+Brett Stalbaum posted:+
An Interpretive Framework for Contemporary Database Practice in the Arts
There are two common notions regarding the nature (or ontology) of dataand information that are important for us to think about when we areconsidering artistic practice with database. The first is the notion thatinformation is disembodied from its subject, and the second is somewhat ofa conflation of the terms "data" and "information". Political concernstemming from the first notion may be most responsible for stimulating"database art", but current art practice with database can be broadlydivided into three generally recognizable, though not mutually exclusivemodes of practice: database politics, data visualization (the latterrelated also to sonification, and haptics), and what I will term databaseformalism. The second notion represents more of a noise in our at-largecultural understanding regarding the meaning of the terms "data" and"information" that when clarified, may sharpen the critical focus on anaspect of data visualization practice. Honing these two notions willprovide us with a critical basis for the interpretation contemporarydatabase art practices, perhaps especially as they interact with emerginggeospatial and location aware media practices. In this writing,interpretation is distinguished from definition and evaluation, as it isin the tradition of analytic aesthetics. I write from the perspective of apracticing artist; not a trained philosopher or art historian. Thus Idemur, at least somewhat, on the issue of defining database practice(beyond the obvious), and I avoid any qualitative evaluation of theexamples I give. I only hope to chart the terrain of a contemporarypractice with which I am familiar, including the work of many colleaguesand collaborators. I hope to form an interpretation of the approachescontemporary artists are taking to database that I hope will be useful inevaluating this territory.
Data Body and Data Politics
I will start by considering works that emphasize the contemporaryconsequences of disembodiment of data/information from its referent,regardless of whether we are speaking about the human body and itsdisembodied 'data body', or other material manifestations of reality andthe data which refers to it. "Information" and "data", in this narrowcontext, are viewed as descriptions of the thing described, and aresomewhat conflated terms. (See next section.) Christiane Paul patentlydescribes the issues that seem to have been in play for artistssurrounding the issue of disembodiment:
"In the digital age, the concept of 'disembodiment' does not only apply toour physical body but also to notions of the object and materiality ingeneral. Information itself to a large extent seems to have lost its'body', becoming an abstract 'quality' that can make a fluid transitionbetween different states of materiality. While the ultimate 'substance' ofinformation remains arguable, it is safe to say that data are notnecessarily attached to a specific form of manifestation. Information anddata sets are intrinsically virtual, that is, they exist as processes thatare not necessarily visible or graspable, such as the transferal ortransmission of data via networks."(174)
I will argue that the case is subtly yet importantly different, as thistype of disembodiment is not actually a new phenomenon to the digital age.Information/data have always been disembodied, and in fact we do see thatthe interaction between the virtual with the real is more tightly boundtoday, and indeed is more materially generative (yet contra-abstract),than at anytime in history. Disembodiment is not the difference makingdifference that the digital age brings. In order to demonstrate this, Iwill take a double tact. First I will look into history for precedents ofdisembodied data and information, hoping to show that "disembodiment" isnot a new issue just because we have entered a digital era. Then I willtry to show that it is not the disembodiment of the referrer from thereferent that creates the radial difference that the digital era hasbrought, but rather that it is the nature of distributed, high speed dataprocessing that makes all the difference because it radically motorizes,automates and makes ubiquitous the potential for data and information toimpinge on daily life. After presenting this idea, I will make referenceto a few database artworks that I think map to the various assumptionsoutlined by Paul, which I think expresses an interpretive critical modelin which artistic practice can be specified in terms of 'databasepolitics'.
It only requires a few examples from history to dispel the notion thatdisembodiment is a novelty specific to the digital era. Edwin Hutchins, inhis study of how representations are propagated in systems of culturalcomputation, points out that the use of bearing logs in sea navigationdates back at least 4500 years, and that "Sumerian accountants developedsimilar layouts for recording agricultural transactions as early as 2650B.C." (124) Cuneiform Tablets, a clay tablet inscribed with ideograms andnumerals (multipliers), organized in the now familiar column and rowformat, formed the material basis for the disembodiment of materialreality into a clay media for data storage of mundane businesstransactions. And certainly, the notation on a tablet of "18 unproductivetrees" is no more the actual 18 unproductive trees than some contemporaryindividual's poor credit history (a common example of a 'data body')constitutes the breath of individual personhood. Yet, both suchrepresentations are similarly disembodied data representations utilizedfor economic control and management. In a loose sense cuneiform tabletswere the first spread sheets, and one could go further to argue that thefirst written words and images instantiate a similar disembodiment ofreferent and referrer, not to mention the disembodiment inherent inlanguage 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 ofJean Baudrillard where the sign becomes ascendant and begins itself torelplace reality through precession.
