Can Disruptive Data Exist?

Manovitch (“The Database”) and Raley and the yearn for a disruptive artwork. Both scholars push for a Data-based artwork that does more than represent. Raley specifically mentions the way that Tactical Media can “disrupt” normal society.In the introduction of Tactical Media, she mentions hactivists shutting down or changing websites temporarily as an example of this – this example I understand. But some of her examples in the chapter of Speculative Capital do not seem disruptive to me. Black Shoals and ecosytem are provocative, fit into Manovitch’s specifications of a database, and successfully create a narrative of data through their visualizations – Black Shoals with the story of an economic universe and ecosystem with the progression of the birds movements and actions. Raley specifically mentions that these artworks are disruptive.

I don’t know about you; but when I imagine disrupting the stock market, I imagine a scene from the most recent Batman movie. Perhaps I am thinking of the word “disruptive” in too concrete terms but even when I try to conjure up ideas of how the artworks disrupt in abstract senses, I am unimpressed with my result.

  1. The artwork disrupts the viewer’s day. This greatly belittles the salient and serious subjects of the work.
  2. The artwork disrupts the stock market. Nope.
  3. The artwork disrupts our understanding of economics. Maybe?

I could see option 3 working out but I would argue that “disrupt” is not the right term here. Educate, perhaps is. In fact Raley actually speaks briefly about education, but doesn’t give it enough credit. And maybe educate is not the right word either, if you already have a good understanding of the way the economic world works. In that case, confronts is best. These works confront us with a new visualization that might make us think critically about capitalism and monetary standards. By making it immediately visual, it brings the ideas to the front of our minds – and I am nor sure if that is disruptive or not.

Ai Weiwei and (Non)Digital Database

I’ve had a thing for Ai Weiwei’s artwork ever since I saw his photograph “Study of Perspective – Tiananmen” in which he flips the bird to one of China’s cultural monuments, the Forbidden City. So, I went to his exhibit in the Smithsonian’s Hirshorn this weekend.

One of the artworks on display is a list of names, birth-dates, death-dates, and genders of the students killed in the Sichuan earthquake of 2008. The artist ended his search at the one year anniversary of the earthquake. As the viewers stand, dwarfed by the amount of information, a recording calls out the names of the victims with a serious tone. Another installation, “Untitled”, consists of 5,335 backpacks arranged into cubes – equal to the number of children killed by the quake. This represents the same data, in a different way. (Reasonably, there is great difficulty in thinking of the deaths of these children purely as data because it seems inhumane to do so. I do not mean to think of them only as such. That being said, they are the data and subject matter of the artworks and perhaps the inhumanity of belittling lives to sets of data is a purposeful trope in Ai Weiwei’s artworks.) A third artwork, “Remembering” from his show So Sorry is an installation of 9,000 backpacks spelling out the quote “She lived happily for seven years in this world” from a earthquake victims mother.

Can we call Ai Weiwei’s works a database? Yes. He reorganizes the same materials (backpacks) or information (the deaths of children) into multiple visualizations. Especially in “Untitled” and the list of earthquake victims. You can search through the work (albeit not as easily as you can in an online database). And, hypothetically, he could continue adding information to the list of names as not all the names, birth-dates, or death-dates are filled in. He states in a TED talks video that the push for factual information and truth drives his work. So, it seems, he creates database-like art. According to Ai Weiwei, the social needs of China create a need for this kind of truthful art – the database. It is social determinism and perhaps technological determinism in one as the technological database fuels his database-like artworks.

Although not entirely “new media” because the information does not exist online, Ai Weiwei did use the internet to spread information about the earthquake, to gain volunteers, and to promote activism. His blogs have been censored and deleted by the Chinese government.

Ai Weiwei stands with the list of names of children killed in the May 2008 Sichuan Province earthquake

The Fourth Era: interactive fiction or video game?

The next era of interactive fiction, according to Nick Monfort, would give the genre more of a narrative quality and more options in usability. This conclusion to “Interactive Fiction’s Fourth Era” sparked a few questions for me. Namely, how would these new affordances change the genre of Interactive fiction for the better (or worse).

I admit that I don’t have much experience with text based interactive fiction. In fact, I have none besides what was done in class. From my limited knowledge, I imagine the framework of an IF work like a system of tree roots, growing in all different directions and intertwining at points. Choose a root and roll with it. Monfort’s proposed fourth era, however, looks a little different.

I think it would operate a lot like a video game. Maybe too much. The affordances of having many choices within a developed world, some leading to success and some to death remind me of the mission orientated games – especially when combined with the flashback ability that he suggests. Would this make interactive fiction just a video game that you control with text instead of a controller and joystick? To some extent, yes.

Another part of the fun or frustration is figuring out what the code wants you to say. It is limiting but can be comical if the programmers have a sense of humor. This puts a lot of control in the hands of the creator – I would argue more than that of a mission-oriented video game. Monfort suggests using a narrator in that “uses natural language generation techniques, rather than the fixed orthographic strings that are used in current systems.” From my understanding, this means less controlled responses, more response options; improv I stead of scripted entertainment.

Text-based interactive fiction in this Fourth Era seems more and more to me like a video game without the pictures. On one hand, these changes make interactive fiction more innovative and interesting for the common users. On the other, this change makes the medium lose some of what defines it: the script, the limited options, the dead ends, the constantly forward trajectory. On whether or not this is a bad thing: I’ll leave it up to the experts.

