Sack, W. (2011). Aesthetics of Information Visualization. In _Context Providers_, M. Lovejoy, C. Paul, and V. Vesna, eds. Bristol and Chicago: intellect.

Walter Sack, software designer and media theorist, explores online public space and discourse theories and designs. He is Chair of the Digital Arts & New Media MFA Program and Associate Professor of Film and Digital Media at the University of Santa Cruz. He has an S.M. and PhD from the MIT Media Laboratory.

Here Sack takes issue with Lev Manovich’s (2002) characterization of digital visualization as “antisublime,” privileging user-friendliness and utilitarianism over aesthetic beauty. However, Sack says, there already are examples of the sublime (e.g. John Simon’s “Every Icon” [1997]) and the uncanny (e.g. Alex Galloway’s packet sniffer “Carnivore” [2002]), and proposes we regard information visualization’s artistic contributions not in terms of visual, but conceptual arts. This is a particularly salient approach, if we take conceptual art’s history of reiterating industrial and bureaucratic modes to engage with and critique them.

Following Benjamin Buchloh’s (1990) “aesthetics of administration,” Sack argues we can view contemporary information visualization similarly, since “computers are an outgrowth of bureaucracy” (130).  We should ask of all information visualization, then, “what sorts of government [do] they support or reflect?” (132). What are the aesthetics of governance?

“The ‘art of governance,’ the means to steer or navigate or orient the collective body…. is not, and has not been, simply concerned with the perception of and representation of only things, or objects, but rather the interpretation, organization, articulation, and representation of subjects, specifically the representation of people and things woven together” (133).

Artist collectives design “intimate bureaucracies,” and so appropriate and detourn bureaucratic practices for local agendas. A paradigmatic example is Art & Language’s “Index 01” for Documenta V. Constituting filing cabinets with documents relating Art & Language’s 86 texts, the piece fills three criteria: it answers the practical need for organization and orientation, it depicts their response to contemporary art forms, and it levels a cultural critique against modern, bureaucratic, hegemonic models.

In the section entitled, “Incorporating the Little Guy into the Democratic Body,” Sack gives examples of two projects that have positively responded to curator Steve Dietz’s 2006 queries regarding developing more thorough mapping and visualization. Can you design a “wider base of experience without becoming prescriptive?” (140) and how can you “honor the individual point of view while ending up with an overall point of view that has value for more than the participants?” (ibid). Dietz posits Julie Mehretu’s and Entropy8Zuper!’s “Minneapolis and St. Paul Are East African Cities” (2003) website, and Scott Paterson, Marina Zurkow, and Julian Bleeker’s “PDPal” (2003) do just that. Both use GIS technologies, but add to them, the former with digital ephemera detailing contributors’ lives, and the latter with documented experiences in public spaces.

Political scientist Oscar Gandy (1993) regards computerization as a tool for panoptic surveillance and, echoing James C. Scott (1998), as the newest mode of bureaucratic state-making, statistically shaping a population for central administration. But self-governance platforms proliferate. Social networking and SMS allow for the Body Politic’s self-organization. and Future farmers are visualizations of “both the demos and the tyrants” (145).

“As a part of a larger Body Politic in a democratic society, we need to see ourselves and our imagined communities (Anderson 1983) within our larger political and cultural contexts” (145).


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Filed under Annotated Bibliographies, Media Arts, Minor Field, Research Fields


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