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.
Alessandro Ludovico is a media critic and editor in chief of the highly respected Neural magazine from 1993, (Honorary Mention, Prix Ars Electronica 2004). He is the author of several essays on digital culture, he co-edited 'Mag.Net Reader' (1 and 2). He's one of the founding contributors of the Nettime community, one of the founders of the Mag.Net (Electronic Cultural Publishers)' organization and he teaches 'Computer Art' and 'Interface Aesthetics' at the Academy of Art in Carrara.
I think that's more than enough for a sole man.
Not for him apparently. Not only does he wear great t-shirts*, he also collaborates with UBERMORGEN and Paolo Cirio on artistic projects which have toured the world: GWEI - Google Will Eat Itself (Honorary Mention Prix Ars Electronica 2005, Rhizome Commission 2005, nomination Prix Transmediale 2006) and Amazon Noir (1st prize Stuttgarter Filmwinter 2007, Honorary Mention Share Prize 2007).
When I met him several years ago, i also realized that i had no chance of ever winning the contest for the "Nicest person in the new media art world." Sigh!
How did Neural start?
After being a passionate mail artist and zine fan in late eighties, in 1991 I started working as a graphic designer for Minus Habens Records (an underground electronic music label based in Bari, Italy). After a few months I was in charge to curate a special product: an early slim printed guide to virtual reality (the Virtual Reality Handbook), made out of theoretical text and resources, coming with an inspired music CD. It was sold out in less than a year, so I proposed to Ivan Iusco (the label owner) to found a magazine focusing on new technologies' cultural implications.
We worked hard on it so the first Neural issue was printed in November 1993. Topics ranged from cyberpunk to electronic music, computer art and BBS networks (the popular Internet ancestors), and even if it was almost naive compared to the current magazine it reflected the thrill of investigating a new world of personal communication and content sharing possibilities. In 1995 I continued to experiment with publishing with another hybrid printed/music product. It was called Internet Underground Guide, a guide to the most obscure parts of the rising global network, with a music compilation assembled only via the electronic mail medium (perhaps the first music compilation made on the net). In the same year I was invited to the Venice Bienniale symposium called >net.time<, where, in the end, the homonymous mailing list [http://www.nettime.org] was founded. During the three days of symposium there was such an intensive exchange of ideas and perspectives that a real international network of active persons involved with art, technology and politics was established. The various related international events (Next Five Minutes, 1996, The Beauty and the East, 1997, Net.Congestion 2000, the Italian Hackmeetings 1998-today, just to name a few) that followed were really precious to expand my personal network of friends, artists, hacktivists and theoreticians, reporting some of the most interesting concepts on the printed pages of Neural.
The magazine was developed on challenging ideas, trying to give them a proper visual frame. I cared a lot about design and how it could have expressed electronic culture in a sort of printed 'interface'. So, for example, the page numbering was strictly in binary numbers, just zero and ones, even if the printer started to complain loudly about that because this was driving him crazy. And from the beginning another 'sensorial experience' was placed on the centerfold, reprinting optical artworks and theories in various forms, giving readers an aesthetic mind trip while reading. In issue 18 this habit was definitively interrupted, publishing a disrupting hacktivist fake. It consisted of fake stickers, created by the Italian hacker laboratories' network, sarcastically simulating the mandatory real ones sticked on any book or compact disc sold in Italy, on behalf of the local 'copyright protection society' (called SIAE). On the one published it was printed 'suggested duplication on any media'. In 1998 we restyled the layout and restructured the contents, defining three sections. They still are: hacktivism, activism made through a conceptual/technically media hack, electronic music, investigating how technology is involved in music production and consumption, and media art, with a peculiar attention to the networked and conceptual use of technology in art. In 2000 I used a substantial part of music Neural content for the book Suoni Futuri Digitali (Future Digital Sounds), an in-depth research, chronicling the history of the innovations that have drastically changed how we produce and experience sounds. In 2003 (while maintaining the Italian edition) I started the Neural English edition, printed in 4000 copies. Actually it is distributed worldwide with subscribers from literally all over the world, and most of them are curators, artists, critics, students, professors and libraries. Neural.it website went online in may 1997, a decade ago, and it was updated every two weeks. Starting from November 2000, it is daily updated and from 2004 it's in English (and of course still in Italian too).
