Database Portraits: Visualisation and Noopolitics

Michael Dieter

The management and processing of complex data is an important organisational dynamic that determines governance within network societies. Founded on practices from science, economics and interface design, information visualisation is routinely used as predictive graphic technique for a diverse range of disciplinary fields, from modelling biological formations to devising social policy. The selection, filtering and statistical analysis of data is, as a consequence, a highly political activity, but one that implies a break with traditional forms of representation. As artists Tom Corby and Gavin Bailey observe, this mode of visuality is less concerned with simply indexing an image to an external referent, but with abstracting an entire environment, which is then measured and organised graphically through a multi-layered process. This intensive domain is neither strictly physical nor cultural, but opens onto a new dimension of aesthetics that structures and constrains the virtuality of the social. In particular, data visualisation enables an orientation toward the constitution of actual worlds that, despite harnessing natural processes, is never a neutral operation: these activities inform and double sociality, but also allow for emergent possibilities of creativity and innovation.

The techniques of information visualisation can, as a result, be theorised as layering machinic perception within a particular regime of control ('patterns' for modulation) or what Maurizio Lazzarato has identified as the importance of precepts, affective and asignifying registers throughout contemporary capitalism. According to his extension of the biopolitical as 'noopolitics', these expressions of digital software can be seen as ushering through a new ontology of power where programmability is harnessed to steer innovation and amplify cognition, while obscuring the hybrid forums carried along with such technological actions. In this paper, I examine the recent database portraiture of Golan Levin in the context of Lazzarato's reading of control societies. On differing scales of intervention, I suggest that pieces such as 'The Secret Lives of Numbers' (2002) and 'The Dumpster' (2006) effectively reveal the collective interweaving of affective, cognitive and material levels central to network cultures (the noopolitical). However, in doing so, I also argue that they demonstrate something of the contingency underlying these informational paradigms: their insistence on visual knowledge, their fundamental obscurity.

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