Too much data is not enough

Pau Waelder, Too much data is not enough, catalogue Overflow, Pandore, 2015

The Internet has overflown. It is no longer concealed into a “cyberspace”, separate from our “real” world, our everyday existence. Nowadays, it does not take a phone call to hook up a home computer to the World Wide Web by means of a noisy modem. This connection is not temporary but permanent, and being online is not an option anymore. What happens on the web doesn’t stay on the web, as our online identities cease to be mere masks or fantastic avatars and increasingly become ideal projections of our real selves. Even when we are not browsing the web or sharing content on a social network, when we turn off the computer and go to sleep, our online presence is still there, and accounted for. The Internet has overflown from the realm of interconnected computers, smartphones and tablets, not only into all sorts of other objects, but also into our culture, our language and our daily activities. It might be argued that it doesn’t exist, since it has no shape, or that it has ceased to exist as it once was and has become something that we still don’t know how to define. The Thing Formerly Known As The Internet is not a space anymore, since it pervades all spaces and activities, but it is still a constant flow of data in both directions: towards the user, and from the user. As users, we are part of it, whether we want to or not. Because all of our actions are in one way or another registered in the network: as a search query, preference, time and date of access, IP address, hashtag, like, poke or comment; as uploaded or downloaded files, logins and user profiles. Now the data flow pours out of our devices and into our bodies: heartbeats, steps walked, hours slept and calories burned are also counted. In a similar way to what Robert Musil described in The Man without Qualities, it is almost impossible to live in a post-industrial society without participating in an exchange of data over a network, since every action can be recorded or quantified. The network is so ubiquitous that it has become invisible, as necessary and apparently non existent as the air we breathe.

The overflow is not limited to the circulation of data: our own role as spectators and users has overcome the passive reception of content and the limited reach of an individual’s voice. On the one hand, more people are able to produce content, be creative and participate in communities than ever before. Clay Shirky refers to this as “cognitive surplus”, indicating that audiences are not just collections of passive individuals, but groups whose members can use their free time to contribute to communal efforts. On the other hand, the actions or ideas of a single individual or a small group of people can quickly spark a revolution or generate a trending topic. In both instances, limits are overrun, demarcations become obsolete. It seems as if boundaries and hierarchies had lost their power in the age of the Internet, as the network allows anyone to connect to a vast resource of knowledge and tools and spread their ideas to a global audience. But this is not the case.

Protocol

Alexander Galloway criticizes the generalized conception of the Internet as an unpredictable mass of data, without any form of centralized command or hierarchy. While it is true that networks are built on nodes that connect in a non-hierarchical, peer-to-peer mode, what ensures a form of control over the network is the existence of a protocol. Protocols define standards of action: on the Internet, the TCP/IP protocol enables computers to communicate between each other, thus facilitating the exchange of data on which the network is based. The network exists because there is a shared protocol. Furthermore, standards such as DNS are controlled in a hierarchical structure, which paradoxically makes it possible to access information in the apparently anarchical Internet . Therefore, a form of control and a basic hierarchy exists in the continuous and inescapable flow of data that feeds us and is fed by us, and it is embedded in the very structure of the network. This condition is not exclusive of data networks: following Galloway’s description of the protocol as “any type of correct or proper behaviour within a specific system of conventions”, we can see that in our daily life we are constantly following a set of protocols.

The sound installation Set-Up (2011) addresses the visitors of the exhibition with a series of messages similar to those of a public announcement (PA) system in train stations, airports or shopping malls. Some of these messages apparently respond to the need of directing the flow of visitors inside the exhibition space (“visitors are kindly requested to move forward, thank you”; “five people maximum, thank you”), while others reproduce quotations from literary texts which seem out of context and therefore nonsensical (“a shadow walks with me, reflections de-multiply my appearance, a horizon is projected in front of me, thank you”). Finally, some sentences express direct orders that evoke an emergency alert (“all visitors immediately stop, thank you”; “everybody on the ground, thank you”). The sentences are read by a female voice in a kind but authoritative way, all of them duly signed with a warm “thank you.” As a disembodied presence, the voice fills the exhibition space and turns it into the stage of a performance, one that is involuntarily played out by the visitors, whether they follow the instructions or not. A protocol is set, as the fictitious PA system demands the attention of the visitor by emitting absurd requests. Meaningful messages (such as “please do not smoke” or “do not leave your belongings unattended”) would be registered by visitors as guidelines of conduct and duly followed without questioning, but the lack of meaning of the sentences in this installation beg to question their purpose, as well as their authority: why should we listen to and follow the instructions of a PA system? Public announcements share with other forms of information flows in our society the fact that they are constantly broadcasted and become somewhat inevitable. They belong to a top-down system in which the public is a receiver of the messages sent out by a broadcaster. As there is no visual display, there is nothing or no one to respond to: the possibility of a dialogue simply does not exist.

