Writing

20/02/2020

Planetary Thinking

Article about the work of artist Martin John Callanan published in the peer-review journal Accesos (ISSN: 2530-447X) from the Fine Arts department at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid.

The article, translated into Spanish by Ana Iribas Rudín (Arte Traducciones), can be read online at Accesos.

Below is the original text, written in English.

PLANETARY THINKING:
ON DATA VISUALIZATION IN THE WORK OF MARTIN JOHN CALLANAN

KEYWORDS:
data visualization, art, mapping, science, technology, information, systems, aesthetics

ABSTRACT:
Although perceived as an accurate representation, data rendered in visual form is usually subject to manipulation, which can even be found in scientific projects such as some of NASA’s visualizations of the Earth and the surface of Venus. The manipulation of data is also apparent in artistic projects that use information visualization techniques, although their objectives differ: while the purpose of a scientific graph or image is to make the collected data visible and understandable, an artwork may not refer to the data itself, but rather to something denoted by it. This particular use of scientific data and the visualization of information is discussed in the work of Martin John Callanan, an artist who explores the interaction between the individual and the systems that shape our environment.

SOCRATES
I have to suspend my brain and mingle the subtle essence of my mind with this air, which is of the like nature, in order clearly to penetrate the things of heaven. I should have discovered nothing, had I remained on the ground to consider from below the things that are above…

In Aristophanes’s famous comedy The Clouds, he depicts the Greek philosopher emerging from a basket hung high up over the “Thoughtery,” [1] mocking Socrates’s belief in a realm of ideas, high above the earthly experience of reality. Yet, later on, while engaged in a discussion with the indebted Athenian farmer Strepsiades, who comes to him for assistance, the philosopher acts as a scientist who shakes off his interlocutor’s religious beliefs by explaining that “there is no Zeus”: it is the clouds that cause rain and thunder. Although Aristophanes keeps a satirical tone and does not deny the existence of the divinities (the Clouds themselves are presented as goddesses), the play describes in this brief dialogue the passing from myth to reason in an observation of atmospheric phenomena that have long been related to the realm of the gods in many cultures. Nowadays, despite the fact that science has unveiled their composition and an international classification system (initiated by Luke Howard in 1802) has been developed, clouds still retain the powers of Zeus. Clouds can be beneficial or destructive; they affect people’s moods and shape the skies, but most of all they determine the conditions of life on our planet to an extent that has not yet been fully grasped. Both influential on and distant from our daily activities, clouds belong to that part of the Earth that cannot be controlled by humankind, endlessly evolving in the sky above us, subject to atmospheric motion on a global scale. As writer Richard Hamblyn states, clouds are usually seen as merely localized phenomena, yet they belong to a larger system: “Seen from Space, what from Earth is merely an indistinct bank of stratocumulus cloud, becomes part of a visible planetary order.” [2]

A cloudless planet

When the crew of the Apollo 17 spacecraft looked down to Earth on 7th December 1972 and took the famous photograph that was to be known as The Blue Marble, the planet was partly covered by a dense accumulation of clouds that gave it the appearance of a glass marble. This widely distributed image was the first to show a clearly illuminated face of the Earth and became an icon for environmental activism, as a symbol of the fragility of our planet. But it also shows how clouds become a nuisance when observing the Earth from Space. The Blue Marble nowadays is not a single photo but a composition of numerous images taken by the 18 satellites operated by NASA, fittingly named Blue Marble next generation. These images have been selected in order to eliminate the presence of clouds as much as possible, by means of a technique that allows the computer to “automatically recognize and remove cloud-contaminated or otherwise bad data.” [3] It is interesting that clouds are considered ‘contamination’ when observing the Earth and identified as “bad data,” as if cloud formations are the noise that disrupts the transmission of information and not part of the information itself. Obviously, Earth observation focuses primarily on the land that we inhabit, the clouds being unstable phenomena that, despite playing an important role in the conditions of life on the planet, constitute a separate layer that can be conveniently removed. By combining views from different moments in time, the composite photograph created by NASA succeeds in providing a cartographic and unrealistic image of an Earth without clouds. [4] The cloudless planet seen from Space has become an iconic representation of the world, and as such it is shown in the popular Google Earth application; which also displays a large collection of satellite images, seamlessly stitched together in order to allow an uninterrupted observation of the land.

