Invisible Data Mappers: Artists Who Use Cartographic Metaphors to Visualize Informational Territories Such as the Stock Market, the Internet, or the Human Genome

The twentieth century witnessed many technological and social changes as people developed new ways of sensing the world, communicating with each other, killing each other, and moving through space. These changes helped spawn what might be called ‘informational territories’ – virtual, invisible, infinitely small or large, multidimen sional, time based, and even cultural and political ‘spaces’. The Internet, the stock market, the human genome, the electromagnetic spectrum, and global corporate power all serve as data landscapes that can be mined, visualized, and experienced in different ways. Edward Tufte has traced the graphic representation of quantitative information back to the nineteenth-century, but the cartographic metaphor – the idea of data as ‘space’ and creating visual relationships from nonvisual phenomena as ‘mapping’ – came later and has been accentuated and popularized in recent years.

What the ‘invisible data mappers’ have in common is that they use cartographic terminology, typically reserved for discussing the surface of the Earth, and apply it metaphorically to these informational ‘frontiers’. An operative principle, descended from information theory, cybernetics, and popular computing culture, is that all the world can be treated as data, ready for selecting, categorizing, visualizing, and revisualizing in infinite ways. This, of course, opens into a ‘new politics’ of data mapping which looks very similar to the present politics of the geographic map: What data is mapped? What data is left out? Who makes the map, for whom, and for what purpose?

Some projects that map ‘the invisible’ overlay data on physical or virtual landscapes and are clearly linked to cartographic concerns in familiar ways. For example, Ingo Gu¨nther’s long term project Worldprocessor (1988–2005) is a series of over 300 globes that represent different views of the Earth with datasets artfully overlaid on the surface. In the case of each globe, the dataset is selected carefully to visualize the world with a different intent. For example, Landlocked Nations shows only those countries that do not border an ocean or sea, and the wall text discusses the economic and social impact of the absence of a body of water. Other datasets include life expectancy, the world according to Chinese geography, and Statistical Challenges, which maps elusive, invisible qualities, such as ‘Happiness’, ‘Jokes created per year’, and ‘Intensity of Dreams’, onto a blank globe with no geopolitical lines. Each of these datasets has an associated globe, which is lit from within.

Many projects are entirely dissociated from geographic conceptions of physical space and are preoccupied with visualizing other spaces. In Genome Valence, (2000), Ben Frye maps genetic data into a delicate, spherical computer graphic that one can search and zoom through. Technically, Genome Valance is a visualization of the BLAST algorithm, the most common way that scientists have of searching through genomic data to see if a particular sequence of letters is found in the genes of other organisms. Fry calls this series of work ‘genomic cartography’.

Artists have also mapped distributed global power as its own kind of informational space. In They Rule (2001), Josh On created an interactive online application that allows the user to map the interlocking relationships between individuals who sit on boards of different global corporations. Using publicly available data gathered from Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filings and corporate websites, the application demonstrates the unsurprising overlap among corporate boards of directors and raises questions about the ruling power of an elite class of citizens.

Since the mid 1990s and the introduction of ‘cyberspace’ into popular imagination, the Internet has inspired numerous artistic visualizations. Inspired by a Jorge Luis Borges quote, in 1:1 Interface: Every (1999), Lisa Jevbratt visualizes the dataset of Internet protocol (IP) addresses on the Internet (everything from 000.000.000.000 to 255.255.255.255) color coded as to whether or not they are occupied by an actual website. The results of this process are output as an enormous, billboard sized print, which is both physically beautiful and overwhelming. Martin Wattenberg, an artist and interface researcher at IBM, has created visualizations of the history of Internet art (Idea Line, 2001) and the entire database, over time, of Wikipedia, the collective encyclopedia project (History Flow, 2003).

Finally, the stock market, as data source, has been an inspiration to a number of artists. Wattenberg was commissioned by Money.com to produce Map of the Market (1998), an online interface that presents an immense amount of real time stock performance data in a single interactive graphic.

Though these data scapes of cyberspace, the stock market, and corporate power do not correspond to physical geography, they borrow spatial metaphors to represent complex informational phenomena.

Conclusion

Though art and cartography have always been in dialog, the last 100 years constitute a veritable explosion of artwork that takes on maps and mapping in order to critique, subvert, re imagine, or simply envision geographic and informational territories. There are three loose groupings of important mapping impulses that have characterized the artistic appropriation of cartographic strategies, both literally and metaphorically, from the early twentieth century to present times: ‘symbol saboteurs’, ‘agents and actors’, and ‘invisible data mappers’.

Both the Enlightenment project of cartography as a way of accessing fundamental truths about reality and the more recent critical cartographic project in which visual representations are constructed in order to transform the world remain powerful inspiration to artists. Cartography – the idea that we can, should, or must map the world in particular ways – retains an ever growing hold on the artistic imagination. This is especially the case in a world characterized by complexity, inequality, war, and globalization. We live in a world where the idea of place is complicated and where maps (critical, contestational, hacked, technological, and imaginary) are more essential than ever.