In a similar way, EX/IF (2014), a series of three videos filmed by Thierry Fournier during a trip to Japan (Mori, Cool, Service), expose the way in which humans are subjected to flows and protocols in the largest megacity on the planet. Three views of Tokyo are presented as raw, objective, unedited documents. The gaze is suspended over a long time on what would usually just hold our attention for a brief moment. This lengthening of the gaze allows us to look closer, pay attention to the details, think about what is happening in these scenes in which apparently nothing is happening.

In Cool, the rooftop of the Roppongi Hills Mori Tower, the sixth tallest building in the city, is the domain of several machines: ventilation systems, security cameras, a wind gauge and a set of speakers humming elevator music. In this highly technified realm, far detached from the everyday activity that goes on 54 stories below, the smooth jazz music seems out of place. It is too human, and in fact it was installed to entertain the visitors who walk up to the observation deck in order to enjoy the views of the city. Instead of these views, we are observing the machines that climatize the building and provide information from the outside. They lead us to think of the building as an organism, traversed by flows of people, data, electromagnetic waves, electricity, water, hot and cold air. The calm stillness of this rooftop, bathed in the warm light of the setting sun and the soothing music, betrays the frantic activity that gives this building its reason to exist.

As the night falls, the city plunges into darkness. An elevated highway crosses the Roppongi Hills district towards Chiyoda, a broad artery of light that cuts across the buildings. The incessant circulation of cars and trucks stresses this analogy: the city appears also as a living entity, whose vital organs, veins and bowels are spread over a large territory. Still, the long, shiny highway seems to belong to a different time and space than the rest of the city: it brings to mind Haruki Murakami’s novel 1Q84 (2009-2010), in which an emergency exit on the highway, leading to the street below, actually takes the characters to a parallel dimension. It also illustrates the notion of a city governed by flows. As Roland Barthes remarked in his book L’Empire des signes (1970), Tokyo is a city with an empty center, its numerous neighborhoods being defined by the void of train stations, traversed by thousands of journeys every day.

In a tennis court, we see several players taking turns to hit the ball. They share a play field designed for up to four people, but they are far more numerous. One after another, they enter the field, hit the incoming ball with a racket and quickly leave in order to allow the next player to perform the same action. When a ball hits the net, four kids on each side of the field race after it. Only one catches the ball, while the others nevertheless feign the role of ball boys. Observing this protocol, we realize that none of these people is actually playing a match, but taking part in a fragment of the activity involved in a match. They are training for the game in a choreographed system that distributes the actions of a single player into a multitude of participants.

One could easily imagine a PA system such as the one in Set-Up broadcasting from the top of the Mori Tower, sending each citizen a set of instructions to carry out the proper actions in their specific contexts, be it at the office, on the highway or while practicing a sport in their leisure time. But such a system is not necessary: the protocols are already embedded in our daily lives.

Postproduction

Information flows and protocols also shape our perception of reality, particularly through the media on which we are increasingly dependent when trying to create an image of the world around us. As Hito Steyerl asserts, we are exposed to “too much world” and need constant editing of the information flow in order to make sense of it. This means not only that the content displayed on the media is a version of reality, but that reality itself becomes the product of an operation of editing and postproduction and can only be understood in these terms.

