Interview with Mitchell Whitelaw

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Image: Mitchell Whitelaw, 05.02_540_radial - Watching the Sky, 2008

Mitchell Whitelaw is an artist and writer with interests in digital ontology and generative systems. His work and theory are invested in a close reading of the networks and tools we engage on a daily basis and questioning modes of representation. Whitelaw is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Creative Communication at the University of Canberra and he also authors (the teeming void), a blog on generative and data aesthetics. In this interview conducted by Greg J. Smith, Whitelaw discusses his recent work and contextualizes several of his writing projects.

Greg J. Smith: A central focus in your recent writing is the notion of transmateriality. Instead of reading information and mediated experience as virtual or "disembodied" this investigation focuses on the tangible, idiosyncratic nature of the digital. Can you identify and contextualize a few new media projects that explicitly explore or invoke the materiality of data?

Mitchell Whitelaw: There's been a huge wave of them. Self.detach, by Tim Horntrich and Jens Wunderling "decomposes" Flickr self-portraits into grains of colored sand, literally materializing the pixels; Caleb Larsen's Monument (If it Bleeds it Leads) takes a similar approach, analyzing news feeds for reports of war casualties and presenting each death as a tiny yellow BB, dropped into a hopper. So, tangible data is one aspect of this idea, but it also relates to the current explosion of hardware tinkering and custom devices, which create local, specific, and material instances of digital systems. A beautiful example of this is H C Gilje's wind-up birds, a group of mechanical woodpeckers - microcontroller-driven solenoids that tap on hand-made wooden slit drums - installed in a forest also inhabited by real woodpeckers. Materializing digital systems also embeds them more deeply in their surrounding environment, of course. A final example fascinates me because it's a kind of non-digital transmateriality: Thomas Traxler's The Idea of a Tree is a solar-powered mechanical system that turns a spindle to fabricate objects from epoxy and string. Variations in solar energy change the speed of the spindle, which changes the amount of dye on the string, so that the resulting object manifests that variation.

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Image: Thomas Traxler, The Idea of a Tree (machine & generated artefacts), 2008

The Idea of a Tree is quite compelling. How would you read the output from that device? Is it explicitly about the indeterminacy of the output? I'm curious to hear your thoughts on the relationship that apparatus has with the "natural processes" it measures and emulates.

As I understand it, the artifacts can be read as records of solar energy over the span of a day. The length of the object depends on the total amount of sunlight (more sunlight, more length); the bands of color reveal variations in energy throughout the day. The slower the string moves through the dye, the more the dye penetrates, giving a darker color - this mechanism is ingenious. So, I don't think it's about indeterminacy. I also don't think it's particularly about natural processes, despite the analogy of the title. I would distinguish "material" from "natural"; this is a material system that manifests structures in its specific, local environment. There's nothing inherently "natural" about the data it gathers: those variations in solar energy could relate to shadows from nearby buildings, or atmospheric pollution, as much as clouds and seasons. In a way, I think the tree analogy works best in reverse, here; tree as (local, material) machine seems more interesting than machine as tree-like.

Would you frame your photo-based Watching the Sky project in the same way? That is, sky as (local material) machine?

Yes, exactly. Watching the Sky is a very simple work. Long series of time-lapse images, shot every three minutes, are compressed or "revisualised" to reveal patterns within and between days and weeks (perhaps eventually years). It's essentially a digital slit-scan process, where narrow slices of each image are extracted and recompiled. As Golan Levin has shown this is a well-worn technique; this work tries to recast it as a form of data visualization - as well as slowing it down. Digital images are an interesting data source because they are so obviously indiscriminate; they show whatever is in the field of view, regardless of what is ostensibly being "measured" (the Google Street View controversy illustrates this nicely). So, like the solar energy in Thomas Traxler's work, the image can cut across domains and scales like a kind of core sample; and yes, in this work the image is a trace of a changing material field. Initially the work was focused on the sky as a visual data source; but the initial sketches used images scraped from a webcam that included trees, power lines and other foreground clutter. To my surprise, some of the most interesting structures emerged from this extraneous stuff; from trees shifting in the breeze, shadows moving, and so on. I later realized these were all traces of the material field's interactions with itself; when the images show the foliage shifting as the wind changes, the landscape is acting as both object and instrument, it's a kind of self-revelation. The images also show human or social patterns; like cars being parked on the grass, outside my office window. I like the idea of all these scales, from the distant clouds to the local shadows, and domains from the weather to the parking, being compressed into a single field, but still readable.

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Image: Mitchell Whitelaw, Stacked Histogram - The Visible Archive, 2008

You are currently working on The Visible Archive, a project to visualize the holdings of the National Archives of Australia. Could you briefly describe the scope of this project and how this "data practice" extends out of or informs your broader research?

