Meta-Meta, Data Modernism, and Anti-Sublime Ideals

In his four essays, Lev Manovich offers a discussion of data visualization (defined a narrow subset of 'mapping' where non-visual data is mapped to an image) in the cultural sphere. He poses questions and arguments around what makes data visualization art compelling, and what makes it art itself, while giving examples of compelling works that provide aesthetic beauty and evoke an emotional response in the audience. His perspective is an interesting account of one of the many uses for data visualization, and I find his explanation of this field's close relationship with both science and art particularly interesting.

His account of computer software's (as 'new media') use in the context of old media frames his account of meta-media. Meta-media objects have both language (the original media structure) and meta-language (software tools that allow us to interact with this media in a new way, while keeping the media and content itself intact). He argues that software creating visualizations that can poke into existing media in profoundly new ways to offer new perspectives and ask new questions is the most compelling applications of this technology in the cultural sphere:

More complex and unusual mappings are also possible - and the search for such new mappings that allow us to access old media objects in new ways congruent with information interfaces we use in our everyday life - represents one of the most fruitful research directions in new media art.

His example, which we looked at in class, of Mamber splitting each frame of a film into individual images, is a particularly compelling use case. This creative approach to technology application allows us to see the entirety of a film in one digestible image, evaluating what understanding or emotion this image evokes in us, and what it lacks.

While meta-media harnesses artifacts and outputs of media existing before or outside the realm of computer software, data modernism harnesses these developments in order to use the computer to create art that focuses on computation itself. The most compelling piece presented to me was Jevbrat's 1:1 project, which compiled active IP-addresses into a centralized database and visualized this information in different ways. The abstract and oddly beautiful 'every' rendition was my personal favorite, which shows the entire (potentially never-ending) web in one image, evoking a drastically different experience than using a typical browser. With the color and order of each pixel dictated in a programmatic but seemingly arbitrary way (based on digits in the IP address itself), the outcomes fittingly evokes thoughts of an old TV screen losing its color and focus.

Finally, Manovich explains how data visualization art subscribes to an 'anti-sublime' ideal. Rooted in science, this field strives to present the complex and unintelligible in forms that are digestible and palatable to observers. Both Jevbrat and Mamber's project are emblematic of this ideal - mapping grandiose data as far reaching as the internet and presenting them in a packaged and interpretable (and interactive) images.

Tying all these concepts together are the political and conscious choices designers make in constructing these visualizations. Emblematic of topics covered by Drucker, Manovich understands that choices and trade-offs need to be made in presenting specific data (that often contain more than the four dimensions we can conceptualize), just as Drucker explains that all data and visualizations are abstractions of reality that present a specific narrative. While I like Manovich's idea to present the arbitrary nature of some of these decisions made in data mapping front and center, which I find very poetic, I do not necessarily buy his arguments regarding the Jewish Museum in Berlin. After some brief research the design and architecture of this building feel incredibly precise, with practically no decision being made arbitrarily. Manovich's lack of perspective or understanding of why the architect decided to project the mappings of Jewish connections in Berlin on the faces of the building's wall does not mean that these nets were "randomly scattered over the shapes of the building". I find it hard that dedicated and detail-oriented designers or architects would allow unmotivated mappings to pervade their works. However, the decisions these designers (especially data viz designers) make should be highlighted and discussed, since the perception that any chart shows hard and fast truths should be confronted and combated.