All Star Data Mappers


the Art of Cartography

“… In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guild struck a map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciples of Geography.
Suárez Miranda, Viajes de varones prudentes, Libro IV, Cap. XLV, Lérida, 1658”Jorges Luis Borges, On Exactitude in Science

As animals with eyes we have been visually processing four dimensional space for a very long time. We have been dealing with alphanumeric data for only a few thousand years. You could represent a sequence of video as data on paper, each frame might take 100 pages to numerically describe. The resulting very tall pile of paper would be very difficult to interpret. With uncompressed video we are processing some 30 megabytes per second, when reading maybe only 50 bytes per second (obviously this is ignoring the symbolic nature of written language).

Visualisation seeks to tap into this bandwidth by converting multidimensional data sets into animated and interactive visual representations that can be processed by our sophisticated biological visual pathways. Data mining combines visualisation with analysis to reveal meaningful new correlations, patterns and trends by sifting through large amounts of data stored in repositories, using pattern recognition technologies as well as statistical and mathematical techniques.

All Star Data Mappers grew out of a list of links I posted to a mailing list for the data terra event. The works reflect not only the myriad of ways in which artists are
exploring data mapping but also my own interests in visualisation and programming. These interests appear to have been shared by others in the art world with a proliferation of shows of artists working with data mapping (eg the Whitney Biennial 2002 & Data Dynamics, Ars Electronica) and exhibitions of software as art (eg Transmediale, CODeDOC (also at artport)).

While I enjoy many aspects of these sorts of work, I am often left feeling somewhat ambivalent. But then you’ll occasionally find me, the old codger up the back of both new media and broader arts events, muttering to myself “well…its not exactly overburdened with content”. I can appreciate an elegant representation or sexy interface, have fun with a geeky toy, but I’m especially happy to stumble upon a work that has a complexity of ideas, be they formal, conceptual, poetic or whatever.

One of the useful things about maps is that they are usually physically smaller than what they describe. Who decides what to leave out? What gets distorted in the scaling?

Visualisation first emerged in the sciences as an extension of the desire to make visible and understandable that which normally falls outside of the scale of human senses. For any given set of data, there are always multiple possibilities for giving it a visual form, each representation can reveal or hide different truths. While there has been much discussion about subjectivity and notions of truth within the arts, I wonder how much of this has seeped into the scientific community. I found the following in the preface of a contemporary science dictionary.

"…Some sociologists of science now teach that scientific laws are subjective, relative and ephemeral, and like the laws of Marxism, are upheld by cliques in order to establish and maintain their power. If that were so, then much of this dictionary would soon become as redundant as the Central Committee of the communist party…"
Max Perutz, The New Dictionary Of Science, Cambridge, 1998

And yet much scientific research is now being done through simulation, the building and refining of computational models. From biochemists modelling the folding of protein molecules to astrophysicists modelling the collision of two galaxies, the output from these experiments is often displayed using visualisation techniques. The development of simulation along with analysis and visualisation have largely been enabled by the exponential increase in computing power over the last few decade.

“If visualization makes data meaningful to humans, what role does aesthetics play in this process? There is pleasure in putting the unknown and the unknowable into language, and tension between the precision of code and the abstraction and manipulation of art making.” Sara Diamond, notes for panel Visualization, Semantics, and Aesthetics, Siggraph2001

While distinctly different in their approach, the artists in All Star Data Mappers are all concerned with the visualisation of various forms of data sets and data flow. In the following few paragraphs I want to discuss some of the broader issues arising from specific works. Rather than describe each of the works individually, I suggest you read the artists’ own descriptions.

Central to most of the works is the internet; as a source of seemingly endless data, as a reflection of our culture and ourselves, or as a space for collaborative play. The emergence of network communication technologies is having a profound effect on our relationship to data and knowledge. The proliferation of data and information being placed online is truly staggering.

Tendril, a work by Benjamin Fry, maps web sites as three dimensional typographic structures. It is an example of a fairly extensive sub genre of net art where attempts are made to map the topology of the network. (see also IOD’s Webstalker & Lisa Jebratt’s 1:1 )

Although it can be physically located in terms of servers and network infrastructure, the internet seems to almost ignore geography. Any web page is potentially only one click away from any other, regardless of where it is physically located. Yet when servers are perceived to be illegal their geography catches up with them, they can be shut down. Napster introduced the world to the idea of file sharing, its users were able to share music files with each other. Napster like the web is a client / server system. Its servers coordinated the file sharing between the clients. The recording industry who owned the rights to much of the music that was being traded had napster shut down. In response peer to peer networks were developed. Like the internet itself these have no central point of control, no server to shut down, no company for the recording industry to litigate.

I find the political saga surrounding digital right management (DRM) to be quite intriguing. It seems to parallel trade wars of centuries past, but this war is being fought in the US courts and government, in the development of ever more complex digital rights protection systems, and in the breaking of those systems. (see Most of the material traded is illicit and in breach of copyright, consisting of music, porn, software and movies. It seems likely that existing models of distribution will be forced to change. While for the last century or so capital has shifted from a material basis to an informational basis, it would appear that data just wants to be free.

Minitasking created by the group Schoenerwissen , maps the gnutella peer to peer file sharing network. It shows how the topology of the network grows as new peers are found, as well as the searching and downloading of files. Another peer to peer network, freenet, was designed with free speech, not free stuff, in mind. The software provides a forum for anonymous publication, using data encryption and a decentralized network designed to prevent shutdown by anyone - governments, ISPs and even the network creators themselves.

Mary Flanagan’s [Collection] is a, perhaps less practical, file sharing network. Random fragments of data harvested from the users hard drive are randomly shared with other users to form “a dynamic three-dimensional collage that maps the collective data unconscious.” [Collection] seems to comment on the increasingly dependent and intimate relationship some of us have with our computers. The percentage of “my stuff” that is in digital format is ever increasing, it currently stands at about 20 gigabytes. It also touches upon issues of privacy in the networked public domain. Several recent computer viruses have used a similar strategies to Flanagan, emailing random fragments of data from infected hard drives to random recipients.

Data mining techniques allow unprecedented capabilities to build up profiles of individuals from dispersed data sources. We tend to think of these tools of as being directed from the big to the small, governments (check out the Pentagons new Information Awareness Office, set up as part of “the war on terror”) and corporations preying on the individual. Josh On’s They Rule reverses this vector of surveillance, to analyse the internal structures of the US ruling class. It is a tool that allows the user to browse through the interlocking boards of the Fortune 100 companies. You can view interconnections between board members and link to sites listing their political donations.

Visualisation and data mapping provide us with ways of dealing with the volume and complexity of the electronic datasphere that increasingly envelopes us. It is not really surprising that visual artists want to work with these technolgies, nor that researchers want to collaborate with visually literate artists and designers.