statement // mary flanagan // john klima // lisa jevbratt // rethinking the visual // event

curatorial statement / Christiane Paul 
Mapping Transitions: The Topography of Searches

  One might say that every artwork, in one way or another, maps transitions: the transition from reality to its representation, transitions between shades of color and light or different materialities, between object and space, or the artwork and the audience. The list could be continued. The context of this exhibition begs the question if Internet art inherently entails a different form of mapping transitions than other media.
  The Internet constitutes a virtual locality and multi-layered informational system that seems to be in constant flux and reorganization. While websites may have a location in that they reside on a server and have their specific address, the network itself constitutes an environment with no fixed entry points, consisting of nodes and synapses that can be reconfigured. The Internet seems to defy geography—a delineation or systematic arrangement of its constituent elements; no matter where it is located, any webpage is potentially only one click away from all the other ones. Electronic links allow an increased flexibility and transparency of movement that introduces a change in the perceptual plane of accessing information. Links make it possible to connect a text or site to the contextual network it is embedded in, to visualize the network of references that would normally be separated by physical space. They make relations and connections accessible and erase or at least challenge the relationship between text and context: whatever data we focus on at any given point becomes a primary ‘text,’ embedded in a contextual web of information. The Internet constitutes a denatured context, enriching context even as it contributes to making the very notion of context redundant. This form of ‘contextual’ networked computer environment was anticipated in the theories of Theodor Nelson who, in 1961, coined the terms hypertext and hypermedia for a space of writing and reading where texts, images, and sounds could be electronically interconnected and linked by anybody contributing to a networked “docuverse.” Nelson’s hyperlinked environment is branching and non-linear, allowing readers / writers to choose their own path, and assemble a narrative. Although hypertext has by now become a subset of the World Wide Web’s hypermedia environment, hypertext theory and practice are still crucial to an understanding of the dynamics between text and context in a hyperlinked environment.
  In addition to the potential for recontextualization created by the very structure of the Internet itself, there also is a constant flux of data that is being exchanged over this network at any given point--through e-mail exchanges or data sets that are continuously updated (such as the data of the financial and stock markets). Part of this data flux is our activity of browsing the Web, which creates a map of paths traveled, a dynamic practice that can potentially be recorded (the history section of Web browsers and statistics of server traffic are some of the methods used to trace our steps).
  The ability to create meaning in this type of environment largely relies on possibilities of filtering information and creating some form of map—be it mental or visual—that can allow for orientation. The construction of meaning is obviously always dependent on contextual information and informed by our personal and cultural background. However, the continuous flow of information on the Internet and the dynamic aspect of accessing information creates fluctuating contexts when it comes to establishing our frameworks for creating meaning. Depending on the openness or closure of a network, this fluctuation varies. It does not come as a surprise that filtering and mapping in various forms have become an important issue in networked digital art.
  Using the map metaphor in the context of the Internet is at least slightly problematic. Traditional maps are outlines of a relatively fixed geographical territory that is navigable by following directions (North, South, East, West) and suggest a repeatable scenario. The journey one takes through this territory doesn’t leave a trace on the map (unless we physically inscribe our route onto it). The process of navigating communication networks differs substantially from the travel of a physical terrain: randomness functions as a kind of paradoxical organizing principle departing from that of both the user and creator of traditional maps; while our itineraries can be recorded, the terrain we are covering is by no means stationary.
  While mapping in the traditional sense is inherently connected to notions of geography, the process of mapping the Internet and communication networks tends to transcend physical topography and can take myriad forms. Apart from visual diagrams that depict the Internet’s servers and backbones and thus chart its “physical” territory, search engines and browsers that allow us to filter and access information are the conventional way of outlining the Internet’s territory. Browser art, the reconfiguration of traditional browsers and their functionality, has by now become a subgenre of Internet art (I/O/D’s WebStalker, Maciej Wisniewski’s netomat, Andruid Kerne’s Collage Machine and Mark Napier’s Riot are some of the well-known examples of this form of artistic practice). The digital territory to be mapped can also consist of one database or specific set of data, another area that has been explored by numerous artworks.
  Information and data sets are intrinsically virtual, that is, they exist as processes that aren't necessarily visible or graspable. The data being transferred and transmitted over the network at any given time does not necessarily have a visual manifestation. Since the advent of digital technologies, the creation of visual models that allow for a dynamic representation of any kind of data flow has become a broad field of experimentation and research, be it in science, statistics, architecture, design, digital art or any combination thereof. Dynamic visualizations of data flow allow users to navigate visual and textual information and experience changes over time. For any given set of data, there are always multiple possibilities for giving it a visual form. The power of these visualizations consists in their relational potential, the possibility of establishing multiple connections between different sets of data and constructing narratives about cultures. These maps of process cannot only be created for any given data set, they can also chart our interactions, interventions, and communication, adding a contextual meta-level for its understanding. Projects such as Warren Sack’s Conversation Map or Judith Donath’s Chat Circles are examples of this specific form of artistic practice.
