ON MAPPING: Lev Manovich + Jenny Marketou

These e-mails between Lev Manovich, San Diego and Jenny Marketou, New York were from January 25 to February 4, 2002 (originally published in Breeder #5 (Athens) 2002):

Lev Manovich wrote: Lets begin by talking about mapping. I see mapping one data set into another, or one media into another, as one of the most common operations in computer culture. For instance, it forms the basis of a whole field of visualization — taking the results of an experiment and visualizing them as a van animation; or taking statistical data and presenting it as a 3-D shape; and so on. These kinds of mappings are also common in new media. For instance, I have come across a few projects where network traffic was translated into music. One of most well known projects which lies at the intersection of science and art (because it seems to function well in both contexts) also involves this kind of mapping — I am thinking of Natalie Jeremijenko’s wire sculpture which translates network behavior into the movements of a suspended wire. Few questions can be posed here. It is not hard to notice that most mappings go from non visual media to visual media. What about mappings which will go into the opposite direction? Another question which we may ask about what exactly is at stake in these projects aesthetically. I always find myself moved by them — but why? Is it because these projects carry the promise of rendering the phenomena which are beyond the scale of human senses into something which is within our reach, something visible and tangible?

Jenny Marketou wrote: Before I can answer your questions I would like to let my mind wander among some random thoughts about mapping and data esthetics.

Last night I had the opportunity to view the large-scale installation “Cloaca” by Wim Delvoye, the Belgian artist at The New Museum in New York. This extreme work is built from chemical beakers, electric pumps, and plastic tubing arrayed on a series of seven stainless steel tables, fully computer monitored in order to duplicate and map the human digestive system. I found this contemplation of mapping bodily wastes another good example of how art,technology and science intersect.

I found the piece challenging and although this simulacrum mapping path of what we eat from the mouth to the anus allows us to see the mechanical process and catch ourselves in the act of self identification, surprisingly it lacks the possibility and the sensibility of meaning located in the magical randomness.

In general I tend to think of mapping data in a broad sense like genetics blocks which generates a recombination of elements, systems, algorithms, happenings. This recombination generates the emergence of new structures for visualization which explores an iconography of media pictures. What attracts me into this forms is that they represent the artifacts of our times which have been generated by taking into account our everyday functions behaviors and information input.

So for me the question here is how any kind of data mapping can create beauty and meaning uncovered by applying loose formal structures, randomness and forms which take into account information behaviors which take into account everyday life.

As you know I am also attracted to crawlers and extractors which function as data collection systems but in their accidental search through the web show each time how we have mapped our world. Like “flaneurs2 their aim is to uncover paths through the topology of our data system of knowledge and it is up to the users and artists to interpret the data in any way they want..

But how can we create the magic of randomness in a visualization from non visual media to visual media as you suggest without losing the magic of the process? How we can express the beauty of the “trajectory” as you once said talking about info esthetics? Certainly the beauty of data is different from the beauty in the “cannon” which we learn at art schools. But again what happens to the content in a meaningless visualization which lends itself in a pure data formalism like this of a “wallpaper”?

LM: I can think of at least one example of mapping which has both meaning and beauty. This is Jewish Museum Berlin by Daniel Liberskind. The architect put together a map which showed the addresses of Jews who were living in the neighborhood of the museum site before World World II. He then connected different points on the map together and projected the resulting net onto the surfaces of the building. The intersections of the net projection and the design became multiple irregular windows. Cutting through the walls and the ceilings at different angles, the windows point to many visual references: narrow eyepiece of a tank; windows of a Medieval cathedral; exploded forms of the cubist/ abstract/ supermatist paintings of the 1910s-1920s. Just as in the case of Janet Cardiff’s audio walks, here the virtual becomes a powerful force which re-shapes the physical. In Jewish Museum, the past literally cuts into the present. Rather than something ephemeral, here data space is materialized, becoming a sort of monumental sculpture. But there was one problem which I kept thinking about when I was visiting the museum building. On the one hand, Liberskind’s procedure to find the addresses, make a map and connect all the lines appears very rational, almost the work of scientist. On the other hand, as far as I know, he does not tell us anything about why he projected the net in a particular way as opposed to any other way. So I find something contradictory in fact that all painstakingly collected and organized data then just “thrown” over the shapes of the building in a arbitrary way. And this is the basic problem of the whole mapping paradigm. Usually there are endless ways to map one data set onto another, and the particular mapping chosen by the artist typically is not motivated. As a result the work feels arbitrary. We are always told that in good art “form and content form a single whole”, “content motivates form,” and so on. Maybe in a “good” work of data art the mapping used have to somehow relate to the content and context of data — although I am not sure how this would work in general. On the question of the beauty of data: permit me to quote something I wrote in a different context: “Ultimately we would not want to submit information to the standards of conventional, classical beauty. Ultimately, we will have to discover what the new beauty of information is. It may turn out to have nothing to do with a smile of a girl on a beach or the shape of iMac or the machine-like sounds of Kraftwerk. If we are unlucky, it may be something that even our machines will find ugly. At this point, we just don’t known yet.”

