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Data visualization art

The posting on <a href="http://transition.turbulence.org/blog/">Networked Performance</a> about the <a href="http://casualdata.com/newsknitter/">News Knitter</a> (reblogged on Rhizome <a href="http://www.rhizome.org/editorial/fp/reblog.php/4113">here</a>) prompted me to mull over the common pitfalls (that I'm not immune to stumbling over in my own art) of data visualization & technology-based art. I'd love to have people take a look at the post and share their thoughts: <a href="http://www.ethanham.com/blog/2008/01/coffee-knitting-rice-and-data.html">Coffee, knitting, rice, and data</a>.



Erika Lincoln Jan. 25 2008 10:19Reply

Hi Ethan, I read your post, and yes I think that your points are relivant, in particular the "demo" work. Works based on novelty of a technique, I think the best way to describe work like this is illustrative, a one to one relationship, and frankly in my opinion 1:1 is boring.
I also read the first comment that was posted on your blog, and I do have to point out that as the commenter says coffee has cultural connotations that brings more to the work, and the commenter does not like the sweater or rice works. However it is not that there are not any cultural connotations with rice or sweaters only the works lack any complexity in the ideas behind them.
I hope more people read your post and respond to what you have to say because I think there is not enough discussion about "demo-ing" and what place it holds in artmaking.

Max Herman Jan. 27 2008 15:25Reply


Hi Erika, I'm not familiar with too much of the type of work you are discussing here but I would say that often data visualization is a form of Low Networkism. In this category fall things like digitalism, connectionism, virtualism, computerism, dataism, remixism, and machinism. You could also call these items "philotechny" or "love of technology." What they all forget is that in the aesthetic evolution of humanity for better or for worse humanity is the supreme force, not technology. Technology however is much easier to manage in the micro scale and hence more popular, and looks more expert and "artistic" in the vulgar sense.

Any of the above factors have to be integrated into the greater human problems of aesthetic evolution, i.e. the actual development of living humans and systems that help this, if they are to make sense as part of High Networkism rather than Low. They will be more prevalent in the early years of Networkism however, unavoidably, when presented as isolated gimmicks.

Max Herman
The Genius 2000 Network
Le Cafe online now


a bill miller Jan. 28 2008 00:45Reply

Okay. I'm not going to talk too much about the work you discussed on your blog. I haven't seen the work other than around the net, so I don't think I have a very good view of what it might be. However, I don't think that I can agree with you that art that uses data visualization as a means of generating a body of work is shallow.

The way that I see it is that a lot of work that uses or references data visualization points to the shift in our visual culture into one that is more centered on information. If everything can be reduced down to information, then it is possible to represent that information in a visually interesting way. I don't have a complete argument for you here, but currently I've been trying to look deeper into this issue and here is one place that I am starting:


Regardless, its a very interesting topic.

A. Bill Miller
Site: master-list2000.com
Blog: gridworks1.blogspot.com

Ethan Ham Jan. 28 2008 01:34Reply

My point wasn't that data visualization is shallow; that's way too sweeping of generalization for me to be comfortable with. My point was more along the lines of saying shallow data visualization is shallow. If it is intended as art, I don't think it is enough for the data to be presented in a visually interesting way… there needs to be something more there. Data visualization isn't really the core the art I do, so my thoughts on the matter may not be as fully developed as some other peoples'… the more central concern for me (and one which encompasses, I think, the type of data visualization art which is mainly about having a cool looking graphic) is technology-based art which focused on the niftiness of technology as opposed to trying to transcend the medium and speak to something larger.

Pall Thayer Jan. 28 2008 07:20Reply

As someone who does work a lot in data visualization and has done so for quite some time, I do agree with some of your points and find that your use of the term Demo-art gets to the core of the issue. On the other hand, I'm not sure that we necessarily need a new term (demo-art) for what essentially refers to a "sketch." A work of art that is more exploratory in nature, exploring either types of content or, as might be more relevant in this case, methods and processes of creation without going to the extent of being a fully matured work of art. However, these types of work are and have always been an integral part of the process of developing works of art. If there is a "problem" here then perhaps it has more to do with the pace of our times and the rush and need to "get things out there" (not to mention the fact that it is now much easier to make "everything" public) that we tend to see more work today that hasn't reached the point of being fully developed. So in my optimistic view of the world I would agree that eRiceCooker comes across as something that emerged out of the question, "How can I turn a robotic rice-cooker into a work of art?" It still might lead to something more fully developed and mature sometime in the near future… and it doesn't even have to have anything to do with rice. If that does happen, it will even make the eRiceCooker more important as a precursor (exploratory research/preliminary sketch) to the later piece.

a bill miller Jan. 28 2008 15:56Reply

I see what you guys are saying, and I don't disagree with you. It is important to draw some sort of distinction between what is work that is still being developed and something that is fully realized. The question then has to do with how do we discuss projects that can be viewed publicly that aren't fully completed or still in "demo" stage? And, how do we create a space where work can be viewed and discussed without it being fully developed? Finally, what if some work is meant for us to question our relationships to both technology and information and isn't particularly about an "object" to be viewed even though an object is present?

