Network Ecologies

Karin Denson & Shane Denson: Sculpting Data

Manifest Data is a collaborative art/theory project by the Duke S-1 Speculative Sensation Lab. The project in some ways is a work of media art, while in other ways it can be seen as a creative digital humanities project—or, following ideas put forward by Mark Sample, it might be seen as an act of "deformative humanities" or even "Weird DH." In our contribution to the project, Karin and I have tried to embrace and even amplify this weirdness...

By the time we met up with the lab, the Manifest Data project was already in full swing. Luke Caldwell had coded some early versions of his Python scripts for capturing and parsing metadata generated during Internet browsing sessions, and Libi Striegl had already 3D printed a few of the resulting "data creatures" based on Amanda Starling Gould's data collection. Other members of the group were writing theoretical pieces. Everyone was interested in questions of how to make relatively "immaterial" data tangible, concrete. I said, hey, my wife sculpts objects with concrete, and that's how we got involved...

As we understand it, Manifest Data is a project about reclaiming our data from corporate cooptation, about contesting the exploitation of our digital labor (which may be of a cognitive, affective, or even playful sort), and about creating something of personal or collective value that would ideally be immune to such alienation.

In our contribution, we strove to meet these goals through a series of translations between the digital and the physical—through a multi-stage process of sculpting and resculpting data in the form of what we call the “data gnome.” Basically, the data gnome is a garden gnome that is constructed in such a way as to integrate data from personal Internet usage—data gleaned through the use of Luke's “benevolent spyware”—thus providing a sculptural embodiment of one’s own online profile; the figure alternately occupies physical, virtual, and augmented spaces; and, in a more mythological vein, it can stand as a sort of talismanic guardian of one’s activities in these various spaces, all of which are increasingly subject to scrutiny, surveillance, and logging from a variety of state and commercial interests.

But why garden gnomes, of all things?

Well, the answer is a long and somewhat complicated story. Karin had been working with gnomes for some time already. But the relevance of the figure for Manifest Data has a lot to do with the uses to which a company like Makerbot has put the gnome in the marketing and demonstration of their 3D scanning and printing technologies.

Our data gnomes have to be seen against this background, and the question “why garden gnomes?” has to be directed first at such commercial-technological interests. Why would Makerbot—a company which has its roots in making open-source hardware but has since moved on to a closed, proprietary model—appropriate the garden gnome as a symbol for its technologies? Why, more generally, did data take the form of the gnome? 

In the case of Makerbot and their marketing campaign, the gnome is clearly positioned as a weirdly hip (in a geeky sorta way) non-conformist figure—and this is certainly telling with regard to Makerbot’s target audience/perceived user-base. But there is a greater significance in the company’s playful appeal to the gnome to illustrate a transformation of the virtual/physical threshold. To see what else is at stake, it is helpful to recall the strange ontology of the traditional (read: bourgeois/conformist) garden gnome: these Old-World decorative figures embody a benign, sylvan spirit that is ready to help tend their masters’ gardens while they sleep; the gnomes thus embody nature, but they labor at the service of culture (agriculture, horticulture, and the bourgeois “cultivation” of the garden, which is precisely non-nature); and their labor, significantly, is “free” (i.e. unpaid—a capitalist’s dream!). Any association with nature is therefore illusory; the garden gnome is in fact a product of industrialization—and a perfect embodiment of the seriality that came to characterize production with the industrial revolution. 

Against this backdrop, the particular function or appeal of the garden gnome for a company like Makerbot is as a demonstration of the liberating potential of 3D printing, which to a certain extent takes the means of industrialized production out of capitalists’ hands and places them back in the hands of artisans (or “makers”). The garden gnome makes visible the easy reproduction, manipulation, and transformation of physical objects, when mediated by the digital. And crucially, these objects are also positioned as infinitely shareable across digital networks.

But here the liberating potential is mixed with a somewhat more problematic aspect. Now, we have no doubt that this shareability is really and truly a positive thing for many of the artists and makers involved in the 3D printing scene. But a company like Makerbot still stands to profit from the creative labor of these people in a way that they themselves may not: in other words, participation in the Thingiverse network, like much of so-called “participatory culture,” benefits corporate interests that continue to exploit a surplus, so that the democratizing effects of these technologies cannot be the whole story. The gnomes, that is, may have been liberated from the tyrannies of “nature” and of mass production, but they still serve the capitalist dream of free labor!

To be clear, we are by no means enemies of Makerbot. Far from it. The technologies they produce, including the participatory networks that serve both to facilitate exchange among users and to promote and increase profits for the company, do indeed offer genuinely empowering potentials for various types of users. Instead of a merely critical purpose, then, we are interested precisely in leveraging this ambivalent space of affordance and constraint, which we see as a fertile ground for an aesthetic intervention that is political without being simply oppositional.

