I'm working up a paper on data aesthetics and creative practice, looking especially at visualisation (a kind of companion to "Hearing Pure Data," a paper written a while ago focusing on sonification / audification). At this stage all I have is a collection of questions and semi-formed hunches - so make of it what you will, etc.
- Are we talking about data or information?Lev Manovich uses the term "info-aesthetics" and connects these practices to the notion of an "information society". What if we move back a step, and look at the relationship between data and information? Data is the raw material, the datum or measurements: information is the message or meaning constructed using those datum. Both terms get used (more or less interchangeably) around artworks doing visualisation, but I think we should maintain the distinction. Is this work concerned with rendering information - a known, formed message? On the surface at least it seems to be more interested in visual interfaces to data, downplaying or leaving open the interpretation of that data - its transformation into information.
- As I argued in "Hearing Pure Data," presenting the data "in itself" is an impossible ideal; it is inevitably shaped, interpreted, formed, framed, etc., in any manifestation; in which case how does visual data art negotiate its own construction of information from the datasets it works with? Does it pass off its own interpretation and framing as "raw data"?
- What about the constitution of the data itself? Data art seems to take a pragmatic and concrete approach - "the data is the data" - but any meaning constructed from that data must be inflected by the way the data itself was formed or gathered. This is stating the obvious to anyone working in the empirical sciences... how do data artists respond? In the wake of the AOL reSearch dataset affair, the issue of constructing information from data comes into sharp focus. It will be interesting to see how artists use this dataset (which as Marius Watz recently observed, they no doubt will). The ethics of data art?
- Data art treats its datasets as generative resources: sources of rich structure, pattern and complexity. It seems that often the appreciation of these formal qualities of the datasets (or their visualisations) exists in tension with the content or referentiality of the data. There's a continuum: TheyRule leans towards referentiality and meaning; Ben Fry's Valence is more concerned with pattern (it's an exploration of a visualisation technique after all); The Dumpster sits somewhere in the middle.
- Toxi blogged a while ago on the issue of access to quality datasets for creative visualisation. As the comments on his post show, this begs a kind of cart/horse question. Tom Carden writes: "once you've got the info vis bug, you feel like a guy with a big shiny hammer, but nobody will give you a nail." This brings us back to the same question: is this work about data as an indexical link to the world, or data as a generative device? Or both?
- On a related point, there's a clear crossover between generative and data-driven art; the artists are often one and the same; the same tools are used. How can we think about the relationship between these practices? They seem to be complementary approaches to similar goals (visual and aesthetic complexity, the joy of the unexpected, etc): one builds a generative system from scratch, the other latches onto the most complex existing generative system (the world) and visualises that.
Responses to all this very welcome of course... stay tuned for more chunks of undersupported and undigested theorisation.