Before meeting her, i had always imagined Marisa Olson to be an hyperactive blond girl running around the internet playground. She seemed to have so much fun online... surely that girl was made of pixels. And even now that we've met several times, i'm not totally sure that Marisa is real.
Marisa's work combines performance, video, sound, drawing, and installation to address intersections of pop culture and the cultural history of technology, as they effect the voice, power, and persona.
Marisa lives between California and New York, where she shows one of her (half) serious faces: she is a "Curator at Large" at Rhizome. You can find her on her whatamidoingwithmylife blog, on the Nasty Nets Internet Surfing Club, on her website and 3 years ago she was writing about her preparation to audition for the popular reality TV show, American Idol on yet another blog
How does one become Marisa Olson? What is your background and how did you get involved in technology-based art making, reviewing and curating?
Hmm... That could be hard to answer quickly. I was always a geek. I programmed the heck out of my C64! I was also always obsessed with mediated communication in the form of pop culture (radio and tv) transmissions. Add to this the fact that my dad worked in intelligence, growing up (I grew up in Germany, where he worked until I was 10) and I was surrounded by scary military technologies all the time (isn't the gun one of the most significant inventions ever?) and that all spells a strange fascination with technology. I always wanted to make art, but I'm actually related to one of the most famous French impressionists and I was raised thinking that's what "real art" was. It turns out I wasn't very good at that kind of art. So I stopped worrying about what was and wasn't art and just focused on what I found interesting. I spent most of my undergrad and grad school years in the SF bay area, and lived through the surreal waxing and waning of the dot-com. I wrote for Wired, consulted a few start-ups, and that sort of thing. Meanwhile, the area was overflowing with artists expressing themselves in work that engaged technology. And I really related. After that, the progression was natural and rapid. I threw myself into new media--as an artist and in terms of supporting the field, not entirely distinguishing between my writing, teaching, or curating. The more peculiar thing, for me, has been switching gears from being a musician (I've been a singer and lyricist in a few bands and grew up in choirs) to making work about music (most recently my Oh.Yeah.I.Love.You.Baby. remix album). There's definitely an interest in the DIY there, but I guess this is also why I often organize my projects as "albums" (like my Break-Up Album (Demo) video project) and I tend to think of curating like making a mixtape.
In Abe & Mo Sing the Blogs, an online project for which the Whitney Museum of American Art commissioned an Artport Gatepage, you and Abe Linkoln sing posts from your favorite blogs. What was the impetus for that project? There's been several discussions of trying to turn blogs into an art form or an art project. What is you take on this issue? Could you name us other examples of successful "blogs-turned-art" projects?
Abe and I are both compulsive web surfers and love unusual blogs. We decided to pick our favorite posts from our favorite blogs and sing them, in a sort of concept album mixtape. His and mine are pretty different. They are all really funny. In our official description of the project, we say that blogs, like the blues, have been credited with channeling the "voice of the people" and we wondered if we could identify specific genre conventions on blogs. We were kind of interested in the blog as a stage for "site-specific" performance, which also carried over into our Universal Acid project. We'd both done blog-based projects before, which was how we met, online. We sent each other fan letters about his conversion of net artist Olia Lialina's My Boyfriend Came Back From the War and my American Idol Audition Training Blog. I also loved Screenfull.net, Abe's old blog with Jimpunk.
Our first collaboration was actually a blog called Blog Art, which was a curated blog listing blogs that are art projects. At the moment, I'm really into group blogs that ride the line between art practice and some other sort of internet fan culture. For instance, some friends and I founded an "internet surfing club" called Nasty Nets--in which we sort of simultaneously celebrated and critiqued the internet--and I love other group surf blogs like Supercentral, Spirit Surfers, Double Happiness, and Loshadka.
When you blogged your efforts to audition for "American Idol." How did people around you react to that decision? What did the whole training teach you (i'm not only talking about sun beds and stilettos boot camps of course)?
Well, my family and grad school professors at the time certainly thought I was crazy. I made what was probably the mistake of announcing it by emailing people out of the blue with the subject line "I need your help" and inside I asked for help in picking what song I should sing. Even though I linked to a New York Times article about the blog, a lot of people told me later that they really thought I was seriously delusional about trying to get on the show! They didn't recognize it as a parody, which is kind of awesome. I started the project wanting to critique the show (which I admittedly also loved) and the gender normative stereotypes it pushes. I was concerned about how artists rights to their own work & identity were violated by the producers, in my opinion. But the project took on a life of its own. The lead-up to my audition (in 2004) was the same as the build-up to the presidential election between Bush & Kerry. I started thinking of how the show is predicated on a model of democracy and voting but I kept hearing how my generation (the main demographic for the show) wasn't showing up to polls. They would stand in line for 8 hours to audition, but not 15 minutes to vote. So the project became all about voting. I told readers how to register to vote, brought registration forms to the auditions, and I had readers vote on what I should wear & sing. Ultimately, I collected over 10,000 votes in the course of trying to get young people to think about the many ways in which they could use their "voice."
