Are We Still Enjoying Interactivity?
(Ars Electronica 99 Interactive Category: Jury Comment)

June 1999

by Machiko Kusahara

Is interactive art still too young? Possibly, as the paint and brush we use in this genre of art are still changing every year. But it is a part of fun.
Certainly technical development is closely related to what artists can realize in interactive art, as John Markoff stated in last year's jury statement "Moore's Law Applied to Digital Art?" In fact CAVE has indeed become a standard environment for virtual reality. CD-ROM and WWW became the standard environment for almost any interactive artists. The history of technical inprovement and its reflection in art making is quite visible in the history of this young category of Prix Ars Electronica.

A major trend in this category in 97 and 98 was the developement of more convincing and comprehensive virtual environment.
In 97's "Music Play Images x Images Play Music" by Toshio Iwai and Ryuichi Sakamoto, interaction between images and music brought an artistic and at the same time entertaining experience to the audience, while interaction between the participants from the Net and the famous musician/composer on the stage also took place. The work made us visible a new possibility of multimedia as a form of art. Paul Garin and David Rockby's "Border Patrol" was a virtual environment with a quite different theme, but also integrating image and sound.
Maurice Benayaun and Jean-Baptiste Barierre's "World Skin", the winner of 98, was a powerful virtual experience made by the collaboration of visual artist and sound artist. Visitors wander in CAVE among cut-outs of soldiers, suferrers and war machines taken from the photo of WWI and Bosnia in the almost monochrome battlefield that continues without an end. The sound of camera shutters gradually turn into horifying screams and sounds of shot guns as visitors use the camera to take photo. The role of media is questioned by using the most advanced media technology.
Christian Moeller's "Audio Grove" provided visitors much more pieceful experience.A space filled with wodden poles creates an ever changing symphony of sound, light and shadow as visitors touch or caress the poles.

Altogether, realization of multimedia/multimodal interaction for users was another strong element. Extention of virtual reality and development of more natural, easy-to-use interface, which has been a key issue in technology, seemed to be the basso continuo in interactive art as well.

This year, a change was to be observed.
It was not easy to make a selection from more than 360 works entered this category this year, but the strongest pieces were not those which try to realize a virtual environment integrating visual and sound experiences with the maximum interactivity. In fact while there were quite a few CAVE pieces none of them made it to a prize after all.
Among the pieces we selected, interactivity is applied more for questioning the relationship between the real space (where the users are) and another space, which is not necessarily virtual. The relationship is not linear as it used to be, or it often employs mutiple layers. In some works the notion of interactivity itself is the theme. Also, words such as memories, traces, landscape, dispersion were frequently seen among titles of works we found interesting.
Another interesting phenomenon we observed this year was the number of entries using circular screens or projections. The idea is not new. Certainly a circle of light is optically the most natural and old form of projection. If we think of the beginning of the history of imaging art, magic lanterns casted circular light and glass slides themselves were often prepared circular. It was only after certain techical development of the light source that full wall-size rectangular projection became popular. Cinema took rectangular screen, and so did television and computer displays. Now circular screens seem to attract the attention of interactive aritsts.

What do these phenomena signify? Are we already becoming nostalgic?
It seems that artists are exploring the next step of interactive art. To make it more interactive? Not necessarily. Interactive technology itself has still much to develope before notions such as ubiquitous computing or smart home would be realized in every household, not mentioning the question if we really want such life. But the nature of art (and its role, from social or historical aspect) is not in demonstrating technical improvement. Artists foresee - and at the same time look back - what is beyond or behind the technical issue, to visualize the real meanings of technology.
Actually it was already seen with "World Skin". It was by the conscious choice of the artists to limit the degree of reality in the virtual space or interaction that the piece could realize a strong concept. We have had other artists with such aspect as well, but they were rather a minority when the technological development was still far from enough.

