"Database art"

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Subject: An Interpretive Framework for Contemporary Database Practice
in
the Arts

+Brett Stalbaum posted:+

An Interpretive Framework for Contemporary Database Practice in the
Arts

Introduction

There are two common notions regarding the nature (or ontology) of data
and information that are important for us to think about when we are
considering artistic practice with database. The first is the notion
that
information is disembodied from its subject, and the second is somewhat
of
a conflation of the terms "data" and "information". Political concern
stemming from the first notion may be most responsible for stimulating
"database art", but current art practice with database can be broadly
divided into three generally recognizable, though not mutually
exclusive
modes of practice: database politics, data visualization (the latter
related also to sonification, and haptics), and what I will term
database
formalism. The second notion represents more of a noise in our at-large
cultural understanding regarding the meaning of the terms "data" and
"information" that when clarified, may sharpen the critical focus on an
aspect of data visualization practice. Honing these two notions will
provide us with a critical basis for the interpretation contemporary
database art practices, perhaps especially as they interact with
emerging
geospatial and location aware media practices. In this writing,
interpretation is distinguished from definition and evaluation, as it
is
in the tradition of analytic aesthetics. I write from the perspective
of a
practicing artist; not a trained philosopher or art historian. Thus I
demur, at least somewhat, on the issue of defining database practice
(beyond the obvious), and I avoid any qualitative evaluation of the
examples I give. I only hope to chart the terrain of a contemporary
practice with which I am familiar, including the work of many
colleagues
and collaborators. I hope to form an interpretation of the approaches
contemporary artists are taking to database that I hope will be useful
in
evaluating this territory.

Data Body and Data Politics

I will start by considering works that emphasize the contemporary
consequences of disembodiment of data/information from its referent,
regardless of whether we are speaking about the human body and its
disembodied 'data body', or other material manifestations of reality
and
the data which refers to it. "Information" and "data", in this narrow
context, are viewed as descriptions of the thing described, and are
somewhat conflated terms. (See next section.) Christiane Paul patently
describes the issues that seem to have been in play for artists
surrounding the issue of disembodiment:

"In the digital age, the concept of 'disembodiment' does not only apply
to
our physical body but also to notions of the object and materiality in
general. Information itself to a large extent seems to have lost its
'body', becoming an abstract 'quality' that can make a fluid transition
between different states of materiality. While the ultimate 'substance'
of
information remains arguable, it is safe to say that data are not
necessarily attached to a specific form of manifestation. Information
and
data sets are intrinsically virtual, that is, they exist as processes
that
are not necessarily visible or graspable, such as the transferal or
transmission of data via networks."(174)

I will argue that the case is subtly yet importantly different, as this
type of disembodiment is not actually a new phenomenon to the digital
age.
Information/data have always been disembodied, and in fact we do see
that
the interaction between the virtual with the real is more tightly bound
today, and indeed is more materially generative (yet contra-abstract),
than at anytime in history. Disembodiment is not the difference making
difference that the digital age brings. In order to demonstrate this, I
will take a double tact. First I will look into history for precedents
of
disembodied data and information, hoping to show that "disembodiment"
is
not a new issue just because we have entered a digital era. Then I will
try to show that it is not the disembodiment of the referrer from the
referent that creates the radial difference that the digital era has
brought, but rather that it is the nature of distributed, high speed
data
processing that makes all the difference because it radically
motorizes,
automates and makes ubiquitous the potential for data and information
to
impinge on daily life. After presenting this idea, I will make
reference
to a few database artworks that I think map to the various assumptions
outlined by Paul, which I think expresses an interpretive critical
model
in which artistic practice can be specified in terms of 'database
politics'.

It only requires a few examples from history to dispel the notion that
disembodiment is a novelty specific to the digital era. Edwin Hutchins,
in
his study of how representations are propagated in systems of cultural
computation, points out that the use of bearing logs in sea navigation
dates back at least 4500 years, and that "Sumerian accountants
developed
similar layouts for recording agricultural transactions as early as
2650
B.C." (124) Cuneiform Tablets, a clay tablet inscribed with ideograms
and
numerals (multipliers), organized in the now familiar column and row
format, formed the material basis for the disembodiment of material
reality into a clay media for data storage of mundane business
transactions. And certainly, the notation on a tablet of "18
unproductive
trees" is no more the actual 18 unproductive trees than some
contemporary
individual's poor credit history (a common example of a 'data body')
constitutes the breath of individual personhood. Yet, both such
representations are similarly disembodied data representations utilized
for economic control and management. In a loose sense cuneiform tablets
were the first spread sheets, and one could go further to argue that
the
first written words and images instantiate a similar disembodiment of
referent and referrer, not to mention the disembodiment inherent in
language itself! This has been a constant issue in aesthetics from
Plato
(mimesis) through semiotics (sign as combination of
signifier/signified),
and in postmodern thought; perhaps most notoriously in the writings of
Jean Baudrillard where the sign becomes ascendant and begins itself to
relplace reality through precession.

Similarly, data has for a long time exhibited the quality of being
fluidly
transferable between forms of materiality in different representational
media, and in fact transferal and transmission of data via
pre-industrial
'networks' show that data transferal is in no way a novel phenomenon or
a
creation specifically of the digital age. Hutchins gives the chip log
and
the methods of using it as just one example of the propagation and
transmission of representational states. The chip log is device
consisting
of a reel, a rope line, and the "chip": a piece of wood that would be
thrown overboard to remain stationary in the water while knotted line
was
let out. The passage of time would be marked by crew members singing a
hymn (maintaining the system's clock speed), and notations regarding
the
number of knots unrolled would be recorded in a log at a regular fix
interval. The knots would measure the distance that the ship had
traveled,
from which the term "knots" as a measurement unit for maritime speed is
derived. Importantly, Hutchins shows how the chip log was utilized to
perform an analog to digital conversion:

"The log gave rise to a computational process that begins with
analog-to-digital conversion, which is followed by digital computation,
then either digital-to-analog conversion for interpretation or
digital-to-analog conversion followed by analog computation." (103)

Through these conversions, the propagation of representations between
various crew members aboard ship was enabled. Chip logs were utilized
as
dead reckoning instrumentation allowing the projection of the ship's
future position on nautical charts; nautical charts which are
themselves
analog computers designed expressly for position-fixing calculations.
Logs
and analog-to-digital conversions allowed data to be transported, often
in
digital form, through a ship wide network of crew members utilizing
different media to perform their tasks; for example from the memory of
the
log keeper into the log, then from the log to navigator who would
project
the future position of the ship onto a chart at some fixed interval,
and
then from the media of the chart to the mind of the captain who is
responsible for the larger journey.

