Thursday, January 24, 2008

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.

Currently, eRiceCooker is doing the following google news searches: GMO Rice, Gen-reis, GMO.


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!

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Anonymous PO8 said...

I think all your reasoning is valid.

I'd go further though. Unlike sweaters (kind of boring) or rice (really, really boring), coffee has a lot of semantic, symbolic, and semiotic content. I can instantly think of more than one reference to coffee in popular music; try that with rice or sweaters.

For a piece of art to connect with the viewer, it has to carry more than just surface meaning. News Brews immediately made me think about: the coffee connoiseur culture and its relationship to the wine culture; the way subtly different tastes can seem amplified in context; the famous and mis-reported McDonalds scalding coffee lawsuit; the universality of the smell of coffee as a symbol of awakening and longing.

Sweaters and rice: nothin'.

I have to say that the whole news element of News Brews also seems tacked on to me. I'd have been just as happy with any appropriate stochastic process blending coffee. I can think of a half-dozen fun schemes offhand. This is what makes me think it's the coffee, not the news, that matters.

January 25, 2008 1:30 AM  
Blogger Ethan said...

Agreed that news-to-coffee may be just as tacked on as news-to-rice... Which is why it was a bit mysterious to me why I liked it more. Maybe you're right--it could be as simple as coffee is a more interesting medium (it is addictive, afterall). I think the blending of coffee also adds some interest (though perhaps not a raison d'etre).

January 25, 2008 9:10 AM  
Anonymous Rob Myers said...

"The eRiceCooker was made by Annina Rüst at MIT"

Yes, MIT do lead in demo art. I read a complaint from a former MIT student once that when he thought he was just beginning his tutor thought he was already finished.

This is a more general problem with short electronic arts courses that fry people's brains then give them a few months to come up with a calling card for the end of the course. My own art and the art of the students I taught was no different. It's a limitation of the format.

Data visualization suffers from the same constraints as all institutional-content art. But I'm sure someone will be able to do to Amazon's sales and recommendation data what Michelangelo did to the Bible. Not while they are still at college, though.

As for art needing more than surface meaning, if the art looks good it will generate meaning. The two go together. Finding a concept and then illustrating it often doesn't work, although it is easier for examiners to evaluate.

January 25, 2008 9:53 AM  
Blogger Ethan said...

Yeah, I wondered about the fairness/appropriateness of reviewing student work. In the end I included it because I know that when I was a grad student I had wished my work to be reviewed and held to the same standard that any other artist's would.

I'm not intimately familiar structure of MITs & ITP's programs, but I hope graduate thesis projects are given more room for development & conceptualization than a standard course's final project.

January 25, 2008 10:06 AM  
Blogger Ethan said...

I've been thinking further about Rob's comment, and while I hate to have most of the comments come from myself, here it goes...

The point of the post wasn't really about to critique MIT or ITP... I think the issues I wrote about apply to a lot of technology-based art (and are ones I worry about in regards to my own art).

But it does occur to me that the focus at MIT & ITP probably is the technology... in an MFA program most of the attention would be focused on the meaning & intent of eRiceCooker (i.e., how effectively does it address issues of genetically modified food). At MIT I bet that was a very secondary concern and most of the attention was paid to the technology (which in most MFA programs would probably be an admired, but not central, focus of the critique). So it's probably not surprising that these projects tend to feel unbalanced in terms of geek-chic vs. something deeper.

January 25, 2008 11:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You write fine journal.

It's always interesting and a side of the field I certainly don't experience firsthand.

It is very inside baseball though. Only people who can use words 'ontological' and 'stochastic' can really have anything useful to add here. I quite agree with your text (and rebuttals), but it's so well thought out from a position so deep inside its field that I've got little to say but "jolly good show". If I attempt to add anything further, my frustration at people in graduate courses at MIT making bad art leaps to the surface...

PS: I hope to have some faux New Yorker work to you this weekend.


January 26, 2008 1:47 PM  
OpenID smith said...

Hey Ethan, I like our line of thinking. I appreciate your skepticism towards data/informational art, there is so much of it right now.. and of such a high quality (visually), that it can be a bit overwhelming when trying to determine how to respond. A quick perusal of the visual complexity archives will reveal that the same "approaches" are being deployed again and again. How many arc diagrams can one get excited over? I think my answer to that question is "2".

In many ways, I think that visualization is novelty art, for better and worse. I keep scanning new work, but I'm trying to develop a personal methodology for evaluating it, obviously nerdcore graphic design aesthetics will no longer cut it.

If you are interested, please take a peek at my blog Serial Consign as infographics and visualization culture are a regular topic of discussion.

Some great content in your archives! I just syndicated you so I look forward to more of your thoughts on this and other topics. :)

January 30, 2008 10:18 PM  

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