Facing the presentation of the renowned “Big Bang Data” in the City of Buenos Aires (Argentina), we interviewed Jaime Serra Palou, who in our opinion, is one of the most influential figures of recent times on journalistic infographics and data visualization. Again, we deployed another of our visual stories to share it with you.
What is (or what’re you up to) with the “Big Bang Data”? How have you fared in Barcelona?
I think it’s a question that should be answered by Olga Subiros and/or Jose Luis de Vicente, the curators of the exhibition. My participation is that of an artist who has been asked to participate with my pieces. I understand that they consider that I have something to contribute to the world of ‘Big data’ from my particular perspective.
The exhibition in Barcelona (and Madrid) has been an absolute success with the public. According to information available to me, it’s been the second most visited exhibition in the history of the Center of Contemporary Culture of Barcelona, ??which, in itself, has a strong appeal. It’s also been a hit as an exhibition because of the interest the media and exhibition spaces in several cities have taken in it, from Buenos Aires, where the exhibition is currently until November 28th -to Merlbourne, London or Shanghai.
No. The ability to shape our identity hasn’t been returned to us because we never lost that capacity. In fact, we should be reviewing and shaping our identity over the course of a lifetime if we want to keep up with ourselves and minimize conflicts.
In addition, ‘our identity’, is something that varies depending on the environment, sometimes significantly so, in some cases deals with identities in apparent contradiction: ‘The -not so – strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde ‘;’ I is another ‘, they say Rimbaud wrote to Demeny; and before Quevedo: ‘I am a was, and will …’. And before Quevedo …
If it’s true that ‘virtual’ facilitates it, amplifies it and becomes more aware of the possibilities in this regard. The virtuality allows us not only to mold, but to ‘play’ building various absolutely different identities, even artificial ones. But ultimately the way people feel, manage and reflect all our identities has a unique person. The identity tests we do, will they have development only in the virtual world or may they contribute to the enrichment of the person? It is possible, as we emerge and give ‘citizenship status’ to aspects of our personality that moved into a low consciousness threshold. In that sense, it’s interesting the possibility offered by the virtual experience.
What are the risks of this “Digital Age”?
In the beginning the Internet was essentially the digital world. An almost anarchic, out of control, anonymous state, where everything seemed to be accommodated. Over time, the digital age has expanded into other technological support and living spaces disconnected from the Network. We have thus gone from an anarchic model to a hypercontrolled one. I can’t help but draw an analogy with the world, a messianic mode, that W.S. Burroughs drew: ‘A world where living is collaborating’: every day with more actions of our daily lives and not only those that have to do with commercial activities – they deliver accurate activity (data) about our lives to bodies of power: governments, multinationals, security bodies … Most of the collaboration with hypercontrol is hardly avoidable: it occurs when using the GPS, using the discount card at the gas station or paying for cable TV: ‘living is collaborating’. It’s the dream of a Stasi of consumerism – an ism that no longer is limited to the physical act of buying: it has its own ethics-.
Social networks, with Facebook as an icon, are used in many cases as a way of compulsive onanism that in addition to unproductive, greatly hinders the harmonious and stable friendly relations. Of course, masturbation’s not bad for the individual, on the contrary, but addiction is. More serious than the masturbatory addiction, which doesn’t directly affect ‘the other’- social networks are, also, a way of coercion of the individual against the whole. They are a unique thought prevailing speaker. A great way of alienation, as we think we are expressing our opinion when, in fact, we often act as amplifiers of superego’s opinion.
A greater number of broadcast opinion channels need more opinions. Otherwise, we will have a greater number of broadcast channels for a few opinions, with the repressive power that entails by the ‘superego’ to the ‘I’. There has never been a moral and ethical globalization like today and this coincides temporally with the birth and development of the digital age. It’s the constant bombardment of alleged individual opinions which places us within the range of ‘single thought’. It was easier to deal with a single individual than dealing with your peers.
The unique thought, built by words more than experiences, is an ideal prison for control mechanisms: it’s enlightened and has no apparent limits, you can be in it unconsciously, and even feel comfortable in it. No doubt there are many more risks, but these are in my opinion, the most dangerous one: the hypercontrol, masturbatory intellectual or physical attitudes and, especially, because this one depends largely on the previous two, the unique thought: the biggest repression of them all.