Data visualization and scientific fictions

The particular selection of images carried out by NASA draws attention to the way in which data is manipulated when presented in a visual form. A detailed image of a cloudless Earth can be a reliable source of information for anyone who intends to study it, yet it is also a form of constructed reality, a fiction of sorts. Hamblyn underscores the extent to which scientific data is manipulated in public presentations: “scientific graphs and images often have powerful stories to tell, carrying much in the way of overt and implied narrative content; […] these stories or narratives are rarely interrupted or interrogated. They are information monologues.” [5] An illustrative example of this form of scientific fiction is to be found in NASA’s visualization of the data collected from the surface of Venus during the Magellan space mission in 1992. The virtual flyover of the planet was described by statistician Edward Tufte as an “extravagant dequantification” that “takes viewers on a rollercoaster tour of steep canyons and soaring mountains sharply silhouetted against a dark sky.” [6] This effect was achieved by exaggerating the vertical scale more than 22 times, generating an impressive but utterly unrealistic impression of Earth’s sister planet. Tufte calls for preserving the integrity of visual evidence, yet he also indicates that certain forms of manipulation may unveil new information in the collected data, “despite the chronic dangers of misrepresentation, appropriate re-expressions or transforms of scales are among the most powerful strategies for exploring data.” [7] When artists work with data, their visualizations can be considered “re-expressions,” fictions that do not intend to be presented as objective evidence, but rather as a metaphor of what the data is telling us. As theorist Warren Sack suggests, in these artistic projects the goal of data visualization is different from what is expected in the domains of science and engineering. Data visualization is lead by aesthetic considerations and the construction of a narrative, directed towards issues of sensation and perception: “to inquire about the aesthetics of information visualization is to investigate the judgment used to decide what about the work is valuable, according to the senses or, in general, the body.” [8] A work of art using data visualization, thus, can engage in “extravagant dequantification,” as Tufte would put it, if this serves the intended narrative.

Generating a visual output from collected data in an artistic project entails what theorist Lev Manovich defines as the “politics of mapping.” He writes that: “Who has the power to decide what kind of mapping to use, what dimensions are selected; what kind of interface is provided for the user – these new questions about data mapping are now as important as more traditional questions about the politics of media representation.” [9] As the example of NASA’s ‘hyped Venus’ shows, the decisions that are taken when deciding aspects such as scale, color or shape greatly determine the story that the data will tell. What is enhanced or omitted in a scientific visualization is therefore, as Manovich suggests, comparable to how the media portray events, people, or social groups in order to communicate a particular vision of reality. In an artistic project, the politics of mapping are decided by the artist, who through her choices elaborates an interpretation of the information that becomes not just a simple visualization but a narration. It may be useful here to refer to philosopher Arthur Danto’s ‘aboutness’ theory [10] – simply put, an artwork is always “about something” – in order to distinguish a scientific visualization of data from an artwork using data visualization. In the latter case, we may find that the collected data is put into visual form in order to tell something that is not necessarily related to the data itself, but rather uses it to develop a metaphor. In other words, while a scientific graph or image is about making the collected data visible and understandable, an artwork may not refer to the data itself, but rather be about something denoted by it. This distinction will help us to better understand what an artwork generated by a process of data mapping is actually telling.