Similarly, data has for a long time exhibited the quality of being fluidlytransferable between forms of materiality in different representationalmedia, and in fact transferal and transmission of data via pre-industrial'networks' show that data transferal is in no way a novel phenomenon or acreation specifically of the digital age. Hutchins gives the chip log andthe methods of using it as just one example of the propagation andtransmission of representational states. The chip log is device consistingof a reel, a rope line, and the "chip": a piece of wood that would bethrown overboard to remain stationary in the water while knotted line waslet out. The passage of time would be marked by crew members singing ahymn (maintaining the system's clock speed), and notations regarding thenumber of knots unrolled would be recorded in a log at a regular fixinterval. The knots would measure the distance that the ship had traveled,from which the term "knots" as a measurement unit for maritime speed isderived. Importantly, Hutchins shows how the chip log was utilized toperform an analog to digital conversion:
"The log gave rise to a computational process that begins withanalog-to-digital conversion, which is followed by digital computation,then either digital-to-analog conversion for interpretation ordigital-to-analog conversion followed by analog computation." (103)
Through these conversions, the propagation of representations betweenvarious crew members aboard ship was enabled. Chip logs were utilized asdead reckoning instrumentation allowing the projection of the ship'sfuture position on nautical charts; nautical charts which are themselvesanalog computers designed expressly for position-fixing calculations. Logsand analog-to-digital conversions allowed data to be transported, often indigital form, through a ship wide network of crew members utilizingdifferent media to perform their tasks; for example from the memory of thelog keeper into the log, then from the log to navigator who would projectthe future position of the ship onto a chart at some fixed interval, andthen from the media of the chart to the mind of the captain who isresponsible for the larger journey.
Data and information have qualities of their own, as calculable symbolicrepresentations capturing measurable aspects of material systems. Data andinformation are not only disembodied in some material form ofrepresentational abstraction from their subject (whether clay tablet ordigital electric impulses), but can be recorded and transferred from onestate to another, propagated from person-to-person in local, perhapstotally linguistic, networks of social computation, or from place-to-placevia encoding into media mobilized by material transportation consisting oftechnology such as sailing ships, or more recently, undersea fiber opticcables. Importantly, this mobile property of data and information has beenat play in human culture long before the digital era - perhaps as long aslinguistic messages have been carried from place to place by foot andshared among different groups, and certainly since written (doubly coded)and numeric representationsbegan to be transported. Additionally, the example of cuneiform as aparticular clay media implementing informational disembodiment from thematerial world emerged well before the development of the algebraicanalysis (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 digitalcommunications and computational technologies during the 20th century. Thedisembodiment of data and information from the real clearly predates thedigital era.
Disembodiment does not mean that data and information, and their materialreality, do not influence one another. In fact the case is rather theopposite, forming is the basis of the fundamentally materialist-formalistanalysis 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 thethird dimension of matter, (energy being the second), in that informationand its effect on identity are not disembodied from the real, but ratherbecome a integral part of the real world projecting directly into thebody: a network of people hyperactivated by information machinery whichhas joined with the body no more or less conspicuously than the pacemakeror the telephone handset." (1998)
The significant difference making difference that does arrive with thedigital era is the speed with which the relations between informationtechnology and material systems are implemented: the move from the speedof hand inscribed clay tables, to ships, to trains, to telegraph, to thespeed of light on fiber optic and radio networks. (This trajectory roughlyparaphrases Virilio's analytic project.) The process has been ateleological one; the move from writing data on clay storage devices andthe associated literacy to retrieve and utilize those notations in a localeconomy has progressed to 'writing' data in informatic media such CPU's,RAM, magnetic storage, optical and wireless networks, and of course thistoo assumes an associated literacy, in the contemporary case one requiredto utilize digital media in a global economy. As the transmission speed ofthe media becomes faster, the ability of data and information to impingeupon or embed itself in material systems itself expands. While clay-basedinscription systems improved the management of a local orchards inSumeria, information systems today, which wrap the Earth in fiber opticcable and paint it with electromagnetic carrier waves, facilitate thetransmission 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 geographicinformation 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 theexpanding networks of information technology. I speculate these GISgenerated data networks have the potential to act as bifurcations andcoadaptive systems..." (2003)
This means that systems which operate, transport and calculate at thespeed of light have greater power become co-operative in the distributionand creation of the real, causing the disembodiment of data itself tobifurcate into something more powerful and integrated with life on Earthdue to the speed and intensity of data flows. This allows data andinformation to play a more immediate, acute, synchronized role in thedaily life of persons, as well as non-human ecosystems and flows ofmaterials. It is not disembodiment per se, but rather machinic catalysisof the relations between virtual and real that is the difference makingdifference in the digital era. Further it is the discrete properties ofthe digital that enable this speed, as well as enabling the exactquantification of information, ala Claude Shannon. It is the catalyticproperties inherent in the material basis of digital technology thatallows the analysis of the difference (that information is) to have aradical transformational impact on every aspect of culture, society,biota, climate, and to some degree, even geology. The disembodiment ofinformation from its referent, which is an archaic and fundamentallyontological aspect of data and information, is now hyper-activated in realtime at the speed of light. And indeed, it is the consequences of thisspeed which many artists working around the issues of 'database politics'have responded to.
