Reviewed June 2018
Emily Coxe, Research & Instruction Librarian
Fleet Library, Rhode Island School of Design
Mapping Video Art is an interactive data visualization developed at NYU’s Institute of Fine Art Research Labs. By plotting video artists’ careers through space and time, its creators aim to make visible the “movement” of the medium as it grew in global reach from 1963 onward. The website is both openly available and browser-based, consisting of a single dynamic page. Simply designed, all the punch is reserved for functional elements: color-coded dots pepper a minimalist world map and a timeline set to autoplay chugs forward, shooting lines in corresponding colors between cities.
This visualization plots nine notable exhibition histories along a timeline and a map. Data points were ostensibly gathered from catalogs and artists’ CVs, though none are cited. By layering information about multiple careers and aggregating spatial connections, Mapping Video Art might enable discovery of previously unexplored trends, which is potentially useful for those studying video and media art history—at least in regard to traditional exhibition, since much of the novelty of video was in new distribution forms (TV broadcast, mailed tapes – both near impossible to map).
Like many projects within the digital humanities, this site is not exactly a publication, nor quite a tool. It is, as its creators write, an “experiment,” still under development: more names will be added to its initial roster. One might hope that several glitchy behaviors in its GIS application will be addressed, too, though the resource is not deep enough for this to be really troubling. Still, as Mapping Video Art grows from an experiment into a tool (and this reviewer hopes it will), existing problems will only compound, making it essential to address them now.
Visualizations carry with them a suite of issues relevant to this project (see Johanna Drucker’s Graphesis for a detailed exploration of the subject). To visualize is to interpret, adding yet another layer of mediation to information that is already highly constructed and often ambiguous. While these basic data sets built by mining exhibition histories are sufficiently reliable to create a visual representation of facts, generating new knowledge by graphically representing phenomena such as “movement” is a far more complex undertaking, one which bears closer examination.
At present, the “movement” mapped by this project is not clearly defined. Its usefulness is also limited by the site’s capabilities—for example, its map is developed in such a way that movement lines literally cannot cross the Pacific Ocean, only the Atlantic. These colorful lines, while adding some dynamism to this page, are completely symbolic: they do not represent actual paths taken by videos or artists so much as a chronological progression of exhibitions. It is an arbitrary choice to map this progression geographically. A gesture such as making the artist’s home city the hub of these lines (accounting for the fact that artists moved over time) would be a useful change, and the subsequent “movement” more accurate.
These criticisms are leveled not to dampen the velocity of this project, but hopefully to steer it in a productive direction. The addition of more varied artists will undoubtedly enrich Mapping Video Art. There is an elegance to the simple function and appearance of this website—as with many such projects, that simplicity surely disguises a great quantity of thought and labor invested—but it also disguises the complexity of the topic. At this early stage, the project would benefit immensely from greater transparency and citation of sources, thoughtful examination of visualization methods, and a crystallized concept of “movement.”