JM: Lev, I like very much your comments about Daniel Liberskind’s mapping in the Jewish Museum in Berlin and about Janet’s Gardiff’s walks. But talking about mappings of walks, I am always fascinated with the situationist mappings. It comes to my mind something that I read about mapping from an anonymous post “…The 19th Century opium eater Thomas de Quincey with no other goals in mind spent entire days randomly strolling around London. In the 60 ties the Situationists took this activity to the next level by developing psychogeography: the science of the dérive, the drift.” Of course these dérives were not random, but persuaded the psychogeographer to use his or her imagination to experience the urban surroundings in a new way which was unpredictable and for this reason irrational and unstable. Methods they adopted for these mappings were for instance to literally follow their nose by chasing smells or navigating through Paris on a map of London.

From my experience,J anet Gardiff’s audio walks introduce to the viewer a parallel mapping of visual and censorial data which is very engaging to the viewers because the audio effects subordinate to the demands of the narrative and create a fantasy.

For the same reason I find extremely appealing the spectacular impact of the audio visual special effects in science fiction cinema which exist in their own rights and offer the pleasures of excitement, fantasy, magic and escape in the electronically mapped and textured fabric of space and time. Perhaps the audiovisual effects differ widely when applied in the setting of the big screen instead of the context of walk in the museum or public space. But there is no question in my mind that the popularity and enjoyment of audiovisual effects lies exactly in the pleasure of enjoying the awareness of the illusion in which we partake.

Love it or loath it but we cannot ignore it, that one of the reasons why net art is perceived without content or meaning, is the fact that a large number of viewers/ users are not comfortable to seek meaning along the lines of the esthetics which is related on the dynamics of code and data mappings on a single computer without any audio visual censorial input. So the issue here is not about the form nor the content in which the data is mapped but how we experience art generated by pure data.

Many times in my work e.g. in Taystesroom, I find this necessity to create a tangible situation to integrate the viewers, where the physical space echoes the virtual worlds of the net to create a “single whole” as you say. The problem with this is that we fall again into the same conventional methods of presenting traditional and monumental art. Perhaps there is no answer yet but already we can experience beautiful sounds on an ipod computer or via wireless phones or we can see videos on wireless wrist monitors.

LM: Navigating through Paris using a map of London — how wonderful! This is the kind of poetry and conceptual elegance mappings in contemporary “data-art” rarely achieve, if ever. Most often they are driven by the rational impulse to make sense out our complex world, the world there many process and forces are invisible and are out of our reach. So they take some data — Internet traffic, market indicators, book recommendation, statistics of text access in database, or even weather — and map it in some way. (I should note that the similar impulse to “read off” underlying social relations from the visible reality animated many artists in the 1920s, including the main hero of my ‘The Language of New Media,’ Dziga Vertov. Vertov’ 1929 film ‘A Man With a Movie Camera’ is brave attempt to do visual epistemology – to reinterpret the often banal and seemingly insignificant images of everyday life as the result of the struggle between old and the new).

To come back to the present: Important as these projects may be, they miss something else. As opposed to being a kind of “data-epistemology,” trying to make sense of data surrounding us, art has also another function to play — show us other realities embedded in our own, show us the ambiguity always present in our perception and experience, show us what we normally don’t notice or don’t pay attention to. Traditional and normal “representational arts” — literature, painting, photography, cinema — can do this very well. For me, the real challenge for “data-art” is not how to map some abstract and impersonal data into something meaningful and beautiful — economists, graphic designers, and scientists can do this quite well. The real challenge is how to speak on the level of a personal subjective experience. How can we represent this experience in new ways? How can new media allow us to experience the ambiguity, the otherness, the multi-dimensionality of our experience in new ways, thus enriching our lives – for this, this is the real challenge lying before us.

JM: I agree with you Lev that new media has challenged our perception and practice in all kind of ways. I would like to end with a few sentences that I heard once from Hans Haacke … make something which experiences, reacts to its environment, changes, is non-stable … make something indeterminate, which always looks different, the shape of which cannot be predicted precisely … make something which the ‘spectator’ handles, with which he plays and thus animates…

Jun 23, 11:51
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