You are also a curator, both independently and as part of your activities at Rhizome. Your curating often deals with new media art pieces. What are the challenges of curating and exhibiting works of new media art today?
I think that there is presently a very exciting turn happening in new media, with respect to both the art world and the context of "traditional media." It used to be very important to carve out a separate space in which to show, discuss, and teach new media. Nowadays these spaces are sometimes seen as ghettos, but at the time, they were safe havens championing under-recognized forms. Things are more co-mingled now. Not everyone will agree with me about this, but I think it's great that some people no longer even know new media when they see it. I know curators who turn their nose up at that phrase, but they love Cory Arcangel or Paul Pfeiffer. There doesn't seem to be a need to distinguish, any more, whether technology was used in making the work--afterall, everything is a technology, and everyone uses technology to do everything. What is even more interesting is the way in which people are starting to make what I've called "Post-Internet" art in my own work (such as my Monitor Tracings), or what Guthrie Lonergan recently called "Internet Aware Art." I think it's important to address the impacts of the internet on culture at large, and this can be done well on networks but can and should also exist offline. Of course, it's an exciting challenge to explain to someone how this is still internet art... If that really matters...
I feel like this is a great opportunity and a perfect class to teach at an amazing place like ITP, which evolves daily, with the technology. But I think the way to do it is to try to see media change as having a longer-tem trajectory. I have a background in media theory. I studied History of Consciousness at UC Santa Cruz and am PhD Candidate in film studies and new media in the Rhetoric department at UC Berkeley, where my dissertation is on The Art of Protest in Network Culture. So I've read, loved, and taught the classic McLuhan, Benjamin, Kittler, Flusser, Baudrillard, Jameson, etc over and over again. The aim of this class was to consider the cultural and political forces behind the evolution of technology and the broader concept of "change" (which most certainly also incorporates social/ political change). So we read these classic historiographies but tried to read them from the present context as well as the original one. And we read them beside Alex Galloway, Henry Jenkins, Clay Shirky, and other great contemporary writers. I mean, this stuff can never be pinned down long enough to be considered in an isolated temporal context, but it's still important to consider the personal and political forces that compel media change--the desires and impetuses.
In your recent Golden Oldies performance/ video, you seem to give a very hard time to a bunch of electronic devices. What is your own relationship with technology?
Ha, well... It occurs to me now that you could probably say that my relationship to technology is a bit sado-masochistic. I don't mean for that to sound weird or sensational. I think, in the true classical psychoanalytic sense, many people's relationship with technology is very wrapped up in both their libidinal and death drives, as Freud would call them. I guess this video demonstrates that I enjoying abusing technology as much as I enjoy observing its abuse of me. I've always been a fetishist and could never try to hide that. My studio is littered with blinged-out headphones, radios, and cassette tapes. But the tapes I've been calling Time Capsules. I mean, they are moments of time that are disappearing but not really going away, so instead I try to prevent their burial (in a landfill) by taking them out of circulation and painting them gold, much like the symbolic bricks in Fort Knox. InGolden Oldies, I try unsuccessfully to instigate communication between media of various generations--tapes, vhs cassettes, records, cds.... And after drilling, hammering, and chiseling each one, I give up and wipe the garbage to the floor--where is becomes "out of sight, out of mind," as we say in the US. I feel like this is what's happening with all of our tv's, walkmen, air hockey tables, nintendos, etc as we follow our drives to upgrade. They just get pushed into dumpsters and disregarded. And I've been trying to think about my own role in this cycle, because I certainly love my ipod as much as the next gal.
Any upcoming projects you could share with us?
Well, we just released a DVD of Nasty Nets members' work (there are 25 of us, including some of my very favorite net artists), and that was generously funded by Rhizome. It includes videos as well as loads of data files and a type-in website by fellow Nasty Michael Bell-Smith. People can get the DVD online, and if they are in New York, they should definitely attend our premiere screening at the New York Underground Film Festival this Friday, April 4th, called Nasty As U Wanna Be.
Otherwise, as you can see, I'm really obsessed with the future, at the moment, which is kind of funny for someone who tends to say that her work is about the cultural history of technology. I'm just starting to work on a project called "Martha Stewart Assisted Living" and it's a near-future version of Martha's show (guess who I play!) aimed at an aging audience whose lives have been lengthened by new technologies, but who are also suffering side effects, like head goiters from their cell phones or Global Warming-Related Illnesses (GWI's). I'm devising special recipes and craft projects for those 130-year-olds!
Previously: Sousveillance culture, a panel curated and moderated by Marisa Olson.
