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A few weeks ago, I stared at my computer screen. Eyes blank. Mouth wide open. There it was. On the SIGGRAPH 2009 website, SIGGRAPH being one of the most prestigious and largest conferences of the world. In bold, large letters: "Information Aesthetics Showcase"... Somehow, just somehow, I felt related...

First of all, if you want to show off your "information aesthetic" work to a huge public of about 20,000 computer scientists, graphic artists, interaction designers, animators, filmmakers, game developers, artists, programmers, web developers, hardware builders and educators, you must be quick. The submission deadline is 18 February!

Now, for those who kept on reading, and probably are as curious I was (mouth still open): I organized an exceptional interview with the showcase curator, Victoria Szabo. Read about all the details of this initiative, and much more, below.


Could you shortly introduce yourself?
I am the director for a program called Information Science + Information Studies at Duke University in Durham NC. We are an interdisciplinary program that explores technology and new media in theory and practice in technical, social, economic, and cultural terms. We offer undergraduate and graduate certificates, and promote collaborative, project-based learning throughout our course offerings. I hold adjunct faculty appointments in English and Visual Studies as well. My own background is in literature and gender/cultural studies (PhD in English from University of Rochester), with computing an active side interest. I came to Duke from Stanford where I worked in academic technology for a number of years, also teaching in the Introduction to the Humanities Program. I think of myself as a professional boundary-crosser between humanistic and technological realms, and my courses typically combine history, philosophy, theory, various media and hands-on work making stuff and playing with gadgets.

Could you tell a bit about the SIGGRAPH conference, especially for the non-academic crowd out there?
SIGGRAPH as an organization is part of the Association for Computing Machinery, and is dedicated to Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques. The SIGGRAPH conference is an annual event. 20K+ computer scientists, graphic artists, interaction designers, animators, filmmakers, game developers, artists, programmers, web developers, hardware builders and educators get together for several days of papers, workshops, courses, talks, screenings, galleries, exhibitions, expos, discussions, and various constructed and unconstructed experiences. It is an amazing group--any random participant could probably claim several of the professional labels I mentioned above, and you see a lot of truly world-class talent. Being at SIGGRAPH is an amazing and intense experience.

What are you trying to achieve with the "Information Aesthetics Showcase"?
The IAS came about in part through my involvement in the SIGGRAPH Art Gallery. I had been on the jury for the last couple of years, and seen lots of amazing information-driven work that didn't necessarily fit the specific theme of the show, yet also didn't demonstrate any one sufficiently new technical element to make it fit something like the Emerging Technologies venue either.
Or, perhaps it was something that because it was purpose-driven, might not pass as "art" in any traditional sense. And yet, it had a magical something, a transformative impact that made you take note and say "Yes! This is a new way to see and understand information that wasn't possible before we had these amazing computer graphics and interactive techniques. And I love looking at it/listening to it/playing with it/experiencing it!" So we wanted a place to show that fascinating work that talked back to the data, engaged it, transformed your understanding -- in short, mediated it in the best senses. And of course that our theme for 2009 is "networking your senses" is just too perfect for our topic!

Who are you aiming for in particular to participate?
Anyone and everyone who is doing excellent work in this field. As it says in the call, we are interested in all types of information instantiation. We want to see work by artists who are just exploring data-driven applications, and scientists who have discovered a newly elegant way of presenting an argument visually. We imagine folks from industry, academia, entertainment -- whoever has something to share work that inspires, engages, enlightens. (I have more verbiage on the long version of the call here)

Will it be organized each year?
This is our first year, a test run. There are no promises yet, but I am certain that we'll be seeing some version of this venue in the future. Whether or not it gets called out explicitly as its own thing or gets dressed up thematically in some other guise, information aesthetics is here to stay.

(mouth further open)

Why is SIGGRAPH the ideal avenue for this initiative, versus a visualization summit or an art festival, for example?
As I mentioned, SIGGRAPH is a vast and diverse body of folks. A visualization summit or arts festival will often -- though not always -- be attended by the people who already see themselves in a certain way, as part of a profession or organization or group who identify with their peer group and behave accordingly. There is certainly tremendous value in those types of gatherings -- you go deep, push each other farther, and keep each other honest. SIGGRAPH, however, because it is so large and varied almost automatically creates opportunities to blow your mind, or realize there are whole new avenues of exploration you didn't even know existed. It is the kind of place where the same words might mean radically different things depending on which room you are in. Simple words like form or function, to take a couple of simple examples, mean very different things to a computer scientist and an artist!

