On April 17th I participated in a gallery conversation at the opening of the Scandalishious/The Betweeners show at the Centre des Arts Actuels Skol in Montreal. This was the first time that SKOL hosted a conversation between artists, curators and visitors. The discussion that resulted was an interesting and thought provoking entry point into the themes of the exhibition, which juxtaposes works by two artists whose practices take very different approaches to social media as platform, Anne Hirsch’s Scandalishious and Ian Wojtowicz’s The Betweeners. I was particularly captivated by the Betweeners as it touches on some of the issues that interest me about our changing relationship to data and the impacts that emergent data mining practices may have on our interactions in the world.
The title ‘The Betweeners’ refers to the notion of ‘betweeness-centrality’ which comes from social network analysis . A node in a network has high betweeness-centrality when it bridges multiple sets of unconnected nodes, making it a high traffic connection point in the network. A high measure of betweeness-centrality does not necessarily indicate that these nodes have the highest number of connections, or that they are even particularly active in the network. However as Ian pointed out, if these nodes were removed, the structure of the network would change significantly. Using the MySpace API and an existing SNA algorithm he identified the people in Montreal who have the highest betweeness-centrality on MySpace. He met with a group of these people and produced a large-format photo-portrait work of the group which reproduces the poses in their individual MySpace profile pictures. The exhibition showcases this portrait, as well as the individual profile pictures and bios of participants. There are also projected visualizations of the MySpace Montreal network.
What interests me about this work is that it exemplifies a paradigmatic shift across all sectors of society related to our relationships to data. We now have access to exponentially increasing quantities of data, growing numbers of datasets and the means of analyzing them in different ways. But extrapolating meaning from this abundance of data is not always an obvious task. In the case of the data analysis behind the Betweeners, we are left asking ourselves ‘what does it actually mean’? The people participating in the discussion at SKOL seemed to want to understand the significance of the Betweeners in a human context – to discover what the measurement of betweeness-centrality can tell us about these people or the online community they belong to. In fact, it cannot reliably tell us anything other than that these people have high viral potential. The significance of the data remains within the frame of reference of the network itself.
As we move into an era of pervasive data and computing, where we can algorhythymize our way through petabytes of data, what kinds of indicators will we use to determine meaning? And who will establish these indicators? Right now we have access to answers, but have yet to formulate the questions. There is certainly the possibility for this type of data to be used by predatory capitalist agents, as someone brought up during the discussion at SKOL. What fascinates me about this work is that it highlights some of the ambiguous and as yet undefined parameters of our relationships to data, both the data that we consume through various filters, and the data we produce through our activities in online networks. Data is not a static or inert blob of stuff to be used but something that requires interpretation along many fronts. I think we need to avoid passivity toward the interests that filter and create meaning for us from the layers of data we interact with on a daily basis. As the Betweeners demonstrates, to engage with this new information environment we will need to learn how to ask the right questions.
This exhibition runs until May 22 at Skol, for more info see http://www.skol.ca/en/