More etech08 talks with W. James Au's take onWhy Won't Second Life Just Go Away, Already? Understanding Web 2.0's Most Misunderstood Phenomenon
Throughout 2007, publications like Wired, Forbes, and the LA Times pronounced Second Life over-hyped, while negative press over Ponzi schemes, porn, etc. suggested imminent disaster. Meanwhile, the world's user base tripled (both in terms of monthly active and maximum concurrent users), and continues attracting about a half million new sign-ups a month. How can this possibly be happening?
W. James Au is the author of the recently published The Making of Second Life (amazon usa and uk), online games editor at GigaOM.com, and lives as an embedded journalist inside Second Life on New World Notes. In his blog he takes the position of some kind of archivist conducting ethnographic research of everyday practices and life in this emerging world..
Second Life... "What was it again?" (James Au's PPT slides)
After the year 2006 where SL was on everyone's lips, that was the year i interviewed W. James Au. I actually never really got into SL. I found its aesthetic repulsive but i never stopped finding fascinating pieces of information about what SL was revealing about our society and how it is also contributing to its current shape in James' New World Notes. I was probably not the only person at etech who cultivates some curiosity for the synthetic world. The room was as packed as possible and the doors were left open to allow people crammed in the corridor to listen to the talk.
In Spring 2006, SL made the cover of Business Week. It's Anshe Chung - the "virtual Trump" - who got the cover. The avatar has built a development from nothing and quickly turned it into an operation of 17 people.
A mini dot.com boom followed as many other articles followed Business Week enthusiasm. That's when companies started to knock on the door of Linden Lab with requests to be allowed to get in. Linden Lab resisted for a long time but they changed their policy and allowed companies to buy land like any other user.
These companies would start opening shops to display and sell their stuff to avatar. One of the first company who joined SL was American Apparel. But their efforts were quite useless as the online shops was empty most of the time, most players were just ignoring it. James draw a comparison between this empty shop and the scarcely visited homepage of McDonald's in 1996. The pattern is similar, loads of modern is thrown to join the hype but with very little effect.
James went on by comparing shops selling cars. It appears that a kid who had opened his own shop and made it more appealing with hot babes and rap music was selling way more cars than Nissan who had just opened a shop which didn't looked much more than a giant vending machine.
Anyway, in 2007 the backlash started to hit hard:
The truth lies probably somewhere between the utopia described in the previous paragraphs and the disaster scenarios that would mushroom in 2007.
He was right and soon magazines such as Wired, LA Times, Forbes and many others were reporting failure of commercial ventures in SL.
While backlash stories kept coming in, the active user base has tripled in the space of a year.
TV series like CSI and The Office featured SL in one of their episodes. CSI proposed a feature where the story would continue inside SL. However neither of these TV appearances have contributed much to the overall growth of SL. It's not the media that drives long term activities.
SL keeps on attracting innovation and major companies continue to invest heavily in SL, not just for marketing but also for practical applications:
Interactive demo of the future Cisco Connected Health hospital campus, Palomar West due to open in San Diego, California, in 2011. Video:
IBM uses SL as a platform to design prototypes (3D data center) using OpenSimulator, OS version of SL, reverse engineering project.
Greenies, a '50s style crazy room filled with tiny green aliens attracted the attention of L'Oreal Paris which started to advertise there by placing Copies of their products inside the funhouse. Corporations have learned their lesson and now adjust to what users want.
Corporation presence per se is not as important as one might think. Companies own a total of 2000 islands, that's 15% of the private-owned island which means that corporation presence on the total land mass amounts to less than 5%.
3 principles that make SL keep thriving (so far):
1. Mirrored flourishing - "What you do here should make you better out there"
This principle has been part of the community since its origins
The activities you do in SL can potentially improve your own life. Disabled people who have to stay home use SL to meet other people and get a social life.
SL is a space that creates opportunities. Users own the IP right to the content they create on SL.
2. Bebop Reality - "The virtual world as a 3D jazz combo"
3. Impression society - Whaddya got, and how long are you gonna stick with it?
In SL making an impression is about being cool, compelling, exciting. It is not about money but about how much creativity you can bring to the community.
Impression is also about how long you stay there and provide and that's something that shows by the look of your avatar. A well-dressed avatar for example shows that its user cares for it, has been in the community long enough to polish the appearance of its character. Long-term activity is a prerequisite if you want to be cool in SL.
SL is a very frustrating experience at the beginning. There are neither rules nor guidelines, you have to make them up on your own. According to James Au the result is that SL is an international cutting edge creative space with high barriers to entry.
Kowloon: a Japanese studio 4 made a video game inside SL so that gamers can live inside the game. There's actually a huge amount of content no one knows about. Some of the most active users are from Brazil and Japan.