A small but representative selection of artists who have notably respondedto the sudden imposition of database as a mediator of power and socialcontrol include the Critical Art Ensemble, Natalie Jeremijenko, GrahamHarwood, and Diane Ludin. The Critical Art Ensemble were perhaps the firstartists to see the looming threat of database on matters of privacy andpower, and to present issues relating to database theoretically in termsof an agent of social control. In their 1994 book The ElectronicDisturbance, CAE states:
"As the electronic information-cores overflow with files of electronicpeople (those transformed into credit histories, consumer types, patternsand tendencies, etc.), electronic research, electronic money, and otherforms of information power, the nomad is free to wander the electronicnet, able to cross national boundaries with minimal resistance fromnational bureaucracies. The privileged realm of electronic space controlsthe physical logistics of manufacture, since the release of raw materialsrequires electronic consent and direction." (CAE, 1994)
While we do read here a direct reference to the concerns of disembodimentin terms of "electronic people", we also see a clear focus on new forms ofpan-capitalist power and control over the economy through processes where"electronic space controls the physical logistics of manufacture." Thisinference on the part of CAE certainly maps to the notion of data andinformation as disembodied control systems of management, butdisembodiment is placed in a context that makes the change lessattributable to the original sin of disembodiment than it is to the speedand ease through which social power and control over the material world isdeployed 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 sharea consistent theme: an attempt to address the asymmetry of power betweenthose who model and manipulate the world through data, (thus enjoying mostof the rights to benefit from information garnered from that data), andthose who are modeled and manipulated by data. A representative example ofJeremijenko's recent work is the Bit Antiterror Line project, which allows"every phone [home/cell/booth] to act as a networked microphone... Forcollecting live audio data on civil liberty infringements and otheranti-terror events." The files are made available in a simple database ofaudio files on the bit antiterror line web site (Jeremijenko), one ofwhich recounts the story of a stewardess who threatened a couple witharrest by armed Air Marshal if they continued to draw silly pictures andlaugh at her. Harwood's 9 project is a website modeled around the simplesquare shaped layout of 9 media elements. It allows people to representthemselves, their neighborhoods, their identity, and their interests, viamedia elements arranged in this simple, easy to use layout strategy,including a notion of proximity and thus juxtaposition with neighboring9's. The ease of use at the interface level belies a sophisticated customdatabase under the covers, coded by the artist. 9 encourages not only selfrepresentation, but the exploration of the self representations of othersin a shared data commons creating connections between/within communitiesdefined both geographically and informatically, while Jeremijenko'sproject creates a data commons as both an emergency antidote to, andcultural and social analysis of, the growing fascism apparent in theUnited States as the "War on Terrorism" progresses. As I write this(original draft, April 2004), CAE's Steve Kurtz is being investigated by agrand jury in Buffalo, NY, essentially for daring to make provocative artworks with biological materials. Although he (and CAE) have presented thiswork publicly in high profile art institutions for many years, hisresearch and materials stored in his home became the subject of a wastefuland misguided anti-terror investigation after being noticed and reportedby first-responders following the tragic death of Hope Kurtz from naturalcauses.
The prevalence of database in biotechnology research has led to manyprojects dealing with genomic data analysis or critique of the systems inwhich nature becomes private property. Diane Ludin's "i-BPE, i-BiologyPatent Engine" takes on issues of intellectual property and ownership inthe high-tech era by setting up a context where real United States patentson genes are themselves claimed as a kind of public property/context forremixing and play with the language of patents, resulting in a "aggressivetake-over by i-BPE agents... i-BPE gene patents will return bio-rights tonon-governmental, cultural agents for revision." (Ludin) In a presentlyunpublished manuscript, Ludin discusses, somewhat ironically, how speedhas (with its own certain irony), allowed the disembodiment of data fromits 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 therise of ibiology the circuit between code and patent becomes part of thesuper speed ecology of Bio Capitalism. Ibiology establishes the next levelof command and control culture where artificial selection becomes apost-human, globalizing, gene profit system." (Ludin) In Ludin's, andindeed all of the above examples, speed is the difference makingdifference that the art of database politics ultimately must addressacross a range of practice; regardless of whether the artist is usingdatabase as media to help along the emergence of shared understandingwithin a culturally mixed global culture, or responding defensively (withdatabase) to the onslaught of database driven assaults on civil rightscommitted by corporatist or fascist governments.
Data Visualization, Beautiful Information and Sublime Data
A formal aspect of data and information that is often overlooked inwestern culture at large is that the terms "data" and "information" havemeanings that are quite different from one another. Although Dictionariessuch as Webster's accurately define the terms; information as "aninforming 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 overlapsomewhat more than their dictionary definitions allow. Note that"information" is above embedded in the definition of data, across thesemi-colon boundary behind which "conclusions can be inferred", butwithout a cadence or emphasis that would mark information's definitionaldifference with the same clarity as it is most commonly defined incomputer science. Information as described above could easily be misreadas synonymous with "facts or figures to be processed", even given positionof the semi-colon. As I will discuss in the next paragraph, there is infact an issue of transitory states. Nevertheless, information is mostusefully defined as the conclusions or news of significant difference thatis inferred from the logical processing of a collection data. Data isdefined essentially as being raw facts; whereas information is mined fromprocessing those facts.