Have you seen the readership of Neural evolve over time?
Definitively. In the last 15 years readers mostly followed the fast and furious changes of printed publishing literally disrupted by the online medium advent and the pervasive digital influence in printing production. When we started we had 'letters to the editor' (a sort of ancient blog's comments) and the most compelling sources were found in bookstores and obscure mail orders.
Neural started an 'Internet news' column in 1994, but in a few years things changed quickly. People started to find information online in real time, with amazing search possibilities. This completely redefined the role of magazines, from generic content container, to highly selected, conceptually strong and longer than average content frame. Moreover, it's essential to notice how the readership evolves, and their changing needs.
It's not a question of being shaped by a (niche) market, but to mediate the editorial interests with what's really interesting for the readers, keeping an eye to: language evolution, new technical 'default' (what's not meant to be explained) and new area of interests. It's sad in the last decade that many interesting independent magazines were not able to catch up this fast evolution and had to close. My cultural strategy to survive is to seriously value the readers' feedback. And I'm not really talking about compliments. I receive some, but they are mostly important for the morale. Critics are vital, instead, to understand what is the next thing to modify, change, implement or delete. It's not a democratic process because in the end I take the final decision, but it's a collective help I receive without soliciting. So the magazine's editorial line is changed (even slightly) every printed issue, and the same happens to the website.
Neural is still everyone's favorite even if today several blogs/online magazines, etc. are trying to get a place on your turf. How do you maintain the "cult" status that neural has?
Frankly, I never bored of being 'cult' that means that if Neural is 'cult' that's only by accident. Some people even told me that they think of Neural as a work of art. I don't know whether it really is or not, but actually the website even won an Honorary Mention in Prix Ars Electronica 2004, in the Net.Vision category, and even if I'm a bit critical about prizes, I was honored (anyway in the end I think that my real prize are the tens of thousands of incoming links).
Truth is: I simply use instinct, experience and outer feedback in running the magazine. Sometimes I think of Neural as an info-gallery, the best info-gallery I'd want to read. If you want, it'd be defined as my personal narrative of the digital culture evolution, formed by important chunks of information condensed in a limited space. Concerning the 'turf', I always thought that the more cultural efforts (including blogs and magazines) are made to discuss (and then implicitly promote) digital culture the more we'll get out of the actual ghetto. Nevertheless as John Perry Barlow once said "You can't steal what's inside my mind." And this is true for every intellectual product (so also for blogs/magazines). People are interested not just in one, but in different good products and not really in clones (unless you enter the mass commercial market). Furthermore experience still counts a lot: no matter what's the work I always admire persons really experienced in one specific field. In the end I definitively think that Neural is a huge effort made over time with tons of passion and some discipline. One of the main characteristics of digital culture is spreading fast powerful ideas. A good technical hack, as an innovative use of sound, or an original concept shown in a proper digital artwork, are meaningful signals. These signals are ideas, which have to be shared among the worldwide interested community, for a participative development. The aim of Neural is to vehiculate meaningful ideas within local and international networks. This is my primary purpose.
Apart from kidding, I know it's almost insane. Especially because I'm still obsessed in caring about each step of production, to achieve the best content quality I can afford. But again passion and the inestimable support I receive are continuously motivating me to go on and improve. It's a question of never stop to optimize processes and time management, also improving the gained experience. I'm still chaotic, as you might guess, but I'm definitively committed to continue and to make the project the better and the more sustainable I can. Now Aurelio Cianciotta is the music co-editor and we weekly deal with stuff from almost a decade. Paolo Cirio is the online platform guru, so also the person who made possible the Movable Type-based website (after years of cut and paste routines in html), while Roberto Orsini helps me so much with translations. Among the contributors, Valentina Culatti is the most generous in donating her time to Neural, but also skilled writings come regularly from Vito Campanelli, and Tony Canonico. They are all Italians, but this is only a coincidence and I'm also looking for skilled voluntary contributors from abroad. Going back on how to produce paper and online content, I'm developing a workshop, with Simon Worthington (co-founder of Mute magazine), to share our long experience with other independent publishers. I was a zine fan in the late eighties, so I still think that independent publishing should exploit every digital technology to enrich the freedom of expression many possibilities.
