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Data's Demon

I’m very much of two minds about the whole issue of “data-mining,” as Lev Manovich puts it – or “data-recovery” as others might say inasmuch as we have all contributed to that ever-expanding mother-lode – with which Renée Ridgway has invited us to engage in her recent, thought-igniting post. The sheer magnitude of data accumulation is positively diabolical – or at least demonic, to use a more genteel term for the hellish little fellow. Indeed, in a fascinating if somewhat sibylline passage in his deliciously premonitory novel, The Crying of Lot 49, written in the early 1960s, Thomas Pynchon imagines an ambivalent character whom I see as Data’s Demon.

“The Demon passes his data on to the sensitive, and the sensitive must reply in kind. There are untold billions of molecules in that box. The Demon collects data on each and every one. At some deep psychic level he must get through. The sensitive must receive that staggering set of energies, and feed back something like the same quantity of information. To keep it all cycling. On the secular level all we can see is one piston, hopefully moving. One little movement, against all that massive complex of information, destroyed over and over with each power stroke.”

There’s some food for thought. Earlier, I posted a response to Renée’s text, enthusing about the potential of dynamic data display applied to art critique. There has been discussion of the benefits of establishing a "curatorial bank," even as banks are going bust all around us. More, more, more. Consider this drilling analogy: community groups in some potentially oil-rich Latin American and West African countries are now demanding payment not to extract their oil, but to leave it be – in effect asking for payment for responsibly refusing to further carbon emissions, instead of jumping at the opportunity for petrol dollars (and all the happiness they’ve brought). That’s the most radical proposal for downsizing I know of. Can we apply it to data-recovery? Should we?

Ultimately, data recovery may prove to be a futile passion. This is surely the perspective of the millions of people who have tried, as opposed to the happy few who have managed. In contemporary society, data compiling has all the trappings of a passion, albeit a digitized one, and an ever more intrinsic part of regimes of biopolitical control. In a sense, data has become the most all-pervasive – and intangibly invasive – feature of our lives. The proliferation of data-driven practices in the artworld is merely an upshot of the spread of data gathering, display and use in all walks of life; of life become data. But can data, once lost, ever really be recovered? Can it be lured back into the vessel from which it escaped? Data can be covered over, buried beneath heaps of crunched numbers, but it is not obvious that it can be recuperated, if only because data, however reactive, is always a mere snapshot of a constantly morphing ensemble.

Yet, paradoxically, data never really goes away. It is insidiously enduring. Ironically, this raises an opposite question: can life itself be recovered once reconfigured and re-depicted by data? Can life in all its contradictory meanderings be uncovered once it has been covered over by ones and zeros? Life appears strangely frail in the face of the implacable explanatory power of information, which seems to know life better than it knows itself.

Perhaps data’s greatest paradox is the staggering discrepancy between its substance and its performative power, in other words, between what it is and what it can do. Data merely provides a representation of what was by definition already there, of a state of affairs that was experientially available. Yet, although it brings nothing new into the world, it has a paradoxically powerful ability to makes things happen. The paradox stems from the fact that data is at once the very image of abstraction and somehow terribly concrete. Data merely makes quantifiable and thus perceptible what was already there, providing a measurement of what people were living. Data stands in a curious grammatical relationship to its object: even if produced in real time, data is always conjugated in the present even as its referent is to some extent in the past, always already moving elsewhere. Think of pioneer sexologist Alfred Kinsey’s famous – infamous when first released in the 1950s – report on sexual practices in America. Surely Americans knew what they were feeling and experiencing first hand (no pun intended). Yet when their desires, fantasies and practices were quantified and published in the wake of extensive interviews and careful data compilation, there was great hue and cry – as if the objectification of their subjectivity jarred their self-understanding and turned them into perverts in their own eyes! Such is data’s strange and estranging power.