Data and information have qualities of their own, as calculable
symbolic
representations capturing measurable aspects of material systems. Data
and
information are not only disembodied in some material form of
representational abstraction from their subject (whether clay tablet or
digital electric impulses), but can be recorded and transferred from
one
state to another, propagated from person-to-person in local, perhaps
totally linguistic, networks of social computation, or from
place-to-place
via encoding into media mobilized by material transportation consisting
of
technology such as sailing ships, or more recently, undersea fiber
optic
cables. Importantly, this mobile property of data and information has
been
at play in human culture long before the digital era - perhaps as long
as
linguistic messages have been carried from place to place by foot and
shared among different groups, and certainly since written (doubly
coded)
and numeric representations
began to be transported. Additionally, the example of cuneiform as a
particular clay media implementing informational disembodiment from the
material world emerged well before the development of the algebraic
analysis (as early as 1800 B.C.) and the discrete mathematics concepts
(congealing nicely in the figure of George Boole in the 19th century),
that would serve as the catalysts for the development of digital
communications and computational technologies during the 20th century.
The
disembodiment of data and information from the real clearly predates
the
digital era.

Disembodiment does not mean that data and information, and their
material
reality, do not influence one another. In fact the case is rather the
opposite, forming is the basis of the fundamentally
materialist-formalist
analysis I am trying to forge here. As I have indicated in the past:

"This position is supported by Paul Virilio’s theory of information as
the
third dimension of matter, (energy being the second), in that
information
and its effect on identity are not disembodied from the real, but
rather
become a integral part of the real world projecting directly into the
body: a network of people hyperactivated by information machinery which
has joined with the body no more or less conspicuously than the
pacemaker
or the telephone handset." (1998)

The significant difference making difference that does arrive with the
digital era is the speed with which the relations between information
technology and material systems are implemented: the move from the
speed
of hand inscribed clay tables, to ships, to trains, to telegraph, to
the
speed of light on fiber optic and radio networks. (This trajectory
roughly
paraphrases Virilio's analytic project.) The process has been a
teleological one; the move from writing data on clay storage devices
and
the associated literacy to retrieve and utilize those notations in a
local
economy has progressed to 'writing' data in informatic media such
CPU's,
RAM, magnetic storage, optical and wireless networks, and of course
this
too assumes an associated literacy, in the contemporary case one
required
to utilize digital media in a global economy. As the transmission speed
of
the media becomes faster, the ability of data and information to
impinge
upon or embed itself in material systems itself expands. While
clay-based
inscription systems improved the management of a local orchards in
Sumeria, information systems today, which wrap the Earth in fiber optic
cable and paint it with electromagnetic carrier waves, facilitate the
transmission of data and information around the world in milliseconds,
allowing a global scope of impact for data and information. For
example,
as Geri Wittig points out regarding the relationship between geographic
information systems and the Earth as a complex system:

"With the increasing use of GIS technologies in a wide variety of
fields,
including art, the data networks generated will disseminate into the
expanding networks of information technology. I speculate these GIS
generated data networks have the potential to act as bifurcations and
coadaptive systems..." (2003)

This means that systems which operate, transport and calculate at the
speed of light have greater power become co-operative in the
distribution
and creation of the real, causing the disembodiment of data itself to
bifurcate into something more powerful and integrated with life on
Earth
due to the speed and intensity of data flows. This allows data and
information to play a more immediate, acute, synchronized role in the
daily life of persons, as well as non-human ecosystems and flows of
materials. It is not disembodiment per se, but rather machinic
catalysis
of the relations between virtual and real that is the difference making
difference in the digital era. Further it is the discrete properties of
the digital that enable this speed, as well as enabling the exact
quantification of information, ala Claude Shannon. It is the catalytic
properties inherent in the material basis of digital technology that
allows the analysis of the difference (that information is) to have a
radical transformational impact on every aspect of culture, society,
biota, climate, and to some degree, even geology. The disembodiment of
information from its referent, which is an archaic and fundamentally
ontological aspect of data and information, is now hyper-activated in
real
time at the speed of light. And indeed, it is the consequences of this
speed which many artists working around the issues of 'database
politics'
have responded to.

A small but representative selection of artists who have notably
responded
to the sudden imposition of database as a mediator of power and social
control include the Critical Art Ensemble, Natalie Jeremijenko, Graham
Harwood, and Diane Ludin. The Critical Art Ensemble were perhaps the
first
artists to see the looming threat of database on matters of privacy and
power, and to present issues relating to database theoretically in
terms
of an agent of social control. In their 1994 book The Electronic
Disturbance, CAE states:

"As the electronic information-cores overflow with files of electronic
people (those transformed into credit histories, consumer types,
patterns
and tendencies, etc.), electronic research, electronic money, and other
forms of information power, the nomad is free to wander the electronic
net, able to cross national boundaries with minimal resistance from
national bureaucracies. The privileged realm of electronic space
controls
the physical logistics of manufacture, since the release of raw
materials
requires electronic consent and direction." (CAE, 1994)

While we do read here a direct reference to the concerns of
disembodiment
in terms of "electronic people", we also see a clear focus on new forms
of
pan-capitalist power and control over the economy through processes
where
"electronic space controls the physical logistics of manufacture." This
inference on the part of CAE certainly maps to the notion of data and
information as disembodied control systems of management, but
disembodiment is placed in a context that makes the change less
attributable to the original sin of disembodiment than it is to the
speed
and ease through which social power and control over the material world
is
deployed via contemporary, digital, highly distributed database
systems.
CAE's words may be the first shots fired in the art of database
politics.