Of course, the situation it is not that simple. At any one time the samerepresentations (I do not take "representation" to mean exclusively"visual"), might exist in different terminal states (as either data orinformation) on a larger conveyor belt of ubiquitous digital processing. Asimple 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 psprogram (information about all processes) to the grep filter such that Imight know only of my processes; information can become data to befiltered into more specific information. Another potential breakdown inthe distinction occurs due to the graphical user interface, which does abetter job of 'making invisible' the user's control data (another kind ofinput), for example in the form of pointing as interactive input (mouseclicks, mouse drags, etc.) These are definitely forms of control datainput, but they are processed more invisibly than control commands givenon a command line interface, because the visual half life of clicks anddrags as pixel residue on the screen is not buffered as are commands thatremain visible in the terminal shell (visible on screen) after beingissued in a CLI. Nevertheless, ignoring interactive input and its ownimportant implications, it is still true that data plays its most commonsocial 'role' in the form of input to programs, and it is information thatis derived from processing data as output; even if theinformation is later transitioned by being reprocessed as input back intosome other program (potentially somewhere else in the world). The ontologyof data and information as input and output is contextually mediated andtransitory; existing alternatively between states of data and information.Yet data is still associated in an important way with input andinformation with output, even if the terms data and information aretreated more loosely in culture at large, perhaps due to being seenadjacent to each other so often, a result of their status as quiteinseparable siblings or perhaps a digital yin/yang.
A good question for the impatient reader at this point would be "What doesthis 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 isthat the conflation of terms seems to pool especially commonly in thehumanities discipline areas, such as art. To be fair, it is a commonlinguistic conflation in culture at large and this is indeed where artistsoperate, but I do think it merits our attention in any analysis of theworks of artists who are working with database, and particularly forartists that are working specifically with data visualization, or therelated disciplines of data sonification and data haptics (as in ambientcomputing).
Lev Manovich has made a very important observation about the aestheticstrategies of Data Visualization practice in an essay titled TheAnti-Sublime Ideal in Data Art, (2002), in which he critiques contemporarydata visualization practice in art as adhering to a pursuit of beauty inthe transformation (or processing) of large datasets into the visualfield: the "Anti-Sublime" aesthetic. Beauty is the pursuit of clarity,balance and transparent form, and data visualization is oftenpursued for the sake of understanding or making clear the behavior of dataand the systems represented by data. Beauty in data visualization isopposed to the sublime: the condition under which the data overwhelms itsviewer, and the viewer's senses are mobilized in a special kind cognitionthat allows them to carry on with the formation of an understanding thatis, 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 ofconsiderable interest to the artificial intelligence discipline incomputer science. Human intelligence seems able to deal with the sublimecondition and can continue to operate intelligently even when overwhelmedor subjected to context shifts, while discrete computationalmachines have not yet proven this ability. In a sense, the holy grail ofartificial intelligence is to create machines that can behave with humanlike intelligence when similarly thrown by excessive amounts of data undervariable context.
Interestingly, the definitions of the terms "beauty" and "sublime" havealso been culturally conflated, perhaps even more so, than the terms"information" and "data". Just as information and data are sometimesinterchangeable terms in common usage, (often taken to mean information),the meanings of beauty and sublime are today similarly conflated, (oftento mean beauty). The notion of beauty, revealing form and makingcognizable, as the goal of data visualization art works dealing with largedata sets is clearly described by Christiane Paul, writing of BenjaminFry's 1999 work "Valence":
"The software visually represents individual pieces of informationaccording to their interactions with each other. Valence can be used forvisualizing almost anything, from the contents of a book to websitetraffic, or for comparing different data sources. The resultingvisualization changes over time as it responds to new data. Instead ofproviding statistical information ... Valence provides a feel for generaltrends and anomalies in the data by presenting a qualitative slice of theinformation's structure. Valence functions as an aesthetic 'contextprovider', setting up relationships between data elements that might notbe immediately obvious, and that exist beneath the surface of what weusually perceive." (177, 178)
I do not choose to wade into any aesthetic debate regarding the beautifuland the sublime in data visualization; I am sticking to my promise to holdfast to an interpretive framework in this writing. Lisa Jevbratt haswritten an essay titled The Prospect of the Sublime in DataVisualizations, responding in part to Manovich's use of the 1:1 project(1999, 2002) as an example of the anti-sublime aesthetic. (Jevbratt) Fornow, I merely want to point out that in terms of how we interpret the artpractices engaged in data visualization, beauty as opposed to the sublimeis the most critical contemporary interpretive framework in which such artmay be evaluated aesthetically. The criterion for analysis shifts from theeffectiveness of any particular visualization (and its ability tofacilitate an understanding of the data throughbeauty), to the roll of the user or communities of users in interpreting avisualization via their own ontological thrownness, their own conceptual,computational or cultural methods for processing data, and their ownability to perceive when facing conditions of sublimity. At its extremes,the sublime analysis suggests that access to raw, unmediated data replacevisualizations, and that communities should take democratic control oftheir own data interpretation in a way that best balances their exposureto quantities of data against their need to reduce it to usefulinformation; all of which might only become practical if formal languagesfor processing data become standard educational assumptions for a baselinenotion of what it means to be literate in post-industrial, high techsocieties. Microsoft Excel(TM) can not save us. Artists might be able toplay an important role in this regard: as guides in data exploration moreso than as experts in data visualization.
