Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Sack & Manovich Responses-Jon Chambers

Aesthetics of Information Visualization- Sack

Sack starts out by critiquing Manovich’s anti-sublime theory of data visualization, by basically saying visualizations can encompass many characteristics, and proceeds onto more pressing issues regarding these visualizations. He says that the anti-sublime is a small corner of visualization and 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.” (p. 4) These conceptual artists were struggling with the “…methods, means, and materials of that form of political and social production that we call bureaucracy.” (p.6) He gets all political by explaining how the computer interface uses bureaucratic forms, i.e. files, folders, etc. and that his argument is this:

“…when you look at artistic projects that map out and visualize information, do not worry so much about whether they are pretty, beautiful, friendly or easy to use. Instead interrogate them by asking what sorts of governance they support or reflect: Are they democratic or bureaucratic? (p.8)

         We need to know, or should try to understand, why scientists, governments and artists are making these visualizations, as the body is implicated within them. How is the body treated in a visualization? I think that this is an important thing to think about when analyzing visualizations, as this data has a direct connection to the body’s place and activity. He pushes this concept even further and talks about bodies of information: “Information visualization is an attempt to index and articulate these bodies which -- despite the often-asserted idea that digitally-stored information can be infinitely reproduced -- are constantly at risk due to disk crashes, miniaturization, noisy networks, and, in general, disappearance.”(p.13) A poetic dematerialization of the body happens, and this body doesn’t exist except in the virtual realm, as well as the “disappearance” of the physical body, or the homunculus. I think the most important part of this article comes towards the end, when he talks about the politics of the body and virtual body, and how this can create a paranoid state of surveillance. The project East African Cities gives the person with no voice a voice, but it also categorizes and defines demographics within a space, something that the power structure can potentially use. This space can also be used the opposite way, as he uses examples of “social software”, where people can organize “smart mobs”. These types of software are basically cellphone connections, or online communities that can instantly get together to protest, and don’t really create visualizations. There were a lot of ideas in this article, but Sack never really came to any solid stances about the way data visualizations should be used, but rather talks about their implications. He does come up with the vague conclusion:
 As a part of a larger Body Politic in a democratic society we need to see ourselves and our imagined communities (Anderson, 1983) within our larger political and cultural contexts.” (p. 19)
Sure, I agree, but how do data visualizations really enable us to do this?  

The Anti-Sublime Ideal in Data Art- Manovich

In this article, Manovich has investigated artistic visualizations that are created from data mapping. He goes through a historical account of how new technologies, specifically the computer, engage with older technologies, i.e. film, photography and coins the term “metamedia” by saying, “It is also appropriate (and more interesting) to use the term mapping for describing what new media does to old media. Software allows us to re-map old media objects into new structures – thus turning media into what I call ‘metamedia’.” (p. 3) Also that a meta-media object, “contains both language and meta-language – both the original media structure (a film, an architectural space, a sound track) and the software tools that allow the user to generate descriptions of this structure and to change this structure.” (p. 5) The software is what makes information into something new, and the computer is able to help artists interpret older media into something new. So, then, in this technologically driven world, how do artists map all of this data into something meaningful by using meta-data objects and software? He goes on to list a few projects and questions why he is so moved by the end results, “Is it because they carry the promise of rendering the phenomena that are beyond the scale of human senses into something that is within our reach, something visible and tangible?” (p. 11)  
After this reflection, Manovich moves to say that this is the opposite of what the Romantic artists tried to accomplish with the sublime, because these data mapping results create the tangible out of the intangible; creating something within the abilities of human perception. This seems like a prophetic insight, but the end result doesn’t have to be so analytical and if one attempts to make something sublime, the end result has to be somewhat tangible. If the artist wanted to map data to swaths of color fields, could this not be sublime? The Romantics may have been trying to capture the unrecordable (emotional response), but they still ended up with a painting (tangible). I don’t think it’s as clear-cut as what he makes it out to be.
One of the best parts of the essay is when he talks about the arbitrary choices that artists use to map data to something visual. “Another important question worth posing is about arbitrary versus motivated choices in mapping. Since computers allow us to easily map any data set into another set, I often wonder why did the artist choose this or that mapping when endless other choices were also possible.” (p.12) That is a good question. Not only are other choices possible, but perhaps infinite choices are possible. Ben Fry’s visualizations are more one to one representations that make sense and are, one could say, sublime, but the epitomization of invisible data into a representation could be impossible. The questions does remain though, why do we even need to visualize all of this data, and is it important?

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