Natalie Jeremijenko's and Graham Harwood's recent work with database
share
a consistent theme: an attempt to address the asymmetry of power
between
those who model and manipulate the world through data, (thus enjoying
most
of the rights to benefit from information garnered from that data), and
those who are modeled and manipulated by data. A representative example
of
Jeremijenko's recent work is the Bit Antiterror Line project, which
allows
"every phone [home/cell/booth] to act as a networked microphone... For
collecting live audio data on civil liberty infringements and other
anti-terror events." The files are made available in a simple database
of
audio files on the bit antiterror line web site (Jeremijenko), one of
which recounts the story of a stewardess who threatened a couple with
arrest by armed Air Marshal if they continued to draw silly pictures
and
laugh at her. Harwood's 9 project is a website modeled around the
simple
square shaped layout of 9 media elements. It allows people to represent
themselves, their neighborhoods, their identity, and their interests,
via
media elements arranged in this simple, easy to use layout strategy,
including a notion of proximity and thus juxtaposition with neighboring
9's. The ease of use at the interface level belies a sophisticated
custom
database under the covers, coded by the artist. 9 encourages not only
self
representation, but the exploration of the self representations of
others
in a shared data commons creating connections between/within
communities
defined both geographically and informatically, while Jeremijenko's
project creates a data commons as both an emergency antidote to, and
cultural and social analysis of, the growing fascism apparent in the
United States as the "War on Terrorism" progresses. As I write this
(original draft, April 2004), CAE's Steve Kurtz is being investigated
by a
grand jury in Buffalo, NY, essentially for daring to make provocative
art
works with biological materials. Although he (and CAE) have presented
this
work publicly in high profile art institutions for many years, his
research and materials stored in his home became the subject of a
wasteful
and misguided anti-terror investigation after being noticed and
reported
by first-responders following the tragic death of Hope Kurtz from
natural
causes.

The prevalence of database in biotechnology research has led to many
projects dealing with genomic data analysis or critique of the systems
in
which nature becomes private property. Diane Ludin's "i-BPE, i-Biology
Patent Engine" takes on issues of intellectual property and ownership
in
the high-tech era by setting up a context where real United States
patents
on genes are themselves claimed as a kind of public property/context
for
remixing and play with the language of patents, resulting in a
"aggressive
take-over by i-BPE agents... i-BPE gene patents will return bio-rights
to
non-governmental, cultural agents for revision." (Ludin) In a presently
unpublished manuscript, Ludin discusses, somewhat ironically, how speed
has (with its own certain irony), allowed the disembodiment of data
from
its referent to return directly and literally to the site of our
bodies,
for which the only prior art is billions of years of evolution. "With
the
rise of ibiology the circuit between code and patent becomes part of
the
super speed ecology of Bio Capitalism. Ibiology establishes the next
level
of command and control culture where artificial selection becomes a
post-human, globalizing, gene profit system." (Ludin) In Ludin's, and
indeed all of the above examples, speed is the difference making
difference that the art of database politics ultimately must address
across a range of practice; regardless of whether the artist is using
database as media to help along the emergence of shared understanding
within a culturally mixed global culture, or responding defensively
(with
database) to the onslaught of database driven assaults on civil rights
committed by corporatist or fascist governments.

Data Visualization, Beautiful Information and Sublime Data

A formal aspect of data and information that is often overlooked in
western culture at large is that the terms "data" and "information"
have
meanings that are quite different from one another. Although
Dictionaries
such as Webster's accurately define the terms; information as "an
informing or being informed; esp., a telling or being told of
something",
and data as in "facts or figures to be processed; evidence, records,
statistics, etc. from which conclusions can be inferred; information",
(Webster's, italics mine), popular uses of the terms often overlap
somewhat more than their dictionary definitions allow. Note that
"information" is above embedded in the definition of data, across the
semi-colon boundary behind which "conclusions can be inferred", but
without a cadence or emphasis that would mark information's
definitional
difference with the same clarity as it is most commonly defined in
computer science. Information as described above could easily be
misread
as synonymous with "facts or figures to be processed", even given
position
of the semi-colon. As I will discuss in the next paragraph, there is in
fact an issue of transitory states. Nevertheless, information is most
usefully defined as the conclusions or news of significant difference
that
is inferred from the logical processing of a collection data. Data is
defined essentially as being raw facts; whereas information is mined
from
processing those facts.

Of course, the situation it is not that simple. At any one time the
same
representations (I do not take "representation" to mean exclusively
"visual"), might exist in different terminal states (as either data or
information) on a larger conveyor belt of ubiquitous digital
processing. A
simple example: it is common for the output of one program (nominally
"information") to be the input data for another, as in the unix
command,
ps -ef | grep brett, which pipes the somewhat lengthy output of the ps
program (information about all processes) to the grep filter such that
I
might know only of my processes; information can become data to be
filtered into more specific information. Another potential breakdown in
the distinction occurs due to the graphical user interface, which does
a
better job of 'making invisible' the user's control data (another kind
of
input), for example in the form of pointing as interactive input (mouse
clicks, mouse drags, etc.) These are definitely forms of control data
input, but they are processed more invisibly than control commands
given
on a command line interface, because the visual half life of clicks and
drags as pixel residue on the screen is not buffered as are commands
that
remain visible in the terminal shell (visible on screen) after being
issued in a CLI. Nevertheless, ignoring interactive input and its own
important implications, it is still true that data plays its most
common
social 'role' in the form of input to programs, and it is information
that
is derived from processing data as output; even if the
information is later transitioned by being reprocessed as input back
into
some other program (potentially somewhere else in the world). The
ontology
of data and information as input and output is contextually mediated
and
transitory; existing alternatively between states of data and
information.
Yet data is still associated in an important way with input and
information with output, even if the terms data and information are
treated more loosely in culture at large, perhaps due to being seen
adjacent to each other so often, a result of their status as quite
inseparable siblings or perhaps a digital yin/yang.

