the itch factor

melinda rackham: media art jury duty


Rather than relying on scratching an itch to identify outstanding work we most often employ a jury or peer review system to ensure fairness and adherence to high standards. In our modern legal system a jury is a sworn body of people convened to render a rational, impartial verdict, its members usually given time off from their daily life to deliberate. In the art world, judges, jurors, peers or assessors are expected to display impartial expertise across a large and encompassing discipline, and must fit often un- or underpaid jury work into already tight schedules.

How carefully is the jury process considered? Are there transparent criteria for selecting a winning artist, project or text? How much time are assessors given to review projects? How appropriately are they paid? Does the process become one of self-enhancement that awards the most personally charming entrant; the most politically opportune artwork; or the candidate who fits best the current institutional profile rather than setting any visionary precedent? Are the technically compliant outcomes of award, residency and prize deliberations always ethical or fair?

the process

Having made the transition from applicant to juror over the past five years, I have found myself sitting in judgment in 30 or so situations ranging from the heavy responsibility of the singular juror to negotiating unwieldly email discussions amongst 20. These have included net art commissions for Rhizome and Turbulence in New York; international symposiums and exhibitions such as several ISEA and Futuresonic Festivals; assessments for ANAT, AFC and the Australia Council for the Arts; art and industry prizes like SmartyBlog, AIMIA and the Queensland Premier’s Award for New Media Art; and, recently, assessing 320 entrants over five days on the five-person Hybrid Arts Jury at Ars Electronica in Austria.

Most challenging was the day-long Second Life Architecture Award “Open Jury” meeting of seven jurors of diverse backgrounds held during the Ars Electronica Festival in 2007. A live audience filled the jury hall—some being entrants in the award. Proceedings were netcast, in real time, to a public square in Second Life where the avatars of global entrants and a general audience also gathered. Our singular jury avatar, resplendent in a pink and green Chanel suit, explored each short-listed project in-world as audience avatars looked on. This online process was simultaneously screened back into the jury room. Inside a constant feedback loop, with no ‘cone of silence’, every word and gesture of the jury was publicly, globally accountable, including the repeated proclamations of an internationally respected senior architect (with no virtual world experience) of “It’s all rubbish!” Five outstanding finalists were eventually selected and we adjourned for beer and schnitzel.

Jury duty is hard, hard work. Academic assessments and online peer reviews are far less charged, as automated forms, comment boxes and rating systems are designed to ensure emotional detachment. However nothing can compare with the personal interaction and vigorous debate that characterises an art jury. It can assume the mantle of a courtroom drama of the Boston Legal kind, with otherwise sane and rational individuals displaying ruthless strategies, pathos and absurdity. Over hours or weeks, bizarre behaviour can emerge as individuals grapple to make decisions. And these decisions are not taken lightly as the outcomes will set agendas for a sector, promote and reward certain artists and artforms.

the people

Permit me to make some observations on the personalities engaged and tactics employed, to a greater or lesser extent, in these grand deliberations.

The Player: Having watched the movie Rainman they know it’s all a numbers game. Their strategy is to rate their favoured artist at around 85-100%, while rating the other strong contenders, or those who seem to be favoured by other jurors, in the bottom 15 %. A shrewder variant of the Player will subtly trade with others for ranking, forfeiting some favourite projects to ensure the elevation of others.

The Persuader: They sit up late in bars bending the ears of other jurors; send prolific emails extolling the virtues of a project; and bring complimentary articles on it to other jurors’ attention. Their lengthy implorings, peppered with rational and emotional hooks, seldom ensure a winning choice.

The Tantrum Thrower: They walk around muttering angrily, or indeed sometimes shouting unabashedly that noone else understands the criteria, the sector, the audience, the projects. They threaten to walk out, talk to the press, issue a dissenting statement. Some tantrum throwers take it further than this, later publishing disparaging articles on the jury process, questioning the character and suitability of the other jurors.

The Dictator: They are often corporate, museum or festival directors without specific knowledge of the arena being juried or, alternately, a highly distinguished and fiercely opinionated veteran jury chair. They truly believe they know best, blocking opinions and discussion in favour of the quick decision. Equally destructive is the politically appointed juror who demonstrates complete disengagement—sometimes falling asleep during deliberations. Strong coffee and dark chocolate should be mandatory assessment refreshments.

The Consensus Seeker: The world would be perfect if everyone agreed, and this juror wants the process to be a shared, harmonious experience. Except, rarely does everyone totally agree. The decision must be made, the announcement has to go out, the publicity department is waiting for copy, but the consensus seeker is undeterred. To them the process is more important than the outcome. Eternal optimism as a redeeming quality is either endlessly infuriating or infectiously refreshing.

the prize

Hopefully sharing the elation of reaching a satisfying consensus—when all are at a point of emotional and physical exhaustion—it’s time to go public. The statements are written, the jury gird their collective loins and, no matter what, smile. At the Announcement, the winner(s) feel deservedly rewarded or are stunned. Those without a prize generously congratulate the winners, and the gossip and rumours start. Everyone is a critic after the fact and of course would have made a better decision. The Art Dealer is the happiest person in the room, grinning from ear to ear, as the profile of their artist instantly soars with this new accolade and its public recognition, financial reward, possible acquisition and career acceleration.


And there we have it. If we want to award work that really makes us itch, that poses provocative questions, coalesces bodies of knowledge and delivers an accessible and engaging audience experience, then jury selection and the jury process are crucial. But do we want important assessments to be made in airport lounges between flights by exhausted experts? Providing appropriate remuneration and sufficient time to deliberate on all aspects of the works in competition underpins the construction of a vibrant media arts sector.

My vision for our future has Gertrude scratching wildly—immersed in the exteroceptive delights of sight, taste, smell, touch, hearing and balance; revelling in kinaesthetic satisfaction; and savouring her intellectual engagement with the new modalities and emergent practices of media arts.

RealTime issue #91 June-July 2009 pg. 30

© Melinda Rackham; for permission to reproduce apply to

1 June 2009