Sunday, May 17, 2009

Algorithmic art or the collective experience of the isolated consumer

Lots of people seem to be making and writing about works of art and marketing that are about omass experience lately. Not just commenting on it, but made from it, works which were dubbed algorithmic art in a post last month on BBH labs.

While the desire to create works of art from or about mass experience is hardly new, it seems to be on the rise again, perhaps facilitated by newly accessible technology or a reaction to the explosion of social medi and its emerging encircling aura of mass chatter. Maybe we are looking for new works of art to make sense of of the role of our subjective selves in this new world where everyone is talking all the time? These works obviously encompass a wide range of forms, but rather than attempt any kind of systematic categorization, I'm just going to (in the bloggy spirit) pick some at random and generalize.

Some of are free-standing works of creative expression, some are produced by collectives of various kinds, some advertisements or some other form of marketing vehicle. But whatever their intention (to challenge or amaze or market, or all of the above), they all share some common features. Almost all of them attempt to visualize some collective or mass experience. Sometimes the experience is shared in real life—like the recent run of spontaneous dance of events (T-mobile's in Liverpool here; the Do-Re-Mi event in Belgium here.) These are more familiar stunts: situationist in their occasion though without the subversive intention. And they do a decent job of creating a sense of temporary spontaneous exuberance and jubilation, a fancier version of the now dated "wave" or any other fan activity in a stadium.

More interesting work focuses less on a sudden cohesion of a crowd into some orchestrated, cooperative activity,than on a mass individuals (us, online) whose isolated experiences are brought together—synthesized—into some aesthetic experience for the viewer, generally in real or recent time, with the help of technology. The work of Jonathon Harris is prime example. Harris' oft cited “We feel fine” uses search and data visualization to gather statements and images of people who are expressing their feelings into a single evocative six-movement-work. Related, but distinct, are the works that turn outward, fragmenting and reassembling cultural materials, like Brendan Bell's Five (Dramatic Pause), which synthesizes fragments of the nightly news into what Bell calls a "collage poem." Or the recent youtuube 36 rows mosaic phenomenon. Alice in Wonderland seems to be getting the most action on the Internet.

Reacting online to these works, most people describe these works as “cool.” And they are cool. Both in the conventional sense of visually striking and intriguing and hip but also “cool” in the slightly more figurative sense used to describe emotional engagement. They are cool in the sense that they distance us further from emotional or even cultural engagement with the original material, decontextualized or recontextualized.

If this is a trend or a movement and I'm not sure it is yet, it's worth asking what it's about. What are these works trying to do and are they achieving their ends? At some level, they seem to be trying to suggest an experience of collective unity (we're all in this together!), gesturing at a shared transcendent humanity, like looking down at the swirling group of strangers at a rave you aren’t participating in.

But then almost immediately, or perhaps simultaneously, there is a falling away of engagement: repetition, dullness, boredom. While the vision of the sequence is temporarily enthralling, it doesn't really lead anywhere. Each one of the fragments--expressions, images, cultural fragments, statistics--says something about mass and volume and the technology that has made the works possible in the first place. But most of these works, to my eye, fail to meaningfully engage the question about individual subjectivity in mass culture that they are taking on whether they know it or not.

This a question of prime concern to marketers as well, but I'll save that for that another post.


Brad Noble said...

Two thoughts:

1. a story is missing / deprioritized / unavailable / inaccessible

As much as statisticians would disagree, data does not a story make.

2. there is no obvious means to participate

I wonder if part of the problem is that the presentation is not enough to encourage you to express yourself as a result of having been presented with it.

sk said...

I agree that these works are deliberately non- if not anti-narrative in their orientation. Their "creators" may in fact claim that this is precisely the point. They are replacing the traditional coherent POV of a narrative "subject" with a new model of collective representation. But I'd argue that even though these works make for pretty pictures, they don't feel like fully realized gestures, offering me a new, uncomfortable, model of identity. (I'll address in the next post, with some examples of what collective identity might actually feel like)

You're second point is interesting, especially if we expand "participation" to include "identification" in the narratological sense of term. What, in fact, am I supposed to do or feel or think, except to recognize once again that there are a whole lot of people in the world?

Brad Noble said...

A consideration:

The "creators" as you call them (which I agree they are) have forced -- especially in the case of -- users to "navigate" to find something to which they can relate.

So, the traditional narrative form which allows the user to "sit back" has been replaced by an interface that requires a user to "lean forward".

But, wayfinding and the human condition -- to me -- are not bedfellows. Wayfinding is about conscious choices, not about losing oneself.

These experiences -- which require navigation to experience -- leave me wondering: 'where do I go from here?' but in the unfortunate, literal sense.

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