A good question for the impatient reader at this point would be "What
does
this have to do with contemporary database practice in art?" After all,
there is no shortage of clarification regarding the distinction between
"data" and "information" in engineering and the sciences. The answer is
that the conflation of terms seems to pool especially commonly in the
humanities discipline areas, such as art. To be fair, it is a common
linguistic conflation in culture at large and this is indeed where
artists
operate, but I do think it merits our attention in any analysis of the
works of artists who are working with database, and particularly for
artists that are working specifically with data visualization, or the
related disciplines of data sonification and data haptics (as in
ambient
computing).

Lev Manovich has made a very important observation about the aesthetic
strategies of Data Visualization practice in an essay titled The
Anti-Sublime Ideal in Data Art, (2002), in which he critiques
contemporary
data visualization practice in art as adhering to a pursuit of beauty
in
the transformation (or processing) of large datasets into the visual
field: the "Anti-Sublime" aesthetic. Beauty is the pursuit of clarity,
balance and transparent form, and data visualization is often
pursued for the sake of understanding or making clear the behavior of
data
and the systems represented by data. Beauty in data visualization is
opposed to the sublime: the condition under which the data overwhelms
its
viewer, and the viewer's senses are mobilized in a special kind
cognition
that allows them to carry on with the formation of an understanding
that
is, as it turns out, more likely to be satisfactory than a random
guess.
There are many names for this kind of cognition:
intuition, anticipation, instinct, or a sixth sense. The sublime is of
considerable interest to the artificial intelligence discipline in
computer science. Human intelligence seems able to deal with the
sublime
condition and can continue to operate intelligently even when
overwhelmed
or subjected to context shifts, while discrete computational
machines have not yet proven this ability. In a sense, the holy grail
of
artificial intelligence is to create machines that can behave with
human
like intelligence when similarly thrown by excessive amounts of data
under
variable context.

Interestingly, the definitions of the terms "beauty" and "sublime" have
also been culturally conflated, perhaps even more so, than the terms
"information" and "data". Just as information and data are sometimes
interchangeable terms in common usage, (often taken to mean
information),
the meanings of beauty and sublime are today similarly conflated,
(often
to mean beauty). The notion of beauty, revealing form and making
cognizable, as the goal of data visualization art works dealing with
large
data sets is clearly described by Christiane Paul, writing of Benjamin
Fry's 1999 work "Valence":

"The software visually represents individual pieces of information
according to their interactions with each other. Valence can be used
for
visualizing almost anything, from the contents of a book to website
traffic, or for comparing different data sources. The resulting
visualization changes over time as it responds to new data. Instead of
providing statistical information ... Valence provides a feel for
general
trends and anomalies in the data by presenting a qualitative slice of
the
information's structure. Valence functions as an aesthetic 'context
provider', setting up relationships between data elements that might
not
be immediately obvious, and that exist beneath the surface of what we
usually perceive." (177, 178)

I do not choose to wade into any aesthetic debate regarding the
beautiful
and the sublime in data visualization; I am sticking to my promise to
hold
fast to an interpretive framework in this writing. Lisa Jevbratt has
written an essay titled The Prospect of the Sublime in Data
Visualizations, responding in part to Manovich's use of the 1:1 project
(1999, 2002) as an example of the anti-sublime aesthetic. (Jevbratt)
For
now, I merely want to point out that in terms of how we interpret the
art
practices engaged in data visualization, beauty as opposed to the
sublime
is the most critical contemporary interpretive framework in which such
art
may be evaluated aesthetically. The criterion for analysis shifts from
the
effectiveness of any particular visualization (and its ability to
facilitate an understanding of the data through
beauty), to the roll of the user or communities of users in
interpreting a
visualization via their own ontological thrownness, their own
conceptual,
computational or cultural methods for processing data, and their own
ability to perceive when facing conditions of sublimity. At its
extremes,
the sublime analysis suggests that access to raw, unmediated data
replace
visualizations, and that communities should take democratic control of
their own data interpretation in a way that best balances their
exposure
to quantities of data against their need to reduce it to useful
information; all of which might only become practical if formal
languages
for processing data become standard educational assumptions for a
baseline
notion of what it means to be literate in post-industrial, high tech
societies. Microsoft Excel(TM) can not save us. Artists might be able
to
play an important role in this regard: as guides in data exploration
more
so than as experts in data visualization.

Additionally, the formal definitions of data and information imply
another
framework tightly coupled to the issues raised by the beautiful and the
sublime. Data visualization practice is certainly bound to the
transition
of representations between states of being data and states of being
information; and as Manovich points out, most contemporary artists
working
in data visualization are seemingly committed to visualization as
information. This is essentially congruent with Paul's discussion of
Fry's
work Valence as well as her overall discussion of database practice;
further implying that much data visualization practice in the arts
today
seemingly pursues beauty. Interpretively, we may extract from all of
this
that the pursuit of information is the pursuit of the beautiful and
that
the pursuit of data is the pursuit of the sublime. The former implies a
struggle for understanding, the later an impulse for exploration,
including the collection and generation of new data. How artists
implement
their forms of expression between information and data, and possibly in
the transitory states between them, is an aesthetic issue that maps to
the
transitory states between the sublime and the beautiful. Speaking
personally, this seems to be an unresolved area in data visualization
as
artistic practice, as well as in the related formal practice that I
discuss in the next section.

Virtual and Materialist Data Formalism, Data Mining

In this section, my interpretive framework comes full circle back near
the
issue of disembodiment. In the first section of this essay, I believe
that
I was able to demonstrate that data and information have always been
disembodied from their referent, and I did so by arguing from a
materialist stance that views data as an important virtual reality that
actually impinges on material reality. In a previous text titled
Database
Logic(s) and Landscape Art (original, 2002), I presented
a more radical, though consciously very speculative and provisional
view
that data is embedded and operative within the actual through a process
in
which humans/data/Earth are inextricably implicated: humans mediate the
landscape with the assistance of data about the landscape, and the data
itself mediates that mediation, not necessarily intentionally, but in
such
a way that the actual material Earth now speaks through scientific
data,
thereby expressing a voice in conversation with human culture. In the
same
essay, I indicate how the term 'virtual' is also often misunderstood as
referring to the imaginary interfacial illusions that computational
systems can create, rather than (more appropriately) the abstract
mathematics of reality (that can be modeled computationally, well
beyond 3
dimensions), that in some sense produces the actual. In other words,
the
virtual is itself a real space of possible physical states for any
system
that crystallize into the actual, which is precisely what allows
computational models of physical systems (such as engineering or
atmospheric simulations) to have predictive power. I made this case in
order to suggest that artists should utilize the notion of the virtual
for
predictive or analytical practices that reveal knowledge about the
world,
or better, that emerge
new behavior, exploration and experience. I think this holds for the
humanities. I am in no way concerned if what is revealed functions as
conceptual and performance art, and not as science.