Additionally, the formal definitions of data and information imply anotherframework tightly coupled to the issues raised by the beautiful and thesublime. Data visualization practice is certainly bound to the transitionof representations between states of being data and states of beinginformation; and as Manovich points out, most contemporary artists workingin data visualization are seemingly committed to visualization asinformation. This is essentially congruent with Paul's discussion of Fry'swork Valence as well as her overall discussion of database practice;further implying that much data visualization practice in the arts todayseemingly pursues beauty. Interpretively, we may extract from all of thisthat the pursuit of information is the pursuit of the beautiful and thatthe pursuit of data is the pursuit of the sublime. The former implies astruggle for understanding, the later an impulse for exploration,including the collection and generation of new data. How artists implementtheir forms of expression between information and data, and possibly inthe transitory states between them, is an aesthetic issue that maps to thetransitory states between the sublime and the beautiful. Speakingpersonally, this seems to be an unresolved area in data visualization asartistic practice, as well as in the related formal practice that Idiscuss in the next section.
Virtual and Materialist Data Formalism, Data Mining
In this section, my interpretive framework comes full circle back near theissue of disembodiment. In the first section of this essay, I believe thatI was able to demonstrate that data and information have always beendisembodied from their referent, and I did so by arguing from amaterialist stance that views data as an important virtual reality thatactually impinges on material reality. In a previous text titled DatabaseLogic(s) and Landscape Art (original, 2002), I presenteda more radical, though consciously very speculative and provisional viewthat data is embedded and operative within the actual through a process inwhich humans/data/Earth are inextricably implicated: humans mediate thelandscape with the assistance of data about the landscape, and the dataitself mediates that mediation, not necessarily intentionally, but in sucha way that the actual material Earth now speaks through scientific data,thereby expressing a voice in conversation with human culture. In the sameessay, I indicate how the term 'virtual' is also often misunderstood asreferring to the imaginary interfacial illusions that computationalsystems can create, rather than (more appropriately) the abstractmathematics of reality (that can be modeled computationally, well beyond 3dimensions), that in some sense produces the actual. In other words, thevirtual is itself a real space of possible physical states for any systemthat crystallize into the actual, which is precisely what allowscomputational models of physical systems (such as engineering oratmospheric simulations) to have predictive power. I made this case inorder to suggest that artists should utilize the notion of the virtual forpredictive or analytical practices that reveal knowledge about the world,or better, that emergenew behavior, exploration and experience. I think this holds for thehumanities. I am in no way concerned if what is revealed functions asconceptual and performance art, and not as science.
There are many database art projects that demonstrate this analytical andproductive practice which engage with data utilizing an ethos thatmaintains an interest in the embodiment (contra disembodiment) that isimplied in the relationship between data and its material, actual, realworld referents. Although I have avoided definition, I would argue thatthe preceding does constitute something close to a definition of databaseart in the bigger picture, the relationship to materialist embodimentbeing the key. In any case, it clearly fits into my interpretive frameworkfor contemporary database practice as database formalism. These projectsare interested in the actual materials that are modeled by data, and seeknew, exploratory methods of interacting with the material world thatreveal new knowledge about the materials, or the interactions with them,and that allow data to become a cooperative co-participant in theperformance. For example, Lev Manovich's Soft Cinema (2001-) uses metadatato dynamically organize a Mondrian inspired screen layout for videos shotby the artist in his travels, in which "every clip is assigned 10different parameters, which are both semantic and formal, so for exampleone is geographical location... how much motion there is in a clip, whichis assigned a number... the contrast, the average brightness, the subjectmatter...", and so forth. (Manovich, 2003) The parameters are utilized bycustom software to control the editing of the video clips and theirorganization in the layout, allowing data about the (video) data (themetadata) to manifest itself through being granted some level of decisionmaking authority and authorship. Manovich's cinema edits itself; revealingitself in unexpected and often poetic ways that require one to apply athrown and sublime mode of paradigmatic viewership to its interpretation.
David Rokeby's Giver of Names (1990-) and George Legrady's Pockets Full ofMemories (2001) both ask users to interact with real objects in thegallery space, which are scanned and input into a database system forfurther classification and comparison. While Rokeby's approach utilizes anAI computer vision technique and artificial language processing, andLegrady's uses a clustering algorithm designed to situate the personalobjects offered up by the audience with their statistically nearestneighbors, both projects are literally concerned with the relation betweenreal objects and how they are thus mediated (either by naming them orassociating them with another) as they undergo analog-to-digital (materialto reference) conversion, insertion into a database, and subsequent dataanalysis. Importantly, an emphasis on the materiality of the objects ismaintained in the exhibition space. The materiality is directlyexperienced by the audiences who interact with Rokeby's collection ofobjects lying around the exhibition space that they may situate on apedestal for scanning and interpretation by an artificial intelligencesystem. In Legrady's case, a personal object if offered up for analysis.Both systems connect rather literally with the real as an embodied spaceto be contextualized.
