Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Data Art - Some Questions

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.


Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Jonathan McCabe - Nervous States

Canberra artist Jonathan McCabe is currently showing some digital prints at the Front gallery in Lyneham - the show is called Nervous States, ostensibly referring to the neural net behind the generative process... but it seems to have much wider implications just at the moment, too. I wrote about McCabe's Butterfly Origami Method on generator.x a while ago, and was impressed by the elegance of the generative mechanism and the visual richness of the results. Nervous States is just as elegant, and visually psychedelic, but uses a completely different generative approach.

Like the Butterfly Origami images, there's a sense of materiality here... which is paradoxical, considering the abstraction of the generative techniques. Each image is essentially a visualisation of the output state of a small neural network. The X and Y coordinates correspond to two variables in the connections of the network; the colour of the pixel at that point is a representation of the network's behaviour for those parameters. So the image is a map of system states; coherent colours show areas of relative stability or gradual change; edges show sharp jumps in the output; marbled swirls show complex oscillations.

Technically, this work is pushing the edges in several ways. To select images from the vast range that the system can produce, McCabe first uses an automated analysis based on variation in the image at three levels of scale: the software varies the weighting of the inter-neuron connections, and selects images (maps) with the most variation. However this automated process still generated 6000 candidate images, which McCabe then whittled down to nine for this exhibition.

Generating these images at very high resolutions is a hefty computational task. The solution for McCabe was to make use of the parallel-processing grunt available on the video card. Using the Brook language from the Stanford Graphics Lab, the images are rendered using the parallel pixel processors on an nVidia graphics card.

This work also makes me wonder about communication, meaning and generative art. As McCabe explains them, and in the context of the "nervous" metaphor, the generative system is poetic in itself; the images can be read in that context, as mysterious maps of complex dynamics - or they can function on a more "retinal" level, as sheer visual stimulus - or perhaps both. But how comprehensible is the generative system for a wide audience? Does it matter? Understanding the images as state maps, rather than physical (or even simulated physical) traces and gestures, is a considerable leap of abstraction. And at a time when open-source tools are drawing more and more artists and designers to generative techniques, McCabe's work issues a similar challenge: underneath the initial challenge of learning to code is the conceptual process of understanding, designing and visualising generative systems, and it's those systems that (I'd say) are at the core of the work.


Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Andy Gracie: Symbiotic Systems

British artist Andy Gracie creates bio-robotic composites, systems that play out a tightly-coupled symbiosis between biological and technological elements. Gracie recently asked me to write about his work, and the text below was an initial response - a longer essay will be out later in the year.

New media art is overrun, now, with monsters, hybrids, chimera and cyborgs, with real and figurative mixtures of the made and the born, the "natural" and the "unnatural". Miscegenation - the archaic taboo on inter-racial breeding - is revived here in a kind of inverted form. The transgressive thrill of mixing "bio" and "tech" is a recurring theme, and while cyborg art is now relatively old (Stelarc), it maintains its visceral effect because it accesses a primal (turned cultural) mechanism of identity-formation. This is me: that is not me. Artists use this effect as a tactical hook, but by focusing on the cyborg / monster, work like that of Stelarc, Piccinini or SymbioticA can have a kind of renormalising effect; as long as the chimera is objectified, it remains (safely) other, over-there. My humanity is never at issue.

In the late 1960s, art practice began to come to grips with the emergence of post-industrial capitalism, a social order characterised by increasing connectivity and interdependence. Influenced in part by the emerging field of cybernetics, artists turned to the figure of the system - a dynamic, real-time, abstract network of causally intertwined entities and forces (more). In "Systems art" the work itself is a real-time system, a process that performs some quality of system-ness or "systemacity," and in doing so it alerts us to the complex, networked systemacity in which we continue to find ourselves.

Gracie's work reflects the concerns of the chimera tradition, contemplating technologised life, or living technology. However its great strength is that it does so through the methodology of systems art. It breaks open the monstrous figure and reveals it to be not a thing but a process, a coupling, a coming-together, a co-negotiation. Others, such as Ken Rinaldo, have explored similar hybrid systems; Rinaldo seeks to exemplify a mutually-beneficial symbiosis between biology and technology. Gracie's work is less idealistic, but potentially richer in its implications, for symbiosis lies on a continuum with parasitism, and the dynamic networks of real ecological relations operate not in pursuit of some overarching "harmony," but locally, specifically, functionally. Gracie's work plays out the externalised character of ecological relations; his robotics illustrate what is machinic about all ecologies: networks of functional connection. In Fish, Plant, Rack the connections are played out: fish (sound) robot (nutrients) plant (video) fish. None "recognises" or is "aware of" the others, but all are coupled into an adaptive network of mediated stimuli and response.

Fish, Plant, Rack

Here mediation is not a representational process, but a concrete connection, a way of coupling an agent with its physical envirionment. Gracie's earlier Samplebot demonstrates this, as its piezo-electric pickup transduces its physical environment into sound, and interprets that sound as instructions for its behaviour; the "program" here is only partly digital; it is largely embedded in, and comprised of, the robot's environment. This is the beginning of stigmergy, the biological phenomenon where the environment acts as a shared medium which shapes, and is shaped by, organisms within it.

Stigmergy, like symbiosis and parasitism, is beautiful in the way it obliterates conventional thinking about agency, subjectivity and environment. Agency is not local and internal, but distributed and external, embedded in the environment. Agents are not independent but interlinked, and not like the consenting adults of the social realm, but through partial, contingent, concrete channels of input and output. Agents don't recognise each other, but selectively and adaptively mis-recognise; nonetheless they become inextricably, functionally, coupled. Here is the real, important, monster: agency is systemic; systems have agency. Gracie's work diagrams the systems that we are ourselves enmeshed in, and explores the hybrid, emergent and collective agencies that must be latent in these networks.

update: for more on Gracie's work, including some technical detail on Small Work for Robot and Insects, see this paper co-authored with Brian Lee Yung Rowe.