Ars Electronica: jury statement

[In 1996, I was a member of the .net jury for the Prix Ars Electronica. The jury consisted of David Blair, David Braun, Oliver Frommel, Joichi Ito and me. Here’s the jury statement that I wrote. When putting this article on my blog in 2008, I tried to find current url’s for all web sites mentioned, but some are now defunct, alas.]

SOME THINGS NEVER CHANGE. Last year’s jury complained about the heavy traffic on the net, which turned loading the often large homepages that were entered, into an exercise not of judgment but of patience. This year was no different. But we had more homepages to review: two hundred and twelve, against last year’s eighty-something. So in order to be able to visit all of them, we had to work in the afternoon and mainly at night, when traffic was lower; usually we went on until 4 or 5 AM. And because we were offered a plenitude of fine beverage during dinner; these were sting evenings and nights indeed. Coffee, alcohol, computers and nicotine: quite an addictive mixture.

After previewing about a third of these homepages before the jurors met, I could already draw several conclusions. Some were minor (such as that black homepages are currently de rigueur), others more pertinent: for instance that quite a lot of homepages use state of the art net technology (VRML and Shockwave) and include sound, often RealAudio. Another was that too many homepages need an endless amount of clicking before you finally get to see an index or something: the first page unnervingly takes ages to load, so you wait and wait; and all it contains turns out to be a picture that serves as a frontispiece. When you’ve clicked that one, you get the credits and another slow-loading clickable picture; then, on the third page, you’re finally where you wanted to be in the first place. We suspected that this circuitous way of going about things was characteristic for pages that were done jobs; after all, paid homepage makers often price their work by the number of individual pages. Thus, cynically, one person’s bread is another person’s wasted time (and it sponsors the telcos’ revenues, too); I’d label these pages as ‘commercial circuitry’. And quite surprisingly, considering the nature of the net, we discovered that quite a lot of homepages have a more or less linear structure: click here, then click here, and then here; all in a prescribed order where the maker takes you by the mouse and leads you. Also, but that’s a very personal observation: during my previews of the entries at home I found that there’s a lot of art wasted on the net, and perhaps even more net wasted on the arts.

But, on second thought, that was not a personal issue after all. There seem to be two major genres in pages on the web. On the one hand, you have hobby pages. That’s not to be taken in any derisive sense; it simply means a special interest homepage, a homepage that is a direct reflection of somebody’s real-life sympathies, pastimes, hobbies, urges or profession. A person who’s devoted to beetles and has extensive knowledge of the species, is, once on the net, bound to end up making a homepage about beetles. While such a page might be of prime importance to other beetle-fans, the amount of people that it will appeal to is rather restricted. You just got to love beetles, or at least be curious about them. There’s literally an innumerable amount of such homepages. The groups they draw may vary in size, but are basically limited. Art, in this respect, is like a beetle. There’s too many artists or galleries or museums who entered the competition for the Prix Ars Electronica while all they did was uploading their portfolio to their homepage, or taking whatever is on their walls and paste it to the web. The jury was not asked to judge the beauty or value of beetles; we are not even capable of that. The jury was asked to judge web sites.

No medium is neutral. Since each medium has its own possibilities and carries its own meaning, each medium modifies content – to the extent that often form and content are inseparable. Artists are more familiar with this principle than many other people: they have to make a choice for a medium for every piece they make. Will it be oil, marble or words; crayons, wood or bronze; celluloid, cloth or computers? Simply transporting an existing art object unto another medium will not do, no matter what its original quality was. Like any medium, technology is not neutral. To ignore that principle leads, alas, to beetles; or to put it slightly more dignified: it leads nothing more than an art catalog. But the catalog itself is not art.

We decided to dismiss those pages. In our first few hours, we agreed that we would only nominate homepages that did something that could only be done on the net. (And of course this principle was not rigidly adhered to. What else would you expect, with five stubborn people who sometimes argued feverishly, defending their own pet pages? Sometimes we deferred to one another, just to maintain a sense of balance.)

