ilteris kaplan blog

Data visualization

March 22, 2006

Spending the last few days brainstorming about my final projects. Lately I am really interested in transforming data into “tangible bits” as Hiroshi Ishii coined the term. One example of this could be fraesmaschine by Ralf Baecker.

Nowhere is a landscape in the condition of development. the users of the german search-engine METAGER erode rivers, canyons and valleys by their search-movements. search-requests, existing only for a fraction of a second on the internet, get inscribed in a block of pu-foarm (75cm x 75cm x 10cm) by a 3d milling-machine. the continuous stream of queries defines the rhythm of the machine.

Another example could be Email Erosion.

Email Erosion automatically creates sculptures out of biodegradable, starch-based foam using spam and email as stimuli. Based on email, the Eroder may elect to rotate the foam, raise or lower the Sprayer or erode the foam with a spray of water.

What I like about those pieces are mainly their ability to create something totally different from the actual source, transform this data more than mapping the data itself to a concrete material at least.

According to the Lev Manovich’s paper [Data Visualisation as New Abstraction and Anti-Sublime, 2002 .doc format] one of the earliest mapping project which revived lots of attention was Natalie Jeremijenko’s “live wire”.

The movement of the dangling wire is proportional to the number of packets on the network. That is, the more traffic on the local area network, the higher the frequency of the “wiggles.” The transceiver plugs into the network, and the dynamic behavior of the wire become an intuitive peripheral representation of the network activity. In contrast to a screen based graph of ethernet activity this device is a shared social display of information.

In his paper, Malovich points out that data visualization arts should be carrying certain reasons in their work. One of them is arbitrary versus motivated choices in mapping. He questions the artist’s mapping selection since the computers allow us to easily map any data set into another set. He suggests to foreground the arbitrary nature of the chosen mapping as one way to deal with this problem. Another question he stresses is the conceptual elegance and poetry that is lacking in the works. He gives the modern art as the example showing us the ambiguity always present in our perception and experiencee, to show us what we normally don’t notice or don’t pay attention to. He expects same kind of approach in visualizations.

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. If daily interaction with volumes of data and numerous messages is part of our new “data-subjectivity,” how can we represent this experience in new ways? How new media can represent the ambiguity, the otherness, the multi-dimensionality of our experience, going beyond already familiar and “normalized” modernist techniques of montage, surrealism, absurd, etc.? 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 – including its fundamental new dimension of being “immersed in data.”

Funny when I was searching for live wire project in google, I have come up with Sculpting with Data class that Tom Igoe taught in Spring 2003. I am kind of surprised that class is not being offered last year or this year.

Ilteris Kaplan

Written by Ilteris Kaplan who lives and works in New York. Twitter