Brain Pickings

Book of Ice: DJ Spooky’s Cross-Disciplinary Antarctica Project

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What emancipated penguins have to do with digital archives, propaganda art and the future of remix culture.

Antarctica is a strange kind of no man’s land — a territory owned by no single country, with no government, formally uninhabited and hardy inhabitable, and yet of endless allure to researchers, explorers, artists and curious minds from all over the world. It’s also the closest thing we have to a geological clock, its ice sheath reflecting the transformation of our atmosphere and climate with striking precision. In 2007, fascinated by the enigmatic continent’s peculiarities, artist, thinker and musician Paul D. Miller — whose investigation of remix culture and collaborative creation you might recall — traveled to Antarctica to shoot a film about the sound of ice. That was the start of Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica — a larger multimedia project aiming to capture a dynamic portrait of this rapidly changing microcosm. The project’s latest incarnation, The Book of Ice, arrives this month — a poignant reflection on humanity’s relationship with the frozen neverland and climate change at large, by way of poetic visual and textual meditations ranging from archival images of historic exploration on the continent (including these rare photos of the first Australian expedition in 1911) to maps to timelines to hypothetical propaganda art for an imaginary Antarctica liberation movement.

Perhaps most compellingly, the project is a living testament to cross-disciplinary creativity, touching on disciplines as diverse as history, information visualization, music composition, propaganda art, media theory and more, with influences as varied as Emory Douglas, Rodchenko, Mirko Illic and Alex Steinweiss.

Today, I sit down with DJ Spooky to chat about the creative impetus behind the project, its most compelling insights, and the longer-term vision for Antarctica’s future.

q1

How did the idea for The Book of Ice, and the larger project to which it belongs, first emerge?

The Book of Ice started as graphic design music scores taken from my Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica project. I wanted to fine-tune the book as an extension of some of my obsessions with climate change. The first soundtrack and symphony written about Antarctica was by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1948, but other composers — Handel’s 1717 AD composition entitled simply “Water Music” or John Luther Adams Arctic compositions, or even more close to home John Cage’s 1936 first composition for turntables “Imaginary Landscape,” Charles Ives “Central Park in The Dark,” or Cornelius Cardew’s graphic design scores — are all influences.

I guess you could say The Book of Ice is an inter-connected, hyper-expandable/scalable museum/gallery show, book, and symphony. Simple!

q2

Antarctica – a place that no one owns, with no government or law, yet belonging to everyone – seems to be a beautiful metaphor for remix culture. Given your background, was this in any way part of the allure? How did you incorporate your work on and beliefs about remix culture into the Antarctica project?

I wanted to show the Utopian/Dystopian aspects of how graphic design interacts with geopolitics and propaganda. Me, Shep Fairey (an old friend) and Steve Heller spoke at Phaidon books a little while ago about this, from the beginnings of “The War on Terror” you can go back to stuff like DW Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” and other texts that give people a feigned sense of oppression. My Antarctica remix project would have to include how people despoil the planet, our “commons” and what if people started to say everyone has a right to clean air and water, to having food untainted by mercury or nuclear isotopes?

q3

What has been the most startling, unexpected insight that emerged for the creative process on the project?

I guess I always naively think that if you put information in front of people, they’ll get it. They don’t. This project is Utopian in that it seems like the bleedingly obvious fact that our species might not get out of this century in too good condition is being ignored. Ice sheets are melting. Water is scarce. Global weather patterns are the most complex phenomena we’ve encountered.

Adam Smith wrote, ‘all money is a matter of belief.’ The realm of the possible is always greater than the realm of the real. I try to navigate between the two: that’s art.

q4

Can, and should, Antarctica liberate itself from the rest of the world? If so, how?

The title for the Manifesto for a People’s Republic of Antarctica comes from a science fiction book of the same title by John Calvin Batchelor. OK: nation state rises from the ruins of world geopolitics. Check. Environmental collapse, even though we know we can do better and avoid it. Check. Dumb politicians run all major nation states into the ground. Check. It’s great material for propaganda prints, but it could just as easily be a video game like Vice City or Halo. People like to have ‘narrative,’ so I thought, let’s give them something different. It would be cool to have Antarctica as strictly a “commons.”

q5

What’s next for the project, and for you as an artist and explorer?