*

THEN THERE’S the second genre of homepages. These are true net pages: they use technology and narrative structures only available and only meaningful on the net. Linearity is common to many media; it usually can’t be done without. You just can’t go back to a previous version of a painting, or take a different route through a book and branch off at an interesting point. On web pages, linearity can be abandoned. You can always retrace your steps, you can go though homepages in a variety of ways, none of them ‘better’ than the other, none of them more meaningful than the other.

Nor have homepages a locus, other than the net itself – whose locus is global, or almost global. Some pages make use of the fact that they’re situated on the net, in a context of other pages and programs, for instance by linking to other people’s pages or to other net-resources; others, unfortunately, don’t ever – which often is outright silly. Why not make use of the luxurious wealth surrounding you? It seems a bit anorectic to forego all that abundance that’s only a click away and to voluntarily starve oneself. Ash yes, we know: having an insulated homepage is often policy, especially for institutes and commercial sites; they’re afraid they’ll lose their visitors to the next page once they offer you a link to follow, so they try to keep you inside, behind closed walls. But homepages are no shops or cafe’s or competing films, and do not have this inherent monopolistic approach. They thrive on connectedness, on being embedded, on getting expansions; and one tends to go back to the pages that offer a number of helpful, interesting, funny, meaningful and related links.

On the down side, these true net pages sometimes gorge themselves on new technologies, notwithstanding that they don’t yet know what to do with it. The number of pages on which VRML is used, is astonishing. (VRML is a language that, just like html provides a template in which to present words, pictures and perhaps sounds in an integrated fashion, gives a template for 3D objects that can then be turned, slid, panned, zoomed in and out from, by using one’s mouse.) But often, it’s a clear case of tech for tech’s sake, and after the first surprise of the 3d image has worn off, there’s nothing much left. And yet there’s so many pages doting on it, pounding their chest as it were: ‘Gee! Look at me! I’ve got VRML! Ain’t that great? I’m smart, huh?’ But a technology without a use is nonsense. In fact, it’s not only boring, it’s also often superficial and a bit of a mask. As Thomas Riha put it: “It’s easy to hide lack of ideas behind a technical overkill. So no one can say. that you didn’t at least work hard.”

*

HAVING THUS RULED out both art for art’s sake and tech for ditto’s, trying to find the places where both those worlds met, we were left with a multitude of fine points to debate. When you try to single out the pages that make smart use of the fact that they’re part of the net, there’s so much you can dwell upon. Which pages try to evolve a new grammar for web sites, for instance by using links in a novel way? Ah, but there were a good many to chose from. We selected Lisa Hutton for that reason, and McSpotlight Guided Tour. Which pages had that special smell of self-reflectiveness, and somehow showed that they were aware of what else was going on on the net and used that as a treasure, as a joke, or as something to dwell upon? Etoy scored very high in this aspect, as did the Information SuperCollider [audio.apana.org.au/collider/collider.html, now defunct]. There was even an art-page doing precisely that: Journey into Exile spins you off down into AltaVista’s guts and lets you search the web for some pre-programmed sentences. Which pages were non-linear? Etoy for sure. We lost our way there each time when we tried to retrieve a page we wanted to show it to another juror; and while searching for it, we kept finding new interesting places there. It’s truly a maze, etoy. And as for new ways of telling stories, my… there’s a whole archive of stories, some huge and political (such as Ron Newman’s never-ending and very reliable documentary about Scientology’s war against Internet), some small and tentative, like Hegirascope, which attempts to make web fiction.

And speaking of fiction and reliability: one thing which we hotly debated was how sure we were that what we saw was what it purported to be. Was etoy, our prospective winner, perhaps a hype, as one of the jurors suspected? Was Hegirascope letting you evolve the story, or was it preprogrammed? How were we to know? All we had was the web, and the net. But that was precisely what we were judging: the web pages, and not their relation to any outside world. So if something might turn out to be a spoof in the real world, that was, to reformulate a worn-out adage, ‘a pity for reality’. So that turned out to be our major touchstone: what is happening on the net itself, and is it done in character? If so: kudos to you! If not: get a life. An e-life, that is.