Thierry Fournier’s Precursion (2014) explores this relationship between the media and reality in a mashup of recorded video footage from the streets of Valence, music extracted from blockbuster films and news feeds culled in real time from the Internet. The familiar environment suddenly becomes a zone of conflict or the site of a memorable or catastrophic event as the text at the bottom of the screen describes situations taking place elsewhere and the film score provides an emotional atmosphere intended for a different set of images. Reality (both in the video footage and the news headlines) becomes a fiction through the combination of unrelated elements. This fiction, in turn, becomes reality as we watch it and try to make sense of the three different channels of information, one addressing visual perception (and our assumption that the things we see are real), another one directed to our knowledge of the current state of affairs and the last one affecting our emotions. Reality, as Steyerl suggests, is edited and post-produced in this artwork that leads to questioning the media and our own mediated perception of the world. Moreover, the title itself leads to thinking about reality as being created or anticipated by the media: an unsettling aftertaste of this installation is the thought that what we see, while not being true at this point, may become a reality in the future. The fact that Fournier updates the video footage to match the site where the piece is exhibited and that the news are constantly referring to current events adds to this confusion between reality and fiction and the need to perpetually renew the data in order to keep up with a changing environment. In this sense, the artwork itself is also subject to a process of postproduction every time it is shown and remains as an open system: as Nicolas Bourriaud would describe it, it is not a finished product but a “site of navigation”. As such, it offers us a window from which to observe our surroundings in the form of an endless newscast, invariably presenting a recent event that requires our immediate attention. Can we cope with this requirement?

Excess

In a cartoon by Robert J. Day, a young student is telling her friend: “It isn’t that I don’t like current events. There have just been so many of them lately.” The joke is reproduced in Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore’s The Medium is the Massage (1967), where McLuhan presciently writes about an “Age of Anxiety” in which trying to deal with the current flow of information by means of outdated concepts and tools leads to confusion and despair. This form of anxiety and the inability to manage the large amount of content produced by the media is clearly demonstrated in the performance Closed Circuit (2007). Actress Emmanuelle Lafon is asked to describe everything she sees and repeat everything she hears on a TV set in front of her. The audience cannot see the images nor hear the sounds emitted by the device, and therefore must rely on the actress as the sole mediator. Lafon tries to follow the instructions given to her, but before long she stutters, interrupts herself in mid-sentence, loses her train of thought. It becomes clear that the amount of information is too much to be processed while describing and repeating it. As a spectator, she is unable to respond to the flow of images, sounds and messages: she intends to produce her own soliloquy, but finally she is drowned by the information pouring out of the screen. Her Sisyphean task ends abruptly after fifteen minutes, when the television is turned off. McLuhan described this situation forty years earlier, indicating that we are flooded by information which is always new, and that there is no other option but to look for the overall features of this massive amount of data. Just as Lafon can only retain fragments of the images and words she perceives, we build our image of the world from scattered pieces of information: headlines, found images, short videos, infographics, tweets, posts and so many rumors. Where Précursion suggests how these fragments can build a different reality, Circuit fermé shows how the excess of stimuli blocks any possible processing of the data into a somewhat coherent discourse. Lafon’s exhausting experience suggests that it is impossible to cope with the flow of data, and certainly there is “too much world” to be aware of. But the flow can be edited and redirected in meaningful ways.

Ecotone (2015) captures tweets in real time and generates a virtual landscape with them. The selected tweets share their expression of desires with the inclusion of words such as “I wish”, “I would love”, “it would be so great”, and so on. Every time that a tweet is captured, it is read by a synthesized voice and visually represented by an elevation of the polygonal terrain. A camera flies over this imaginary landscape as mountains grow here and there with every new sentence. The voices tell us about the constant need for what we do not have, the dissatisfaction that drives our consumerist society, as well as the cathartic process of sharing with others those unfulfilled desires. Notably, none of the authors of these tweets wished to be part of this installation. Their words have become data that flows from one computer to another, as well as across different contexts. Here, they take a more human form as pronounced wishes, voices that do not spell out instructions as in Set-Up but express their fragility and their ennui by stating what is missing in them. This is particularly relevant in the context of social media, where it is common to present a positive, successful version of oneself, stating only achievements and support for the causes that are integral to the self image. As in Précursion, the flow of messages is constantly updated, which in this case is telling, since it shows that the discontent in our society is unremitting. Although we live surrounded by excess, we always want more.

In these artworks, Thierry Fournier unfolds an ongoing exploration of the relationship between the individual and her environment, in terms of a physical, social, and informational space. These contexts reveal their porosity as they are traversed by the flow of data that pours from one onto the other, affecting the way in which they are perceived as well as the actions taking place in them. The flow becomes an overflow as the boundaries are blurred (no more online/offline, public/private, virtual/real) and the massive amount of information cannot be contained or classified anymore. From protocol to excess, five different narratives expose the workings of our current information overload, stressing our participation in it and the fact that, despite being overwhelmed by data, we can’t get enough of it.

Pau Waelder
August, 2015