Steampunks are an active community in SL and a rather large one with 30 to 35 000 active users.
Midian cities, role play inside SL giving its users a "third life". Like a mini-MMO. The users don't chat as much as they write a story collaboratively and on the fly.
My Second Life, The video diaries of Molotov Alva: documentary in SL (coming soon to HBO). There are many Machinima makers but only ten of them can be regarded as top talent as their movies go beyond the usual audience of the SL community. Usually machinima don't, they are for insiders.
Ajax Life, a web-based client for Second Life that does not rely on browser plugins. Made and constantly improved by a 15 year old girl between her classes.
Several versions of SL on the phone.
SL hooked up with a jogging treadmill. Video:
James also mentioned a Danish architecture studio which uses SL to play with SL and tries to figure out what architecture could be like were it not all those regulation rules, they came up with a desing of building that looks like pearls and some Chinese contractors found about it and the building might be realized in China.
No matter if and how SL grows up it has proved itself as a valuable platform for experimentation and prototyping. 300 universities using Sl as a teaching tool.
I arrived in San Diego for etech08 after a 25 hour trip. The morning after i was sitting in the main conference room wondering why on earth i was doing that to myself. I could have stayed quietly in Europe, avoided the jetlag and the artificial food enriched with extra-anti-oxidants and extra-vitamins.
... Until Eric Rodenbeck, founder and creative director of Stamen Design, took the floor and gave his waaaay too short talk on Information Visualization is a Medium. He highlighted a couple of the works they developed, threw in some interesting thoughts and saved my severely jetlagged morning.
The focus of the talk was on process of analysis and how the concept works both for Stamen and culturally. For Stamen Information visualization is a medium, not a technique per se.
The first project that illustrated this statement is Trulia Insight, a real estate aggregator, search and information tool they developed for Trulia, a real estate company based in San Francisco which aggregates information about properties around the United States.
The mashup combines historical real estate data with a "heat map" that displays which properties are hot. People looking for a house can search for real estate by zip code, or other parameters like size, cost, and building type. Houses glow different colors as they are built and re-built over the years, enabling buyers to watch growth trends and movement in residential areas.
It is almost like a pollution map as it shows the impact of men on the landscape. The most fascinating aspect of the work is to compare the real estate growth from city to city. A city like Plano in Texas for example experienced a somewhat chaotic growth pattern from 1970 to 2008. Meanwhile the real estate flow in Los Angeles looked easier and more organic.
This interactive map of crimes in Oakland was developed with the idea of offering a tool for understanding crime in cities.
You can get a precise overview of what is happening in your neighbourhood (or the one where you plan to rent a house) over time, you can select the crimes you want to see and if you like that sort of thrill, crime alerts can be delivered to you in almost real time via RSS or email.
Crimespotting helps people explore public information, draw connections, see pattern emerge and find new possibilities for questioning.
The website says: We believe that civic data should be exposed to the public in a more open way. With these maps, we hope to inspire local governments to use this data visualization model for the public release of many different kinds of data: tree plantings, new schools, applications for liquor licenses, and any other information that matters to people who live in neighborhoods.
The idea is not to offer a search programme that would give you a way in but rather to give a map display as a way out for users to explore. It is not enough to simply analyzes and it is not enough either to simply entertain.
In Stamen's project there is always an editorial choice, their projects are not totally value free, they are more than just a pretty accumulation of data. They attempt to give people a way to access information they care about, to engage them in data and keep them interested.
Related: Sascha's report on Stamen's participation at OFFF in Barcelona.
The Generator X - Beyond the Screen event i mentioned earlier involved a series of talks by artists, architects and designers. I went to the second evening of public presentations, liked everything i saw and heard but i'll just focus on a few projects mentioned by Aram Bartholl (here's his website but it's his blog that gets my vote) because 1. i had missed all his other talks so far and 2. haha! i've lost the notes i took during the other talks.
Sascha posted a write-up of a talk Aram gave almost a year ago about the way his work looks for connections between the virtual world and the physical one so i'll just take the story from here and focus on the artist's latest projects.
Chat, presented at ars electronica, the 24th Chaos Communication Congress and more recently at Club Transmediale is a mobile performance that allows 2 participants to send each other text messages, like in World of Warcraft or Second Life. As soon as they've been entered, the texts appear in comic-strip-like balloons above the speaker's head.
In 3D worlds, chatting contrasts with chat "rooms" as the online form of conversation has been re-endowed with a spatial dimension: the typed-in message appears in a dialogue bubble above the avatar's head and follows their proxy on its way through the virtual world. Other players within a certain range can read these messages and, in turn, can type an answer on their own bubble. Chat translates this form of conversation into the physical, public sphere.
Aram reminded how much is about money in Second Life and how this might explain its success. In the vitual island, you can make money out of data thanks to the digital right managements embedded into the game.