This potential is of course a double-edged sword, for empirically, data is value neutral (though empiricism itself may not be); it all depends on the use to which it is put. An artist like Trevor Paglen uses data compiling and presentation to great heuristic and subversive effect in laying bare the shadowy and often illegal operations of the United States military (http://www.paglen.com/pages/projects.htm). One can be sure that the military too has been doing some compiling on their self-assigned compiler…

Another way of stating the same paradox is to point out that data is never actually hidden, but “out there,” available – for anyone determined enough to sift through the reams of words and figures that drown the essential in a sea of trivia. Not only is the lived experience expressed by data embodied by those concerned; but even those facts that are ostensibly censured are often right in front of our eyes, like Edgar Allan Poe’s Purloined Letter. This point was eloquently made in an extraordinary performance by Beirut-based artist Rabih Mrouhé called Looking for a missing employee, a story about the assassination of a Lebanese tax official with a case full of money – a true incident that became submerged in a flood of speculation, false reports, denial and rumour (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s63_ahjb6t4). Sitting among the audience, a pile of newspaper clippings his only source of information, Rabih Mrouhé shows that the culprits and their motives are clearly designated in the press. As the performance develops, the artist sifts through the clippings showing each one on an overhead projector as a corroborative piece of evidence. With the audience as his witness, he gives an eloquent lesson in factual recovery – recovering the truth from a glut of constantly reasserted uncertainty, idle speculation and false leads that keep it hidden. The work was performed once in Beirut, then subsequently banned… Data recovery is against the law.

It is perhaps trivial to suggest that too much data kills data, but it is clear that there is an economy of data transfer and management, which determines data’s efficacy… and subversive potential. Though data cannot necessarily be recovered, it can be transferred. But who controls the transfer point? Who is the “Demon” sitting at the switch? To speak of a Demon in this case is to think of Maxwell’s famous thought experiment:

“If we conceive of a being whose faculties are so sharpened that he can follow every molecule in its course, such a being, whose attributes are as essentially finite as our own, would be able to do what is impossible to us. For we have seen that molecules in a vessel full of air at uniform temperature are moving with velocities by no means uniform, though the mean velocity of any great number of them, arbitrarily selected, is almost exactly uniform. Now let us suppose that such a vessel is divided into two portions, A and B, by a division in which there is a small hole, and that a being, who can see the individual molecules, opens and closes this hole, so as to allow only the swifter molecules to pass from A to B, and only the slower molecules to pass from B to A. He will thus, without expenditure of work, raise the temperature of B and lower that of A, in contradiction to the second law of thermodynamics.”

Leaving aside the intricacies of the physics conundrum, we might – as Thomas Pynchon does in The Crying of Lot 49 – imagine bits of data as standing in for molecules; ones and zeros in lieu of molecules A and B. And what if we consider the Demon operating the trap door – “without expenditure of work” as Maxwell oddly puts it – as a figure of the artist? The artist-demon metes out the data to the sensitive, in an act of non-work, who respond in kind. Data’s gatekeeper, constantly scrambling and reshuffling the cards of information, not in a vain attempt to recover what is lost, but rather to “keep it all cycling.” It is a tempting thought, but it only becomes persuasive today in the light of the relations between art and data use in the course of modernity.

Of course, life systems have been the object of sustained data gathering since the time of the Enlightenment; cartography, flow charts, graphs and statistical databases have played a preponderant role in the shift from a society based on discipline to contemporary regimes of biopolitical control. But art-historically, data-driven practices have been relatively rare; indeed what I have elsewhere called dataesthetics may be seen as the road untaken in twentieth-century art practices. Art production long sought to protect the relatively autonomous sphere it had eked out for itself from any incursion by the potentially deadening logic of knowledge production and data gathering and display. In the face of the sheer glut and facile allure of purpose-driven information and rationality, art’s self-assigned role was to affirm its radical uselessness. Yet as knowledge use has become inseparable from the exercise of power, many practitioners have chosen to use the strength of data to challenge and potentially subvert data-power. Critical cartography, tactical magic, database use and all varieties of research have become integral components of artistic competence, which refuses to leave social critique to the social sciences.

In that respect, the emergence today of numerous practices using data as their material may be understood as a return of the repressed. In the early years of the twentieth century, avant-garde art practice chose to leave the realm of data compiling and information display to science alone, thereby consummating a split between those two realms of symbolic activity for almost a century. The calculated mass slaughter of World War One, the advent of the Fordist organization of production which followed in the 1920s, merely underscored radical art’s break from the murderous rationality of cost-benefit analysis, which data seemed all too willing to serve uncritically. Art sided with the precariousness of bare life, seeking, as Georges Bataille once devastatingly put it, “to break the chain of effective action.” Yet, the mere fact that history unfolded in that way does not foreclose art history’s unrealised potential; things could plausibly have happened differently – and, indeed, almost did.