There are many database art projects that demonstrate this analytical
and
productive practice which engage with data utilizing an ethos that
maintains an interest in the embodiment (contra disembodiment) that is
implied in the relationship between data and its material, actual, real
world referents. Although I have avoided definition, I would argue that
the preceding does constitute something close to a definition of
database
art in the bigger picture, the relationship to materialist embodiment
being the key. In any case, it clearly fits into my interpretive
framework
for contemporary database practice as database formalism. These
projects
are interested in the actual materials that are modeled by data, and
seek
new, exploratory methods of interacting with the material world that
reveal new knowledge about the materials, or the interactions with
them,
and that allow data to become a cooperative co-participant in the
performance. For example, Lev Manovich's Soft Cinema (2001-) uses
metadata
to dynamically organize a Mondrian inspired screen layout for videos
shot
by the artist in his travels, in which "every clip is assigned 10
different parameters, which are both semantic and formal, so for
example
one is geographical location... how much motion there is in a clip,
which
is assigned a number... the contrast, the average brightness, the
subject
matter...", and so forth. (Manovich, 2003) The parameters are utilized
by
custom software to control the editing of the video clips and their
organization in the layout, allowing data about the (video) data (the
metadata) to manifest itself through being granted some level of
decision
making authority and authorship. Manovich's cinema edits itself;
revealing
itself in unexpected and often poetic ways that require one to apply a
thrown and sublime mode of paradigmatic viewership to its
interpretation.

David Rokeby's Giver of Names (1990-) and George Legrady's Pockets Full
of
Memories (2001) both ask users to interact with real objects in the
gallery space, which are scanned and input into a database system for
further classification and comparison. While Rokeby's approach utilizes
an
AI computer vision technique and artificial language processing, and
Legrady's uses a clustering algorithm designed to situate the personal
objects offered up by the audience with their statistically nearest
neighbors, both projects are literally concerned with the relation
between
real objects and how they are thus mediated (either by naming them or
associating them with another) as they undergo analog-to-digital
(material
to reference) conversion, insertion into a database, and subsequent
data
analysis. Importantly, an emphasis on the materiality of the objects is
maintained in the exhibition space. The materiality is directly
experienced by the audiences who interact with Rokeby's collection of
objects lying around the exhibition space that they may situate on a
pedestal for scanning and interpretation by an artificial intelligence
system. In Legrady's case, a personal object if offered up for
analysis.
Both systems connect rather literally with the real as an embodied
space
to be contextualized.

The near unification of referrer and referent is even more literal in
recent C5 work, (a group of which I am a member), where geographic
information system data (a digital 3D map of the landscape) is mined
through the preprocessing of the primary data into a layer of metadata
characterizing large areas of topography (currently the State of
California), that can be searched via a relational database and related
Java API. (The C5 Landscape Database API.) Mirroring the
Input/Processing/Output pattern common in classic, non-interactive data
processing, C5 takes input samples (collected with GPS), and processes
them to identify the most similar landscapes to the original, but that
exist somewhere else. As preparatory work for The Other Path (2004-)
Geri
Wittig set out on a month long trek along the Great Wall of China,
starting in the northwest desert and following the Wall eastward to
where
it runs to the edge of the Yellow Sea. GPS data was collected from
twelve
separate trekked locations along the length of the Great Wall. Using
pattern-matching search procedures developed at C5 (Amul Goswamy and
Brett
Stalbaum), the 12 most similar corresponding terrains in California
were
identified. After determining the blocks representing the most similar
matching terrains in California, phase two of the Other Path search
process identified discrete paths within those terrains expressing
similar
statistical characteristics, such as simple distance, cumulative
distance,
and elevation change. To do this, a swarm of virtual hikers,
implemented
as experimental features of the C5 Landscape Database API 2.0, were
unleashed in the virtual California landscape to explore and generate
tracklogs, which were then compared to Wittig's original "input" Great
Wall of China tracklogs. The results of this search identified the most
closely matching virtual tracklogs, which were then exported to
tracklog
files, uploaded to GPS devices, and physically realized by C5 in a
performance of tertiary (after the original, after database)
exploration
of what is now known as The Great Wall of California. In this
performance,
walking works in the tradition of Richard Long, Hamish Fulton and
perhaps
even Dominique Mazeaud are reconceived as input, processed by via
database
applications that have been granted the ability to tell us where to go
by
outputting GPS coordinates that we are conceptually bound to follow
with
our feet. This generates alternative experience and exploration of the
landscape at a time when everything (on the landform surface of the
Earth)
has already been explored and modeled. It emphasizes not the
disembodiment
of datascapes from their referents, but their intimate connection and
productive capability.

Conclusion

I have outlined three modes of practice, database politics, data
visualization, and database formalism (the latter contra disembodiment)
in
which contemporary database practice can be interpreted. The later
formalist tendency, in which database is conceived as virtual context
for
implementing a data co-operative mediation of the world, perhaps most
interestingly overlaps in the final analysis with the database
politics.
Though largely apolitical at first glance, the formalist interpretative
mode of database art practice is similar to that of database politics
in
that the goal of both is to realign the power of database to distribute
the real, albeit for different reasons, as opposed to data
visualization's
dominant (but perhaps not universal) desire to better understand data.
Though formalist practice may not self-consciously attempt to intercede
in
pan-capitalist distribution of power, data formalism and artistic data
mining practices do conceive of agency returning back to the hands (or
for
C5 the feet) of the people who interact with such systems, although
perhaps in a perverse way by tactically ceding a certain level of
arbitrary control to the database applications themselves. But as long
these are at least neutral with regards to power, and hopefully
designed
and performed by autonomous users of the systems in non-coercive ways,
there are advantages to be found - perhaps even political ones.