The winners

1. etoy, The Hijack Project

Imagine traveling on what everybody calls the Information Highway, looking for information about your preferred subject: for instance, Madonna, Psion, Fassbinder movies or Playboy nudies. You find an underground site that promises you the best on your favourite subject, and eagerly, you click the link. POW! A screen flashes at you: “Don’t fucking move. This is a digital hijack.” There’s not a thing you can do, there’s a script running somewhere. A new page appears: “You are hostage no. 421705 hijacked by the organisation etoy.”

An audio file offers some explanation. It tells you about the dire conditions of Kevin Mitnick and requests his release. A voice explains to you that you’ve been digitally hijacked, just as the Internet itself has already been hijacked – not by etoy, but by Internet mogul Netscape. When you at last find the button to exit this strange and upsetting website and press it, it turns out that there’s no relief. You’re inside etoy’s own site now.

Etoy is a slightly anarchistic site. Its visual aesthetics rub some people the wrong way; to others, those are a sure sign of full-fledged counterculture. And indeed it is a counterculture that etoy promotes. No smooth linearly arranged homepages, but a merry-go-round one tends to get lost in. Sometimes clicking the down-button helps; sometimes it doesn’t get you anywhere. There’s a page where you can have your identity frozen, in digital ice: all you need to do is enter your name, age and your preferred last statement. The only trouble is that your profession can only be selected from a very small range of vocations, none of them too appealing, and the pre-selected one is thief. An other page offers you a short course in net-terrorsim: you can enter an address that you want to have mailbombed, or you can practice shooting by clicking on a target (only trouble is that you’ll always miss).

And indeed, etoy has indeed created havoc in various places. We’ve heard stories. Nasty stories. In one, they subscribed to a high security mailing list and disseminated the information found there to various newsgroups, much to the distress of the other list subscribers. In another, they captured V2‘s server, and randomly swapped messages sitting there for mail etoy had received.

What etoy seems bent on doing is disrupting the internet. The chances that they’ll manage to do so are of course slight, although they may indeed have caused some trouble. (And, to be perfectly honest, none of the jurors would like them to succeed in their shot at net-terrorism, because we need the net too bad). One reason of course is that their opponents are too strong: governments are currently trying to cleanse the net; shielded, ‘family supporting’ spaces such as AOL offers flourish; and Netscape has, as etoy states, indeed hijacked the Web years ago, and reasoning, arguing, pleading, mailbombing nor keeping people hostage will stop neither.

Yet, ambiguously, etoy loves the net even though they seem bent on disrupting it. Their pages have been designed with care, and their labyrinthine quality seems purposeful. One of their pages warns the traveller to the risks of the outside world: a desolate and grungy picture of the world as seen through a window is shown, with the caption “…and it’s cold too”. Instead, eetoy offers a page where you can get a tan. A solarium flashes rays at you. Please stay inside, locked behind your computer, is their message; the net is a much more fun world.

And it’s a real piece of Gesammtarbeit. Etoy is a hybrid, a multimedia-crew working in various fields and trying to tie them together in a new way. They aim at “a new way of playing the soundtrack for a new travelling generation. we play this soundtrack with different instruments like graphics, infoseek-flooding-robots, c-animation and ascii-txt as part of the show. our stage is the web,” as they put it.

