Andy C’s report on Ars Electronica Fest 2010

Andy Cameron by Piero Martinello_big
Andy Cameron is not only Interactive Creative Director at Wieden + Kennedy London, but also new columnist on all things interactive at Creative Review… Here’s his first piece reporting on the Ars Electronica Festival in Linz

Ars Electronica Report/The Eyewriter
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 show how the best interactive and digital work illuminates questions of community, collaboration and process like no other art form can.
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 antenna.
Ei wada
And you might have heard of Daito Manabe (he made  Electric Stimulus to Face last year, which may have influenced the Cadbury Eyebrows spot). This time Manabe has created a self portrait installation called Fade Out which uses an infra red 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, and then fade down as successive highlight pixels are drawn until the whole image dimly sinks into view, and then fades away completely.
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. EyeWriter is extraordinary not just because it’s an amazing piece of interaction design in it’s 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.
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.
Evan Roth and James Powerdly of the Graffiti Research Lab contacted Zach Lieberman and Theo Watson of Open Frameworks, and Chris Sugrue, a well known media artist, and visited Tempt 1 in hospital. They decided to work together on an entirely self-funded project to help him 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 down-town Los Angeles, via the internet and a powerful car-mounted projector, Graffiti Research Lab-style. Finally, 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 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.

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 a broader ideas 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 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, although 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 and partnership can achieve beyond governmental structures and corporate support. They didn’t wait for permission, they just did it.

The EyeWriter team has 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 development and fund more EyeWriter units for disabled people. You can donate to the fund by going here.

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