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A New Concept

Wilhelm Burger, Horst Hörtner, Gustav Pomberger, Daniela Pühringer, Christa Sommerer

1998: By integrating its new competition “Cybergeneration u19 – freestyle computing” into the programme, the Prix Ars Electronica directly addressed young people in Austria for the first time. At the time talk revolved around computerage kids who had grown up with computers and new information technologies—kids who had, so to speak, imbibed these innovations as “a fifth cultural technique” with their mother’s milk.

2004: Even cybergeneration kids get bigger and grow up. All those born in 1979—the year of the Ars Electronica Festival’s inception—were now finishing their studies and/or taking on creative functions in society. The time had come to fill in a gap by creating a new competition category: [the next idea]. This category was established to offer young, creative personalities a forum which would allow an international jury of experts to explore how greatly a sample of 19- to 27-year-olds was capable of developing forward-looking ideas and conveying them in convincing concepts. Deliberately, the jury decided not to evaluate projects which had already been implemented—instead the potential of ideas would be under scrutiny in this category. For the jury did not see itself as a “body which should judge ideas” but as a kind of “authority for promoting potential” for creatively dealing with ideas—and so not only artistic and/or technological and financial creativity were vital. In this context, the Ars Electronica Center, in particular the Futurelab, set itself the task of assisting, as best they could, the implementation of a project or projects, or of giving such projects a start with an artist-in-resident grant at the Ars Electronica Center.

Last year’s prize-winning Japanese project Moony has, in the interim, been realized at the Futurelab. Thanks to the sponsor, this outstanding idea could be impressively implemented within the scope of the Ars Electronica 2004. Following the festival, the hype for this first [the next idea] project was huge, and the artist group experienced a boom in inquiries, projects and presentations. In fact, due to the accomplishments of Moony, it can be said that the concept of [the next idea] has worked out splendidly.

Interest from abroad was already considerable in the first year, and so the number of entries in response to the call for entry in this category was large. Nevertheless, as criticized in the jury statement, the scant interest shown by Austrian entrants left much to be desired.

2005: The picture has changed. Among the 67 entries from 22 nations, 15 were from Austria. Evidently this year the category has succeeded, as was its original intention, in also addressing young creative people in this country.

The works singled out in 2005 have been selected by the jury for their “crossover ideas” which depart from predetermined, conventional trains of thought. Moreover, they are good illustrations of “Hybrid—living in paradox”, this year’s festival theme. Already in their concepts, they display an interdisciplinary stance: they ignore all boundaries and attempt to approach the most diverse fields without bias.

The winner of [the next idea] in 2005 is Martin Mairinger and his project USED Clothing.

The jury found the concept of this project, which evolves from the idea of community, extraordinarily compelling: within the context of new media, this work exploits the enormous impact of fashion as a strategy for forming a community:

“Secondhand clothing will become the medium of communication within a community. For this purpose, each item will be equipped with a RFID chip that clearly establishes its ID. As a consequence, information about the previous owner, messages, etc. can be linked and accessed by the current owner. Based on this concept of communication, a dynamic community will be formed that can determine its own orientation. What is more, it will spark an open and controversial discussion on the connection between clothes and identity.”

The idea of creating identity in this manner was widely accepted. To anticipate the extension of the body in digital space means to give the distinctive feature (here, a piece of clothing) that actually creates identity an electronic counterpart—indeed, to the same extent as a pullover or a T-shirt can do so in real space—i.e., not only creating identity for the piece of clothing itself, but also for its wearer. The identity previously tied to a piece of clothing (fabric, logo, brand, etc.) is forced into the background. The dress code typical for the wearer at this stage of his or her life comes to the fore. Hence the message is no longer communicated “only” by the real object, but extended to a virtual level. Clothing choices now determine the stories told by a piece of clothing. The importance of commercial aspects recedes behind the non-material features of its former owners.

Previously we could only trace connections between one owner and his/her direct successor. The concept of USED Clothing enables different owners to hook up with one another, whereby the quality of a piece of clothing is defined by the stories linked with it. Wearing clothing by, for instance, Nike triggers specific qualities, images and associations etc. connected with the brand, though this occurs on the principle of one-to-many. However, when clothing takes on the function of a news medium, as is the case in USED Clothing, it becomes a many-to-many medium, where the messages and images linked to a piece of clothing are created by those who previously wore it. Until this project, fashion messages were conceived and prepared like news programs by editorial staffs. This work now allows us to use fashion as a news medium in a manner similar to mobile phones.