In the beautiful text "Paper and Pixel, the mutation of publishing" that you have written for The Mag.net reader, you talk about the changing role of the printed page. Can you explain us the reason why you keep on printing the magazine instead of relying only on a pixel version of it?
I think that paper is not supposed to die anytime soon. For that text I researched how the 'death of paper' was announced more than once in the past, after some major 'new' media announcement (radio, pc, the net ...). But it simply never happened. Actually, paper is the most stable medium in a crowded mediascape of 'unstable media'. Once produced it doesn't need electricity to be enjoyed and it is mobile as our life is more and more going to be. But, as I said above, we have to face that paper today means luxury. It means having time to enjoy reading in a comfortable way. Interesting paper content is not inducing banal 'flipping pages' habits. It's enticing in spending time on it, without burning your eyes in front of a screen light more or less instinctively clicking somewhere, and having the chance to simply interrupt the reading whenever you want and pick it up again in an arbitrary moment. And especially for specific niche and artistic data, the stability and feel of paper is still unbeatable (it's what I've tried to define as 'the persistence of paper' in an essay published on the Magnet Reader 2). These processes are even more interesting when the content is related to digital culture, because the medium becomes also the place where it itself is discussed. With some of these premises I was invited to join eleven independent editors at the Universidad Internacional de Andalucía in Seville (Spain) in 2002, for a series of seminars and lessons entitled Post-Media Publishing, print-publishing and networks for electronic culture, coordinated by Andreas Broeckmann. It was a unique opportunity to join efforts with other editors and create an informal network of collaboration. So we founded Mag.Net (Magazine Network), Electronic Cultural Publishers. Our motto is "collaboration is better than competition" and we collaborate commissioning contents each other, sharing the knowledge on specific topics (like the online paying platforms, or the print-on-demand technologies), and working jointly on some projects, not necessarily all at the same time. The most tangible effort has been the Mag.Net reader, a book about the digital/printed content relationships, freely downloadable from the Mag.Net website or purchasable as a physical paper book through a print on demand platform. Actually the most active Mag.net members are Mute [UK], Springerin [AT], Zehar [SP], 3/4 Revue [SK] and Neural. Among the latest Mag. Net initiatives were a conference that took place in January 2007 at the Amsterdam's De Balie theatre called 'Offline ? Online Publishing: The Love for Print in an Age of Electronic Media', the Mag.Net Reader 2 that I edited with Nat Muller, and that was launched during the last DEAF (Dutch Electronic Art Festival) in Rotterdam, in April, and the Paper and Pixel week of panels and presentations I curated with Nat again for the Documenta 12 Magazine project in Kassel. Neural was part of this project (involving more than 90 independent art magazines form all over the world], and I was advising them for the online part. Finally in the last September I was invited by ANAT to give some workshops about the history of independent publishing, differences and similarities between online and offline media and how the open source culture can be applied to publishing. I'm editing with Nat the 3rd Mag.net Reader that will be published in 2008.
How do you explain that most "traditional" art magazines are still snubbing new media art?
In (new) media art the fetish physical component, i.e. the marketable object, is often missed. The infinite reproduction of the work of art is a process yet to be digested even by the contemporary art world. So traditional art magazines that are basically funded by the art market, are relegating it as a marginal and (sort of) exotic phenomenon for its economical scale. And we'd also consider the technical side. Dealing with hardware and software, media art aesthetics and narrative could be mind-boggling for curators and institution directors (often in their sixties or even older). Finally we should consider that video art was recognized by the art world only after twenty years from its early stage, because it suffered from similar problems.
And beyond all that, there's a fruitless terminology prolificness that is silently killing the scene: in the beginning it was called 'cyber art', then new media art, digital art, web art, etc. etc.) Needless to say the 'new' term in 'new media art' is already 'old'. But the terminology game based on catching the most recent buzzword and applying it to 'art' is even worst. So we had 'browser art', and then 'device art', 'interface art' or even 'rfid art'. But does it really makes sense?