In any case, against a facile neo-cyber-Marxian dictum that “all that’s solid melts into zeroes and ones,” our data gnomes, which in their initial incarnation are hand-sculpted by Karin in concrete, complicate the easy seriality and reproducibility that Makerbot emphasizes, confronting it with something more substantial and, well, concrete. The data gnome involves a whole series of mediations or translations between the digital and the physical, starting with the interpretation of a virtual 3D object (mapped in MeshLab on the basis of the data collected with Luke’s code), the subsequent sculpting of this vision into physical media, its gradual assumption of form and finally color. Luke’s code gives form to the interface, while Karin’s sculpture turns the gnome’s physical face into a “data-face” (as our twelve-year-old son has called it).

And then we reverse the process: With photogrammetric techniques, we scan the physical gnome back into the realm of the digital, reconstituting it as a 3D object and making it available for augmented reality applications. Having thus acquired the gnome as a digital 3D object, the concrete object is translated back into a serially reproducible thing, but one that nevertheless retains a sculptural density and specificity in the environment.

These characteristics stand out most forcefully when the re-digitized gnomes are placed back into the physical environment with the help of augmented reality programs/infrastructures such as Layar (which facilitates the “planting” of geolocated versions that are made accessible through apps on GPS-equipped smartphones) or Junaio (which is especially good at recognizing 2D images that are then AR-enhanced with 3D data gnomes). 

In the course of the various translations between physical, virtual, and augmented spaces, we found ourselves playing with these creatures, chasing them around the woods near our house, following them into spaces indoors and out—and witnessing the way they re-enchanted mundane and taken-for-granted places. In the process, the gnomes slowly acquired something of a talisman-like character, and a very personal mythology began to take shape around them. We began thinking of them as personal guardians of the interface between the physical and the digital, as creatures that could ward off the bad spirits of digital capital and preserve us from the forces of cooptation and exploitation. 

So we placed them wherever these interfaces took place: all the places we work and interact with online communities, the sites of our digital labor. Visible only to us, the gnomes, which are in an important sense “portraits” of our own activity (as Manifest Data collaborator Max Symuleski has put it), stand guard and protect our interfacings like some crazy digital patron saints.

Finally, in a spinoff project titled "Networked Gnomes 2.0," Karin and I have been building on some of the ideas and techniques developed for Manifest Data and taking them in new directions—adding further layers of networked connectivity to the mix of sculpted data objects and augmented reality while anchoring them in the medium of painted canvas.

These paintings, which incorporate fully functional QR codes that serve to activate a variety of websites, videos, and augmented reality scenarios when scanned with a smartphone or similar device, continue our interrogation of the physical/virtual boundary while pursuing different means for making data, in its ubiquity, manifest as a material reality. And centrally, these works continue our meditation on the creation and exploitation of value in digital environments.

For example, one thematic thread running through these pieces links the Marxist-inspired subtext of our contribution to Manifest Data with reflections on the way that mining, or the physical extraction of minerals from the earth, is now replicated in digital environments in the form of text-mining, data-mining, and related means of appropriating value from our online activities. This painting, when scanned, directs the user's browser to a website that mines the text of "The Communist Manifesto," subjecting it to algorithmic processing using Markov chains to generate new, sometimes humorous or surprising, statements.

The notion of mining, already a latent concern in Manifest Data's generation of sculptural forms from metadata accrued through Internet browsing, is now made the explicit focus of our engagement with data materiality. If mineral resources were central to the "original" or "primitive accumulation" of capital theorized by Marx, they continue to play a crucial, though often overlooked role in our digital economy. "Rare earths," for example, are indispensable to the material infrastructure of a computational ecology, while their mining has significant effects on the health and well-being of workers and on the overall integrity of the physical environment. Again, however, mining no longer just provides raw materials for industrial production, as it has since moved from the primary sector to the tertiary sector of (digital) services and finance.

This piece, composed of pennies arranged to form a QR code, reflects on the dissolution of the gold standard and the transition to the fictitious capital of data-driven finance. 

This piece, on the other hand, thinks about the so-called "immaterial labor" of computation and gameplay, taking the popular game Minecraft as a thematic locus for reflecting on the way that contemporary platforms mine ludic activity, process it algorithmically, and transform leisure-time consumption into a new form of production or work. Mirroring this process, we have taken metadata generated while our son played online sessions of Minecraft and turned it into a new data gnome, while we have also begun planting our gnomes back into the Minecraft world.

As in Manifest Data, our purpose in all of these works remains the same: to reclaim something of personal and collective value from these scenarios, to produce something that is not subject to corporate cooptation but instead embodies meaning in the form of an experience that is aesthetic, sometimes even mythological, but always yet political.

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