Response to “The Anti-Sublime Ideal in New Media” Lev Manovich

In this reading, Lev Manovich examines a number of new media projects which could loosely be categorized under the umbrella of “data visualizations” and attempts to draw connections between them and the underlying projects of Modernism and Post-Modernism that are usually applied to artworks in more traditional mediums. By examining these works through this lens, Manovich identifies the differences he sees in these works versus “traditional” artworks and poses questions about whether their formal tendencies are driven by the inherent qualities of their medium or whether they are determined by the aesthetic and conceptual choices of new media practitioners.

As Manovich himself says, he is defining visualization broadly:

“I will use the term visualisation for the situations when quantified data which by itself is not visual – the output of meteorological sensors, stock market behaviours, the set of addresses describing the trajectory of a message through a computer network, and so on – is transformed into a visual representation.”

He refers to this type of visualization both in terms of “a particular subset of mapping” and as a new type of “meta-media.” The distinction between his use of these terms in not defined clearly, but instead seems to stem from the set of concerns he’s discussing in different sections of the reading. Mapping relates these works back to questions of dimensionality and framing: who is deciding which dimensions are left out, and who has the power to set the context and frame for information?

His discussion of “meta-media” is more focused on both the structure and artistic tendencies that he relates back to the project of Post-Modernism: the “remixing of previous cultural content and forms.” He sees the development of compositional software across mediums (which he traces back to Xerox PARC in the 1970s) as inherent to the quality of experiments in new media, determining their structure as a “remix between culture and computers.”

As to his point about the “anti-sublime” tendency in new media works, his points are less clearly defined. He makes an argument that data visualization’s key project of reducing large sets of data input to discrete visual “objects” mirrors the Modernism’s project of abstraction, but this thread is hardly thoroughly explored. The relation between the two seems surface-level at best: while a tendency towards reduction is implicit in both, the theoretical rationales and formal tendencies by which this occurs are radically different.

This is perhaps most clearly seen in his discussion of actual works in new media, which tends toward the esoteric. His reflections on these works spends little time on the aesthetic dimensions, and tends toward generalities:

“We are always told that in good art "form and content form a single whole" and that "content motivates form." Maybe in a "good" work of data art the mapping used must somehow relate to the content and context of data - although I am not sure how this would work in general.”

Manovich ends with a call to visualization artists to portray human subjectivity — an admirable project, to be sure, but certainly not the only viable one? Indeed, this call is symptomatic of the range of slippages that Manovich is making when discussing works of visualization. To what extent are these artworks, and when and how should we treat them as such? Certainly, his examples which draw from installations at the 2002 Whitney Biennial or from self-proclaimed artists can be seen within the parameters of art criticism, but what of the number of other projects which fall into some gray area between art and computer or social sciences?

Applying the frameworks of visual criticism is interesting but perhaps misguided in a number of ways, and more limiting than the tendencies that Manovich himself is calling out among new media practitioners.