Tag Archives: Science

Data Visualisation – Anaesthetic or Aesthetic?

In my last blog post I discussed “The State of the digital Humanities: a report and a critique” by Alan Liu. In his article, Liu argues that the digital humanities is missing what he calls “Data aesthetics” (27). The list, line or bar graphs and tag clouds, Liu contends, reflect “the near-total imaginative poverty of the field in crafting an aesthetics of data” (27). Despite Liu’s claims that there is more focus in the digital humanities on metadata than “the look-and-feel of data” (27), however, the “availability and democratization of data” has brought about a vast increase and popular demand for data and information visualization (Lang n.pag.).

Data visualization can be defined as “the use of computer-supported, interactive, visual representations of data to amplify cognition” (Card 1). Data visualisation, however, not only amplifies cognition, but it also helps one deal with the “Data glut (McCandless),” by reducing “the mental load” on the user (Cawthon & Moere 2). David McCandless maintains that using our eyes is one way of coping with information overload because sight is the fastest of our senses. Eyesight has the same bandwidth as a computer network. Using aesthetic visualisations, therefore, facilitates knowledge compression and increases the speed of knowledge digestion because it stimulates the visual cortex of the user’s brain. In a sense, data visualisations resemble works of art to infiltrate the mind of the user. As McCandless notes, visualisation creates a new language that alters our perceptions. The interactive component of data visualisation allows us to participate as “data detectives” in the search for hidden clues exposed by the visualisation process. As Jer Thorp observes, visualisation makes data human by putting it in a human context. When data is sewn into the fabric of the real world, it gains meaning and weight. Realising this fact alters our dialogue with the information we are attempting to transform into knowledge.

Having said that, however, data visualisation is not a fool proof endeavour because a picture is not worth a thousand words if the viewer cannot decipher it. Nick Cawthon and Andrew Vande Moere observe, “the notion of beauty is not a normative element”. Perception of aesthetics is highly subjective. Therefore, an object cannot be viewed in isolation to its social environment and socio-cultural context because of the cultural and cross-cultural differences in visual language interpretation. The pitfalls of visualisation, Bresciani and Epplen claim, are “due to the fact that the meaning of symbols and colours are not universal” (11). This is evident from the foreground-background preferential differences in art of Western and Asian cultures, the cultural differences in the meaning of the colours red and green, and the way some eastern countries display time in a right to left format. As well as the problem of cultural bias, both the data visualisation user and designer require visual literacy and previous knowledge and experience with interpreting graphical displays. The psychological and aesthetic restrictions of data visualisation can confuse the user if the inherent meaning of the visualisation is ambiguous, but ambiguity may have a positive effect by effectuating new insights through creative interpretation of graphical depictions of data.

Questions to consider:

(1): Is data visualisation an aesthetic or anaesthetic? Does it enliven or numb the mind of the user through the graphical representation of abstract data?

(2): Why is aesthetics an important factor in information visualisation?

(3): Is visualisation a technology, a science or art? Does it have aesthetic value or merely aesthetic pleasure? Does data visualisation dilute perceptions of art or broaden its conceptual boundaries? Does data visualisation have to be artistic to be effective?

(4):  Data visualisation could be considered as an interdisciplinary subject? Do you think it flawlessly integrate science, art and design?

(5): Does data visualisation distract from the main goal of knowledge transfer? Is it more than a form of decorating or aestheticising dull data?

Works Cited

Bresciani, Sabrina, and Martin J. Epplen. “The Risks of Visualisation: A Classification of Disadvantages Associated with Graphic Representations of Information”. 2008. PDF.

Card, S. K., et al. Readings in Information Visualisation: Using Vision to Think. San Diego: Academic P, 1999. Print.

Cawthon, Nick, and Andrew Vande Moere. “Qualities of Perceived Aesthetic in Data Visualisation”. 2007. PDF.

Lang, Alexander. “Aesthetics in Information Visualisation”. PDF.

