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we are showered with data like never before. If managing
information was already a fulltime job under the ‘society
of information’, the impact of ‘Web 2.0’ over the past few
years has turned it into something approaching slave labour.
Why? Because the countless social-networking sites, wikis
and folksonomies which aim to facilitate collaboration
and sharing among web users have also enabled them
to generate ever more information, leading to a maniacal
inflation in the processing, canalising and diffusion of data.
But as unstoppable as these forces may be, they have given
rise to their own artistic form.
Curator and art critic José Luis de Vicente, who
recently directed a workshop on data visualisation at the
Medialab Prado, in Madrid, defines his topic as ‘a cross-
discipline which uses the vast communicative power of
images to offer a comprehensible explanation of the
relationship among meaning, cause and dependence that
can be found among large abstract masses of information
generated by scientific and social processes’.
Today most newspapers and magazines have
information designers on staff, where, combining techniques
from statistics, graphic design and computer analysis, they
seek to discern meaningful patterns in masses of data
– whether concerning war casualties, political debates in the
US presidential elections or the relative costs of renting and
buying a house – and shape them into powerful images.
Artists are also increasingly interested in designing
new forms of representing the relentless flow of data, not only
Putting
to make sense of complexity but also to place it in a social
context. One of the most admired examples is They Rule,
by Josh On. The online graph represents the interlocking of
the most influential directors and companies in the US. You
might suspect that their network is tightly knit, but playing
data
with the interactive graph will do more than confirm this: the
interconnectedness, as it was compiled by the artist in 2001
and then again in 2004, is such that some individuals sit on
5, 6 or 7 of the top 500 companies’ boards. Moreover, these
into
directors often sit on government committees as well, or
have been members of previous administrations. The irony
of the artwork is that not only the curious, the researchers, the
journalists, are visiting the website. It appears that the very
the
people whose names are featured on They Rule use it as a
tool for finding out who in their cohort can provide a missing
link to a distant boardmember.
By externalising our cognitive skills, information
Picture
aesthetics draw pictures which help us see patterns
in complexity that we would otherwise not be able to
comprehend. However, the fascinating images generated
by these data wizards can be dangerous: they could make
us believe that reality can be defined by and reduced to
an image.
For Medialab Prado, see http://medialab-prado.es; They Rule,
www.theyrule.net
Josh On, They Rule, 2001/04
Mixed Media_Digital.indd 135 5/2/08 13:15:01
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