Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Radiohead's Data Melancholy

In case you missed it, Radiohead have gone all data-aesthetic with their latest video, House of Cards. What's more, it's fully zeitgeist-compliant, with open access and a call for re-visualisations of a quite massive dataset: hundreds of megabytes of spatial data gathered with various 3d laser-scanning rigs. If the download stats and early signs are anything to go on, we will be seeing much more of this dataset.

As well as being technically cool, the project is yet another sign of the increasing cultural prominence of data as both material and idea - in that sense, after Design and the Elastic Mind and Wired's "Petabyte Age", this is more of the same. But it's also something different, it seems to me. Like any other visualisation, House of Cards doesn't only use data, it presents a certain sense of what data is, means, and (crucially) feels like; and this is where it's different. The dominant narrative of data visualisation at the moment is informed by the networked optimism of web 2.0, where the social sphere, and increasingly the world as a whole, is unproblematically digitised; where more is more and truth, beauty, and commercial success all are immanent in the teeming datacloud.

House of Cards, by contrast, is a manifestation of data melancholy. Data here is low res, with a sketchy looseness of detail that evokes the gaps, the un-sampled points. This data is also abject or corrupt, the scanner intentionally jammed with reflective material, a bit like the metallic chaff used to confuse missile guidance systems. These glitches are familiar devices in electronic music and video, including Kid A-era Radiohead. However here the errors are very much in the data; they have migrated out of the music, which is human, organic and more or less intact here. This disjunction between failed data and the emotional, human domain is what characterises the data melancholy; it's illustrated beautifully at the end of House of Cards, with the "party scene" (one of Thom Yorke's ideas for the clip), a social scene decimated into abstract clouds of points. This theme also resonates across In Rainbows, especially in the closing track, Videotape: "this is one for the good days / and I have it all here, in red blue green." Here image data is again a sort of failed trace of an emotional reality, all that remains of "the most perfect day I've ever seen."

Yorke's other motif for House of Cards was "vaporisation," which is clear enough in the clip; I think its most effective in the final shots of the house; the earlier clips of Yorke disintegrating seem a bit langurous, with that undulating look of Perlin noise (is it, anyone?). The house shot in particular reminded me of Brandon Morse's Preparing for the Inevitable; Morse's work in general has a related feel about it, though the models seem to be synthesised rather than sampled. Again the poetics is one of cool, digital melancholy, where tragedy is stripped down to a set of vectors and forces (above: Collapse, from Flickr). Here though, rather than a failure of data (sampled representation) it's a failure of the procedural model, or perhaps failure with, or in, the model.


Greg J. Smith said...

Hey, I didn't know you were allowed to post anything beyond the standard open-practice, r&d cheerleading associated with this video. One of the great ironies of Radiohead 2.0 is that nobody actually talks about their music anymore, kind of a shame really. Anyways, after suffering through several dozen posts of regurgitation, it is nice to finally see a more measured, dare I say informed response to this video.

I'm quite interested in this new venture of Radiohead's as well, nice to see they got the politics right after bungling the legalities/licensing/business model of that remix competition.

I'm pretty enthralled with the video on a whole and my only gripe is aesthetic (and quite minor). I just wish Radiohead could let go of the avatar, i.e. why does the partially rendered head have to be Thom's? I'm really tired of looking at him and since I'm so familiar with the glorious purgatory he lives in through his songwriting, I really don't ever need to look at him again. Not his frazzled actual face, nor any digital approximation thereof. This was my main complaint about the Alexander Rutterford video for "Go to Sleep" and I find myself uttering it again 5 years later.

All of this said, data melancholy is indeed the name of the game here. I guess that title is an appropriate substitute for what used to be called folk music. Great post Mitchell!

Mitchell said...

Thanks Greg. I know what you mean re. the avtar: I'm really hoping that we'll see some visualisations that completely take Thom apart rather than put him back together (as most of the early ones seem to do).

Also the other wonderful clip that is relevant here - which temporarily escaped me - is No Surprises - again Thom's mug, and a dispassionate technological point of view vs the bodily/emotional real.

Mitchell said...

oh and P.S thanks for the Go to Sleep clip, somehow missed it but it's totally on theme as well.

gef said...

I can't help thinking of this clip as "Money For Nothing" noughties style. I'm sure I'm not the first with this observation. It's not necessarily an insult, and as with MFN this clip signals the mainstreaming of a new visual aesthetic.
I'd like to comment further but I'm on my iPhone and the keyboard is really annoying me...

animaland said...

Looks very much like Karl Sims' (1988) "particle dreams" head that blows itself out through its mouth. I love the disintegrating house/barn also... as if to say that our constructions are just going to blow away in a sea of melancholy and leave us alone in a void.

Maybe its all a bit too emo for me. I think that is the first time I have ever used that word in a sentence! I'd prefer a harder edged data-goth or a unsettling Boards of Canada.

Thanks for the post Mitchell.