Apart from Joshua Davis' talk, the other main highlight of OFFF, the software and visual communication conference which took place last week in Lisbon, was the panel on Data Visualization curated and moderated by the European evangelist of the discipline: Jose-Luis de Vicente.
As the abstract of the panel reminds: data visualization is a transversal discipline which harnesses the immense power of visual communication to explain, in an understandable manner, the relationships of meaning, causes and dependency found among great abstract masses of information generated by scientific and social processes.
Interaction designer, information architect and design researcher Manuel Lima discussed the story of the website Visual Complexity and the lessons he learnt since he launched it 3 years back. Visual Complexity is not a blog, it is a collection of (so far) over 570 projects of data viz, it is also a space for people to discuss about what is happening in this area.
The project started while Lima was following an MFA program at Parsons School of Design. While working on his thesis project Blogviz: Mapping the dynamics of information diffusion in Blogspace, he had to research extensively the visualization of complex networks, and found out that there was a need for an integrated and extensive resource on this subject.
Lima's presentation was very very fast with a lot of information crammed in a small amount of time. But here's a few elements from it:
The transmission of information started with the wall paintings, got more sophisticated with the oldest registry of a written language (the Sumerian cuneiforms) and later with Ptolemy's world map. More key landmarks for data viz can be found in Alfred W. Crosby's essay The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society, 1250-1600.
One first important factor for the development of data viz is computer storage.
A third factor is online social networks.
Over his three years observing dataviz, Lima spotted a number of trends: mapping blogosphere relationships, visualizing del.icio.us tags, terrorism, air routes, gps data, etc.
Next spoke Santiago Ortiz who started by presenting the spectacular website that Bestiario has put online a few days ago. The website gets a third dimension as you can "twist" and manipulate it in order to see its full length. The nicest feature is the navigation: you can browse Bestiario's projects anti-chronologically of course but also according to the number of hours they spent working on the projects, by keywords, combination or exclusion of keywords, etc.
Founded 2 years ago, Bestiario is a small Barcelona/Lisbon-based company with a very impressive portfolio. Combining art and science (Ortiz is also a mathematician) they design interactive information spaces which follow their own moto: 'making the complex comprehensible.'
It wasn't the first time that i got to be impressed by Bestiario's work and Ortiz' thoughts on dataviz. One of Bestiario's project was exhibited recently at LABoral as part of the Emergentes exhibition which closed a few days ago. The imaginary biological universe Mitozoos encodes and creates virtual organisms called "mitozoos" which interact among themselves. You can watch their life in a 3D environment that simulates birth, existence of a genetic code, the quest for food, energy dissipation, reproduction and death. Each variable and parameter of the model has a graphical representation.
One of Bestiario's latest projects was developed together with Irma Vila and JL de Vicente. The Atlas of Electromagnetic Space is an interactive representation of the services that use our electromagnetic radiospectrum, ranging from 10Khz "radio navigation" to 100Ghz "inter-satellite communication". The activities which unfolds throughout the spectrum (e.g. mobile, satellite, wireless internet, broadcasting) are sorted by electromagnetic frequency. What totally won me over was the features showing the artistic interventions that are commenting on and/or taking place in the spectrum.
City Distances illuminates the strength of relations between cities from searches on google. The main idea is to compare the number of pages on internet where the two cities appear one close to the other, with the number of pages they appear isolated. This proportion indicates some kind of intensity of relation between the cities. The "google proximity" is then divided by its geographical distance. The result indicates the strength of the relation in spite of the real distance, a kind of informational distance between cities.
Finally, Aaron Koblin took the stage to present his own work. Crap! this guy is so talented it's scary. Aaron studied Design and Media Art with Casey Reas at UCLA and used processing a lot in his projects which not only represent huge amounts of data, but are also producing data to raise questions about a series of issues.
Narrative made sense for cultures based on tradition and a small amount of information circulating in a culture - it was a way to make sense of this information and to tie it together (for instance, Greek mythology). Database can be thought of as a new cultural form in a society where a subject deals with huge amounts of information, which constantly keep changing, said Lev Manovich whom Aaron quoted to further ask the audience:
If the database is the new narrative, then what is the role of visualization?