The near unification of referrer and referent is even more literal inrecent C5 work, (a group of which I am a member), where geographicinformation system data (a digital 3D map of the landscape) is minedthrough the preprocessing of the primary data into a layer of metadatacharacterizing large areas of topography (currently the State ofCalifornia), that can be searched via a relational database and relatedJava API. (The C5 Landscape Database API.) Mirroring theInput/Processing/Output pattern common in classic, non-interactive dataprocessing, C5 takes input samples (collected with GPS), and processesthem to identify the most similar landscapes to the original, but thatexist somewhere else. As preparatory work for The Other Path (2004-) GeriWittig set out on a month long trek along the Great Wall of China,starting in the northwest desert and following the Wall eastward to whereit runs to the edge of the Yellow Sea. GPS data was collected from twelveseparate trekked locations along the length of the Great Wall. Usingpattern-matching search procedures developed at C5 (Amul Goswamy and BrettStalbaum), the 12 most similar corresponding terrains in California wereidentified. After determining the blocks representing the most similarmatching terrains in California, phase two of the Other Path searchprocess identified discrete paths within those terrains expressing similarstatistical characteristics, such as simple distance, cumulative distance,and elevation change. To do this, a swarm of virtual hikers, implementedas experimental features of the C5 Landscape Database API 2.0, wereunleashed in the virtual California landscape to explore and generatetracklogs, which were then compared to Wittig's original "input" GreatWall of China tracklogs. The results of this search identified the mostclosely matching virtual tracklogs, which were then exported to tracklogfiles, uploaded to GPS devices, and physically realized by C5 in aperformance of tertiary (after the original, after database) explorationof what is now known as The Great Wall of California. In this performance,walking works in the tradition of Richard Long, Hamish Fulton and perhapseven Dominique Mazeaud are reconceived as input, processed by via databaseapplications that have been granted the ability to tell us where to go byoutputting GPS coordinates that we are conceptually bound to follow withour feet. This generates alternative experience and exploration of thelandscape at a time when everything (on the landform surface of the Earth)has already been explored and modeled. It emphasizes not the disembodimentof datascapes from their referents, but their intimate connection andproductive capability.
I have outlined three modes of practice, database politics, datavisualization, and database formalism (the latter contra disembodiment) inwhich contemporary database practice can be interpreted. The laterformalist tendency, in which database is conceived as virtual context forimplementing a data co-operative mediation of the world, perhaps mostinterestingly overlaps in the final analysis with the database politics.Though largely apolitical at first glance, the formalist interpretativemode of database art practice is similar to that of database politics inthat the goal of both is to realign the power of database to distributethe real, albeit for different reasons, as opposed to data visualization'sdominant (but perhaps not universal) desire to better understand data.Though formalist practice may not self-consciously attempt to intercede inpan-capitalist distribution of power, data formalism and artistic datamining practices do conceive of agency returning back to the hands (or forC5 the feet) of the people who interact with such systems, althoughperhaps in a perverse way by tactically ceding a certain level ofarbitrary control to the database applications themselves. But as longthese are at least neutral with regards to power, and hopefully designedand 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 theubiquity of database in our culture, perhaps encouraging individuals todevelop related expertise for apolitical ends (recreation, hobbies) thatproduce ecologies of knowledge that become useful when politicalconditions become too onerous for the majority of people. Formalistpractice could be aware that discovering the possibilities and buildingnovel alternatives (especially when done so by communities instead of forthem), might be just as effective as directly resisting the distributed,nomadic power of systems of mass subjugation. Also, database formalismallows aesthetic analysis to move toward and explore truly interesting,purely formal issues of database itself as a medium. For example, therelational database model trades maximum processing efficiency for theability to maintain ad hoc queries, which may be consequential in terms ofhow the material world is ultimately mediated in particular instances. Allthree of these conceptual modes of artistic practice with database areimportant of course, and they certainly overlap in practice. None ismutually exclusive.
Interpretively, there is perhaps a fourth mode of practice that it may beargued that I have ignored. The only other mode of database practice thatis perhaps not necessarily some derivation founded in database politics,data visualization, or a database formalist practice is seemingly amultimedia practice that assembles and processes a 'database' ofmultimedia materials, mixing or remixing them into some other media formssuch as web video, animation, real time video processing, music, etc. Themultimedia assumption insists that the core of digital media art practiceis 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 orotherwise magically mediated experience. The mediation is viewed asultimately flowing from the identity of "the artist" of course, who isassumed to produce some kind of political awareness or aesthetic/culturalexperience in the minds of the audience. Often, this kind of verytraditional orientation toward art practice does not consider the elementsin the database as data with their own ontology, and suppresses data'sidentity into being mere media elements or samples to be processed,remixed, and assembled by the artist in an expressive configuration ofindividual artistic style and message. Media tools such as digital videoediting and multimedia authoring platforms are commonly employed, andoften these are used pretty much the way that their designers (largecorporations) intended them to be used. There is no reason to think thatsuch software applications can not be used in other ways (in fact, thereare many delightful examples on runme.org), but in practice suchconceptual repurposings are all too rare. When they do happen, they seemto transcend multimedia and map to conceptual art practices (often termed"software art"), and I suspect that my categorical distinctions regardingdatabase practices would support these. But I am veering dangerouslytoward making an evaluation of multimedia practices here. That is not mygoal, so this is a good place to conclude.