A Planetary Order

During his residency at UCL Environment Institute, artist Martin John Callanan developed a visualization of the clouds covering the Earth at a specific moment (2 February 2009, 0600 UTC) in the shape of a sculpted globe. Titled A Planetary Order (Terrestrial Cloud Globe), [11] the artwork is the result of mapping the readings of six cloud-monitoring satellites operated by NASA and the European Space Agency onto a 3D shape that was later on used to create a physical object at the Digital Manufacturing Center in the Bartlett School of Architecture. The white globe, made of hardened nylon powder, when illuminated subtly reveals on its surface the shapes of the clouds and the outlines of the continents below. The artist has avoided applying any colors to the raw material, and therefore the whiteness of the globe does not, at first glance, bring to mind the Earth (which we tend to imagine as a blue, cloudless planet) but the Moon; which in fact inspired Callanan’s initial sketches for this sculpture. [12] While being the precise reproduction of a natural event at a specific moment in time, the globe is somewhat enigmatic, as if it were concealing information rather than making it visible. Callanan certainly has applied Manovich’s “politics of mapping”: he has selected the data that was to be included in the visualization, in this case focusing on the shapes of the clouds and allowing only some traces of the outlines of the continents to appear. The artist justifies this decision in terms of the content of the artwork: “the surface only shows the clouds and you can see the continents below in the gaps, I wanted to highlight that the whole Earth is interdependent.” [13] The visualization created by Callanan, with the assistance of numerous scientists from UCL over a period of nine months, although being accurate, does not intend to provide information about the clouds, but rather suggest a reflection on the fragility and instability of the environment:

Showing the Earth’s cloud cover from one second in time, the shimmering white cloud globe freeze-frames the entire operation of the global atmospheric regime, and highlights how fragile the environmental (and informational) systems are that operate across the world. For the globe is created from raw information, being a physical visualization of real-time scientific data. [14]

This fragility is made apparent in the orphan globe, always displayed as a found object resting on the ground of the gallery, as if it had fallen from an ancient marble statue – perhaps the Farnese Atlas, whose celestial sphere is similar to Callanan’s piece – and had been forgotten there. Different from any scientific visualization or the spheres that can be found at the Globe Museum in the Palais Mollard (Vienna, Austria), A Planetary Order is not simply the output of mapping data, it is a sculpture that puts into question our perception of the world.

Everything there is to know about systems

“Unlike Richard, who’s got a huge fascination with clouds, I’ve been more interested in systems – systems that define how we live our lives.” [15] This statement by Martin John Callanan – in which he refers to fellow writer-in-residence Richard Hamblyn at the UCL Environment Institute – may seem contradictory, considering the effort he has undertaken to develop a terrestrial cloud globe and the nature of some of his previous work. But at the same time, it reveals that the artist is not interested in displaying a certain amount of data in order to tell something about it, but rather aims at revealing the underlying systems that shape the phenomena being observed and inspire a reflection on how they influence our daily reality. He carries on this task with the somewhat ironic pretension of providing an all-encompassing answer to the subject at hand, while revealing the flaws and fragility of the process itself, which leads to considering the instability and weaknesses of the systems themselves. For instance, A Planetary Order is presented as a ‘cloud globe,’ and therefore could be read as the map of the clouds covering the whole planet, thus fully answering the question “which are the clouds covering the Earth?” in the same way that a regular globe answers the question “which are the continents of the Earth?” Yet, this elaborate map is valid only during one second of a particular date, the data used for modeling already having expired when the globe was produced; bringing to mind the early efforts in numerical weather prediction carried out by Lewis Fry Richardson, whose calculations took longer than the weather advances. [16] The cloud globe therefore reveals itself as an unserviceable object, although being generated by accurate scientific data, which nonetheless eloquently speaks of the systems that govern the Earth and our inability to control them.

Callanan has developed this search for global, all-encompassing answers in a series of works in which information is collected with a claim of absoluteness (as indicated by the use of words such as “entire,” “the whole of” or “all of” in the titles); while at the same time dealing with the fragility of the process, the information overflow, and the humble position of a single human being inside a complex system. These works also deal with the collection and visualization of data, clearly showing the implications of the “politics of mapping” and elaborating on a narrative that goes beyond the data itself.

