I must admit, this piece by Bill Viola really speaks to me.  Like many others, I was utterly unfamiliar with his work prior to this week’s reading; however, also like many others, I am glad to have had the chance to explore his thoughts on art, media, and porcupines. I *think* I get the porcupine story — but more on that later. There are a number of points in this piece that really resonate with me as a data librarian and former scholar of religious traditions.

One: the notion of ‘data space’ and condominiums

“Data space” is a term we hear in connection with computers. Information must be entered into a computer’s memory to create a set of parameters, defining some sort of ground, or field, where future calculations and binary events will occur. In three-dimensional computer graphics, this field exists as an imaginary but real chunk of space, a conceptual geometry, theoretically infinite, within which various forms may be created, manipulated, extended, and destroyed.

This data space, analogous to our “mind’s eye,” is the space of imagination and creativity, the space that helps us experience things beyond the merely visual.  It is this space that enables digital media to function as art within our culture, allowing our experience of media-based art to move back into the realm of the sacred from the profane.  Data space makes possible the existence of things beyond “the real.”  Data space, I think Viola would say, isalways there.  It is the whole in the holistic.

Two: the subtractive elements of creation

This image of data space makes me think about an art project for the one art class I took in college.  We were given a square of soft rock and instructed to create a fluid sculpture by carefully removing bits of rock.  The exercise gave me quite a bit of appreciation for stonemasons and sculptors who carve beautiful forms out of rock or wood.  And yet, Viola sees this form of art as “hard copy”

I saw then that my piece was actually finished and in existence before it was executed on the VTRs. Digital computers and software technologies are holistic; they think in terms of whole structures. Word-processors allow one to write out, correct, and rearrange the whole letter before typing it. Data space is fluid and temporal, hardcopy is for real—an object is born and becomes fixed in time. Chiseling in stone may be the ultimate hard copy.

For me, the parallels between data space and stone sculpture is more interesting than the divergence; the idea that data space already contains, granted fluidly and temporally, every possible combination of ones and zeroes is, I think, an interesting way to think about human-computer augmentation.  Does the capacity for computer intelligence already exist, we just havn’t peeled back enough ones and zeroes to see it?

Three: the creative development of technology

The holistic view offered by data space must, in Viola’s view, be brought about in partnership with the creative.  Data space is the modern canvas for art and culture and, Viola asserts, artists ignore it at their peril;

[…] the present generation of artists, filmmakers, and video-makers currently in school, and their instructors, who continue to ignore computer and video technology, will in the near future find that they have bypassed the primary medium, not only of their own fields, but of the entire culture as well. It is imperative that creative artists have a hand in the developments currently underway. (NMS, 469)

Viola’s work pushes the boundaries of the artistic and the technical, encouraging a departure from the “branching” or linear modes of development.  Viola talks about a ‘matrixed’ array of information where the connections between things are known and equal, and a “schizo” or spahgetti structure of development where exists the recognition that everything is connected and not connected at the same time.  I find myself wondering if Viola’s progression itself is linear: does he think that the development of information models persists through this linear progression?  Is the neurotic, or “schizo” model a natural course for art?  Or, is the development of art and media itself non-linear, incorporating the linear and non-linear at the same time?  Maybe I’m way off track, but these are the questions I have.

Four: the sacred, the profane, and the porcupine

The Renaissance was the turning point, and the subsequent history of Western art can be viewed as the progressive distancing of the arts away from the sacred and towards the profane. The original structural aspect of art, and the idea of a “data space” was preserved through the Renaissance, however, in the continued relation between the image and architecture.  Painting became an architectural, spatial form, which the viewer experienced by physically walking through it.  The older concept of an idea and an image architecture, a memory “place” like the mnemonic temples of the Greeks, is carried through in the great European cathedrals and palaces, as is the relation between memory, spatial movement, and the storage (recording) of ideas. (NMS, 467)

Here, as elsewhere, Viola seems to relate “data space” to architectural space and the spaces of memory which are both an undercurrent to most of his work.  His focus on “the sacred”, most evident, perhaps, in his 2007 piece ‘Ocean Without a Shore‘ which was installed inside of a Renaissance church, combines physical architectural space, the “data space” of artistic media, and the temporal space of life and death.  Martyrs (2009) similarly points out Viola’s emphasis on the internal and emotional space of the subjects in the piece.

And this, I think, is part of his final point:

As we continue to do our dance with technology, some of us more willingly than others, the importance of turning back towards ourselves, the prime mover of this technology, grows greater than the importance of any LSI circuit. The sacred art of the past has unified form, function, and aesthetics around this single ultimate aim. Today, development of self must precede development of the technology or we will go nowhere—there will be condominiums in data space (it has already begun with cable TV). Applications of tools are only reflections of the users—chopsticks may be a simple eating utensil or a weapon, depending on who uses them. (NMR, 469)

How we combine these different spaces and link them together is a reflection of who we are. We make our homes, our condominiums in all of these spaces, data space, physical space, temporal space; the way we use technology is a reflection of the limits of our own creativity.  The porcupine’s dance scares off the car and, in no small way, causes the storyteller to consider the inner space of the porcupine.  That is the pinpoint focus of Viola’s piece: the place where data space and inner space connect.





At the risk of wondering something that was covered in the class discussion (for which I was admittedly and unfortunately absent), I quite like the idea of thinking about computers as “artifacts.” I think of an artifact as a tool that reveals something about the culture in which it was created, so I wonder what Engelbart’s mouse, and our use thereof, reveals about us.  If, as Engelbart seems to suggest, our current use of technology directly affects our capacity to develop new technologies, is all technological innovation then the great-great-great grandchildren of one parent?   What can we know of that parent from the modern computer artifacts that surround us every day? Can we, like a geneticist, trace back the DNA of a computer or a computer language?

I seem to remember a time during my college years when I taped paper mouse ears and drew whiskers on a broken computer mouse, thinking myself very clever. What does that reveal about me, other than a clear need for humor augmentation?

The human mind does not work that way. It operates by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain. It has other characteristics, of course; trails that are not frequently followed are prone to fade, items are not fully permanent, memory is transitory. Yet the speed of action, the intricacy of trails, the detail of mental pictures, is awe-inspiring beyond all else in nature.

Vannevar Bush, As We May Think, The Atlantic, 1945.

Bush’s foresight, amidst the scientific advances generated by a World War, is founded upon and foundational to the modern idea of openness.  In order to forge the links of association, the human mind must first grasp the initial impulse; there must be that core of data in the memex.  The presence of, and access to, these shared scientific ideas is the difference between guesswork and substantiated prophecy.

The modern movement of open scientific and scholarly communication emphasizes the importance of the free and unfettered exchange of ideas as a central tenant of scholarly inquiry; as singular and prescient as Bush’s collective memory machine was at the time, the internet is not yet truly Bush’s memex realized.  Economic barriers to knowledge, science and scholarship still exist, re-routing the free exchange of ideas to thinkers who can afford to pay.

I find myself wondering whether Bush would approve of locking his collective memory machine behind closed doors.

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