Before resolving to define itself as the other of reason, art wavered and came close to pursuing a common path with science. Marcel Duchamp, undeniably the most important artist of the past hundred years (if not indeed the only one), often acknowledged his fascination with the way contemporary science was making use of data. Meteorological instruments, including barometers and hygrometers, and measurement gauges of all kinds, were examples of the appareils enregistreurs – or recording devices – whose indexical activities so fascinated Duchamp. His Large Glass, the masterpiece he worked on between 1915 and 1923, as well as other his works of the period, which were “to put painting once again in the service of the mind,” as he said, can only be fathomed with reference to the multitude of notes and data which he carefully amassed. “Somewhat like a Sears Roebuck catalogue,” as he put it, this sum of information was “to accompany the glass and to be quite as important as the visual material.” According to André Breton, in his essay on the Large Glass, “in this work it is impossible not to see at least the trophy of a fabulous hunt through virgin territory, at the frontiers… of the most recent data of science.”

Duchamp was convinced that this “recent data of science” offered a new lease on life for the creative intellect, and would allow him to pursue both the previously invisible sphere revealed by x-rays and to exploit the impalpable realm of electromagnetic waves. Indeed, Duchamp famously described his work of that time as an attempt to “make a painting of frequency”. In the scientific language of the day, the notion of réseaux or networks – referring both to electromagnetism, electricity and the cerebral mechanisms of the brain – was very current. Duchamp picked up the term for his 1914 painting, Réseaux de stoppages or Network of Stoppages: the work’s composition resembles a network of railway lines or electrical conduits, making Duchamp’s precise diagrammatic image a clear forerunner of the sort of data-rich graphic mapping projects which would only re-emerge in the 1990s in the work of Mark Lombardi and others.

From a formal perspective, it is tempting to see the webs of paint on Jackson Pollock’s canvases as a way of mapping the internal meanderings of the psyche – though it is of course more akin to anti-data than knowledge-arranging in any conventional sense. A generation later, Mark Lombardi was doing the same thing – but he was doing it with the existing economic structure, articulating visually what remained otherwise invisible, even and perhaps particularly for those caught up in its folds (http://www.albany.edu/museum/wwwmuseum/work/lombardi/images/lombardi1.jpg) . This veritable paradigm shift involved overcoming the modernist mindset that persistently opposed art and research. Inasmuch as his work grappled with this tension, which it embodies in its form, Lombardi is something of an emblematic figure in the emergence of contemporary data-driven art. Lombardi’s dense and yet ethereal webs of lines and curves that plot the networks of transactions, and the spheres of influence and conspiracy of globalized capitalism provide an indispensable link between 1970s Conceptualism and the politically acute works of a younger generation of artists. They do so less in terms of their content than in terms of their discursive form (after all, as Rabih Mrouhé has exemplified, vastly more information than we commonly suppose exists freely in the public sphere – for anyone maniacal enough to spend their days and nights sifting through it and ordering it). And they do so in two respects: firstly, because the drawings imply in their very nature the concept of potential extension: the ideas teased out by the artist in the space of the work remain open-ended, inviting users to pursue the vectors and links to draw their own conclusions. And secondly, because the sense of bewilderment they instill in the viewer quickly turns into a desire to know more, to go further. In compiling his visual archives, Lombardi very likely saw himself less as a sleuth than as an architect of knowledge: for data never constitutes an enumeration of mere facts, if only because the act of cataloging is itself a means of redirecting, constraining, and reshaping information. Consider Michel Foucault’s classic statement in his Archaeology of Knowledge on the creative role that archives assume in the creation of knowledge: “The archive… determines that all these things said do not accumulate endlessly in an amorphous mass, nor are they inscribed in an unbroken linearity, nor do they disappear at the mercy of chance external accidents; but they are grouped together in distinct figures, composed together in accordance with multiple relations, maintained or blurred in accordance with specific regularities.”

Of course, dataesthetics is not merely about ordering and reordering data; it is equally about disorganising it and drawing attention to the painful disorientation of having subjective experience objectified into data form. In their incisive Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno and Horkheimer make this point at the highest philosophical level, stigmatising reason’s capitulation before positivism. Whereas the Enlightenment construed reason as inherently corrosive of myth, they showed to what extent it had become a mere tool of calculation, of planning and coordination, neutral in regard to ends. Thinking, they argued, “objectifies itself to become an automatic, self-activating process; an impersonation of the machine that it produces itself so that ultimately the machine can replace it.” The “conversion of enlightenment into positivism, the myth of things as they actually are, and finally the identification of the intellect and that which is inimical to the spirit, has been overwhelmingly confirmed. Our conception of history does not presume any dispensation from it; nor does it imply a positivistic search for information. It is a critique of philosophy, and therefore refuses to abandon philosophy.” An analogous case could be made for the growing number of socially critical artists integrating data use in their artistic practices: their critique of data refuses to abandon data use to their adversaries alone.