An early artwork, Entire Collection (2006), [17] is a video that shows the copyright notices for all the DVDs held in University College London’s Library Collection. The title indicates the intention to present a complete record, not missing a single one of the copyright notices that precede the films included in the collection, as if they were as important as the films themselves. Although systematic, the compilation is limited to the exhausting progression of the copyright notices, one after the other with no indication of their origin or the material being protected, a mere accumulation of legal text that is usually ignored by the viewers who wait for the film to begin. Yet, by reading between the lines, we realize that this film about copyright warnings is the only one that can be legally made out of the DVDs held in the UCL Library Collection; that it ironically serves as an index to the collection and tells a story about the conflict between copyright protection and the distribution of knowledge. In this video, the way in which information is processed follows certain conditions that can be found in most of Callanan’s work: the collection of data is systematic, the information gathered is usually about aspects of our daily interaction with overlooked systems, the presentation of the collected data consciously lacks details and indicators, and the work does not limit itself to visualizing information, but suggests a reflection on something that is derived both from the data and the experience of the viewer.

Nephology (2009-2010) [18] is a website showing the register of the clouds observed by the artist during several days in 2009 and 2010. Callanan recorded the clouds and applied the definitions from the International Cloud Atlas (1956 edition), which are also reproduced in a section of the website. The artist provides accurate information about the date and time the clouds were observed, along with the description codes from the above-mentioned atlas, but no images or indications about the location in which the observation took place are provided. The information is thus incomplete and requires a certain amount of knowledge in the study of clouds to be able to visualize what Callanan observed on those particular days. The whole project seems to be an attempt to address the custom of talking about the weather from a scientific point of view, suggesting a connection between the casual experience of daily life and the more transcendent task of studying the changes in the environment. As Richard Hamblyn puts it, we are currently unaware of the influence that the local atmospheric phenomena exert on the environment on a global scale: “Cloud patterns have long been read as short-range weather indicators, but more recently they have begun to be seen as longer term climatic signals. Their messages are far from clear, however, and so far little is certain about the roles that clouds are likely to play in shaping future conditions on Earth.” [19] The landscape thus reveals itself as something more than just a background for our daily activities: it provides us with a constant flow of data that we usually overlook.

The London Underground Journey Planner is a resource from the Transport for London authority that helps residents and visitors find the best route between two locations in the city using the metropolitan subway network. Callanan used this navigation aid to visit each and every station on the network, while recording the audio of the journey with microphones disguised as headphones. 60 hours of audio recordings are stored and played back using a computer program that automatically selects a journey to each station and displays on a screen the colour of the corresponding line being travelled. I Wanted to See the Whole of London (2007) [20] is an endless journey across the city, in which there is an obvious contradiction between the title and the actual experience of the artist, and more so of the viewer. We can imagine that what Callanan saw is a considerable amount of corridors, train carriages and underground stations, not the city; while the viewer is left with a series of monochromes on a screen and a lot of confusing noise. Again, this project tells us about a methodical approach to a system (in this case, the subway network) that implies the collection of data and its presentation in a decidedly inscrutable visualization. Details and indicators are removed in order to provide a sensory experience and reflect on the fact that, in our daily experience, the subway replaces the city itself by transforming it into a series of strategic locations, themselves connected by the somewhat abstract underground lines. The artist does not intend to provide a guide to London visitors or residents as the Underground Journey Planner does, but instead brings forth the perception of the traveller who is forced to orientate herself by means of the colours demarcating each line.

The works previously described are telling us that we live surrounded by data, be it in the cloud formations above us or in the transportation system, but it is in the media where this constant flow of information is made more evident. Every day, thousands of newspapers are distributed, millions of blog posts are published and billions of comments are shared on social networks such as Facebook. [21] Above us, the water clouds are replaced by data clouds, servers that store our documents and synchronize them between the many devices we own. To keep up with this unstoppable circulation of data is difficult, so we need to focus on certain parts of the information available and try to summarize it in some way. As theorist Mitchell Whitelaw states, “orienting ourselves in this domain is a constant challenge; the network exceeds any overview or synopsis, so we construct local subsets and contexts, drawn together with RSS feeds.” [22] Configured as a sort of image based RSS reader, I Wanted to See All of the News from Today (2007- ongoing) [23] extracts the front pages of more than 960 newspapers around the world and displays the thumbnail images in a continuous grid on a single webpage. The data is collected in real time, constantly updating the newspaper images and presenting them as an overwhelming display of information that in the end becomes unreadable. In this case, the culling of data is not only orderly but also automatic, and its visualization does not remove part of the information as much as it re-contextualizes it and aims at achieving visual saturation. Thus, the artwork goes beyond the mere collection of news feeds as an RSS reader would do and presents us with a constantly updated picture of our media environment. In this sense, it constitutes an example of what Manovich has described as,

the personal subjective experience of a person living in a data society. If daily interaction with volumes of data and numerous messages is part of our new ‘data-subjectivity,’ how can we represent this experience in new ways? […] 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.’ [24]

