Digital Communities

Prix Ars Electronica 2022

Golden Nica

Technology in its original thought has an enabling function. Robots as avatars to grant a barrier-free access to society, as well as the concept of a futuristic-looking café, combines the best of the analog and digital worlds to redefine inclusion and how people can live and interact together. What makes the Avatar Robot Café DAWN ver.ß outstanding is how it stimulates us to think in novel ways how socio-technological arrangements can enable (marginalized) people to participate in communities. Particularly in times where people are seduced into commercialized and unsustainable virtual worlds, we should think about other forms of resilient community-enabling arrangements. Behind the coffee house itself is an economic concept that is sustainably conceived and future-oriented. Both in terms of the self-evident integration of vulnerable groups into society, as well as the design, the culinary arts, and the interaction between (wo)man and machine, the Avatar Robot Cafe DAWN ver.β is an outstanding project and from the jury’s point of view a prime example of what a digital community can do and achieve.

Awards of Distinction

Families for Freedom is a community of Syrian families demanding freedom for all of the country's sons and daughters, the hundreds of thousands of Syrians detained or disappeared, the majority of whom are in Syrian regime prisons but also other parties to the decade long war. The jury is particularly inspired by the heart and soul of this campaign, the drive of this women-led movement, mostly mothers led to free their loved ones. They have really well articulated demands and use exemplary ways of advocacy and pressure to communicate with various sides, in Europe and beyond, who could do more to put an end to these miserable cycles of human suffering. Their collective action, shared purpose, and unified voice provides ample hope to similar communities in distress. They organize across several countries between UK, France, Germany, Syria and Lebanon and keep pushing for hope where there is so little to cling to. They deserve our respect, support, and admiration.

Hair can be wavy, curly, straight, thick and plentiful, or short, thin and patchy.
It is a fundamental component of both personal and political selves and can be a social signal and a status symbol. In Ethiopia, hairstyles are sculptures full of meaning. With their hair people are able to identify their ancestry and distinguishing traits based on their culture, nation, or tribe. When we lose a hairstyle, we lose a visual language, an expression that has been created in over thousands of years that may never be repeated again. The project Strong Hair wants to save that culture of hair styles from getting lost, which is so important for the local communities. It wants not only to preserve what remains by creating a portrait exhibition to encourage women of color to embrace their crown of hair but also to bring back these styles. Not just for Ethiopia, not just for Africa, but for the world. The project shows how with the use of NFTs, blockchain technology can potentially help to preserve cultural heritage and identity while empowering local communities. These cultural hairstyles can be celebrated and preserved and can be shown to the world as a resource and an asset that is useful for Ethiopia and any other place.

Honorary Mentions

All the stars we cannot see as an interactive immersive installation addresses (wo)mankind as a global community in an upgraded look up to the stars we’ve always been relying on. Be it for orientation, for guidance, for reflection, or as an inspiration. The estimated 10,000 stars we can see on a clear night with the unaided eye give herby way to the 23,000 satellite objects orbiting the earth nowadays, highlighted in the virtual sky of the installation. This new view, which emerged out of a research project, opens up new perspectives on fundamental questions like eternity, mortality, or, for that matter, technology, which surrounds us as a partly invisible net, giving us new possibilities of orientation, communication, and education as well as surveillance. The jury praised the successful interplay of scientific work with artistic elements as well as an appealing aesthetic, which, as an installation, allows every visitor to individually discover and reflect on the evolution of humanity in the context of all the stars we cannot see.

Akhbar Al-Saha is an independent grass-roots media platform in Lebanon that covers protests (from the October 2019 revolution and beyond) directly from the streets, reporting on events from the point of view of the demonstrators, providing the viewers with a direct, verified but unfiltered account of what is happening in the areas where protests are taking place, and in the longer run, building a rich archive of the material collected over the years. In a context where mainstream media in Lebanon and the region presents society’s issues as being independent and absolutely island-like from each other, the Akhbar Al-Saha advocates for social justice through an intersectional vision whereby they insist there is no justice without an equal distribution of wealth, the fight against patriarchy, capitalism, sectarianism, class, racism, and the systematic impoverishing of all people in Lebanon. The jury particularly admires their decentralized but vast network, their liberating approach and intersectional lens in archiving revolutionary times, and their engagement of refugee voices and expertise and all the hard labor put into creating this archive. We believe this project can cultivate and inspire a ripple effect for other communities surviving similar circumstances and wishing to build up an archive of their own.