Adorno and Horkheimer’s argument perhaps inadvertently allows us to observe an interesting philosophical duality with regard to data use. On the one hand, it has what philosophers of language term an “enunciative” dimension: it is an objectifying description of some state of affairs. But on the other hand, and more counter-intuitively, data has a “performative” dimension: it makes things happen, bringing about a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy through its very self-evidence. Take a classic political example – the logic of which has repeated itself countless times in the history of biopolitics – which is the British colonization of India. Baffled by the sheer heterogeneity of the Indian multitudes that they were set on dominating, the colonial rulers needed a representation, a quantified picture of the absolute otherness if they were to govern it. So they organised a census, asking people to identify themselves on the basis of their ethnic and religious belonging – that is, to statisticize themselves according to criteria with which they had previously never identified and which distinguished them from their next-door neighbors. The “facts” thereby produced spoke for themselves, as such data is wont to do, and a direct line can be drawn between this data-gathering initiative and the 1948 partitioning of the territory along ethnic lines on the basis of the very data it had brought into the imaginary.

The French artist collective Bureau d’études has been doing cutting-edge work over the past few years on the emergent regime of “real-information power,” developing graphic techniques to map out the sites of its application. http://utangente.free.fr/index2.html The group’s perspective is that data display is to contemporary regimes of biopower what the portrait of Louis XIV was to the monarchy. They argue that the rise of information maps are inseparable from the consolidation of biopolitical control over life systems; yet their own cognitive mapping practice itself holds out the possibility of a politically subversive use of data – not merely by providing a representation of power and counter-power but by making that representation available to those whose life experience allows them to make use of that information in an autonomising framework. This underscores a fundamental difference between the beautifully hand-drawn maps of Mark Lombardi and their batch-printed flowcharts and information journals, intended less to be viewed as art within the performative framework of the artworld than to reach out to a broader range of users beyond the confines of the sphere of art.

Among the most forward-looking art practices today make use of the socially critical potential of data as an artistic material. Yet it is obvious that the aesthetic use of data – and of data tout court – is an eminently ambivalent phenomenon. For better or for worse, data makes things happen. But which is it? For better? Or for worse? Implicitly, that was already the question confronting the folks in Pynchon’s extraordinary novel, as they sat back, awaiting the crying of lot 49.


Data's dirt

I have been asked my ethnicity more than 100 times in my life, especially when filling out statistical forms during my childhood in the US and at university. In France this could never happen, if I am not mistaken, as it does not collect such statistical data like the US, the UK and her other commonwealth countries. More than once I have consulted the CBS (Central Office of Statistics) in the Netherlands and I highly recommend the reader to take a look if you want to know anything about NL.

Thinking in these terms, this 'bank' of data (CBS) has been the answer to many a query for those looking to understand historical and contemporary Dutch society. I have used it for researching projects, when I want to find out more about sociological mapping- i.e. what 'group' is on average shortest in Holland. In any case, on a good day my own data can profile as an 'allochtoon' (those living in the Netherlands with one parent not born in the Netherlands), or on another day not, when the term is loosely used to describe 'non-western' immigrants.

Besides the amount of info collected here, I also have a penchant for cartography, drawing maps - 'concept mapping' as it were as well as 'cognitive mapping'. I am ambivalent about loving and hating so much data though as there is already a lot of 'dirt' out there, even on ourselves.

Anyway, I was thinking of the different visualisations of data recently and wanted to add a couple of links to Stephen's stimulus, referring again to the Conflux Festival and to two events I attended. 'Mapping as representation' highlighted Alfredo Jaar's Lights in the city and Bruce Cahan stated that 70% of all money given as relief goes missing! At Urban Logic he is trying to map the disappearance of the money and establish 'financial stability'. Maybe this has greater value seen the present financial crisis and virtual worth of money these days : 'Ethical Banking, Something we once had, lost and need again.'

For more conceptual mapping and doing things with data please see Regine Debatty's write up on the panel she moderated 'Conflux 2008: notes from the panel Cartography of Protest and Social Changes' . Here is more info on what looks like a super book, An Atlas of Radical Cartography available at the new press initiative from Temporary Services.