New Media Arts

The issue with data visualisation

A reflection on Big Data Aesthetics

Jer Thorp, NYTimes: Hope vs. Crisis

The representation of unstructured, everly changing, chunks of data represents an issue which is just as complex to pin down as it is the variety of Big Data itself.

“Data in its raw form has no value. Data needs to be processed [and visualised] in order to be valuable.” (Technopedia)¹

As the volume of Big Data keeps growing, new practices and concepts concerned with its rendering, and the usage of this, are born. As Morten Søndergaard suggests in his article “The Politics of Big Data Aesthetics”², “the impact that big data techniques are having on the real world is motivated by the way we conceptualise [in other words, visualise] them”. Søndergaard also argues that the reason why this phenomenon is so controversial lies in its involvement with “real-life matters such as surveillance, (ubiquitous) marketing and tracking, the environment, the industry, and globalisation”.

When investigating the issue of representing big data in the realm of installation art, or more generally New Media art, the artist subjectively influences the mapping of data for this to be experienced as something “pointing beyond the data itself” (Søndergaard, 2016)².

How can we associate the concept of data with that of beauty?

This process requires us to think of “the database as medium — and use this medium as cognitive reference tool”(Manovich, 2002)³.

Experiencing data as a representation which we navigate is a the heart of the language of new media. “It is a very human process, and should not be understood as the language of computers”, Manovich describes.

To an extent, data visualization artists are a bit like translators. Aiming at mapping empirical phenomena into something we can perceive as humane, constituting a cognitive experience that eventually goes beyond the characteristics of data.


References:

  1. Techopedia.com. (2018). What is Big Data? — Definition from Techopedia. [online] Available at: https://www.techopedia.com/definition/27745/big-data.
  2. Søndergaard, M. (2018). The Politics of Big Data Aesthetics. [online] Available at: https://tidsskrift.dk/mediekultur/article/view/23078.
  3. Manovic, L. (2001). The Language Of New Media. [book] The MIT Press. Available at: http://dss-edit.com/plu/Manovich-Lev_The_Language_of_the_New_Media.pdf.

Francesco Imola is a London-based musician, weekend photographer, and current Sound Design student at the University of Greenwich.

w. http://francescoimola.com/

tw. https://twitter.com/francescoimola

Randomness

How to account for the unaccountable

You may have never thought about it, but life would not be the same without randomness.

Our entire lives are nothing but an enormous game of chance.

Source: Pexels

But what is it about randomness that make it so special, yet inexplicable to most of us?

In French, aléatoire is the term used for uncertainty and mathematical randomness. It is taken from the Latin alea, the name for dice-games.

Uncertainty is so compelling [to us] that even otherwise skill-based games usually incorporate formal elements of chance, such as the coin toss at the beginning of a football game. Incorporating chance into the game helps delay the moment when the outcome will become obvious.¹

Randomness in the arts

Tristan Tzara’s “To Make A Dadaist Poem” is one of the most well-known – and one of the earliest – examples of indeterminacy applied to the creation of an artwork. While initially seen as an anarchic provocation by the Surrealists of that time, “pulling words out of a hat” has given birth to a valuable trend of chaos in the arts.

Tristan Tzara, To Make a Dadaist Poem, 1920.

While modern artistic implementations of unpredictability have mainly served to address a lack of inspiration or a writer’s block, early uses of randomness could be identified as a “deliberate reaction to World War I”¹.

In music, the major figure making extensive use of indeterminacy in his work was certainly John Cage. According to Cage, randomness can help eliminate the artist’s bias and, therefore, enhance the work by reaching into unexplored territories.

“…Each performance of (such) a piece of music is unique, as interesting to its composer as to others listening. It is easy to see again the parallel with nature, for even with leaves of the same tree, no two are exactly alike” (1996)

[embed]https://youtu.be/Yp07ipz3pQ0[/embed]

In the rest the digital arts, randomness was explored as soon as technology allowed images to be produced via imputing random variables. But is when the first few professional artist gained access to computers, plotters, and microfilm that the visual arts were revolutionised.

Manfred Mohr, for example, made extensive use of random values in the creation of his digital drawings.

Manfred Mohr, P-360-F{FF}, 1984, Plotter ink on canvas.

Randomness in computing

The need for randomness in engineering has always been so necessary that an entire book of random numbers – “A Million Random Digits with 100,000 Normal Deviates” – was published in 1955 to address the need for more random numbers (before the advent of computers).

A Million Random Digits with 100,000 Normal Deviates, RAND Corporation, 1955.

