Thursday, May 20, 2010

On Data and the Inception of Meaning: An Examination of Database Art, Metaphor and Narrative.

Written for my Philosophy of art class, this isn't short but it holds a lot of the ideas I think are interesting and relevant.

On Data and the Inception of Meaning: An Examination of Database Art, Metaphor and Narrative.

Contemporary art practice increasingly utilizes computing to express the human experience. As a new media artist armed with art theory and philosophy I will examine how computing can be used to create meaningful art. True to the subject, I will first define the variables in our discussion.

Since we are discussing art, we should first define such a nebulous term. The definition that will be used in this essay is that offered by Nicolas Bourriaud, contemporary art theorist, in the glossary of Relational Aesthetics: “Art 1. General term describing a set of objects presented as a part of a narrative known as art history... 2. Nowadays, the word 'art' seems to be no more than a semantic leftover of this narrative, whose more accurate definition would read as follows: Art is an activity consisting in producing relationships with the world with the help of signs, forms, actions, and objects.”

The first definition reflects that whether or not an object is art is not determined by its physically perceptible properties but by its cultural context. But the definition is so broad as to be useless for evaluating or producing a work of art. Bourriaud offers us a second, useful definition that helps us include in our definition of art contemporary genres such as interactive, relational and new media art.

Having established what art is, there are a number of more interesting questions to be posed. Such as, what is good art? Good art, I will claim, has a potent aesthetic and concept.

Potency is qualitative and the only instrument for its evaluation is the art critic. Of course the evaluation of what is qualitative is a sticky and subjective process, therefore, we will rely on the exhaustive definition of an art critic arrived at by Hume: “Strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice, can alone entitle critics... and the... verdict of such... is the true standard of taste and beauty. (Hume, 87)” We will of course update our critic to the contemporary era, to include that they also be responsive to the art world, as described by Danto: “To see something as art requires something the eye cannot decry—an atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of the history of art: an artworld. (Danto, 477)”

Concept is the abstract idea of a work and the work's aesthetic is the particular instantiation of the concept. The two are inextricably intertwined into one irreducible, complex object. They can be examined separately, but can only be understood in the way that they reinforce each other. A concept is potent to the extent that it creates meaning, either through metaphor or narrative. I will focus more on concept in order to examine how metaphor and narrative are created in case examples of database art: art that uses database as medium.

Artists should make art with databases because it is important to examine how the tools we create as a culture then shape us: in formatting our lives in ways that fit into databases, we categorize and understand our lives differently. Lakoff, using the work of cognitive scientists such as Elanor Rosch explains the relationship of categorization to cognition: “An understanding of how we categorize is central to any understanding of how we think and how we function, and therefore central to an understanding of what makes us human. (Lakoff, 6)” The database, in defining new ways to categorize redefines our systems of thought. A parallel historical example is that of the mechanical clock: Lewis Mumford in Technics and Civilization writes, "The clock is a piece of machinery whose 'product' is seconds and minutes." He elaborates that the clock was the key to the invention of the Industrial Revolution: the fungiblity of time had cascading, systemic effects, barely perceptible in a decade or even a century, but massive nonetheless. The database, no doubt, will have effects of similar magnitude.

A database is a fairly low-level tool for computing. Electronic digital computing, (as opposed to the analog computers that put men on the moon) at its lowest level is a Central Processing Unit (CPU) and memory. The CPU executes instructions. All instructions and the objects of the instructions are stored in memory. It is remarkable the level of abstraction this is capable of: that in digital logic one (or, more often a whole legion of scientists and programmers such as those in the Cal Tech Department of Computation and Neural Systems ) can simulate artificial neural networks. Or, taking it a step further, the Blue Brain Project is attempting to create a synthetic brain by reverse-engineering the mammalian brain down to the molecular level using a biologically realistic model of neurons ("About the Blue Brain Project"). Computing has extended the human ability to create abstractions and symbolic systems to an incomprehensible extent. But even at such complex levels, the basic unit of computing is executing instructions on data.