Ethan Ham Jan. 28 2008 16:38Reply

It is important to draw some sort of distinction between what is work that is still being developed and something that is fully realized.

In-development in what way? Do you think these projects are uncompleted (that certainly doesn't seem to be the case to me) or that they should be taken as a quasi-artistic "proof-of-concept," or something else? All three of these projects have project websites that were put up by the artist/developer–so I'm pretty sure they want people to discuss them… and if that is the case, I think the artists need to be open for people to look at both what works & what doesn't.

Finally, what if some work is meant for us to question our relationships to both technology and information and isn't particularly about an "object" to be viewed even though an object is present?

I'm certainly up for art that is more conceptually-oriented (if that's what you're meaning). But in the case of these three project, it's the object that seems most successful and the conceptual exploration of our relationship-to-technology that seems less so.

Honestly, I don't mean to pick on these three projects in particular… what I find interesting about them is that where I think they fall a bit short is a good illustration of how many technology-based works (and again, I'm not exempting my own work from this) miss the mark in ways that seems particular to our media.

Pall Thayer Jan. 28 2008 17:32Reply

Ethan, I think Bill is responding here to what I said. I suggested that what you choose to call "Demo art" is really the same as the artist's "sketch". That may suggest a level of "incompleteness". However "not fully developed" is not synonymous with "in-development." I'm sure that the creator of eRiceCooker feels that the work is complete but since we seem to agree that the work is missing something or something doesn't quite work, that means the work, as far as we are concerned, is "not fully developed." As I mentioned before, eRiceCooker does look like a project that began with a nifty techno-gimick that then had a concept tagged on to it to make it a work of art. That doesn't mean it's dead in the water. It still has potential. Could, with some more work, lead to a really good piece. But it needs to be "developed" more.

Ethan Ham Jan. 28 2008 19:23Reply


That makes sense (both your thoughts & that Bill was responding to you). The concept of a sketch is an interesting idea… I do make "prototypes," which is something along the lines of a "sketch," but not exactly since the prototypes are a step in a larger process where a sketch could just be a doodle without (necessarily) a plan to develop further. Hmm… I think I might do a few new media sketches!


a bill miller Jan. 28 2008 22:26Reply

Basically, I think that I agree most with the idea that even if the work is "finished" it perhaps presents a potential that may not be explored. I need to get some more new media sketches too!

Pall Thayer Jan. 29 2008 05:43Reply

I would hope though that all artwork presents a potential that may call for further exploration. That's what keeps art going. If we reach a point where someone makes a work of art that is complete and absolute, offering no new paths for exploration, we're done. We can all pack our bags and go home. Art is finished, 'twas fun while it lasted. But, seriously, it is possible to find a point of momentary finality. Sort of like the end of a chapter in a book. The story's not complete but this particular part for this particular artist, is. It's a very fine line and hard to describe.

I don't see what's so novel about the idea of new media sketches. I've been doing them since I started doing this type of work and always referred to them as sketches. I have loads of code-sketches on my computers. Just little bits of code where I'm trying something out, either for a particular project I'm working on, to recall how to do something I've done before or just out of curiosity. It seems perfectly natural to me to refer to them as studies or sketches rather than prototypes. To me, prototypes are something made by engineers and scientists, not artists. But ok, I have made "prototypes" too. However, now that the issue has been brought up, from this point on I will never call anything I do a "prototype".

Ethan Ham Jan. 29 2008 13:03Reply

For me there's room for both prototypes and sketches… If I really wanted to only use art-world terms, I suppose I'd call a prototype a "study." Something that is specifically directed towards developing a particular finished work seems a prototype or study, where a sketch seems a bit more aimless.

Rob Myers Jan. 29 2008 14:08Reply

That's a good way of looking at it. Processing calls its projects "sketches", and there's a tradition of exploratory programming in software development and of prototyping in hardware development.

But I think that the core issue here is that sketches, and often works produced as academic coursework, are being exhibited as finished works. This isn't Impressionism, it's a category error.

a bill miller Jan. 30 2008 09:00Reply

Just saw this and thought it may be interesting in the context of a discussion that questions formulas like:

information aesthetics blog about a rice project

Pall Thayer Jan. 30 2008 09:21Reply

Nice, Bill. Now, if our eRiceCooker artist had a little robotic figure resembling say, George Bush, that would move around that exhibition, shoveling the rice into the cooker and cooking up a meal out of it… That would make for some pretty strong art.

Erika Lincoln Jan. 30 2008 11:07Reply

Where does the rice go after the exhibition? Is there any data-viz on that.