An obvious question to ask about randomness is why a computer would need to implement it in any form.¹

Unpredictable random sequences of numbers are what machines have to deal with all the time. Think about forecasting the weather, or calculating a route taking the traffic conditions into account. These are only some of the operations that can deal with an high amount of uncertainty in computing.

Yet, complete randomness is never what scientists, engineers, and orogrammers usually deal with. Pseudo-randomness is the “subject matter” for indeterminacy in most applications. It is the term used to describe the deterministic process of a machine in producing an evenly distributed sequence of random numbers. It is based on probability and on the existence of constraints within which random functions can exist.

Various uses of randomness

Perlin Noise is a technique employed mostly by game programmers and Hollywood’s VFX industry which generates organic textures with “seemingly” random patterns. Those can be finely controlled to make for perfect natural-looking results.

It was created by Ken Perlin, one of the graphic programmers in Tron, and by the 1990s, it was being used extensively in Hollywood special-effects films and had been incorporated into most off the-shelf modeling software.¹

Example of the use of Perlin Noise for the creation of virtual landscapes. Source: Giliam de Carpentier.

Randomness also plays a crucial role in the security of networked systems.

Security protocols like SSH (Secure Shell) and SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) enable us to make payments on the web and rely on random numbers in many ways, but mostly for generating keys for encryption.

With continual increases in processing power, attacks on encryption are becoming easier, and the goal of making random numbers more. random will be critical for securing society’s constant digital transactions.¹


References:

  1. 10 PRINT CHR$ (205.5+RND(1));: GOTO. (2014). 10print.org, [online] (1), pp.119–145. Available at: https://10print.org/.

Francesco Imola is a London-based musician, weekend photographer, and current Sound Design student at the University of Greenwich.

w. http://francescoimola.com/

tw. https://twitter.com/francescoimola

A brief look into Form Art

Alexei Shulgin’s Form Art (1997)

Once web art at its peak, Form Art now seems like a forgotten achievement in the infinite world of new media.

Yet, the innovative thinking that came along with the short development of Form Art as part of the net.art “movement” has inspired a plethora of contemporary artists.

Alexei Shulgin was one of the prominent members of the movement. He “created” Form Art, but also collaborated with many net artists such as Olia Liliana, Natalie Bookchin, Heath Bunting, and Vuk Cosic in projects which marked a turning point for new media art in the 90s.

In his perfomance Cyberknowledge for Real People (1997), he handed out printed collections of critical texts, previously distributed only online, to shoppers in Vienna. This showed that net art was not medium specific at all, which until then was the predominant theory; it did not have to be experienced online.¹

Shulgin has also organised several software arts festivals, spent time in Moscow collaborating with the creative arts collective Electroboutique, and gained a reputation with his “386DX” performances.

Form Art was commisioned to Shulgin during his residency at C3 in Budapest in 1997. He affirms to have started developing what became his most popular project at that time out of a simple need to experiment with the formal interface of internet technology and reshape it something different.

“I had those buttons, test areas, checkboxes in my mind for a while. The initial idea was to use them not as they were supposed to be used — as input interfaces — but to focus on their shapes, their position on a page, and to try to animate them.” (Alexei Shulgin)

Rhizome describes Form Art as “an interactive, formalist art site navigated aimlessly by clicking through blank boxes and links”².

The power of Form Art comes from its “misuse” of the browser aesthetic and HTML conventions imposed to users interacting with the web. Unknown behaviours, glitchy checkboxes, and patterns of textboxes are characteristic of Form Art.

By playing with combinations of these “forms”, Shulgin manages to create an abstract work of contemporary art which updates itself over time, in tandem with software’s constant evolution. In fact, the work’s appearance relies largely on whichever operating system [and browser] the viewer is using to access it.²

My extremely minimalistic attempt at Form Art

Giving And Taking, Francesco Imola, 2018

Giving and Taking is a short project I realised in p5js (a JavaScript library for creative purposes). I took inspiration from Michael Samyn’s “1001 checkboxes”, an artwork which won the Form Art competition organised by C3 (Hungary’s Center for Culture & Communication Foundation) in 1997.

Not much needs to be explained about its concept and operation. “Giving and Taking” is an endless loop between discomfort and relief.

This project can be visited here (via GitHub).