This year the interactive jury selected Lynn Harshman's "Difference Engine 3" for Golden Nica. The piece is not one of the visually spectacular works we have seen in the category these years. It is not an easy piece to enjoy either. The piece connects the real space and the virtual world allowing the net users to virtually fly through the real space using avatars, and to chat with the people in the real space. However, it is not a happy CUSeeMe kind of project even though visitors can enjoy the experience and communicate with others. On the contrary it depicts the increasing anxiety on the blurring boundary between the real world and the virtual, and the life in cyberspace, literally. Today, cyberspace is no longer a wonderland on the net. Serious matters of the real life such as transaction or identification are all moving onto the Net. The work is a well thought, strongly conceptual piece which integrates important issues we are facing in terms of relationship between the real space and the virtual world. It deals with themes such as voyeurism, notion of self and others, the "life" of avatars, and coded identity on the Net.
Needless to say, Lynn Harshman is one of the pioneers in interactive art, but even before that she was always dealing with the issues such as voyeurism and virtual identity in interactive way. In her well known project "Roberta",the identity of the virtual persona was created through social system (including the reaction of people who were users of information Harshman issued). Artificial data of the virtual woman was processed to virtually create a real woman in the society. In "Difference Engine 3" the information regarding a real person are processed in the system she created, to become the entity of an avatar which will live its own life cycle apart from that of the original real person, and remain on the net (numbered on its face literally) forever. The piece elegantly visualizes the relationship between the real world and virtual world, as well as the meaning of virtual life on the Net.

The relationship between real space and virtual space has changed. Enjoying exploring a virtual environment and having spontaneous interaction with its habitants is no longer a novelty. Creative multimedia environment can be now seen on the Net as well, with the advent of recent effective image and sound compresssion technology.
It might not be a coincidence that the three artists who won prizes this year are all well known, established artists who have been active in the field of interactive art with unique approaches. (However, it was also a pity that most of the interesting works are done by already recognized artists. We wished to find young talents.) It is understandable that since these artists have been using the technology for many years they are aware of the issue ahead of others. Also, the right use of technology to visualize such theme requires expertize.

Perry Hobberman raise such question with a 'non-answer' situation. The artist has provided us with a caotic, confusing situation where three different phases of reality and virtuality overlap as they are displayed on a single monitor. It is only by manipulating it that one can recognize what he/she is maipulating. It is up to you how to deal with, the artist says. It is a piece which (as in case of Lynn Harshman's) strongly reflects the artist's continuous approach to the relationship between real and virtual, as well as to the interactivity. His much earlier pieces using stereoview or shadow already reflect the artist's interest in the theme before he started using virtual reality. Playful irony and visual fun are also observed in Hobberman's other works. Even though the piece is supported by very high technical platform, the way Hobberman uses the technology is totally different from a demonstration.

Luc Courschene's "Landscape One" brings up the question of directorship in interactive art. The piece can be considered as an interactive cinema which consists of four screens to give virtually 360 degree to the users. Users can communicate with the people (and a dog) who arrive from different direction by making a choice from sentences that appear on the panel, as in his earlier works. But the artist does not try to bring the users into the immersive experience in the virtual world. It is different from exploring a fantasy world in the CAVE. A visitor will remain aware that he/she is in the real space and still talking with a character in the film, while observing what is happening in the space on the other side of the screen. It is a limited and pre-decided interactivity, which might have been regarded as "insufficient interactivity" in the short history of interactive art. But it is such already designed interactivity that the high quality of the experience (i.e. being in an interactive cinema) becomes possible in this piece. This piece makes us think about the role of interactivity in narrative story.

Works selected for honorary mention represent examples of different possibilities in interactive art or original approaches to bridge art, science and technology. Works which are equally interesting as awarded pieces are included.
"Robots Avatars Dealing with Virtiual Illusions" by F.A.B.R.I.CATORS is another example of dealing with the complexity of the relationship between the real world and the virtual world. Avatars in the virtual world can be manipulated by controling the physical robots in the real world. Increasing membranes of communication we see in our world is visualized in a unique manner.

In Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau's "Haze Express", a night train experience is realized in a compartment with settings taken from a real train. Numerous crystal-like objects float outside the window like the passing street lights one sees on a foggy night. One can change the speed and direction of the train by slipping one's hand over the window. By viritually touching the crystal pieces one likes through the window, similar shapes will circulate more often because of a genetic algorithm. But such feature does not seem to be the essence of the dream-like experience on the night train. It is more about going back to the childhood memory (I remembered a phrase from Antoine Saint-Exupery). When we remember that only a few years ago we saw quite many pieces dealing with the concept of ALIFE in a straight manner, including those by the artists of "Haze Express", it is interesting to see that A-life is almost behind the scene.
It is a part of what we see this year - technology may be now finally mature enough to be less visible, behind the scene of artistic questions and expressions.

Certainly the way artists see interactive technology is changing. Maybe we are finally becoming skeptical of the myth of ever-going technical development. Or, at least, we finally came to the point where interactive technology is stable enough to let us stop for a moment and look around. What we see this year - stronger concept on the nature of interactivity and virtuality - can be partly a reflection of the slowed down technical development.
What will we see on year 2000?