The word “development” evokes fast growth and infinity, and speaks of hope for a better future. But what happens when the future upon us has transformed this beacon of hope into a ruin that must be relegated to the past? How do you describe the legacy of development to those who inherit a future that is to be dismantled? Joanna M Wright’s Atomfa alludes to these complex questions through a many media project documenting the closure of Trawsfynydd Nuclear Power Station in Wales, in collaboration with past and present workers at the site. In creating a collaborative archive replete with video, oral narratives, and text, it invites the community that supported the development of the nuclear reactor then and its decommissioning now to lead the narrative of this transition. More critically, it also holds space for the complex and frighteningly fragile questions we must ask of ourselves about the futures we are building. The archive serves both as a resource, and a tentative but much needed dialogue around these questions.

The jury honors Blank Noise for its longevity as a community of Action Sheroes/ Heroes/ Theyroes; citizens taking agency to end sexual and gender-based violence in India over two decades. Its participatory projects invite women, girls, and allies to respond to their relationships with public spaces and their lived experiences with violence. An environment of victim blame only justifies and therefore perpetuates sexual violence. Blank Noise works to end victim blaming through a range of interventions located in the #NeverAskForIt Mission; something that resonates with the jury unequivocally irrespective of the jury members’ gender, nationality, and context. Its projects are simple and accessible and speak of unmoored universal truths, such as the “testimonials of clothing” march that had women walking with thousands of garments that were purportedly worn during experiences of gendered violence. Blank Noise practices a movement-building approach to end gender-based violence and victim blame—an aspect that is so key to the digital communities that we know—and brings immense value to its societies.

The jury honors the Center for Political Beauty for their work which is a fresh, original interpretation of the relationship between fiction, reality, and history in political activism. The group is well known for their controversial actions as well as their modus operandi. Their powerful statements are carefully planned and well thought through. With their interventions they show again and again how forceful one can and should be when it turns to humanism. The Center plays an important role in the political sphere of the contemporary world to sensitize the general public to the dangerous changes occurring right across Europe.

Commons Cargobikes is a project on new mobility. Traffic jams, air pollution, noise, and wasted spaces for parking have been a major problem in cities. Commons Cargobikes wants to proactively shape the traffic turnaround by providing a sustainable, agile way for the people to transport goods. They use cargo bikes as a means to ensure the availability of affordable and shared mode of transportation to everyone. The project provides a civic approach to urban planning, is cost-effective and environmentally friendly. The grassroots initiative advocates free and open access, social commons to facilitate a collaborative city. It shows that there are new possibilities of access to our public spaces and demonstrate that there are a lot of possibilities to make our city more livable and inclusive.

Information is power. Governments and their administrations have information that is out of reach of citizens. Consequently, transparency and access to information are vital because they enable civil society to exercise control over those in power. Transparency is thus a means to counter the power asymmetry between governments and their citizens. The jury agrees that several aspects make the platform FragdenStaat [Ask the Government] remarkable. First, the legal-tech solution with high usability empowers citizens to exercise their granted freedom of information rights meaningfully. Second, the platform harnesses the power of the crowd/communities in several ways—ranging from aggregating all individual requests into an online archive to using mass requests to circumvent other laws preventing the publication of information. Third, their successes showcase that the continuous hard work to shift norms and practices from governmental secrecy to more transparency can pay off.

The internet and its stepchild, social media, have changed the world as we know it—they have manipulated democratic elections and free choice, they have allowed us to survive and thrive during epoch-defining lockdowns, and to share pictures of our cute cats. Regulating the internet has been hard, harder, hardest depending on one’s distance from the power and money capitals of the world. For India, the world’s largest democracy, Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) aims to ensure that the internet remains free on the same democratic principles that the country stands on—a job made harder by complex policies and limited citizen participation. IFF makes digital rights issues comprehensive yet understandable for its citizens using a framework of civic literacy and engagement through online campaigning channeled towards institutional change. They strategically engage with courts, regulators, and other legal institutions across India to create swift policy changes and raise red flags, when need be, leading to real on the ground change. The jury honors this bootstrapped, domestically funded, and transparent organization for legislative successes across issues of net neutrality, facial recognition, censorship, internet shutdowns, etc. while creating a series of best practice campaigns Project Panoptic, Zombie Tracker, and Keep Us Online, among others.

Computers and electronic devices with internet access have really become a necessity nowadays, especially for educational purposes, such as homeschooling. Laptops and computers are in high demand!
That is why Salvage Garden has been fixing computers and the jury honored the project because, well, it's filling a gap in the community and filling a social need for people who can't afford a computer that was—and for that matter still is—so important for students at home. The project is also a good example of how any local group with a passion and a little creativity can do something to change lives towards a greener environment by repurposing or recycling leftover e-waste parts of laptops. The project is also a very good reminder to fix your things and prolong their life, and shows how important it is to be capable of repairing electronic devices and not necessarily throw away things that are still usable.

