Response Paper: Aesthetics of Information Visualization
In this article Warren Sack analyzes the origins of “Information Visualization” as a term that developed out of utility— a pragmatic development in the scientific and engineering communities to make data more palpable by applying a means to visually analyze statistical values. Beyond this initial introduction, Sack’s writing responds to Lev Manovich’s critical essay entitled The Anti-Sublime Ideal of Data Art. With Manovich focusing on defining the recently cultivated term “Anti-Sublime” relative to the Information Visualization genre of art, Sack views Manovich’s exemplification of specific data born artwork as Anti-Sublime to be flawed. Moreover, he views Manovich’s focus on the concept of sublime vs. Anti-Sublime to be of little relevance to the meaning of the work produced by practitioners in the “InfoViz” genre. Instead, he believes the work should aspire to define itself relative to what he refers to as theaesthetics of governance— thus taking part in a greater discourse as part of, and commenting on, the exponent of the “body politic”. Although Sack seems to give him little credit for his late evolving criticism, Manovich does eventually question the meaning of this developing artform relative to social identity.
Responding to Manovich’s definition of Anti-Sublime as a form of reductionism, Sack counters by pointing to a contradictory definition of the contextually relevant, mathematically “sublime” offered by Kant.
“Sublime is the name given to what is absolutely great” “…that is sublime in comparison with which all else is small.” (Kant, 1790, para. 25)
The grandiose conceptual complexity embraced by artwork such as John Simon’s Every Icon serves to support the Kantian assertion. Sack alludes to the mathematical density of the piece noting that its representational evolution occurs over “billions of years”, continuing “This does not reduce the (almost) infinite to the easily appreciable finite: it is, I argue, an attempt at an aesthetic of the sublime, not the anti-sublime.”
To illuminate the issue of meaning relative to Manovich’s primary viewpoint, Sack rhetorically questions why data should be mapped and analyzed in the relationship of information to aesthetics, and later explains how mapping acquires a greater significance through its relationship to the social condition, its resulting networks and all of the individual components this comprises rather than through its obvious association to territorial distinction. He seems not to directly acknowledge Manovich's later comments in which the author concludes
"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 interesting and at the end maybe more important challenge is how to represent the personal subjective experience of a person living in a data society."
In a comment on the Information Visualization movement, Sack refers to aesthetics as a “form of judgment – that focuses on the senses”. He acknowledges this judgment as “quite different from that usually applied in the domains of science and engineering to understand the worth of an information visualization”. As this assertion highlights the value of such visualization as a tool of technical practice, it nods to a problematic relationship between the terms information and aesthetics in the context of defining an artistic genre.
As Sack rejects the term “Anti-Sublime” as a defining aspiration of this genre, I too believe that the in the context of referencing an artistic mode of production, terms such as “sublime” lack meaning. As it refers to a greatness that lies beyond all comprehension, its opposite is equally incomprehensible in a discussion of artistic form— and thus is of little value as a descriptive reference. Although it could be applied in reference to ultimate forms of abstraction, I feel it is too heavily loaded with mythic idealism to be of much practical value in critical discussion.
Since my initial exposure to the term “Information Visualization” I have also taken exception to the rather limited scope of production that the definition implies. It seems that information that is represented through sonification (for example) rather than visualization is it then excluded from this association. For this reason, I appreciate Sack’s affinity for the more generally accepting reference of “conceptual art”-- an alternative to the prescriptive definition of “visual art” as a means to more effectively referr to the work of artists such as Andrea Polli (http://earroom.wordpress.com/tag/sonification/ ) who gathers data relative to global interconnectivity, climate, atmospheric studies, and weather, transposing into them into artwork that is most often represented sonically.
