Jacob had the amazing opportunity of observing the 2020 STARTS prize jury back in May. See below all about his experience and reflections of the event…

Brief Reflections on the STARTS Prize Amidst the Coronavirus Pandemic and the ‘Pandemic of Racism’:  

As part of my involvement with the Identifying Successful STARTS Methodologies research project, led by Dr Denise Doyle at the University of Wolverhampton, I had the opportunity to attend the European Union’s STARTS Prize jurors workshop, where the ultimate decision as to the winners of the prize would be decided. Each year, two prizes are awarded in the categories of ‘Artistic Exploration’ and ‘Innovative Collaboration’, respectively. Although there is some crossover between the categories, the prize for Artistic Exploration tends to focus on speculative projects which generate new forms of thinking about the relationship between artistic practice, scientific research, and technological innovation. On the other hand, Innovative Collaboration places emphasis on the scale and ingenuity of projects which bring researchers – often geographically dispersed – together under the moniker of ‘catalytic artistic thinking’ to address social, economic, or ecological problems (i.e., climate change, migration etc.) In addition, ten ‘honorary mentions’ are awarded to successful projects at the intersection of art-science-technology. In the months leading up to the jurors workshop, I had been told promissory tales of the first-class hospitality afforded by Ars Electronica, who host the STARTS prize each year. As it so happened, the coronavirus pandemic prevented me from travelling to Austria to participate in the workshop in person. Instead of the usual customary champaign reception, I had to settle for a warm mug of tea and three days of video conferencing calls. Given that the workshop was taking place at the height of the pandemic, there was a palpable sense of unease amongst the jurors, discernible even through the screen. Projects in the field of art-science-technology often seem prophetic, anticipating social, economic, and ecological problems before they come to mainstream public consciousness. Each year, the STARTS Prize succeeds in shedding light on artistic practices which speak to our contemporary moment. Surely enough, the jurors were eager to include discuss projects which address the current crisis, whilst also treading carefully, wary of making light of the virus which has and continues to claim so many lives across the European Union. Pei-Ying Lin’s project Proposals for Collaboration With Living Viral Entities was the subject of much intrigue amongst the jury, proposing the harmonious co-existence of human beings and viral entities with view to forcing a revision of our ‘anthropocentric position’ as inheritors (spoilers) of the planet. The relationship between human and non-human agents, as in previous iterations of the STARTS Prize, became a central theme. The logic of anti-anthropocentrism posed by Proposals for Collaboration With Living Viral Entities underpinned the selection of winning projects and honorary mentions as a whole. Many of the successful projects had a similar tilt toward critically apprehending the networked relationship between human beings and non-human entities, be those natural agents such as trees, or technological agents, such as waste plastic, or artificial intelligence systems. This was ultimately reflected in the two winners selected by the jury, Olga Kisseleva’s EDEN Project, and Andrea Ling’s Design by Decay, Decay by Design. There was a general agreement that the focus of the jury would be on projects which address issues of planetary significance, namely climate change and ecological breakdown. Both of these projects achieve this in a way that is both aesthetically and epistemologically valuable, suggesting an alternative – and achievable! – relationship between human beings and the material world, which is altogether more organic, sustainable, and beautiful. Upon the publication of the winners and honorary mentions of the 2020 STARTS Prize, I am reminded of other impactful projects chosen by the jury. David Quiles Guillo’s The Wrong Biennale points to the manifold creative possibilities of digital art platforms – particularly at a time when many of us are quarantined, shacked up all-day long with our devices. Since 2013, The Wrong Biennale project has incorporated the work of over 5500 artists and curators who, responding to open calls posted online, exhibit their works in both virtual spaces and actual offline ‘embassies’ (public art spaces). The scale of the participation is extraordinary, offering a blueprint of sorts for museums, galleries, and public art spaces in the time of social distancing. Finally, the UK-based artist Karen Palmer’s work Perception i0, investigating the inherent racial bias of artificial intelligence surveillance technologies in policing through an immersive virtual reality experience, seems even more pertinent in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement. Assuming the perspective of a police officer in training, we examine how the human prejudices which make up institutional racism are reproduced within the technological apparatus wielded by our institutions. In recent days, far-right protestors take to the streets of London to ‘defend’ historical monuments of those complicit with colonialism, whilst the UK government continues to be reticent in disclosing information relating to the disproportionate number of deaths and infections from coronavirus amongst BAME communities. Nowhere is structural racism worse felt than in Wolverhampton – the home city of the Identifying Successful STARTS Methodologies team – which has found itself at the epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic in England. Reflecting on the project selected by the STARTS Prize, as well as upon my experience of observing the priorities of the jury, I am encouraged by the possibilities of collaborations at the intersection of art-science-technology for affecting change (however modest) in relation to the most pressing material problems facing the contemporary world. The STARTS Prize continues to champion artistic research practices which are otherwise marginalised by the global art market, offering a platform for genuinely experimental collaborations between artists, scientists, and technologists; on home shores, we lack adequate governmental support for projects which do not fit within neat disciplinary boundaries. Given the complex imbrication of social, cultural, biological, and ecological problems which we face today, the replication of interdisciplinary research practices found internationally should be, more than mere fancy, a priority.