Liu, Alan. “The State of the Digital Humanities: A Report and a Critique”. SAGE 11.4 (2012): 8-41. Web.

McCandless, David. “The Beauty of Data Visualisation”. TED. 2010. Presentation.

Thorpe, Jer. “Make Data more Human”. TED. 2011.

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Does digital technology fracture or facilitate the reintegration of disciplines?

Digital technology creates an intersection between disciplines because digital tools are what Susan Leigh Star calls “boundary objects” – they are “entities straddling the borders between groups,” as Christine L. Borgman explains.

“Digital libraries, Borgman argues, are a canonical form of boundary object because their content can be useful to multiple communities, allowing them to carry meaning across the borders of multiple groups” (153).

Digital tools and services, Borgman contends, ought to be “generalizable, scalable, and interoperable,” in order to generate a flexible e-Research infrastructure for multipurpose, trans-disciplinary and interdisciplinary usage (252).

Digital tools provide a platform for the opening up of scholarly communication between disciplines and William Pannapacker envisions a future of disciplinary integration. Pannapacker claims: “We are reaching a consensus about the future of our profession that will involve not just language and literature, but all of the humanities in partnership with technologists, scientists, and information professionals”. Pannapacker predicts “it will become increasingly difficult to say what the humanities disciplines represent, by themselves—and to target them for elimination—because we are enmeshed increasingly in the transformation of every discipline in higher education”.

Consequently, it is my opinion, as the Three Musketeers’ pledge, digital technology and tools allow knowledge to be “all for one, and one for all” disciplines.

Borgman, Christine. Scholarship in the Digital Age: Information, Infrastructure and the Internet. Cambridge: MIT P, 2007. Print.

Pannapacker, William. “An Emerging Consensus.The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Star, Susan, Griesemer, James (1989). “Institutional Ecology, ‘Translations’ and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39“. Social Studies of Science 19.3: 387–420.

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Does Bio-art bridge the gap between art and science?

To answer the aforementioned questions, I must first ask: What is art? It could be argued that all forms of human activity is art. The separation of art and science is a relatively recent, 21st century phenomenon, if we take into account what the ancient Romans and Greeks considered to be art – engineering, geometry, mathematics, etc. Art and science were separated because of the alternative views of the world they created. Art creates a personal view of the world, while science creates an impersonal view. Art was marginalised by the sciences because of its inability to provide a universal view of the world thus hindering the process of coexistence.

If all human activity, however, is a form of art or is artistic to some extent then science could be interpreted as art. What keeps art separate from science is the progressive shift from unification to specialisation of knowledge in society, which commenced in the Middle Ages and snow balled with the Industrial Revolution. Separating art from science creates a fragmentation of knowledge and boundaries between disciplines that become further specialised internally.

The digital age, however, is providing us to an opportunity—through the ability of digital tools to facilitate interaction, exchange, integration and dissemination of knowledge—to return to the ancient paradigm of unified, total knowledge that existed on a continuum and not compartmentalised, discrete spaces. The knowledge paradigms of ancient and modern society, however, differ significantly because we live in a knowledge-intensive rather than the knowledge-deprived society of ancient times.

In response to the question about if Eduardo Kac’s art is necessary to bridge the gap between art and science, my answer is: Yes! This is because, in my opinion, art and science compliment each other and could be classed as similar to each other. If art is ubiquitous in nature then art is effectively life. Science deals with the study and examination of life. Kac’s art creates life that is made possible through the use of science. Therefore, in my opinion, the point Kac is trying to convey is that art is science and science is art.

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I think it is important to note, in case anyone isn’t already aware of it, but the man himself, Eduardo Kac, coined the neologism, Bio-art, in 1997. In terms of what the hyphenated neologism represents, I think its representation is apparent when one defines the punctuational significance of a hyphen – a mark used to signify that the two words it joins have combined meaning and are linked together.

