Posts Tagged ‘Data art’

We live in a constant struggle to steer through the big and varied torrent of data which is unleashed everyday. And data cover very different things. By following the Concise Lexicon for the Digital Commons created in 2001 by the contemporary art group Raqs Media Collective, data could be ‘artistically’ defined as follows: “Information. Can mean anything from numbers to images, from white noise to noise to sound. A weather report, a portrait, a shadow in surveillance footage, a salary statement, birth and death statistics, a headcount in a gathering of friends, private e-mail, ultra high frequency signals, sale and purchase transactions and the patterns made by pedestrians as they walk in a city – all of this can be and is data. Data, like coal, uranium and other minerals vital to the running of the world economy is mined, processed, refined and sold at a high price”.

Information visualization field has emerged as means not only to make the complex accessible and the incomprehensible understandable, but the hidden visible and the unmappable mappable. Contemporary information age creates what André Lemos has coined as informational territories; areas of control of digital information flow in an intersection with a physical area. Virtual, invisible, infinitely small or large, multidimensional, time-based, and even cultural and political spaces are the informational terrain for “invisible data mappers”, artists who use cartographic information or metaphors to visualize and re-visualize this territories of data. [1] These invisible spaces are the Internet together with the stock market, the human genome, the global corporate power or the electromagnetic space.

What are the different ways in which, for instance, the electromagnetic space can be visualized?. How do artists, activists or scientists deal with the goal of select, categorize and visualize data from this “invisible” space?. Which are the political implications of visualizing the radio spectrum?

An info-graphic based on research

Bureau d’ Etudes is a French collective that usually works with maps from a critical political perspective in order to present new ways of understanding the networked economy and power that rules the world. In 2008, they presented a research project called Skrunda Signal in the context of an Art & Communication exhibition in RIGA. The project was based on several issues related to the spectral ecology. The research resulted into a map (info graphic) complemented with videos. The map positioned the city of Skundra, in Latvia, in relation with its electromagnetic pollution and the electromagnetic myths derived from its Soviet past of Radio Location Station (RLS). In fact, the intent was to encourage the debate of technical, geopolitical and spectro-ecological aspects of electromagnetic radiation by taking into account all the agents involved in the creation of the powerful radar of Skundra RLS, as well as the radar’s regular transmissions and signals and its negative effects on people’s health and behaviours: “signals of this nature are ‘blamed’ for affecting the way the people behave – they can effect the ability to be calm, the ability to rationalize… After having interviewed Skrunda researchers, it became clear, that Soviets (at least in Skrunda case) were more interested in developing ‘cold war’ weapons and espionage tools, and not in mind-controling experiments…”

The map resulted showed what effects such facilities can have on nature and humans living in their everyday surroundings. By developing a critical and political position of this military use of the electromagnetic space, the artists opened a debate about the use and effects of this informational territory by governments. They visualized the agents and actors involved in this network, and gave attention to the relations and effects generated by presenting the data obtained from their research. The info-graphic resulted from this investigation is a ‘static map’ that only can be well-perceived in person, that is to say, by observation of the content in an exhibition, where the map is reproduced in a higher scale to make it understandable.

An interactive visualization of the electromagnetic space

There is another visualization technique that goes beyond info-graphics, in terms of aesthetics, interaction and availability. In this context, we are talking about information visualization digital techniques and the use of visual metaphors to make sense of complex data located in “invisible” spaces. The Atlas of Electromagnetic Space is an interactive visualization of the Radio Spectrum available on the Internet. This project has been developed by Bestiario in 2008 and it presents several things at the same time. On the one hand, the project is a clear and comprehensible representations of how the spectrum works scientifically. Furthermore, it shows its relationship with our everyday life technologies like Wifi, Mobile, Bluetooth, etc… On the other hand, these spaces are related to an artistic archive that allows users to know projects and interventions in Hertzian Space that can make easier to understand and represent this complex informational phenomena.

The importance of aesthetics in this project provides a good example for understanding how information aesthetics bridges the gap between functional and artistic intents of visualization. Compare to the previous example, we can easily understand the differences between information visualization and information aesthetics, term coined by Lev Manovich in 2002 in his essay ‘The Anti-Sublime Ideal in Data Art’. That means that by focusing on aesthetics as an independent medium that augments information value and task functionality, visualization techniques have been opened to interdisciplinary discourse that engages with design, art, communities and scientific research at the same time.[2]

Data art and the invisible space of radio frequencies.

Visualization art (data art) can be seen as the last step in this categorization of visual representations of data from the electromagnetic space. The understanding of data as “space” and the creation of visual relationships from non visual phenomena finds on the visual metaphor, its more accurate way to express the subjective experience of our information society.

Bubbles of radio is a project developed by Ingeborg Marie Dehs Thomas based on the idea of our sensory perception of the electromagnetic space. Inspired by richly illustrated books of botany, zoology and natural history, the artist created in 2008 a selection of fictional species drawings that visualize the ways in which technologies like Wifi, RFID or GSM inhabit space. She used a critical visual design for the bubbles and related them to different visual scales that indicates proportions of the “invisible space” occupied by these technologies. She compared scales between people, mobiles and buildings.

Artist’s intention was not to offer accurate actionable information but to open the debate of the radio spectrum into the tangible and physical. She focused mainly on artistically conceived project in order to reflect and consider radio as something to be experienced by the senses and not only through the screen. That is what makes of this project a visualization within the data art field.

Through this reflection on how electromagnetic space can be mapped in different ways, my aim is to show the wide range of possibilities that information visualization techniques can be applied by artists to open political and technological debates. Mapping data into visual forms has become a way of making sense of things through visualizations maps and more abstract or conceptual visual representations. The huge data landscape can be mined, visualized and in some cases, experienced. These three projects pretend to be an example of how information visualization can be a socially engaged discipline that contributes to open invisible spaces dominated by power that should be better understood in order to be reclaimed by people.

[1] D’Ignazio, C “Art and Cartography”. The Institute for Infinitely Small Things, Waltham, MA, USA. 2009

[2] Lau, A & Vande Moere, A. “Towards a Model of Information Aesthetics in Information Visualization”. Key centre of Design Computing & Cognition. University of Sydney, Australia, 2007. Accesed at http://web.arch.usyd.edu.au/~andrew/publications/iv07.pdf

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