For one, formalist database practice is in alignment conceptually with
the
ubiquity of database in our culture, perhaps encouraging individuals to
develop related expertise for apolitical ends (recreation, hobbies)
that
produce ecologies of knowledge that become useful when political
conditions become too onerous for the majority of people. Formalist
practice could be aware that discovering the possibilities and building
novel alternatives (especially when done so by communities instead of
for
them), might be just as effective as directly resisting the
distributed,
nomadic power of systems of mass subjugation. Also, database formalism
allows aesthetic analysis to move toward and explore truly interesting,
purely formal issues of database itself as a medium. For example, the
relational database model trades maximum processing efficiency for the
ability to maintain ad hoc queries, which may be consequential in terms
of
how the material world is ultimately mediated in particular instances.
All
three of these conceptual modes of artistic practice with database are
important of course, and they certainly overlap in practice. None is
mutually exclusive.

Interpretively, there is perhaps a fourth mode of practice that it may
be
argued that I have ignored. The only other mode of database practice
that
is perhaps not necessarily some derivation founded in database
politics,
data visualization, or a database formalist practice is seemingly a
multimedia practice that assembles and processes a 'database' of
multimedia materials, mixing or remixing them into some other media
forms
such as web video, animation, real time video processing, music, etc.
The
multimedia assumption insists that the core of digital media art
practice
is manifest as pixels on a screen, or some other output such as
speakers,
or as interaction at an interface that produces some kind of visceral
or
otherwise magically mediated experience. The mediation is viewed as
ultimately flowing from the identity of "the artist" of course, who is
assumed to produce some kind of political awareness or
aesthetic/cultural
experience in the minds of the audience. Often, this kind of very
traditional orientation toward art practice does not consider the
elements
in the database as data with their own ontology, and suppresses data's
identity into being mere media elements or samples to be processed,
remixed, and assembled by the artist in an expressive configuration of
individual artistic style and message. Media tools such as digital
video
editing and multimedia authoring platforms are commonly employed, and
often these are used pretty much the way that their designers (large
corporations) intended them to be used. There is no reason to think
that
such software applications can not be used in other ways (in fact,
there
are many delightful examples on runme.org), but in practice such
conceptual repurposings are all too rare. When they do happen, they
seem
to transcend multimedia and map to conceptual art practices (often
termed
"software art"), and I suspect that my categorical distinctions
regarding
database practices would support these. But I am veering dangerously
toward making an evaluation of multimedia practices here. That is not
my
goal, so this is a good place to conclude.


References

1. Critical Art Ensemble, The Electronic Disturbance, Autonomedia,
New
York.
2. Jeremijenko, Natalie, Homepage for the bit antiterror line
project
http://www.bureauit.org/antiterror/, accessed April 25th, 2K4.
3. Jevbratt, Lisa, The Prospect of the Sublime in Data
Visualizations,
YLEM Journal, Artists using Science and Technology, Volume 24, Number
8, August 2K4.
4. Ludin, Diane, i-BPE project website
http://www.thing.net/~diane/i-BPE/index.html, accessed June 6th, 2K4.
5. Ludin, Diane, Deep Harmonization i-BPE, unpublished manuscript,
2K4.
6. Manovich, Lev The Anti-Sublime Ideal in Data Art, (2002)
http://www.manovich.net/DOCS/data_art.doc
7. Manovich, Lev, Lev Manovich / Interview at DEAF 2003, quoted from
a
video
8. interview, selection transcribed by myself. Paul, Christiane,
Digital Art, (c) 2003, Thames and Hudson Ltd, London, ISBN
0-500-20376-9
9. Stalbaum, Brett, Aesthetic Conditions in Art on the Network:
beyond
representation to the relative speeds of hypertextual and conceptual
implementations, Switch, the new media journal of the CADRE digital
laboratory, 1998, http://switch.sjsu.edu/web/v4n2/brett/
10. Stalbaum, Brett, Database Logic(s) and Landscape Art, Noemalab
-tecnologie & societa, 2003,
http://www.noemalab.org/sections/ideas/ideas_articles/stalbaum_landscape_art.html
11. Webster's New World Dictionary and Thesuarus, Accent Software
International, Macmillian Publishers, Version 2.0 - 1998, Build #25

(Original, 2004), first presented at the College Art Association 94th
annual conference, Boston MA, 2006
Panel - From Database and Place to Bio-Tech and Bots: Relationality
versus
Autonomy in Media Art
Thursday, February 23 Chair: Marisa S. Olson, University of California,
Berkeley

This essay is dedicated to the memory of Eric Gray, who is responsible
more than any other for helping me establish my interest in computing
as a
young person. In 1981, Eric showed me a war dialer he had written in
BASIC
on a TRS-80 computer, along with custom hardware enabling his tape
drive
remote control output to perform pulse dialing on the plain old phone
network, which he was using (while his parents were away, of course) to
war dial for local modem connections to hack into. I was hooked. And
the
hours of playing "Adventure" did not hurt either. On behalf of your
family
and friends, we love and miss you Eric.

Also, thanks to Warren Sack. I wrote this after presenting and hanging
out
with him in Karlsrue in January 2004, talking about these kinds of
things,
and it is really very cool that we both ended up presenting on Marisa's
panel together. Tad and Helen too:-)


+Geert Dekkers replied:+

Thanks Brett --- I read through your essay. First and foremost, I wish
to
say that I really appreciate theory on this subject, especially now, as
I
am doing a show along the theme of embodiment this September in
Amsterdam,
including works by Mogens Jacobsen, Foofwa d"immobilite, Alan Sondheim,
myself and others.