Data is not new. Databases are not new. Recording information in a systematic fashion has been going on since the advent of writing (and even before): “The earliest accounting records were found amongst the ruins of ancient Babylon, Assyria and Sumeria, which date back more than 7,000 years (“Accountancy”). The first encylopedia Naturalis Historia (Latin for "Natural History") was published circa AD 77-79 by Pliny the Elder (“Naturalis Historia”)...What is new, and thus merits this discussion, is the magnitude and flexibility of data storage, treatment, and access afforded by databases and computing, and the new possibilities they afford. Petabytes of data storage and the advanced state of software are so huge as to constitute something truly novel. For our purposes, a new art medium of timely relevance.

What is data, anyway? Data is a representation. In computing, it is a representation in bytes. Thanks to some really advanced electrical engineering and the mathematics of image compression, data can easily include anything that can come through a lens or a sensor, and of course language and numbers. Books. Encyclopedias. The 52,000 recorded testimonies of Holocaust survivors collected by the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, which would take one person forty years to watch. Data can be anything one can convert into bytes. If the object to be quantified cannot be quantified by computers directly, it can be quantified by people and entered as data.

Understanding data and database as representation, database becomes an obvious art medium. The process of making a database could be compared to the process of making a painting, the process of painting having taken on significance in the latter 20th century: any aspect of the process can be aesthetic and/or conceptual.

The process of making a database is largely a matter of selection: of data type, field sizes, architecture. “To illuminate the operative nature of database aesthetics, one needs to point at a number of human processes—memory, thought, association, cataloging, categorizing, framing, contextualizing, decontextualizing, as well as grouping. The production of boundary objects, grammars of information, grammars of attention, the production of media constellations, and the exploration of principles of combinatorics all become potential variables for employment in the creation of interactive works of art. (Seaman, 121)”

An aesthetic, let us not forget, is the instantiation of the concept, and quite frankly a perceptible aesthetic is much more potent than one that is imperceptible. In this case, presenting the database is an important step for making good art and the choices in those methods of presentation, which reflect the conceptual choices of what data to include, how to flatten and analyze the data, etc. are easily evaluated aesthetically.

The two examples of database art we will examine are 2009 Annual Report by Nicolas Feltron and Listening Post by Ben Rubin and Mark Hansen.

The premise of 2009 Annual Report is this: “Each day in 2009, I asked every person with whom I had a meaningful encounter to submit a record of this meeting through an online survey. These reports form the heart of the 2009 Annual Report. From parents to old friends, to people I met for the first time, to my dentist… any time I felt that someone had discerned enough of my personality and activities, they were given a card with a URL and unique number to record their experience. I kept track only of who I gave survey invitations to, the number of the card and where it was given. The surveys answers were submitted via text forms, allowing the respondee to write whatever they desired, and leaving the task of making comparisons between the data up to me. I have used only this information to create the report, however accurate it may be. I have strived to sort and collate the data in a clinical and repeatable manner that could be reproduced by someone looking for the same stories I have selected.”

Data collected includes relationship of the person to Feltron, the activities they were engaged in, the duration of their relationship, mood, conversation topics, food and drink consumed. The report includes meta data such as the number of respondents and the total amount of time reported on, and the whole thing is presented with elegant data visualizations.

This is a thoroughly impressive undertaking—trying to represent a year in his life as a data set. It is poetic and scientific to collect data on the self through relationships. Scientifically, others are a more objective source of data. Poetically, it suggests that Feltron's life is defined by relationships. This work involves all of the processes typical of database art: data type selection, data collection, data filtering, data processing, and finally a presentation of said data. What we get, of course, is a representation of Feltron's life that has flattened his days, habits, moods and relationships into numbers.

This is simultaneously a more intimate and more impersonal portrait than a photograph. We don't know what Feltron looks like, but we do know that on July 18th, 2009 he was “'Pensive (but not in a lame way).'-Nicolas B.” This raises some interesting artistic possibilities: “A database can be a region of alternative story constructs. (Wienbren, 69)” If we were to scramble the data, we could extrapolate infinite alternative stories and different possible lives. If, rather than meeting Rebecca at Ace Bar for Gigi's birthday November 20th, he had instead met with Jessica at Red Hook pool (Feltron,“Where”). This is an entirely new way to describe a life or write a memoir.

