This year is the 15th edition of a competition that was initially dubbed VIDA 2.0, in reference to a “second form of life”, meaning artificial life. Fifteen years on, is the debate on artificial life still ongoing? What do the works which have taken part in this contest tell us?
Over the intervening years we have seen the artists apply the principles of Artificial Life in their works, create models through which to observe the dynamics of living systems and the way in which they interact with their environment. Today it is clear that artificial life technologies are more present than ever in the objects that surround us. We can think of home appliances, of mechanisms we commonly use in our work or leisure environments, of mobile applications or those social network or internet functions which we use daily. These forms belong to our culture and are embodied in the work of many artists, which VIDA collects in its awards. Over fifteen editions of the competition we have seen the evolution of these technologies, and their discourse has had an influence on the winning projects in VIDA. Consequently, the competition during this period has served to stimulate debate on the hybrid nature of life, which seems to gather force due to the position that is occupied in our society by systems created with the latest artificial life technologies.
Great artists have taken part in VIDA; what milestones stand out regarding the role played by VIDA in the development of artistic practices that are linked to new technologies?
From the beginning, VIDA has been a leader in the development of art related to new technologies. It emerged in the 1990s, at a time of ferment in which a number of initiatives appeared with a common goal: to record, analyse and promote new artistic practices related to technology and science. Transmediale, ISEA, ZKM and, in Spain, Artfutura, are just a few of them. What is unusual about VIDA is that from its inception it has been dedicated to a specific area of research; that of art and artificial life. From its early editions it has highlighted the work of influential artists: Maria Verstappen and Erwin Driessens, Ken Rinaldo, Bill Vorn, Phil Beesley, Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau, etc. As a nominally specific field, in practice there is a broad diversity of approaches, either through its multiple discourses or the technologies that are used. VIDA has celebrated the use of artificial life technologies in artistic creation: the attempt to capture the dynamic capacity of living beings in art. This idea has had a central role in art in recent decades, so that VIDA has become internationally renowned for its ability to respond to one of the most important creative concerns in our technological culture.
The award-winning projects in VIDA have also contributed to scientific thought. In this regard, what lines of research have contributed more to or benefited most from the activity of VIDA over the years?
While in the early years of VIDA we saw many award-winning works related with robotics, virtual ecosystems and autonomously evolving computer systems, in recent editions new approaches have been added showing the latest advances in research and the interest this has aroused among artists. In recent editions, the prized works have been those dealing with the dynamics of the internet and social networks, those recreating spaces and contexts for the enhanced human body, those applying recent research in synthetic biology, to cite just a few examples of new trends. Each of these ideas leads us to an expansion in the very category of artificial life. This way, the artists seek to express the extraordinary nature of “the living”, and the randomness that resides in an autonomous system. In science today, classic debates are being rekindled and the question “what is life?” is gaining the broadest interest. It is analysed from multiple standpoints, from a cross-disciplinary perspective, and using the most advanced technical means for interpretation. It is not easy to determine the role that artists play in this ongoing research. There is a lot of experimentation in place and highly innovative working models (artists in laboratories, experiences with prototypes, an extensive DIY culture, etc.) and at VIDA we believe that the aim of these works is artistic, not scientific. In any case, we are indeed aware that science and art share methods of research and qualities such as resourcefulness, creativity and innovation. VIDA reflects this fact and supports this transdisciplinary vision of art.
The financial incentive is an important aspect for the production of artistic projects, particularly when these projects require costly resources. Is the financial prize of an award like this its fundamental element, or are there other factors that highlight its importance?
There are two ways to participate in VIDA: with a project completed in the last two years – in the Finished Projects category – or with an unfinished proposal – in the Production Incentives category. A total of €82,500 in prize money is shared between the two categories, with VIDA being one of the best-endowed contests internationally. This aspect is very important to VIDA: to offer resources to artists and reward their work. The Production Incentives category was created especially to cover the differences in available resources between different countries. It arose from a reflection by the jury on the contrast between the proposals received from Latin American countries and those from other places like Canada, USA, Germany or England. The quality of the projects was determined by the difference in resources and the support offered in each country. As a result, in 2001 it was decided to create this new category that would support production in Latin American countries, Spain and Portugal. It should be said that Fundación Telefónica operates offices and cultural programmes in these countries, so this category took on particular importance in the promotion of arts and knowledge at the company. The financial incentive provided by this award has had a great impact over the years on creation in Latin America. We have found that the number of proposals dedicated to researching artificial life in Latin America, Spain and Portugal has increased as a result of the award. Apart from receiving a larger number of projects from these countries, they have also been in line for the major awards in the Finished Projects category, occupying prominent positions in creation using advanced technologies at an international level.
In addition to the financial incentive, another incentive involves the possibility of working in a research laboratory. VIDA in this issue is debuting the Telefónica R&D Incentive Award – what are the aims of this award? What kinds of projects are eligible for it, given the characteristics of the innovation department at Telefónica?
VIDA distributes a total of €40,000 between five proposals as selected by the jury in the Production Incentives category. This allows artists to complete their project, which must not have been carried out previously, with sufficient financial resources to develop it within a year (one year after receiving the award, the artists must report on the development of the project). However, we have seen that the development of some of the proposals often requires non-economic capital, in the form of talent and expertise. This is a resource that thankfully we can contribute from VIDA. This year we have decided to offer comprehensive support to award-winning artists and for this we have sought the collaboration of the Telefónica R&D team. One of the projects selected by the jury in the Production Incentives category will be chosen along with the Telefónica R&D team to receive this award. A team of experts in research, development and innovation at Telefónica will support the artist during the production process. The artist will receive advice on the latest information technologies and will have the opportunity to spend a period of up to one month at the Telefónica R&D Research Center in Barcelona. The aim with this contribution is to stimulate innovation by focusing on the latest technologies in artificial life and to expand research opportunities in the arts.
VIDA this year restores its Special Jury Award. How will the proposals be voted on? Will the same projects be voted on that are eligible for the other prizes? Judging from previous years, some projects are rather complex in their approach: how can information be provided to the public so they can evaluate the proposals?
We have decided to restore this award, which was convened in one of the earlier editions of VIDA, because it seemed important to facilitate public participation at the most critical time for the awards: right after the jury’s decision and the announcement of the winners. The project with the most votes among the seven honourable mentions (which are not awarded prize money) will receive a total of €2,500. The vote will take place after the announcement, which will be made public on the VIDA website in October. All the details on the prize-winning works will be available on our website. The information that is published each year is drafted by the members of the jury after deciding on the award and before the announcement of the decision. Along these lines, the winning projects will be presented with a brief critical essay by renowned international experts indicating the main reasons behind the jury’s verdict. Other means will also be provided by which to expand the information on the winning project and its creator/s, so that the public can pick its favourite and cast its own vote. Social networks at this point are vital for public participation. We will be using VIDA’s social networks Twitter (@VIDAAwards) and Facebook (VidaArtAwards), to make voting more accessible and universal.