Why is the current time the most opportune for the information aesthetics theme?
This field was emerging all over the place, from the New York Times infographics, to the increasing accessibility of medical imaging technologies, to the development of codebases like Processing that opened up information-driven work to wider audience. Meanwhile, all sorts of beautiful work has been coming out of the scientific visualization community for quite a while now. Whether serendipitous or intentional, it doesn't really matter--these forms speak to us. Having a showcase of work during a limited time-frame becomes a way to mark with an event something your blog and other venues have seen coming for a while: the emergence of a new discipline constituted not just from any one source, but from disparate locations all at once. Wouldn't it be great to have the media theorists right there in the room with the programmers talking about their common ground? And isn't SIGGRAPH, a place where boundary-crossings happen routinely, and where people come both to learn and to connect, a perfect place to bring them all together? There's something about real life, co-location, temporal continuity, fully embodied immersion, with gallons of coffee and food courts and folding chairs and giant screens that just makes magic happen.

Of course, why the name "information aesthetics"?
We came to this name after some deliberation. Part of the point was to stay discipline neutral. Information Visualization was too associated with the visual only, and already connoted strongly certain types of work. We wanted something that would leave room for all the senses, that would include haptics, and of course more generally those "interactive techniques" that are part of the SIGGRAPH mandate. I'm an especially big fan of installations, even thought they can be tremendously complicated to mount in a temporary setting like a show.
We tinkered with the name information arts for a while, but wanted to convey the sense of possibilities opening up, of room for theoretical imaginings unfolding, that "aesthetics" conveys. "Aesthetics" also implies an intellectual rigor that seemed in keeping with the idea of transforming information, reflecting back on it. Information as opposed to, say, data, on the other hand, also implies some sort of selection and analysis already having been done or performed. It acknowledges the prior existence of interpretive forms before any apparently secondary transformation via the "aesthetics" part. The two elements are in dialog with one another; some of the most interesting work only exists in the process of becoming in real time, not as a static filtering or act of snapshot representation.

Is there any research in information aesthetics?
Good question! I'm still looking for it. Given my own background I come it from a media theory sort of perspective on the one hand, and from a bottom-up practitioner place on the other. My bias is that anything that talks about Victorian technoculture is also talking about information aesthetics in a roundabout sort of way. We are healing the rift of the 19th century by bringing back together artful representations of knowledge and empirical observation. Or at least I'd like to believe.

Is there any progression of art in information aesthetics?
Wow, another hard one. Do you mean does information aesthetics push and prod art in new directions? I'm sure the answer is yes in many ways. To me the idea of computational intervention into the production of art qualities as such. That is not so much a question of the end product as a thing-in-itself, but the artwork as the culmination of a process made visible in the final form. It is like a wristwatch where you can see the gears and wheels from one angle, and the smooth, polished face on the other. Both-and.
Or if you are asking in information aesthetics as a system of some sort transforms the way we look at art that is certainly possible as well. What happens when you interpret according to new standards derived from the category of, say, information visualization? Do you return to hopes for veracity, mirror-likeness, or perhaps to interpretive power? If you are actively looking for the meaningmaking, the referent, the intelligible point of it all, you get back to a neo-religious contemplation of the mysteries but in this case the mysteries of information. The act of faith is in the suspension of disbelief that new knowledge can be produced through procedural forms and twists.

Do you think (academic) researchers and practitioners can really learn from each other? How?
This is a tough one. They need each other desperately but don't know it. The academic researchers who write critiques and theorize and speculate can, in the age-old plaint of the the high school lit student, read in that which was never intended among the practitioners in terms of layered cultural, social, economic meaning; political effects and affects; identities renewed and civilizations lost. Whether true to the lived experience of the practitioner or not, they can capture something that gives life and larger meaning to what may have once seemed an attractive exercise or flight of technical virtuosity. So in that way they give the practitioners a backstory, a place within which to contextualize themselves, and perhaps explain their own effects. The practitioners, in addition to of course giving the researchers something to opine about, also keep the flights of fancy in check by providing real answers, real examples that force the theorists to distinguish the layers of metaphorical meaning from actual practice, the material conditions and limits of the making. I am not sure if the dialog happens in realtime, or in the experiential moments, or the later reflections.
At the show I'm hoping the academics wander by and engage with the practitioners and actually learn a bit about how it was done, and why -- and without assuming that there isn't some spark of the same sophistication that they see to their own cogitations in the minds of the creators. At the same time, I hope the practitioners see their work as developing a field in its own right and into which they can tendril into from their own angles in the sun. Ultimately in addition to healing the rift between, say, the arts and the sciences, the quantitative and the qualitative I am hoping we are also coming to a time where the theorists can be practitioners, and the practitioners theorists. It is scaffolded and partial to be sure, but we can be amateur astronomers and gentlemen geologists -- in short, the alchemists of the 21st century. Viva la information aesthetics!

Thank you for your this interview, Victoria!


That's really good news for the standing of the information aesthetics community! Also, great to to see how traditional conferences open up to more designy session formats.

Speaking of the state of the field: Do you have any good pointers for papers/texts on information aesthetics as a discipline, the evolution of the term etc. I often use your/Andrea Lau's triangle model (data-interaction-art) as a basis for discussion, but feel insecure in many details. Any good literature tips?

Sat 07 Feb 2009 at 8:28 PM

Excellent interview! Thank you.

Mon 09 Feb 2009 at 11:30 AM
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