I saw "Listening Post" at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in 2007. At the time I had not yet heard about scraping the web, and the piece felt to me like it was tapping into our collective consciousness. Influenced by Noam Chomsky's theory of language, Listening Post, like most of Rubin's work, consists of applying computer algorithms to a body of text (in this case, the Internet), to parse from it phrases, which an algorithm reorganizes and displays on vacuum fluorescent displays. “Listening Post is an art installation that culls text fragments in real time from thousands of unrestricted Internet chat rooms, bulletin boards and other public forums. The texts are read (or sung) by a voice synthesizer, and simultaneously displayed across a suspended grid of more than two hundred small electronic screens... Listening Post is a visual and sonic response to the content, magnitude, and immediacy of virtual communication. (“Listening Post”)”

Listening Post is decontextualizing language by rendering it into pieces then recontextualizing it in a new language game. The meaning of the related phrases is created by the viewer. I went to listen to Rubin give a lecture for the Art, Technology, and Culture Colloquium at UC Berkeley. He described how he experimented with having performers deliver the phrases, and found that it did not "work" as well, though he had trouble articulating why. It seems to me that the Art in his work lies there, in the viewer creating the meaning, assembling the phrases of hundreds of disparate people into one narrative. When an actor reads the phrases, they are interpreting the phrase and creating the meaning and delivering it to the audience, which coming from one individual is a series of nonsense, and uninteresting.

Rubin made the distinction that in his work the words are not chosen randomly (as in the Chance Operations of John Cage), rather, systematically by a computer. He chooses among the algorithms (applying his sense of aesthetic) by how well they work to create meaning or generate feeling. While 2009 Annual Report converts a meaningful story (Feltron's life) into data then into a meaningful work, Listening Post makes a meaningful work from entirely disparate and random data.

Lev Manovich, in “Database as Symbolic Form” claims that “database and narrative forms... [are] two competing imaginations.” We have seen, rather, that database holds remarkable and unprecedented potential for narrative. “Narrative can be retooled in light of the database: … new media open an opportunity for rethinking the notion of narrative. (Wienbren, 66)”

Metaphor and narrative are advanced symbols, beyond the elementary function of signs. They allow for a way of understanding that which ordinary signifiers cannot contain. I would advance the idea that art is meaningful via one of two processes: to the extent that it is a metaphor or a narrative. Ricoeur writes, “symbolism, taken at the level of manifestation in texts, marks the breakthrough of language toward something other than itself. (Ricoeur, 387)”

Wittgenstein examines this point, this “breakthrough,” of language and the inception of meaning closely in Philosophical Investigations: “For a large class of cases—though not for all—in which we employ the word 'meaning' it can be defined as thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language. (Wittgenstein, 20)” We can then combine this with Bourriaud's definition of art, and claim that the meaning of art is the relationships it creates: the metaphors and narratives.

Metaphor and narrative are how humans understand: “Metaphor is typically viewed as characteristic of language alone, a matter of words rather than thought or action... On the contrary, … metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language... Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature. (Lakoff and Johnson, 3)” and “The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another. (Lakoff and Johnson, 5)”

As for narrative, Mieke Bal offers a definition: “A narrative text is a text in which an agent relates (“tells”) a story in a particular medium, such as language, imagery, sound, buildings, or a combination thereof. A story is a fabula that is presented in a certain manner. A fabula is a series of logically and chronologically related events that are caused or experienced by actors. An event is the transition from one state to another state. Actors are agents that perform actions. They are not necessarily human. To act is defined here as to cause or to experience an event. (Bal, 5)” and “Since 'text' refers to narratives in any medium, I will use this word with an emphasis on the structuredness, not the linguistic nature of it; to keep this in mind I will use it interchangeably with 'artifact.'(Bal, 6)”

An artwork, then, when successful, is an extra-linguistic metaphor or a narrative.