This is a snippet of the Javascript sketch which makes the artwork run:

let checkbox = [];
let centerwidth = innerWidth / 2;
let centerheight = innerHeight / 2;
let fr = 120;
let animY0 = 0;
let animY1 = innerHeight;
let isOn = false;

function setup() {
noCanvas();
frameRate(fr);
Checkboxes();
}

function Checkboxes() {
for (var i = 0; i <= 1 ; i++) {
checkbox[i] = createCheckbox();
}
}

function draw() {
let velocity = 2;
let speed0 = velocity;
let speed1 = velocity;

checkbox[0].position (centerwidth - 20, animY0);
checkbox[1].position (centerwidth + 20, animY1);

animY0 += speed0;
animY1 -= speed1;

if (animY0 > innerHeight) {
animY0 = 0;
}

if (animY1 < 0) {
animY1 = innerHeight;
}

if (animY0 == animY1) {
isOn = Check();
}
}

function Check() {
if (isOn) {
Uncheck();
}
else {
checkbox[0].checked(true);
checkbox[1].checked(true);
return true;
}
}

function Uncheck() {
checkbox[0].checked(false);
checkbox[1].checked(false);
return false;
}

You may encounter some issues — which I have not yet figured out — if trying to resize the browser window after loading the page. Try resizing the window first and then reloading the site.


References:

  1. Bosma, J. (2017). A Net Artist Named Google. [online] Rhizome. Available at: http://rhizome.org/editorial/2017/jan/12/a-net-artist-named-google-1/.
  2. Rhizome. (n.d.). Form Art. [online] Available at: http://rhizome.org/art/artbase/artwork/form-art/.

Francesco Imola is a London-based musician, weekend photographer, and current Sound Design student at the University of Greenwich.

w. http://francescoimola.com/

tw. https://twitter.com/francescoimola

Designing forms for today’s society

144 Trapèzes (144 Trapeziums) —Vera Molnar (1974)— computer graphic, open series, 16 variations

Form and information are concepts so strictly interconnected to each other that one would be non-existent, or rather impossible to understand, without the other. Living in a world that relies on processing information means that humans are both the makers and the end-users of the mass of information they associate to. Yet, to make use of such data we depend on form, I.e the way information is presented.

“When we leave work, we do not leave information society. In our everyday life, we use search engines, we retrieve data from databases, and we rely on personal information appliances and personal information managers.” (L. Manovich, Introduction to Info-Aesthetics, 2008)

To an attentive enquiry, the word “information” contains the word “form” inside it […]. In reality it is the other way around: in order to be useful to us, information always has to be wrapped up in some external form.¹

Art, sitting at the earth of contemporary culture, isn’t excluded from such business of information processing. Cybernetic art, a branch “that builds upon the legacy of Cybernetics”², is particularly involved in the process of giving form to information.

Concepts have been developed by theorists such as Max Bense and Abraham Moles which speculate on a body of rules aimed at generating non-redundant artworks which focus on information processing. The “avoidance of transgression” and the “elimination of the avoidable” are, Bense affirms, necessary practices to achieve the ultimate form of information aesthetics.

However, redundancy is “inevitable” to the creation any artwork, and it may actually help the beholder approach the work with some interest. Elaborating on such notions, Moles argues that the observer’s previous knowledge is just as fundamental to the understanding of a work.

A. Michael Noll — Gaussian-Quadratic (1963)

The concept of information should be understood as content measurable in the transmission and storage of messages. All information on whose transmission communication is based, is built up by means of “signs”. (C. Giannetti, Cybernetic Aesthetics and Communication)

Contemporary design was substantially influenced by the notions of information aesthetic introduced and developed during the 50s and 60s. Designers started to build focusing on the human perception — especially the visual perception — of their work, which became more communicative. It is this work, which eventually gave rise to computer art and many other branches of new media art in the years to follow.


References:

  1. L. Manovich (2008). Introduction to Info-Aesthetics. [Online]. Available at http://manovich.net/index.php/projects/introduction-to-info-aesthetics
  2. Wikipedia. Cybernetic Art [Online] Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cybernetic_art

Francesco Imola is a London-based musician, weekend photographer, and current Sound Design student at the University of Greenwich.

w. http://francescoimola.com/

tw. https://twitter.com/francescoimola

Online drawing and first steps with p5.js

Take Processing and Javascript, put those in bowl, add some HTML5 and CSS, mix them, and here you have a shiny new tool for creating easy-to-interact shapes, text, video, sound, and a myriad of other online objects.

In an attempt to put onto use the very elementary functions of P5.js that I have learned in the past week, I sat down and built an half-ever-moving drawing formed of text and lines. I was well inspired by Picasso’s minimalist portraiture.

drawingsxdrawings, Francesco Imola

I made use of a Javascript array to initialise the words to be displayed and added 4 Random functions, each one receiving the array as input and outputting the words in a different order, following the frameRate fps to set the speed. The rest of the code consists of the actual drawing of lines and positioning of the text.

