Wednesday, March 1st, 2006

The Dumpster: Golan Levin with Kamal Nigam and Jonathan Feinberg, 2006

Internet project co-commissioned by Artport, The Whitney Museum Portal to Net Art, and Tate Online

The Dumpster is the first of three commissioned projects that will be displayed at Artport and Tate Online in February and March 2006, each one meant to showcase net art as central to the conception of the museum as a networked, virtual institution. The text that follows is the first in a series of articles discussing each project.

The Dumpster is a portrait of romantic breakups that uses postings extracted from real blogs (short for “weblog” – online journals kept up by multiple commentators and meant for general public consumption), where teenagers’ relationships were discussed and in which one person has been “dumped” by another.

“Portrait” requires slight redefinition in this context, however. Net art is rarely representational, and in combining the romantic woes of over 20,000 web users, one can hardly expect a composite portrait of all of them. Yet a composite is exactly what Levin and his collaborators offer. Using interactive features combined with abstract imagery, The Dumpster illuminates the similarities, differences and patterns in these failed relationships resulting in both an analytic and sympathetic view of romantic hardship.

Upon entering the project, bubbles in shades of red, orange, brown and black float on a chiaroscuro background that fades from mauve to black. Click on a bubble, and an excerpt from a blog appears in a text box on the right-hand side of the screen.

The bubbles recall champagne happiness, celebration, even giddiness. They are cathartic in their movement, like a lava lamp. The bubbles convert to combinations of bright colors when the mouse cursor hovers over them, but the over-all color scheme is intentionally reflective of the Valentine’s day holiday – the date on which this project launched. Yet, the text reveals the opposite of revelry. Some of the language is angry (“me and tre are broke up f*** him I am finished with boys”), while some is more resigned or passive (“oh well what can you do about it?”). Ironically, one entry even recounts how a blogger was dumped via e-mail.

Each successive click on a bubble displays a new text box that appears underneath the last, and there is a string of dots connecting each text box to its relevant bubble. These connections and succession of boxes create a stream-of-consciousness dialogue. This digital art work shows us how all of us are linked together by our personal experiences of romantic pain.

The Dumpster uses ideas and themes common to net art. User interaction is essential to the work’s success, collaboration essential to its creation (Levin developed most of the interface while Kamal Nigam completed the data mining and analysis and filtering. Feinberg developed the server-side backend of the project.). Additionally, the work uses technology to explore social concerns, specifically, the process of the “social search” and its revelations as they relate to both the individual and the general net community.

In his critical essay “Social Data Browsing” which analyzes The Dumpster, Lev Manovich, Professor of Visual Arts, University of California, San Diego and a Director of The Lab for Cultural Analysis at California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, questions whether computer media can be used to create artistic representations that “link the individual and the social without subsuming one to the other.”

The question is relevant as it relates to current trends in the internet search field. Both Yahoo! and Google have launched test versions of applications that allow a “social search.” With these applications, users can create a personalized knowledge base or search engine by bookmarking and caching copies of their favorite sites and assigning them to categories in a structured way. Users can also search among their contacts’ knowledge base to obtain information that is more relevant to him or her personally versus mining information from a general internet search.

News reports published on on June 28, 2005 explain that the new Yahoo! and Google applications were created to address three problems facing the online search market: Search engines like Yahoo! and Google have a limited ability to answer opinion-based queries (What is the best MP3 player?) with responses that capture the opinions of friends and authorities. Compounding this is their inability to interpret the meaning of a user query (i.e. search for Apple Records – the Beatles’ label- and you’ll likely get results for the more popular Apple Computers.)

Additionally, the new applications will connect users to new items that would be personally relevant, which today’s general searches cannot accommodate. For example, if a user has a history of searching fishing web sites and searched on the word “bass”, the search engine would return fish-related results; if music is the forte, the “bass” search would return information on musical instruments. Moving from the general to the specific, the personalized engine creates a portrait of the user and returns results reflective of the user’s interests.

Like Google and Yahoo!, The Dumpster takes a hefty amount of data search engine material and allows the user to whittle it down to something relevant to his or her own interest.

The data used in the project was provided by Intelliseek (a company that provides services that help other companies derive business and marketing strategies from data analysis) and mined using its BlogPulse search engine. Words and phrases indicative of break ups (i.e. “broke up,” “dumped me,” etc.) were entered into the engine and using custom language analysis software, the text of each post was evaluated to determine different characteristics of the break up.

Users navigate this data not in a structured manner, but horizontally, vertically and diagonally between the particular and the general. Gathering and displaying data in this fashion allows the user to navigate between the intimate details of both individual experiences and larger social groupings. Clicking randomly allows for exploration of individual experiences. Clicking on bubbles of a certain size or color exposes the experiences of a group.

The result is not only a portrait of teenage angst or a glimpse into the sociology of teenage romance; it is also further proof that consumer technologies and daily life have intertwined in complex ways.