1. Critical Art Ensemble, The Electronic Disturbance, Autonomedia, NewYork. 2. Jeremijenko, Natalie, Homepage for the bit antiterror line projecthttp://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, Number8, August 2K4. 4. Ludin, Diane, i-BPE project websitehttp://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 avideo 8. interview, selection transcribed by myself. Paul, Christiane,Digital Art, (c) 2003, Thames and Hudson Ltd, London, ISBN0-500-20376-9 9. Stalbaum, Brett, Aesthetic Conditions in Art on the Network: beyondrepresentation to the relative speeds of hypertextual and conceptualimplementations, Switch, the new media journal of the CADRE digitallaboratory, 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 SoftwareInternational, Macmillian Publishers, Version 2.0 - 1998, Build #25
(Original, 2004), first presented at the College Art Association 94thannual conference, Boston MA, 2006Panel - From Database and Place to Bio-Tech and Bots: Relationality versusAutonomy in Media ArtThursday, February 23 Chair: Marisa S. Olson, University of California,Berkeley
This essay is dedicated to the memory of Eric Gray, who is responsiblemore than any other for helping me establish my interest in computing as ayoung person. In 1981, Eric showed me a war dialer he had written in BASICon a TRS-80 computer, along with custom hardware enabling his tape driveremote control output to perform pulse dialing on the plain old phonenetwork, which he was using (while his parents were away, of course) towar dial for local modem connections to hack into. I was hooked. And thehours of playing "Adventure" did not hurt either. On behalf of your familyand friends, we love and miss you Eric.
Also, thanks to Warren Sack. I wrote this after presenting and hanging outwith 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'spanel together. Tad and Helen too:-)
+Geert Dekkers replied:+
Thanks Brett --- I read through your essay. First and foremost, I wish tosay that I really appreciate theory on this subject, especially now, as Iam 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 (theconcept 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 imaginarynznl.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 thepassage between the virtual (which is, in the realm of nznl.com, to beunderstood as the "idea" phrase of the work and the body (very literally,the object in the gallery). For example, in Mogens Jacobsens work "I HearDenmark Singing" [http://www.artnode.org/art/ jacobsen/art/pom2/] that Ihope to present, the potatoes producing the electricity represent thepassage or perhaps evolution of the idea phrase. Foofwa's BodyToy[http://foofwa.com] (if I may so interpret it) traces the passage from ourunderstanding of our body (the "our" understood as a cultural whole -- soits "our collective body") to 3d rendering software through Foofwa'srendering of this output in his presentation. Jan Robert Leegte's work[http:// leegte.org] recreates the window and desktop metaphore in thegallery, and in doing so, rebuilds the relationship with "real" space.and "real" windows. And thus objectifies the metaphore, making it againunderstandable for what it is.
So I think I'm using the virtual world of data, or information in quite adifferent way. I see very interesting concepts in your essay (perhaps Ishould just call them "pictures") -- the "datascape", or the "selfportrait as data", incidentally, just as I'm interested in the picturethat results from "paper trail". I'm not so much interested in thedifference between the data and information -- I see data as "countingevents", I see information as a sentence, perhaps using data as aquantifier 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. Forme, computer technology is a metaphore for a self-built world, built inour collective image, with its known objects, and a language or languagesdescribing and/or creating these objects -- a closed system in fact, wherethe relationship with the "real" world "outside" is problematic to say theleast. While I found the GPS work recreating the Great Wall fascinating,and the walks you guys made very conscientiously thought through, I don'tsee how this work fits into a bigger "picture of the world". You can'tget away with saying something like "generates alternative experience andexploration of the landscape at a time when everything (on the landformsurface of the Earth) has already been explored and modeled" (I personallydon't think this will ever happen, but that's beside the point) -- Iactually think that this is a declaration after the fact, and not amovitation and/or inspiration for the work. The works by Richard Long andHamish Fulton are in fact much closer to the simple art of walkingsomewhere and telling us about it, and are therefore (imho) more revealingon the subject of representation.
To conclude somewhat hastily -- I do think data and information areimportant pieces of the puzzle, but I think that any good work of artrecreates a complete and full world, a reflection of our world, and indoing so fundamentally grasps the interdependance between our bodies, ourlanguage 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 casemoving toward a performative simulation (a kind of theater) of the systemsyou are picturing - i.e. do you have "actors" (directors for example) insome from or forum playing out the various roles involved, or will it beall software? A model of a system is a model of a system, (althoughresolution and properties vary), and I think can be instantiated in manyforms - as a performance perhaps, or by allocating some memory to someobjects in a simulation, or an idea or proposal (these are real!), or ahybrid combination... Or is your thinking evolving still?