What we liked, and what got to us, is that etoy fools around with preconceived notions about the net and turns these upside down. Using the Internet intensively, one tends to grow familiar with a whole set of notions: that homepages contain what their indexes say they contain, that mail cannot be read, that mailing lists can not be infiltrated, in short: that we are safe behind our computers. Etoy’s irony, that is all-pervasive, is funny but also necessary. They poke fun at the net and teach us a well-needed lesson as well. Regarding their hijack page, they state: “With this action, etoy demonstrates the “room” behind popular interfaces of the world wide web. Weak points and twilight-zones of this medium are the place of action…” The net can indeed be used in other ways than is expected; there is a space behind the obvious that can be used, reverted and changed into something completely different.

One of the jurors had severe doubts about etoy. Seeing that one of their pages contained an ad for a flexidisk, he thought they might just be a hype, an ad for a band. He hesitantly agreed to their nomination. He may be right. Etoy might be a hype. But it’s a well-designed one, and surely on the net that is as good as the real thing. After all, the net excels in trolls and nobody knows that you’re a dog. As long as you don’t bark.

2. Ex aequo: Hygrid

Hygrid is an art site: a joint venture. It offers you a starting point in the shape of a small picture. People may join in and design their own pictures that, after uploading them, will be fitted next to it; what evolves is not a patchwork, but a shape-shifting grid. The pictures grow from one another; the image of the original supplying ideas for the one that is to go next to it. The grids that are formed with these pictures can be selected from a variety of arrangements. Each picture is linked to the maker’s homepage; thereby, this virtual artist community connects.

Easy as this may sound, the software that keeps tracks of the position of the various pictures that reappear in a number of grids and their respective links to both each other and to related homepages, must be rather complicated. The page looks very inviting and spurs you on to submit a picture of your own.

2. Ex aequo: Journey as an exile

[now defunct: http://193.170.97.45/vvv/] Fitted within seperate but linked frames, four artists offer their work, and their comments upon each other. While one frame checks into AltaVista and searches their database for the phrase “Travel is useful, it exercises the imagination” (and indeed, AltaVista comes up with some 20.000 links; later on the search engine is used to retrieve instances of the phrase “All the rest is disappointment and fatigue. Our journey is entirely imaginary.”) All the while, angelic music can be heard and a voice that read’s from an HG Ballard book.

Clicking one frame brings up new images and texts in another. The frames – mind frames – are used to, as they put it, “‘target’ on each other and build so together a kind of parallel processing HyperMedia Tool.” There’s a weird dreamlike – or nightmarish – feel to the page, perhaps emphasized by the humming angels. The makers themselves state that their frames of mind relating to each other present “a kind of slow scan chat – or a other possibility of creating mindcrap conferencing”.

Honorary mentions

Category web collider: The Information Supercollider

[Now defunct, http://audio.apana.org.au/collider/collider.html] The web collider is another pun on the net. Considering the net to be an endless stream of electric particles, it attemps to find out what happens if you clash them at high velocity. It takes random parts of homepages and fires those at each other. Sometimes beautiful things come out of this collision, sometimes its hilarious, sometimes it’s just dadaist shambles. The funny thing is that you suddenly find yourself visiting the homepages of which the collider used a particle. On the down side, many pictures it snatches from other people’s homepages are not retrievable in this way, so there are too many broken gifs.

Category use of VRML: Webearth

[Now defunct, http://tcc.iz.net/we/] Web Earth makes beautiful and meaningful use of VRML (which a bit too many people use just to prove that they’re up to date on the technical side). Web Earth presents you with a globe, on which real-time satellite photographs of the earth are mapped. Various degrees of detail may be configured. Using your mouse, you can then spin the earth and zoom in or out. The notion that this technique presents you with a real-time picture of the earth, and that you can see which parts of the world are clouded or stormy at this very moment, makes Web Earth an impressive site.

Category use of VRML: Global Clock

[Now defunct, http://www.flab.mag.keio.ac.jp/GClock/] Just like Web Earth, Global Clock presents one with a real-time world. This one shows which parts of the earth are exposed to the sun. There are a few measure points installed for this project; alas, the project has not yet been able to install all those that he needs. The representation of sunlight is done by longer or shorter pillars, which are appended to the earth.

