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Social Data Browsing


In general, representational art has depicted individuals rather than social groups, classes, and institutions. Even in the case of modern realist literature and painting, including socialist realism, which consciously aimed to represent social types and classes, what the writers and painters actually show us are individual human beings. In other words, regardless of whether a painting or a sculpture is named ‘worker’, ‘farmer’, ‘miner’ etc, it shows a single concrete individual. And when artists have tried visually to represent really big groups, the typical result has been a crowd in which individual differences are hard to read. The same relationships between the zoom function and the level of detail holds today – consider the individual figures in Mathew Barney’s The Cremaster Cycle versus the groups of veiled women in the films by Shirin Neshat, or the panoramic views of Andreas Gursky which reduce individuals to swirling dots.

It appears that we may be dealing with some essential characteristic of art. Or maybe this limitation is simply a general characteristic of all images in general – their inability to represent abstract concepts and logical relationships. After all, if in the course of evolution human species developed two different representations systems – one linguistic and one image-based – it would make sense that they should complement each other, and that images would not do what language does best.

But what if this limitation is simply a result of the representational techniques that artists had at their disposal? Consider, for instance, how the techniques of films invented in the first two decades of the twentieth century – editing and different types of shots – have allowed film directors to alternate between close-ups showing individuals and long shots showing the groups to which these individuals belong. Given this example, what can we expect from computers? Can computer media be used to create artistic representations that link the individual and the social without subsuming one in the other, i.e. the particular in the general? If we consider the range of computer techniques available for organising and viewing data, things look quite encouraging. We can switch between multiple views of the same data, traverse the data at different scales, and move between multiple media linked together. And we can do this in near or close to real time. We can also instruct software to search through and mine very large amounts of data – such as the data produced by the millions of real people who engage in online chat, write blogs, send emails, upload their photos on Flickr and so on. What types of representation can be created if we combine these computer techniques and new ways of gathering data as well as of structuring and displaying it?

Article  2006