Prix Ars Electronica Observations

1. Written by Mark Watkins, posted to Rhizome Raw (, September 09, 2001:

On Manhattan Timeformations, or My Surreal Summer Vacation in Linz

We recently received an Award of Distinction at the recent Prix Ars Electronica.The following ramblings are offered for discussion to any interested party. Manhattan Timeformations, the site I worked on with Brian McGrath, was placed in the Net Excellence category along with Warp Records and the eventual winner Praystation (Golden Nica by unanimous vote), and picked over some highly impressive sites such as Ultrashock, Kaliber10000 and even Rhizome. First off, respect goes out to all 14 Honorary Mentions who were, more or less, online long before us and have served and/or entertained their communities to a much greater degree than we ever will. It's embarrassing to be privileged over the sites one regularly visits for inspiration.

The festival's official publication writes that "Manhattan Timeformations ... demonstrates the significant potential of an intelligent connection between information and architecture -- and realizes 'information architecture' in the true sense of the word." Somewhat clumsy comparisons to two very different disciplines (architecture and web design) aside, one must assume from the brief explanations given that Timeformations was nominated for the manner in which it organizes and makes retrievable its data. In other words, for the manner in which a large amount of historical information is represented as layers embedded with both spatial and temporal characteristics or, less likely, for the attempt to integrate a relatively unobtrusive navigational system on top of those layers. In simplistic terms, for reasons having to do with Ars Electronica's current concept of the web: making information accessible.

On the whole, the net projects honored at Ars Electronica hurdled technological challenges to carve out social spaces others have only dreamed of before. They achieve the "promise of the internet", borderless and communal. While cliched in theory, this vision of the net involves an incredible undertaking of time, energy, money and expertise to realize. In the Net Vision category, Banja, the winning project, and Phantasy Star Online are pure entertainment game sites requiring loads of committed online presence by the players. Communication between multiple users and the game is technically advanced. ImaHima, the third nominee in the category, is an application which allows group communication over cell phones. In the category Net Excellence, Warp Records is Amazon for the techno-slacker-brat community, slicker in its navigation (aesthetically matching the style of its product) and much more influential on its particular constituency. Praystation was celebrated both for its philosophy of open source, giving away complex animation experiments and rolling the resultant modifications back into the web site, and for an elegant calendar-based navigation system which makes you slap your forehead with a "why didn't I think of that?".

Community, communication, accessibility and navigation: the internet Shangri-las. Which makes me wonder, how did Timeformations ever get nominated? Just to pick one site for comparison, Kaliber10000 (currently offline) presents a beautiful interface on top of an efficient database. Both the home page and archive are easy to navigate, making a large amount of information easily accessible. It's populated with a core group of accomplished (and unpaid!) designers commissioning and uncovering new net projects, both design-oriented and artistic in nature, so its very existence results in the proliferation of more good stuff on the net. It no doubt gets a great number of hits per day. It's the first stop in the morning for a great many web designers. According to the criteria hinted at by the other nominations, K10K would have been a perfect candidate in the Net Excellence or Net Vision categories. While one might argue that the solutions to initially presenting Timeformations were a result of as much mental activity as K10K, Timeformations represents far less in the technological arena. It's a product of a designer's first use of Flash (version 4), it does not employ a database or rely on complex coding or achieve a dynamic relationship with its user. It is fixed, will never change, sells nothing and gives nothing away.

Knowing little about Ars Electronica before I got there and intuiting less about the selection process until after I left, my assumptions with regard to its selection were, as far as I can tell, pretty far off. I assumed that a particular artistic quality was the significant factor in the jury's choice. This quality, however, has actually never been mentioned in descriptions of the project by Ars Electronica or anyone else and may, in fact, be indecipherable to the average user. In any event, the following, significantly altered excerpt from our Ars Electronica presentation was an attempt to explain the project. In doing so, I think it accidentally distanced Timeformations from the award it received.