The imagery of a social structure—be it a community, society, or institution—makes us think that it cannot be destroyed once we build it. But a religion without people practicing the culture, a democracy without people going to elections, or a community without participation means that structures perish. Therefore, we cannot take any social or societal achievement for granted. Social life is a recurring process of creation and destruction. This installation speaks to this very fundamental idea. Moreover, it highlights the unruly role of powerful forces seeking to destroy institutions dear to us. But the piece also contains a hopeful message: Even if the foe is powerful, we should not give up. Instead, the people persistently maintaining, re-creating, and re-building what they hold dear can persevere.

Total Refusal – pseudo-Marxist media guerilla highlights the unseen and questions the accepted of everyday society, as it’s represented in Blockbuster games. Ignoring the actual gameplay and the general narrative players follow to reach the pre-defined goals, Total Refusal analyzes the open worlds in which the games take place, taking the audience on a guided tour, documentary-style, through the side streets of dystopian towns to take a look at the architecture, or analyze the tasks of NPCs. These “non playable characters” are an important ingredient for gameplay as they breathe life into the virtual worlds to intensify the immersive gaming experience. As NPCs fulfill everyday duties, the virtual dive into their daily routine, their jobs, and pre-programmed tasks can also be seen as a reflection of how social structures, prejudices, or the value of human labor are nowadays perceived, and how societies are seen, and how they are represented in games. Since both game culture is found in everyday life and culture is found in games, the interaction makes it possible not only to reflect on values conveyed in games, but also to understand them as a handle for gaining a different perspective on existing social norms and their meaning. The jury also appreciates the fact that Total Refusal focuses on the large genre of games, which is often unquestioned in broader discussions, in order to examine and scrutinize visions as well as social structures and the role of a society represented in games and gameplay.

It is a shame how we treat our planet. The consequence of our actions is the climate crisis. This also means that water purification has rapidly gained more relevance. In addition to the excellent artistic approach, we were struck by the generativity of a dialogue between the arts and commercial science projects addressing the urgent societal challenge. Through the interaction with the artist Lynn Hershman, the commercial science partner learned that water purification based on plastic is not sustainable, and this artistic-driven dialogue led to the pursuit of a more climate-friendly bacteria-based approach. Crossing and blurring boundaries between disciplines is a risky and challenging endeavor. But it can be gratifying, as the project Twisted Gravity amply demonstrates.

Jury Statement

(re)claiming Spaces

Rashmi Dhanwani, Thomas Gegenhuber, Sarah Kriesche, Farah Salka, Simon Weckert

Let’s do something good: “Community” as a common word in everyday language is also used in a symbolic sense to convey good intentions. As easily as it passes lips, the structures that describe a community and its interpersonal relationships could not be more complex. Although every community organizes itself with an identity-forming narrative and tries to satisfy the needs of its members, each community at the same time functions completely differently depending on culture, technology, and local structures, as well as backgrounds and experiences of its members. As an essential social structure, communities not only represent the foundation of our cultural, economic, and social development, their ambitions, goals, and statements also reflect the global Zeitgeist. Digitization has enabled new forms of expression and connections which would have been unimaginable just a few decades ago.

The projects submitted in this year’s Prix Ars Electronica category Digital Communities reflect in their diversity both social challenges as well as the different forms of self-understanding in the broader context of a society, a region, the world, or even the universe. The range extends from the microcosm to macrocosm, from philosophical approaches to concrete missions, i.e. to highlight grievances, give visibility to communities, or name the unspoken. The diversity of submissions has thus also reflected the challenges of the times, where for many it feels like one crisis hitting the next. The devastating war in Ukraine, the coronavirus pandemic, or the climate crisis are just some of the topics reflected in submissions.

The submissions also represent the variety of approaches to tackle the question, what it means to be a community or to engage in work that makes communities better places. The Jury’s selection criteria this year were how innovative a submission is, e.g. does it showcase novel and valuable ways of altering the practice of community organizing, or enable new forms of community access, as well as the submissions’ artistic excellence. In short, does a submission push the boundaries and provoke us to think about (digital) communities in novel ways. We were looking for submissions that strive to create an impact and facilitate change or that show the potential for impact. Whilst taking factors like scale and reach into consideration, the jury’s assessment was also inspired by the impact of small and local action, based on the fundamental question of how they address challenges that our societies face—both today and in the future.

The Golden Nicas of “Digital Communities” since 2004