Datafying and visualising digital community imaginaries – An experimental approach


My oral presentation “Datafying and visualising digital community imaginaries – An experimental approach” in the conference “Data-stories: New Media Aesthetics and Rhetorics for Critical Digital Ethnography”, the 1st Greek confestival (conference & festival). Click here to view the slides of the presentation. CC-BY 4.0

Data-stories was an intriguing experience, organised by the Laboratory of Social Anthropology of the Department of History, Archaeology and Social Anthropology, University of Thessaly in Volos, Greece.

data-stories mariana ziku

The poster of the confestival, designed by Oneleg Rollerboy from Oblique Orbit

The presentation reviewed cultural and creative projects of data analysis and visualisation that attempt to understand the way digital communities interact and how their supporting infrastructures function. It is concerned with the contemporary web practice of massive participation in user-based micro-content platforms and p2p services in which contingent, vast flows of data are being exchanged in real-time.

The presentation focused on the collective aesthetic and narrative manifestations within these ecologies, from a computational art theoretical/curatorial point of view. In particular, it inquired new modes of digital curatorial practices as community-based curation and reflected on narrative concepts as micro-culture or micro-genre and techniques that bring to light the shared imaginaries of digital communities.

Even though efforts proliferate for modelling professional databases where cultural-related content is carefully organized for optimal use, an exponential growth rate of bulk data is happening outside of such repositories. This condition lets a diverse ground of cultural practices and processes to emerge, where more complex agencies as digital collectivity and machine computation develop new modes of curation, cultural exchange and narratives.

In view of this “wild frontier” of digital information, cultural creation models can be studied that open up our understanding for the synthesis and function of grassroots aesthetics and narratives as well as our awareness on the digital interfaces of human-machine interaction. How do collective cultural practices function in decentralised web spaces? How do aesthetic and narrative patterns evolve through open massive participation, when there are no top-down theorization models? What are the sensibilities of immersing in user-generated collective micro-worlds?

data-stories mariana ziku

“MUBI Cinephile rates & reviews” – An interactive scatterplot created with the use of the t-SNE (algorithm)

the night of space – machine wilderness as conceptual soundscapes

Night shades the northeast coast of america, mid60’s. The new highway runs its trail through the flat desert, still unfinished to host traffic, rimmed by cresthills in the horizon. The car was driving on the desolated route to New Brunswick among a landscape of towers, smokestacks and winking lights.

A real scenery unfolding as an escapist machine wilderness, a term coined by cultural geographer Ronald Horvath in the same decade to describe the impact of the automobile on the western vast landscapes. The experience of this nighttime road-trip belongs nevertheless to artist Tony Smith, a poetical expression of the uncanny feelings that emerged as he drove together with three of his students on the New Jersey turnpike. Eventually, his memoir worked out as a fond introduction to minimal art:

“This drive was a revealing experience. The road and much of the landscape was artificial, and yet it couldn’t be called a work of art. It did something for me that art has never done. It seemed that there was a reality there which had not had any expression in art.”

7 Eleven, Image by Joshua D. White

Where could this unfilled reality locate its external expressions? Smith contextualized an unspoken till that time cosmic theory, the expansion of arts’ prophecies. The drift on meditations upon arts’ unused potentials could cite Nelson Goodman’s musings on Ways of Worldmaking (1978), who tried to commend and illustrate the processes of world-building: “Actually, I am concerned more with certain relationships among worlds than with how or whether particular worlds are made from others”. His subtle remark captures a prominent problem between the different worlds, namely how worlds interact displaying various levels of existence, from the mere tangible reality-worlds to the utmost tacit and solitary imaginative worlds. More or less, the mere volume of worlds are acts of visualization distinguished in a scale from being restricted or entirely private, up to being collective and widespread. “There is another world, but it is in this one” said once poet Paul Éluard, releasing his surrealist fictions.

Untitled, Image by Joshua D. White

The ambience of Smith’s tour had evoked to him and to his later audience, textures of unknown impressions, which reside also in a realm of existence beyond physical experience. However, Smith’s whimsical nightscape is not being perceived in a pure visual or imaginative sense. There is a distinct aural perspective in this experience, linked naturally to the physical world, yet at the same time it feels remote from it. The sonic regime is scattered all over the landscape like a granulated veil, unseeable but palpable. This urban but rather rare soundscape of the vacant highway is a world able to superimpose organic quality upon other worlds, a space of invisible vibrations that vanish and arise beyond sight and inside of time and space.

Lonely Highway, Image by Joshua D. White