Analysis of Martin Wattenberg's "Apartment" & Roy Ascott's "La Plissure Du Texte"

General / 28 October 2018

Data visualization artist Martin Wattenberg has capitalized on the expansive availability of data on a global scale to generate interactive art that recalls the processes and visualization strategies associated with artist Sol LeWitt.  Wattenberg's background in mathematics and dynamical systems led him to work with artificial intelligence applications at Google and several collaborative artistic pursuits revolving around data visualizations.[1]  One such art endeavor is Apartment, in which he collaborated with artist Marek Walczak[2] and software engineer Jonathan Feinberg.[3] Essentially, Wattenberg's approach synthesizes acquired data to allow patterns and cognition to arise organically into an art form that can be experienced on a multi-sensory level.  Insights from his background and work in Apartment resonate a strong association with LeWitt's work, particularly in the search for innovative art.

Link to image of referenced artwork by Wattenberg: http://www.bewitched.com/apartment.html

Data resides all around and modern computer and web tools help to capture them for synthesis, which is what Wattenberg does for both analysis and to define the emerging art of data visualizations.  He clarifies this distinction by noting "artistic visualizations are visualizations of data done by artists with the intent of making art."[4] This is not to say that the output is a result of an artist doctoring the data.  Instead, it is a result of defining the system and process allowing the data to transform organically into a unique visualization beyond the artist's expectations.  Wattenberg's multi-disciplinary background and continuous learning give him the vision to identify hidden relationships, particularly "between language, memory, and space."[5] These have been explored by many artists throughout history including Sol LeWitt, but Wattenberg's pool of data and digital framework open up new possibilities.

Wattenberg's medium expands beyond the computer and into the wider spectrum of digital technology, including programming, data analytics, and web environments.  While many data repositories are static, the dynamic ones add another dimension of interactivity to the process and emergent art form.  For example, census data collected from previous years become static and do not change themselves once that period of data collection is complete.  On the other hand, continuous participant input creates a dynamic database that activates change and responsiveness, and even more so with many participants providing input.  British artist Roy Ascott had previously explored this "distributed authorship" in his 1983 telematic project La Plissure du Texte, which entailed many international participants providing input through a telecommunication network to generate the digital imagery.[6] Wattenberg's Apartment uses a similar strategy crowdsourcing user input through a digital web framework to perpetually transform the art.

Link to image of referenced artwork by Ascott: http://www.medienkunstnetz.de/works/la-plissure-du-texte/

Wattenberg's Apartment "uses the metaphor of apartments and cities as a form of visualization for the semantic relationships between words and sentences typed in by users."[7]  There is one variation of the digital user interface where a participant can input words based on his or her associations with a particular room in the apartment.  For instance, one might align the term make with the kitchen or idea with library.  The participant input undoubtedly varies within the process, but it also draws out consistencies amidst the diversity, such as make for kitchen.  A documented video of the exhibit in action illustrates that when input is added, Wattenberg's algorithm regenerates different floor plans and three-dimensional spatial visualizations reflecting the input.[8]  The installation Apartment was structured in a way so that participants could add input and experience the exhibit both in the physical museum venue and via a website.  Such audience collaboration and participation manifests "Duchamp's dictum that 'the viewer completes the work of art.'"[9]  Wattenberg's process is about structuring and leading the algorithm to respond to participants, who ultimately execute and help realize the final art form.

Aside from the more-than-likely complex algorithm defined by Wattenberg, the participant input is quite intuitive, requiring only typed words into the digital interface.  The variety of words being input link participants to the interface by having them think about associations with rooms of an apartment through their own short- and long-term memories.  This involves them within the process of creating and experiencing the art.  The resulting two- and three-dimensional visualizations react and provide the feedback to participants validating their contribution.  In addition, the participation aspect of Apartment is unique to this emerging art form because of how it increases accessibility through an Internet presence.  Nevertheless, my perspective is that the art of Apartment embodies the entire process, from inception to realization.  Wattenberg and his collaborators, including all of the participants providing input into the algorithm, each contribute to the process, thereby empowering it to spawn an experience for the same participants and any other viewers.

Visually, Apartment clearly resembles the text patterns displayed by Ascott's La Plissure Du Texte, but is a bit distinguished from LeWitt's prominent cubes, yet the fundamental process used by each exhibits a consistency.  It strengthens the potential of a simple logic for diverse applications, regardless of the vehicle used as a building block: cube, alphanumeric character, word, image, or other raw data.  The iterative process implemented throughout each experience is the logic that gives said building blocks a venue to emerge organically into the unforeseen.  Furthermore, the iterations establish a feedback loop that define and enhance the experiences for each artist and viewer.  The experience of the process, rather than the resulting artwork, is the intent. Wattenberg reflects this in stating that "the artworks must be based on actual data, rather than the metaphors or surface appearance of visualization."[10]  He and LeWitt, as well as Ascott, acknowledge the value of the underlying raw data and understand how to use it to build the experience of their art.

Wattenberg uses the infinite data stream of collaborative input as the source for his artwork, and with the guidance of an algorithm in a structured process, works like Apartment can be experienced by all.  Although the source may differ from that of LeWitt, the contextual processes coincide with their self-realization.  At the same time, this emerging art aims to address "a prominent issue in this new medium: the search for visual models that represent a continuously changing flow of data and information."[11] The realm of data visualization relies on the steady influx of data from various sources which can be a challenge to manage, but this also opens up the opportunity to introduce a greater dynamic in the experience of art, and Wattenberg's initiative is to lead the way.

Citations

[1] "About Me," Martin Wattenberg, accessed October 8, 2018, http://www.bewitched.com/about.html.

[2] "Marek Walczak," MW2MW, accessed October 8, 2018, http://mw2mw.com/category/marek-walczak.

[3] "Jonathan Feinberg," Jonathan Feinberg, accessed October 8, 2018, http://mrfeinberg.com/.

[4] Fernanda B. Viegas and Martin Wattenberg. "Artistic data visualization: Beyond visual analytics," Paper presented at the International Conference on Online Communities and Social Computing, July 22-27, 2007, Beijing, China: 183.

[5] Christine Paul. "Renderings of Digital Art," Leonardo 35, no. 5 (2002): 473.

[6] Jan Baetens, "Roy Ascott's La Plissure du Texte: Towards some elements of a user's manual," Metaverse Creativity 2, no. 2 (2012): 193.

[7] Richard K. Merritt, "From Memory Arts to the New Code Paradigm: The Artist as Engineer of Virtual Information Space and Virtual Experience," Leonardo 34, no. 5 (2001): 406.

[8] Turbulence.org, "Turbulence.org Commission: “Apartment” by Marek Walczak, Martin Wattenberg, Jonathan Feinberg (2001)," uploaded May 10, 2015, video, 4:45, https://vimeo.com/127419467.

[9] Kevin F. McCarthy and Elizabeth Heneghan Ondaatje. From Celluloid to Cyberspace: The Media Arts and the Changing Arts World. Rand Corporation, 2002: 29.

[10] Viegas. "Artistic data visualization," 184.

[11] "Data Dynamics," Artport, Whitney Museum of American Art, accessed October 10, 2018, http://artport.whitney.org/artport-version1/currentexhibitions.html.