Category new documentary form: Mc Spotlight

In relation to a lawsuit McDonald’s started against two people they accused of libel when they criticised McDonald’s policy – a lawsuit now becoming famous as the ‘McLibel suit’ – and in the aftermath of an extensive use of mailing lists by a group of supporting critics, a huge website has now been erected. The most interesting feature of this site is how they use technology as a new way to present criticism. Using the frames option that Netscape has, they use McDonald’s own corporate website as one of their sources. On one side of your screen you have McDonald’s shiny, expensive website, and on the other you have a detailed deconstruction and criticism from McSpotlight. There’s even an audio file that will help you along this guided tour of McDonald’s. In the opposing McLibel pages, McDonald’s carefully constructed PR is taken apart word by word. McSpotlight contains 25 Mb of detailed information about McDonald’s, and add links to scientific reports and witness statements.

Category new documentary form: Scientology v. the Internet

The fight between Internet and Scientology has already made it to net-history. Scientology tried to remove the discussion group devoted to debating them (alt.religion.scientology), has tried to kill the newsgroup by endless bouts of spams, has investigated people who use pseudonyms and posted their personal iinformation to the net, used a private detective to observe posters from this newsgroup, has raided anon.penet.fi, Dutch ISP XS4all and the homes of various (US) citizens. Some of these actions are inspired by what Scientology calls copyright violation.

The fight between a.r.s. and Scientology is in many ways formative for what one in the very near future can and cannot do on the net: for rules and regulations, for law and netiquette.

Ron Newman’s homepage is devoted to this fight. Beginning in early 1995, he keeps a homepage on this Internet fight. The page is updated nearly every day, for fourteen months at a stretch, and now contains 5,5 Mb of data. It fulfills the needs of many who what to know what exactly is going on.

Category irony: Digicrime

A major spoof. Digicrime educates us on the hazards of the net, by presenting a collection of weird but true stories, and persuades us to do things we’d better not do. Also, they use Netscape’s technical innovations to trick you.

Category workshop: Chains

[Now defunct, http://found.cs.nyu.edu/andruid/chains.html] A collection of neighbourhood and subcultutal stories which gives a voice to many who would otherwise not be heard. The site has it’s own graffity wall where you can leave a statment, has educational aims, helps people to learn technology and is generally well done.

Category metazine: Suck

Not the next magazine on Internet. If it is something, it’s a zine about zines.

Category netverse: Electro Magnetic Poetry

[Now defunct, http://prominence.com/java/poetry] A very well done page, simple to behold but very inviting. With a cursor, a few handful of words and an elegant Java script, poetry can be – well, what? Assembled?

Category hypernarrative: Variety is…

A page which tells many stories. One of the most interesting ones is the story about Cyberbabes, that shows you what harm the Telecommunications Decency Act might do to the net. Hutton links to many outside places in order to let her story develop; that is a way to go about things that the jury liked.

Category hypernarrative: Hegirascope

A story presented in parts, which are retrieved by following various hyperlinks. There is, however, the possibility that the pages are retrieved according to an underlying script; when you don’t click a link, the script will automatically present one to you.

Category net home: Timothy Leary

Leary’s page is a home indeed. Clicking your way through his house – his living room, his library, his computer – one can access much of the stuff that he has written, read stories about his friends, see some cherished possessions. A video of his death – he died the day before the jury convened – may soon be accessible via this page.

The jury was:

  • David Blair (USA), maker of WAXWeb, the hypermedia’d version of his 85 minute film “WAX or the discovery of television among the bees”;
  • Oliver Frommel (Austria), who works at The Prix Ars Electronica Center;
  • Joichi Ito (Japan), president of Internet provider Digital Garage Inc, and net ideologue;
  • Karin Spaink (Netherlands), writer;
  • David Traub, maker of amongst others the Queensryche interactive cd.

The jury was assisted (both technically and otherwise) by Thomas Riha.


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