The DumpsterAbout the Dumpster ProjectUsing the Dumpster InterfaceArtist StatementEssay by Lev ManovichSelections from the Breakup DatabaseCredits and Acknowledgements

Artist Statement
Golan Levin, 14 February 2006

“The purpose of computing is insight, not numbers.” — Richard Hamming

The discipline of information visualization has emerged as an important hybrid of graphics, scientific communication, database engineering, and human-computer interaction. Traditionally the tool of the scientist and engineer, information visualization has increasingly become a powerful new tool for artists as well, allowing them to present, search, browse, filter, and compare rich information spaces in order to discover and reveal new narratives otherwise hidden within the dataflows of our world.

I am drawn to the revelatory potential of information visualization — whether brought to bear on a single participant, the information culture we inhabit, or the formal aspects of mediated communication itself. Used as an interrogative mode of artistic practice, information visualization has the potential to offer us a new perspective on ourselves. To these ends, I find myself continually returning to the questions: what information is worth visualizing, and why?

In the Dumpster, my colleagues and I have turned our attention to perhaps the most computationally intractable kind of worthwhile information: matters of the human heart. Developed in time for Valentine's Day 2006, the Dumpster project is an interactive visualization of romantic behavior on a grand scale. Using real postings extracted from millions of online blogs, visitors to the project can surf through tens of thousands of specific romantic relationships in which one person has "dumped" another. The project's graphical tools help reveal some of the similarities, differences, and underlying patterns of these failed relationships, providing both peculiarly analytic and sympathetically intimate perspectives onto the diversity of global romantic pain.

Our goals in creating the Dumpster project were several. They are somewhat contradictory. I enumerate them:

  • Maximally Efficient Voyeurism. The Internet presents the curious situation in which millions of people publish intimate diaries for all the world to see. There simply isn't time to read them all. For the voyeur (in all of us), the problem posed by this burgeoning terrain becomes one of getting to the juicy bits quickly. The Dumpster represents one possible strategy for doing this — a lateral, thematic cut across thousands of personal stories.

  • Reassuring the broken-hearted. Although it is possible to regard the Dumpster in a purely cynical light, it is important to remember that art can sometimes have healing powers which work in unexpected ways. Many teenagers who experience romantic breakups and other emotional traumas come to feel as though nobody understands their pain. We genuinely wished to help such people observe that they are not so alone. The Dumpster offers them the perspective that pain which they might believe no one else could possibly understand, is actually quite similar (and sometimes seemingly identical) to that of other people.

  • Philosophical. We sought to point out how, indeed, every person's pain is in fact unique — but also to point out how our use of nearly-identical language patterns to encode our pain, enacted for the sake of communication, exerts a homogenizing influence on our own ability to understand ourselves and others. This is at its root a Whorfian linguistic conjecture: Our pain may be unique, but because we all use (astonishingly) similar language to describe it, our understanding of our own emotions is attenuated and conformed accordingly.

  • Anti-Romantic. We sought to discover patterns in emotional information, telescopically, and to possibly discover patterns therein that people may never have even considered to exist. The term is from Lev Manovich.

  • Empathetic Immersion. We sought to "live in the data" — to experience the texture of the Blogosphere's diaristic fabric by reading individual reports by individual people.

  • Political. In representing the intimate lives of other people, that they have themselves already published, we question notions of privacy in relation to the broadcast of intimate information online.

  • Cultural. We sought to obtain a snapshot of teen language from 2005, with all of its highly specialized sets of codes and communicative expectations.

In the sights of these different objectives is the ultimate subject of the Dumpster: Heartbreak. Heartbreak, in the visual arts, is not customarily represented in abstract, symbolic or aggregate terms. What we tend to think of as "the visual arts," when they are representational at all, generally focus on individual experience of the sort that evokes an empathetic or interpretative response from the viewer. Portraiture, for example, in which the emotional state of the subject is made plain, elicits a direct emotional response; likewise, the use of atmospheric or contextual themes that imply an emotional state can serve to orient the viewer in the frame of mind intended by the artist, and assist the viewer in the interpretation of emotional content.

Where representational art has depicted populations or groups, the viewer is often presumed to occupy the viewpoint of the artist. Thus the viewer's relationship to the represented group is usually the "true" subject of the artwork. So, for example, a painting of a crowd of people waiting for a train may inspire the viewer to feel curiosity about or yearnings for connection with individual members of the crowd who nevertheless must remain inscrutable and inaccessible; or the viewer may feel alienated and lost, or oppressed with the excruciating homogeneity or the unfathomable heterogeneity of the crowd's people, etc. — but in any of these cases, one can make a claim that the viewer's response to the crowd is in fact the real subject or point of the artwork.

By contrast, the Dumpster, while it in a certain sense is a depiction of a crowd (and its interface language is broadly intended to allow the user to understand the scope or vastness of that crowd and to navigate through it), is not primarily focused on the viewer's response to that crowd per se. Rather, the visitor to the Dumpster is encouraged to observe individuals in that crowd on the subjects' own often innocent and self-centered terms. Each diary snippet provides a window into the emotional experiences of a real individual, and the reader is involved in that individual's heartbreak (or malicious glee or sarcastic resentment or blithe relief or whatever) as directly as if they were receiving a letter or phone call from that person. Individual subjects have rendered themselves through their own words, which are simultaneously very private and obscenely public.

Furthermore, none of the authors to be found in the Dumpster is aware of their own membership in the crowd that the artwork has assembled. Although the viewer is able to compare and contrast individuals' experiences and responses to similar emotional trauma through the navigation interface, the individuals so compared and contrasted have absolutely no relationship to each other and are not aware of any significance of the comparisons they enjoy or suffer in the context created by the artwork. The viewer's relationship to those individuals is less the subject of the art than is the total irony: of the assemblage of individual voices that are so similar and yet so manifestly disinterested in each other.

Lev Manovich's essay describes the Dumpster project as a "group portrait," but perhaps it is also possible to characterize it as a technologically enabled assemblage of self-portraits. Individuals use their own voices, through a common medium, to create illusions for themselves of the comforting mixture of anonymity and community required for creative self-expression. The Dumpster is a portal through which these individual performances or renderings can be contextualized, simultaneously magnified and diminished in individual significance; and the viewer, as voyeur or confidante, is able to search through the throng to find individual voices of personal significance to their own imagination.