A first answer is that visualization help us understand what it means to have dozens of thousands of planes flying above North America every day. Video demonstrating how Flight Patterns does exactly that:
Data from the U.S. Federal aviation administration is used to create animations of flight traffic patterns and density.
The Sheep Market is one of my favourite projects ever. The very Petit Prince work manages to be critical and poetical at the same time. Thousands of workers on Amazon's Mechanical Turk webservice were paid two cents to "draw a sheep facing to the left." Their sheep drawings were collected over a period of 40 days, selected and printed on stamps. You can also head to the project website and spend the evening counting the animals.
Aside from his purely artistic works, Aaron also works for Yahoo and collaborate on research project. For example, he developed the visualizations for the New York Talk Exchange, a project by the Senseable City Lab at MIT.
Based on a principle similar to The Sheep Market, Ten Thousand Cents has thousands of individuals working in isolation from one another painted a tiny part of of a $100 bill without knowledge of the overall task. Workers were paid one cent each via Amazon's Mechanical Turk distributed labor tool. The total labor cost to create the bill, the artwork being created, and the reproductions available for purchase are all $100. The project, which has been developed in collaboration with Takashi Kawashima, explores the circumstances we live in, a new and uncharted combination of digital labor markets, "crowdsourcing," "virtual economies," and digital reproduction.
Video of Ten Thousand Cents:
The panel ended with JL de Vicente reminding the audience of the Visualizar workshops he periodically organized at Medialab Prado in Madrid. A new call for project proposals will be launched later this year.
Related: Coverage of Visualizar workshop.
Just back from the OFFF festival which this year had the very good taste to move to Lisbon. Offf gathers designers, programmers, illustrators and visual artists whose creativity explores and fashions digital aesthetics and software language.
I'll leave aside all the digital animation and pretty flash websites presentations and go straight to the keynote of the first evening which was performed more than given by web designer and artist Joshua Davis. I've always liked his works, they have something very girly in sharp contrast with his tattooed soft-punk image.
Davis likes Jackson Pollock, not so much for his paintings, more for his approach to gesture. Pollock regarded the process of its creation as art and not so much the final product. Like Pollack, Davis' art is based on gestures, but he relies on technology to create. He designs programs which follow randomly what he draws. He sets the rules and the program takes from there, surprising the artist each time.
Davis never liked mathematics. He went to art school and had to teach himself math and programming. At art school he was mostly into painting and became obsessed with the idea of creating his own drawing tools and experimenting with his materials. He would put his paintings in the freezer but the outcome was disappointing: the paintings were cold, nothing else happened. More interesting things occurred when Davis baked his paintings in the oven: the varnish on top would dry faster than the oil of the painting. As a result the painting would shatter. But the lesson he learned was that he enjoyed the idea that he didn't have total control over the final artwork.
According to Davis, computational design is divided in two clans: the purists and the hybrids. The purists are Ben Fry, Casey Reas, John Maeda, Golan Levin, etc. They only use code. The hybrid, like himself, Niko Stumpo, Geoff Lillemon and others blend the code with art works. The artwork is thrown into the swarm system and emerges as a series of art/design works which are all different from the other. The artists defines some parameters such as speed, rotation, indecision and the system maps the drawing according to these lines.
He was commisioned by BMW a series of limited edition prints that would "capture the essence" of the company' s Z4 Coupé. The artist translated a number of views of the coupé and its components into an algorithm that served as the basis for prints. Davis also selected geographic notes and scales from a German school atlas to act as a symbol of mobility in the prints. Video documenting the process.
Despite his reliance on programs and codes, Davis still sees his work as being one of an artist: he creates the programs, sets the rules, chooses the colours to use, feeds the program with his own handmade drawings and ideas and at the end of the process he takes the role of the critics by selecting which of the pieces made by the program will be kept or deleted.
He selected only 250 of the resulting drawings. His limited edition prints are all different from each other. But instead of numbering them 1/1, he numbers them 1/250, 2/250, etc. The reason for that is that what matters is the program, not the visual output.
After some crazy hotel carpet stories Davis ran us through some of his latest works and exhibitions:
- projection on a building facade for the 4th edition of the TodaysArt Festival in The Hague.
