Challenges and Limits of Collaboration

This year’s MutaMorphosis Conference in Prague was entitled Tribute to Uncertainty and offered a wide programme of sessions, but browsing the program one could not ignore the attention that the organisers had paid to what is going on in the field of art + science and in particular Bio Art. I had been invited to speak about Challenges of Participation in a session that was similarly called The Limits and Challenges of Collaboration and that was curated by Manuela Naveau from Ars Electronica. Together with me on the panel were Galia Offri and her partner Mushon Zer-Aviv as well as Mirko Tobias Schaefer, Assistant Professor for New Media & Digital Culture Utrecht University. Mirko is also the author of Bastard Culture! How User Participation Transforms Cultural Production at Amsterdam University Press.

In Prague, Mirko gave an analysis of participatory culture limiting user agency, focussing on social media. In his talk he revealed the discrepancy between social media’s official narrative of being participatory systems and their true nature of limiting participation and massively channelling user activities. He spoke about social media’s ephemeral design elements: Like, View, Endorse, Favourite, ReTweet, RePin, and how they lower the threshold to become an “active” user. On-line activity is minimised to clicking a button, but gets maximum attention. Social media also initiate the economics of rewards. Mirko went on discussing elements of corporate control limiting user activities such as moderation, automated, distributed (through ‘flag’ and ‘report’) and human content review. The final part of his presentation centred on the expansion of the public sphere through social media and the problem of corporations shaping policies for this new public space.

From Wikipedia Illustrated:Hikikomori, literally "pulling away, being confined", i.e., "acute social withdrawal") is a Japanese term to refer to the phenomenon of reclusive people who have chosen to withdraw from social life, often seeking extreme degrees of isolation and confinement because of various personal and social factors in their lives.

Galia and Mushon presented their project Wikipedia Illustrated. This project entails the illustration of 26 Wikipedia articles, a blog to share the process, a book and a number of workshops. Through these activities the authors hope to draft a new path for a visual free culture. And indeed, Wikipedia looks like it can benefit from such artistic activism. Wikipedia pages don’t allow much visual information and while the textual information usually goes through various versions and updates, graphics don’t permit this kind of collaborative process. So it’s individual authors who insert images which are accepted by the community or dismissed. But the ‘simple’ act of creating and adding images that communicate the content or theme of a Wikipedia article in an illustrative and metaphorical way opens up a discussion of how much visual poetry Wikipedia can take before it looses its reputation as a factual medium and if contributors can change its rules. This project shows quite plainly and painfully how little room Wikipedia and similar collaborative platforms offer for reformation.

Interview in ESSEN magazine


Today we are full of data and information that not everyone can follow and understand and for this reason is spreading what’s called infographics. We can say that the proposed data cuisine produces a sort of ‘infofood’? Why you think it’s important to use food as a means of communication, or even as a means of information?

A lot of communication takes place around food. We are sitting around the dinner table, eating and having conversations. We stand in our kitchen, while we cook and talk. Food and communication are closely connected, both are social, and they can be personal and emotional. We just took this idea one step further by creating food and cooking meals as means of communication. We were interested to see if translating numeric information into tasty dishes would create different and more personal experiences of data. And it did. First of all, we all, both teachers and participants, learned a lot about Helsinki and Finland. We used local and national Open Data of all sorts. Of course, this data represents much more than simple facts, it tells stories about the Finnish society that most of us were not aware of. Then we used a lot of local ingredients like salmon, red beets, reindeer, suppilovahvero (a Finnish winter mushroom) and blueberries to make up dishes.

This meant learning a lot about the ingredients themselves, where they come from, how they are grown and harvested, about their nutrients and cultural meanings. I suppose that we were all quite surprised about the individual approaches and different results that the participants produced. Some decided to make a quite literal translation from numbers into amounts of ingredients. Others worked on the idea of the map and visualised the location-specific data. Again others tried to work less with the visual design but differences in taste. In that way all dishes were informative.

In the “Open Data Cooking Workshop” that you recently did in Helsinki participants were to prepare a dish combining ingredients and data. In your opinion, was it difficult for them to participate in the workshop and revise data with food?

Open Data Cooking is a very unusual experiment that nobody tried before. On the first day we gave introductions into information visualisation and cooking, local and seasonal cuisine as well as the situation of open data. Then we asked participants to do a exercise in which they had to randomly pick two data topics and four ingredients and think of meaningful relations between them and come up with ideas for dishes. It takes quite some associative thinking and imagination to bring those things together and it’s naturally easier for people with a creative practice.

