Thursday, June 28, 2007

Dataesthetics - Close to Home

The data from the 2006 Australian census has just been released. In the last day or two the media have run the usual kind of headline stories - in which specific bits of data or comparions are extracted, spun and narrativised; nationally, there's been some focus on increasing debt (and income); locally Canberrans have been portrayed as richer, more wired and more generous with their time than everyone else. This process of top-down public storytelling dominates our understanding of this kind of data - but perhaps that will change, because now the whole dataset is available online, for free. It's buried a few steps in, and yes it's in a proprietary (Excel) format, but it's all there for the munging.

I started browsing some data from my suburb, and focused on numbers of kids per mother per age group. It's coarse-grained data but evocative - birth rates suggest a lot about a society. Comparisons suburb by suburb also hint at distinct demographic patterns. I put together a quick visualisation, a stacked area graph (inspired in part by Lee Byron's beautiful vis). Another reference was the Japanese tradition of Koinobori, the carp pennants that celebrate Boy's (now Children's) Day. So, here are some statistical pennants - suburban emblems that encode demographic data. Maybe we could fly them at the shops, or individuals could annotate them by marking their own place in the local profile. It's fun to play amateur demographer (read on) but the point here is really proof of concept; if I can do this, so can lots and lots of others, and that's interesting in itself.

Each form shows the number of children per woman; the wide end is zero, the narrow end is six or more. So in all the pennants the initial dip shows the difference between the number of women without children, and women with one child; then more women with two kids, fewer with three and so on. The thicker tail visible in the second pennant shows a larger number of women with lots of kids. The bands in each pennant show age groups, with youngest at the top. Most young women have no kids - not a great surprise - but the forms also show older women with larger families, and the relative distribution of children by mother's age group, and how this varies with suburb. The bottom-most pennant comes from an old, wealthy suburb: lots of older women with two and three kids. Pennant two is from a semi-rural town, with a more even distribution of children through the age bands; pennant three is from a new suburb, with wide bands of small, relatively young families. Colours are arbitrary, for the moment.

For more demographic data art see also Jason Salavon's American Varietal project, commissioned by the US Census Bureau.


Wednesday, June 20, 2007

ACMC07 - Warren Burt and Sebastian Tomczak

This year's Australasian Computer Music Conference is here in Canberra, hosted by Alistair Riddell at the CNMA. Though ironically I could only get there for the first day, here are a couple of choice morsels.

The opening keynote by Warren Burt took on the conference theme - "trans" - and delivered a dense core sample of transdisciplinarity in music, from the ancient Greeks to the West Coast musical avant-garde of the 70s, through to the present. Many of Burt's projects look fresh all over again - he's been doing audiovisual synthesis, sonification of complex systems, and bio-collaboration since back in the day. He also made some great points about the role of the avant-garde in transforming cultural systems, rather than just "playing new music in the same old venue" (a mistake he attributed to Richard Wagner and the Sex Pistols, among others). During the 70s and 80s Burt was involved with the Clifton Hill Community Music Centre, an experiment in new social contexts for music, affordable technology and anarchic DIY.

Meanwhile back in the present, Alex Thorogood presented some nifty hardware hacks splicing an Arduino board with the innards of a cheap MP3 player, for his Chatter and Listening sound sculpture project. Hardware of the day though was Sebastian Tomczak's amazing Toriton Plus, a homebrew controller based on lasers, photocells and water. I'll spare you a lengthy description, except to say that it's much more beautiful in live performance - here's the video.


Friday, June 01, 2007

Generative Art, Virtuosity, and the Neo-Baroque

In her book Neo-Baroque Aesthetics and Contemporary Entertainment, Angela Ndalianis argues that "mainstream cinema and other entertainment media are imbued with a neo-baroque poetics". She draws parallels including an emphasis on sensation, pleasure and the spectacle, serial narrative forms, immersive intertextuality and cross-platform "story worlds," and an aesthetics of virtuosity drawing on scientific and technological change. I'm still digesting these ideas but I'm interested in how they could be applied to generative / data art. I owe the link to Timothy Jaeger, who pulls the neo-baroque into his (free!) book on VJ culture. Jaeger suggests that the virtuosity, technical self-consciousness, and affective qualities Ndalianis sees in fx-driven cinema are also present in VJ culture and practice.

For now I'll focus on virtuosity. Ndalianis analyses the quadratura ceiling paintings by artists such as Andrea Pozzo, which use perspective techniques to make illusions extending architectural space into the heavens. Pozzo's work is a virtuoso application of one-point perspective, a then-new technique. The image above shows his ceiling at the Church of S. Ignazio (1691-1694). The illusion is both a sensory delight and a display of technical mastery; those two moments coexist in our response. Ndalianis draws parallels with the "technological bravura" of Jurassic Park, which also indulges in spectacular but reflexive illusions.

Could we draw a similar parallel with generative art? I'm thinking mainly of the lush, maximalist strain pursued by artists such as Robert Hodgin and Marius Watz - but perhaps more generally as well. On the surface at least there are some similarities. These works are all about sensory pleasure - especially audio/visual interplay, which links up to the embodied pleasure "networks" of the club environment (eg Watz' Illuminations for club Transmediale (below)). Definitely neo-baroque. Visual density and complexity is another hallmark; like Pozzo's ceiling these are immersive, teeming spatial fields. What about reflexivity? This scene is marked by the artists' open interests (and pleasure) in technique; and its aesthetics are also displays of both construction and skill. This is 3D that is quite happy to look like 3D (unlike some of the more imperceptible Hollywood fx). Yet some features of generative art don't seem neo-baroque by Ndalianis' formulation. Illusion, a clear link between baroque painting and digital cinema, doesn't feature in generative art - unless we consider the toy worlds of (for eg) Magnetosphere as a kind of illusion without an original; if Hollwood persists in stitching the constructed into the photographic "real", maybe generative art (along with gaming) has crossed over into pure simulation?

Among other things this analysis questions my own theoretical line on generative art, which has emphasised the underlying system and the structures of (rather than the act of) simulation. Susanne Jaschko has written (approvingly) of the "retinal" quality of generative art, and this seems aligned with a neo-baroque perspective, focusing the pleasures of the generated surface. Virtuosity offers one link between system and surface - where the system is a cool-for-its-own-sake display of technical skill. I think there's more to it than that, but perhaps there need not be?