Certainly, I Wanted to See All of the News from Today is a perfect visualization of the experience of being “immersed in data,” expressed in a visual form that links old and new media and is thus easily grasped by the viewer.

One of Callanan’s artworks that more closely references the way in which data is visualized in a scientific context is Text Trends (2008). [25] Using data from the searches carried out by Google users over a period of four years (2004-2007), the artist has created an animation in which a line graph is displayed, showing the variations in frequency of searches using a set of specific terms. For each graph, two “competing” terms are selected, usually symbolizing an antagonism, the variations in frequency of searches being represented by a red and a blue line that cross the screen according to their progression in time. Pairs of words such as “buy / sell,” “criminal / victim,” “physical / virtual,” “bush / saddam,” “you / i,” or the triad “past / present / future,” generate completely different graphs in which we read an evolution in the importance that these terms have for worldwide Internet users. Callanan has consciously eliminated most of the information that is usually provided in these graphs, displaying only the years, the color-coded pair of words and their corresponding lines. The viewer is thus forced to make her own reading of the data, by inferring that the higher the line, the more searches have been made and therefore the more relevant the term has become for Google users at a specific moment. Once more, the artwork is not simply about making this information visible, however interesting it may be, but about questioning the whole process of data collection and its presentation in a visual form. As the artist states: “the work is an investigation into data use, encouraging criticism on how the data is generated; prompting the question what does the data actually represent?” [26] So, what do these graphs actually mean? Why is the line for ‘you’ always below the line for ‘i,’ but then in 2006 ‘you’ starts ascending while ‘i’ remains almost the same? Is it because society has become less selfish and more interested in other people, or is it due to the growing popularity of YouTube that same year? In their simplicity, the graphs invite open interpretations, as much as the words themselves are likely to be misunderstood, therefore highlighting the unreliability of the whole system.

Considering from below the things that are above

While working on A Planetary Order, Martin John Callanan wrote: “Planetary thinking is hard. To any one of us the planet seems almost incomprehensibly vast.” [27] Certainly, the terrestrial cloud globe could be read as an attempt to reach a form of planetary conscience, or as Lev Manovich puts it, express the “anti-sublime”:

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. [28]

But it would be misleading to see this work simply as “anti-sublime,” given that Callanan’s goal is not just to make a representation of the Earth’s cloud cover at a scale that is perceivable by a human being. Instead, it can be argued that most of his works generate images that lead us into thinking on a global scale. By collecting data and giving it a visual form, the artist addresses vast systems: the water system, represented by the clouds; the global media; the subway system, be it in London or any other major city; the Internet as a communal voice, represented by the keyword searches on Google. He responds to these systems by generating an output that not only makes them graspable, but also questions the way they affect our lives.

Data visualization develops a new dimension in these works: it is not about the presentation of data in a clearly understandable way, nor is it about celebrating the ‘data society,’ but looking for a bigger picture, an image of the Zeitgeist or maybe just a hint of how things work around us. Most of Callanan’s works are the outcome of long, complex and sometimes exhausting processes that cannot easily be repeated. However, the compilation of data can also be an automated process: as in I Wanted to See All of the News from Today, or the work of other artists dealing with Net Art, such as Grégory Chatonsky [29] or Carlo Zanni. [30] An automated process of data visualization can generate a constantly updated image of our global present, fed from the data flows on the network. By this means, the artwork becomes a real-time indicator of a certain aspect of the world we live in, possibly making the world not so incomprehensibly vast and facilitating the development of planetary thinking. This implies knowing the complex systems that operate globally and the way they interact with each other, as well as the role that each one of us plays in this scheme. This goal may seem too difficult, or we may deem necessary, as Aristophanes’s character Socrates does, to lift ourselves far away from the ground in order to see things more clearly. It certainly took a space mission to provide us with a clear image of the Earth, which later on inspired the spread of an environmentalist conscience. But, as Callanan’s work shows, it is possible to “consider from below the things that are above”; in other words, to examine the systems while partaking in them, by using the data from the information networks, satellites, and our own experiences as global wanderers to examine our role as individuals in the planetary order.