To provide greater specificity to his position relative to the issue of artistic definition, Sack places his argument into a political discourse, stating “The larger role for artists is best considered using the historical precedents of conceptual art. Specifically, one must consider how conceptual art has reiterated the modes of industrial production and bureaucracy in order to engage, decode and critique them.” He emphasizes this with a reference to the position taken by Buchloh in his rebuttal to Lewitt’s description of the conceptual artist a “cataloguing clerk”, commenting on the shift to conceptual arts in post-war area as
“...an effort to place its autocritical investigations at the service of liquidating even the last remnants of traditional aesthetic experience”. (Buchloh, 1990)
As Sack promotes the concept that the “information visualizers” might best be served by occupying themselves with exploring governance issues of the “body politic”, his position strikes me as promoting all that pertains to the individual, collective condition society, and all the relative networks that sustain the “things” that Latour’s Parliament references. He also invokes Foucault’s perspective on the governmental territory relative to the concept of mapping within the InfoViz genre emphasizing a Foucault’s reflection on La Perrière’s, “object of government” as “a sort of complex composed of men and things”.
It is important to conclude that while Sack seems preoccupied with Manovich's tangential focus on the Anti-Sublime, he does not highlight that he and Manovich eventually arrive at rather similar positions relative to the role that the social body "should" play in augmenting the conceptual discourse of such creative media. Sack explores this in greater depth throughout his text, while Manovich obviously takes quite a while to arrive at this point and seems not entirely confident in his position. Although I consider my own perspective on the Information Visualization movement to be more similar to that of Sack’s than of Manovich, I wonder then, what is Sack not including in this seemingly limitless association to “things” of humanity? Is his (and Latour’s) perspective so inclusive that it becomes dilute of meaning? Because he speaks to what one might call would call a “specificity in ubiquity” I think not. Although the net is cast so wide that it touches the human condition and all its tributaries, his distinction includes the caveat of requiring a coherent representation of how we arrive at meaning, bringing to question how astute that observation of meaning is relative to our social identity and how this is connected to those elements that determine such identity.
The Anti-Sublime of Data Art
As I explained in my response to Sack’s article, I don’t feel that the polarized discussion of the Sublime vs. Anti-Sublime is productive in the discourse of the meaning of such work. Although I do appreciate Sack’s counter commentary of Manovich’s focus on characterizing the nature of the Anti-Sublime in the context of the Information Visualization art genre, I feel he overtly legitimizes the discussion by entertaining Manovich’s examples of this ideological premise to the extent that he has.
While The Sublime seems to be the criterion by which art is often measured, I don’t believe that it should be. In the artistic context, the term alludes to an existential enlightenment that transcends explanation, immersing the audience in an illumination to which all else pales. How often does such an experience happen— often enough to make it relevant? Could I describe the discoveries of my youth that included the life-changing exposure to Steve Reich, My Bloody Valentine, Charles Mingus, David Lynch, and Tim Hawkinson to be sublime experiences? I certainly recall feeling that I had reached unique points in my creative enlightenment upon experiencing these artists for the first time. However, since no one but me can experience these personal introductions in the way that I have, I feel that referring to them as sublime examples of creative expression has little relevance to critical discussion of the meaning in their work.
I find it is further problematic that while Manovich thoroughly entertains the notion of the sublime versus anti-sublime, he emphasizes the utilitarian aspects of data representation in art as a “fruitful research direction”, noting:
“the media object can be manipulated using all standard interface techniques: search, filter, zoom, multiple views, summarize, etc. More complex and unusual mappings are also possible – and the search for such new mappings that allow us to access old media objects in new ways congruent with information interfaces we use in our everyday life – represents one of the most fruitful research directions in new media art”.
Does the “direction” of applying new mapping techniques old media in new media art become fruitful because of the new breed of everyday tools we have at our disposal? Perhaps it is elements of the “unique” or “complex” that he refers to indicate such salience— two adjectives that I see as in opposition to his definition of the Anti-Sublime with its premise of reduction.
He again discusses the “importance” of mapping relative to Natalie Jeremijenko’s work entitled “live wire” in the section of the text entitled Data Modernism.
“Data Mapping one data set into another, or one media into another, is one of the most common operations in computer culture, and it is also common in new mediaart. Probably the earliest mapping project which received lots of attention and which lies at the intersection of science and art (because it seems to function well in both contexts) was Natalie Jeremijenko’s “live wire.” Working in Xerox PARC in the early 1990s, Jeremijenko created a functional wire sculpture which reacts in real time to network behavior: more traffic causes the wire to vibrate more strongly. In the last few years, data mapping has emerged as one of the most important and interesting areas in new media art, attracting the energy of some of the best people in the field.”
