged.

And probably (again this is conjecture, because I wasn't there) the qualities they were looking for were to be found in the interdisciplinary and unstable, open character of these works of art, that gave fresh impulses to the way art was perceived, produced and distributed. There could only have been an inkling that this category would develop so explosively and would extend itself into all directions and platforms of art and culture.

Now, in 1997, this category has obviously become firmly established with artists and in the world of art as a whole. A great diversity of work is being produced, transcending all traditional categories inside and outside of art. The entries for the Interactive Art 1997 award frequently overlap with other categories of Prix Ars Electronica, which indicates that it's not really possible to categorize interactive art in the way we categorized art a decade ago. The general terms in which interactive art is usually evaluated are no longer adequate to describe and further develop its specific qualities.

The term "interactivity" is subject to inflation in its general meaning and is hardly suitable anymore as a general term to describe the often complex patterns of interaction within the artworks. Interaction in these works takes place between people, between people and machines and between machines themselves and therefore raises questions about many issues concerning the way we define the quality of art. Thinking about "machines" and aesthetics not only questions originality and uniqueness, issues that have been discussed for some years now in media-art, but also the intention of the artist, authorship and moments of decisions made by man and machine. Artworks have become complex "machines" where the user does not so much individually control the work, but cooperates, obstructs and directs.

This results in dynamic patterns of interaction within which the work evolves. Genetic algorithms, artificial intelligence, the Internet as a medium for communication, and self organizing systems are applied to create works of art, in which the actions of users and machines become almost indistinguishable. This complex interaction delivers unexpected results in the way the work is finally experienced. Interaction here means to participate in a process where individual actions lead to collisions and/or moments of coincidence. Here the artwork manifests itself as a dynamic process, as an experience instead of as an aesthetic object. The projects of Knowbotic Research (Honorable Mention) are exemplary of this type of work. This rather summary description of interactivity is not quite representative if we look at all of the entries for the Interactive Art award. Although there is certainly a growing complexity in the interactive aspects of most of the work, this manifests itself in very diverse ways.

This year, the jury considered approximately 200 entries, out of which three award winners were chosen. A further twelve works received an honorary mention. The entries were very diverse, meaning they varied greatly in patterns of interactivity, interface design and application scope. To illustrate this diversity, I will briefly discuss this year's award winning works and the jury's opinion of them.

The music performance "Music Plays Images x Images Play Music" by Toshio Iwai and Ryuichi Sakamoto concurs with a development that was initiated in Europe at the beginning of this century and that focused on the relation between image and sound. This synaesthetic experience, where the stimulation of one of the senses activates another sense, was explored by musicians like Scriabin in order to reach an experience of totality. "Music Plays Images x Images Play Music" recognizes this tradition that has steadily progressed in this century. In this piece, computer graphics play the piano and pianos play with computer graphics. But it is not only the machines playing with each other. Ryuichi Sakamoto and the audience also participate in this game of images and sounds generated through inventive interfaces. Sakamoto himself is on stage, but the audience participates through the Internet and controls one of two pianos. Through real player feedback these Internet participants can hear the actual performance too. And everything seamlessly flows from one domain to the other.

In this sense the piece follows a Japanese tradition in which one does not look for controversy and conflict in interaction, but for a conjoining and merging of players. The aesthetic experience is here being maximized, resulting in an equally strong experience. This work deals with several elements of current thinking on how we work with media technology in relation to art. Public - private, local - global, multi-user interaction through networks and the creation of an open structure define specific qualities that further interactivity in relation to art.

"Border Patrol" by Paul Garrin and David Rokeby, however, in contrast with Toshio Iwai's work, actively pursues the friction which exists between technology as an instrument of control and power and the audience that is being controlled by technology. The work explores social and political aspects of technology. On the one hand, Paul Garrin is concerned with the deployment of technology by social or cultural minorities as a means of survival and of articulating a message. On the other hand, he recognizes the fact that historic forces in society, like the state and the economy, reinforce themselves through technology and in doing so exert a certain control over public space. He regards the occupation of the media field by these forces as an attempt to control both the individual and society, a development which sharply contradicts the media message delivered by ideological groups and through marketing: decentralization of power.

In "Border Patrol", which premiered in South Korea, the audience is situated in a military stronghold where their moves are tracked by video cameras. These lock onto individuals in the audience, behaving like snipers' guns seeking to eliminate them. On monitors built into the sandbag walls, these individuals see themselves being trapped by these sniper cameras. "Border Patrol" is direct and therefore limited in its interaction with the audience. It leaves little to be imagined, speculating on the oppressiveness it inspires.

The prize for Art+Com from Berlin for their project "The Invisible Shape of Things Past" was awarded for reasons that are completely different from the ones involved with the works described above. "The Invisible Shape of Things Past" is a tool, transforming filmed images into 3D-objects. Stated like this, it seems a simple enough tool, but this entry demonstrated several applications which immediately conveyed the project's impact. The 3D-objects resulting from the filmed images are partly formed by the camera movement (zoom, pan, tilt), thus creating irregular shapes. These 3D-objects can be created from historic footage or from contemporary film images. In this case, they were from historic footage of parts of Berlin (streets, squares, buildings). The film objects can be placed within a representation of the city, a virtual Berlin. This virtual city can be accessed via a timeline (Berlin 1910, 1930 and so on). The images then occur in the virtual city on the actual location were they were shot. It is also possible to move the images to the same location in a different time period, resulting in rich connections between designing, organizing and thinking about the city in its many aspects. This virtual Berlin can be navigated from different camera positions, enabling the user to choose locations where film objects are placed and subsequently travel through these images, either as film sequences or as VR-representations.

The project can be linked with databases or the Internet, making it potentially very dynamic and lending itself to many applications in the fields of architecture, film, education and otherwise. The jury was impressed by the strength of such a tool which utilizes different user interfaces. There is, however, the danger of such a project being swiftly monopolized. In that case, the choice and content of linked databases would be determined by the short term commercial interests of corporations, whereas the force of a project like this is its open structure which guarantees diversity.

 
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