[....] Kant associated the sublime with quantity and the beautiful withquality. These are related to data and information respectively. So whenyou say data is "counting events" and that information as a sentencequantifying referers (which I take to mean, counting things in alreadycounted 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... andthat in fact we might agree here.
Might this be incorporated in the Manovich piece I didn't read? I havenow read it -- there's no reference to Kant though. I'd have to re-readKant's essays on the sublime to offer any critique.
This bit from the Manovich piece Myron kindly sent me (The Anti-SublimeIdeal in Data Art):
One way to deal with this problem of motivation is to not to hide but toforeground the arbitrary nature of the chosen mapping. Rather than try toalways being rational, data art can instead make the method out ofirrationality.11 This of course was the key strategy of the twentiethcentury Surrealists. In the 1960s the late Surrealists – the Situationists– developed a number of methods for their “the dérive” (the drift). Thegoal of “the dérive” was a kind of spatial “ostranenie” (estrangement): tolet the city dweller experience the city in a new way and thus politicizeher or his perception of the habitat. One of these methods was to navigatethrough Paris using a Map of London. This is the kind of poetry andconceptual elegance I find missing from mapping projects in new media art.
appeals to me -- and I agree with Manovich -- this is what I too, findmissing in most data works. The "idea phrase" of the work paraphrasedabove is interesting in itself -- humorous, catastrophically dadaistic. Alot of data work I see is, well, so very seriously concerned with ourwell-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 alifelong reading of Lyotards "Le Differend". I have done some Kant, butmostly, again, through Lyotard. His rendering of the sublime and thebeautiful 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 colleagueGeri Wittig and her thoughts on coadaptation... see "Landscape data andcomplex 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 willagree if I get away with it or not after reading it, we will see - (and Ilove you either way:-) - but we will have to wait a bit for it to bepublished.
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 papersto each other, then emerge work which entails us in the experience whichfeeds back into new theory and new field mediations. "Database Logic(s)and Landscape Art", (2002), "Landscape data and complex adaptive systemEarth: Holism in complexity and network science" (Wittig, 2003) and Iwould argue "Ontology of Organization as System" (Slayton/Wittig, 1999),and "Expansive Order Situated and Distributed Knowledge Production inNetwork Space" (Wittig, 2000?), all contain key concepts that are part ofthe Landscape Initiative projects that predate well predate theprojects...
> The works by Richard Long and Hamish Fulton are in fact much closer tothe simple art of walking somewhere and telling us about it, and aretherefore (imho) more revealing on the subject of representation.
I agree - these artists still hold onto the notion of control over thesubject - C5 is giving some (much) of this responsibility over to data incollaboration. Ultimately, there will be an interface that allows anyoneto produce their own hikes and experiences... and to decide what thesubjectivity of those hikes means to them.
This is, however, a very important difference. This part of currentartistic practice is so open -- of course everyone may decide "what thesubjectivity of the hikes/dances/images/software experiences mean tothem". Art becomes a tool. But a hammer is not a painting.
[....] I have (re)created (well, explored in a tertiary sense) no fullerworld 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 aprovocative snip that maps to the distinction you make between paintingand 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 behindprojects by artists, they have also extended them much further than theartists originally imagined. As a result these technologies themselveshave become the greatest art works of today. The greatest hypertext is theWeb itself, because it is more complex, unpredictable and dynamic than anynovel that could have been written by a single human writer, even JamesJoyce. The greatest interactive work is the interactive human-computerinterface itself: the fact that the user can easily change everythingwhich appears on her screen, in the process changing the internal state ofa computer or even commanding reality outside of it. The greatestavant-garde film is software such as Final Cut Pro or After Effects whichcontains the possibilities of combining together thousands of separatetracks into a single movie, as well as setting various relationshipsbetween all these different tracks—and it thus it develops the avant-gardeidea of a film as an abstract visual score to its logical end, and beyond.Which means that those computer scientists who invented thesetechnologies—J. C. R. Licklider (05), Douglas Engelbart (08. 16), IvanSutherland (09), Ted Nelson (11, 21, 30), Seymour Papert (28), TimBerners-Lee (54), and others—are the important artists of our time, maybethe only artists who are truly important and who will be remembered fromthis historical period."
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 whatManovich (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 makingmapping 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, leavesout subjectivity. Manivoich concludes his essay with a personal pleawhich 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 thisquite well. The . . .more important challenge is how to represent thepersonal subjective experience of a person living in a data society.. ..How [can] new media. . . represent the ambiguity, the otherness, themulti-dimensionality of our experience. . ? In short, rather than tryinghard to pursue the anti-sublime ideal, data visualization artists shouldalso not forget that art has the unique license to portray humansubjectivity."
+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 intentionembedded within it. Sure there is an intrinsic relationship betweenabstracted data and the real world, but just abstracting the data andlooking at it isn't going to reveal that relationship. The goal is tosomehow make the data resonant by transforming it into narrative, thusmapping 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 (fourteen years ago) link
i buy into baudrillard!
― max, Saturday, 5 April 2008 05:29 (twelve years ago) link