For the Second City project that ars electronica commissioned him last Summer, Aram invited other artists and turned a part of a deserted shopping street into an exhibition space that was focusing on physical representations of the virtual world.
One of the projects developed in Marienstrassen allowed passersby to walk in a "shopping panel" and buy a Trabi or any other good for their avatar and get a laser cut plastic token in the shape of the object purchased as a receipt
Another project part of Second City was Export to World. Created by Linda Kostowski and Sascha Pohflepp, the workshop commented ironically on the design and production of merchandise in virtual worlds. Their shop offered custom-made or purchased virtual objects. Shoppers would enter and buy the object of their choice at a price determined daily by the current Linden dollar/euro exchange rate. Instead of seeing the good suddenly appearing in their inventory, purchasers would receive a 2D paper representation of it which they could manually cut and shape into a 3D model of that object. The final results are paper representations of digital representations of real objects, including all the flaws that copying entails.
The Bubbagum machine was particularly impressive as this real photography seemed to have been photoshop'd. It wasn't, that's the real effect of a paper virtual bubble gum machine. Not sure i'm expressing myself very clearly here...
Anyway, Aram ended his presentation with this slide of a project he is working on: WoW weapons which he plans to carry around the city. Just the thought of such a performance taking place somewhere in Curry Wurst Paradise makes me say once again that this city is the best place on earth.
Michael Mandiberg and Brooke Singer are two wizards of eco-data visualization.
Eyebeam alum. Brooke Singer is behind Area´s Immediate Reading and the Superfund 365, A Site-A-Day. Superfund 365 is probably my favourite project from 2007. Each day for a year, this online data visualization application visits one toxic site active in the Superfund program run by the U.S. The contaminant, the responsible party and the people involved with or impacted by Superfund are represented in the project.
Michael Mandiberg is a 2007-08 Fellow in the R&D OpenLab and the author of two eye-opening dataviz plug-ins: Oil Standard converts all prices from U.S. Dollars into the equivalent value in barrels of crude oil and Real Costs inserts emissions data into travel related e-commerce websites. Think of it like the nutritional information labeling on the back of food... except for emissions.
On the left: Grand prize in the Eco-Icons category: Oz Etzioni's Unrecyclable Icon
As members of the Eyebeam Sustainability Research Group (which began in July 2006 as a forum for residents, fellows, and staff to engage in a critical dialog about environmental sustainability) the two of them have launched Eco-Vis Challenge, a competition which was previously mentioned on the blog (Eyebeam's Ecovisualiz Design Challenge panel, part 1 and part 2).
Based on the idea that being aware of the current environmental crisis doesn't mean that it is easy to recognize its extent and complexity, the "Eco-Vis Challenge" invited artists and designers to submit projects which make meaningful patterns emerge from the mass of environmental data.
The first challenge asked for new "Eco Icons" that "make visible environmental or ecological concerns". The second one called for an eco-visualization based on at least one set of the ecological impact data.
The winners of the Eco-Vis Challenge have been announced a few weeks ago and their projects are on view at Eyebeam until the end of the week, as a preview for the March 13 - April 19 Feedback exhibition, which will feature the realized proposals alongside work by past and current Eyebeam artists, with others. Both events are part of Eyebeam's ongoing Beyond Light Bulbs programming series, which grew from the conversations and findings of Eyebeam's Sustainability Research Group.
If you can't make it to the exhibition, here's a link to the winning projects and a couple of questions i asked to Michael Mandiberg and Brooke Singer.
The competition is part of Eyebeam's ongoing Beyond Light Bulbs programming series, which grew from the conversations and findings of Eyebeam's Sustainability Research Group. Can you tell me what is the Sustainability Research Group? What is its origin? Its aim?
BROOKE: There were several artists at Eyebeam in 2006 doing work addressing environmental issues and the Sustainability Research Group was at first casual meetings to meet and share research. Initially the group was Ben Engebreth (Person Kyoto), Michael Mandiberg (Real Costs), Jeff Feddersen (Earth Speaker) and myself (Brooke Singer">Brooke Singer, member of Preemptive Media, AIR) as well as several Eyebeam staffers (Amanda McDonald Crowley, Paul Amitai, Emma Llyod, Liz Slagus). Over time, as new fellows, residents and commissions entered Eyebeam, the group's membership expanded and we started thinking about events, actions and programming along with keeping up the discussions.
The ECO VIS Challenge was one of the first events we planned as a group and Beyond Light Bulbs is a larger, more ambitious programming series.
Eyebeam has put emphasis on sustainability issues recently, is it something you want to pursue in the long run or just another chapter in the series of eyebeam's commissions and exhibitions?
