In his article “Visualization Criticism—The Missing Link between Information Visualization and Art”, Robert Kosara analyzes the gamut of data-based visualization between the two poles of pragmatic and artistic visualization. On pragmatic visualization techniques, he writes: “Pragmatic visualization techniques are also often general, and can be applied to many different data sets. This is considered a strength, because the user can gain experience with the method and apply that to different data, rather than having to start from scratch again.” The opposite is true for artistic visualization, which communicates a specific concern, using data as a proof that the concern is real. As opposed to pragmatic visualization, which aims for generalization, artistic visualization aims for specificity in the relationship between representation and subject matter.
Kosara references three categories: (1) Recognizable as a visualization/readable; (2) not recognizable as a visualization/readable; and (3) not recognizable as a visualization/not readable. Kosara associates the first category with utilitarian or pragmatic visualization, the third with sublime or artistic visualization, while the second is a combination of the two.
Lisa Jevbratt’s piece Interface: Every (IP) (above) is an example of the third category, not recognizable as a visualization, and not readable. In order to appreciate the piece as a visualization, the viewer requires some context, in this case that the piece is in fact a map of every IP address on the World Wide Web, with each pixel representing an IP address, its color based on the address itself. Variations in the complexity of the striation are representative of the numerical distribution of IP addresses, and whether they reflect a high density of web servers (recognizable as smooth color transitions) or not. Jevbratt considers her piece an object for interpretation, because the image is not a realistic representation. Instead, it is an indexical trace of the real, which, like Borges’ tale of the map as large as its territory, brings up associations with the role of mappings and tracings in relation to our perceived reality.
According to Kosara, artistic visualizations generally possess an element of the sublime, an enigmatic or mysterious quality that obscures immediate understanding, yet inspires an emotional response. Jevbratt’s work can be appreciated at the level of the sublime, without the realization of its nature as a visualization, though it requires context in order to either assert or attract critique. In that light, I disagree with Kosara on the notion that recognizable and readable visualizations are not artistic. I would suggest instead that artistic visualizations can be both recognizable and readable, as they communicate a concern about their subject matter, a concern which is expressed in the way the information is structured and represented. A recognizable, readable visualization will offer the viewer the necessary context to understand how a piece is asking to be interpreted. It offers an entry point to understanding the intent of the artist.
Critique can only occur on the basis of understanding the subject matter and the intent of a visualization. I disagree with the notion that sublimity can only be the result of obscuring readability. Instead, it may also occur based on the aesthetic properties—the visual expression—of a recognizable/readable visualization, for example through complexity, quantity, scale, etc. Alicia Chang and Adriana Lins de Albuquerque’s 31 days in Iraq (below), published in 2006 in the New York Times and updated again in 2007, has a sublime quality based on its formal austerity and the sheer numbers it represents. Yet, it is also an recognizable, readable visualization. Ideally, a visualization would elicit both an emotional and an intellectual response. And, I would argue, both are not necessarily tied to readability or recognizability.