As we know, a picture tells a thousand words. But in our media-saturated culture of personal digital collection, data tells the story of a thousand pictures.
Nowadays, our former scrapbooks containing a few hundred aging photos have morphed into catalogues and social media databases of tens of thousands of images and videos chronicling our every move. For the artist, slide albums and monographs have been transformed into sprawling online repositories carefully organized by media and date. Many artists, for better or worse, have become their own digital registrars who not only painstakingly document the finished work, but unabashedly reveal their daily practice in all its minute detail: publicly displayed to the world via their virtual open source studio.
I have been working on my own narrative project, Reportage from the Aesthetic Edge, since 2005, practically the dawning of blogs. To be precise, this post is the 480th addition to an ever-expanding universe of personal observations on artistic process and a much larger of world of politics, technology, art, and the uncategorizable. In other words, this exercise in storytelling constitutes what is known as a “cabinet of curiosities,” a Wonderkammer, a world of ideas, ruminations, and production amassed into a living online database.
But that is the challenge. As I push the project forward, filling in gaps from the past, searching across notebooks, hard drives, binders, etc. for material, I confront the daunting complexity of creatively organizing this seemingly impenetrable gesamtdatenwerk (total datawork) into a compelling narrative. If the data in fact tells the story of a thousand pictures, the question is how to give form to the data.
This is not just a question of constructing a searchable database to retrieve specific information. Rather, it is about arranging the dataspace into a journey through a taxonomical landscape that includes all the wrong-turns, dreams, the pivotal moves, and epic failures inherent in the artistic proces. We are not talking about a mere Website of documentation, this is an artist’s rendering of an autobiographical cabinet of curiosities, or perhaps a theater of the self, a memory palace for taking stock of a world of ideas as they emerge in the daily practice of artistic production. This is nothing new of course, it was the original vision for the future of information technology as prophesied by Vannevar Bush in 1945 when he wrote the seminal article, “As We May Think,” in which the scientist foresaw that someday there would be machines that could extend human memory (he coined them Memex) capable of archiving and chronicling the “cultural record.”
If an artist’s life of data constitutes one slice of the cultural record, the challenge is how to present the data. In the present day potentialities of digital cataloguing, there is no established precedent for transforming one’s digital life into a compelling data-driven self-portrait. My solution, though still slightly beyond my fingertips, is a network of concepts, contexts, and ideas expressed through the poetic definition, description, and juxtaposition of taxonomical motifs.
In this way, a database might spring to life, subtly revealing its contents and underlying structure like a garden that contains splashes of color and intricately twisting vines. You might wander the garden for a glimpse of an essence, a fragment of meaning, the intangible, the abstract, and the organic. There should be nothing didactic in the artist’s rendering of the database narrative. The real challenge is to recognize within the data the life of something powerfully human and visceral.