I realise though, that we differ somewhat in our consideration of (the
concept of the word) art. I'll try to articulate this in the
following.

http://nznl.com, my own work, is evolving into a model of an imaginary
nznl.com exhibition hall, complete with its own "board of directors",
"nznl.com workers", "management culture", "history", etc. So it is to
be a
"picture of a world", and is, as such, also what I think art should be.

In the coming (as yet untitled) show, I'm trying to metaphorise the
passage between the virtual (which is, in the realm of nznl.com, to be
understood as the "idea" phrase of the work and the body (very
literally,
the object in the gallery). For example, in Mogens Jacobsens work "I
Hear
Denmark Singing" [http://www.artnode.org/art/ jacobsen/art/pom2/] that
I
hope to present, the potatoes producing the electricity represent the
passage or perhaps evolution of the idea phrase. Foofwa's BodyToy
[http://foofwa.com] (if I may so interpret it) traces the passage from
our
understanding of our body (the "our" understood as a cultural whole --
so
its "our collective body") to 3d rendering software through Foofwa's
rendering of this output in his presentation. Jan Robert Leegte's work
[http:// leegte.org] recreates the window and desktop metaphore in the
gallery, and in doing so, rebuilds the relationship with "real" space.
and "real" windows. And thus objectifies the metaphore, making it again
understandable for what it is.

So I think I'm using the virtual world of data, or information in
quite a
different way. I see very interesting concepts in your essay (perhaps I
should just call them "pictures") -- the "datascape", or the "self
portrait as data", incidentally, just as I'm interested in the picture
that results from "paper trail". I'm not so much interested in the
difference between the data and information -- I see data as "counting
events", I see information as a sentence, perhaps using data as a
quantifier of referers -- this would be my "idea phrase" culminating in
a
"paragraph" of meaning.

I'm perhaps not so much interested in technology as I think you are.
For
me, computer technology is a metaphore for a self-built world, built in
our collective image, with its known objects, and a language or
languages
describing and/or creating these objects -- a closed system in fact,
where
the relationship with the "real" world "outside" is problematic to say
the
least. While I found the GPS work recreating the Great Wall
fascinating,
and the walks you guys made very conscientiously thought through, I
don't
see how this work fits into a bigger "picture of the world". You can't
get away with saying something like "generates alternative experience
and
exploration of the landscape at a time when everything (on the landform
surface of the Earth) has already been explored and modeled" (I
personally
don't think this will ever happen, but that's beside the point) -- I
actually think that this is a declaration after the fact, and not a
movitation and/or inspiration for the work. The works by Richard Long
and
Hamish Fulton are in fact much closer to the simple art of walking
somewhere and telling us about it, and are therefore (imho) more
revealing
on the subject of representation.

To conclude somewhat hastily -- I do think data and information are
important pieces of the puzzle, but I think that any good work of art
recreates a complete and full world, a reflection of our world, and in
doing so fundamentally grasps the interdependance between our bodies,
our
language and culture. This is at least what I am trying to do.


+Brett Stalbaum replied:+

Hi Geert, thanks. Is the "picture of a world", the "model", in this
case
moving toward a performative simulation (a kind of theater) of the
systems
you are picturing - i.e. do you have "actors" (directors for example)
in
some from or forum playing out the various roles involved, or will it
be
all software? A model of a system is a model of a system, (although
resolution and properties vary), and I think can be instantiated in
many
forms - as a performance perhaps, or by allocating some memory to some
objects in a simulation, or an idea or proposal (these are real!), or a
hybrid combination... Or is your thinking evolving still?

Thinking evolving still. But up till now, it is a collection of images
and
other works, sometimes software (ie javascript, php etc). Produced
daily,
published at exactly 00:00 AM each day. A piece at a time (so I might
do a
plan of the plumbing one day, then the next a picture of the way the
light
plays on a wall of the main hall, then a "still" of a board meeting,
then
a javascript simulation of a leaky faucet the next). I'm not
considering
the whole (there is no grand plan), and the whole thing might stlll
veer
off in a different direction)

[....] Kant associated the sublime with quantity and the beautiful with
quality. These are related to data and information respectively. So
when
you say data is "counting events" and that information as a sentence
quantifying referers (which I take to mean, counting things in already
counted in order to understand it in a laconic form such as a
"sentence"
digestible as a "idea phrase"), it leads me to suspect that you *are*
actually interested in the difference between data and information...
and
that in fact we might agree here.

Might this be incorporated in the Manovich piece I didn't read? I have
now read it -- there's no reference to Kant though. I'd have to re-read
Kant's essays on the sublime to offer any critique.

This bit from the Manovich piece Myron kindly sent me (The Anti-Sublime
Ideal in Data Art):

One way to deal with this problem of motivation is to not to hide but
to
foreground the arbitrary nature of the chosen mapping. Rather than try
to
always being rational, data art can instead make the method out of
irrationality.11 This of course was the key strategy of the twentieth
century Surrealists. In the 1960s the late Surrealists – the
Situationists
– developed a number of methods for their “the dérive” (the drift).
The
goal of “the dérive” was a kind of spatial “ostranenie” (estrangement):
to
let the city dweller experience the city in a new way and thus
politicize
her or his perception of the habitat. One of these methods was to
navigate
through Paris using a Map of London. This is the kind of poetry and
conceptual elegance I find missing from mapping projects in new media
art.

appeals to me -- and I agree with Manovich -- this is what I too, find
missing in most data works. The "idea phrase" of the work paraphrased
above is interesting in itself -- humorous, catastrophically dadaistic.
A
lot of data work I see is, well, so very seriously concerned with our
well-being.

I should note that I'm trying to understand Hegel's Philosophy of
Spirit
-- through Philip J. Kain's "Hegel and the Other", all this part of a
lifelong reading of Lyotards "Le Differend". I have done some Kant, but
mostly, again, through Lyotard. His rendering of the sublime and the
beautiful has always left me mystifyed. Where I understand "the
sublime"
more than I understand "the beautiful".

> I'm perhaps not so much interested in technology as I think you are.
[....]

I tried to make that clear, albeit by referencing the work of my
colleague
Geri Wittig and her thoughts on coadaptation... see "Landscape data and
complex adaptive system Earth: Holism in complexity and network
science"
(2003) http://www.c5corp.com/research/complexsystem.shtml

> You can't get away with saying something like "generates [....]