BROOKE: I think as artists we see what happens, where our interests lead us, and I am not sure what Eyebeam would answer as an institution. But some of our conversations within the group are about how to make the conversation itself "sustainable" and not just a fad. In the US there was a big environmental movement in the 1970s which we all know of as fact but few of us in the group have firsthand memory of it. For instance, President Carter installed solar panels on the White House roof (last week you mentioned an interesting artist project that goes on a hunt for those very panels which were de-installed in 1980) and today there is such a resurgence of interest in solar. But what happened to solar power for those 25 years? I think many of us are highly skeptical of the current hype and media machine around "green." We are looking for alternative ways to engage ourselves and the public in the important issues of global warming, toxic dumping, public health, air quality -- among others.
The exhibition has been running for a few days now, which kind of public visits it? I'm asking because i assume (maybe wrongly) that you probably have visitors who come mostly from the new media art field and i wonder what the impact of the eco-viz challenge can be outside of its usual circle of converted?
Image: Michael Mandiberg, FEEDBACK preview installation at Eyebeam, 2008
MICHAEL: I see the exhibition from where I work in the R&D Lab, and am fairly frequently speaking with visitors who are lost elsewhere in the building (and trying to find the exhibition.) Two types of people seem to be visiting the exhibition: the Chelsea gallery crawl crowd who come in because Eyebeam is the next space on the South side of 21st past Paula Cooper, and people who have come specifically to see this exhibition (who are more likely to be inside the "circle of the converted.")
The exhibition is only one part of the overall part of the challenge. When we were conceiving the challenge, we saw the potential for creating an impact at each stage of the process. Just by creating the situation where so many designers and artists created works for the competition, we were able to help direct focus on representations of the many environmental crises. Likewise, we are keen putting these works out into the world (if they were not already.)
Thanks Brooke and Michael!
The projects are on display at Eyebeam until January 26 and will be part of the art and tech center's upcoming exhibition on sustainable practice: Feedback, March 13 - April 19, 2008.
Images of the entrants to the eco-viz challenge.
Members of the the Sustainability Research Group are currently contributing to Eyebeam's reBlog website.
Last November, i spent a few days in Madrid to get a sneak peak at the Visualizar workshop at Medialab Prado. The projects that came out of the workshop are quite interesting and i'm currently interviewing some of the project leaders to get more insight on their own work, so stay tuned!
Medialab Prado is currently launching a new call for the Inclusiva-net. The workshop will explore the relationship between digital networks and physical space in the context of the increasingly widespread use of portable technology and Web applications in connection with the production and management of geographic information. Given the quality of Medialab Prado's events, my advice would be "go ahead! answer the call!" The teachers will be Lalya Gaye (whom i interviewed over a year ago), Julian Oliver of the Selectparks fame, and Juan Martín Prada.
But let's get back to the Visualizar workshop. As you might guess by its name, Visualizar explored the fascinating world of data visualization. In his introductory text , Jose Luis de Vicente, the curator of the workshop, described data visualization as a cross-discipline which uses the vast communicative power of images to offer a comprehensible explanation of the relationship among meaning, cause, and dependence that can be found among large abstract masses of information generated by scientific and social processes. Arising from the field of science two decades ago, InfoVis and DataVis combined strategies and techniques from statistics, graphic design and interaction and computer analysis to create a new communication model more suitable for clarification in the emerging Age of Complexity.
Visualising: tracing an aesthetics of data.
JL started by going back one century and a half ago. At the beginning of the end of the most powerful man of the time: Napoleon. The beginning of the end was the Russian campaign.
On June 24, 1812, Napoleon's Grande Armée of 691,501 men, the largest army assembled up to that point in European history, headed towards Moscow. Once they arrived in the capital, they found an empty city. It had been evacuated and stripped of all supplies. There was no official surrender and Napoleon felt that the situation robbed him of a traditional victory over the Russians.
The army had to retreat. Supplying the army on its way back was nearly impossible, mainly because of the harsh weather. The lack of grass weakened the army's horses, almost all of which died or were eaten by starving soldiers. With no horses the French cavalry became footmen, cannons and wagons had to be abandoned, depriving the army of artillery and support convoys. As starvation and disease took their toll the desertion rate soared. Elements of the Grande Armee were defeated by the Russians at Vyazma, Krasnoi, and Polotsk. The crossing of the river Berezina was the final French catastrophe of the war, as two separate Russian armies inflicted horrendous casualties on the remnants of the Grande.
On December 14 1812 the Grande Armée was expelled from Russian territory. Only about 22,000 of Napoleon's men survived the Russian campaign.