I think it doesn't, and it endlessly breaks up an ethereal and problematic identity. William Gibson said once in late eighties "there was science slash humanism. Let's start to talk about the slash". I choose not to be obsessed by the most traditional art market, placing Neural on the opposite of new media art "snubbers". So I'm still focusing a substantial part of my personal research on the edges of the so-called 'new media art', on topics like spam, viruses, peer-to-peer networks (the last two developed thanks to the support of Franziska Nori) and how the 'perfect' marketing strategies of online giants can be 'hacked'. My humble opinion is that they are all possible testbed of future standard communication protocols, and so media potentially used for propaganda and mass marketing.
Unfortunately, Italy is not the ideal country to develop digital art projects. We have too much ancient and classical art heritage to hope for serious institutional support in contemporary art (and even less to digital based art). Nevertheless, there are persons with which I share some of my working paths. For example the 'Scuola di Nuove Tecnologie dell'Arte' (School of New Technologies in Art, part of the Carrara's Academy of Art) directed by Tommaso Tozzi is one of the national points of reference. I totally share his passion on the subject (for example he's developing an important collective and shared WikiArtPedia project on the Networked Arts history), and I was very happy to join the school actually teaching 'Computer Art' and 'Aesthetic of Interfaces' courses. But there are many different small initiatives around, and recently it seems even trendy to claim a Saturday night vjing in a small club as an 'electronic art and music festival'. My favorite festivals are Interferenze and PEAM in the center-south and Share in the north. In this field my personal experience goes back to 1996 when I was actively supporting the group that made one of the first 'new media art' exhibitions with Italian artists called Virtual Light (Aurelio Cianciotta was then one of the curators). It definitively was a success, but the curators had already spent two years to convince the municipality to fund the effort. My first reference in early nineties was Decoder, an underground magazine that introduced the concept of cyberpunk as a political movement, including art expressions at large. Actually the mailing list AHA - Activism, Hacktivism, Artivism, moderated by Tatiana Bazzichelli is the most popular electronic forum on electronic art in Italy. Generally speaking, anyway, there are Italian digital art productions more aesthetically oriented (Limiteazero, 80/81, Luigi Pagliarini, Chiara Passa, just to name a few well known, but there'd be way too many to cite), and the one with a specific political background. Among the latter, the Luther Blisset initiative (that I consider one of the most important cultural event in the nineties) influenced subsequent groups and initiatives as the 0100101110101101.ORG, epidemiC, Serpica Naro and many others, and on the same wavelength there are Molleindustria, Candida TV and the whole Telestreet movement with the New Global Vision archive, Dyne.org free software house, Sexyshock, my colleague Paolo Cirio, again only to name a few. Finally, even if it's not recognized as 'art', I think that the Hackmeetings are really a performative collective 'art' event. It's a hacker meeting completely self-organized through a mailing list taking decision on every aspect of the meeting with an anarchic playful spirit and gathering nonetheless a few thousands hackers in a different place every year from a decade, sharing knowledge and establishing/reinforcing human relationships and political awareness. I attended all of them from the beginning (except the last three), because of the incredible atmosphere and the deep social exchanges that I had there. But to answer your last question I think that Luca Bertini has not yet gained some (well deserved) attention, and it's a real pity because I think he's one of the most inventive and controversial Italian media artists. Finally in spring 2008 I'll start the 'Neural Archive' project, creating an online database of bibliographical references to all the physical stuff I have in my personal archive (books, dvds, cd-roms, ephemerals), to create a free online resource for researchers.
Together with UBERMORGEN and Paolo Cirio you have realized Google Will Eat Itself, an artistic project that aims to buy out Google with funds generated from Google Adsense. How did google react to GWEI?
