Monday, November 13, 2006

The Transcendental Data Pour - Alan Liu

Recently read this paper, by writer and online cult studs pioneer Alan Liu, which raises lots of ideas and yet more questions around data aesthetics and practices. It's a few years old, but with a few exceptions remains quite relevant. What's more it's a great read, one of the wittiest and most enjoyable things I've seen in a long while.

Approaching from writing and textuality, Liu tackles the XMLification of everything, the Taylorist dogma of the separation of content from presentation (hello, Blogger) and the subsequent waning of "cool" web design: "non-standard, proprietary, hand-coded, and other clearly infidel (or ... artisanal) practices of embodying content inextricably in presentation." Instead, Liu sees the web becoming a modular, minimalist set of containers for what he calls "data pours" that "throw transcendental information onto the page from database or XML sources reposed far in the background." Literature-wise, Liu regards these data-driven incursions as "blind spots" for both readers and writers, where authorship surrenders to parameterisation or a database query.

Liu gathers a set of artworks around the concept of the data sublime (later tackled by Manovich and Warren Sack, among others) and the question of "what can still be cool" in the post-industrial, database age. Through Kittler, he recalls the Modernist literary interest in the noise in the channel - "like tuning your radio to a Pynchonesque channel of revelation indistinguishable from utter static" -and points out that contemporary data aesthetics seem interested in the same immanent revelation, but here the sources of that data-plenitude are highly rational and structured. Data practices s/mash them up, as if in attempt to feel their inner consistency; Liu identifies this drive with the "ethos of the unknown" - a search for "an experience of the structurally unknowable."

Liu's ideas map onto current data art well enough, though rather than data pours threatening authorship, a new group of authors deploys parameterisation, mapping, munging and filtering as its main techniques. The "mother tongue" now, the source of plenitude, seems also to be increasingly social, rather than natural or linguistic (eg Linkology, The Dumpster, Listening Post). And pulling against the sublime and the ethos of the unknown is its empirical opposite, the seeking of pattern and information. The surface between these seems to be the place to be; as in the beautiful Neuromancer quote in Liu's paper, it's a liminal state where forms emerge and disintegrate. Familiar territory for the arts, as Liu points out.

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