Ars Electronica: Inspiring, infuriating and extraordinary

For his first assignment our new columnist reports from Ars Electronica and salutes the efforts behind the ongoing EyeWriter project…

Ars Electronica, the world’s first, biggest and best showcase of interactive art and design, is a great sprawling mess of a show, inspiring and infuriating in equal measure.

It’s a criticism oft leveled at the digital scene that making great art or design can sometimes get confused with making great technical demos; that the meaning of a piece can get lost in the sheer technical achievement involved in making it work. And there were plenty of examples of this in Linz this year. At the same time, there were some extraordinary pieces which showed how the best interactive and digital work illuminates questions of community, collaboration and process like no other art form can.

The power of the EyeWriter
For example, Japanese artist Ei Wada gave a wonderfully virtuoso musical performance on a series of old analogue tube TV sets, playing them as percussive theramins by slapping and stroking them with his bare hands and using his body as the antenna.

And you might have heard of Daito Manabe (he made Electric Stimulus to Face last year, which may have influenced Fallon’s Cadbury Eyebrows spot). This time Manabe has created a self-portrait installation called Fade Out which uses an infrared camera to capture an image of your face, and a laser to fire dots at a phosphorescent screen. The shadow areas of the image are drawn first, which then fade down as successive highlight pixels are drawn, until the whole image dimly sinks into view – only to fade away completely at the end.

But by far the most outstanding piece at Ars Electronica this year, and the winner of the Golden Nica for Interactive Art, was the EyeWriter, the eye-tracking spectacles and custom software that lets you draw by moving your eyes. The EyeWriter is extraordinary not just because it’s an amazing piece of interaction design in its own right, but also because of the way it came to be made and because of the people who made it, and who use it.
The EyeWriter was developed to help Tempt 1, a graffiti artist in Los Angeles paralysed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, continue to make graffiti art using only the movement of his eyes. The developers are a group of young media artists and programmers who, when they heard of Tempt 1’s situation, went to meet him and decided to help him, artists to artist. The hardware and software is off the shelf, low cost and open source.

Writing graffiti again
Evan Roth and James Powderly of the Graffiti Research Lab got in touch with Zach Lieberman and Theo Watson of openFrameworks, and brought in Chris Sugrue, a well known media artist. They decided to work together on an entirely self-funded project to help Tempt 1 continue with his artistic career and, in the process, create a low-cost eye-tracking system that other disabled people might find useful. The first prototypes were made by hacking together a pair of spectacles and the Sony Eye camera from a Sony Playstation. Using this cobbled together version Tempt 1, lying prone in his hospital bed, was able to draw his name on a computer screen for the first time since 2003.

Soon after, he was painting graffiti in downtown Los Angeles, via the internet and a powerful car-mounted projector Graffiti Research Lab-style. Finally, artist Golan Levin created a robot arm to take Tempt 1’s designs and draw them on paper – tag style – with a fat marker pen.

The promise of technology
An earlier version of the EyeWriter was featured in CR in March this year when it won the interactive prize at the Brit Insurance Designs of the Year awards. I make no apologies for returning to version 2.0 in this issue – it’s an extra­ordinary project which works on many levels and has a lot to say for itself.

By using tech to sidestep physical disability, it chimes with the broader idea of technology as a way of enhancing ability at every level. We’re all constrained by the physical limitations of our bodies, whether disabled or not. The promise of the EyeWriter – like the promise of technology in general – is to offer us more ability, more access, more control.

It’s a relational work. It’s about an ad-hoc coalition between smart young media artists and another artist who, though he lost the ability to move his body, didn’t lose the will to make art and to write his name. It shows what collaboration can achieve beyond governmental structures and corporate support. They didn’t wait for permission, they just did it.

The project is open source and fully collaborative – anyone can participate. And it’s incredibly uplifting and inspirational. I’ve seen a lot of media art and digital art in my time, and I have never felt so moved as I was by the EyeWriter. It is an emotional piece, in the right way; never sentimental, always complex, ambiguous and full of meaning.

The EyeWriter team has also announced a Kickstarter fund to finance a reboot for Tempt 1’s artistic career, pay some hospital bills and,
if they raise enough cash, continue the development and hopefully fund more EyeWriter units for disabled people. You can donate to the fund by going to the Kickstarter panel on the EyeWriter project site at eyewriter.org.

Andy Cameron is interactive creative director at Wieden + Kennedy in London. He has 20 years experience in interactive art and design and continues to exhibit his work, most recently in Decode at the V&A. More details on Ars Electronica at aec.at. Evan Roth has a selection of videos relating to the EyeWriter up on vimeo.com/fi5e

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