Jeremijenko’s piece may be terrific. I have never experienced it. However, Manovich’s description of the work is not compelling and portrays the piece as lacking in dimension.
Illustrating this point, the following is a quote about the piece from the Walker Art Center’s Website http://tech90s.walkerart.org/nj/transcript/nj_04.html
“Live Wire could be another graph on your computer screen, a real-time 3D rendering of network traffic, something else in your face, in, to quote Perry Hoberman, the monogamous relationship of the user to the screen. But instead it is in the periphery, in the shared physical space. Live Wire is tacit information?"
So you have visualized data traffic using a wire that moves. People can now visualize information about the load on your network by looking at the rapid movement of the physical object rather than using an a CRT monitor for a change. Great. What does this mean? How is this different than a science project?
Although I can agree that “Jebratt’s 1:1 reduces the cyberspace – usually imagined as vast and maybe even infinite – to a single image that fits within the browser frame”, does the mere presentation of a complex data set within a single frame signal that this work aspires to be the inverse of the Sublime? This strikes me as a quite simplistic assertion. This is a “data set” (however increasing that set may be) that, although represented in a single frame, is concerned with an informational expansiveness that is referenced and accessed by the interface itself.
Eventually, as noted in the previous response paper, Manovich arrives at directly critiquing the ubiquitous mapping that seems to define much of contemporary Information visualization but does not get there until page twelve, stating “By allowing us to map anything into anything else, to construct infinite number of different interfaces to a media object, to follow infinite trajectories through the object, and so on, computer media simultaneously makes all these choices appear arbitrary”.
I agree that these choices often seem arbitrary, even at times seeming to be the result of following a “how-to” or a “data visualization by numbers” guide. I view this as quite problematic in scope of producing work of depth that is constructed on genuine interests and concerns and is central to my own ambivalence about much of what is being developed out of the information visualization mode of production. My stumbling across this website seemed quite apropos to the discussion at hand: http://book.flowingdata.com/
Considering that his entire article is dedicated to a commentary of data art, I find it ironic that Manovich’s prime example of “problematic mapping” is Daniel Liberskind’s design of Jewish Museum in Berlin— an architectural work. has somehow decided that using the example of something that he is unsure about the motivation behind will help make his point more resonant. He seems to mandate a transparency of motivation to justify its construction— a notion I find to be rather absurd. He notes “as far as I know, he does not tell us anything about why he projected the net in this way as opposed to any other way.” As a side note— out of curiosity, I also looked into the the mapping element has played a role in the buildings construction and found an reasonable explanation quite easy to find on Liberskind’s website. In all fairness, he could have posted the explanation after reading Manovich’s criticism.
In addition to presenting a perspective that I find to be a bit underdeveloped, he exposes what I view is one the greatest problems of Information Visualization artwork— the need for explanation. How do you transform the meaning of the interface to someone who does not have the technical vocabulary to understand what he or she is being presented with? Is the artist then excluding those individuals from the intended audience? That is possible. But then what does this say about the art that is produced and about the artist producing it? It seems that more often the artist wishes to include the audience by quickly educating them about the medium and concept so that they have the baseline knowledge necessary to interpret the work and its meaning. This is especially true relative to an artist such as Jeremijenko (as in the case of her tadpole walker piece: http://www.treehugger.com/files/2009/02/treehugger_radio-natalie-jeremijenko-1.php
Her work, as seems the case with much of the new media / activist art I have been exposed to, beckons a question and quickly offers the answer (as a means of motivating an ideological movement of some sort). While I think this is an important element of activism, I find it problematic to new media art due to its affect of limiting the scope of interpretation of the work. It essentially tells them what they should be getting out of the work. In an interview featured on treehugger.com Jeremijenko explains:
“…we have a tadpole walker, so that you can take it out walking in the evening, which of course, makes your neighbors ask you what the hell you're doing. Then you would explain why you're raising a tadpole in this water sample, and that you have concerns about it, and they would probably share the same concerns.”
Manovich finally concludes that “data-subjectivity” is what is needed to provide greater depth to this work. Although he dances around less-important issues for much of his article, in his final paragraph he ends up in a place where he and I largely agree— that “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”.