Well, the official reaction of Google was a 'cease and desist' letter of their German branch. But it was very different from the other 'cease and desist' letters I've seen, it was a sort of confidential letter, not the usual cold lawyer-lexicon style one. But nevertheless even more frightening. It basically said, "ok, we understand it's art, but you have to stop it now". It matches what I think is their status of 'funny dictator', as I've tried to define it. In fact there were so many mysteries and strange facts during the project that I and Hans Bernhard did a whole lecture/performance on that at the v2's TANGENT_CONSPIRACY night, in December 2006 (video). Furthermore Google Italy, indeed, terminated the Neural.it AdSense account without any explanation. I think that was quite stupid because Neural.it has never been part of GWEI (this was clear from the beginning to all of us). But Goggle Italy was too blind minded to understand that, so just after being invited to a public debate with me and Paolo, they simply refused to come and terminated the Neural account because of 'fraudulent clicks' that never happened there. But you'd take in count that they grant the AdSense money so they can anytime decide to terminate your account without any real proof. That's also part of what I defined as their 'porcelain interface'. GWEI was for me one of the most fascinating experience I had: it was (unexpectedly for me) incredibly successful and it let me experience for the first time the artistic dimension inside a very skilled team, so sharing with Hans, Liz and Paolo all the (good and bad) moments. I'm really grateful to them.
Let's talk about Amazon Noir. What are the latest developments? Has Amazon reacted to the project?
Amazon noir is still going on with its most visible outcome: the stolen book files. We're still re-embodying them in different forms. We developed an installation that physically (and very symbolically) embodies the project. It consists of two overhead projectors displaying the logo and the diagram of our software internal mechanisms, and an incubator with one of the stolen book inside, reprinted digitally. Symbolically we chose the American counterculture classic from the seventies 'Steal This Book' by Abbie Hoffman. We in a way re-embodied the book (obtaining cover and complete textual content from Amazon) in its mutated physical form. But we also placed a warning near the incubator. It stated: "The book inside the incubator is the physical embodiment of a complex Amazon.com hacking action. It has been obtained exploiting Amazon 'Search Inside The Book' tool. Take care because it's an illegitimate and premature son born from the relationship between Amazon and Copyright. It's illegitimate because it's an unauthorized print of a copyright-protected book. And it's premature because the gestation of this relationship's outcome is far for being mature." That was why I thought that we 'stole the invisible' [http://amazon-noir.com/thieves.html]. It's an installation showing a net art piece without any IT or internet connection. Actually, various people tried to steal the book opening the incubator, claiming that they simply do what is written on the cover (we personally kindly asked some of them to put the book back, and one of them actually succeeded in stealing it during the Shift festival opening in Basel and we had to find out how to replace it quickly). This is also a proof that, ironically enough, it was also very 'interactive'.
About the Amazon reaction, they reverse-engineers the software, making the robot useless. We, indeed, spread all the books we downloaded through peer-to-peer networks (bittorrent, gnutella, fast track, emule, etc.).
The installation was exhibited in various museums and festivals in different countries and it has been actually nominated for the upcoming Tansmediale Award 2008. I've tried to conceptually develop a whole theoretical concept about the big online corporations marketing strategies and their potential hacking in an essay entitled "The (online) economy of desire". It'll be online soon.
*here's the way to spam-clothing bliss.
As mentioned in Hyper-Border, a book i reviewed a few days ago, Mexico and the United States live in a state of interdependence: Mexico's economy relies on remittances, while the US need Mexican undocumented super cheap labour force. The United States has had a powerful influence in the Mexican national elections, how about turning that around?
Votemos.us is a Spanish language portal that proposes a vote in the US presidential elections for the millions of (il)legal Mexicans who currently live and work in the United States.
Visitors can register with the site, vote, write an opinion on the elections, read other people’s views and react to it.
"The goal of the project is not only to point to the fact that within the US border lives a very active Mexican population that contributes to the national economy and is not allowed to vote, but also to present a repository of information and links to the Latin American community (within and beyond the U.S.) concerning the US national elections and to establish a public space to share their views. "
Ricardo Miranda Zúñiga's project is one of the most interesting i've read about recently: for its power to raise the debate on the role that migrants can and/or should have in political life in the US (but also in several European counties), for the lists of facts, figures and articles that provide visitors with more knowledge on the issue and if you read spanish, i can only recommend you to peak inside the page where "registered voters" share their views on the upcoming elections.
More in Structural Patterns.
Related: interview of the artist.