Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Responses: Manovich/Sack - Chaz

In these two pieces, "The Anti-Sublime Idea in Data Art" by Manovich and "Aesthetics of Information Visualization" by Sack, the two authors form a debate on how data visualization relates to the art historical sublime, but also move past this topic to land on critical perspectives with which to better evaluate data visualization as an artistic medium.

Manovich begins by establishing the importance and newness of datavis as an artistic genre. To establish this he frames all software art as a "meta-medium" which can map any medium, or dimension to any other medium or dimension. This also reflects what Manovich describes as a postmodern, globalized moment of "remix" In short, he states that data visualization has the ideal goal of making everything representable, which he claims is the opposite of the romantic sublime, also a new kind of inverse modernist abstraction. But, after he establish this theme within datavis, he contradicts it (and possibly himself) by challenging his own claim. He says making all data representable leaves an arbitrary gap between the data and how the artist has chosen to represent it. He ends the piece advocating for the datavis artist to embrace this arbitrary/indeterminate aspect of the practice similar to how the surrealists might. Essentially Manovich ends by pointing to the contingent strategies of how data is creatively handled.

On the other hand, Sack says he disagrees with Manovich stating that while some datavis might follow the anti-sublime, other works of datavis does not. Instead, he walks the reader through a circuitous route through Kant, Freud, and Sol Lewitt to say that what is most important to evaluate in datavis is an "aeshetics of governance." In other words what is most important is this think about whose interests are served in the work of data vis, or to rephrase again: to evaluate the contingent strategies of how data is creatively handled.

Its difficult to respond to a debate of datavis' relationship to sublime in an evaluative way when neither party involved in the debate establish a stable definition of sublime to work from in the first place. Once both authors have worked past their brief pass at the concept of sublime, they both end up in very similar places, which I don't think disagree with each other more than they agree. This all amounts to good points, which are potentially lost in a unorganized debate of loose prose.

To give an in depth example I'd like to analyze the prose in a particular paragraph in the Sack piece. I don't mean to pick on Sack, but in general I think his prose has more problems, so consider the following paragraph:

"A broad enough aesthetics would have to address not only the psychological states discussed by Kant and Freud, but also the social and political implications of information visualization. If the aesthetics of information visualization are not just anti-sublime, sublime or uncanny, then what exactly are these aesthetics? I will argue that -- in order to understand artistic information visualization – it is best to explore beyond Kantian and Freudian aesthetics of visual perception. My argument will be counter-intuitive because if, indeed, artistic practices have something to contribute to information visualization, then -- given the term "visualization" – how could the artistic contribution come from anything other than the visual arts? I will argue that a better way to understand artistic contributions in this area is to use the ideas and methods of conceptual art rather than those of the visual arts." (4)

By the time we have reached the first sentence the case of Freud and Kant as the theoretical base for datavis hasn't been made by anyone but the author. While the social and political implications on datavis could of course be of importance, they are not the absent extension of Kant and Freud, nor are the antonymic of the two figures, so their importance in this sentence has not been established. Furthermore, no case is made to not think beyond Kant and Freud, so a second straw man regarding Kant and Frued is inserted in the third sentence. Then the theory of Kant and Freud is conflated with "the visual arts" in general. He does this by placing his argument in opposition to Kant and Freud (which is not necessarily the case), and then replaces Kant and Frued with "the visual arts." Although they are surely important figures in art discourse, to claim they exhaust the entire field of "the visual arts" is surely a strech. Then there is an assumption that conceptual art is somehow not within the domain of visual art, or is somehow opposition to that category when this is also unqualified, and generally not accepted to be true. To support this statement I would challenge anyone to find a work of art which does not involve a sensory component. Even the absense of vision or sound still stands in as a representation, perceived through the human sensorium, therefore conceptual art, even while ostensibly lacking visual component still belongs to a larger category of visual art.

I would guess that these articles are intended for two particular audiences 1) artists incorporating datavis into their practice and 2) those involved in discussion of art crticism and art history. I make the assumption of the latter on the fact that many direct art historical references are made, making the articles appear as advocacies for those outisde of a new media disciplinary framework consider the importance of data-driven art into art history in general. Because of unqualified appeals to art history, and problems in the construction of argument I think both works fail to succeed in this larger goal, even while the both come up to very well taken points on how to evaluate datavis for the emerging datavis artist. In this sense the first audience is probably taken care of, as their scrutiny of art historical reference may be more forgiving. But if scholarship on data art is always like this I don't think there would be any huge mystery as to why data visualization is not taken seriously by a larger international contemporary art conversation. Thankfully, this is not case. First, I will fully fess up to the fact that I am pressing hard on texts that date to the earlier portion of the 2000's and my critiqe comes with the advantage of more historical time. But furthermore other figures really have their prose locked down when approaching the topic of new media's discourse being integrated into art discourse at large. Edward Shanken for example, in nothing more than a blog post, recently summed up the cultural gap between new media and international contemporary art in a post initially written by Paddy Johnson in

Although it doesn't touch on datavis in particular, its a fantastic little piece which really comes to the table with its prose locked down, even while being published in the modest context of a blog post and still reflecting the potential biases of the author. Its well worth a read.

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