As usual, Davis used a generative system to create the artwork, leaving the decision making of the compositions to the programs. This time though, one of the components of the system which governs the way the work is colored and painted was removed from the software. Instead, the public will fulfill this functionality by using the brushes and watercolors at their disposal. Davis did a first version of the project in Rovereto (Italy) for the festival Futuro Presente. The OFFF version was incredibly successful.
For Tropism in New York he worked on new organic forms to create a "super nature." For the first time his generative graphics were turned into 3D-printed objects: a series of vases in porcelain.
- To celebrate the launch of his first line of housewares (trash cans and pillows) at the Umbra Concept Store in Toronto, Davis used the Tropism Engine to generate huge panels (like he did at the OFFF Festival in New York.), he had them printed and pasted on the window of the shop.
Davis ended the presentation with a list of (not very original) tips for the audience:
On the last day at OFFF in Barcelona, Matt Pyke gave a little walk-through of his work at the Designers Republic and especially all the things he has been setting up (from a lovely garden in Sheffield) with his multidisciplinary studio Universal Everything since he has left there.
Especially nice were the 20.000 generated characters for the Lovebytes festival which instantly became the subject of collecting and their installations for the Nokia store in NYC. On its screens you see people which are basically flocks of pixels which interchange parts of each other when calling - creating a simple yet poetic visualization of the company's "connecting people"-mantra. They also have a blog called Everyone Forever on which Universal Everything collect stuff that inspires them.
Later that day, it was John Maeda's turn which put me in a similar position to Régine when Bruce Sterling was talking at IFID since it was more of an eclectic lecture to inspire his numerous audience which is naturally difficult to write up. We'll try anyway:
Actually, John Maeda never wanted to talk about his work in front of audiences like this again ever since an illustrator told him that his computer-based work "is so empty". It's much better to talk about ideas anyway. One of his latest ideas was Simplicity but he's already getting tired of that by now. When he got really tired, he went on a vacation at Cape Cod, Massachusetts. He needed to get khaki shorts, so he went to a GAP store and there was even more simplicity ("Keep it simple"), switch on the TV and you see Paris Hilton living "The Simple Life" and the list goes on. But maybe we just love complexity too much to make everything simple. Take the MIT media lab, a place which, thanks to I.M. Pei's architecture, looks very simple from the outside. Yet, it's a very complex place. While at Google, you get free smoothies (and accumulate the dreaded Google 15), in academia there's no such thing. Instead they give people titles, lots of them, making their lives ever more complex with growing responsibilities. As he also describes in his book Maeda@Media, John grew up in a family-run tofu factory in Seattle. Tofu also is simple food, but the edamame beans it is made of need to go through a complex process to become the final product. This was a very spartan education and made him thoroughly enjoy studying at school. When it was time to choose a college, he went for MIT's media lab, which, from above, coincidentally also resembles a chunk of tofu. He met Muriel Cooper who told him to go to art school which is what he did and where he met more mentors like Paul Rand and Ikko Tanaka who were all very advanced in their careers and focussed more on humanizing their students than anything else.
Early in John's own professional career, Japanese cosmetics-company Shiseido had him working "like Batman, teaching by day, arting by night". Yet, many would consider his work to be "eye candy", a term which he would like to see replaced with "eye meat" since it tries to get to the core of the question about how to create with computers. Back in those days, Maeda got an Apple 2-computer for $1500 and it did nothing. In 1995 in Kyoto, he built the "Human Powered Computer" which replaced all the mysterious inner workings of the machine with people. Quite funny and it lead him to better understand the spirituality of the machine. Many said that "the computer is nothing more that a pencil", a statement which made many designers and artists feel comfortable with great changes already on the horizon. It is indeed a great tool, but we're still trying to find out what kind of tool it really is. Every today's software works a bit like a tree with alternatives branching out everywhere. Problem is, when you try to make art you always get stuck on that tree. And: paradoxically, true art will always be off that tree entirely.
After realizing that, John went to play with his old computers as "post digital" robotic devices, including an optical mouse which is taped to a screen and moves itself, a typing machine and a crash-test setup involving a CD-tray and another poor mouse. He went on into materials, sanding off blocks of acrylic and rolling out blue tape until first his wife told him to stop that and then 9/11 happened which made him want other things. Maeda went back to the screen, scanning cheese puffs and pretzels and generating "Cheesepaint-men" and butterflies. There were more objects however, "Egg2D2" being one of them who unfortunately was destroyed when a visitor bumped into him during an exhibition. Recently he has been devoting more and more of his time to MIT where he's heading the Physical Language Workshop-group.
