Editorial Notes for "Large Data Sets and the Sublime"

Editorial Notes for "Large Data Sets and the Sublime", published in YLEM Journal, Artists Using Science & Technology, Volume 24 Number 8, July-August 2004. ISSN 1057-2031

I was the guest editor for this issue of the YLEM Journal. This issue features the texts by artists working with large data sets in their practice, all of which were requested, organized, and edited by Brett Stalbaum, for a special issue of YLEM.

In Volume 24, Number 8 are:

  • Polli, Andrea , Atmospherics/Weather Works: Artistic Sonification of Meteorological Data
  • Jevbratt, Lisa, The Prospect of the Sublime in Data Visualizations
The editorial notes also include coverage of:
  • McPhee, Christina, Sense of Place and Sonic Topologies: Towards a Telemimetic Sublime in the Data Landscape, YLEM Journal, Volume 24 Number 6, May-June 2004
This article was to have been part of the same issue, but "Large Data Sets and the Sublime" was split across two issues of YLEM due to the large size of the articles.


Moore's Law, Gordon Moore's famous prediction that processing speeds double approximately every 18 months, has proven to be so prescient that it long ago rose past the status of provocative futurist claim to the level of pedestrian cultural assumption. But what has not yet become an accepted cultural assumption is that Moore's law is at least matched, and possibly exceeded by the exponential growth of data to be processed. The relationship between humankind's ability to collect data and to process and understand data is co-exponential: both are exploding. Data sets from genomics, astrophysics, geography, geology, particle physics, climatology, meteorology, nanotechnology, materials science and even the search for ET are producing quantities of data that challenge the technical limits of super computers, distributed computing, grid computing, and superscalar simulation techniques. Even given Moore's law, optical networks, and cheap mass storage, the problem of big data is nevertheless looming larger as our ability to collect data actively competes with our ability to process and digest it.

Computation has already become a nominal, if not tacit assumption in contemporary art practice due to the ubiquitous implementation of computer and communications technologies in all aspects of our emerging global culture. How does big data impinge on the present generation of representational artists who operate under the assumption of a rich computational environment? And what are the emerging aesthetic and conceptual parameters that impinge on the practice of artists who consciously recognize data and coding as the primary expressions of an art practice wherein the notions of "representation" are not limited to narrowly prescribed assumptions regarding a specifically graphical or interactive interface and networked distribution as the primary cultural operatives between artist and audience? What other questions arise in an environment where we live in a constant streaming wash of data, and what are the issues surrounding how artists might help interpret both cultural and scientific phenomena?

Lev Manovich raises a particularly interesting issue in his 2002 essay titled "The Anti-Sublime Ideal in Data Art". In it, Manovich identified an aesthetic approach to big data that seeks to interpret large data sets on much the same terms as designers and scientists seek to analyze data; a pursuit which he describes as the exact opposite goal of romantic art. "If Romantic artists thought of certain phenomena and effects as un-representable, as something which goes beyond the limits of human senses and reason, data visualization artists aim at precisely the opposite: to map such phenomena into a representation whose scale is comparable to the scales of human perception and cognition." He goes on to form a critique of such practice, and raises the question of "How new media can represent the ambiguity, the otherness, the multi-dimensionality of our experience... In short, rather than trying hard to pursue the anti-sublime ideal, data visualization artists should also not forget that art has the unique license to portray human subjectivity – including its fundamental new dimension of being 'immersed in data.'"

The essays published in YLEM Journal, Volume 24 Number 6, May-June 2004 (McPhee) and Volume 24 Number 8, July-August 2004 (Jevbratt & Polli) look to the writings of three artists whose practice conspicuously intersects with questions relating to the romantic and the sublime. Their writings, each in a different manner, suggest possible paths toward answering the many issues that have been raised by the explosion of, and our immersion in, big data. Interestingly, Andrea Polli's "Atmospherics/Weather Works: Artistic Sonification of Meteorological Data" begins with a quotation from the romantic American poet Walt Whitman's "Proud Music of the Storm". Polli is interested in how sonification of large data sets differs aesthetically from visualization, and in helping a sonic "language or series of languages for communicating this mass of data [needing] to evolve." Not only does Polli's text clearly describe the types of aesthetic choices that were necessary in the sonification of the President's Day Snowstorm and Hurricane Bob data, but also reveals a successful example of interaction between and artist and scientist(s) to reinforce and potentially uncover new knowledge through what she claims is a potentially more visceral sonic experience of data.

In a related article which was originally intended to be published alongside the articles in this issue, (see YLEM Volume 24 Number 6, May-June 2004), Christina McPhee discusses data sonification in "Sense of Place and Sonic Topologies: Towards a Telemimetic Sublime in the Data Landscape". Polli and McPhee share an interest in data sonification and collaboration with science, but it is especially interesting that they also meet up in something of a rapprochement with the romantic tradition that Manovich discusses. Polli's notion of how data sonification might lend to a "physical and emotional exhilaration [that] enhances the scientist's understanding" is congruent with McPhee's notion that "...one may turn a gaze to what cannot be 'seen'. Here we move into a zone of the sublime." In an abstract sense, it is the same matter of scale that the romantics faced via exposure to a new, often breathtaking landscape (during the period of colonialist expansion in previous centuries), that is today expressed technically as a matter of scaling systems of processing as humanity is faced by the expansion of scientific data. The current context reactivates the sublime as an issue for contemporary artists working with large data sets.

It should be noted that this rapprochement with the romantic and the sublime is in no way a conservative one. The sublime, which can also be described as a particularly human cognitive response to decision making circumstances wherein the amount of data overwhelms one's deductive reasoning capabilities, yet under which humans are more often than not able to think and act to yield successful outcomes, is one of the general capabilities to date that has evaded machine intelligence. It seems that the prodigious deductive abilities of computational systems can not yet simulate the prodigious inferential capabilities of the human mind. We have not yet entered the period of strong AI predicted in JCR Licklider's 1960 essay "Human-Computer Symbiosis", but rather we continue to exist in the symbiotic phase where "Computing machines can do readily, well, and rapidly many things that are difficult or impossible for man, and men can do readily and well, though not very rapidly, many things that are difficult or impossible for computers." Big data, as it turns out, is a challenge even to this successful symbiosis, and the work of both Polli and McPhee can be read as attempts to engage the human capability to experience the sublime as part of the process of understanding big data. The sublime is something that people can participate in readily and well, and exploring how that capability might assist the human drive to develop and refine knowledge is something that artists are presently working through, in practice and theory.

Lisa Jevbratt's "A Prospect of the Sublime in Data Visualizations", is both an attempt to theorize the contemporary situation regarding artists and the sublime, and an answer to Manovich's use of her work as an example of the anti-sublime ideal. In her essay, she explores the potential for a symbiotic human-machine space to be understood via the sublime in terms of a "methodological distancing" including the concept of "Via Negativa" and a proper appreciation of the opportunistic nature of meaning that would allow us to take into account (romantic) philosopher Emmanuel Kant’s notion regarding the "mobilizing effect the sublime has on our organizing abilities." Jevbratt thinks this would help us avoid "The most common mistake in data visualizations...", that being "not too much information but too little, their 'images' of the data landscape are not high resolution enough for an esthetic decision to be made."

On behalf of YLEM's executive editor Loren Means and the YLEM board, and the journal Scale (Volume 01, Issue 6+7, Edited by Mike Podolak), which is publishing the collection of essays online, I hope that these writings will help further define the problem of the sublime and big data, and stimulate further discussion of the issues and opportunities presented to artists by the problem of big data generally.

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