Part 2 to the The Book of Ice / Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica goes in two different directions. I’m setting up a contemporary art center in the South Pacific in the island nation of Vanuatu.

And I’m writing a group of compositions about the North Pole. Both are in development now. One of the first media spoofs of the 20th century was when Frederick A. Cook, a Brooklyn milkman who, made a film that claimed he was the first person to discover the North Pole and a fake story got put on the front of every major newspaper. There’s something very Orson Welles to that idea. I found the film, remixed it as a component of the Antarctica project DVD. You can see all of this and the material used to generate the compositions as extensions of my obsession with sampling. It’s just taken me a little further into the realm of info-aesthetics.

After all, I can basically just say music for me isn’t just music. It’s information.

The Book of Ice comes from Mark Batty Publisher and is the kind of cross-disciplinary gem we love to love.

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Digital Decluttering: 3 Ways to Visualize Your Mac’s Hard Drive

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How to spot RAM offenders, or what data visualization has to do with the workings of your second brain.

Our hard drives are our satellite brains, vital extensions of our intellectual and creative input and output. But our informationally voracious habits also mean that our second brains get inevitably overwhelmed, slowing down and spasming under the weight of our tastes and interests. To combat the issue, here are three fantastic visualization tools — playing on today’s running theme of data visualization — that help declutter your hard drive without requiring any programming knowledge, visually track down what takes the most space and memory, and allowing you to optimize accordingly.

GRAND PERSPECTIVE

GrandPerspective is a Mac OSX utility for graphically showing the file disk usage on your computer using tree map visualizations. It developed by Erwin Bonsma and is released for free as open-source under the GNU General Public License. You can support the project with a donation.

Direct download link.

DAISY DISK

DaisyDisk scans your hard drive, as well as any external drives you have mounted, and visualizes the contents as interactive maps, allowing you to easily spot unusually large files and delete or move them to an external hard drive to get more free space. The program’s scanning engine is surprisingly fast even with drives as large as several terabytes. You can get a copy for the rather reasonable $19.99.

Free demo direct download link

via Swiss Miss

DISK INVENTORY X

Disk Inventory X, developed by Tjark Derlien, is very similar to GrandPerspective — same tree map visualizations, also a free download and under a GPL license, also supported by donations — though with a slightly different and more intuitive interface. It was inspired by WinDirStat, the hard drive visualization utility for Windows.

Direct download link

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Visualize This: How to Tell Stories with Data

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How to turn numbers into stories, or what pattern-recognition has to do with the evolution of journalism.

Data visualization is a frequent fixation around here and, just recently, we looked at 7 essential books that explore the discipline’s capacity for creative storytelling. Today, a highly anticipated new book joins their ranks — Visualize This: The FlowingData Guide to Design, Visualization, and Statistics, penned by Nathan Yau of the fantastic FlowingData blog. (Which also makes this a fine addition to our running list of blog-turned-book success stories.) Yu offers a practical guide to creating data graphics that mean something, that captivate and illuminate and tell stories of what matters — a pinnacle of the discipline’s sensemaking potential in a world of ever-increasing information overload.

And in a culture of equally increasing infographics overload, where we are constantly bombarded with mediocre graphics that lack context and provide little actionable insight, Yau makes a special point of separating the signal from the noise and equipping you with the tools to not only create better data graphics but also be a more educated consumer and critic of the discipline.

From asking the right questions to exploring data through the visual metaphors that make the most sense to seeing data in new ways and gleaning from it the stories that beg to be told, the book offers a brilliant blueprint to practical eloquence in this emerging visual language.

On the book’s companion site, you can find downloadable data files, interactive examples of how visualization works and, if you’re technically inclined, even code samples to use as the basis for your own visual experimentation.

Visually stimulating, intellectually illuminating and creatively compelling, Visualize This: The FlowingData Guide to Design, Visualization, and Statistics is equal parts practical vocabulary for an essential modern language and conceptual testament to the power of data visualization as a new form of journalism and a powerful storytelling medium.

For a historical perspective on infographics, be sure to see the story of Otto Neurath’s Isotype.

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