What is Timeformations? Is it a map, a textbook, a virtual world? Timeformations was built as a tool for exposing not so much a history of New York City as an ideology about the city, its historical past, and the forces at work in its present. You could use it as a map, perhaps. The project is not a very good map, as it is really sort of visually abstract, missing a lot of pertinent information. Someday soon a Palm might play tiny little Flash movies, but there's already a program called Vindigo which does a great job of telling you where you are and how to get where you want to go.

You could use the site as a textbook, because it illustrates facts about the construction history of New York skyscrapers. This was the "subject" for which it got funded, being made in conjunction with the Skyscraper Museum. But the project is not a very clear textbook since it challenges the reader to uncover much of the information themselves. It is also mostly organized in diagrammatic form, as charts and graphs, instead of paragraphs of text that can be copied and pasted into term papers.

The project has been described as a virtual world (or something to that effect), although you can only go where we allow you to go due to file size, bandwidth and funding concerns. The visual information is presented mostly orthographically rather than perspectivally, as well, further privileging abstraction over submersion.

The project is really not any of these things. Personally, I consider Timeformations a primitive analytical device, and a prototype at that, for revealing the hidden relationships of built space. A tool for telling subversive stories about the metropolis, tracing where the nodes of money and power have shifted during the 20th century and, as a result, how the city was shaped. An application which allows the user to isolate built spaces and objects, to turn them off or on, and in the process of making things either transparent or opaque discover relationships which we don't normally think about but which surround us everyday. However, these relationships are barely hinted at in the provided text, so interpretation is left up to the user, probably to too great an extent to support my theory of subversion.

An example of these relationships can be found by the layering of a 42nd Street Development map and all the 1999-2005 office buildings together (within the Midtown New York window), showing the currently centralized construction activity of global broadcast, media and news corporations made possible by the city administration's zoning regulations. Media is the new power, transforming the city's midtown into a theme park for the future, providing jobs which draw on the creative juices of young artists and designers to disseminate an aesthetic amalgam of narrative Hollywood cliches, Disney character design, console gaming structures, and maximum-bpm-attention-spans across the world.

Many of the net projects nominated for prizes at Ars Electronica fit comfortably within this entertainment culture aesthetic rather than outside of it. While there is undoubtedly cultural subterfuge at work, particularly in the formation of communal spaces where commercial enterprises are replaced by a free forum of call and response, to label it all art seems to undermine the role of art as a tool for directly focusing on the things we comfortably ignore or accept as normal. To place Timeformations within this sphere of technological innovation and realized futurism for its "information architecture" just seems a little weird; I like to think of Timeformations as an artwork. I assume someone at Rhizome thought so, too, when they added our project to the Artbase. But the festival's praise wasn't directed at its artistic qualities, despite the "ars".

Within my reading of the Ars Electronica criteria for selection, I can accept Rhizome as a legitimate choice for the Net Excellence award. Rhizome isn't art, is it?

2. Portion of response by Curt Cloninger, 9/11/01(!)

I think the novel presentation paradigm of your piece and the point you're piece makes are inextricably linked. So by valuing your interface/presentation paradigm, the committee was by default valuing your "art." I understand that the literal tech behind your interface was not so tough (relatively speaking), but then the literal tech behind K10K is not so tough either (relatively speaking). K10K got in for the community aspect, not the tech per se. You got in for a novel/rich data presentation paradigm, not the tech per se. That the awards committee chose to focus on your craft rather than your concept doesn't mean that they weren't also impacted by your concept. In good art, craft and concept are inextricably related, yes? peace, curt

3. Response by Eunhye Chung, 9/17/01

It was my first time to Linz to participate the Ars, and I came back very confused. It seems to me that the comment by a juror (sorry, I can't remember his name) was correct that there seems to be an inability to distinguish different kinds of innovations between art that uses technology and technology that is artistic in some ways.

Despite of all the clams of technology taking over what used to be known as art, I still felt that those pieces that are firmly grounded in artistic creativity, whether they are aesthetically pleasing, intellectually challenging, or inspiring, much more successful than those showcasing recent technological innovation.

I found "Manhattan Timeformations," quite beautiful, if I still can use that word.

It's also heart wrenching to think about what the new version of Menhattan Timeformation will say about the recent terror.