Self Portrait(s) [as Other(s)]

I came by Self Portrait(s) [as Other(s)] via Between Play and Politics: Disfunctionality in Digital Art, one of our assigned readings, and was immediately perplexed. The artist has created 120,000,000 possible recombinations of artists’ images and biographies. Amazing!  I suppose this is the magic of code and database type media.The sheer number of combinations is not the only reason for my vexation.

Edouard Monet: a fictional artist

In a very E. E. Cummings style, even the title has its own possibilities for recombination (Self Portraits as Others, Self Portraits as Other, Self Portrait as Others, Self Portrait as Other, Self Portrait, and Self Portraits) The artwork is a thought-provoking, digitized departure from Brion Gysin’s poetic cut-up style, which might place this work in the box of Surrealism or Dadaism, but I admit to being fearful of categorizing. The cut up style, and especially the narrative biographies and fractured images that result from it, seem to beg for the viewer to toss aside these distinctions and not force the artists to unhappily submit to the pressures of an artistic label. I can say, without guilt, that the work shares some questions/criticisms with the cut up method; questions of authorship. Yes, Memmont wrote the code that generates the portraits and biographies, but he certainly did not create the portraits and may or may not have generated the biographies.

If we place our pointer over the mouth of a portrait a quote comes up. In this case the quote matches the mouth from which it comes; however, the mouth is just one tiny part of the work. There may be a slim chance that the mouth and other parts of the image match, and another miniscule chance that the image matches the biography. In this sole case, identity is completely clear.

Obviously, the artist sees himself in all of these other artists – their successes and failures, falling outs, lives and deaths. Oddly, most of the combinations that I have run into, granted I have not clicked around the artwork 120,000,000 times, have created stories of frustration for the artist. They are forced into artistic movements to which they do not want to belong, they make good friends and then do not talk to them anymore, they get arthritis and can’t work or can barely work. I guess art, authorship, and the cut up method are just downright frustrating, or at least, Memmont might think so.

Thinking about Craig Mod and the Death of the Print Book

Book lovers fear the end of the texture of paper, the sound of flipping pages, and the excitement of cracking open a new book. “It’s not going to be the same anymore” we pout. It’s true, but there are allowances of the electronic book that we should be excited about. Up until now, with Mod’s essay to thank, however, I have been too preoccupied with wallowing in my sorrows to notice them.

After reading his essays I want to explore the emerging technology of the digital book. Why is it taking over and why are we so afraid of it?

Digital media can enhance our reading experience: Mod specifically mentions image and layout as opportunities for change in “Hack the Cover”, but what about sound? How would you like to hear your favorite poet recite their lines as you read them? The Poetry Foundation website offers this to some extent, but only recordings of select works, not whole or even part of a collection.

Children’s books too could take a whole new turn, moving picture books (though not movies) and interactive media.

What about links to supplemental information and websites? Authors, publishing houses, and organizations could use their own works as marketing tools.

Yes, these innovations will change the way we read and the way we think about literature, but what is so wrong with that? According to Mod, Gutenberg did it too, and we have many thanks to give that man as book lovers. So why, do we reject this change?

Time. The electronic book is still an emergent media. It hasn’t entirely worked itself into our generation as something completely normal or useful. Maybe it will never gain full acceptance, but as Mod notes, the next generations of readers will grow up with it.

Of course, I still feel the end of the library, the librarian, and the book cover, but I now have cause to be optimistic or, at least curious.

And what will be the fate of the printed book, we wonder? Maybe it will eventually join the record album and the dead baby photo (just kidding) in the realm of the revitalized media that one might call cool.

“Tao” as Path

“Tao”, the digital poem and multimedia project by Alan Sondheim and Reiner Strasser recreate some sense of the spiritual tao. The word means way or path in both a physical sense, as a street a road, and a metaphysical sense, as the path to truth and enlightenment. This second definition has a spiritual reference to Daoismdao is another spelling of tao – and to other religions like Buddhism which teach a path to enlightenment.

As a matter of history, the music that accompanies the visual and the text is a traditional Japanese folk instrument with roots in China called shakuhachi. Buddhist monks played this flute as a type of meditation, making the instrument part of their spiritual path.

The video is a path as well, in a concrete sense and an abstract one. The parent material of the videos is the same, the camera moves along a road, overlooking a lake and a land mass. With editing, two different videos emerge. The floating form takes a different path with different video filters. This asymmetry equates to the paths of life. These forms are souls or lives. Each starts out similarly in conception and birth, as the forms start in the same position, but change paths as life progresses. This connects with the philosophy of “continuous self invention” present in Daoism. There is no completely correct path.

This idea of self invention also resonates with the interactive portion of “Tao”. The flash player allows the viewer to flip either video image. This re-invention or change of life reiterates the idea that there is no perfect path, but rather many to choose from. Another reading might suggest that the interaction suggests control over life and control over the viewer’s own path.

The poem, more so than the video, suggests the passage of time. The words appear very slowly, especially in comparison to the video. The three lines equate to three parts of life: first birth, then living, and death.

Largely relating to the principles of Daoism and Buddhism, “Tao” as image, text, sound and interaction relates to the tao, both spiritual and concrete, that a soul makes in its life.