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Winner of the Aspen Online Art Award creates a virtual world from the unique digital fingerprints of users

3 May 2017
Still from Matilda Skelton Mace, Sky Island, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.
Still from Matilda Skelton Mace, Sky Island, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.

A new online artwork by Aspen Online Art Award 2016 winner Matilda Skelton Mace launched today, creating a virtual world based on the unique digital ‘fingerprints’ of visitors to the site. The work Sky Island, 2017 can be accessed at skyis.land.

Drawing on the phenomenon of ‘Sky Islands’ – mountains with unique flora and fauna caused by climatic isolation from the surrounding lowland – users’ metadata are used to create particular landforms with their own plants and weather systems.

Visitors with matching characteristics (for example using the same hardware or operating system) generate landforms in a similar location to eventually build up a mountain range corresponding to correlations in metadata. Their weather and plant life reflects the geographical location of the user.

Visitors can explore this expanding world and a visual representation of metadata profiling emerges, with its implications for anonymity rights and freedom of expression.

Launched in 2014 by Aspen Insurance Holdings Limited, in association with the Contemporary Art Society, the Aspen Online Art Award is the first of its kind in the UK. The judges, who included Attilia Fattori Franchini, Curator, and the Aspen Art Committee, made up of Aspen employees, selected Skelton Mace from a shortlist of seven artists to win a commissioning prize of £5,000 and the opportunity to create a new online-based work for Aspen’s renowned art collection.

Matilda Skelton Mace said: “While there is increasing awareness of the ways we can be insecure online, through unencrypted communication or the poor security practices of organisations to whom we entrust our data, less obvious is the way the platform we use to interact with the internet can give away our identity via a metadata ‘fingerprint’, without our ever explicitly consenting.

With Sky Island I want to make more tangible the connections between these abstract markers we all carry with us, to make visible a small part of an infrastructure which has become so invisible and embedded in our lives.

I’m grateful for this opportunity from Aspen, which has given me the time and resources to develop an ambitious project in a new medium for me. It’s been a valuable learning experience and will hopefully be a stepping stone to even bigger and brighter projects in both physical and virtual worlds.”

Fabienne Nicholas, Head of Consultancy at the Contemporary Art Society, said: “Matilda’s artwork explores many themes relevant to current debates within contemporary art and beyond, where identity, data privacy and our virtual footprint are continuous concerns. In this she follows in the footsteps of artists including Hito Steyerl, Oliver Laric and Heath Bunting, who touch upon these issues in their own practices.”

Aspen’s involvement with the prize and with online art, a rapidly emerging field within contemporary art, represents Aspen’s commitment to cutting-edge creative practice. The award also reflects the Contemporary Art Society’s mission to identify and support emerging artists in the UK and to provide a platform to showcase important new work for the benefit of audiences across the country.

Read more about the Aspen Online Art Award