Having said that, however, there is an essential component to Kac’s neologism that he didn’t include. The essential message of Kac’s work, such as the Time Capsule and Genesis, is to convey “the bio-impact of digital technology” [1] in a post-digital world. What is missing from Kac’s neologism is the reference to the technology used to accomplish the creation of bio-art or the digital element responsible for its exhibition and collective, creative-participation from the global online community of viewers.

Perhaps, Kac should have called it “Bio-digi-art” or “Bio-tech-art” because, according to Kac, the biological and the digital are intertwined in Genesis and Time Capsule. According to Kac, materially speaking, there is no fundamental separation between digital and biological because “both processes can occur in a similar manner in both environments, in both media”.

Referring to Genesis, Kac claims the process involved in this artwork was built upon the fundamental, functional model of IT – the Input-Process-Output Model. Genesis involved encoding digital information into a living organism, changing it, and retrieving it.

Similarly, with Time Capsule, Kac deconstructs the biological-digital divide by inserting a biocompatible glass microchip into his body, which allows biological tissue and microchip to unite, to come together. The reason Kac self-inserted a microchip into his body was in order “to confront the changing world of memory as everything becomes digital.”

With this in mind, I think the answer to the question, “Do you think this phenomena of ‘bio-art’ has any relevance to our thinking about ‘digital art’?,” is a resounding ‘Yes’ simply because, in my opinion, the digital component of Bio-art, is a functional aspect responsible for creating, influencing, structuring and exhibiting the artwork. If the message of ‘digital art’ is to demonstrate the impact of the virtual on the real, the digital on the physical and the blurring of the lines between both then Bio-art is relevant to ‘digital art’ discussion. Bio-art echoes the message of digital art by conveying that the biological – what we associate to be natural or real – impacts on the creation of the digital, and vice versa. In the eyes of Kac, both biological and digital are indistinguishable – materially and philosophically. Therefore, in the light of Kac’s view, bio-art is digital art if both are amalgamated like in Time Capsule and Genesis.

With regard the implications of Bio-art, the effects of linking the biological to the aesthetic raise both bioethical and moral issues and concerns because the artist (or, Sci-artist) is not dealing with an object. They are dealing with life itself and “empathy and responsibility are paramount,” as Kac observes.

There are two sides to the debate over the controversial genetic engineering of Alba, the GFP bunny. On one side of the debate, there are those who perceive Kac’s actions to be unethical and immoral because of his tampering with nature or the laws of nature for not scientific – not for the greater good of mankind – but instead mere aesthetic purposes. I think this is one of the reasons why a certain section of society interpreted Kac’s bio-art as unethical. If it was for scientific or medical instead of aesthetic purposes then it would be perceived as more excusable by society because science ‘matters’.

On the other side of the debate, some Animal Rights groups see the message and method in Kac’s madness, which is that the artistic visibility of Alba publicises her plight as a lab animal used for scientific experimentation. As Kac affirms, lab animals have a “cognitive and emotional life that must be acknowledged in a social space”.

Kac justifies his creation of Alba by saying that “no single life force has a decision to come into the world” because “it is a decision of our parents,” which explains why Kac, as a parent of “a life form that didn’t exist before” felt morally obligated to take Alba home. What is morally and ethically wrong about a transgenic creature, like Alba, from Kac’s perspective is not their unnatural or artifical creation, but their treatment after creation up to the point of death.

With Kac’s view in mind, Bio-art now makes perfect sense because it is not some wacky artist with a Dr. Frankenstein complex tampering with nature for the aesthetic fun of it. Instead, as Marshall McLuhan claims, “the medium is the message” [2] and Kac amalgamates biological and digital media to convey his aesthetic message to the world.

[1] Digital Art @Google Eduardo Kac, Andrew Senior, Sandra Cordero, Marina Zurkow. Youtube

[2] McLuhan, Marshall. Understand Media: The Extensions of Man.

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