  While distinctly different in their approach, the art projects commissioned for Mapping Transitions are all concerned with the visualization of various forms of data flow and data sets. Both Mary Flanagan’s and Lisa Jevbratt’s project explore the ‘search’ as an aesthetic form of mapping the Internet. Flanagan’s [search] examines the search engine as a creator of context and meaning by reconfiguring its content in a way that illustrates semantic levels, which usually aren’t obvious to the viewer. Displaying the constant stream of questions that users ask the Internet—a stream that ranges from the ridiculous to the sublime—the project creates a topography of Internet users’ interests and a map of the function that the Internet fulfills in people’s daily lives. On one level, [search] is the unfiltered stream of consciousness that saturates the network at any given moment. Flanagan imposes a filter on this stream by allowing users to select words from the incoming flow of questions, which in turn triggers a search on the chosen term. Yet another layer is provided by a kind of Visual Thesaurus that reveals synonyms for the words selected by the user, enhancing the contextual network of meaning. While there are Web statistics that illustrate what categories of information are most frequently requested by users (entertainment, business, pornography, art), we seldom get a chance to look at the micro-level of the request, the actual question that induces a search. Flanagan’s project uses a layering of filters for the creation of meaning that fluctuates between the randomness and control inherent to the network itself. [search] is geared towards transparency, visualizing what users want from the network as well as the process of the project itself. Meaning is unveiled as a transitory and continuously fluctuating process.
  Lisa Jevbratt’s project takes an entirely different look at the subject of the search by creating an application that allows users to customize and set parameters for their own searches. The focus is less the search itself than the exploration of all the variables, both structural and aesthetic, that create a context for the search. Jevbratt’s software is based on so-called ‘crawlers’—automatic processes that access web sites by following links between them and collect data. Users can decide where they would like to begin ‘crawling’ (on a specific page, a randomly picked one, or one returned by a search engine); how they would like to navigate (by sequentially following all the links on one page or jumping around on it); and how this search should be visualized. While Flanagan’s project investigates the semantics of the search, Jevbratt’s software creates visual maps of the structures of sites as they are encountered on the itineraries chosen by the user. Depending on the parameters chosen, these visualizations reveal information about a page itself, the users’ interests as they manifest themselves in the routes selected, and about the way in which different visual models for the display of information affect the way we understand it. By allowing users to choose between pixels or ‘degrees’ (length of lines) as a visual model for the creation of the crawler’s map, Jevbratt introduces two aesthetic paradigms for processing information.
  Temporal and spatial characteristics of the crawled pages—for example, date on the client’s computer or the date the page was modified; color and attributes of the page design—become part of the mapping process: the boundaries between the map and the territory are blurred. As Jevbratt puts it, the visualization is realistic in that it has a direct correlation to the reality it is mapping. Jevbratt’s maps effectively merge the inherent structure of sites with the journey of the user whose choices in turn affect the balance between these two realms. The project documents transitions from the micro- to the macro-level—the transition from one page to the next, from randomness to user control, as well as the transitions between meanings conveyed by different models of representation.
  The motif of the search again surfaces in John Klima’s Political Landscape, Emotional Terrain, in this case in the form of the A* algorithm commonly used in computer games to create a behavior aimed at finding the most efficient route from one point to another. One level of Klima’s project consists of traditional maps, two-dimensional charts of geography, human rights abuse, and life expectancy. Klima’s project most explicitly maps the transition from static methods for representing information to the dynamic, relational models of visualizing data. This particular transition is enhanced by the fact that choosing a segment of one of the maps generates a 3D model of the selected terrain patch. The color-coded maps of life-expectancy and human rights abuse are translated into a topography where elevations within the territory signify the statistically highest occurrences of governmental repression and the shortest life expectancies. The process of letting the algorithm find the path of least resistance through all of the three terrains creates a relational diagram that points to similarities in the geography and ‘difficulty’ of the terrains. A crucial aspect of this relational process is recontextualization—the application and transfer of a method that is usually applied in gaming to an evaluation of social and cultural data. Given the data represented, one could not assume that there would be any correlation between the three maps chosen for this project; at the same time, it doesn’t come as a surprise that a country’s political situation is related to the life-expectancy of its inhabitants, which the path of the algorithm perfectly illustrates. On the one hand, Klima’s project is a study in the comparison of data sets and the different methods for visually representing data on a global level—from color-coded maps to 3D terrains and line graphs. On the other hand, Political Landscape, Emotional Terrain highlights the digital medium’s potential for new forms of contextualizing data, the possibilities of applying methods from seemingly unrelated realms in order to expose new relationships between disparate elements.
  The latter is one of the distinct qualities that marks a transition between traditional forms of visual arts and digital media. All of the projects in the Mapping Transitions exhibition create visual models that are unique, yet do not lose their connection to the specific data sets and information that drives them. In the digital realm, information itself to a large extent seems to have lost its body, becoming an abstract ‘quality’ that can make a fluid transition between different states of materiality. While the ultimate ‘substance’ of information remains arguable, it is safe to say that data of any kind are not necessarily attached to a specific form of manifestation. Mapping Transitions charts the potential of these manifestations and their inherent aesthetics.