For the Ars Electronica Festival 2005, a prototype of this idea has been implemented in the form of a second-hand shop. When visitors enter the shop, they find a selection of used clothing, each piece equipped with a RFID chip. Via a simple docking station, the current owner’s digital messages (images, music, text, phone numbers or email addresses) can be fed into the chip and those of previous owners selected and read. Thus, over the course of their use by different owners, individual pieces of clothing accumulate a “story” which—alongside fashion and aesthetic aspects—becomes, with respect to content, the criterion for its selection.

The first of two Honorary Mentions for [the next idea] 2005 goes to Maschine – Mensch by Tobias Zucali and Christopher Rhomberg, both of whom are Austrians.

“The system begins with the sorter. Each worker is assigned objects of a specific colour. If the electronic eye discovers an object that fits the criteria, the sorter’s arm is moved, making it slide the object off the conveyor belt into a bin.”

The idea strongly recalls descriptions of industrial production lines, although the mechanical unit, known by the industry as a sorter, is in part replaced by the human body. The body is controlled by computer via electrodes (electrical impulses) and the resulting muscle contractions. The subject’s body relinquishes control and becomes part of the machine.

In an age where the battle for design, conception and the implementation of details in all production cycles is in full swing due to the general realization that we are in constant interaction with everything, this project gives us a completely exaggerated taste of what is to come, a parody of all serious attempts to find a methodical approach to solutions. Unavoidably, we come to a conclusion, the one also postulated by the two entrants: we must view humans as puppets. From the onset of industrialization to the omnipresent advertising message, the consumer has been manipulated by externally controlled needs or events like a puppet. Here, through the use of “democratic” media, this situation is revealed quite concretely. The jury was impressed with how professionally the physical possibilities of technologies, previously only used for medical therapies, were explored. It also enjoyed the look at the omnipresence of the media which is so formative for society.

A second Honorary Mention goes to the project ætherspace by Nick Knouf (USA). Its concept revolves around the classic idea of extending the human body and its sensory apparatus by means of technology.

“Our body does not have transducers for electromagnetic [EM] waves; instead, we have to use other objects, like mobiles and radios, to pick up the effects of these EM waves. Because of this, hertzian space has a special aura about it; it’s invisible, thus it’s not understandable: with ætherspace I would like to make hertzian space audible, make the invisible sonic. Briefly, wearable transducers/antennae would pick up the various components of hertzian space as the user walked around in the city, home, or workplace.”

The idea to use electromagnetic pollution as the material for a (creative) project and to develop EM-radiation transducers which would be worn on the body at all times had previously been realized in a number of prototype art projects. What is new and interesting about Knouf’s approach is that the “sensory organ” developed here converts electromagnetic radiation into acoustically perceivable events. These transducers for EM radiation are not merely to become common accessories for an exclusive circle of art enthusiasts, but are also to be made available to, for instance, city inhabitants. As such, the work directly addresses end users and strives to make “hertzian space” (Dunne/Raby, 2001)—which is a given, in any case—experienceable for us, the receivers, without creating something new and artificial.

Hence Knouf uses the given and enables us to experience it via sensors. By doing so he opens up a specific acoustic space, i.e. the space generated in a city by electromagnetic radiation. Without attempting to evaluate how dangerous or safe hertzian space is, he extends the individual’s faculty of perception and thus allows us to either absorb or avoid this newly perceivable factor. For Knouf and his concept, absorption and avoidance are the two significant scenarios for usage.

In this year’s entries, exemplified by the aforementioned prize-winning projects, a trend was observed: most entrants of [the next idea] developed their concepts independently of their schooling and discipline of study. With the Austrian entries, it was particularly difficult to trace their source. No matter the background, be it the arts, technological fields or commerce, the media generation breaks with conventions and traditional classifications.

By and large, the jury saw the interdisciplinary stance displayed by the entries as a step in the right direction and they hope for more projects along these lines in 2006. Such works focus on the conflicting priorities of art, technology and society, and thematically transcend the boundaries of various fields. They examine technical, social, political, aesthetic and meta-aesthetic aspects, elaborating and developing them into visionary ideas in a context that is communityminded.

Even if the selection presented here cannot be regarded as a representative sample of the media activities of young people in the first five years of the 21st century, the glimpse which the jury obtained of their works provides grounds for confidence. It allows us to look forward in the coming years to artistic diversity and a more visible openness. We hope a greater number of 19- to 27-year-olds will find the courage to submit extraordinary, ephemeral and visionary ideas for projects, and thus do justice—formally, conceptually and in view of the future—to the title and focus of [the next idea].

 
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