Taxonomies for New Media Art
Taxonomies for New Media Art (History): Case Study Interactive Art
The extensive documentary material accompanying the entries to the Prix Ars Electronica allows for a detailed art-historical analysis. Classification systems are subject to criticism, as they neglect the specific characteristics of individual works. However a terminological classification can also lead to a differentiated vocabulary, advancing the description of individual characteristics of single works. Granular categorization enables linguistic accuracy and variety. Furthermore databases allow for the interrelation of different systems of concepts. This facilitates a break with the tradition of linear art(ist) histories and chronological paradigms in favor of parallel interrogations of various commonalities and differences. The term “interactive art”, for example, embraces a broad spectrum from net-based literature and media performances to interactive installations. While a generalizing description of these works as interactive art alone is obviously restrictive and reduces the value of the term to a canned genre name, taxonomies help to differentiate but also relate. Differentiated classification systems uncover heterogeneities within one genre, but may also indicate parallels across genres that might otherwise remain unnoticed. To do justice to the variety of possible approaches to the multidisciplinary field of media art research, we differentiated four perspectives, each containing up to three broader terms for a classification of the works (Research project conducted by Katja Kwastek together with Ingrid Spörl, Heike Helfert and Nicole Sudhoff. See also: Katja Kwastek: “Classification vs. Diversification—the value of taxonomies for new media art”, in: Peter Gendolla, Jörgen Schaefer (eds.): Beyond the Screen, Bielefeld: transcript (forthcoming).):
The first broader term “form of artwork” is meant to give a general idea of the physical manifestation of a work, or, as the case may be, its performative or immaterial character. The second broader term “range of artwork” allows us to specify their “spatial” qualities, e.g. if an artwork is stand-alone or networked, to be located in public space or realized on mobile devices. Furthermore the potential “interaction partners” are specified within a third category.
Concerning works of new media art, on the one hand, technology can be argued to play a seminal role for the projects. On the other hand, the actually implemented devices and operating systems may be exchangeable. This makes the documentation of the media chosen at the time of production all the more pertinent. In the categories “media” and “processing technology”, we encourage the collection of a broad variety of terms that will enable more detailed research into technological questions in the future.
Interactive art touches upon a completely new form of aesthetics, as it is based on the active realization of artistic offers by the audience, resulting in an action-based aesthetic experience. We suggest describing whether “the visitor/performer does”: observe, explore, activate, control, select, navigate, participate, leave traces, and so on. But there is also another part of the interaction process, originating from the work itself. “The work does”: tell or narrate something, document or inform, visualize or sonify; it may be designed to enhance perception or to offer a game, to monitor something or to serve as an instrument, to transform, to collect and store, to process or mediate.
Though we had to acknowledge that taxonomies reach their limits when aiming at a contextualization of works, we decided to include two categories: “catchwords” and “topic”. While catchwords are often short-dated buzzwords that may allude to possible functions and application areas, but also to subjective intentions and societal discourses, they turned out to be a perfect way to include intentional, context-based views into a taxonomic approach, exactly because of their fuzzy nature. Though works of media art are often self-referential, they may also reflect on societal, political, economic or environmental processes. Therefore, identifying topics of works is possible and expedient, also because it introduces further points of comparison with non-interactive works.
The taxonomy was integrated into the Prix Ars Electronica online submission tool, so that, since 2008, the submitters themselves have been invited to apply it directly to their works. Furthermore, it was used to retrospectively classify the approximately 300 prizewinning projects from the years 1990-2009. This retrospective classification is visualized and can be interactively explored by means of the Themelandscape. (Katja Kwastek)