REFERENCES:

[1] Aristophanes, The Clouds. The Internet Classics Archive, http://classics.mit.edu/Aristophanes/clouds.html
[2] Hamblyn, R. and Callanan, M.J. (2009). Data Soliloquies. London: UCL Environment Institute, p.66.
[3] Blue Marble next generation, NASA Earth Observatory. http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/BlueMarble/
[4] Blue Marble 2005 globe, NASA Earth Observatory. http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/BlueMarble/Images/BlueMarble_2005_globe.jpg
[5] Hamblyn, R. and Callanan, M.J. (2009). Data Soliloquies, p.14.
[6] Tufte, E.R. (1997). Visual explanations: images and quantities, evidence and narrative. Cheshire: Graphics Press, p.23-24.
[7] Tufte, E.R. (1997).Visual explanations, p.25.
[8] Sack, W. (2011). Aesthetics of Information Visualization. In: Lovejoy, M., Vesna, V., and Paul, C., (eds.). Context Providers: Conditions of Meaning in Media Arts. Bristol: Intellect Books.
[9] Manovich, L. (2002). Data Visualization as New Abstraction and Anti-Sublime. Manovich.net. http://www.manovich.net/DOCS/data_art_2.doc
[10] Danto, A. C. (1981). The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: A Philosophy of Art. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
[11] Martin John Callanan, A Planetary Order (Terrestrial Cloud Globe). http://greyisgood.eu/globe
[12] Among the images collected by the artist during the development of this project is a 1925 photograph of the large model of the Moon (19.2 feet in diameter) that was displayed at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.
[13] UCLTV (2009). Extraordinary Clouds + A Planetary Order. YouTube. http://youtu.be/sx86M6M19rE
[14] Hamblyn, R. and Callanan, M.J. (2009). Data Soliloquies, p.66-67.
[15] Hamblyn, R. and Callanan, M.J. (2009). Data Soliloquies, p.66.
[16] Lynch, P. (2008). The origins of computer weather prediction and climate modeling. Journal of Computational Physics, 227, p.3431-3444. http://www.rsmas.miami.edu/personal/miskandarani/Courses/MPO662/Lynch,Peter/OriginsCompWF.JCP227.pdf
[17] Martin John Callanan, Entire Collection. http://greyisgood.eu/entirecollection
[18] Martin John Callanan, Nephology. http://nephology.eu
[19] Hamblyn, R. and Callanan, M.J. (2009). Data Soliloquies, p.59.
[20] Martin John Callanan, I Wanted to See the Whole of London. http://greyisgood.eu/wholelondon
[21] According to Gary Hayes’s Social Media Count, http://www.personalizemedia.com/garys-social-media-count/
[22] Whitelaw, M. (2008). Art against Information: Case Studies in Data Practice. Fibreculture 11. http://eleven.fibreculturejournal.org/fcj-067-art-against-information-case-studies-in-data-practice/
[23] Martin John Callanan, I Wanted to See All of the News from Today. http://greyisgood.eu/allnews
[24] Manovich, L. Data Visualization as New Abstraction and Anti-Sublime.
[25] Martin John Callanan, Text Trends. http://www.greyisgood.eu/texttrends/
[26] Martin John Callanan, Text Trends.
[27] Martin John Callanan, e-mail message to author, July 31st, 2012.
[28] Manovich, L. Data Visualization as New Abstraction and Anti-Sublime.
[29] Grégory Chatonsky’s official website: http://chatonsky.net/
[30] Carlo Zanni’s official website: http://zanni.org/