Another essay, to be published soon, actually covers more on this
point...
dealing a lot with ideas from Robert Smithson. I don't know if you will
agree if I get away with it or not after reading it, we will see - (and
I
love you either way:-) - but we will have to wait a bit for it to be
published.

But one thing is must disagree with is the "declaration after the
fact".
C5 works the other way - we meet in "field mediations" to present
papers
to each other, then emerge work which entails us in the experience
which
feeds back into new theory and new field mediations. "Database Logic(s)
and Landscape Art", (2002), "Landscape data and complex adaptive system
Earth: Holism in complexity and network science" (Wittig, 2003) and I
would argue "Ontology of Organization as System" (Slayton/Wittig,
1999),
and "Expansive Order Situated and Distributed Knowledge Production in
Network Space" (Wittig, 2000?), all contain key concepts that are part
of
the Landscape Initiative projects that predate well predate the
projects...

> The works by Richard Long and Hamish Fulton are in fact much closer
to
the simple art of walking somewhere and telling us about it, and are
therefore (imho) more revealing on the subject of representation.

I agree - these artists still hold onto the notion of control over the
subject - C5 is giving some (much) of this responsibility over to data
in
collaboration. Ultimately, there will be an interface that allows
anyone
to produce their own hikes and experiences... and to decide what the
subjectivity of those hikes means to them.

This is, however, a very important difference. This part of current
artistic practice is so open -- of course everyone may decide "what the
subjectivity of the hikes/dances/images/software experiences mean to
them". Art becomes a tool. But a hammer is not a painting.

[....] I have (re)created (well, explored in a tertiary sense) no
fuller
world than this very painful one:
http://www.paintersflat.net/rush_creek/index.html


+Brett Stalbaum added:+

Manovich's intro to new media reader is very interesting... here is a
provocative snip that maps to the distinction you make between painting
and tool:

"That is, not only have new media technologies—computer programming,
graphical human-computer interface, hypertext, computer multimedia,
networking (both wiredbased and wireless)—actualized the ideas behind
projects by artists, they have also extended them much further than the
artists originally imagined. As a result these technologies themselves
have become the greatest art works of today. The greatest hypertext is
the
Web itself, because it is more complex, unpredictable and dynamic than
any
novel that could have been written by a single human writer, even James
Joyce. The greatest interactive work is the interactive human-computer
interface itself: the fact that the user can easily change everything
which appears on her screen, in the process changing the internal state
of
a computer or even commanding reality outside of it. The greatest
avant-garde film is software such as Final Cut Pro or After Effects
which
contains the possibilities of combining together thousands of separate
tracks into a single movie, as well as setting various relationships
between all these different tracks—and it thus it develops the
avant-garde
idea of a film as an abstract visual score to its logical end, and
beyond.
Which means that those computer scientists who invented these
technologies—J. C. R. Licklider (05), Douglas Engelbart (08. 16), Ivan
Sutherland (09), Ted Nelson (11, 21, 30), Seymour Papert (28), Tim
Berners-Lee (54), and others—are the important artists of our time,
maybe
the only artists who are truly important and who will be remembered
from
this historical period."

http://www.mrl.nyu.edu/~noah/nmr/book_samples/nmr-intro-manovich-excerpt.pdf

Geert, which Hegel are your reading?

Geert Dekkers wrote:
>
> On 25-feb-2006, at 17:52, Brett Stalbaum wrote:
>
>>
>>
>> Geert Dekkers wrote:
>>

>> I agree - these artists still hold onto the notion of control over
>> the subject - C5 is giving some (much) of this responsibility over
to
>> data in collaboration. Ultimately, there will be an interface that
>> allows anyone to produce their own hikes and experiences... and to
>> decide what the subjectivity of those hikes means to them.
>
>
> This is, however, a very important difference. This part of current
> artistic practice is so open -- of course everyone may decide "what
the
> subjectivity of the hikes/dances/images/software experiences mean to
> them". Art becomes a tool. But a hammer is not a painting.


+Myron Turner replied:+

I'm not sure if Geert had read Manovich's article on the sublime and
data.
Brett's essay sent me to it because I wanted to clarify for myself
what
Manovich (and Brett) had in mind when they were talking about the
sublime.
Manivoch is contrasting Romantic aritsts, who aimed beyond the senses,
aimed at the sublime, to data artists who seek to create beauty by
making
mapping data to a form that the senses can grasp. But he is concerned,
like Geert I belive, that such art leaves out the human dimension,
leaves
out subjectivity. Manivoich concludes his essay with a personal plea
which is very affecting and worth repeating:

"For me, the real challenge of data art is not about how to map some
abstract and impersonal data into something meaningful and beautiful -
economists, graphic designers, and scientists are already doing this
quite well. The . . .more important challenge is how to represent the
personal subjective experience of a person living in a data society.. .
.How [can] new media. . . represent the ambiguity, the otherness, the
multi-dimensionality of our experience. . ? In short, rather than
trying
hard to pursue the anti-sublime ideal, data visualization artists
should
also not forget that art has the unique license to portray human
subjectivity."


+curt cloninger replied:+

It's funny. I keep a running list of quotations here:
http://lab404.livejournal.com

So far Manovich has only made the list once:
http://lab404.livejournal.com/32638.html
[added 10/06/2004]

A model for this "more excellent way" is Laney in William Gibson's
novels
-- water-witching the data to suss out and delineate the human
intention
embedded within it. Sure there is an intrinsic relationship between
abstracted data and the real world, but just abstracting the data and
looking at it isn't going to reveal that relationship. The goal is to
somehow make the data resonant by transforming it into narrative, thus
mapping it back to the real in an experientially transformative way.

But if you buy into Baudrillard, you're not looking for a
"real/in

S. (Sébastien Chikara), Saturday, 4 March 2006 20:59 (twelve years ago) Permalink

two years pass...

i buy into baudrillard!

max, Saturday, 5 April 2008 05:29 (ten years ago) Permalink


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