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The Ars Electronica festival has finally finished. As I mentioned in my previous "quick look" post before the festival, the most interesting data visualization project exhibited in this year's Ars Electronica was the 10m by 3m wall print titled "Mapping The Archive: 30 Years of Ars Electronica", developed by the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute (LBI) for Media.Art.Research.

I had the chance to talk to Dietmar Offenhuber, key researcher of LBI, and Moritz Stefaner, designer of the "X by Y" project commissioned by LBI, about the project. They mentioned that the data originated from the Prix Ars Electronica, founded in 1987. As one of the oldest media art competitions in the world, so far there are almost 40,000 submissions in the archive. Since this data is considered unique in terms of the history of media arts, it is also an interesting database for meaningful analysis.

"Mapping the Archive" was located at the history lounge exhibition in the Brucknerhaus, which also featured many important projects from the long history of Ars Electronica Festival, and consisted of 6 different data visualization pieces created by Dietmar Offenhuber, Evelyn Münster, Jaume Nualart, Moritz Stefaner and Gerhard Dirmoser. You may check the team page of this group at the brand-new LBI Visualization showcase new website, which also has some of the datasets available for download.

Dietmar explained that the projects were developed by studying 3 main points of the data:

  1. Quantitative Analysis: What are the submissions, how many they are and how they are categorized.

  2. Social Networks: Who were the jury members throughout the years? How they are connected to each other as well as awarded artists.

  3. Art Historical Context: What is the effect of awarded projects in the history? Where they appeared after the awards(i.e. books,exhibitions), how they influenced the genres and fields of media arts.

The first project in the lounge was about the competition submissions: "X by Y" by Moritz Stefaner shows all the past submissions to the Prix Ars Electronica, from the its beginnings in 1987 up to now. Moritz stated that the most complete dataset included the basic types such as country of origin, year and demographic information on submitters. Here, the goal was to characterize the "ars world" in quantitative terms. A series of finely detailed diagrams group and juxtapose all the submissions according to years, category, prize and country. The graphics are composed of little colored-coded dots, with each single dot representing a unique submission in the database. In order to provide a readable diagram, Moritz finally decided to work on print medium. The team believed that only a giant print would reflect the quantity and details of submissions.

"Media Art as Social Process" by Dietmar Offenhuber and Gerhard Dirmoser examines the social networks formed by jurors and awarded artists: "Each year a combination of new and recurrent jury members meet to identify the winning projects. Often the awarded artists from the previous year are invited as jury members. A social network has evolved over the years." Some interesting results revealed themselves: it is not possible to see small islands or independent nodes in the jury network; however the final look is a complete big mesh created by people and social connections. The second interesting point to explore is that some of the jurors are extremely permanent in some categories over the years; in a sense, they shape the vision of that specific category. Another interesting visual outcome they discovered was that the boundaries of different categories were merging and dissolving into each other during the years.

The Prix Ars Electronica Jury always writes a statement for each winning project. Over the years, these statements have been growing into a large collection of texts. Each of them is visualized as a "texty (by Jaume Nualart)": a small visualization showing the structure, length and topics of each text at a glance. The project explores the semantic relationship between different statements. There is a special navigation system created for browsing keywords in the texts.

"Proxemantics" by
Jaume Nualart generates another network of keywords comprising of all the Prix Ars Electronica jury statements. It uses the structure of texts (sentences, paragraphs, etc.) to harvest semantic relationships between annotations based on their spatial proximity.

In the "winners" section of the poster, the "Prix Landscape Interactive Art" by Evelyn Münster displays all the works that have been awarded in the category of "Interactive Art", since its inception in 1990 up until now. The landscape is created by using a taxonomy provided by Katja Kwastek. The proximity of 2 works represents their similarity. The terms that are assigned to a work are symbolized by petals, whereas each term has a unique shape. When several terms are applied, the combination of petals results in an individual profile for each work. The color saturation communicates the year of production of a piece: older pieces are represented in a lighter shade.

The last 2 maps of the large installation were created by Gerhard Dirmoser. "Thesaurus of Electronic Media Art" is an ongoing project and this print is the 2nd version of the project. It shows the winning projects of Prix Ars Electronica contextualized in their art historical environment. The field of "digital performance" is represented based on terms from the theoretical publication of the same title by Steve Dixon. Although this topic is not actually a category in Prix Ars Electronica, it highlights overall aspects which various categories have in common.

The 2nd piece on display includes all people who submitted a work to Prix Ars Electronica more than once or who were awarded at least once. Genres have been coded with single letters, however they are not identical to the Prix categories; e. g. N represents all net-based categories. The individual persons are concentrated to clusters according to their "similarity", which means a similar behavior in the way they submit to categories as well as public presence (number of citations in publications and other relevant media).

After talking about all projects in detail, our discussion makes us raise a number of questions such as "What is the function and importance of information visualization in the field of art history?", "Does information visualization only serve as an analysis of the existing texts written by art historians or does it bring a new dimension to the field of art history?" If you have any opinion regarding these issues, please feel free to leave comments to keep the discussion alive.

*Images: Courtesy of Moritz Stefaner.
This guest blog post was written by Mahir M. Yavuz with the support of Moritz Stefaner! Mahir is an instructor at Interface Cultures in Kunstuniversität Linz and researcher at Ars Electronica Futurelab.