Everywhere he looked though, John wasn't sure what to think of the world anymore. A discarded screen made him realize that computers must be sad since we're abusing them all the time. A search engine crashed when he was searching for "love", is technology even talking to us? Is simplicity the sauce behind which complexity is luring? Eerily, even the letters MIT. appeared in simplicity when he wrote it in the sand during the mentioned vacation. John decided to devote himself to simplicity and write a book about it, as if there weren't enough books for simple people that feature a guy on their cover to who (according to John's daughter) he bears great resemblance.
His book The Laws of Simplicity is a collection of ten laws of varying difficulty, a bit like challenging and more easy kinds of sushi. To understand the many things related to simplicity, you can use the cookie-versus-laundry concept: If you offer to a kid a big or small cookie, the kid will chose the big one. If you want someone to wash a big or small pile of dirty laundry, they will pick the small pile. So we want more when we get to enjoy but we want less when it is something painful. Ideally, simplicity means more joy and less pain.
John Maeda recently opened an exhibition at London's Riflemaker gallery which features some new and older pieces by him (video walk-through). There is the digital fire (LEDs) that taunts the potential fire (matches) which could destroy the digital part if only ignited, A fish built from 16 iPods which contain some sixty-thousand visual memories that "swim away" from him, two iPods that play in and out of sync (until one of them "dies") and John's Second Life-avatar who you can take for a spin in the metaverse.
On the second day of OFFF, I walked in to a super-crowded presentation of the Graffiti Research Lab. It's probably unnecessary to introduce their work as such, so just a few notes. GRL are obviously most well-known for their Throwies, which they themselves call "the most loved and the most hated project on the internet", since they received a lot of criticism for tossing around batteries. While this is certainly true, the popularity of their work proves that it definitely strikes a chord with many people and if we're talking about expanding existing cultural practices through technology this is something that they've certainly achieved for graffiti.
Their project Night Writer for instance uses Throwies to form words which then can be attached to metal walls, bridges, etc. (This was later copied and led to the infamous Boston bomb-scare for which GRL temporarily even were suspects because some related dude stole one of the Mooninites and posted himself on Flickr). These glowing pieces have something about them which makes them much more of a screen and thus creates a simple device which can actually compete with the ever-spreading urban screens which visually, at least at night, vastly outgun traditional graffitis. Another example of their work enabling artists to compete with modern advertisements is an incident when mineral water-makers Perrier were projecting ads in NYC, "guerilla"-style and coincidentially used GRL's building as a screen. In response, they rolled out their Mobile Projection Unit and started to write over the ad. Eventually the "Perrier Krew" gave in and GRL scored in probably the first projection-battle ever.
In Barcelona, there's now a mobile projector unit too which might be for rent at some point. GRL planned to use it in the city every night and were told off by the police at MACBA the first night (see previous post), announced they would project on El Corte Inglés (to cheers from the audience) the second night what they successfully did and were later told off again. But you can't arrest people for playing with light, right? The third night they stayed at the CCCB, allowing people to try out the new brushes that Zach Lieberman had contributed.
The second talk of the day I attended were the guys from raster-noton (Carsten Nicolai aka Alva Noto, Frank Bretschneider and Olaf Bender). Their highly acclaimed label was formed in 1999 as a fusion of the two Chemnitz-based labels "rastermusic" and "noton.archiv für ton und nichtton". From their very beginning, they agreed that they would regard the music they release as a series in order to be putting ideas about music and sound in the foreground rather than the persons who make it. This notion became even stronger when Carsten Nicolai joined since he had already had a background in fine arts where similar approaches are more common. One of the first releases was designed to be more an acoustic magazine with one statement per issue, eventually there were 12 releases. For the design they collaborated with BLESS who created almost translucent CDs and put them in extremely simple cases. What proved to be more difficult though, was how to design what will be holding the CDs together, the braces if you want. The solution was simple and effective: a 13th issue just contained 12 round neodymium-magnets to be put in the individual cases which could then be joined to a whole. Other series included the "static"-release with antistatic bags known from computer equipment and the "clear"-series that focusses on the same ultra-minimalistic packaging. However, over time they slowly moved towards a less strict style and also adopted cover designs, including a design by Japanese scientist Takashi Ikegami that depicts errors in loop systems. A beautiful project on the graphic design-side was Notationen Archiv that Nicolai's students at HGB Leipzig created together with Cyan. They had half a year to each create their own notation systems from provided audio-tracks. The result was an amazing collection of booklets each from which could actually be played. In fact, everyone was so happy with the result that they eventually were produced in a small series.
