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Uncanny Art, Biomedical Art, Data Art

The post-lunch session on this third day of PerthDAC is upon us, and Ragnhild Tronstad is the first presenter. Her interest is in the uncanny in new media art, which builds on Sigmund Freud's idea of the uncanny, and explores intellectual uncertainty (in particular about whether objects are inanimate or alive), the double (or Doppelgänger, which acts as a forecast of our own extinction), and surveillance and control (related to the idea of power and autonomy as embodied in an individual's gaze) in encounters with new media art. These three concepts overlap, of course: intellectual uncertainty can manifest as a lack of control, and in the sense of a controlling gaze directed at the individual which may not even be present. A further concept is Masahiro Mori's concept of the 'uncanny valley' - our affection towards human-like figures grows gradually the more human-like they are, but this growth falls briefly into a deep valley where figures are uncannily like humans (e.g. corpses, zombies) before resuming an upward path beyond that valley. Some individuals will be more sensitive to such factors than others, of course, and whether a figure is moving or still may also amplify the depth of affection or repulsion.

Some new media art - such as Sara Roberts's 1988 work Early Programming - uses such uncanny human likeness to evoke strong reactions from participants. Ken Rinaldo's Autopoiesis is another example, in which an array of computerised arms or tentacles interact with the viewer in a discomforting fashion. Lynn Hershman's Tillie, the Telerobotic Doll watches the participant, and what it sees through its eyes is also available through a Website, which means that the participant is uncertain of who may be looking at them - the artwork looks back at us, and appears autonomous, in control to some degree, and as acting from a subjective perspective; something like The Sims, on the other hand, is anything but: its characters are not autonomous, but indeed even helpless, immersed in their own world and observed by the player.

The next speaker is Trish Adams, who shifts our focus to biomedical transformations. This builds on earlier questions about transformations from the analogue to the digital world, and the development of modern science overall: the more technology was developed for tracking and measuring the outcomes of scientific and medical experiments, the more early scientists believed they could quantify what it meant to be human. Trish's own art has used such devices, and used them to connect real-time and online participants. More recently, her interest has shifted to biomedical perspectives, examining concepts of corporeality and humanness through the use of her own stem cells in new media artworks: on what level are her cells living, sentient beings; what is their status in vitro outside her body; how will she feel when observing them in vitro? How would participants in the installation respond to the human cellular data in the context of the installation?

The process of developing such artworks was difficult, of course - both in terms of attaining ethical clearance from the university, and in terms of the actual scientific processes of extracting stem cells from Trish's blood. In vitro, these cells were encouraged to become cardiac cells, and after a few days gradually began the standard processes of cardiac cells - a regular beating motion. This could be described as a process of autopoiesis, or self-making; the scientific data (especially images) so created were now embedded into the installation. Each individual participating in the work (called Machina Carnis) would complete the work through their symbiosis, thereby creating greater participant empathy, by leading the image data to pulse in response of the participant's heartbeat. Further research with the Queensland Brain Institute will lead Trish to explore cognition as a biological process.

Finally on to Mitchell Whitelaw, who is also a contributor to our MasheDLC project on developing digital learning communities. Today, though, he is speaking about data practice and data visualisation, especially in relation to the the increasing availability of access to data through Web-based services. Artists, therefore, have come to work with data as a primary material; such data art figures data themselves - it explores what data are, do, can do, and what assumptions, narratives, ontologies are applied to data. In this analysis, data are not information - information is the result of processing, manipulating, and organising data, and this is an important distinction. Data are resulting from measurement, are abstract, unformed, meaningless, and underdetermined; information is itself a message, and is contextualised, well-formed, meaningful, and overdetermined, on the other hand. Data art, then, often pushes against information, and instead explores data themselves.

There are four general clusters of such data art: indexical data art, abject data art, material data art, and art which represents 'the artist's squint'. Indexical data art visualises existing data in a very direct sense (blog posts about breakups in The Dumpster, expressions of feelings in blog posts in We Feel Fine) - it collapses a very long chain (real > blog > analysis > database > interface) into a very simple indexical representation, and presumes that data are given, preexisting, and already out there. The representation is also simplistic and presents at best a very homogenised, uniform, limited range of diversity. Such works do not give us a direct experience of the data, but instead present their own layers of visualisation that are embedded with preset information. Abject data artworks include for example the work of Alex Dragulescu in visualising email spam, creating images which do not indicate exactly how the data were mapped, and instead provide a vastly more abstract representation - data here are plastic and polymorphous (anything is anything), and there are hidden poetics of input/output at work in such visualisations. This highlights the ultimate arbitrariness of any visualisation choice.

Material data art chooses not to escape the map, but places data in the picture plane; data are real, concrete, and worked with, and visualised materially. Data stand for data, and what is presented here is something like a data imprint, a 'rubbing'. Finally, the artist's squint is engaged in a 'defence of counting' - a defence against the spell of iconic language by abstracting for example from the texts of State of the Union addresses by American Presidents by way of generating word clouds or other automatic textual analyses. This moves from formed, overdetermined data to more abstract representations. What's present here is an aesthetics of data immanence, dealing with data excess and providing orientation - not in a Digg-style 'top ten' version, but by highlighting the immanent, multiplicitous aspects of data. This models a more active data agency, in which we are able to munge, analyse, map, and display data - an agency which ties very well into the Web 2.0 culture of data agency, of course, but variously based on a magical virtuoso approach (as in Dragulescu's work) or embracing open source models. Data art, then, is more than simply bad data visualisation; it is a pragmatic investigation of data's cultural potential which refigures data themselves and their relation to social and aesthetic experience on a reflective and reflexive basis - in the process this work is also creating new information, then.

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