Both 2009 Annual Report and Listening Post are narratives: in his annual reports, Felton is our actor, whose events are related by those who filled out his forms. The events are logically and chronologically related, but Felton delivers us additional relations—relations newly available via the process of converting his life into a database, connecting his experiences with various categories such as “Food” and “Mood.” The fabula is his entire year of experience in all its mundane detail, which the data represents.

It's easy to see how the 2009 Annual Report is a narrative because it is a set of data that represents a man's life. The way the Listening Post operates as narrative is a little more involved. It has six scenes, but let us only discuss one. In the “I am” scene, an algorithm culls phrases that start with “I am” or “I'm,” sorts them by length, then displays them, adding them one or a few at a time to the wall of 200 small display screens. Experienced over time one gets a sense that the installation as an intelligent machine is telling us about all of these people (the actors) and their lives, revealing a little more and a little more about them as the lines get longer. It starts with phrases like “I am 25” and progresses to “I am working in Philadelphia.” The progress of revelation constitutes the events and describes the (hundreds of anonymous) actors' actions. Narrative in this case depends on the selection and contextualizing of data.

Both of these works are metaphors that offer us analogies to differently understand biography and virtual communication respectively.

These works could not be understood without the strength of their aesthetics. The highly graphic data visualizations of 2009 Annual Report easily communicate the data and suggest the familiar forms and methods used for data visualization of sales reports and weather statistics. Listening Post's immersive room with its hundreds of glowing screens is surely what is is like to be inside the Internet.

Computing is based on reduction. Plato tells us that representation “... is not to be regarded seriously as attaining to the truth. (Plato, 44)” Part of the process of database art is the flattening and reduction of meaningful input. Database art reconstitutes that reduction into meaning. It has the potential to demonstrate the dramatic reductions to the human experience that are the consequence of pervasive use of database as medium for cultural exchange and tool of knowledge. Conversely, computing allows for effectively infinite abstraction, and database art holds the potential to communicate multilinear narratives of unprecedented depth and breadth to everyone on the global network.

Works Cited:

About the Blue Brain Project.” 19 May 2010.

Bal, Mieke. Narratology: An Introduction to the Theory of Narrative. Toronto: University of Toronto Press Inc, 1997.

Bourriaud, Nicolas. Relational Aesthetics. Les presses du reel, 2002.

Danto, Arthur. “The Artworld.” Art and Its Significance. Ed. Stephen Ross. State University of New York: New York, 1994.

Feltron, Nicolas. “2009 Annual Report.” 19 May 2010.

Hume, David. “Of the Standard of Taste.” Art and Its Significance. Ed. Stephen Ross. State University of New York: New

York, 1994.

Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Listening Post.” 19 May 2010.

Manovich, Lev. “Database as Symbolic Form.” Database Aesthetics: Art in the Age of Information Overflow. Ed. Vesna, Victoria. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007.

Mumford, Lewis. Technics and Civilization. Harcourt, Brace & Company, Inc., New York, 1934.

"Naturalis Historia." 19 May 2010.

Plato. “Republic.” Art and Its Significance. Ed. Stephen Ross. State University of New York: New York, 1994.

Ricoeur, Paul. “The Problem of Double Meaning as Hermeneutic Problem and as Semantic Problem.” Art and Its

Significance. Ed. Stephen Ross. State University of New York: New York, 1994.

Rubin, Ben. “What's that Ticking Sound?”The Art, Technology, and Culture Colloquium, 160 Kroeber Hall, UC Berkeley. 2 Nov. 2009.

Seaman, Bill. “Recombinant Poetics and Related Database Aesthetics.” Database Aesthetics: Art in the Age of Information Overflow. Ed. Vesna, Victoria. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007.

Weinbren, Grahame. “Ocean, Database, Recut.” Database Aesthetics: Art in the Age of Information Overflow. Ed. Vesna, Victoria. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Translated by G.E.M. Anscombe. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1953.

Further Reading/ web browsing:

Chang, Fay et al. “Bigtable: A Distributed Storage System for Structured Data." Available at