Carsten Nicolai's own artistic work focuses on similar topics and maintains the same aesthetic quality some might find too rectangular but which has a great clarity about it that allows the underlying concepts to be perceived. In 2005, he has had his first retroperspective antireflex for which he designed two rooms: A black room in which the video spray and objects which intentionally alluded to the aesthetics of stealth technology. In return, the other room was bright white and thus revealed all the mechanics of the pieces it contained. The work which might best reflect raster-noton's and Nicolai's explorations into audio-visual perception is syn chron, which was shown at Mies van der Rohe's modernist Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin in 2004.
A crystal-shaped object which the visitor could enter, its membrane-walls were equipped to be speakers while at the same time white laser-projectors textured them with patterns that related to the sound, rendering it a kind of synaesthetic sculpture. The lecture concluded with a performance that employed similar black and white patterns as video-projections, to great effect on the retinas of everyone who had managed to sit through the whole two hours.
Mario Klingemann seems like a cheerful guy from Munich but is actually a heavyweight of the Flash-scene and showed a couple of his projects, many of which deal with digital found footage. (A good part of his presentation didn't work due to net problems, but he was quite good in making up for that with singing the soundtrack and jumping around.) After playing around a bit with images from Flickr to create kaleidoscopic effects, he had realized that this is actually an interesting way to create small narratives that have an inherent unpredictability about them. His piece Flickeur "randomly retrieves images from Flickr and creates an infinite film with a style that can vary between stream-of-consciousness, documentary or video clip", a technique which gives it a suggestive power that comes, apart from the sound, without any influence by the artist. Built on that is Islands of Consciousness, in collaboration with sound artist Oleg Marakov which gives back a bit more control since it is doing a kind of "tag-surfing" that narratively ties together a bit more closely what appears on the screen, though it's still random. One of his latest projects is The Stake an Anti-Amazon if you want, which allows you to burn the media you've always been hating and so far only have been allowed to put in your shopping cart.
On to more sophisticated things, Stamen Design from San Francisco presented their great research into live data visualization. To them, it is a medium in its own right and rapidly gaining in importance since the world that we live in is becoming ever more measurable. People are participating in situations and leave behind (data-)traces but are not able to perceive their own "creations". According to Ben Cerveny (their on-site philosopher who was outlining the theoretical backdrop until he got stopped several times by the other guys, quite funny) we can now build something that filters information to make the landscape of patterns and artefacts visible - these are the tools that Stamen want to build and make accessible. So far, they are probably best known for their work for Digg which tries to visually tackle the service's massive amount of user generated content through three different visualizations of activity. The Swarm shows how new stories are being created as circles to which then yellow pods attach for every time the have been "dugg". These virus-like aesthetics allow the viewer to very quickly recognize the popularity of stories and to see the current liveliness of the system as well as the variability of the data. Stamen also helped Digg to get an idea about the usage of their service by mapping diggs in time. Already a simple time-mapping of activity, later color-coded by the age of individual users' accounts, revealed interesting facts. For instance it made visible possible activity by bots which might have gone unnoticed without the possibility of being able to see the respective patterns with one's eyes, with the actual process being slightly similar to tuning a radio to a certain part of the spectrum. Another effect that became obvious once the visualization had been tuned accordingly, was that many new users seem to randomly dig stuff on the homepage, probably just to try out the service.