What is one of the most epic moment in History has been turned by Charles Joseph Minard into a pioneering example of infoviz. In 1861 the French engineer published a Carte figurative des pertes successives en hommes de l'Armée Française dans la campagne de Russie 1812-1813, an information graph published in 1861 on the subject of Napoleon's disastrous Russian campaign of 1812. The graph displays several variables in a 2D image:
This sole drawings translates in a very visual way the magnitude of the event and the way the campaign went from bad to worse over the course of a few months. The map embodies perfectly the power of dataviz, the communicative power of the image: using various factors, the map manages to translates in a sole image the importance of the fiasco that was the Russian campaign and how the disaster took place. One of the strength of information design and later of data visualization is that it can reduce the time necesssary for understanding a given event while at the same time it augments the capacity to grasp concrete phenomena of the past.
The most devastating disease striking big European cities in the 19th century was cholera. Lacking garbage removal, clean water, sewers infrastructure, London was the perfect breeding ground for a disease no one knew how to cure. The consensus was that cholera was carried through the air, you could catch it by breathing "foul air" or coming into contact with someone suffering from cholera.
Physician and self-trained scientist John Snow was quite skeptical about that view and he set himself the task to prove it by investigating what could be the cause(s) of the lethal disease.
By talking to local residents (with the help of Reverend Henry Whitehead), he identified the source of the outbreak as the public water pump on Broad Street (now Broadwick Street). His studies of the pattern of the disease were convincing enough to persuade the local council to disable the well pump.
Snow used a spot map (back dots represents cases of cholera and crosses indicate a well) to study and illustrate how cases of cholera were centred around the pump. He also made a solid use of statistics to illustrate the connection between the quality of the source of water and cholera cases. He showed that companies taking water from sewage-polluted sections of the Thames delivered water to homes with an increased incidence of cholera.
Those two stories illustrate how an image is able to have meaningful patterns emerge from a mass of data.
Digital artist Ben Fry sees information design as the capacity of "thinking with the eyes". An image can help us see things which we would otherwise no be able to fully understand, it externalizes our cognitive skills. The capacity of making meanings emerge through the power of vision is very high. Simple example: you'd take a piece of paper and a pen in order to break down the complexity of a mathematical problem. Similarly, the communicative qualities of a graphic design enables us to externalize a problem.
The communicative capacity of graphic design and the capacity to externalize the problems are united in this new forms of codifying information from an abstract mass of data to a spatial composition which are visually expressed.
So what is the state of the art today?
A first example concerning the crisis between Lebanon and the US in the Summer of 2006 when Britain, Israel and the US were left exposed for refusing to comply with UN's demand to end to hostilities. The news appeared in most newspapers around the world. Yet one of them came up with a visually striking representation of the issue:
The impact of the news is much different if we put it into words or if it is translated in a visual code. Newspapers are making an increasing use of data visualization.
Of course, there are many other examples to be found in the artistic and scientific sphere.
If you were to put the same data on a traditional statistical graphic, you'd get the same information. Minus the immediate appeal and the interactivity.
Information design has its limits: the dataset is quite static, the assembly of data has a certain level of simplicity and there is no interaction. That's where enters a new discipline which will influence cartography, graphic design and other transversal disciplines.
Starting in the '90s a new class of visualization practitioners, half way between the analysis of digital information and strategies of representation, emerge and propose examples where data visualization is not only applied to analyze abstract data but where it also proposes other levels of interpretation and readings.
Example. Ben Fry wanted to find an answer to a simple question: "How exactly are zip codes assigned across the U.S.?" His answer is zipdecode which is as simple as the postal code system might appear to be complex.
TextArc, by Bradford Paley who used to be the designer responsible for the visualization system at Wall Street, shows quite well how the infoviz genre is hybrid and multi-disciplinary. TextArc is a fascinating visual representation of a text --in this case Alice in Wonderland and Hamlet-- on a single page. Paley dismounted the novel and turned it into a spatial structure where the position of the elements indicate their importance and the lines which circulate around them trace the connections that link the words.
Other example, Color Code an interactive treemap displaying about over 33,000 English nouns, each of them is represented by a rectangle, which has been assigned a color based on the average of the colors found via an image search for that noun. in addition, the words are clustered so that similar words are near each other.
JL then showed one of my favourite infoviz projects ever: Marcos Weskamp's Newsmap.
10x10, by Jonathan Harris, is an interactive and ever-changing snapshot of the words and pictures that define the time. The system monitors leading international news sources and every hour, it collects the 100 words and pictures that are deemed most important on a global scale, and presents them as a single image. Over the course of days, months, and years, 10x10 leaves a trail of these hourly statements which, stitched together side by side, form a patchwork of human life.
JL pointed out that the representation of a data set is always arbitrary. There are obviously many other ways to represent a set of data and the relationship that emerge between them.
Besides, data visualization is the visual embodiment, the translation to another language of a series of process which some call data mining, the science of extracting useful information from large amounts of data or from a database. Data mining is being used as a technique for investigation which slowly moves from the scientific sphere to a more social and cultural oriented level.
Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, a book available at any airport and published in 2005 by economist Steven Levitt and New York Times journalist Stephen J. Dubner. In the book Levitt uses techniques of statistical analysis to give answers to a series of (sometimes quite surprising) questions. The book has raised debate, especially regarding the chapter which explains how criminality in New York fell sharply in the '90s. In his view, the main factor which justifies the drop of violence is the legalization of abortion in the '70s.
Other example: with the Enron Explorer, Trampoline engineers offered access to the 200,000 Enron internal emails released during the fraud investigation. The system generates a visualisation of each employee's social network and allows users to explore the way those social networks were somehow responsible for factors which led to the fall of the American energy company.
the case of Enron marks a transition in the journalistic techniques from an era where the focus was on telling facts to an era focused on filtrating data. The Watergate scandal emerged because a hidden information was discovered. The case of Enron was different, it was a journalist who used public data, started analyzing them and realized at some point that the relationships between the data didn't match the activities that Enron was supposed to carry out.
Another very simple example shows how to tell a story by using a set of data. Corruption is believed to be a major factor impeding economic development, but the importance of legal enforcement versus cultural norms in controlling corruption is poorly understood. To disentangle these two factors, two researchers went through the stationing of thousands of diplomats from around the world in New York City. Diplomatic immunity means there were not fine for parking violations, the researchers were therefore left to examine the role of cultural norms alone (at least that's what they believe). The result of their investigation appears on the image on the left.
To give even more strength to the usual cultural stereotypes, the diplomats who receive the smallest number of fines come from Norway, Denmark, Sweden, etc.
Another case is the one of a journalist from Wired who thought that there might be some relationship appearing between pedophile (data on convicted sex offenders are public in the United States) and users of MySpace. He thus wrote a script that ferreted out registered sex-offenders on the social platform. Some of the offenders he found were just hanging out with their friends and families, but 3 of them were actively soliciting sex from children -- his work led to the arrest of one such, Andrew Lubrano. The code has been made available.
A famous fashion to manage data is the tag cloud. Example, the US Presidential Speeches Tag Cloud which gives an overview of the words that US presidents used most frequently in their speeches, showing which issues they deemed important over time.
Another area where infoviz can do wonder is when it plays the role of sociograms, unveiling the relationship between people and the kind of structures that emerge from these relationships.
Artist Mark Lombardi was fascinated both by complex social structures and conspirations and he merged both passion in his famous Conspiracy Maps which analyzed affairs such as The Watergate, the collapse of the Vatican bank and the Iran-Contra scandal.
Which brings to our mind one of the most famous piece of media art of the past 15 years: They Rule by Josh On. The application reveals some of the relationships of the US ruling class, how the boards of some of the most powerful U.S. companies share many of the same directors, how some individuals sit on 5, 6 or 7 of the top 500 companies. It allows users to browse through these interlocking directories and run searches on the boards and companies.
The strength of a work like They Rule is not that it "gives you the solution" or tells you whether the people sitting at the boards hate each other or are friends but it artistically shows levels of complexities of our reality which would otherwise be difficult to comprehend.
World Processor by Ingo Günther projects on physical world globes the geographical distribution of various social, environmental and political world parameters: international migrations, countries debts, wealth distribution, countries with biggest emission of CO2, etc.
Chicago Crime database projects on Google Maps data about criminality in the country as discovered by the police.
The Database of Intentions (as coined by John Battellle). An important change in the creation, classification and dissemination of data is that it is no longer a result of scientific, economical or statistical processes. Instead it has become a social reality. Each of us has become a generator of data. We can thanks web 2.0 for that and also search engines. Each time we look for a word on a search engine we obtain information at the same time as that search engine gets information from us: what we want, what we look for, what interests us, what scares us, what worries us, etc.
Listening Post by Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin poetically give a face to the flow of data. The installation culls text fragments in real time from chat rooms, bulletin boards and other public forums. The texts are read by a voice synthesizer, and displayed across a suspended grid of more than 200 electronic screens.
But how do you classify the quality of a social activity?
A somewhat similar and more ambitious project We Feel Fine, by Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar, investigates human emotions by harvesting data about web user' moods and feelings from weblogs. A script searches newly posted blog entries for occurrences of "I feel" & "I am feeling", records the full sentence & identifies the "feeling" expressed in that sentence (e.g. sad, happy, depressed, etc.).
JL ended by an anecdote about They Rule. Apparently two kind of people check out TR. The web users who is curious about the project but also the very people who are part of TR, the board members who use it see how they could reach another person, who in their entourage is connected to someone who is connected to that person.
However, the main danger of the fascinating images generated by these data designers is to believe that reality can be defined and limited by an image. That they suffice to grasp and interpret reality.