Do you think that, with regard to the visual approach, this one could be more incisive for conveying information than others? In your opinion, can somebody external understand this data more easily?

Making up recipes, cooking, arranging food and tasting it is certainly not the straightest way to represent and understand data, but it is a a very sensuous and personal one. I would not necessarily speak of easy understanding, but of a deeper experience of data and its meaning.

Not so many people are interested in a so specific way in the relationship between food and data. Which is or was the deep need that brings you and your collaborators to start this research?

Most importantly I was looking for an interesting way to make people look at publicly available data and deal with it in an non-standardised way. I believe that art and design processes like the collective research we are talking about, enable us to see our society from a very different angle than the one that is presented to us by science, politics, history or mass media.

I saw some of the dishes that have been made during the workshop and they are very communicative, inviting and very different from each other. How important do you think is the sensibility of the creator who is preparing the dish? How important is his/her background?

The participants in this workshop had different backgrounds ranging from law student to software programmer. But that did not necessarily define their individual approaches. But they were all curious and open minded which I believe is a necessary prerequisite for such a collaborative research experience.

If we ask you to realise now a dish in line with data cuisine, which culinary variables and data would you put together?

A topic which I came across in our Helsinki workshop was gender related difference in salary. Women with the same qualification as men on average are paid less than them in most European countries. Surprisingly, in Germany this gender gap is smaller than I expected it to be. So I would probably compare women’s and men’s wages of another country like France where the difference is blatant. And I would choose potatoes because I associate them with women more than with men and green beans to represent the male. But this is just a first and spontaneous idea and at our workshop I learned that the deeper you go with research on the ingredients, the better ideas you produce.

This interview was published in Essen magazine, a Milano based on-line magazine. Questions by Giulia Tacchini, answers and reblogging by Susanne Jaschko, prozessagenten.

Workshop gets reviewed online

The Open Data Cooking Workshop is wandering through the blogs! Looks like we worked on a hot topic. Wired Online was one of the first to report on our workshop, and contacted prozessagenten with a couple of questions. This article then got reblogged by others.

Here is where you find all of it:

WIRED news

FOOD and TECH blog

INFOSTHETICS blog

The ICONOCLAST news

Visual Loop

The Atlantic Cities blog

Our workshop participant Paola has also written on the BUILDING BRIDGES blog about her experience.

To be continued….

2nd day: It’s all about food

On the second day of the Open Data Cooking Workshop in Helsinki we moved to Aromi Kitchen, a kitchen for cooking classes, and started to get our hands dirty. The workshop participants had selected their topics and data the day before. They also had done most of the shopping and thought out their recipes.

So Sunday was all about working with the ingredients and learning from Antti how to create delicious and good looking dishes while Miska, the data hunter, helped to find the last bits and pieces of missing data and Moritz and I were busy documenting what was going on.

Symeon makes his dough for the Lasagne called Spiced Foreigners Between Pasta that compares Finland’s population with and without immigrants.

Rossana mixes her Suicide Cocktail based on Finnish, German and Italian data on suicide rates, monthly average wage, alcohol consumption and average temperature.

Dimitrii gets ready to cut beet roots for his Criminal Herring in Fur Coat based on Finnish Crime Rates in 2011.

Hero shot of Jen’s Happiness Cocktail visualising the amount of smiling Facebook friends…

…and of Nathalie’s and Melinda’s Lakmoussetikka showing the amount of harvested blueberries (jelly on top) in relation to the amount of blueberries that are not picked in Finland (white chocolate mouse).

 

Open Data Cooking is steaming in Helsinki

Yesterday we started the Open Data Cooking Workshop at Aalto Media Factory in Helsinki. Together with twelve participants we embarked on a journey through local open data, food and data representation with culinary means. In the morning we gave short introductions into the different disciplines like Open Data in Finland by Miska, principles of cooking and Finish cuisine by Antti and data visualisation by Moritz. See more documentation on the Data Cuisine site.

Participants introducing themselves by presenting cooking ingredients that they brought.

First exercise: Pick two topics and four ingredients and find relations. Make up a dish that could represent that subject.

Brainstorming in groups and data hunting.

Tell me what you found.

Getting deeper and deeper into it.

First sketches of dishes.