You performed an impressive job on your own life: a sort of infographic made with your personal information… How was that experience?
It’s my present job in the process: the representation of pieces of a particular life- mine- using data as raw material and infographics as a logical tool. Initially, I didn’t use data; I made infographics with diagrams and simple illustrations to communicate personal reflections about the outside world -‘Excéntricos’ (‘Excentric’) or ‘Pinta y colorea’ (‘Paint and color’) are two clear examples-. Over time, I have synthesized the reflection in the selection of certain personal data -‘Vida sexual de una pareja estable’ (‘Sexual life of a stable partner’) or ‘Datos en los bolsillos’ (‘Data in pockets’) are examples in this sense-.
There is a desire on my part to draw a portrait of the current individual by the specifics of one of them -me, but not by my uniqueness, but because of my mediocrity, could be the data of any other that had access. Thus the ‘other’ can be reflected in my data and dress, make them theirs. It’s for this reason that I try to choose topics of universal interest: addiction, sexuality, family or social relationships, etc.
The use of personal data has absolutely nothing to do with a way of self-knowledge. This idea is ridiculous to me. Focusing my work on data has made me modify the graphics representation models. I try to make the aesthetic opinion-free to leave all the space for ethics.
The data gathering of a social whole is actually very debatable because individuals only represent a unit of the total. That of a specific person, doing something concrete for a specific period of time, is absolutely accurate: the unit is total. It’s a kind of hyperrealism of the intangible.
Why do you think the boom of data visualization happened? Why is it said to be the “new oil”?
First the obvious: the technological capacity to collect, store and display large amounts of data. It’s important to highlight the technological aspect, precisely because the phenomenon goes far beyond that. Personally, I don’t care about massive data collection, a social data set can’t contribute a lot as an individual. In my work technology is not required, I just need pencil, paper and simple math, but I wouldn’t be working with data without a technology that would have allowed the emergence of the social phenomenon we call ‘Big data’.
The display of personal data, whether those of millions of people, opens up the eternal question: Who am I?. This question is what underlies the ‘Big data’ and that’s what makes the seductively compelling phenomenon. The simple formulation of the question-even without finding the answer- enriches the individual and, ultimately, the group where he belongs in the only possible model of evolution.
The analogy with oil is a clear allusion to the commercial use of data. Consumption is, by far, the social aspect mostly -the only one? – clearly benefited from the ‘Big data’. If it comes to turning data into oil, the erasing of all the data centers would make me happy: data is potentially much more polluting than oil.
In 2001, Lev Manovich wrote about a “poetic, aesthetic and ethics on data”. What do you think about this?
Speaking today about a ‘poetic, aesthetic and ethics on data’ seems obvious, that makes Manovich’s formulation specially bright. But it becomes obvious when he puts formulates it, not before. His thinking is so contemporary that we might be tempted to believe that we had thought about it before, which certainly isn’t true. Anyway, I can’t speak from a theoretical perspective: I lack the knowledge. I can speak from my experience: I am building my poetry and my ethics on data. My aesthetic is something I haven’t had time to address in depth.
Why the interest in data and why did you chose infographics to portray them?
Many years ago, I came to the dawn of journalistic infographics. I have had the good fortune to belong to a generation of professionals that defined the profession as we know it today. In the last decade I have been gradually losing interest in journalism, partly for personal reasons in part by the unfortunate course taken by the profession, and I have regained interest in the purest of artistic practices. Having achieved remarkable levels of knowledge in the use of infographics as a tool of narration of facts, it would seem foolish not to consider its potential as a tool for building work and a discourse on the world of artistic practices. My conclusion is that this is an equally valid tool for narrative subjectivities, that is, in my view, a narrative art form. The tool and the technique isn’t essential. Continuing to use infographics as a tool became a logical and practical question; I dominate the technique: I can focus on ethics and aesthetics: what matters.
The data usage is due more to the common interest, than the particular one. I could use other resources to build a similar speech. I’m interested in the public, how to reach them with my proposals. The data, besides being a raw material that gets along very well with the technique I’ve decided to use (in fact the only tool that allows the appreciation of its existence), are very seductive to the public and very representative of the historical moment in which we live. I believe in the contemporary artist who works according to the historical moment that he has lived. I like to think that my art is contemporary.