It can be viewed here https://francescoimola.github.io/drawingsxdrawings/

The P5.js script used to build all of drawingsxdrawings

Francesco Imola is a London-based musician, weekend photographer, and current Sound Design student at the University of Greenwich.

w. http://francescoimola.com/

tw. https://twitter.com/francescoimola

When technology meets the artist.

Taking shape out of 1970s’ computer-generated visual art, “digital art” developed as a reaction to the technology advancement and the spread of the World Wide Web in the mid-90s. It has since become an established practice, often than not included under the umbrella term of New Media art.

[embed]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=awvQp1TdBqc[/embed]

Defining an art that is constantly evolving is a complex process. However, trying to exemplify it by presenting the reader with various manifestations of digital art may be helpful. Christiane Paul’s Digital Art (World of Art) is a successful attempt at surveying the multiple forms this artistic practice can assume. Paul investigates the boundary-crossing activities that played a major role in the production of digital art.

Christian Paul, Digital Art: World of Art, 2003/2008/2015

Dating back to the birth of the first ENIAC (Electronical Numerical Operator and Computer) in 1951, the line between engineering innovators and artists was yet to be defined.

Who are we to assume that, in fact, scientific discoveries are not driven by artistic minds, eager to explore their practice just as much as so-called artists do? Not to mention the algorithms that form the basis for all the software we use today. Those may as well have been developed firstly for artistic purposes.

For example, take a second to look at the Terravision project started out by Art+Com Studios in 1994. It is a “networked virtual representation of the earth based on satellite images, aerial shots, altitude data, and architectural data. It allows users to navigate seamlessly from overviews of the earth to extremely detailed objects and buildings.”¹ (Art+Com)

Does it look any familiar? Google Earth anyone?

“In simpler words, engineering is to art just like a pen is to a book. Had civil engineers and architects not been there, some of the greatest buildings in the world would not have been built. In a similar manner, if audio engineers had not mixed some of the greatest music albums of all time, those albums would not have sound so great.”² (Nermin Sa’d)

On this matter, digital art draws its inspiration from conceptual elements. Instructions, or algorithms, are seen as the foundation — and the limit themselves — to the creation of new artworks.

“A procedure of formal instructions would accomplish a result in a finite number of steps. […] Their fusion with audience participation and event as the smallest unit of a situation in many ways anticipated the interactive, event-based nature of some computer artworks.”³ (Christiane Paul)

John Cage was one of the earliest masters of revolutionising random access, often using the audience response as a “musical instrument”. Many of his sound and visual works were created partially though randomisation of elements in the composition — which were never twice the same.

[embed]https://vimeo.com/23057544[/embed]

The role of arts organisations associated with digital art was also fundamental to the expansion of the practice. Most of those, such as EAT (Experiments in Arts and Technology), besides organising colloquiums and gatherings for both engineers and artists, also developed an interest in promoting live performances. The focus of interactive projects in the 1970s and 80s ranged from making use of slow scan television and satellites to setting up real-time teleconferencing — collapsing the geographical boundaries of real space.

Some More Beginnings Exhibition at E.A.T. in 1968

Making the audience participant in the work has been a constant motif in the forming of many digital artworks. While some artists were involved into creating more object-oriented works, others explored the interactive aspects of process-oriented art. The artist became a mediator between the public and the digital medium.

Because of its characteristics, however, digital art poses quite a few challenges in its presentation, storing, and preservation. This has contributed to creating a gap between media artists and gallery institutions. Most museums don’t have the tools to maintain time-based and interactive digital artworks. Additionally, especially when we talk about Internet Art, this is presented on a freely available medium which anyone can have access to. The status of the museum as the only space where to experience the artwork is therefore lost.

Neverthless, the interest for new, more participatory, forms of art from museums worldwide is increasing. Galleries like Tate, MoMA, and SAAM, to name a few, are currently displaying and storing digital artworks on their own websites.

“What makes digital art unstable are the rapid changes and developments in hardware and software.”⁴ Initiatives aimed at preserving digital art are currently under development. In the meantime we can only hope for institutions to fight these limitations and for artist to keep developing their practice as technology advances.


References:

1: ART+COM Studios (1994). Terravision, 1994. [online] Available at https://artcom.de/project/terravision/

2: Nermin S. (2014). The Eternal Relationship between Art and Engineering. [online] Available at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/20141207232402-65458978-the-eternal-relationship-between-art-and-engineering/

3–4: Paul C. (2015). Digital Arts (World of Art). [paperback] Available at https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/131831.Digital_Art


Francesco Imola is a London-based musician, weekend photographer, and current Sound Design student at the University of Greenwich.

w. http://francescoimola.com/

tw. https://twitter.com/francescoimola