Coffee, knitting, rice and data visualization
I hope I write a coherent post this morning... just now I almost spooned the cat's breakfast into my coffee pot. Oh well, I'm sure I'll wake up once I have a nice hot cup of Iams.
The photo above shows the News Knitter project by artists Ebru Kurbak and Mahir M. Yavuz (it comes via Turbulence's Networked Performance blog). Kurbak & Yavuz write:
News Knitter converts information gathered from the daily political news into clothing. Live news feed from the Internet that is broadcasted within 24 hours or a particular period is analyzed, filtered and converted into a unique visual pattern for a knitted sweater. The system consists of two different types of software: whereas one receives the content from live feeds the other converts it into visual patterns, and a fully computerized flat knitting machine produces the final output. Each product, sweater of News Knitter is an evidence/result of a specific day or period.My sweetie is learning to knit, so I've been thinking about knitting based art recently (I missed it, but about a year ago the Museum of Art & Design had a Radical Lace & Subversive Knitting show). When I read about the News Knitter I wanted to find the work compelling, but honestly I don't. I think it runs into some common problems in technology-based art:
Data visualization. This is one of the more common approaches for making Internet art. The Internet gives access to tons of information and it makes sense that artworks using the medium want to investigate its particularities. However, since this well has been dipped into so many times, one needs to think twice before having data visualization be the center of an artwork. At the very least, the result should have some point beyond "jeez, isn't this a neat looking graphic?"
Novelty art. I'm still trying to come up with the most pithy description of this problem. Novelty art is the best one I've come up with, but I had been thinking about demo-art as well. Essentially this is art which is most compelling in how it shows off a cool new technology. The way I put this in my "Teaching Philosophy" essay is:
Working with technology, particularly new technology, has the danger of resulting in art that is more focused on demonstrating the potential of the medium than on transcending it.I worry about this alot in my own art because I think it's an easy trap to fall into. But the result is empty calories... you get a confection which might taste sweet for a moment, but ultimately isn't satisfying. Plus, once that technology is more wide-spread, the novelty-artwork loses all appeal. It's great to explore new technology, but the resulting artwork needs to be able to stand on its own... the fact that computerized knitting machines are nifty isn't really good enough.
Another data visualization/manifestation project is the eRiceCooker. Here's what it does:
eRiceCooker tracks Internet news about genetically modified rice. Whenever there is a new report about GM rice, a quarter cup of rice is dispensed into the cooker. When the cooker has enough rice for a meal, water is added automatically to the rice and the cooker is switched on. When the rice is done, an email is sent out to inviting people to eat the rice.
The more news reports appear, the more rice is cooked, the more often invitations are sent out. The project is designed to create awareness to issues surrounding genetically modified organisms by producing excessive amounts of cooked rice and attempting to feed people with it.
The eRiceCooker was made by Annina Rüst at MIT, and as student work it is very nice. But there's some aspect of it which prevents me from fully enjoying it. Here's what I think it is:
Why? In the case of the News Knitter, why tie it to the news? Is there some resonance at work there? There doesn't appear to be... it seems a random connection. News about genetically modified rice and the rice cooker is better connected, but still not fully satisfying to me. Towards the end of this post, I'll more fully explain why.
I bet you thought the coffee in the title of this posting was about my problems making it this morning. Nope! The third artwork I'd like to discuss is Benjamin Brown's News Brews.
News Brews is Brown's 2007 thesis project at the Interactive Telecommunication Program at New York University.
The News Brews device is an exploration of the possibility of creating a beverage which provides information about the daily news. News Brews connects to internet news feeds and parses them to determine the relative frequency at which different coffee growing regions are mentioned. It then brews a cup of coffee from freshly ground whole beans which contains relative proportions of beans grown in the regions in that day's news.On a side note, the project does have a design flaw: the coffee simply pours out as the news arrives. If there isn't a cup there, or if it is filled, you get a mess. This is a nice--though unintended--metaphor for being overwhelmed with news saturation.
News Brews is basically the same concept as the eRiceCooker, perhaps to a fault... Brown looked a bit chagrined when I gently mentioned the similarity. Setting aside the issue of originality, there is something about News Brews that works better for me than the eRiceCooker. I've been mulling over why I prefer News Brews. Here's what I have come up with:
News and coffee seem to go together... I read the news while drinking coffee in the morning. While "news about rice" is, of course, tied to rice... news in general doesn't seem to relate. So why GM rice? Why the news? My suspicion is that eRiceCooker began with the idea of automating cooking rice and that the genetically modified issue was grafted on later. Adding to this is the problem is that the eRiceCooker is political art, and (in my opinion) political art really needs to be perfect--there's not the room for looseness that might be acceptable in other works of art.
The eRiceCooker is ostensibly about GM foods... so what exactly is the connection between news reports about GM rice and eating (presumably) non-GM rice? The artist's description above seems to tie an abundance of news articles/cooked-rice to GM crops producing larger yields. She refers to "excessive" amounts of rice, which seems a bit off-message. Larger crop yields is a good thing, but presumably the artist feels GM crops are not. Perhaps a tighter conceptualization would be to borrow News Brews's idea of a news blend. The cooker could mix rice (representing articles about rice in-general) with some bittering agent such as quinine (representing the GM news articles)... so that the people eating the rice are eating a representation of how GM foods are corrupting our food supply.
Thoughts (i.e., comments) on the matter are certainly welcomed!