The project is funded by the National Archives, simply exploring interactive visualizations of their collection. In many ways it's a fairly straight-ahead data visualization project, based on the premise that visualization is a useful way to reveal structure in large datasets, and can give a sense of context or orientation to users navigating that data. I'm working with two main datasets; one describes the entire collection in around 35,000 groups, or series; the other is a single series with some 20,000 individual items. The exciting part here is what that data is: primary materials from the history of modern Australia. The very first visualization I made of the series data was a simple histogram, counting how many series commenced in a given year. The histogram had three big spikes: at 1901, 1914 and 1939. So three big historical moments - Federation and the two Wars - popped out of the visualization as a simple statistical property of the data. I'm most interested in revealing these kind of emergent structures within the datasets.

My interests in "data practice" started out as critical and theoretical; I've been observing the rise of a kind of data aesthetics in sound, music and the media arts over the past decade, and it's a fascinating moment, as culture and practice come to grips with a material that is so central to contemporary society. "Art Against Information", a paper on data art published earlier this year, develops a critical response. My own experiments in sonification and visualization are partly ways for me to test out theoretical hunches, but largely (and increasingly) rewarding in themselves. You can view data as a kind of generative strategy for the arts in one sense - it's just another way of making stuff - but also, and this interests me a lot, it's broader than art; it's about epistemology, ways of understanding the world, whatever that is. It can be art if it wants to, but frankly I'm more interested in what else it can do.

There has definitely been an ascent of "datasthetics" over the last decade. The fact that we can discuss this enterprise in terms of sonification AND visualization directly addresses how difficult it can be to classify projects of this nature. You've written about integrated audio-visual work in the past - to summarize this line of thought, what would you describe as some key characteristics of this type of media art and performance?

I've been focusing on work where the audiovisual relation is automatic or algorithmic, where there's some kind of "direct translation" between sound and image. I was drawn to this work by its sheer sensory impact; a feeling of some kind of revelation (again). Two Australian artists got me started: oscilloscope works by Robin Fox, and Andrew Gadow's analog video-to-audio synthesis. It appeared out of the experimental electronic scene where glitch had flourished, and this audiovisual fusion seemed to extend or develop glitch in some way. I argued in "Inframedia Audio" (2001 - PDF link) that glitch was about materializing or manifesting the infrastructure of media arts practice, about connecting it up to the body. But almost, by definition, glitch can only do this in little eruptions, tiny cracks or momentary errors. For me fused audiovisuals are a way to "feel out", in a more sustained way, the abstract relations that underpin all electronic media: the domain of the signal or data, and the rendition of that signal into sensory experience (vision or sound). Synaesthesia is often used as an analogy for this work, because like a synaesthete's brain, the media systems seem to automatically translate between one modality and another. I argue that this analogy is limited because audiovisual works are artifacts - objects of perception - not perceptions. Another option is to treat these as extreme forms of something quite normal: cross-modal perception, which is where we integrate sensations in different modalities (vision and hearing for example) to link them to a single cause. Lip-sync, where we join image and sound into a represented body, is a good example: the "common cause" that underpins the moving mouth and the heard voice is the body of the speaker. Fused audiovisuals are very similar: two modalities both linked to a common cause, which is the signal or data, and the map, or space of relation between the audio and visual domains.

Your earlier writing orbited around generative art and complex evolutionary systems. What is the missing link between this work and the informatics & "digital ontology" you've been focusing on lately?

My work on generative art started with a PhD on artists using artificial life (eventually published as Metacreation). Like most big projects, I'd had my fill of it by the time it finished, and I was frustrated with what were often naive implementations of a-life models. But I also found a strain of generative work in that study that seemed more promising, especially where artists were messing around with those "readymade" models and making up idiosyncratic generative systems of their own: Driessens and Verstappen's work is a great example of this. This is one of the links with my current work - an understanding of generative art through its systems or models, and their potential to be poetic or critical, as well as generative. (This is elaborated in "System Stories and Model Worlds", from 2003 - PDF link.)

The ontologies idea develops this, looking at the way that formal systems - generative systems but also for example games and social web services - create specific systems of being and relation. A simple example is the various formal models of "friend" in different social services. In formal terms a Facebook "friend" is different to a Delicious "fan", which is in turn more like a Twitter "follower." These ontologies, little formal worlds, can be read critically, but crucially they also have generative implications that play out in the system. A recent paper on "Strange Ontologies" (PDF link) looks at cases where the conventions of these ontologies are tweaked or hacked, or where the generative playing out of a formal ontology undercuts the ontology itself - another form of emergence. A nice example of that is "corpse graffiti" in World of Warcraft, where players use the persistence of corpses as a way to leave messages in an otherwise impervious environment.

Greg J. Smith is a Toronto-based designer and researcher with interests in media theory, representation and digital culture. He co-curates and edits the online digital arts publication Vague Terrain and blogs at Serial Consign.