Cabspotting is another one of their projects which maps activity in time, in this case the activity and speed of San Francisco taxi-cabs according to their GPS-data. Again, mapping data in time gives you an idea of activity and, quite literally, lets you see the city pulsate in a very capillary way. When cabs were passing the bay bridge on the lower level, they would cause a sharp spike on the map, basically because their GPS lost track of the satellites. But this wasn't necessarily a bad thing because it revealed a vertical dimension which in Google Maps for instance one wouldn't notice, mapping the city through glitches. According to Ben, the city has had that heart for a long time and since we got the tools we can now see it - which is important because since it's made of people who are all "psychologically invested" in the city they're living in and have an active interest in shaping it. An example for that notion are the Oakland crime maps Stamen have recently been working on. Built on the Modest Maps-framework, they allow affected people to collaboratively map incidents which results in a both "lyrical and analytical" view of the city which once could even show where a crime is about to happen in the next moment. Quoting Bruce Sterling: "You will have seen to have done what you did."
Robert Hodgin showed a range of his works with generative design. We were completely in awe of his latest experiments in which he toys around with the laws of nature to extend the aesthetics of magnetism and gravity into breathtaking visuals.
Finally, Futurefarmers' Amy Franceschini and Michael Swaine took a shot at audience participation, starting with "Rainbow Seating" which required all of the audience to get up and reshuffle in accordance to their shirt colors. We were then asked to draw something (I was blue so I had to draw a shoe) and write a word we felt would relate to the drawing. The words would then be used as cues during the presentation while the drawings themselves (stitched together on stage by Amy and Michael taking turns) will be featured in several exhibitions in the future. On the project-side Futurefarmers presented a couple of their wide range of works, most of which are about people and how they relate to nature, essentially wanting to be a reminder that our environment isn't something which is separate from us.
The gorgeous Sundial Watch is one such project, as is their Photosynthesis-Robot. The robot is built around the idea that the natural process which comes closest to the I/O-paradigm of computers might be that of photosynthesis, hinting at the fact that many of our so-called inventions are actually biomimicry. When the Department of Homeland Security was promoting their color-coded terror forecast, some US citizens apparently received letters from the DHS in which they warned about handwritten or otherwise "unusual" letters which people should report. Futurefarmers found that terrible and reacted with a series of ironic Homeland Security Blankets which "disseminate temperature change" and sport an indicating light which alerts the user of current threat and "comforts them accordingly". Harnessing the unused powers of nature is another one of their notions, for example the Hydrogen Bioreactor ("green hydrogen from pool scum") which, built in collaboration with Tasios Melis and Jonathan Meuser, is a $100-system that produces hydrogen to power cars from a big bag, some kitchen equipment and oxygen. The Botanical Gameboy works along the same lines in the way that lemons are being used to power a Gameboy in order to show people how much chemically produced energy it takes only to power such a modest device through a game called "Count Volta" (In fact it would have taken 48.000 lemons to go the same distance as its four AA-batteries). Raising awareness is also the objective of their Gardening Superfund series of projects which all deal with pollution that was and is caused by the IT-industry, both in the US and in other parts if the world. A Superfund site is "any land in the United States that has been contaminated by hazardous waste and identified by the Environmental Protection Agency as a candidate for cleanup". During ISEA in San Jose, Futurefarmers organized "Free Soil Biodiesel Bus Tours" to visit those sites and a disassembling workshop with a single PC. What was really striking was the fact that lots of the highly toxic e-waste actually goes to china to be manually scrapped for metals, beautifully captured by Jeroen Bouman (his site is unfortunately a bit toxic as well). Their last and probably most charming project before they read out aloud the green group's words was Michael Swaine's "Reap What You Sew" commmunity-project in which he pushes an old fashioned ice cream-style cart on wheels with a treadle-operated sewing machine on it through the streets of San Francisco's Tenderloin district and sews stuff for people.
At the end of the night, Graffiti Research Lab rolled out their Mobile Broadcast Unit Barcelona to tag the white walls of MACBA. That was before the policía came and told them off (although having "if this is the future, we're in deep s**t"-expressions on their faces). They took it to the streets again yesterday night, curious to find out what happened.
Robert Hodgins, aka Flight 404 is equipping his new friend Shirley's head, who uninvitedly came breeding on his window sill with a "dynamically added fez" that sometimes sits on its behind as well. And while on his site (i.e. if you've taken the bait), please be sure to check out his Grass-project, the flocking Birds and most of all his marvellous experiments with what he calls Magnetospheres.
I'm currently at OFFF in Barcelona where Hodgins presented those yesterday night and will be posting some of the many highlights over the next few days.